Carl Spitzweg’s “Ash Wednesday” invites us into the Lenten season with a spirit of introspective piety. We meet a downcast carnival clown, seated in the corner of a cell, his head bent, arms crossed, and face in shadows. A clown normally represents revelry, satire, excess, exuberance, letting go of convention, and laughing at life. But here, seated somber in a cell, he offers none of that. Instead, he sits in a nearly empty stone room, the color of ash and arid desert, with only a pitcher of water as provision. Leaving the revelry of Mardi Gras, this clown now dwells in the simplicity of the Lenten season.
The Gospel for Ash Wednesday finds remarkable expression in the figure of this clown. From head to toe, the clown is a figure who is made for attracting attention—his antics and costume say “Look at me!” In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us to be less concerned with how others may see us. In this light, the clown is not just a symbol of Mardi Gras exuberance, but also of the “look at me” culture that Jesus warns against. Here, the isolation is the attention-hog clown’s genuine moment of conversion—the moment of discovering his inner room where he may pray to God in secret.
Spitzweg’s clown is central, but the image’s background tells the rest of the story. The clown is bathed in light from an upper window, a subtle sign that his prison cell is perhaps instead a place of retreat, repentance, and conversion. In contrast to this upper light is a dark archway, the entrance to the cell. The composition of the clown, the window, and the archway forms a narrative triangle. The dark archway, directly across from the clown, shows us where he has come from. The window above lets in the light, and the rays point the way upward and invite the clown toward fullness, possibility, and hope. This time for him is a crossroads, a change of direction from darkness to light, just as the season of Lent can be for us.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
In the section about Lent in Finding God, Grade 7, (The Year in Our Church), young people are invited to participate in a prayer service that reminds them that Lent is a time to look inward at ourselves and rededicate our faith to God. Point out that while the clown figure in Carl Spitzweg’s painting Ash Wednesday is dressed for celebration, he still takes a moment amidst the excitement to meditate on what is important in the upcoming season of Lent. Say: Like the clown, we must remember to take a moment to refocus our attentions and think about our faith. Conversion doesn’t happen once and for all. It is an ongoing process in the life of a Christian. Young people are encouraged to answer honestly a few questions about their Lent faith focus and reflect on their responses silently: What can I do to renew my prayer life? From what can I fast to help me hear what God is asking of me? What can I do to help those who are in need this Lent?