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Transport by Antony Gormley
Tame Buzzard Line by Richard Long
Christ driving the Traders from the Temple by El Greco

Antony Gormley

Transport, 2010, Iron nails, 210 x 63 x 43 cm, Canterbury Cathedral, England, © Antony Gormley; Photo courtesy of PA Images

Richard Long

Tame Buzzard Line, 2001, Stones, New Art Centre, Roche Court, England, © Richard Long. All Rights Reserved, DACS, London / ARS, NY; Photo: ArtImage

El Greco

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, c.1600, Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm, The National Gallery, London; Presented by Sir J.C. Robinson, 1895, NG1457, Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

God’s Dwelling Place

Comparative Commentary by

A contemporary artist setting out to walk through a wild landscape might evoke in our imaginations the shadowy figures of the Hebrew Patriarchs, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who set out across an expansive wilderness.

Richard Long often walks with a map to hand; the Patriarchs could only mark the journey they had made by erecting, here and there, stone altars to hallow those places where they were encountered by the God who could meet them at any time and in any location (Genesis 12:7). Once God’s people had settled in the land of promise, the monarchy was eventually established, and a Temple built.

There then followed the long succession of the kings of Israel, the division of the nation into Judah and the Northern Kingdom, and after that the sad displacement of the people and the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 585 BCE. These historical vicissitudes provide the narrative arc for the books of Samuel and Kings. But following the return from exile and the challenge to rebuild the Temple, a different perspective emerged. And as El Greco could paint the same subject in fresh compositional arrangements, so Israel’s history was retold from a different angle and with new emphases. The new narrative of the post-exilic period was 1 and 2 Chronicles (so named by Jerome), and the new emphasis was on the Temple—the physical building and its cult.

Given this emphasis, it is not surprising that some new material was woven into the story of King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple. As a parallel reading shows, the writer of Chronicles closely followed the earlier source, but the fact that so much material is carried over from Kings makes the editorial interest even more prominent. Two verses from Psalm 132 are included to herald what is presented as God’s answer to Solomon’s prayer at the Dedication of the Temple, the coming of God’s glory to dwell in the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:1–3). Acknowledgement is made that God cannot be contained in any built structure, and yet, God not only gives his name, but comes to occupy the Temple’s holy of holies.

The coming of God to his Temple is recalled by the dramatic action of Jesus entering and reclaiming the sacred space of the Temple precincts. As El Greco shows with such vigour and vibrancy, the action of Jesus in ‘cleansing the Temple’ demonstrated what the prophet had declared: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’ (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17 and parallels). And the violent nature of the incident indicates the instability of the intended reciprocity between sacred architecture and the serious business of worship.

Despite the monumental scale of its architecture, there is a tension in what the Temple represented. It could all too easily be compromised, and, worse, contaminated. Historically its fabric did not automatically protect the people from calamity (e.g. Jeremiah 7:4), and so, unsurprisingly, the ambiguity about what constitutes a sacred place persists (2 Samuel 7:5–6; 2 Chronicles 6:18).

It was the rebuilt Temple of the returned exiles, further enlarged in 20 BCE by Herod the Great, in which Christ demonstrated his messianic status. Through this action, Christ can be seen as metaphorically making space for a new meeting between humanity and God’s grace, and it is this that El Greco shows in his depiction of the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple. In the new dispensation, as the first Christians understood it, there could be nothing transactional in the relationship between God and humankind. As foreshadowed by the account of the answer to Solomon’s prayer of dedication, it depends on the condescension of God becoming present for all people in the transforming beauty of the Spirit.

The installation of a contemporary sculpture in sacred space may surprise and possibly unsettle the viewer, with the question of where and how God dwells with humankind. God comes to his Temple in the embodied form of Jesus, the incarnate Word. And as St Paul transfers the trope of ‘the Temple’ to both the social body of the church and to the individual bodies of its members (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), so the sense of the Spirit meeting and merging with the human spirit is most intensely felt on those occasions when Christians gather together ‘as stones being built into a spiritual temple’ (1 Peter 2:4; Ephesians 2:19–22) for shared corporate prayer.

Can God dwell in a temple? God has, and God also deems the human body a fit place to indwell through the Spirit.

 

References

Barker, Margaret. 1991. The Gate of Heaven: The History and Symbolism of the Temple in Jerusalem (London: SPCK)

Rae, Murray A. 2017. Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place (Waco: Baylor University Press)