Crucifixion, an engraving from the 'Passion' text by André Suarès, Georges Rouault

Georges Rouault

Crucifixion, from 'Passion' (text by André Suarès), 1939, Wood engraving, 43.81 x 33.65 cm, Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1939, Edition: 35/245, RCA1939:13.10.18, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY

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Showing the Father

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Alison Milbank

‘How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14:9)

Rarely does Christian art show the Father. I have eschewed the awkward ‘Throne of Grace’ image of the Middle Ages, with the Ancient of Days holding his Son on the cross, which was intended to show the union of the Persons in the atoning death of Christ. I offer you a Crucifixion, nonetheless, since the glory of the Father is revealed in Jesus’s Passion, and Christ’s words in John 14:12, ‘I go to the Father’, imply that Christ offers himself to the point of death.

Georges Rouault’s expressive Christ opens his arms wide and his attention is focused forward. The viewer is brought into direct encounter with this strange figure, in which Jesus is both a strong physical presence in his defined navel and awkward arms, and also an architectural form, his arms shaping the ‘ribs’ of a shadowy arched window. Flanked by gravely attentive, witnessing figures, probably the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John, this Christ does indeed show us our Source as outflowing life and love. The overlay of cross and window means that the light beyond the cross is pressed close to it, recalling an earlier declaration by Jesus: ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30).

Unlike the medieval ‘Throne of Grace’, the Father here does not offer the Son, but the Son is the priestly officiant of his own sacrifice, presiding over his own corpse, which is laid out beneath the cross as the offering. Rouault’s intensely still Jesus is wholly present to our gaze, as he both offers himself and prays for us. The cosmic reach of that prayer is represented by the length of the arms, which extend beyond the edge of the wood engraving. There is a serenity in this Christ, which reaches back beyond the suffering humanity to the divine unchangeableness, and this stability is revealed, paradoxically, in the place of pain. Thus, in the face of Christ, we know and see the Father.