Deepening Formation

Behold the Lamb of God

Scenes from the Passion of Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo by Andrea di Vanni, 1380s, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Scenes from the Passion of Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo by Andrea di Vanni

Saint Augustine notes that Holy Week is unique in the Church’s liturgical calendar because we not only celebrate but “enact” the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Jesus’ Paschal Mystery is remembered not only as a central historical event but the means by which we share in the power of Jesus’ passing from life to death to new life with God. Jesus’ Suffering, Death, and Resurrection are offered as the pattern of our dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. As we renew baptismal promises at Easter, we pass over, in imitation of Jesus’ Passover, to a new life of grace, begun at Baptism and nourished at every Eucharist.  

As our Lenten journeys continue to Easter, an exquisite fourteenth-century triptych altarpiece offers a visual guide to walk with Jesus on his paschal journey. Completed by Andrea di Vanni, a prominent painter from Siena, Italy, the portable triptych was most likely intended for personal use in a private chapel. Each figure is painted to evoke dramatic emotions as scenes unfold side by side. Against a brilliant gold background, vibrant shades of red, yellow, and blue draw us into Jesus’ Paschal Mystery. We read the painting from left to right for a visual catechesis that invites sharing in the sacred events of Holy Week.

On the left triptych wing, we see Jesus, in a pale red robe, kneeling in anguished prayer. Jesus’ agony was so extreme that his sweat turned to blood falling to the ground. He raises his eyes to heaven, where an angel holds out a chalice. And, with hands raised, Jesus offers his anguished prayer to his Father, “if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Below Jesus we find the disciples sleeping, and in the upper left corner, soldiers arrest Jesus, betrayed by Judas.

The central panel shows Jesus’ Death by crucifixion as he bows his head in self-giving love. Above Jesus’ head are the letters “INRI” conveying, in Latin, the title Pontius Pilate inscribed on the cross, Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews. Jesus is ministered to by angels as Mary, his Mother, faints into the arms of two women. Mary Magdalene venerates Jesus’ Body at the foot of the cross along with Saint John, the beloved disciple. And soldiers greedily cast lots for Jesus’ garment at the lower right.

The soul of the good thief is carried by angels to heaven, as Jesus promised him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Then soldiers break the legs of the other thief while a centurion on horseback glorifies God with a profound witness to Jesus, saying, “This man was innocent beyond doubt” (Luke 23:47).

On the right panel, Jesus is shown descending into hell, stamping the door of hell underfoot. Radiant golden light envelops him as he holds a banner evoking his victory over sin and death through the Cross. The multitudes are filled with hope as Jesus reaches out to liberate Adam. Above them, God the Father extends a divine blessing with the right hand. Then we see the victorious Jesus, heralded by the haloed John the Baptist, whose banner reads, “Behold the Lamb [of God].” This is the Easter faith we profess and celebrate at every Eucharist.

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She is the author of Way of Beauty: Rekindling Eucharistic Amazement with Visio Divina, Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2023.