Ecce Homo: Caravaggio Reveals Jesus’s Humanness

[I delivered the following chapel talk at St. George’s Independent School Chapel this morning. I projected the images on a screen behind me. The gospel was from Mark, Chapter 10: 13-16: People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.]

View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

     “Like a cinematographer, he goes in for the close up distilling the story to its bare bones and thus taking control of the narrative in order to reinvent it into something far more personal.”

In the summer of 2014, my wife, daughter Eleanor, and I travelled for the second time to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for my wife to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a hill on a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside and outside of these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces.

Chapel XII Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
Chapel XII Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

One day we took a day off in order to drive to the town of Novara to see a painting by my favorite Renaissance painter, Caravaggio.

Art seems to be everywhere in Italy—much of this presence of art around every corner, on and around every altar, arose during the Renaissance when the need for painting within the Catholic Church accelerated as part of the Counter Reformation. Recognizing the impact of visual images on a largely illiterate population was central to the Catholic Church’s push back against Protestantism moving outward quickly from Germany and Europe. As a result, there was tremendous need for artists, and Rome in particular deepened its hold as the epicenter of the art world. Living often within shouting distance of each other, many different artists painted some of the central scenes of Jesus’s life—copying one another, competing with one another. One of these scenes is called, “Ecce Homo”—the most famous version of which, Caravaggio’s, we went to see in Novara.

There are many paintings and representations of the moment near the very end of Jesus’s life when Pilate publically reveals Jesus to a crowd and says, memorably, “Ecce Homo” meaning “Behold the man”. A number of these versions depict many people–we see not only Jesus and Pilate and Jesus’s torturer but also the animated crowd bearing witness to the events leading to the crucifixion.

Ecce Homo from Sacro Monte Di Varallo (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)
“Ecce Homo” from Sacro Monte Di Varallo (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

In fact, in some representations Jesus is almost lost in the scene. His presence is not always where a viewer’s eye goes first. It can be a scene of large scale—many people enacting a public drama.

Titian, Ecce Homo
Titian, “Ecce Homo”

To me the most compelling painter of the Italian Renaissance is Caravaggio. Painting in the 16th and 17th centuries at the same time Shakespeare was at his prime, he was able to capture dramatic moments, such as “Ecce Homo.”

Caravaggio, "Ecce Homo"
Caravaggio, “Ecce Homo”

And indeed his own life was full of high drama, and vendettas, and insults, and violence. Within a year of this painting’s completion, he killed a man in a sword fight causing him to flee Rome and likely never deliver the painting to the man who commissioned it. He was a man of stunning artistic vision and deep, most often self-inflicted, darkness. He was the most talented in a city of talent.  He was violent even by the standard set in a violent city.  In our world he most likely would have been painting in prison, a high security prison.

In his painting of “Ecce Homo” he does something fundamentally different with his representation of this dramatic moment. Instead of painting the entirety of a scene that would have been already familiar to his viewers, he zeroes in on only the most essential elements. Like a cinematographer, he goes in for the close up distilling the story to its bare bones and thus taking control of the narrative in order to reinvent it into something far more personal.

To our purpose this morning, Caravaggio takes us to Jesus, the human being, a man facing suffering as a human being, not as a visibly empowered divine being. The Jesus he presents has a countenance, a facial expression, that might exist among us—might be among the homeless, might be an exhausted refugee, might be our next door neighbor after a house fire, perhaps he might be our friend facing traumatic personal, fully human loss. To reinforce the concept that Jesus is a man who might walk among us, he portrays Pontius Pilate in Renaissance era clothes so as to make the entire scene contemporary, immediate.

During the the Easter season in early Spring, I find that we focus so much on the very end of the story—Christ’s resurrection and ascension–that we can lose sight of a necessary balance between his divinity and, importantly here, his humanness.  To understand the full power of Jesus’s story we must maintain focus on the fact in the gospel story that he is a man–a human being–AND he is divine. In his “Ecce Homo”, Caravaggio brings our attention squarely to Jesus’s humanness. He cuts out all of the static of a crowded stage and places us in a unique proximity to Jesus’s suffering—depicted as stunningly human. Jesus looks vulnerable, tired, reflective, withdrawn, introverted. Even without showing us Jesus’s eyes, Caravaggio pulls us toward the interior of the man—everything else is secondary thus reversing what is usually a public scene to a uniquely private one. Through Caravaggio’s famous manner of capturing light in his work, he draws our attention away from the two other people on the canvas and onto Jesus. Interestingly, Jesus’s form is not highly idealized even though it commands most of our attention. Caravaggio’s representation of Jesus stands in contrast to many depictions of him as super-human—as a highly muscled savior, a man with a middle linebacker’s musculature. Not this one. His defined muscles appear more as a result of his thinness than as a result of push-ups.

Our scripture today is from a different, much earlier part of Jesus’s life and ministry. It is interesting that both the gospel reading today and Caravaggio’s “Ecce Homo” reveal significant aspects of Christ’s humanness. While we see his human suffering in “Ecce Homo”, we see his abiding and human love for others through the way he reaches out to children, the way he seeks connection with others, the way he seeks to bless them even over the objection of the disciples. There is something remarkably tender about his gathering up of the children. Placing the two scenes next to each other creates a tension. He is capable of not only despair but joy. While in “Ecce Homo”, he seems to be withdrawing from society, in our gospel today he seeks connection, and he seeks to take action by providing a blessing. Both images of Jesus are revelatory—he is a man who has felt human joy and despair himself.

I feel so strongly about facing Jesus’s humanness because it makes me see his divinity in a more complete and powerful light. It is the idea that Jesus is both human and divine that is the transcendent detail of his story. Caravaggio draws our attention to this, and he allows us to see him in a vastly different way than the fuming crowd there to jeer him. He also makes us see a familiar scene through new eyes. The painting calls us to rise above the crowd and “behold the man”. Through the perspective of the painting, Caravaggio elevates the viewer above the crowd to which Pilate speaks. Caravaggio seems to be calling us, and perhaps himself, to rise above the crowd and to a closer connection to Jesus, and thus to faith.

To behold means to take in, to reflect upon, to contemplate, or to witness a person who is remarkable and impressive. Yet Caravaggio makes Jesus not obviously remarkable or impressive at all—he normalizes Jesus’s physical form in order to emphasize, I believe, that he is human. Interestingly, I think that is exactly Caravaggio’s point—what makes Caravaggio’s Jesus truly remarkable and impressive IS his humanness–one placed on earth not simply to be among us, like a mythological god meddling in human affairs, but one born of a mother, to be one of us, as one who can gather children up in his arms to give a blessing and also toward the end of his life, one who can experience despair.

Ecce Homo. Behold the man. Amen.

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Mutuality and Ascendent Partnerships

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“We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality.”

[Several years ago, I wrote about the role of partnerships in schools. Below the brackets is part of what I wrote. I am struck with the ongoing relevance of this kind of thinking and of the strategic necessity of creating and maintaining partnerships. On Saturday, St. George’s partnered with the Wolf River Conservancy and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to provide a family day on the Wolf River hosted at St. George’s. It was great to see so many people experience for the first time our outstanding setting along the Wolf and our unique access to Mid South wetlands. We have also developed an unprecedented relationship with City Leadership and Serve9o1 in a space we are calling the St. George’s Bunkhouse in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood–you can read about that partnership HERE

What is happening through such partnerships pulls our school into the community from which it draws families, and it pulls the community to us. Through partnership we become a good neighbor, and we become aligned with the best ambitions of our city, county, and area. We recognize what has always been true, if often dismissed–that is, that we exist in a web of mutuality. For too long independent schools risked becoming artifacts of separation, virtually stiff arming the outside world–in so doing they risked underserving both students and the community. That coin can and should flip.

There are many institutions and non-profits thinking in similar ways about the importance of partnerships in the Memphis area. A couple come to mind first for me though there are, of course, many more. Rhodes College has made a priority of being a valuable neighbor through the Bonner Center for Faith and Service. In this work Rhodes has become a national leader. In a different context the amazing redevelopment of the old Sears building into the Crosstown Concourse, is at the forefront of creating connections between everything from housing, healthcare, wellness, retail, education, and office space. The most exciting forces–in education, in the non-profit, and in the for-profit world–are thinking big about how partnerships can weave the fabric of the city into something stronger, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Notably, the areas largest banks, First Tennessee and Regions, are focused on this work as well as expressed through their thoughtful deployment of Community Reinvestment Funds. In short, they recognize the power of betting on Memphis and Shelby County. They too realize that we are in a web of mutuality and that the generations to come will be at risk if we allow the constituents parts of the community drift too far apart now.]   

Design Rendering of the C
Design Rendering of the Crosstown Concourse from http://crosstownconcourse.com/design

From 2012…”Partnerships. Local ones, international ones, public-private ones, online ones.  Partnerships between schools, between teachers, between academic departments, between students, between teachers and students, between the school and students, between the school and parents, between the school and the community in which it exists.  More and more the value of partnerships is finding its way into the identities and the realities of schools. Some partnerships are making their way from the co-curriculum into the curriculum, while others are pulling our schools and some of our students’ learning out of the classroom and into the world.

I have written often in “Ross All Over the Map” about the importance of creating a Progress Culture in schools, and of late I have been constantly reminded that partnerships will be a cornerstone of establishing, maintaining, and expanding such a culture. I am struck with the realization that the schools best able to nurture these partnerships (rather than just accumulate them) will be positioned to give their students the most meaningful and sustainable experiences.”

A Senior Prefect’s Helpful Insight

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“[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.”

I have been meeting with my advisees to discuss their upcoming student-led teacher/family conferences. I met with four of the seven of them yesterday, and two more today. My first meeting was with our Head Prefect Sope Adeleye who was telling me about her recent college visit to Harvard. She has a tough choice to make in the next couple of weeks, and while not yet resolved, I was witnessing her thinking about what she wants out of her college experience gelling. While she was talking about her different college visits, she pointed out that her understanding of the value of her experience at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN was coming into focus. I asked what that meant, and she said: “[At St. George’s] I HAVE learned not WHAT to think but HOW to think, and not just HOW to think but HOW to think WITH OTHER PEOPLE.” The first part of the quotation was not original to her (she heard it from a “new friend she met during her visit”), but the last part–“[I have learned] not just how to think but how to think with others–was all hers.

It was a great way to start the day. In direct and clear language, Sope expressed my hope for great learning at our school. There is always a bit of tension between the reality of the school and its ideal vision for what it should be. This is a constructive tension, and its existence defines how a school challenges itself to get better at its work for the students who populate it. Sope’s statement is a poignant reminder that remarkable and rare things are going on in this school right now, every day. As we move forward to live toward the vision of St. George’s, it is vital to preserve the value already here. This is a core tenet of what I call “Progress Culture”. I believe it is true that students who become awake to the power of their education learn “how to think with other people.”

To impact positively the issues that define Memphis, our country, our world, leaders will have know “how to think with each other.” There is no other option that can possibly work. All of us regardless of political, economic, or religious affiliation, can cite far too many examples of leaders failing to think with each other. The generation of leaders graduating from high school late this Spring and those that will follow them in the years to come will need to have this skill at the ready. It is our ongoing work to make sure St. George’s students will.

Like so many of her classmates, Sope wants to change the world for the better. Some of them like Sope will tell you so. After you meet this crowd, you’ll have little doubt that in ways large and small, they’ll do it.

[I have written extensively about the idea of Progress Culture. You can find links to all of that writing HERE.]

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To Students: Teach Me What I Need to Know

With the Prefects last August
With the Prefects last August

As we begin the inevitable sprint toward graduation and the end of my first school year at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN, I realize how much I have learned since last July when I officially began my work as Head of School. More relevant, however, I realize how much more I have to learn, and I recognize the key source of that learning will be our students.

They have already taught me a great deal about..

  • what they value most about our school.
  • the importance of warm greetings and handshakes in the morning at carpool or on the way into Chapel.
  • how a small group of leaders can create powerful school spirit.
  • how different their lives are from my own life at the same age, as well as how some things about being young never change.
  • resilience in the face of remarkable obstacles. [While there are many examples I might mention here, I wrote about a particularly poignant example in  a post entitled, “Adam and Louie Showing Us the Way”, in which I shared a Chapel Talk Adam Cruthirds ’16 delivered to our Collierville Campus students in the Fall.]
  • the sacrifice dedicated young people are willing to make for an outstanding educational opportunity.

Our prefects, who are my advisees, have played a particularly important role in helping me get my feet on the ground. They are by nature a generative group who are forever thinking of new ideas for the school, ways to get better, more connected, more fully aligned with the unique vision of our school. In fact, On Friday two of them came up to me during lunch to let me know a couple of ideas they had about how we can improve our chapel services. They are not the only sources of good insight though.

In a three campus school that draws from well-over fifty zip codes and from a wide economic, racial, and religious spectrum, no single set of seven voices can come close to capturing a complete perspective on the school or the students who populate it. I was in a conversation a week ago last Friday with a student in which he detailed for me his experience in a way that will inform my way of understanding how the school looks and feels to someone with a unique vantage point. Similarly I have had a couple of conversations over lunch with the first cohort of students who began their St. George’s careers in Pre-K on our Memphis Campus and now are just over a month away from graduating from High School. What struck me first is how close they are to each other and how kind they were to me. What strikes me now is just how insightful they are, and how uniquely strong they have become through the experience they have had. They have a tremendous amount to teach me and to share with those coming behind them.

So…with all this fresh in my mind, I see that creating opportunities to hear from students is vital in order for me to learn what I need to know. They have important stories. They have so much to teach me about their lives.

[I also wrote about the centrality of listening to students in a blog entry entitled: “Prioritizing Student Engagement in the Liminal Space”]