The Struggle of Temptation: ‘Christ in the Wilderness’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
March 28, 2021 Updated: March 29, 2021

Every year, millions of people celebrate Easter as the day commemorating the resurrection of Jesus three days after he was crucified and buried.

Instead of looking at the horror of Jesus on the cross, though, I would like to remember a moment from the life of Jesus, one that both reveals his humanness and exemplifies the Christ-like attributes worthy of embodying. This is only my limited interpretation of a very complex subject.

The Temptation of Christ

As the story goes, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist before going into the Judaean Desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. During his fast, Jesus becomes hungry and is met by Satan who tempts him three times. 

The first temptation suggests that Jesus turn stone into bread so that he may eat and satisfy his hunger; another temptation is to jump from the highest point of the temple and have angels prevent him from harm; the third is to bow to Satan to gain all of the kingdoms in the world.

Of course, Jesus denies all three temptations with simple statements that, to me, suggest that humans need spiritual sustenance more than material sustenance, that it is blasphemous to test God’s power, and that only God—not Satan—should be worshiped and served. Upon denying Satan, Jesus is attended to by angels.

Though there are three temptations, they all seem to be directed toward influencing one thing in Jesus, the one thing that Satan—in his rebelliousness toward God—embodies: pride. 

Satan prefaces two of his temptations by casting doubt on Jesus’s relationship with God. In other words, in the first and second temptations, Satan asks Jesus to prove that he is indeed the Son of God. The third temptation, in which Satan asks Jesus to kneel to gain all of the kingdoms in the world, is a direct appeal to pride—both to Jesus’s pride, if he has any, and Satan’s own pride.

The story suggests that the weak link in our battle against temptation that prevents our union with God is our ego, our pride.

Christ_in_the_Wilderness_-_Ivan_Kramskoy_-_Google_Cultural_Institute_
“Christ in the Wilderness (Christ in the Desert),” 1872, by Ivan Kramskoi. Oil on canvas, 72 inches by 84 inches. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. (Public Domain)

‘Christ in the Wilderness’

The painting “Christ in the Wilderness” by the Russian painter Ivan Kramskoi depicts Jesus as he denies Satan’s temptations. 

Placed in the center of the composition, Jesus is our focal point. He is all alone, sitting on a rock near the bank of a body of water. He is dressed in a red robe and dark blue cloak, and his feet are bare. His head, framed by the sky, is bowed in deep concentration, and he clenches his fingers tightly together in prayer.

The sky is of pastel colors that contrast beautifully with the grays of the rock. It is difficult to tell if it is dawn or dusk, but the sky suggests that it is one or the other.    

Struggling to Resist

To me, this is a striking and unusual portrayal of Jesus, and I think it can be very revealing for those today who are interested in gaining moral insight into resisting temptation. 

First, it is interesting that Jesus is depicted solely as a man. He isn’t shown with a halo or ascending into heaven, which, of course, are images that have their place. Instead, he is shown as a regular man, which sets the stage to suggest or encourage us, as human beings, to resist temptation despite how difficult it might be. In other words, this portrayal suggests that we—like Jesus—may possess the strength to resist temptation.

Next, Jesus is shown alone. There’s no one else there: There is no Satan, and there are no angels. The gray of the rocks and barrenness of the environment supplement this feeling of solitude. To me, this suggests that the temptations that Jesus now experiences are internal. He is internally resisting the temptations of Satan.

We often believe that the source of our temptations, our enemies, are “out there” somewhere waiting to destroy us. Is it instead the case that our greatest temptations, our greatest enemies, are deep within ourselves?

Is this why Jesus is depicted with such a deep look of concentration on his face? Is he intently trying to resist these temptations within himself as Satan conjures them?

This journey within is not an easy one, but it’s a necessary struggle for those morally inclined. The difficulty of Jesus’s resistance is suggested by his hands clenched in prayer and by his bare feet. He sits on a hard surface and is surrounded by jagged rocks. Nothing about this scene suggests comfort or ease.

But these difficulties do not deter Jesus. He may be assaulted by Satan’s earthly temptations, but his heart and mind are depicted above the composition’s horizon line, framed by the heavens. This suggests that his divine nature is what allows him to resist Satan’s temptations.

It may be dusk, suggesting that Jesus’s temptations are just beginning and night is coming; or it may be dawn, which suggests that he is at the very end of Satan’s onslaught, and the sun is rising to shine light upon the darkness. Either way, dawn and dusk—being in between day and night—might suggest that he is still in the process of resisting temptation. 

The fact that it is in between day and night might also represent, in the same way that his lower body is positioned on earth and his upper body is framed by heaven, that he occupies two realms: He is God made flesh. It could also represent the necessary stage between his baptism and accepting disciples, that is, teaching the word of God.

There are many people this Easter who will celebrate Jesus dying for their sins. But I also encourage us to ask what it means to resist the temptations of Satan and access the divine nature in our hearts and minds.

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).