O Taste and See

A Meditation on Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Procession to Calvary Juliet Benner Part 10 of 14

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Procession to Calvary, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483–1561) lived and worked in Italy during the High Renaissance. During this period the world witnessed the flourishing of its greatest artists—Raphael, Michelangelo and DaVinci—all of whom greatly influenced Ghirlandiao. Known mostly for his portraits, he learned his craft from his father. Procession to Calvary, one of his earlies commissions, was produced as an altarpiece for the church of San Gallo in Florence.

 

“They took Jesus therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.” John 19:17, NASB1

 

Humans long for connectedness to their Creator. As St. Augustine’s familiar words remind us, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Remarkably, however, God’s longing for us is even greater than ours for him.

Having created us for himself and for his pleasure (Revelation 4:11), God constantly seeks us out. It is God who initiates our yearning, willing “that we should push on into His presence and live our whole life there.”2

Our spiritual journey is our return to our true home. Whereas we once enjoyed unbroken fellowship with God in a garden of beauty and tranquility, we now struggle against the weeds and thorns that block our path back to the Divine. Richard of Chichester expresses this quest simply but profoundly:

 

May I see you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
Follow you more nearly
Day by day.

 

The Christian journey is a journey to the heart of God. Little by little, day by day, our vision becomes clearer, our love grows dearer and our following draws us nearer to God. It is a process of transformation in which our hearts are gradually purified until we see God. In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan envisions it as wrestling with the obstacles that prevent our progress toward union with God. He describes it as a way to glory where pilgrims must relinquish their burdens and die to the things that keep them from seeing the face of God.

The Journey of Jesus

As we meditate on Jesus’ life, we see how his journey models the way to face the challenges and joys of our journey and be fully surrendered to God—how to die to self and allow God to have complete reign on the throne of our heart. Jesus never lost sight of the destination of his journey. He followed his Father’s leading, trusting that God was always with him, even in the most difficult stages of his journey.

The art on the front cover depicts one moment on Jesus’ journey. Painted by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio in 1505, it depicts Jesus carrying his cross toward the hill of Golgotha. Surrounding him are some of his closest followers as well as soldiers on horseback and on foot.

Take some time to look at this painting. What immediately draws your interest? Who or what is the focus?

The painting depicts three stages of a pathway in which different groups of people are traveling to the same destination. It is the path that Jesus has taken, and it leads upward toward his place of crucifixion. Behind is a group which is making its way toward Jesus. Ahead of him is another group which winds its way closer to the site.

First, look at the path which Jesus has just taken. In the right corner of the painting a procession of noblemen emerges from a grand city, making its way toward the place where momentous events are about to unfold. The noblemen seem unaware of the earth-shattering events about to take place ahead of them. They travel along, casually pausing to chat and confer with each other— just another outing, another spectacle to witness.

Their path takes them away from the prosperous city behind them, through an archway that is crumbling into ruin. This decaying arch marks the beginning of the way of suffering and death as it leads forward and upward toward the hill of the skull. Close to this curved opening is a barren, eroded rock to which a lone, scrubby tree and a dead brown root cling. This tree provides a sharp contrast to the rich and peaceful urban setting that lies behind, as well as a foreshadowing of the stark tree on which Jesus is to be hung. The participants in this part of the scene know where this road leads, although they have no understanding of its weighty significance. They follow, full of curiosity and interest.

In the opposite, left corner of the painting, we see others farther along on the trail up towards the hill. The figures are less distinct, but they appear to be the parties which accompany the two thieves who are to be crucified with Jesus on this fateful day.

Following this path upward, we arrive at the hill itself, already prepared for the two thieves. Two crosses loom into the sky, which is beginning to darken with gathering clouds. Almost at the center of this distant hill, a horseman carries a tall red standard which pierces the center of the hill, marking the exact place where Jesus’ cross will be placed. The short, horizontal beam of the cross and the long, aggressive spear at the center of the painting intersect to form a triangle that highlights the place of crucifixion for Jesus. Jesus himself is placed directly in line with this to leave no question for the viewer where he is headed. Nor does it leave any question about his fate. The soft, gentle colors of the background of the painting belie the ugliness and suffering of what is taking place directly in front of us.

The two groups on either side of the painting frame the central figure of Jesus and help focus our attention on him. Once announced by rejoicing angels and received with worship and adoration by shepherds and kings, Jesus is now rejected and despised. Growing opposition and demand for his death by his detractors have led to this cruel end. Here he walks painfully toward his dark and final hours on earth.

Look more closely at the figure of Jesus. He stands out in his red robe, his body bent under the weight of the cross as he walks barefooted on the stony path. He is also being dragged along by a rope tied to his waist, which the soldier ahead of him firmly grips. In spite of his suffering and anguish, Jesus’ face appears calm and tranquil. The crown of thorns presses heavily on his head. From it drops of blood stream down his brow and his neck. Yet he presses on toward his goal, fully accepting his Father’s will. His struggle in the garden of Gethsemane is over, and now we see him in serene and complete submission to his calling.

A Moment on the Journey

Ghirlandaio’s visual representation of Jesus’ journey to Calvary depicts him on his path, being followed by “a great multitude of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him.” (Luke 23:27). Here, we see the small band of devoted followers very close to Jesus, their golden haloes distinguishing them from the others. They accompany him on his painful route to Calvary. They are entirely focused on him as they walk closely behind. Their faces are mournful, yet they bear an incredible stillness and peace about them—a peace which stands in blatant contrast to the other people in the scene. They display an inner serenity that belies their outer circumstances.

Also note the similarity between their posture and faces and those of Jesus. As his body stoops under the weight of the cross, so these women lean toward Jesus, their gazes fixed on him. John, the beloved disciple, robed in red and gazing almost blissfully toward heaven, stands close to the mother of Jesus. We anticipate that moment when Jesus, hanging from the cross, connects Mary and John, saying, “Woman, behold your son! . . . Son, behold your mother!” (John 19:26–27).

The groups of opposing forces which surround Jesus are sharp and harsh. Their faces reflect anger and hostility in contrast to the gentle faces of his followers. Depicted mostly in profile, their features are crisply defined and hard. Notice the aggressive face of the man on the extreme left and the clenched fist of another behind him. Look at the soldier immediately in front of the horse. He shows a face full of rage and hatred as he looks toward the women. All of this is emphasized by the sharp, angular diagonals of the cross and lance in the middle of the painting. The hard, brightly metallic armor of the mounted soldier, the sharp edges of helmets and weapons accentuate their antagonism.

Go back and look again at the faces of all the people in the painting. What is unusual about them? Notice that almost all are looking somewhere other than outward to the viewer. There are actually only two faces which look directly at us. First, there is the man on the far left carrying a long rifle. He looks unswervingly at us as he points his thumb back toward the figure of Jesus. There is also the face that looks at us on the cloth held by woman who kneels slightly behind Jesus. Historically identified by Roman Catholics as Veronica, she has apparently used it to wipe the sweat and blood from the face of Jesus. Imprinted on this cloth, Jesus’ own face seems to be gazing out at us. Both these faces confront us with questions about our own journey.

In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The gesture of this man who faces us confronts us with the same question. What do we make of this suffering Savior? What is our response? Is our response one of recognition that this is truly the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world? Will we join his friends and follow too, even if the way is temporarily dark and unattractive?

The question is addressed to us again from the face that we encounter on the cloth. The woman who holds it does so tenderly. She expresses in visible form the mystery of the Incarnation. A verse of the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem prays that the Holy Child of Bethlehem would “be born in us today.” We are invited to receive Jesus’ own presence, as symbolized in this imprinted image, into ourselves. We are invited to bear his image—not on a cloth but in our very being. Like the woman who holds this sacred cloth, we too come to bear his image by being intimately connected to him. Notice how her hands touch his as she takes the cloth from Jesus. Are we close enough to meet Jesus in the intimacy he longs to share with us?

Look again at the company of Jesus’ friends. They huddle closely to him, refusing to be separated from him no matter where his path takes him. Their physical connectedness in the scene expresses the spiritual intimacy they share with him. They are also connected by the same kind of clothing, their serene demeanors, and their obvious devotion to Jesus. Notice that except for the kneeling woman, all follow Jesus with empty hands. They represent pilgrims who are spiritually receptive to becoming more closely intimate with their Lord. They have given up all to follow him. They remind us of Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

These followers have journeyed with Jesus and now dare to risk being publicly identified with him. They are in union with their Lord, even in his suffering. Sharing our faith journey with others creates the kind of community Jesus encouraged and modeled in his relationships with his disciples. It is here that we find strength as we journey together.

Getting Personal

Take a moment and place yourself within the painting. Where are you in relation to Jesus as he makes this journey to Calvary? Are you in the distance, far from him, or are you close enough to touch him? If close, where are your eyes looking—downward with despair or upward toward his face? If far, with which group do you most identify at this point in your own journey?

Ghirlandaio’s painting invites us to stay close to Jesus as we follow him toward union with God. It invites us to a place of surrender where we can be shaped into the image of God’s Son. It encourages us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

The artist presents the journey of following Jesus as identifying with him in his suffering. St. Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 3:1), but he connects this to knowing the “fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; in order that [he] may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10–11)

In his book Long on the Journey, Fr. Basil Pennington states that our struggles and suffering are given perspective and meaning when we walk the Way of the Cross. The reason this is so is that “at the end there is always ultimate meaning, the empty tomb—resurrection and ascension—for Christ and for each one of us, his members. . . . We are on a journey, and like any journey, it would be meaningless if it did not have a destination. But it does have a destination, a wonderful, glorious, assured destination. The way thereto has been opened to us by this sorrowful journey to Calvary; it has been assured to us by this journey. The Way of the Cross underlines the meaning of all life, even as it gives meaning to the little—and the greater—sufferings and crosses of life.”3

Allow yourself to be drawn closer to Jesus and to follow him with devotion and surrender as he leads you to the ultimate destination—union with God. Let the one who called himself “the Way” (John 14:6) lead you on the only journey worth pursuing.

To journey with Jesus involves accepting the crosses that enter our lives. In the midst of those times we can still experience the peace and joy of God because we know God is with us in every aspect of our journey. Jesus invites us to bear his image, to allow him to live in us, so that we may “testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24). Allow yourself to be drawn into a journey where the focus of your destination is God alone—where you become transformed into a person who reflects the image of God.

Footnotes
  1. All Scripture quotations 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. (www.Lockman.org)
  2. A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God. (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1993), 34.
  3. M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Long on the Journey: The Reflections of a Pilgrim. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1989), 100.
Juliet Benner is a spiritual director and retreat leader at the Institute for Psychospiritual Health (www.psy.edu/iph). For many years she was a docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada). Her special interest is in art and spirituality, particularly the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer. She can be contacted by e-mail at julietbenner@aol.com
Listen to all parts in this Conversation 2.2: The Spiritual Journey series