Some images are so powerful that, if we take time for them, they can alter our lives. The spirit hovering over the waters, the Lord who is our shepherd, the mountain on which every tear will be wiped away are such images, given us by the Jewish people and still nourishing us centuries later. Others come, abundantly, from the Gospel of God’s reconciling love for us in Christ, giving body to its words of life.
Images like these, from an exhibition entitled “Time to Hope,” were a great gift to New York City from the 11 Spanish provinces of Castille and León, sent after our national year of mourning and shown in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine from Sept. 27 until Dec. 6. In seven sections narrating the life of Jesus, the exhibition moved graciously from creation to final judgment, from Romanesque to Baroque art, through illustrated manuscripts, oil panels, enameled chests and polychrome wood sculptures. The typically Spanish, impassioned elegance of the art has remained in the imaginations of many observers, not a few of whom were moved to prayer by these visions of God’s mercy.
I recall three, especially, that touched me deeply. One was a depiction of the Annunciation, from the parish church of Gamonal in Burgos, a pair of polychrome wood figures by an unknown artist of the mid-13th century, just under four feet tall, each clad in gleaming golden robes [see cover of this issue]. Gabriel raises his beautifully preserved right hand in gentle greeting—but has probably lost the palm symbolizing virginity that was in his left hand. His curly blond hair falls to his shoulders, and he wears a long cloak over an intricately patterned tunic that covers a more tightly fitting one. Mary turns toward him, her right hand raised in response, her head covered with a veil, a handsome robe folded at her waist over an elegant tunic beneath. She is slender, serious, even solemn.
The figures radiate a golden dignity, but the faces are what haunt the viewer. The angel is, in fact, more beautiful, his arched eyes wide and warm, a distinct flush on his cheek, the beginnings of a smile on his lips. The Virgin who will bear a son does not yet look directly at him; her mouth and eyes seem almost sad. What, in this instant, does she know? It is as if the mother of the Savior already anticipates his suffering.
This suffering was powerfully, sovereignly portrayed for the Cathedral of El Burgo de Osna in Romanesque style more than a century earlier, again by an anonymous artist, in a larger than life-size sculpture of the crucified Christ known as the “Holy Christ of the Miracle.” (Legend has it that in 1272 a rooster alighted on the head of Christ and that a stone thrown by a verger to scare the bird away damaged the sculpture, which then began miraculously to bleed.) Here the Lord reigns magnificently from his cross, his eyes open and his thickly bearded, impassive face inclined slightly to the right, his strong, stylized arms and hands reaching out to the world though affixed to the crossbar, his lean, columnar body showing no signs of the scourging. And the perizonium, the cloth belted at his waist and reaching to the knees with a decorative flounce, is no mere loincloth but royal garb.
Though the image presents Jesus to us before his actual death, he presents himself to us as if already risen. Many years later his eyes would be painted closed in death, and blood from the stone’s blow would be shown flowing from his head to his chest, while later still, in the Baroque period, a crown of thorns was added. This was the image that evoked the special devotion of Philip III, who had its blood carried in procession to implore the cure of his son, the future Philip IV. But for the exhibition in New York the cross has been restored to the austere majesty of its original conception (with the exception of the inclined head). It is hard not to imagine its creator kneeling before it in prayer.
Diego de la Cruz’s Renaissance realism, perhaps influenced by an apprenticeship in the Netherlands, portrayed a far more anguished Christ in his “Resurrected Christ Between Two Angels,” an elegant oil on panel for the Collegiate Church of Sts. Cosmas and Damian in Covarrubias, and a third image I recall gratefully. Positioned now not between two thieves but between two angels who support him at the elbows, the risen Lord seems infinitely weary, his hands and side continue to bleed for our sake, the angels beside him are afflicted with grief. The golden background and traditional red cloak remind us of love’s victory over death. The modeling of the three figures, the brilliant colors, the unusual, three-quarter length frontal pose all lend an elegance and formality to the painting that underline this theme. Yet the expressions of the angels’ faces (one has a hand to his head in sorrow), the blood still running from the crown of thorns, and above all Jesus’ eyes, which search the viewer’s heart for the comfort of faith, indelibly convey the Pauline conviction that only by sharing the Lord’s sufferings will we share his glory.
“There are those,” the curators of the exhibition wrote, “whose eyes, by not seeing into the darkness of the mystery, are blinded by the light and the heart of God’s appearance.” Word and Spirit appear to us usually in mysterious ways, veiled often by the most ordinary of human and natural circumstances, though sometimes by the marvelous. The religious art displayed at St. John the Divine is rich with carved and painted images of such revelation: shepherds crowding about the birth of a promised child, Joachim and Anne as an older couple greeting each other with loving care, Teresa of ávila turning to hear a voice from heaven. But “human kind cannot bear very much reality,” as T. S. Eliot says. Only patiently and humbly can we make our way through the ordinary images of life within which it has pleased the Holy Mystery to share the promise of eternal life.
On that journey, it is the tenderness of God that lingers most in my imagination after contemplating these images of annunciation, crucifixion and resurrection. We know such tenderness from everyday experience: mothers willing again and again to sacrifice themselves for their children, friends capable of great generosity to friends, the few heroes we know or read about who give themselves fearlessly for a greater good—of church or country, science or art. That such tenderness is ready indeed to suffer for us, that somehow it is written in the order of things that it must do so, this is the dark mystery that we need great help to enter. And it is the artist, with the prophet, who leads us there.