Art of the Gospels, Part 6, Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee

P1080251Jesus expanded his region of teaching to other towns around Galilee.  As he traveled from place to place, teaching at the local temples, he began to accumulate followers.  They brought other people to hear him teach and be healed of various illnesses and demon possessions.  In parallel to John the Baptist’s ministry, as well as numerous other teachers of the era, Jesus needed structure for his ministry or organizers.  This 6th century mosaic from the apse of Santi Cosma e Damiano shows Jesus on a layer of clouds.  In his left hand is a scroll.  His right hand is in a gesture, maybe teaching, maybe imparting a blessing.

Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, provided the leadership for the temples and schools. But, they did not accept or incorporate Jesus’ ministry into their organization, beyond allowing him to teach in the synagogues and temples, as other teachers did. Jesus began to call specific men to become the future leaders of his church.

P1080346Domenico Ghirlandaio uses the multiple narrative technique in his Sistine Chapel painting, showing Jesus calling Peter and Andrew in the center foreground.  To the left, further back along the lake, Jesus calls James and John. The fisher-of-men imagery is highlighted by the lake side landscape.  Crowds of people fill the sides of the painting, giving the sense of the many followers of Jesus, as well as the significance of his selecting specific men to be his twelve disciples.

P1080212A painting  by Garofalo, in the Borghese Gallery, and tapestry  designed by Raphael, in the Vatican, isolate the story of Jesus calling Simon (who will become Peter).  Simon and other fishermen are coming in from a night of fishing.  They are despondent because their catch has yielded little.  Jesus instructs them to lay out their nets one more time, at which they scoff because of their recent unsuccessful toil.  Yet, they obey.  Their nets are filled to the point that their P1080375catch and nearly scuttles their boat.  Jesus instructs them to set aside their boats and nets to become fishers-of-men.  While they voiced doubt, the had the faith to follow Jesus’ instructions.  The theme of faith and free will to act are set out for theologians to debate to this day.

Garofalo’s painting emphasizes the wonder of the men on the boat, with one raising both arms into the air.  The tapestry depicts the muscular strain as two fishermen struggle to pull in the nets, and a third works to keep the boat upright.  In the painting, Simon has stepped out from the boat and strides toward Jesus while still in the shallow water.  In the tapestry, Simon kneels in  a second boat, with Andrew stepping into the boat behind him.  These images of praise and work, again, foreshadow the function of the church.

P1080272Carravaggio uses his strongly angled light effect in his painting of Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector. A shadowy group of men sit around a table, tallying money. A beam of light, appearing to emanate from a window behind Jesus, illuminates Matthew’s face.  Jesus holds out his right hand with his finger pointed toward Matthew.  Matthew looks up from the task on the table, turns, looking at Jesus, and points to himself to confirm that he is the one sought.  The two older men on Matthew’s right continue to be occupied with the activity, while the two younger men, between Matthew and Jesus look to Jesus also.  The yellow light on the wall draws our eye to Matthew, while their illuminated faces redirect attention to Jesus.  Thus, a triangle between The Light of the World, his followers, and us is established.

P1080348Healing and teaching were two focuses of Jesus’  ministry.  Cosimo Rosselli’s painting of the Sermon on the Mount, in the Sistine Chapel, illustrate these events.  In the center of the painting Jesus stands on a hill teaching.  To the right, Jesus reaches down to someone who has come to be healed.  Jesus’ message heals the soul.  Jesus’ touch heals the body.  Frequently, P1080349P1080349 - Version 2Jesus emphasizes that it is not what he does that makes the difference, but the faith of the individual who seeks him out.  Sometimes that effort to connect with him is sufficient to achieve the miracle.

However, those who challenge authority usually become suspect.  The Pharisees and P1080349 - Version 3Sadducees began to infiltrate the crowds following Jesus, watching for opportunities to catch him violating the Jewish laws.  On the left side of the painting, they are shown listening, watching, and talking among each other.   In the background, Jesus’ teaching and healing are set in pastoral settings, while the Jewish leaders stand with a city behind them.  Their influence comes from man-made settings, not nature.

As the Jewish leadership began to send spies to follow Jesus and try to trap him violating religious laws, Jesus began to teach by using parables. These stories contained messages imbedded in the narrative. While most of the stories contain potentially rich symbolism, I found few of them illustrated in paintings.  The Return of the Prodigal Son is the only illustration that I found from Jesus’ parables.  But, I shall discuss this later, as Jesus did not tell this parable until later in his ministry.

P1080368As Jesus’ popularity grew, so did the crowds that came to see him. At times, the only way to move on from an event was to step into a boat and cross a lake. In one such event, a storm arose, waking Jesus from rest. He instructed the storm to cease, stunning those who observed.

Giorgio de Chirico’s painting, from the Vatican Collection of Modern Religious Art, Christ in the Tempest shows Jesus sleeping, while his disciples struggle against the wind that threatens to scuttle the small boat.  Dark, billowing clouds rumble in the upper left and right corners of the painting, while the central sky fills with light, creating yellow reflections on the churning lake.  Jesus’ head, nearly central in the frame, is also illuminated by his halo.  Human toil surrounds Jesus’ calm sleep.  One of his disciples reaches down, while gesturing at the storm.  When Jesus wakens, he will not just calm the storm, but rebuke it.  Such is the interface between our human condition, and the divine.

P1080209In a milder account of a dinner, Jesus has supper at the house of Simon. During this event, a woman brings perfume to anoint his feet. While the men scold her, Jesus accepts her admiration. Others seek his notoriety. She wants connection.

Scarsellino’s painting, in the Borghese Gallery, seats Jesus at one end of the table, at the left third of the painting.  Simon, the other guest, and servants engaged in various tasks of serving the meal, fill the central and right regions of the canvas.  A woman kneels beside Jesus, she looking up, he looking down, with their eyes meeting.  The dinning area is set in a columned loggia, which is an area that Roman leaders would have help public meetings (not necessarily meals though).  While technically the loggia is lighted from the sky outside, Jesus’ red garments are the lightest region of the painting, suggesting that he is illuminated the interior.  Also, the light-shadow contrast on the woman to the left, and other guests on the right emanate from Jesus, not the outside light source.  The connection between Jesus and the woman is still, and calm, much like Jesus sleeping in the boat above, while the men are caught in motion, standing, gesturing, calling out to him.  If you drew a line between nearly every turned head and eye, they would converge on Jesus.  They have eyes, but do they see?

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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7 Responses to Art of the Gospels, Part 6, Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee

  1. Barneysday says:

    Your information about all these paintings appears to be well beyond what the average museum goer might know. Is this an area that you are interested in and study extensively? Your series has been well above the level of informative and moves into historical depth. Thanks for sharing.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Glad your are enjoying the images of the stories. Regarding to background in art, 1) I grew up near San Fransisco (De Young Museum and Palance of Fine Arts, near the Presido), lived in NYC (Metropolitian Museum, etc.), and Washington (National Gallery of Art, etc.). 2) When I was in high school my English teach told me that to understand western culture, I had to know the Bible and Shakespeare. I had the first down already, having spent my youth in a Baptist church, and have been attending Shakespeare plays for 40 years. 3) Some years ago, we went to a performance by the Reduce Shakespeare Company’s satire, “The Complete Bible, Abridged”. While they are warming up the audience, they asked whole had every read all of the books in the Bible. Three hands went up in the front of the hall: my father’s, mother’s, and mine. Oh, were we in for a grilling that night.

      • Barneysday says:

        I can see the grilling happening! I always loved Shakespere in School, but haven’t actually touched a page of it since.

  2. It just occurred to me that the painters may never have visited the places where these events took place. Did they rely completely on the Bible to set the scene?

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Given that most of the painting which I am using are from the 11th to 15th centuries, before the Reformation, none of the artist could read the Bible… It had not been translated into common languages. The Rennaisance images were mostly influenced by all the buildings and scupltures they were digging up around the ruins area, as there was a building boom at the time (The Pope declared that clergy no longer had to turn over their estates to the church when they died, but could inherit them to family, thus all those cardinals, et al began building villas all over Rome). Earlier, churches were often built upon foundations or used existing Roman buildings. Thus, there was a continuity from a Roman pagan basillica to church. On the other hand, given that less than 20% of the population could read (Latin or Greek), all those frescos, mosaics, statues, and stained glass windows were the “books” that the common people read. Just like “comic books and graphic novels” are today.

  3. Pingback: Humbly Exalted | Inspiration in Faith

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