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Unknown German artist

Lindau Gospels, Front cover (St Gall, Switzerland), 880–99, 350 x 275 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1901, MS M. 1, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Rogier van der Weyden

The Last Judgement (The Beaune Altarpiece), c.1445–50, Oil on oak, c. 220 x 548 cm (open), Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Paul Chan

The 5th Light, from The 7 Lights, 2007, Digital video projection, 14 mins, Installed at the New Museum in 2008, © Paul Chan, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Love One Another

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

Despite its captivating array of literary imagery, 1 John 3:1–16 offers a clear and emphatic imperative to ‘love one another’ (v.11). The passage underscores the grave importance of its plea by sharing a series of stark binaries; such as ‘children of God’ (v.1) versus ‘children of the devil’ (v.10), ‘abides in him’ (v.6) versus ‘abides in death’ (v.14), the righteous brethren (v.7) versus the world (v.13), etc.

Amid the pull of these dualities, the reader is called decisively to embrace one and resist the other. The vision of Christ’s glory, so 1 John relates, makes possible a transformation akin to his for anyone who ‘abides in him’ (v.6), who has ‘seen him or known him’ (v.6), and who is ‘born of God’ (v.9). 1 John 3 also warns sternly against disregarding his example and continuing in sin.

Joyfully, 1 John presents the Son of God as the exemplar of what it is to overcome the world and to triumph in glory. ‘He is pure’ (v.3). Representing the crucifixion in a highly stylized manner typical of the Middle Ages, the cover of the Lindau Gospels conveys this purity. There is poignancy in his Passion, but the smoothness and refinement of the metalwork render his monumental form exquisite—projecting into the viewer’s space through the use of repoussé relief. This Christ Triumphant is a glorious sufferer, evoking the kind of reverence and awe that the author of 1 John seeks to elicit, too, as he issues his ethical summons that ‘every one who thus hopes in [Christ] purifies himself’ (v.3).

Visual traditions of the Last Judgement speak directly to the efforts of those seeking to purify themselves. Most notably, Rogier van der Weyden’s Beaune Altarpiece can be read as providing a picture of the redeemed community that 1 John 3 seems to envision. Here the Deësis form (a traditional iconography wherein the central Christ is flanked by his Mother and St John the Baptist in supplication) also gathers balanced rows of the twelve apostles with additional rows of as yet unidentified male and female figures. This visual architecture allows the composition to make a decidedly theological statement. Fifteenth-century naturalism takes on a mystical significance as these regal saints are rendered alongside Christ in his glory. Such rendering speaks to 1 John’s staggering claim that ‘God’s nature abides in [them]’ (3:9) Indeed, the believer’s journey in sanctification finds a particularly apt image here as these witnesses gaze upon the glorious judge and thereby symbolize the transformative logic of 1 John 3: ‘[W]hen he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (v.2).

At the same time, Van der Weyden’s altarpiece also depicts the guilty and thus acknowledges that some will reject this call to love. They will remain ‘guilty of lawlessness’ (v.4) and abide in death. As 1 John 3 relates, the inherent tension in choosing the righteous way remains, because ‘it does not yet appear what we shall be’ (v.2). The charge to love one another comes finally in the form of two extreme examples: a negative case, ‘Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’ (v.15) and a positive case, ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (v.16).

This life and death contrast is resonant with Paul Chan’s arresting inversion of creation in The 7 Lights. Mimicking what can be seen in the light cast across a floor from an apartment window, his video projections toy with ideas of the end of the world. In the hallucinatory effects of its imagery, the 5th Light in particular sets forward a profound moral drama. It announces that the present conditions of the world must change. While Chan’s work is ambiguous about whether this change will bring redemption or destruction, it seems that no one escapes the imagined reckoning. Coincidentally, like the fifth of seven signs in John’s Gospel where Jesus demonstrates his power over the deadly sea by walking on the stormy waters (John 6:16–21), the 5th Light recalls a different sort of storm: the epidemic of gun violence that terrorizes so many lives today. This fear is met in Chan’s video with a picture of the imminent dismantling of these weapons of war and death. Such destruction of arms evokes the rationale behind 1 John’s exhortation: ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil’ (3:8).

In its haunting fashion, then, the disarming of temporary powers in Chan’s 5th Light allows us to see ourselves, one another, and this present world, differently. In the process, perhaps, we can feel the call to self-giving love with renewed urgency.

Next exhibition: Revelation 10