Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ: King and Shepherd

Today's readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe underline our faith in those words of the Creed "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." The great 15th century artist Jan van Eyck illustrates this for us using precisely the Gospel text we hear at Mass today: 
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,and all the angels with him,he will sit upon his glorious throne,and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another,as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right,'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me drink,a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me,ill and you cared for me,in prison and you visited me.’...
There are three "realms" in the painting. The top, of course, is Heaven. Jesus appears as King, enthroned on the Cross. He is in a seated posture, his wounded feet radiant beneath the folds of his cloak. Mary and John the Baptist appear to his right and left, just as we find them in a typical Byzantine icon. As the greatest of the saints, they are not only in a more prominent position, they are shown in bigger dimensions than anyone else except Christ, but they are still firmly rooted in the community of the saints below. The Apostles are in positions of honor as the "Canons" of this heavenly Cathedral, while a choir of virgins (who, according to Rev. 14:4  "follow the Lamb wherever he goes") processes in. The words "Come, blessed of my Father" (today's Gospel) appear in gold, standing out from the red of Our Lord's cloak. (The opposite message, "Depart, accursed, into the everlasting fire" --also in today's Gospel--descends from St Michael's wings into the pit of hell at the bottom of the painting.)  

The mid-section of the painting expresses a different, but related article of the Creed: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead." We see the bodies of the dead restored to life, and even "the sea gave up its dead" (Rev. 20:13). Some float heavenward, while others are fed, headfirst, into the pit below.

Finally, the lower realm appears, with Michael astride a colossal, seemingly winged, skeleton which serves as the gate of hell. Under the Archangel's feet, a dark tangle of forms, men and women, tonsured clerics and mitered bishops, thrash about in unending torment with myriad horrific beasts. The unremitting shadows are almost a mercy to us, since the darkness is no match for the vivid colors and detail that draw our eyes heavenward. We are not meant to dwell upon the threat of loss, but the promise of salvation. 

Despite the reality of the shadows below, van Eyck depicts Christ above all as the shepherd prophesied by Ezekiel who will tend his sheep and rescue them from every place where it is cloudy and dark, "and of his Kingdom there will be no end."

Jan van Eyck, detail from the Crucifixion/Last Judgment. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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