Facing Our Burdens

The artist of this grand painting, Sebastiano del Piombo, was among good company in Italy. His teachers and mentors were Michelangelo and Raphael, even though these two never got along. Following Raphael’s death in 1520, historian Giorgio Vasari stated that “first place in the art of painting was unanimously granted by all, thanks to the favor of Michelangelo, to Sebastiano.” Quite a compliment.

The title is Christ Carrying the Cross and depicts the scene from scripture where Simon of Cyrene was compelled by the Romans to carry the cross of Jesus as he was making his way to his crucifixion.

Can you feel the heavy weight of the cross on Jesus’ shoulders? Simon grasps the beam and begins to lift as a Roman soldier stands behind, his jeering face just visible in the darkness. In the background, the tightly packed composition opens up onto a crowd assembling at the foot of the hill of Golgotha. If you look closely on the ridge, you can see two crosses, barely visible, ready for their victims. The unknown light source makes the arm of Jesus’ robe glow. The light also glances off the Roman’s helmet.

In taking the crossbeam from Jesus’ shoulders, Simon would have surely physically touched Christ, felt his breath, and was most certainly marked by the blood which was flowing from the head and back of Jesus due to his scourging and the additional wounds he would have gotten as he fell along the way.

Being Human connection: Though he was a real historic figure, Simon also symbolizes all of us who face burdens and difficulties we do not want to bear, including perhaps those whose needs impose a demand on us. Our human nature makes us want to reject these pains but Simon’s experience tells us that there is beauty and redemption in dealing with these difficulties and the load may be lighter to bear if we look for the hidden God within the pain.

Featured art: Sebastiano del Piombo, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1515-17, Art Institute of Chicago.