In 1889, Belgian artist James Ensor painted Jesus’ Palm Sunday triumphal entry–only instead of Jerusalem, it’s as if Jesus is entering the city of Brussels in Ensor’s own day. The painting is richly coloured with many details that can’t be seen in the image above; the original painting is huge, approximately 2.5 metres high x 4.3 metres wide (8 feet x 14 feet).
In this image, Christ is at the centre–a self-portrait of the artist–almost lost in a huge mardi gras parade of people, some wearing masks and/or carrying political signs and/or advertisements like Coleman’s Mustard, many caricatures of public figures and other people that Ensor knew–unflattering and bawdy portrayals in contrast to himself as the Christ figure. It wasn’t so much a religious painting about Jesus, but a political and social commentary on the artist and his own day. He was the humble Jesus in the midst of a crowd bent on their own purposes.
No wonder the painting was so controversial! When it was finished, Ensor displayed it in his home, but it wasn’t displayed in public until 40 years later in 1929.
Although Ensor claimed to be an atheist, his paintings are full of religious imagery, including this one of Jesus’ triumphal entry and others on Jesus’ suffering and death. About the artist, Jon M. Sweeney says, “James Ensor called himself an atheist, but he’s my kind of atheist: a man who is fighting inside himself, perhaps wanting but unable to believe….” (America: The National Catholic Review).
As I reflect on yesterday’s Palm Sunday and this Holy Week, this painting makes me wonder: if Jesus were to come again today–not to Jerusalem long ago, or to Brussels in 1889, but to my street and yours in 2014– would he again be almost lost in the sea of different political and social opinions and interests? Are there too many things today crowding out the coming of Jesus into our lives, too many things crowding out the glory and humility of Christ in our midst? And where would you and I place ourselves in the scene–identifying with Jesus as somehow Ensor saw himself in spite of his professed lack of faith, or at least more likely for me, somewhere in the crowd?
As I walk with Jesus through this coming Holy Week, I walk with these questions. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.