The Procession to Calvary,
Painted by Pieter Breughel the Elder (1526-1569),
Painted circa 1564,
Oil on oak,
© Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple
Great crowds accompanied Jesus on his way and he turned and spoke to them. ‘If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
‘And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, “Here is a man who started to build and was unable to finish.” Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who advanced against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.’
Reflection on the painting
We admire Jesus, we agree with his teaching, we glory in his love for us, we love him… But… we are very reticent to suffer for him or to accept the humiliation of the cross for ourselves… But that is exactly what Jesus is asking of us in today's Gospel reading. Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) put it beautifully: 'Many come following Jesus who love His heavenly kingdom but few come looking forward to suffering. Many admire His miracles but few follow Him in humiliation to the cross.'
Jesus wants us to think about what we commit to when we really want to follow him. He compares our commitment to planning to build a tower. Before we began to do that, we would calculate how much it would cost, what materials we need, draw up solid plans, etc... When we commit ourselves to a life of discipleship, we must understand what it takes and count the cost at times as well. Blind commitment that expects only blessings is of no use to God. God wants disciples who are committed and prepared to make the necessary sacrifices also.
And so our painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder shows the Procession to Calvary and the sacrifice Christ made for us. We see Christ as a small figure in the background. The crowds are more prominent. He made the sacrifice 2,000 years ago; now it is up to the crowds, us, to take up our cross too. As we do that, Mary, placed firmly in the foreground of our painting, will be there for us every step of the way too. She is flanked by Saint John and the two other Marys.
This panel is the second-largest known painting by Bruegel. Breughel painted Christ in the background. We have to carefully look to find him. This accentuates the theological aspect that Christ became truly human like any of the other figures in the painting. With the exception of Christ himself, the figures in the procession wear contemporary dress. On the mount of Golgotha (literally, 'the place of the skull') the two crosses which are to bear the bodies of the thieves have been erected and a hole is being dug for the cross which is to bear Christ's body. Onlookers on foot and on horseback flock towards this gruesome spot through a landscape dotted with gallows on which corpses still hang and wheels to which fragments of cloth and remnants of broken bodies not eaten by the ravens still cling.
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Readings related to Luke 14:25-33
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