Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Simeon’s Song

Rembrandt - Simeon With Christ ChildMalcolm Gordon, a dear friend of mine and the engine behind the very exciting One Voice Project, wrote and recorded a new song last night based on Luke 2.25–31. It’s called ‘Simeon’s Song’, and about which he writes:

‘I wrote it for the youth group who are having a worship night tonight and wanted to reflect on this story as a turning point between anticipation and celebration. I’ll probably play it at the midnight Christmas Eve service at St Peters too, hence the night/darkness themes’.

I thought it was worth sharing here too; so, with Malcs’ permission, here ‘tis:

Rembrandt - Simeon's Song Of Praise 1661I’m just an old man
With an ancient conviction
That God is troubled by our pain

I have no wisdom
Just a fool’s expectation
That God will come to our aid

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

I’m just a lone voice
Frail in the darkness
But the night can only last so long

I’m just a watchmen
Eyes to the distance
Waiting for heaven’s light to show

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not strayed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

He’s just a small child
From nowhere special
But something tells me, this is it

My heart’s desire
My world’s salvation
A candle in this darkness has been lit

Through prayer and through pain
My hope has not changed
Keep watch with me
My soul aches for dawn
My heart stretched and worn
Keep watch with me
O my Lord
O my friend

God can I go to sleep now
I’ve stayed awake to the sunrise
With my failing eyes
I see through Love’s disguise
In my arms I hold the world.

Note: Malcolm has made the link to the song downloadable so if folk want to use it (or one of the other songs available here) for a church service, or for personal reflection, it’s there to be had. Share the love!

Barth on visual representations of Jesus

Rembrandt - Portrait of Christ's Head (1650)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 'Portrait of Christ's Head', c.1650. State Museum, Berlin-Dahlem.

In preparing some lectures on theology and the arts recently, I’ve been struck yet again how that for all his radical revision of some central aspects of Calvin’s thought, Barth remains remarkably close to Calvin at so many key junctures, and consistently so (it would seem) on issues related to the visual arts. Here’s just one example:

This decisive task of preaching in divine service seems to suggest that the presence of artistic representations of Jesus Christ is not desirable in the places of assembly. For it is almost inevitable that such static works should constantly attract the eye and therefore the conscious or unconscious attention of the listening community, fixing them upon the particular conception of Jesus Christ entertained in all good faith no doubt by the artist. This is suspect for two reasons. The community should not be bound to a particular conception, as inevitably happens where there is an artistic representation, but should be led by the ongoing proclamation of His history as His history with us, so that it moves from one provisional Amen to another, in the wake of His living self-attestation pressing on from insight to insight. Supremely, however, even the most excellent of plastic arts does not have the means to display Jesus Christ in His truth, i.e., in His unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted. If we certainly cannot prevent art or artists from attempting this exciting and challenging theme, it should at least be made clear both to them and to the community that it is better not to allow works of this kind to compete with the ministry of preaching. (Barth, CD, IV.3.2, 867)

To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV/2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship:

As God cannot be considered without His humanity, His humanity cannot be considered or known or magnified or worshipped without God. Any attempt to treat it in abstracto, in a vacuum, is from the very first a perverted and impossible undertaking. As Son of Man, and therefore in human form. Jesus Christ does not exist at all except in the act of God, as He is first the Son of God. Where He is not known as the latter, He cannot really be known in His humanity as abstracted from the divine Son as its Subject.

This was the difficulty which beset all the modern attempts – now, of course, more rare – to sketch a biography of Jesus, a picture of His life and character. It is no accident that the New Testament material for this purpose is so sparse and unsatisfactory. The scholars and men of letters who attempted it in their different ways were necessarily betrayed from one difficulty into another. A predicate cannot be properly seen and understood and portrayed without its subject. But in itself and as such the humanity of Jesus Christ is a predicate without a subject. And although the attempt was made – and very seriously sometimes – it was absolutely impossible to try to ascribe a religious significance, or to enter into a religious relationship, with this predicate suspended in empty space. It is only rhetorically that the empty predicate of His humanity could and can be counted as a subject which summons us in this way.

Even greater is the difficulty of representing Jesus Christ in the plastic arts. It is even greater because here there emerges unavoidably, and indeed purposively and exclusively, the particular and delicate question of the corporeality of Jesus. The prior demand of a picture of Christ is that its subject should be seen. And He must be seen as the artist thinks he sees Him according to the dictates of his own religious or irreligious, profound or superficial imagination, and as he then causes others to see Him (and sometimes in such a way that they cannot possibly fail to do so). As against this, the biographer of Jesus only speaks, or writes, on the basis of texts by which he can in some degree be checked by his readers or hearers, and in books which can be left unread or forgotten. The claim of the biographer is an impossible one. But that of the artist who portrays Christ is so pressing as to be quite intolerable. It must also be added that every picture in pencil, paint or stone is an attempt to catch the reality portrayed, which is as such in movement, at a definite moment in that movement, to fix it, to arrest or “freeze” its movement, to take it out of its movement. The biographer has at least the relative advantage over the artist that whether he does it well or badly he has to tell a story and therefore to see and understand and portray what he takes to be the life of Jesus on a horizontal plane, in a time-sequence, in movement. In addition to everything else, the picture of Christ is far too static as a supposed portrayal of the corporeality of Jesus Christ in a given moment. But what will always escape both the biographer and the artist, what their work will always lack, is the decisive thing – the vertical movement in which Jesus Christ is actual, the history in which the Son of God becomes the Son of Man and takes human essence and is man in this act. In this movement from above to below He presents Himself as the work and revelation of God by the Holy Spirit, as the Jesus Christ who is alive in the relationship of His divinity to His humanity. But He obviously cannot be represented in this movement, which is decisive for His being and knowledge, either in the form of narrative or (especially) in drawing, painting or sculpture. The attempt to represent Him can be undertaken and executed only in abstraction from this peculiarity of His being, and at bottom the result, either in literary or pictorial art, can only be a catastrophe. We say this with all due respect for the abilities of the great artists, and the good intentions of the not so great, who in all ages (incited rather than discouraged by the Church) have attempted this subject. But this cannot prevent us from saying that the history of the plastic representation of Christ is that of an attempt on the most intractable subject imaginable. We shall have to remember this when in the doctrine of the Church we come to the question of instruction by means of plastic art. It is already clear that from the point of view of Christology there can be no question of using the picture of Christ as a means of instruction’. (Barth, CD IV.2, 102–3)

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (Barth, CD III/2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

Only with Mozart the musician, it would seem, are we in safer hands!

Rembrandt on the humanity of Christ

I’d like some help with something. I’ve spent a good bit of time today reflecting on these two paintings by Rembrandt. Specifically, I’ve addressed a certain question to them: Which one depicts a more human-looking Jesus? I’m not even certain yet why I’m asking the question. All the same, I’d value the thoughts of others.

 Christ (c. 1657–61; The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York)

 The Resurrected Christ (1661; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, AltePinakothek, Munich)


[For what it’s worth, my first thought was that the resurrected Jesus had a greater earthiness about him]

Rembrandt: David and Uriah

Uriah has risen from the table
At which they have been talking.
He is beginning to walk away.

His right hand is laid across his breast
The way a Diva might take a bow.
Or the President salute the flag
His left hand clasps his belt,
A soldier’s grip.

Like everything else in Rembrandt
It is the moving moment he conveys,
The motif of motion: happening action.
And this, the moment, is fissile.

‘I was this morning early at your door
While sleep still held you unawares…’

But now he knows his heart
Has been inundated, his dreams
Are couriers to nightmare.

The moment is turning hard,
And the moment slowly
Astonishes his heart,
Slowly, inexorably, as coral.

David Broadbridge (HT: The Liberal)

Mark Tansey, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Matryoshka Dolls and Galatians 3:23–29

Over the past 3 weeks, I’ve been sharing some reflections (here, here and here) on the coming Sunday’s lectionary text. For those working on Galatians 3:23-29 for this week, here’s a few ideas.

The hermeneutical centre of our reading this week is ‘Christ Jesus’ who is not only Israel’s Messiah but also the only organic union between Israel and the Church, in whom all humanity has access to the one Father through the one Spirit. Not only are believers made children (‘sons’) of God ‘in Christ Jesus’, and baptised ‘into Christ’ and so have ‘put on Christ’, but through faith ‘in Christ Jesus’ believers are ‘all one’. All distinctions that once divided us have been removed so that we are now part of the Father’s great family. Rung by rung, Jesus dismantled the ladder of hierarchy that had marked the approach to God. He invited defectives, sinners, aliens, and Gentiles—the unclean, the failures and the disgraces of society—to God’s banquet table. Didn’t Isaiah prophesy of a great banquet to which all nations would be invited? And at that banquet, shall not all people join hands in a great dance not unlike that wonderful 1910 painting by Henri Matisse, The Dance?

In his 1982 oil on canvas A Short History of Modernist Painting, North American artist Mark Tansey depicts three approaches to painting that artists have embraced since the Renaissance. On the far left, Tansey paints a glass window to encapsulate the Renaissance ideal of viewing art as if one were looking through a window. The centre image depicts a man pushing his head, indeed his whole body, against a brick wall. This is Tansey’s commentary on much modernist formalism that alleged that a painting should be considered as an object in its own right. The third image in the triptych depicts a hen at the top of her ramp looking at herself in the mirror. This image depicts something of our postmodernist obsession with the self.

In contrast to Tansey’s images, believers in Christ Jesus are called to see in him neither a window through which one views the ‘real’ stuff of life, nor as an object in his own right in no relation to anyone or anything else. Neither are we called to see, when we gaze upon Christ, a reflected glorified version of the self. In all three of Tansey’s images, the subject and the object are detached. Conversely, the Apostle Paul reminds us that ‘as many as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ’, and now find their personal and corporate identity in him. In Jesus Christ, subject and object become one. This does not mean that all distinction is subsumed or blurred. It does mean that no longer can one be seen or understood apart from the other. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity have become partakers of one another’s naturesforever.

An image that comes to mind when I think of what it means for us to be ‘in Jesus Christ’ is that of the matryoshka doll—a set of dolls of decreasing sizes and of the same substance, but all painted uniquely, placed one inside another. Of the manifold stories about the origin of matryoshka dolls, the most gruesome involves a northern Russian woodsman named Mushkin. In a time of great famine, Mushkin decided that his survival depended on cannibalism. After eating his family, he was plagued with guilt and imagined the souls of his family members inside himself. This idea spawned the creation of the matryoshka. Whatever we make of this story, the truth remains that our true identity can only be found in relationship with others, and for Christians, ultimately in relationship with Jesus Christ. We are found, clothed, covered, renewed, rebirthed, baptised, joined together, in him. Just as no longer does Christ see himself apart from us, we ought never see ourselves apart from him. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ … ‘For we are indeed his offspring’ (Acts 17:28).

Something of this is illustrated in two of Rembrandt’s paintings which hang in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The most well known of the two is the 1668/69 oil on canvas—The Return of the Prodigal Son. Arguably the best sermon ever preached on Luke 15:1132, the painting depicts heaven and earth being brought together in the father’s embrace of the younger son. If we are prepared to see in that younger son not initially ourselves but the only begotten Son who left the security of the Father’s home to go into the lostness and besmirchment of our sin in order to carry us home (even those hardnosed older brothers), then we may grasp something more of the richness of what Paul had in mind when he spoke of us being ‘in’ the One who has so identified himself with us that we can no longer identify ourselves or others apart from him.

But there is another work of Rembrandt’s, slightly less well known, that is also worth reflecting ona 1642 work, The Reconciliation of David and Absalom. Unlike some other depictions of this story (2 Samuel 13-14) where the two figures are set in contrasting prose, Rembrandt so entwines the two figures that they merge at places into a single body. Also of significance is Rembrandt’s hiding of Absalom’s face in David’s breast. Only David’s face is shown. Rembrandt is content to show only Absalom’s back as he comes broken and sobbing. There is in this painting only one pair of eyes, those of the father, which look down upon his son with an affectionate and forgiving glance. But there is no undermining of Absalom’s dignity here, or shaming of his person. Conversely, his own majesty is found only in his Majesty’s strong embrace. Such is the love of God.

Published in the June edition of Lectionary Homiletics.