Before an Old Painting of the Crucifixion by N. Scott Momaday

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 439 words.)