All three artworks in this exhibition highlight the words of Ephesians: ‘he who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens’ (4:10). In Caravaggio’s Deposition, the body of Christ is being hauled down, while the pyramidal body formed by the disciples seems to rise into the light. In Michelangelo’s drawing, it is the faith of Mary that is singled out as humanity’s ‘assumption’ into heaven. In Andrey Rublyov’s icon, the birth of the Church as Body of Christ is a direct consequence of Jesus’s descent.
Descent and ascent are contemplated, therefore, not just as a chronological sequence but as contemporaneous and correlated events that respectively affect the body of Jesus in its physical (descent) and ecclesiological (ascent) forms. The ‘ascent’ (birth) of Christ’s mystical body is caused by the ‘descent’ (death) of his physical body.
The three images yield further meaning when juxtaposed with St Paul’s words about unity and multiplicity in Christ’s mystical body. Multiplicity is given by the members, ‘joined and knit together by every joint with which [Christ’s body] is supplied’ (v.16). In Caravaggio’s painting, and even more so in Rublyov’s icon, there is a clear correlation between the physical body of Jesus and the multiplicity of functions—both contemplative and active—within the Church.
If the physical body of Jesus appears to be the principle of multiplicity within the Church, what, then, is her principle of unity? To be constituted as ‘Body of Christ’, the group of the disciples needs a formal principle of unity, in the same way that the soul binds the multiplicity of members into one human body.
This question is all the more dramatic given that the group of the disciples looks rather divided (compare, for instance, John 20:1 and 20:19). The Church appears to be fragmented into a wide array of subjective reactions: sorrow, fear, despair...
Michelangelo’s Pietà drawing highlights the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Mary’s role in the Passion has traditionally been seen as unique, qualitatively different from that of the other disciples. As St John Paul II puts it, after the death of Jesus, ‘Mary alone remains to keep alive the flame of faith’ (John Paul II 1997). Michelangelo’s drawing of the Pietà is a contemplation of this mystery: the faith of Mary on Holy Saturday. Her arms are raised towards heaven in the traditional orans (‘praying’) attitude while her face expresses gratitude more than sorrow.
We are faced with a seemingly impossible and yet undeniable fact: since Christ is the object of the Christian faith, his death should logically entail the death of faith. This is true for all the disciples, with the exception of Mary, whose faith miraculously perdures throughout the hiatus of Holy Saturday.
The Pietà, according to Tradition, singles out Mary as the principle of unity of the Church. It is, as Ephesians puts it, the ‘one faith’ that makes the Church one, and the reason the faith is one (without suffering a subjective fragmentation after the death of Jesus) is that it was historically at one point in time (on Holy Saturday)—and therefore is ontologically at every point in time—the faith of one (person), namely, the faith of Mary.
In Rublyov’s icon, the disciples are entrusted with the care of Jesus’s body, while his head—locus of his spirit—rests on his mother’s womb. The icon thus traces a visual hyphen between Jesus’s body laid in the virgin tomb and his conception in the mother’s virgin womb. Mary’s motherhood received, from the crucifixion onward, a new meaning and extension: as she was the mother of his physical body, she now becomes, by grace, the mother of his mystical body.
It is not a coincidence that John, in Caravaggio’s painting, stands between Jesus and Mary. Jesus spoke to him personally when he said: ‘Behold your mother’ (John 19:27). He stands in the space between ‘New Adam’ and ‘New Eve’ as the fruit of their love. Mary’s right arm binds the group together, as if her faith, hope, and love was mysteriously communicated to John, and, through him, to the Lord.
Tradition tells us that John would later spend many years in the intimacy of the mother of Jesus in Ephesus. It makes sense, then, that it was by way of her spiritual motherhood that he would ‘grow up in every way into [Jesus]’ (v.15). The same holds true for each one of us.
Pope John Paul II. (1997). ‘General Audience, 21 May 1997’, available at http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1997/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_21051997.html [accessed 01 April 2020]
4 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.