Holy Week this year has been unprecedented. Churches around the world are closed and services have had to move online.
In the hope that the material the VCS has been producing might help the journey through Holy Week to be meaningful, meditative, and vivid even for those who are restricted to their homes we decided to share an exhibition a day every day from Palm Sunday to Easter, exploring Bible passages relevant to that day.
Each was accompanied by a short introductory reflection by VCS Director, Professor Ben Quash.
Holy Week Day by Day
Today we meditate on Palm Sunday with Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s exhibition on the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2: ‘though [Christ] was in the form of God … he emptied himself … and became obedient unto death’ (vv. 6–8).
When Jesus enters Jerusalem on this day, he enters without hindrance: freely. Everyone makes his way clear. More than that, they hail him with excitement and joy. They line the sides of the road. He enters like a king.
But this will soon begin to change dramatically. The ‘royal road’ starts to narrow, and twist and turn. People do not get out of his way; people quite deliberately stand in his way. Jesus’ free, unhindered, sovereign movement becomes what looks like helplessness, vulnerability—and finally, the ultimate passivity of the cross.
This invites the question: what happened to his ‘royal progress’?
The artworks in this exhibition seem to suggest an answer: a pen drawing by Vincent van Gogh, a 13th century illuminated manuscript and a painting by William Holman Hunt. The constricted, twisting and turning way of suffering that is Jesus’ pathway—deep in the narrow streets of Jerusalem—is continuous with his triumphal entry into that city. The road of the Passion is the road that Jesus meant to travel all along.
Holman Hunt shows a Jesus who has merited kingly gifts—we can glimpse the glitter of gold in a chest in the background—but who chooses a different way, suggested in the cruciform position of his tired arms. This path will not only take him from the gates of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha. As the illuminated manuscript shows, it will continue to the very gates of Hell.
And the wonder is that where he wants to go turns out to be the place where he is most with humanity—with all those ‘bearers of the burden’ for whom van Gogh’s art expresses such compassion. A king like no other, he makes his way straight to the heart of humanity’s suffering experience, so as to demonstrate that however confining it is, it is not the end of the road.
Monday in Holy Week
He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood. (Hebrews 9:12)
Hebrews 9 directs the thoughts of Christians to the meaning of Christ’s impending crucifixion.
Outwardly, a criminal execution on the authority of a repressive military regime, Hebrews unlocks an inner meaning in this death. It is a religious sacrifice. The sacrificial cult of the Jerusalem Temple becomes, in Hebrews, the template for interpreting all that happens in Holy Week.
Thus the cross takes on the role of the Temple’s altar of sacrifice. And the tomb becomes the Holy of Holies, into which only one person could go: the High Priest. Jesus takes the double role of High Priest and sacrificial animal, and a new covenant is sealed in his blood.
Robin Griffith-Jones’s exhibition shows us how the interior of London’s Temple Church, a panel of dazzling twelfth-century stained glass from St Denis in Paris, and a small fifteenth-century panel painting by Giovanni Bellini, all illuminate aspects of Hebrews 9’s interpretation of Christ’s death. They offer insights into the mystery that ‘Life wishes to die’, so as to secure an eternal redemption for all humanity.
The Temple Church, like very many churches, is a Christian transposition of the Temple in Jerusalem, and its sanctuary incorporates both altar and ‘Holy of Holies’. The tablets of the Law that were once contained in the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem are replicated in its reredos.
Above the Ark of the Covenant, the invisible God was believed to be enthroned invisibly, on his ‘Mercy Seat’, between the wings of two carved cherubim. But in the stained glass of St Denis, the invisible becomes visible, and we see the crucified one displayed on this Mercy Seat.
God whose throne is in heaven is also God still present in our midst. He is present in the redemptive blood which Bellini shows Christ, both priest and victim, squeezing from his side. God’s mercy will be known and received wherever this blood is pleaded.
Why does ‘Life wish to die’? So that Life can reassert itself on the far side of death. The High Priest will re-emerge from the Holy of Holies—his tomb. And he will bring out from their prison all ‘those who sit in darkness’ (Isaiah 42:7).
Tuesday in Holy Week
Sometime in the interval between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and his last supper, Jesus braces his disciples for what is coming, and tells them to make the most of the time they have left together. ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light’, he tells them (John 12:35).
But he is preparing them for more than the imminent shock of his arrest, trial, and death. He is preparing them for a longer-term future without him in their midst: for what they will have to do and be in the years ahead.
They face a choice. Two paths are available to them—a way of darkness and a way of light. He wants them to choose light, so that even when they no longer have his light among them, they may be ‘children of light’ (John 12:36).
The New Testament epistles show how a sense of choice between two ways of inhabiting the world remained acute for the earliest Christian congregations. Paul compared the wisdom of the world with a ‘wisdom of God’ which looks foolish, weak, and low to those who like to boast in their own cleverness, strength, and nobility (1 Corinthians 1:18–31). He exhorted his audience to choose the wisdom of God.
Another letter—the Letter of James—also highlights a choice between pathways, and Clare Carlisle Tresch’s exploration of its first chapter with the help of three works of art returns us to a consideration of ‘light’. James’s hearers are to ‘put away filthiness’ (James 1:21) and receive the gifts that come from ‘the Father of Lights’ (v.17).
The self-enclosure of Narcissus in Caravaggio’s baroque painting has led him to turn away from the light. He is mesmerised by his own reflection, captive in the black depths of a pool. By contrast, the contemporary work of landscape sculpture by David Wood faces upwards from the waters on which it floats, fully open to the light ‘from above’ (v.17).
The third work, a Renaissance panel by Fra Angelico, envisages what Jesus’s followers may hope for at the end of the path well chosen: the reward of those who have become ‘children of light’. They have followed the way of the cross, ‘the wisdom of God’, by which the circle of self is broken open and an encircling glory offers its embrace.
Wednesday in Holy Week
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face
from shame and spitting. (Isaiah 50:6)
Today’s featured exhibition invites us to turn the clock back and look into Jesus’s past.
This yields a poignant appreciation of his death as a destiny, and of the via dolorosa as something that began long before the wood of the cross was laid on his shoulder on the day of his execution.
Michael Banner’s exhibition includes works from three successive centuries: a Flemish sculpture (artist unknown) from the fifteenth century, a sixteenth-century painting by El Greco, and a seventeenth-century painting by Nicolas Poussin. Together, they highlight the bitter-sweet undertones of a moment early in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus and his family return from their exile in Egypt.
‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (Matthew 2:15). The end of exile might seem a cause for rejoicing. Herod’s infanticide is past, a prophecy of Hosea seems fulfilled (Hosea 11:1), and the ancient exodus of the Hebrews from their captivity under Pharaoh is recalled.
But other prophecies also await new fulfilments. What beckons at the end of Jesus’s journey home is not straightforwardly a promised land of milk and honey, but—as Holy Week reveals—‘shame and spitting’ (Isaiah 50:6), and a new binding.
Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet’. Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me’. (John 13:8)
At the Last Supper, Jesus does not only feed his followers with bread and wine; he ‘waters’ them, just as God was described in the Old Testament as coming to his people in the form of dew (Deuteronomy 32:2), or in the form of a river (Psalm 65:9).
With exquisite gentleness, Jesus tends to the people he has gathered to him almost as though they are tender shoots—watering them so as to give them life. He tells Peter that this watering is how they will participate in his life; it is a way of being joined to him. And then he tells all the disciples to go and do likewise (John 13:14–15).
In his VCS exhibition, Stephen M. Garrett calls this ‘subversive horticulture’. The ‘farewell discourse’ (John 14–17)—which follows Jesus’s act of footwashing and unfolds its meaning—is explored with the help of three very different artworks: a Greek Orthodox icon, a grotesque portrait by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, and a Royal Mint presentation pack to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings (a so-called ‘First Day Cover’).
Jesus’s message on the night before he dies is that the life of Christian discipleship must be unconventional, self-sacrificial, and radical.
The unconventionality of Christian life is explored with Arcimboldo’s help. Christian love will often look absurd, even monstrous, to those who first encounter it (just as Jesus’s washing of their feet creates bafflement and protest in the disciples).
The self-sacrificial quality of Christian life is illuminated by analogy with the First Day Cover. Objects made to be sent (the stamps) and spent (the coin) stand for people who were sent and spent in war. Yet in this special commemorative form both the objects and the people they commemorate are made to be held on to and treasured. Just so, the disciples are treasured by Jesus, who, even as he prepares to send them and to be spent himself, girds himself with a towel and serves them.
The radicality of Christian life is displayed in the icon of Christ the True Vine, in which the disciples, like branches of a vine, take their sustenance from Christ. For radical means having roots. Watered by Christ, the disciples are rooted in his divine life, with roots that not even the death-dealing events which are so imminent will be able to sever.
The climax of Jesus’s pre-resurrection life is not an elegant saying, not a careful arrangement of meaningful words; it is a great cry.
If Jesus is the revelation of God, what is it that his loud cry reveals about God’s character and work? The God who comes among us in Jesus doesn’t just speak to or at us, he cries out among us and with us.
Jesus’s loud cry is the culmination of all the cries and all the crying of history. In it we hear the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground where it was spilt; the cries of the people of Israel in Egypt, as their backs are broken by their oppressors; the cries of the prophets for justice and a new order. In it we hear the weeping of Rachel for her children; the shrieks of the innocents sacrificed to tyranny; the laments of the women of Jerusalem.
This is powerfully brought out by two of the artworks with whose help Junius Johnson comments on Psalm 22. James Tissot’s nineteenth-century watercolour boldly inverts our customary perspective on the crucifixion by imagining the view from the cross as we see (as though through Jesus’s eyes) the people among whom and with whom he suffers. And in the central crucifixion panels of Matthias Grünewald’s winged Renaissance altarpiece, we can also discern the cries of those in Grünewald’s own day for whom this altarpiece was made: those dying of ergotism (and those caring for them). Their symptoms are visible on Jesus’s body. Made for a monastery hospital, it speaks as powerfully as ever today, as Good Friday is marked in the midst of a global pandemic.
But maybe we also hear in Jesus’s loud cry some other things that are also too deep for words; Easter resonances. Maybe in Jesus’s loud cry from the cross we hear the creation groaning in travail as it gives birth to the new thing God is doing; the transfigured world of the end times; the arrival of the Kingdom. Maybe we hear the shout of the Risen One across the lake to Simon Peter, a cry which sent Peter hurtling fully clothed into the water in response; and the great cry ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ (John 11:43), which is not a tame cry, but an alarming, miraculous thundering call, back into life from death. Charlie Mackesy’s recent charcoal drawing works in this spirit, as the downturned head implied by Tissot’s work becomes a head thrown back, gazing expectantly—perhaps even triumphantly—upwards.
Psalm 22 was a psalm which Jesus himself took onto his lips when on the cross, and it has been read by Christians in connection with the event of the crucifixion ever since. The words Jesus cites from it—‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’—are its beginning. Its end proclaims something more: ‘deliverance’ (Psalm 22:31).
The Christian faith affirms that an embodied human life was God’s chosen language for telling us about God’s very self.
Did that speaking stop on Holy Saturday? Did God get less eloquent when the light of Jesus’s transfiguration was a fading memory and his tomb—sealed with a great stone—swallowed his body into darkness?
For Christians, the answer is ‘no’. Indeed, you might say that God’s eloquence increased. Blood may have flowed where once light flooded out, but a certain glory has become more intense, because the dead body is all the more completely an utterance of undying love.
If Jesus’s body was merely a delivery mechanism, it could have been cast aside once his word was preached and his miraculous signs performed; once its purpose was accomplished. But God abides in and with Jesus Christ’s body, as God will abide with ours beyond even our last breath. And God asks us to abide with Jesus Christ’s body in turn: to stay with this body, and attend to it, closely.
Paul Anel’s chosen artworks—a fifteenth-century Russian icon by Andrey Rublyov, a sixteenth-century charcoal drawing by Michelangelo, and a seventeenth-century painted altarpiece by Caravaggio—offer us models for such contemplative abiding, drawing especial attention to Mary, Jesus’s mother, whose abiding with Jesus’s body is unflinching even though it is an agony (Luke 2:35).
In Rublyov’s icon, the body summons everyone inwards: we see Jesus’s mother and followers bent towards him. Nicodemus attends to the feet, John to the hands, Mary to the face, even pressing her cheek to his as she might have done in his infancy.
But just as Jesus’s journey to the dead is only apparently a journey away from God the Father, and actually a moving towards him (for Jesus, the path to heaven passes only this way), so the leaning in of Jesus’s intimate companions is a prelude to a new movement outwards and upwards.
Michelangelo’s drawing expresses this mystery with beautiful economy: Christ descends but Mary ascends. It is because he descends that she can ascend. In his descent, the path to heaven is opened not only for himself, but for her.
And Caravaggio shows that this is a possibility for the Church as a whole, as a pyramid of people rises upwards to the light. An utterance of undying love, this dead body knits together a living community of those who recognize that love.
Sometimes life can feel like a story of slow attrition—a long process of settling for less. And talk of ‘experience’ can end up being a short-hand way of referring to your mistakes and your wounds.
Easter Day tells us we can hope otherwise. The resurrection appearances of Jesus show that human beings can be drawn into the never-ending more of God’s life, whatever mistakes they have made in the past and whatever damage they have suffered. Failure and loss need not be the determining reality of our future.
The morning of the resurrection is the morning of a new creation; the garden where Jesus’s body was laid is a new Eden. And dwellers of the old world are welcome in this new one.
Mary Magdalene was the first to enter this garden, according to John’s Gospel, and she becomes a paradigm of this exchange of less for more. In her exhibition, Devon Abts has chosen works that explore Mary Magdalene’s reaction to the risen Jesus in three ways: a fresco by Fra Angelico and an oil painting by Titian (both works of the Italian Renaissance), as well as a twentieth-century engraving by the Anglo-Welsh artist David Jones.
Titian suggests Mary’s intensely-charged yearning to grasp Christ’s body. We learn from the Gospel account that this is denied. But a hand that has grasped the object of its desire can receive nothing more, because it has become a closed hand; so the refusal of Mary’s immediate desire is perhaps more of a gift than it initially seems. Is it an insight like this that Fra Angelico shows us? Christ’s movement away from Mary results in a widening of her arms; she grows more capacious. And Jones shows her palms fully unfurled, raised to receive his blessing as sunflowers receive sunlight.
For those to whom the risen Christ comes, the future is never again what it used to be—and not because it seems so much less; so diminished. On the contrary, in Paul’s words, ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18). The future is not what it used to be because, after the resurrection, it is so much more.
Visit the exhibition for John 20:11–17.
Thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I will open your graves […] and you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people’. (Ezekiel 37:12–13)
In the spirit of these words, we share today a final ‘bonus’ exhibition for Easter Monday.
Victoria Emily Jones’s chosen artworks—a fifth-century sarcophagus, an anonymous thirteenth-century manuscript illumination, and a vast twentieth-century painting by Stanley Spencer—were selected to be in dialogue with 1 Corinthians 15, but they all resonate with Ezekiel’s vision too.
The sarcophagus is a resting place for mortal remains, but profusely adorned with symbols of life. This grave is unequivocally a bed of hope.
The Psalter illumination shows graveclothes falling away and limbs reconnecting in a confident celebration of the fact that, in Jones’s words, ‘salvation is of the body as much as the soul’.
And Spencer shows the earth ‘giving birth to joy’.
The prophet Ezekiel’s words were a promise to his people that they would one day be restored to their land: they would be able to come home. If you have made the journey through Holy Week in the company of the VCS’s exhibitions this year, it is likely that you will have been confined to home, and perhaps have had too much of it. Maybe you are pining for other things: shared spaces, social exchanges, human touch.
If so, then Stanley Spencer’s vision of the resurrection is a good place to finish, for it encourages us to trust that all the things we are presently denied will be restored, just as home was to Ezekiel’s exiles.