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Humility But Not Humiliation
We all like our heroes to be humble, but humiliated is another matter. Superman can lose his powers, Batman can take a beating, but even the most die-hard fans balk at seeing their idols ridiculed rather than respected. The same holds true with the Passion of Christ. The history of art has meticulously explored every moment of Christ’s Passion, with particular emphasis on the Last Supper, the Betrayal by Judas and the Crucifixion. Yet other passages describing Christ’s suffering, for example the Mocking of the Christ, have been eschewed by most artists and patrons although the episode is mentioned in all four of the Gospels.
Christ’s Passion And Moral Degradation
Moral degradation plays a central role in Christ’s Passion. The Gospel accounts relate that Jesus underwent this mockery not once, but twice, the first time immediately after His arrest.
“Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.” (Mark 14:65)
Later, the band of Roman soldiers taunts Jesus, who by now is bloody and weak from the scourging. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matthew 27:28-30).
Ridiculed as Savior, laughed at as King, the insult added to injury has made devotion to this aspect of Christ’s Passion difficult for the faithful throughout the ages.
Downplaying Christ’s Humiliation
The scrupulous attention to detail in Byzantine art ensured that the Mocking would be represented, but the triumphant spirit of Eastern icons downplays Christ’s humiliation. In such images, Jesus stands at the center of a symmetrical composition, taller than His tormenters and holding Himself firmly upright with a tranquil expression. He often raises His hand in blessing, aloof from the situation around Him.
These static pieces, intended for meditation, do not concern themselves with drawing the viewer into the story, but work to extol Jesus’ grandeur in rising above His persecutors. They bear great similarity to the Byzantine Crucifixes where Jesus is presented alive on the cross, having already conquered death. The red cross of the Resurrection emblazoned on His halo underscores the victorious element in the panel.
The rare representations of the subject in the West were generally derived from the Byzantine models until the Mendicant orders of the thirteenth century revolutionized Christological iconography.
Enter St. Francis
St. Francis’ profound devotion to the Passion of Christ defined himself and his order. His self-abnegation and intense emulation of Christ’s example in suffering eventually resulted in St. Francis becoming the first stigmatist since St. Paul. In memory of St. Francis as alter Christus, bearing the same wounds as the Crucified Christ, the members of the Franciscan order were among the first to commission Crucifixes with Christ as Homo Patiens, “the man of suffering,” lifeless on the cross and surrounded by scenes from His Passion.
The mocking of Christ particularly reflected Franciscan life and spirituality. St. Francis himself had been taunted by the people of Assisi, had stripped himself naked in the town square and subjected himself to public penance.
St. Francis’ “Office of the Passion,” a series of prayers which he read each day, vividly and brutally described humiliation suffered by Christ for the sake of our salvation. For the hour of Terce he chose a text from the 30th psalm traditionally associated with the Passion of Christ. “For all my foes I am the object of reproach, a laughingstock to my neighbors and a dread to my friends” (Psalms 30:12) Likewise at the hour of Sext he quotes psalm 68. “For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face…” (Psalms 68:8) This psalm had already been linked to the Passion in St. John’s Gospel.
The Franciscans’ Art
As the Franciscans explored the suffering of Jesus in their prayer and preaching, they likewise brought new facets of the story to art. The innovative imagery of the Mocking of Christ expressed that same earthy sense of reality, as if one were witnessing the abasement of Christ before one’s eyes. The Florentine painter Giotto, working in the Arena chapel in Padua in 1300, employed his forceful style to draw viewers into the story. Jesus sits, no longer regally at the center of the painting, but pushed aside into the left corner. The soldiers have wrapped Jesus in a robe which overwhelms His frame as he casts His eyes downwards in humiliation. As Christ’s hands lay helplessly on His lap, the crowd presses in on Him, with fists and rods ready to deliver another blow and their scornful faces expressing disdain. The many different ethnicities represented in the fresco extend a sense of universality to the Italian fresco, implying everyone’s responsibility for Christ’s suffering. The narrative vision of the story, as opposed to the iconic representation, again accentuates the tangibility of the event and invites the viewer to put himself in Christ’s place.
Christ’s Passion was also in the forefront of Dominican spirituality. The doctrine of Transubstantiation, promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and confirmed by the Miracle of Bolsena in 1264, intensified devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The cult of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, was born and St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar and the most prominent theologian of his age was commissioned to write the office and the Mass of the feast. This rekindled interest in the human suffering of Christ led to meditation on all aspects of His Passion including His degradation.
The charism of these mendicant orders exposed them to mockery and humiliation as they begged and preached in the poorest quarters of the cities. Their vow of obedience led them to self-abnegation and even to martyrdom as they wrestled with heresies and attacks from detractors. But the Dominicans realized that torture and death have heroic qualities, whereas ridicule and mockery offer only obscurity, and they too developed a devotion to Christ’s humiliation.
Psalters, lectionaries and other manuscripts were frequently illuminated with images of Christ’s mocking so in the private hours of prayer the monks could meditate on this great hurdle to holiness. The most famous Dominican image of the Mocking of Christ was created in 1440 by Fra Angelico in the convent of San Marco in Florence. This fresco, painted in the private space of a monk’s cell, was intended to enable the praying monk to envision the scene.
Fra Angelico shows Christ on a raised dais and seated on a red box, a mockery of a throne. A green curtain, usually used to display figures in glory, provides the backdrop of this travesty of the lordship of Christ. Christ is blindfolded, as he was when taunted by the high priest, but through the transparent veil we can see His eyes closed in humiliation. Wearing a crown of thorns, Jesus holds the reed and stone in place of the scepter and orb while disembodied hands buffet and slap His head and a scorner spits in His Face.
On either side of the platform, the Virgin Mary and St. Dominic sit on the ground. Mary looks away, her sadness revealed by her expression, the droop of her head and the hand pressed to her cheek. By contrast, she raises her other hand in a gesture of obedience to the divine will. We viewers are meant to take our cue from Mary; even if our hero and Savior is ridiculed and we are laughed at for following Him, we embrace our own sufferings and humiliation as a way of sharing in his Passion. St. Dominic looks down as he reads the account of the story and meditates on its meaning. Although the event was long ago and far away, it holds no less significance in our daily lives. Jesus’ white robe and the cross of the Resurrection in His halo offer the promise that He will finally triumph no matter how abased he may seem at this moment.
St. Catherine Of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena, a third-order Dominican and Doctor of the Church, offered her reflection on the humiliation of Christ and its meaning for mankind. “For our salvation He ran like one in love to the opprobrious death on the most holy Cross. May any man be ashamed to raise his head in pride, seeing you, Highest Lord, humiliated on the side of our humanity” (Oration 19).
Fra Angelico’s image reinforces St. Catherine’s warning that true emulation of Christ must allow for debasement before others-family, friend and foe alike.
As the Renaissance gained momentum and recognized man’s greatness as the image and likeness of God, the awkward subject of His mocking was increasingly downplayed in Italian art. The Renaissance emphasis on Christ’s humanity was used to highlight human dignity, and art found plenty of room for images of a strong Christ drawn from statues of the ancient Greek gods. Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael could not come to terms with a weak, humiliated Christ, object of derision by His inferiors.
Only after the Council of Trent was there renewed attention to the mockery of Christ. In the wake of the disastrous events of the Reformation, with the denial of papal authority as the successor of St. Peter, a new emphasis on the humiliation of Christ arose in many private devotional works.
Sixteenth-century Protestant England produced Shakespeare who extolled the virtues of respect and honor in these unforgettable lines from Othello:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.
(Othello act 3, scene 3, lines 163-65)
These words resonate just as forcefully with us after four hundred years later demonstrating how the great poet articulated our concern for reputation. In this light, we can understand the grave injustice inflicted on Christ, which for most people would be too much too bear.
Sixteenth Century Catholic Rome
But while sixteenth century Catholic Rome understood the value of one’s good name, artists such as Annibale Carracci, Orazio Gentilleschi and Domenico Zampieri invited the faithful to transcend their desire for worldly recognition in search of Heavenly favor. Their meditations on the Mockery of Christ yielded profoundly searching images designed both to disturb and inspire their viewers. Annibale Carracci’s 1603 oil painting of the Mocking of Christ stands out for its intensity and intimacy as only three faces are represented, unlike the throngs that usually encircle Christ. His tormentors remain in shadow as one affixes the crown of thorns to Christ’s head while wagging a finger under His nose. The other man stands behind Christ, his helmet glinting in the darkness as he summons the other soldiers to watch.
Christ’s head is at the heart of the canvas, not tall and majestic, but bent low towards the soldier. Jesus responds to the accusatory finger by lifting His bound hands towards the man in a gesture of friendship and brotherhood. Christ’s face, blood spattered and exhausted, nonetheless glows with a warm radiance. He responds to the taunts with an expression of such love that the viewer is taken aback on witnessing this astonishing example of charity.
If the figures could speak, one imagines that the soldier leaning towards Christ would be spitting and laughing as he hailed the “King of the Jews,” while at the same time Jesus, weakly clasping his persecutor’s shoulder, would whisper “I am doing this for you because I love you.” Annibale’s version of the Mocking of Christ is more than a realistic narrative; it is a call to greatness of spirit.
The Modern Age
The images of the mockery again receded in the modern age, as man’s dominion over the earth progressed by leaps and bounds. Even in Mel Gibson’s meticulously rendered “Passion of the Christ,” where the viewer is not spared a single second of Christ’s physical torture, relatively little time is dedicated to deriding Christ. The tone of the movie emphasizes the heroic-that Jesus could stop the events at any time but doesn’t, and the determination of Christ as He carries the cross to Cavalry. It is always clear that it is Jesus’ free choice to be at the mercy of the crowds. The pathetic, ridiculed Jesus, dejected and forlorn, is difficult to hold in our heroic imagination.
But perhaps it is in this modern age, the era of man who splits atoms, clones living beings and walks on the moon, that the example of the all-powerful Christ, who embraced the humiliation of jeers, taunts and slaps is the most needed to overcome our pride and our fear of rebuke, calumny and scorn. In times of testing, we may hope that recollection of the humiliated Christ will enable us to say with Paul, “Therefore I am content with weakness, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10.