Please do read what the Met has to say about this painting: this might have been done for a “hidden” Catholic church in an overwhelmingly Protestant city. There is a marked emphasis on suffering, but I think it is leading to a more expansive theme.
For me, the painting divides into two. There’s the symbolism at the foot of the cross. Skull, bones, broken wood and a sapling. There’s the matter of Christ’s flowing blood, His being the lamb. All of that leads to this question: how exactly does a triumph over death lead to new life? It’s a juxtaposition that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The symbolism contrasts with the three figures above it. Mary is stunned at what has been done to her son. Her gaze seems to be on his body, his wounds. Her complexion is the same deathly color as his skin. She steps toward him, in a pose both pleading and ready to embrace. The Mother of God is not some ethereal, spiritual entity divorced from the world. To love the Creator is to love life, to be horrified at the evil men do against life, not just against some abstract concept of God.
Mary’s grief is not quite St. John’s. He’s stunned, too, and his feet are in exactly the same position as Mary’s, yet they are part of a radically different pose. He’s focused on Christ’s head, maybe the quiet glow coming from it. Looking upward, his hands are not in a prayerful position. He’s contemplating the sort of man the Son of Man was, even without seeing his face.
Mary’s and John’s are two aspects of loss, united in the figure of Christ. Christ’s body is pale and looks withered in a way. His blood is still pouring. The symbols at the foot of the cross don’t lead to the question the portraits do: What does it mean to triumph over death? It means you become death, you become the point of judgment. All of humanity is judged by the inhumanity of what occurred. Christ and Mary are divine in their pallor.
The only hint there is something good for us sinners in this moment of overwhelming tragedy is John seeing the glow. The beaten, worn body of Christ did suffer and now wears that suffering. New life was always within Creation. The question always was when we would see it.
Addendum: I should say something more, as I’m surrounded by people who think lashing themselves gets grace and others who think cursing gets people sent to hell. What’s amazing about this painting is how seriously it takes the human, how seriously it takes our suffering in this life. It acknowledges that life is hard: people lose their children every day. It does not do what we do, which is watch the news and then say outright that people could have done something to not lose their children. It does not promise resurrection or mana from heaven as solving all our problems if we follow a bunch of rules. It simply looks at a moment of utter horror and wonders how anything could be redeemed by it. It does not hint at an afterlife or anything in that afterlife. Now that I say that, I do wonder if other ages understood morality better than us. Probably, this much is true: ter Brugghen is a genius, and I’m privileged to view his art.