Eye of the Beholder in U. S. Catholic Magazine

MARCH 2011

Originally published with image:  Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, 1308-1311; The Frick Collection, New York

The darkly painted devil in Duccio’s The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, an unsettling bat and human hybrid, gestures to several walled cities.  Simultaneously, Jesus’ hand points a reprimand and refuses the Evil One’s offer of “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.”  Behind Jesus, two angels respectfully observe the exchange.

By composing this panel from left to right, the artist compresses Matthew’s narrative (4: 8-11) into a single image.  The dollhouse size of the towns indicates their relative lack of importance in the encounter; they are the current pawns, one of many possible enticements.

If we think of this scene as a historical account, its outcome holds little surprise.  No one expects Jesus to fall for this deception, to “worship” Satan.  But seen as a cautionary tale, the focus shifts to the decisions we face that will determine the direction of our lives, in particular how we negotiate our desire for power.

Matthew reminds us at the beginning of his fourth chapter:  “Jesus was led by the Spirit...to be tempted.”  Everyone deals with temptations; confronting what might distract us from God’s reign can be a moment of grace.