Sunday, March 29, 2015

John 13.1-17: Except for the Feet

Peter, of course, is the disciple at the center of the story in John 13:1-17, the reading for Thursday of Holy Week. Jesus scandalizes the disciples by performing an act of servitude. The scandal wasn't just on that night. Artists have apparently had difficulty showing Jesus in such a humble position. 

The Gospel Book of Otto III includes a typical medieval depiction of the story. Taking place against a gold background (which usually symbolizes a removal from reality), the story unfolds with Peter's foot in a bowl of water while Christ, whose figure is taller than all the disciples, merely gestures at the water. Christ may be teaching, may be blessing Peter, but he is not washing the disciple's foot.
Artist unknown. Gospel Book of Otto III. c. 1000. Bayerische Staatbibliotek, Munich.
By contrast, the mid-19th century painting of the same subject by Ford Madox Brown certainly seems to get the posture right. Jesus kneels on the floor, cradling Peter's foot in his hands. In this version, Jesus' head is the lowest one in the picture, and he looks not at Peter's face but at the task before him. In this version of Brown's composition, Jesus wears a tunic with his arms exposed. In a preliminary sketch, Jesus has stripped to the waist - an artistic decision that caused great outcry from the public, who were scandalized to see Jesus so depicted. In a later painting of the same composition Brown clads Jesus in a long-sleeved garment. 
 Ford Madox Brown. Christ Washing Peter's Feet. 1851-1856. Tate Gallery, London.
The figure of Jesus offers two distinct interpretations of the subject, but Peter's posture is also quite different in the two. In one Peter's posture is open, arms and hands outstretched, and he looks up at Jesus (because Jesus is taller). In the other, Peter's posture is closed, arms pressed to his side, resting in his lap, fingers interwoven and clasped together. Because Jesus is kneeling, Peter is forced to look down on the top of Jesus' head, and he seems almost to be looking out from under his brow. Peter seems quite uncomfortable. 

A third figure is distinguished in both paintings. At the right in the Gospel Book and at the left in Brown's painting a disciple is clearly shown removing his sandal, preparing to be next in line to have Jesus wash his feet. Who is that disciple? Traditionally that figure is identified as Judas. Brown has placed, on the table before him, a bag that presumably contains the thirty pieces of silver that Judas has received in exchange for the promise of betrayal. Yes, Lord, wash my feet next, his actions seem to say. 

Does one of these images reflect your own understanding of this text? Had you ever thought about Jesus washing even Judas' feet? How does Peter's figure illuminate the story? Consider these interpretations in light of what we know of the events of the 72 hours following this event. 

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