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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