Sometimes an image captures a theological truth better than words.
This past weekend, my wife and I made a visit to St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. One purpose was to view the St. John’s Bible. This is a contemporary illuminated manuscript production of the Scriptures. It has been created in the tradition of and in tribute to the many illuminated manuscripts of the Bible that were produced in monastic scriptoria during the Middle Ages. It is the first such Benedictine-commissioned manuscript Bible in the last 500 years.
The Bible is written on vellum skins in an elegant, but very readable contemporary calligraphic script. Scattered throughout the pages are magnificent illuminations of the text. Some are small graceful decorations of the text. Others are small vignettes that relate to the text. Still others are full-page paintings.
One of those full-page paintings stunned me. It is a rendition of the crucifixion that is positioned opposite to Luke 23, which recounts the story in words. (I am sorry I can’t run a picture of it on my blog. I could not find any digital images of the page I could use that did not have copyright restrictions. But if you wish to see the page, I suggest you click on the posting for Good Friday, March 25, 2013, on the blog A Monk’s Chronicle. There you will find an image that you can click on to enlarge.)
The illumination pictures Jesus’ crucifixion. The body of Jesus is a bit indistinct, but you can still discern it. What strikes me about this image is the explosion of glorious light that emanates from this cross. The light is conveyed through gold leaf on the page. The glowing light seems not only to envelop the body of Jesus, but also to be expanding out from that body like an exploding supernova.
Often we see the crucifixion depicted in all its blood-and-guts violence and realism. No one has matched that vision quite like another favorite image of mine, the image of the crucifixion in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. But in the St. John’s image, the crucifixion is all light and glory, even though on the edge of the image the darkness seems to be trying to stab into the light with deadly dagger thrusts.
What stunned me about the St. John’s image is that it captures a recurrent theme in the Gospel of John. This is the theme that the crucifixion is the moment when Jesus is glorified. A couple of quotations from John illustrate that theme as the gospel recounts the final days before the crucifixion:
[Speaking of his upcoming death], Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
[In the context of the Last Supper], After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you….
So strong is this theme in John’s Gospel that scholars call the second portion of his gospel (John 13-21) the Book of Glory.
I have always had a hard time grasping how John could see the ugly crucifixion as the moment of Jesus’ glorification, and, for that matter, of God’s glorification. Were not the resurrection and the ascension really the moments of glorification? The crucifixion has seemed to me to be the moment of greatest degradation.
I could never understand this viewpoint of John’s Gospel until I saw this image in the St. John’s Bible. Here is the glory of Jesus shining brightly in the very moment of the crucifixion. The glory is there, but is veiled to our uncleansed eyes. For it is at this moment that the love of God for humanity and for all creation reaches its moment of greatest depth. The love of God is the glory of God, and that love reaches its ultimate expression in the death on the cross.
Christianity has a long history of iconoclasm where the word is exalted as far superior to the image in conveying theological truth. It has provoked moments of tragic destruction of Christian visual art. In the Protestant churches where I grew up it was especially strong.
But it is a false dichotomy. Sometimes images convey a spiritual insight far better than do words. That certainly happened for me as I viewed this image of the crucifixion from the St. John’s Bible. The image was a divine revelation. For that I am deeply grateful to the artist, Donald Jackson.