Holy Thursday: The Robe of Christ

A sometimes-overlooked detail from the Passion of St. Matthew, but a point upon which we can pause and reflect, is St. Matthew’s assertion that Jesus was wearing his own clothes when he went to His Crucifixion. In artistic portrayals of Christ making the Way of the Cross, He is sometimes depicted as wearing nothing more than a loincloth, but according to St. Matthew such a portrayal would be incorrect. After Jesus was beaten and tortured by the Roman soldiers, including being dressed in a scarlet military cloak and crowned with thorns, St. Matthew tells us:

And when they had mocked Him, they stripped Him of the cloak, dressed Him in His own clothes, and led Him off to crucify Him.

St. Matthew 27:31

Tradition says that the seamless garment which Christ was wearing when He came to Golgotha, and for which the soldiers cast lots, was woven by His Mother. I have written previously about this article of clothing, which has fascinated many writers, artists and filmmakers over the centuries. Probably the most famous example of an artistic treatment of Christ’s garment from popular culture is the classic 1953 epic film “The Robe”, starring Sir Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, OBE.

While we cannot be sure who made Jesus’ robe, let us assume for our purpose of reflection that it was indeed made by the Virgin Mary. This is not a dogma of the Faith, of course; it is simply a pious notion. That being said, I ask you to note the significance, gentle reader, of the fact that as He takes the road to Golgotha, Jesus is enveloped in something made for Him by His Blessed Mother, even as we consider what she must have thought as she saw Him wearing it to His execution.

Jesus’ progress to Calvary has been depicted many times, of course; sometimes He is clothed, sometimes not. One of the most aesthetically beautiful portrayals of a clothed Christ on the Via Dolorosa is a late work by Raphael, my favorite Italian painter and a good friend of this blog’s patron, Count Castiglione. Entitled “Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary”, but more commonly known as the “Spasimo di Sicilia”, the enormous altarpiece was painted in Rome between 1516-1518, and measures nearly 10 feet tall and 7.5 feet wide. It provides us with a further, interesting point of reflection on the robe worn by Jesus to His execution and its connection to the Blessed Mother.

This painting shows Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa as He exits the city of Jerusalem. As He falls, He turns back to see His Mother reaching out toward Him, almost like He was still a little boy and she wanted to keep Him from falling. Her face is filled with a mother’s grief; His with pain, but with an expression that says, “It has to be this way, Mother.”

What is particularly unusual about the image however, is that Jesus is wearing a blue robe, not the white we usually see. Blue is a color which is normally associated with the Virgin Mary, of course, if one is familiar with Christian iconography. I believe it is no accident that Raphael chose this color deliberately, to draw our focus to the relationship between Christ and His Mother.

This beautiful image was originally commissioned for a monastery in Palermo, Sicily, but when it was shipped from Rome the vessel was shipwrecked. Amazingly, the crate containing the altarpiece washed up in the port city of Genoa some days later, with the water-tight crate having protected the panel completely. The Genoese thought this a miraculous event and wanted to keep the picture, but Raphael’s great patron Pope Leo X intervened and ordered them to turn over the painting to the monks in Palermo who had paid for it. In 1661 it was subsequently sold by the monks to Philip IV of Spain, himself the great patron of my favorite Spanish painter Velázquez, for what at the time was considered the most expensive price ever paid for a painting; the king himself referred to it as “the most costly gem in the world”.

It is fitting that this gem of a painting, therefore, shows us another connection between Jesus and Mary. Christ came into the world of men through His Mother’s “fiat” at the Annunciation; subsequently, through the power of the Holy Spirit, His flesh was knit from that of His Mother in her womb. Now as He goes to die, He wears the garment she knit for Him from cloth. On Good Friday, He will lose that garment, and lose the flesh she knit as well. Yet not only is Mary there at this moment in His Passion, on the wayside before Golgotha, but in a way her love quite literally surrounds Him in the form of the robe she made for Him in her favorite color, as He takes that journey which will lead to His death – and ultimately to our salvation.

“Lo Spasimo di Sicilia” by Raphael (c.1516-1518)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
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Christ and Clothing

The fashion industry was born out of sin. Some people of course, would say that it has never left its birthplace.  From a Judeo-Christian perspective however, the existence of the rag trade, from haute couture to bargain basement, stems from Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the first thing that happened was that they realized that they were naked. They immediately began to cover themselves, and thus clothing came to be.

Jesus Himself, interestingly enough, gives us an interesting lesson on clothes both in His words and in His personal example, and this is something that I have been thinking about recently. First in a piece which I wrote recently about not looking like a schlub, as Jesus Himself instructs us, I thought about what Christ’s attitude toward what we wear is not a sort of all-or-nothing proposition completely rejecting concern for personal appearance. Yet also since this past Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, where Christ tells us not to worry about what we are to eat or what we are to wear, and in particular for our discussion the example of the lilies of the field, He gives those of us who do care about our appearance some food for thought.

In the context of the sermon of course, Jesus is telling us not to concern ourselves with material worries, but rather with putting our trust first in God, who ultimately will provide what we need. And given the “don’t worry” message in this very affecting passage from Scripture, it somehow does not surprise me that so far it has turned up, albeit in different contexts, in several places so far this week, including in conversation with a friend worried about the U.S. Presidential race in 2012, and even in Sean McCarney’s most recent podcast of “Just A Catholic Dad”. There are many big questions we have which Jesus tries to allay for us by reminding us to keep our eyes fixed on the goal of Heaven, and not down here on things which are fleeting and temporary, whether good or bad.

However, I know many people, myself included, who sometimes find themselves in a quandary about what to wear; it is a natural human occurrence which hits some more frequently than others. The Gospel reading caused me to think about the question of what Christ Himself thought about the rag trade, an industry which has been in the news a great deal this week because of the Oscars this past Sunday, John Galliano going off the rails at Dior and into Hitler worship, and Paris Fashion Week being covered in the better news outlets. Vanity, of course, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in some ways it is the least serious because it is ultimately ridiculous (just look at Lady Gaga.) Jesus does not want us to be dirty, weird, and unkempt, but at the same time He does not want us to obsess over what we look like, either; in what little we know of His own appearance, this bears out.

Despite the fact that we all think we know what Jesus looks like, because of the imagination of artists over the centuries, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea. There are no contemporary descriptions of Him, and no contemporary images of Him either. It is a reasonable assumption that He probably looked strikingly like His mother, because of the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception, but since we do not know what she looked like either this does not provide us with much of a clue. What we do know however is that, strange as this may sound, He had style.

One of the very few clues we have about Jesus’ personal taste comes from the Gospel of St. John. All four Gospels describe how, at the Crucifixion, the soldiers divided up His clothing among them in a game of chance, thereby unwittingly fulfilling the words of Psalm 22: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” But St. John gives us the added detail that when it came to His tunic, the soldiers decided to cast lots for that piece in particular. We are told that it was a seamless garment, woven in one piece. This may seem a small and insignificant detail, but in another context it was recently brought home to me that a seamless garment is quite a special thing indeed.

Some weeks ago I purchased a rather unusual scarf in cotton jersey from Spain, which is not shaped like a standard, open rectangle but rather a very wide tube. It allows the owner to wear it in different ways, such as looped tightly several times around the neck, covering the head and mouth in very cold weather or when robbing banks/fomenting revolutions, worn loosely draped about the neck and shoulders, etc. In a pinch one could even tie up the corners and use it as a sort of knapsack. A lady of my acquaintance who is an avid seamstress admired it greatly, telling me that a garment such as this was a very rare thing indeed, and that one would need a special machine to weave it.

In the fashion world seamless garments are not easy to come by, in part because of cheap manufacturing in Asia which now predominates in the off-the-peg market. There are examples of seamless garments one can find in ready-to-wear, though typically when one does so they are rare and rather expensive. The legendary Italian design house of Missoni, for example, is very famous for its vibrant and distinctive woven garments which are often seamless; however unless you are very fortunate to pick up one of their sweaters on sale, you are looking at paying something approaching $1,000.00 for a single item because of the enormous amount of specialty work involved in producing it.

In the time of Jesus, it was a custom for mothers to weave a seamless tunic for their sons and present it to them when they finally left home. It is possible that this is what Jesus was wearing at the time of the Crucifixion, and there is something to support the idea that this was a garment woven by the Blessed Mother, for not only was St. John there with the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion, but the Virgin Mary was given into his care by Christ, and we are told that St. John took her into his home from that very day. It is not a stretch of the imagination for us to conclude that she told him that she herself had made the garment and that it was seamless, something which St. John himself might not have noticed otherwise.

In point of fact, St. John is the only one of the Four Evangelists who mentions the detail of the garment being seamless. Alternatively of course, the tunic may have been a gift from one of His disciples, since we know that many women helped to support Him and the Apostles financially as they moved about Judea and Samaria. Admittedly, I prefer the notion that Jesus’ Mother made it for Him.

Even in Jesus’ day, seamless garments were very rare things indeed as they required a great deal of work and were therefore pricey. The High Priest himself, from the days of the Exodus, was required to wear one as part of his office. And as it happens this is an important fact for us to keep in mind: there is another seamless garment which plays a part in Christ’s Passion, but we often overlook this detail.

St. Matthew tells us, in his Gospel at 26:64-65, that the High Priest Caiphas tore his clothing in anger at what he perceived to be Jesus’ blasphemy. This is a problem for Caiphas, because according to liturgical rules he needs to wear a seamless robe in order to enter the Temple of God and perform his priestly function. We can assume that he owned others of course, but ironically enough the rending of his own seamless garment could in and of itself be considered an act of blasphemy – which of course no one calls out Caiphas for doing. The Levitical garment is destroyed, whereas Jesus’ remains whole. I do not need to point out to my Catholic readers, I hope, the great symbolic importance of this.

So here is Jesus, the itinerant Messiah, going about Israel preaching the Gospel and wearing a very distinctive, finely made tunic, almost certainly a gift from His Blessed Mother or the gift of one of the great ladies of the Early Church. (And as an aside, let us never forget that it is the ladies of the community who, more often than not, keep our parishes going on a day-to-day basis; that has not changed since the very first days of the Church.) He is not His Cousin, St. John the Baptist, wearing some sort of shift made out of camel’s hair; nor is He King Herod in all of his finery. He is wearing something that was probably beautifully made, but also very simple, and something which the people of His day would have recognized. They would have owned one themselves at some point in their lives, made by their mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, etc., as a gift recognizing their manhood and independence.

Jesus certainly does not care about material possessions – He Himself tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel that “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” But He does care about Christians going out and encouraging people to abandon their old ways of living and come into His Church. He does not ask us to do so by force of arms, but rather by strength of example. Indeed, many Catholics of my acquaintance could take a lesson from the well-dressed and polite young Mormons I often see in the mornings on my way to work, when I pass their center near my parish.

Is Jesus concerned then, about what brand of socks you wear or if your jacket is from last season? Absolutely not. However, unless you have a calling to be a mendicant or hermit – which most of us do not – you do have a calling as a Christian to take care of the body God has given you, and to remember that it is by your example that you will either draw people into or repel them from ever considering the Church.

Like it or not, we are creatures who respond to visual stimuli. Jesus Himself was fulfilling prophecy and creating a contrasting symbolism by wearing a seamless tunic, but it is worth considering that He did not eschew wearing such a nicely-made garment in favor of something coarser and cheaper. That should give us something to think about.

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments by William Blake (1800)
Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

>An Unangelic Annuncation

>Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, an event recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke that is familiar to most Christians (St. Luke 1: 10-38). Because of the spiritual importance and the emotional impact of the event, the Annunciation has been portrayed many times in the history of art. Oftentimes, such depictions gave the artist free reign to play with luxurious materials in the robes and wings of the Archangel Gabriel, or to impress us with his understanding of linear perspective.

Occasionally however, the artist chose to show a more humble, simple vision of St. Luke’s account. Last year I wrote about two interesting, but simple presentations of this scene by two very different artists. Stripping the scene down to its bare essentials can allow prayerful contemplation without the distraction of an artist, for lack of a better term, gilding the lily.

However, an example of this kind of minimalist treatment which I have never particularly cared for is that of the prominent English Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His “Ecce Ancilla Domini!” of 1850, currently in the collection of the Tate Britain Gallery in London, is admittedly pretty in its way, but somewhat strange. The Virgin Mary, looking like a model out of a 1960’s Prell Shampoo advertisement, is recoiling against the wall from a wingless Archangel Gabriel, who has woken her up in bed to offer her some white lilies.

The painting was roundly criticized by contemporary art critics of Rossetti’s day, who thought that the symbolism was either too obtuse, or that the painting was really just a secular, non-spiritual scene of two interacting figures with some halos attached. There is certainly some truth to the latter criticism, since Rossetti was an atheist who often referred Christian themes when he wanted to sell a painting. Presumably this was his expression of the P.T. Barnum school of how to please the public taste.

Eventually, according to William Rossetti, brother of the artist, the painter had to re-work some parts of the picture and re-title it “The Annunciation” so as, as he put it, “to guard against the imputation of popery.” After all this was mid-19th century England, and anti-Catholicism was still very much a part of Establishment thinking. Cardinal Newman had only come into the church five years earlier, and Pope Pius IX had only re-established the Catholic dioceses in England the same year this painting was finished.

This is not to say that an artist who is not a devout Christian is incapable of producing a painting, a piece of music, or the like of intense spiritual depth and beauty. To say otherwise, of course, would be to deny that God can work how and through whom He pleases, and would also deny the believer the possibility of discovering Truth throughout creation, not just in the more easily acceptable bits. However in this particular instance, although this is a very pretty tableau Rossetti put together, it is simply that: a display window in a department store of historical imagery.