Christ the King, Last Sunday of Year B: John 18: 33-37

This Sunday the reading is for the final week of the year and does not come from Mark, but is chosen from John’s Gospel to fit the theme of the feast, which is Christ the Universal King. The chioce of gospel fits the understanding of Christ’s kingship being distinct and different from worldly kingship, at the same time situating it in the Passion and showing that its roots are in this action of God’s love. The panel we can see above, which shows the passage from the Gospel, is taken from the Maesta, originally on the high altar of Siena cathedral, one of the most ambitious altarpieces ever painted. Duccio painted the Maesta with a team of assistants between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in a solemn procession in the Cathedral. The Maesta is two sided. The front is Mariological with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and of Christ’s birth around the central image of Mary seated in majesty with the Christ Child. The back, with its scenes of the Passion is Christological. This was seen by the clergy when seated around the chancel for the praying of the Office and also for the celebration of Mass.

This scene of Christ before Pilate for the Second Time is taken from the end of the top left row of the rear of the altarpiece. Duccio uses a conflation of the gospel accounts. The sequence of panels depicting the passion is to be read boustrephedonically, that is up, along, down and up and so on, with the sequence ascending. Duccio was careful to arrange the design of images in each panel to fit the overall design and movement of the narrative and to give a sense of balance so the scene moves from left to right. In this painting, from the far left of the work, the artist positions a large body of figures- the Pharisees and soldiers, on the left, behind Jesus as he faces Pilate, who wears the robe given him by Herod to ridicule him from the scene below.

One is struck by the isolation of Jesus, by the clusters of the Pharisees and soldiers who both act as single masses. Just as in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper the artist shows the singularity of Jesus and the movement away from Christ in the  groups of apostles, here we can see Duccio create a similar force. He clusters and positions the groups both close to but distinct from Jesus, fearful but, perhaps, deep down, curious about this figure. For what he is to do is something beyond human comprehension, and the strength and grace needed to do so unimaginable, but which shows love even beyond persecution.

Duccio seems to show Jesus leading humanity, albeit hesitantly, towards a different set of values from those of Pilate and the wordly power of the Roman Empire, towards kingship as service and love even at great cost.

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