I’ve spent the morning researching the tradition of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) in literature, so thought I’d share an image drawn from one particular afterlife of this biblical story that particularly caught my eye. François-Nicolas Chifflart’s stunning painting La Conscience portrays a scene from Victor Hugo’s poem of the same name (read it here). The poem traces the long and desperate flight of Cain with his family after he has murdered his brother Abel; in particular, we see his fruitless and increasingly desperate attempts to escape the wrath of the deity. Yet, despite his best efforts, there will be no peace for Cain; for, he is followed wherever he goes by the ‘Eye of God’, its oppressive presence ensuring his continued torment and terror. A symbol perhaps of his guilty conscience, the divine eye is even there after Cain seals himself in an underground tomb, “As a lone man within his sepulchre.” The tone of the poem is one of gut-gnawing anxiety, as we run alongside the increasingly desperate Cain on his search for asylum. And, going by the image Chifflart presents us with, we can all too easily understand his terror and, perhaps, even sympathise with him.
A beautiful, reflective image for today’s advent offering – a painting of Israel’s King David by Yorkshire artist Frederick Leighton. Rather than depicting the king robed in splendour or engaged in some high-powered affair of state, Leighton presents us with a man who, on this cool evening, has cast aside his crown (weary, perhaps, of his royal responsibilities) and who sits on the roof top, contemplating the grey clouds that are jostling their way into his horizon. Certainly, we need only read II Samuel to know that David’s life had more than its fair share of clouds (many of which he invited in himself). And yet here, perhaps, he is also looking beyond them, to the glorious sun-soaked golden clouds that stretch out in the distance and to those two doves, hovering in the twilight sky, who, perhaps, represent for Leighton’s David that glorious, untrammelled sense of liberty and peace of mind, which, as King of Israel, he can only dream of.
O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.”(Psalm 55:6-8)
For today’s advent offering, I’m returning to the marvellous Rembrandt for another of his stunning portrayals of a biblical narrative (I can’t help it, I think his work is wonderful). The Woman Taken in Adultery depicts the tradition found in the gospel of John 8.3-7, where the scribes and Pharisees try to trick Jesus into condoning Torah disobedience. Presenting Jesus with a woman who has apparently been ‘caught’ in an adulterous scenario, they ask him whether or not she should be stoned. In response, John’s Jesus delivers that well-kent phrase that has since entered the public consciousness of popular culture: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. In other words, don’t be such a hypocrite to condemn someone for their wrongdoings when all the time, your wrongdoings are just as bad, if not worse.
Rembrandt’s depiction of this tradition is absolutely delicious in its use of colour, shade and texture. The muted tones conjure up the cool shadows of the temple, while glimmers of gold around the temple throne as well as the plush velvets of some of the onlookers’ costumes bring a sense of richness and opulence that befits this ostentatious setting – just see how the jewel on the hat of the chap standing nearest us on our right winks brightly in the light (for a lovely enlarged image of this painting, click here). The figure of Jesus seems to loom head and shoulders over the other temple-goers, Rembrandt suggesting, perhaps, Jesus’ superiority (intellectual and moral) over those trying to trick him here. Moreover, while most people stand in the shadows or semi-shadows, Jesus, by contrast, is positively spot-lit as he stares impassively at the woman kneeling before him. Rembrandt’s Jesus is obviously ‘enlightened’ compared to those temple companions and religious leaders who share this scene with him.
Interestingly, the woman too shares some of this spotlight – we can see all too clearly that her head is bowed, her face pained, her eyes red from crying. In her white dress and veil, she looks almost bridal, or perhaps virginal – is Rembrandt hinting here that she is innocent of the charges laid against her? Certainly, according to the gospel tradition, her guilt is taken for granted, as Jesus tells her to ‘go and sin no more’. He may not wish to see her punished, but in his eyes, she’s a wrongdoer nonetheless. Yet, looking at Rembrandt’s portrayal here, we may instead prefer to see her as an innocent victim of a game of one-upmanship played by those religious leaders who wear their power like a peacocky velvet cloak but whose humanity and empathy are lost in the shadows.
I’ve been over in the UK the past couple of months and just arrived back in NZ this morning. So, as I’ve been airborne for most of the past day and a bit, I felt it only apt that today’s advent offering should depict a winged creature. J.W. Waterhouse’s painting, The Annunciation, offers us a vision of Mary’s visitation by the angel Gabriel as told in the Second Testament book of Luke 1:26-38. Waterhouse has added some interesting details to this gospel tradition – Mary appears to have been spinning yarn before Gabriel appeared to her. There is also what looks like a Torah scroll on a stand to her left. Perhaps she was doing some scriptural study?
Moreover, dressed in a gorgeous deep lilac tunic with red trim, Mary also appears to be connected visually to the angelic form who stands before her. For, compared with more traditional depictions of angels in art, Gabriel is not swathed in white, but in various violet tones; even the wings are a lush indigo. And, unlike the angelic figure we read about in Luke, this divine messenger appears to be female. Perhaps Waterhouse wanted to suggest the possibility of a bonding between these two characters – a shared understanding of the news being imparted and the implications that it would bring to this young Jewish woman. Mary does look aghast at the news of her impending pregnancy, but the angel’s placating stance, her gift of white flowers, and her shared feminine identity (which is also accentuated by the women’s matching dress colours) allows Waterhouse to depict this dramatic scene as a visit by one friend to another, rather than a traumatic intrusion of the heavenly into Mary’s thus-far peaceful earthly existence.
For whatever reason, New Zealand has largely been spared the Christmas-wars that blemish American public debate at this time of year. There doesn’t seem to be any of that pointy-elbowed policing of appropriate greetings (happy holidays, anyone?); rural towns erect public manger scenes and global soft-drink corporations bankroll “Christmas in the Park” without it ever coming to litigation. A multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cultural crowd pours out onto the streets of Auckland to watch Santa go by.
Even so, as surely as Christmas will bring sweaty, harassed throngs to the suburban shopping malls for the next two weekends, it will bring forth a phalanx of pundits keen to hector you about the “authenticity” of your Christmas.
Saint Matthews will erect a controversial billboard whose tacit message is that no-one in Auckland thinks about Christmas in as penetrating and perceptive a manner as Saint Matthews. A local clergyman will write an op-ed for a local paper reminding you that Christmas is not, after all, all about shopping. Some public-spirited individual will inform you (just in case you had forgotten) that Christmas is really a “pagan” feast that was kidnapped by the Christians. Someone will ineffectually lament (for at least the 200th time in two-hundred years of Christmas in New Zealand) that it just doesn’t seem right to celebrate a winter festival in the middle of summer.
But there is one thing on which all festive pundits find themselves in agreement: whatever you thought you were doing, you’re doing it wrong, and you should all feel very, very guilty.
So let me do what I can as an historian to relieve you of this burden: there has never been one, true, cast-iron, copper-bottomed, quality-assured, officially-approved, democratically-ratified “reason for the season.” In the whole of the history of Christmas – as in the history of any tradition – there have always been multiple “reasons” jockeying for top-billing, and, as far as I know, none of those reasons has ever had Christmas completely to itself.
By way of example, I want to look at couple of these prescriptive Christmas “myths” – one from the religious side and one from the less religious. I’ll look at the first in this post, and if Caroline has nothing else planned, I’ll look at the second myth some time next week.
The first “myth” involves the decline and fall of Christmas, and it goes more-or-less like this: the Christmas of olden-times (exactly when remains unspecified) was a decorous, wholesome and reverent affair, a bit like Dickens’s Christmas Tale but with more church-going. Later, though, (again unspecified) it became a season of crass excess and commercialism, in which Jesus was largely forgotten.
This overlooks a couple of things – both of which were recently brought back home to me by Alison Clarke’s book Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand, and by a talk given by Peter Lineham at the recent conference of the Religious History Association of Aotearoa-New Zealand.
The first is that, in early 19th century New Zealand, Christmas was not a “Christian” feast. It was a Catholic, Anglican, and (to a lesser extent) Methodist feast. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and others sternly disapproved of it. As far as Presbyterians were concerned, Christians were commanded to observe only the (Christian) sabbath. Any other observance (and for Presbyterians this included Easter) was idolatry- or worse, popery. Unlike even Easter, Christmas wasn’t even given an approximate date in the biblical account. So observing it involved an embarrassing concession to tradition, and, again, to popery. So in Otago Scots and Irish Presbyterians punctilious worked on Christmas Day, while their English and Irish Catholic counterparts took an unofficial day off.
Even for those who celebrated Christmas, it was never just, or even primarily a religious feast. As Alison Clarke observes, when the first English settlers arrived in New Zealand – i.e. the traders, whalers and sailors – their Christmas was:
a rowdier community event, which featured, alongside special church services, various forms of carnival and misrule… Above all it was a time for eating and drinking in abundance (Clarke, 26)
A number of accounts of early Christmases in New Zealand note its association with over-eating, swearing, brawling and catatonic drunkenness. While there were no doubt more temperate celebrations, it was never a straightforward case of Jesus being “the reason for the season.”
As with many other aspects of 19th century life, Christmas was gradually “tamed” and drawn into the cult of domesticity promoted, above all, by the royal family. It’s to the second half of the nineteenth century that we owe Christmas as a “family” feast, focussed on children, presents under the Christmas tree, and elaborate church services with the singing of Christmas carols. Some Protestant churches even set up a Christmas crib – an idolatrous appurtenance to which their ancestors would have taken an axe. As with the revival of gothic architecture in this period, the Victorians made their newly wholesome Christmas seem timeless. It was anything but.
So, as Peter Lineham remarked in his own recent paper, the late 19th century saw all of the churches trying to hitch their wagons to was an increasingly popular and commercially successful feast. Even the Presbyterians eventually relented. By the the 1890s some of the racier Presbyterian congregations were holding Christmas services, though these celebrations were not approved by the Church as a whole until 1932.
Finally, as the Christmas cards suggest, earlier New Zealand Christmases were not nearly as attached to the wintery trappings of Christmas as our shopping malls are today. Santa, reindeer etc. emerged not from Britain, but from America in the late 19th century, and began to feature prominently in the imagery of the New Zealand feast from that point on. But as you can see from the pictures below, Pakeha settlers were happy to experiment with clover, ferns and cabbage trees.
There is no take-home lesson from any of this. If there were, I would have become just another Christmas pundit. All I can do is hope that your Christmas is free from the burdens of guilt, reproach and subtle disapproval that we all lay upon each other at this time of year. If the even Presbyterians can learn to enjoy themselves, there’s hope for us all.
“The Deserter” by Boardman Robinson is an anti-war cartoon from 1916 which depicts Jesus up against a stone wall facing a firing squad made up of soldiers from five different European countries. While at the time of its publication the USA had not yet entered the First World War, Robinson’s cartoon was a statement against the mounting pressure for it to partake.
As well as being an editorial cartoonist, Robinson was a socialist. At the outbreak of the war Robinson resigned from his job at the New York Tribune and began to produce cartoons for the left-wing magazine, The Masses. After the USA entered the war in 1917, The Masses came under increasing pressure from the government for its anti-war cartoons. In July, it was claimed by the authorities that Robinson’s cartoons violated the Espionage Act, under which it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. Along with a few others, Robinson was arrested for treason and was put on trial twice, although both trials resulted in hung juries.
Following on from yesterday’s Edenic splendour, today’s advent offering shows us the stark outcome of the earth-covering deluge, depicted in the traditions of Genesis 6-9. Cole Thomas’s work, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), present us with an earth that has taken a beating after the divinely-ordained flood. Gone are the flowers, the lush grass, the myriad of creatures that populated the earth. All that’s left are sharp, craggy, lifeless rocks and the drenched remnants of long-dead vegetation. The flood narrative relates the ‘uncreation’ of the earth and, eventually, its recreation. But the new earth is a sorry sight in Thomas’s painting – an eerie stillness testifies volubly to the fact that there is no life left. Even the ark, that microcosm of the created order allowed to survive, is nowhere yet in sight. We are reminded that the God of this tradition has been filled with such pain and regret at the mess of his creation that he takes the radical step of seeking to start anew. And yes, new life does follow the death-bringing deluge, but this image reminds us that such new life came at quite a cost.
Today’s advent offering is related a little to yesterday’s in that I’ve chosen a painting by English painter Thomas Cole that shows us his vision of the Garden of Eden. The first thing I noticed about this painting was the artist’s focus on the geographical or earthly features of the garden, rather than the living creatures that we so often see depicted within it [for a lovely example, see my previous blog post here]. And, instead of being a very enclosed or limited area, as it is sometimes depicted in artworks, the garden seems to stretch out infinitely, from a still pond, to flower-bordered lush grass, and on, into the distance where towering mountains and majestic waterfalls dominate our view. Adam and Eve – frolicking in the background – seem positively dwarfed by the sheer abundance of space and land, reminding the viewer that the deity’s creativity in Genesis 2 is as much about the creation of the physical earth as it is about human and animal life. As the artist himself wrote in a letter, “I have endeavored to conceive a happy spot where all the beautiful objects of nature were concentered.” Certainly, Adam and Eve seem more than delighted with their (temporary) home, unspoiled as it is by human interference, destruction, and control. And perhaps that is in itself a wee taste of paradise we can all enjoy – being able to witness those unspoiled pockets of the natural world, delighting in the sheer beauty of their untouched splendour.
For today’s advent offering, something a little different. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen recently and one of the highlights of my visit was a trip to the Carlsberg Glypotek art museum. This museum has the most amazing collection of 19th and 20th Century European art and sculpture, including many works by Scandinavian artists. The sculpture galleries especially took my breath away, but one particular work really caught my eye: Paradise Lost by 19th Century painter and sculptor Jean Gautherin. The sculpture presents us with a depiction of Adam and Eve post-Fall, a common enough motif for artists throughout the centuries. Yet what is different about this art work is the dynamic we observe between the two subjects. In the biblical tradition of Genesis 3, once the couple’s act of disobedience is discovered by God, Adam’s initial response is to blame his female partner: ‘The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”‘ (3:12). There is no sense of shared responsibility, and the author leaves unspoken the emotions and reactions of the couple after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This missing element to the story is the focus on Gautherin’s work and he explores it in what I think is a fascinating way.
Adam and Eve sit together, lost in a moment of bewilderment. Eve’s face is engraved with pain, disbelief, and slack-jawed regret. She stares ahead of her, as though not quite sure what has just happened, unable to fully understand the immensity of the deity’s response to their fruity disobedience. Perhaps, as the biblical tradition may itself hint at, she feels the more responsible of the two for the catastrophe that has just occurred. Perhaps she’s playing back in her mind that conversation with the snake, that fatal bite, that divine response, wondering why she acted as she did and, even more tragically, what might have been had she not. Regret is the bitterest of pills to swallow. Adam, meanwhile, appears to show an emotional side of him that we just don’t hear in the biblical tradition. His arms gently circling his devastated partner, he shows only care and concern for her. His eyes resting upon her, he seems to be focused only on her grief, rather than his own sense of loss. God is nowhere in this sculpture, just his two creatures, left alone, East of Eden, to experience for the first time the human curses of regret, loss, and grief, but perhaps also to share for the first time those immensely precious gifts of consolation, empathy and concern for the Other.
Today’s advent image is from that master artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. The painting I’ve chosen is Saul and David, which depicts the narrative found in I Samuel 16. Saul, stricken by evil spirits inflicted upon him by God, finds solace only in the musical therapy offered by David’s harp playing. The scene we see here is incredibly tranquil – you can almost hear the soothing melody coming from the instrument being plucked intently by the young David, who sits, totally engrossed in his musical endeavours. Saul, meanwhile, rests beside him, still clearly distressed despite the music he is listening to, and wiping away tears that run down his cheek. The dark background gives the painting a sombre feel – there is quiet, there is music, but there is great sadness too. The utter tragedy that wraps around the entire narrative of Saul like his heavy brocade cloak is almost palpable. And, all too soon, the relationship between these two men will shatter into a thousand moments of hostility, distrust, and threat. Best leave them then, caught in this peaceful moment, a king and a musician sharing their love for melodies that soothe the soul.