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What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix) by James Tissot
The Isenheim Altarpiece; Closed altarpiece: Saint Sebastian, the Crucifixion; Saint Anthony the Great; Predella, the Lamentation on the Body of Christ by Matthias Grünewald
Crucifixion by Charlie Mackesy

James Tissot

What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix), 1886–94, Opaque watercolour over graphite on grey-green wove paper, 248 x 230 mm, Brooklyn Museum; Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.299, Brooklyn Museum / Bridgeman Images

Matthias Grünewald

The Isenheim Altarpiece; Closed altarpiece: Saint Sebastian, the Crucifixion; Saint Anthony the Great; Predella, the Lamentation on the Body of Christ, 1512–16, Tempera and oil on wood, 376 x 534 cm (closed), Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, 88RP139, © Musée d’Unterlinden, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Charlie Mackesy

Crucifixion, 2016, Charcoal on paper, Collection of the artist, © Charlie Mackesy

Abandonment, Hope, and Glory

Comparative Commentary by

Psalm 22, of David, is a heart-wrenching cry for help. The Psalmist sees himself beset on all sides by enemies and mockers.

It underwent a powerful transformation at the crucifixion, when Christ took its opening words into his own mouth in what has come to be known as the cry of dereliction: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). With the recitation of those words, Christ would have called the entirety of the Psalm to the minds of all devout Jews present. The similarity between the Psalm and the circumstances of the crucifixion are striking, and the Evangelists structure their accounts to make this plain: the mocking (Psalm 22:8; Matthew 27:43), the contortion of the body (Psalm 22:14), the piercing of the nails (Psalm 22:16), Christ’s thirst (Psalm 22:15; Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23), the casting of lots for clothing (Psalm 22:18; Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24). And yet for some reason, the crowd was not reminded of the Psalm at Christ’s recitation. When they hear the opening in Hebrew/Aramaic, (Eli, Eli: Matthew 27:47–49; Eloi, Eloi: Mark 15:35–36) they think that he is calling on Elijah.

The Psalm can be divided into three parts. In verses 1–11, the Psalmist is abandoned, scorned, and mocked by his people. The Isenheim Altarpiece offers one possible depiction of this section as applied to the crucifixion, not flinching from the horrors inflicted on Christ. In the second section (Psalm 22:12–18), the Psalmist is attended by beasts and evildoers who seek his life and torture him. Here James Tissot’s What Our Lord Saw from the Cross is especially striking, depicting the strange scene that greeted the dying Lord. In the third section (Psalm 22:19–31), the Psalmist reveals that in spite of his abandonment and torture, God has not in fact turned away, but hears the cry of the afflicted and is close by to help. This last section gives way to an expansive vision of praise. Charlie Mackesy’s Crucifixion supplies a somewhat ambiguous image here, on which more in a moment.

In the Christian tradition the Psalm has been interpreted as expressing that Christ on the cross felt cut off from the Father. This may be seen as the natural result of Christ bearing the sin of the world, being in that moment made into sin for us: God cannot look upon sin (Hebrews 1:13), and so when Christ becomes our sin, the Father must turn his face away. For some this means that true separation is introduced into the Trinity at this point, that the Son is indeed cut off from the Father and from the Holy Spirit; for others, this is true only of the human nature of Christ: it suffers damnation in that moment, exhausting the full divine wrath so that mercy may follow. It is in line with this sort of reflection that it has been called a cry of dereliction.

However, this traditional Christian reading does not take the whole Psalm into account: the third section cannot be reconciled with this type of claim. Indeed, the whole point of the Psalm is that God does not turn his face away: ‘For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him’ (Psalm 22:24). The sense of loss and abandonment the Psalmist feels at the beginning is only that: his sense. The truth is that a salvation has been prepared for him so astonishing that it will summon the entire world to praise (vv.27–28). This final vision of a banquet of worship enfolds not just future generations (vv.31), but even the dead: ‘before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive’ (vv.29). In the words of the Lamb of God who is in the process of taking away the sins of the world on the cross, this Psalm is an announcement of redemption in Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the glory of the world to come.

It is in an attempt to honour both the traditional Christian interpretation and the meaning of the text when taken as a whole that I have chosen Charlie Mackesy’s Crucifixion. It could be read in line with the traditional rendering, but it also gestures at something more, at a transcendent meaning to the crucifixion that exceeds what is clear from the event itself, and that thus makes space for the vision of salvation and praise with which the Psalm concludes.