The Lamentation is one of the limited number of subjects permitted to an icon writer within the Orthodox tradition. It renders the observer present at one of the low points of the Easter story: after the hope, the drama, the horror and the waiting, Jesus has died, has just been brought down from the cross, the instrument of lethal torture, and his friends contemplate his lifeless body.
It is finished.
Reading the story in the present, which is the only proper way to do it, there is no basis for hope. But step back into our everyday lives, and we know what those grieving do not know. This is but a hiatus in the narrative. It is not the end but a time of stillness that will continue until the triumph of Easter Day is declared, but nobody here knows this yet – not Jesus’ friends, nor the Chief Priest.
In some parts of central Italy this scene is presented in terracotta statue form, a tragic counterpart to the more popular Nativity crib popularised by St Francis of Assisi. Such 3D images known as Il Compianto sul Cristo morto can express a similar stillness to the icon, but the one at Santa Maria del Vita injects a shocking realism into the narrative.
“Jesus, this can’t be happening,” the mourning women seem to shriek with a violent passionate grief felt by many at the passing of a loved one.
Yet in the ancient classic form, the icon takes us to those moments of stillness.
The Virgin Mary cradles the head of the beautiful Jesus as she once cradled the infant. He has her whole attention, yet in these moments even she does not understand that her maternal instincts are her best and only guide. She continues to adore. Is she closing her eyes to offer one last kiss?
If Mary were there from the beginning, Joseph of Arimathea is the newcomer to the story, a secret follower but also, perhaps, a latter-day Magi bearing gifts. The ointment is within the jar in the foreground, and he, being practical, as somebody always is, moves to cover the body with the linen shroud which he has brought for the occasion. Perhaps it was to have been his own. On the opposite side of the scene, the blackness of the donated tomb beckons.
Representing the years of Jesus’ ministry, the beloved disciple is there to the last, downcast, he too extending a left hand like Mary and Joseph, each pointing toward where our attention needs to be.
Nicodemus has brought the body down from the cross and he leans upon the ladder (one of his iconic attributes) for support. Like one of the mourning women, he rests his head on his hand, a picture of sad reflection. A basket holding the tools which he needed to unfix the body from the cross has been put next to the ointment jar.
It is the women who predominate. Mary Magdalene, in red, raises her hands in grief, while two of the others wipe their tears with their clothing.
The colour is principally carried in the clothes of the figures; our eyes are first drawn there but the centre of attention is the beautiful body of Christ. He must be our focus, and everyone is gathered to him in death as in life. Without Christ, the world is monochrome. The city is a whited sepulchre, Golgotha a barren place; no green hill far away, this, though the small flowers breaking through the rocky barrenness hint at what is to come.
There are two other important symbols telling the story. The whole scene is dominated by the strong image of the cross with the crown of thorns hung upon it. The cross dominates the city and the tomb, and it is set against a sky not of blue, but of gold. We are being shown that we must pass through the cross of suffering if we are to reach heaven, and like Everyman, Jesus has to die.
Yet once we have looked carefully at each and every part of the icon, reflected upon it, asked what is being said, implied or shown, there is yet another simple truth being expressed. Jesus dominates the scene, doing nothing. Except he isn’t: he is the real presence and, of course, he is reminding us: ‘This is my body’.
This icon has very recently been installed in our church as a thankful remembrance of a member of the congregation who surprised us all when she died, unexpectedly leaving us and various charities generous bequests. She lived as poor as a church mouse, but has blessed us. We shall use most of it for mission, spreading the word, but we decided a small memorial was right, so we decided on an icon.
Because I saw our votive candle-stand was being well used, I proposed this subject matter for the reasons above. Many people light a candle in sorrow and bereavement, and this icon offers meaning, hope, and encouragement in grief to all in times of loss. Reading the icon as it should be read offers real comfort.
Next Friday I shall help lead the funeral service for my father. Little did I know, when I proposed this subject matter for our icon, that I should be its first ‘customer’.