Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46
The Agony in the Garden
So Near and Yet So Far
Commentary by Barbara von Barghahn
Luis de Morales (c.1510–86) was a native of Badajoz in Extremadura, a province in western Spain close to the Portuguese border. While only two of his major retables have survived, his many smaller devotional panels of the Virgin Mary and the Infancy of Christ, or of pieças of the Passion, attest to his popularity as a specialist in creating sacred icons for prominent patrons, both ecclesiastical and secular.
Morales’s Agony in the Garden in the Museo Nacional del Prado has been dated to 1545, when the artist was at the pinnacle of his career. Presumably it was created as a private commission.
Morales’s composition seems to accord with Luke’s account of Gethsemane in that Christ is shown looking heavenwards towards an angel (Luke 22:43). Luke is the only Gospel to mention this event (and these verses are not found in the earliest extant manuscripts). The cherub holds aloft a cross and a chalice to make specific the concept of Christ’s future sacrifice.
Jesus is distanced by a rocky ledge that functions to separate him from the apostles—he is ‘a stone’s throw away’ (another detail particular to Luke’s account; 22:41). The latter are captured in realistic positions as they slumber in the foreground. However, while Luke prefers to have all the disciples present and implicated in their lack of watchfulness, in this artwork only the triumvirate described in Matthew and Mark are shown. James uses his arm to pillow his head. John props up his cheek with his right hand; the rest of his body is contorted as if he cannot find a comfortable position. Peter, the eldest of the group, is caught valiantly trying to keep watch, while simultaneously his head nods. When finding Peter in such a soporific struggle, Jesus will caution him: ‘the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41).
In this work, a meeting of artistic traditions, as well as Gospel accounts, occurs. While the portrayals of the apostles may ultimately depend upon Italian modelli, the rocky terrain with bits of grass and weeds, and the vast panorama with its atmospheric perspective and winding river, is purely within the Northern tradition of world landscape (Weltlandschaften). This is a contemplative tableau that weaves together parallel texts, varied artistic styles, and complex human struggles.
The Darkness Has Not Overcome It
Commentary by Barbara von Barghahn
First documented in 1563 as a ‘Master Domenigo’ of the Guild of St Luke in Candia (Heraklion), El Greco (1541–1614) was an experienced painter of Byzantine icons before he departed Crete in 1567. Arriving in the mercantile Republic of Venice, he had the opportunity to study first-hand the art of Renaissance colourists like Titian and Tintoretto, who flourished as leading masters of grandiose retables. In 1576 he sailed for Spain, where presumably he sought patronage by the Habsburg monarch Philip II (r. 1555–98). By 1577 he settled in Toledo, the administrative seat of the Church, where he moved in the orbit of humanists, intellectual aristocrats, and prominent ecclesiastical reformers.
El Greco’s ethereal, elongated, and almost boneless figures, are otherworldly. Garbed in robes of undiluted colour, they seem to shimmer with the animation of divine light. There is nothing to compare with them in the history of art.
The Agony in the Garden is a canvas that takes elements from all four Gospel accounts. We see the angel comforting Christ from Luke (22:43), the three sleeping apostles from Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, and in the far right, Judas leading a band with flaming torches, a detail only found in John 18:3.
Despite the clear attention to Gospel accounts, the work reveals far less concern for capturing aspects of a naturalistic physical world. With arms outstretched, Jesus is portrayed in prayer before a huge rock, his anguish (agonia in Greek) communicated as he contemplates his imminent death. Like a faceted gemstone touched by blinding light, his crimson robes transition in hue from white to highly saturated red. Christ’s angelic companion in tin-lead yellow holds a chalice and kneels above the inert apostles wrapped within a mist-enshrouded cavern.
El Greco’s Gethsemane is a barren environment. Yet, through the darkness, Judas and the guards light the way that the narrative will take as Jesus’s Passion continues.
Into the Unknown
Commentary by Barbara von Barghahn
The first Jesuit missionaries to the Viceroyalty of Peru arrived in Lima’s port city of Callao on 28 March 1568. Following the inauguration of the first Jesuit College at Cuzco in 1571, nine Jesuits set sail from Rome. They resided in Andalusia for nearly a year before boarding a galleon bound for Peru on 19 October 1574—ample time to have seen the works of Luis de Morales. Among the retinue was one of the Company of Jesus’s most important Italian artists: Aloisio Democrito Ioan Bernardo Bitti Camerino (Ancona). ‘Brother Bernardo’ left an indelible stamp upon the artistic landscape of the Andes by directly transporting an Italian Mannerist style to Peru and Bolivia.
St Ignatius of Loyola, who voyaged to the Holy Land, referred to himself as a ‘pilgrim’ in the biblical meaning of the word (Hebrews 11:13–16) and he advised Jesuit priests in his Constitutions to be ‘preachers in poverty’. In accord with his order, Bitti’s ministry was one characterized by journeys throughout Peru and Bolivia, where he painted devotional art for many Jesuit churches.
In 1600, Bitti completed an altarpiece of eight paintings illustrating ‘The Mysteries of the Life and Death of Christ’ for the presbytery of La Compañía in Cuzco. Bitti’s Agony in the Garden survives from the dismantled retable. Bitti’s ‘Mysteries’ were probably designed to complement themes in St Ignatius’s discipline of prayers known as The Spiritual Exercises (1522). St Ignatius’s prayer manual centres upon utilizing the five senses when contemplating, ‘seeing in imagination’ the sacred persons, to hear what they are saying … to smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity … to apply the sense of touch … by embracing and kissing the place where the persons stand or are seated.
Christ’s anguish in Gethsemane (such that his sweat became ‘like great drops of blood’; Luke 22:44), his consolation by an angel while praying to God (Luke 22:43), his fear of being alone while suffering, and his final acceptance of the ‘cup’ that would symbolize the sacrifice to redeem humankind, converge in Bitti’s painting of the Agony in the Garden. The painting for Cuzco’s La Compañía poignantly expresses the most sublime of mystical experiences. If no other work by Bitti survived, it alone could verify his understanding of the Jesuit missionary spirit.
Luis de Morales :
The Agony in the Garden, c.1545 , Oil on panel
El Greco :
The Agony in the Garden, c.1590–95 , Oil on canvas
Bernardo Bitti :
The Agony in the Garden, c.1600 , Oil on canvas
Commentary by Barbara von Barghahn
The four canonical Gospels describe Jesus as walking to a place of prayer following the Last Supper. The three Synoptic accounts site the place on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39; Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30). Matthew (26:36) and Mark (14:32) name the place (Greek: chōrion) as Gethsemane (Hebrew/Aramaic: oil press). John does not provide a narrative of the intervention of time between the meal and Judas’s betrayal, and does not mention Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives. Instead, John 18:1 identifies the location of the interlude as a ‘garden’ (kēpos) across the Kidron valley. Fusing the Gospel accounts has led to the idea of the ‘garden of Gethsemane’, and a location named as such on the Mount of Olives can be visited today (Taylor 1995).
Among the disciples who followed Jesus across the Kidron, only Mark and Matthew mention Peter, James, and John as being tasked to keep watch (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33). While the triad were supposed to stay awake, they succumbed to the lateness of the evening, and when Jesus sought their emotional support three times, each time he found them sleeping. He also calls out thrice asking his ‘Father’ (Mark 14:36: Abba) to remove ‘this cup’, a metaphorical vessel portending sacrifice.
The Gospel of Luke is the only canonical source to have all the disciples charged to pray while Jesus does, and to find the whole group ‘sleeping for sorrow’ (Luke 22:45). It is also the only account that mentions an angel descending from heaven to provide Jesus with strength (v.43), and the only to mention that Jesus’s intense spiritual anguish caused ‘his sweat [to become] like great drops of blood falling on the ground’ (v.44). While these verses are not attested in the earliest extant manuscripts, they become a key part of tradition, appearing in our artworks featured here.
The Agony in the Garden was not a prevalent theme in Early Christian art and did not emerge as a significant subject in painting until the advent of medieval Passion plays and the devotio moderna which advocated praying the rosary and following the Stations of the Cross. Popular veneration of the suffering Christ at Gethsemane and even his depiction as the ‘Man of Sorrows’ (often consoled by angels) was augmented by the widespread circulation of theological manuals for contemplative prayer, such as the Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony (1295–1378). The German Carthusian’s text was a literary foundation for St Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1522–24), a Jesuit instructional set of meditations occurring over a period of four ‘weeks’ in solitude and silence. While one entire week is concentrated upon Christ’s Passion, the general focus of the Exercises is directed towards discretionem (discernment) that leads the soul towards a mystical union with God; that is, dovetailing one’s choice with God’s choice. Determining a course of action is precisely the anguish faced by Christ at Gethsemane when he asks his Father (Abba) to remove the cup but only if it is His will to do so.
Luis de Morales and Bernardo Bitti place nearly equal emphasis upon the solitary figure of Christ and the triadic grouping of apostles, depicted in varying states of slumber. Both artists reveal an awareness of aerial or atmospheric perspective and a preference for depicting a Weltlandschaft, or ‘world view’ panorama. To create the effect of vast distances, the colours shift from warm browns and dark greens to cool aqua blues and light greens. Both artists elect to portray Christ kneeling beside a cope of trees. Bitti attempts to suggest a cultivated garden with a gate through which guards emerge (John 18:3).
El Greco’s perception of the Kidron valley is one of foggy moonlight, a setting of hazy blues, whites, greys, and taupe. Like Bitti, the soldiers who will assist Judas’s betrayal approach, but they are depicted on the right with flaming torches (John 18:3) and lances, crossing a bridge over a ravine. El Greco’s setting is more of an evocation of late evening with terrain illuminated by the moon. Like Morales, rocks are featured where Christ prays. Yet El Greco’s attenuated angelic consoler has more of the imposing aspect of Bitti’s celestial messenger than Morales’s cherubic visitor.
Quite unique to El Greco is the way his sleeping apostles are portrayed in a cave. Such a detail, in light of modern scholarship and ancient pilgrim accounts, nods to a most likely location of the historical Gethsemane: the Cave of Gethsemane, found adjacent to today’s garden site (Taylor 1995). This site was sacred to early Christian pilgrims, and like El Greco’s cave, would have offered the disciples a place to sleep, meet, and rest. Although a garden may seem more appealing, the agony of Gethsemane and its aftermath is powerfully evoked by this cave’s yawning mouth.
Taylor, Joan E. 1995. ‘The Garden of Gethsemane: Not the Place of Jesus’s Arrest’, Biblical Archaeology Review 21.4: 26, 28–31, 34–35