Number 4 in Rev. Jim Williams ‘Art Theology’ series:
An old woman with a rosary: Paul Cezanne 1895-96
“O my God, lean down and listen to me. Open your eyes and see our despair. See how your city—the city that bears your name—lies in ruins. We make this plea, not because we deserve help, but because of your mercy.
Ten years before his death, having recently returned to his faith, and living in ‘self-isolation’ due to illness, Cezanne painted this portrait of an old woman praying the rosary. The picture is a powerful self-portrait in spirit, and it becomes that for each viewer who finds in it their own inexpressible seclusion and anguish.
“Here am I, alone and close to despair” it says. It’s the nature of such things that they are unsayable because there is no one to whom to say them; and yet in this painting, they are said to me and for me by another (the painter or the woman?) and that becomes a form of communion.
What is happening here in this picture is relevant to us because it is relevant to the woman. What is happening to her, is or will happen to us.
Her eyes are dark, and her neck bends under the burden of death. Her belly is black emptiness. But central to the painting, her resolute hands clutch her rosary beads almost to breaking as she recites the Lords passion. In Jesus’ sorrowful mysteries, the woman finds her own approaching death told to her as a bearing or insistence of God.
And so, this picture is an alternative Annunciation, here is a handmaid of the Lord: her forehead is touched with light; her neck bends in greeting, her dark eyes acknowledge an unseen presence. In the hollow of her belly, the sorrowful mysteries are rounded out with the glorious.
We shall not always be alone. Even though our Easter rituals and pageantry have not been bright with colour like most Renaissance annunciations, we should not be disheartened. Christ addresses us in the dark. We open our hearts, even if they are tombs, that Jesus may rise in them and greet us. Even in the darkest of places; we – like she – grip tight the story of his love and sacrifice. “Do not be afraid. I understand”, he says.
Have I not told you? Be strong and have strength of heart! Do not be afraid or lose faith. For the Lord your God is with you anywhere you go.