Monthly Archives: July 2013

15th Sunday (C) Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan

Rembrandt, Landscape with Good Samaritan, 1638, oil on oak panel, Czartoryski Museum, Cracow

In the Gospel reading for the 15th Sunday, we encounter the parable of the Good Samaritan. In response to the probing question of the lawyer, asking who can be called a neighbour and thus eligible for charity, Jesus shifts the focus to asking what neighbourly behaviour is. He tells a parable in which he juxtaposes the righteousness of the one who responds from the heart to the needs of others, (the Samaritan, an outsider), with those who seek to justify their refusal to act charitably on the grounds of abiding by the law (the priest and Levite). In the telling, labels become less important than actions: what are seemingly the right people do the wrong things while one who is seemingly the wrong person does the right thing.

The Gospel passage is a familiar one, but is not commonly found in art until the mid 16th century and later, possibly because it was not readily translated into a suitable subject for an altarpiece. However, with the growth of landscape painting as a background to religious works and then as a category of painting in its own right, the theme of the Good Samaritan became an increasingly popular theme. We can see this in various paintings, drawings and etchings by amongst others, Johann Konig (c1610), Hans Bol (1580) and Sebastien Bourdon

There is also a number of versions of the theme in the 16th and 17th century, such as those by Bassano in the National Gallery, London (1562-3), by Fetti in the Accademia, Venice (1623), from his series of parables and Jan Wynants in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (1670), where it  seems to be the emblematic vision of active Christian charity, with the focus on the action of the Good Samaritan caring for the wounded traveller, which gave the theme such appeal, rather than it being mainly a vehicle for landscape.  We also see this in the etching of the subject by Rembrandt from 1633 ( though the attribution of the painting which is similar to the etching in the Wallace Collection is disputed)

However, Rembrandt painted one of the most striking versions of the theme in his Landscape with Good Samaritan in the Czartoryski collection in Cracow from 1630s, which is universally accepted as his work.  Here, Rembrandt shapes the dramatic landscape vividly to the meaning of the parable and Christ’s teaching

Rembrandt collected landscapes and seascapes by other artists. He had six seascapes by Jan Porcelli, and works by Hercules Seghers, too. While he was predominantly a painter of history paintings and portraits, he also painted landscapes. Depending on questions of attribution, between 9 and 19 are accepted as his work and identified as from the period between 1630-1650. In the 1656 inventory of his possessions,  twelve of his own landscape paintings are listed.

In particular, there are three similar landscape paintings which are widely accepted as by Rembrandt from the late 1630s. Two of these, in Landscape with a Stone bridge (c1638) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Mountain Landscape with Thunderstorm (1638)  in Braunschweig are pure landscapes, while the painting in Cracow is the only one to have a biblical subject included. Mark Roskill points out that whilst Rembrandt produced  topographically accurate sketches of his native countryside, his painted landscapes are more fantastic and experimental, and seem to appeal to the imagination.1

The painting is described in A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings by the Rembrandt Research Project as having “a rhythm of assured brushwork and often brilliant pictorial richness” 2. It has the same dramatic chiaroscuro in the treatment of the sky as the Rape of Europa in the Getty Museum, LA, (1632) and the Abduction of Proserpine (1631) in Berlin. In an article, Dorota Dec of the Czartoryski Museum draws attention to the series of four landscape etchings by Simon Frisius after paintings by Hendrick Hondius I  illustrating various verses 30, 31- 32, 33 and 34 which may have given inspiration to Rembrandt’s rendering of all the action in a single painting. Certainly many of the features of this series of etchings are found fused in Rembrandt’s work,

The Czartoryski Museum have produced an online video which enables one to study the painting in more detail. The painting is divided in two parts. On the left hand side, there is a low lying river valley, on the right a road seen through trees on higher ground. The road curves left behind the central tree which bisects the composition and passes out across a two-arched stone bridge by a waterfall, then through the valley to a distant town with windmills on its walls. The far left part is in shadow, then the valley is bathed in light with the town in shadow behind. In the woods on the right, the Samaritan can be seen putting the victim on the horse, with several other figures, not found in the original parable, either ignoring the action or looking on; the hunter and his young assistant and an elderly couple. This side is in a dark and gloomy wood, which finds an echo in the overwhelming brooding skies overhead. On the left there is further activity, one figure fishing and a coach and horses rushing along the road. There are also two solitary figures who catch the full flood of light, through a break in the clouds. These must be the priest and levite, yet, strangely, they are bathed in light while the kindness of the Samaritan’s actions is set in the gloomy wood.

The dramatic phosphorescent light and darkness are almost certainly symbolic, but Rembrandt has inverted them choosing to let the transient light fall on the priest and Levite, exposing them, while hidden in the wood, the Samaritan helps the victim of the robbers. Sometimes the goodness of our actions is only apparent later, but it will be revealed.

1. Mark Roskill:  The Language of Landscape. Pennsylvania, 1997 p78

2. Ed J Bruyn et al. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings Vol 3  1990. pp 265-70

10th Sunday (C) Luke 7:11-17 The Raising of the Son of the Widow at Nain

The reading for the 10th Sunday, year C is the account of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, on the occasion of Jesus’ visit to this town during his ministry in Galilee. It gives an answer to the the question St John the Baptist languishing in prison will later pose about Jesus and his identity. It confirms that Jesus’ messianic identity and his status as a great prophet is assured by his actions. Later, in chapter 8, Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus, but already here his power is manifested, echoing that of Elijah, who raised the son of the widow of Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:18-24). St Luke has the miracle repeated in turn in the book of Acts, where St Peter raises Tabitha. The miracle causes a great stir, and reminds the reader of the reaction at the naming of St John the Baptist, and the language of the Benedictus in the early chapters of St Luke’s gospel. The miracle is also remarkable because it comes from Jesus’ compassion for the widow.

The image is frequently found in the iconography of the early Christian church, because, like the account of the raising of Lazarus, (John12), it contains a pre-figuring of Christ’s own resurrection, and shows the power of God to raise the dead. It was this theme which dominated. It is frequently found on sarcophagi: 16 examples have been recorded on Roman sarcophagi and 8 on Gallic ones including one now in the British Museum  from Arles and others in Leiden and Oudheden . 1 For the same reasons, it also featured in the decoration of the funerary chapel of the Parecclesion church in Kariye, Turkey, as part of the decoration around the Anastasis. It can be viewed in the Columbia virtual museum version.

There are other examples of the subject in art, such as the Ottonian ivory panel in the British Museum from Magdeburg. However, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain is not frequently found in Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque art, possibly because it did not easily suit an altarpiece, though Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus is one example of a parallel exception. There is a painting by Lucas Cranach, and there are two versions by Veronese, one in the Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna, possibly for a scuole, though too small in scale for the fictive architecture in the painting to continue a real setting, as in Titian’s Presentation, which has certainly influenced it and another version, very similar in composition, recently at auction. In both these, Veronese has centred the painting on the intercession of the woman before Christ, with the young man in the left hand lower corner of the scene

One exception from the baroque period is the painting above by Eustache le Sueur (1616-55) from the mid 17th century. It now hangs by the left pillar of the Lady Chapel in the Church of St Roch, Rue St Honore, Paris, but predates the rebuilding of the church (1653-1740) by a few years. Like Charles Lebrun, Le Sueur was a pupil of the classical baroque artist Simon Vouet, and he may have met Poussin on his return to Paris in 1640-2, who certainly influenced his style. He continued to work mainly on religious paintings in the churches around Paris. He was close to the Carthusians in the city and completed a cycle of 22 paintings of scenes from the life of St Bruno for the cloister, now in the Louvre, including St Bruno appearing to Comte RogerConsecration of a Carthusian ChurchSt Bruno attending the Sermon of Raymond DiocreRaymond Diocre answers after his Death and  Death of St Bruno. These show his gift for composition, the psychological aspect of a scene and his delicate use of colour, which was influenced by Poussin. He left the Paris guild of artists early on to become a  founder member of the Royal Academy of Painting in Paris in 1645. In the Academy, rhetorical gestures in the figures in paintings and the use of colour to affect mood were most important and Raphael was taken as a model. His influence can be seen particularly in le Sueur’s later paintings. The Louvre also has St Paul preaching at Ephesus, another rare subject.

In Le Sueur’s treatment of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain, several of the themes in the gospel passage are brought out and combined together, not just the Resurrection: Jesus’ compassion, the theme of Resurrection; the awe and wonder of the crowd at the presence of a great prophet, as well as Jesus’ own sense of the foreboding concerning what is about to come, which in the Gospel is already shown in some reactions of the crowd and in the predicament of St John the Baptist. The composition is classical and rectilinear, with a series of vertical lines and accents and a few diagonals intersecting. Christ is placed just off centre, moving dramatically into the centre of the space from the right.  Le Sueur gives Christ a fine ultramarine robe, in the most expensive pigment, brighter than the blue of the sky, modelled  in light and shade close to Raphael in technique. Le Sueur was also influenced by Poussin’s use of colour to punctuate the scene, especially the contrasting use of red and blue to emphasise what is most central: around the figure of Christ, there are various shades of red and yellow which accentuate the blue robe of Christ. The tanned complexion of the pall bearer on the left is juxtaposed with the greenish tint of the skin of the just risen son, whilst the widow’s bright yellow robe, which overshadows the golden hue of the walls behind, finds an echo in the sash of the putti looking down on the scene. All the figures enter into the drama and have a look of astonishment, on their faces, while Christ himself looks into the eyes of the young man with an expression of compassion and a sense of recognition that this prefigures his own destiny. But it also seems Le Sueur goes beyond the gospel passage, for It is as if the young man, unfurling his own funeral pall, represents the one who, in the new life of baptism, experiences and encounters, the one he or she will follow, the source of Life.

1. See note 10  in Lee Jefferson The Staff of Jesus in Early Christian Art  Religion and the Arts 2010, (14) 221-251