St James Ministry Team

A blog from the Ministry Team of St James Church, Colwall, Herefordshire, UK


The procession to Calvary

Quite appropriately, last Friday I was in front of this picture: [no longer available. Ed].

The first problem you have is to find Jesus. He's there in the middle, but surrounded by a crowd on the way to a football match - or maybe He is the football match. But part of the message, I am sure, is to pose the question, would we recognise Jesus if we saw Him today? Bearing in mind our preconceptions and busy-ness? Would we have time to see the saviour of the world go by?

But the picture raises many other questions, which perhaps I ought to do some research on to find out. What's that windmill doing perched so grotesquely on the peak? What is the circular structure in the distance? What are all the figures doing? You can tell it's a great picture by the length of time you spend in front of it.

Some questions I can answer. There are gibbets in the picture, not at all at odds with the contemporary scene. During the time Bruegel was painting, there were 5,000 executions in the course of 5 years, all a result of the Spanish rule trying to oppose the reformation in the Netherlands. This inquisition was directed by Cardinal Granvelle, who turns out to have bought many of Bruegel's paintings. What was going on? This painting, and also the Massacre of the Innocents, also in the KHM, but not in the catalogue, look like the work of an insurgent, not a collaborator. Michael Frayn, in his novel, Headlong, makes much of this in a very fascinating way. But this picture reminds us that Jesus was crucified by the established church of the day and I would say that the church is still a major obstacle to belief, as well as being a major agent for bringing people to God. How do we improve without being trendy or judgemental? How do we become like Christ?


At 15 April 2006 at 20:49, Blogger ken said...

I'm very grateful to be made aware of this fantastic painting which I've never seen before, with Jesus at the very centre, bowed down by the cross he is carrying.

Isn't the circle the point to which the procession is heading, with the circle itself a crowd surrounding the site for the crucifixion? It must be either a well-behaved crowd or much more likely a crowd well-marshalled by the soldiers. Actually, using the zoom on another copy of the picture I found, it's just possible to make out the two crosses for the bandits already erected.

As to the windmill, what better place to catch the wind than the top of a puy-like mound? In the Netherlands in those days windmills, being the tallest structures, were used for communication. With their four blades they were seen as symbols of the cross. But also the position the blades were left in could give a message, eg for a birth or for a death, as maybe is the case here.

You say, "The church is still a major obstacle to belief." Perhaps we need a 21st century reformation.
What theses would you nail to the door of St Peter's Basilica or Canterbury Cathedral or Colwall Church?

At 19 April 2006 at 10:46, Blogger Anne Hogg said...

I too have always been fascinated by this marvellous painting - I did a Good Friday sermon some years ago based on the very slow way that it then unfolded on the screen of my rather elderly computer! The challenge, as Chris points out, is to find Jesus in the picture. But when you do find him, he is in the middle of things - we often forget that. We don't have to find him, he is there all the time, but as you point out, we're too busy and often too busy being clever about our own theological ideas, to recognise him alongside us. This is such a picture of everyday life at the time, and not always a very pleasant or free life - quite unlike ours. But any contemporary viewer would be instantly involved, drawn in by the fact that Jesus was in the middle of their living experiences.

As for the established church alienating belief, perhaps part of that is because we are too concencerned with church doors! And getting people through them. Jesus didn't just teach in the synagogue and the temple, but in the squares and markets and harbours and houses and open spaces, in the middle of people. The longer we are predicated on a parochial system (itself a medieval hangover from feudal social structure) the less able we are to contact people in their real living environment. So I shan't be nailing anything to Canterbury or Colwall - no-one but the converted would notice anyway. As to what to nail, I'll have to give that one some thought, but a major clause would be contact with people wherever they are, not just in the geographical unit of the parish, now often little more than a dormitory when life goes on elsewhere. Thanks for the thought-provoking, Chris! More later.


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