James Tissot, “Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus,” 1886–1894
From James Tissot’s famous Bible illustration series, the Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus strives to depict with careful attention to period detail the scene from John’s Gospel in which Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night to learn more from him about his teaching.
Tissot researched his Bible series by traveling to the Holy Land, and the details in clothing, furnishings, and domestic life all help transport the viewer into the world of the Bible, or at least the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. Even more compelling than the setting, though, is the intimacy between the figures of Jesus and Nicodemus. The image communicates the hospitality, warmth, and friendship that are available to us no matter who we are or when we arrive at Christ’s door.
Jesus and Nicodemus are seated close to one another. One can almost hear their hushed tones, their low voices so as not to disturb the sleeping world around them. Jesus embodies hospitality—he looks squarely yet kindly at Nicodemus as he explains to him what has become the most quoted passage of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus reaches over with one hand to reassure Nicodemus and invite his friendship. There is no sense in Christ that Nicodemus is intruding at this late hour, but he welcomes him and meets him where he is with kindness and truth. Nicodemus leans in and looks down; he is listening intently and seems deeply moved by the words.
For today’s viewer, the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus might bring to mind the contemporary Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially the moment when the penitent, having confessed his sins, now listens intently to the counsel of the confessor. The candle-lit setting is reminiscent of a retreat or a Reconciliation service, often the context of the sacrament. Jesus’ reassuring hospitality is powerful when perceived in this light.
With this understanding, the removed shoes in front of the mat, a sign of domestic tradition, here become symbols of something more: the holy ground of encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, a holy ground for friendship and reconciliation, for healing and finding truth.
Week 5 of Lent, Cycle B
Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower,” 1888
During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh painted a number of works with the sower and with wheat fields. This particular image is one of the sower with the setting sun, and stands out by the Japanese-style tree transecting the image. The use of color is also remarkable: the yellow sun, green sky, pink clouds, purple fields, the black-blue tree and the blue-green figure give us a surreal color palette. We feel it’s the end of a cold day, despite the large sun. The surreal colors also hint at an otherworldly reality. The image is deeply evocative of death and letting go, though the subject matter of sowing seeds also brings with it the themes of hope and anticipation of new life.
Three elements form the major parts of the image: the yellow sun, the dark tree branch, and the blue-green figure of the sower. For van Gogh, these were regular symbols; the sun evoked the divine and the sower anticipated the future. These two together give us a sense of the end times with hope for the Reign of God. Along these lines, the tree, especially in its stark darkness as it transects the image, is evocative of the cross. One does not get to experience the promise of future hope and fullness without grappling with the reality of the cross.
A beautiful gesture offered by the sower is one of letting go. Casting the golden seeds on the purple ground is more than just a perfunctory act—it is letting go, literally and figuratively, so that these seeds may find good soil and so that new life may emerge. Jesus’ words from the Gospel echo throughout the painting: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Death here pertains to the seed, to Jesus foreshadowing his own Passion, and to each of us facing finitude, both daily and at the end of our lives. Yet, the seeds which the sower drops are golden, reflecting the large sun dominating the back of the image and reflecting the eternal life of the divine. In the field, the sower carries on, even as he nears the tree, with determination, resolve, and hope.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “The Denial of Saint Peter,” 1610
One poignant and tragic moment during the arrest of Jesus is Peter’s denial, a moment that is both heartbreaking and familiar. Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter invites us into this moment with psychological intensity. We meet three characters standing together in the dark of night: a military guard, a maidservant, and Saint Peter himself. The background suggests in a subtle way the fire and the courtyard that is the setting of the scene, but the focus is on the interaction of the characters. The visual narrative moves from left to right. The guard turns toward the maidservant, while she regards him with intensity. Her starkly-lit face symbolizes the harsh and condemning truth she is sharing about Peter’s denial. The guard’s face is in darkness, showing that he does not yet fully understand, but he is leaning in to hear and eyeing Peter carefully. His raised hand with an extended finger shows his understanding dawning. The maid’s hands right behind his are more clearly accusatory, pointing right at Peter.
Peter is at the right side of the scene, cast in a softer light. His hands point to his own chest, offering a self-condemning conclusion to the movement of hands in the scene. Though he did deny the Lord three times, it was his fear speaking, not his understanding. After the cock crowed, he realized the truth of what had happened. Jesus had foretold the scene, not condemning but plainly stating Peter’s need for healing, forgiveness, and faith. This truth casts Peter in the soft light of compassion, and he is able to turn his hands inward as if to accept the need for healing and forgiveness.
While we see this movement toward healing in the soft light, Caravaggio’s depiction of Peter also emphasizes the complexity of betrayal. The face of Peter is similar to one Caravaggio used for executioners in other paintings. In this context we truly see Peter’s heartbreaking guilt, which will lead him to weep bitterly. Peter did contribute to the suffering brought on the Lord, sharing in the role of executioner, not physically but by his abandonment and denial.
The story of the Passion is full of moments of violence, tragedy, heartache, and pain. We see ourselves in these moments and feel the heartache for the ways we have contributed to the suffering. May we stand with Peter around the fire in the soft light of healing truth.
Tintoretto, “Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet,” 1548–1549
Tintoretto’s dramatic interpretation of Christ washing the feet of the disciples invites us into a grand hall, with sumptuous architecture and splendid vistas. Tintoretto takes us out of the historical context of first-century Jerusalem to show the timelessness of the event. Playing further with time, his grand scene places side by side the past, present, and future. Careful attention to these juxtaposed scenes calls us to navigate the visual narrative in a U-shape, from right to left.
In the top right, obscured in semi-darkness is the recent past: the scene of the Last Supper meal. In the foreground is the present—the moment of foot washing. Tintoretto replicates the dinner table to underscore a connection with the meal, traces of which still linger as seen in the bread and the carafe. The artist also collapses the time between the foot-washing of Peter, bottom right, with the effect this must have produced in the rest of the disciples. They are invited to participate in the ritual as well, and in this scene, this is occurring all at once.
The disciples and their varied responses to the foot washing are the visual focus of the scene. The two helping to undress one another’s feet show urgency. The figure on the bottom left steadily undoing the straps of his sandals shows steady obedience, as does the disciple behind Jesus removing his stocking. The figure prayerfully seated against a column in the back is an example of discernment. Those still seated at the table signify observation and dialogue, and finally, the figure furthest away and most concealed in shadows shows suspicion and resistance. He is likely Judas.
At the top left of the scene, we see a vista over a courtyard pool flanked by classical architecture, which leads the perspective far beyond through an arch. Moving from foreground to background into the vista, the imagery gives us a shorthand of the events to come after the Last Supper. The urgency of the disciples foreshadows their hastiness in the garden as Jesus is arrested. Judas, lingering in the shadows, invites us into the darkest hours of Jesus’ Passion that will follow. The pool with the boat is death, reminiscent of the ancient mythology of afterlife, specifically of crossing over the river Styx from death to eternity. The stillness is more evocative of Holy Saturday than of Good Friday. The arch and the obelisk are both signs of conquest and triumph in classical architecture, and here these give us a promise of eternal hope and the victory that will come on Easter Sunday. This painting, therefore, is an excellent invitation to the whole Easter Triduum.
Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, “The Capture of Christ,” circa 1450
The Master of the Karlsruhe’s depiction of the The Capture of Christfocuses on the first moment of the Passion. Whereas the Crucifixion itself is a moment of awful stillness, this depiction of the arrest captures the chaos and unbridled mob mentality that initiated the events of Good Friday. Although filled to the brim with figures, The Capture of Christ offers us only a few main characters: Christ, Peter seen on top right, and Judas on top left. The mob itself becomes the fourth main character.
Christ is bruised and burdened on the bottom of the scene. He is already covered in sores from head to toe, even though the flagellation is yet to come, and he is hunched over, as if already carrying the cross. The image suggests that even here at his capture, he is already walking the way of Calvary. He is carrying a cross not made of wood, but of the whole human mess symbolized by the figures above him. On his way to Calvary, Jesus bears the burden of it all—his expression is one of sorrow and perseverance.
The mob is a motley crew. We see the grotesque faces of soldiers, torchbearers, and trumpeters who have come out in full force against this one man. The individuals become one organic entity filling up the majority of the scene, in some ways repelling the viewer but also inviting us to behold their expressive faces, which are diverse and particular. Some of the expressions are mean, some are curious, and some are suffering. To behold the faces is to encounter imperfect humanity, and perhaps discover ourselves somewhere in this messy bunch.
Peter and Judas are at the top of the scene and offer a pair of contrasts. In his attempt to defend the Lord by cutting off Malchus’ ear, Peter turns fully toward the scene and enters into the reality of it, albeit with an act of violence and impulsive desperation. Judas, on the other hand, is on his way out. We see him from the back, his body turned away, exiting left, carrying the money he received as a reward for his betrayal. He glances back with cautious uncertainty, making sure he is getting away and disengaging from the reality at hand—even though his actions led to it.
The sky above the scene is vibrant with color. The night sky is a deep blue and dotted with stars. The moon casts a large, harsh glow, contrasting with the dark, leafless tree that towers above the struggling Peter and Malchus. On the tree a few leaves linger, but it is unclear whether they can be taken as reminders of life. From the struggle and chaos beneath, it looks as if it can go either way. As Jesus perseveres, faith invites us to join him.