This Saturday, I am giving a tour in the European Painting section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The theme of my tour will be Divine Mercy and the first half will be dedicated to depictions of Jesus Christ, the “Face of Mercy.”
I will be speaking about a number of beautiful paintings, but one in particular fascinates me: Christ Crowned with Thorns by Antonello da Messina (1430–1479). There is something about this painting that portrays the suffering of Christ more powerfully than the others. Antonello chose to highlight Christ’s emotional suffering, and perhaps this is what is so poignant about it. The sad and penetrating gaze of Jesus grabs the viewer and allows no room for indifference.
His pained and supplicating eyes captivate and draw us into his suffering. His face is swollen and his beard is plucked, and he presents himself to the viewer in a moment of complete weakness. The Christ of this painting is exposed and vulnerable, just as the words of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant foretold: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheek to those who tore out my beard.” (Isaiah 50:6)
In the midst of his suffering, Jesus looks at the viewer and pleads for mercy. He looks out at us as if to ask for some respite from his torment. Paradoxically, our merciful God is asking us for mercy. The same loving eyes that looked with mercy upon the Samaritan woman, the humiliated adulteress, and greedy Zacchaeus, now look out at us begging for us to return his love.
The two tears on his face say more than anything else in the painting. Yes, Jesus is suffering physically, but he even more intense is his emotional suffering. Thorns have drawn the drops of blood, but his friends have caused the tears. Abandoned by his closest companions, he looks out at us if to say, “Will you leave me as well?”
In this portrayal of Jesus Christ, we see our God in a disconcerting position of weakness. Yet, while he is completely exposed and vulnerable, his gaze remains firm. Even as his physical strength wains and weakens, his love for us remains strong. He will not waver as he bears the punishment of our sins: his love for each of us is too intense for that.
This Holy Week, take time to go to the local church or to a quiet place in your home and peacefully contemplate the face of Christ. Use this image or any other one that moves you. Look at him and ask him for one grace: to understand how much he loves you. He always answers that prayer, and in one way or another you will experience the peace that comes with knowledge of his love.