Sunday, February 14, 2016

Get the Picture?

Jesus makes, well, not a joke because there's nothing funny about it. But Jesus, speaking two thousand years ago reminds us that some things never change. In the gospel reading for Lent 2C (Luke 13:31-35) Jesus uses symbols in a way that rings familiarly in ears today. He puts a fox in the hen house.

"You tell that fox for me..." Jesus says. Herod (Herod Antipas to be specific) is the fox. Jesus continues that he has long wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem together "as a hen gathers her brood under her wings." Fox. Hen.

The pictures tell the story. Neither of the first two works here are "religious" works and yet when we see them through the lens of the gospel reading, it is clear that Jesus fully understood his animal symbols as individuals and in relation to one another.

In the top picture a fox sneaks into the picture space in the lower left corner, biting down on the hindquarters of an unsuspecting hen in its jaws. [Christian Luycks. Farmyard Scene with Fox Attaching Bantams. c. 1645. Private collection.]

The bottom picture is more graphic. Jean-Baptiste Huet's Fox in a Chicken Yard [1766. San Francisco: deYoung/Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. http://art.famsf.org/jean-baptiste-marie-huet-elder/fox-chicken-yard-50558] shows a fox that is the center of the carnage, not sneaking in from the side. The fox devours one of the chickens and bares its teeth at a bird attempting to distract the fox and perhaps save the chicken. Young chicks scurry out from under the chicken's wings, trying to get away. At the right are three eggs, cracked open with both the yolks and whites leaking onto the ground.

Herod Antipas fits the caricature very well. The son of Herod I (the Great), Antipas is the ruler reproached by John the Baptist for his marriage to his sister-in-law. Antipas built the city of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and was the official to whom Jesus was sent in the course of his arrest, interrogation and crucifixion.

It is this same Herod who ordered the children of Bethlehem killed after the visit of the magi to his court. Frightened at the prospect of a King of the Jews being born, he resolved that it should not happen. As the fox does in Huet's picture, Herod, too, made sure to destroy future generations. Euan Uglow's rendition of the Massacre of the Innocents is modeled on an earlier work by Poussin [1979-1981. Private collection, UK].

Jesus had it right. Herod was a fox in the henhouse.

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