Juan de Flandes painted this work for Isabella the Catholic of Spain around 1500. It shows the Temptation of Christ ( Luke 4:1-13) the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent. It is one of many 47 scenes each measuring 21X16cmwhich form part of the polyptych of Isabella the Catholic. It is significant that Juan de Flandes has painted the devil as a franciscan friar holding out a stone to Jesus to turn it into bread after his 40 day fast rather than as a demon in appearance and in fact as he is often depicted.
The artist is trying to show that temptations often have the appearance of being good, even good in a religious sense when first encountered, but it is only on closer examination or after a process of discernment that it is revealed they are not as good as they seem. This was the challenge for Christ in the desert and it is also the case for his followers. Later in the 16th century St Ignatius of Loyola developed the meditation on the Two Standards, a component part of the Spiritual Exercises, as a tool to help the Christian in discernment. These standards are the battle standards of Christ and Lucifer. It is no accident that Lucifer means “light bearer”. From a human perspective, Lucifer’s values are not necessarily repugnant, the ideas and values he offers are lights but false lights. Riches, honour and pride may not be bad values, while what Christ offers may not seem good- poverty, powerlessness and humility are afflictions for much of humanity. However, Lucifer’s values can focus attention away from God and on ourselves, whilst those of Christ remind us that we have nothing in ourselves but only as a gift from God, our powerlessness helps us to depend on God and in humility we recognize the reality of ourselves before God.
It is complicated for us that the values of Christ have a certain desirable virtue we pay lip service to, which was not there in the ancient world so may present temptations in themselves if not deeply assimilated. How we might take an authentic Christ-like path in the journey we make and our choices on the way need reflection and prayer and guidance. Juan de Flandes’ painting reminds us of this.