For all my interest in contemporary visual interpretations of biblical narrative, I own only two pieces of original art that fit this description (money and space being the limiting factors). One of them is a Crucifixion painting by Nicholas Mynheer.
The artist generously gifted this to me when I visited his studio in Oxford back in 2013. It is one of my most treasured possessions. It depicts Christ crucified on the hill called Golgotha, crying out in anguish to the Father. Close by him in the background are two figures bowing their heads in grief, echoing the bend of the crossbeam (both man and cross feel the weight), while in the foreground are two additional figures, also responding to the event but in a more contained manner.
Traditionally, Crucifixion paintings show two main figures beneath the cross: the Virgin Mary and John. That’s who I imagine the back two figures to be. But what of the two others? Notice how they seem to levitate; their feet are not firmly planted. For this reason I read them as angels, come to earth to bear witness to the death of the One who created them, to pay due reverence. At the same time, as patrons were wont to do during the Middle Ages (though I myself am not the patron of this work; it was made when I was a toddler), I read myself and my husband into the picture as two of the devotees.
Hands are prominent in the painting, drawing attention to gesture: a covering of the face, a joining together in prayer. These two related expressions—one of penitence and grief, the other of awe and thanks—give us a model for how to respond to the crucifixion of Christ on this side of the resurrection: it should disturb and aggrieve us, but at the same time it should console and empower us, because just as surely as it makes us aware of our baseness (our sin killed the Son of God), it lifts us up. The bright gold that seeps in from the fringes of the panel, coating the death-hill and transfiguring the blood-red sky, tells the story of how Christ’s death ushered in the glory that crowns us as saints.
Though not an icon in the Orthodox sense of the term, this small panel invites me daily into a deeper contemplation of what the cross means and what it calls me to. It sits atop my bedroom dresser, a constant reminder of Christ’s selfless extension of love over a broken world and of my charge to point people to that love, in part by extending myself likewise.
What a beautiful work!
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