Sunday, August 30, 2015

Words of Wisdom

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 18B/Ordinary 23B/Pentecost 15 is a collection of two-liners from Proverbs (22:1-23, more or less). Pithy sayings transmit what reads like common sense: The clever see danger and hide, but the simple go on and suffer for it.  Many of the sayings have to do with poverty and wealth, though there is no stated theme for the passage. There is also no extensive attempt at narrative or transition between sayings.

Pieter Brueghel, a painter of the Northern Renaissance, created a painting that echoes the format of the Proverbs passage. Snippets of wisdom are illustrated and packed into a single frame. There really isn't any attempt to create a narrative that moves through the picture. Rather he simply embodies Netherlandish proverbs and packs as many as he can into a single canvas.
Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). Netherlandish Proverbs. 1559. Gemaldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen, Berlin. Oil on oak panel. 
For the Gemaldegalerie, see: http://www.smb.museum/en/museums-and-institutions/gemaeldegalerie/home.html
At the center of the canvas, under the porch, people confess to the devil. Atop a tower in the center top a man waves a cloak in order to know where the wind is coming from. In the lower left a man who is (literally) armed to the teeth tries to bell a cat. In the upper left window, the future is determined by the fall of the cards. In one of the dormer windows are two fools under one hood. In the lower right a man tries - but is ultimately unable - to spoon up spilled porridge, a version of the contemporary idea of not crying over spilled milk or being unable to put the toothpaste back in the tube. More than 100 proverbs are illustrated in the painting. 

All these proverbs in one place illustrate, according to Bruegel, a world turned upside down. And the artist has illustrated that as well. There are cross-topped orbs throughout the picture. The cross and orb symbolize the triumph of Christian faith over all the earth. For Bruegel's audience it would have seemed that Christ's triumph would have restored order to the world. Here, though, the orb-and-cross seems more ironic than anything else. In the lower right part of the picture Jesus sits on a chair (a throne?) with an orb in his lap. But even as he holds the symbol of triumph, he faces a monk who has put a fake blond beard on him. At the bottom center a man crawls inside a transparent orb through a hole in its base. And under the window at the left of the picture, the orb is upside down; the cross dangles beneath the orb. For Bruegel this is a topsy-turvy world...a world turned upside down because of the foolishness of humanity.

Restraining the foolishness of humanity is a goal of the Proverbs texts.

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