Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The First Sorrowful Mystery – The Agony in the Garden

Albrecht Altdorfer, Agony in the Garden
German, ca. 1518
Sankt Florian bei Linz, Augustinian Abbey Church
Then going out he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.

When he arrived at the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.”
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying,
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”
And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.
He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.
When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief.
He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.”

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Luke- Gospel Reading for Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year C (Luke 22:39-46)

The three Synoptic Gospels give us a fairly consistent picture of the last hours of freedom in the life of Jesus: following the Last Supper he went out, accompanied by his disciples, to the Mount of Olives, to a place known as Gethsemane. There he left his disciples (according to Matthew and Mark he took with him Peter, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John) and went off by himself to pray. Once by himself he enters into agonized prayer, asking His Father to spare him the terrible cup of suffering He is about to begin to endure. Only in the account by Luke do we hear of the appearance of an angel to comfort Him, but in every account His prayer ends with the acceptance of the ordeal if that is His Father’s will. In all three accounts the disciples fail in their watch. They are found sleeping, the first of many disappointments and betrayals. Immediately after this incident, He will be taken prisoner, tortured and condemned to death.

In art the scene, which is called The Agony in the Garden or
 Christ on the Mount of Olives or Gethsemane has undergone some development over time.

The early images were careful to follow the Gospel narratives, usually including at least the three sleeping disciples. No angel makes an appearance, although the Hand of God or even a half-length image of the Father sometimes does. The chalice, which is a metaphor for the sufferings to come, may or may not be depicted.

Single Leaf from a Psalter, Last Supper and Agony in the Garden
English (Canterbury), 1155-1160
New York, Morgan Library
MS M521 (detail)

Livre d'Images de Madame Marie
Agony in the Garden
Belgian (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Latin 16251, fol. 32v

Duccio, Agony in the Garden
Italian (1308-1311)
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

The angel (or even angels) began to appear after 1300, first as a small element of the composition, but growing in importance as time went on.

Andrea Mantegna, Agony in the Garden
Italian, ca. 1450
London, National Gallery

Giovanni Bellini, Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1465
London, National Gallery
Andrea della Robbia, Agony in the Garden
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Jan Gossaert, Agony in the Garden
Flemish, ca. 1510
Berlin, Staatlich Museen

By 1600 the comforting angel, mentioned only in Luke’s account, became a major figure in the composition as the disciples became more and more relegated to the background. However, the disciples and, occasionally, the advancing arrest party were still represented.

Paolo Veronese, Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1583-1584
Milan, Galleria di Brera

El Greco, Agony in the Garden
Greco-Spanish, 1600-1606
Cuenca, Diocesan Museum

Jacques Callot, Agony in the Garden
French, 1625
Chatsworth, Collection of the Duke of Devonshire
In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries the angel (or angels) assumed greater and greater importance, while that of the disciples and arrest party, while still present, began to diminish.  Further, Jesus becomes more and more emotionally affected, even to the point of swooning.

Philippe de Champaigne, Agony in the Garden
French, 1646-1650
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Giacinto Brandi, Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1650
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Adriaen van de Velde, Agony in the Garden
Dutch, 1665
Private Collection
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1745-1760
Hamburg, Kunsthalle

By the late 18th century the disciples had ceased to be depicted at all and the composition now focused solely on the two figures, Jesus (often totally overcome) and the angel.

Sebastiano Conca, Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1746
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Anton Raphael Mengs, Agony in the Garden
German, 1770s
Madrid, Palacio Real

Carl Heinrich Bloch, Agony in the Garden
Danish, 1865-1869
Copenhagen, Frederiksborg Palace
Perhaps in reaction to the extreme emotions of the later Agony images, by the dawn of the 20th century, the scene had altered.  The emotions and the angel had been suppressed. Today, the most commonly reproduced image of the Agony in the Garden, derived from an 1890 painting by Heinrich Ferdinand Hoffmann, is that of a solitary Jesus who is serious, but tranquil, attended by neither angel nor disciple and without chalice or cross.

Heinrich Ferdinand Hoffmann, Christ in Gethsemane
German, 1890
New York, Riverside Church
The only intimation that He is other than an ordinary man at prayer comes from the patch of radiant light surrounding His head (it functions as a halo, but an undefined one) and the radiant opening in the clouds above. One cannot really imagine drops of blood falling from His flesh. This is a human Jesus stripped of any Gospel references and even of much emotion, except a certain amount of tension in his outstretched arms.  There are, in fact, no associations except those that may be brought to it by the viewer. Perhaps this is why it has become the most commonly known image of Jesus in Gethsemane. It suits contemporary uneasiness about the whole matter of the identity of Jesus and the meaning of His life.
James Tissot, Agony in the Garden
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

One work that defies the late 19th century trend toward "demythologizing" the Agony in the Garden is the watercolor painting by James Tissot from his series of the Life of Christ.  In Tissot's image Jesus lies on the ground in an attitude suggesting His terror and agony of mind.  He is surrounded by ethereal angelic forms who hover above Him, as they lean in sympathetically.  Some of them hold globes in their hands.  The globes contain images of some of the events from the Passion, reading from right to left (the Agony itself, the tortures, the Crucifixion, the Virgin Mary prepared to receive His body).  Others hold instruments of the Passion, such as the lance and the wineskin of sour wine.  One holds Veronica's veil with the mysterious image of the suffering Jesus imprinted on it.   Another holds the crown of thorns.  The angel on the extreme left holds out the chalice.

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