Matthew 16:24–28; Mark 8:34–9:1; Luke 9:23–27
Forfeit and Gain
If Any Would Come After Me
Commentary by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
Sienese Master Simone Martini painted this wing of a small double-sided quadriptych, a private devotional work made for a member of the Orsini family. Now dismembered, it originally also comprised images of The Crucifixion, The Descent from the Cross, The Entombment, and The Annunciation.
Simone was influential in the development of the International Gothic style—this graceful and elegant style is evident here, typified by fine lines and a refined, colourful palette.
The number of densely packed figures incorporated in this small work is striking. The crowd includes Jesus (at centre), soldiers with spears, inhabitants of Jerusalem, and disciples—mostly women. They are all on the way to Calvary. We see the stern faces of those who want Jesus killed; the bewilderment of two frightened children; and the loyalty of those who have believed in him as the Messiah, Saviour, and king of Israel. These latter have stood by his side and will do so on Golgotha (and beyond, after the resurrection).
In other words, this crowd includes examples of both groups of whom Jesus speaks in the Gospels: those who were ashamed of Jesus and his words, of whom the Son of man will also be ashamed when he ‘comes in glory’, as well as those holy ones who would ‘not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’ (Mark 9:1 NRSV).
Unlike many other depictions of Jesus and his disciples, the prominence of Jesus’s female disciples, including his mother Mary, is somewhat remarkable here. Most striking among these is the figure of Mary Magdalene in red who stands above the crowd with arms raised and a deeply pained expression. She is almost pinioned by the cross, the colour of her clothes echoing (even more vibrantly) the red of Jesus’s garment. The one who loved Jesus most, and who would be the first to witness his resurrection is not only in agony over her beloved friend’s and Saviour’s imminent death but symbolizes with her outstretched arms and open palms what Jesus had asked of his disciples: a readiness to take up the cross, and to follow him; a willingness to suffer for one’s faith in this Messiah, and the kingdom he promises.
Taking Up The Cross
Commentary by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
One of the leading Abstract Expressionists, Barnett Newman (1905–70), an American of Jewish Polish–Russian descent, painted his Stations of the Cross between 1958 and 1966. It is a series of fourteen very large canvases in his typical minimalist style of expansive colour fields with vertical bands and lines. The canvases here are in white and black, interrupted by bands of different sizes spaced at varying intervals. In Western Art white has frequently connoted innocence, purity, and light, while black has been associated with darkness and death.
Newman wrote: ‘Lema Sabachtani—why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer’ (O’Neill 1992: 188).
It was not just Jesus’s outcry and suffering that Newman sought to capture in choosing the traditional format of The Stations but the agony of each single human being in this world. Newman regarded the human as ‘tragic’, a tragedy that essentially manifests itself, as he said, in the ‘metaphysical problem’ that each person is single, alone, yet belongs and is part of another (O’Neill 1992: 257–58).
It is remarkable that Newman, a Jew, should choose to paint over eight years—un-commissioned and of his own desire—this central Christian theme. The tradition of representing the Stations of the Cross goes back to the early Christian pilgrims who visited Jerusalem, walking in devotion and prayer along the path of Jesus to Calvary. Working in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and in the context of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Newman’s focus in this set of works may have been not only Jesus but the whole human condition. Yet it is curious that he would engage with this most quintessentially Christian devotional subject—Christ the symbol of human suffering—to such an extent.
True to his own artistic style and true to the Jewish prohibition of religious imagery, Newman presents us with an ‘imageless image’, a non-figurative evocation of Jesus on the way to the crucifixion. The final work in the series, Station 14, traditionally represents Jesus laid in the tomb and in Newman’s conception is represented entirely in shades of white—possibly a concluding hint at the transcendence of Jesus’s and of all human suffering into resurrection and eternal life.
O’Neill, John P. (ed.). 1992. Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 188, 257–58
The Son of Man Will Also Be Ashamed
Commentary by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
Jan van Hemessen’s Christ Carrying the Cross focusses on the figure of Christ who fills the panel and is represented so near to the picture plane that he seems almost in the beholder’s space. His face is a study in innocent suffering, with its strong expression of tearful sorrow. His eyes look directly at the viewer—we are immediately drawn to them—yet at the same time the painting communicates the intense impression of his aloneness.
Christ’s face contrasts utterly with those of the gloating mob who press around him. The mocking figures on the right—reminiscent of Quinten Metsys’s grotesques—seem to have no compassion, no understanding whatsoever, of the person they are torturing through their ridicule, contempt, and cruelty. One of them ominously holds the end of a rope slung around Jesus’s neck; he is—literally—bound to die. These mockers seem to epitomize the shameful ‘adulterous and sinful generation’ of whom the Son, too, will be ashamed (Mark 8:38). On the left of Christ, just visible, are the swarthy soldiers whose spears add to the torment and violence of the scene. Jesus is surrounded by men of evil action.
The expressive portrayal of Jesus here is very much in the tradition of the Schmerzensmann (‘Man of Sorrows’), with Italian origins in the influential image-type known as the imago pietatis. Hemessen’s Schmerzensmann shares with this wider tradition an emphasis on how Jesus was ‘despised and rejected’ (Isaiah 53:3)—an emphasis taken to an extreme in Northern art forty years earlier in Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion panel for the Isenheim altarpiece (1512–16). In Grünewald’s stark rendering of Jesus’s horrific death, just as in Hemessen’s agonized Man of Sorrows, we are confronted by Jesus as he takes on the sin of the world for our redemption.
Yet, as co-sufferer, he is also one with whom we may identify in our own suffering and in this, perhaps, find comfort.
Simone Martini :
The Carrying of the Cross, c.1335 , Tempera on panel
Barnett Newman :
Second Station. Part of The Stations of the Cross / Lema Sabachthani (series), 1958 , Magna on canvas
Jan van Hemessen :
Christ Carrying the Cross, 1553 , Oil on panel
The Weight of the World
Commentary by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen
What Jesus told ‘the multitudes’ in Mark 8, Matthew 16, and Luke 9 is direct and unambiguous. To follow Jesus—to live and act as his disciple—demands a decision. This decision essentially involves the readiness to suffer and even to die for one’s faith in the incarnate Son of God:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34–35 NRSV)
Simone Martini presents the viewer with a dense composition. He tries to capture the claustrophobic press of the crowd around Jesus on the way to Calvary, giving special attention to Mary Magdalene—her anguish revealing her love for Jesus and ultimately the pain that all true followers of Jesus will and must be prepared to endure for the kingdom of love. In fact, it is her face, rather than Jesus’s, which is the most expressive of sorrow and distress in this scene.
Drawing upon the imposing crenelated walls and domed cathedral of his native town of Siena, Simone depicts the imagined architecture of Jerusalem, in a way that conveys Jerusalem’s as well as Siena’s role as seats of state and religious power. It is from this city in both its political and religious aspects (‘royal’ and ‘holy’) that Jesus, king of the Jews and Son of God, is being expelled.
Jan van Hemessen’s painting concentrates on Jesus, on his emotional state—his agony and sorrow, his carefully rendered naturalistic tears, his calm accepting demeanour—presenting them to the beholder for contemplation. Christ is carrying a massive cross; the Son of man, though innocent, is carrying the sin of the world. The cruel, merciless figures on either side of him—the determined, brutal soldiers on the left and, especially, the grotesque faces on the right—harshly contrast with the gentle-faced suffering servant, the saviour on the road to Golgotha. The scene evokes Jesus’s mention of an ‘adulterous and sinful generation’ (Mark 8:38).
Barnett Newman’s painting, Station 2 of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, is markedly different from the works by Simone and Hemessen from earlier centuries. An entirely abstract work, the canvas does not in itself disclose the theme of the painting.
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of Christianity will identify at once the subject of Simone’s and Hemessen’s paintings. Newman, however, indicates his subject matter—and thus gives meaning to his fourteen Stations—principally by their title. Indeed, without the title, most viewers (Christian or not) would have only a vague or no idea what the artist was trying to evoke in these monumental canvases.
The role of a title in suggesting possible interpretations of a work is something that takes on new importance in modern art, and particularly in abstract art. In Station 2, as in all other thirteen Stations, there is no figuration, no obvious message, except possibly only in an oblique way through the use of colour and form. The work hints at, rather than depicts upfront, the suffering Christ.
In an age that is no longer theocentric—in which God, and, for that matter, religious themes in art are far less prevalent than in the past—Newman’s oblique approach may not surprise us, even if in his time his rendering of The Stations of the Cross certainly was a new and most unusual venture. It has been widely regarded as his masterpiece. It has influenced, directly or indirectly, other contemporary artists in their depictions of the same theme, including, for example, Ellsworth Kelly and Günther Förg.
Newman’s canvas neither figuratively depicts Jesus’s taking up of the cross nor explicitly reproduces his radical message to his followers that they likewise must be prepared to suffer. It is radical in a different way. Yet—though far less explicit than Simone’s or Hemessen’s works—Newman’s work takes its place alongside them as an invitation to the contemporary viewer to enter into contemplation of the mystery of Jesus carrying the cross, the sin of the world, to Calvary—crucified man, Son of God. It asks to be viewed in the context of a series which culminates in Station 14, where Christ’s committal to the tomb is rendered in shades of white.
Through forfeit comes gain. Precisely through their openness, their lack of representational figures, their lack of clear statement, these fourteen images invite beholders to contemplate, to observe, to ask questions—to immerse themselves in the experience of seeing, and hence, possibly, in an experience of transcendence.