THE COMMANDMENT OF THE CROSS: ‘The Pharisees Question Jesus’ by James Tissot
Jacques Joseph Tissot, later anglicized as James Tissot, was born near the busy port of Nantes, France in 1836. At the age of 17, he embarked upon his artistic mission. His career spanned three successful periods. In the first phase in Paris (1859-1870), he enjoyed great success as a high-society painter. His leisured and charmed life was soon skewered among the struggles of the French Revolution.
The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and the bloody Franco Prussian war in 1871 compelled him to flee to London. After a successful 11 year sojourn, he suffered an emotional disaster. In 1882, his dearly loved mistress, Kathleen Newton died of consumption.
While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Woman of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of St. Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Here he encountered a vision of Christ tending to the broken and the down trodden. This was his route to Damascus; his Metanoia! The experience he had led to a renewal of his faith and a shift in his artistic focus.
He took off on a research trip to Holy Land, beginning his 10 year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. The result was ‘The Life of Christ’ popularly called ‘the Tissot Bible.’ It is a monumental series of 350 water coloured imagery with profuse archaeological observation and lucid realism.
The painting in consideration forms a part of the representations in the ‘Life of Christ.’ Here, the plot against Jesus thickens (Matthew 22: 34 – 40). Within the courtyard of the temple of Jerusalem are present all factions of the Jewish community. To the right of Jesus are the Sadducees and the Herodians who have recently been silenced. Amazed by his theological depth and fineness they hang their heads in shame and disgust.
To Jesus’ left are the Pharisees, the chief priest and the elders. Having fleshed their wounds, they seek to trap and trip Jesus through their tricky question. A lawyer (nominkos) in a learned gesture questions Jesus saying, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law (nomos) is the greatest?’ The others second his question through their crafty expressions. They peer at him awaiting his fall.
Seated around Jesus are his disciples. Few of them are taken aback by the question; the others await their Masters wise reply, while the rest are sickened by these constant confrontations.
Clothed in white, in a serene demeanour, Jesus pronounces ‘Agape’. He neatly turns over the tables and announces the foundation of the law and the prophets. The crowds in the courtyard turn their heads towards Jesus in astonishment and agreement. The Pharisees fathom their failure by wit and plot to silence Jesus by might. As the timid temple attendant cleans the tiled floors with a palm branch, he symbolically announces the impeding passion of Jesus, his death and resurrection.
Thus the painting brings to live the Gospel scene and stimulates the imagination of our being. It calls us to abide by the vertical dimension to love God with all our ‘soul, heart and mind’ as well as the horizontal dimension ‘to love our neighbour as oneself’. It annunciates the comprehension of the covenantal commandment of the Cross.