The mystery of suffering continues to elude Christians. It is so central to the Christian story: Christ’s own passion and death; the blood of the martyrs, seed-bed of the Church; the vocation of Jesus’ followers, called to take up their cross, whether literally or figuratively. Moreover, far from being a Christian prerogative, suffering is a universal experience.
This passage from 1 Peter reflects on the meaning of suffering, and draws back from offering a univocal meaning or explanation. Suffering may be undeserved, the result of hostile reaction from outsiders to those who follow Christ’s way. In such cases it can be grounds for rejoicing, an opportunity for participation, communion, koinonia in Christ’s sufferings. Or suffering can function to ‘test’ or ‘prove’ believers’ fidelity, like the purifying effects of fire. In an ‘end-time’ context, suffering is the expected experience of God’s people, ‘part of the mysterious drama of judgement’ (Senior and Harrington 2003: 135). Yet suffering is not the end-game: it will be definitively overcome on that day ‘when his glory is revealed’ (1 Peter 4:13).
The particular connection between present suffering and a positive judgement at the last is hinted at in different ways by Annibale Carracci, Stefan Lochner, and Marc Chagall. For Carracci, suffering is a pattern of life for the Christian disciple, in imitation of Christ himself. Even as he encounters Peter, Christ is on the move, legs in motion, gesturing towards his destination with his right hand. On the Via Appia, he reprises that Via Dolorosa undertaken in Jerusalem. Peter now faces his moment of decision. Where is he headed? Away from the cross? Or will he turn (the root meaning of ‘repent’, Greek metanoeō), and take up Christ’s baton on the way of sorrows? Nor is this invitation only for Peter. The original design of Carracci’s painting had the figure of Peter closer to Jesus’s body than it is now. In the final version, Peter recoils to the right, leaving space for the viewer to reach out and take hold of the protruding cross. A favourable judgement is promised through solidarity with Jesus and his story. ‘If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed’ (1 Peter 4:14): this Petrine beatitude echoes Jesus’s own declaration of blessedness on those reviled for his sake (Matthew 5:11–12).
But Peter’s story, like ours, is a story of recurring failure. Lochner’s Last Judgement therefore hints that judgement must be tempered with mercy. Close to Christ is the Virgin Mary, her hands clasped in prayer. Christ apparently looks, not at the resurrected people being divided into damned and saved, but directly at his mother. In her role as Mater misericordiae, ‘mother of mercy’, she intercedes with her son for her earthly suppliants, some of whom raise their hands in fervent prayer. Angels and demons fight over others, their ultimate fate apparently still in the balance.
Yet Lochner’s altarpiece, designed for the eyes of medieval Christian worshippers, reflects a very different age, where church and society were largely coterminous. In such a world, members of other Abrahamic faiths were not valued as neighbours but reviled and feared as ‘the other’. Unlike the Christian suppliants seeking Mary’s prayers, there is apparently no mercy for the crowd filling the ravine between her and John the Baptist in the centre of the panel. These are being herded by devils to hell’s gateway on the right, like goats on Christ’s left hand (Matthew 25:33). Among this unfortunate group are several turbaned Muslims, and Jews wearing stereotyped pointed hats. Lochner’s judgement scene is an extreme visual example, reflecting the presuppositions of fifteenth-century Catholic Europe, of 1 Peter’s warning: ‘if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?’ (1 Peter 4:17).
Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion turns the vision of Lochner on its head. Cross and Torah scroll are dramatically juxtaposed. It is the suffering, crucified Jew, and the faithful hearers of Moses, who emerge as the righteous. A group of Jewish refugees hovers beside the cross, modern-day counterparts of the angels, the holy women and St John in classic crucifixion scenes. Judgement is now given in their favour. By contrast, their Christian neighbours stand condemned, for their silent complicity, if not active participation, in the persecution of European Jewry.
Amishai-Maisels, Ziva. 1993. Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press), ch. 3
Bohn-Duchen, Monica. 2010. ‘Images of Jesus in the Work of Marc Chagall: Christian Redeemer or Jewish Martyr?’, in Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion, ed. by Nathaniel Hepburn (Paddock Wood: Mascalls Gallery), pp. 68–71
Chapuis, Julien. 2004. Stefan Lochner: Image Making in Fifteenth-Century Cologne (Turnhout: Brepols)
Jeffrey, David Lyle. 2012. ‘Meditation and Atonement in the Art of Marc Chagall’, Religion and the Arts 16: 211–30
Senior, Donald P., and Daniel J. Harrington. 2003. 1 Peter, Jude, and 2 Peter, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Michael Glazier)
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; 16yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. 17For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And
19Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.