“Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?” is a haunting spiritual which is often sung on Good Friday. It is a challenge to us: Do we accompany our Lord in His passion, death, and resurrection?
Often donors were depicted in scenes from the life of Christ, as a way to recall their patronage. But there is an image of the Pietà, Jesus taken down from the Cross and placed in his mother’s arms, that expresses not patronage, but devotion, and the desire to be with Christ crucified.
The most famous is Michelangelo’s in St. Peter’s Basilica. But I was moved more by Michelangel’s late work, the unfinished Pietà in the Cathedral Museum of Florence. The upper image, Nicodemus, is a self-portrait. Michelangelo felt a need to put himself into the sculpture as he was, in his later life, trying to life more fully his faith.
But there is another question for Good Friday, which reverses the spiritual. We hear it in the words of Jesus on the Cross, citing Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Are you here, God, in the midst of the suffering?
There are two paintings that try to answer this question.
The first comes from an unlikely source, Marc Chagall, the Lithuanian Jewish artist, who surprisingly painted not a few images of Jesus Crucified. One of his most famous, The White Crucifixion, is in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Crucified Jesus, his loins clothed in a prayer shawl, is surrounded by scenes of the persecution of the Jewish people: burning homes, fleeing people. He, a Jew, sees in the crucified Jesus the suffering of the Jewish people.
For me, as a Christian, it reminds me that when anyone suffers, especially the sufferings of persecuted peoples, like the Jews, God also suffers.
The second is one that I have not seen: Matias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. (Paul Hindemith wrote an opera and the symphonic work Mathis der Mahler to recall the agony of Grünewald painting in the midst of the Reformation.)
The altarpiece was painted in the early sixteenth century for the chapel of the Antonine monks who cared for the sick, in a hospital for people suffering from ergotism. If you look closely the body of Christ is covered with sores; these are like the sores the patients bore on their bodies.
Those suffering patients could see Christ suffering with them. Christ Jesus is not far from us in our sufferings. He accompanies us in our suffering.
These two paintings express what the psalmist wrote in Psalm 22: 25, whose first words Jesus prayed on the Cross:
[The Lord] has never despised
nor scorned the poverty of the poor.
From them he has not hidden his face,
but he heard the poor when they cried.
God is here, among the suffering. Are we there?