“Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoy (1872, Oil on canvas)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
A Layman’s View by George W. Friesen
Russian artist Ivan Kramskoy’s “Christ in the Wilderness” hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow created quite a stir but drew exceptional crowds when it was first shown in 1872 at the Peredvizhniki exhibitions in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and in cities throughout the country. The painting is a radical and shocking departure from iconoclastic tradition and projects a terrifying aspect that, were it not that we know the outcome of the plot, would leave us as forlorn and desolate as the subject rendered.
In this 1872 “Christ in the Wilderness” depiction, however, Kramskoy offers an image of the Christ that departs from the sanitized offerings of the past. In this painting, we see the temptation of Jesus through the eyes of uncompromising realism. With his back to a rising sun, a somewhat disheveled and not at all glamourous Jesus is seated on a boulder in a barren and dry wilderness setting of abysmal desolation, a setting that exudes aridity, a setting from which we would flee in terror. He is hunched forward with hands clasped on his knees; his red eyes staring straight ahead in bedeviled anxiety. He does not look like someone who has only just heard the voice of God say to him and to the world, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
It strikes us that we have taken the temptation of Jesus too lightly; too much for granted—that, yes, of course, he would come through it. Here, the artist has assigned a brooding existential humanity to Jesus that is utterly distressing. We feel his palpable hunger and thirst; a loneliness and terror that pierces to the heart of a completely obscure divinity. We see a haunting isolation of unspeakable profundity and magnitude.
To some observers, like Russian writer Vsevolod Garshin, the image of Jesus in this work communicates his determined resolve to confront evil head on, and in the raw. To others, however, it seems that Jesus here is seriously weighing the options, the consequences of yielding—or not yielding—to his temptations. Ostensibly, the work of redemption has begun. Could it be also that God, the Father, for the moment has abandoned him and that, for the first time, Jesus is beginning to comprehend the prophetic destiny he is to fulfill; that on his straight and narrow road to Calvary he will unrelentingly have to contend with his humanity?
This painting lends a new aspect, not only to the horror of the temptation in the wilderness, of which we have generally thought in quite benign terms, but also to the Gethsemane passion we know is yet to come; in fact, has already begun, here in the wilderness.