Sunday, February 26, 2012

"And The Angels Ministered To Him"

Christ Ministered to by Angels
From a Pictorial Bible
French (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninlijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 12v (detail)
Here the angels look like they are tidying Jesus up 
following His confrontation with Satan.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”

Mark 1:12-13
Excerpt from the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B

All three Synoptic Gospels relate that Jesus spent a period of 40 days and nights in the desert immediately following His Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist and the dramatic recognition given by Heaven to this event. The number 40 obviously has resonance with such Old Testament events as the 40 days and nights of the Great Flood (Genesis 7:9), the 40 days and nights that Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24:18) and the 40 years in which the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-34).  Mark’s reference to the Temptation of Jesus is the shortest of the three. Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) both describe in detail the temptations tried by Satan, temptations to power and pride, which Jesus resisted. All three agree that at the end of these 40 days and nights, Jesus was tired and hungry.
Maitre Francois, Temptation of Christ
From City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo
French, c. 1475-1478
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 11, fol. 423r (detail)
The scene of the angels ministering takes place at a table in the far background,
behind the two scenes depicting the temptations.

Both Mark and Matthew conclude their descriptions with a reference to ministering angels who attend Him at the end of the time.

Unlike the temptations themselves, which are frequently depicted in art over the ages, the ministering angels are not seen that often. They appear in a few medieval manuscripts, usually in the background of a scene of the temptations.

Similarly, they appear this way in Renaissance depictions of the temptations.

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptations of Christ
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
Again the scene of the ministering angels takes place in the deep background, at the very top of the right side, beside the scene of Christ driving Satan away.

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ (detail)
The ministering angels set the table, while Jesus drives Satan away.
There were many depictions of the scene made between the 17th and 19th centuries.  In these the angels take on more of an active role, as waiters or foragers.

Cristofano Allori, Christ Ministered To By Angels
Italian, Early 17th Century
Florence, Uffizi Gallery
In some pictures of the aftermath of the temptation, the angels are presented almost as if they were winged waitresses, presenting trays laden with fruit.

Francisco Pacheco and Diego Velazquez, Angels Minister to Christ in the Wilderness
Spanish, c.1616
Castres, Musee Goya

Jacques Stella, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1635-1640
Portland (OR), Portland Art Museum

Jacques Stella, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, 1650
Florence, Uffizi Gallery

Charles de La Fosse, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1685-1695
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Alessandro Magnasco with Antonio Peruzzini, Christ Served by Angels
Italian, c, 1705
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Many of the images appear overly pretty and sentimental. They are part of the trend that gave us the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” imagery that “domesticated” Jesus and lead to the current view of angels as rather fluffy, even cuddly beings, which they are not.

Christian Wink, Christ Ministered to by Angels
German, c. 1769-1770
Augsburg, Deutsche Barockgalerie

Thomas Cole, Christ Ministered To By Angels
American, 1843
Worcester (MA), Museum of Art

One artist did not follow this trend – James Jacques Tissot. In his interpretation of the phrase “angels ministered to him” the scene becomes something beyond a sort of supernatural room service and touches on the mystery that surrounds the Incarnate Word of God and His angels.

In this image, Jesus lies prostrate on the ground, His arms outstretched as if already on the Cross. He is surrounded by row upon row of faintly seen, blue tinged airy spirits, each of whose heads bears a star-like flame. Through his use of thin layers of color to represent the angels against the darkness of the night sky Tissot captures the hue of moonlight. Here, however, their moonlit color comes not from themselves, nor from the sun, but from the Incarnate Son who lies before them.  Further, by his distortion of proportions (a few of the angels have arms that would be impossibly long for most human beings) he emphasizes the non-human nature of these spirits. They offer Jesus, not material, bodily refreshment, but spiritual sustenance, consolation and adoration.

James Tissot, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
As the Brooklyn Museum explains it “Rejecting art-historical traditions in which Jesus takes material sustenance in the form of dates and pomegranates, Tissot insisted on otherworldly agency. Here blue-hued, flame-haired angels extend their fingers to touch the prostrate form of the exhausted Jesus, who appears to assume a cruciform position.”1  Indeed, it is reminiscent of paintings depicting angelic comforters at Jesus’ Agony in the Garden on the night before He died. For, although Jesus is God the Son He is also a human being, humanly exhausted by His encounter with evil and temptation.

© M. Duffy, 2012

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1.  Comments from the museum website describing the 2009-2010 exhibition of the illustrations of the Life of Christ by James Tissot.