A Long Way from Mona Lisa’s Smile


A Long Way from Mona Lisa’s Smile
by Brian Zahnd

Yesterday Edvard Munch’s modern masterpiece, The Scream, sold at Sotheby’s auction house in New York for a record $120 million, making it the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. To which I say three things:

1. I like Edvard Munch. I saw an exhibit of his paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009.

2. $120 million is a lot of money for a painting.

3. We’re a long way from Mona Lisa’s smile.

What do I mean by that? Well, if Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with her enigmatic smile is the iconic image of the Renaissance, then Munch’s Scream may be the leading contender for the iconic image of modern man. And this is worth pondering. How has a mysterious smile been replaced by a horrified scream? What has happened to us? What is it about Munch’s disturbing masterpiece that speaks to us so deeply?

Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1893. In describing his inspiration for the painting, the Norwegian artist wrote in his diary,

“I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. I felt a breath of melancholy – Suddenly the sky turned blood-red. I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deathly tired – Looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and town. My friends walked on – I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature.

Standing alone on a bridge under a blood red sky trembling with fear, Munch sensed an “infinite scream pass through nature.” What was it? What was this overwhelming anxiety that Edvard Munch felt and depicted to the world in his painting? Was it, perhaps, the shared anxiety of modern man disoriented as the traditions that had interpreted the Western world for centuries were now being jettisoned?

friedrich-nietzsche-16_6181 Friedrick Nietzsche, whom Edvard Munch studied (and depicted in a 1906 painting) spoke of a post-Christian Europe as a world with no horizon. Christianity had provided the horizon of absolute truth for Western Civilization for well over a thousand years, but with what Nietzsche called “the death of God” (by which he meant a culture that had become post-Christian), that horizon had been erased. With the loss of an absolute horizon modern man feels the terror of spiritual vertigo. And he screams.


Put more simply: A world without God is a terrifying place.

I think that may be why The Scream speaks to modern man so deeply. It captures the anxiety of living alone in a world abandoned by God with a sense of impending dread hanging overhead. We’re a long way from the God-saturated sacramental world where Mona Lisa could have her quiet smile. Now we stand alone on a bridge to nowhere feeling an infinite scream of anxiety pass through our modern soul.

Sold! To the anxious man for a hundred and twenty million dollars!

We’re modern people.
We’ve left God behind.
We’re on our own.
We’re all alone.
On a bridge to nowhere
With no line on the horizon.
Adrift among the dead.
Lost in existential dread.
So we scream.
If only in our sleep.

Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling. (Mark 5:5)

Is there any hope for our disoriented screamer? Yes!

Jesus hears our screams. And draws near.

One of the things I love about Jesus is how undaunted he was by hopeless situations. Nowhere is this more beautifully depicted than in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. What do we find there? Three hopeless situations…

  • A demon-tormented man screaming among the dead. (We all have our demons.)
  • A woman with an issue of blood who couldn’t get well. (We all have our issues.)
  • A couple grieving the loss of their daughter. (We all suffer the pain of loss.)

And what happens?
Jesus comes!
Across the sea.
Down the street.
Into the house.

Jesus speaks…
“Come out of the man!”
“Your faith has made you whole!”
“Talitha cumi!”

The demons are gone.
The issue is healed.
The dead live again.

What am I trying to say?
I’m saying Jesus hears our scream.
And he comes to us.

(Even to our God-denying modern man standing alone on a bridge to nowhere screaming his little bald head off.)

If we will fall at Jesus’ feet…
If we will reach out to touch him…
If we will fear not and only believe…
Jesus will address himself to our demons, our issues, our deep loss.
We can be set free, made whole, and recalled to life.

Jesus can save us from our scream and give us back our Mona Lisa smile.





Suggested playlist:

Modern Man by Arcade Fire
No Line On The Horizon by U2
Vertigo by U2
Under The Red Sky by Bob Dylan
Called Out In the Dark by Snow Patrol

(Sorry, no screamo music.)