When I first saw this painting, I was stunned with the complexity of the painting. There is just so much going on!
There’s the calm serenity of the crucified man on Jesus’ right, the good thief, who is bathed in ethereal light after asking for Jesus to remember him. In contrast, the bad thief on Jesus’ left has a both a tortured expression and posture as he fights death, though a soldier is about to break his legs and suffocate him.
There’s Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, collecting the water from the side of Jesus. This immediately reminded me of the scripture in John 4 in which Jesus talks about being the source of living water.
But, perhaps the most interesting part of the image of all was the fight for the robe.
Though the bible only mentions it briefly, the art shows it as a violent confrontation in which they are fighting each other for the robe. The soldier in pink is grabbing a soldier in green by a chunk of hair while holding a dagger up as if to kill him. A dog prances at his heels, looking as if to join in on the fight, though it isn’t clear what side the dog is on. The soldier in green who is being assaulted is violent too — in his hand, he holds a kind of weapon and looks to ready to strike the man whenever he gets a chance. And another soldier with a crazed expression tries to split up the fight.
It’s an incredibly violent scene in what is already a violent picture of the crucifixion! And, when I saw the picture, I couldn’t help but to think of the wonderful book, The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas, which was published in 1942 and later turned into a film in 1953, starring Richard Burton.
The story centers on a Marcellus, a Roman soldier of good name and family, who is banished to Minoa, near Galilee after some dirty politics. Upset at being placed in this position, he is determined to prove his merit as Commander and move back to Rome into a more dignified position that is more worthy of his family. But, before he is able to escape back to Rome, he is put in charge of crucifying Jesus. In fact, he is the Roman soldier who wins the robe from that game of dice. And this completely changes his life!
And I couldn’t help but think this passage as I looked at the painting, which is the last scene from Marcellus’s perspective immediately before the crucifixion:
Through the half-open door to the Centurion’s quarters, [Marcellus] saw [Paulus] greedily gulping from an enormous cup. He strode angrily in the room.
“If I were you, Paulus,” he said sternly, “I shouldn’t drink any more at present. You’ve already had too much!”
“If I were you,” retorted Paulus, recklessly, “I would take as much of this as I could hold!” He took a couple of uncertain steps toward Marcellus and faced him with brazen audacity. “You’re going to crucify a man today!” he muttered. “Ever seen that done?”
“No.” Marcellus shook his head. “I don’t even know how it is done. You’ll have to tell me.”
Paulus carefully picked his way back to the table where the grotesquely shaped wineskin sat. Refilling the big cup, he handed it, dripping, to his Commander.
“I’ll show you — when we get there,” he said, huskily. “Drink that! All of it! If you don’t, you’ll wish you had. What we’re going to do is not a job for a sober man.”
The image of Christ crucified is such a familiar image to us that often we can forget how awful of death that actually is. But it is a grotesque and bloody way to die.
And, to be the actual person driving in the stakes into Jesus’ hands and feet? To be able to do that, without flinching from duty, is a monstrous thing to do. In scripture, the Roman soldiers who persecute Jesus are portrayed as monsters from the very beginning, with their mockery and scourging. In Lloyd C. Douglas’s book, the Romans drank alcohol so they could turn into these monsters. And in this art, the soldiers look like monsters with such an unending appetite for death and destruction that they would kill and destroy their fellow soldiers if they had the chance.
It’s easy to distance ourselves from the Roman soldiers and not identify with them. After all, they are historical figures from a faraway time. But, look closer. Jesus is dying there, after they helped hammer Him in, and what are these monsters doing? They are playing games. They are fighting each other. They are not looking at Jesus at all, even though He is present with them at that very moment.
And what are we doing? After all, did not our sins help hammer in those nails?
So, this Friday, take a very good look at the art. On Christ’s right, there are the saints who are looking to Christ. On His left, there are the sinners who are completely oblivious to Christ. May we resemble the saints to the right!
Thank You for dying on the cross to save us. Help us to remember You always.