Sunday, March 5, 2017

John 3.1-17: Nicodemus

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-17, Lent 2A). Their conversation included some of the most familiar - and contested - words in scripture about being born again - or born from above. The meaning of their conversation is not as easily interpreted by visual artists, but the setting and staging of the visit offers food for visual thought.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) painted Nicodemus' visit to Jesus. Along the way to his final composition he painted several different studies. Some things change; others are consistent through all versions. The changes and the consistencies help tell the story.

In all three works here (two studies and a completed oil), the conversation appears to take place outside, on the roof of a house. In all compositions, Jesus sits with his back to the cityscape. Nicodemus, in looking at Jesus, looks out over the people and buildings of the city. In the finished oil, Jesus' face is a warmer tone than that of Nicodemus. Jesus' face is highlighted by the golden light that shines up the stairs. Nicodemus, by contrast, is shaded in the cool blue-gray of the night.
Henry O. Tanner. Nicodemus. 1899. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the study below, the scene, and Christ especially is noticeably brighter. Christ's light garment is generally illuminated, turning the garment a cool light gray. Nicodemus' garments are darker than the night sky. The roof pavement is still smooth, but the wall and cityscape behind Jesus shows a lack of detail. There is a dark form on the right side of the composition, balancing Nicodemus' shape. 
Henry O. Tanner. Study for Nicodemus on a Rooftop. c. 1923. Oil on panel.
Henry O. Tanner. Study for Nicodemus. Private Collection.
In the second study, Jesus and Nicodemus are dark shapes against a lighter background. In this version, Jesus' head is backlit by a brightly shining halo. Certainly in this version, the identity of Jesus as the Christ seems more obvious. Nicodemus should not question the credentials of this new teacher. The glowing halo would lend credence to Jesus' words. In this version, the wall on which Jesus sits is defined and there is what appears to be an architectural structure at the left of the composition.

Tanner's affinity for this subject springs in part from his own consciousness. Nicodemus' visit at night called to mind the worship habits of African-American slaves. Even after emancipation, freed slaves continued to meet at night as they had done when they were not free to read scripture and worship.

The top image is signed "H.O. Tanner, Jerusalem, 1899." The artist spent almost a year in Palestine, absorbing the places where Jesus walked, painting and learning the landscape in order to add authenticity to his work. Yet he makes changes as he paints, as if the authoritative version has not yet been painted.

The several versions leave us with questions about how to interpret the story and the paintings. The questions can help our interpretation. So ask yourself...which figure - Nicodemus or Jesus - is shadowed and which is in light as we read the story? Is there something - like a halo - that sets Jesus apart as not-of-this-world? Why is Jesus' back always to the city? Why does Nicodemus always look at Jesus and see the town in the background? Why - if Nicodemus is so afraid of being found out at visiting Jesus - is the meeting outdoors? What do the levels of the two heads tell us? Is Nicodemus way below Jesus or about level with Jesus?

Which version do you find best interprets the story of Nicodemus?

Check this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for another time where Nicodemus and Jesus appear together.

For thoughts on Isaiah's call (Isaiah 6:1-8), click here.

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