Sunday, 9 April 2006

The missing picture

Fancy some high-class works of art to enrich your Holy Week? Then pop along (as I and a dozen other Bishops on CME did last week) to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Almost every scene has been depicted. In loving detail the great Masters lay before us the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Jesus before the High Priest, and on through to a wonderful image of Christ rising from a sarcophagus clutching a flag of St. George – making him look like a rather dishevelled member of the Barmy Army after a particularly heavy Ashes victory. But something’s missing. And that thing is today – Palm Sunday. Liturgically it’s a major part of the Easter Drama, pictorially it has vanished off the radar.

I’m sure there must be some depictions of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem — and I expect the anoraks among aficionados of this web site to provide us all with hyperlinks — but by comparison with the other major events of Holy Week and Passiontide they are few in numbers. Why?

My suspicion is that Palm Sunday is uncomfortable for Christian art because it is too near the bone. Central to it are people who greet Jesus enthusiastically , scattering palms. And five days later, when he failed to conform to their expectations, they are ready to assent to his crucifixion. The betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish authorities, by Rome’s officers, by the Jerusalem mob and even by his immediate disciples is something we can distance ourselves from. But betrayal by those who cry “Hosanna” and welcome him into their lives as a Saviour, well that’s much harder to push away.

Today we’re forced to think about the equivocal nature of our welcome to Jesus. We let him into our lives and into our faith but on our terms. He mustn’t bring children or those with learning disabilities with him, as they might disturb the peace of our worship. He can help us say our prayers but mustn’t make any major demands on our money. He’s welcome to chide us gently about some of the minor sins we commit, but he must restrict his real challenge to other people’s temptations. And he must be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in the battle to save the church from those dreadful liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, misogynists, radicals, evangelicals, charismatics, Nigerians, Americans…

To paint the Jerusalem welcome is to depict ourselves, and to draw attention to the conditionality and ambivalence of our faith. No wonder many churches have moved the focus of their Palm Sunday Services to an overview of the whole Passion Narrative, we can lose ourselves among Peter and Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate.

St Francis of Assisi recognised that he would never fully welcome Jesus until he had embraced those he most feared and despised — lepers. He could then go on to welcome Lady Poverty and, in due course, Sister Death. Today you and I are given the opportunity to face a similar challenge. Or we could find some less threatening picture to look at.

Posted by David Walker on Sunday, 9 April 2006 at 8:00am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

OK, I'll bite. Here is a link to many depictions of Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.
Every ten years or so, I get to use my degree in Art History :-p

I will be in London in June and cannot wait to get into the National Gallery!

Posted by: searching on Sunday, 9 April 2006 at 5:13pm BST

I got so excited about the challenge of finding the links to works of art that I neglected to thank you for your insightful post. There is , in fact, a great deal of art depicting the Entry into Jerusalem, but I suspect that you are correct. That subject is not as popular as the other events of Christ's Passion. I believe, and this is just my own theory, that most depictions will be found as one scene in a series on subjects such as the Life of Christ, etc. Well, I know what I'll be doing for the rest of the day. Looks like cleaning out that closet has got to wait!

This site is really interesting, Biblical Art on the WWW:
a link to the Entry into Jerusalem:

This biblical art site is very well done, and has an amazing search engine.

Another excellent site, Web Gallery of Art.
One more thing that I want to draw attention to is the The Church of San Francesco at Assisi. Here is to be found some extaordinary frescoes by the master Giotto. In addition to Giotto's series, The Legend of St. Francis, is also a series drawn from the New Testament. They are heavily damaged in many places, but still magnificent in their beauty.
In Padua, a series by Giotto, depicting the life of Christ shows the Entry into Jerusalem, which I have just set as my screensaver.
You can send postcards of images from this website as well.
Thanks for indulging me! I hope you enjoy these links.

Posted by: searching on Sunday, 9 April 2006 at 6:18pm BST

I plunder both Text This Week, and the Web Gallery site each week for images.

Suffering a bit from "new-video-projector-itis", here. It's still a little bit like when you first discover different fonts on your computer - you go a bit wild at first.

But as +D has implied through his 'bishops' CME' (...pleased to hear they still have it... :o) ), communicating in image speaks to people in different ways, that words alone cannot. Sometimes hard, that, for those of us still fixated by the idea of the Word - even a Word made flesh.

Even an old OHP can be very effective. If you get a chance, encourage a vicar-near-you to try using an image this week.

Posted by: Alastair on Sunday, 9 April 2006 at 7:35pm BST

Coincidentally I've just used the Giotto as part of a talk to 3000 people in the Big Top at Skegness Spring Harvest. I was preaching on creativity and it seemed an eminently sensible way in. I love its perpendicular feel and the sense of the solemnity of his kingship.

Posted by: Pete Broadbent on Sunday, 9 April 2006 at 9:50pm BST

When I think of artistic representations of Palm Sunday I immediately think of Sicilian gold ground mosaics with memorable depictions -- but then they have a lot of palms too! (Sorry, I don't do hyperlinks.)

And on a humbler, perhaps more meaningful level, is the wooden donkey in a Swiss museum (probably the Landesmuseum in Zurich) that was used in medieval processions, apparently a rare survivor of a once numerous breed.

Posted by: Gene O'Grady on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 5:25am BST

What evidence is there at all that those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem were those who were said to call for his crucifixion (even Crossman's fine hymn, My song is love unknown, makes this unjustifiable assumption).

Posted by: John Bunyan on Monday, 10 April 2006 at 1:50pm BST

John B asked what evidence we have that the Palm Sunday and Good Friday crowds were the same people. That's an interesting question because it exposes the difference between theology and history.

A historian would probably guess that we're talking pretty small numbers on both occasions, and so probably a percentage of overlap well below 100. But if we're attempting to draw any sort of theological conclusions about you and me 2000 years on then what matters is what the evangelists are trying to tell us.

As far as they are concerned both crowds represent the people of Jerusalem (residents and pilgrims) in their corporate entirety. We're not given the cop out that these are different groups (as though it was just unfortunate that the true followers of Jesus all happened to have stayed at home to wash their hair that Friday morning and aren't implicated). What we're presented with (and Crossman captures in his hymn) is the fickleness of commitment by those who welcome Jesus, and their willingness to be led astray by religious leaders with their own agendas.

And that's what matters to you and me.

Posted by: David Walker on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 8:30am BST

One could also say that they are led astray by bitterness in unfulfilled expectations. They had raised their own hopes, having got the wrong end of the stick (that Jesus was a temporal king and deliverer) and when that proves not to be the case, they take it out on him. Even though he never claimed to be that sort of a messiah.

Posted by: Peter Lear on Tuesday, 11 April 2006 at 5:56pm BST
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