Sunday, December 8, 2019

Isaiah 7.10-16: Ask for a Sign

"Ask for a sign," Isaiah invites Ahaz. But Ahaz won't ask. (Isaiah 7:10-16) Maybe he didn't ask because he was afraid of what the sign would be. The sign-giver in the text is God, speaking through the prophet. The sign is meant to communicate the future of Ahaz' rule.

Sign painters in decades and centuries past didn't necessarily consider themselves artists, but they were definitely communicators on a giant scale. There work was as small as a card in a window and as large as the side of a building or the roof of a barn. The job was to make information as understandable as possible through size of letters, placements of words, and use of color. The information had to be comprehensible even from a moving car and persuasive. The point of the sign was to influence the viewer: to draw them into a shop or bring them to a tourist attraction or to sway them to try a product. The message had to be unmistakable.
 (Left) Uneeda Biscuit advertising mural on the side of the Union Hotel in Meridian, MS. 
(Right) "See Rock City" barn roof gets a new coat of paint. 
God gave the same kind of sign to Ahaz, even when Ahaz didn't want one. God's sign was a young woman who would have a child. The child would eventually replace Ahaz on the throne. God wrote it big. So big that we don't hear from Ahaz again in scripture until Isaiah 14:28 in an oracle dated the same year as Ahaz' death.

For additional information on the (almost) lost art of hand-painting signs, see The Pre-Vinylite Society, Brain Pickings, Craftsmanship Magazine, or the film.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Matthew 11.2-11: John in Prison

John is in prison. We know how his story ends, and I suspect that he may know how it is going to end as well. He wants reassurance that Jesus is the one. Remember that John was the first to point to Jesus as "the one," but it's different when the end is in sight. John sends his disciples to get the word straight from Jesus. Are you the one or should we wait for another? John's disciples go to Jesus and then return to relay Jesus' message.

The two images here show John behind bars having conversation with people who are presumably his disciples. There isn't a clue that definitively tells us whether this is John commissioning the disciples or hearing their report. Either way, John's situation isn't changed, but if these are depictions of the disciples reporting back, John is that much closer to the end of his life.

The images are as you'd expect: imposing architecture with secure-looking bars cage in a less-than-robust prisoner who converses with a small group of people standing in the stone-tiled courtyard. But each of these images also includes an animal. And they are puzzling.
(Left) Giovanni di Paolo. St. John In Prison Visited by Two Disciples. 1455-1460. Art Institute of Chicago. 
(Right) Master of Astorga. St. John the Baptist Visited in Prison. 17th century. 
Giovanni di Paolo's version (left) has the animal chained to an outside wall of John's cell. The creature is lying belly-to-the-ground and looks away from John and the disciples. In the version by the Mastor of Astorga (right), the creature is sitting on its back haunches, echoing John's position by looking at the disciples wearing a collar but not chained to anything or anyone.

What are these two animals? One could identify the chained animal in Giovanni di Paolo's work as a leopard. The facial features are more cat-like as is the tail, and the spots aren't similar to any other dog in the artist's work. The dogs with the shepherds in his Nativity are furrier than this creature. And without the tell-tale spots. Leopards were known in Italy, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility that Giovanni di Paolo has depicted a leopard. The creature in the painting at right is more recognizably a dog.  

What do these two creatures add to the story? Leopards (assuming that's a leopard*) are symbols of sin or Satan. Sometimes they are used to represent lust. Here the animal is chained. Is lust chained here? Or sin? In this image, John the Baptist is the other being held captive. Is one supposed to see similarities between John and the animal? Why is the animal looking away from John? Add to the discussion that the animal is gone by the time of John's beheading (see Giovanni's adjoining panel in the St. John altarpiece here). 

The dog is a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness. Whose faithfulness is symbolized? John's faithfulness to Jesus? The disciples' loyalty to John? Perhaps this is a moment of transferring loyalties. Perhaps John is releasing his disciples so they can follow Jesus rather than John. Remember that here the dog is echoing John's position, though the dog is outside the cell. 

John's imprisonment no doubt led to depression. So we can assume that John was comforted by the report he received. The voice in the wilderness had, indeed, been crying the right thing. What do these animals add to the story? 

*The leopard as a symbol here may be related to Dante's Inferno, which Giovanni di Paolo illustrated. 

For thoughts on Isaiah 35:1-10, click here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Matthew 3.1-12: And You're Missing It

John's message is very clear: Repent because the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matthew 3:2) What seems more implied is that the people are missing this close encounter with the kingdom of God. Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near and you are missing it! The ax is at the foot of the tree. All it will take is one blow, and you don't even see that it is there. Repent!

Hard to imagine, we might think. Hard to imagine that there is Jesus walking around and folks are missing it. They are going about their lives, trying to survive in the face of an occupying army. Trying to make a living, find enough food for their children, get through each day. Their attention is on other things, and so they miss Jesus, who looks like all the other people they see every day.

It's easy to miss what might be in plain sight. For example, the paintings here. Do you know them? Recognize them? Are they related in any way?
(Left) Leonardo da Vinci. Last Supper. 1495-1498. Milan: S. Maria delle Grazie. 
(Right) Vincent Van Gogh. Cafe Terrace at Night. 1888. Otterlo, Netherlands: Kroller-Muller Museum. 

Maybe. Depending on what you see.

According to some scholars (and viewers), Van Gogh is paying homage to the Leonardo on the right. On the cafe terrace are twelve figures in and among the tables. The central figure (wearing white) has a window behind his head. In the Van Gogh painting, the window pane lines form a cross behind him. The figures are seated at tables on a terrace, rendered in one-point perspective. Those things are also true of the Leonardo. Is the evidence convincing to you? Is it there and we've been missing it all these years because we see a cafe terrace at night and are satisfied with that?

The Leonardo on the right has been studied and copied and referenced for five hundred years. It is the prototype of last suppers. Figures at a table. One-point perspective. Window behind the head of the central figure. Easily read. But maybe there is something that we aren't seeing. What if there were music in the painting? What if we've been walking by, staring, studying this painting for half a millennium...and we've missed it?

Jesus looked like everyone else. He lived like everyone else. But despite appearances he wasn't like everyone else, and many of the people around him missed it. John was trying to help them. By letting them know that the kingdom of heaven was not to be missed.

For thoughts on vipers (Matthew 3:1-12) see this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 11:1-10, click here.