In Tents # 23 The Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate – Part I

Who has forgotten the outrages of the crucifixion
In the tenor of the cloisters of gentle remembrance?
—Clinton Larson, “Crucifixion in Judea”

Several months ago at Statebird Book I came across a book called Unlocking the New Testament, by Richard J Allen. I recognized the cover art as a Simon Dewey painting, and I could guess the title, “Behold the Man.” I instantly disliked it. Not for any technical deficiency, but for the portrayal of Pilate in the left hand corner, immaculate in his white robe, looking down at the crowd, bowing slightly, his left hand outstretched, pointing to Jesus, tall, regal, crowned in thorns, dressed in a white tunic, red robe over his right shoulder, and flanked by two Roman soldiers in full regalia.

The lines in the painting, especially the line formed by Pilate’s arm, point to Jesus, making him the focus, as well as the biggest figure. (Remember what you read in childrearing books about the largest figure in a child’s drawing being the figure most important to that child? It applies to adults as well.)

What I disliked was Pilate’s attitude, his pose. No Roman governor would bow to a prisoner he was about to crucify. He would not show anything that would be interpreted as deference. (Imagine the uproar you might see in the press if, say, the US President were to strike a pose that might be interpreted as bowing to a foreign king.  There would have been a similar uproar among Romans if the Roman governor were to pay the slightest deference to the King of the Jews.)

The scene would not have been anything like the reverent portrayal in the painting. A man who’s just been flogged would be bleeding profusely, and hardly able to stand. The soldiers would have been holding him up.

The obvious objection to what I’m saying is that Dewey is simply using poetic license and I shouldn’t try to impose my own artistic vision on him. Furthermore Pilate doesn’t deserve anything more than a diminutive role in the painting. Isn’t that the whole point of the exchange in John 19:10-11? Isn’t Jesus telling Pilate, “You’re not nearly as important or powerful as you think you are. You have no power, none.”

10 Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? 11 Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.

Fair enough. Indeed, think back to #18, that image of my mother as an extra in The Lamb of God, unable to shout, “Crucify! Crucify!” Her love of the Savior overwhelmed her artistic instructions. As did Dewey’s.

You could also say that an accurate portrait of what happened up on the porch would be too disquieting to gain a large audience. It would be like the painting I saw in a Swedish museum in 1971 of a Renaissance banquet. The server is presenting a platter to one of the diners—on the platter is a man’s severed head, unkempt, unshaven. The diner is poking it with a dainty fork. She looks pleased.

I found it arresting. Just shy of 13, I didn’t recognize the story. I looked over to the inscription, and found I should have recognized the story. I had heard about John the Baptist and Salome since I was in junior primary, surely. I think of the painting as my introduction to biblical iconography, my dawning awareness that when you look at a painting you can read the symbols and story—there’s something there to understand.

(I’m not sure why I connect that inscription and painting with my sense that I could read paintings, that they weren’t just color and shape. I had spent many a General Conference Sunday in the museum and visitor’s center on the southeast corner of Temple Square staring at Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings, going up the staircase with its elegant banisters, and looking at the huge ostrich egg with the pinhole through which someone had blown out the insides, and the other artifacts, then going down the other staircase—I don’t think I ever slid down the banisters, did I?—and looking at the paintings again.)

Several years later, when the painting came to BYU (and hung for several years on the 5th floor of the Lee Library, a little north of the south stairwell, just this side of the display case, under the clock and above the copier), I noted some letter to the editor writer complaining about how repulsive it was.

The satire is sharp, pungent, the most memorable picture I know of John the Baptist’s head being presented to Salome, the only one I can think of. (Isn’t it in Richard Strauss’s Salome where Herod is so repulsed by Salome’s erotic play with the head that he orders his guards to crush her under their shields?)

The natural direction for this posting to take would be some comment about what a shame it is that LDS artists can’t explore the full power and horror of scriptural stories because audiences won’t put up with it. But that’s not where I’m headed. I asked myself the question, “How would you want Dewey to portray Jesus and Pilate? Would you want him to show Pilate as dominant, or as sneering at Jesus, and sarcastic?”

The answer was to recall Robert Graves’s comments about the story of Sisyphus, when I spent 36 hours listening to his study of The Greek Myths.

I have an interest in that story. In Seattle, between Lake Union and about 42nd St. is a street called Stone Way, at the top of which is a Safeway. Getting off the bus at Safeway and walking down Stone Way late one night I got the idea for a story. The Safeway would represent art as a safe way to confront meaninglessness in our lives, while the grieving father walking down Stone Way towards the building he was cleaning across the street from Gasworks Park would think of himself as Sisyphus walking down the hill to roll the stone back up, trying to get meaning back into his life after being sundered from his wife and sons. In turn he writes a story about Sisyphus and the others breaking out of Hell (Sisyphus leading a mass jailbreak, so to speak) at that moment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Orpheus comes aseeking Euridyce and all activity, including all punishment, stops while he sings. Sisyphus goes off after his family.

Both my story and my character’s story reinterpret Camus’s reinterpretation in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” But what I learned from Graves is that the various versions of the Sisyphus story are themselves interpretations of a more ancient story. He says a couple of times that the mythographer misunderstood the iconography he was writing the story from—that the icon showed a sun god carrying the disk of the sun up the vault of heaven, not a man pushing a stone up a hill.

Graves argues explicitly that the Greek Myths are not archetypal stories tapping into the deep mysterious recesses of the subconscious. Rather, they are stories about historical events, recording in symbolic, allegorical form the struggle between adherents of male and female gods. The allegorical form is the form of the political cartoon, and if you understand what’s happening in the stories they’re no more mysterious than political cartoons. One of the keys is the places named in the stories.

For example, if I told a story about a brave band of Utes fighting off the wily Cougars in the foothills above the Great Salty Lake, or a story about the brave Cougars triumphing over marauding Utes on an ancient dry lakebed just miles from the remnant Ute Lake, it would be obvious to anyone who lives in Utah that I was talking about an annual ritual, a football game, a college rivalry–especially if I stuck in something about this being the last contest for awhile because the Utes had decided to hunt in other areas where they could have a more bountiful take.

Graves says of several myths that the mythographers who were transcribing the stories didn’t understand what the iconographers had carved or painted or sculpted. He doesn’t develop the implicit argument that the myths as we have them in all their variants represent a WPA-like (though not necessarily government-sponsored) project to record the myths and folklore of the countryside. (I liken it to someone who had read, say, David McCullough’s John Adams reading through newspapers from 1800 and trying to write the stories behind the political cartoons connected with the election, but not having as full a grasp of the sources as McCullough did.)

All this relates to Simon Dewey’s painting in two ways. First, if he had painted a beaten-down Jesus, how might someone interpret his attitude toward Jesus? Jesus is clearly the focal point of the painting and Dewey shows him in great majesty. He could show the same majesty with a suffering Jesus, surely, but how much of that majesty would depend on people knowing the story and accepting the majesty? People who didn’t accept Jesus’ messianic claims might feel the painting showed the defeat of those claims, while people who did might be offended because they showed the Savior of the world in shame.

Second, when you lose the key to understanding a story—whether you lose it deliberately or it’s taken from you—you try and interpret the story in a way that will make some sense to you. One key to understanding what happens between Jesus and Pilate is  in Matthew 16, but it’s not in verses 13-20.

Another key is in Luke 24, but not in verses 1-4. I will end with the audacious claim that Christian tradition has largely ignored, or lost the two keys, and explore why next month. (And maybe for the next few months?) Part of the reason is a change in Christian ethics in the early church, and an accompanying change in aesthetics. Eventually we’ll get back to the story of Jesus and the Pharisees.

Till then, your turn.


This entry was posted in Literary Views of Scripture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to In Tents # 23 The Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate – Part I

  1. Pingback: In Tents #24 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part II | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    Well, I don’t know whatever the hell a “pingback” is, but it sure as hell isn’t an adequate response to this column. I think that this analysis is spot-on in its deconstruction of the Dewey painting, and since I believe that “the son of man hath descended below them all,” I’d prefer the painting of Jesus flogged and being held up before the silent crowd, silent except for the soldiers chanting “Crucify him!”

    I think most artists painting a scene from the Bible assume that their audience knows the story. Safe assumption or not, I’d rather see a painting with that assumption than one that has to tell me how to read it. Thanks for these insights, Harlow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>