Sassandra - VM - Janet Johnson
Sassandra: I Am Thirsty
So that I May Never be Thirsty (John 4 :15)
by Janet Johnson
Each of the four gospels in the New Testament records the story of what is portrayed in this painting. Artist Sassandra (b. 1932) helps us see anew the anguish and horror of the cross.
What do we see? A tortured figure, naked, nailed and bleeding. Our eyes are drawn upwards, then are stopped by the horizontal beam just below the topmost limit of the picture. The cross with its bold straight lines is very high. Smoke and reddish dust swirl upwards behind it like flames in a storm. Light bathes the outstretched body, seeming to push back the billows before it, and a patch of blue sky remains. A pale-orange halo encircles the head.
Our gaze rests there. We know it is Jesus. Here he is not yet dead; his head has not fallen to his chest but droops level with his outstretched arms. His red-streaked hair mingles with a thorny wreath, not unlike the twisted leafless tree below, whose lasso-like branches take part in the violence of the scene. Howling dogs on long thin legs surround the cross, three with lifted heads. Blood streams like flames from their raging jaws, their fangs are bared, but they cannot reach their prey. Jesus' mouth is open too, straining, unable to reach what he desires: the jug of water at the foot of the cross. The flame-like forms and falling tree tell us that death is near.
Thus we see the Son of God – the One by whom all oceans and rivers and lakes were made – thirsty. He who said: ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink’ (John 7:37) cannot have that jug of water, cool in its blueness. Jesus has been lifted up and nailed, he cannot move, and the cross is tall, tall out of all proportion, making us feel the vanity of his struggle. His wide-open mouth seems fixed.
‘J'ai soif’: ‘I am thirsty.’ Sassandra, at times, places words on his paintings. These are among the last that Jesus spoke and it is most fitting that they should be written here, for he is recalling the written Word of God:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
Psalm 22:1, 15-18
‘Dogs have surrounded me.’ At Jesus' trial the charge of blasphemy was brought against him and men cried out for his death. Now condemned, the Son of Man, the man par excellence, is lifted high above them, while the raging mouths of his accusers resort to mockery (Luke 23:35). Sin has degraded them, reducing them to brutes.
Yet it was for us that Jesus was despised and rejected and that he suffered and died. In the withering of his life is the rebirth of ours! Could it be that the white and blue light that falls from above and the stream Sassandra has painted at the foot of the cross speak of this? ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,’ said Jesus (John 12:32). ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life’ (Revelation 22:17).
Sassandra, I am Thirsty, 2000, acrylics, 80 x 100 cm. Paris.
Jacques Richard (‘Sassandra’ is his artist name) is a Protestant French artist, who was born in 1932 to a missionary family in Sassandra, Ivory Coast, where he spent his youth. Upon returning to France he studied graphic arts, lithography and the drawing of letters, followed by three years of theological studies. Eventually he decided to take the competitive examination in order to become an art teacher in Parisian public schools. Successful in this, he taught in several secondary institutions until he retired, all the while giving himself to drawing, painting and woodblock printing, and striving to deepen his thinking about art. As a favourite activity on the side, he writes stories and poems.
Janet Johnson was born to missionary parents and grew up in Burundi in central Africa, where she also taught for several years. She holds a BA in philosophy from Wheaton College (Illinois, USA) and a MA in theology from the Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique (Vaux-sur-Seine, France). She teaches Hebrew, Old Testament, and World Religions at the Institut Biblique de Nogent, in Nogent-sur-Marne, an eastern suburb of Paris. She loves reading J.R.R. Tolkien, teaching children in Sunday school and horses!
ArtWay Visual Meditation March 24, 2013