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The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt van Rijn
The Annunciation by Unknown Byzantine artist
Temptation in the wilderness, flanked by the Esau selling his birthright, and the fall, from Biblia Pauperum by Unknown Netherlandish artist

Rembrandt van Rijn

The Return of the Prodigal Son , 1636, Etching, 156 x 138 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Bequest of Harry G. Friedman, 1965, 66.521.49, www.metmuseum.org

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Annunciation, c.1151, Mosaic, La Martorana, Palermo, © Vanni Archive/ Art Resource, NY

Unknown Netherlandish artist

Temptation in the wilderness, flanked by the Esau selling his birthright, and the fall, from Biblia Pauperum, c.1465, Woodcut, 262 x 192 mm, The British Museum, London, 18,450,809.11, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

The Lord’s Prayer and Christian Art

Comparative Commentary by

The three objects in this exhibition are drawn from different periods, different artistic media, and different theological and ecclesial traditions. None of them sets out to portray the Lord’s Prayer directly. In fact, their subject matter derives from three distinct genres of scriptural writing and reception: realistic narrative, parabolic speech, and typological reflection. Despite the diversity, there is an artistic thread that holds them together through a logic that is scriptural and theological. By viewing them in relation to the Lord’s Prayer, we discover how art and Scripture work together in Christian devotion.

We begin with some differences. The mosaics from the Church of St Mary the Admiral in Palermo were commissioned by George of Antioch, an Orthodox Greek who was prominent in the court of the first Norman king of Sicily, Roger II. The Norman rulers had already begun a programme of building and adorning Sicilian churches in Byzantine style, and the Annunciation at St Mary’s recalls the same scene in the royal Palatine chapel nearby. The idea that God’s kingdom should come was, in the sight of the Norman rulers, closely bound up with their own status as anointed kings.

Rembrandt van Rijn, by contrast, inhabited the world of the Dutch Reformation, where art was banned from churches, but the biblical text was one of his primary sources and inspirations. This version of the Return of the Prodigal draws attention to his sympathy with outcasts. He frequently portrayed beggars and peasants, and the prodigal son is one of them, thin, scruffy, and disfigured. His strong personal identification with the prodigal emerges in another painting from this period, known as The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), where Rembrandt figured himself as the wayward son, squandering his money on drink in the alluring company of women.

The Biblia Pauperum is different again. A late medieval creation for wide distribution in its printed forms, it was probably intended for private devotion among educated lay readers. The design of the page demanded literacy, scriptural knowledge, and time to pause and contemplate the relationship between the many different parts, both images and texts. The individual artist of the page recedes, and in his place emerges a whole tradition of typological thinking about the relation between the Old Testament and Christianity.

Despite the diverse contexts and characteristics of these three artworks, and despite the fact that none of them has the Lord’s Prayer as its subject matter, each has deep points of connection with that prayer of prayers.

Firstly, all three artistic compositions focus attention on gospel stories. This is important to how and why it is fruitful to read them in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. To live out a life that is shaped by that prayer would necessarily take narrative form, since earthly life happens across time. Where better to discover narrative paradigms for such a life than in the gospel stories about Jesus, who taught the prayer to his disciples? These are the stories that his disciples put together of things that he said and did. Their purpose, like that of the Lord’s Prayer, was to form people in relation to God through Christ. Therefore there is a devotional logic embedded in the Christian tradition that encourages us to contemplate gospel stories in light of the Lord’s prayer, and vice versa.

Second, all three artworks implicitly or explicitly present human experiences of embodied life in relation to the God who calls humanity into ordered and loving relationships through Christ. The artistic media give embodied form to this relationship and locate it in space: the moment of Incarnation is over the sanctuary; the prodigal is portrayed as he returns home; the blockbook facilitates practices of meditation in a domestic setting. Through these uses of material form to represent and locate embodied devotion, the artistic media help to realise the interplay of heaven and earth, sin and forgiveness, temptation and deliverance, which strikes to the core of the human experience that the Lord’s Prayer seeks to refocus and to transform.

 

References

Borsook, Eva. 1990. Messages in Mosaic: The Royal Programmes of Norman Sicily 11301187 (Rochester, NY: Boydell Press)

Held, Julius S. 1984. ‘A Rembrandt “Theme”’, Artibus et Historiae 5.10: 21–34

Kitzinger, Ernst. 1990. The Mosaics of St. Mary’s of the Admiral in Palermo, with a Chapter on the Architecture of the Church by Slobodan Ćurčić (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oakes)

Rasmussen, Tarald. 2008. ‘Bridging the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: “Biblia Pauperum”, their genre and their hermeneutical significance’, in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation, vol. 2, ed. by Magne Saebø (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht), pp. 76–93

White, Christopher. 1999. Rembrandt as an Etcher, 2nd edn. (New Haven: Yale University Press)