Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” is a poem that goes deep into the meaning of the Crucifixion and explores Christ’s despair. The poem questions whether anyone, artist or writer, is capable of comprehending, much less conveying, the purpose of Christ’s Passion. Centuries lie between the painting of the...

(The entire section contains 439 words.)

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“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” is a poem that goes deep into the meaning of the Crucifixion and explores Christ’s despair. The poem questions whether anyone, artist or writer, is capable of comprehending, much less conveying, the purpose of Christ’s Passion. Centuries lie between the painting of the mural and the writing of this poem, and yet there seems to be “no peace,” only “solitude.” Christ is still hanging on the cross in the quiet following his despair: “The mural but implies eternity.” The closing verse in stanza 3 emphasizes the major theme of the poem, that of time and timelessness. Again, as with Momaday’s imagery, duality is represented in the theme of time. Time stands still within the mural even though it fades. However, it is only the colors that begin to pale, not the agony and despair it depicts.

As evening approaches at the mission and shadows fall upon the mural, “time is stayed” even though it swells like a wave on the sea (stanza 5). Momaday releases the authoritative voice of author at the end of stanza 5 by telling the reader, “time and timelessness confuse, I’m told.” It becomes apparent that while this section of the poem is in response to the opening stanzas, Momaday is not offering any definitive answers to his initial pondering. How did He die? Was it for the timelessness of His message?

While never really declaring the actual message of the Crucifixion, Momaday does offer examples of how time and timelessness affect it. “Change” that can occur only in time is “silence after death” (stanza 4). The centuries that have passed since the Crucifixion and the painting of the mural are insignificant. Humanity’s attempt to record, in stone, “the void” or feeling of emptiness and loss caused by His death is, according to Momaday, “outrageous” and in “vain” (stanza 6).

The lyricalness of the poem reflects Momaday’s love for language and his sense of artistry. He vividly describes not only what the mural looks like but also the feelings it evokes. This poem is as much about art and writing as it is about its subject, an old painting of the Crucifixion. The main message concerns the timelessness of Christ’s agony. Final interpretation of His death is left to the individual, as it was at the beginning of the poem. Interpretation is different for the painter, the author, and the reader. It is what ones sees, hears, and feels it to be. Although the message disappears like the “flecks of foam” on the surf, the waves will continue to swell and move forward to the shore.

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