Paintings of the Wise men

The Magi (Three Kings) visit Jesus

Painting of the Three Wise Men-Kings

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why does the artist show the Three Kings as being from three different age groups: young, mature and old?
  2. What does the ruined stable represent?
  3. Why are the kings not wearing their crowns?

The Three Kings, or Magi (wise, learned men), led by the star to the Christ Child, kneel to present their gifts. Matthew refers to them laconically as ”wise men from the East” but already in the early centuries of the Church they were spoken of as kings and their number was fixed at three, perhaps because of their triple offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Under their traditional names, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, they came to reprepresent not only the homage of the Gentile world to Christ but the three ages of man.

  • Melchior, old and gray-bearded, presents his gold,
  • Gaspar, a mature man with dark hair and beard, brings frankincense
  • Balthasar, young, fair-haired and beardless, offers myrrh.

Diptych with the Wise Men's visit to the infant Jesus, and the crucifixionMelchior has as usual laid aside his crown, but Gaspar and Balthasar are also doffing theirs, a gesture for which the only precedent appears to be a somewhat earlier diptych (an object with two flat plates joined by a hinge), probably of Netherlandish origin, now in the Bargello in Florence. Click on the image at right to see this painting.

There, too, as in Italian paintings, horses from the royal train appear in the background, although none quite like the gray charger throwing back his head, to neigh perhaps, in recognition of the miraculous star. Nearby a shepherd kneels in adoration.

The Virgin in her humble shelter was seated on the ground in the artist’s miniature for the Nativity (see this painting at Birth of Jesus), but now the painter has provided her with a bed covered in royal scarlet. A massive figure, larger in scale than the others, she holds on her lap a sturdy curly-headed Child Jesus, naked except for the mantle she has tucked about his legs.

Joseph, the carpenter, kneels facing Melchior. The two men are similar in age and mien, but the King is dressed in rose and saffron decorated with gold whereas Joseph wears a subdued brown and violet mantle, beautifully set off by a mustard-yellow tunic. His head is covered only by a white skull cap; he, like the kings, has removed his hat/crown in a gesture of respect for the King of Kings.

On the hill by the road leading down from Jerusalem a golden statue of Mars stands on a column, representing the pagan world and the military domination of Rome. Of course, this is inaccurate: the Jewish religion forbade images of God/gods, and the Roman authorities respected this. If there had been a statue of Mars on the Jerusalem road, all hell would have broken loose…

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What is an 'Angel'?

Paintings of angels

Mary of Nazareth

Descent Book of Hours

Descent from the Cross, Duc de Berry

Question for Bible study groups

  • Compare the miniature painting from the book belonging to the Duc de Berry (below), with the famous Lamentation by Roger van der Weyden in the Prado (below right). Which do you prefer? Why?

The Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry includes no less than three scenes of Christ on the cross. One of these is a painting showing Jesus’ family and disciples lowering the body from the cross. Christ is mourned by his companions and his body is displayed. The composition is thus a precursor of the famous Lamentation by Roger van der Weyden in the Prado  (see the link below)

an der Weyden, Christ taken down from the crossBut the artist here replaced realistic items such as ladders with the slender converging diagonals of the lance and reed. They seem to provide support to the two symmetrical angels, who though quite substantial lack lower limbs and end in floating draperies.

The corpse is not easily held upright, although the figures press against it as buttresses.

The man at the right (Nicodemus?) beneath Christ’s arm tries hard, but Joseph of Arimathea remains rather detached. Perhaps that is why in the end the painter, confused about this man’s role, made him an oddly mannered figure.

The two angels are related in color to figures diagonally opposite in the compact principal group. The four grieving angels in the quatrefoils of the richly decorated frame are also arranged diagonally in pairs, two with blue tunics on red backgrounds and two in pink on blue. Similarly two of them pray, and two lament.

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Modern images of Jesus and Mary


Birth of Jesus

Soldiers sleep

Soldiers sleep at Jesus’ tomb

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What do you notice about the three crosses on the hill in the distance?
  2. What is unusual about the soldier’s shield in the foreground? 
  3. Why are the soldiers asleep?

The soldiers sleep at Jesus' tomb

Now the next day . . . the chief priests and Pharisees came together with Pilate, saying, “Sir, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again’ . Command therefore that the sepulchre be made secure until the third day…” Pilate said to them, ‘You have a watch: go your way, make it as secure as you can.” (Matthew 27: 62-65).

The three soldiers have fallen asleep around Christ’s solitary tomb (quite unlike an authentic 1st century AD Jewish tomb), but to a degree they still guard it:

  • the averted soldier is half upright, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword
  • the head of his comrade has fallen forward on his knee, but he still has hold of his grotesque shield shaped like a mask with wide-open mouth (similar to the famous Bocca della Veritá in Rome)
  • the third guard, armed with a battle-axe, sleeps with his hand on the lid.

The artist has painted a deep landscape. Trees rise from the hills beyond the barren foreground. The ancient city of Jerusalem dominates the heights to the right, and against the horizon the grotesquely twisted bodies of the thieves still hang on their crosses on the distant Mount Calvary.

Incidentally, this is one of the earliest examples of a painted sky streaked with clouds.

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Paintings of the Passion of Jesus


Burial of Jesus

Jesus in his tomb

The Burial of Jesus, 15th century painting

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. As far as possible, identify the different people in this painting.
  2. What emotions can you see in the faces and gestures of the people surrounding the tomb?

Jesus is placed in his tomb

Christ is lowered slowly into the tomb – not a 1st century Jewish tomb, but a medieval European one.

Joseph of Arimathaea supports the torso, an assistant in a rose mantle bends down to take the weight of the legs, and a man in a turban kneels at the feet and pulls on the winding sheet. The mourner in a drab green mantle holds the necessary spices in a golden box.

At the head of the tomb one of the holy women holds the Crown of Thorns, which later became the most precious relic of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Mary of Nazareth kneels, supporting her son’s arm. She is as pale as the lifeless hand she presses against her cheek, reluctant to let it go. The intense blue of her mantle and that of Joseph of Arimathea frame the corpse.

The wild despair of Mary Magdalene contrasts with the quiet sorrow of the Virgin below her. She throws back her head and, like a mourner in the Lamentation, tears at the long golden hair which she had once used to wipe the Savior’s feet. The jagged peak behind echoes her agitation.

The violet of the Magdalen’s mantle repeats, at a deeper level, the color of the tomb, and leads the eye back through a gap between the figures into the landscape beyond.

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Burial of Jesus

Jesus Christ

Modern images of Jesus and Mary

Birth of Jesus


The Lamentation for Jesus

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Scroll down the page to see the paintings. What is the focal person in each one?
  2. How are the different people showing their grief?
  3. Which person in each painting shows grief most effectively? for Mary mother of Jesus, or one of the friends of Jesus at the foot of the cross?

Mary, John & the women mourn for Jesus

Mary, John & the women mourn for Jesus

The subject of the Lamentation, with its vision of the naked, wounded corpse of Christ stretched on the ground below the cross, provided an unequaled opportunity to show the impact of Christ’s death upon his mother, his close relatives, and his friends.

The de Berry miniature above is apparently the first example of this scene by a French painter. But a few years earlier the scene had been painted by an Italian illuminator into the Brussels Hours of the Duke of Berry.

 Entombment of Christ, Simone Martini

Although the artist of the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours did not adopt the composition of that miniature, his imposing figures and geometric design show again the depth of his understanding of Italian painting. He was no doubt impressed by the mourner who bends forward and tears her hair in Simone Martini’s panel of the Entombment, now in Berlin but then probably at Dijon, the Burgundian capital which he certainly visited. His own painting has a similar figure.

The artist of the Book of Hours was impressed also by the movement of Simone’s St. John, who covers his grief-stricken face with his mantle (click on the image below to see an enlargement of this painting). Here, St. John maintains the idea of concealment by laying a hand on his face—an equally unusual and expressive gesture. It may once again have been the Brussels Hours that suggested to the artist the dramatic foreshortened figure of the Magdalen.

Lamentation over the body of Jesus, Book of Hours, Duc de Berry, large

The more dramatic Magdalen in the Belles Heures kisses the feet, not a hand, of Christ. The foreshortening, too, is more drastic.

Artists of this period seem to have had no qualms about showing Jesus naked – as in fact he would have been when crucified. Only later did the audience for paintings of this subject insist that Jesus be modestly covered.

Notice the woman who lays a comforting hand on the Virgin’s head. The significance of her solicitude is increased by her size and her bearing – a remarkably majestic figure.

The Virgin alongside seems small. Eyes closed, she slumps, without hope, letting the arm of Christ lie limply in her left hand, while with her right she has raised her mantle as if to wipe the tears. Entirely drained of vitality, she yet remains the central figure. Hers is the strongest color, and the movements turn about her like the spokes of a wheel. It is to her that the companions (except the Magdalen} turn.

The body of Christ, partially rolled away, is left largely alone

Rogier van der Weyden's painting of Mary at the crucifixion

Rogier van der Weyden’s painting of Mary at the crucifixion

Rohan's Lamentation of the Virgin

Rohan’s Lamentation of the Virgin

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Christ taken from the cross

Questions for Bible study groups

  • Why are Jesus’ feet still fastened to the cross?
  • Mary in blue, Magdalene in red, the golden fleur-de-lys: what do these colors stand for?
  • Who were Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus?

Jesus returned to the arms of his mother

Jesus returned to the arms of his mother

‘And now when the evening was come . . . Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, who also waits for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly to Pilate and begged for the body of Jesus . . . And he bought fine linen and took him down’ (Mark 15: 42-46).

As usual in representations of the Deposition, the feet of Christ are still fastened to the cross while the body is lowered. You might think this would have been done the other way round, but to loosen the feet first would have meant the wrists/hands would have had to support the full weight of Jesus’ body, and presumably the flesh of his hands would have been torn apart. Instead Joseph of Arimathaea, on the lower rungs of his ladder, supports the corpse from below and Nicodemus, higher up, holds fast to the transverse beam while steadying the corpse with his left arm. In this way the battered body can be gently lowered into the waiting arms of his mother and friends.

The mantle that covered the Virgin’s head in earlier scenes has fallen back, and the very youthful mother (in fact she must have been about 46-8 years old) looks up tenderly and reaches out to receive her son, whose right arm has fallen limply upon her shoulder.

On the opposite side a red-robed woman (Mary Magdalene?) wearing a white wimple and a striking scarlet and gold mantle, holds the Crown of Thorns in her reverently covered hand. She is accompanied by another woman (Mary Cleophas?) in a green cloak and a young man who brandishes the two nails. At the extreme left of the painting, John stands gazing at his dead friend and master.

The figures compose a beautiful arabesque, strengthened by the ladders, the cross, and the twin peaks in the distance. The artist modulates surfaces subtly, giving them the kind of polish we observed in the Agony. A greater sensitivity is apparent also in the figures, especially the Virgin Mary.

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Paintings, artworks



Christ dies

Death of Jesus, Duc de Berry paintings

Questions for Bible study groups

  • This painting shows ‘darkness at noon’ at the moment of Christ’s death – something hardly ever shown in paintings. What is the meaning of this moment?
  • Who is in the painting? What are their separate reactions to Christ’s death?
  • This event is described in Matthew’s gospel. What does he say about it?

Jesus dies on the cross

“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus . . . when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost . . . and the earth quaked, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints which slept arose . . . Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly saying, Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27: 45-54).

This awesome event, described only by Matthew, is the artist’s second subject for None. According to Luke’s gospel (23:45) the sun was darkened, and the scene is bathed in an unearthly blue-gray light, such as falls on the earth during an eclipse (a nearly total one was visible in northern France in 1406 at about the time this painting was done).

Into the gloom strikes a shaft of supernatural light. Rocks have been split and three of the dead emerge through cracks in the earth, raising their hands in supplication.

An armed guard at the foot of the cross, still grasping his spear, falls back against his terrified comrades.

The kneeling centurion and a group of spectators look up in amazement toward the source of the yellow and red light that passes behind the repentent thief and comes near the side of the crucified Savior.

No earlier painting had offered so impressive a depiction of darkness at noon. The artist did this by developing the common mode of grisaille (painting in tones of a single colour, especially grey). He laid his blue-gray strokes over a lighter ground, producing a kind of shimmer. This ground is warmer and lighter in the flesh areas, and brick-red in the falling guard. The same red lies in the shadows of the mantle of the kneeling centurion. The artist here proves to be a subtle and resourceful painter.

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Death of Jesus


The road to Calvary

Pierced with a spear

Jesus pierced with a spear

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. How did the soldiers test Jesus’ body to see if he was really dead?
  2. Why does this painting show the centurion Longinus with closed eyes?
  3. What are the soldiers in the bottom right of the painting doing?

Was Jesus truly dead

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was dead already, they broke not his legs: but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19: 38, 84).

The followers of Jesus are not present in this scene. No doubt this would have been how it was, since they would have been intimidated by the presence of the brutal soldiers.

But Jesus himself is no longer plagued by the soldiers’ taunts. He is dead, and they are in the act of testing this by plunging a spear into his side. In a moment they will break the limbs of the two naked thieves crucified on each side of Jesus.

Fra Angelico, the soldiers pierce the side of Jesus to be certain he is deadThis incident was a popular subject at the time. Click on the thumbnail below to see an enlargement of Fra Angelico’s mural of this brutal moment.

The painter of the Book of Hours has incorporated an incident from the Golden Legend. Longinus, the centurion who pierced Christ’s side, suffered from a disease of the eyes. Here he raises his spear with lowered lids, and the hands of two comrades help to direct the thrust. His disease was cured by the blood that flowed from the wound.

One of the soldiers on the left side of the painting holds a shield in the form of a grotesque mask (see this same shield used in Soldiers at the Tomb). At the foot of the cross a guard leaning on his spear has turned away from the sight of the mutilated dead.

We are told that soldiers cast lots for Christ’s seamless garment, and here a group of three, oblivious of the scene behind them, could well be occupied with dice. One of them turns his back to the beholder.

The painter again employed his favored reds, pinks, blues, and yellow-browns. The blue tunic of one soldier bears small, sparkling golden motifs that give the figure a disproportionate prominence.

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Jesus mocked

Jesus beaten and tormented

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What do you think of the facial expressions on Jesus’ tormentors?
  2. Why has the artist deliberately covered the face of Jesus?

Jesus beaten and tormented

“Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands . . .” (Matthew 26: 67).

Jesus’ face is masked by one of the soldiers, who taunts him ‘Tell us who it was who hit you.’ But his body language speaks of dignity and resignation to God’s will.

Caiaphas, wearing a mitre and holding a crozier, both symbols of religious authority, sternly surveys the scene.

The green arcade behind the figures echoes the lively actions of the soldiers. The colors are interesting and distinctive: orange-red, pink, plum, golden brown, and a blue of different quality than we have seen in other paintings in the Book of Hours.

The clothes of Jesus’ tormenters are sumptuous, but the faces are not flattering: pug noses, flat features, and scowling mouths. Clearly the artist was sending a message about these people and their cruelty.

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Jesus scourged and mocked

Paintings of the Passion of Jesus

Nailed to the cross

Jesus nailed to the cross

Painting of Jesus and the two thieves

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Identify as many objects and people in this painting as you can.
  2. What seems to be the attitude of the crowd? Of the two thieves crucified with Jesus?
  3. This painting suggests that Jesus was stretched on the cross for a particular reason. What was it?

In an apparently unique passage in the French version of Jean de Berry’s Meditations, God the Father warned Christ that, since Adam had reached his arm out to pluck the apple from the tree, Jesus must redeem Adam’s action by being stretched upon the cross and attached with three nails, ”rough, badly forged, and blunt at the end.” Such a nail lies waiting on the ground beside Jesus, as another is being hammered into his feet.

Christ looks up steadfastly at the nightmarish form of the Devil, hovering with outstretched claws in hope that redemption may yet fail.

A small detail: see a drawing of an unpainted crown of thorns visible on the ground.

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The Jerusalem Temple