Manna in the Desert
Bread of Heaven
Commentary by Elena Greer
Emergence is one of a series of over twenty works that Bill Viola made as part of a study of the representation of human emotion called The Passions. The works were inspired by medieval and Renaissance painting. As Viola notes, he ‘wanted to get inside these pictures … to inhabit them, to feel them breathe…’ (Walsh 2003: 199).
Along with its baptismal resonances, the work can also be read in parallel with the story of the manna in Exodus 16, as a miraculous physical intervention that defies human understanding. The film shows—in extreme slow motion—the emergence of an almost naked man, his skin as white as hoarfrost (Exodus 16:14), from a marble sarcophagus or cistern.
Emergence is the result of Viola’s experience of the fifteenth-century Florentine artist Masolino’s fresco of Christ as the Man of Sorrows in the church of San Giovanni Battista, Empoli. The Man of Sorrows is a type of image that focuses on the naked torso of the dead Christ: his body shown half-enclosed by his marble tomb. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist are occasionally—as in Masolino's work—shown holding his limp hands, their faces wrenched in grief.
Viola, like Masolino, does not abstract the emotion of this scene from its human forms; rather, he uses the body as his principal medium of expression.
Accompanied by choral music, set against a mottled blue background resembling the now-deteriorated blue pigment that Masolino used to evoke an abstract heavenly setting, this emergence has an undeniably miraculous quality.
Two women witness the event as though on our behalf—they stand in for us, the viewers. At the same time, they are like the Israelites in Exodus 16: recipients of an otherworldly phenomenon, testifying to it with their touch.
Viola reinforces the body’s breach of our understood physical surroundings by revealing that he has broken through the surface of still waters, as if from another world. As he rises up from this amniotic place a seemingly endless supply of clear, fresh water flows over the edges of the ‘tomb’, disrupting the women’s physical as well as emotional space: the emergence has created a change in the space in which they live. God’s divine manifestation in the wilderness is paralleled here in this body's purity and presence.
Walsh, John (ed.). 2003. ‘A Conversation: Hans Belting and Bill Viola’, in Bill Viola: The Passions (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum)
Give Us This Day…
Commentary by Elena Greer
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the English designer and architect responsible for the success of the Gothic Revival style, made this encaustic plate in 1849 at the height of his career. His collaboration with the ceramics manufacturer Herbert Minton—with whom he produced this plate, as well as the encaustic floor-tiles for the Palace of Westminster—began in 1840.
This plate belongs to a set featuring mottoes in Gothic script. The words ‘waste not, want not’ are here paired with a design of radiating ears of wheat, indicating its function as a bread plate.
In a literal sense the saying reflects the text of Exodus: the Israelites are encouraged to consume all their daily rations of manna and, however much or little they gather, they do not want for more (Exodus 16:20–21). The divine rituals and instructions accompanying the gathering of the manna convey the message that obedient respect will be rewarded with fulfilment, a message that is reflected in the motto. This fulfilment was not the result of the Israelites’ hard work of gathering but, like the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:31–44; Luke 9:12–17; John 6:1–14), it was a miraculous sustenance.
Such themes of obedience, ritual, and miracle have clear eucharistic connotations too. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin’s writings stressed the primacy of Gothic (or rather pre-Reformation) design as the one ‘true’ spiritual style. The use of Gothic script for the message on this plate thus emphasizes the sanctity of bread. The language of Victorian moral instruction has an allusion to Christ and the Eucharist couched within it, just as, for Christians, such allusions are figured in the episode of the manna.
The message of the plate works regardless of whether, like Pugin, one regards physical bread as transubstantiated in the Mass, or as only symbolic of Christ’s body. In its apparently simple design and message, it expresses the convergence of the most humble and commonplace foodstuff with the divine; the sustainer of mortal life with the provider of eternal life.
A Stage on the Journey
Commentary by Elena Greer
This small scene is painted with the restraint, precision, and harmony for which Ercole de’ Roberti became chief painter to the rulers of Ferrara in the late 1480s.
It is a fragment of a polyptych made to commemorate Eleonora of Aragon, the Duchess of Ferrara, who died in 1493. We know from a copy that the main panel of the altarpiece (now lost) showed the dead Christ lying across his mother’s lap, a pose known as the Lamentation or ‘Pietà’.
Ercole’s skill was to marry elegance with earthiness, arguably a visual parallel of the encounter of human and divine encapsulated in Exodus 16. This story of God’s providence to the Israelites was read by Christians as a prefiguration of Christ’s salvific sacrifice.
The slender figures of Moses and Aaron oversee the event from a position on the left. As witnesses rather than participants they are intended perhaps to share with the viewer an understanding of the significance of this episode in God’s revelation through the events of an unfolding history.
By contrast, the Israelites busy scooping up the heavenly bread seem to represent the mundane reality of human hunger and desperation. The result of drawings from life, Ercole expresses their physicality in a range of poses: kneeling, crouching, balancing. A hefty woman tilts a jar straight into her mouth, a reminder that despite scrabbling or greed each was miraculously satisfied (Exodus 16:18).
The desert appears vast because it is enclosed. Ercole has created a deep stage set demarcated by the simple wooden structures of the Israelites’ camp. The makeshift huts—one is still under construction—might serve to compare humanly-fabricated security with that afforded by God. The raw wooden beams against the wide blue sky emphasize the contrast—and meeting—of earth, the source of need, and heaven, the source of sustenance.
The theatrical backdrop lends the scene grandeur, framing a very human plight with dignity. Ercole’s image reassures us that suffering can have a divine purpose, which in the theological scheme of the altarpiece applies not only to the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land but to the Christian worshipper of the fifteenth century. And today.
Bill Viola :
Emergence, 2002 , Colour high-definition video rear projection
Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin :
Bread plate 'Waste Not Want Not', c.1850 , Stoneware
Ercole de' Roberti :
The Israelites gathering Manna, c.1490 , Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood
Corpus and Community
Commentary by Elena Greer
Eleonora of Aragon, commemorated by the altarpiece for which Ercole de’ Roberti’s predella panel was made, was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ (the eucharistic host). Christ’s dead body, stretched across his mother’s knees was the focus of the main panel of the altarpiece.
The predella panel showing the Israelites gathering manna was originally situated directly to the left of a ciborium—a compartment that held the host—incorporated into the predella. Ercole painted the ciborium door with The Institution of the Eucharist (The National Gallery, London, NG1127).
Thus—reading from left to right—the manna literally precedes and prefigures the body of Christ, the bread of the Eucharist, the true bread of heaven as described in John 6:58.
The first part of John 6 recounts the miracle of the bread and the loaves (vv.1–14) when Jesus fed the 5000. But, according to John, the Jews continued to ask him for a sign (v.30)—one like the manna that God gave to their Hebrew forefathers in the desert, as told in Exodus 16. At the time this altarpiece was made, Christ’s claim that he was the true manna, the Bread of Life, was interpreted typologically (Hylen 2007: 137). The manna foreshadowed the bread of the Eucharist and the nourishment provided by Christ’s body.
The inscription on Augustus Pugin’s bread plate is a reminder of the sacred nature of this staple in daily life. The exhortation to ‘waste not, want not’, in religiously-symbolic and somewhat forbidding Gothic script, demands respect for this most essential and timeless food. The motto also recalls Moses’s command to the Israelites that they collect and consume as much as they could, for the bread would rot and perish if they did not (Exodus 16:20–21).
The rot of the manna is the rot of the physical body and all material things. As Jesus told his hearers in reference to the manna: ‘Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you’ (John 6:27). Pugin’s plate is a reminder, though, of the importance of material types in their reference to spiritual things: manna/bread symbolizes, or even transforms into, the heavenly body. One might extend this analogy to the Gospels: their words are human and centre upon the divine Son’s incarnation in mortal flesh, but they are fundamentally concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven.
The origins of the Man of Sorrows of Masolino’s fresco, the inspiration for Bill Viola’s work, lie in Byzantium but it became popular in Italy in the thirteenth century on account of its association with Pope Gregory the Great’s vision in which Christ appeared in this form—after death, standing in his tomb—as Gregory was celebrating Mass. The miracle was thought to prove the reality of transubstantiation. As displayed in this form, Christ’s body is shown to be the real eucharistic body, the sacramental fulfilment of Pugin’s bread.
Viola’s video finishes in a Lamentation scene: the body of the young man lying, limp, in the arms of the two women like that in Ercole’s altarpiece. In Emergence Viola conveys both the religious and secular inflections of The Passions, the title of the series, conflating emotional responses with physical suffering through the medium of the body.
By enlivening (literally animating) the witnesses to this appearance of physical suffering through the engaging and emotive medium of video, Viola uses all three bodies to convey recognizable and shareable emotions. The suffering of the pale and bloodless body is transferred to the women and through them to us, and so we meditate upon his and our mortality.
Like bread itself, all three artworks have a communal aspect, which can speak to the communality that is centre-stage in Exodus 16. Viola’s video invites humane identification with personal suffering; it establishes fellowship. The daily bread on Pugin’s plate reminds us of our shared bodily dependence on physical nourishment. The consecrated host within Ercole’s ciborium constitutes a communion of eucharistic participants as Exodus’s miraculous bread constituted a community of manna gatherers.
Viola’s pale youth in his tomb is not so much ‘rescued’ as embraced: received. The women as Viola describes them are midwives of a ‘rebirth’ and emergence—accompanied by overflowing water—a reminder of baptism and new life. ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35).
Hylen, Susan. 2005. Allusion and Meaning in John 6, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 137 (Berlin: De Gruyter)