I said yesterday that today I would start to tell the story – so – are you sitting comfortably? Good. However, I have to come clean and say that this isn’t a Lent painting at all. By the time ‘the story’ starts Lent is over by several days, and we are well into Holy Week – it is an Easter story. We have witnessed the Entry into Jerusalem, the Expulsion of the Traders from the Temple, and even the Last Supper. Judas has departed, and Jesus has headed out into the Garden of Gethsemane, taking with him the ‘inner circle’ of apostles, Peter, James and John. He kneels, praying to his Father in Heaven.
Paintings of this episode (and for that matter, via the link above, sculptures) are called The Agony in the Garden, the word ‘agony’ coming from the Greek agōn, meaning ‘contest’ – originally it only referred to mental struggle, and only later came to mean physical suffering as well. Such images occur frequently, partly because this part of the story it is mentioned in all four of the gospels, and partly because it shows Jesus at his most human and vulnerable. Here is the account from the Gospel of St Matthew (26:37-39):
And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
I’ve never seen a painting where Jesus is on his face – or, at least, if I have, I didn’t note the fact. The artists knew how people would pray in this sort of situation – when asking for a favour, or begging for mercy: on your knees. So that is what they painted. As for the ‘bitter cup’, as it is known, well, it is a metaphor, standing for the suffering that he knew he would have to undergo. Nevertheless, it is frequently visualised in art. You can see it standing, solitary, on top of the craggy rock under which Jesus is kneeling, just visible against the dark, lowering clouds. You might recognise these clouds from Lent 3 – and if you look back, the bitter cup is just visible in that detail at the bottom left. Maybe it was this very situation that made those clouds so ominous. This is how Matthew’s account continues (26:40-41):
And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
And indeed, all three are curled up asleep. If this were an Italian painting (which it isn’t – I should have said when we were looking at the exaggerated, expressive, almost caricatured expressions and physiognomies of the people we have seen so far – it’s typically ‘northern’) I would stand more of a chance of identifying which is which. Peter would be the oldest – short grey hair and beard, wearing yellow and blue (usually), and John the youngest, with no beard, leaving the third as James. However, it’s hard to tell here. I’ll go for Peter on the left, in blue, John at the bottom (his hair looks a bit lighter and shorter) and James on the right – slightly longer hair. But don’t quote me – James and John could easily be the other way round. Just to the right of them is the blade of a spear. There are two possibilities here: (1) it is a giant spear, the like of which you have never seen, held by a super-human soldier or (2) it is held by a normal-sized soldier in the foreground of the painting, and the detail of The Agony in the Garden is a long way into the background. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds, given what you know of (a) art and (b) the bible.
Jesus goes back to pray, using the same words, and when he returns to the disciples a second time they are asleep again. This is repeated a third time, at which point he thinks he will leave them be, before quickly changing his mind. After all, there is someone coming (Matthew 26:45-46):
Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me.