Quick thought experiment!
If you saw a picture of the Crucified Christ, hanging on the cross in agony, with Washington, D.C. (or the capital of whatever country you’re living in) visibly depicted in the background, what would your reaction be?
Would you be astonished? Horrified? Angry? Relieved? Offended?
If I am being absolutely honest with myself, I would be horrified. And honestly, I would probably be offended. After all, I have been raised to honor America and to view America’s symbols with some sort of patriotic sentiment. To see Christ on the Cross with Washington, D.C. right in the background would be an affront to these sensibilities. Even just imagining Christ Crucified with the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the White House in the background would seem like an affront and an unfair accusation against America.
So, when I came across this picture of Christ, I was a bit floored. Take a look:
It is a picture of Christ crucified by the inimitable El Greco.
In this picture, Jesus is at the center, His bleeding and broken Body stretched out the Cross. Blood drips down from his feet and He still wears the Crown of Thorns which is cutting into His head. He is looking toward Heaven, his eyes large and sympathetic, which is a stark contrast to the rest of His body. Underneath Him at the foot of the Cross are skulls and bones, meant to symbolize Adam. The sky, which is ominous black, has been torn apart to symbolize how the veil at the Temple was torn and now the Earth is descended into darkness.
It is a startling image of the Crucifixion, and one which El Greco reproduced many times and in many ways in a variety of paintings. But one of the interesting parts about this particular version is the background. Take a look at it.
It’s of Toledo.
Now, though El Greco originally was from Crete (thus, his nickname and also name that he is most famous by, which means, “The Greek”), Toledo is where he finally settled down, creating some of his greatest artistic works. He liked Toledo. So, his putting Toledo in the background of the painting was not meant to be a slur on Toledo. Hardly!
So why is Toledo in the background?
One of the reasons is probably because of some Counter-Reformation rules. El Greco was an artist who lived in the height of the Counter-Reformation art movement, in which the Vatican put out new rules to follow in the creation of artwork. One of those rules? No landscape paintings. So, he probably did this to be able to paint Toledo, his adopted hometown.
The other reason, perhaps?
Because, even though the city of Toledo didn’t personally crucify Him, our sins — all of our sins — helped crucify Him.
And even though Christ died in Calvary in Jerusalem hundreds of years before this painting was made, He died for all of us so that we may be saved.
For the people of Jerusalem. For us. And yes, for the people of Toledo.
May we never forget Christ’s sacrifice and grow to love Him all the more!