An encounter with true beauty can be troubling, especially if we have settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the juxtaposition of opposites, and their apparent lack of resolve. At times we hope for the triumph of good over evil, that beauty will overcome darkness, and serenity displace antagonism. But we cannot find it within ourselves to do more than hope. We cannot achieve the redemptive resolution for which we haltingly reach out our hands and hearts.
It is not an accident that the figure of Jesus recedes into the background of this painting, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our visual interest. Stanley Spencer, who adopted what he called a neo-primitive style, was far too gifted a colorist, and master of light and dark, to let that happen unawares. As Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color match the wood of the cross, and also the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head, as well as much of the sky and of the ground below… including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate on the ground. This forms a compelling visual symbol of his Jesus’ total identification with us in his incarnation, and his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.
In fact, it is precisely because —in Spencer’s composition and coloring— Jesus could blend in so well with the background of everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, with hammers and nails. But this is only the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to the incompleteness of humanity. As the Gospels attest, it was a joining so thorough that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice that thorough joining, when we come face to face with the truths it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. When we get close enough to see —to really see him— there are only two responses. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.
These paradoxes are brought to their greatest prominence when, as he predicted, he is lifted up. His lifting up is his glorification, and the glorification of God within him. Yet his lifting up is on a cross, and in the agony of a humiliating public execution. Here we see a ‘strange beauty’ — the strange beauty of the Lord — a beauty for which museums better prepare us than do our malls. Let us “behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and seek him in his temple.” We will find him! We will find him in the “temple” he promised to raise in three days.
The painting above is The Crucifixion, 1958, by Stanley Spencer. This reflection is based on my homily for Good Friday, which also makes reference to Charles Wesley’s text, “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending.” Click here for a link to this homily.