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Mughal artists from Gujarat

Jali Lattice Window, c.1572, White marble, 3m x 1.5m (approx.), Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi, Pocholo Calapre / Alamy Stock Photo

Albrecht Dürer

Self Portrait in a Fur-Trimmed Robe, 1500, Oil on panel, 67.1 x 48.9 cm, 537, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische, Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich, Germany / Art Resource, NY

Francisco de Zurbarán

Still Life with Vessels , c.1650, Oil on canvas, 46 x 84 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; Bequest of Francisco de Asís Cambó, 1940, P002803, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images

Knowing Where to Look

Comparative Commentary by

These two chapters of 2 Corinthians are saturated with the language of gazing, beholding, looking, shining, and glory, oriented around two contrasting concepts: the veil and the face.

For Paul, the old covenant under Moses was a partial revelation of God’s glory, a ‘dispensation of condemnation’ (2 Corinthians 3:9), because the Law was powerless to save. It revealed sin and showed the need for a Saviour. Under this dispensation, only a few people, like Moses, were intimate with God. Moses had a shining face after speaking to God on Mount Sinai, but he had to cover it with a veil in front of the Israelites because they did not have the same access to God (3:13). The veil thus symbolizes spiritual blindness (3:14). But under the new covenant, when someone turns to the Lord, ‘the veil is removed’ (3:16), giving all people the opportunity to know God personally through Jesus.

The pierced lattice window of Humayun’s tomb is a veiling that becomes the occasion of an unveiling; an enclosure that leads to disclosure. It creates an interface between the dark interior of the tomb and the bright Indian sunlight that pours through its intricately cut shapes, shapes which intimate divine perfection. Like a veil that undoes itself, the jali is a signpost towards the God the creator.

It is, then, far from being a static work of art, and its constant interaction with the shifting sun may also signify something of the God who, as Paul insists, is dynamic and personal in time. He ‘has made his light shine in our hearts’ (4:6). He knows who we are, and understands the complex shifting patterns of our lives.

Paul visualizes the new covenant with the concept of the face. The glory of God (echoing the Hebrew shekinah: God’s saving presence) is revealed in the face of Christ: ‘For God, who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’, has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (4:6).

Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait is all about the face as a divine construction. Dürer’s identity and that of Christ are inextricably bound as he superimposes the likeness of Christ onto his own appearance. Scholars have long argued over Dürer’s intentions here. His career shows he had a deep interest in his own status and so he was probably highlighting his god-like creative ability. But, paradoxically, this work can nevertheless illuminate a Pauline point. Sinful human beings can, by grace, experience God’s transforming power in their lives to become more like Christ, for ‘we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’ (3:18). Even Paul might have enjoyed this twist, for (as chapter 4 shows) he was a lover of paradoxes: light shining out of darkness; treasure found in clay pots; bodies dying in order to witness to life. Pride here is an inadvertent witness to grace.

Knowing ‘the glory of God in the face of Christ’ is a ‘treasure’ to Paul, but he stresses that there is no place for self-righteousness, for ‘we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us’ (4:7). In Francisco de Zurbarán’s Still Life with Vessels, the two white water jugs in particular are every-day earthenware objects, no doubt often broken and chipped in Spanish homes. Meanwhile, the goblet and vase at the outer edges stand on pewter plates. They are like every-day versions of eucharistic vessels—and we find eucharistic associations too in Paul’s description of his life in 4:11–15. Although he is ‘always being given up to death for Jesus sake’, his description culminates in the idea of ‘thanksgiving’ (the Greek word eucharistia means ‘thanksgiving’) ‘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’ (4:15).

Christians are jars of clay, breakable and weak; they face affliction and suffer. But afflictions, too, are like a kind of veil that the believer must look through to an eternal glory beyond, which brings us back to the dissolving lattice jali at Humayun’s tomb. It articulates an intersecting point between the visible and invisible. As Paul concludes, ‘we look not to the things that are seen but to the things unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ (4:18).

Next exhibition: Galatians 3:23–29