By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow
A Super Off-Peak train ticket return from a work trip to London this week meant a late arrival back home but offered the excuse to nip into a museum for a quiet hour of gazing. In Holy Week I found myself gravitating towards the rooms of Medieval and Renaissance art: paintings for altars and places of prayer, gilded and ornate, but often with poignant depictions of people in the biblical stories.
I was struck by how crowded many of these paintings are. The artists frequently chose not just to focus on the main characters in the biblical stories, but also on many others. Frequently, of course, you will find a portrait of the patron who commissioned the work of art. The artist works hard to give them an appropriate air of holiness; they sometimes seem to struggle against the incongruity of making them fit into a biblical scene, their furs and rings and expensive hunting dogs jarring against the scene of the cross or the nativity in a stable. Nevertheless, the best of the Flemish artists manage to create piety out of the finely-painted lines of faces underneath hideous pudding-bowl hair-cuts.
But the figures that interest me most are the people lurking in the corners. These are the ones who are less well known – some whose names are unrecorded in the bible. Some are carefully watching or listening in; others are only half-interested on-lookers. People look down on a scene from a vantage-point in a window or up a tree. A woman peeks out from her position on the threshold of a house, arms folded, but intent on what is happening before her. Even though her clothes are from another era her face leaps out like the familiar image of a friend, curious and gentle.
I think these images populated with people who could be like us are intended to draw us in to the story. In one scene depicting the entombment of Christ some of the figures have their back to the viewer, intensifying the sense that we are part of what is going on. These pictures invite us in – not just to contemplate what is happening on Palm Sunday, on the cross, on Easter morning, but to imagine what it would be like to be there. How would we respond? How do we respond? And this too is what happens through the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter – familiar stories told again and again, but with enough vividness that we can through them imagine ourselves lurking in their corners.