Seven Last Words of Jesus: A Lenten Art Show in St. Stephen’s Sanctuary beginning Ash Wednesday

During Lent our own Stuart Hobbs will be presenting his paintings on the Seven Last Words of Jesus. The show will go up this Sunday and be on view until Holy Saturday.

Stuart writes:

In the Eucharistic Prayer, we proclaim three mysteries of faith. The first is: Christ has died. The Seven Last Words of Jesus take us on the path of his death. The words, and these paintings, are an invitation to pause and ponder the crucifixion and death of Jesus before rushing on to the more hopeful mystery of the Resurrection.

The spiritual and theological framework from which I approach this theme comes from the mystic, Julian of Norwich. Julian understood that Jesus “suffered for the sake of every human being. He saw every individual’s sorrow, desolation, and anguish, and from the depth of his kindness and love, he grieved for us all. . . . As long as he was able to suffer, he suffered for us.” As he died, Jesus suffered with the whole creation. He felt the pain we feel. We all pass through the shadow of death:  not just our own mortality, but the many losses and pains we experience through life.

Life is a complicated business. Many of its paths cross through calvary, and we are in need of many resurrections. Through it all, Jesus is, as one affirmation of faith puts it, “God beside us,” suffering with us, dying with us. Our journey is his journey; his journey is our journey. The good news that I found while studying and painting these texts is how much hope there is. Yes, the context is pain and sorrow, but even here we see the message that at the heart of everything, as at the transcendent edge of everything, the ultimate reality is love.

The message of the Seven Last Words tells us, also, to look beyond ourselves. We are connected to creation and to other people. Love and hope are found in community and in recognizing the connections between ourselves and indeed the whole creation.

The quotation from Juliann used here and those elsewhere in this text come from Mirabai Starr’s translation of The Showings of Juliann of Norwich (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2013).

Painting the Seven Last Words

The seven statements made by Jesus from the cross are the creation of a Gospel synthesis. Indeed, only one phrase, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” occurs in two Gospels: Mark and Matthew, the latter drawing heavily on the former. These first two Gospels do depict Jesus being offered a wine-soaked sponge on the end of a stick, but only John has the phrase, “I thirst.” Three of the last words come from Luke and three more from John’s Gospel. Just as our traditional understanding of the events surrounding Jesus’s birth is a synthesis of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the narrative of Jesus’s death is a synthesis of all four Gospels.

The words are not presented in the order they appear in the Gospels. Rather, as the tradition developed, an appropriately dramatic arrangement was found for the presentation of these last words. I should say that it is more common to end with Luke: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” I have chosen, for reasons that the discussion of the painting will make clear, to end with John’s: “It is finished.” I am not alone in favoring this order, however. For example, Théodore Dubois in his well-known choral setting, Les sept paroles du Christ, also concludes with “It is finished.”

As a painter, my approach is abstraction—indeed, most of my work is more than abstract, it is thoroughly non-objective. That is not perhaps the most obvious artistic practice to apply to this very specific subject matter. My goal has not been to depict in a realistic way Jesus’s final hours as he suffered on the cross, but rather to express the emotion within the Seven Last Words and their context. The imagery in some cases also expresses the theological meaning of the words. That, at least, is the intent. I can only offer these painterly reflections to the viewer and hope that she will find them moving and spiritually enriching.

Forgive, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The First Word: Forgive

Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching. Luke 23:33-35

In the first word, Jesus makes a powerful statement: asking forgiveness for those who are torturing and killing him. But Jesus is talking about more than just the immediate circumstance of the crucifixion, for Jesus is crucified daily; all of the images of human evil in the painting are crucifixion scenes. Forgiveness is seen here in the glowing cross that pierces the veil of darkness.

This image is a dark one and at the same time a reminder of the powerful message that, despite the evil of humanity, the ultimate meaning of the universe is love.

Painting the Seven Last Words

Once I knew that this image must include examples of the misery that humans inflict on one another, I realized I needed to go back to my artistic roots in collage. While most of my collage work of some years ago was torn colored paper and quite non-objective, I did produce some with found imagery. So, the approach here was not as big a step as it might at first appear. Exactly how to organize this material was the subject of thought and sketches, until on a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago I saw again Chagall’s White Crucifixion. It is his placement of scenes of pogroms and violence at the corners of the painting that I adopted—in all other aspects, my painting is quite different.

The photographic imagery was chosen sometimes for its specificity—the Klan riders, the Jews in a concentration camp—and other times for its generality: the women mourning their dead sons on the battlefield is an image from the Easter Front in World War II, but has a decidedly timeless quality. The images of Jesus’s writhing hands come from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1516). Grünewald’s image is the most horrific, and to my mind most satisfying, of crucifixion paintings, and it is in Jesus’s hands that the artist really helps us grasp the misery of it all. The image of the cliffs at Dover is, obviously, a reference to Mathew Arnold’s great poem. Since I first read “Dover Beach” many years I recognized how truly it described the human condition:


for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Paradise, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Second Word: Paradise

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

The theme of forgiveness from the first word, continues in the second. The so-called “good thief” recognizes his own wrong-doing and Jesus says he is forgiven with the promise “today you will be with me in Paradise.” We are also guilty of, as the old Prayer Book says, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts” on a path that hurts others. Jesus promises us forgiveness because God’s love is at the heart of everything. We can forgive ourselves as well as others because God already has. 

Painting the Seven Last Words

What surprised me most in coming to express these words in paint was the realization of how much hope is in what Jesus says. This canvas is not without its somber colors, but that palate also serves to highlight the hope that Jesus expresses to his companion in suffering, the “good thief.” Thus, the light of that coming paradise breaks through a crack in the burgundy and deep blue gloom.

The representation of the cross in a simple vertical band with a short horizontal band (or three in this case) that appears in several of these works was suggested by the imagery in Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series, which can be seen at the US National Gallery. 

Behold, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Third Word: Behold

Woman, behold your son. Behold your Mother.” John 19: 26

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then he said to the disciple, Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19: 25-27

Here Jesus shows his care for his mother. More than that, he is creating a community by binding John and Mary together. In this action he affirms human community. We all have each other, and we all need each other. We cannot go it alone, whatever the culture of individualism says.

Some splashes of red in the blue that represent Mary remind us of a mother’s pain at the death of a child. As Simeon said to her: “A sword shall pierce your heart, also.”

Painting the Seven Last Words

For this painting I choose a motif of squares and rectangles marked by bright, contrasting, or complimentary colors that I have used in other works—an imagery adopted from images by the great American abstractionist, Joan Mitchell. It is to me a joyful imagery, and thus I felt appropriate. Blue is well-known to be Mary’s color. An examination of other depictions of this scene, such as a painting by Albrecht Durer and medieval stained glass, showed that a rich green was associated with John. Bands of color repeat themselves in the Mary and John squares, thus showing the interconnection between them.

Forsaken, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Fourth Word: Forsaken

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15: 34

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Mark 15: 34-36

With the fifth word we come to the heart of the despair and suffering of Jesus’s crucifixion. The pain is physical, but it is not only that. It is spiritual as well, as Jesus feels abandoned and alone. He appears to be quoting from Psalm 22. Indeed, the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and these Seven Last Words recapitulate much of the contents of this great psalm of lamentation. “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax,” the Psalmist writes. Julian reminds us that Jesus is also our brother. At some point in all our lives, and sometimes many points, we must feel our heart melt as we suffer on our own cross. Jesus suffers with us; God suffers with us: “For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.”

Painting the Seven Last Words

I express the theme with somber black brush strokes set against a gray background. The imagery may suggest a burned forest or a war-torn wasteland. 

Thirst, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Fifth Word: Thirst

I thirst.” John 19: 28

When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said…, I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. John 19: 28-29

Jesus expresses his agony with a cry for drink. This word focuses especially on his physical pain and distress. While in other parts of the crucifixion scene the onlookers are depicted as mocking Jesus, here, as he nears the end, someone feels compassion and offers him sour wine to drink. 

This imagery recalls Jesus’s first miracle, turning water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana. A happy time now recapitulated in sorrow. Drink and water are a potent metaphor for the spiritual journey: the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the Christian waters of Baptism (symbolizing death and rebirth). Jesus refers to his own teaching as “living water.” The fifth word is rich with associations. In the context of the crucifixion, those associations that are hopeful become painful. Julian describes Jesus’s thirst as his “love-longing.” “He yearns,” she says, “to gather us all into himself, bringing us all endless joy and bliss.” The thirst of Jesus is our thirst, and “as long as we are in need, Christ will continue to experience … spiritual thirst.”

Painting the Seven Last Words

I expressed Jesus’s distress with a pallet of dark colors. However, among the other images of water that Jesus’s thirst brought to mind was one of my favorite hymns, “Shall we Gather at the River.” So, in the midst of non-objective brush strokes, I painted in the heart of the canvas a rich blue—the abstract depiction of the river “that flows by the throne of God.” This imagery brings the various water images to the canvas and again the theme of hope that shines in darkness that runs through the seven last words.

Commend, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Sixth Word:  Commend

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23: 46

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the suns light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23: 44-46

As Jesus comes to the end of his time on the cross, he gives himself to God. Death means an end to the mystery of this life and marks a crossing to the mystery beyond. Thus, in this image, in the midst of the suffering and gloom, appears a portal to the experience of divine love and peace. The bright colors—yellow, green, gold, white—suggest the light of divine love, as well as the light of divinity that is within all people, and indeed in all of creation. Jesus once again quotes from the Psalms, here number 31. Elsewhere in the text, the psalmist writes, “Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.” Through the psalmist, Jesus is reminding us that just as the spiritual journey leads to many dark nights, so too it leads to many redemptions, to light, and new births.

Painting the Seven Last Words

In my memory is a 20th century artist who makes use of gate-like imagery. I can’t remember who the painter is, but I adopted that figure here.

Finished, Stuart Hobbs, Acrylic on Canvas, 2022.

The Seventh Word: Finished

It is finished.” John 19:30

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

And so, it is finished. Our last image leaves us with Jesus’s suffering over. Now it is Holy Saturday, that dark day between Good Friday and Easter to which we all must come. That day when Jesus is dead, hope is dead, God is dead. And the only possibility for redemption is a mystery greater and deeper than anything we can imagine. 

Painting the Seven Last Words

Since there are options in how to end the Seven Last Words, I choose these words for the last because they a more natural gateway to Holy Saturday. The Seven Last Words is a Lenten project, after all, not an Easter one. Here the image of the cross is more explicit than it has been since the first painting, and the blood flows freely. Death is not particularly subtle, so I did not feel the need for it here.

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