Enrique Simonet’s Then He Wept depicts the Biblical story of Christ standing on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem and grieving for the city. Intimate and moving, the composition invites us to join Jesus followers on the mountain top and listen as he laments. Christ’s grief is prompted by the disbelief of the Jewish leaders and God’s judgement on Jerusalem. Beyond the religious implications of the painting, I will be exploring how images online can differ from each other, and how these small changes can alter how we read a work.
Enrique Simonet was a Spanish painter who worked from the end of the 18th century into the early 19th. A deeply religious man, he was recognized during his life with multiple international awards for the painting we are going to explore today.
I will link below to a video from the Prado Museum which did an extensive restoration of this massive painting and documented the process.
Simonet was awarded a grant to study art in Rome. During his time there he decided to journey to Palestine to sketch landscapes, buildings, and people. His desire was to paint religious works that accurately portrayed the area. While there, the idea for this work formed, and after finishing the preparatory sketches he headed back to Rome to finish the painting. Part of the study grant involved periodically providing paintings that demonstrated his progress. This work was sent during his fourth year of studies and won a First-Class medal at the International Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid in 1892.
The work continued on an international trip to enter and win additional contests in Barcelona, Chicago, and Paris. Shipping the work to all of these cities presented some logistical challenges.
Simonet’s Then He Wept, also called Flevit Super Illam is 10 feet by 18 feet, a monumental work. Viewing any painting on a computer screen presents challenges, and one of those is that it is hard to judge size, and size makes a difference. A work as massive as this one, when viewed in person, holds gravitas. The size leaves an impression on the viewer which is why historical and religious works of art are often immense, they are meant to inspire and to create a sense of awe. This work does that.
With the figures life-sized, on a mountain top, it is easy to imagine ourselves into the painting, gazing down on the Temple in Jerusalem with Jesus, which is exactly what Simonet intended. He’s even left a space for us to stand in, right next to Christ. The composition, and the size, invite the viewer to enter into the imagination of the artist, into this moment in Christ’s life.
While the size adds to the overall impression of the work, it also presented challenges for a canvas that was going to be shipped multiple times.
Normally a canvas is stretched over bars to hold the it securely, but Simonet wanted to be able to roll the work up for shipping, so instead opted to hang the canvas while he painted, and then to ship it without a stretcher or frame. The material used for this painting was a new, seamless canvas that allowed artist’s to work on immense works without necessitating a seam, like the one we saw in Tintoretto’s nativity which was made into a crossbeam to hide the break in the canvas.
Restoration Work on Simonet’s Then He Wept
When the painting was restored by the Prado, one of the things they noted was all of the drips at the bottom. It is obvious that the artist was unconcerned about that area of the canvas as eventually it would be folded around a stretcher and hidden by a frame. But without a stretcher holding the canvas taut, the paint was bound to hit the bottom edge, a reminder of the works history.
One reason many paintings need to be restored is the darkening of the varnish, this was true of Then He Wept as well. As the play of light is a key element of this work, getting off the old varnish allows a fresh appreciation of the soft light of the sky as it illuminates the temple.
A unique aspect of this work is that Simonet varied the way he applied the paint. The sky’s luminosity is due to Simonet diluting the paint down so that it is translucent. In some areas of the sky the paint is so thin you can see the prepped canvas beneath.
This technique stands in contrast to the area filled with rocks where Simonet has used impasto. Impasto is when an artist applies paint so thickly the surface of the work has a texture to it. Some artist’s even used a palette knife instead of a brush, to layer up the paint. In person one can see the impasto areas throughout the painting.
What is going on here?
Before we dive deeper, let’s clarify a bit about the story we are viewing. Christ and his disciples are approaching Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and this begins the Passion week, or the week leading to the crucifixion. Christ has paused on the Mount of Olives and is gazing across the valley at Jerusalem and is moved to tears. Unlike his disciples, who can’t imagine the horror of what is to come, Jesus knows that Jerusalem’s destruction is not far off.
The gospel of Luke says,
“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes. the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you. ”
In 70 CE Rome will destroy Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and slaughter the people. Later Christian accounts will attribute the destruction of the Temple to God’s judgement for rejecting his son, Christ, whose mission was salvation, not destruction.
Moon vs. sun, you decide
Several years back I did a video on this Simonet’s Then He Wept for a Lent devotional. In my explanation of the painting I used some information from the Prado museum videos which I’ve linked below. After the video was up on You Tube, I was contacted by the artist’s great grandson who disputed some of the information that I’d used. He graciously sent me an article and a different copy of the painting which gave a different interpretation of some key elements of the work.
In the “sun vs. moon” question I lean toward the moon, but I’m going to give you both interpretations, and you can decide for yourself.
The Prado video says that we are looking at a sun rise. The sun, emerging on the horizon with the morning star shining above Christ’s head, gives us a beautiful, soft sky that sheds light over the Temple. Simonet wanted to highlight the temple and illuminating that portion of the painting. with the soft light of a new dawn is gorgeous.
This rising of the sun highlights the spiritual story that Simonet is telling. The world is in darkness, but a new dawn is coming. The gospel of Matthew says, “The people which sat in darkness saw a great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death…to them light has dawned.” So, while Christ enters Jerusalem to begin his walk to the cross, the sun is rising on the horizon, foreshadowing his resurrection.
The problem with the sun is that when standing on the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem we are facing west, the sun would rise in the east, behind us.
The Morning Star
Additionally, the common explanation is that the star in the sky over Christ’s head is the Morning Star, or Venus. However, Venus cannot be in the western sky as the sun rises. Mercury and Venus are always seen to the east before sunrise, and in the West at sunset. Because of this Venus is the Morning Star, when seen at sunrise, and Evening Star when seen at sunset.
The desire to interpret the star above Christ head as the Morning Star is because that is a name associated with Christ. Jesus being referred to as the Morning Star is about hope, hope that after the world has been held in darkness and sin, Christ is bringing an eternal morning of promise and hope. Additionally, it has been noted, that since Venus is not actually a star, but a planet, there is no flickering to the light of Venus, just as there is no shifting or variability in Christ.
So how do we reconcile these astronomical details with the painting. We know that Simonet was interested in portraying an accurate picture of the scene, that he traveled to Palestine for that purpose. He stood on the Mount of Olives to discover the perfect time of day to portray in his painting, a time that would illuminate the area where the Temple had once stood.
Artistic license is the answer. Simonet studied the area, and the landscape, and then altered what he wanted to make the statement he wished to make. Artist’s frequently make such choices.
But did Simonet?
When I received that email from Simonet’s great grandson he told me this was not a sunrise, so much as a setting moon. An interesting thought given the fact that Jesus is arriving in Jerusalem for Passover. If you, or any of your friends, observe Passover you will know that the date is quite variable. This is because the Jews used a lunar calendar, or one based on the moon, to determine when Passover falls.
If the moon is just starting to dip below the horizon, and the sun is just starting to rise behind us, this would explain the diffused, soft light. I assume you have all been out during a full moon, the lighting is favored for its romantic appeal, illuminating, yet soft. And, if you have experienced a glorious sunrise, when the first rays of the sun break the horizon, it’s easy to imagine that Simonet has painted a combination of both of those events, the sun rising behind us, and a full moon hung low in the sky.
This explanation, scientifically rational, and consistent with the colors and use of light in the work is a good one. Additionally, Venus is not the only planet that can appear in the morning sky and appear to be a star. Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars are all bright planets that could make an appearance where Venus could not. (I’ll link to the article by a Professor of Astronomy that details this.)
So, what do you think? Did the artist take artistic license, or did he paint a scientifically accurate picture of the scene? Given the lengths Simonet went to, to be accurate with other details, I lean toward the former.
Then there is the color…
I mentioned above when I was discussing the size of the Simonet’s Then He Wept that it can be difficult to appreciate the original from a digital image. There are so many ways that we can be deceived by the computer or a photograph. I had originally been looking at a copy that was quite pink in the sky, which added to the feeling I was looking at the sun. In the email I received from Simonet’s family member, he sent a different link, saying the actual painting colors were different. In that image the tones are in the blue spectrum and makes me lean toward thinking I’m looking at the moon.
Then just to add a bit more confusion. The picture at the top of the Museo Del Prado entry which I’m assuming was taken after the restoration, is different still. In that image there are more creams and browns, and the palette is a bit more neutral.
I have never seen the Simonet’s Then He Wept in person, I am at the mercy of the images I can obtain online.
So here they are. What do you think?
As we move on, we notice that people are coming up the mountain to join Jesus at the top. Jesus is standing, his hands raised in a pose that is often a blessing, here perhaps a prayer. He is wearing a dark blue robe, the color generally associated with his divinity. His disciples gather around him, and in the center there is a blank space.
When an artist composes his/her canvas they consider carefully where they will place things, so that the end result achieves their objectives. They might want the work to shake us up, and so the work is unbalanced and jarring. Or they might want us to be observers, as if we were in a theatre. Sometimes they place us far above the action, so that we have a bird’s eye view, or they can force us to look up, placing the work ‘above’ us, both physically and emotionally.
In Simonet ‘s Then He Wept, the artist wants to portray Jesus in a very human moment, one where he is grieving. The artist is inviting us to join Christ on the mountain top. Frequently artist’s will use the device of turning a figure’s back to the viewer, that is a signal that we should take that persons vantage point as we engage with the work. We have one disciple in particular, in the bright white robe with his back toward us. Next to him is an open space, a space large enough for us to come along, stand there, observe Christ and gaze out over the stunning view of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Perhaps we, like many of the people coming up the hill will wear a concerned expression. These followers of Christ are concerned because Christ is weeping. What does it mean? What does he know that we don’t?
In the far left of the painting we have a third group of people still approaching, but a bit further in the distance. When we focus on them, we can see that they are carrying palm branches and leading a donkey.
Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem, on what will come to be known as Palm Sunday. In the gospel accounts, the events that have occurred just before this moment, was Jesus sending disciples to borrow a donkey. In Simonet’s Then He Wept, we have the disciples returning with the donkey, and carrying palm branches. Soon, Jesus will enter Jerusalem to cheers and waving branches, a moment of triumph before the horrors of the week unfold.
There is some debate, but many feel Simonet has included a skull in the rocks at the bottom left corner of the painting. Skulls are common in religious paintings, meant to convey that life is transient, and in this instance, Christ is moving toward his death.
Right next to that skull is a rock where the artist has signed the work, but more than that, he has also written in Jerusalem, Rome, and the year. He seemed to want to commemorate the fact that he conceived of the work in Jerusalem and painted it in Rome. He was 26 years old at the time.
Closing Thoughts on Simonet’s Then He Wept
Simonet’s great painting of the moment on the Mount of Olives gives us insight into a man who is filled with compassion for the city that will soon shout for his death. More than observers, we are invited to insert ourselves onto that mountain top, to stand with Christ as he looks over Jerusalem.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Simonet’s Then He Wept as much as I do. We are used to the religious paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, but I find this portrayal so moving. Its quiet dignity invites contemplation.
If you would like to view more works focused on Christ’s Passion week, I’ll like to a playlist below.
And here is the video from the Prado’s restoration.