As the month of March and Lent begin, I have selected Ivan Kramskoy’s Christ in the Wilderness for the this month’s On the Slant feature. Kramskoy renders Christ in the desert with this realistic image, yet his realism does not give way to sentimentality. This image of Christ magnifies the narrative account of his temptation from Matthew 4 read on the first Sunday of Lent.
Night draws near as the sun sets in the distance. Jesus’ face expresses a dual intensity: he faces the hunger of his body even as his hands are folded in prayer. Kramskoy’s realism calls one to meditate on the humanity of Christ in his temptation. Jesus is man suffering from depravation. His gaze remains low, seeking to maintain focus, though his eyes crave sleep. He does not wear sandals, his feet exposed to the craggy surface beneath. Every stone in the scene evokes sharpness. Christ is seated yet there is no smoothness to any of the stones about him. His body is set on edge.
Yet Kramskoy employs another duality with Jesus in this barren scene. In traditional iconography, the inner red tunic and the outer blue cloak resembles Jesus’ two natures, divine and human. Kramskoy, a painter reared in the world of Russian Orthodoxy, likely gives us his own interpretation of Christ’s two natures in this wilderness moment. Christ’s divinity does not exempt him from his harsh and cruel vocation as the Son of Man, chosen to bear the sins of the world. Jesus is a vulnerable man, especially with the sun setting and wild beasts soon to prowl the mountain on which he sits.
Even still, Jesus keeps vigil with his Father. His hands clasped in vigilant prayer make him the only formidable One to overcome the Enemy, Satan. Even as his bodily strength wanes and the sun descends behind him, the half-downward gaze is the vision of a determined man. The vigil Jesus keeps will defeat Satan by perseverance. Christ in the wilderness is Jesus the vigilant, the Victor who is the Son of Man.