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Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter. It begins the Lenten season which commemorate the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness fasting while being tempted by the world (and by the great Adversary). Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness came just after he was baptized by Saint John and before his Galilean ministry. The story was not particularly germane to the events of holy week and the Passion, yet it is built into Lent nonetheless.
I find the story of Christ in the wilderness powerful. The story of a man overcoming hedonism, materialism, and egoism for something far greater has a singularly compelling power. Indeed, the episode seemingly gave rise to Christian monasticism—which was one of the defining forces of the middle ages. However, even though there are parts of the life of Jesus which appear again and again and again in art, the temptation in the wilderness is underrepresented because of the challenge it poses for visual artists (save perhaps for the grand finale, where the devil takes Christ to a high place and offers him the whole world for a moment of adoration). The asceticism and emptiness which make up the majority of the event does not lend itself well to visual idiom.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (James Tissot, ca. 1890, gouache on paper)
This is why I am presenting this impressive image by James Tissot, a French weirdo who spent his youth illustrating lavish high fashion events of the nineteenth century before having an extreme religious conversion (which coincided with the French Catholic revival). Thereafter, Tissot painted episodes from the Bible, and he is among the greatest of Biblical illustrators not just for his innovative, passionate, and exquisite images, but also because he departs so thoroughly from the centuries of Christian artistic convention. There are stories in the Bible which were painted by almost nobody ever…except for James Tissot.
Here is Tissot’s version of Christ in the wilderness. The Son of Man has encountered Satan in the guise of a fellow hermit proffering plain food. The landscape is weirdly alien and empty…a truly fitting canvas for this monumental moral conflict. Yet, closer study reveals it is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the hot evaporitic lgeology around the Dead Sea. Jesus turns away from the Devil, and yet he simultaneously turns away from us, the viewers. His face is perfectly revealed—yet like the naked landscape of canyons and dunes it is somehow mysterious and hidden. Our eyes fall instead on the Devil, who kneels before Jesus, off center at the bottom of the picture and yet dominates the composition with weird energy. Blackened by the sun he holds up weird lumps of bread. He looks just like a friendly Osama Bin Laden. The temptation is clear, but the rejection of the bread (and its dangerous peddler) is even more strongly demonstrated by the arrangement of the figures.
Tissot’s early works show perfectly fashionable aristocrats who exemplify every aspect of worldliness and status consciousness. That effete tutelage has given this austere painting its power. Think about the disturbing Beckett-like simplicity of this arrangement. Yet there is a universe of meaning in the relationship between these three principals (Jesus, Satan, us).