“Christ in the Desert” (1872) is an oil painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi and depicts the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt. 4.1-11).
Aesthetically, the painting uses cold colours, shows Jesus in deep contemplation or perhaps experiencing angst. It envisages Jesus as a vulnerable, human figure, which is unusual and even provocative for people who are much more used to seeing the glorified, exalted Jesus in Christian art and through popular culture.
You may recognize the image from the cover of my book The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (2014). For me, the image encapsulates the destitution, desperation and alienation from normalized society that is integral to a critical understanding of Jesus’ homelessness. It also undermines to a certain extent the “romanticizing” of Jesus’ homelessness that typically occurs in scholarly interpretations of his itinerancy. Within Matthew, the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness is the second cycle of homelessness in which Jesus is “forcefully displaced” (the first being the flight to Egypt in 2.13-23) — although this time not by political adversaries but by “the Spirit of God” which leads him out into the wilderness where he is tested. It is immediately following this period of testing and withdrawal that Jesus inaugurates his itinerant mission.
Last year, I began the advent calendar with one of my favourite paintings by one of my favourite artists – Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt (find the post here). Recounted in the Hebrew Bible book of Daniel chapter 5, it is a fantastic story of ghostly hands, supernatural writing, and knee-trembling terror, all wrapped up in an atmosphere of gothic horror that’s a delight both to read and to imagine. So, for today’s advent offering – as it’s the season for feasts and parties – let me return to this biblical tradition and present you with another wonderful image that depicts it, painted this time by English Romantic artist John Martin. Martin’s visual retelling of this story captures both the sumptuous OTT opulence of King Belshazzar’s feast and the absolute mayhem that ensued once the disembodied hand began to graffiti the palace walls. As yesterday, I’d encourage you to follow this link to find the painting on Wikimedia Commons and then click to enlarge it. The detail you see is incredible – the glint of gold and precious jewels on the dress of the swooning queen, the glistening fruits piled up in shiny gold and silver bowls, the flickering candle flames lining the dining tables that seem to stretch back to infinity in this outrageously huge palace banquet hall. And the sky, just look at that sky – with its crackling lightening and ominous moon, it saturates this painting with a sense of sinister threat and impending disaster. Only Daniel, who stands still and calm in the midst of the melee, seems to offer the party guests any sense of stability or hope of surviving these terrifying events. Little wonder then that they crowd around him, seeking his protection.
The drama of the Daniel story is almost palpable in this image and we viewers may be glad that we are at a safe distance from the eerie events that are unfolding. Yet, at the same time, it is a thrilling scene that we encounter here and one I always wish I could witness just a little closer, taking in the scents, sounds, and sights of Martin’s feast with all my senses.
Last year, you may recall we did daily blog posts throughout the season of Advent, showcasing some wonderful biblical art. This year, I thought we’d do it again as quite a few readers seemed to enjoy the daily Advent offering. Now, I realise I’m a day late with this (nearly two days late in the southern hemisphere) but I’ve been travelling of late and this particular chore on my ‘to do list’ somehow escaped my mind. Better late than never, though. To start us off in style, and to make up for my tardiness, two images from 15th Century Netherlandish artist Hans Memling. The first is titled ‘The Advent and Triumph of Christ’ (an apt work then, to begin with), originally made for an altar in Our Lady’s Church, Bruges. The incredibly detailed painting portrays twenty five scenes from the life of Jesus, as depicted in the gospels and Christian traditions, from the annunciation and nativity through to the passion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost. If you look at the work here, you can enlarge the image and see some of the fabulous detail more closely.
The second work by Memling I’d like to share with you is his portrayal of musical angels (an image oft reproduced on Christmas cards). This is a panel from a huge altarpiece that once graced the monastery church of Santa Maria la Real in the Spanish town of Nájera. While some of the panels have since been lost, three remain, and this is my favourite. The angels all look so intent on their musical endeavours and their instruments are a pleasing mix of string, woodwind, and brass. I always associate Advent with music and singing, so it seems apt to have this at the start of our Advent offerings. I wonder what tune they’re playing?