Encountering scripture in the company of authors and artists.
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Ah, the difficulties of using literature and art to help illuminate the sermon on the mount. Unlike an infancy narrative or healing story, it just doesn’t lend itself to being visualized in the same way. This week I had to dig deep. The art and poetry you’ll find here is meant to provide odd and, hopefully, helpful ways of thinking about the sermon on the mount, especially as new and often skeptical generations of artists encounter it. But I throw in some classics, too.
Let’s start with one of those classics, Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel. And I’ll include the painting that Rosselli placed on the opposite wall, which shows Moses bringing the Ten Commandments to the chosen people (who are all wearing Renaissance clothing).
William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” to accompany Matthew 5:11-13
William Holman Hunt was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists in the mid-19th century who rejected the mannerisms of Renaissance art in favor of their own particular interpretation of medieval art. Hunt’s “The Light of the World” is probably one of the most popular pieces of devotional art created in the past 150 years.
Matthew Arnold’s “Progress,” to accompany Matthew 5:17-20
Matthew Arnold is often accused of being more of a critic than a real poet, but I don’t hold to that opinion. Arnold’s “The Scholar Gypsy” was a very influential poem when I was a young man, and his “Dover Beach” is still one of my favorite poems. Ignore the somewhat archaic language, and I think you’ll find that “Progress” speaks to our own times in an oddly prophetic way.
THE MASTER stood upon the mount, and taught.
He saw a fire in his disciples’ eyes;
‘The old law’, they said, ‘is wholly come to naught!
Behold the new world rise!’
‘Was it’, the Lord then said, ‘with scorn ye saw
The old law observed by Scribes and Pharisees?
I say unto you, see ye keep that law
More faithfully than these!
‘Too hasty heads for ordering worlds, alas!
Think not that I to annul the law have will’d;
No jot, no tittle from the law shall pass,
Till all hath been fulfill’d.’
So Christ said eighteen hundred years ago.
And what then shall be said to those to-day,
Who cry aloud to lay the old world low
To clear the new world’s way?
‘Religious fervours! ardour misapplied!
Hence, hence,’ they cry, ’ye do but keep man blind!
But keep him self-immersed, preoccupied,
And lame the active mind!’
Ah! from the old world let some one answer give:
‘Scorn ye this world, their tears, their inward cares?
I say unto you, see that your souls live
A deeper life than theirs!
‘Say ye: The spirit of man has found new roads,
And we must leave the old faiths, and walk therein?—
Leave then the Cross as ye have left carved gods,
But guard the fire within!
‘Bright, else, and fast the stream of life may roll,
And no man may the other’s hurt behold;
Yet each will have one anguish—his own soul
Which perishes of cold.’
Here let that voice make end; then let a strain,
From a far lonelier distance, like the wind
Be heard, floating through heaven, and fill again
These men’s profoundest mind:
‘Children of men! the unseen Power, whose eye
For ever doth accompany mankind,
Hath looked on no religion scornfully
That men did ever find.
‘Which has not taught weak wills how much they can?
Which has not fall’n on the dry heart like rain?
Which has not cried to sunk, self-weary man:
Thou must be born again!
‘Children of men! not that your age excel
In pride of life the ages of your sires,
But that you think clear, feel deep, bear fruit well,
The Friend of man desires.’
Jean Fautrier’s “Otages” to accompany Matthew 5:21-26
Jean Fautrier was in Paris during the Nazi occupation in 1940. His studio became a meeting place for his friends in the French resistance, and as a result he was arrested by the Gestapo. After they released him, he went into hiding in a country sanatorium. While painting in his studio there, he could hear the screams of French citizens who were being executed in a nearby woods. He began to paint portraits of these people, who he had never seen, as a witness to their deaths, and these portraits became his “Otage” (hostage) series.
I chose these images to accompany this passage from Matthew because they speak to the profound compassion that Jesus is calling us to. What we do in our hearts, in our imaginations, matters. Fautrier could have turned away from the sounds of suffering from the woods. He could have pretended that he didn’t hear the prisoners’ cries. Instead he chose to imagine them as fully as he could, to surrender himself, and his art, to the fact of their suffering.
Kramer vs. Kramer to accompany Matthew 5:27-32
The psychologist Eli Finkel says that we’re living in the era of self-expressive marriage, in which people look to marriage for self-discovery and personal growth. This is very different from the economic, institutional function of marriage that existed in Jesus’s time, and really has existed for most of human history. Kramer vs. Kramer charted that change when it was released in 1979.
Karl Shapiro’s “I Am an Atheist Who Says His Prayers” to accompany Matthew 5:33-37
Karl Shapiro had a long career as a poet, starting in the 1930s and continuing to his death in 2000. In this poem Shapiro, who was a Jew, perfectly skewers the kind of double-think and sustained lack of consistently that prompted Jesus’s advice to “let your word be ‘yes, yes,’ or ‘no, no.’
I am an atheist who says his prayers.
I am an anarchist, and a full professor at that. I take the loyalty oath.
I am a deviate. I fondle and contribute, backscuttle and brown, father of three.
I stand high in the community. My name is in Who’s Who. People argue about my modesty.
I drink my share and yours and never have enough. I free-load officially and unofficially.
A physical coward, I take on all intellectuals, established poets, popes, rabbis, chiefs of staff.
I am a mystic. I will take an oath that I have seen the Virgin. Under the dry pandanus, to the scratching of kangaroo rats, I achieve psychic onanism. My tree of nerves electrocutes itself.
I uphold the image of America and force my luck. I write my own ticket to oblivion.
I am of the race wrecked by success. The audience brings me news of my death. I write out of boredom, despise solemnity. The wrong reason is good enough for me.
I am of the race of the prematurely desperate. In poverty of comfort I lay gunpowder plots. I lapse my insurance.
I am the Babbitt metal of the future. I never read more than half of a book. But that half I read forever.
I love the palimpsest, statues without heads, fertility dolls of the continent of Mu. I dream prehistory, the invention of dye. The palms of the dancers’ hands are vermillion. Their heads oscillate like the cobra. High-caste woman smelling of earth and silk, you can dry my feet with your hair.
I take my place beside the Philistine and unfold my napkin. This afternoon I defend the Marines. I goggle at long cars.
Without compassion I attack the insane. Give them the horsewhip!
The homosexual lectures me brilliantly in the beer booth. I can feel my muscles soften. He smiles at my terror.
Pitchpots flicker in the lemon groves. I gaze down on the plains of Hollywood. My fine tan and my arrogance, my gray hair and my sneakers, O Israel!
Wherever I am I become. The power of entry is with me. In the doctor’s office a patient, calm and humiliated. In the foreign movies a native, shabby enough. In the art gallery a person of authority (there’s a secret way of approaching a picture. Others move off). The high official insults me to my face. I say nothing and accept the job. He offers me whiskey.
How beautifully I fake! I convince myself with men’s room jokes and epigrams. I paint myself into a corner and escape on pulleys of the unknown. Whatever I think at the moment is true. Turn me around in my tracks; I will take your side.
For the rest, I improvise and am not spiteful and water the plants on the cocktail table.
Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus from the Menologion of Basil II to accompany Matthew 5:38-48
Perpetua and her companions are among the most famous early Christian martyrs. They were martyred in Carthage in the year 203. Perpetua was a young married woman and nursing mother. She refused to recant her Christianity and was sentenced to death in the arena. All martyr stories are essentially about turning the other cheek. The extremity of their devotion was hugely inspirational to all early Christians. They understood that following Christ’s example of heavenly perfection was more important than their fear of death or any desire to retaliate that they might have had.
The Menologion was an illuminated text compiled in 1000 A.D. for the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. This was one of 430 highly detailed miniature paintings that accompanied the liturgical text.