Finding Beauty During Holy Week

James Tissot, The Resurrection

 

I had the privilege of seeing the original of this image by James Tissot at a recent exhibit of his work in San Francisco. I have known about this painting for some time, but was struck by how relatively small it is (image size approximately 8″ x 12″). Given the size, Tissot’s attention to detail is astonishing, especially when seen alongside his large oil paintings.

Like the one above, Tissot’s biblical paintings were largely done with opaque water color paint (now commonly termed “gouache” paint) and graphite on textured gray paper. This sets the water color paintings apart from his oil paintings in terms of their technical quality and pictorial finish. Nevertheless, they are in some ways more remarkable because Tissot was using the less forgiving medium of water colors instead of oil paints, which provide greater flexibility for painting over unsatisfactory or undesired results.

Choosing a single image for consideration in the context of Holy Week presents a certain challenge. For which of the events that we commemorate this week provides the most suitable reference point for our reflection? Considering this question, and possible answers to it, can help us gain insight about how we understand Holy Week in relation to Easter and more specifically whether we view the Passion (the arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion) of Jesus as an essential part of the Easter story.

We know that it is not just among Christians, but also among Jews and Muslims, that notable differences concerning belief and practice exist among pious adherents of a shared religious tradition. A significant variable for Christians concerns how -in our prayers, worship and practices this week- we approach the relative significance of the key liturgical ‘moments’ that we commemorate during the ‘Holy Three Days’ (or Paschal Triduum). According to the biblical concept of time, these three days commence at sundown on what we now call Maundy Thursday. And so, the first ‘day’ includes remembrance of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest and trial, as well as his Good Friday crucifixion. The second ‘day’ then begins on Good Friday evening, just after when Jesus would have been buried. And the third begins after sundown on Holy Saturday evening, and includes the twenty four hours during which Jesus’ resurrection occurred and his empty tomb was then discovered.

When considering the significance of the events we commemorate at this time of the year, some Christians think primarily in terms of Easter Sunday and what Jesus’ resurrection will mean for them. Many others include in their reflection a spiritual consideration of the events we associate with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The broader ‘catholic’ liturgical tradition reflects this wider perspective in the liturgies appointed for Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week. For example, The Book of Common Prayer liturgy for Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ journey on a donkey down from the Mount of Olives and his entrance into the Holy City, which leads to his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ and the subsequent conflict this provoked. A central feature of the Palm Sunday liturgy is a reading of the full Passion narrative from one of the first three Gospels. John’s Passion narrative is always read every year on Good Friday. And, on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the Passion story often incorporates readers who give voice to individual parts within the narrative.

In light of these observations, and as we prepare to enter the ‘Holy Three Days,’ I invite you to consider Tissot’s painting titled, The Resurrection. As you view and reflect on it, here are some details you may want to take into account:

  • Tissot portrays the moment of Jesus’ resurrection at night (rather than ‘Sunday morning,’ with lanterns partially illuminating the scene
  • Matthew’s Gospel mentions Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body “in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock;” Tissot adds a dressed stone frame around the tomb entrance
  • though the crucifixion was enacted by Roman soldiers, Matthew suggests that the guard of soldiers sent to the tomb belong to the chief priests and the Pharisees and are primarily local citizens
  • the risen Lord still bears the marks of his torture and execution, though his wounds are transformed into points of light
  • diaphanous angels appear on the righthand side of the tomb opening

These and other observations about this resurrection painting make it relevant to our observance of Holy Week, as well as to Easter. I offer this image and these comments as a way into the mystery of this week.

 

The image above is James Tissot’s painting, The Resurrection, which with many of his other biblical paintings is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

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