ROCK OR STUMBLING BLOCK? : ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ by James Tissot

ROCK OR STUMBLING BLOCK? : ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’ by James Tissot

It is a moment of jubilation. The disciples are buzzing with excitement after having been part of the revelatory moment. The identity of Christ is revealed and affirmed. He indeed is the Messiah. But the messianic plan of God could not be completely comprehended. In the following verses Jesus throws a bombshell announcing His suffering and salvific mission.

Christ, the Messiah, would not be praised but rejected, not be crowned but executed. He would not hail the porticos of Jerusalem but die on a humble cross. However on the third day He would rise again.  This was too much to digest. How could the Messiah be the one to undergo suffering and be killed? It was contrary to the Jewish hope and expectation.

Peter, the spokesperson for the twelve, calls Jesus aside and chastises him, ‘Never Lord! No, this must never happen to you.’ Jesus response is anything but subtle, ‘Get behind me Satan!’, he says. ‘You are a stumbling block to me. Your thoughts are not from God but from man.’

James Tissot frames this narrative in today’s painting. The scene is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, verse 22 and 23. Amidst the dry and rugged terrain, Jesus is displayed traversing the trying path to Jerusalem, the city where the prophets are killed. (Mt: 23: 37).

While Christ determined feet plunge forward, his left hand withholds the ‘stumbling block.’ Peter, his hands raised upwards, staggers backwards, balancing himself. To the left are the rest of the apostles, perplexed.

The painting forms a part of the representation of the ‘Life of Christ’. Post his visionary encounter with Christ at the Church of St. Suplice (Paris), Tissot witnessed a revival of faith. He decided to dedicate the rest of his life to painting Biblical events. While his contemporaries were engaged in heavy oil washes, Tissot experimented with water colours.

From 1886 to 1889 he ventured on a research trip to the Middle East where he studied the landscape and the people. The outcome formed the soul of his paintings. They now professed a pragmatic depiction of reality. This feature is observed in today’s painting.

The landscape is not bound by the monumental and exquisite architecture of the Renaissance. Rather it is swooped with stones and rocks. It introduces us to the city of Jerusalem that rests on a limestone plateau 2000 feet above sea level.

The depiction of Christ and his apostles are far from the perfect. Nay, they aren’t clothed in twirling vibrant drapery of the Baroque. Their features are not pristine and divine. Rather they are garbed as the locals of the day in a tunic, sash and a mantle. They sport travelling sandals and ordinary walking sticks.

Thus Tissot attempts to enchant the viewer with the beauty of reality as seen through the eyes of art. In the eyes of the Gospel, poor Peter seems to be on a roller coaster. After being praised and promised to be the ‘rock’, he is now attributed as the ‘stumbling block.’ The block here however was the human frailness to fathom the fate of the Cross. The story of the cross did not end on Good Friday. Once a symbol of doom, it was transformed by Christ into a symbol of salvation.

Eventually, Peter himself was martyred upside down on a cross in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero Augustus. His tomb is a site below St. Peter’s Basilica.  The temporary stumbling block indeed formed the lasting rock on which the Church is built.

Joynel Fernandes

Asst Director- AHM

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