Faith through Art: Reflecting on Jesus’ temptation in the desert
By Norman Farmer
Jesus’ wilderness temptation is traditionally the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent, the story is read in successive liturgical years from Matthew (4:1-11), Mark (1:12-13), and Luke (4:1-13). All three Gospel versions merge, however, in one of the 12 great paintings that line the walls of the Sistine Chapel just beneath Michelangelo’s glorious ceiling.
Painted around 1481 by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), “The Temptation of Christ, Bearer of the Gospel Law” is a visual proclamation of the mystery of the Gospel Law that Christ instituted when, at the will of the Holy Spirit, he journeyed into the desert wilderness of moral relativity and doubt to rebuke and reject Satan’s assault on the first principle of Mosaic law: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength” (Dt 6:4-5).
Biblical scholars note that much of what we know of Jesus is reported by others. Yet, Jesus alone experienced the temptations and could declare precisely and succinctly how he responded to the tempter. This fact underscores the solemnity of a magnificent masterpiece that invites us literally to envision, to imagine, to internalize, and to live the Word of the Lord.
Though it is densely populated by more than 60 persons (including Christ, four times, and the devil, three), the composition of the painting is really quite simple: a strong horizontal axis divides it into two distinct but dissimilar realms. Below, in the open space before a Jewish Temple, a large crowd has gathered to witness a priest performing the Old Covenant rite of purification (Lv 14:2-32) to acknowledge the healing of a leper whose disease was believed to be a result of spiritual failure. Several in this crowd, though are identifiable historical persons. Lorenzo di Medici, for example, stands behind the priest and alongside King Ferrante of Naples. Cardinal is Giuliano della Rovere (who would become Pope Julius II) stands opposite in the foreground. Dressed in a red tunic and holding a scepter is his cousin, Girolomo delle Rovere, then the commander of the papal army. Both men owed their offices to their uncle, Pope Sixtus IV. And all of them are associated, either as victims or conspirators and their respective allies in the notoriously bloody Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, when Pope Sixtus, backed by the papal army and numerous collaborators (note the cabal of three men, far left), tried to topple the political leadership of the Medici in Florence by assassinating Giuliano de Medici but merely wounding his brother Lorenzo in an attack during Mass at the Duomo in Florence (see www.palazzo- medici.it/mediateca/en/Scheda_Congiura_dei_Pazzi). A cleric (far right) dressed in violet, the liturgical color of Lent, tries to direct the attention of the delle Rovere family to the purification ceremony to which a pregnant woman dressed in the colors of Hope, brings oak branches (the family symbol of the the pope’s della Rovere family) to burn upon the altar.
In the realm above, though, the painting proclaims that the Gospel Law, not the Old Law, offers the only valid solution to such tangled tales of personal ambition, political power and familial violence. Midway (to the left) between the two realms, Christ stands among the angels who ministered to him (Mk 1:12-13) as “he came up from the water” of baptism and beheld the heavens to open and “the [Holy] Spirit of God descending like a dove” (Mt 3:16). “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan”: first, in a dark and ominous wood; next, “on the parapet of the Temple”; and then, high on a precipice that overlooks “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.”
Each characterizes a region in fallen human minds and hearts where the Tempter works constantly to ensnare men’s souls by sowing pride, ambition and desire. “Perform magic,” he tempts. “Turn stones into bread and win the allegiance of men forever.” Next, he turns theologian and debates Psalm 91:11-12: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” and He will save you. Then, failing, he plays his desperation card, the last resort of the ensnared heart: “Prostrate yourself and worship me” – an egregious corruption of the greatest and the first commandment (Mt 22:38-39), whereupon Jesus sends him packing, headlong into a withered and sickly oak tree whose branches will keep the fires burning according to the Old Covenant.
From today’s perspective, the historical references in this painting may seem to be just that: references to a distant (and purely personal) past. Yet, as we look about ourselves and our world in this Lent we will see that Christ’s consistent reliance upon the first and greatest commandment at each of Satan’s temptations is the lesson to be learned and heeded in the rebellious and fractious world that we, too, inhabit. This painting will undoubtedly remain the most prominent and enduring visual homily on Christ’s Temptations in the vast repertory of Catholic sacred art.