The Season of Lent in the Christian faith is a time to reflect, not only of Christ’s temptation by Satan for forty days in the wilderness following His baptism by John the Baptist (And he was there . . . forty days, tested by Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him”—Mark 1:13), but a time for individuals to relinquish a “vice” to honor Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for him/her. But I believe, whatever faith you adhere to, it is important for each of us to always be mindful of our temptations in life, which manifest in a myriad of ways.
Throughout history artists have painted Christ being tempted, and these works of art can certainly translate into our temptations as human beings. Two significant paintings, though very different in composition and visual impact, recount this momentous event.
One is an Italian Renaissance piece by Moretto da Brescia, dated c. 1520. The other is by the late 19th c./early 20th c. Russian artist, Ilya Repin, c. 1905.
Moretto’s piece is a more “literal” representation of Christ in the wilderness. This composition shows a rocky landscape. Christ, surrounded by angels, is pondering, looking afar into the distance. Wild animals surround Jesus. Each carry a symbolic meaning one finds in Christian art. Moving counter-clockwise from Jesus is a crane or stork (symbols of vigilance), a white dove (the Holy Spirit), a dark bird that may be a raven (Satan), a stag (solitude because it lives in remote mountains). At the center of the composition there seems to be a basilisk (a half rooster-half snake symbolizing the Devil), a fox (symbolizing guile and cunning and therefore the Devil) and perhaps a goat (which may refer to the the unrepentant sinner). Christ has one foot on a tortoise (a symbol of uncleanliness). The lion on the lower left symbolizes strength. Satan, though not “physically” present, is present. The viewer is keenly aware of the conflict Christ is experiencing.
Ilya Repin was the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century, often basing his works on dramatic conflicts. Whereas Moretto’s composition is a naturalistic depiction of story, the power of Repin’s composition lies in the bravura brushwork, light, and vibrant color. Christ, bathed in warm tones, stands at the edge of the jagged cliff, depicted in dark, rugged tones, gazing into the distance. The canvas implodes with blue, green, and red. Blue, meaning Truth. Green symbolizes freedom from bondage. Standing behind Christ is Satan depicted in deep red. His devil horns are visible. Red, the color of the Passion, is derived from the Hebrew word meaning Flesh, the root word for mankind. Christ is denying temptations of the flesh.
This landscape looks so foreboding that we forget Christ's difficulties did not come from heat and desert. The temptations faced by Christ are the same tendencies inside each one of us, and they can appear in any landscape.