A track winds away from the viewer, its end lost in a field choked with high stalks.
Anselm Kiefer has here deliberately recalled Vincent van Gogh’s final painting before his suicide: Wheatfield with Crows (1890). In Kiefer’s painting, these thick black stalks are topped with shockingly vibrant blooms, rendered in lavish impasto. From above, the landscape is suffocated by crimson clouds, pouring what seems to be a toxic, bloody rain onto the earth below.
The ‘raining clouds’ of Kiefer’s title come from the Latin version of Isaiah 45:8, used in the Advent liturgy to anticipate the coming of Christ at his nativity and at the Last Judgement. Isaiah pleads that the clouds might ‘rain down righteousness’; here this righteousness seems more like apocalyptic punishment or ecological disaster. In the paintings which accompanied Nubes Pluant in the 2016 exhibition ‘Walhalla’ at the White Cube gallery, London, polluting clouds were rendered by smearing the canvas in molten lead, which solidified into impenetrable masses. In this painting the clouds are not yet solid, but dripping and spattering down the canvas.
And yet the dominant motif here recalls a verse from the opening of our passage: ‘I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you’ (Isaiah 44:22). A bright, cadmium-yellow sunburst radiates from the top and centre of the canvas. The dark clouds of sin, thick with blood and transgression, are being driven away, or else turned to a Turneresque radiant splendour. Solidified lead is becoming liquid gold, raining down to nourish the lurid blossoms below.
Martin Luther understood verse 22 to refer to Christ as the sun, rising each morning gradually to disperse the mists of sin, so that the sinner might daily see more clearly in the light of Christ. In Kiefer’s painting, the clouds do not vanish, but the clarifying, redemptive heat of the sun precedes, illuminates, and steadily transforms them. As the sun-nourished flowers testify in spite of the clouds, God’s redemption is always already at work: ‘return to me, for I have redeemed you’.
21Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
22I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud,
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.
23Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,
and will be glorified in Israel.
24Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who stretched out the heavens alone,
who spread out the earth—Who was with me?—
25who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns wise men back,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
26who confirms the word of his servant,
and performs the counsel of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
27who says to the deep, ‘Be dry,
I will dry up your rivers’;
28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfil all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem. ‘She shall be built,’
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’ ”
45Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and ungird the loins of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed:
2“I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut asunder the bars of iron,
3I will give you the treasures of darkness
and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I gird you, though you do not know me,
6that men may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe,
I am the Lord, who do all these things.
8“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth,
and let it cause righteousness to spring up also;
I the Lord have created it.