Tag Archives: Passion

Holy Week in Art: Holy Saturday—Fra Angelico’s “Christ in Limbo”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450) Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)
Christ in Limbo (ca. 1450)
Blessed Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

“‘By the grace of God’ Jesus tasted death ‘for everyone.’
In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only
‘die for our sins’ but should also ‘taste death,’
experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body,
between the time he expired on the cross
and the time he was raised from the dead.
The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell.
It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb,
reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation,
which brings peace to the whole universe.”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, §624, citing Heb 2:9 and 1 Cor 15:3)

After the mystery of Holy Thursday and the sorrow of Good Friday comes the silence of Holy Saturday. On this day the Church watches. She waits. The stone has been rolled over the entrance of the tomb and the guards stand sentinel against the possibility that disciples will come and steal the body of Jesus. Yet while His human flesh lies in the sleep of death, His soul sleeps not: the divine and eternal Word of God descends into hell, where he “brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment” (CCC, §634). “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there” (§632). In other words, “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (§637).

At various points in Christian history, this dwelling of the just souls—our fathers and mothers in faith—has been called “limbo,” from limbus patrum. The word “limbo” means “hem” or “border,” as the souls within this realm stand on the border of the realm of eternal life, waiting for the Messiah to come and open its gates for them. In his painting “Christ in Limbo,” Blessed Fra Angelico depicts the moment in which Christ arrives in the realm of the dead, literally blowing the door off its hinges with His divine power. The souls of the just stand ready to greet Him, the long-awaited One, and now they are prepared to accompany the King of kings to the realm of endless day that He has opened forever by His Death on the Cross.

The Souls of the Just: (R-L) Abraham, David, Eve, Adam, Moses
The Souls of the Just:
(L-R) Moses, Adam, Eve, David, Abraham

Fra Angelico scholar Stephan Beissel ably unpacks this scene: “Christ carries the standard of the Resurrection and Victory in his left hand, and extends his right hand to Abraham, behind whom one sees Adam, Eve, Moses, David, and the other Patriarchs. … Christ does not touch Satan and advances on a light cloud. He is magnificently dressed in luminous garments and surrounded by rays of glory, while two demons are seized with fear and take flight.”[1]

Not only does Christ “not touch Satan,” but, as Fra Angelico depicts with even a slight shade of joyous humor, Limbo-Devil under doorChrist utterly squashes Satan beneath the door to the netherworld, recalling the words of the prophecy God addressed to the serpent in the garden of Eden at the dawn of salvation history: “I will put enmity between you and the women, and between your offspring and hers. He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). The love of Christ poured out on the Cross has created an unstoppable force that breaks the chains of sin, shatters the door of the realm of death and cracks its very foundations, sends demons fleeing, and crushes the head of the serpent; and now he calls to the souls of the just, who have waited patiently for His coming: “‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. … I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead’” (CCC, §635, citing an ancient homily for Holy Saturday).

Limbo-Christ detailChrist has burst through the chains of death by “[giving] His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28b; see also Mk 10:45); now He bursts through the doors of hell, releasing the souls of the just from their time of waiting and bringing them to the heavenly Kingdom where they will dwell forever in the very heart of God. We who are still on this side of death keep silent vigil at His tomb, awaiting the moment when He will “burst His three-day prison” and reveal the glory of His resurrected Body and the promise of eternal life for all who believe in Him.

[1] Stephan Beissel, Fra Angelico (Parkstone Press, 2007), 113.

Holy Week in Art: Good Friday—Pacino di Bonaguida’s “Tree of the Cross”

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author


Tree of the Cross (14th c)
Pacino di Bonaguida

In this extraordinary work, Pacino di Bonaguida depicts the Cross of Jesus as the Tree of Life. In a cave at the root of the tree lies the devil (his image was scratched out sometime in the 15th century), and at ground level, the Genesis narrative of creation and fall unfolds, indicating that Christ’s death upon this Cross, this tree, sprouted from the seed of Adam and Eve’s sin. Twelve branches sprout from the trunk, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles of Jesus. Hanging from these branches are the fruits of the Crucifixion, and each fruit depicts a scene from the life of Christ. Read left to right, beginning with the bottom branch, these images take the viewer from the Incarnation to the eschaton. By depicting the Crucifixion as the central image among many images, the artist establishes Jesus’ complete gift of self on the Cross as the crowning event in salvation history, yet he also declares that the Cross contains within it the entire breadth of the divine plan for redemption. The Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the return of Christ in glory—all are rooted in the Cross. “The desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason for his incarnation” (CCC, §607).

To engage in a fully-fledged explication of this rich painting would diminish its power to help us pray through Good Friday. Instead, I offer some of the words the Church herself gives us for our liturgical celebration both as theological commentary on this image and as a means of entering more deeply into the mysteries we celebrate today.

Tree of the Cross-Jesus detailHe grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance
that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom
people hide their faces, spurned,

and we held him in no esteem.



Tree of the Cross-pelicanYet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one punished by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement
that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
(Isaiah 53:2-5)


Tree of the Cross-saintsWe adore your Cross, O Lord,
we praise and glorify
your holy Resurrection,
for behold, because of the wood of a tree,
joy has come to the whole world.
(Antiphon for the Adoration
of the Holy Cross)



Tree of the Cross-Adam and EveFor, when Adam first offended,
eating that forbidden fruit,
not all hopes of glory ended,
with the serpent at its root:
broken nature would be mended
by a second tree and shoot. …





Tree of the Cross-IncarnationSo the Father, out of pity
for our self-inflicted doom,
sent him from the heavenly city
when the holy time had come:
He, the Son and the Almighty,
took our flesh in Mary’s womb. …





Tree of the Cross-NativityHear a tiny baby crying,
founder of the seas and strands;
See his virgin Mother tying
cloth around his feet and hands;
Find him in a manger lying
tightly wrapped in swaddling bands! …





Tree of the Cross-mockingSo he came, the long-expected,
not in glory, not to reign;
Only born to be rejected,
choosing hunger, toil, and pain,
Till the scaffold was erected
and the Paschal Lamb was slain. …





Tree of the Cross-Death of JesusNo disgrace was too abhorrent:
nailed and mocked and parched he died;
Blood and water, double warrant,
issue from his wounded side,
Washing in a mighty torrent
earth and stars and oceantide. …





Noblest tree of all created, richly jeweled and embossed:
Post by Lamb’s blood consecrated; spar that saves the tempest-tossed;
Scaffold-beam which, elevated, carries what the world has cost!

Faithful Cross the saints rely on, noble tree beyond compare!
Never was there such a scion, never leaf or flower so rare. …

Sweet the timber, sweet the iron. Sweet the burden that they bear.

(Hymn for Good Friday Adoration of the Holy Cross)

Love, **actually** is… (part 5)

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author


Also in this series:
Love, **actually** is… (part 4)
Love, **actually** is… (part 3)
Love, **actually** is… (part 2)
Love, **actually** is… (part 1)

Thus far, our treatment of the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has examined love in light of the implications for our interactions with others. We have looked to Jesus Himself for examples of how to be patient and kind; how to rise above things like jealousy, the desire for attention or approval, and the self-righteous tendency to judge rather than forgive. On this Valentine’s Day, we come to the culmination of St. Paul’s famous teaching on love and discover what truly self-giving, agape love asks of us.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.

These last two statements seem to expand our horizon farther than those that preceded them, demanding of us an even greater capacity to give of ourselves in love. But what does this look like? When it comes to agape, or self-giving love, what does it mean to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things?

Quite simply, it means the Way of the Cross. If we seek to imitate Christ in our love of others, we must realize that we will also be called upon to imitate Him in His sufferings. In His Passion and Death, Christ modeled for us the outpouring of love to the end: the ultimate self-gift. If we begin to think about what it means to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things in love, then all overly-romantic, picture-perfect, superficial notions of what it means to love another simply disappear.

In bearing all things under the weight of His Cross, Christ becomes a model for the parent who must bear the pain of difficulties with a child, or the son or daughter who must bear the loving burden of caring for an elderly parent. In believing all things by continuing to trust in God even in the depths of His agony, Christ becomes a model for the college student who struggles to maintain faith in the midst of adversity, or the weary social worker who yearns to believe that goodness still exists in the midst a fallen world. In sharing His hope for all things by assuring the gift of paradise to the good thief, Christ becomes a model of hope for the hospice nurse holding vigil at the bedside of the terminal cancer patient, as both hold fast to the promise of eternal life. And in enduring all things to the end by commending His spirit to the Father—offering His very last breath in love—Christ becomes a model for all who endure similar sufferings in mind, body, and spirit, giving them an example of courage so that they might unite their sufferings with His in an outpouring of love.

In seeking to imitate Christ’s life of self-giving love, we also open ourselves up to suffering, for there will always be the risk that our love for others will be met with rejection, hatred, pain, even death. Nevertheless, St. Paul reminds us that “love never fails.” Love has the last word. And in this, we are reminded that Christ’s love did not end in destruction and death, but in Resurrection and glory. And it is only this gift of self in love that can bring forgiveness, healing, fullness of life.

Love, **actually** is… (part 2)

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Also in this series: Love, **actually** is… (part 1)

The first post in this series established the premise that popular understanding of love, especially as it is advertised around Valentine’s Day, is one that has become skewed in favor of romantic love or eros. However, the love to which Christians are called is agape, or self-giving love, in imitation of Christ and His ultimate act of love on the Cross. And so we continue our exploration of what this agape love looks like as we examine the words in the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Love is kind.
Of all the descriptors in this Scripture passage, the word “kind” strikes me as the least specific. Perhaps this is because the word “kind” is often understood as a mere synonym for the more generic word “nice.” When we say that someone is “kind” to others, what do we mean? What does a love of kindness look like?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “kind” as: naturally well-disposed; having a gentle, sympathetic, or benevolent nature; ready to assist, or show consideration for, others; generous, liberal, courteous. It seems as though a life of kindness is characterized by attentiveness to others and a willingness to serve. I think the word “benevolent” is particularly apt here, defined by the OED as “desirous of the good of others, of a kindly disposition, charitable, generous.” I find this definition more helpful. Thanks to the transitive property, we can conclude that a kind person is “desirous of the good of others.” A kind person is willing to give of self in order to bring about the good of others – agape.

And so I turn from intellectual understanding found in the dictionary to Incarnational embodiment found in the Gospels. It seems as though every recorded moment of the life of Jesus could come under the definition of “kind.” Even when He was cleansing the temple or silencing those who would trap Him, Jesus did so out of a desire for the good of others, even for those who wished Him dead. Jesus calls us to this life of radical kindness by exhorting us: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), and He gives us the ultimate example of this paradigm-shifting love.
Hanging on the Cross, Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Even in the agony of imminent death, even in the devastation of betrayal, even in the face of hatred, Jesus loves. He desires the good of others. He is benevolent. He is kind.

Love is not jealous.
With this phrase, St. Paul shifts his description from what love is to what it is not. Love is not jealous. Love does not envy. Love does not desire for itself that which rightfully belongs to the other.

Put another way, love is grateful. Love sees the gifts already bestowed in abundance and humbly acknowledges them precisely as gift. There is no “grass-is-greener-syndrome” when one loves. And with this lack of jealousy comes the incredible freedom to rejoice in the gifts given to another as readily as we rejoice in those gifts given to us.

In imitation of Paul’s shift to definition by negation, we turn to the infancy narrative of Matthew’s Gospel for an example of love destroyed by jealousy. Sadly, there are many biblical examples of people enslaved by their jealousy of others, but perhaps we see it most readily in King Herod. Blinded by his jealousy of the newborn King of the Jews, Herod resorts to horrific actions in order to grasp onto his power, and orders the massacre of innocent children.

By complete contrast, there is a beautiful example of the freedom born of love without jealousy in the Gospel of Mark: John says to Jesus, “‘Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us’” (Mk 9:38). The disciples, perhaps meaning well, express jealousy on behalf of Jesus because they wanted to protect His status and His name from those not in “the group”. Yet Jesus teaches them in His reply that His is not a leadership prone to jealousy. He desires to share His power with all who would call upon His name so that all may be one in Him. Jesus transcends cliques and  distinctions by saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), thus eliminating His disciples’ need to grasp onto that which has been revealed to them. Instead, Jesus  compels them not only to share what they have received, but also to rejoice when they encounter other recipients of the same grace. Freed from jealousy, the disciples (and we) can acknowledge with joy and gratitude the gifts uniquely bestowed by God upon every person; freed from jealousy, we can love as Jesus loves.