For each preaching series at my church, we take time in choosing a piece of art to reflect the content. This is a reflection I wrote for our series going through the Gospel of Mark.
Of all the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark is the most stripped-down, earthy, human depiction of Jesus. It is spare and humble, with an earnest pace, and ironic wink. Yet it may seem odd that we’ve decided on Tomasso Laureti’s 1585 fresco Triumph of Christianity as its thematic image—a painting that hangs in one of the most opulent, larger-than-life halls of power in all the world.
Laureti’s piece lives on the ceiling of the Hall of Constantine, the largest room in the Vatican’s Papal Palace. It is not part of the original design: it replaced the original wooden ceiling in 1585, six decades after the room was finished. This being the case, there is an odd tension between this art and the garish displays on the walls below; and this tension embodies much what we will be explore in our sermon series through Mark.
The painting is set in a Roman Temple, empty apart from a golden crucifix standing triumphantly over a broken statue of a Roman God, fallen from its place on the pedestal. With the eyes of Mark’s Gospel equipping us, one could look at this and imagine it as a picture of the human heart or human society, full of its own pantheon of deities demanding our fealty, our wealth, and our affections. All around and within us are beings and objects towards which we offer worship, or from whom we strive to obtain it.
Or perhaps more honestly and accurately, it is a picture of our human souls, broken, alone, battered, and fallen. In one profound sense, all our hearts lie in pieces on the floor, our faces turned away from Jesus in shame.
Mark’s Gospel will present us with the human, homeless, and gentle Jesus who stares with compassion at our brokenness, even as he dies broken on the Cross—pitiable, weak, exposed, and dying. But this painting will help remind us that this isn’t the end of the story.
Jesus’ life and death exist in a liminal space between glory and loss, wealth and poverty, divine and wretched. There is a veil draped between spiritual reality and ourselves—things are not what they seem. Laureti’s work captures this by gilding the cross of death in a bright gold shining out from the muted colors all around.
This reminds us that when we draw the veil back, this dying man of compassion is also the raised king of glory who does not just look at our debris, shattered idols, and crumbling sense of self and simply feel bad, but he actually does something about it! Though this God surely meets us in the mundane, he slowly works behind the veil of our lives and hearts to put us back together by knitting us to both himself and to the others he is also making whole.
So as we travel through Mark, keep Laureti’s work in mind. It serves as powerful picture of our God who enters our frame in weakness and humility. He sees our brokenness and the gods fighting for our allegiance and breaks them both in order to make us new. Rather than depicting the end of a conquest, it seems this painting is offering us the beginning of a healing—for you, for me, and for the world.