Lucas Cranach the Younger’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows sits in a long tradition of devotional art focused on Christ’s afflicted body and concerned to awaken our pity. With its eerily sentient Jesus, shown in the dark interval between crucifixion and resurrection, the work fits a classically Christian interpretation of Psalm 88—arguably the Psalter’s ‘darkest hour’. It is the only psalm that does not sound a note of hope at its end.
Christ’s body is here shown as wounded and broken. Since its manufacture, this painting’s viewers have come before it to lament over some personal circumstance leaving them ‘like one forsaken among the dead’ (v.5). They might gaze into the eyes of Jesus, and feel the compassionate sorrow pouring forth from his face, assured that their entreaties will be heard: ‘incline thy ear to my cry!’ (v.2).
Yet, Christ is shown crucified, not risen. Maybe the lamentations brought before this image, like the psalmist’s, remain unresolved. No illnesses healed. No bereavements undone. Entering into such an unassailable forsakenness is a treacherous byway of faith, but the psalmist insists on articulating it, commenting on his own unanswered petitions: ‘Why dost thou hide thy face from me?’ (v.14).
As even this pleading is left echoing in the darkness, the psalmist thinks the unthinkable: that there is some malevolence to God. ‘Thy dread assaults destroy me’ (v.16). But this God who seems to have approached his creature with only sorrow and pain is not rejected, and instead the lament continues. At this most frightful moment of belief, the one praying continues to decry the misfortune befalling him or her: ‘my companions are in darkness’ (v.18).
Thus, a yet more genuinely unthinkable reality emerges, of a God whose ways are the undoing of all human ways but whose face is human and whose name is love. Though this man of sorrows is crucified, he gazes intently, intimately at us. Opening the darkness of his wound to us, he seems silently to plead from within his grave.
88O Lord, my God, I call for help by day;
I cry out in the night before thee.
2Let my prayer come before thee,
incline thy ear to my cry!
3For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5like one forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom thou dost remember no more,
for they are cut off from thy hand.
6Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7Thy wrath lies heavy upon me,
and thou dost overwhelm me with all thy waves. Selah
8Thou hast caused my companions to shun me;
thou hast made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon thee, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to thee.
10Dost thou work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise thee? Selah
11Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,
or thy faithfulness in Abaddon?
12Are thy wonders known in the darkness,
or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13But I, O Lord, cry to thee;
in the morning my prayer comes before thee.
14O Lord, why dost thou cast me off?
Why dost thou hide thy face from me?
15Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer thy terrors; I am helpless.
16Thy wrath has swept over me;
thy dread assaults destroy me.
17They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in upon me together.
18Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.