A month with the Dead Christ

I’m going to spend 40 days sitting with the dead Christ.

I was inspired by one of my teachers telling me he spent every day in Lent contemplating a single image, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross.

Spending forty days sitting with Dali’s God’s eye view of the crucifixion, running his eye down the length of Christ’s cross-anchored body to the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, centered my professor on the sacrifice of Christ and the love of God the father.

So I’m trying the same thing this year, but with a different painting, although one that takes a no less unlikely perspective on the Easter story.

Andrea Mantegna was a Renaissance master from Padua in northern Italy. Some time in the 1480s he painted The Lamentation of Christ (also known more bluntly as The Dead Christ). It’s an Easter composition unlike any other.

Mantegna’s perspective is so rare, it takes us aback. Christ doesn’t writhe in agony on the cross. He’s not wracked with anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. He doesn’t stand blood-soaked and humiliated before us, a crown of thorns gouging his head, a garish robe of red around his stooped shoulders. We are accustomed to all these views.

In Mantegna’s vision, Christ is dead.

He’s like stone. Like the marble slab upon which he is prone.

The muted color palette — all pinks, grays, dutsy blues — reinforces the fugginess of death. No scarlet rivers of blood here, no brightly shining centurions’ uniforms, no ostentatious governor’s palace or praetorium. The supine Jesus lies stock-still, cold, lifeless, defeated.

When you hear that I’m going to be contemplating this picture as a Lenten exercise you might be asking yourself, is he going to stare at a picture of dead Jesus for a month?? But there’s so much in Mantegna’s daring viewpoint that deserves reflection. For a depiction of death it is full of meaning and beauty.

Draw it in. Take in, for example, some of these elements:

THE CLAUSTROPHOBIA

The image is so tightly cropped it feels as if we are squeezed into a cell with the lifeless Christ and his mourners. It’s cramped. The space is pent, confined, ghastly. A jar filled with ointment or perfume sits on the corner of the slab, no doubt to keep the stench of death at bay.

The more you look at it, the more it draws you into the slightly ghoulish sensation of being entombed with Jesus.

As I put myself in the small space at the feet of the inert Christ, I can’t help but hear the words of the Apostle Paul, from Romans 6:4, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death…”

If you know that verse well, you’ll know the Apostle continues, “…in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” It contains both the dreadful reality of death and sacrifice as well as the magnificent promise of resurrection and new life. But this is Lent and Easter Sunday is still far off. For this time being, we sit hampered by death, too close to the cadaver for comfort.

THE GRIEF

Three mourners join us in the tomb. It is assumed they are John, Mary the mother of Christ, and either Mary Magdalene or Mary the wife of Clopas (although we’re only given a semi-occluded view of the third face). All three Marys are mentioned in John’s Gospel as standing with the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25).

In fact, in that same passage we read that the dying Christ called on John and his mother, saying to Mary,  “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (Jn 19:26-27)

John records, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home,” so their presence together in the tomb adds a certain poignancy to this painting.

They are squeezed together, close to Christ’s body, their mouths agape in horror. The third face, though obscured, expresses incredulous fascination. The face of Christ’s mother is haggard, with age and with grief. She tamps at her eye, sopping up tears.

John, however, weeps openly, his hands clenched together, fingers interlaced with a wracking sense of horror and grief. Or prayer. Or disbelief. This man, who spoke of a new kingdom coming, a fresh reality with justice for all and peace across the face of the earth, was actually dead, destroyed by the old ways of conflict and violence, cruelty and injustice.

I follow the lines around their eyes, to feel the unrelenting sadness, the face-crumpling power of sorrow and heartache.

I let myself become anguished by the love that led my Christ to this place.

THE WOUNDS

One art critic wrote of The Lamentation of Christ, “It looks like a corpse on a mortuary trolley that has been slammed into our knees, a partially exposed corpse, feet-first.”

Well, look firstly at those feet.

It’s hard to imagine another depiction of Christ that so emphasizes the soles of his feet. Mantegna paints them more clearly than even Jesus’ face, as if the wounded feet of Christ must be seen by us.

Look at them.

These are the feet upon which he tramped all over Israel; the feet that were anointed by a woman at the home of Simon the Pharisee; the feet he wouldn’t allow Peter to wash, preferring instead to wash his disciples’ feet at their last meal together.

I’m reminded of Proverbs 4:26, “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.”

The path that Christ’s feet followed have brought him here. To death.

All the wounds on his hands and feet are dry, still open. The blood has been washed away, save for an overlooked scratch on his left arm. The evidence of his suffering is largely gone. His seeming serenity only heightens the desolation we experience, knowing what torture he has endured.

MY SAVIOR AND MY KING

The element of Mantegna’s painting that is so often remarked on is its perspective. The angle is so low that Jesus’ lifeless body seems curiously, almost grotesquely, foreshortened. Some have said he looks like a dead dwarf, his over-heavy head lolling to one side.

This dramatic technique plays tricks on our eyes. It robs us of any sense of Christ’s sanctity, saintliness, otherness. He looks just like any other dead guy. This depiction doesn’t fill us with the hope of Resurrection Sunday. It doesn’t speak of his coming kingdom or the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Israel. In Mantegna’s vision, Jesus is pallid, empty, bereft.

And this is as it should be. This is Lent. This is our annual time to sit with the dead Christ, hunched in our habitual dolour, sensing the heaviness of our sin, being forced to gaze upon the price God pays to call us home.

St Therese of Lisieux once reflected on this Lenten posture when she said, “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.”

In this dreadful cell of death, no shelter for our savior and our king, I recall the beautiful truth that the resurrected Christ’s ‘home’ is in my heart; the heart of a repentant, desolate, sinful man.

Ecce homo.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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6 thoughts on “A month with the Dead Christ

  1. There is much wisdom in the devotional approach you are using Michael. The focus on the single image has some parallels with the John Main school of contemplative prayer (the poverty of a single word/verse). A singular focal point brings a type of silence that allows us to hear God anew. Or as Rubem Avez said: ‘There is a Word which can be heard only when all words have become dumb, an eschatological (final destiny) Word which makes itself heard at the end of the world. Pure grace, no encaged bird, a wild bird, a wild bird which flies with the Wind.’

    Be encouraged. Persevere. Be blessed through this time of Lent.

    and thank you for what you have shared thus far.

  2. I think I’ll join you Michael. Thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Andrew.

  3. Love the article Mike, I can appreciate your feelings when I view the images of Sanmartino’s “The Veiled Christ” – wondered if you knew of it.

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiox-6U3IHhAhUNXRoKHey2Bs4QjRx6BAgBEAU&url=http%3A%2F%2Falbertis-window.blogspot.com%2F2009%2F09%2Fsanmartinos-veiled-christ.html&psig=AOvVaw1WKau01kWBZp5BfENcunBA&ust=1552655734837685

    If you go to the official website of the Capella Sansevero you can see the place itself in all of its glory.

    https://www.museosansevero.it/the-statue/?lang=en

    Blows me away every time.

    1. As a piece of marble sculpture it is astonishing. Amazing what a master can do with stone.

  4. Thank you
    This has brought me to another spiritual dimension

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