Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The First Sorrowful Mystery – The Agony in the Garden

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Agony in the Garden
German, c. 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.

The Agony in the Garden
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, Image # 98

The Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden
Single Leaf from a Psalter
English (Canterbury), c. 1155-1160
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 521, fol. 1v (detail)

The Agony in the Garden
From the Golden Munich Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1200-1225
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 835, fol. 25r

The Agony in the Garden
From a Psalter
German (Bavaria), c. 1236
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 11308, fol. 8v

The Agony in the Garden
From the Livre d’images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 32v

Duccio, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Master of the Trinity
From the Petites Heures of Jean de Berry
French (Bourges), c. 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 158r

The Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Paul and Jean), The Agony in the Garden
From the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry
French (Paris), c. 1405-1408 or 1409
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
Accession Number: 54.1.1a, b, fol. 123r

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

Giovanni di Paolo, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1430-1435
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana
Here in the foreground we see Jesus in prayer, with the comforting angel holding the chalice, and the three chosen disciples asleep like the others.  In the background we also see the procession of guards led by Judas, who are coming to arrest Jesus.

Sassetta, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1437-1444
Detroit, Institute of Arts

Fra Angelico and his assistants painted a different kind of composition in one of the cells of the convent of San Marco in Florence in the 1440s.  The great Dominican artist frequently turned conventional compositions into sermons that are meditations on the subject matter.  In this painting the scene of the sleeping disciples and Jesus in his agony occupy only the left half of the picture.  The right half of the picture features Mary and Martha at the door of their house.  Mary is reading (presumably she is reading either a prophecy about or the description of the agony from a Bible) while Martha joins her hands in prayer.  The two women of Bethany invite the viewer (originally the friar who occupied the cell) to join with them in contemplation of this particular mystery.

Fra Angelico, The Agony in the Garden with the Figures of  Mary and Martha
Italian, c. 1437-1446
Florence, Museo di San Marco, Cell # 34

In the 1450s and 1460s Andrea Mantegna created a series of images of the subject that became formative for the future.  

Andrea Mantegna, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1453-1454
London, National Gallery

Andrea Mantegna, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1457-1459
Tours, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Giovanni Bellini, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1465
London, National Gallery

Rueland Frueauf the Elder, The Agony in the Garden
Austrian, c. 1490-1491
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

Sandro Botticelli, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c.1500
Granada, Museo de la Capilla Real

Vittore Carpaccio. The Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1502
Venice, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni

Jan Gossaert, The Agony in the Garden
Flemish, c. 1510
 Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Agony in the Garden
From the Hours of Notre Dame
French, 1524
Washington, Library of Congress
MS Rosenwald ms. No. 10, fol. 17

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, The Agony in the Garden
Flemish, c. 1527-1530
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

By 1600 the comforting angel, mentioned only in Luke’s account and not always included by artists, 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, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 1583-1584
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Jacopo Ligozzi, Agony in the Garden
Italian, c.1587
Private Collection

El Greco, The Agony in the Garden
Greco-Spanish, c.1590
Toledo (OH), Toledo Museum of Art

El Greco, The 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, The Agony in the Garden
French, c. 1646-1650
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

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

Adriaen van de Velde, The Agony in the Garden
Dutch, 1665
Private Collection

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, c. 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, The Agony in the Garden
Italian, 1746
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

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

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Agony in the Garden
Danish, c. 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, The Grotto of the Agony
French,  c. 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.  For all its ethereal beauty, this picture condenses the serious matter of the Agony, which is the price of the Father's will which must be borne not only by the Divine Person of Christ, but by the human person of Jesus.  These angels are not merely sympathetic supporters of the human person, they are reminders of the Father's will to the Divine Person and to us.  

© M. Duffy 2013.  Revised text and additional images 2021, 2023 and 2024.


Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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