This painting is based on the original by Duccio di Buoninsegna at the Frick, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-11), one of my favorite paintings in the world. Originally part of a giant commissioned altarpiece, the infamous Maestà, for the Siena Cathedral, it was just one small panel of illustrating from birth to passion of Christ, that was also amongst larger panels by Duccio of the Madonna and Child, the death and glorification of the virgin, in an epic graphic-novel like sculptural huge freestanding high altarpiece. The Maestà is arguably one of the best and most beautiful panel paintings ever created, and was known throughout Italy in its time, parts separated in 1771 and this panel was brought into the Frick collection in 1927.
On my many visits to the Frick building (also one of my favorite museums in the world!) I would always make time to pause and take a moment with this little treasure of a painting and say a little prayer. Even though I’m not religious, I consider myself spiritual, and this image works like a Byzantine Icon painting in that it Duccio was working within a similar tradition and is able to imbue such life into the work as if to seem like it was talking to you (as probably when he was painting, he was channeling the spirits and angels in each of the works he was composing!). In the Bible, this image illustrates the scene, after Christ’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert fasting, when devil appears and offers Him “all the kingdoms of the world” if Christ will worship him (Matthew 4:8–11)” Of course Christ rejects him and exiles him. In the original Duccio, there is this amazing “toy town” that resembles his native Siena and the hillsides surrounding them, giving symbolic weight by the exaggerated size of Christ and the devil over the scene. Later, experts think that the angels behind Christ were added in by some unknown artist to help balance out the panel.
When I think of negative things, I sometimes think of this image, casting out the negativity with a mental graphic image. This works when meditating to Buddhist Thangka paintings, who act as a meditative cosmological structure you are supposed to suture into by relating your inner mind to the iconic characters of the buddhas represented, like in an RPG game allowing them to become your avatar as you transcend into their world in order to learn to emulate from them peaceful ways of being. Similarly, in Byzantine times, a monk might paint a spiritual entity thinking they were channeling the original spirit, like an aesthetic cell-phone call into another spiritual plane. The figure they were painting would come alive in their mind and speak to them. Byzantine soldiers going into battle might have an icon on their shield, and they would pray to that icon as if it could hear them and was alive, like characters in a Harry Potter-world painting. The first great Master of the Sienese school, Duccio’s art represents the culmination of the Italo-Byzantine style in Siena and was the foundation for Sienese Gothic Art. But also, Duccio serves as the bridge into the Renaissance given the warmth and compassion that comes through his brush—these weren’t merely cookie-cutter icons, but images that seem to breath and be alive, the warmth and “realness” of the Renaissance to make figures feel and look more human.
The original painting works for me (even more than the incredible Duccio Madonna and Child, which I’ve also learned greatly from by appropriating this image some years ago. When I meditate towards the image, it can wish away negative thoughts just as Christ dismisses the devil, but also seems like the figures are almost living beings, like the shrunken people in vials in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.
Jan. 6 2021 was a vile day for America and the world, the culmination of Trump’s evil, the would-be uprising that nearly succeeded (and is still a threat) of a fascist coup. Shaken by the last four years of this devil and wanting to vanquish him and his minions mentally from America, I painted this work. I collaged into the image iconic architectural landscapes of New York City, starting from the Empire State Building on the right, through Washington D.C. (with Christ’s feet standing on the Capital dome), as He banished the devil in this case past Los Angeles and San Francisco on the very left out of the country (and hopefully the world!). I left in Duccio’s mountains, including his Mount of Temptation and bits and pieces of his Siena-style Jericho, which surprisingly blended into easily, graphically and metaphorically, our America.
I listened to the (James Earl Jones!) narrated audiobook version of the New Testament, along with the soundtracks I grew up with (my way into the knowledge of Christianity, as I am a half Jew—dad side—and half Baptist—mom—and we are agnostic but spiritually friendly) Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, rock albums with Christ related themes (Tommy, etc.) and contemporary spiritual pop creators. Sufjan Stephens was my main contemporary soundtrack to train my mind into the feelings I wanted to project in this image. Duccio is transcendent and impossible to beat—the Madonna and Child had so many angels dancing on the pins of every micro-managed moment—there were even graphic hieroglyphs in the M.C. Escher like 3D proscenium of that image. Here, too, surrounding Christ’s halo, etched into the gold gilding of the original background, were strange forms, letters, and symbols that my artist friend Celeste Dupuy-Spencer mentioned might be talismanic gateways into other realms. The devil’s face was near impossible to figure out—not only was it weirdly scratched around its head, in the chiaroscuro of his visage one can make out—sort of—eyes, nose, and mouth, but these seem constantly vacillating and moving in the push-pull of scrutinizing succinctly such tiny and purposefully obscured moments (it must have been terrifying for Duccio to paint, thinking he might be “alive”). Christ on the other hand had ineffable attitude, stern but somehow caring and compassionate. On my off time I watched the best of the Jesus films, especially including the terrific Scorsese “Last Judgement of Christ”, where Dafoe captures Christ’s attitude in great contemporary fashion, Pasolini’s masterpiece “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” and the amazing Zeffirelli 1977 tv series Jesus of Nazareth, where Ken Russell favorite (and Tommy star!) Robert Powell makes a powerful Jesus come to life, belligerent and punk, but with glowing eyes to die for (that don’t blink in the entire film).
This helped me get into the spirit of the Jesus character while painting him—also as a teacher and Chair of the 2D department at the University of Southern California, I have a much humbler (obviously) leadership position, but in terms of the politics of school and the herding of kittens trying to inspire students, honestly Jesus is a non-denominational inspiration of the ultimate in caring and compassion (obviously). But most of all, I was thinking of America, the tragedy of the Trump era, also the conservative path we have been walking forever, but most pronounced for me in my generation, what began in the Anita Bryant anti-gay and Phyllis Schlafly anti-ERA/feminism movements gathering forces with the racists and fundamentalists in form the conservative party that ultimately bore Trump and his brainwashed minions, fighting for some kind of Trump worship, to bring down American democracy. As the quote from Hannah and Her Sisters goes “if Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up”. I do believe the forceful power of good and evil, that evil is like a virus that gestates and gathers power, and it’s up to us to fight the good fight and rid our country of this fascistic, racist, misogynist, homophobic movement that uses false religiosity to gain strength from ignorant people to rise to overtake the good of the people. If we don’t recognize this and fight back and rid ourselves of the people who give in to greed and the promise to rule “all the kingdoms in heaven” then we are doomed. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice,’ and we need to do all we can to make this happen for the good of our country and our democracy.