Tuesday 11th April, Litany and Confession, Fr James Heard at St George's Campden Hill

Tuesday 11th April, Litany and Confession, Fr James Heard at St George's Campden Hill

Christ before the High Priest (c.1617) HONTHORST, Gerrit van 1592 - 1656

Gerrit van Honthorst was a Dutch artist who trained in Utrecht in the early c.17. He was tempted away from Holland, perhaps by the allure of Italian wine and food, and maybe even the artist community, and he headed to Rome where he painted this, one of his most famous paintings. It now hangs in the National Gallery. The painting shows the influence of Caravaggio.

Jesus has experienced the joyful entry into Jerusalem, he has had the Last Supper with his disciples, he spends time in prayer in Gethsemane where he is betrayed and then taken for interrogate and trial before the High Priest Caiaphas.

The Gospel narrative tells us that Peter follows at a distance, although he is not in the painting. There seems to be doubt about the legality of the trial and false evidence was given by two witnesses, who are probably the shifty looking characters standing behind the High Priest. The high priest demands to know Jesus’s identity and asks him, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But, we are told, ‘Jesus held his peace.’ The other people in the background may be the Roman soldiers who had arrested Jesus.

Hannt-horst, was particularly good at painting night scenes lit by a single candle. The centre of the composition in this painting is focused on the burning candle, and beside it the arm and raised finger of the High Priest. The High priest uses the candle to illumine the scriptures in front of him, even though he has the 'Light of the World' standing there before him.

It is the single light in the centre that unifies the whole painting. It allows the two main characters, Caiaphas and Jesus, to stand out more solidly and in greater detail than the others. It focuses attention on their poses, gestures and expressions.

The physical effect of the single candle illumination also makes a theological point. Jesus’ white robes, torn from his shoulder when he was made prisoner, reflects more of the light than the High Priest’s robes do – so that light seems to radiate from him.

The image offers the universal symbol of light as revelation and purity. The tension created by the use of light and dark reveal the encounter between good and evil, as represented by those seeking to put Jesus to death.

Sister Wendy Becket puts the encounter like this: ‘The Son of God stands like a naughty child while this elderly dignitary, representing established religion, harangues him, with his accusing wagging finger and his elbow leaning on the book of the Law before him and he confronts this peasant northerner, this nobody, who dares to reinterpret it.’

Jesus stands there, patient, but not cowed. Jesus may be silent but, by his very presence, he is not a passive victim. Indeed, Jesus’ presence dominates the painting. Jesus, the ‘Light of the world’, has come to break the bonds that hold our broken lives and world in darkness. Jesus has come to see us free from the addictions that hold our hearts captive.

We also reflect on tonight’s reading that unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it remains alone, but if it dies… In God’s kingdom, a tiny seed grows into a great bush. It starts with Jesus alone yet becomes a great bush, a community, which is a place of welcome and refuge for all. The Gospel message is always radically inclusive. The image of bearing much fruit speaks of multiplication. The Cross, the death of Jesus alone is the source of multiplication. A source of light and hope in our dark world.

I wonder what Jesus is thinking in this picture?
I wonder what words are written in the book that is open on the table?
I wonder what you would say if the guards dragged you in to ask what you thought about Jesus?

Holland Park Benefice