Discerning Authority: via Gerrit van Honthorst’s Painting in London


Taken from: (http://valtorta.org/the_trials_defaultpage.asp)

Last week I had the privilege of traveling through England, where I spent time in London, Oxford, Manchester, and Liverpool. London was iconic, diverse, and busy. Oxford was quaint, and intellectually stimulating. No surprise. I had the privilege of being welcomed by some friends in Manchester to finish off the week.

I have been thinking a lot about power, specifically the interesting reality of human power. While at the National Gallery in London, I perused the Rembrandt section and glanced over other works. A couple paintings in one specific room had me marveling and starring, fixating my attention on the utmost detail these artists maintained. Rembrandt’s “A Woman Caught in Adultery” absolutely enthralled me. The other painting that greatly captivated me eye was Gerrit van Honthorst’s “Christ Before the High Priest.”

Though the painting remained the largest in the room, it was not the awe-factor of the work that amazed me. Similar to Rembrandt’s technique of using very deep and heavy exterior tones to draw attention to a subject or focal point of the story, which is shown in the light of the painting, Honthorst’s subtle and intricate detail in the faces of both Jesus and the High Priest was what seized my attention. Jesus, in artistic depictions when he is being tried before the Roman authorities or approached by the arrogantly anal religious Pharisees, typically has a very calm and gentle complexion. His demeanor is one of humility, peace, and non-combativeness. One can also suspect a deep frustration or disappointment within Jesus as he encounters these “authorities.”

Honthorst paints just this when he portrays Jesus’ posture in front of the High Priest, which is referenced in Matthew 26:57-68. Jesus is collected with hands held together in front of him. Jesus is not forceful or angry. Jesus is patient and Jesus listens as the high priest makes his accusations.

What I find most compelling about Honthorst’s piece is the apparent paradox that seems to be portrayed between a very outward and physical expression of authority, versus a deep, inward, and solemn expression of authority. The high priest is clearly outraged. His finger waves in the air in disciplinary manner, his eyes are wide and glaring, and he is leaned forward in his chair in such a way that a viewer can almost hear the anger in his voice through the oils imbedded in Honthorst’s canvas. His authority is expressed very outwardly, manifested in his disgruntled and bothered body language.

Christ on the other hand, maintains physical collectedness. Juxtaposed with Christ’s gentleness however is his depth. In his eyes one can sense an even deeper level of authority, not charged with physical outrage, but fueled by peace and true authority. It’s like Jesus is still outwardly patient, kind, and attentive to his beloved opponent, while still maintaining a deep authentic and absolute sense of real authority. Jesus is not gullible or soft. Jesus is omnipotent but he does not have to be rash or outwardly aggressive to show it. In all this,  Jesus is still authoritative. Jesus is still Lord.

Honthorst seems to introduce a depiction of authority, which he shows in the facial characteristics, gestures, and mannerisms of the two subjects. In unexpected fashion however, the true authority is the one who is patient, kind, graceful, and gentle, not the one who is fierce, haughty, or severely tempered.

How might Honthorst’s painting continue to convey the nature of Jesus’ character and the truth of his absolute authority?

How might we be confused about what true authority means or how true authority is to be displayed?

How can we continue to follow Jesus and not fall victim to the vices of false authoritative models that our society tends to preach as the way to express authority?