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.