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Brian Whelan

The Last Supper, c.2017, Unknown medium, 91.44 x 121.92 cm, Private Collection, © Brian Whelan www.brianwhelan.co.uk

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

Unknown artist

The Tree of Life (Apse Mosaic of San Clemente), c.1130, Mosaic, Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Abiding in the Trinity

Comparative Commentary by

In John 14 Christ provides reassurance for the disciples who are dismayed by his words about going somewhere they cannot immediately follow. He does so by revising their understanding of dwelling-place and abiding, so that the place of connection is the Father himself, the source of Son and Spirit.

You can sense the Father’s presence behind Brian Whelan’s red-robed Christ, who stands with his back to us, with the Spirit the very medium of crimson connection in the space behind the disciples, which is of the very same red. Georges Rouault’s Christ is within the Father’s presence at the heavenly altar, and the Spirit is implied in the burning halo pulsating behind his head. The San Clemente apse mosaic has a more conventional divine hand at the top of the cross, reaching down as if from the heavenly throne to crown Christ with a diadem, but the Trinitarian unity of Persons is nonetheless embodied. Like these images, John 14 is implicitly Trinitarian, impelling us to see the processions of the Son and the Spirit from the Father.

‘Show us the Father’, asks Philip (John 14:8), and the answer is Christ himself. Only through these images of the Son can we understand the nature of his Father. The movement within John 14 is away from seeing a thing or person as a discrete object towards a closer, more intimate mode of knowledge: a union with the object through the indwelling of the Spirit, which encompasses both of us.

These three artworks can only help us understand this way of being if they transform us from viewers to in-dwellers; if we too can find our place in the many mansions of the divine city. We begin at Whelan’s Last Supper, where in the light of Christ offering his body as bread we find our trajectory and role as his disciples, who are also called to follow the way. The truth of the claims of Jesus to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6) is confirmed by his self-offering on the cross.

In Rouault’s Crucifixion, we see Jesus’s return to the Father and the cross as the work of the whole Godhead.

The San Clemente apse mosaics represent the holy city of Revelation and the eschatological fullness of life in the ‘many dwellings’ of John 14. Christ has returned and come to take his friends to himself. This life with Christ is one of participation, so St Mary holds her hands in the orans posture of prayer and St John witnesses to the cross as he did in his Gospel. And within and beside the twining vine-branches, people and creatures of all sorts are active in the new heaven and earth.

This wholeness of vision, knowledge, and participation is only partial in the Farewell Discourse, but already the disciples are like Dante after his glimpse of the Trinity in Paradiso 33, whose ‘desire and will were turned | Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly | by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’. Dante lived out of that experience so that he then moved to a heavenly rhythm. Similarly, the disciples at the last supper are being taught to live out of a deeper mode of connection with Jesus than seeing him physically, to abide proleptically in the ‘many dwellings’ of Paradise.

Next exhibition: John 15:1–17