A throne fit for a messiah: Daenerys Targaryen as a contemporary Christ

Today’s advent essay comes from Joanna Fountain, one of the students who took our Bible and Popular Culture course (THEOREL 101) earlier this year. Joanna has just completed her third year of studies towards her Bachelor of Arts degree, double majoring in history and classical studies. After university she hopes to become a published writer, encouraging future generations to get off their screens and read a book instead. Joanna enroled in Theorel 101 out of interest, and assures me that she  thoroughly enjoyed taking the course – and would highly recommend it!

Joanna’s essay touches on one of our more popular themes in the course – modern messiahs in pop culture. So read on, and enjoy.

game-thrones-daenerys-her-dragons-gifs

Protector of the Realm, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons: Daenerys Targaryen as a Christ Figure in Game of Thrones

by

Joanna Fountain

“This Mother of Dragons, this Breaker of Chains, is above all a rescuer.

-Tyrion Lannister, A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 5)

As Bruce David Forbes says, “religion appears not only in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; it also appears in popular culture” (2005, 1). Often appearing in the fantasy genre of literature and visual media, including film and television, is the common trope of a messianic protagonist who is very much the hero of the story. In George R. R. Martin’s fictional world of Westeros, there is no one singular protagonist, but in the character of Daenerys Targaryen are numerous indicators of a Christ figure. Such a figure appears in popular culture again and again, subsequently creating the concept of the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). In many ways, Daenerys Targaryen provides an implicit parallel to the biblical Christ as a secular counterpart. The circumstances surrounding multiple events in her life, the messianic symbols attached to her character, and her perceived image by others as a liberator and a powerful contender all bear a close resemblance to the Biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as told in the New Testament Gospels. This essay will seek to explain how Daenerys Targaryen both fulfils and sabotages the notion of the American Monomyth in the way that she is a messiah figure who operates outside the standard black and white paradigm, rather operating within shades of grey in her characterisation. Because this essay will discuss plot details of both Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present) and the HBO television series Game of Thrones (2011-present), spoilers will follow.
game-of-thrones-daenerys-dragonFig 1: Daenerys hatches three dragons in “Fire and Blood” (1.10)

According to the writings of John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett, the American Monomyth secularises “the Judaeo-Christian dramas of community redemption”, creating a character who embodies a combination of the ‘selfless servant’ who sacrifices their own needs for those of others and the ‘zealous crusader’ who triumphs over evil (2002, 6). The American Monomyth therefore serves the function in which a character in popular culture serves as a secular replacement to the Biblical Christ (ibid). What also is indicative of this supersaviour or the popular messiah is their justification for their use of violence for the greater good (5). These figures operate under a paradigm of black and white; the supersaviour is the light and good hero pitted against the bad villain. In terms of Daenerys’ character, she befits these prerequisites, but she is not wholly ‘good’ in the way she is portrayed. The constant use of warmongering imagery in her use of military might to free the slaves in Essos, and her unapologetic sexual appetites present her more as a character who operates in between the black and white paradigm, as a somewhat ‘anti-messiah’ who uses violence to fulfil and justify her noble task of freeing slaves. Constantly associated with Daenerys are the words ‘fire and blood’; words that do not necessarily match her with the image of the ‘perfect’ biblical Christ. But perhaps this is because Daenerys modernises and humanises the Christ figure of the American Monomyth concept. Therefore, this brutal side to her character is woven into the messiah rhetoric as a way of presenting a Christ figure who is flawed, humanised and relatable, thus shedding new light on the messianic individual of popular culture.

got2Fig 2: The Red Comet, seen in “The North Remembers” (2.01)

Robert Detweiler argues in his article ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’ that often in modern fiction the allegorical Christ figure offers the symbolic potential of Christ without the added implication of commitment to Christian faith (1964, 118). The likening of Daenerys Targaryen as a secular Christ figure is done implicitly in the way that the signs and symbols of the biblical messiah are translated into signs and symbols of Daenerys, the popular messiah. The first, and most obvious, of these is the Red Comet that appears in the sky soon after Daenerys successfully hatches three dragons from stone eggs (a ‘miracle’ in itself as the species were previously extinct). She even says herself in A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2): “[the comet] is the herald of my coming”. Such treatment of a comet signifying her “coming” immediately bears resemblance to the star that proclaimed the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament Gospels (Matthew 2.2-10, Luke 21.25). Additionally, both Daenerys and Christ are descended from a line of kings (Matthew 1), and both undergo a “resurrection”. As highlighted in Luke 24.46, there is the emphasis that the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ was foretold in the old teachings long before the coming of the messiah. Such a prophecy of the messiah has a similar treatment in the world of Game of Thrones. Mentioned numerous times in the books and in the television adaptation is the prophecy of Azor Ahai, also known as “the Lord’s chosen” and very much the Game of Thrones’ version of a prophesied messiah. According to Melisandre, a red priestess, in A Dance with Dragons, the coming of the prophesied Azor Ahai will be signified “when the red star bleeds” and this saviour will “be born again … to awake dragons out of stone”. All three of these signs occur in short succession with Daenerys walking into a burning pyre, only to be discovered the next morning sitting amongst the ashes of the fire, alive, and holding three baby dragons (fig 1), while the red comet (fig 2) appears very soon after. Though it has not been confirmed in either the books or the television series if Daenerys is in fact the prophesied Azor Ahai, she has nevertheless fulfilled these three parts to the prophecy. Regardless, the fact alone that the symbols associated with the biblical messiah are translated to symbols of Daenerys therefore provide the implication that she indeed represents a secular Christ within her own narrative.

game-of-thrones-season-3-episode-10-mhysa-daenerys

Fig 3: Daenerys proclaimed ‘mhysa’ (‘mother’) by the freed slaves of Yunkai in “Mhysa” (3.10)

Just as the biblical messiah’s noble task was to be a saviour to humankind, Daenerys Targaryen is again portrayed in a similar light in the way that her task to free all slaves in Slavers Bay makes her a saviour to many as a result. The aforementioned symbols of Daenerys as the popular messiah adds further justification to her role as a saviour. With three dragons in her possession, Daenerys becomes a powerful contender to those she considers her earthly enemies, in this case the slavers, and is able to wage war on them for their slaves’ freedom. In fact, this contempt for slavery is a common ideal in the Christ figure (Gunton 1985, 137, 143). This may be due to slavery often having strong connotations to sin in the Bible, particularly in the way that Jesus says in John 8.34 that mankind is “a slave to sin”. Therefore, it can be argued that Daenerys’ preoccupation with ending slavery takes a rather more literal interpretation of the biblical messiah’s task of liberating humankind from their sins. Daenerys’ resulting reputation as a saviour is best highlighted in the final scene of Game of Thrones’ third season in which she is proclaimed ‘mhysa’ by the freed slaves of Yunkai (fig. 3). The cinematography of the scene arguably bears some similarity to Jesus entering Jerusalem, declared a king (Luke 19.28-40). This image of Daenerys being surrounded by grateful slaves who declare her their “mhysa”, or “mother”, therefore provides the best visual justification as the “Breaker of Chains”, a liberator, and a saviour from “sin”.

got4Fig 4: A slave of Meereen beholds one of the many unlocked collars that Daenerys has catapulted over the city walls to show that all who follow her are freed in “Breaker of Chains” (4.03)

Hebrews 2.14-15 speaks about how Jesus Christ “shared in [mankind’s] humanity” so that “he might break the power of him who hold the power of death … and free those … held in slavery”. Therefore, Daenerys Targaryen is an equally human messiah with added flaws, and exists within the “grey areas” of the good/bad paradigm whose noble task is her attempts to liberate slaves in Essos, thus earning her a reputation as a saviour to those she frees. What further develops Daenerys as a popular messiah figure are the numerous implicit parallels of her character to the Biblical Christ of the New Testament Gospels, including messianic symbols and experiences. As a result, Daenerys Targaryen arguably serves as a secular counterpart to the Biblical Christ. But in the wide world of popular culture, Daenerys Targaryen is only one of many popular messiahs according to the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 3-5). This is perhaps because in a world that is becoming increasingly secular, popular culture is one of the ways that a secular audience may engage in religious themes. As Detweiler argues:

With the shift of interest away from religion and the relocation of values from the divine to the human sphere that have characterised the past one hundred years, the traits and mission have been transferred to man, so that for some writers the nature and intentions of Christ can be observed in any good, moral, or heroic person. (1964, 3-5)

Therefore, the American Monomyth serves to initiate a dialogue between religion and popular culture, so that readers of modern literature may learn about Jesus through a secular counterpart. Daenerys as the (theoretically) prophesied Azor Ahai parallels the Biblical prophesied messiah, just as her noble task to end slavery is a very literal adaptation of the Christ as a liberator of everyone who is a slave to sin. This is why Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen makes a great fictional, popular messiah to a secular culture seeking a saviour from the many growing tensions apparent in contemporary society.

 

game-of-thrones-wallpaper-daenerys-wallpaper-1

Bibliography

All references to biblical texts are taken from the NIV.

Detweiler, Robert. ‘Christ and the Christ Figure in American Fiction’. The Christian Scholar 47, no. 2 (1964): pp. 111-124.

Forbes, Bruce David. ‘Introduction: Finding Religion in Unexpected Places’. In Religion and Popular Culture in America: Revised Edition, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, pp. 1-20. University of California Press, 2005.

Game of Thrones. Television Series. Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. New York, NY: HBO, 2011-present.

Gunton, Colin. ‘“Christus Victor” Revisited: A Study in the Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning’. The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): pp. 129-145.

Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Lewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. W. B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Martin, George R. R. A Song of Ice and Fire. Bantam, 1996-present.

 

 

 

 

Spotlighting student work 5: Corbyn and Christ

Today’s wonderful student offering brings us into the realm of UK politics, considering the prophetic (and Christ-like) qualities of that political phenomenon du jour, Jeremy Corbyn. The author of this piece is Harriet Winn, a first year student here at the University of Auckland, who is doing a BA in History and Theological and Religious Studies. Harriet originally hails from West London but now lives in Wellington with her family. While she admits the future is ‘frighteningly ambiguous’, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism or writing of some sort that invoves her working with people to make the world a more egalitarian place.

So, whether or not you are familiar with the intricacies of British politics, read on and enjoy this fabulous discussion of the Christlike Corbyn.

jeremy jesusJeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ – liberators of the last, the lost, and the least

By Harriet Winn

Jeremy Corbyn is a political anomaly. The hard-left socialist entered the race for leadership of the UK Labour Party somewhat begrudgingly, spurred on by his moral conviction that the government ought to be doing more for those in need (Hattenstone 2015). Whilst he was initially the distinct underdog of the contest, Corbyn emerged as the people’s favourite. He was elected leader of the Labour Party on September 12th, 2015 with an astonishing 59.5% of the vote (Eaton 2015). Despite living centuries apart, Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ have an exceptional amount in common; primarily, both are unlikely pioneers of radical socio-political movements. As established by the Council of Nicea in c.325, Jesus was monumentally more than a prophet – he was fully divine, yet he also displayed many of the traits of an ordinary prophet (Migliore 1991, 62-63, 148). Marcus J. Borg asserts that prophets fundamentally challenge the status-quo, have a passion for social justice, emerge as a prophet from a context of oppression by elites, and possess a vision of hope (Borg 2001, 111-44). Like Christ, Corbyn was the instigator of a grassroots revolution that embodied these traits, a revolution that prioritised compassion and justice, and spoke the language of hope. Corbyn is a 21st century prophet.

jeremy futureProphets disturb what society deems ‘normal’; they challenge unquestioned assumptions and reject complacency (Borg 2001, 111). Like many prophets before him, Jesus disturbed the normalcy of life. Roman Palestine was a nation created and sustained by imperial violence; ‘it is increasingly clear that Roman military violence created the very conditions of and for Jesus’ mission’ (Horsley 2014, 54). Yet, in a culture permeated by violence, Jesus advocated for peace. As famously quoted in the Beatitudes; ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matt. 5:39). Jeremy Corbyn is also disruptive presence in the political sphere; he is rejuvenating politics by challenging the status quo and promoting peace. Corbyn takes a similar stance on violence and imperial war to Jesus; he is an ardent believer of pacifism.

jeremy stop the warLike Jesus, Corbyn does not just implicitly speak of pacifism – he actively engages in the advocacy and practice of it. ‘I have been very involved in the peace movement, the anti-nuclear campaign, the campaign against the Gulf war, the Afghan war…’ (Corbyn 2003, 39). Corbyn has made it exceedingly clear that he would never condone use of Trident: the UK’s nuclear weapon programme (Wintour 2015). His definitive stance on Trident has been interpreted by many of his opponents as threatening, a senior general from the UK military even insinuating that ‘the general staff would never allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of the country…’ (Eaton 2015). In a world where imperial violence and warfare is widespread and constant, Corbyn gives voice to a resonating and alternative rhetoric. Similarly to how Jesus’ radical values of non-violence unsettled Roman Palestine in the 1st century CE, Corbyn’s refreshing rhetoric moves against the grain of 21st century culture and politics.

Jeremy ladiesFurthermore, prophets have a passion for social justice (Borg 2001, 118-20). Central to Jesus’ ministry was the defence of those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Jesus’ ministry emphasised universality and inclusiveness (Braaten 2008, 167). Women in Roman Palestine were unquestionably inferior in status to men (Swidler 2007, 18). Yet, Jesus pioneered for the rights of women by teaching them the gospel; using examples of women doing good in his parables; choosing a woman to be the first witness of his resurrection; and by condemning misogynistic violence (John. 8:1-11) (Harrison and Richards 1996-7, 183). In the 21st century, the patriarchy continues to dominate and sexism still persists. Jeremy Corbyn pioneers for the rights of women and works earnestly to combat sexism and misogyny; 52% of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are women (Arnett 2015). By giving more than half of the top jobs in his political party to women, Corbyn showed that he not only believes in the equality of women, but he will actively pursue it. Moreover, Corbyn launched a campaign called ‘Working With Women’ in which he claimed that ‘we will never be a successful society in which all are able to achieve their potential until we have equality for women’ (Corbyn 2015b). Distinctive parallels on the inclusion of women exist between Jesus’ ministry and Corbyn’s political campaign.

jeremy childrenLike women, another group of overlooked individuals are children. Children are often ignored or not taken seriously. This was the case in Jesus’ lifetime, yet he spoke widely of the importance of children and the value that they offer to society; ‘Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”’ (Matt. 19:14). Just as the inclusion of children was a significant element of Jesus’ ministry, Corbyn also makes time for children in his political activity; ‘Corbyn proudly shows me one [a card] from the children of Duncombe Primary School in Islington, north London. “Please remember, just as you have always been there for us, we are there for you,” it reads’ (Eaton 2015). The legacy of Jeremy Corbyn will likely be one of prophetic and zealous commitment to striving for social justice for women and children.

jeremy hands aloftIn addition to challenging the status quo and being passionate about social justice, a fundamental aspect of prophecy is that it arises from a context of oppression of the vulnerable by the elites (Borg 2001, 127-28). Jesus regularly reinforced the idea that all humans are equal, and also exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matt. 23:1-39) – who were amongst the elites in the social hierarchy of Roman Palestine. In The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus said; ‘“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”’ (Matt. 20:16). Jesus emphasised the irrelevancy of social hierarchies and implied that the poorest, the most vulnerable of society would be valued most by him.

Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Apartheid rally, 1984
Jeremy Corbyn at an anti-Apartheid rally, 1984

Jeremy Corbyn also dismisses such rigid social hierarchies as harmful and unnecessary; he recognises that the government is firmly rooted in the ideals of neo-liberalism, which values a deregulated economy. Corbyn believes that the government’s preoccupation with austerity is partly due to neo-liberalism. He condemns both neo-liberalism and austerity and cites the latter as an excuse for the rich to oppress the poor (Corbyn 2015a). Contrary to the current Conservative government in the UK – who Corbyn identifies as elitist oppressors, Corbyn avidly believes in the ability of the welfare state to bring about better quality of life for the most vulnerable. Fuelling speculation about the divinity of Corbyn is his employment of biblical imagery when speaking of the welfare state; ‘…we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system… we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’ (Crossley 2015). Corbyn’s vision is one of egalitarian socialism: where the poor and vulnerable will be treated with the same dignity and respect as the elitist rulers.jeremy refugeses

Both Jesus and Jeremy Corbyn also perpetuate a narrative of hope – hope is the language of a prosperous future (Borg 2001, 130). Hope is a recurring theme in Jesus’ sermons. Even when not mentioned explicitly, the topics broached by Jesus evoked hope in the oppressed by presenting a radical new way of living and thinking. Jesus’ narrative of hope is found most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:3-5). Jeremy Corbyn’s political mandate is commonly referred to by his supporters as ‘politics of hope’ (Chakrabortty 2015). Thus, to his supporters – many of whom suffer social deprivation, he is an explicit icon of hope: a prophet. Corbyn speaks of themes which are similar to those evident in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘…even his biggest fans admit he can’t open his mouth without expressing the need for peace, justice and solidarity’ (Hattenstone 2015).

jeremy bikeYet, Corbyn does not just talk about hope – he is a living embodiment of the term. Much of English society has grown cynical with politicians, and this can be seen in the waning voter turnout, which has been in steady decline since 1992 (Electoral Commission 2015). The deep-rooted cynicism towards politicians can be attributed to a plethora of reasons, but one of the most compelling is the expenses scandal of 2009, in which many MPs claimed the mortgages of their second houses on parliamentary expenses (Rogers 2009). During this scandal, Corbyn emerged as a man of integrity and a politician who practiced what he preached; ‘…it was reported that he had the lowest claim in the Commons – £8.96 for a printer cartridge’ (Hattenstone 2015). Corbyn does not only instil a sense of hope in his supporters that through him they will receive a better quality of life – he regenerates faith in the political system. Through Corbyn’s commitment to the underprivileged faction of British society, and through his integrity, he has cultivated a narrative of hope.

jeremy hope

Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ: unassuming, pacifist warriors of social justice and hope. The similarities between the two men are pervasive and suggest that if Jesus walked earth today, he and Corbyn would have much to talk about. Corbyn is decidedly a contemporary prophet; he embodies the traits identified by Borg. Yet Corbyn surpasses prophetic status to something more potent – he is saviour-like; he resembles Jesus Christ. The similarities are uncanny; ‘Dichotomies don’t come much starker: the new leader of Britain’s left is either delusional or a saviour’ (Chakrabortty 2015). After all, even their initials suggest a divine affiliation…

Kaya Mar, Jesus of Islington, 2015
Kaya Mar, Jesus of Islington, 2015

Bibliography

 All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV, unless otherwise stated.

Arnett, George. “Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – older, more rebellious and less male.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.

Braaten, Carl E. That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

Braaten, Carl E. Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.

Chakrabortty, Aditya. “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics of hope can seize power from the elite.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.

Corbyn, Jeremy. “Rogue States.” In Anti Imperialism: a guide for the movement, edited by Farah Reza, 33-41. London: Bookmarks, 2003.

Corbyn, Jeremy. “Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Britain can’t cut its way to prosperity. We have to build it.’” The Guardian, September 13, 2015a.

Corbyn, Jeremy. “Working With Women.” Paper presented to the Labour Party, July 28, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015b.

http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/working_with_women

Crossley, James G. “Jeremy Corbyn and the Radical Bible”. Harnessing Chaos. Accessed October 8, 2015.

https://historicalchaos.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/jeremy-corbyn-and-the-radical-bible/

Crossley, James G. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Eaton, George. “Jeremy Corbyn interview: the leader strikes back”, New Statesman, September 23, 2015.

Harrison, B. Kent, and Mary Stovall Richards. “Feminism in the Light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Brigham Young University Studies 36, no.2 (1996-97) : 181-199. Accessed October 8, 2015.

http://www.jstor.org/stable/43041998?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Hattenstone, Simon. “Jeremy Corbyn: ‘I don’t do personal.’” The Guardian, June 17, 2015.

Horsely, Richard A. Jesus and the politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.

Lonergan, Bernard. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, Volume 11: The Triune God: Doctrines. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Pyper, Hugh S. The Unchained Bible: Cultural Appropriations of Biblical Texts. New York: T & T Clark International, 2012.

Rogers, Simon. “MPs’ expenses: all the revelations, as a spreadsheet.” The Guardian, June 18, 2009.

http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2009/may/13/mps-expenses-houseofcommons

Swidler, Leonard. Jesus Was A Feminist. Plymouth: Sheen & Ward, 2007.

“Electoral Data.” The Electoral Commission. Accessed October 8, 2015.

http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/our-work/our-research/electoral-data

“Jeremy Corbyn wins Labour leadership contest and vows ‘fightback.’” BBC. Accessed October 8, 2015.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-34223157

Advent offering 13 December

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.

woman taken in adultery
Rembrandt, The Woman Taken in Adultery (1644)

Advent offering – 18 December

Image
niddy noddy, or yarnwinder

Following yesterday’s post where we saw a candlelit Mary Magdalene, today’s advent offering focuses on another New Testament Mary – Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder (also known as Madonna of the Spindles, c.1501). As as a keen knitter, the title of this painting fascinates me. The yarn winder (also known as a niddy noddy to modern yarn crafters) is used to gather spun yarn into tidy skeins before it is knit or woven.

Da Vinci’s painting shows the infant Jesus holding tightly onto the yarn winder and gazing at its cross-like shape with both fascination and some tenderness. He has wriggled away from his mother’s grasp, giving his full attention to the object he holds, suggesting perhaps his awareness and acceptance, even at this young age, of the inevitable events that await him later in life. Mary, meanwhile, raises her right hand in a gesture that conveys some alarm – does she want to take this cruciform object away from her infant son, sparing him the horror of its significance? Yet, her face is calm and also a little sad; looking gently at the boy, perhaps she, like him, realises that the future is destined and that her son’s story – his beginning and his end – has already been spun, wound, and woven into human history.

Image
Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the Yarnwinder (c.1501)