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This scene of The Temptation of Christ is a 12th–century detail of the magnificent mosaic program of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. In its full context, it is situated in the barrel vault of the south arm of the transept. The temptation scene is right above the scene of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
On a golden background depicting the heavenly realm, the mosaic tells the story of Jesus’ temptation through a series of symbols. Moving from left to right, the figures of Christ and the devil repeat in a pattern. Each set evokes one of the temptations of Christ through key images: bread, the pinnacle of the Temple, and the mountain top with all riches of the world. The angels on the right who come to minister to Christ close the visual narrative, as the devil flees downward under them to escape the scene.
This presentation of the temptation story assumes that the viewer is familiar with it. Each of the symbols serves to jog our memory and help us recall the story we already know. In this sense, the mosaic relies on the viewer to be the real storyteller, while the artwork simply summarizes the highlights as reminders along the way. By casting the viewer as storyteller, the artwork invites us into the story in a special way, challenging us to share the Good News of it with others.
The figure of Christ in this mosaic sequence is unique—it is not the man who endured the desert for 40 days among wild animals, but Christ the Lawgiver, holding a scroll in one hand, strong, steady, and wearing dignified robes. Christ the Lawgiver reminds us that each time he rebuked the devil, he did so by referring to the written Word, the truth of God manifest in the Scriptures. Each time the hunger for food, for assurance from God, and for an easier way tempted him, Jesus found steady ground again recalling the Word of God—the source of where he came from and who he was called to be.
For people of faith encountering this mosaic within St. Mark’s Basilica, worship in this space was an occasion to find steady ground again, to become more fully who they were as Christians in Word and in sacrament. This mosaic spoke to them of this steady ground, but also invited them to be storytellers so that through them, others could find this steady ground as well.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
Related Ignatian reflection on this week’s art
In Chapter 11 of Finding God, Grade 7, young people are reminded that temptation is part of every Christian’s life, and as the mosaic in the Basilica of St. Mark depicts, temptation was also a part of Jesus’ life. Young people are encouraged to help prepare themselves for how to deal with temptation by designing and assembling a survival kit. Direct young people to decorate a shoebox and fill it with objects, photos, or labeled drawings that help them focus their lives in a good direction. For example, young people may want to include prayers, Scripture verses, sacramentals, and letters to themselves that they can look at when in times of personal crisis. Invite volunteers to share their survival kits with the whole group, explaining why they chose its contents.
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Also see Arts & Faith: Lent Cycle A and Lent Cycle C, and Using Arts & Faith: Lent with the RCIA