Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art

Art historian James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, tells a story of a sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago titled 14 Stations of the Cross. Elkins teaches at the school and was interviewing students about their own religious-themed art. This Stations was “a large ceramic church, about two and a half feet high” covered with a “gray and white glaze [that] . . . dripped down like sugar frosting on an angel food cake.” Inside, the floor was pocked where the fourteen devotional tableaux of the traditional Stations had been torn away. The artist, an MFA candidate called Ria, explained she had “erased” her depictions of Jesus’ Passion, leaving only the clay structure that housed them. Elkins considered this, then gingerly suggested that, given the deletions, the work really wasn’t a representation of the Stations at all. It was, he observed, not unkindly, more a “large confectionary house, a sugarplum fairy’s house.”[1]

“ ‘Well, to me it’s the fourteen Stations,’ ” the young woman replied, hastening to explain that, though from a Catholic family, “ ‘I don’t believe in all that anymore—the robes, the priests. . . .’ ” So, Elkins queried, why work at all with a motif that represents one of the most solemn rituals of Lent? Ria struggled to articulate her conception. “ ‘There is just something about them, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I want the feeling, something about it … the real part.’ ”[2] One can almost see Elkins’ neutral, knowing nod on hearing this. Later, considering the sculptor and her work, he concludes, “She wasn’t trying to poke fun at anything, or show off her cynicism. She was looking for something in her parent’s religion that she could accept.”[3]

Ria’s tentative grasp of her work reveals the anxiety many young artists feel around religious themes. “Once upon a time,” Elkins writes, “—but really, in every place and every time—art was religious.”[4] We know, of course, this is no longer true. The Enlightenment, the Reformation, modernism, postmodernism—all played their part in estranging art from religion. This happened slowly at first, then, seemingly, all at once. Disillusioned by the Holocaust and Hiroshima, then secularized by the “project of modernism” the 1960s and ’70s, contemporary culture has evolved to a point where the “word religion … can no longer be coupled with the driving ideas of art.”[5] For artists seeking a place within the mainstream art world, this fact has left little latitude for their work to encounter the sacred.[6]

The anecdote about Ria points to another fact, however. Not only does religion occupy a strange place in contemporary art, contemporary art also has expanded the interpretation and application of traditional Christian forms beyond their original ecclesial contexts. This has been especially true of the Stations of the Cross. As an artistic motif, the Stations navigate between church and gallery by surrendering the traditional form while retaining the rich connotations of the underlying narrative. The reinterpretations traverse boundaries and expand upon the ritual’s numinous core.

From Traditional to Non-Traditional Readings

The origins of the Stations of the Cross trace back to the time of Constantine in fourth-century Jerusalem, where Christian pilgrims visited holy sites associated with Christ’s Passion. By the twelfth century, these and other sites formed a settled route of European pilgrimage, and in time the practice was established of walking the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows,” observing significant points between Pilate’s court and Mount Calvary. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, reproductions of the Way were constructed in Europe at outdoor sites that themselves became pilgrimage destinations. Stations became common inside churches by the end of the seventeenth century, where their use was associated with the granting of indulgences (as they still are). The number and designation of the Stations followed local customs, ranging from as few as eleven to upwards to thirty-seven. It is not certain how the number or configuration we know today was fixed.[7]

For the faithful, walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent is a personal pilgrimage of reflection and penance. While the devotion need not include a pictorial component (all that is required is a wooden cross at each station), the familiar tableaux have come to define the practice. The visual drama of the stations, whether naturalistic or stylized, is meant to stimulate empathic participation in Christ’s suffering. In a sense, each of the fourteen representations functions as a kind of time machine—one looks not at but through them to the historical events of the Passion. Modern artists work to undo this illusion. Their art is always resolutely in the present; it demands a very different conceptual engagement, situating both the viewer and the Stations in a liminal space between ritual and motif.

In 1951, Matisse achieved just this shift with a Stations he produced for a chapel in the south of France. Seven years later, Barnett Newman took on the subject again with the first of fourteen canvases for his series The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, which was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966. Countless artists have treated the subject since: elite names like sculptor Michael Kenny, painter Francesco Clemente, theater-artist Robert Wilson, and those unknown many like Ria, most of whom, it’s fair to say, out of aesthetic and cultural motives not related to the Stations’ original purpose. Some, like Wilson, neutralize the religiosity; others find in the Stations a secularly-safe way to engage the divine. The Stations of the Cross have evolved into a container for nearly any inquiry—formal, social, political, or metaphysical.

What follows is a consideration of four artists’ readings of the Stations. First, we will look more closely at the breakthroughs of Matisse and Newman, two seminal examples of the Stations from the twentieth century. In light of their influence, we will then turn to two artists working today: a New Zealand Catholic nun and painter for whom the Stations retain their religious importance, and a New York art photographer who found in the Via Crucis an expression of the sufferings outside his window.

Matisse: The Vence Chapel

Matisse’s commission in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, illustrates the Stations’ expansiveness. In 1947, the painter was approached to design the chapel’s interior by one of the Dominican sisters for whom it was constructed. Matisse, in his 70s at the time, had met Sister Jacques-Marie years earlier when, as the twenty-one-year old Monique Bourgeous, she became his nurse and confidant, and later his model and student. His paternal affection for the nun convinced him to take on the project he would later call his masterpiece. Matisse designed everything in the chapel, from its glorious stained glass windows and portraits of St. Dominic and the Virgin and Child, to the altar, vestments, liturgical objects, even the confessional door.

The Stations [Fig. 1] occupy the chapel’s back wall in a grid-like composition on white ceramic tiles, six-and-a-half feet high by thirteen feet wide, containing three rows of drawings. One reads Matisse’s Stations from bottom to top, beginning in the lower left and tracing a course like an S. There is no outward journey the viewer must make in order to pass from one station to the next. The pilgrimage these Stations invite is entirely within the viewer.

View of the Nave, Stained Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 (stained glass & ceramic tile)

Fig. 1: View of the Nave, Stained-Glass Side Window and Stations of the Cross in the Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France, 194851 (stained glass and ceramic tile), Matisse, Henri (1869-1954) / Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France / © 2015 Succession H. Matisse /DACS, London / Bridgeman Images*

In a letter to the priest in charge of the project, Matisse called the Stations “a great achievement for me,” yet allowed they would “dismay most people who see it”[8] for the simplicity of their depiction. “Simplicity” hardly captures the effect; “graffiti-like,”[9] is how one critic saw the stark, schematic figures Matisse created with a stick of charcoal on the end of a bamboo pole. Patricia Hampl described the pathos of the work as “pained, scratching its way to Golgotha.”[10] “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in his letter to the priest, “God held my hand.”[11]

I have long admired Matisse’s drawings, yet I admit that at first his Stations left me unsettled. I passed through three stages of discernment before I comprehended the work as the masterpiece I now believe it is. Initially, I considered the composition as a whole, surveying it like a map—establishing coordinates, reckoning the number system, identifying individual landmarks to anchor me in the scene. Then I looked critically at the separate depictions, debating whether Matisse’s drawings were the work of a genius or the marks of an old man. They reveal either the weakened capacity of a hand compromised by age, or the gestural freedom of a seasoned master. (I learned later that Matisse created a series of finely detailed preliminary drawings that he ultimately rejected.)  Finally, surveying the chapel overall, and observing the sublime balance of each detail between reverence and beauty, praise and surprise, all suspicions crumbled. I turned to the Stations a third time. Their deep compassion toward suffering drew me all the way in, opening my perception to the vastness that Matisse in his epistle described as the “great drama … interwoven around the Crucifixion, which has taken on a dreamlike dimension.” [12]

Newman: Lema Sabachthani

Barnett Newman achieved one of art’s most profound interpretations of the Passion with his The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. Newman was part of that formidable generation of abstract painters who raised American art to international dominance after 1945, in the related styles of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. His best-known canvases typically feature broad vertical bands broken by contrasting stripes or “zips” extending from top to bottom. Newman’s art makes frequent allusions to his Judaism and Jewish mysticism, roots that run deep even in the fourteen black and white minimalist paintings titled for the Christian Stations and evoking the most dramatic cry of the New Testament.

Stations of the Cross, in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington, is made up of fourteen raw canvases, each six-and-a-half by five feet, painted with vertical passages of black or white paint and dark or light zips. The series’ monochrome starkness is at once unsettling and contemplative. Its subject, observed art historian Jane Dillenberger, is “the individual’s encounter with God.”[13] This encounter, Newman wrote in the catalogue for his 1966 Guggenheim exhibition, takes place with the last agonized words of Christ:

Lema Sabachthani—why? Why did you forsake me? . . . To what purpose? Why? . . . This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no complaint. . . . This overwhelming question . . . has been with us so long—since Jesus—since Abraham—since Adam—the original question.”[14]

Newman places the Station’s meaning in the cesura between Christ’s crucifixion and death, in an instant when God’s grace can no longer be assumed. By removing the Passion’s visual markers, the painter—like Elkins’s MFA sculptor—erases “the terrible walk” and replaces it with a meditation on the Stations themselves. “Can the Passion be expressed by a series of anecdotes, by fourteen sentimental illustrations?” Newman insisted in the catalogue. “Do not the stations tell of one event?”[15] As Matisse transformed the Stations from literal to expressive, so Newman remade them from a drama with fourteen scenes to a poem of fourteen lines, a sonnet of existential suffering.[16]

Horn and Michalek: Transformational journeys

Following Matisse and Newman, artists saw their task—and their opportunity—as one of remaking the Stations with each new iteration. I met Mary Horn, a painter and Dominican sister in Oamaru on the South Island of New Zealand, in 2010, not long after she had completed her own Stations of the Cross. [Fig. 2] She had been contemplating a set of Stations in the chapel beside her home, to replace traditional views painted a century earlier by four Dominican nuns. “I wondered what I would do in this new century to speak to people of our time,” she explained of her own work. “This series is simpler and more intimate and somehow speaks not just of the Jesus journey but our journeys, where we encounter many different deaths, and are supported by others, or have to endure alone what is happening in our life.”[17]


Fig. 2: Mary Horn, Station VI: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus and Station VII: Jesus Falls the Second Time, from Stations of the Cross, 2010. Images courtesy of the artist.

Like Matisse, Horn simplified the figures in her Stations, stripping them of specificity to underscore their common humanity. The paintings, she avers, speak not only of the Passion but of the 9/11 attacks, that “unspeakable journey that affected us all,” and the suffering that has followed in the years since. “The ‘Way of the Cross’ speaks a hope for us all in the midst of such human-created devastation on so many levels,” she observed. For her, as an artist and a religious, painting is both a form of prayer and mission. “Does art change my idea of God? The short answer for me is yes —a new time requires different images.”[18]

The universality that Horn identifies does not need to be couched in religious terms. Yet the Stations are adaptable to many instances of suffering, particularly those of the individual struggling against authority. This was photographer David Michalek’s conception for his 2002 14 Stations. [Fig 3]  Michalek produced the series in collaboration with formerly homeless men and women affiliated with the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH), a non-profit organization located at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Their Stations re-vision the motif as a narrative of deprivation and kindness, redemption and death, among the urban homeless.

Michalek Station 6-ScreenShot

Michalek Installation_Emmanuel Church, Boston-ScreenShot

Fig. 3: David Michalek, Station Six, from Fourteen Stations, 2002, and the series as installed in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Boston. Images courtesy of the artist.

The work’s central trope, Michalek said in a recent interview, insists that the suffering of the Stations, “is not necessarily in some faraway place, but on your own street corner . . . . This led us to the idea that our Via Crucis would become emblematic not of one man’s walk, of one historical moment, but the walk of all humanity.”[19] Michalek worked with the AIHH members to conceive and reenact episodes from the Stations based on their stories of living on the street.

The artist, who was familiar with the Stations from his Catholic upbringing, used them as “starting points that could become metaphorically expansive.” As an example, Michalek cited Stations IV, V, and VI, in which Jesus meets his mother, then Simon of Cyrene, who helps carry the cross, and finally Veronica, who wipes his face. “These three encounters seemed similar and quite different,” Michalek said, prompting the group to design tableaus around the theme of Christian caritas. “The embrace of the mother is an encounter of unconditional love. Simon is an encounter of a friend who helps get you back on your feet. And Veronica is the example of loving kindness. We asked, ‘How can we fill in the themes with personal experience?’ and from there built the images.”[20]

The resulting tableaux reflected an ethos less of Old Master paintings than photojournalism and street photography. The large images, typically displayed in light boxes, have been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, Yale Divinity School, and other venues. They have also hung in churches, including the nave of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, an installation that blurred the lines between exhibition and devotion. “The work can live very easily in a church, and people who know how to use the Stations can use these Stations,” said Michalek. “Yet if you come from a different faith tradition, it can still communicate a lot of the ideas essential to the original form without being tied to the dogma.”[21]


The art of Horn and Michalek, like that of Matisse, Newman, and even, in her way, the art student Ria, provide new readings of the Stations. They present various ways the devotion may be reinterpreted, recast, or repurposed; they offer sides of a crystal with as many facets as there are artists. In taking the Stations from familiar shores of tradition, do alternate interpretations undermine the ritual’s religious nature? An analogy from Thomas Aquinas may help answer the question. In reading scripture, Thomas argues, one goes beyond the text’s literal sense to its “spiritual senses,” meanings which flesh out the historical narrative with moral and spiritual implications. Alternative readings are salutary not for their sake alone, the theologian believed; they are a kind of excursion that brings the reader back to the literal word with deeper comprehension. T.S. Eliot expressed this same effect in Four Quartets, assuring us that

“…the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”[22]

Artists rouse us from assumptions and challenge expectations; their new readings increase the resonance of the Stations. Looking beyond the traditional Lenten ritual can lead us, paradoxically, closer to the Passion.


Timothy D. Cahill is a cultural journalist and commentator. He was arts correspondent and photography critic for The Christian Science Monitor and a Fellow of the PEW National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. In 2008, he founded a nonprofit initiative to promote the engagement of contemporary art with values of compassion ethics, work that led him to deeper questions of aesthetics, philosophies of virtue, and theology. Prompted by these efforts, he enrolled at the ISM and Yale Divinity School to pursue a master’s degree in Religion and the Arts. He is a candidate for graduation in 2016.


[1]   James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004), 34–35.

[2]   Ibid., 35.

[3]   Ibid., 77.

[4]   Ibid., 5.

[5]   Ibid., xi.

[6]   Needing to draw borders around the elusive term “fine art,” Elkins settles on the “institutional definition” of the art world, i.e., that work “exhibited in galleries in major cities, bought by museums of contemporary art, shown in biennales and the Documenta, and written about in periodicals such as Artforum, October, Flash Art,” etc., to which he adds work engendered by top MFA programs and prioritized by leading scholars in the history of art.

[7]   The traditional fourteen Stations depict scenes from the gospels and incidents from outside scripture (i.e., the three falls and the encounter with Veronica). Typically designated with roman numerals, the Stations are: I. Jesus is condemned to death; II. Jesus carries his cross; III. Jesus falls the first time; IV. Jesus meets his mother; V. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross; VI. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; VII. Jesus falls the second time; VIII. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; IX. Jesus falls the third time; X. Jesus is stripped of his clothes; XI. Jesus is nailed to the cross; XII. Jesus dies; XIII. Jesus is taken down from the cross; XIV. Jesus is laid in the tomb. For a detailed history of the Stations, see the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.

[8]   “Matisse to Father Couturier, 27 February 1950,” in Henri Matisse, Marcel Billot, Michael Taylor (trans.), The Vence Chapel: The Archive of a Creation, (Milan: Skira Editore; Houston: Menil Foundation, 1999), 303.

[9]   Alastair Sooke, “How Henri Matisse created his masterpiece.

[10] Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006), 200.

[11]  Matisse, et al., 303.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Jane Dillenberger, Image and Spirit In Sacred and Secular Art (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 104.

[14]  Barnett Newman, Barnett Newman—The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966), 9.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  A fifteenth painting, Be II, was exhibited by Newman at the Guggenheim show and has been seen with the Stations of the Cross ever since. Containing a thin band of red along its left edge, it is both a contrast and a companion to the black and white Stations; scholars debate as to whether it should be considered part of the cycle or not. There are those who contend a fifteenth station should be added to the Via Crucis depicting Christ’s resurrection; the question of affinity between the proposed additional station and Newman’s Be II is also subject to interpretation.

[17]  Statement from personal correspondence with author, February 2015.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Interview with author, February 2015.

[20] Ibid.

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  From “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 19091962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 222.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Cahill, Timothy. (2015) “Rereading the Stations of the Cross through Art,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 10. Available at:

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Kongo Triple Crucifix


Kongo Triple Crucifix, 17th-19th Century.
Kongo Triple Crucifix, 17th-19th century.
Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduction of any kind is prohibited without express written permission in advance from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Precious yellow brass, wood darkened by wear, white pigment, red powder, geometric designs, and copper nails are some of the constitutive parts of Kongo crucifixes. Illustrated here is one of an almost endless variety of Christian objects created in the west central African kingdom of Kongo between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Elaborately crafted artworks, jealously kept insignia of power, and piously cherished devotional paraphernalia, the central African crucifixes illustrate the Kongo people’s deep and enduring engagement with the visual forms and religious message of Christianity.

The highly centralized kingdom of Kongo emerged in the 1300s and extended South of the Congo River over the western part of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Its political organization centered on the person of the king who ruled with absolute power from his capital city over large territories through governors he sent from his court to the provincial capitals. The kingdom entered into European history in the 1480s with the arrival on its shores of Portuguese explorers and clerics in search of the new trade routes to India and new allies for Christendom. The result of this early contact with Europeans was the conversion of the Kongo monarchs to Catholicism and their decision to impose the new faith as the kingdom’s official religion. That decree opened a new era in the history of central Africa, defined by its involvement in the commercial, political, and religious networks of the early modern Atlantic World. In that period ranging from the late fifteenth century to the unraveling of the kingdom in the late 1900s, the people of the Kongo embraced the changes brought about by the multi-cultural interactions in which they took part as actors of the Atlantic system and integrated these novelties into their own political, religious, and artistic worldviews.

Kongo crucifixes emerged in this era. Crucial parts of the kingdom’s elite regalia, they heralded the power and legitimacy of kings and provincial rulers. Yet, they also encompassed a deeply religious dimension. Independently of foreign pressure, the artists and patrons who created the crosses confronted, merged, and redeployed in this new type of object local and foreign understandings and representations of the supernatural and its manifestations in the world. On the one hand, their crucifixes showcase expressively represented dying Christ figures. On the other hand, their crosses also communicated locally grounded ideas about the permeability between the world of the living and the world of the dead, expressed in central Africa through the sign of the cross. Thus Kongo crucifixes served as spaces of correlation that central Africans used to bring together the Catholic narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection with age-old, local ideas about fluid connections between life and death. The new type of object recast Christianity and central African cosmology into two intricately linked parts of a single system of thought. With Kongo Christianity, Catholic dogma endowed central Africa’s invisible world with new supernatural powers. Manifestations of the presence of God, witnessed by the people of the Kongo and recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, widened the perimeter of Christian orthodoxy.

This crucifix, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also illustrates how the people of the Kongo engaged not only with Christian dogma but also with the European artistic forms that arrived in their land with the new religion. Three Christ figures have been arranged on an unusual triple cross that has over the years been repeatedly rubbed, held, and anointed, creating a thick patina on the wood and smoothing the surface of the brass elements. The artist who composed the object had access to two types of brass figures. At the top and bottom he placed small devotional objects of the kind that missionaries imported in the region by the thousands and that local artisans frequently recast in direct molds. A skilled Kongo metalworker however created the central Christ without a direct European prototype. The figure is visibly inspired from known imported examples, but its features have been reworked according to what became the local canon for Kongo Christ including prominent and stylized ribs, pointed knees, oversized feet and hands, simplified facial hair, and a carefully depicted loincloth. Ultimately, patrons and artists in the Kongo reformulated Christian figures into objects of their own, both visibly Christian and perceptibly Central African and altogether fit to herald Kongo Christianity.


This essay was first published in Conversations, a born-digital publication of the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR).

Cécile Fromont is an assistant professor in Art History and the College at the University of Chicago. She writes and teaches about the visual and material culture of Africa and Latin America with a special emphasis on the early modern period (ca 1500-1800) and on the Portuguese-speaking Atlantic World. Her first book, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo was published in December 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Fromont, Cècile, (2015) “Kongo Triple Crucifix,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 9. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Kongo Triple Crucifix

Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

An earlier version of this essay appeared as “He Who Hesitates is Human: Literary Portrayals of Gethsemane” in Perspectives on the Passion, ed. Christine Joynes. London: Continuum, 2008, 30–41; reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury-T&T Clark.

“Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels. They provide him with the various possibilities voiced on the street, but he is not interested in popular opinion. He wants to know where they stand. One way in which Christian tradition has responded is with creedal statements that aim to avoid error through clarity and definition. Take, for instance, the fifth-century Quicunque vult, the so-called Athanasian Creed. It wants to affirm at once that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “Perfect God and Perfect Man”; he is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.” By contrast, biblical approaches to the question of Jesus’s identity bring the messiness of human experience into play: the Gospel stories, like narrative in general, open up possibilities rather than closing them down, require interpretation rather than assent.

A case in point: who do the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus is, based on his last words? We find one “equal to the Father” in Luke’s gracious savior, who is merciful to those who mock him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” 23:34) and who promises the “good thief” a reward for his faithfulness (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43). Likewise, the Gospel of John presents Christ in control of the horrible scene on Golgotha: he has the wherewithal to find his mother another son (19:26–27) and, before his final breath, to announce that enough is enough, “It is finished” (19:30). On the other hand, Matthew and Mark have Christ give up the ghost in a cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The dissonance between these “last words” is lost when the tradition of preaching the Seven Last Words, for instance, merges the six “comfortable” sayings found in Luke and John with the single cry of Matthew and Mark: “Elo-i, Elo-i, lema sabach-thani?” Numbers talk, at least if you can get the cry of dereliction out of your head.

But what about the Garden of Gethsemane? The Gospel of John has us barely enter it: John places Jesus in an olive grove across the Kidron Valley (18:1) for the merest moment, and then only as the backdrop for his arrest. In the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we find something quite different. Take Matthew’s account in chapter 26:36–46. In this dramatic scene, Matthew’s Jesus remains extraordinarily vulnerable until he sees that the end is nigh and takes charge, saying, “Get up, let us be going.” Underscoring his loneliness, Matthew puts only Peter, James, and John in the Garden with him. When this trio was last assembled by Jesus, they beheld the apotheosis of the Lord in a cloud of glory and heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5). But now we have a reversal of the Transfiguration. Instead of encountering the Father’s beloved Son in blinding glory, we find a Jesus in passionate turmoil, as described by the narrator (“He was grieved and agitated”) and confirmed by Jesus himself (“I am deeply grieved, even to death”).

Add to these words dramatic gesture. When Jesus advances into Gethsemane’s “oil press”—the etymology of the place name—he also moves more deeply into his grievance-unto-death: “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground.” Again, one recalls the Transfiguration account, when it was the disciples who fell to the ground “overcome by fear,” only to have Jesus comfort them: “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7). Here Jesus comes to the disciples, appealing to them three times to watch with him, only to find them fast asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing,” he says, “but the flesh is weak.”

It is not the disciples’ weakness that is at the center of the story, however; rather, it is Jesus’s humanity: his deep emotion, his need for creature comfort, and his dependence on the men who were his “little children.” Whereas Peter, James, and John cannot stay awake even one hour, Jesus cannot rest for a single minute. Instead, he throws himself repeatedly on the ground, praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” The Evangelist Mark further heightens the emotion by having Jesus call out not only to his Father but also (in a sudden move from Greek to Aramaic) to his Abba, his Papa—a one-word shift into an intimate mode of address. However, no loving paternal presence shows up in Matthew’s Gethsemane. Jesus is devastated and alone.

This vision of Jesus at such a loss is one the Evangelist Luke cannot abide. His Savior may be “inferior to the Father concerning his manhood”—he may (as in Matthew and Mark) pray that the cup be removed; he may even sweat “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground”—but he is not alone. Suddenly there is an angel on the scene, come to give him strength. Nor does Jesus thrash about on the ground—Luke says instead that he “kneels”—or keeps trying to wake his three closest disciples. There is neither fear nor anguish in this scene, only a hero fighting the good fight, about to earn his crown of glory.

There is very little glory in more contemporary literary renderings of Jesus in the Garden. Nor is there much of any Godhead in his Manhood. For instance, in Rainer-Maria Rilke’s “The Olive Garden” (1908), Jesus says, “’I am alone, I am alone with all of human grief.” Rilke does not allow any divine intervention: no angel enters the scene. Furthermore, he insists that Jesus’s aloneness in the Garden links him to everyone else’s plight: he is no different from anyone “born in the world.”

And then there is Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ (1955), which presents Christ’s whole life as a struggle between willing spirit and wavering flesh. Gethsemane is where “the longing to see men, to hear a human voice, to touch the hands he loved” overwhelms Jesus. Thought of heaven all but disappears as he longs “to find on earth the only paradise anyone could want.”

“Father,” Jesus murmurs, “the world you created is beautiful, and we see it; beautiful is the world which we do not see. I don’t know—forgive me—I don’t know, Father, which is the more beautiful.”

For José Luis Saramago, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Gethsemane turns into a temptation scene, in which God and the Devil are revealed to be two sides of the same divine coin. Together, they present Jesus with the “cup” of the future. They predict the deaths of the disciples, give a lengthy alphabetical procession of subsequent martyrs, and foretell the horrors of Crusades and Inquisition. This vision of continual suffering provokes a final confrontation between Son and Father. The scene ends with the Devil’s observation, “One has to be a God to countenance so much blood.” Saramago’s Jesus is a dupe, his Father a vampire. We have come a long way from the Gospels here, let alone from the both/and mystery of the eternal Word made mortal Flesh.

Where I want to conclude, however, is with a contemporary poet, Denise Levertov (1923–97), who attempts not only to affirm the two natures of Christ, following orthodox Christianity, but also describe a dynamic tension between them. She wants to convey the tightrope that Jesus walked, that Jesus was.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis[1]

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of His depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit,
nor the faithless weakness of friends (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

With the double title of her poem, Levertov places her text in the Latin world of the West, as well as (literally and figuratively) in Jerusalem. We are asked to behold the Savior of the World along the Holy City’s tortuous Way of the Cross, long memorialized on the walls of many a Catholic church and perhaps presented most horrifically in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. But “Salvator Mundi” also points to another Christological reality—to a traditional iconographic pose, in which Christ (holding an orb or some other accoutrement of authority) looks straight into the eyes of the viewer, as in the Albrecht Dürer painting of this name. This is John’s Christ, radiant with glory.

Levertov depends heavily on visual art, but it is no Christus Rex whom she actually conjures up; rather, she alludes explicitly to two very different portrayals of the human savior of the world, each of which offers us a “Maybe” (the poem’s opening word) of what Jesus was like. To begin, she names Rembrandt and refers to his portraits of unnamed Semitic-looking young men taken to be “a Christ head after life”; his models were, in fact, contemporary Amsterdam Jews. Levertov does not allude to Rembrandt’s Philosemitism or her own Jewish ancestry. Rather, she concentrates on the vivid, welcoming humanity of an un-haloed Christ—a thirty-something rabbi, an itinerant healer, or perhaps the word-playing stranger who engaged the much-married Samaritan woman at her village well.

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.

In contrast to this gentle, serene visage—this portrait of the Savior as a young Jew—she then conjures “that face, in extremis” and therefore moves us away from the day-to-day life of Christ’s ministry to the terrible end-game of his passion. But whereas Rembrandt could give a probable likeness of the young Jew, she says, none of the Old Masters (“even the greatest”) could convey in line or paint what the tortured man must have looked like in his agony. “That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth / in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.”

The rest of the poem takes us along the Via Crucis—the second part of the poem’s title—from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha, by means of an imaginative exploration of the Savior’s interior life. Levertov signals Christ’s divinity not only by referring to him as “He” and “Himself” in the reverential upper case, but also by the quasi-creedal language she uses in her God’s-eye view of the Incarnation. The descent into human vulnerability was “what He, Who was God, / had promised Himself, and had entered / time and flesh to enact.” Here we have one “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead.”

Most of the text, however, explores what Levertov refers to as Christ’s “burden of humanness,” that is, the sheer weight of his being human. This Jesus is “like any mortal hero out of his depth.” He tastes “the humiliation of dread”; he experiences “the cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go.” In a show of personal empathy and identification with the male Christ, the female poet likens him to “anyone who has taken a step too far / and wants herself back.” She also suggests what the final refusal of the cup would have meant:

Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.

“Maybe.” The poem begins in surmise, and uses the resources of art history, lectio divina, and the work of sympathetic imagination to give us a keener sense of the God-Man. It draws to a close, however, in a flourish of the indicative, with the repeated assertion of what is (or, rather, what is not) the case. We approach the mystery of Christ’s anguish by eliminating the likely possibilities of what he felt: we cannot know for sure. In her final lines, however, Levertov moves very subtly away from negative assertion and back into surmise. She won’t presume to fathom the Savior’s heart and mind any more than the “greatest painters” could capture his full likeness. All she has to go on is the fervor of her personal identification, her own conviction:

Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

In these, her poem’s “last words,” Levertov brings together the passion accounts of Matthew and Mark with those of Luke and John without erasing their differences. The “sublime acceptance” of the Passion we find in Luke and John had to have, could only have “welled up” from the depths we witness on the bare ground of Gethsemane. For the God-Man to have been human indeed, and not merely playing at humanity, he would have had to (repeatedly) throw himself on the earth, his soul “deeply grieved, even unto death.” Before the Manhood could be taken into God, it would have had to return to the dirt from which Adam was molded, dust thrown down into dust, ashes to ashes.

In “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” Levertov works valiantly to maintain the precarious balance of dogma but with an obvious tip of the scale in our human direction. She upholds the “purpose” of the Incarnation with orthodox conviction; she gives us a Savior of the World “Who was God.” Yet her poem both lingers and terminates where it must, in the drift of those very “mortal moments” that link us to the God-Man—the “maybe” moments that may be all that mortals ever know for sure.


Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. His work has long focused on Dante. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination; Dante, a Brief History; and Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. With Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg he has published two collections of essays on biblical reception in literature, Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs and From the Margins I: Women in the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives. Currently they are collaborating on a Bloomsbury Press book on the Bible and the American short story.


[1] ”Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis” By Denise Levertov, from EVENING TRAIN, copyright ©1992 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Hawkins, Peter. (2015) “Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 6. Available at:

View article as a PDF: Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

On the Cover


Threnos (Lamentation), 1164, fresco in the Church of St. Panteleimon, Nerezi, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Photo © 2012 by Philip Truax (M.Div. ’13). Licensed for academic use only.

Cover design: Maura Gianakos, Yale Printing & Publishing Services

Canticle of the Sun II

John Coburn: "Canticle of the Sun II" (c) 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia
John Coburn: Canticle of the Sun II, 1974 (c) 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia

Canticle of the Sun II, 1974
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas; 91.5 x 91.0 cm
John Coburn
Sydney, Australia

Canticle of the Sun II is one of three related works by the Australian artist John Coburn (1925–2006): Canticle of the Sun (1965) oil on board, 162.0 x 152.5 cm; Canticle of the Sun II (1967) oil on canvas, 74.5 x 85.0 cm; and the 1974 work pictured above. Alex Mitchell writes of Coburn that “he sought a confluence of Western European culture, the Roman Catholic religion, Aboriginal spirituality, and nature.”[1]

The title and inspiration of this work come from a song composed by the thirteenth-century mystic Francis of Assisi.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Some of Coburn’s best-known works appear in venues for the performing arts. He designed the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon for the Sydney Opera House. The Creation, a work comprised of seven tapestries, was given as a gift from the Australian government to the United States. It hangs in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

— Editor


*Reproduction, including downloading of John Coburn works, is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


[1] Alex Mitchell, “John Coburn: Spirit of Abstraction,” Art Collector, Issue 14 (October–December, 2000): 97.

View article as a PDF: Coburn Canticle of the Sun