One of the greatest artistic evocations of the grittiness of Lent is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary, which is housed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Art History]. The Procession to Calvary is a large work, five and a half by four feet, featuring hundreds of small figures, with the equally small figure of Christ carrying the cross in the center of the painting. Bruegel included certain familiar motifs in rendering the scene: the holy women and the apostle John are in the right foreground, comforting Mary; the vast majority of those involved, concerned about quotidian things, are clueless about the drama unfolding before their eyes. What is so striking about The Procession to Calvary, however, is that we are in sixteenth-century Europe, not first-century Judea: Christ is carrying the cross through a typical Flemish landscape, complete with horses, carts, oxen, and a windmill. Christ is carrying the cross through history—right through the grittiness of everyday life.

A man who could see things as they are, like Peter Bruegel the Elder, would want us to understand that the “procession to Calvary” is taking place in our midst, too. He would be right to do so. Lent is a privileged time for recovering the sight that lets us see and enter the passion play going on around us.

The Procession to Calvary (1564). Oil on oak. Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Procession to Calvary (1564). Oil on oak. Pieter Brueghel the Elder.