Holy Week Addresses
The following addresses were given by Canon Simon Butler during Holy Week 2016.
Good Friday Meditation Service
1st Meditation: The Agony in the Garden by Andrea Mantegna
For those of you present last night, you will have heard a little about my focus in
these addresses in Holy Week. Throughout these three days, I’m not only using art
to help us enter into the story of Holy Week, I’m giving particular attention to the
faces we see in these masterpieces. We learn a lot from faces, even faces we only
see in profile or in the half-light of a chiaroscuro painting.
In this hour, we look at three Renaissance artworks, each with faces that tell their
own story. The stories they tell, reveal a greater depth to the events they portray,
because, in their brilliant realisation, the visual amplifies the narrative of the Gospel
But before we turn to the faces in Mantegna’s amazing Agony in the Garden, just for a
moment let us appreciate the setting. The art historian John Drury describes
Mantegna as a grim painter, chiefly because of his obsessive love of stone. Drury
says these stones could have been carved on a cosmic lathe by unimaginable
tornadoes. Behind them, extraordinary rock cliffs surround Mantegna’s fortress
Jerusalem, whose walls bear the scars of battle. The rocks upon which Jesus kneels
seem to have been formed into some sort of prehistoric altar, as if Jesus were a
priest saying Mass except of course that there can be no Mass because there has yet
been no crucifixion. The kneeling Jesus, sits there, though, ready to suffer and to
become the offering which will be remembered for ever at countless altars in
Jesus kneels in this landscape, awaiting the arrival of Judas and the soldiers, who
arrive on the only path in the picture. Are we being invited to remember that this
path is the one Jesus must take? The weight of the scene is immense, the pressure
on Jesus made visible by, if you look carefully, a rock in the background placed as if
it were on his forehead. This is the most weighty moment of choice. Jesus may
choose to let the cup pass from him. Will he accept the vocation his Father has
given him and walk the way of the Cross for love of humanity and in an act of
supreme love? Maybe that fallen tree in the foreground hints at the possibility of an
But to the faces…and first to the disciples fast asleep in the foreground. They are a
wonderful study in sleep. They look so human, so completely out of it, so…well, so
like you and I when we sleep, even the one with his mouth wide open. In this
moment of destiny for Jesus, they snooze as if they had just eaten the most
wonderful picnic. Their faces cause us to ponder our own sense of being awake to
moments of destiny and choice in our lives. So often we miss out on opportunities
to serve God simply by not being alert to them. Too busy with our daily lives, too
often spiritually asleep, we betray Jesus by our lack of attention to his will with our
ever-present egos demanding personal fulfilment and happiness.
And then there are those amazing cherubs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such
terrifying, solid cherubs. None of that fluttering adornment in the corners of
paintings or rooms, these five stand there more like nightclub bouncers that the
heavenly host, holding out to the praying Jesus the instruments of his torture and
execution, the so-called Instruments of the Passion. Never has the inevitability and
the requirement of the divine will been so starkly depicted. This is the will of God,
they say to Jesus. Take these, Son of God, you really have no choice. No wonder his
sweat falls like drops of blood as he battles between his vocation and his terror.
Perhaps this picture invites us to see the will of God in less comfortable terms.
Sometimes our calling takes us to places of risk, and into costly situations. Jesus has
been there before us, Mantegna is saying. Look at what he went through for you.
The face of Jesus in this picture is the most obscured in all of the artworks I have
chosen. This is because, priest-like in the older Western tradition, he faces the altar
and not the people. Those priests who still lead worship in this way remind those of
us who don’t that, in doing so, they are with the people all facing towards the altar,
the place of God’s presence. This posture of Jesus invites us to see him identifying
with us. But what of his face? We can glimpse a deeply furrowed brow, but not
much else. For at this moment, the Saviour is focused only on God. This is a matter
of wrestling in prayer, perhaps far more forcefully than we are used to praying. Jesus
is wholly absorbed in God’s will. No-one is there to support him in any case. This is
business he and his Father must do alone. Such utterly focused prayer comes to us
occasionally: we usually find ourselves praying with such desperation in a moment of
crisis – the illness of a loved one perhaps most often the cause. But perhaps this
image is one that invites us to ponder how we seek God’s will in our own lives. Do
we want to know a deeper sense of calling? Do we want to understand in a more
profound way what our lives are meant to be? Utterly focused in prayer, facing the
greatest moment of choice in his life, Jesus knows that in God alone his answer will
Let us spend a few minutes wrestling with this challenging but beautiful picture,
letting it interrogate us as much as seeking its meaning…
2nd Meditation: Christ after Flagellation by Diego Velázquez
Our second painting in this hour brings us a little closer in. Gone are the majestic
landscapes and the terrifying rocks. Now we are in some inner courtyard or room.
The flogged Jesus, with just a hint of the blood that he has begun to shed, lies on the
ground, his body held up by the taut rope tied to the column on the left. In front of
him on the floor lie the instruments of his flagellation, a whip and a tied set of birch
twigs testify to the suffering he has begun to suffer.
So far we are in the world of the biblical narrative. But the rest of the painting
brings us not to ponder the events of the passion, but our own reaction to it. This
is not a painting which invites us to just remember what happened to Jesus but to
respond to those events ourselves. Paintings like these have a long history in
Western art. These are not public pictures to be hung in a palace throne room or a
church, let alone an art gallery, pictures like this are painted for private devotion and
contemplation, perhaps for a private chamber or a personal oratory or chapel. The
donor wishes to use this image to assist him or her in prayer, in pondering an
individual response to a public event. More of this in our third picture.
So what exactly is going on? Apparently when this picture was first exhibited in
London in 1883, some 250 years after its composition, its imagery confused the
public. People called it The Institution of Prayer, as people thought that the image
represented an angel instructing a child how to pray to Jesus Christ. According to
one writer, Lord Napier, he saw a woman deeply moved by the image, which she
thought was a child being taken to visit her father in prison.
But, in the more passionate and emotional context of the Spanish Renaissance,
Velázquez’s image is thought to be one of a more straightforward devotional nature.
The angel points the child, a personification of the soul, towards the contemplation
of the suffering of Christ. Ponder this suffering, the angel implies to the child and to
us, and you will more deeply understand the depth of divine love.
The face of the child is a pretty standard face of devotion as the imagery of the age
required: kneeling, head tilted in an attempt at prayerful contemplation, with the
line from the face of Jesus directing itself not to his face or head (implying
intellectual grasping), but to the heart (implying a deeper, more emotionally
profound knowledge). Similarly, the face of the angel, looks with a sort of stern
compassion at the child, as if to say, look more closely and you will see beyond the
surface to the deeper meaning below.
But dead centre in this picture, topping a beautiful yet broken body, itself a contrast
between Christ’s beauty (the beauty of his holiness) and the ugliness of the
punishment he had already begun to suffer, lies that face. Sorrowful, mournful, and
yet full of compassion, he turns his head to the child-soul with a gaze of love that
begins to be reflected on the face of the profiled child.
The image could insult us, if we took it that way. It says to us, we who are used to
being ‘ok’ and just in need of a little fine tuning to be as good as we can be, that this
is not the case. The gaze of the Jesus and the pointing of the angel could make us
ask whether it is us, rather than the suffering Jesus, who is the weak one, who is the
broken one, who is the one in need of comfort. Christ looks on us with
compassion, even as we are beginning to feel such compassion for him. We are in
need of this sort of Saviour, the painting might be saying. We would be right to be
offended, as this biblical truth tells us something uncomfortable about us.
But we can also take it as an image of encouragement. In this midst of his suffering,
Christ looks compassionately upon us, moving beyond the struggle we saw him
engaging with in Mantegna’s Agony, settled in his vocation to suffer for the sake of
Some of us have been reading Dust and Glory, David Runcorn’s Lent Book, in the
past few weeks. At the Last Supper, Jesus asks his disciples “Do you know what I
have done for you?” These words have equal resonance at this moment. ‘“Do you
know what I have done for you?” If we want to see Jesus, we must look down and
not up. He is there kneeling at our feet, in pain and agony, and yet with a face of
compassion. We must surrender to being ‘done to’; we must be embarrassed by
grace. All is done for us. This is the only love on offer and it is always found beneath
our dignity, beneath our feet in the bloody mess.
As we ponder this painting allow Jesus to ask you the same question: “Do you know
what I have done for you?”
3rd Meditation: Christ as the Man of Sorrows after Jan Mossaert
You may have noticed a progression in our three images this afternoon. From the
outdoor space of Mantegna, through the indeterminate but real place of Velázquez,
this final picture has no landscape, no background, not context at all apart from the
robe and the Instruments of the Passion which Jesus holds in his bound hands and
the crown he wears.
This picture is really all about the face and only the face of Jesus. The Instruments,
the crown and the robe simply draw our attention to the face. Jesus simply looks at
our face; we gaze upon his. And that is all that there is to look at.
At some point during the Renaissance, there was a definite shift in taste and
religious sensibility in art. In earlier times the Passion of Jesus was seen as the
prelude to the Resurrection, his suffering seen in the light of his final triumph and
his divinity. His humanity was less visible.
Something changes, probably as a result of the influence of the preaching of the
Cross in the church by the Cistercians and Franciscans. Suddenly we start seeing
more human images of Jesus and we begin to be invited to react emotionally to the
Passion of Jesus. The cross becomes not only the sign of God’s love for humanity, it
becomes the focus for our compassion for the suffering Jesus.
This is, I think at the heart of this extraordinary and moving image of the face of
Jesus. His unnaturally-large eyes red raw and bloodshot, with tears the size of large
raindrops and some mixed with the blood from the thorns, Jesus weeps. But he
weeps not out of pain, for there is no physical pain etched on his skin; he weeps for
us. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with
And is he about to speak? What words might come from his mouth? “Look what
you have done to me”? Or “Father, forgive them, for they no not what they do”?
Clearly this picture is painted by Mostaert in order to help us know exactly what it
is we do. We cannot avoid the sorrowful, compassionate accusation of that stare.
When you come to it at the end of it all, we have to decide about Jesus Christ. We
have to decide what to do with the claims that an image like this explicitly or
implicitly makes. What do you think of Jesus Christ? How do you respond to his
suffering? A picture like this can only have had one intention: to provide an
individual in a private space the opportunity to wrestle with that question.
You will have heard, time and time again, of the death of Jesus on the cross. But
often we think of that abstractly. A painting like this won’t allow us to do that. Jesus
and the viewer. The viewer and Jesus. You and the Lord, me and Jesus. Just that.
Let us ponder that for a moment. Just you and Jesus.
And let’s for a moment wrestle with it. Set aside the church, set aside this building,
set aside the people you meet here, set aside the clergy, set aside the music, set
aside the liturgy, set aside the mission of the church, set aside the agonies of the
world, set aside whatever it is that brings you to this place regularly or occasionally.
Put it all to one side and ask yourself what you think of Jesus Christ? What does
this image tells you about what he thinks of you?
How do you respond?
There is always a decision to be made in Christian theology and spirituality. Will I
respond to Jesus Christ or not? In this moment, in this particular choice – be it large
or small – will I follow the way of God or go my own way?
Mantegna’s painting invites us to ask ourselves: Will I choose my own will or God’s?
Velazquez’s painting invites us to ask ourselves: What does my heart desire?
But this painting asks us one question: will I allow this Man, this Man-God, to share
his life with me, even though it takes him to suffering and death?
Each one of us has to choose for ourselves…