Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 18

A Meditation on Moretto da Brescia’s 
Christ in the Wilderness

O Taste and See

Juliet Benner

Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness Image of Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1911 (11.53). Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art. All rights reserved.

Moretto da Brescia (1498—1554) was born in Brescia in Italy as Alessandro Bonvicino and was known as “Il Moretto.” da Brescia learned his art as apprentice to the great Titian. He was an astute follower of the Venetian school of artists, and his works reflect their influence. He was considered to be a person of great personal piety and known to prepare himself by prayer and fasting whenever he engaged himself in producing any sacred art. His prolific oeuvres of altarpieces and other religious works attest to his Christian devotion and faith. He became the leading painter of his day in his city of Brescia, where most of his art was produced.

Christ in the Wilderness was painted in 1540 and is now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness . . . and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him.”

—Mark 1:12–13, NASBScripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (

Spiritual retreats can and do take many different forms. Some are directed (involving daily meetings with a spiritual director), while others are not. Some are solitary, while others are with a group. Some are conducted in silence, while others allow for conversation. Some involve going to a retreat center or monastery, while others happen in a log cabin in the forest, a hotel room, or even a back yard.

My first retreat involved going by myself to a Canadian alpine ski lodge in the middle of summer. The setting was wonderful, with lots of hiking trails, and because it was off-season, there were very few people around, skiers or otherwise. I simply went away for a week of solitude with my Bible, my journal, and a couple of books that I thought I might read. The experience was remarkable and very important, and its impact on my life included moving me toward training in spiritual direction and the work I now do as a retreat leader.

01.  Christian Retreat

Getting away is a central feature of a spiritual retreat. Sometimes, of course, this is impossible, and one can certainly work out some kind of compromise retreat in a back yard or quiet room of one’s own house. But going off somewhere that will allow a degree of solitude and quietness has always been part of how people have approached spiritual retreats. Such retreats reach right back to the earliest days of Christianity. In the third and fourth centuries, a common pattern was to go to the deserts of Syria and Egypt, where early Christians would often meet with spiritual directors known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Jesus, too, regularly practiced this sort of getting away to meet God and himself in a deeper place than was possible in the midst of daily life, and he encouraged his disciples to do the same.

Christian retreat is never simply a matter of escape, rest, or relaxation. Its focus is relational. It is centered on encountering God. Retreat is a time to set aside all our agendas, attachments, and preoccupations and place ourselves completely in the hands of God. A Christian retreat is a response to an invitation from God to come away with him. God is the host of this encounter and must be, therefore, in control of the agenda. We should approach our “vacation with the Lord,” as Thomas Green has called it, prepared to listen for and wait on God.

This vacation isn’t primarily about learning from God but simply about being with God. We should not, therefore, come away in order to get something done, but rather to allow God to do something in us.
The vacation-retreats that God plans for us will often involve surprises, and these may not always be pleasant. The silence that comes with solitude opens up places within us where we may be led to mountains of rapture and mystical encounters or to dark valleys where our hearts are laid bare and raw before God. We may be confronted by trials and struggle as well as by joy and praise. We do not choose how God will meet us while in retreat, but we can rest in God’s love and surrender ourselves to the gifts that God provides, whether they are painful struggles or moments of ecstatic blessing.

02.  Jesus Goes on Retreat

The Gospels tell us that Jesus regularly found time to go away to lonely and isolated places for times of retreat with his Father. Although his short life was crammed with persistent pleas for healing and crushing crowds wanting to touch and hear him, Jesus always managed to find time to be alone with his Father. Jesus knew these times were utterly essential if he was to do his Father’s will.

The cover art on this issue by the Italian artist Moretto da Brescia presents us with Jesus’ first recorded retreat. It comes, according to Mark, immediately after he has been baptized, just as he is about to launch into his earthly ministry. We commonly describe this experience as his temptation by the Devil, so we may not think of it as a retreat. But remember it is God who controls the agenda of spiritual retreats. And this was the Father’s agenda for Jesus’ first retreat. We, too, can learn much from it, for our retreats may well also involve temptation, trials, and an encounter with darkness—both our inner darkness and the darkness that is in the world.

The Gospels tell us that this desert retreat of Jesus was initiated—in fact, literally “impelled”—by the Spirit. There was no question that this was the retreat of God’s choosing. Take a few moments for a slow reading of the account of it presented in Mark 1:12–13. Then look carefully and meditatively at the painting on the front cover. Note the things that strike you most forcibly. Be there with Jesus. What do you see? And what do you experience?

03.  Being with Jesus in the Desert

Da Brescia’s desert is not a wide, sandy expanse of dunes. It is a place of rugged rocks punctuated by shadowed clefts with two trees growing in the center of the painting. The tree on the left, with dry, leafless branches, looks dead. The one on the right leans toward Jesus and is alive with fresh green leaves, some on its lower branches turning red. Unlike the dead tree, this may remind us of the life, growth, strength, and security we and Jesus have when rooted and grounded in God’s love. The left tree presents the alternative to this: death.

Notice the variety of animals that surround Jesus as he sits alone on a rock. Many are creatures of the desert, the “wild beasts” of Mark’s detail in verse 13—a snake, a scorpion, and a mythological bird at Jesus’ feet, ready to pounce. Yet all seem to face toward Jesus in postures of worshipful attention. There are several types of birds, the white one atop the rock on the left reminding us of the dove with outstretched wings that rested over Jesus’ head at his baptism. This may be the artist’s way of reminding us of the Spirit’s role in both his baptism and in bringing him on this retreat. A black eagle sits atop the tallest rock, also bowed and perhaps pecking at something on the rock face. Biblical references to eagles often convey connotations of strength and keen insight.

Other creatures include a bear and a lion that lie meekly asleep beside Jesus, a fox, and a stag on the left. The stag reminds us of the Psalmist’s expression that his soul thirsts and searches for God as a hart longs for a running stream. Considered to be immune to snake venom because they drank a great deal of spring water, stags were a symbol in medieval art of resistance to sin. Although the end of the story is not depicted here, the artist is perhaps suggesting that if we keep the focus of our attention on Jesus, the One who gives us living water, then we, like Jesus, will be able to resist temptation.

Jesus, with a faint halo surrounding his head, sits with his cheek supported by his right hand, traditionally symbolic in art of solitary meditation. His left hand rests on his knee, and one foot is placed comfortably on a small rock. He seems very still, but we also get a sense of intense inner focus and concentration. At this moment in time, the painting depicts Jesus completely centered. He does not allow any of the animals and activities that surround him to distract him. We see no disordered attachments here as Jesus prepares himself with prayer and fasting. The desert is a place where body and soul can both be severely tested. Remember that Jesus was fasting for the forty days he was there. But the moment we encounter him in this painting is before the ravages of hunger and thirst. He has not yet been thrust into the arena of struggle with evil.

Notice the angels that appear in the sky on both sides of the painting. They reinforce the medieval belief that our universe, the world close to us, around and above us, is inhabited by heavenly beings. They were thought to be ever present, though unseen, coming to our aid at God’s command. The ones closest to Jesus hover over him and appear to be waiting until his ordeal is over to minister to him. They seem solid and real, in contrast to the more ethereal, somewhat sketchy cherubs on the left side.

None of us would voluntarily choose this kind of retreat for ourselves. But it may be the retreat God chooses for us. Henri Nouwen has described a spiritual retreat as a returning home to our first love, where we are invited to reclaim the truth of our belovedness. He adds that it is here we find our true vocation. This was certainly the case for Jesus as he wrestled with Satan in the desert and as he was prepared by the Spirit for his vocation. And so it often is for us.

04.  Reflection

Pause a moment to note your observations and insights. Reflect on retreats you have taken. Who was the initiator? Have you ever felt “impelled by the Spirit” to do something— perhaps to draw back and be still with God? If so, how did you respond to that invitation?

Where was your focus as you looked at the painting? How did your experience reflect the worship and attention that the animals in the painting offer to Jesus?

Have you ever had a retreat experience that was in any way like this one of Jesus? In the midst of the desert, the living tree in the painting seems to give shade and protection to Jesus. How have you experienced this through the presence of God with you? Like this tree, where did you find growth and life? What was the fruit of your retreat?

What “beasts” accompanied you on your retreat? What happened to them in the presence of God as you were still and attentive to God? How did you allow them to be tamed and submissive to the Lord of all?

Retreats are “thin places” where we encounter the Divine. They are places where we often hear the “rumor of angels.” Has this ever been your experience on a retreat? If so, how have you felt ministered to by God’s attendants?

As the stag has nourished itself on flowing streams, how have you been drinking the living water that Jesus offers?

As you leave Jesus and his retreat, what gifts do you take with you from spending this time with him? Take a few moments to thank him for these gifts. And if you hear an invitation to you in the midst of them, take time to reflect prayerfully on how you might want to respond to it.

Times of retreat are not all about “God and me.” They should prepare us to return to the world with God’s heart of compassion and love for ourselves, others, and our world. This retreat of Jesus into the desert was God’s equipping of him for the ministry that lay ahead. Jesus left his desert retreat knowing God’s love more deeply and with renewed passion for his mission. May this be our experience. It will be, if it is indeed God’s retreat, not ours.


Juliet Benner is a spiritual director with a special interest in the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She and her husband live on Vancouver Island in Canada and regularly lead retreats throughout Asia, the South Pacific, and Europe. She can be contacted by e-mail at