Jeremiah warns of the impending destruction of Jerusalem: ‘A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert’ (4:11) which will ‘make your land a waste’ (v.7). The ‘fruitful land’ will be turned to ‘desert’ and ‘all the cities … forsaken’ (v.26).
Belief that the world-order is about to end is nothing new, but for today’s reader the striking parallels between Jeremiah’s apocalyptic imagery and contemporary warnings about climate change are unavoidable.
Jeremiah’s words illustrate the fundamental interconnectedness of humanity with its natural environment: our actions have consequences which affect creation itself. ‘Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart’ (v.18). For the prophet, misdirected devotion—to worldly things, to clothes and ornaments—distracts a vain and selfish populace from the things that really matter, hides God from them, and prevents them from taking steps to avert their impending destruction.
These three artworks remind us of the conflicting and contradictory roles that we might all sometimes play in causing and combating the wrong in the world. The wax memento mori figure can be seen as embodying these two sides of the human self: the desire for luxuries, fine clothing, and an easy life on the one hand, and an awareness of mortality and the emptiness of consumerism, even a longing for something more permanent and meaningful, on the other (this is also one of the great themes of Ecclesiastes). The prophet recommends purification, telling us to metaphorically ‘circumcise’ the heart (v.4). His image has an anatomical exactness which cuts to the quick of the sacrifice expected of us: the journey to a purer life may not be easy or painless.
But we can also feel trapped by the systems that perpetuate our damaging activities, unsure where to turn or how to reform ourselves, like ‘stupid children’ with ‘no understanding’: ‘skilled in doing evil, but how to do good [we] know not’ (v.22). Rembrandt van Rijn’s sorrowful Jeremiah embodies the feelings of hopelessness that can so easily accompany knowledge of the problems facing humanity. Small, individual contributions often feel inadequate, and it can be depressing when warnings go unheeded, when time is running out. It may be tempting to leave it up to others to solve these problems, but in this passage God’s destructive judgement forces individuals to take responsibility for their actions. In the painting even Jeremiah, who tried his best to warn Jerusalem, hangs his head in sorrow at his failure to call the sinful to repentance.
Rembrandt’s rendering of Jeremiah’s lamentation forces us to ask difficult questions about its relationship to time and place. Is the destruction of Jerusalem, which he had so long predicted, taking place over the prophet’s shoulder? Or in his mind or memory? The smoky atmosphere separates the two parts of the scene, wreathing them in a cloud of destruction but also, perhaps, the haze of reminiscence: in either case, the artist has turned the heavens ‘black’.
We can follow this smoke trail to the landscape of John Gerrard’s digital simulation Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017. This too exists ambiguously in time and place, as each second the computer code reinterprets information from the artist’s original photographic survey of the site and recreates the scene anew, rendering day and night in real time, hovering between then and now. In 1901, Spindletop was the location of the world’s first significant oil strike: an event which changed the course of history, and humanity’s relationship with the environment. Nowadays the landscape is desolate, the previously fruitful wells are dry. Using the form of a flag, Gerrard makes visible Spindletop’s devastating, invisible legacy: the carbon dioxide which fills our atmosphere, the result of our mania for consumption. ‘How long must I see the standard?’ asks the prophet (v.21): how long will humanity continue to lay waste to our environment?
Through painting Rembrandt turns base pigments like lead white into something that seems to be gold, paralleling the memento mori figure, whose fine clothes fail to hide the reality of her mortality. Historically, art itself has often been seen as a vanity, an expensive distraction from truly charitable and worthwhile ends, something which, like wealth, you ‘can’t take with you’. But as a means of human expression—and nowadays, as a means of protest—art can be a way for us to make sense of the world around us, in all its difficult, contradictory reality, and a means by which we can raise even greater awareness of the problems we face. Jeremiah was well aware of the power of visual language, but his vivid warnings were ignored, and destruction ensued. Will we listen this time?
4“If you return, O Israel,
says the Lord,
to me you should return.
If you remove your abominations from my presence,
and do not waver,
2and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
in truth, in justice, and in uprightness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
and in him shall they glory.”
3 For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem:
“Break up your fallow ground,
and sow not among thorns.
4Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
and burn with none to quench it,
because of the evil of your doings.”
5 Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,
“Blow the trumpet through the land;
cry aloud and say,
‘Assemble, and let us go
into the fortified cities!’
6Raise a standard toward Zion,
flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring evil from the north,
and great destruction.
7A lion has gone up from his thicket,
a destroyer of nations has set out;
he has gone forth from his place
to make your land a waste;
your cities will be ruins
8For this gird you with sackcloth,
lament and wail;
for the fierce anger of the Lord
has not turned back from us.”
9“In that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail both king and princes; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” 10Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you’; whereas the sword has reached their very life.”
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, 12a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.”
13Behold, he comes up like clouds,
his chariots like the whirlwind;
his horses are swifter than eagles—
woe to us, for we are ruined!
14O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness,
that you may be saved.
How long shall your evil thoughts
lodge within you?
15For a voice declares from Dan
and proclaims evil from Mount Eʹphraim.
16Warn the nations that he is coming;
announce to Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of Judah.
17Like keepers of a field are they against her round about,
because she has rebelled against me,
says the Lord.
18Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom, and it is bitter;
it has reached your very heart.”
19My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
the alarm of war.
20Disaster follows hard on disaster,
the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
my curtains in a moment.
21How long must I see the standard,
and hear the sound of the trumpet?
22“For my people are foolish,
they know me not;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but how to do good they know not.”
23I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
25I looked, and lo, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
26I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the Lord, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28For this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above be black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.”
29At the noise of horseman and archer
every city takes to flight;
they enter thickets; they climb among rocks;
all the cities are forsaken,
and no man dwells in them.
30And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you;
they seek your life.
31For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.”