Munkacsy - Christ On The Cross
( Originally Published 1902 )
The Divine Love in Sacrifice
THE influence of Christianity upon Art and Architecture is no less remarkable than its effect upon political and social institutions. The effete models of Greece and Rome have been largely supplanted by sublime ideals of perfect manhood and a redeemed society. The grandest buildings are Christian temples. St. Peter's and St. Paul's, Milan and Cologne, San Marco in Venice, the Duomo in Florence, La Madelene in Paris, and St. Stephen's in Vienna are the noblest architectural piles in those cities. The choicest products of the easel, also, for 2,000 years have been the effect of the new life which came into the world with Jesus Christ. In almost every great gallery in Europe the richest treasure delineates some scene in the life of Our Lord. In the National Gallery in Lon-don it is "The Holy Family," by Murillo, in the Louvre it is Murillo's " Immaculate Conception," in Berlin it is Guido Reni's " Ecce Homo," in Antwerp it is Rubens's " Descent from the Cross," in Florence it is the "Madonna della Sedia," by Raphael, in Rome it is Raphael's " Transfiguration " and Domenichino's "Last Communion of St. Jerome," in Venice it is Titian's " Assumption of the Virgin," in Milan Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper," in Madrid Raphael's "Ascension," and last and most beautiful of all, in Dresden, the rarest gem of the world's art is the Sistine " Madonna." Not only have the old masters found their themes in the Divine Life, but the finest flowers of modern art have grown from the same vine. Gerome never painted a grander picture than " The Crucifixion," which is unique in that it shows only the shadows of the crosses, and the outlines of the figures on them, leaving all else to be supplied by the imagination of the beholder. Holman Hunt's masterpieces are " The Light of the World" and " The Shadow of the Cross"; Dore's greatest painting is " Christ Leaving the Pretorium" ; Piloty's chief work is the " Parable of the Virgins"; and the supreme achievements of Munkacsy are " The Christ before Pilate " and " The Christ on Calvary."
Pictures are a language, as music is a language, and as words are a language. One man has a vision of supernatural splendors —colors, forms, combinations fill his soul so full that he must find expression. That man becomes a painter and we name him Raphael, Titian, or Murillo. Another is trans-ported by the beauty and grandeur of nature, of truth, of life, and his thought finds utterance in rhythmical words. He is a poet, and we name him Milton, or Shelley, or Tenny son. Another catches echoes of melodious voices—harmonies from unseen spheres thril his emotions and inspire his expression. 'What he hears with his finer sense he utters in music, and we name him Beethoven, or Mozart, or Wagner.
Architecture has been called " frozen mu-sic." I do not like that expression, but never mind. An architect, a painter, a poet, and a preacher may all have the same living thought, and yet with each it will find different and equally vital expression. Most great buildings are symbolical. Behind them are vistas and spaces which are only suggested by their color and outline. This is also true of human language. Our common words tell no more of what is behind them than ocean waves tell of the deeps of the sea. Beneath the word " power" throb the cease-less forces that palpitate through the universe. Beneath the word " love " thrill the hallowed anticipations of youth, the deep devotion of mothers' hearts, and the fathomless affection of the Father Almighty. Our words, like our music, our architecture, and our paintings, are symbols of thoughts, visions and harmonies which flow into our souls from unseen spheres.
One of the noblest of recent paintings is Munkacsy's "Christ on Calvary." The artist is a Hungarian. From the joiner's bench he rose to the loftiest level among modern artists. In his brief life he won about all the recognition it was possible for him to receive. "The Christ before Pilate " appeared in 1881, and " The Christ on Calvary " in 1884. The pictures are very large. Each figure in them seems to be nearly, if not quite, life-size. They are so intensely realistic as to seem, sometimes, more like tragedies being enacted before our eyes than mere pictorial representations.
" Christ on Calvary " is one of the most difficult themes that an artist ever attempted, but in this painting all is strong, reverent, noble, inspiring. The figure of the Saviour, of course, is the most conspicuous on the canvas. The moment chosen by the painter is that in which Jesus says : "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit." Light from behind the gathering storm falls softly and silently upon the Divine Sufferer. At His feet are the few faithful women, the most prominent of them His mother, in the utter abandonment of grief, resting her face upon His feet. A little removed stands the Apostle John. Around the cross and moving away from it are soldiers and Roman and Jewish officers; in the distance, under the shadow, lies Jerusalem; in the foreground, haggard, despairing, suicidal, Judas is seen running from the agony he has caused ; from his horse the Roman Centurion looks with wonder and sternness upon a scene whose mystery he feels but whose meaning he cannot comprehend; near him the High-priest is laughing hypocritically at the Holy Victim, and in the distance the blackness of an approaching storm slowly but surely is filling the horizon and wrapping the earth in gloom. It would be both unwise and unjust to at-tempt in detail to interpret the artist's thought in this picture. The better course to pursue will be to ask what it suggests to us. The teachings of any work of literature or art are the lessons which the author or artist intended to convey, but the suggestions are its effects on the reader or beholder, and may be largely due to his own subjective state. I am well aware that the great Hungarian might repudiate my interpretation of his work, and yet I do not think he would, I may say in passing, for when this interpretation was first prepared, knowledge of what I had written reached the ears of the owner of the picture, who asked for the privilege of its perusal. My essay was sent to him, and months afterward I received from M. Munkacsy himself a specially addressed and signed artist's proof with most appreciative words. I may presume, therefore, in what follows, that I have not materially misrepresented the purpose of the artist.
Curiously, perhaps, the most startlingly realistic figure on that canvas is the executioner, who is standing near the cross, his lad-der on his shoulder, his axe in his hand, and a coarse, brutal, fiendish look on his face. He is near the group of women who are bowing in inconsolable grief. He has performed his ghastly duty with as little concern as he would have driven a nail into a board, and now he almost seems to desire another opportunity of showing his brutality. His face is a study and a lesson. It illustrates the sad truth that evil associations and courses leave an impress on the physical organization as well as on the character. The thoughts men think find expression in their features and modify them. Those who spend their time in debasing occupations, unless interior forces counteract the evil, have coarse and brutal faces. This executioner is an embodiment of that remorseless law. As a child he was probably as sweet and innocent as other children. His smile reflected his mother's joy, and in the deeps of his eyes were love and tenderness. He grew older in an evil environment, and in evil choices, and they have left their traces upon him. The man has become cruel by cruelty. Without a twinge of remorse he has nailed the gentlest Being who ever lived to a cross. Evil associations corrupt good manners, and, I may add, fair faces also. No hypocrisy can long conceal corruption. Sooner or later it will break out. Men think they can live double lives. They can, but there are tell-tale lines around their mouths, anxious and sometimes depraved glances from their eyes, that to those versed in such language reveal their guilty secrets. The present craze concerning mental science as a remedial agency has at least one sign of sanity—it puts into clear relief the influence of the mind on the body. An evil thought is a seed of death. Thus every man's body becomes a book of judgment. That executioner illustrates the truth that those who associate with evil, whose minds are foul or whose actions are cruel, will reveal in their faces the character of their mental processes, the moral quality of their conduct, and the nature of their environment.
In the foreground of the picture two figures are depicted as moving away from the cross. They are the Scribes. One is an old man with downcast eyes, thin face, snow-white beard. He is walking in silence and evident discomfort of mind. The other, who is younger, is arguing with his elder companion and apparently trying to prove that Jesus was a criminal and deserved His fate. These two Scribes also illustrate facts worthy of serious consideration. Old men who are intelligent and studious are seldom bigoted or dogmatic. The bigots of the world are usually young men who have not learned their own limitations, middle-aged men who are too busy to think much, and elderly men who have lived in narrow and provincial conditions. But, usually, old men who have thought much, read much, and seen much," are liberal and charitable, especially in their judgments. Having discovered their own weakness and ignorance, they do not expect too much of others. The old Scribe " doubtingly bends his hoary head and seems unable to rid himself of the thought that he had participated in an immense, irretrievable, unpardonable wrong." He has detected something heroic and grand even in the man they have crucified. But his younger companion is satisfied, conceited, dogmatic, bigoted. Bigotry is always ignorant, and ignorance is, usually, bigoted. The most tolerant and charitable of persons, as a rule, are intelligent and elderly people.
Moreover, self-righteousness has a blinding influence. If that Scribe, and the High-priest who is seen a little in the background, had had teachable spirits, what truths would have flashed into their minds in that tragic hour. They were in the presence of the Teacher of the ages, and they saw only a young criminal. Being high officials in the church, the time for them to learn, especially from carpenters and criminals, they supposed had passed. But such days should never pass. A somewhat prominent man a few years ago said : " When I graduated from the Theological Seminary, or soon after, I settled for-ever what I was to believe, and I never have swerved from that belief and never shall."
He was a representative of the Scribes and High-priests. No opinions should be held beyond the possibility of change, unless we are sure that we are omniscient. The growing soul is always the open soul. Our teachers were not infallible ; they were human like ourselves. They taught out of their littleness. We know more than we knew in childhood, and our vision and discernment ought to be better. God is teaching us in many ways. Those who, whatever the evidence, will not depart from the traditions of childhood, make it impossible even for the spirit of God to lead them. If Copernicus had been of a similar temper we might even now regard the stars as lamps shining through holes in a blue ceiling; if Watt had been satisfied with his father's ways we might still be travelling by ox-carts, stages, and canal-boats ; if there had been no Morse, and others like him, the cities and the continents would still be as far apart as they were a thousand years ago. To the end of the ages there will be more to learn about God and life and duty. The growing man will ever have an expectant mind. On Weiland's tomb, at Weimar, are these words : " Light, love, life." 'With more light there will be more love and larger and more beneficent life. A venerable man once said—" Keep all the windows open toward the sky." Such a man can never grow old.
One of the most impressive figures on this canvas of Munkacsy's is that of Judas. The presence of Judas in the picture is a poetic license. He was introduced for the development of a truth. In front of the two Scribes Judas is running from the sight of the cross, as if possessed by the demon of suicide. He is worn, haggard, miserable, and apparently crying—" I have shed innocent blood." But he is moving in the wrong direction. There was one person in that multitude who could have stilled that tempest in his soul; there was one Being, and only one, who could have calmed his guilt and given him peace, and from that Being with downcast face he is hurrying away. If, when the terrors of remorse had taken hold of him, he had thrown himself at the foot of the cross, and cried : " I have sinned, I have sinned, but I will not turn away from Thee. Slay me, but even in my guilt, will I trust Thee "—he would have been lifted up and forgiven, and whether he had lived or died, he would have been at peace.
Guilt also is blind. It refuses to look in the only direction from which help can come. A person commits a great sin; one friend is anxious to help and to save, but instead of turning to that one the wretched soul plunges into deeper wrong. A man whom I well knew had been terribly intemperate. He made weak efforts at reform, but again and again his old enemy got hold of him. He fell. Instead of going to those who loved him, and who would have done anything to save him, he turned to those who were -weak and worse than himself. He should have gone to the noblest and truest of his acquaintances, confessed his weakness and allowed them to give him strength until the storm had passed. Many fall into nameless sins ; they are led astray by those who ought to have been protectors and defenders. I some-times feel like crying—" Oh ! that a thou-sand lightnings would blast such social fiends before they ruin more innocent and confiding souls," but a more Christian prayer would be—"Oh ! that they might see that the most detestable being in the universe is he who gratifies himself at the expense of the weak who mistakenly trust him."
Judas should have turned toward Jesus, not away from Him. All who are conscious of guilt ought first to turn toward their truest earthly friends, and then toward Him who will save even to the uttermost.
That picture illustrates with great force the insignificant beginning of the Church. To - day there are churches and cathedrals without number ; Sabbath-bells mingle their echoes around the world ; missionaries, ministers, and organizations for the spread of Christianity are working in every land. But at that time three broken-hearted peasant-women, one thief, and one disciple with the Master, were the only members of the Christian Church. The other disciples had all fled. Not a single other per-son was ready to follow Jesus in that awful hour. Never did any society have a more unpretentious or unpromising birth. A young man who was being executed as a criminal, three women, one of whom was His mother, a thief half-dead, another man who was a fisherman, constituted the new spiritual society. How different the prospect to-day ! I well remember a service at nine o'clock on a Sunday morning in the Cathedral at Cologne. The huge edifice was crowded with thousands of persons, mostly men, all with deep devotion, worshipping that Man of Calvary.
On an island beneath southern suns, in Pacific seas, I have seen a dusky congregation listening with rapt and radiant faces to a story which brought tears even to savage eyes—it was the same old story of Jesus and His love.
In the greatest cities in the world hundreds of thousands of people of all classes crowd cathedrals, churches, chapels, little conventicles, while many go ministering from house to house, and the object of all who preach, who teach, and who serve is to persuade their fellow-men to accept the message of that Man who hung between those two thieves so many years ago.
But that is not all. External institutions are easily organized, marble is easily piled, but to change the world's thought, to alter and spiritualize motives and aims, to trans-mute selfishness into self- sacrifice, to in-spire with deathless aspirations those who are living ignobly, in short, to change the currents of the unseen life so that they shall move toward truth, right, and love, is a far more difficult task, and yet just that has resulted from that tragedy which is portrayed on the canvas before us. I can find no explanation of the new evolution which began at Calvary, and which is extending and expanding, bearing fruit in charities, re-forms, enthusiasm for humanity, the grandest art, the noblest architecture, faith in God and immortality, except in the Christian faith that the Son of Man was the Lord of Glory.
That picture suggests the impossibility of adequately expressing the profoundest spiritual realities. There is no language great enough for the elemental truths. Poetry, music, and art succeed better than attempts at exact expression. Spiritual experiences are too ethereal for logical processes. A child appreciates the affection of his mother when he cannot tell how his appreciation came to him. This picture of Munkacsy's fails where all art must fail, and yet art fails here no more than any other language. In this painting every figure is superb except one, and that the One. Divinity can never be delineated. Just such faces as most in the picture are to be seen on the street any day. The artist could copy them, but where could he find another Jesus that he might copy Him ? He has given us his ideal, but his ideal is not mine, and it is probably that of no one but himself. Every other artist would also have failed, equally, in his at-tempts to portray the universal. In this picture the Christ is a magnificent artistic triumph, but it only represents a common man dying on the cross. No artist could have done more. Some truths can be impressed when they cannot be expressed. Jesus Himself says "no man knoweth the Son." I went away from my first visit to that picture feeling the powerlessness of all attempts, both of imagination and of the logical faculty, to do more than hint at the divine. The Jews allowed no attempts to depict such themes. Their literature is suggestive of the divine rather than descriptive. Our Bible contains no description of God. God is love, God is light—but those are only hints : clouds and darkness are round about Him. In the Bible there is no attempt to define God, or to describe heaven. The same silence is preserved concerning the cross and salvation. What men should do to be saved is made very clear ; but no word tells us how sins are removed, in what way God works, or what is the relation of the death of Christ to our forgiveness. Christ died to save us, and He does save all who trust him—that is all we know and all we need to know. It is precisely what cannot he uttered which glorifies Calvary. Death is the final expression of love, and even human love transcends the poet's art and the painter's brush. No painter can convey in color and form the more ethereal of human emotions; much less can he paint the impression which things done in time make on God in eternity. What the artist cannot do the theologian and the preacher are equally powerless to accomplish. The higher spiritual spheres never have been explored, and their mysteries and glories are not likely soon to whisper their secrets to poets' pens or artists' pencils.
The mystery which angels desire to look into, and which will be the endless study of redeemed souls in spheres of light, we, the children of a few years, cannot hope to know very much about; but we may be sure that God is our Father, that Jesus Christ died to save us, that all who trust Him and do their best to follow Him are saved already. What is more will be the subject of gradual revelation, part of it on the earth, part beyond the earth; and, possibly, there are depths in the glory which will never be fathomed either here or hereafter.