Romans 8:18–39

More Than Conquerors

Commentaries by Chloë Reddaway

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Vittore Carpaccio

The Meditation on the Passion, c.1490, Oil and tempera on wood, 70.5 x 86.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911, 11.118, www.metmuseum.org

My Redeemer Lives

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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In his shorter commentary on Romans 8, Karl Barth describes a state of existence in which humanity has been ‘judged and put to death on the cross’, and yet in which the fear of death has been removed because it ‘has already taken place’ in Christ and ‘we no longer have to endure it.’ This is life under the ‘shadow’ of the cross, but that shadow is ‘the herald of the glory that awaits’ us (Barth 1959:97).

Vittore Carpaccio’s Meditation on the Passion might give us some sense of this mixture of fatal condemnation, and ultimate hope. Death is certainly prominent: the figure of the dead Christ sits slumped on a ruinous marble throne, in the dusty, bone-strewn, foreground. The crown of thorns and the sharp, lance-like shadows on the ground, are reminders of the Passion. Combining aspects of the Man of Sorrows, Christ on the Cold Stone, and Christ Enthroned, he is accompanied, not by supporting angels, a mourning Virgin, or lamenting disciples, but by Job (on the right) and St Jerome with his companion lion (on the left).

The beleaguered prophet, and the fourth-century ascetic saint—translator of the Bible, and author of a commentary on Job—provide a counterweight to what Barth called the ‘inexorable fatality’ of the shadow of the cross (1959: 97). The crumbling marble block on which Job sits is inscribed with some of his most celebrated words: ‘my Redeemer lives’ (Job 19:25–27). Job, the great sufferer, proffers the hope of the resurrection and points towards the viewers as if to indicate that Christ’s death is for them, while Jerome’s outward gaze reinforces this connection. The shadow of death is not permanent, and Job and Jerome testify to the coming glory.

 

References

Barth, Karl. 1959. A Shorter Commentary on Romans, trans. by D.H. van Daalen (London: SCM)

Quash, Ben. 2013. Found Theology: History, Imagination, and the Holy Spirit (London: Bloomsbury), pp. 89–121

Reddaway, Chloë R. 2019. Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Images of Christ (Turnhout: Brepols), pp.156–158


Fra Angelico

Annunciation, Cell 3, c.1436–43, Fresco, 176 x 148 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence; Scala / Art Resource, NY

Conformed to the Image

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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In Romans 8:28, Paul speaks of a collaboration between God and those ‘who are called according to his purpose’, and of how they will be ‘conformed to the image’ of Christ. A calling, or vocation, to serve God and be conformed to Christ was central to the Dominican brothers for whom Fra Angelico painted this Annunciation. It is one of many frescoes which punctuate the architecture of the convent of San Marco, in Florence, where the artist himself was a friar.

These paintings intersected with the friars’ daily lives at every point. They were intended to facilitate the conformity of the individual to the community and, ultimately, to Christ. Most include a Dominican ‘exemplar’ whom the friars were encouraged to imitate: often St Dominic, who modelled himself on Christ, or the Virgin, nominal abbess of the order. Here it is St Peter Martyr, his head bleeding from the wound inflicted by the heretics who killed him, one of the ‘slaughtered sheep’ to whom Paul refers (v.36, c.f. Psalm 44:22).

The friars learned from these exemplars the proper response to the images before them, often through their physical attitudes and gestures, which were associated with particular states of prayer. Peter Martyr appears in a meditative mode of prayer suited to preparations for preaching. He is not anachronistically present at the Annunciation so much as contemplating it (just as the friar who saw it would do) and seeking to understand it in such a way that he can respond to it through his preaching and his behaviour.

The greatest example of vocation was supplied by the Virgin herself, whom we see here accepting the call to be the mother of God’s son. Her own room directly reflects the architecture of the friar’s cell and her presence serves as a constant reminder to him of her humble yet glorious vocation.

 

References:

Hood, W. 1986. ‘Saint Dominic's Manners of Praying: Gestures in Fra Angelico's Cell Frescoes at S. Marco’, The Art Bulletin 68.2: 195–206

Hood, W. 1993. Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)

Reddaway, Chloë. R. 2016. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols), ch.5


Jacopo Bassano

The Way to Calvary, c.1544–45, Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 132.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with a contribution from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984, NG6490, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Tribulation and Distress

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Jacopo Bassano’s painting of Christ on the way to Calvary shows the moment at which the legendary St Veronica offers him her veil to wipe his face, leaving his portrait imprinted on the cloth. This came to be known as ‘the Veronica’ and was considered an authentic image of Christ. Here we see, not the portrait, but Christ himself and, perhaps even more arrestingly, Veronica taking on his likeness.

On her knees in the road, her posture reflects Christ’s, and her bare head (the other women are discreetly veiled, with downcast eyes) shows her crown of plaits, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. Her mirroring of Christ is further revealed by her clothing. The sections of her white petticoat are loosely stitched, leaving almond-shaped openings which prefigure the shape of Christ’s side wound, while the vertical stitch marks bring to mind the flagellation marks hidden beneath Christ’s robe. As Christ is led by a rope, like a ‘sheep to be slaughtered’ (Romans 8:36) Veronica is alongside him in ‘tribulation’, ‘distress’, ‘persecution’, and ‘peril’ (v.35), and her hair and garments manifest this.

In part, this is a picture about picture-making, and the legendary origins of a foundational image of the adult Christ. It is also about a particular incidence of what one might now call ‘Christian witness’ or, perhaps, since she is in a sense an image-maker, ‘artist witness’. Veronica’s offering of her veil here is as much an offering of herself in conformity to Christ. And if she is not yet bodily redeemed (v.23), she is about to be blessed with the imprint on the veil, which cannot yet be seen but will become a source of hope and consolation to many (vv.24–25).

 

References

Kessler, H. L., and G. Wolf (eds). 1998. The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, Villa Spelman Colloquia, Volume 6 (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale)

Kuryluk, E. 1991. Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism, and Structure of a "True" Image (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Reddaway, Chloë. R. 2019. Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Images of Christ (Turnhout: Brepols), pp.164–173


Vittore Carpaccio :

The Meditation on the Passion, c.1490 , Oil and tempera on wood

Fra Angelico :

Annunciation, Cell 3, c.1436–43 , Fresco

Jacopo Bassano :

The Way to Calvary, c.1544–45 , Oil on canvas

Who Shall Separate Us?

Commentary by Chloë Reddaway

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Paul tells us that the sufferings of creation are anticipatory, that its groans are labour pains, that a glorious salvation is coming. For Paul, Christ is a Second Adam who makes possible the renewal of creation which the first Adam’s sin had subjected to ‘the bondage of corruption’, to ‘dust and oblivion’ (Barth 1959: 99).

References to suffering (Romans 8:18) and a sense of decay (v.21) are ubiquitous in Vittore Carpaccio’s Meditation on the Passion. Bones, wounds, weeds, and collapsing masonry characterize the foreground, with a skull like the skull of Adam (often depicted at the foot of the cross), particularly prominent. The landscape on the left, with its one, leafless tree, is cavernous and craggy, inhabited by ravaging animals. Jerome, whose hand on his chest recalls the common iconography of him beating his breast with a stone, sought just such a wilderness as part of his asceticism. In this penitential landscape, he and Job wait for ‘the redemption of our bodies’, for the fulfilment of Job’s testimony that his Redeemer lives and that, after his death, he will nonetheless and in his flesh, ‘see God’ (Job 19:25–27).

Despite the groans of creation, Paul views this period of waiting for renewal as a time of hope, sustained by the spirit (v.26), and he reflects on the role of God’s human creatures in furthering divine purposes (v.28). Jacopo Bassano’s St Veronica gives us one way of imagining how those who are ‘called according to [God’s] purpose’ might be ‘conformed to the image of his Son’ (vv.28–29). We cannot see the future portrait of Christ which will be imprinted on her veil, but we see her own conformity to him. Her posture, her hair, her clothing, all mirror him as she voluntarily shares in his degradation.

For the Dominican friars of San Marco, conformity to Christ was an aspiration which guided every aspect of their lives. As they sought to model their behaviour and their spiritual development on that of their saintly role models, Fra Angelico’s frescoes provided instruction and inspiration.

Paul knows that conformity to Christ will not come easily. But, despite trials and tribulations, peril and persecution (vv.35–36), he confidently reassures his readers that nothing can separate them from God’s love (vv.38–39).

Job bore the sufferings inflicted on him with patience. Jerome chose ascetic hardship as a spiritual practice that would bring him closer to Christ. Veronica responded to Christ’s suffering in humility and vulnerability—an uncovered woman, kneeling in the dirt, amongst soldiers. The friars of San Marco tried to imitate saintly examples of suffering, such as the bleeding St Peter Martyr, or St Dominic, weeping at the foot of the cross in a fresco in their cloister.

Whether we take Paul’s translated words in verses 37–39 at face value, or picture a world threatened by the devilish forces and beings he may have been referring to, the certainty with which Paul dismisses any possibility of separation from God’s love, echoes through these paintings.

Neither death nor life can separate Job and Jerome from the redemption which they cannot yet see, but which seems prefigured in the landscape behind Job in which wilderness gives way to a flourishing scene of greenery, cultivation, buildings, and tiny, prosperous-looking people. The red parrot near Christ’s throne may be a symbol of the coming resurrection and the longed-for redemption.

The powers which condemned Christ to that long walk to Calvary do not separate St Veronica from him; on the contrary, it is in that context that she comes closest to God’s love and is transformed by her own participation in God’s purposes.

Neither the ‘things present’—the socially unacceptable and apparently impossible circumstances of the Virgin’s pregnancy—nor the excruciating pain of the ‘things to come’ (v.38) which attend her vocation as God’s mother, can separate her from it.

Separation from God is conquered in Christ (v.37), in the willingness of Mary kneeling at prayer in a room barely distinguishable from the friar’s cell, in the tearing of the Temple curtain (Matthew 27:51) which separated man and God and is echoed in the punctured fabric of Veronica’s clothes. And it is conquered in the luminous, empty space beyond the Virgin and the Angel which indicates the mystery of the Incarnation, in which virginity is no barrier to Christ’s conception.

 

References

Barth, Karl. 1959. A Shorter Commentary on Romans (London: SCM)

Dunn, James D. G. 1988. Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1–8 (Dallas: Word Books)

Reddaway, Chloë. R. 2016. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols), ch.5

Next exhibition: Romans 12:1–8

Romans 8:18–39

Revised Standard Version

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; 21because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 27And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? 33Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.