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Picturing the Passion: ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ by El Greco (1577 – 1587)
By Joynel Fernandes
The best understood symbol of Christianity is undoubtedly the Cross; a dead tree on which was hung the Saviour who brought life to the world. With life, the cross also provided an identity to Christians and a hope to faith. El Greco, through his painting ‘Christ carrying the cross’ magnifies the essence of this identity and hope. He rejects all theatrical skills in order to evoke an attentive soul to the profound beauty found in Christ and His Cross.
Born in Crete in 1541, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, nicknamed ‘El Greco’ (the Greek), was a man with a vision of embodying a higher realm of spirit within the mortal realm of the soul. Although initially trained as an icon painter, he soon transformed himself from the flat symbolic world to master the dynamic elements of the Renaissance.
His approach was also influenced by the characteristics of his time. Europe, during El Greco’s age, was in a state of religious upheaval. The Reformation, in full swing, had triggered a series of events, including the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563). In order to cleanse the Church of its evils, the Council devised decrees that had an impact on all the facets of life.
The execution of this rectified religion and faith required instruction and education. The best way to communicate to the illiterate was undoubtedly through art. Paintings served as mediums of not only information but also visual contemplation that aimed to stimulate imagination and spirituality. In keeping with the tenets of the Counter Reformation, El Greco’s art achieves precisely that.
Amidst a stormy, tempestuous sky stands Christ. Garbed in blue and red, He stands a witness to His dual nature as God and man. The red robe symbolizes blood or humanity while the blue cloak exemplifies His divinity. Broken thorny twigs twisted into a crown pierce His delicate head causing droplets of blood to trickle down His face. And yet He screams not in anguish, He shudders not in pain.
Christs’ stance spells serenity resigned to Divine Providence. He holds His cross with both His hands and allows it to rest on His shoulder. He lifts His teary gaze towards heaven in absolute surrender. His lips whisper a prayer, ‘Father, if it is possible let this cup pass away from me; nevertheless let not my will but Yours be done.’
The colours enhance the evoked emotion. The greyness of the sky announces the darkness of time. The brilliance of light on Christ’ face assures His Resurrection. His clean long fingers with mother of pearl nails recalls His innocence. The Lamb of God is being led to the slaughter.
The most alluring aspect of this painting is the execution of the eyes. They seem to fathom the imminent passion. His eyes envisioned that the ones that cried Hosanna would now scream and jeer at Him; the crowd that hailed palm branches would now hurl stones at him; the ones that laid down their cloaks would now strip Him of His own dignity. Christ recognized that His instrument was no longer the humble donkey but the heavy Cross.
The Saviour embraces His Cross in serene submission. As the Cross joins Christ in His spiritual communion with His Father, it is transformed into a key that would unlock the door to the deepest mystery of God’s unconditional love. A love so great that it entered sin to forgive it, entered suffering to bring strength and entered death to restore life. The Cross is now the ladder that leads us to heaven. It invites us to never seek Christ without a Cross, for in doing so we may perhaps find a Cross without Christ!
(Joynel Fernandes is the Asst. Director, Archdiocesan Heritage Museum)
Courtesy: www.pottypadre.com(Used with permission)
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