Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bugs at the Picnic

"Dinner on the Grounds" is one more way of saying "church picnic". Whether spreading food on a blanket on the ground or using boards placed across sawhorses, the idea is one of sharing food outdoors in congregational fellowship. It's an idea that Jesus embraced in the gospel reading for Pr12/OT17/P +8 (John 6:1-21). The crowd sat down and passed around fish and bread.

The artists who have interpreted this story usually show throngs of people in the landscape and somewhere in the crowd Jesus, several disciples and often the boy whose lunch was the foundation of the feast. The paintings usually don't show things that many of us would associate with an outdoor picnic - heat, humidity, rocks, hard ground, scratchy grass...and bugs. Aren't there always bugs at a picnic? Grasshoppers, ants, flies and other often unidentifiable creepy-crawlies.

Seventeenth-century still-life painter Georg Flegel took the John 6 picnic out of its narrative context - there are no people and no landscape - but still made it a religious painting by including...a bug.
Georg Flegel. Still Life with Stag Beetle. 1635. Oil on Basswood. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany. WRM 2824.

Specifically a stag beetle. That is the creature in the lower left corner marching toward the fish, huge mandibles leading the way. The stag beetle gets its name from those waving mandibles which resemble the antlers of a stag. And the stag has long been a symbol for...Christ. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (8.41) identified stags as the enemy of serpents, drawing them out of their holes and trampling on them; the parallel with Christ was then obvious. The stag beetle is gathered into the symbolism by it's association with the stag.

But, believe it or not, Christ is also associated with the beetle. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, referred to Jesus as the "good scarabeus" (Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity, Samuel Sharpe, London, 1863, p. 3). Scarabs are amulets carved or modeled in the shape of the beetle (usually identified as Scarabaeus sacer), which was sacred in ancient Egypt. In the Septuagint, Habbakuk 2:1 is translated: For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it. The meaning is disputed, but Ambrose, Augustine and others adopted the "beetle" translation and associated the beetle with Christ.

Other German artists, including Albrecht Durer, arguably the most famous German painter of his day, used the symbol. There is a stag beetle teasing the dog in Durer's The Virgin among a Multitude of Animals (1503, Pen and ink and watercolor, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna). The artist also put a stag beetle on the step in the lower right corner of his 1504 Adoration of the Magi.
Albrecht Durer. Adoration of the Magi. 1504. Oil on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Flegel includes onions and wine in his still life, but it is the inclusion of the stag beetle that would have led a contemporary viewer to see this as a religious painting. The meal is fish and bread, and the host is Jesus Christ, just as the gospel of John told the story. It's the bug at the picnic that tells the story. 

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