It may make sense to our modern mind that great works of art are gathered together in large museums, but this wasn’t always the case. Originally, art was created to bring beauty to our lives, to the places where we lived, worked and prayed.
Today, it feels strange to go to a church in Rome and find, in some lateral altar, a painting by Caravaggio, or a sculpture by Michelangelo. We think: that should be at a museum. But those works were made for churches, and they were created to help us enter more deeply into the mysteries of our faith.
This week, as we prepare our hearts to accompany Our Lord in his Passion, Death and Resurrection, I propose we seek to rediscover the benefit of using art as an aid in our contemplation of the Crucifixion.
The method we will follow will be to reflect on a few key works of art in light of texts written by the Church Fathers. Therefore, in some sense, we are aiming to bring together what was meant to be together: the art that was the visual context for the mysteries of our faith.
O, admirable exchange!
Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” (1512–1516) was once described by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as perhaps the most moving depiction of the Crucifixion. It was painted in the early 16th century for a monastery in which the monks took care of the sick, especially of those afflicted by the plague, skin diseases and ergotism, an illness that produces horrible convulsions and deformation of the limbs.
The painting was a source of great comfort to those suffering with the plague who saw their wounds in Christ. The artist chose to paint Jesus suffering our passion: his sores and blisters are those of the plague; his hands are feet are convulsed as were those suffering ergotism. This is true love to the end.
We can only try to imagine the power of the words of Isaiah resounding in that chapel: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is 53:4-5).
This Church Fathers called this the admirable exchange: “God became man, that man might become God.” Based on this we can say that God suffered our pains on the cross, so that we can be healed and live a new life. This becomes a reality again and again, as nowhere else, in the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.
In the Eucharist we are healed and we find our remedy, as St. Ambrose says in “De Sacramentis”: “As often as we receive, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If death, we proclaim the remission of sins. If, as often as blood is shed, it is shed for the remission of sins, I ought always to accept him, that he may always dismiss my sins. I, who always sin, should always have a remedy.”
Pope Gregory the Great reminds us in “Dialogues” that the sacrifice of the Eucharist is not just a symbol, but the real immolation of Christ, where we can receive that very flesh and blood that cost him so much suffering: “He is again immolated for us in the mystery of the holy sacrifice. Where his body is eaten, there his flesh is distributed among the people for their salvation. His blood no longer stains the hands of the godless, but flows into the hearts of his faithful followers.”
Source of life
The sacrifice of the Cross brought us life, not only as a past event that paid the price of our reconciliation, but as the constant source of life through the sacraments. This is seen in the beautiful “La Crucifixion” (1597) by El Greco, the great Greek-Spanish painter. Again, this masterpiece —which today can be seen in El Prado in Madrid, Spain— was made for an altarpiece, where the eyes of the faithful would contemplate Christ’s open side pouring blood and water.
Many other artists would see here what the Church Fathers saw: the font of the sacraments. El Greco gave a tone of great drama to the scene, with its black background that enhances the contrast of the colors and the mysterious and serene expression of the faces. Some angels clean the cross and others fly and extend their arms, making every effort to not let a drop of the sacramental blood of Christ fall to the ground.
An abundant number of Fathers will see in the blood and water coming from the open side of the Crucified Christ the font of the Church. St. Augustine in his commentaries on the Gospel of John says that the open side of Christ becomes the open gate of salvation, from where we receive the sacraments: blood for the remission of sins and water to be mixed in the cup: “The Evangelist used a wide awake word so that he did not say, ‘pierced his side’ or ‘wounded’ or anything else, but ‘opened,’ so that there, in a manner of speaking, the door of life was thrown open from which the mystical rites (sacramenta) of the Church flowed, without which one does not enter into the life which is true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water provides the proper mix for the health-giving cup; it offers both bath and drink.… What is cleaner than this blood? What is more healthful than this wound?”
The fact that it was blood and water that came forth from Christ’s side is a wonderful gift from God, as St. John Chrysostom writes in his homilies on John: “It was not accidentally or by chance that these streams came forth, but because the Church has been established from both of these. Her members know this, since they have come to birth by water and are nourished by Flesh and Blood. The Mysteries have their source from there, so that when you approach the awesome chalice you may come as if you were about to drink from his very side.”
Caring for Christ’s body
An important fruit of an increased awareness of the sacrifice of the Cross should be gratitude.
Carlo Crivelli painted an impressive scene for an altar titled “The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels” (circa 1435–circa 1495). This image expresses the sorrow of these two angels who realize the high price paid by Christ for our rescue.
But the artist shows another important response to the sacrifice of Christ: the need to support and hold the dead body of Christ. They experience, so to speak, both the sorrow for seeing that we were capable of inflicting such suffering to the Son of God, and the responsibility of knowing that they have to receive his body.
It is not difficult to try to apply this to our lives. First, thinking about the depth of the pain suffered by Jesus for our salvation, and remembering that that happened for our sins. Second, being responsible with what has been entrusted to us: his mysteries, the celebration of the Eucharist, where he offers himself up again for us.
The Mass cannot be done in vain, as John Chrysostom says in his homily on Acts of the Apostles, after describing what happens invisibly in each Mass: “What do you say? There is the Sacrifice in hand, and all things laid out duly ordered: angels are there present, archangels, the Son of God is there: all stand with such awe, and in the general silence those stand by, crying aloud: and do you think that what is done, is done in vain?”
The angels, those who supported the dead body of the Son of God, are present when he is offered again to the Father. Let us pray that they will help us to grow in the awareness of what really happens at Mass and let us offer ourselves on the altar as St. Gregory the Great said in “Dialogues”: “We need to sacrifice ourselves to God in a sincere immolation of the heart whenever we offer Mass, because we who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s passion ought to imitate what we are enacting. The Sacrifice will truly be offered to God for us when we present ourselves as the victim.”
Let us finish our reflections contemplating our Mother and her compassion. Mary suffered with Christ as no one else, and this union of love and pain between Mother and Son has been expressed in a scene frequently painted and sculpted: the “Pietà,” most notably by Michelangelo.
The “Pietà” shows Mary’s deep sorrow, but also her profound peace. The Passion was the moment in which she had to renew her fiat in the most loving and obedient way. She then received again in her arms the body of her Son, but this time a dead body. That moment opened the hour of hope: those days in which the whole world was awaiting the victory of Christ’s resurrection.
At that hour, John, the only disciple who was at the foot of the Cross had to accept a new mission: to take care of Mary as Jesus did. Our final text comes not from a Church Father but from the oldest Roman book of prayers for the Mass, the Leonine Sacramentary (V-VI Century): “There, on the feast day of St. John we remember that he, who in the mystical supper reclined his head on the Lord’s chest, was at the foot of the Cross made Christ’s vicar, representing him by receiving the Virgin Mother into his life.”
Normally, by “vicar of Christ” we think about Peter, the pope, and not about John. But John is called to be Mary’s son, so he becomes the vicar, the representative of Christ in taking care of Mary.
In the same way, the “Pietà” reminds us not only of Mary’s compassion and her mission toward us, but of our own mission towards her: to try to offer some comfort to her heart with our commitment to receive with gratitude and share the good news of the sacrifice of the Cross, especially during these days of Lent.