What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, James Tissot, circa 1886 to 1894
When I first started this series on the crucifixion, I only intended to share four paintings. However, James Tissot’s perspective is so unusual that I had to share it.
In every other painting of the crucifixion, Jesus is the focal point with the crowd looking at him. To the best of my knowledge, Tissot is the only one who has ever painted the crucifixion from Jesus’ perspective. Although Jesus is still at the center, we can only perceive him through the eyes and body language of those gathered around him.
I wonder what each person in the crowd is thinking and feeling as they gaze upon Jesus. More importantly I wonder what Jesus is thinking as he looks at the crowd and as he looks at us. The genius of this painting is that we cannot escape Jesus’ gaze, for we too are a part of the crowd.
Before you read any further, give yourself 3 or 4 minutes (or longer if you have the patience and focus) to look carefully at this painting. See how many of the characters you can identify. Try to imagine what each one of them must be thinking.
Our eyes are immediately drawn to three women standing in a tight, triangular knot. They are the dominant focal point of this painting. To understand their feelings, notice each of their postures, their faces, and the way each holds her hands. At the front of the group is Mary and behind her are Mary’s sister, and Mary, the wife of Clopas. (See John 19:25) To the left stands John, the Beloved Disciple. Notice that his eyes are fixed on Jesus and his hands are clasped in prayer.
Slightly behind and to the right of the women are two important looking figures riding on richly appointed horses. I suspect that they are leaders in the Sanhedrin. Behind them are the rest of the Sanhedrin who have come to witness the crucifixion of their enemy. I wonder which of them are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus? (See John 19:38-39)
In the middle background you can see the open tomb, waiting to receive the body of Jesus. (Interestingly, Tissot has another painting of a group carrying Jesus to this very tomb.) Scattered around the hillside, a crowd looks on and views the scene from afar.
In the rocky circle surrounding the foot of the cross we see a centurion and five soldiers.
- The centurion stands alertly with his hands folded in front of him and a red cloak over his shoulders. His demeanor and his uniform recall the power and superiority of Rome. His posture and his gaze suggest he is paying close attention to Jesus.
- Three of the soldiers sit or squat on the ground, each holding an upright spear.
- Near the soldier in the lower right corner are two jars of sour wine, a long reed, and a sponge which the soldier will soon lift to quench the thirst of Jesus.
- In the center towards the back one soldier sits on a low wall with his sword strapped to his belt. He is older than the others (perhaps he is a grizzled sergeant?) and is looking intently at Jesus.
- The last soldier in the right steps from behind a wall as though he is trying to get closer to Jesus.
Tissot has painted each of the soldiers to show their ethnicity and unique character. Look at each of their faces and imagine what they are thinking and feeling.
There is one final part of the painting that is puzzling until you look very carefully. Centered at the lower edge of the picture you see the splayed feet of Jesus, transfixed by a nail, standing on a small wooden ledge. This is the only physical presence of Jesus; the rest is left to our imagination. Beneath him Mary Magdalene squats, her hands clasped in supplication, and looks up to the face of Jesus. To me it looks like she is begging Jesus not to leave her, but what to do you think?
This painting compels us to see things from Jesus’ perspective and to ask, “What is Jesus thinking and feeling as he looks at this mixed crowd of loved ones, impassive soldiers, angry enemies, and confused crowds?” The scriptures suggest the answer.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
–Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-48
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
–The Apostle Paul, Romans 5:6-8
As you look at this painting choose one person with whom you identify. What do you think they might say to Jesus? What do you think that Jesus would say to you? I’d be interested to read your response.