Sunday, February 7, 2016

Luke 4.1-13: Wilderness

Wilderness is, I suppose, different things to different people. In the gospel reading for Lent 1C (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus moves from his baptism at the Jordan River into the wilderness where he is tempted for forty days. Most images show Jesus on the edge of a desert. He faces an empty landscape, spare cliffs, rock-strewn ground and a blazing sun. Perhaps he stands on one of those rocky cliffs and looks out. That's what we expect to see. But it isn't always the case.

One of the images below is Christ in the wilderness. All three show a single person - a man - sitting near or underneath a tree, surrounded by animals. At a first glance, do any of them show the wilderness as you imagine it?
                                                                        Picture identifications and links below. 
The left image, from the Paris Psalter, illustrates David singing and composing psalms. The image on the right is a Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus, the mythological musician whose ability to play the lyre could charm animals and humans alike. The middle image, remarkably similar in composition to the other two, is a painting of Christ in the wilderness. 

The artist was the painter known as Moretto da Brescia (real name Alessandro Bovicino). This canvas is a fragment of a larger piece and shows the rocky landscape one would expect of this subject. However it is dominated by cool tones rather than the warm colors typical of a desert. The wild animals surrounding Jesus are also an unusual addition to the composition.

Each of the animals is probably included because of its traditional symbolism in Christian art. Moving counter-clockwise from Jesus is a crane or stork (both birds are symbols of vigilance), a white dove (probably symbolizing the Holy Spirit which had descended on Jesus at his baptism), a dark bird that may be a raven (symbolizing the Devil) or an eagle (which has a variety of meanings..everything from the new life received at baptism to a ravisher of souls because it is a bird of prey), a stag (which sometimes symbolizes solitude because it lives in remote mountains). At the center of the composition there seems to be a basilisk (a half rooster-half snake that in its earliest form symbolized the Devil or the Antichrist), a fox (symbolizing guile and cunning and therefore the Devil) and perhaps a goat (which may refer to the scapegoat which was driven into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement...Leviticus 16). The other animals will also have symbolic meanings that illuminate Christ's 40 days.

It may be that when Christ stands on the edge of the desert, the landscape looks so foreboding that we forget Christ's difficulties came from more than heat and desert. The temptations faced by Jesus are tendencies already inside every human, and they can appear in any landscape.

(Left) David Playing the Harp. Paris Psalter (MS. gr. 139). 10th century. Paris: Bibliotheque nationale de France. (Center) Moretto da Brescia. Christ in the Wilderness. c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (Right) Orpheus with animals. Roman mosaic, from Building A of the Piazza della Vittoria in Palermo. c 200-250 CE.

Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page below for a poetry connection to Moretto's painting.
For additional thoughts on Luke 4:1-13, click here.

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