The Movement of the Spheres
Father of Lights
Commentary by Clare Carlisle Tresch
God is not like human beings. While we endure trials and temptations, God ‘cannot be tempted’ (James 1:13). While we deceive ourselves in dark folds of reflection, God is pure, transparent light in which ‘there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (v.17). What happens, then, when a human being stands ‘before God’ (v.27)? When you stand beneath the sun and look down, you see your own shadow.
David Wood’s Reflections, installed at Cheekwood Botanical Garden, Nashville in 2011, is part of a series named Heliotrope. Wood, a philosopher as well as an artist, creates landscape sculptures to raise ecological consciousness, questioning the place of human beings between earth and sky. Reflections played with change and stasis: the serene floating heliotrope mirrored the sun in a transparent sky, yet also drew attention to the movement of light on water and the shifting hues of sky and land. Its circular form evoked the regular motions of the heavens, long thought by watchers of the night sky to approximate the unchanging being of God. The human eye cannot see God, or look directly at the sun; only in an earthly reflection can we ‘look into the perfect law’ (v.25) of creation.
Although there is no variation in God, God’s being is a generative plenitude, ‘bringing us forth’ (v.18) and offering ‘every good endowment’, ‘every perfect gift’, (v.17). Juxtaposing an ever-changing sky and landscape with the geometrical form of the heliotrope, Reflections suggests both constancy and a ceaseless cycle of generosity and receptivity: a small revelation of a gift-giving ‘Father of lights’.
The Crown of Life
Commentary by Clare Carlisle Tresch
This passage from James twice promises a ‘blessing’ (1:12, 25) and here in Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin, Mary receives a golden crown from Jesus, her son, on her assumption into heaven. Unlike some paintings of the Coronation of the Virgin—including a second version of the scene painted by Fra Angelico in 1434–35, now in the Louvre—Mary is not here kneeling before Jesus, but sitting by his side. This symmetrical position suggests a mutual gift-giving, which is perhaps appropriate to their relationship: Jesus received his earthly life from Mary, and she receives her spiritual ‘crown of life’ (v.12) from him.
All the circular forms in Fra Angelico’s composition echo the shape of Mary’s crown. The entire gathering seems united in the circle of friendship and celebration: every figure is connected, everyone is touching someone else. Mary looks like a queen, yet all here wear spiritual crowns: their bright halos express their consciousness of God. The trials of their earthly lives are over; they have loved God, and now they enjoy God’s blessing.
Though this is an image of heaven, of risen lives bathed in golden light—no one looks old or diseased—the gathering is still recognizably human, composed of distinctive-looking people from various walks of life. The female saints at the bottom-right corner even seem a little gossipy. This painting is full of hands—holding things, playing instruments, gesturing in different ways. While all the halos invoke a life that is ‘pure and undefiled’, ‘unstained from the world’ (v.27), the hands suggest human agency, so that each figure combines these contrasting elements of the biblical passage. All these people, and most of all the child-bearing, child-rearing mother Mary, whose hands can now finally rest, have been ‘blessed in [their] doing’ (v.25).
The Circle of Self
Commentary by Clare Carlisle Tresch
According to Greek legend, the beautiful young man Narcissus was so captivated by his own reflection that he could not tear himself away from it, and died of thirst and starvation by the water’s edge. Caravaggio’s painting conveys this stasis in the rigid, awkward position of Narcissus’s arms, and in the circular form of the composition: Narcissus isn’t going anywhere. This form resonates with the insatiable—but ultimately sterile—circle of desire, sin, and death described in the Letter of James: ‘desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings death’ (1:15).
This is an image of the human condition without God. ‘Lured and enticed by his own desire’ (1:14), a person becomes solipsistic, self-enclosed. The folds and doublings within Caravaggio’s painting—the reflection of Narcissus in the water, and the way the figure is uncomfortably bent double, folded over himself—echo the repeated references to duplicity, self-deception, in the passage (vv.16, 22, 26). The whole image is bisected horizontally by the line dividing land and water; despite his self-absorption, Narcissus remains divided from himself.
Caravaggio’s use of darkness and light also amplify this existential moment, frozen in time. Narcissus is illuminated ‘from above’—his physical ‘endowments’ are, after all, gifts from the ‘Father of lights’ (v.17)—yet he has turned away from this light, and looks down into near-darkness. This motionless human figure almost parodies the unchangeable nature of God. While for the author of James’s letter ‘those who love [God]’ (v.12) are ‘doers of the word’ (v.22)—active people who go readily to those in need, and who grow inwardly in faith and virtue—Narcissus is transfixed, arrested by his own shallow image, unable to carry out the works of love that the text cites as the signs of responsiveness to God’s word.
David Wood :
Reflections, from the Heliotrope series, 2010 , Wood, wire, laser discs, solar lights
Fra Angelico :
The Coronation of the Virgin, c.1435 , Tempera on panel
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio :
Narcissus, 1597–99 , Oil on canvas
The Changeless God—and This Human Heart
Commentary by Clare Carlisle Tresch
Modern commentators have described the Letter of James as ‘the most consistently ethical document in the New Testament’ (Laws 1980: 27) and pointed out its continuities with Hebrew wisdom literature (see Johnson 2005: 33). This passage in particular is philosophically rich. It certainly advances ethical concepts: temptation and righteousness, wickedness and meekness, law and liberty, deception and purity. Yet these concepts draw their meaning from a complex interplay between three metaphysical elements: the self, the world, and God.
At first glance, James 1:17 stands out as suggesting a Platonic division between a perfect, unchanging reality ‘above’ and a corrupt, shadowy, mutable world of deceptions and appearances below. Yet the contrast between what is ‘pure and undefiled’ (v. 27) and what is dirty, wicked, and ‘vain’ (v.26) turns out to be within human beings. The passage is concerned not with an opposition between heaven and earth, God and world, but with two ways of being a person, two ways of inhabiting the world, two ways of living religiously.
The three artworks in this exhibition comment in obvious ways on themes within the passage: a spiritual coronation; a ‘Father of lights’ making a world ‘from above’; solipsistic desire that leads to death. Yet they also, in their circular compositions, speak to the deeper philosophical structure of the passage. David Wood’s Reflections invokes the circle of God; Caravaggio’s Narcissus depicts the circle of the self; Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin draws the circle of the world, considered as a social reality. Taken together, they pose the question of how to occupy each of these spheres simultaneously. How can a human being who faces the ‘trial’, ‘test’, and temptation (vv.12–13) of being in the world ‘work the righteousness of God’? How can she be a ‘doer’, engaged in active social life, yet keep herself ‘unstained from the world’?
This passage was the favourite biblical text of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. During the 1840s he returned repeatedly to James 1:17, and in 1851 he gave a remarkable sermon in Copenhagen’s Citadel Church on ‘The Unchangingness of God’, inspired by this verse. Kierkegaard was preoccupied with the questions posed by this text—questions that he has taught us to recognize as ‘existential’ as well as spiritual questions. He sought a kind of religiousness that was neither reclusive and other-worldly, nor so immersed in the world that the ‘stains’ of worldliness went unnoticed. For Kierkegaard, reconciling the spheres of self, God, and world was a practical paradox, and inhabiting this paradox was an inescapable test of spiritual life.
Besides their circular form, another compositional element shared by all three artworks is a vertical axis, evoking an interplay between above and below. Fra Angelico shows Mary ascending from earth into heaven; Wood’s installation discloses a space (a world) illuminated from above, drawing one’s attention upwards; Caravaggio’s Narcissus looks down as his reflection gazes back up at him. Like the passage itself, these images refuse any easy dualism between a perfect, unchanging, radiant ‘above’ and an impure, changeable, shadowy ‘below’. Reflections suggests the generative power of the Father of lights, whose ‘perfect gifts’ are continually ‘coming down’, while conversely Fra Angelico depicts an ascending perfection. In Caravaggio’s painting, by contrast, we see a solipsistic self, worldless as well as godless, in a state of sterile, morbid changelessness, caught in a dark trap that eventually ‘brings forth death’ (v.15).
In his 1851 sermon on James 1:17, Kierkegaard explored the human being’s relationship to God along the vertical axis invoked by the text: ‘And now the eternal Changeless One—and this human heart!’ If you could yourselves become constant and unchanging, Kierkegaard told his listeners, ‘you would at every moment freely rest in God with the same necessity as a heavy body sinks to the earth, or with the same necessity as something that is light rises toward heaven’. Yet such constancy is too difficult, even for someone who longs for God as a thirsty traveller in the desert longs for a cool spring. And yet, Kierkegaard concluded, one paradox of God’s changelessness is that it continually, actively seeks those who long for him—just as the righteous person ‘visits’ those in need (v.27):
O God, you do not remain on the spot like a spring; you travel along. No one strays so far away that he cannot find his way back to you, you who are like a spring that even searches for the thirsting, the straying … Thus you are unchanged and everywhere to be found. (Kierkegaard 1978: 263–81)
Johnson, Luke Timothy. 2005. The Letter of James (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Kierkegaard, S. 1978 . ‘The Changelessness of God: A Discourse’, in The Moment and Late Writings, trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press), pp. 263–81
Laws, Sophie. 1980. The Epistle of James (London: A. & C. Black)