Beauty in Holy Week

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Stanley Spencer, The Crucifixion (1958)


During this Holy Week I find myself reflecting on the paradox at the heart of Jesus’ Crucifixion. In it we perceive a dramatic juxtaposition of serenity with antagonism, of beauty with its dark opposite, and of moral good with apparent evil.

We can see this in a remarkable parallel between two paintings that were completed some 500 years apart: Hieronymus Bosch’s (attributed), Christ Carrying the Cross (1510-35), shown below, and Stanley Spencer’s, Crucifixion (1958). Both portray the tranquil visage and peaceful heart of Jesus, even in the face of vicious hostility.

Like Bosch, Spencer helps us see what the beautiful One in our midst sometimes provokes. Especially when the shining light of his presence exposes the dark shadows within and around us. For his light sometimes prompts fierce anger and envy, as well as a callous indifference to cruelty and suffering. Things of which we are all capable. And we are likely to have much invested in denying that ugly truth. Strangely, when confronted face to face with a divinity that is the opposite of our perversity, we will either fight the light that we encounter, or surrender to it. The Passion narratives give us examples of those who resisted and even fought against the Light of the World. Especially against the disturbing possibility that Jesus might conquer their pervasive ungodliness.  And so, they sought to do away with his godliness.

An encounter with true beauty can be unsettling and troubling, especially if we have already settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the same juxtaposition of opposites I have noted, and their apparent lack of resolve. We often 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 with our feeble hands and hearts.

It is not an accident that the Christ figure in Stanley Spencer’s painting recedes visually in the foreground, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our interest. Spencer, after mastering traditional realism, adopted what he called a neo-primitive style. He was a gifted colorist, and highly proficient with composition. And so, as Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color roughly match that of the wood of the cross, as well as the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head. Spencer’s rendering of the Lord’s skin tone and color also matches much of the sky and the ground below, including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate at the foot of the cross. This forms a compelling visual symbol of Jesus’ total identification with us, in his Incarnation and in his Crucifixion. It symbolizes his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.

In fact —as we see in Spencer’s composition and coloring— it is precisely because Jesus blended in so well with everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, ultimately with hammers and nails. But this is the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to our fallen humanity. As the Gospels attest, this joining was so complete that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice his total identification with us, when we come face to face with the truth it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.

Spencer at work on his Crucifixion