Sunday, March 1, 2015

John 2.13-22: Not in Front of the Children!

What do we do with the Jesus in the gospel reading for Lent 3B? John 2:13-22 shows us a side of Jesus that is rarely seen. Perhaps because it's not often seen, it's not always successfully depicted. The action is in the turning over and driving out, so a single stop-action art image doesn't always capture the unexpected ferocity.

Giotto created a panel with this subject in his series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. That the artist chose this subject is interesting because of the chapel's history. Commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, the chapel honors the Scrovegni family, a family that made its fortune in banking by, as was a usual if not especially moral banking practice at the time, charging usurious interest rates. So well-known a usurer was Reginaldo Scrovegni (Enrico's father), that he appears in the seventh ring of Hell in Dante's Inferno. If the chapel was built to atone for family sins, the choice of this episode brings pause.

Giotto's version of this story is much like others': animals and cages, people standing, architectural enclosures. Jesus has indeed made a whip, though it is quite light and not easily seen from a distance. Because the whip is barely visible, Jesus appears to be preparing to throw a punch. The whip is also short - looking more like a swinging necklace than something that would make grown men turn and run. To the right side of the composition, temple officials are huddled with their heads together, no doubt censuring and criticizing.

Giotto di Bondone. Expulsion of the Merchants. c. 1305. Padua: Scrovegni Chapel.
Consider, though, what is happening at the left. Jesus' eyes, his arms and his energy are all moving toward the right, but at the left are the disciples. Identifiable across the fresco cycle by their halos and clothing, the disciples offer shelter and comfort to two children who are moving away from Jesus. A child holding a dove stands in front of Peter. The child is not completely painted and fades into ghostliness. The other child's face is completely hidden in the robe of another disciple, a small hand clutching a fistful of tunic, while the disciple puts a comforting hand on the child's shoulder and back.
Wait! Wasn't it the other way around earlier? In the synoptic gospels the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus, but Jesus calls them to himself. (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17) Here, though, the disciples are the ones who console the children. What are we to do with Jesus in this text?

Art&Faith Matters Facebook post uses Hieronymous Bosch's painting "The Ship of Fools" as an entree into the Epistle reading for Lent 3B. 

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