Sunday, April 1, 2012

Meditation on the Passion

Fra Angelico, Crucifixion with Saint Dominic in Prayer
Italian, c. 1441-1442
Florence, Convento di San Marco, Cell # 17

“Meditation” in the Christian sense is not exactly what the same word has come to mean in recent decades in ordinary Western speech. Meditation, in the Christian sense, is best described by the first entry for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary “The action or practice of profound spiritual or religious reflection or contemplation; spec. a variety of private devotional exercise consisting of the continuous application of the mind to the contemplation of a particular religious text, truth, mystery, or object.”1

Meditation has been part of the Christian experience since the very beginning.

Following the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, His followers spent ten days in prayer and reflection. On the tenth day they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was the impetus to go forth and tell the world about Jesus, His life, His death, His resurrection. Following his dramatic conversion, Saint Paul did not go out immediately to preach. Instead he withdrew, first into Arabia, then into Syria, spending three years in reflection before going to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James (Galatians 1:17-19).

In the early centuries of Christianity, men and women withdrew themselves from society and took to the deserts of the Holy Land, of Egypt and of North Africa to meditate on the Scriptures, to pray and to practice asceticism. They are collectively known as the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers and they became models for the first Christian monks and nuns.

Fray Juan Bautista Maino, Saint Anthony Abbot in a Landscape
Spanish, c. 1612-1614
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Meditation is an integral part of the medieval (and modern) practice of Lectio Divina (Divine Reading), wherein (ideally) one thoughtfully reads a passage in Scripture (lectio), ponders it (meditation), talks to God about it (prayer) and, finally, waits in silence (mental and verbal) for God to enlighten the mind and heart.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Penitent Saint Jerome
Spanish, c. 1650-1652
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Meditations usually begin from the text of Scripture, but they can also develop from viewing an object, such as a crucifix or icon, or a narrative scene, based on Scripture, that has been painted or sculpted. Paintings and sculpture can, in fact, themselves be meditations. And some of these painted and sculpted meditations are my subject for this Holy Week. Among the artists whose work will be discussed are: Fra Angelico, Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo, Petrus Christus, Carpaccio, Rosso, Titian, Zurbaran and Philippe de Champaigne. Among the themes discussed will be: the Mocking of Christ, the Ecce Homo image, the Man of Sorrows image and the Dead Christ.

© M. Duffy, 2012

1. Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, June 2001; online version March 2012 at:

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