Why I cried at a photo

Wounded veteran improving as protesters urge strike | Reuters
[Via Reuters]

An Iraq war veteran badly wounded in clashes between protesters and police was upgraded to fair condition on Thursday morning as activists called for a general strike against the Bay Area city.

A spokeswoman for Highland General Hospital in Oakland said that former U.S. Marine Scott Olsen, 24, had been upgraded from critical to fair condition overnight.

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This image made me tear up almost immediately but I was not sure why. It did not hit me until I noticed something in the picture that made sense why I had such a strong visceral reaction to the photo.

I was raised Catholic and remember the 14 Stations of the Cross that were often represented on the walls of churches. Actually, I really only remember 3 of them because the images were so vivid to a young child – the Crucifixion, the Descent of Christ’s body from the Cross, accompanied by the Lamentation and His burial in the tomb.

Later, when I was taking art history classes in college, we studied many of the Renaissance versions of these same scenes; seems great artists ere attracted to the same three Stations of the Cross as I was. And the most amazing one for me was the painting by Rafael.


He chose to draw a scene between the last 2 stations and not of any specific one. In fact, he shows us a group of people traveling from one place – Golgotha where the Crucifixion  and Descent took place – to another place – the tomb.

It lacks some of the formal aspects of the other stations which often seem too staged for my tastes. By making this change and showing us a scene between two stages, he had some freedom to introduce some aspects I did not see in any other such representations – extreme emotion and anguish, compassion and love. The emotional impact of this painting – more than any other I remember from the class – is simply heartbreaking.

And it really does not matter that this is a religious painting. The manner in which it is constructed could apply to any death – because its impact is so strongly emotional.

All the living people in the painting but one are in various stages of grief – from nonacceptance to overwhelming despair.

Christ’s body is simply that of a dead man, nothing more. He is being held on a sheet by two commoners, as they do not have halos. They are both unable to look directly at the body.

St. John also cannot look at the body while Nicodemus can only glance at where they are going – the tomb. Christ’s mother, Mary, has fainted and none of the three women with her are looking at the body.

In fact, while eight of the nine living people in the painting are in varying degrees of grief or disbelief or sadness or despair, none can actually bear to look at the body of Christ. That is just too much to ask.

Only one – Mary Magdalene – can look on the body of the dead Christ. Only she can look directly into his dead, unseeing face.

And the look on her face is not one of sorrow, grief, despair or disbelief. It is one of tremendous love and compassion. Of all of the people in the painting, only she can bear to touch the dead flesh of Christ’s hand, which she holds in as comforting a way as seems humanly possible.

She holds dead flesh like it was still alive. Because she knows it soon will be. It is like she, of all the others, knows what is about to happen. She looks at the dead face of her Redeemer with an expression of such deep emotion that I simply cannot understand how Rafael simply painted it.

How did human hands put that emotion onto some swirls of oil paint?

The others all react like we all do in the face of death. She does not.

She sees beauty. She sees truth. She sees something bigger than herself and is overwhelming in her response.

Of them all, she is the only one who really sees that this is not a dead body; that there is something great about to happen and that she is there to witness it.

I tear up every time I see this painting. Even if you do not believe all the religious aspects, it is one of the most emotionally riveting paintings ever done. And the open emotion of Mary Magdalene over the dead body just does me in.

Okay, enough art history. What does this have to do with the Reuters’ image?

It has enough similarities to resonant with my feelings of Rafael’s work.

The people carrying a limp body, on their way from some place to some other place. Everyone is looking away from the body except one. And that one is not only looking at him with compassion but is actually the only one directly touching the limp body.

The lights almost seem halo-like. And finally, what do we see directly behind them? A cross.

The similarity in the images was apparently all it took to make me tear up when I saw the Reuters picture.

I really wonder if the photographer purposefully set it up that way – to mimic Rafael’s work. Maybe not.

And I am not trying to equate any religious or historical aspects to the modern photo. I’m just looking my emotional response to the photo’s image; no other significance.

At least for me, the visual imagery resonated with my memory of Rafael’s work on some level, I think. That explains why I am so emotionally unsettled and upset by this one photo.

Just shows the power of strong visual imagery and how the reappearance of that imagery somewhere else can still provoke a strong response.

Rafael was a genius and this photographer was able to piggy pack on that genius.