Here are poems and painting that I’ve collected to accompany our study of the Gospel of Matthew.
William Drummond’s “For the Baptist,” to accompany Matthew 3:1-10
John the Baptist’s preaching isn’t given much love by contemporary poets. In fact, I had to go all the way back to the 17th century to find a poet who had given much thought to John’s particular plight – alone in the wilderness, preaching repentance but with few people repenting. William Drummond was a Scottish laird and contemporary of Shakespeare’s. I think it’s nice that John gets his own sonnet.
For the Baptist
The last and greatest herald of Heaven’s King,
Girt with rough skins, hies to the deserts wild,
Among that savage brood the woods forth bring,
Which he than man more harmless found and mild:
His food was blossoms, and what young doth spring,
With honey that from virgin hives distilled;
Parched body, hollow eyes, some uncouth thing
Made him appear, long since from Earth exiled.
There burst he forth; All ye, whose hopes rely
On God, with me amidst these deserts mourn,
Repent, repent, and from old errors turn.
Who listened to his voice, obeyed his cry?
Only the echoes which he made relent,
Rung from their marble caves, repent, repent.
Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ, to accompany Matthew 3:13-17
This is a beautiful image, and the people at SmartHistory can expound on it a lot better than I can. Follow this link for a YouTube video of their commentary.
Robert Graves’ “In the Wilderness,” to accompany Matthew 4:1-11
Robert Graves lived to be ninety years old. Born at the tail end of the 19th c., his life spanned two world wars. He was a friend of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and with them emerged as a major poet of the first world war. Later he would write one of the greatest historical novels of all time, I, Claudius. This poem was published in 1917, and you can feel something of the devastation of the war in it. It certainly is morally ambiguous. It’s the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” before there was a Rolling Stones. The title hints at this ambiguity. Although we immediately think of Christ in the wilderness, it’s clear by the poem’s end that the wilderness sojourn of the devil is the poem’s subject as well.
In the Wilderness
Christ of His gentleness
Thirsting and hungering,
Walked in the wilderness;
Soft words of grace He spoke
Unto lost desert-folk
That listened wondering.
He heard the bitterns call
From ruined palace-wall,
Answered them brotherly.
He held communion
With the she-pelican
Of lonely piety.
Flocked to his homilies,
With mail of dread device,
With monstrous barbéd slings,
With eager dragon-eyes;
Great rats on leather wings
And poor blind broken things,
Foul in their miseries.
And ever with Him went,
Of all His wanderings
Comrade, with ragged coat,
Gaunt ribs—poor innocent—
Bleeding foot, burning throat,
The guileless old scapegoat;
For forty nights and days
Followed in Jesus’ ways,
Sure guard behind Him kept,
Tears like a lover wept.
Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ to accompany Matthew 4:1-11
This is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel that Botticelli painted from 1480-1482. The three temptations are in the background. In the foreground, we see a leper whom Jesus has healed presenting himself to a temple priest. The priest can declare that he is clean (see Matthew 8). At the time that Botticelli was painting, it was believed that the leper in this story was a stand-in for Christ himself, who takes on the sins (leprosy) of the whole world, and then makes that metaphorical leprosy clean through His sacrifice on the cross. In the painting, the Temple priest stands-in for the Father, acknowledging Christ’s sacrifice. So a healing that Jesus enacts on a stranger is actually a metaphor for His healing of the whole world. This is meta before there was meta.
I’m presenting two images here. The first is the Temptations of Christ and the second is The Trials of Moses, which is on the opposite wall of the Sistine Chapel, and also painted by Botticelli. Moses was seen as a forerunner of Christ, and these two paintings are meant to echo each other.
Eva Gore-Booth’s “Secret Waters” to accompany Matthew 4:12-17
Eva Gore-Booth was born into privilege in Ireland in 1870. When she met and fell in love with Esther Roper, she left that privilege behind, and became active in the labor movement and in women’s suffrage. In this poem she meditates on Galilee as that internal place that Christ occupies within us.
Lo, in my soul there lies a hidden lake,High in the mountains, fed by rain and snow,The sudden thundering avalanche divine,And the bright waters’ everlasting flow,Far from the highways’ dusty glare and heat.Dearer it is and holier, for Christ’s sake,Than his own windy lake in Palestine,For there the little boats put out to seaWithout him, and no fisher hears his call,Yea, on the desolate shores of GalileeNo man again shall see his shadow fall.Yet here the very voice of the one LightHaunts with sharp ecstasy each little windThat stirs still waters on a moonlit night,And sings through high trees growing in the mind,And makes a gentle rustling in the wheat. . . .Yea, in the white dawn on this happy shore,With the lake water washing at his feet,He stands alive and radiant evermore,Whose presence makes the very East wind kind,And turns to heaven the soul’s green-lit retreat.
Sixth century mosaics from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, to accompany Matthew 4:18-25
Originally erected by Arians, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo still has an Arian flavor in its mosaic motifs. Along the upper band of the left wall of the transept are images drawn from the ministry of Christ, including this image of Jesus calling Andrew and Peter. Notice that Jesus doesn’t have a beard. The images on the right wall show him aged and undergoing his arrest and crucifixion. This is, apparently, an iconic Arian idea – that Jesus aged and changed like any human being. The church was reconsecrated by Orthodox Christians about fifty years after it was built, but fortunately these beautiful mosaics were left alone.