It might seem a strange image, that of a clown, alone in a cell, to help us to explore the meaning of the Lenten Season but the drawing “Ash Wednesday” by Carl Spitzweg (1855 – 1860) invites us to contemplate the meaning of Lent as we also begin our own journey through the Lenten Season.
As we look at the painting, we are drawn to a solitary clown seated in the corner of the cell, his head bent, arms crossed and his face in shadows: a striking contrast to a clown who normally represents revelry, satire, excess, exuberance and a letting go of convention, someone who in general laughs at life. Here however, he is seated, the mood is sombre there is no gay exuberance here. Instead we gaze at a scene which is as arid as the desert, the colour of ash. He is seated in a nearly empty stone room with only a jug of water as provision. The revelry of the Mardi Gras, gives way to the simplicity of the Lenten Season.
The Gospel that is read on Ash Wednesday fits in rather nicely with this image of the clown portrayed here. His dress invites attention: “Look at me!” Jesus however reminds us to be less concerned with how others see us. This image here serves as a warning to the “Look at me” culture that we can be suffused with. In this moment of introspection, the clown has a moment of conversion- the moment of discovering his inner room where he may pray to God in secret.
The clown is central to the story, but it is the background that tells the story. The clown is bathed in light from the upper window, a subtle sign that his prison cell is perhaps a place of retreat, repentance, and conversion. In contrast to this upper light is a dark doorway, the entrance to the cell. The composition of the clown, the window and the archway form a narrative triangle. The dark doorway shows us where the clown has come from. The window above lets in the light, and the rays point the way upward and invite the clown towards fullness, possibility and hope. We catch the clown at a cross road, a change of direction from darkness to light.
During this season of Lent may we use this time to redirect our lives and discover the richness of Jesus’ teaching, and let this time refresh, and reanimate ourselves as we journey towards the resurrection and the light, offered by Jesus, The Light of the World.
With grateful thanks to Daniella Zsupan- Jerome Assistant Professor of Liturgy and Catechesis, and Evangelisation at Loyola University, New Orleans. This reflection is based on her insights into the painting by Carl Spitzweg “Ash Wednesday”.