Artist challenges, invites our response
Masterpiece brings us into the burial of Christ
By Fr. James Neilson
Certain images are indelibly marked on our spirit and memory. Many of us vividly recall the 1963 image of a three-year-old boy saluting his father's casket, the 1972 image of a nine-year-old girl running for her life as napalm burns her nude body and the 1995 image of a fireman cradling a dead infant.
The Christian imagination has often relied on images to help the believing heart and mind contemplate the mystery of humankind made in the image and likeness of God. To gaze upon an image is both a prelude to and a way of praying.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the power of "gazing" (see #2724). Gazing is natural for humans. Gazing, done in the context of faith, is a way for our eyes and heart to see something of God's dream for the world.
As part of my own personal prayer, especially during Lent, I often gaze on Deposition from the Cross (c.1600-04), a Baroque painting by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). This painting is a theological and technical masterpiece. It is one of the truly great images of Western art and one of the most beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums.
It celebrates God's presence through, with, and in our physical bodies. It emphasizes our struggle with death and sorrow, and shows the strength of community, the power of love, and the many ways we see faith.
Caravaggio, in the painting, does not show the burial of Christ in the traditional way, the laying of his body in the tomb. Rather he shows Nicodemus and John placing Christ's body on the Anointing Stone, surrounded by the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas.
What I find most compelling about this painting is how Nicodemus fixes his gaze on us and asks us, with his eyes, if we can receive the body he and John are carrying. That means we too have a place with the holy men and women who, like us, love Christ.
As part of the genius of Caravaggio, he places the figures in the painting so our gaze is fixed on both the body of Christ and the eyes of Nicodemus, so that we can imagine that the body of Christ is being presented to us.
This painting was commissioned to be placed above an altar where the faith-filled viewer could gaze on it and imagine receiving the body of Christ while waiting to receive the body of Christ in Holy Communion. Thus the painting's use of gesture, feeling and gazing reinforce the doctrine of transubstantiation - of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of
Christ at the consecration.
What often goes unnoticed is how Caravaggio paints Mary, the Mother of Christ. He shows her as a woman who has lived and will yet live the mysteries of the joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous presence of God's incarnation in her life. Her face has seen and known much.
Caravaggio also shows Mary blessing her son with her hand extended over his head. This gesture is both exceptionally tender and amazingly bold. Even in sorrow, she extends a blessing upon the head of the dead Christ, in a gesture of priestly love and benediction. It reminds me of the blessing I received as a boy from my Irish grandmother who touched our foreheads as she wished us a night of peaceful rest and sweet dreams.
Each time I see this painting it asks me:
Am I willing to receive the body of Christ with my hands and arms?
Am I strong enough to hold the weight of divine love, to bear the weight of the one who embodies God's dream of salvation for the world?
Am I in condition - physically, spiritually, poetically - to receive the great mystery of God's love of us?
This is why I'm consistently drawn back to gazing at this image: It never stops challenging me to wonder if I'm strong enough to bear the body of Christ.
Each figure in this painting gives shape and form to the ways we can be actively present to Christ's passion and life in our life. It keeps alive the great event of Christ's incarnation, passion, death and resurrection within the community that loved him.
(Fr. Neilson is a member of St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere. He is an assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College, De Pere.)