Apr 22, 2011

Good Friday

Crucifixion, Thomas Eakins

On this Good Friday, I'll let G.K. Chesterton do my talking, from The Everlasting Man:

Every attempt to amplify [the Passion] has diminished it. The task has been attempted by many men of real genius and eloquence as well as by only too many vulgar sentimentalists and self-conscious rhetoricians. The tale has been retold with patronizing pathos by elegant skeptics and with fluent enthusiasm by boisterous best-sellers. It will not be retold here. The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is like the power of millstones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them. Criticism is only words about words; and of what use are words about such words as these? What is the use of wordpainting about the dark garden filled suddenly with torchlight and furious faces? 'Are you come out with swords and staves as against a robber? All day I sat in your temple teaching, and you took me not.' Can anything be added to the massive and gathered restraint of that irony; like a great wave lifted to the sky and refusing to fall? 'Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children!'

As the High Priest asked what further need he had of witnesses, we might well ask what further need we have of words. Peter in a panic repudiated him: 'and immediately the cock crew; and Jesus looked upon Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.' Has anyone any further remarks to offer? Just before the murder he prayed for all the murderous race of men saying 'They know not what they do'; is there anything to say to that, except that we know as little what we say? Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, 'This night shalt thou be with me in Paradise'? Is there anything to put after that but a full-stop? Or is anyone prepared to answer adequately that farewell gesture to all flesh which created for his Mother a new Son?

It is more within my powers, and here more immediately to my purpose, to point out that in that scene were symbolically gathered all the human forces that have been vaguely sketched in this story. As kings and philosophers and the popular element had been symbolically present at his birth, so they were more practically concerned in his death; and with that we come face to face with the essential fact to be realized. All the great groups that stood about the Cross represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself. Man could do no more. Rome and Jerusalem and Athens and everything else were going down like a sea turned into a slow cataract. Externally indeed the ancient world was still at its strongest, it is always at that moment that the inmost weakness begins. But in order to understand that weakness we must repeat what has been said more than once; that it was not the weakness of a thing originally weak. It was emphatically the strength of the world that was turned to weakness and the wisdom of the world that was turned to folly.

In this story of Good Friday it is the best things in the world that are at their worst. That is what really shows us the world at its worst. It was, for instance, the priests of a true monotheism and the soldiers of an international civilization. Rome, the legend, founded upon fallen Troy and triumphant over fallen Carthage, had stood for a heroism which was the nearest that any pagan ever came to chivalry. Rome had defended the household gods and the human decencies against the ogres of Africa and the hermaphrodite monstrosities of Greece. But in the lightning flash of this incident, we see great Rome, the imperial republic, going downward under her Lucretian doom. Scepticism has eaten away even the confident sanity of the conquerors of the world. He who is enthroned to say what is justice can only ask, 'What is truth?' So in that drama which decided the whole fate of antiquity, one of the central figures is fixed in what seems the reverse of his true role. Rome was almost another name for responsibility . Yet he stands forever as a sort of rocking statue of the irresponsible. Man could do no more. Even the practical bad become the impracticable. Standing between the pillars of his own judgment-seat, a Roman had washed his hands of the world. There too were the priests of that pure and original truth that was behind all the mythologies like the sky behind the clouds. It was the most important truth in the world; and even that could not save the world. Perhaps there is something overpowering in pure personal theism; like seeing the sun and moon and sky come together to form one staring face. Perhaps the truth is too tremendous when not broken by some intermediaries divine or human; perhaps it is merely too pure and far away.

Anyhow it could not save the world; it could not even convert the world. There were philosophers who held it in its highest and noblest form; but they not only could not convert the world, but they never tried. You could no more fight the jungle of popular mythology with a private opinion than you could clear away a forest with a pocket-knife. The Jewish priests had guarded it jealously in the good and the bad sense. They had kept it as a gigantic secret. As savage heroes might have kept the sun in a box, they kept the Everlasting in the tabernacle. They were proud that they alone could look upon the blinding sun of a single deity; and they did not know that they had themselves gone blind. Since that day their representatives have been like blind men in broad daylight, striking to right and left with their staffs, and cursing the darkness. But there has been that in their monumental monotheism that it has at least remained like a monument, the last thing of its kind, and in a sense motionless in the more restless world which it cannot satisfy. For it is certain that for some reason it cannot satisfy.

Since that day it has never been quite enough to say that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world; since the rumor that God had left his heavens to set it right.

And as it was with these powers that were good, or at least had once been good, so it was with the element which was perhaps the best, or which Christ himself seems certainly to have felt as the best. The poor to whom he preached the good news, the common people who heard him gladly, the populace that had made so many popular heroes and demigods in the old pagan world showed also the weaknesses that were dissolving the world. They suffered the evils often seen in the mob of the city, and especially the mob of the capital, during the decline of a society. The same thing that makes the rural population live on tradition makes the urban population live on rumor. just as its myths at the best had been irrational, so its likes and dislikes are easily changed by baseless assertion that is arbitrary without being authoritative. Some brigand or other was artificially turned into a picturesque and popular figure and run as a kind of candidate against Christ. In all this we recognize the urban population that we know, with its newspaper scares and scoops. But there was present in this ancient population an evil more peculiar to the ancient world. We have noted it already as the neglect of the individual, even of the individual voting the condemnation and still more of the individual condemned. It was the soul of the hive; a heathen thing. The cry of this spirit also was heard in that hour, 'It is well that one man die for the people! Yet this spirit in antiquity of devotion to the city and to the state had so been in itself and in its time a noble spirit. It had its poets and its martyrs; men still to be honored forever. It was failing through its weakness in not seeing the separate soul of a man, the shrine of all mysticism; but it was only failing as everything else was failing. The mob went along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the philosophers and the moralists. It went along with the imperial magistrates and the sacred priests, the scribes and the soldiers, that the one universal human spirit might suffer a universal condemnation; that there might be one deep, unanimous chorus of approval and harmony when Man was rejected of men.

There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; orin any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God bad been forsaken of God.

They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepluchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.

Apr 21, 2011

Portraiture, Triduum, and Bears, oh, my!

Today marks the beginning of what the liturgical calendar calls the Easter Triduum, or "Three Days," consisting of Maundy Thursday (today), Good Friday, Black Saturday, and Easter Sunday.*

*Wait, Josh! That's four days! Excellent point. The time is counted from the night of Maundy Thursday ("the Mass of the Last Supper") until the night of Easter Sunday, for a total of three days.

Maundy Thursday is one of the most important days in the Christian year, because it was on that night that Jesus held the Last Supper, instructed the disciples on Communion, predicted Peter's denial, washed the disciples' feet, prayed in Gethsemane, and was betrayed and arrested.

The story of this night has always been very significant to me for two reasons: the institution of the Eucharist and the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane.

The Eucharist is a deeply mystical event. 'This is my body. This is my blood. Take, eat and drink.' With this act, the faithful enter into specific communion with God in physical form through consumption of his very flesh and blood (or representations thereof). Through it, we thank all the persons of God for the sacrifices: becoming flesh, dying as an atonement for sin, and indwelling on the Earth. I can't comprehend what any of this really means, but I understand the depth of its meaning. I guess that's what makes it mystical.

Anyway, I've been wanting to practice oil painting for some time, and portraiture in particular. And the effects of dramatic lighting. So, I decided to combine all these things. It being Holy Week and all, I decided to do a portrait of Jesus. I both am happy to have done it because of the long history of beautiful Christian art and totally disgusted with myself for having potentially joined the legions of terrible Christian kitsch. Whatever.

It's a portrait (unfinished!) of Jesus breaking the bread.

So, there you go.


The other fascination of Maundy Thursday for me is in Gethsemane, and Christ's prayer in the garden. I'll let C.S. Lewis do my speaking:

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don't agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ. For the beginning of the Passion--the first move, so to speak--is in Gethsemane. In Gethsemane a very strange and significant thing seems to have happened.

It is clear from many of His sayings that Our Lord had long foreseen His death. He knew what conduct such as His, in a world such as we have made of this, must inevitably lead to. But it is clear that this knowledge must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father's will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and a psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope--of suspense, anxiety--were at the last moment loosed upon Him--the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability. It was not quite impossible...and doubtless He had seen other men crucified...a sight very unlike most of our religious pictures and images.

But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.


We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God's will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.


As for the last dereliction of all, how can we either understand or endure it? Is it that God Himself cannot be Man unless God seems to vanish at His greatest need? And if so, why? I sometimes wonder if we have even begun to understand what is involved in the very concept of creation. If God will create, He will make something to be, and yet to be not Himself. To be created is, in some sense, to be ejected or separated. Can it be that the more perfect the creature is, the further this separation must at some point be pushed? It is saints, not common people, who experience the 'dark night.' It is men and angels, not beasts, who rebel. Inanimate matter sleeps in the bosom of the Father. The 'hiddenness' of God perhaps presses most painfully on those who are in another way nearest to Him, and therefore God Himself, made man, will of all men be by God most forsaken?

-Letters to Malcom, 1964

Apr 17, 2011

Egge Homo

Κατὰ Ἰωάννην 19.5
οὖν [ὁ] Ἰησοῦς ἔξω, φορῶν τὸν ἀκάνθινον στέφανον καὶ τὸ πορφυροῦν ἱμάτιον. καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς Ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος.'"

Ioannes 19:5
"...ut cognoscatis quia in eo nullam causam invenio et purpureum vestimentum et dicit eis ecce homo."

John 19:5 (ESV)
"So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, 'Behold the man!'"

Ecce Homo, the Latin phrase for 'Behold the man' (or 'Look upon the man'), was recorded by the author of the Gospel of John as what Pontius Pilate said as he displayed the thorn-crowned, purple-robed Christ to the crowd in Jerusalem before sending him to be crucified. Actually, the gospel author recorded Pilate as saying Ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος (meaning, unsurprisingly, 'Behold the man'). However, the popularity in the West of the Latin Vulgate meant that Ecce Homo is the line that gained renown. Across the centuries, it has become synonymous with the trial of Jesus and the symbolism surrounding it. Artist after artist has depicted it.

My favorite piece, by far, and possibly my favorite painting, is Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri. It is not a stranger to this blog. The image of a thoroughly flogged and humiliated Christ, still standing, while the power of Rome, the Jewish hierarchy, and the Jerusalem mob all coalesce against him, is deeply moving. Ciseri's picture brings it all together, from the viewpoint of someone within the Roman governor's palace, looking out upon the scene of the trial. It is a similar view to the one that I imagine the apostle Peter having when he sneaked into the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas.

Ecce Homo, Antonio Ciseri

On this Palm Sunday, some friends and I blew eggs and painted them with different pictures and designs. I, feeling festive, decided to make mine Ciseri's Ecce Homo. I portray Christ and Pilate (and a column to complete the circle, since you may notice the two are framed by two columns in the painting).

Happy Palm Sunday!

Apr 16, 2011


From what I've heard, this is decidedly not what Andy has been up to. No matter. Strip #2 for your enjoyment (click to enlarge).

Apr 15, 2011


I painted this yesterday for my roommate. It's a robot looking at a balloon fly away.

(bad picture, taken with my phone)

Blackout Poetry

I'd never heard of this until today, but it's a brilliant idea. This guy named Austin Kleon takes newspaper articles and blacks out most of it, leaving some words to make poetry.

This one is called "Overheard on the Titanic."

You should also read his inspiration on being an artist; it's well worth it: HERE.

Apr 12, 2011

Civil War Sesquicentennial

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots of the American Civil War. On this day in 1861, Confederate forces began firing upon the Union-held Ft. Sumter at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Inside the fort was Maj. Robert Anderson, an artillery commander who had once taught at West Point.

Leading the bombardment was recently promoted General P.G.T. Beauregard, who had been taught artillery and been an assistant to a certain artillery officer named Robert Anderson.

Ft. Sumter stands as a fascinating start to a truly horrifying conflict. No casualties were suffered by either side in that entanglement. However, almost exactly four years later, the war would be over and 622,000 lives would have been lost.

In addition to that was the human element, exemplified by the relationship of the adversaries at Ft. Sumter. Over the course of the war, countless friends and families were ripped apart. Some of the famous examples include:

  • Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead sending his Bible to his dear friend Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's wife (Armistead would die the next day while leading a portion of Pickett's Charge against Hancock's troops),
  • Confederate Gen. James Longstreet serving as a groomsman at Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's wedding, and
  • Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart's father-in-law, Union Col. Philip Cooke, chasing him unsuccessfully as Stuart rode is cavalry in a circle around the entire Union army.

For these reasons--the combined horror and humanity, not to mention the central moral purpose of emancipation that President Lincoln successfully transitioned the war into--the Civil War is inscribed into our collective national memory. I hope that we continue to remember it, with both fascination and reverence, for its effects and its costs. As Robert E. Lee said during the massacre of the Battle of Fredericksburg, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it."