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Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887)

Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry afterward. Matthew 4:1-2

With Jesus’ baptism, He steps out of the obscurity of His earthly father’s carpentry shop and family life. He is publicly recognized by John as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and by God the Father as His Son, in whom He is well pleased. You’d think that next would come a ‘let’s do this!’ phase of life as Jesus bursts on the scene as Messiah. But instead, the Spirit does the opposite and leads Jesus into the wilderness, alone, for over a month to fast and then be tempted by Satan. 

All of us have had times of physical and mental weakness, and all of us have been tempted. But imagine the intensity of what Jesus went through. Forty days without food, alone, in the wilderness, enduring bad weather, lack of comfort, sleepless nights, and then the full assault of all the enemy’s attention and power. All his fury is aimed at seeing the Messiah fall. He takes advantage of His weakened state, His limited human body and mind. And while we know that Jesus Christ emerged from this trial pure and victorious, using the Word of God to put Satan in his place, it must not have been easy for Him.

Kramskoi paints that struggle here. The elements of the painting are gorgeously rendered, but it is sparse. There’s just wilderness and Jesus sitting quietly.  And yet it’s depicting the most intense spiritual battle the earth has yet seen. His emphasis is not on the theatrics of Jesus vs. Satan or the particulars of the temptations; but instead, he chooses a moment (day 8, or 17, or 29?) of His 40-day solitary fast to show the great psychological and spiritual toll this has taken. The colors show the cold, clear light of dawn, and the fixed expression and circles under His eyes reveal He hasn’t slept. His hands are clasped tightly as He considers and prays over what He is experiencing now, and surely what He knows is coming. His bare feet on the rough and dirty ground, His shabby clothing, His unkempt hair all point to a man in dire straits. And yet, His expression and pose are as resolute as the immovable rocks around Him. Though He is in difficulty, He is determined and strong (getting His strength from the Father) and purposed in His heart to serve only the Lord, not Satan and not Himself. 

Throughout his life, Kramskoi returned to this imagery. He made a previous version that he was not happy with, and had always planned to make a third version but bills and family emergencies prevented him from ever finishing it. He made countless sketches, notes, and wrote about his progress in letters to friends… this moment in the life of Jesus kept him coming back. And with good reason. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us His obedience to the Father, His complete humanity (but complete divinity), and His power and victory over Satan and the flesh to do what we could not: live a sinless life. It foreshadows Christ’s ultimate struggle at Gethsemane and on the cross, and ultimate victory, the resurrection.

Painting found in Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Rich Timmons. I am a lifetime lover of art, especially paintings of Jesus by the masters and the author of the book Come... meet Jesus.

My career started in the graphic arts industry and ended 45 years later when we sold our successful marketing firm. We opened a fine art gallery, which led me to the opportunity to teach an art history class at a local college. It was Julie’s idea to create a coffee table-style book from all the research that was required to teach.

We are honored to present to you the incredible story of Jesus through the eyes of 67 master artists and the sacred writings found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

You may also contact Rich at Leadership Speakers Bureau to schedule him for speaking or leadership engagements.


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