The Disciples and the World
The Spirit of Truth
Commentary by David W. McNutt
When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me. (John 15:26)
The universal relevance of the gospel message and its appeal across cultures has been reflected in the history of art. Paralleling missionary efforts to contextualize the good news of Christ, artists have depicted biblical scenes in the visual languages of very diverse peoples, places, and times. For instance, African American artist William H. Johnson (1901–70) and Chinese contemporary artist He Qi each depict biblical scenes using the artistic traditions of their own contexts. Thus they have ‘borne witness’ to Christ to the ends of the earth.
Sadao Watanabe (1913–96) was a twentieth-century Japanese artist and printmaker best known for depicting biblical scenes according to mingei, the Japanese folk art style. Born in Tokyo, Watanabe began working as a textile dyer. He was drawn to the mingei style, which had been developed by Yanagi Sōetsu (1889–1961), and he became a student of Keisuke Serizawa (1895–1984), another leading figure in the folk art movement.
In his own work, Watanabe, who had become a Christian at the age of seventeen, depicted biblical narratives in a Japanese context. For example, in his version of The Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples are shown wearing traditional Japanese clothes around a table of fish and sake. Watanabe’s concern was less for realistic representation and more for creating works that showed the relevance of the Christian message and that could be displayed in everyday places. In this depiction of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples are shown in Japanese style and gaze upward as flames appear above each of their heads.
The Spirit of truth ... will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses. (John 15:26–27)
‘I owe my life to Christ and the gospel’, Watanabe explained regarding his art. ‘My way of expressing my gratitude is to witness to my faith through the medium of biblical scenes’ (Kohan 2012: 30). Like the disciples who will receive the promised Spirit at Pentecost, Watanabe is the recipient of the promise made by Jesus on the night before he died. And he also has become a 'witness'.
Bowden, Sandra, I. John Hesselink, and Makoto Fujimura. 2012. Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe (Baltimore: Square Halo Books)
Kohan, John A. 2012. ‘Profound Faith, Profound Beauty: The Life and Art of Sadao Watanabe’, Image, 74: 29–40
Pongracz, Patricia and Eugene Habecker. 2003. Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao (Philadelphia: American Bible Society)
They Will Persecute You
Commentary by David W. McNutt
The world’s hatred and persecution of Christians predicted by Jesus in this passage has taken many forms throughout the Church’s history. This includes martyrdom, which has been a regular theme in the history of visual art.
Among the Church’s best-known and most beloved martyrs is St Sebastian. According to tradition, Sebastian (d. c.288 CE) was killed during ‘the Great Persecution’ of Christians under Emperor Diocletian (244–311 CE/ r. 284–305 CE). Diocletian required sacrifices to the Roman gods, ordered the burning of churches and Scripture, and had Christian leaders imprisoned and killed.
Within Christian iconography, Sebastian is commonly depicted as partially naked, tied to a tree, and shot with multiple arrows. All of these elements are found within the version of his death depicted by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, the Italian High Renaissance artist known as Il Sodoma (1477–1549). In Sodoma’s version, Sebastian is pierced in his leg, side, and through the neck, and blood runs down his torso and legs. Above him, an angel hovers, holding a crown, symbolizing the glory that he will receive after his death, which appears imminent.
However, tradition holds that Sebastian survived these wounds and was nursed back to health by Irene of Rome, who is herself venerated as a saint. He then reportedly confronted Diocletian for his persecution of Christians, only to be clubbed to death.
This work may help us to do what Jesus asks his disciples to do in this passage from John:
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. (John 15:20)
There are many other versions of Sebastian’s martyrdom in the history of art, including those by other Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Titian, and Andrea Mantegna, as well as later artists of the Catholic Reformation, including Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, El Greco, and Peter Paul Rubens, many of whom depicted the lives—and deaths—of the saints.
Death, as much as life, affords the servant an opportunity to imitate the master.
Campbell, Stephen J. and Michael W. Cole. 2017. Italian Renaissance Art, 2nd edn, vols 1 and 2 (London: Thames & Hudson)
Lapidge, Michael. 2018. The Roman Martyrs: Introduction, Translations, and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Terry-Fritsch, Allie, and Erin Felicia Labbie (eds.). 2016, Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge)
The Cross and the World
Commentary by David W. McNutt
I chose you out of the world. (John 15:19)
In John 15, Jesus presents a stark contrast between the way of following him and the way of the ‘world’. That contrast has been allegorized in this painting.
Thomas Cole (1801–48) was an English-born American painter, who is particularly known for his landscape art. Originally born in Lancashire in northwest England, Cole emigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. There, he developed his artistic skill and discovered the beauty of the Catskill Mountains in New York, where he would make his home and studio at Cedar Grove. Cole is generally recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School, a nineteenth-century artistic movement that reflected a Romantic vision of the American landscape and was concerned about the spread of industrial growth.
Cole completed several series of paintings, including The Course of Empire (1833–36), which depicts the rise and fall of an imagined city, and The Voyage of Life (1842), which allegorizes four stages of human life. In 1846, he began another series of paintings that were to be called The Cross and the World, which follows two people on opposing life journeys. Unfortunately, Cole died before completing this series, though several studies have survived.
In the study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage, Cole depicted the beginning of the respective journeys against the backdrop of a vast landscape. An evangelist stands between the two youths. They have to make a choice—provoked by the evangelist’s challenge to them, just as the hearers of Jesus’s original message were provoked by his words. Like these youths, those first listeners also came to a parting of the ways. They could no longer be neutral: ‘If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.’ (v.22).
In Cole’s painting, one of the young men takes the path of the world, which appears beautiful and easy. Encouraged by the evangelist, the other youth takes the path to the cross, which looks difficult and dangerous. However, as we know from other studies by Cole for the series, by the end of their journeys, the pilgrim of the world will find only a barren wasteland, while the pilgrim of the cross will find a glorious light and eternal salvation.
Millhouse, Barbara Babcock. 2007. American Wilderness: The Story of the Hudson River School of Painting (New York: Black Dome Press Corp.)
Truettner, William H. and Alan Wallach (eds.). 1994. Thomas Cole: Landscape into History (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Sadao Watanabe :
Pentecost, 1965 , Hand-coloured kappazuri dyed stencil print on washi paper
Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) :
Saint Sebastian, 1525 , Oil on canvas
Thomas Cole :
Study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage, 1846–48 , Oil on canvas
Persecuted yet Pentecostal
Commentary by David W. McNutt
In John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian sets out from his home in the City of Destruction to travel to the Celestial City. Seeking deliverance from the burden that he is carrying, he is encouraged by Evangelist to find the Wicket Gate. On his way, however, he encounters Mr Worldly Wiseman, who diverts him from the narrow path by promising him deliverance through the Law with the help of Mr Legality in the town of Morality.
The conflicting visions presented by Evangelist and Mr Worldly Wiseman echo the stark difference that Jesus presents to his disciples in this passage from John’s Gospel between following the way of Christ, which leads to the cross, and following the way of the world, which regards the cross as foolishness.
Jesus’s caution to his disciples comes in the section of John’s Gospel known as the Upper Room Discourses or the Farewell Discourses. After washing his disciples’ feet and predicting both his death and Peter’s denial, Jesus offers words of comfort to his disciples, teaches them about his relationship with God the Father, promises the sending of the Holy Spirit, and prays for them. In the midst of these heartening words, Jesus offers a rather stark warning about how the world will receive those who follow him. In John’s Gospel, ‘the world’ is a complex, multivalent term, but the conflict between Jesus and the world has been apparent from the prologue (John 1:10). The truth of Jesus’s prediction will become all too apparent to the disciples, for he will shortly suffer mocking, beating, and death by worldly powers.
Jesus’s warning to his disciples echoes other texts within the New Testament, including James’s warning that those who befriend the world become enemies of God (James 4:4) and John’s caution not to love the things of the world (1 John 2:15). At the same time, these warnings should be understood alongside other uses of the term ‘world’ that include the affirmation that Jesus’s entire mission, which is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection, is motivated by God’s love for the world (John 3:16–17).
It is not the case, then, that God hates the world. Indeed, God loves the world, which was created by God and through Christ (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), so much so that God the Son took on flesh to enter that same world in order to redeem it (John 1:18). However, it is the case that the world often regards the death of Christ upon the cross as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23), rejects the truth of his resurrection (Acts 17:32; 1 Corinthians 15:12), and hates those who follow him (1 John 3:13).
The artists and works selected for this passage point to the conflict between the world and those who follow Jesus Christ. In a sense, Il Sodoma’s depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian represents the suffering of all Christians who have been persecuted by the world because of their faith. This was particularly true in the lives of early Christians, who did not expect that the relationship between Christians and the world would ever be anything but one of rejection, hatred, and suffering.
Of course, those circumstances changed dramatically with the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent legalization of the faith, to the point that for long periods of its history, Christianity became the dominant religion within many cultures, expressed its power in ways antithetical to the gospel, and even aligned itself with the state.
However, that does not mean that the world now embraces the radical call of discipleship to Christ, for the cross is still a stumbling block, and persecution remains a reality for many Christians around the globe.
In that regard, Thomas Cole’s allegorical rendering of the lives of the two young pilgrims helpfully demonstrates the ongoing tension that exists between following the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24) or the way of the world. As Cole makes clear, there will be difficulty, even suffering, in following Christ.
Yet, thankfully, that is no reason to despair. Christ’s words of caution are followed by his promise of the Holy Spirit, who will guide the disciples into truth and through whom Christ will be present with them. Sadao Watanabe’s depiction of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost points to the fact that those who follow Christ are not abandoned by him. Rather, in their ongoing struggle to follow Jesus through this world, Christians are guided, supported, and enabled by the Holy Spirit, who grants them a faith that is confirmed through the power of Pentecost.