Temptation in the wilderness, flanked by the Esau selling his birthright, and the fall, from Biblia Pauperum by Unknown Netherlandish artist

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

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Tempted by Satan and Delivered through Christ

Commentary by

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries, block book bible commentaries—printed using woodcuts—were widely distributed. Today they are known as Biblia Pauperum, although they were not typically made for the very poor and could be quite costly. They contextualize Christian tradition in relation to Old Testament narratives and prophecies.

We see a page of one here. Its Latin titulus can be translated, ‘Satan tempted Christ in order that he might overcome him’, and the central section portrays Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days (Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13; cf. Mark 1:12–13). In the background, the city and the precipitous mountain recall how Satan tempted Jesus to accept earthly dominion in return for homage, and to prove God’s merciful protection by flinging himself from a high rock.

Most prominent, however, is the encounter in the foreground where Satan tempts him to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. In the adjacent sections, interpreted through textual glosses above and below, Esau (at left) prioritizes a tasty meal over his father’s blessing and honour, and (at right) Satan tricks Adam and Eve to expect godlike knowledge from eating. By contrast, Jesus, at centre, lifts his hand to touch, but not to taste, the stone. The prophets, portrayed two-by-two above and below the central scenes, hold inscribed banderoles, through which God chastises his wayward people and declares his victory over the enemy (above: Psalm 34:16; Isaiah 29:16; below: 2 Kings 7:9; Job 16:10). The composition as a whole argues that God gained victory over Satan by Christ’s obedience, thereby fulfilling what the prophets had called for but humanity had neglected from the first.

As a devotional aid to meditation on temptation, this page captures the tension between human frailty and hope in God that is expressed in the closing petition of the Lord’s prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. By focusing attention on how Christ defeated Satan where all humanity had failed, the Biblia Pauperum strengthens confidence in God’s sovereignty to defeat evil, including even the evil that works insidiously through carnal appetites and self-directed desires.

 

References

Henry, Avril. 1981. ‘The Forty-Page Blockbook “Biblia Pauperum”: Schreiber Editions I and VIII Reconsidered’, Oud Holland 95.3: 127–50

Labriola, Albert C., and John W. Smeltz (trans.). 1990. The Bible of the Poor (Biblia Pauperum): A Facsimile and Edition of the British Library Blockbook C.9 d.2 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press)

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