Monday, July 28, 2014


For such a physical struggle – all night, you may remember – many depictions of Genesis 32:22-31 are remarkably unphysical. For all it appears in those works, Jacob might be dancing with his mysterious opponent. In at least one version (Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie) it looks like God's messenger is about to “dip” his dance partner. But the text recounts a physical endurance contest between two determined opponents.

The painting by Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (c. 1876), below, captures the physical nature of the struggle as each wrestler refuses to let go of the other. Details are dropped out. The color palette is limited. Judging by the sky blue background, the time of day does not appear to be deepest night. Perhaps dawn is breaking and this is the final moment of the match. With an indistinct setting, the emphasis is on the push and pull between the two figures. The two are distinguished by the paint's value – one lighter, the other darker, though the darker figure of Jacob has the same light highlights as the angel, and the underside of the angel's wings are the same tonal family as Jacob's skin.
At the moment captured by the painting, Jacob appears to be lifting the angel off the ground. There seems to be a pointed toe desperately trying to remain connected to the earth. You may remember the story of Hercules and Antaeus. And though Jacob would not be familiar with the story, surely the artist was. In the ancient story, Antaeus, a Libyan giant, requires all people passing through his country to wrestle with him. Hercules gains the advantage in the contest of strength and wills by lifting the giant from the earth, which is the source of Antaeus' grounding and power. It seems counter-intuitive, though, that God's wrestler would be determined to remain connected to the earth.

A video clip of the story places the two wrestlers in a different relationship. In this contemporary version, the angel hovers above the earth with Jacob grasping at legs and hem, trying to keep the angel within his grasp. Jacob is clearly in a weaker position here, but he remains determined to hold on. A still is below. The entire video clip is here:

Perhaps both artists understood Jacob's character and that if there was an advantage to be gained, Jacob was determined to gain it. I will not let you go until you bless me. And so there is blessing...and a limp. Though Jacob is blessed with a new name rooted in a relationship with God, the conclusion is still on God's terms.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Matthew 13.31-32: The Whole Story

Botanical illustrations as old as four thousand years have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These illustrations, often used as decorative elements on tombs and buildings, offer details of local plants. Aristotle, Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder and Krateuas are among the early writers and scholars who studied plants for medicinal and agricultural purposes. Botanical illustrations are objects of beauty and objects of science.

But they may not tell the whole story. Below are two beautiful illustrations -  on the left is Brassica nigra, on the right is Sinapis alba.

Both are commonly known as mustard plants. The leaves are different, but both have characteristic yellow flowers and small seeds. Without a doubt, the illustrations are beautifully rendered, capturing the leaves, flowers, roots, and structure of both mustard plants with great accuracy and covering several stages of development among the parts of the plant. There are young leaves and mature leaves. There are flower petals and whole flowers.

But this drawing that analyzes the parts doesn't show what Jesus saw. Jesus' parable (Matthew 13:31-32) is about potential - that from a small seed could come a plant big enough that birds nest in its branches. That's what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

He Put It Under His Head

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place (Proper 11(16)A, Pentecost 7A). Jacob's choice has echoed since he put his head on the pillow.

One of those echoes involved Irish monks. We are used to associating stone crosses and stone buildings with Celtic monks of the 8th - 10th centuries. But Jacob's story, too, brought stone into the monastic life. We hear of a specific instance from Adomnan, biographer of Columba. In his Vita Columbae he writes: Having written the aforementioned verse at the end of the page, the saint went to the church to the nocturnal vigils of the Lord's Day; and so soon as this was over, he returned to his chamber, and spent the remainder of the night on his bed, where he had a bare flag for his couch, and for his pillow a stone, which stands to this day as a kind of monument beside his grave (VG.3.23).

The biography was written about a century after Columba's death, but even then the story of Columba and his stone pillow was part of the saint's story. Columba was not the only monk to use a stone for a pillow. Some stones were carved with a cross, identifying them as more than purely natural stones. The stone shown below was found on the Shiant Islands, off the west coast of Scotland. Discovered during the excavation of a blackhouse on Eilean an Tighe, the stone is thought to date from between the seventh and tenth centuries.

It's easy to imagine a monk lying down at night, thinking of Jacob and his remarkable dream. As they drifted off to sleep they could look forward to the possibility that in sleep, they, too, would see God's messengers moving freely between heaven and earth. And when that happened they would know that indeed they were standing at the gate of heaven.

You can read about the pillow-stone shown below (which looks remarkably like a round loaf of bread), and its discovery, in Adam Nicolson's book Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides (Harper Perennial, 2007).

The gospel reading for this week is Jesus' parable of the wheat and weeds. Art&Faith Matters explores that parable here.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23: A Surprising Look at the Sower

Nine times out of ten, the art asssociated with the gospel reading for Sunday, July 13, will be pastoral in the agrarian sense of that word. Vincent Van Gogh painted several versions of the sower figure based on earlier work by Jean-Francois Millet. A search for either or both of these painters and their work will provide many examples and analyses.

Rather than focusing on the productive farmer in the golden glow of sunlight, let's consider a different approach to the story. One that focuses on the seed being sown. In the gospel reading (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), Jesus tells the parable of the sower and provides an interpretation of the various outcomes of broadcast sowing. The hearers would no doubt concur that we all desire to be the good soil - that we hear and understand and give a good yield when we hear the word of God.

The assumption of the goodness of fertile ground embraces an assumption that what is being sown is the Word of God. What if, though, in different circumstances, what is sown is far from God's word? What kind of soil does that message find? Do we hope and trust that those seeds will find fertile ground?

Usually when you see the work of American Regionalist artist Thomas Hart Benton, you will see his more typical subjects: scenes of American life and landscape. His style is recognizable in the landscapes and figures whose curves are almost to the point of distortion. But in 1942, Benton created eight paintings on the dangers of the brutal totalitarian governments of the Axis powers. His work "The Sowers" (below) shows three hulking figures sowing skulls. The figures sow with the expectation that more skulls will grow from these "seeds".
NARA Still Picture Branch (NWDNS-44-PA-1966). Online at:

What happens when these are the seeds being sown? Do we hope for a good yield from such seeds? Do we hope for large fields of fertile ground to nurture such seeds? The soil isn't the only important part of the story. The seeds must be taken into consideration as well.

Visit Art&Faith Matters on Facebook for a more playful approach to this subject.