Holy Week has begun, and in many Catholic churches the images are muffled, or covered up with purple cloths – all part of the tradition of sensory deprivation that happens at this time of year, forcing us to concentrate without distractions on the Passion of the Lord. Therefore it will seem entirely wrong to many if I suggest what to look at and what to read during Holy Week. But here it goes.
It would be good to have some mental image of the sacrifice of Calvary. One such, which is extremely popular with certain theologians, is the Isenheim Altarpiece, photos of which are available here, thanks to Wikipedia.
The altarpiece is an astonishing work and at the same time a disturbing one, thanks to the horror it depicts. It was painted for a hospital that specialised in skin diseases including leprosy, and the artist depicts Jesus as suffering alongside those who once prayed before it. Thus the drama of this piece is one that overflows the frame of the triptych, in that the setting of the painting in a lazar house is essential to understanding the picture itself. This is Christ Crucified for others. His suffering is their suffering, perhaps our suffering too, if we can identify with the afflicted of long ago.
But perhaps, given the painting’s timeless qualities, Christ is suffering with those who suffer today, and we all know there are many of them. The painting is in the beautiful town of Colmar, but it brings to mind those far from the lovely peace of Alsace. It is a painting that must make us think of Auschwitz, and its modern successors. It is not the sort of painting in front of which we can merely shrug and move on to the next picture.
That said, I do not like the Isenheim Altarpiece. Perhaps that says a great deal about me, but my preferred work of art for Holy Week is one that I have written about before now, namely Guido Reni’s Crucifixion. There are some good pictures of it here: use the arrows at the sides to navigate several views of it.
Guido’s Christ is not a figure of horror, but of reassurance. His arms are stretched wide in an embrace of love that takes in the whole world, and his gaze is upwards, towards a shaft of light. This is Jesus in dialogue with His Father; perhaps the light represents the love between Father and Son, that is the Holy Spirit. It is a truly Trinitarian Calvary. In the background we see a desolate Jerusalem, with the Temple clearly visible, a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice is the new Covenant for us. The body of Jesus, so different from that in the Isenheim Altarpiece, is not overwhelmed by suffering, but transforming it into ecstasy. This is the Passion as passionate love.
Just as the Isenheim Altarpiece is popular with contemporary theology, Guido, I know, is rather sniffed at in contemporary art criticism. But I am a Guido Catholic, not an Isenheim one. For me Good Friday is shot through with the hope of the Resurrection. How well Guido captures that. Moreover, the whole of Jesus’s ministry was a manifestation of beauty and truth. Those two always go together, and Guido shows that perfectly.
As for reading over Holy Week, it is a great time for some poetry, and what better than The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This poem is famous for being rejected by the Jesuit magazine The Month, and only being published after the poet’s death. One reads it now for the very reason The Month rejected it: its astonishing rhythms, and its unusual world view. It is a poem ostensibly about five unfortunate German nuns who drown in the eponymous wreck; but it is also a poem about the Paschal Mystery, “the dense and driven passion” and the promise of Resurrection. The five nuns are a “cinquefoil token” of the Five Wounds of Christ: they are not unfortunate, they are triumphant. Rather than asking what the poem means, one picks over it, picking out nuggets of meaning, things to take away and treasure.
Hopkins was a popular poet decades ago, when I was at university reading English, but I think his star may have waned since then. If you have not discovered him so far, do so this Holy Week. And remember those nuns, exiled from Germany thanks to anti-clerical laws, a cinquefoil token of all the sufferings of contemporary Christians this Easter.