What an eccentric painting this is.
Carl Spitzweg’s 1860 painting Ash Wednesday depicts a clown, dressed presumably for Mardi Gras, languishing in a dark and dingy cell. Lit by a shaft of light from the high window opposite, he appears downcast, his head bowed and arms crossed in contrition and regret.
To me, the clown looks like he might have celebrated a little too much during carnival the night before and now find himself thrown in the lock-up until he sobers up. The juxtaposition of a brightly colored clown suit in a drab stone room is really evocative. After a night of revelry, he sits alone with only a pitcher of water as provision.
After the excess of Mardi Gras, our sad clown is forced to face the simplicity of the Lenten season. I think it might be the perfect Ash Wednesday picture, because in many respects we are that clown.
Everything about a clown — from their antics to their costume — is designed to attract attention. So Spitzweg’s clown doesn’t only represent the excess of the Mardi Gras carnival, but also the attention-seeking culture we find ourselves affected by. He is the embodient of a society that values partying and posturing, that insists we all make ourselves the center of attention. In a world where we’re told, “you do you,” even the most introverted among us feel the pressure to do a bit of humble-bragging.
But this painting offers us a moment to reflect. It depicts a moment of conversion, even for the most outgoing clown. He has been forced to confront his feelings of contrition, and to reflect on his actions. Maybe this prison cell can also be seen as a monastic cell, an inner room where he may pray to God in secret.
I suspect the shaft of light from above represents something of God’s grace to the penitent clown. This is a picture of retreat, repentance, and conversion. And that is what Ash Wednesday represents for many of us (hence Spitzweg’s title). It is not a day for partying or celebration, but for introspection and contrition. On this, the first day of Lent Christians wear a marking of the cross in ash on their foreheads, symbolizing our mortality – “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
We might still be wearing the clown suit, but we are forced to stop performing and sit in silence before God, remembering our mortality, reflecting on our character, and resolving afresh to put our hope in Christ.
I hope this Ash Wednesday can be a kind of crossroads for you too, an opportunity for a change of direction from the darkness of the cell toward the light streaming in from above.