A Lenten Meditation through Art

Follow Me Satan (The Temptation of Jesus Christ) by Ilya Repin (19o1-1903)

At their heart Judaism and Christianity are “mystical” religions.  They have created a framework composed of iconography and metaphor to house the mysticism inside.  That mysticism requires our careful thought and study to accomplish the “revelation” of its truths .  That study works best when the student becomes actively involved as in prayer and iconographic study.  We all too often fall victim of the old maxim of not seeing the forest for the trees and become fixated on intricate details which only serve to block, not reveal,  the truths which lie within the outward structures. 

The painting shown above by Ilya Repin came to my attention through the good offices of the clergy and staff of Saint Augustine’s Church in Oakcliff, Texas when it appeared in a Facebook announcement concerning upcoming Sunday services. The scripture and sermon obviously geared to an upcoming exhortation concerning the temptation of Christ as it relates to our everyday lives    It is in my opinion a true icon pointing us to one of those mystical truths often overlooked. 

Repin was the most famous Russian artist of his day and began his studies in military school. His father was a soldier in the Russian Army and he was slated to follow in his footsteps.  Bur alas he began to study art and found a new path for his life.  His initial work involves the restoration of religious paintings. 

“Follow me, Satan”  presents temptation as a subtlety .  Satan is portrayed as a phasm-like figure in red with his fallen angels wings clearly visible reminding us of  his fall from grace.  He stands behind a contemplative and perplexed looking Jesus whose expression suggests that he is enduring some discomfort of mind as the proposed “temptations” are subtly and craftily presented.  The mist covering the ground beneath Satan and Jesus suggests that temptation presents itself stealthily and subtly in our lives without clearly defined boundaries which would normally give us warning that we are straying into the quicksand of destruction.

As I contemplate this icon I find it to be a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies.  We all face temptations and usually is such subtle ways we fail to recognize them before they have a chance to work their destructive power.  A recommended prescription is prayer and the study of iconography as a way of finding those truths which are actually worthy of our embrace. 

In closing I offer you the word of the Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer:  “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. …” 

The Lord be with you always. Amen.