Jesus is being lowered from the cross. The man we saw yesterday, holding on to the ladder with outstretched right arm, grasps one of Christ’s with his left, while another man, standing behind the dead body, supports the breathless rib cage with his left hand, and rests his right on Christ’s thigh. A third man, with his back to us, presumably supports the feet. And yet there is no weight. No pull on the arm, no stress on the supporting hand, no effort given to carrying the legs. It is an almost dream-like quality, the same feeling that the divine imperative transcends gross form and worldly gravity that we saw in the figure of the crucified Christ in Lent 35. This is a terrible task, and yet, for these men, it is what they have to do, it is inherent in their devotion, and it is therefore, in some mystical way, ‘easy’.
Jesus’s arms are extended, although not at the angle they were on the cross, and his fingers are curled, holding a memory of the extracted nails. Perhaps rigor mortis has set in. The mouth is still open, as if uttering its last breath. And the eyes – well the eyes are indistinct. Maybe open, maybe closed, but lifeless nonetheless.
The men perform their deed with delicacy, and the body is wrapped in a translucent veil. An attempt is being made not to sully this perfect form, shown to be precious by the way it is framed with the expensive, delicate fabric.
Who are these men? They are all reasonably wealthy, judging by their dress – richly coloured, with several layers. The man in the centre has a coat both lined and trimmed with fur, although it is the man on the left, with his back to us, who displays his wealth most overtly. His coat has long sleeves, used for show rather than practicality. One of them, its cuff trimmed with cloth of gold, is tucked up into the back of his belt for display – but this also allows us to see his ample purse, black, with a gold trim, strung onto another part of the belt, presumably. The red hat is another indicator of prosperity.
The bible does mention three men who were around at the time, although it is often difficult to distinguish them in art. The first is Joseph of Arimathaea. Here is Matthew 27:
When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
Because it says quite specifically that Joseph took the body, it is he who is often credited with actually carrying it – so I would identify the man directly behind the body, looking out towards us, as Joseph of Arimathaea. There are similar references in Mark, Luke and John, the last of whom mentions a second man (John 19:38-39):
And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus. And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
With this mention of myrrh, the ‘prophesy’ of the Jesus’s death, inherent in the gifts of ‘gold and frankincense and myrrh’ brought by the wise men (Matthew 2:11), is fulfilled. The way the verse from John is written makes it clear that this it is a large amount of myrrh, which was, in any case, extremely expensive. This implies – to me at least – that the wealthy man with his back to us is Nicodemus. However, some assume that the wealthier of the two would be the man with the tomb ‘hewn out in the rock’ – which would make Joseph the man with his back to us, and Nicodemus the one in the centre, judging by their dress alone. And the third man? Well, it could be another onlooker, an unnamed follower of Jesus, but it could also be Simon of Cyrene, who is sometimes shown among the mourners. He was the man who, when Jesus was led away from Pilate’s palace, was charged with carrying Christ’s cross, as mentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels. For example in Matthew 27:32,
And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.
There is also a woman, kneeling at the foot of the ladder in prayer. But I will take a closer look at her tomorrow.