Art Explained: Crucifixion

The painting below, Charles Lutyen’s Crucifixion, is one of the more jarring depictions of the death of Christ. The fear, pain, and utter bewilderment are powerfully etched on the faces of the mourners at Christ’s feet. Not only are they witnessing the death of who they thought was their Messiah, but they are witnessing the death of the Messiah whom they have abandoned, denied, and betrayed. Now, not only do they think there is no chance to see the Kingdom that Jesus had promised, but there is no chance to apologize, to explain, to tell Him what He meant to them. Good Friday represented both the unraveling of their greatest hope and the deep bruising of their own sense of goodness–Jesus went to the cross alone because they all weren’t faithful enough to stay by His side. The death of Jesus was an unmitigated disaster for His followers. The man at the bottom left stares out at you like a shell-shocked soldier in a stupefied daze. His piercing eyes are meant to unsettle you. Look at this tragedy.

Charles Lutyens, “Crucifixion,” 1984. Oil on canvas. Source: http://www.charleslutyens.co.uk/paintings/religious.html

And yet, notice the posture of Jesus on the cross. The subtle rectangular red frame draw your eyes to the center where the arms of Jesus and the arms of one of the disciples at the foot of the cross almost make a circle. This draws your eyes to look in a circular motion from the two disciples’ pain-stricken faces, to Christ on the cross whose face is hidden from us as He looks down at His disciples. Perhaps he is slumped over, exhausted by death. Or, perhaps he is hunched, ready to pounce. His arms are cocked back, hands open wide, as if He is prepared to scoop up the heartbroken disciples. His very posture implies a coiled strength–aggression, even–as if He is about to shatter the cross in an attempt to grab those wailing below. And, in a sense, He does.

He rends death’s iron chain;
he breaks through sin and pain.
He shatters hell’s dark thrall;
I follow Him through all.


At the foot of the cross, a patch of wildflowers grow. Life and beauty grow at the base of this grisly scene.

The death of Christ was such a horror that the very creation rumbles, the sky blackens, and the veil of the temple is torn. Yet, in that great calamity, Jesus absorbs the sins of His people and the wrath of the Father. He is crushed, and yet by His wounds we are healed, we are embraced, we are spared. He shatters death and sin and Satan’s devices and scoops us up into Him, sinners and doubters and deniers though we are. And more than that, it is those very wounds which now make Jesus one who is a sympathetic high priest, able to embrace wailing, weeping, shoddy disciples and say, I know, I know…It’s okay.

Edward Shillito, a minister in WWI who witnessed firsthand the brutality of war, in his poem, Jesus of the Scars, reflects on the ugliness of this world and how it is the very scars of Jesus which makes Him capable to relate to our own pain, to our great need.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.  

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

The only Jesus who can speak to our wounds is the wounded, thorn-pricked, and weak Jesus of Good Friday. Shillito plays on the story of doubting Thomas who demands that the only thing that will convince him that Jesus has really resurrected from the dead is a personal encounter–a touch–of the wounds of Jesus (John 20:24-29). It is a significant reality that it is the wounds, not the crown or glory or power, of Jesus which open the skeptic’s eye to who Jesus is.

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