Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion Analysis

N. Scott Momaday

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” by N. Scott Momaday is a poem divided into six stanzas, each with six verses. As a lyric poem, it is a variation of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet usually defined as fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Although differing in the number of stanzas and verses, “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion” retains the traditional iambic pentameter rhythm of the Italian sonnet and follows the most frequently used rhyme scheme of its second stanza, abcabc.

The title informs the reader of the subject of the poem, an old painting of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion. The title’s opening word, “before,” serves to position the reader with the poet, facing the painting. The subtitle or heading, “The Mission Carmel,” defines the setting. Overlooking California’s Monterey Bay, the Mission Carmel’s landscape enhances the reader’s appreciation of the poem.

The poem opens in the first person: “I ponder how He died, despairing once.” By using the proper pronoun “He,” the poet assumes familiarity with the narrative of Jesus Christ. Christ’s despair is the focus of the first stanza. Momaday suggests that the stillness following Christ’s anguish offers no comfort.

The second stanza continues the pondering of Christ’s Crucifixion and death, using as its subject the “calm” introduced in the first stanza. This quiet following Christ’s cry of despair is one where...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Landscape imagery and storytelling perform important functions within American Indian literature. Although Momaday refers to himself not as an Indian writer but as an Indian and a writer, his poetry is decidedly informed by the importance of landscape and by oral tradition. The subject of “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” while not Indian in nature, is thoroughly informed by landscapes and stories.

Momaday’s use of both landscape imagery and storytelling derives from within the mural itself (Christ and the Judean hills) and his immediate surroundings (the mission at Monterey Bay). The reader not only sees the mural but also hears its silence. This is also true of the reader’s placement with the author at the Mission Carmel as the reader sees and hears the sea.

In “Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion,” Momaday relies on the reader’s knowledge of biblical crucifixion stories that have been handed down for centuries. For instance, the “cry” in stanza 1 is translated in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew (27:26) and Mark (15:34) as, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In his interpretation of the scene depicted in the mural, Momaday contrasts Christ’s cry of “despair” with the “calm” following it. Many of Momaday’s images combine with others, such as the “calm” of the sea in stanza 2 and the “silence after death” in the Judean hills (stanza 4). Both the mural and the sea are...

(The entire section is 487 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Barry, Nora. Review of Ancestral Voice: Conversations with N. Scott Momaday. MELUS 16 (December 22, 1989): 115-117.

Douglas, Christopher. “The Flawed Design: American Imperialism in N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45 (Fall, 2003): 3-24.

Isernhagen, Hartwig. Momaday, Vizenor, Armstrong: Conversations on American Indian Writing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Owen, Louis. Other Destinies: Reading the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Roemer, Kenneth, ed. Approaches to Teaching Momaday’s “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.

Scenters-Zapico, John. “Cross-Cultural Mediations: Language, Storytelling, History, and Self as Enthymematic Premises in the Novels of N. Scott Momaday.” The American Indian Quarterly 21 (June 22, 1997): 499.

Schubnell, Matthias. “Locke Setman, Emil Nolde, and the Search for Expression in N. Scott Momaday’s The Ancient Child.” The American Indian Quarterly 18 (September 22, 1994): 468-480.

Stevens, Jason W. “Bear, Outlaw, and Storyteller: American Frontier Mythology and Ethnic Subjectivity of N. Scott Momaday.” American Literature 73 (September, 2001): 599-631.