The Neuwe Biblische Figuren is an early printed German Bible made up almost entirely of pictures. While many of the images are presented with short excerpts of text (four verses in Latin above and their German translation below), these function largely as marginal commentaries (Cramer 2005: 259). This format demands that the pictures tell the story where text is absent, requiring a high degree of detail in each.
To make the prints the artist, Jost Amman, carved the negative space from a woodblock which was then inked and printed onto paper. The resulting work has a linear dynamism, which Amman used to suggest the chaotic energy of the vision. Particularly striking are the finely incised rays of light that emanate from the enthroned God, the outward force of which is continued beyond the clouds in tongues of flame that lick forcefully down towards the earth. The cherubim below are captured in a swirling river of fire (Ezekiel 10:6–7), their wings spread to imply their movement.
The scene’s theatricality is further emphasized by the gestures of the human figures. As the group on the left look at one another in disbelief, Ezekiel, overwhelmed by the glory of God, has dropped to his knees in prayer. All of this together gives the viewer a sense of the frightening majesty of the vision, which in its first occurrence (in Ezekiel 1) even caused him to ‘fall upon his face’ (v.28).
While the other two works featured in this exhibition focus on a particular part of Ezekiel’s visionary experience, this print represents most of the book of Ezekiel and thus refers to details from other passages. Earlier in the book, God commands that Ezekiel eat his scroll so that he can ‘speak to the house of Israel’ (3:1). Here, Jost Amman shows the scroll flowing from a celestial hand into Ezekiel’s partially opened mouth.
In this world of airy energies, it is as if he is breathing in the words of God.
Cramer, Thomas. 2005. ‘From the World of God to the Emblem’, in Visual Culture in the German Middle Ages, ed. by Kathryn Starkey and Horst Wenzel (Springer: New York), pp. 251–71
10 Then I looked, and behold, on the firmament that was over the heads of the cherubim there appeared above them something like a sapphire, in form resembling a throne. 2And he said to the man clothed in linen, “Go in among the whirling wheels underneath the cherubim; fill your hands with burning coals from between the cherubim, and scatter them over the city.”
And he went in before my eyes. 3Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the house, when the man went in; and a cloud filled the inner court. 4And the glory of the Lord went up from the cherubim to the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord. 5And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer court, like the voice of God Almighty when he speaks.
6 And when he commanded the man clothed in linen, “Take fire from between the whirling wheels, from between the cherubim,” he went in and stood beside a wheel. 7And a cherub stretched forth his hand from between the cherubim to the fire that was between the cherubim, and took some of it, and put it into the hands of the man clothed in linen, who took it and went out. 8The cherubim appeared to have the form of a human hand under their wings.
9 And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling chrysolite. 10And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. 11When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced the others followed without turning as they went. 12And their rims, and their spokes, and the wheels were full of eyes round about—the wheels that the four of them had. 13As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing the whirling wheels. 14And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
15 And the cherubim mounted up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar. 16And when the cherubim went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to mount up from the earth, the wheels did not turn from beside them. 17When they stood still, these stood still, and when they mounted up, these mounted up with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in them.
18 Then the glory of the Lord went forth from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. 19And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.
20 These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. 21Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the semblance of human hands. 22And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the very faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. They went every one straight forward.