Viewing and pondering sacred art offers the faithful a great way to meditate more deeply on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This series of articles will highlight several pieces of art related to the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, which highlight Our Lord’s public ministry. Each of these pieces of art allows us to reflect on Jesus’ teachings and miracles, connecting them more fully to our own lives.
The Third Luminous Mystery is the Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which spans the period of time from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount until the Transfiguration. During those years, the Lord “went about all Galilee, teaching…and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Mt. 4:23). He taught in parables and gave instruction on how to live; He healed physical ailments and deformities; He healed spiritual infirmities by casting out demons and forgiving sins. Because of these multiple layers of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, we need to reflect on multiple artworks, which will identify particular elements of the proclamation.
We can begin by meditating on the event by which Jesus initiated His proclamation of the Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch was a renowned Danish artist of the nineteenth century. Near the end of his noteworthy career, in 1877, he painted Sermon on the Mount, which stands among the most identifiable and memorable pieces in the full history of Christian art. The elements of this painting allow us to prepare for the astonishing miracles that He would perform, and to bask more fully in the light that He brought to the world.
Jesus Christ himself is the visual center of the painting. A viewer’s eyes immediately notice a few important details. Jesus is dressed in red. This bold color can symbolize passion, love, and fire. In Bloch’s work, it could be significant of all of these, and it probably indicates the via crucis, the road to His sacrificial death, that began as soon as He began teaching and performing miracles. This detail also reminds viewers that discipleship is a personal commitment that requires passion, love, fire (a sign of the Holy Spirit), and, yes, a via crucis of our own (see Lk. 9:23).
After Our Lord’s wardrobe, we also notice that his right hand is raised, pointing to Heaven. This reminds us that every word and action of Our Blessed Lord’s proclamation was meant to point us toward Our Heavenly Father, and to bring us fully into relationship with Him. Each of us must ask probing questions about our response to this opportunity. Have I grown closer to the Heavenly Father recently? Have my desires and actions changed to make that happen? If not, what’s preventing me?
After taking in the details about Jesus and His posture, we notice other figures nearby. First, at Jesus’ right, an older man wears a look of disdain on his face. Perhaps the artist intended him to represent the Pharisaical establishment that would be so roiled by Jesus’ radical and paradoxical teachings of humility, mercy, and charity. Perhaps the look on this man’s face causes each of us to think about ways that we have rejected the full truth of revelation, choosing only the parts that suit our preferences. Have I taken in the leaven of the Pharisees (see Mt. 16:5-12)?
Two other figures in the painting warrant extended reflection. A bearded man stands behind Jesus, quizzically pondering what the Teacher has to say. It appears that this man isn’t quite sure what to make of this paradoxical message of beatitude. On Jesus’ left side is a younger man. While his back is turned to the Messiah, his head is turned toward Jesus and the look on his face implies that he is deeply intrigued and astonished by what he hears. Both of these men show dispositions that are common in every age. Do we really hear Jesus saying what we think we hear? Do we have trouble making sense of His amazing and perplexing words? Do we turn our proverbial backs to Jesus, but still strain our necks attempting to look like we’re listening?
At Jesus’ feet are two men whose hands are folded in prayer. One, whose back is completely to the viewer, looks as though he might be from a higher social class. The other is clearly a poor shepherd who has cast aside the tools of his trade. These figures reveal to us at least two important truths. First, the proclamation of Jesus is for any person of any social class. When we become part of the Chosen People of God, we all stand side-by-side as equals, regardless of status or wealth. Second, when Jesus begins to speak His truth to us, we become willing to cast aside even the few comforts and certainties we may have. We might be challenged to ask whether we live by these principles in our own journey with Jesus.
To the left of the shepherd is a basket of household goods, including a water jug and some laundry garments. The basket sits beside a downcast woman, one who is clearly overwhelmed with grief, anxiety, and stress. This woman represents all those in the Gospel, and in our own age, who have been beaten down by life in the world, those to whom Jesus’ proclamation is spoken most specifically (see Lk. 4:16-21). Each of us can identify with this woman’s disposition, and we can hear Jesus speak into those emotions:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19).
On the woman’s white head garment rests an orange butterfly. This ought to signify the transformation that is available for those who will hear Jesus’ words and begin to practice them daily. All of us who view this painting ought to be inspired by the potential resurrection to new life provided by the grace of God, made present in the Incarnate Word.
We know that the Sermon on the Mount was the verbal proclamation of the impending and already-present Kingdom (cf. Lk. 17:21). It was a first great ray of light from the Source of All Light, which would only grow as He traveled and taught and healed. From here, we want to turn to examine some of the specific parables by which Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, and the exorcism and miraculous healings by which He set people free.
Sermon on the Mount is in the public domain.