Wikio - Top Blogs - Religion and belief

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Inspired to Follow: Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story is a programme of hour-long gatherings at St Martin-in-the-Fields over three terms covering the Biblical story from Creation to Apocalypse. It uses fine art paintings that can be found on St Martin’s doorstep as a springboard for exploring these two questions - What does it mean to follow Jesus today? How can I deepen my faith in God?

Today's session was entitled Jesus Cleanses the Temple and explored Mark 11 through ‘Christ driving the Traders from the Temple’ by El Greco. I gave the following reflection:
El Greco, which means 'The Greek', was born in Crete, which was then a Venetian possession. He “was trained as an icon painter … before he set about transforming himself into a disciple of Titian and an avid student of Tintoretto, Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano.”

He “moved to Venice in 1567, where he developed his intense, colourful Mannerist style” after first “mastering the elements of Renaissance painting, including perspective, figural construction, and the ability to stage elaborate narratives.” “He was in Rome in 1570 and studied the work of Michelangelo and Raphael.” “By 1577 he had settled in Toledo, Spain, where he lived the rest of his life, executing mostly pictures for local religious foundations.”

His art made a “radical assault on expected ways of depicting the body in space.” “He made elongated, twisting forms, radical foreshortening, and unreal colours the very basis of his art … [and] made these effects deeply expressive”.

In the face of the Protestant Reformation, “the Catholic church sought to reform its practices and reinforce belief in its doctrines. Spain put its vast resources … at the service of the church, and Toledo, because it was the seat of the archbishop, played an active role. The Council of Trent, which met in the mid-sixteenth century to clarify Counter-Reformation goals, explicitly recognized the importance of religious art. El Greco, whose patrons were primarily learned churchmen, responded with intelligent and expressive presentations of traditional and newly affirmed Catholic beliefs.” “In the 16th century the subject of [this painting] the Purification of the Temple was used as a symbol of the Church's need to cleanse itself both through the condemnation of heresy and through internal reform.”

“The most influential mystics of the Counter-Reformation were Spanish: Saint Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross and [Ignatius of] Loyola.” Teresa and John both worked “for the reform of the Carmelite order to bring it back to its primitive roots.” They transmit “to us profound spiritual experience; experience that is shaped by the Word made flesh, the self-emptying of Christ on the cross and his exaltation in resurrection.” They draw on a mystical theology exploring “that hidden state of experiencing God without images or concepts.”

“El Greco's heightened experience in his paintings makes you wonder if he, too, underwent … [similar] contacts with the divine.” “The personality [or emotion] of El Greco's painting is [ultimately] what is irreducible about it … but is the energy that shudders through it love, or anger?” Let’s think about that question in relation to this painting?

“In the time of Christ, the porch of the Temple in Jerusalem accommodated a market for buying sacrificial animals and changing money. Christ drove out the traders, saying, 'It is written "My house shall be called a house of prayer"; but you make it a den of thieves.' (Matthew 20). This episode is known as the Purification of the Temple.”

Passover meant big business for Jerusalem-based merchants … Since it was impractical for those traveling from distant lands to bring their own animals, the merchants sold them the animals required for the sacrifices—at greatly inflated prices. The money changers also provided a necessary service. Every Jewish male twenty years of age or older had to pay the annual temple tax (Ex. 30:13–14; Matt. 17:24–27). But it could be paid only using Jewish or Tyrian coins … so foreigners had to exchange their money for acceptable coinage. Because they had a monopoly on the market, the money changers charged an exorbitant fee for their services (as high as 12.5 percent)." [F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 74].

“Watching in amazement as their Master dispersed the temple merchants, His disciples remembered that it was written in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” Jesus’ resolute passion and unwavering fervor was clear to all who saw Him. His righteous indignation, stemming from an absolute commitment to God’s holiness, revealed His true nature as the Judge of all the earth (cf. Gen. 18:25; Heb. 9:27).” (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998], 207)

In the picture, “The scourging figure of Christ stands exactly centre stage. The merchants and traders have been placed to the left, a group of Apostles to the right. A crowd divided [like this] into good and evil halves is liable to bring the Last Judgement to mind. Two stone bas-reliefs in the background reinforce the association of the traders with sin and the Apostles with redemption. The relief above the traders shows the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, while the one above the Apostles shows the Sacrifice of Isaac, traditionally understood as a prefiguration of Christ’s own redemptive sacrifice on the Cross.”

“The figure of Christ … resembles a flame, and perhaps the painting as a whole should be understood in the light of mystical experience – not as a depiction of a physical act, but as an image of a spiritual state, the culmination of prayer and meditation, when the radiance of Christ suddenly floods in on the individual at the moment of illumination.” In the words of St John of the Cross, as “The Living Flame of Love.”

So we have a painting in which elongated, twisting forms, foreshortening and unreal colours are deeply expressive of energies and emotions which inform the fiery expression or reform of the faith, in both institutions and individuals. A painting which seems to depict prayer and meditation culminating in emotions and actions which seek to reform and renew but do so through judgement and punishment.

The painting and the story raise profound questions for us:

• Are love and anger separate emotions or can they be combined?
• Are love and anger primarily emotions or are they also shown in actions?
• Can loving actions include an element of violence?
• Should our passion for God and for the reform of the Church or society involve a degree of anger; in other words is a righteous form of anger possible?

The songwriter John Bell has described Jesus as “A Saviour without safety” who is “inspired by love and anger” in addressing injustice. His hymn wants us to be as “disturbed by need and pain.” Yet, living, as we do, in a time when religious extremism extends to acts of decapitation, we may worry that this kind of ‘righteous anger’ can easily lead to justifying the kind of atrocities perpetrated by ISIS or, through theories of ‘just wars’, to disproportionate or illegal military interventions by the West.

The painting and the story may not fully answer all these questions but they certainly bring them vividly to life. Passion is clearly expressed; but is it love or anger or both that is being shown? Discuss.


St John of the Cross - The Living Flame Of Love.

No comments: