Easter in Art

This lecture tells the Easter story, and looks at how artists have portrayed its various elements. Images range from early Christian mosaics and sculpture, through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, up to the modern day. Along the way we see how artists choose particular scenes, and ways to portray them, that reflect the concerns and beliefs of their own age.


Tintoretto: Christ washing his disciples' feet (c. 1556; London, National Gallery, oil on canvas; 201 x 408 cm)

Ford Madox Brown: Christ washing Peter’s feet (1852-6; London, Tate Britain; oil on canvas; 1168 x 1333 mm)


I like Tintoretto’s painting for a number of reasons. The disconcerting, dark, vertiginous space gives it an air of disturbance typical of Mannerism, and suitable to the drama that is unfolding. The drama is highlighted in the confrontation between Jesus and Peter: Jesus has got his sleeves rolled up, looking purposeful. Peter looks particularly hesitant about what is going on.

In all paintings of Jesus, it is interesting to see what the artist chooses to emphasise. Artists have to grapple with a basic problem that Jesus is both man and God; fully human but also fully God. Portraying this human being, they are also portraying someone who is God himself, the person through whom the universe came into being, the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. How do you get all that into a painting? It’s certainly tricky. Many artists settle for the human figure, and rely on the viewer to supply the knowledge of who Jesus is - sadly, not so well known today. Some, like Tintoretto here, use a halo. Some paint the baby Jesus as if he were a mini-adult, to suggest something stronger and authoritative within. Others, such as Rembrandt, use subtle distortions of natural reality to point to Jesus’ divine nature.

I particularly like this picture because it emphasises the real humanity of Jesus: not the wimpish image of Jesus that has come down to us from the Pre-Raphaelites, but Jesus who is here physically strong and determined. Jesus himself was a tough guy: he trained as a carpenter; he was able to survive 40 days in the desert without food; he was determined in his mission; he was brave in the face of his enemies; he was heroic in sacrificing his own life for his friends. 

Ford Madox Brown, however, was an exception to the anaemic Victorian image of Jesus. You feel he may well have had the Tintoretto in mind when he painted his version, although the Tintoretto did not enter the national collection for another 30 years. Brown, sticking with the stylized halo for Jesus, has increased the power of Jesus’ arms as he grips Peter’s foot, the sense of his muscular humanity. Peter also looks proportionately more grumpy.

And this episode is a particularly striking lesson in masculinity because, when he has finished with the foot-washing, Jesus says to his disciples: 'Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me "Teacher" and "Lord", and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you' (John 13:12–15; New International Version).



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