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The Sower by Vincent van Gogh
Seaport with the Sermon of Christ (Harbour Scene with Christ Preaching) by Jan Brueghel the Elder
Automat by Edward Hopper

Vincent van Gogh

The Sower, 1888, Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection Zurich, 49, Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Jan Brueghel the Elder

Seaport with the Sermon of Christ (Harbour Scene with Christ Preaching), 1598, Oil on wood, 79.3 x 118.6 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, 187, bpk Bildagentur / Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische, Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich, Germany / Hui Jin / Art Resource, NY

Edward Hopper

Automat, 1927, Oil on canvas, 71.4 x 88.9 cm, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, 1958.2, © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

The Fate of the Seed

Comparative Commentary by

At some time in humankind’s childhood, the sowing of seed allowed agrarian societies to displace hunter–gatherer communities. The seed’s fruitfulness, yielding thirty, sixty, or (rather more rarely) a hundred times what is sown, made a transition possible. Yet that switch was fateful, for once land was settled and farmed, holding it, and holding on to it, became a source of contention, so that the sociality which agrarianism facilitated was at the same time blighted by conflict and violence.

It is striking that in Mark’s Gospel Christ’s first extended body of teaching is a parable about that revolutionary figure at the dawn of human history: a sower. There is also something striking and ironic about the setting for Christ’s teaching of the parable. He is obliged by the press of the crowds to take to a boat, only to deliver a parable which reflects on the failure of his word, the seed, to find a proper hearing and so bear fruit.

In Jan Brueghel the Elder’s painting, Jesus’s call to hear and understand, his ‘Hearken!’, is ignored by those in the busy fish market taking place on the shore line. Laid out in baskets and on the ground is a great variety of fishes, reflecting the variety of people who frequent the market (merchants, stallholders, children, beggars, finely dressed browsers and more serious shoppers), whom Christ, the fisher of men, seeks to draw to himself. At the moment the crowd of those listening outweighs the smaller crowd at the market. But as the parable predicts, some will drift away as the market and the wider world which it represents (and which Brueghel lays out to view with his panoramic perspective), will variously deter, divert, and distract them. Thus the word which has been heard will be prevented from bearing fruit

The parable tells of the fate of the seed, but does not spell out what its fruitfulness symbolizes. What is the great harvest at which Christ the sower aims?

Jesus’s first words in Mark’s Gospel speak of the coming of the kingdom, or kingship, of God (Mark 1:14). Prompted by the word, the world may repent—and under God’s rule, renounce the conflict and violence to which the sowing of seed led and which begins in Genesis 4, when Cain (‘tiller of the ground’) murdered his brother Abel (‘keeper of sheep’).

In the regular work of a perfectly regular sower, Vincent van Gogh found grandeur and poignancy, for the annual sowing of seed is a labour of faith promising renewal and new life. If we envision Jesus as the sower, and his word as the seed, it deepens this poignancy, since Christ the sower laboured till the end of the day, when he himself would be laid dead in the ground. The utter sadness of his rejection lies, however, not in mere personal failure, so to say, but in the fruitlessness of the ground which will not receive and nurture his word.

The world Edward Hopper paints has something of a parable’s simplicity—inessential elements are stripped away in images which have the clarity (but lack of precise detail) of a childhood memory or a dream, and are as archetypal and mysterious as Van Gogh’s sower. The young woman who sits in the automated restaurant has chosen to serve herself and has thus chosen the environment’s loneliness—but the silence does nothing to lighten the burden of her thoughts. The smallness of her plate suggests she has had rather meagre sustenance, and yet over her shoulder, behind her and out of sight, lies a bounty of tempting fruit. And perhaps she fears, in this rather forlorn place, that fruitfulness does indeed lie behind her.

Brueghel’s great panorama of the harbour in which Christ’s boat is moored, gives his teaching an epic context—it takes place not in a mere landscape, but in a worldscape. To this vast world Christ’s teaching is proclaimed, for the sake of reclaiming it. If the word, so the parable tells us, finds good soil and grows, there will be growth, renewal, and fruitfulness, even as from seemingly dead seed scattered in humble faith on the ground. But where the seed is not received, it does not bear fruit and dies, and there will be only the sterility and barrenness of which a deathly and joyless silence is terrible sign.