EIGHTEEN years ago, to celebrate the Millennium, the National Gallery ran a particularly tough-minded exhibition of Christian art, “Seeing Salvation”. Rather than select from the many well-known, “chocolate-box” religious pictures in its collection, the curators planned to give visitors a taste of the reality of religious devotion across the centuries — a reality that reflects the very non-chocolate-box conditions in which most people of most ages have lived.
One room in the gallery displayed pictures of the wounds of Christ, a popular subject for medieval devotion. In medieval piety, the five wounds that Christ received from nails and spear became free-floating emblems that were commonly used for devotional images. Perhaps because they were thought to have protective qualities, they were even depicted on rings.
Relics of this tradition of devotion to the wounds of Christ still linger today: a favourite hymn for many is “Soul of my Saviour”, with its imprecation “Deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,” while “Rock of ages” also pleads “Let me hide myself in thee,” just before alluding to the water and blood that flowed from the wounded side of Christ. Mel Gibson’s histrionic blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, a Hollywood meditation on the wounds of Christ, was viewed with equal devotion by Protestants and Roman Catholics.
In the image reproduced here, Christ as Saviour and Judge, by Petrus Christus (c.1450), we can see in Jesus’s chest the spear-wound: the most important of the wounds, devotionally, as being the closest to the heart of Jesus. It is held open by one wounded hand, while the other hand is held up for us to view — except that it is not to us that Christ is revealing his wounds, but to God, his Father; and he is pleading for mercy for the fallen human race and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, for “our foul, black, shameful deeds”.
Behind Jesus, as a sign of the Last Judgement, a great sword is raised by an angel, and a second angel holds a stem of lilies, representing God’s mercy. The crown of thorns worn by Jesus has sprouted into a wonderful, organic halo-cross of gold filigree, in delicate contrast to the steel sword — even this seems to be pleading for mercy for humanity on the day of judgement.
There are two relevant references to wounds in scripture. The first is Isaiah 53.5: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The mysterious suffering servant of Isaiah 53 represents a paradox so familiar that we hardly think about it: that of the wounded healer, God’s servant, who, by his wounds, brings healing.
The second text is theologically the more interesting. In John 20.24, Thomas is invited to put his hands into the wounds in the side of the risen Jesus. What is most interesting about this is that, when Jesus rose from the dead, his wounds remained. The scars did not disappear.
By insisting on this unwelcome fact, Christian tradition makes an important statement about embodied humanity. Although we fantasise — especially when ill — about having silicon bodies, impervious to suffering and disease, it is the very vulnerability — the woundability — of human flesh which makes it important in God’s eyes. Presumably, Jesus could easily have come back from the dead wholly remade, without a blemish, like a young Apollo, but this is not how it was. Jesus still had his scars, even after the resurrection. God clearly considered his wounds important.
The devotion to Jesus’s wounds is a direct reminder of the principal scandal of the Christian faith: how shocking it is that the transcendent and holy God should have clothed himself in smelly, hairy, vulnerable human flesh. How much easier it would have been, how much more credible, if Jesus had been like a Roman or Greek god, beautiful and invulnerable. But such a plastic Jesus — a silicon redeemer — would have been little help to our human condition. As the Letter to the Hebrews points out, no angel could have done the job of redeeming humanity: the redeemer had to be an enfleshed, vulnerable human being like us.
But if this point is grasped, whether verbally or visually, then the consequence is that our vulnerable flesh is at once revalued. If God became man that we might become God, then our flesh, scarred and wounded as it is, has divine potential when seen in the light of the resurrection.
It seems that God would not have it any other way. To deprive Jesus of his wounds would be to undervalue the incarnation: to suggest that Jesus’s taking vulnerable flesh was not important to God. To accept the importance of his wounds is to accept that the incarnation is at the heart of God’s plan for humanity.
This picture suggests that, just as Jesus took humble bread and wine and transformed them into his body and blood, so he takes our humdrum, vulnerable human flesh, and revalues us — wounds and all — into something spectacular. In a sense, his wounds heal our wounds, not by taking them away, but by transforming them.
Even images of the martyrs still show them with the symbols of their martyrdom — transformed from shameful weapons of defeat into trophies, symbols of glory, of suffering overcome. A corollary of this is the importance to God of colour, gender, voice, and all those other attributes of flesh which make us who we are.
For Christians, the incarnation is the filter that enables us to understand God’s universe. The importance of Christ’s wounds is that they symbolise the paradox that this statement implies: one that is perpetually unsettling, always challenging, and yet that somehow corresponds to the reality that we experience every day, as we find our own scars redeemed and now made glorious in the light of the resurrection.
Like the suffering servant, we, too, find our compassion stirred by our wounds to become, ourselves, wounded healers to those who, every day, cry out to us for love.
Canon Charles Pickstone is Vicar of St Laurence’s, Catford, in the diocese of Southwark, and a trustee of Art and Christianity.
This series originated in a series of talks given in Lent 2017 at St John’s, Catford.