Zurbaran’s Agnus Dei
Intended to create contemplation upon the viewer, Francisco Zurbaran’s Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, is simple in its rendering, yet complex for its subject matter. The lamb is an evident reference to Jesus and the fact that it is deceased relates to Christ’s self –sacrifice for humanity. There is an inscription in Latin at the bottom of the work which reads, “He was lead as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb voiceless before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth” Acts 8:32. The inscription directs the viewer to see the Savior not only as a martyr but also as an entity with no other choice but to accept his fate. By the “voiceless lamb,” Jesus’ inability to protest His own crucifixion is portrayed yet the theme remains ambiguous because the “voiceless lamb” also manages to undergo the ultimate travail and demonstrate compassion for man-kind.
The animal in Zurbaran’s painting holds a nearly unaffected expression, but may also be the resignation to protest its demise. Although the sheep’s hooves are tied up, there is gentleness about its demeanor which is emphasized by its white fleece also demonstrating its meekness—and so the ambiguity ensues. There is discernment in the animal’s patience, by the relaxation of the limbs, and the dearth of strain in its body, revelatory of Christ’s giving nature. The lamb is further consecrated by Zurbaran’s inclusion of a subdued nimbus about its body. The light that appears to be shining down on the figure is suggestive of The Father, radiating his love for his son. The descending glow is also allusive to God’s forgiving nature, indicating to the audience that there has been wrong doing by the animal.
Zurbaran’s painting of the Agnus Dei can be viewed as either of the opposing images of Christ as the flawless savior, or Christ as the silent doubter, but it is up to the viewer to make this decision.