The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a set of 350 watercolors by the French painter James Tissot (1836–1902).Following a successful career painting London society, Tissot returned to Paris in 1882 to reestablish his reputation in his homeland, revisiting familiar fashionable terrain with a series of fifteen works called The Woman of Paris. While sketching for one of his subjects at the Church of Saint-Sulpice, however, he suddenly experienced a religious vision during the service: a bloodied but luminous Christ comforting the tattered poor in the rubble of a devastated building. After this transformative vision (feverishly recorded in an oil painting called Inward Voices, which he secreted away), Tissot rededicated himself to the Catholicism of his youth and embarked on a ten yearproject to illustrate the New Testament. He traveled to Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in 1886–87 and 1889 to sketch the landscape, architecture, customs, and people of the region often called the Holy Land, which he imagined unchanged since the time of Jesus. Characterizing his project as “pencil reporting from the life of Christ,” he described his process as a blend of rigorously objective observation and mystical revelation.
My love for James Tissot….
For the opening chapter of the Tissot Bible, the artist painted the youth of Jesus, tracing the child’sjourney from the revelation to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a son to his apprenticeshipin his father Joseph’s carpentry shop. In Tissot’s depictions of these childhood scenes, the membersof the Holy Family submit humbly to their roles in the divine drama, despite its mysteries anddangers. The New Testament’s near silence on the youth of Jesus has long encouraged creativelicense among artists and writers alike, and Tissot was no exception. These early episodes range inlocale from the Temple in Jerusalem to the deserts and cities of Egypt. The painter invested thesescenes with a wealth of visual detail in order to imbue the series with what he called “the stamp oftruth,” basing his renderings of the landscape, costumes, architecture, and people on what he hadobserved and extensively sketched and photographed during his travels in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.While keenly interested in establishing the veracity of the settings, Tissot also introduceda number of imaginative interpretations of both the mundane and the otherworldly events in thenarrative, signature touches that put his own mark on the story.
In the biblical narrative, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but must journey to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, to be counted in a census imposed by the Romans. On their arrival in the town, Joseph searches for lodgings without success. Tissot contrasts Joseph’s anxious plea—calling up to townspeople in hopes of finding accommodation—with the Virgin Mary’s quiet resignation. Tissot’s expeditions to the Middle East in the 1880s provided rich source material for his watercolorcompositions. The thick masonry walls and labyrinthine alleys of Jaffa, an ancient port city near modern Tel Aviv in Israel, serve here, with minor revisions, as the backdrop of Bethlehem.
Paying his usual rigorous attention to researching the settings for his interpretation of the narrative, Tissot places the episode of Jesus’ birth in one of the caves in the mountains in and around Bethlehem, a departure from visual tradition, which often locates the Nativity in a stable. Unable to find rooms in the town, Mary and Joseph take shelter here. In his commentary, Tissot explains the presence of animals who gaze upon the newborn Jesus by noting that shepherds often used these caves on cold evenings. Although Tissot spurned the art-historical convention of the halo in his depictions of the Holy Family and the apostles, he endows the infant Christ with a glow that illuminates the face of his adoring mother, who clasps her hands in prayerful reverence.
In Luke’s Gospel, the shepherds in the hills and valleys surrounding Bethlehem first learn of the miraculous event from an angel who announces the birth of the Savior. The accompanying angels joyously sing their praise of God and urge good will to men, a passage that gives its name to a well-known hymn, “Gloria in ExcelsisDeo” (Glory to God in the Highest). In the text he wrote to accompany this image, Tissot explains the local practices for pasturage in the Middle East, noting that small bands of shepherds gathered around campfires and alternated watches to care for their flocks. Attentive to this practical detail, Tissot casts the faces of his shepherds in the orange glow of their warming fire—a striking contrast to the verdant surroundings of sheltering trees and the dark night sky. After waking their companions, the shepherds, accompanied by a few sheep, pay homage to the newborn child in the low-ceilinged grotto. While some shepherds register their wonder with their hands upraised, others proffer modest gifts of livestock and loaded baskets.
Forty days after the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family travels to Jerusalem to initiate the child into the service of God at the Temple and to offer a modest sacrifice: the caged pigeons or turtledoves held here by Joseph. Taking the infant into his arms, the aged priest Simeon acknowledges the child as the Christ, or Messiah. Throughout his commentaries, Tissot refers to both historical and modern sources to demonstratehis extensive knowledge of the Temple precinct in ancient Jerusalem. He locates the Presentation at the top of the steps that led to the altar of burnt sacrifice. Further, he takes to task the sixteenth century Venetian painter Tintoretto, one of his most illustrious art-historical predecessors, for inaccurately rendering the stairway, instead insisting very specifically on a shallow rise for the individual steps, as documented by the historical writers he consulted.
Complementing the narrative of the venerations by the humble shepherds, the Magi, guided by a moving star, traveled separately from their individual lands in the east in search of the newborn Jesus. Tissot depicts the Magi at the moment when their retinues meet in the vast, arid landscape of the volcanic hills on the shores of the Dead Sea between Jericho, the Kedron Valley, and Jerusalem. In his commentary, the artist notes that their flowing saffron robes—a luxurious counterpoint to the simple woolens of the shepherds— signal their status as astronomers.
For the opening chapter of the Tissot Bible, the artist painted the youth of Jesus, tracing the child’sjourney from the revelation to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a son to his apprenticeshipin his father Joseph’s carpentry shop. In Tissot’s depictions of these childhood scenes, the membersof the Holy Family submit humbly to their roles in the divine drama, despite its mysteries anddangers. The New Testament’s near silence on the youth of Jesus has long encouraged creativelicense among artists and writers alike, and Tissot was no exception. These early episodes range inlocale from the Temple in Jerusalem to the deserts and cities of Egypt. The painter invested thesescenes with a wealth of visual detail in order to imbue the series with what he called “the stamp oftruth,” basing his renderings of the landscape, costumes, architecture, and people on what he hadobserved and extensively sketched and photographed during his travels in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.While keenly interested in establishing the veracity of the settings, Tissot also introduceda number of imaginative interpretations of both the mundane and the otherworldly events in thenarrative, signature touches that put his own mark on the story.With the news of the death of Herod, the Holy Family returned from Egypt, settling in Nazareth and spending each Passover in Jerusalem. After one trip, Mary and Joseph belatedly notice that Jesus—now twelve years old—has been left behind in Jerusalem. Retracing their steps, they find him at the Temple, discoursing freely with the doctors, whom Tissot describes as “specialists in every branch of science, each one famed for his skill in one or other branch of knowledge.” The learned men in this composition eagerly crowd around the young boy, anxious to hear his questions as he enumerates his points on his fingers. As Tissot notes, “His only aim must have been to prepare them more or less directly for His future mission.” The simple brown and white cloak worn by Jesus underscores his humble status, while the doctors wear colorful headdresses and flowing robes—likely based on the clothing worn by the many models Tissot sketched in Jerusalem. Although he made some minor revisions, the artist included one of his many models as the doctor at the top center who scratches his beard while listening intently to Jesus.Although the Gospels are silent on the years between Christ’s childhood and his ministry—providing no specific indication of his training or education—Tissot adheres to tradition and depicts Jesus as a faithful son to his earthly father, assisting Joseph with the work of the carpentry shop. In his commentary, Tissot spurned apocryphal legends of wondrous doings by the Christ Child, insisting that such deeds would have aroused attention, whether awe or suspicion, and would have been mentioned in the Gospel accounts. Anticipating the Passion, in which he will carry the cross, the young Jesus shoulders a board for use in the shop, while his parents look on with foreboding.
Tissot opens the section on Jesus’ ministry by introducing John the Baptist, who prophesied his coming, urged repentance, and practiced the cleansing rite of baptism. Calling out from the vast, rugged deserts of Judaea, the Baptist here throws his arms up in the air. In his commentary, Tissot notes the resounding echo effect in the rocky valleys the Baptist inhabited, heightening his emphatic call to “make straight the way of the Lord.” The artist’s commentaries, which at times read like a travelogue, also provide his readers with details that summon their other senses as they ponder his images. Living and preaching in the wilderness, the Baptist bears the marks of privation—most notably, his wild, knotted hair, a traditional attribute. Additionally, he wears a rough camel-hair cloak, testament to his penitence, and carries a staff for support in his wanderings.According to Matthew, Jesus travels from Galilee to Judaea to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Although John humbly protests and suggests that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus instead, Jesus insists. Here, a dove descends from the heavens as Jesus emerges from the water, while a voice from above calls him “my beloved Son.” Perhaps in reference to earlier passages in the Gospels relating the curiosity and suspicion John’s desert ministry inspired in some quarters, several witnesses surreptitiously watch the proceedings through a screen of rushes on theriverbank. Tissot’s text states that John the Baptist and Jesus, cousins often presented as childhood companions in artistic tradition, met again as adults at a place marked with twelve stones, indicating the spot where the Jewish people had crossed the Jordan and reentered Israel after their wanderings in the desert—a confluence of events linking the narratives of the Old and New Testaments. In the watercolor, John and his acolytes appear to stand on these stones as they perform the rite.
Although Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe Christ’s temptations by Satan, Tissot cites only the version given by Luke. For reasons that remain unclear, he changes the order of the tests given by Luke. In Tissot’s first image, Satan abducts Jesus and soars to a precipitous height—emphasized by the low, bright horizon line in the distance. The shadowy darkness of the claw-toed devil contrasts with Jesus’ pristine white cloak. From their great height, Satan tempts Jesus with the many kingdoms he could command if he rejected God and worshipped the devil instead.
In Tissot’s second image, after Jesus has fasted for forty days in the desert to prepare for his ministry, Satan urges him to end his hunger by turning stones into bread. Jesus refuses, despite his suffering. In Luke’s telling, Jesus invokes a verse from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, proclaiming: “It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”In the third temptation, the devil carries a passive Jesus up to a high pinnacle of the Temple, where he is challenged to jump and prove his protection by God’s angels. However, Jesus steadfastly retains his faith and refuses to test God.This image demonstrates bravura watercolor technique, contrasting the transparency of the devil’s horned, clawed, and winged body with the solid masonry of the Temple. Moreover, as a matter of storytelling skill, note that this bird’s-eye view looks down on the very steps where the infant Jesus was first dedicated to the service of God, a scene depicted in The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple in the Holy Childhood section. Following the third temptation, the devil leaves Jesus “for a season,” suggesting further tests to come.
In Luke’s account of the calling of the first apostles, the fishermen return empty-handed after along night of fishing in their boats. At Jesus’ command, they lower their nets once more and harvestmore fish than their boats can hold, prompting Peter to confess his unworthiness in Jesus’ presence.While the other fishermen struggle with their hefty catch, Peter bows on bended knees before Jesus,a gesture that underscores his primacy among the disciples in Luke’s Gospel.In response to Peter’s wonder at the miracle, Jesus assures his new apostle: “Fear not; from henceforththou shalt catch men.” Peter and his companions leave behind their fishing boats to followJesus in his ministry.
Jesus’ conversations with members of his community escalate and become violent: when he claimsto know Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch, devout Jews are skeptical, given his youth. Alludingto his own transcendence as the Son of God, he replies: “Before Abraham was, I am.” At thisresponse, the people attack Jesus with stones, gathering together as an angry mob.
Apart from Jesus, Mary Magdalene is the only individual in Tissot’s series accorded more than one study, or portrait—an exception that announces her importance, not only to the narrative itself but also to the artist. As scholars have suggested, Tissot appears to have modeled the Magdalene’s features after his late mistress, Mrs. Kathleen Newton, who had died of tuberculosis in 1882. Like many in the nineteenth century, the painter was particularly interested in the occult, and he had attendedséances in hopes of establishing contact with the spirit of his deceased beloved.In the image depicting her before her conversion, Mary Magdalene appears dressed in a colorful striped garment and adorned with jewels, her gaze directed unabashedly toward the viewer. Tissot’s commentary provides a brief biography of her unhappy marriage to a harsh and unyielding Pharisee and her subsequent unfaithfulness.In The Repentant Magdalene, she now wears the veil of a penitent. Her eyes are humbly lowered, avoiding the gaze of the viewer, and her long hair is pulled back in accordance with Jewish custom.
Gathered around Jesus, the disciples ask him to teach them to pray. With arms opened wide and hands upraised in a gesture of humility, Jesus begins his prayer with an acknowledgment of God’s power in heaven and on earth. (Tissot places Jesus between the color-streaked sky and the ground on which his disciples sit, further signifying Jesus’ place between the human and the divine.) This invocation became the foundational prayer for his followers.
All the City Was Gathered at His Door: Following reports of Jesus’ early miraculous deeds, including healing the sick and exorcising demons, others of the afflicted soon seek his help. Borne on makeshift litters or kneeling in the streets outside the home of Peter, the supplicants eagerly reach out to be touched by Jesus. In this image, the winding, narrow alleys of an ancient city intensify the impression of jostling crowds of followers. Tissot’s commentary takes particular note of the use of arches in the construction of labyrinthine ancient cities—a building technique that strengthened the structure but cast the streets in shadow.The Man with the Withered Hand: When Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, he flouts rules against work and further upsets the devout. Although Jewish law permitted the saving of lives on the holy day, Jesus defies the rigid rules of the Sabbath by extending his help to a man afflicted but not threatenedwith death.Healing of the Lepers: This episode reveals Jesus’ concern for the outcasts of society: in this case, those afflicted with leprosy, a chronic disease. The leper kneels in the center foreground of the image—dramatically making his plea to Jesus with his bandaged arms upraised. Referring to ancient laws regarding the lepers, Tissot writes that the man occupies the center of the road to permit the healthy to pass withease on either side of the path. In the Gospel text, Jesus later urges the healed man to keep quiet about the specifics of the miracle but to seek the priests, to acknowledge his cure and regain his place in society and in the Temple.The Palsied Man Let Down through the Roof: Jesus receives numerous requests for healings, creating a crush of supplicants. Eager to reach him, after he has retired to the privacy of a home, four men lower a paralytic through the roof into the welcoming arms of Jesus—a powerfully dramatic image. Tissot heightens the sense of the sickman’s helplessness with his flailing, outstretched arms, a counterpoint to Christ’s controlled gestureof acceptance.
Following the death of his friend Lazarus, Jesus goes to Bethany to comfort Martha and MaryMagdalene for a loss that he also felt keenly. Both women lament that Jesus was absent when Lazarustook ill, knowing that he would have prevented the death with his healing powers. Affectedby the loss, Jesus weeps.Led to the darkened tomb of Lazarus, Jesus commands the removal of the stone covering theopening and, after a prayer to God, resurrects the dead man before witnesses who gasp in astonishment.
While crossing the Sea of Galilee in a ship during the night, Jesus and his disciples are overtakenby a storm. Tissot omits any sign of landfall, heightening the sense of danger in the rough, stormysea. Awakened by his followers, who fear for their lives, Jesus quiets the tempest with a dramaticand dynamic gesture and rebukes his companions for their lack of faith.Tissot’s commentary connects this shipboard miracle with the miraculous draught of fishes, noting:“It was in the same boat, which then symbolized the Church, that Our Lord stilled the tempestand reassured the disciples, who typified redeemed mankind.”
Standing on a raised platform before the Court of the Gentiles outside the Temple, Jesus first considers asking God to save him from his impending sacrifice; but then, recognizing its necessity in the divine plan, he instead glorifies God’s name. The Lord responds from the heavens: some in the crowd hear thunder, others the voice of an angel. Jesus acknowledges his forthcoming death to those gathered.With this image, Tissot again blends his interest in historical accuracy with a sense of mystery and wonder. He sets the scene in a very specific archaeological place: on a terrace elevated above the Court of Gentiles, noting that non-Jews were forbidden from this platform under pain of death. However, the artist also underscores the awe of the crowd as they hear the voice from on high—many cower as they look up at the sky with raised hands and wide eyes.
Although Jesus took on several followers early in his ministry, in this painting he is shown formallyordaining twelve men to help spread his teachings. They are Peter, James Major, John, Andrew,Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the Less, Thaddeus, Peter, and Judas Iscariot.Following the Gospel account, Tissot situates this event on a mountain, noting later that Jesus frequentlywithdrew to such elevated spots to be closer to God.
Jesus is being watched carefully by the priests and scribes, who hope to have him arrested as athreat to Roman rule. Asked whether tribute should be paid to Rome, Jesus points to a coin inscribedwith the likeness of the emperor and raises another hand to the sky, saying, “Render thereforeunto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.”Distinguishing between terrestrial and divine authority, Jesus evades the trap as his hostile audiencecrowds around him, intently listening to his response. The image visually parallels the muchearlier scene Jesus among the Doctors in the Holy Childhood, though the priests’ early wonder athis precocious wisdom has now turned to frustration and mistrust.
Mary Magdalene kneels before Christ and anoints his feet, wiping away the excess oil with herhair, a gesture of deference and devotion. The disciples—especially Judas Iscariot, Tissot notes,in a commentary based on John’s account—are indignant at the gesture’s expense, asking couldnot this costly ointment be sold and its profits given to the poor? However, Jesus defends Mary’sprescience: “She did it,” he tells them, “for my burial.”
The PassionTissot found the scenes of Christ’s Passion—his sufferings and Crucifixion—more absorbing thanany of the others he had composed throughout The Life of Christ.Most of these images ask the viewer to consider the brutal mechanics of the Passion and, thereby,to meditate on precisely what Christ endured to secure redemption for humanity. With such vividdetails, the artist demands that the viewer confront the specific instruments of execution and howthey were manipulated in the Roman world. True to his mission, he wished to capture the audience’simagination in such a way that the events of two thousand years ago would seem as immediateas those of his own day.In his images of Christ’s trials before the Jewish priests and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate,Tissot betrays long-standing prejudices against Jews, placing the greater part of the blame forJesus’ sufferings and death on them. (It might be noted that Tissot’s series debuted in 1894, thesame year in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was falsely convicted oftreason, a notorious miscarriage of justice that led to international protests.)While Jesus traveled extensively across the countryside during his ministry, visiting villages andcities as well as the wilderness, he returned to Jerusalem, and it’s Temple, for the episodes depictedin Holy Week and the Passion.This expansive but highly detailed watercolor sets the scene for many of the key episodes of thenarrative and provides a historical reconstruction of the ancient city with its towering battlements,a view imagined from the Mount of Olives. The Temple complex appears at left, with smokesteadily billowing from its altar of burnt sacrifice.
HOLY THURSDAYFor the Passover feast, the apostles (dressed in traveling clothes, like the Jews of the Old Testamentbook of Exodus, Tissot explains) meet in a room decorated with garlands. During the meal, Jesusreveals that he will be betrayed by one of his disciples; many of them worriedly ask, “Is it I?”In this image, Jesus hands the sop, or dipped bread, to Judas Iscariot, identifying him as the traitor.Jesus later dismisses him from the company, urging him to be quick about his business.Here, John the Evangelist, described as the “beloved disciple,” lays his head on Jesus’ shoulder, asis traditional in scenes of the Last Supper. By contrast, Judas, across the table, is already distancedfrom Jesus, spatially as well as spiritually. And while all the rest of the company wears white, Judas’robes are dark.After the disciples dine together, the company passes into another chamber, the artist notes, whereJesus washes the feet of his followers, an act of selflessness and humility that presages his latersacrifice for the sins of mankind.Although Peter, sitting at center with his hands at his head, protests his unworthiness, Jesus insistson the physical and spiritual necessity of the cleansing act. Hinting at his knowledge of his futurebetrayal by Judas, by saying that not all of his apostles are “clean,” Jesus nevertheless includesJudas in this rite. In Tissot’s image, Judas sits at the extreme left, his body uncomfortably twistedas he awaits his turn.
Following the Last Supper, Jesus and the apostles retreat to Gethsemane (an olive grove) on theMount of Olives. While his disciples rest, Christ prays alone, asking God if it is possible to let hissufferings pass him by, yet reaffirming his commitment to submit to God’s will. Luke writes thatan angel comes to strengthen him, though in his anguish Jesus sweats blood, a graphic detail that,unusually, Tissot omits.While Luke’s account says that Christ receives comfort from the angel, Tissot’s image seems topromise little solace and, indeed, is profoundly different in tone from the earlier watercolor TheAngels Came and Ministered to Him. While one angel holds a chalice—the cup of Jesus’ suffering—the others proffer globes with scenes of the Passion to come, including Veronica’s veil, theCrucifixion, and the lamentation of the Virgin Mary.After his tormented prayer to God, Jesus comes back to his apostles, only to find them asleep (notethat Peter’s weapons are cast to one side). Awakening his followers, he rebukes them, urges theirvigilance against temptation, and returns to his prayers.Having betrayed Jesus, Judas leads a party of armed guards who intend to arrest him. Judas hasalerted the authorities that he will identify Jesus for them by kissing him. Here, standing on tiptoes,Judas reaches up to kiss him, an intimate gesture that further underscores the bitterness of thebetrayal.
When warned by Jesus that he would deny him three times before the cock crowed—before thedawn—Peter vehemently objected, asserting his fidelity and pledging to die alongside Jesus.However, the prophecy is realized. Peter first denies his status as a disciple to the maidservant whopoints an accusatory finger at him while guarding the door to the chief priest’s chamber. Later, admittedto the priest’s rooms, where he warms himself by the fire, Peter again rejects the associationwhen asked a second time; his hands are raised in protest as all await his response.Finally, questioned a third time, Peter again denies knowing Jesus, just as the cock crows. Betrayedby his disciple, as he had foretold, Jesus in this image looks in Peter’s direction with sadness, ashe is escorted away by a jeering crowd. Peter hides from view behind a thick stone archway, hisarm covering his face.Eager to provide insight into the precise timing of the events as they unfolded, Tissot in his commentaryrefers to his experiences of the Middle East and suggests that the rooster’s third crowingmust have occurred at around three in the morning.
Following the accusation of blasphemy by the chief priest—a crime that demands the death sentencein ancient Jewish tradition— Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor ofJudaea, at his palace. Bound and bloodied from his beatings, a seemingly frail Jesus faces Pilate,who wears the pristine toga of his rank. They meet alone in the Hall of Judgment, though severaleavesdroppers appear through the screen in the background.In the moment depicted by Tissot, Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the king of the Jews. Jesus repliesthat “My kingdom is not of this world” and that his purpose is to “bear witness to the truth.” Atthe conclusion of this interview, Pilate finds that Jesus has committed no crime and sends him toHerod.
According to John, while the Roman governor continues to find Jesus blameless, he accedes topressure from the priests and decides to “chastise” him through scourging. Jesus is bound, defenseless,to a marble column and whipped before a crowded court as Pilate looks on from the palaceloggia in the background.Christ’s tormentors perform a punishment most likely inflicted, Tissot tells his readers, with leatherwhips weighted with pieces of bone.Exclaiming “Behold the man!,” Pilate shows the beaten and bloodied Christ to the crowds. Thepeople gathered in the court below urge his execution, with pointed fingers raised in accusatorygestures.On the loggia before the assembled crowd, Pilate—convinced of Jesus’ innocence and impressedby his dignity, according to Tissot’s account—publicly washes his hands on the loggia before thesquare, symbolically distancing himself from the execution to follow.
Throughout the series, Tissot adopted compositional strategies that permit—and indeed, force—the viewer into the action of the narrative as a participant. In a significant departure from this practice,however, Tissot here presents an expansive view from above the public forum where Jesushears his death sentence. Although the figures are minute, the red-cloaked Jesus, flanked on eitherside by the thieves condemned to die with him, can be clearly discerned standing before Pilate,who sits surrounded by the priests in a bright white semicircular colonnade, or hemicycle.To the left of this, the marble column still bears the traces of the flagellation. At center, the Romansoldiers prepare the cross to be borne by Jesus, while a large crowd assembles to hear thesentence.
Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion, was located just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The artist notesthat in the enclosure visible in the middle distance—flat ground in an otherwise rocky terrain—three post holes held the crosses for Jesus and the thieves who were condemned to die alongsidehim.Invoking the writings of Saint Ambrose, Tissot says that Christ was crucified at the spot calledGolgotha, or the place of the skull. According to tradition, Adam, the first man, was buried on thisvery site: an appropriate connection, for Jesus, as the “Second Adam,” undoes the Fall of Manrecounted in the book of Genesis and redeems humanity from its sins.
While Mark devotes just a single verse to the act of crucifixion, Tissot describes the process inexacting detail in four images and his accompanying published commentaries. Following first centuryRoman sources, he considers the physical restraints the executioners probably employedto bind Jesus securely to the cross. He concludes that ropes must have been required, in additionto nails, to keep the elevated body from collapsing under its own weight. At right, the Virgin Maryand others look on in horror.
Tissot renders the technical elements of the Crucifixion with a profusion of unforgettable detailsintended to encourage viewers to contemplate the method of Christ’s execution on a visceral level.Although Tissot follows celebrated artistic predecessors such as the Flemish painter Peter PaulRubens (1577–1640) in his depiction of the brute physical exertions required of those who raisedthe cross, he also adds further nuances to the visual tradition, depicting the elaborate system ofropes, poles, and scaffolding employed in the operation. Once in place, Tissot explains, the base ofthe cross would be set into a post hole and then reinforced with wedges to maintain its stability.
In the most memorable, and even notorious, of Tissot’s images, Christ looks out at the crowd ofspectators arrayed before him: Mary Magdalene, in the immediate foreground, with her long redtresses swirling down her back, kneels at his feet, which are clearly visible at the bottom center ofthe composition. Beyond her, the Virgin Mary clutches her breast, while John the Evangelist looksup with hands clasped.The artist here adopts the point of view of Christ himself. Few painters have conceived a compositionthis daring. In his audacity, however, Tissot remains true to his artistic vision: ultimately, theimage is an exercise in empathy. Its point is to give viewers, accustomed to looking at the eventfrom the outside, a rare opportunity to imagine themselves in Christ’s place and consider his finalthoughts and feelings as he gazed on the enemies and friends who were witnessing, or participatingin, his death.As time passed at Golgotha, the sky grew darker, frightening away many of the observers butpermitting those in Jesus’ immediate circle, who had initially kept themselves at a safe distance,to approach, and even to touch his feet. Mary Magdalene hugs the cross. Jesus—facing away andhidden by the beams of the cross—acknowledges the sufferings of his mother, and seeing Johnstanding nearby, he urges her to look to the apostle for comfort, saying, “Woman, behold thy son!”He also urges John to care for the Virgin as part of his own family, saying to him, “Behold, thymother!”
Tissot matches highly detailed scenes of burial preparations with the mystical wonder of Christ’sappearances after the Resurrection, presenting the historical and divine aspects of Jesus in equalmeasure. The artist pays particular attention to the drama’s survivors, the friends and family ofJesus. First among them is the Virgin Mary, who assumes the primary responsibility for her son’sfunerary rites. And after the Resurrection, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and his disciples, hiswounds glowing as testimony to his earthly sufferings.Tissot closes his series and his publication with an unusual self-portrait in which he presents himselfsurrounded by funerary symbols. For the devoted readers of Tissot’s Bible, this valedictoryimage would end each viewing, recalling the artist who created the work and asking that he beremembered in their prayers.
EASTER SUNDAYEmerging out of a tomb sealed with a large stone and guarded by watchmen, Jesus miraculouslyrises from the dead. His face shines forth and the wounds on his head, hands, feet, and chest glowbright white. The guards shook and “became as dead men,” Matthew says, at the sight of the risenJesus, falling backwards in abject terror.Glowing more brilliantly than the guards’ lanterns, an angel visible just inside the tomb at rightwill later reassure Mary Magdalene and the other holy women that Jesus has risen. The angel isaccompanied by others of his brilliant company, who are seated in an inner chamber of the tomb.
Mary Magdalene, meeting the resurrected Christ, falls to the ground “thinking to resume her oldplace at the feet of Jesus and to embrace them,” as Tissot notes. While Christ had encouraged theMagdalene’s ministrations in an earlier scene, The Ointment of the Magdalene, now he counselscaution, warning, “Touch me not”; the time for such familiarity has passed. The Magdalene’sprostrate body and full, flowing hair provide a clear visual cross-reference, effectively linking thetwo moments.
Jesus also appears to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Not able to recognize him, theytell the seeming stranger of Christ’s death and his subsequent mysterious disappearance from histomb. Though they had believed him to be the Messiah, they confess to doubts, as he “shouldhave redeemed Israel,” as Luke recounts, or freed the Jews from the rule of the Romans. As theywalk on toward their destination, the stranger instructs his companions on the ancient propheciesregarding the Messiah.In a later scene, when Jesus joins them for a meal at their destination and breaks bread with them,they do recognize him, before he disappears from their presence.
The apostle Thomas, who had received the news but not a visit from the risen Christ, refuses to believein the reality of the Resurrection. When Christ again appears to the disciples, Thomas is stillnot convinced and, for confirmation, wants to put his fingers into Christ’s wounds. Jesus inviteshim to do just that but then reproaches him for his lack of belief. Now kneeling before his master,Thomas hangs his head in shame, as Jesus bares his wounded side and declares to Thomas, as wellas to all who doubt, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they thathave not seen, and yet have believed.”
As Christ ascends to heaven, several witnesses shade their eyes from the blinding view overhead.According to Tissot, the Ascension completes the “original idea of Creation,” which was “redemptionthrough Christ”; now humanity, too, is permitted to share in divine glory. “The cloud which‘received Christ from sight’ is like the curtain which falls at the close of a drama,” he comments.In the foreground of the image, Christ’s two footprints remain pressed into the earth as proof of hispresence on earth—and in heaven.
Born 15 October 1836 and died 8 August 1902 at the age of 66 years old. Tissot was born at Nantes, a city in western France, located on the Loire River, 50 km (31 mi) from the Atlantic coast. The city is the 6th largest in France, while its metropolitan area ranks 8th with overJames Jacques Joseph Tissot 800,000 inhabitants.
The Anxiety of Saint Joseph (Matthew 1:16–19)The Magnificat (Luke 1:46–56)
Saint Joseph Seeks aLodging in Bethlehem(Luke 2:3–5)
The Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 2:6–7)