Philippians 4:1–9

An Exhortation to Attentiveness

Commentaries by Devon Abts

Works of art by Giovanni Bellini, Jan van Kessel I and Unknown Flemish artist

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Jan van Kessel I

Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche, c.1670, Oil on copper, 70 x 105.5 cm, National Galleries Scotland; Purchased 2002, NG 2740, Antonia Reeve, National Gallery Scotland

A Summons to Attention

Commentary by Devon Abts

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Read by Ben Quash

In Philippians 4:8, Paul instructs his readers to ‘think about’ (logizesthe) whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and gracious. A favourite term of the apostle, this Greek word implies a specific kind of thinking, something more than fleeting consideration: by using logizesthe, Paul calls the Philippians to dwell over time on all that is excellent and worthy of praise (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 147).

In this painting, Flemish artist Jan van Kessel bids his viewer to meditate in precisely this way by rendering one of the most recognizable signs of the Christian faith as an object worthy of ceaseless devotion. This provocative Roman Catholic image belongs to an artistic genre known as ‘garland paintings’, a type which developed as a Counter-Reformation response to the Protestant reproach of images. At the centre of the painting, we see the principal sign of the Roman liturgy—a Eucharistic host (bread that has been consecrated during worship), set in a monstrance (a liturgical container used to display the Blessed Sacrament) and placed into a niche for our perpetual contemplation.

The word ‘monstrance’ comes from the Latin monstrāre, ‘to show’: its purpose is to make visible the sign of an invisible grace, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. On the stone frame surrounding the niche is written: ECCE PANE AENG, ‘Behold the bread of Angels’, underscoring this holy mystery. Surrounding the monstrance are emblems of nature’s abundant goodness—grapes, corn, and wheat (the material substances of the Eucharistic feast) in carved cornucopia, and elegant bouquets of flowers. The delicately painted roses, tulips, and poppies are particularly arresting, but these naturalistic flowers are destined to wither and wilt: we would be foolish to focus on such fleeting beauty. Our gaze must move beyond these to the plain white wafer, the only object worthy of our full attention. By presenting this heavenly food for our adoration and reflection, Van Kessel offers us an image through which we might cultivate a habit of logizesthe, perpetual contemplation of this cherished sign of Christian virtue.



Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith Ryan. 2009. Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)

Unknown Flemish artist

A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere, Early 16th century, Boxwood, Diameter: 5.1 cm, The Wallace Collection, London; S280, © The Wallace Collection

The Lord is Near in Prayer

Commentary by Devon Abts

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Read by Ben Quash

In Philippians 4:5, the Apostle Paul reminds the recipients of his letter that, ‘The Lord is near’. Of course, these words may be interpreted eschatologically: a reminder to the community at Philippi that the day of judgement is drawing near. However, as biblical scholars note, here the Greek term for ‘near’ (eggys) indicates spatial as well as temporal proximity (Craddock 1985: 71; Fee 1995: 407). That is, the apostle’s words may also be intended to encourage the beleaguered Philippians with the assurance that the Lord is near to them in prayer.

Boxwood ‘prayer nuts’ like this one came into use in the late Middle Ages, with most surviving examples dating from the early sixteenth century. Created for wealthy patrons as aids to personal devotion, these tiny, elegant objects would have served as tactile reminders that ‘the Lord is near’ in prayer.

Like other prayer nuts of this kind, its exterior is formed of two hemispheres carved with delicate, Gothic-inspired openwork tracery. The upper hemisphere is crowned with metalwork that includes a small loop that most likely would have been attached to a chain of prayer beads, known as a chaplet, or suspended from a belt (Cherry and Lowden 2008: 132, 138).

Once opened, the prayer nut reveals its intimate secrets. Two biblical scenes are represented in exquisite detail. The upper disk shows Christ in the house of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). Mary sits attentively at Christ’s feet as Martha turns toward the kitchen and clutches her dress anxiously, as if pacing. In the background, the twelve disciples are depicted under an arch. Moving to the lower disk, the Noli Me Tangere—Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–17)—is represented in the foreground. Extending into the background on the right, successive scenes underscore the resurrection motif: an angel greeting the disciples at the empty tomb; the ‘harrowing of hell’; and the three Marys in the distance processing to anoint Christ’s body.

Measuring just five centimetres across when closed, this remarkable object is designed to be closely handled and admired. Pulling it near to examine its extraordinary detail, the beholder would be invited to enter into the narratives depicted and, through this prayerful, tactile encounter with Scripture, to discover God’s intimate nearness afresh.



Cherry, John, and John Lowden. 2008. Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, vol. 1 (Toronto: Skylet Publishing)

Craddock, Fred. 1985. Philippians, Interpretation (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press)

Fee, Gordon D. 1995. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Giovanni Bellini

St Francis in the Desert, c.1476–78, Oil on panel, 124.6 x 142 cm, The Frick Collection, New York; Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1915.1.03, The Frick Collection, New York / Bridgeman Images

Rejoice in the Lord Always

Commentary by Devon Abts

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Read by Ben Quash

A solitary figure dressed in mendicant robes stands atop a rocky mountain ledge. He has risen from his simple eremitic dwelling and, leaving his shoes behind, stepped into a holy kind of light. With arms stretched, eyes raised, and mouth slightly agape, he is in a state of pure, ecstatic joy. The whole world seems arrested by an otherworldly glow as every creature—from the rabbit poking its head out of the ground, to the donkey lifting its attentive ears, to the distant shepherd tending his flock—turns towards this charismatic figure. Even the laurel tree bends its branches reverently as its leaves are seemingly set ablaze by holy fire. Something miraculous is happening, and we, as beholders of the image, are invited to witness it. 

To borrow words from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘What is all this juice and all this joy?’ (‘Spring’, line 9). 

This is Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert, and the scene it most likely depicts is St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata (wounds of Christ) on Mount Alverna in 1224. Among a myriad visual representations of this popular narrative, Bellini’s is singular. Earlier images show Francis kneeling before heavenly beings and receiving five large wounds on his hands, feet, and side. By contrast, the Venetian artist here represents the miracle with exceptional subtlety, using light to convey divine presence, and with only two faint wounds on the upright saint’s hands visible (Hale and Rutherglen 2015: 94). Yet for all its mesmerizing subtlety, the painting also exudes a joyful exuberance. It is a moving portrait of a saint who understood what it means to, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4:4).

The root word for ‘joy’ (charis) is the most frequently employed term in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 94). Yet scholars note that charis refers, not to, ‘a facile joy in the absence of suffering or difficulty’, but rather to the ‘deep joy’ of identifying with Christ’s Passion (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 4). Bellini’s St Francis is a vivid reminder that Christian joy is always found ‘in the Lord’, who fills us with his light and transforms us by his love.



Hale, Charlotte, and Susannah Rutherglen (eds). 2015. In A New Light: Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert (New York: Frick Collection)

Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith Ryan. 2009. Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)

Jan van Kessel I :

Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche, c.1670 , Oil on copper

Unknown Flemish artist :

A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere, Early 16th century , Boxwood

Giovanni Bellini :

St Francis in the Desert, c.1476–78 , Oil on panel

Real Presences

Comparative commentary by Devon Abts

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Read by Ben Quash

Philippians 4:1–9 marks the beginning of Paul’s ‘final exhortations’ to the Christians at Philippi.

After briefly addressing internal conflicts within the community (vv.2–3), the apostle gives two sets of instructions: the first, a short teaching on prayer (vv.4–7), and the second, a list of virtuous thoughts and actions (vv.8–9). And, intriguingly, while Paul makes it abundantly clear that prayer is to be addressed to Christ alone (v.6), the virtues he commends (v.8) are by no means unique to this New Testament author’s worldview. As scholars frequently note, many Hellenistic teachers commended these attributes as the most admirable moral qualities human beings can attain (Bockmuehl 1997: 221; Martin 1987: 175). In this way, Paul’s injunctions in verses 4–9 serve as a final reminder that the one who is rightly ordered by prayer will be able to interpret the signs of God’s virtue in all created things.

In distinct ways, each of these three artworks invites us to recognize the signs of divine virtue that surround us in our daily lives. For example, Jan van Kessel’s painting invites us to consider how all virtue is mediated through the sacramental sign of the Eucharist. In its simple presentation, the image bids us slow down and notice signs of God’s presence, both in worship and in nature. At the centre is the Blessed Sacrament, which has been consecrated as a sign of Christ’s presence during the Catholic liturgy. Set in a monstrance, this holy food is presented to us as an object worthy of our devoted attention. Surrounding the sacramental sign are material elements of the Eucharistic feast, carefully selected and presented to us as reminders that God’s gifts are endlessly available throughout creation. Viewed through the prism of the central object, each detail of flora and fauna becomes a sign of divine virtue—a vivid reminder to the viewer that Christ transforms creation and empowers us to live by the virtues Paul extols in Philippians 4:8.

Unlike Van Kessel’s tranquil image, Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy is radiant with energy and light as divine presence breaks into the quiet solitude of the saint’s eremitic retreat. This painting is one of many depicting the moment when St Francis receives the stigmata; yet Bellini’s image deviates from iconographic tradition in striking ways. Earlier visual representations—for example, Giotto’s Stigmatization of St Francis (c.1295) and Sassetta’s San Sepolcro Altarpiece (c.1440)—typically depict Francis kneeling and gazing up at a seraph or angelic figure, who radiates beams of divine power onto his hands and feet. Here, there are neither angelic figures, nor beams of light: instead, Bellini invokes God’s presence by suffusing the entire scene with natural light, the source of which lies outside the painting’s frame. This light radiates onto a nearby tree (which bends its boughs in reverence) before falling, uninterrupted, onto the saint himself. It also spreads over creation, illuminating a landscape rich in flora and fauna. By depicting Francis facing this dazzling world, Bellini invites the viewer to encounter God’s transformative power, not by retreating from reality, but meditating on signs of Christ’s presence in creation.

Finally, the tiny, delicate boxwood prayer nut is a striking emblem of the tactile, embodied experience of prayer. Counting prayers on beads or knotted ropes is an ancient devotional custom employed across many religions, from antiquity to the present. It is unclear when this practice was introduced into Christianity, though many scholars trace its roots to the desert fathers and mothers (Winston-Allen 2010: 14). Among European Christians, customary use of devotional beads initially developed with the invention of medieval paternosters, portable sets of beads designed to help illiterate Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer (Winston-Allen 2010: 14). Later, users began incorporating petitions to Mary into this form of prayer, giving rise to one of the most enduring Christian devotions: the rosary (Mitchell 2012: 6). Fusing a short, memorable prayer with the tactile use of beads, the rosary facilitated a contemplative experience which strongly appealed to the pious medieval imagination. Thus, as this devotion proliferated across late-medieval Europe, so too did a rich material culture surrounding the manufacture and use of prayer beads. By the fourteenth century, rosaries had become extremely popular—even fashionable—objects of personal piety and adornment. For owners of such prayer beads, the tiny, portable object would have been a perpetual reminder to keep watch at all times for the signs of God’s virtue in the world around them.



Bockmuehl, Markus. 1997. The Epistle to the Philippians (London: A & C Black)

Martin, Ralph. 1987. Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Mitchell, Nathan D. 2012. The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (New York: NYU Press)

Winston-Allen, Anne. 2010. Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press)

Next exhibition: Colossians 1:1–20

Philippians 4:1–9

Revised Standard Version

4 Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

2 I entreat Eu-oʹdia and I entreat Synʹtyche to agree in the Lord. 3And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.