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Unknown English artist

Model of a female, half skeletal, half living, c.1810–30, Wood, metal, wax, Model: 27.3 x 6.4 x 6.2 cm, Science Museum Group Collection, A78828, Courtesy of the Science and Society Picture Library

John Gerrard

Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017, Installation, Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House, London, 21–7 April 2017, © John Gerrard, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London; Image courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York / Artimage 2020; Photo: Will Pryce

Rembrandt van Rijn

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Oil on panel, 58 x 46 cm, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Purchased with the support of private collectors, the Vereniging Rembrandt and the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum, SK-A-3276, Photo: Rijksmuseum

Environmental Crisis

Comparative Commentary by

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?