Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Beholding Beauty: Giordano’s Agony in the Garden

March 12, 2019


There is no event in world history that has left a more profound or influential impression on the heart of humanity than the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Paschal Mystery stands as the definitive moment of all time inspiring countless artistic expression all of which hope in to manifest and understand the Paschal Mystery. Artists of every age have sought to convey the ineffable drama of man before God, and Luca Giordano is no different.

Born in the year 1632 amidst the cultural flourishing of Naples, this young Italian painter quickly found himself immersed in the realm of sacred art. By the age of sixteen, his prowess came into full-swing. Luca began creating stunning oil-based paintings depicting the life of Christ. One of his most beautiful and well-known works portrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this particular portrait, we find Jesus in the very moment of his trusting abandonment to the Father. One can almost see the words coming from his lips: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). Jesus is kneeling, a posture of surrender, with his arms opened to accept “the cup of wrath” (Is. 51:22, Jer. 25:15) and the wood of the cross in our stead.

The Lord’s red robe and blue cloak are allusions to the ancient symbolism of Byzantine iconography, the red signifying Christ’s divinity and the blue his humanity. There is an insightful theological point to consider in this artistic choice. It is the whole Christ, human and divine, who suffers in the Paschal Mystery; he does not reserve nor spare himself in the least. For it was “he himself who bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24) so as to “love his own to the end” (Jn. 13:1). Through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ in the flesh, the entirety of our humanity is made new and brought into the glory of God’s love.

Descending from the top right-hand side of the painting is an angel bathed in celestial light. The presence of this spiritual being is a testament to the gravity and all-encompassing activity of Christ’s saving mission. The whole of creation participates and rejoices in the redemption of humankind, even the hosts of heaven. The face of the heavenly messenger is one of contentment, yet within his hands are the instruments of torture. At first sight, this seems a contradiction. How can one find joy in being the herald of suffering? How can such peace reside before such agony? Again, there is a subtle theological truth. The angel’s solemn delight is not rooted in the pain to be endured, but in the glory to be wrought. His magnificent white garments foretell the Resurrection that is to come. In the suffering Christ, the angel sees the risen Christ. It is for this reason the Lord came into the world, to be handed over and crucified and rise again on the third day (Jn. 18:37, Matt. 20:18-19). In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The incarnation is ordered to the cross as its goal.” The angel’s pleasure, therefore, is the fruit of its beholding the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29) and the privilege to witness this spotless Lamb willingly take onto himself the anguish of all peoples so as to dispel their darkness by the healing remedy of grace. In three days’ time this angel will reappear to greet the tears of Mary Magdalene with the hymn of Easter exaltation: “He is not here. He is risen!” (Matt. 28:6). How can one not smile assured by such knowledge?

Barely noticeable and cloaked in darkness at the bottom right-hand side of the canvas lies Peter, James, and John asleep, ignorant of the cosmic event taking place no more than “a stone’s throw away” from them (Lk. 22:41). Only a few moments ago Jesus begged they “stay and watch with” him praying “not to undergo the test” (Matt. 26:38, 41). Yet here they lie, unware of the Master’s plight and blind to his sacrifice. How often do we lay asleep in the darkness of our own ego oblivious to the beauty right in front of us? How often do we fail to appreciate the miracles of daily life: the air we breathe, the rose fresh in bloom, the gleaming rays of sunrise and soft-hued tints of sunset? Or worse, how often do we attend Mass or receive the grace of the sacrament of Reconciliation without a proper gratitude alive in our hearts? All of these things are ways God loves us, ways in which his magnanimity is made manifest in our midst. Do we recognize them?

Every morning I wake up, the first thing I do is get on my knees, look at this painting hanging on my dormitory wall, and with arms extended cruciform, say in Latin, “Deo Gratias; Serviam” (“Thank you Lord, I am here to serve you”). I start my day like this in hopes of embodying in some small way the trusting spirit of abandonment that Jesus had in the Garden of Gethsemane. Those times I am tempted to let exhaustion overwhelm me, I gaze upon this painting recalling the sacrifice of Christ for his people, and it inspires me to do the same.

This work of art by Luca Giordano reminds me that a Christian is a person of sacrifice, one whose vocation flows from the pierced heart of Jesus on the cross. Every facet of our lives belongs to the other. This can sometimes frighten or intimidate us. So often, we are convinced that to submit our lives to the love of God will result in a loss of our individual personality or cost us the particular enjoyments of our freedom. But Christ shows us the opposite is true. It is in losing ourselves that we are found, and in dying that we rise. You are most free when you belong to another; most yourself when you live for another. The mirror of humanity is the eyes of his neighbor. As Catholics, we are blessed with a rich history of sacred art and tradition. No other community of persons in the world can boast of such outstanding men and women who, throughout the ages, have dedicated their lives to the transmission of beauty. Just as this stunning painting has inspired a deepening of my own spiritual life and relationship with Christ, so too all of us who are privileged inheritors of the Christian artistic tradition are invited to enter into a prayerful dialogue with the blessing of art, so as to enrich our own appreciation of beauty and thus behold more aptly the face of God in the world. To be a Christian is to behold the beautiful.