Thoughts on Art of Martyrs and Martyrdom

For a long time, now, I have been thinking about this tendency of people to have and to keep images of martyrs and martyrdom that attempt some sort of what people call ‘realism’, and while I dare not condemn the practice for all, I think it has some serious flaws and dangers, at least for many of us.

I myself have long avoided anything gory, and any detailed representation of torture; for much of my life the very word chilled my blood and made my heart thump, and for years I refused to call myself a Christian for terror of persecution and torture and the fear I would not find the Glory of His Name worthy. Then, I found myself lauded as ‘brave’ by American Christians, even while certain that I was the most terrified and fearful of them, and that it should scarcely be possible for a Christian to be as fearful as I. Some Christians report that, in preparation for what they expected to undergo, they absorbed as many details as possible and lived in discomfort and privation. Again, while I don’t necessarily say that there is nothing to any of this, and it is possible that some may sometimes find some of it helpful, I don’t think it is a practice that should be encouraged, and it seems that it goes against the spirit of “Do not say or think about what you will say beforehand, for the Spirit of My Father will teach you in that hour what to say,” but this diverges somewhat from that which I wish to discuss, at least in appearance.

It is far too easy for most of us to fear, even if I am worse in this way than most, far too easy for us to see pain and suffering as something to be avoided, far too easy for us to feel horror and terror. It is usually not easy enough for us to trust in God, to be confident in His grace, to be certain of His worthiness (of His worth to us). It is easy for most of us to fear torture (or other pain); it not so easy for most of us to be confident of the upholding hand of Christ, even, sometimes, when we have experienced that upholding time and time again. There are thousands and millions of us who fear too much, who see horror where there need be no horror if only we would trust and know Him. There is not one of us who has ever trusted too much in God or seen too much glory in the face of Christ.

picture of the martyrdom of St. Bibiana by Raina Nightingale; Christian virgin and martyr by being beaten to death; clothed in a pink robe, with pink roses flowing over her chest, chained with yellow roses to white gold-decorated pillar, with turquoise tiles with gold Christian Fish, and the sun in clouds shining above.
Here is a picture I drew illustrating the martyrdom of Bibiana. Her witness of “enduring the blows with joy” showed me God in a special way that has touched my life deeply, and I tried to show a little of how she showed me His love and goodness with this picture.

The martyrs are witnesses, as we also are called to be, to the glory of Christ and the greatness of His joy and the sufficiency of His grace; not to the greatness of the horrors or the extremities of the tortures devised by man or devil, or to their own courage. Those things, those fears, those horrors, are the devil’s lie and threat; hollow and empty of power when we see the glory of the grace of God in the face of Christ. There is no need for us to remind ourselves of them; there is rather a need that we should scorn them as unworthy of our thought or attention. If we desire art of the martyrs, it should not be art that provokes our fears, or that makes us think of their courage; it should be art that suggests, however dimly and imperfectly, the glory of God – that should remind us that these things are not what they seem, that horror is only a lie and illusion of the devil who has been conquered by Christ in Whom we also may tread upon his head, and that martyrdom is fact a crown of glory and a reward and that the grace of God is not only sufficient, but plentiful. “No good thing will He withhold from them that look to Him.” Art of martyrdom should have the same message in it that those sayings of the early Christians to speak of it had: “fulfillment,” a “crown of glory,” a “wreath of victory.”

They do not see clearly who think that American Christians have it too easy and think Christianity is “happy-go-lucky” as they put it (whatever that means), and that is the cause of their problems, and that it should be remedied by reminding themselves of all the tortures and sufferings and deprivations that Christians in other parts of the world and at other times have experienced. The only problem we ever have is that we do not see Christ, the Risen One, clearly enough. This problem may manifest itself differently in different people, and at different times and places, but that is always the problem. Thus, the only remedy desired is to seek to see Him, to see more of His glory, more of His loveliness, to see the trustworthiness and steadfastness of His love and promises. That will fix all our problems, and it seems to me ever more clear as the days pass that the problem of American Christians is really that they are afraid: that they have bought the devil’s lie, have believed in fear and horror, instead of in the glory of the face of our Savior. There is no need for us to focus on persecution, for persecution is not the point – Christ is – and if we are thinking about persecution, we are not thinking about Christ and following Him as the sheep follow their Shepherd. Martyrs are not a witness to themselves, but to the glory and triumph of Christ, His peace and His joy. They should point us always to the beauty of the Lord, never to the horrors and lies of the devil. They prove, as we may, the Lord who said, “Come to Me, all you are who are burdened and heavy-laded, for I am meek and humble of heart, and My yoke is easy and My burden is light,” and “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” and, “Do not fear, for your Father cares for you.”

Copyright 2021 Raina Nightingale

By the way, this song, All I Have is Christ, is done with a beautiful animation that is very good.

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