There is something particularly bleak about today’s detail, I feel. It is empty, devoid of life, despite the person clinging to the ladder, whose aim, anyway, appears to be downward, to get out of view. The tau cross is revealed in all its simplicity, and even the titulus has been taken away. Only the holes for the nails – prepared by the auger we saw in Lent 9 – remain. The sky itself seems silent. A ladder is perched against one arm of the cross, and a bearded man descends, hanging on with his right hand, looking down.
It is still Good Friday. It has been Good Friday since Lent 14, when we knew we were at the Praetorium, the palace of Pontius Pilate – although earlier posts also belong to this day. But then, let’s face it, the earliest episode we have seen, the Agony in the Garden (Lent 10) was on the evening – arguably the night – of Maundy Thursday, the night before. Everything is packed into one intense day. There was haste to take down the body, because it was Friday, the eve of the Sabbath, and nothing could be done after sunset. Here’s John, 19: 28-31,
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
The legs were to be broken to speed the deaths of the victims – and John goes on to explain that the thieves were subjected to this treatment, but, as Jesus was already dead, his body was left intact. The sponge soaked in vinegar is just one of many details from the gospel accounts that does not make it into this painting, however rich, and complicated, and busy it is. We also do not see the distribution of Christ’s garments, for example, when lots were drawn to allocate the seamless robe. There is too much in this story to fit onto a single surface – although the artist does what he can. There are other artists who find different ways to include yet more details. As for ‘the scripture’ that ‘might be fulfilled,’ the reference is probably to Psalm 69 (in the King James Version), verse 21:
They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
This was not an act of compassion, but of contempt. There is still a way to go until we can escape this downward spiral.
But to lift our spirits, something to look forward to, and something which is related to a Master of Delft, if not The Master of Delft. Next week is an absurdly busy one for me, but if you still have an evening free, and missed my recent lecture on Vermeer, I will be talking about him again next Tuesday evening. Even if you caught the last talk, this will be different, as, rather than looking at the paintings in his paintings, I will focus on the ways in which he represents music. I’m particularly looking forward to it, as my short talk will be followed by a performance by The Strand Consort of some of the works of Dutch 17th Century composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, live from the Dutch Centre in London. You can book via this link: Not how many but how well: Music, and the Paintings of Johannes Vermeer. The talk will begin at 7.30pm BST (yes, the clocks change in the UK on Sunday) this Tuesday, 30 March.