The Two Trees

The Rev’d. Dr. Joanna Collicutt reflects on the stark visual juxtaposition of Christ crucified next to the hanging Judas, depicted in the Fifth Century Maskell Ivory. 

 

 

On 7th February I was part of a panel invited to reflect on an image from the Imagining the Divine exhibition currently taking place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The exhibition contains artefacts from what it refers to as the ‘Five great world religions plus paganism’ (a contentious notion in itself, but not the subject of this blog piece).

 

Maskell Ivory

The Maskell Ivory (c.420-30 CE), probably originating in Rome.

Ivory, Height 7.5 cm, British Museum.

 

I chose this tiny and exquisitely carved panel that was originally part of a box whose sides depict incidents from the life of Christ. This has a claim to be the earliest surviving depiction of the crucifixion and is therefore hugely significant in the history of Christian art. In fact there are very few surviving depictions of the crucifixion from the first millennium at all, and we should ask ourselves why this is. For an intriguing account take a look at Rita Nakashima Brock, and Rebecca Ann Parker’s 2008 book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire.

 

Perhaps the first thing one notices is that this is not the crucified Christ with whom we are so familiar from mediaeval art – an agonised, contorted, dying or – more usually – already dead victim full of pathos. Instead we are faced with a victorious Christ, very much alive, even perhaps smiling, standing erect with eyes and arms wide open as if to welcome all comers, ready to fly off the cross.

 

There is lots here that is reminiscent of John’s account of the death of Christ; the emphasis on glory, the presence of the Mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, and the Roman Soldier (known in later tradition as Longinus) who inserts a spear into Jesus’ side. Yet, like a Gospel harmony, we also find Judas’ suicide as told by Matthew, complete with the thirty silver pieces, and the completely charming detail of the birds of the air nesting in the branches of the tree from which he hangs, surely alluding to the story of the mustard seed from Mark and Matthew.

 

This would have been an image used for personal devotion and, like the texts and traditions that inspired it, it is not simply telling a story; it makes demands on the viewer. These are intensified, literally thrown into relief, by the three dimensional nature of this artefact that dissolves the threshold between the world of the viewer and the scene depicted. The figures move out towards towards the viewer, who in turn is drawn towards them.

 

And what does she find?  The juxtaposition of the death of Judas and the death of Jesus is highly unusual in Christian art and it should tell us something. It reminded me of the opening verses of that early Christian text, the Didache: ‘There are two ways: one of life and one of death.’ The cross is the tree of life in which all may come and find a place, but it is the tree of death for those who, like Judas, don’t ‘get’ Jesus. Judas is dead, defeated, flaccid, and crucially alone. Jesus is alive, victorious, erect, and crucially surrounded by his loved ones (Jews) and one who in the tradition becomes a faithful witness to his death (a gentile).

 

The viewer is faced with the fact that the cross presents a moral and existential demand to make a life and death choice, a repeated choice that must be made daily.

 

Personally, I find yet more in this image. I find a visual way of making sense and making real that very difficult but important verse from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us; for it is written ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’. There is something here about God’s transformation of guilt, shame, and death in Christ that is communicated better visually than in words.

 

But there is also hope. Is Christ reaching out to that tragic figure on the tree? Is this the moment that the gibbet is brought to life? Is Jesus’ touch transforming even this, the loneliest and most desperate of places?

 

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

Tim Middleton reflects on the tangible, immersed experience of Christ incarnate, and that of his mother Mary, and the challenge of meeting God in the pain and truth of life on earth. 

 

‘Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried’—the Apostles’ Creed puts it all very succinctly. If you’re in church on a Sunday, this terse summary of the key moments in the life of Jesus is sometimes all you get. But Colm Tóibín’s play (and subsequent novella) The Testament of Mary includes rather more.

Mary the mother of Jesus has been the focus of Christian adoration for centuries and we’ve inherited a tradition replete with images. When people talk of Marian devotion, one might hear the haunting opening of Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Stabat Mater, a sorrowful hymn to Mary. Or one might conjure to mind the exquisite marble of Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. According to tradition, and indeed much of our greatest sacred art and music, Mary is serene, obliging, self-sacrificing and God-fearing.

But what if you had been the mother of Jesus? What if you had been at the foot of the cross when your own son was crucified? What if you were thoroughly exhausted by everybody else trying to re-interpret what the life of your son meant?

It’s not necessarily easy to read: Tóibín’s book can disturb, upset and provoke. In places it is anachronistic, chronologically disjointed or in direct contradiction with what you find in the Bible. For me, though, to be concerned by this is to miss the point. What I have gradually come to realise is that, by definition, there has to be something very gritty about the incarnation. I used to be very bothered by the idea that Jesus only came at one time and in one place—the so-called scandal of particularity. How could a supposedly universal God be as thoughtless as to not give us easy, universal access? But I have come to appreciate that the messy, historically contingent way in which God came to Earth is not a weakness but a strength—in fact, it is taking the notion that God became fully human very seriously indeed. The human condition is messy, and so the life of Jesus must also have been messy. What’s more, each of us views life through our own subjective prism: parts of life are unfair, parts of life don’t work out in the way we had hoped, and for much of our lives we are dependent on other people for support and happiness.

So what would all of this have looked like through Mary’s eyes? It might well have been baffling. The crucifixion might well have been so dangerous and terrifying that she decided to flee. And, in an echo of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it may well have felt like the whole thing just wasn’t worth the pain and anguish. Our abstract, creedal formulas have a certain place, but it is only in gritty, lived experience that we fully grasp the reality of things. Perhaps it was all rather tougher for Mary than we are sometimes led to believe.

The Light Overcomes the Darkness

Revd. Dr. Sarah Brush reflects on light overcoming darkness through drawing. 

 

It was some time in 2005 that an image came to me which I just had to get on paper. I started drawing it and like many adults or even over 7s who are drawing, I was dissatisfied with it as it didn’t look like I wanted it to look. The pencil didn’t do what it needed to.

So, I tried again and again.

Finally, prayerfully, the image was there.

In simple black and white:

A silhouette of the head of the Christ on the cross, crowned with thorns.

Yet there was another crown too; a crown of light bursting forth from the head of Jesus and breaking through the darkness.

Of course, drawing in pencil, the light was created by filling in the dark and leaving the light. It rather touched me that; the light was already there – I filled in the darkness and through the darkness the light showed more clearly. The light was already there. It is we who bring the darkness.

Uniquely the cross is the place where the light meets the darkness and where it overcomes it.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

John 1.1-5 & 9-12

 

This passage from John sets out John’s whole take on the Good News. The light into darkness. The world in which Jesus was crucified was in darkness. They saw the cross as darkness – misery, torture and death. They did not understand. On Good Friday we try to focus on the cross in this way. Yet I find it very difficult. I cannot see the cross of shame without seeing the cross of glory. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it”

So this black and white sketch developed into the picture below.

 

Dr Sarah Brush - Crucifixion

Note that the darkness is not all bleak and blackness.

No there are colours there.

Just as sin is not all repulsive and evil – if only it were, we would never sin at all.

No in fact sin can be enjoyable and seemingly fulfilling.

Yet the light is not all pure stark whiteness either, far from it.

The cross here is like a prism which shows the light as it truly is; a rainbow of colours.