James Tissot was a successful French painter and illustrator, whose beautiful paintings of boats and ships I particularly admire. His earlier work reminds me of that of other 19th century high society painters like John Singer Sargent. In 1871, Tissot moved to London where he acquired a reputation for his paintings of elegant and fashionably-dressed women. The waiting room of his studio was remembered as always having a bottle of iced champagne available to callers.
Returning to Paris in 1885, Tissot exhibited 15 large paintings under the title of The Women of Paris. Like the work of other artists of the time, his paintings reflected the influence of Japanese prints. That same year, he experienced a re-conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, which transformed his life and his art.
Some Greeks have come to Jerusalem for the Passover, and ask to see Jesus. Notice how Tissot portrays much more than the immediate scene of the conversation, displaying his immense interest in the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. He imagines the Greeks approaching on an arched causeway over the Tyropoeon valley, on the southwest side of the Temple Mount. They are walking up to what might have been the most dramatic entrance to the Temple. Finding a fellow visitor who speaks Greek, they tell Philip why they have come. “Sir,” they say; “we wish to see Jesus!”
Tissot portrays Jesus in his customary way, as a rabbi clothed in white, and the painting is faithful to the scene as John presents it. Tissot therefore does not show Jesus moving toward the inquiring Greeks. Instead, as John tells us, when he hears that the Greeks want to see him, Jesus responds to Philip and Andrew in a curiously indirect way. Drawing upon an image in the book of Daniel, he says, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus speaks of his death and his vocation, which he says is centered on God’s glorification.
Here, we begin to make sense of why Tissot portrays the Greek visitor’s arrival from Jesus’ perspective, from the vantage point on top of that southwest corner of the Temple Mount, looking out between Hellenic columns toward Mt. Zion. The occasion has deep significance, not just for Greek visitors. It has significance for all of Jerusalem, and everyone who has come for the great festival. And it has implications for the whole world, lying over and beyond the hills of this city. Here, on a dramatic high point on the Temple Mount, as Jesus stands in the place associated with God’s own glory, a voice from heaven speaks of his glorification. The Gentile foreigners whom he has drawn to himself are a sign, a sign of all those who will be drawn to him, when his glory is revealed on the cross.
James Tissot, “We Would See Jesus,” from his multi-volume, The Life of Christ. The Gospel passage to which this image refers is John 12:20-33. For a link to my Sunday homily, developing these themes, please click here.
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