Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lessons from Almost the Right Picture

The lectionary readings from John's gospel and I Samuel for Epiphany2B are stories that are familiar but are perhaps difficult to depict visually. In both texts the action happens in verbal exchanges. This makes for great reading but perhaps less engaging looking. If you search images for the calling of Philip and Nathanael, most results will be a small gathering of men with a tree somewhere in the scene. This composition could be illustrating any number of biblical passages. A search for images of Eli and Samuel will often return an earlier episode of the story - where Hannah brings her young son to the temple to be placed in Eli's care.

So for both passages, there might be value in asking questions of these texts based on pictures that are "almost" the right picture.

One of the more exotic phrases in the gospel reading is Jesus' concluding remark that Nathanael will "see heaven opened and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." An image search based on that phrase will yield picture after picture of Jacob's dream (Genesis 28:12), where, indeed, angels of God are ascending and descending. What might the Genesis text have to say to the John text?

Jacob is dreaming about this path between heaven and earth, so he is asleep. Is Jesus asleep and dreaming like Jacob? Or is Jesus saying that he IS the "staircase", the connection between heaven and earth that Jacob only dreamed about?

In the Tintoretto painting at left (Jacob's Ladder. 1577-78. Venice: Scuola Grande di San Rocco., Jacob is asleep at the bottom of the picture. Angels are moving between Jacob and God, pictured at the top of the stairs. Through his use of perspective and the number of stairs painted, the artist has put God in heaven far away from Jacob on earth. Does Jesus' comment speak to the distance - or rather the closing of the distance - between heaven and earth?

Similarly, the painting by Georges de la Tour at right may help illuminate the story of Samuel's call, though it is generally identified as a different subject. The scene shows a young person standing before an older man whose eyes are closed. In the older man's lap is an open book. The painting is titled "The Dream of Joseph", though some scholars are unconvinced that the identification is correct. They point to the fact that Joseph is usually identified by carpenters' tools. Joseph is rarely (never?) depicted as a man of books. The correspondence of composition, however, might highlight notable differences in the stories.

One of the reasons why the subject attribution seems suspect is that the youth in this picture does not seem to be Gabriel, God's angel messenger. Yet if this is Samuel, he is, indeed, being called to serve God. What does this say about those who are called by God?

Consider, too, the gesture of the left hand of the Samuel/angel figure. What does this gesture say to you? Is it a gesture of waking and warning? Or is it a gesture of confusion or maybe even acceptance - "Here I am..." What title would you give this painting (c. 1640. Musee des Beaux Arts, Nantes, France.

Sometimes the "almost" can help clarify what is, what isn't and what might be.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Epiphany 1B, click here.

Who (or what) is THAT? And what does he have to do with the gospel reading? Find out on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page by clicking here on the link below. 

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