Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Lucas Cranach the Younger [?]

Lucas Cranach the Younger [?]

Christ as the Man of Sorrows, c.1537, Oil on beech panel, 51.2 x 34.5 cm, Owned by Freie Hansestadt Bremen, Stadtgemeinde. On long-term loan to Kunstsammlungen Boettcherstraße, Bremen, DE_KBSB_B56, Photo: Courtesy of the Kunstsammlungen Boettcherstraße, Bremen

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Opening the Darkness

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jacob Phillips

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 or her 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.