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Art for Meditation - February 2018


Duccio di Buoninsegna (Siena, c. 1255 – 1318 or 1319), The arrest of Jesus, 1308-1311, tempera on wood, 50 cm x 76 cm, Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo


What we present is one of the twenty-six scenes of the Passion of Jesus that are represented in fourteen panels and adorn the back of the larger panel, whose main façade is dedicated to the Madonna on the throne with Child venerated by angels and saints.

 According to the Gospel, there are two salient moments in the garden of Gethsemane: the prayer of Jesus, which becomes almost agony, and his arrest by soldiers after Judas' betrayal with a kiss (cf. Mt 26:36-56). Duccio represented these two episodes in a single panel divided into two, of which this is the upper part.

The scene is very bare from a naturalistic standpoint: there are only a few plants and many rocks. The painter is not interested in the setting, because his attention lies entirely in the scene being represented. The main characters are those in the foreground. Among these Jesus stands out, in the centre, with Judas on his right, about to give him the kiss with which he’ll betray him by giving him to the Jews. All around them and in the background, almost as if to animate the scene and make it more dramatic, there are soldiers and people: this is the "large crowd with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and the elders of the people" (v. 47), as told by the Gospels.

On the left, we can see one of those who are with Jesus. He has put his hand on his sword, drawn it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear (cf. v. 51). According to the evangelist John, this man could be Peter himself. What impresses us about this scene is the bright red of the blood that is coming out of the cut ear.

Finally, on the right side of the scene there is a small group that is going away. It is the concrete representation of the conclusion of the narration. Matthew, in fact, tells us that, immediately after the last words of Jesus announcing the fulfilment of the Scriptures, "all the disciples deserted him and fled" (cf. v. 56b).

In the small space of this painting, the great Sienese painter was able to tell the dramatic story of the last night of Jesus, a drama that dispersed all his friends and that could therefore seem like the end of everything he had announced, taught and operated for three years.

But even in this tragic moment the face of Jesus is showing great dignity and almost serenity, for He is certain that what is going to happen is in the hands of the Father: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want. […] My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done" (Mt 26:39-42).

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