It’s Ash Wednesday, a time of repentance, and I’m put in mind of an artist of sorrow. Rogier van der Weyden, a 15th-century Netherlandish genius, was known for many things (including an audacious portrait of himself as a saint[i]), 1 but his paintings of Christ’s death are his most profound. They are almost unrivaled essays in lamentation. His Crucifixion diptych, for example, is a masterpiece of holy agony. Mary faints before a cloth whose scarlet hints at her bleeding heart; her son, torn from her in death, is unreachable across an ebony frame. 2 His Deposition in Madrid (depicting Christ’s removal from the cross), is more complex: a symphony of emotions among graceful, brocaded mourners, it reaches a crescendo in the face of Mary, who droops in a heap of ivory and blue.[I] 3 More subtle still is his Entombment at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, with its gentle spirit of resignation. 4 All of these works, I think, are poignant examinations of clean pain, ushering us into a season of sorrow and remorse – of hard things.
What do I mean by “clean pain”? It’s pain that’s wholly accepted and not resisted. It slices you like you’re Jello: clean in, clean out. It admits to itself: “this has to be, and I can’t stop it.” So it waits – you wait – arms slack at your sides, head bowed, shoulders drooped, until it has run its course. Rogier van der Weyden imagined that holy figures like Mary and John felt the inevitability of Christ’s death and accepted it without a fight. (They had prophecies to go on, at least: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” 5) Thus in van der Weyden’s Deposition, Mary’s face is smooth and relaxed. Four large, watery tears roll from her softly closed eyes. She has succumbed to a swoon, and John has caught her, bracing her fall. Her whole body is peaceful and helpless in the face of a pain that can’t be battled or overcome – only received.
Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance, and I hope it can be a day of clean pain. There are different kinds of repentance – some of which are not repentance at all. Christ spoke of hypocrites that “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners 6“
We all know the phenomenon of street-corner repentance: theatrical and boasting, almost competitive, covering remorse with the garish cosmetic of self-righteousness. There is also, and maybe more commonly, empty-gesture repentance: go through the motions, say the right words, while remaining a rock inside. And there is a third kind of repentance that is in some ways truer than the others because it is a true pain, but still insufficient. That’s because it’s not clean, like Mary’s face watered by tears, but “dirty” and defiant. It, like the demons, proclaims, “I know what I am! I know what I did! But I can’t let go! I can’t let go!”
It’s this kind of pain, and half-measure repentance, that shows up, I think in a remarkable trio of images by the twentieth-century British artist Francis Bacon. Bacon, a lifelong victim of abuses and betrayals, and ultimately a suicide, painted Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944 7 Here three eyeless, gray-fleshed beings writhe in interior pain. These figures are armless – and thus helpless – with swelling bodies perched sloppily on stick-legs. Their long necks seem jointed just below where they ought to be, yielding postures of eternal, reluctant supplication. With no eyes, but with gaping mouths, they cannot see the means of their redemption, yet they can still cry out in anguish. In fact, that’s all they can do. Theirs is a pain that owns up to itself, yes, but it’s a pain without issue. It’s not a clean, slicing pain, making an opening for healing, but a pain that’s pent up and gathered inside, stretching and swelling, bulbous, and piling. It must be no coincidence that Bacon never produced a Messianic focus for these mourners. (Did he even envision one?) The “base of the Crucifixion” alluded to here is anchored in the abyss, layers and layers below light and hope, where all is held and nothing relinquished for ever and ever on end.
So may our pain be a clean pain that slices, and our repentance a true one that loosens its grip. May we repent quietly, sincerely and deeply, and accept the impaling stabs that come with all true remorse. And after that, by grace, may we each say this: “My Lord, show me what else! How else have I betrayed your love?” To loosen our grip when our fingers are stiff, to accept the sorrowful knives – these things can make us inwardly scream, as Bacon’s mourners do. But these are the screams of giving birth, and they are followed by clean tears of joy.
-  See https://collections.mfa.org/objects/31035
- See https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102845.html
- See https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-descent-from-the-cross/856d822a-dd22-4425-bebd-920a1d416aa7
- Luke 2:35
- Matt. 6:5