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Gérôme. Jean-Léon - VM - Henk Reitsema

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Jerusalem (Consummatum est)

The Shadow of the Cross

by Henk Reitsema

The crucifixion of Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian faith, literally the focal point of history, like the two beams of the cross dissecting. But when we stare at the cross, when we read the details of the story limited just to the event itself, it becomes very hard to understand its magnitude as the true centerpiece of history. A movie like The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson) seems to suffer from this problem. Is it simply our emotional gut response at the torture he bore that elevates this event to good news for all?

In Jean-Leon Gérôme’s painting Jerusalem (1867) he chooses to depict the shadow of the cross rather than having the viewer looking at the cross ‘point-blank’. We are invited to stand at the foot of the cross, seeing the shadow that it casts and sensing the light behind the cross that is illuminating the world through it. The event of Christ’s crucifixion has cast a visible shadow, a shadow which stretches throughout history so that we can see it to this day. It is a shadow which changes the light in which we see and experience the death of our loved ones and ultimately our own death. In this shadow we see the image of the incarnate Christ who suffered and died for our sins. But what is so good about his dying that it should provide a basis for faith?

If we stand in front of the cross and only get caught up in a kind of fatal attraction to the gore and the blood, then this question becomes more grotesque than ever. It is only when the light of Easter lights up the cross and we get to see the shadow of the cross, that we get an answer to this question. The cross conquers over sin and resulting death.

The Gospel of John emphasizes God’s directing these events, which makes that moment into ‘God’s Friday’, the probable origin of our name for this day. It is God’s Friday and therefore also a good Friday. The cross was not just some tragic horrible event. John 19:31 tells us that this was the Friday of the preparation for the Passover feast of the Jews. This is not some coincidence; the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover (God passing us over with his judgment because we accept the blood of his son poured out for us). This timing is not just chance; God has history in his hand. All of history was barreling down on this moment. It was foreshadowed and now God was literally writing the Gospel on the pages of history itself. And more pertinently: he was writing the Gospel on the life of Christ, the incarnation. Part of the reason why Christ did not write a Gospel is because the Gospel was written on his life and others had to witness it to tell it to us. By seeing it, it was then written on their hearts and through them on ours.

John (19:35-36) is making absolutely certain that we see first of all that Jesus really died (and therefore that the resurrection is real) and secondly that God is fully in control. This is also true when we suffer – suffering does not get to have the last word in our lives. Our suffering is not a proof that God is not in control. The light of Easter gets to illuminate our suffering and make visible the meaning that our lives represent even in the midst of suffering.

It was characteristic of Gérôme to not depict a violent event itself, but to depict the results thereof (see The Execution of Marshal NeyThe Duel After the Masquerade, and The Death of Caesar). This approach proves to be pure genius for understanding the relevance of the cross and how we can best situate ourselves in relation to it, maybe even in how we can best relate to our own sufferings when they arise. The light that shines back from Easter, from the resurrection, is the light of hope: death is not the end but a new beginning. If we look at Good Friday through the lens of Easter, we see that it was a day on which God, the creator of the universe, proclaimed that it was his intention to save his creation, his world and his people from a certain demise and death and to love them.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme: Jerusalem (Consummatum est),  1867, oil on canvas, 82 cm × 144.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) was a French painter and sculptor in a style now known as academicism. By 1880 he was one of world's most famous living artists. His oeuvre included historical paintings, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits, and other subjects. In his painting Jerusalem, he employs a kind of ‘photo realism’. All signs of a personal brush stroke have been smoothed over and extraordinary effort has been put into achieving historical and topographical accuracy. He had actually seen and felt the landscape around Jerusalem on an expansive trek through the Middle East. His strong urge for historical exactitude led him to create an archaeologically reliable reconstruction of the details in his painting. It also resulted in his breaking with the age-old iconographic traditions of Christian imagery. Beginning in the mid-1890s, in the last decade of his life, Gérôme made at least four paintings personifying Truth as a nude woman, at the bottom of or emerging from a well. He seems to have been very concerned about truthfulness in art. Gérôme's images of Truth and the well were part of his ongoing argument against Impressionism.

Henk Reitsema works at the Dutch branch of L'Abri. He grew up in South Africa, where his parents were missionaries. He studied philosophy at the University of Potchefstroom in South Africa and theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, USA. Together with his wife Riana he has worked ca. 25 years at L’Abri, which was started in 1951 in Switzerland by Francis and Edith Schaeffer and in 1971 in the Netherlands by Hans and Anky Rookmaaker. L'Abri wants to search for biblical answers to the big questions of our time.

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