Lent 38

Not far from the foot of the ladder which has been lent up against the cross is a woman kneeling in prayer. There is very little to tell us who she is, and yet, for anyone familiar with Western European painting, her identity is probably clear. We can also see feet descending the ladder, and the two men standing, holding the dead body, who we discussed yesterday. There is also another, mourning, woman, who we have not yet met. The first woman looks up towards Jesus, her hands clasped together, close to her face, and, given the tilt backwards of her neck, they are held rather high. She has pink sleeves, folded back at the cuff to reveal a grey lining, and what looks like the cuff of a black undergarment. She wears a blue cloak, which covers her head, and is folded back over the brow to reveal a white headscarf.

This combination of blue cloak over a red/pink dress will be familiar to most, if not all, as the clothes so often worn by the Virgin Mary. And yet this is not what we have seen in the other depictions of her which have occurred so far – but then, she has only appeared twice, in Lent 24 and Lent 28. Even though the view is very distant for the first of these, it is clear from both that she is wearing a blue dress, with a blue cloak. She does wear a white head covering in both, and in the latter we can see that at least one of the sleeves has a grey lining. But no red, and no sign of a dark undergarment in either. So maybe this is not the Virgin? But then, who else would it be? As we have seen, the clothes that some of the characters wear changes from one appearance to another, maybe this is another example. After all, the two thieves are dressed in different ways for each of their three appearances.

However, this detail does make me think about the presence of the Virgin at the crucifixion, thoughts which were prompted further by an admirable – and detailed – email which I received this morning. A big ‘Thank you’ to the sender, who pointed out – and the relevant texts have been quoted here previously, without me drawing the same conclusion – that in the synoptic gospels the Holy Women watch from ‘afar off’ whereas in the Gospel according to St John, Mary and John are stood at the foot of the Cross (see Lent 28). In fact, on re-reading the synoptic accounts, I realise that the Virgin is not even mentioned as present, contrary to what I said in Lent 28. This point was made in the email, as was the fact that the apostles are nowhere to be seen, with the exception of John, in the eponymous gospel. However, from the earliest days, it seems to have been John’s account that prevailed. The synoptic gospels mention Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross, but that is not what we saw in Lent 22, and Jesus can be seen carrying his own cross as early as the 5th century. Here are two panels from a casket, dating from the 420s, in the collection of the British Museum – and thanks again to my correspondent for reminding me about this wonderful artefact. In the first, we see Christ carrying his own cross, combined with scenes not included by the Master of Delft: Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’s death, and Peter’s denial of Christ, illustrated by the cockerel at the top right of the image, and a woman pointing at the cowering Peter.

The second shows the crucifixion next to the suicide of Judas (Lent 13), with the thirty pieces of silver scattered on the ground beneath him. Longinus stands under the left hand of Christ, his lance lifted in his right hand to pierce the left side of Jesus’s chest (another theological debate, but one I don’t have the energy for, I’m afraid), and the Virgin Mary and St John stand at his right hand – in a similar way to our painting. So she is there from the start. Jesus himself appears strong, and upright – triumphant over death, and over the possibility of death. This idea continued, in some examples, until the late thirteenth century. However, by that time, the image of the suffering Jesus, expressively slumped, and even, sometimes, clearly dead, had started to take over, as the onlooker was invited to empathize with him, and to understand how great was his sacrifice. Mary, too, is strong in this early image, but that would change – we saw her fainting in Lent 28, and I suspect we will again. So I will talk about that another day.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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