Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Art in Lent: the washing of the feet


It is one of the more curious discrepancies of the gospels that John does not include an account of the Last Supper, in terms of the sharing of bread and wine as the act of remembrance. Instead the writer of the last gospel account to be put on paper tells the story of a man preparing his small anxious band of followers through words and actions that are not recorded in the other three gospels. Perhaps he thought the other three gospel writers had got the bread-and-wine bit covered; after all, this is clearly all happening at the same event written of by Matthew, Mark and Luke, at which the shared body and blood was central. Yet it was another demonstration of love that John recounted, one that was ignored by the other three: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

I have difficulty understanding this passage. Jesus asks at the end, ‘Do you understand?’, as if the message is simple and straightforward; as if there is only one possible answer. But if this were a multiple choice question I would always be left with at least two plausible right answers. So let’s try that: did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet because
a) they were dirty and a bit smelly
b) he was demonstrating his humility, and wanted to teach them humility
c) he wanted them to do exactly that for one another – wash each other’s feet
d) he wanted them to learn that they would always need to be make clean in his presence?

The tradition in Jewish households of the time was that the feet would be washed by a servant on arrival. This was a necessary act; after tramping dusty roads in a hot country wearing sandals – and no socks – the feet were offensive to others; and in a culture where diners reclined at table, the feet would be clearly visible – and smellable! Yet the passage says Jesus got up from the meal to wash the feet. The feet should have been washed already; this was a symbolic act, just as the sharing of one cup is not meant to slake the thirst, but to symbolize our union into the death of Christ.

After he has washed the feet of all, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you should wash one another’s feet,’ because ‘no servant is greater than his master’. The message is not one of dealing with dirt; it is of servanthood within the body of Christ. Jesus made himself the lowly footwasher – what will he require of us?

And there is another important lesson, in the exchange between Peter and Jesus.

‘Jesus answered, A person who has had a bath needs only
to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.’

The washing of the feet in this sense seems to symbolize our need for regular confession and forgiveness. We are washed clean completely when we come to Christ, in the first instance, on our knees; but we must have the humility and self-awareness to come regularly with the daily grime of our petty selfishness. And every time, our Lord kneels before us, to make us new.

So this is not one simple message; and in this way it does mimic the bread and wine, in its multi-faceted symbolism.

There are many pieces of art that depict the last supper, but far fewer that show Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In our Lent art group last week we looked at four images, three depicting the events as told by John and one a portrait of footwashing in a different context.

Ford Madox Brown was an English artist born in 1821 and closely linked to the pre-Raphaelites through his tutorage of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The scope of his worrk is huge, ranging from portraiture to landscapes, sacred to secular, historical to present day commentary. His ‘Jesus washing Peter’s Feet’ caused an outcry when first exhibited in 1856 as it depicted Jesus semi-clad – the artist had to go back and paint robes in later, as it remained unsold for several years.

Ghislane Howard painted the image at the head of this post. She is a British contemporary artist whose paintings focus on the human condition. She has worked as the artist-in-residence for a Manchester maternity hospital, painted children with cerebral palsy learning to walk, and been commissioned to paint her take on the Stations of the Cross by Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Jesus washing Peter’s feet was commissioned for the Methodist art collection.

Sieger Koder is a retired Catholic priest living near Stuttgart. During the second world war he served Germany as a front line soldier in France, where he was captured and made a British prisoner of war. After the war he studied to be a teacher, then worked as an artist and art teacher. His art is predominantly paintings of gospel scenes, which invite the viewer into the scene depicted: the companion piece to the washing of Peter’s feet is his last supper, in which we see things from Christ’s angle, looking down at the cup in his hands in which we again see his reflected face.




We discussed these three images. Responses were varied, although Madox Brown was the least preferred - his Jesus is too far from the simple carpenter we imagine, and the painted-on robes were less appreciated by modern sensibilities. Peter seems too old, but suitably obstinate. His onlookers were appreciated, however - particularly the interpretation of the the beloved disciple as the watching blond man at the table, drinking in his Lord's actions in order to record them for us later. Howard's rough and ready Peter, engaged in a moment of private vulnerability before a friendly and unassuming Lord, appealed to most. Koder's Christ seems engaged in an act of contortion, and it is perhaps a pity that the face reflected in the water does not register more obvious emotion. But it is poignant to see the face of Jesus peering back from the grime of human feet, echoing the stench of Golgotha. Here he wears a scarf reminiscent of the garb of a Jewish priest: it is his cleansing that makes us clean, to walk into the courts of heaven.

 Our preferred image is this one, by Mary Cassatt who was an American-born painter of the later nineteenth century. Trained in Paris and a friend of Degas, she painted intimate portraits of domestic life such as this. There is something about its simple service and adoration that we loved. A mother does not see washing a child's feet as a chore, nor does she pause to consider her status. The feet are precious to her: beloved. Those of us whose children have now grown ache and long for one more chance to wash tiny toes, holding the child on our lap as we whisper songs into their ear. 




In the three images above we see Christ as servant, as priest, as carpenter-king, and as friend. But Jesus as parent - God as mother-father - gives us a fresh perspective on his intention.