What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (Ce que voyait Notre-Seigneur sur la Croix) by James Tissot

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

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Participation in Suffering

Commentary by

James Tissot’s watercolour reverses the perspective that is the norm for images of the crucifixion. Rather than gazing upon Christ, and therefore standing in the position of the scoffers, or, at best, the bewildered apostles or the grief-crippled and faithful women, Tissot gives us Christ’s eyes; asks us to enter in to the experience of the Lord. In this aspect the image is suited to the illumination of the specific section of Psalm 22 in which the Psalmist looks upon his enemies encamped around him.

The bulls of Bashan (Psalm 22:12), mentioned also in Deuteronomy 32:14 and Amos 4:1, are often interpreted as a sign of the rich and powerful (e.g. see eighteenth-century commentaries by Matthew Henry and Charles Wesley). The reason is that bulls from Bashan were especially fat and strong (Craigie 1983: 200). Proverbs 28:15 compares wicked rulers to lions and the term dog was used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to those of low social standing or to someone contemptible (e.g. 2 Kings 8:13; 2 Samuel 9:8).

All of these human types are in evidence in the various individuals assembled at the foot of the cross. Also present in Tissot’s composition are the women mentioned in Matthew 27, a lone figure who is likely to be the Apostle John, and, front and centre, the mother of the Lord.

The reversal of perspective does not allow us to gaze on the one who has been pierced hand and foot, who is wracked with thirst, and whose bones are out of joint. All we see of the body of Christ are his feet. We are instead asked to consider all these indignities not as a spectacle we contemplate but as our own experiences. If we look with Christ’s eyes, then we must contemplate the wounds with Christ’s body: that is, as if our body were his, as if it is we ourselves who are crucified. As such, this painting completes the theological picture, for while we are the mockers, we are also crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). This is the same unity of perspective to which the Psalm invites us: that we may also feel ourselves, with the Psalmist, dried up and laid in the dust of death.

 

References

Craigie, Peter C. 1983. Psalms 1–50, Word Biblical Commentary, 19 (Waco: Word Books)

Henry, Matthew. [1706] 2009. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody: Hendrickson)

Wesley, John. 1765. Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament (Bristol: William Pine)