Every believer is supposed to have their own Jesus; a scene, a parable, a miracle that rises from the page and makes the man real. But reading the Bible for the first time, raised in a state of almost total atheism, I didn’t anticipate this; I didn’t expect for the man to become anything more than a textual, archaic, event. When I read through the Bible, it was only to root myself in its historical weight, to solve an insecurity, to finally feel qualified to read Paradise Lost. But as it turned out, waiting in the shade of two more dramatic episodes, between the Last Supper and Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, there was an image that fascinated me – a man, in the night, asking his father for help.
After the meal is over Jesus, knowing it to be his last, offers himself as nutrition to his friends, and he and the disciples go for a stroll. They walk to the foot of the Mount of Olives – to Gethsemane. Jesus, a little melancholy, stops the other men. He asks to be left alone for a time, so that he might pray in isolation. He asks them to keep a watch. But once he steps out of earshot, a transformation takes place: he becomes human. ‘[H]e went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ In a sentence, in the privacy shared between father and son, he allows his nobility to slip. He admits to experiencing that most human of crises: he doesn’t want to die.
After receiving no response from an uncharacteristically reserved God, Jesus returns to his disciples – but full on red wine and warm bread, they have fallen asleep. ‘What,’ he asks almost petulantly, ‘could ye not watch with me one hour?’ It’s the question of someone who didn’t know they were so alone. Like all good parables, Jesus repeats the process three times, and on all three occasions, his father says nothing. To varying degrees, it’s the loneliness of a break-up; of a child, like Proust’s, waiting for a mother who might not come; a scared friend waiting on a death sentence. It’s the loneliness of a fully formed life.
I’ve quoted from Matthew’s gospel here because his version is, for me, the heaviest. While Luke’s offers the violence of ‘and his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,’ Matthew’s unadorned prose brings us closest to that man, waiting for death on that lonely night; and though Mark is more lyrical, Matthew lingers, he observes for longer. Where the others have medical knowledge and poetry, Matthew is more like a recording device. He simply watches.
When I stayed in Paris, March of 2019, I spent days in the Louvre, looking for this Jesus. At every depiction I passed, I looked to see if any of these artists or craftsmen had seen the same man I had, who had slipped from the Bible like a silverfish. There is perhaps nothing in the Louvre as widely depicted as Jesus and his life. He dogs you down every hall and corridor, fabricated by so many hundreds of dead hands. He appears on the cross and on donkey back, just-born and just-dead, with and without a mother, heavenly and human. There are wooden sculptures of him that haven’t survived the centuries unscathed, like the one of baby Jesus, his face clawed away by time; there is a tiny Christ, nude and foetal, lying dead on a smooth wooden bed; there is a grotesque painting from the sixteenth century, attributed to an anonymous artist, that brings Jesus’s flagellation into a carnivalesque entertainment, the characters’ bodies misshapen and ugly, Jesus himself so exposed you feel uncomfortable for looking. I returned to a few, like those flat, gold-leafed artefacts from before artists rendered shadow, trying them out, watching the figures. And for a moment, I did find something, even if it was just the first sound of a much longer note: Calvary, painted by David Teniers the Elder in 1640. In it, Christ’s arms are stretched to a breathless extremity. There are no mourners at the foot of the cross. A peal of lightning cracks behind him.
What I was asking for was an acknowledgement. Empathic connection with a novel or a poem or, in this case, a biblical passage, is a significant, personal relationship. But finding that others have also shared in that intimacy is a rare opportunity, and a confirmation. I was looking for this image to recapture that first interaction, to experience again that moment of silence. It’s in that silence where art finds us out, within which it is impossible to lie.
I left the Louvre with nothing more than a glimpse. This may have been down to museum fatigue; there are so many versions – limpid, golden, gaunt – it is easy to go Jesus-blind. Plus, in between these examples was the rest of the Louvre, its Greek and Roman deities in columns of marble, its vivid eighteenth-century still-lifes, its Egyptian gold and Persian stone.
Later, back in England, I Googled paintings of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. More than I thought existed lined up in a digital gallery, and smuggled into these paintings were fragments of what I was asking for.
Gauguin’s Gethsemane, depicted in his Christ on the Mount of Olives (1889), captures something of the isolation in Matthew’s account. In the painting, Jesus isn’t offered any holy glow or noble glance. In fact, he looks like what he is: a carpenter hearing bad news. But Jesus is too close – his proximity engenders an intimacy, it suggests we are alongside him, able to offer a word.
In Gustave Moreau’s twisted and gothic Le Christ au jardin des Oliviers (1880), Jesus is more like a lost soul in a Brontë novel, ready to die on the moors. But the subtle nature of the scene is gone — replaced with Moreau’s characteristic melodrama.
In Christ on the Mount of Olives (1819), Francisco Goya delivers a Jesus in a non-place, his face gaunt and nightmarish, but the abject horror overshadows the later crucifixion. All three contained something of what I was after: the dark, fatal loneliness, both friends and father held in silence. What they were missing, however, beyond the aesthetic, was impossible to say until I had seen the answer.
I think part of the resonance Gethsemane has for me can be explained by the aspect of foreknowledge. Whether by divine omniscience or because he’s aware of his reputation with the locals, Jesus knows that he’s on the verge of death. And though I’m inclined towards a less heavenly interpretation, if it is that he knows his death is a plan which has been long in the making, then his fear is all the worse for it.
Promise of eventual death is the oldest of our existential crises. Death in the universal – we will die, our children will die, their children, the Sun, the stars, everything in entropy – is constant. It has the habit of terrifying us, but it is commonplace. We have a morbid fascination with drawing death to us, just as long as it isn’t a doctor delivering the news. It is a form of time travel, a leg up over the obscurity of our end. It’s why Achilles chooses war over home. It’s why people go to have their palms read by mystics in tents. But Jesus is burdened with a cruelty typically offered only to the terminally ill, to the suicidal and death row inmates. In the moment that death is given an ETA, it unfolds from the vague horizon of existence.
I first became aware of the viciousness of this via John Keats. Medically trained and surrounded by sufferers of tuberculosis, Keats would have been all too conscious of his own slim chances of survival. And if not, his family were there to provide enough evidence: his mother, Frances, died of tuberculosis while he was still in school; and after trying to nurse him back to health, Keats’ brother, Tom, died of consumption in 1818. So when Keats himself was diagnosed, death altered shape. It became a deadline.
In his famous, last letter to Fanny Brawne’s mother, he articulates the separation between himself, and everything else.
‘My dear Mrs. Brawne – A few words will tell you what sort of Passage we had, and what situation we are in, and few they must be on account of the Quarantine, our Letters being liable to be opened for the purpose of fumigation at the Health Office. We have to remain in the vessel ten days and are at present shut in a tier of ships. […] every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself. I do not feel in the world.’
Here is the source of the loneliness, why Jesus has no condolences in his last hours: once your own death is scheduled, either ordained from above or via disease, you are living a separate experience. Delivered to his love, Keats had no promise that he would live to see a reply to his letter. Like Jesus in the Garden, it is a message that can only be handed into silence.
There is also Jesus’s, and Keats’s, relative youth. Young deaths have a habit of drawing comparisons with our own lives. As of now, I am one year away from twenty-seven. I am just about to out-live Keats; Jesus was thirty-four years old when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. By that measure, my life is almost over. I only have thirty percent of it left to live.
I did, finally, find my thread, sewn into that Google search. In the catalogue of images collected like a digital flipbook, there was a depiction of Jesus in Gethsemane that crystallised my response to the text. It was a painting by the Greek-born, Russian artist, Arkhip Kuindzhi.
It doesn’t take long to see a common trope in Kuindzhi’s work. His landscapes, often without any sign of people, or civilization, hold nature at a distance. His 1881 painting, ‘Dnieper in the Morning’ could be a still from The Road, and ‘Red Sunset on the Dnieper’ presents the sun as a deep, red eye, topped by a cloud mushroom-shaped enough to signal something apocalyptic to a modern audience. But these are paintings I found afterwards. The one that stopped me from clicking on to the next work in my search, appears to be lesser known. It’s not offered alongside his Dnieper pieces, or ‘The Birch Grove’, a painting of a forest floor akin to the best of Monet’s early works.
Painted in 1901, Kuindzhi’s Christ in the Gethsemane Garden depicts a lone figure cut into severe, shadowy contrast by the moon’s light. He stands directly in the centre of the painting; the only focal point for the viewer. Unlike almost all the other depictions, where his head is raised to the heavens, his hands are in prayer, his expression is noble, Kuindzhi has Jesus’s arms collapsed at his sides. His face is expressionless and obscured by the dark. This is not Jesus asking for help. This is him in the after-silence, turned away from his father, finding his friends still asleep. Hidden amongst the trees, between us and Jesus, are anonymous bodies. It is difficult to tell who is who; some look to be soldiers, waiting for Judas to mark their target, others look like his disciples, already held back by the mob. The painting captures a pause in the drama, precisely in that dip of shadow where I watched Jesus become real. Robbed of any intimacy to combat his fear, he already looks like a ghost.
Connor Harrison is a writer based in the West Midlands, UK. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, Anthropocene Poetry, Longleaf Review, Babel Tower Noticeboard, and Marble Poetry, among others. He is an Editor at Tiny Molecules.
 All verses from The Bible, Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press), eds. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, St. Matthew 26. 39.
 St. Matthew 26. 41
 St. Luke 22. 44.
 John Keats, ‘John Keats’ Last Letter’, https://coldnoon.com/magazine/classics/john-keats-last-letter/ [accessed 18 May 2020]