The real Jesus
Fra Angelico: Christ in limbo
c. 1450 (fresco; 183 x 166 cm; cell 31 of the cloister, Museo di San Marco, Florence)
This is my kind of Jesus. Not the wimp who timidly taps at Holman Hunt’s cottage door in The light of the world. Nor the misty eyed Jesus of Werner Sallman who looks as though he is posing in the photographer’s studio, wishing he was off somewhere else.
This is the purposeful Jesus, irresistibly strong, who kicks the door off its hinges, and strides resolutely into hell to rescue his people from Satan’s imprisonment.
Fra Angelico emphasises the violence of the entrance with the lower hinge still fixed to the door frame, stark black against the light flooding in. And there is the comical figure of the unfortunate demon who was standing behind the door at the moment of impact, now helplessly pinned beneath it. The force of the blow has cracked the floor and the ceiling, and the other demons are heading deeper into hell, helpless to resist the intruder.
Jesus, bearing the red-cross flag that symbolised the resurrection, is shown stepping through the air on a small cloud: this is the resurrection body of Jesus, still bearing the marks of crucifixion, as he always will, but now miraculous, all-powerful, able to pass through walls and travel distances in no time. As Paul says, ‘sown in weakness, raised in power’ (1 Corinthians 15:43). Two long nails stick out of the door, where it has been dispatched, perhaps to remind us of the nails that held Jesus to the cross. But now they lie bent on the floor, used, defeated, finished.
In Mark chapter 3 Jesus likens himself to a thief, who ties up the strong man in order to plunder his goods (Mark 3:27). And shortly afterwards he meets the demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes, who probably represents Satan’s strong man – someone no one could bind (Mark 5:3). And Jesus dismisses Legion with nothing more than a word. Elsewhere, Jesus tells us that not even the Gates of Hell will prevail against his church (Matthew 16:18). Satan’s kingdom is under purposeful attack, and will yield. Like the gates of Mordor, the gates of Hell may look dark and impenetrable to us. But Jesus, with his disdainful ease, flattens them, strides in, and frees those who have been caught in Satan’s thrall.
Jesus certainly is meek and mild. He is a servant king who humbles himself to serve those who should be serving him. But he is also tough, resourceful, and commanding. He is still a king, and he accomplishes his will, supremely, unstoppably. And he does it for his own glory, and yet at the same time for our salvation, and for our perpetual good.
For the picture is not just about Jesus. Attention is focused on him by his implied energy bursting through the doorway, and by the light radiating from him. But in structural terms, the image is also about us, the redeemed. The centre of the picture is occupied not by Jesus, but by the first of the freed captives as they pour up out of darkness and towards the light. This figure is thought to be intended to represent Abraham – the father of all those who have been saved through faith. They offer up their hands together in prayer, and Jesus, whose facial expression is serious, offers with his hands a gesture that is gracious and kindly. He stretches forward and, with one hand, embraces both hands of the believer. It is a movement that implies kindly blessing, but also warmth, love and care, as he draws the believer towards him.
As we celebrate Easter Sunday, the day on which Jesus, by his physical resurrection from the dead, was proved ‘with power’ to be the sinless Son of God and Messiah (Romans 1:4), we celebrate a victory – over Satan, and over death. Jesus is supremely stronger than any of his foes; he always accomplishes his will.
And, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, God’s ‘mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms’ is now at work in our individual lives, if we have put our trust in him (Ephesians 1:19-20). No wonder he says we should not be anxious: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7).
This is the Jesus of Fra Angelico’s image: gracious and kind, and irresistibly active in bringing about the fullness of salvation for his people.
[First published by ArtWay, 24 April 2011. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]