I came across this painting by the French Artist James (Jacques) Tissot some years ago and was struck by its scope and power. It gives us a unique opportunity to put ourselves into Christ’s place and consider his thoughts and feelings as he gazed on his friends and enemies who were witnessing or participating in his death.
On the faces of those at the foot of the cross Jesus sees every passion known to humanity. Some are scornful, almost leering, others are curious, disgusted , relieved and some are sorrowful, resigned and distraught.
Some Roman soldiers are looking on, including a centurion who is clad in red. He has a downcast expression on his face which reminds us of the passage in Luke’s gospel which says ‘Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, certainly this was a righteous man.’ (Lk 23:47). The men on horseback are Jewish scribes. They seem satisfied with the situation – after all, they were the ones who had pressed Pilate into having their rival crucified.
In the background, Tissot has painted a tomb where the body is to be deposited the same night. The pots in the foreground may contain edik (vinegar) that some joker offered Christ for water.
The women and the Beloved Disciple are at the foot of the Cross: distraught, resigned, sorrowful. Among the women is his beloved Mother, Mary. She is gazing upwards, clutching her breast. John is the only one who records Mary’s presence at the cross in his gospel. It is here at the foot of the cross that Jesus says to his mother ‘Woman, here is your son.’ (Jn 19:27) and to his disciple, ‘Here is your mother’ (Jn19:28). Mary at that moment becomes the mother of the disciples and so becomes a model of belief and discipleship for us all.
Finally at the foot of the cross Mary Magdalene is placed clinging onto the cross. She is placed in the immediate foreground with her long red tresses swirling down her back, grasping at Jesus’ feet, which are just visible at the bottom centre of the painting. The effect created by the artist by positioning Mary Magdalene is that she is raising the viewer up to heaven as she goes through her devotion to Jesus at his death. She represents the penitent and grateful, dedicated believer at the cross. She is the loyal and faithful disciple.
In this painting all eyes are fixed on Jesus, as I explore this painting, I wonder is the artist asking the viewer – who would you be in the crowd?