Have you ever had a painting ‘gobsmack’ you, catch you completely off guard?
Maybe you can identify with growing up in a home where art was for everyone else. Sure, there were school outings to local museums that were a nice diversion, but weren’t they more for those who could actually draw?!
And then something happened in my twenties. Art snuck up on me through my love of the Bible, which shouldn’t have been a surprise, but was. Suddenly I realized there was a Dutchman, centuries before, who had poured over the same stories and Biblical figures, and interpreted them with a brush and pen instead of words. I was hooked. Rembrandt (1606-1669) suddenly was on my radar and I did everything possible to see his original work wherever I was visiting if these museums were fortunate enough to have any of his paintings.
I share all this because we traveled recently to see the Rembrandts housed in “The Hermitage”, that astounding collection of Renaissance and other art amassed by the Russian Czars. These masterpieces are definitely worth a trip to St. Petersburg because the Russians don’t let them travel outside of the country.
In the process, we discovered a Russian artist at The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the main museum of Russian art, who saw something Biblically that has gripped me and not let go. Nikolai Ge (1831-1894) painted a number of pieces on New Testament subjects but none seems more profound than his “Messengers of the Resurrection.”
As you can see, there are only four figures, the woman in the background (Mary Magdalene with her traditional red garment peeking out) and three Roman soldiers. In between, on the ground, lay the pieces of the cross and the mocking sign Pilate insisted on placing over the cross, regardless of the Jews’ protest: “King of the Jews (in three languages of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew) (Luke 23: 38).
Look at the movement of Mary, running with the news that will change everything. We can sense that the angels have just told her at the empty tomb: “He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead” (Luke 24:6), and almost bursting to share the fulfilled prophesy with Christ Jesus’ disciples. Her bare feet don’t seem to even notice the rocky ground over which she moves with such speed that her robes are billowing behind.
While she is the first to garner our attention, quickly we see the three men in the foreground, two of them laughing, swaggering. The third one, somber, we’re not sure about. Maybe he was on the edge of believing Jesus’ messages. But his fellow soldier with hand extended seems quick to point out the ludicrousness of the promise of eternal life. You can almost hear the bluster as he probably gloats: ‘Now who has the last laugh?!’
And then you see it – the cross on the ground, the symbol of Roman punishment that was so definitive – until now. That cross, that has become the symbol of Christianity through 2000 years, was proved insufficient to snuff out the life of the Messiah, the savior of the world who would prove life is eternal after all; that what the senses are so smugly sure of one moment, are found to be liars the next.
And that is the power of this enormous piece. The soldiers, so cocksure, will be proven profoundly wrong in three short days. While they are convinced that finally, the ‘nonsense’ of this Jew from Galilee is over, Nikolai Ge has us understand, through Mary’s convicted movement, that au contraire – it is all just beginning. To put the three groups together – a believer, mockers, and one on the fence – summarizes the responses to that remarkable life for all subsequent centuries. Thank you Nikolai Ge, for taking up your brush.
If you have been deeply moved by a painting of a Biblical story, I hope you’ll share it here. We’ll all be the richer.