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The moment the soldier saw God

26 March 2021

Sarah Foot offers a meditation on the Cross for Holy Week

By Permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford

Christ carrying the Cross by Andrea Mantegna (studio of), 1505

Christ carrying the Cross by Andrea Mantegna (studio of), 1505

Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull

John 19.16-17


THIS image presents us with an intimate moment in the great drama, focusing on an encounter between Jesus and just one other person. This painting represents a transitional scene in the Passion narrative: one that moves Jesus from the headquarters of Roman authority in Jerusalem — the place where he had been tried and condemned — to the site outside the city walls where executions took place.

Here we see Jesus, with the wood of the cross on his shoulder and its full length — and weight — stretched out before him, as he walks through the crowded streets of Jerusalem. (You can see some richly dressed townspeople walking along beside and behind him). On Jesus’s left, and clearly the immediate focus of his attention, is a Roman soldier, wearing a crested helmet, with a large yellow cloak flung around his shoulders. He is carrying some object with a long, red wooden staff (the head of which lies beyond the edge of the canvas and so is concealed from our view).


ALL four Gospels describe the beginning of this part of the action whereby Jesus was led out from the Praetorium. John’s words — “So they took Jesus” — imply that he was “taken” in the way that a prisoner is taken into custody. Yet John’s account of how Jesus made that journey, carrying the cross by himself, differs sharply from those of the synoptic gospels, all of which have Simon of Cyrene compelled to carry the cross on Jesus’s behalf. That left Jesus himself free to turn and speak to the women who were following him, whom, in Luke’s account, he addressed as “Daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23.28-9).

One might try to rationalise the discrepancy by saying that Jesus had borne the wood at first, until it became too much for him, at which point Simon was forced to take over. But John’s language seems to imply that he deliberately chose to reject the involvement of Simon and to make Jesus carry his own cross for himself.


PERHAPS the Gnostic notion that Simon had been crucified in Christ’s place had already begun to circulate by the time John wrote, and he sought to refute it. Alternatively, John might have wanted to make a typological connection with a familiar Old Testament story from Genesis, linking Christ’s carrying of the cross with the time when Abraham laid the wood for the sacrifice on the shoulders of his son Isaac, who then carried it himself up the mountain to the place appointed (Genesis 22.6-7).

Yet more powerfully, we might argue that John’s Christology was such that he could not countenance the possibility that Jesus might either need, or accept, help from anyone else. John drew here on the basic principle that he had had Jesus articulate much earlier (when he spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd): “I lay down my life . . . no one has taken it away from me; rather I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10.17-18).

Such an understanding would be in keeping with the various ways in which John underlined Christ’s sovereignty at different moments in the Passion narrative. Even at this point, when Christ might have appeared most passive and unable to exercise independent agency, John shows him to be completely in control, assuming authority as sole master of his own destiny. As we contemplate Christ applying his shoulder to the cross, we might recall a line from Isaiah’s prophecy about the child who is born for us, the son given to us: “Authority rests upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9.6; Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah).


THE depiction of Christ shouldering the cross that I have chosen for this reflection comes from the studio of the 16th-century painter Andrea Mantegna, who worked in Padua, Verona, and Venice, before, in 1460, moving to Mantua, where he spent the rest of his career until his death in 1506. In style, this painting closely resembles work from late in Mantegna’s career, and yet several aspects of it are remarkable.

We might marvel at the prominence of the Roman soldier accompanying Christ — not just the deliberate detail of the rope bound round his right hand, tethering Jesus to him, but also the details of his armour, and his crested helmet, which suggest a man of rank. Yet we might also note the curious vulnerability of his unprotected neck.

The soldier has his mouth open in the act of speech. And so — remarkably, and most unusually for a painting from this period — Jesus’s mouth is open, too; we can see his teeth, and he, too, seems to be talking. But to whom? The more you look at this, the more the two seem to be talking across each other. Look at Jesus’s eyes, and if, once the pandemic restrictions are over, you have the chance to visit this image in the Christ Church picture gallery, I advise you to go and stand on the picture’s right and look at it from a slight angle. When you do, you will feel, as I have, powerfully, that Jesus is talking directly to you.

The halo behind his head pushes it away from the cross and forward into the picture, almost out of the frame. It seems likely that this was designed to be hung in a sequence of paintings, perhaps a series for the Stations of the Cross. Even as you engage with Christ at this moment in his suffering, you find yourself impelled to walk on, in the direction that he is walking, towards the next episode in the great narrative.


BUT let us return once more to the soldier. Mantegna’s assistant has fully absorbed the implications of the Johannine insistence on Jesus carrying his own cross; this is manifestly a depiction of a man in charge of his own destiny. Yet in imagining this part of the narrative in his mind’s eye, the artist has added a fresh element to the story, one that has no scriptural basis.

He allows us to witness a moment of private interaction, and dialogue, between Jesus and one of the soldiers charged with carrying out Pilate’s sentence. And no ordinary soldier, either; we have already noted how his armour and helmet suggest that he was a man of rank: is this the centurion of whom the Synoptics wrote? And what is that on his left shoulder, mirroring the cross on Jesus’s right, ascending out of our picture exactly in parallel with the cross-shaft. Might it be a lance, or a spear?

John reported that, after Christ had died on the cross, the soldiers came to break the legs of the crucified men to hasten their death, because they did not want the bodies to be left hanging on the sabbath, which was the day of Passover. “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out” (John 19.32-34).


WE CANNOT know, any more than did our artist, what Jesus said to the soldier when, amid the noise and press of the crowd, they found the space to speak in private. But, if we start to imagine such an exchange, we may wonder if it lay behind the statements that the Evangelists put into the mouth of the centurion at the foot of the cross at the moment of Christ’s death. According to Luke, that man declared, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23.47). Mark’s narrative is yet more powerful: “When the centurion who was facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s son’” (Mark 15.39).

Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus had prophesied: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32). As we meditate on the wood of the cross, on which Christ was to be lifted up and crucified, so in the witness of this unnamed Roman soldier we find that prophecy starting to be fulfilled. Even while leading him to the place of his shameful death, this soldier was drawn to Christ, recognising in his tortured body, as it laboured under the weight of the wood, clear evidence of his divinity.

“Lead us, O God, in the way of Christ
and give us courage to take up our cross
and, in full reliance upon your grace, to follow him. Amen.”


This is an edited extract from a series of reflections for Holy Week, based on paintings in the collection of Christ Church, Oxford, by the Revd Professor Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the University of Oxford.

The full series will be published on the Church Times website during Holy Week. Join us each day at noon to watch a new video reflection: www.churchtimes.co.uk/topics/holy-week-2021.

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