Sunday, June 13, 2010


[Madonna/Trinity Cross, 14th century, in Sejny (on the Polish-Lithuanian border; it may have been used by the Teutonic Knights as a field altar]


He shouldn’t have sent his son

too many saw
the son’s pierced hands
his ordinary death

            we were doomed
            to be reconciled
            through the worst of reconciliations

too many nostrils
drew in with pleasure
the smell of his fear

            one mustn’t
            fraternize with blood

he shouldn’t have sent his son

it was better to reign
in a palace of marble clouds
on the throne of terror
holding the scepter of death

          ~ Zbigniew Herbert,
translated from Polish by Oriana

You can read more of my translations of Herbert's poems here:


It is interesting that the medieval and Renaissance tradition of presenting the Trinity in the form of God the Father holding the horizontal beam of the cross as though to display his martyred son, with the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering around the cross or perched on top of it, vanished from large-scale religious art in later centuries. Possibly, as religion became milder, the image was seen as too gruesome.  And yet even now the image, and of course the concept of the deity requiring a blood sacrifice, has not been completely lost in popular religious art, as can be seen in the “trinity crucifix.”   
In Christ, A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles writes,

"The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To recover its visceral power, children of the twenty-first century must imagine a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is still to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form." 

To the believers, however, this is the image of supreme love, more so than the universal and non-controversial image of Madonna and Child. The pleas of those who would like the triumphant image of the Resurrection to take precedence have been ignored. And thus we are left with what may be called the "tragic vision." Tragedy is the dominant genre in great literature, perhaps because we sense its vision is more accurate.

And yet, having seen endless representations of the crucifixion, I would say that only a minority are gruesome. For all my admiration for Jack Miles, who won the well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, I don't think I'd classify most depictions of the crucifixion as pornography of violence. Some of them are striking for the serenity they convey, the calm acceptance. Simone Weil remarked that they are meant to be a healing image -- like the copper serpent that Moses showed to those bitten by "fiery serpents."

My favorite religious images, those that seem to have a healing power, are neither crucifixion nor resurrection, but those that present Christ as a radiantly serene figure.

One of the ironies and paradoxes is contained in the very name of Jesus, which is the Greek form of Yehoshua -- Joshua in English, the great warrior. But this new Joshua says, "Turn the other cheek" and "Love thy enemy." The radical nature of this message startles us even today.

It's been suggested that if Christianity is to survive, the archaic idea that "Jesus died for our sins" must be abandoned (e.g. Bishop John Shelby Spong). What remains of value is the message of non-revenge (cf  the Buddhist "hatred by hatred never can be ended") and compassion. In some areas, there has been progress toward compassion and forgiveness, but the problem of suffering remains. Perhaps the ideal should be not universal love, but universal respect. If humans ever learn to treat one another with respect, then indeed we can build paradise right here on earth.

As for Herbert's poem, I think it would be even more powerful without the set-off stanzas, i.e. no commentary. Well, poems can be somewhat flawed, yet still powerful. For me, the "shiver factor" remains.


As a non-Catholic I always found the crucifix to be both horrifying and fascinating in a most unpleasant way.  Seems to me Jack Miles is making some good points.

He does make some good points. I probably became desensitized to the violence of the image through many years of daily exposure starting in early childhood.

[Masaccio, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John, 1427; Florence, the church of Santa Maria Novella]

Mary McCarthy writes, “The fresco, with its terrible logic, is like a proof in philosophy or mathematics, God the Father, with his unrelenting eyes, being the axiom from which everything else irrevocably flows.” (The New Yorker, 8/22/1959)


Re: Madonna with the Trinity Cross. This is wonderful.  I, too, love that the Madonna is bigger than the Trinity.  And what an impish smile she has.  Fantastic.


It's as though the Mother Goddess, holding her child, asserted that what's below there, the barbarous sacrifice, is nonsense, since the eternal axis is the loving bond between mother and child. "Mother" is of course whoever is the primary care-giver. The most essential law is compassionate and nurturing love, and not the "ransom of blood" for some primordial offense. 


  1. Herbert sounds really good in your translation... I hope you do more of those...

  2. Thank you, dear Maja. I'm thinking of putting together a selection of Herbert poems in my translation, under the title "The Seventh Angel." After a brief dream that Tupelo Press might be interested (and they can create a visually beautiful "slender volume"), I realized that most likely it will be self-published. And that it's worth my time and expense to put together such a collection to make the work of this great poet available to a handful more readers.