Intimacy, joy and relief: a painting that reveals the heart of penance

A detail from Christ Embracing St Bernard (1625-7), by Francisco Ribalta

Ribalta’s great portrait shows that penance is not ultimately about the wrongdoer

The most beautiful and insightful depiction of penance I know does not feature hairshirts, whips or tears. It does not even depict amends for any personal sin.

There are some deeply moving depictions of that kind of penance: think of the armour falling from the penitent slave trader in the 1986 film The Mission. And suffering willingly accepted, as reparation for things we have done wrong, can heal both individuals and communities. When we humble ourselves before another person we’ve harmed, we give up the power we attempted to wield over them. When we sacrifice ourselves to restore a person or community we’ve harmed, the fact that this is hard and humiliating for us shows the depth of our respect for our victims.

As the legal theorist Stephen P Garvey noted in his 1999 article “Punishment as Atonement”, guilt – and therefore willingness to accept punishment – is a sign that you identify first and foremost with the community you harmed, and not with your own interests, or your wrongdoing.

But notice what is not mentioned in these descriptions of the meanings and effects of penance: Jesus. It’s easy for depictions of penance to focus so much on the wrongdoer’s guilt and the wrongdoer’s actions that the penitent becomes the star. You start to feel like you need to expiate your sins yourself, but there is never enough suffering to fill the hole your misdeeds carved in the world.

It’s sometimes better when the person you harmed becomes the “star” of the penitential story. The “restorative justice” movement has found that when criminals meet with their victims, in a conference where both parties are supported by people they love and trust, the criminals often acknowledge for the first time how much harm they’ve done. And some victims found themselves arguing against the harsh punishments the criminals suggested, asking for much lighter amends.

But the deepest meaning of penance cannot depend on the victim’s mentality either. Those we’ve harmed may make excuses for us instead of holding us to account. Or they may demand too much, acting out of anger and bitterness, especially when they haven’t been supported by their community.

Into this tangle of merely human actions, into our mixed motives and miscommunications, into the sadistically just or guiltily self-absorbed human imagination, comes Francisco Ribalta’s 17th-century portrait of St Bernard of Clairvaux being embraced by the crucified Jesus.

St Bernard (1090-1153) did not enter the Benedictines because he had been a notorious sinner. His ascetic life – he worked to return monks to the rigour of the Benedictine rule – clarified his priorities, mortified his passions, and served penance for others as well as for himself. He led a hard life, sparing himself little, and yet reading his sermons on the Song of Songs, it’s hard to picture his monastic cell as anything but a bower of bliss. Ribalta captures the intimacy, joy and relief of Bernard’s spirituality – or rather, the intimacy, joy, and relief which Jesus brought Bernard.

Bernard and Christ appear against a dramatic black background, suggesting the silence and need in which we pray. (All prayer is night prayer.) Christ sits, while Bernard kneels. Jesus, with bleeding wounds still visible on his nearly naked body, looks down calmly and tenderly as he holds the monk. Bernard can’t even look at him. His eyes are closed, his whole body yielded up in an ecstasy whose sheer intensity suggests that it was an unexpected gift.

Bernard lived a life of political complexity and failure – he accepted responsibility for the failure of the Second Crusade, with which he had been closely identified. Pressed on all sides by controversies, schism, spiritual children, task after task, he must have been so grateful for every intimacy with Jesus: the one thing in his life he couldn’t possibly take responsibility for.

The painting is inspired by a real incident, reported by the Jesuit historian Pedro de Ribadeneyra: “The Lord so cherished St Bernard that one day when the latter was kneeling before the Cross, the Crucified Christ stretched out his arm and lay it on him, embracing him and stroking him most lovingly. Immersed in this ineffable gentleness and deep silence, he united with the Supreme Being in an extremely chaste embrace.”

In other words, this is a painting of a vision in which another artwork, Bernard’s crucifix, “came to life”. It’s a painting about art’s capacity to show us Christ’s love, and especially the love borne to us by the Crucified Christ. And this love is the meaning of penance. Penance is not work we perform in order to restore the universe. We can’t do that and it is not good for us to forget that we can’t. Penance is a gift in which God allows us to enter into Jesus’s own life, living for a time within his Body as he suffers and dies in the only true atonement.

The heart of penance – for our own sins or for others’ – is the Cross. And the Cross is Jesus’s embrace of us.

Eve Tushnet is a writer. She is the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds (Cascade)