On Sunday I went to visit the Passion in Venice exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City (NY Times review here). The exhibit captures a key theme from late medieval piety that speaks with remarkable clarity to the world we live in today: namely, the figure of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. This theme calls to mind with great poignancy the truth that the brief span of human life involves suffering, and affirms the central Christian belief that when God walked among us he was not exempt from it.

The exhibit focuses on key Venetian artists, especially Veronese, but its span is wider. It highlights the fact that artists of the 14th century began bringing attention to this theme, in part because new trade routes with Constantinople made possible their encounter with more Byzantine art.

The Man of Sorrows theme is rooted in a text from the book of the prophet Isaiah, in a section known as the song of the suffering servant:

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not
(Is. 53:3 RSV).

One can surmise that the particular attraction to this theme might have been related to the experience of the Bubonic plague—the Black Death—which over a period of two years (1348-1350) wiped out as much as half of the population of Europe. Amidst such a constant reminder of suffering and death, it is no surprise that artists would search for answers to basic philosophical questions about life.

Venice was a city under the patronage of St. Mark the Evangelist, whose gospel carries a particular resonance with the Man of Sorrows theme. Mark's gospel is a series of short vignettes about Jesus' life and work, followed by an extended passion narrative that ends with Jesus' death and then a mysterious empty tomb. The feel of Mark's gospel is that of a martyr story, with a sliver of hope at the end. Mark's gospel does not have the triumphant feel of John, the epoch-making historical proclamation of Matthew, or the missionary fervor of Luke. Instead, Mark's story is about the reality of Christ's suffering, a story which no doubt gave comfort to the disciples who themselves felt the fear of persecution under cruel Roman emperors like Nero and, later, Domitian. The passion narrative, like the Man of Sorrows theme, is a reassurance to those whose suffering is real and whose questions are persistent: why must I suffer? why me? why this way? why must it hurt so much?—the reassurance that in suffering, they are not alone.

There is a story told in the Buddhist tradition that functions in a manner similar to that of the Man of Sorrows. In the story, a woman whose only child died of sickness was deserted by her husband. She came to the Buddha in the hope that he would relieve her pain by giving life to her son. He told her to find a family that had not known death, and ask from that family a mustard seed with which he would revive the child. The woman, unable to find a family that did not know death, came to understand that suffering and death are inevitable.