By Janet Laisch~
Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.
Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.
During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life.
Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum.
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels. The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.
Walking around to view the back of the painting, it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent. The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.
Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.
In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting.
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.
Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation.
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations.
Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power.
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare.
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).
Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.
As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.
The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God. Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.