When it was evening, Jesus sat down at the table with the Twelve. While they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one, Lord?”
He replied, “One of you who has just eaten from this bowl with me will betray me. For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!”
Judas, the one who would betray him, also asked, “Rabbi, am I the one?”
And Jesus told him, “You have said it.”
On the way, Jesus told them, “Tonight all of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say,
‘God will strike the Shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I have been raised from the dead, I will go ahead of you to Galilee and meet you there.”
Peter declared, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I will never desert you.”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny three times that you even know me.”
“No!” Peter insisted. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!” And all the other disciples vowed the same.
– Matthew 26: 20-25, 31-35
There is a painting which has been haunting me ever since I first laid eyes on it over 20 years ago in my college art history textbook. The original is long gone having been destroyed in World War II. All that remains is a black and white image of the piece.
Several years ago as I was preparing works of art for a show, this image quite unexpectedly came to mind. Pulling the massive volume of Gardener’s ART Through the Ages – Ninth Edition from the book shelf, I page eager to find it. There it is…page 883 in Chapter 21 on The Nineteenth Century in the section on The Romantic Landscape. The paragraph referencing the painting on the adjoining page reads…
…as art historian Robert Rosenblum has remarked, ‘the experience of the supernatural has…been transposed from traditional religious imagery to nature.’ Nature, as immanent God, requires no personifications other than its organic and inorganic subjects and objects, things visible to the eye, which symbolically express through their forms the truth of nature, which is to say, Divine truth. For Friedrich, landscapes were temples; his paintings themselves were altarpieces. His reverential mood demands from the viewer the silence appropriate to sacred places filled with a divine presence. Cloister Graveyard in Snow is like a solemn requiem. Under a winter sky, through the leafless oaks of a snow-covered cemetery, a funeral procession bears a coffin into the ruins of a Gothic chapel. The emblems of death are everywhere: the desolation of the season, leaning crosses and tombstones, the black of mourning worn by the grieving and by the skeletal trees, the destruction wrought by time on the chapel. The painting is a kind of meditation on human mortality, as Friedrich himself remarked, ‘Why, it has often occurred to me to ask myself, do I so frequently choose death, transience, and the grave as subjects for my paintings? One must submit oneself many times to death in order some day to attain life everlasting.’ The sharp-focused rendering of details demonstrates the artist’s keen perception of everything in the physical environment relevant to his message. In the work of Friedrich, we find a balance of inner and outer experience. ‘The artist,’ he wrote ‘should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him.’ — Gardener’s ART Through the Ages
“Yes,” I say to myself, “this is a piece worthy of revival.”
Let’s do some more research, shall we? First of all, the name of the artist…Casper. David. Friedrich.
Why am I not familiar with his work?
Why have I not come across a Caspar David Friedrich painting or two in my museum visits ever?
And why is there nothing to read about this guy online?
I finally settle on ordering the Friedrich catalog with the most stars from Amazon.com. It cost a pretty penny so it better be worth it! The book arrives and I dig in…
and there it is…the truth, the naked truth…
In today’s Scripture reading we hear Jesus speak two “I tell you the truth” statements. Neither one was great news. Both had the sting that cuts to the heart. These are the kind of words that make us want to either duck and run for cover (which according to John is what Judas did, getting up from the table and slipping out into the night) OR we puff up in denial and defend ourselves (as Peter does).
Granted, none of us likes to hear the cold, hard truth about ourselves…at least not initially. Strong reactions are normal and can somewhat be expected. But eventually, there needs to come the time when we sit with the words that have been handed to us in love. As the Proverb goes, “The wounds of a friend can be trusted.”
Peter remembers the words Jesus had spoken upon hearing the rooster and it breaks him. But what we read of Peter from there on out is nothing but bold, instantaneous action:
When Mary Magdalene comes to the disciples to report that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb, Peter and John take off running. Although John outruns Peter and arrives at the tomb first, he hesitates while Peter unabashedly walks right in.
Later, when the men are out fishing and Jesus appears on the shore advising where to let the net down, John realizes who is speaking, turns to Peter and says, “it is the Lord”, Peter immediately dives into the water and swims to shore.
You can see the change that has happened in Peter since that long chilling night where he claimed he didn’t know Jesus. He’s determined not to make that mistake again.
Finally we read how the risen Lord takes a moment to restore Peter. He asks Peter three times, one for each of his three denials: Do you love me? The truth here being when we fail, mess it up, don’t get it right, confession leads us into new mercies and new beginnings, redemption and resurrection.
A very old tradition rising out of the Celtic branch of Christianity and seeing some revival in contemporary Christian circles is the practice of the soul friend. The Celtic Christians held that every individual should have a trusted, reliable, confession-hearing, truth-speaking companion. They would say that a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head. And the only sin they ever considered unforgivable was the betrayal of a soul friend.
It is not an easy thing to let someone enter our lives with whom you speak openly and honestly about the condition of your heart, and then allow that person to give straight up insight and hold us accountable – truly accountable. Yet such a relationship is potentially ripe with fruitful growth and fosters healthy self-awareness.
Is there someone in your life who serves as a soul friend?
Can you remember a time that someone spoke the truth to you in order to guide you onto a more mature path?
Are you open to receiving such words?
A quick scan of the concordance at the back of my study Bible provides a clear picture of just how much Jesus spoke of or referenced the idea of truth. There are nearly 80 occurrences among all four gospels of “I tell you the truth” statements made by Jesus — would these alone not make for an interesting study course?
Jesus’ words to Pilate: “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” To which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” when there it is physically standing right in front of him.
The world has a way of shackling, beating, and stringing up the truth. It seems far easier to scream out, “You can’t handle the truth!” Or flippantly reply “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me.” We seem more likely to hide the truth than embrace it. On that note, a saying such as “the truth shall set you free” feels ironic, even sarcastic. In this world, truth often has as much shame and embarrassment associated with it as nakedness.
What I discovered when the catalog volume of Caspar David Friedrich’s art arrived at my home was Friedrich painted from a place of faith, at times unafraid to explore the difficult questions that may be lurking in the dark corners of the human soul, unafraid to represent the glories and supernatural elements of the created order. I fell even deeper in love with Friedrich’s work. I saw a man very much inspired by and working in sync with God’s Spirit.
Friedrich’s work is largely unknown because for too long the public has been unable to look at the truth and determine it’s time to decry this artist’s tainted reputation.
So here it is, my friends, the truth that scares people away. I shall now tell you.
There was a man… a prominent man who loved Friedrich’s work immensely. This man collected the 19th century landscape artist’s pieces avidly. This man himself once aspired to become a painter. He did something very wrong with Friedrich’s work, however. He used Friedrich’s beautiful images in propaganda literature to gain supporters for a new and rapidly growing political platform and party in Europe.
As a result, Friedrich’s works have largely never set foot in America. A small exhibit of his landscape drawings in New York was booed out of town in the 1960’s. The only reason his work is mentioned in my art history textbook was because Helen Gardener wrote ART Through the Ages in 1926 at a time before Friedrich’s shaming.
What person has the ability to ruin the potential for the world to know the works of one of the great romantic era landscape painters?
Truth be told… a man named Adolf Hitler.
It breaks my heart that an artist as incredible as Caspar David Friedrich has been blacklisted because one person a full century after Friedrich’s own time misappropriated his work. I feel strongly that Friedrich deserves to be rediscovered, his vast body of beautiful faith-inspired work deserves to be redeemed – thus I share it with you.
Look again at the Friedrich’s Monastery Graveyard in Snow. Friedrich was very good about not really ever explaining the meaning or thoughts behind his images. This leaves interpretation largely up to the viewer. Art can be challenging to understand so I will share some of the truth this particular painting has been speaking to me…
- shame is not the end
- suffering is not the end
- loneliness is not the end
- death is not the end
See the grave that has been dug, ready to receive its prize, but it’s not where the procession is heading or stopping.
Jesus tells the disciples that night at the Passover meal: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Galilee… that was the home community of Jesus’ closest followers. Jesus was going to see them again when they had all returned home. And that is exactly what he did too. John tells us how Jesus shows up on the shore one morning when the disciples had been out all night fishing.
Where is Jesus now?
Well, you could say he’s at home, waiting there for us, getting ready for us. Friedrich hints at this…
Through that tiny entrance arch in the painting we can make out a figure waiting at the altar with a shining cross above him. I’m transfixed by the message of hope here, the promise of a life beyond the grave, the truths presented in the presence of a tiny glistening cross…
You can find a bit more of Friedrich on the internet these days compared to back in 2010 when I was wanting to recreate Monastery Graveyard in Snow. You can view the art of Caspar David Friedrich here >
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