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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602, Oil on canvas, 295 x 195 cm, Formerly part of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin, destroyed 1945, bpk Bildagentur / Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Art Resource, NY

Unknown Byzantine artist

Mosaic of Jesus and his ancestors (Genealogy of Christ), 1315–21, Mosaic, Kariye Camii, Istanbul, Picade LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

Unknown German artist [Herrad of Landsberg]

The Genealogy of Christ, from The Garden of Delights (Hortus Deliciarum) by Herrad of Landsberg, 19th century copy (original c.1170 or c.1175–1195), Illumination, Formerly Strasbourg, destroyed in 1870, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Stammbaum_Christi.JPG

Genealogical Tensions

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

A reader of the genealogies of Jesus Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 is presented with a unique challenge, caused by significant areas of dissimilarity in the texts. Matthew’s genealogy focusses on three sets of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, Solomon to Josiah, and Jeconiah to Jesus Christ. It also includes five named female characters: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.

Not only does Luke’s Gospel present a different genealogy by following an exclusively male line through Nathan, son of David, as opposed to Solomon, it also goes back even further than Abraham and recalls Adam, the ‘Son of God’. By doing so, Luke unites Christ with the very origins of humankind.

The clear difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies means that visual interpreters of the subject are faced with a choice: whether to align to a Matthean or Lukan mode of representation.

Because Matthew is the central figure in Caravaggio’s lost Saint Matthew with Angel, and it was originally commissioned for a chapel dedicated to him, we see him inscribing a genealogy that begins with Abraham. And perhaps because of the particular tradition that this Gospel was a ‘Jewish Gospel’, written originally in Hebrew, the artist depicts the evangelist using legible Hebrew script. Both by starting with this Old Testament figure, and taking unusual care to use accurate (not pseudo-) Hebrew, this work reinforces a direct link between Israel’s history and Jesus the Messiah.

In a similar way, the copy of Herrad of Landsberg's illumination shows a genealogical tree centred on God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants. This preference for Matthew’s genealogical pattern is further corroborated by the same number of heads in the central trunk as are found in Matthew’s ancestral list.

In contrast, the artist who created the Byzantine mosaic in Chora Church uses the Lukan genealogical pattern. The presence of Adam and Noah in the cycle indicate that the artist wanted to incorporate the farthest reaches of Christ’s ancestry. By maintaining equidistance between each of his ancestors regardless of their position in the chronology, the Christ Pantocrator icon represents the timelessness of Jesus’s divinity, recalling the language of Colossians 1:15–17: ‘the firstborn over all creation … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’. 

The differences between these three artworks go beyond their historical, geographical, and cultural background. The ways they represent the genealogy of Jesus Christ also reflects a theological disparity that is ultimately guided by their preference for either the Matthean or Lukan lens of interpretation.

Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy from Abraham. According to Jerome (374–429 CE), Matthew’s Gospel served to support the faith of those who, like the Gospel writer himself, had grown up in the Jewish Law and were entering into a new religious movement. A characteristic of Matthew’s gospel writings is his desire to situate Jesus as the redeemer of Israel. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is therefore used as a means to communicate his Jewishness. Two of our artists adhere to Matthew’s objective. Caravaggio uses legible Hebrew script to communicate the validity of Christ as Jewish Messiah, and Herrad of Landsberg constructs a tree of Abraham’s descendants that culminates in the figure of Christ who presides over the image. 

Alternatively, the Chora Church’s mosaic reflects Luke’s characterization of Christ, as the Saviour of the whole world. The breadth of characters found in Luke’s Gospel—men, women, Pharisees, sinners, criminals, tax collectors—is a means to show Christ as Lord over all, both Gentile and Jew. Luke’s decision to trace the origins of Christ from the beginning of creation shares the inclusivity found in the rest of his Gospel account. The far-reaching descendants who circle Christ Pantocrator in the Chora Church testify to that fact. 

The divergences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies serve as precursors for the direction and purpose of the rest of their writings. The value of exploring these genealogical images lies in their capacity to magnify these characterizations, and present the viewer with new ways in which to view and understand the descendants of Jesus Christ. 

 

References

Brown, Raymond. 1977. The Birth of the Messiah (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Loubser, J. A. 2005. ‘Invoking the Ancestors: Some Socio-Rhetorical Aspects of the Genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke’, Neotestamentica, 39.1: 127–40

Next exhibition: Matthew 2:13–15 Next exhibition: Luke 4:1–13