This is the week when Christians stop asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?" and concentrate for the moment on what Jesus did. In the Christian calendar, it is the culmination of one man's extraordinary journey from manger to martyr. It's a week packed with emotional shock and awe as the carpenter's son turned folk hero makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, has a last supper with his buddies, goes on a spiritual retreat, is betrayed by a turncoat pal, suffers through a mock trial, is humiliated, brutally killed and then, mirabile dictu, emerges from his tomb for a 40-day teaching tour culminating in a heavenly liftoff.
As a theological narrative, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter have inspired centuries of stunning images by the greatest artists. More than 60 such pictures -- mostly woodcuts, engravings, drawings and a few paintings -- spanning 500 years of European talent are on view through Aug. 31 in an extraordinary exhibit improbably located in the art gallery of an insurance company, Thrivent Financial, in downtown Minneapolis.
Among the images are etchings and drawings by Rembrandt, Manet and John Singer Sargent as well as 22 top-quality woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. All the art is owned by Thrivent, which assembled the collection over many years under the auspices of the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, namesake of a museum of more secular art at Gustavus Adolphus College. The museum quality of the work is underscored by the fact that related images from Thrivent's collection of religious art are on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through Sept. 12.
Called "The Passion: 500 Years in Art," the Thrivent exhibit is tightly focused on the last days of Jesus' life. As a helpful gallery placard explains, "passion" in this context derives from the Latin word passio, meaning "an intense suffering endured with self-control and tolerance." Many of the images are indeed harrowing accounts of torture, brutality and grief. But in keeping with Christian piety, there are also emotionally gripping encounters whose meaning and universality transcends the particulars of doctrine and creed.
In Hendrik Goltzius' "Pieta" of 1596, for example, a peasant woman, Mary, weeps over the body of her muscular son who sprawls across her knees, gaping wounds in his hands, feet and torso. In the distance a crowd mulls about below a looming cross. Aside from their clothes and the light radiating from their heads, the couple could be any mother today distraught over the death of a son in his prime. Christianity's appeal has always been rooted in this universal humanity, the tragedies it embodies and the hope it offers.
At Thrivent, events unfold sequentially, starting with an engraving by Flemish artist Gerard de Jode of Jesus' arrival on a donkey at Jerusalem where frenzied crowds scatter branches before him. A robust drawing by Palma il Giovanne, also from the late 1500s, shows Christ washing the feet of his disciples as they chat around a table.
These animated group scenes of the Renaissance era give way to a very different mood of isolation and alienation in "Christ in the Garden," by French artist Alphonse Osbert, probably dating to the late 1800s. Weary and despairing, Christ sits alone under a tree at dusk, shoulders slumped in a very modern mood of exhaustion and self-doubt. Then, flashing back to about 1620, Dutch artist Pieter Soutman shows a bawdy bunch of soldiers hustling him away by torchlight as his former friend Judas clutches a bag of silver, stage left.
The show features images by more than 30 artists from a dozen countries. None are more penetrating than the woodcuts of that consummate draftsman, Dürer. At least 16 of his "Small Passion" scenes are included, each no bigger than a playing card but extraordinarily vivid, along with the "Resurrection," from his much larger "Great Passion" series of 1510, in which a classically proportioned Jesus rises on a cloud above a tomb on which slumps a marvelous collection of drunken, sleeping soldiers.
By contrast, Manet's etching "Dead Christ With Angels," of about 1866, is a moody flutter of wings, and John Singer Sargent's "Pieta" is a mere sketch of crumpled despair.
Curiously, the 20th-century artists seem to struggle for authentic emotion, even though their century was fraught with horrifying events that endlessly echo Christ's suffering and death. The exhibition's centerpiece is an overwrought 1923 "Crucifixion" by George Wesley Bellows, complete with pretty-boy soldiers, weepy Hollywood heroines and Jesus howling from the cross against a background of cinematic thunderheads. Oskar Kokoschka's 1916 lithograph of "The Resurrection" is, likewise, curiously cartoonish in its depiction of the ascending Jesus waving wanly at sinners who appear to be doing sit-ups on the beach below.
While such shifts of tone and style can be occasionally awkward or mawkish, they don't undercut the power of this exhibition, which testifies to the enduring appeal of the Christian message and to the persuasive impact of its best interpreters.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431