Sorrow, pain, grief, anguish—all of these words somehow just barely describe the unfathomable and profound suffering we feel in moments of tribulation. Looking at the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, we reflect on our own sorrows in union with those of Jesus Christ and His mother during the steps of His Passion. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis speaks of suffering as “anxiety that gnaws like fire and loneliness that spreads out like a desert…pains that seem already intolerable and then are suddenly increased…infuriating scorpion-stinging pains.” The sorrowful mysteries of the rosary lead us through Christ’s redemptive suffering. They reaffirm that He sent His only begotten Son to suffer and die for us.
Just as the article on the joyful mysteries explored scriptural scenes of happiness, here we follow the cord of sorrow that links the next five sets of beads. The following paintings help us meditate on the mystery of sorrow.
Agony in the Garden, 1889: Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
Though it may come as a surprise, Paul Gauguin did paint an Agony in the Garden. Betrayal was foremost in his mind when the Frenchman depicted himself as the anguished Christ amid the somber shadows of Gethsemane. “That’s my portrait I’ve done there,” explained the artist. Gauguin referred to betrayal as not only his suffering but also the special suffering of the Son of God.
Scripture describes Christ in sadness and “great distress” as He speaks to His disciples in the garden. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” After praying for the third time, Jesus addresses His sleepy disciples, “Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matthew 26:38, 46). Gauguin identified with this scene. He himself often felt abandoned by a world that did not understand him, and he wrote that because of his talent, “I have endured such sufferings.” Most contemporaries described him as an unhappy, egocentric man. His difficult temperament aroused little sympathy.
Gauguin had a turbulent friendship with Vincent Van Gogh; the two once shared a house and studio in Arles. A year after they had gone their separate ways, Gauguin wrote to his friend from Brittany about a composition he thought would interest Van Gogh. “It’s Christ in the Garden of Olives. A greenish-blue twilight sky, trees all leaning together in a crimsonish mass, purply earth and the figure of Christ, enveloped in dark ochre clothing and with bright red hair. Since this painting is not destined to be understood, I shall keep it for a long time.”
Van Gogh, a spiritually sensitive man, called the work a “nightmare.” Maybe he cringed at the bright orange-red hair of the Man from Galilee. Traces of that same neon color appear at the wrists and nose of Christ and divide the dawn’s early sky from the earth. Gauguin himself did not have red hair, and in this self-portrait, he seems to have borrowed the hair color of the tormented Van Gogh. For Gauguin, particular colors conveyed certain emotions or thoughts. Red was for him a sign of the supernatural.
The small tree next to Christ could be the foreshadowing of the cross. Its central positioning separates the primary subject from the obscure figures in the penumbra, one of whom seems to cast a glance over his shoulder. Some commentaries of this scene describe Judas leading the Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus. In his description of the event, Gauguin wrote, “His disciples are leaving him, a scenario as sad as his own soul.” Gauguin’s intent was to personify his own state of mind rather than give an accurate biblical rendition. He nonetheless succeeds in capturing the human emotions our Lord must have felt at being abandoned by His disciples. It is a tableau of high drama where even the trees on the lightened horizon bend under the moment’s agony.
Reflect on Christ’s pensive face drooped low. The heavy eyelids fight to stay open after a long, solitary vigil of prayer. The image may remind us of the times when we have struggled with emotional, physical, or spiritual fatigue—times when we feared our weakness in an impending crisis. These are the times when there is nothing left but to pray with Jesus in the Garden of Olives.
The Scourging at the Pillar OR Christ After the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul, circa 1630: Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), National Gallery of Art, London
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). The prophet thus foretold the redemptive sufferings of the servant of Yahweh. In this moving painting by Diego Velázquez, it is the longing gaze of the sacrificial Christ that touches us most. The handsome Spanish-looking eyes are the mirror to a soul aching with love for all sinners. Velázquez has masterfully interpreted this profound aching. The torment was no less spiritual than physical. An angel directs a child’s gaze to a thin ray of divine light. It beams from the head of Jesus to the heart of the kneeling child, who is rapt with compassion.
Little is known about this painting, but a key to understanding it comes from an earlier canvas. In 1616, an artist-priest from Seville presented his work of a scourged Redeemer to Spain’s King Philip III. It bore this inscription: “O Soul, have pity on me, for you have reduced me to this state.” One can surmise that Velázquez may have received his inspiration from the king’s collection and then created his own version for someone at court.
There are few religious themes in the oeuvre of Velázquez, a celebrated court painter and busy chamberlain to Philip IV. The artist was described as a young man of virtue and integrity; throughout his career, he remained untainted by hints of scandal. When he was 19, he married his art master’s daughter and left Seville’s cultural hub for Madrid. By the age of 24, he had painted the teenaged king, who was six years younger than Velázquez. With Philip’s generous patronage and his own stellar talent, Velázquez flourished in 17th- century Spain’s golden age of art and literature.
Since the artist rarely signed or dated his work, its chronology is often left to theories based on the evolution of his style or the events of his life. In 1692, Philip IV granted Velázquez permission to study art in Italy. There the apprentice learned how to use a limited palette to create subtle harmonies in the distribution of light and shadow. He applied this Italian technique known as chiaroscuro to Christ After the Flagellation. The softness of the light seems to mitigate the brutality of the scourging.
The painter’s study of Renaissance masters was no doubt a great influence. The central figure of the suffering Christ is drafted with an anatomical style similar to that of Michelangelo. Surprisingly, in this Spanish piece, the blood is minimized: We see only faint drops and rivulets. Doctors have estimated that He lost a pint or two of blood from the scourging, which probably made Him dizzy and lightheaded.
God wants our gaze to be like that of the child in this scene. He wants us to see and acknowledge Christ’s redemptive suffering. In His agony, our Lord is suffering both for us and with us, teaching us by His own example the miracle of compassion.
The Crowning With Thorns OR Christ Mocked, 1508-1509: Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516), National Gallery of Art, London
This often baffling painter from Flanders presents us with a Crowning of Thorns rich in both meaning and detail. The drama is under- rather than overstated; symbols are used to suggest things that are not directly visible in the painting. Crowding about Christ in a close-up view are four tormentors or mockers dressed in early 16th-century clothing. Their faces wear subtle but determined expressions of menace and animosity. The dog collar that the soldier on the upper right is wearing is a direct allusion to Psalm 22: “Yea, dogs are round about me: a company of evildoers encircle me.” The oak leaves and the sprig on his hat seem to point to Christ’s impending death on the cross, which many believe to have been constructed of oak. It also looks as though this soldier is holding a thick cane or reed in his left hand. A crossbow arrow pierces through the turban of another soldier on the upper left, perhaps a suggestion of the lance that will pierce our Lord’s side. This same tormentor is about to put a crown of extremely sharp thorns on Christ’s head. The painter shows the armored fist holding the crown just above His head, thus emphasizing the pain to come.
One commentator observes, “Two figures (below) offer Christ false homage and are probably kneeling before him. The headgear of the man on the left is embroidered with a crescent moon and star identifying him as an unbeliever (and he too appears to have a cut-off stick or cane in his left hand), while the other man is dressed like a contemporary merchant.” Christ looks toward the viewer, offering no resistance to His tormentors. This pose exemplifies how patiently and quietly the Man of Sorrows awaited His final agony. Instead of using the traditional purple, Bosch has robed our Lord in white, a color that underscores the contrast between the forces of good and evil.
“And plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. And they began to salute him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they struck his head with a reed and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him…they led him out to crucify him” (Mark 15:17-20).
The suffering endured by our Savior in this mystery was not only one of jeers and insults; it was also very painful physically. Research indicates that the crown probably covered the entire head. The thorns were long and penetrated deep into His flesh. In this particular painting, Christ is tightly surrounded by four figures representing evil. Their looks, gestures, and instruments of torture all bespeak their malice toward Him.
The life of Hieronymus Bosch has always intrigued researchers. Few concrete details exist—even his date of birth is uncertain. It is known he lived in Hertogenbosch, a Dutch city that is today near the Belgian border. His full name was Hieronymus (an older version of Jerome) van Aeken. Bosch was added or substituted to indicate the connection to his hometown. We do know he married a woman named Aleyt Gayaerts van den Meervenne. She came from a family of substantial wealth and was older than Bosch. Records also indicate that he belonged to an organization dedicated to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary called the Illustre Lieve Vrouwe Broederschap (Brotherhood of Our Lady). On occasion, he donated his artistic talents to this confraternity. This fact helps to counter certain suspicions that have surfaced over the years concerning Bosch and his work—suspicions aroused by the enigmatic, dark, and lurid details he frequently included. Bosch did not balk at presenting the sordidness of sin. Like the medieval artists and artisans who went before him, his work was meant not only to please but to warn and instruct.
The Way of Calvary OR Lo Spasimo di Sicilia, 1517: Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
The story goes that this painting was lost at sea. The panel had been commissioned by the Benedictine monks of Palermo, Sicily, for their church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo. After Raphael had completed this work, preparations were made to send it first by land, then by sea. Unfortunately, the vessel carrying the painting was shipwrecked and everything on board sank. Fishermen off the coast of Genoa retrieved the painting from the salty waters. Miraculously, it had suffered no damage. After the rescue, the fishermen were not about to turn the painting over to just anyone. The pope had to intervene, and the “miracle canvas” was finally transferred to the monastery in Sicily, where it became as famous as Mount Etna. Later it was acquired by the Prado Museum in Madrid.
The painting was called “Lo Spasimo,” a name that refers to the spasm or great affliction the Blessed Virgin Mary suffered when she met her Son on the way of the cross. She is shocked by His deplorable condition. Our Lord has just fallen for the first time when He looks over and sees His mother. Overwhelmed by what she sees, our Lady reaches out to her Son. The strong arms of Simon of Cyrene lift the cross off Christ’s shoulders. To the left, there is a soldier leading Christ by a rope that is pulled taut over his right arm and then looped in his left hand. In the background are other soldiers mounted on horseback and dressed in the armor of the 15th century. The throng of women and soldiers give one a sense of melee. It is a particularly poignant depiction of the following biblical passage: “And there followed him a great multitude of people, and of women, who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turned to them, and said: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children'” (Luke 23:27-28). Christ is in terrible pain as He makes His way to Calvary. He has fallen under the weight of the cross, and as He struggles to get up, He expresses sorrow for His friends and for those who have rejected Him. Our Lady has been profoundly affected by her Son’s suffering. As onlookers, we are witnesses to this sorrow, which, paradoxically, offers us special hope: Because the Mother and Son have suffered so much, we know we can go to them with our own pain. Tragic misunderstanding, betrayal and loss, abandonment—they will know how these things feel, for they have felt them, too, in spite of their innocence.
Raphael was one of Italy’s outstanding Renaissance painters. According to art scholars, this was one of his last oil paintings. In it, he was chiefly concerned with representing the “desperate physical conditions and extreme emotions” of the moment. This he did.
The Crucifixion of Christ OR Christ of St. John of the Cross, 1951: Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Glasgow Museums, St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art, Glasgow, Scotland
This depiction of Christ crucified is impressive and unusual. Dali, one of Spain’s most idiosyncratic modern artists (he sported an unmistakable, twirly mustachio), was inspired by a small pen-and-ink sketch he saw in the historic bell-tower museum of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain. St. John of the Cross actually did the sketch while he was chaplain for the Carmelite nuns from 1572 to 1577, during the same time St. Teresa of Avila was prioress there. St. John had received a vision of Christ crucified while praying in the choir loft above the chapel sanctuary. He quickly sketched the vision on a small piece of paper. The drawing shows Christ hanging from the cross, his face out of view. The perspective is original in that it brings to mind God the Father looking down on His only begotten Son, who has suffered and died to save us. After seeing the drawing and visiting with the French Carmelite biographer of St. John of the Cross, Bruno de Jesus-Marie, Dali wrote in a letter:
The drawing so impressed me the first time I saw it that later in California, in a dream, I saw the Christ in the same position, but in the landscape around Port Lligat, (location of Dali’s home and studio in northeastern Spain) and I heard voices which said, “Dali, you must paint this Christ.”
In Dali’s painting, Christ is shown from the same perspective as in St. John’s sketch, but instead of accentuating the sufferings our Lord has just endured, Dali decided to depict Him in all His beauty—”as the God that he is” (Dali’s words). In essence, this artist’s vision is one of Christ triumphant in His death. It allows us to experience the beauty and splendor of His sacrifice. Due to the unique angle Dali has employed, this painting also emphasizes the link between God the Father and God the Son. Notice how the light from above bathes the body of Christ and casts the long shadow of Christ’s arm on the crossbeam. It brings to mind the passage in Luke on the death of our Lord: “And Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ And having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). The landscape chosen as a backdrop is the bay of Cadaques, a fishing village near Port Lligat, Spain. Today the village has grown, but years ago small fishing boats could still be seen on the beach, just as in Dali’s work.
Suffering is always a mystery, be it human or divine (or human and divine). It is almost incomprehensible that God the Father would send His Son to suffer and die such a terrible death for us. And yet out of His great love for us, He did just that. In his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), Pope John Paul II states that to suffer, “in fact, is always a trial—at times a very hard one—to which humanity is subjected.” The pope also says:
Suffering, as it were, contains a special call to virtue which man must excercise on his own part. And this is the virtue of perseverance in bearing whatever disturbs and causes harm. In doing this, the individual unleashes hope, which maintains in him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him, that it will not deprive him of his dignity as a human being, a dignity linked to the awareness of the meaning of life. And indeed, this meaning makes itself known together with the working of God’s love, which is the supreme gift of the Holy Spirit. The more he shares in this love, [the more fully] man rediscovers himself in suffering: he rediscovers the “soul” which he thought he had “lost” because of suffering. [emphasis added]
John Paul II concludes by asking all who suffer to become like the Man of Sorrows. In this way, we “become a source of strength for the Church and humanity.” Christ does not offer us a way around suffering; He shows us the way through it. And at the end of that way is the high ground of Calvary, where suffering is consummated—and conquered.
This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.