Paul’s life was full of affliction, perplexity, and persecution, but through these trials he was able to say that he was not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, and not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8–9). He knew that in Jesus, he had treasure of unsurpassing worth, and that his body was like an earthen vessel (4:7) displaying the extraordinary power of eternal life in the face of death (4:11–12).
This seventeenth-century Spanish Still Life with Vessels by Francisco de Zurbarán has a wonderful asceticism, not so much in the objects themselves, but in the way they are arranged with ordered simplicity. Zurbarán spent much of his career in Seville painting monastic figures and saints, and this painting with its strong chiaroscuro lighting imbues the vessels lined up on a shelf with a spiritual atmosphere. We contemplate them intimately, close to the picture plane, with a dark background that does not allow for any recession.
There is a silver gilt goblet with little dragon handles, standing on a pewter plate at the left. Next to it is a water jug, and on the far right a white vase, both of which are from Triana in Seville, and made of a type of porous earthenware that cools water through evaporation, known as eggshell. In between these, is a terracotta vase from the Indies, at that time part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
There are many aspects of the painting that do not conform strictly to the rules of perspective and the fall of light. Most prominent is the fact that the tall Triana water jug does not cast a full shadow onto the terracotta vase to its right, and different vessels are seen from slightly different vantage points in relation to the shelf.
Paul in 2 Corinthians visualizes jars of clay, and imagines them filled with treasure (4:7). Zurbarán seems to treasure the possibilities in the earthly vessels that are his subject. And, maximizing the play of light on their surfaces in order to emphasize their volumes, he like Paul makes us think about the possibilities of what they contain.
Delenda, Odile, and María del Mar Borobia Guerrero et al. 2015. Zurbarán: A New Perspective (Madrid: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza)
12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. 14 But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
4 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.