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Pat Steir

Waterfall of the Misty Dawn, 1990, Oil on canvas, 198.1 x 314.9 cm, Private collection, Courtesy of Pat Steir and Lévy Gorvy

Olga de Amaral

Alchemy 50 (Alquimia 50), 1987, Canvas, gesso, gold leaf, and acrylic paint, 165 x 150 cm, Tate; Presented by the artist 2016, T14879, © Olga de Amaral; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Eugène Burnand

The Disciples Peter and John Run to the Sepulchre the Morning of the Resurrection (Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au Sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection), 1898, Oil on canvas, 83 x 135.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 1153, LUX 1219, JdeP 338, Photo: Martine Beck-Coppola © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Just Before the Dawn

Comparative Commentary by

The opening words of 1 Peter call forth joy at the glorious splendour of God’s salvation. ‘You are rejoicing’, the author twice reminds his hearers (1 Peter 1:6, 8). But they are also suffering.

We don’t know exactly what their ‘various trials’ were (1:6). Peter addresses them as ‘exiles’ living in five provinces of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor (modern-day Türkiye). We know that, although persecutions were scattered and sporadic in the Roman Empire in the second half of the first century, some Christians did lose property, friends, and livelihoods when they turned to Christ. Some died for their faith. It is this faith that Peter explains is being tested and refined by the fire of their suffering. Peter reminds his first hearers that Christ also suffered and then was glorified (1:11). If found to be genuine, their faith—that is, their trust in God, their faithful endurance—will result in their salvation. That makes their faith even more precious than gold.

All three artworks give us a glimpse into Peter’s gold: from the literal use of gold in Alchemy 50 to the glowing light of Eugène Burnand’s sunrise to the barest hint of warm colour in Pat Steir’s waterfall. All three also, in their own way, may help to illuminate the theme of suffering, and the biblical passage’s acute awareness of what is not yet seen. The dominant note in Steir’s painting is not light but darkness, a black backdrop over which shards of light glimmer. Olga de Amaral’s textile also has a dark feature: the black threads that crisscross the gold, in a very literal way marking the precious gold with the sign of the cross (the classic sign of suffering in Christian thought) over and over again.

Bernand has captured the anxiety in the faces of Peter and John as they hurry forward, caught forever in the moment just before they arrive at the empty tomb, just before they see the risen Jesus for themselves. This, of course, is the exact position in which Peter’s readers find themselves: they have not yet seen the risen Jesus, but they believe anyway. Viewed side by side, the long vertical lines of Steir’s painting are matched visually by Alchemy 50’s small vertical lines, created by the black threads and the fringe at the bottom of the textile. Only Peter and John interrupt this vertical alignment by leaning forward, breaking the vertical plane as they strain into the future.

The perpetual motion of both waterfall and the running disciples gestures toward the ongoing work of faith in the midst of suffering; the endurance and the waiting. American painter Steir was influenced by Daoism, not by Christianity. For her, the ceaseless motion of the waterfall is ‘an example of perpetual becoming and falling’ (Denson 1999: 118). Set alongside 1 Peter, however, falling water and racing disciples might remind the viewer of another exhortation to ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before us’ (Hebrews 12:1), just as Peter encourages his readers to endure in their faith until the end.

That there is an end to their striving reminds us of one final element of the passage’s ‘not yet’ quality, which is reflected in the motif of the dawn in two of the paintings (the ‘misty dawn’ in the title of Steir’s painting and the actual dawn breaking in the background of Bernand’s). In the New Testament, the dawn is both the time of day when the women disciples discovered Jesus’s empty tomb, and a symbol of the end of the old age and the beginning of God’s new age. Peter writes that Jesus has not yet been revealed (1 Peter 1:5, 7). The ‘revealing’ of Jesus is the dawn in this second sense: the end of the old age, the world’s long night, and the birth of the new age, sometimes simply called ‘the Day’, when Christ returns in glory (Romans 8:18; 13:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 2 Peter 1:19). It’s the alchemy of resurrection, when mortal human bodies will rise and be transformed into immortal and imperishable bodies.

This is why Peter refers to the recipients of his letter as exiles, or as pilgrims. They are away from their true homeland, but they are on their way home. They yearn in hope for their inheritance, as Israelites in exile once longed for the promised land. That is the mystery—the completion of their salvation—that even the angels long to see.

 

References

Denson, G. Roger. 1999. ‘Watercourse Way’, Art in America, 87.11: 114–21

Goin, Chelsea Miller. 1998. ‘Textile as Metaphor: The Weavings of Olga de Amaral’, in A Woman’s Gaze: Latin American Women Artists, ed. by Marjorie Agosín (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press), pp. 54–63

 

Next exhibition: 1 Peter 2:1–10