Beneath the Skin
Commentary by Christina Juliet Faraday
Face to face with our own mortality, the absurdity of our vanities is here rendered minutely in wax. One half a wealthy, well-dressed woman, the other half a decaying skeleton: beneath the fine clothes, the silk, the skin, we are all fragile flesh and bones. Was this wax model created as a spur to meditate on our ultimate state? A darkly-comic reminder of the absurdity of worldly trappings? Or even as a teaching aid for students of anatomy?
And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in scarlet, that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold, that you enlarge your eyes with paint? In vain you beautify yourself. (Jeremiah 4:30)
In Jeremiah’s eyes, the figure would no doubt have illustrated the absurdity of worldly vanities, the futility of any attempt to adorn and beautify oneself with external ornaments. But in the context of his apocalyptic imagery, we might also think of the damage that the modern pursuit of wealth and beauty has wreaked on the environment. No longer worshipping false idols in the form of a golden calf, our admiration has transferred simply to gold—to the luxury and comforts money can bring.
The prophet asks, ‘How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?’ The model manifests a kind of living dissection: it presents us with an opportunity to look inside ourselves, a spur to appraise honestly our hearts, our motives, our way of living.
But if we truly regret the damage that humanity’s covetousness has caused in the world, what should we do? In the face of the destruction wrought by the Lord, Jeremiah orders the inhabitants to ‘gird [themselves] with sackcloth’ (v.8), a striking counterpoint to the scarlet and gold-bedecked costume that the covetous sinner dons in verse 30. The instruction implies a kind of stripping down, a rejection of excess and impurity, akin to his other recommendations to ‘circumcise’ the heart and ‘wash your heart from wickedness’ (vv.4, 14). Could those of us with many possessions benefit from a simpler existence?
Matthews David, Alison. 2015. Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (London: Bloomsbury)
Commentary by Christina Juliet Faraday
Raise a standard toward Zion,
flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring evil from the north,
and great destruction. (Jeremiah 4:6)
Spindletop, Texas: in 1901 this now-desolate landscape was the site of the most significant oil-strike in history. In the wake of the discovery it was feasible for the first time in the world’s history to burn petroleum on a massive scale. Just over a century later, and the chain of events which began at Spindletop has changed the world utterly: we are still perpetuating, and dealing with, its effects.
In this real-time simulation, Irish artist John Gerrard has digitally reconstructed the twenty-first-century landscape of Spindletop. He made a photographic survey of the site which was then translated into code and is now reinterpreted by computer. In the centre of the virtual reconstruction Gerrard has placed a slender 'flagpole’ which is also a chimney, from which seven nozzles blow black smoke in the shape of a fluttering flag. The virtual smoke makes visible the most destructive, but usually invisible, environmental legacy of Spindletop: carbon dioxide gas. With the form of the flag Gerrard also alludes to the geopolitical tensions for which oil has also been responsible over the course of the last century.
The landscape of Gerrard’s Spindletop corresponds eerily with Jeremiah’s description of the land after God’s judgement: ‘I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void’ (4:23). Like the cities Jeremiah describes, Spindletop has been abandoned, used up and discarded, a ruin ‘without inhabitant’. The smoke of the virtual flag turns the heavens ‘black’ (v.28), but also recalls the ‘hot wind’ which brings destruction (v.11). Humanity’s own activities are responsible for this desolation: ‘Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you’ (v.18).
On World Earth Day, 2017, the UK television station Channel 4 broadcast Gerrard’s artwork in abrupt bursts, interrupting its usual programming without caption or explanation. Like a visual translation of Jeremiah’s own apocalyptic predictions, the artwork forces the viewer to confront a vision of our own future, if we don’t swiftly amend our ways.
Eastham, Ben. 2017. ‘One Take: John Gerrard’s Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 1 June 2017’, www.frieze.com, [accessed 13 February 2020]
‘Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas)’, http://westernflag.johngerrard.net/ [accessed 13 February 2020]
‘My Anguish, My Anguish!’
Commentary by Christina Juliet Faraday
You knew disaster was coming, but you were powerless to stop it. The warnings were unheeded. The worst has happened. In the desolate wasteland you mourn your loss:
My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. (Jeremiah 4:19)
Rembrandt van Rijn invites us to make sense of the unimaginable scale of divine justice and destruction through the very human response of the prophet Jeremiah, who meditates on his failure to return the sinful to God. In the background the city of Jerusalem is aflame: we can just make out a torch-bearing angel, announcing the divine punishment. The smoky formlessness of Jeremiah’s immediate surroundings separates the prophet from the destruction he predicted, and echoes the language of his prophecy: ‘I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void’ (4:23); ‘The whole land shall be a desolation’ (v.27).
Resting his head on his hand in the traditional pose of the melancholic, we are invited to empathize with Jeremiah’s misery. Torn between his acceptance of God’s justice and his distress at its consequences, the prophet’s sorrow is suggestive of the conflict that all of us may often feel between what we desire and what we know to be right, and the anguish inherent in any attempt to make sense of misfortune:
Ah, Lord God, surely thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with ’; whereas the sword has reached their very life (v.10; on the false prophets of peace, see 6:14; 14:13; 23:16–17).
Glinting in the foreground are precious vessels, ‘ornaments of gold’: the gift Jeremiah receives from Nebuzaradan on his release (Jeremiah 40:5). But though they catch our eye, the prophet disregards them, as he warned the people of Jerusalem to do. Precious though they appear, Rembrandt has rendered their highlights with the pigment ‘white lead’, a base metal: a metaphor for the vanity of all art in the face of impending destruction?
Golahny, Amy. 2003. Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press), pp.164–65
Suthor, Nicola. 2018. Rembrandt’s Roughness (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp.101–9
Unknown English artist :
Model of a female, half skeletal, half living, c.1810–30 , Wood, metal, wax
John Gerrard :
Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017 , Installation
Rembrandt van Rijn :
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630 , Oil on panel
Commentary by Christina Juliet Faraday
Jeremiah warns of the impending destruction of Jerusalem: ‘A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert’ (4:11) which will ‘make your land a waste’ (v.7). The ‘fruitful land’ will be turned to ‘desert’ and ‘all the cities … forsaken’ (v.26).
Belief that the world-order is about to end is nothing new, but for today’s reader the striking parallels between Jeremiah’s apocalyptic imagery and contemporary warnings about climate change are unavoidable.
Jeremiah’s words illustrate the fundamental interconnectedness of humanity with its natural environment: our actions have consequences which affect creation itself.
Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom, and it is bitter; it has reached your very heart. (v.18)
For the prophet, misdirected devotion—to worldly things, to clothes and ornaments—distracts a vain and selfish populace from the things that really matter, hides God from them, and prevents them from taking steps to avert their impending destruction.
These three artworks remind us of the conflicting and contradictory roles that we might all sometimes play in causing and combating the wrong in the world. The wax memento mori figure can be seen as embodying these two sides of the human self: the desire for luxuries, fine clothing, and an easy life on the one hand, and an awareness of mortality and the emptiness of consumerism, even a longing for something more permanent and meaningful, on the other (this is also one of the great themes of Ecclesiastes). The prophet recommends purification, telling us to metaphorically ‘circumcise’ the heart (v.4). His image has an anatomical exactness which cuts to the quick of the sacrifice expected of us: the journey to a purer life may not be easy or painless.
But we can also feel trapped by the systems that perpetuate our damaging activities, unsure where to turn or how to reform ourselves, like ‘stupid children’ with ‘no understanding’: ‘skilled in doing evil, but how to do good [we] know not’ (v.22). Rembrandt van Rijn’s sorrowful Jeremiah embodies the feelings of hopelessness that can so easily accompany knowledge of the problems facing humanity. Small, individual contributions often feel inadequate, and it can be depressing when warnings go unheeded, when time is running out. It may be tempting to leave it up to others to solve these problems, but in this passage God’s destructive judgement forces individuals to take responsibility for their actions. In the painting even Jeremiah, who tried his best to warn Jerusalem, hangs his head in sorrow at his failure to call the sinful to repentance.
Rembrandt’s rendering of Jeremiah’s lamentation forces us to ask difficult questions about its relationship to time and place. Is the destruction of Jerusalem, which he had so long predicted, taking place over the prophet’s shoulder? Or in his mind or memory? The smoky atmosphere separates the two parts of the scene, wreathing them in a cloud of destruction but also, perhaps, the haze of reminiscence: in either case, the artist has turned the heavens ‘black’.
We can follow this smoke trail to the landscape of John Gerrard’s digital simulation Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas), 2017. This too exists ambiguously in time and place, as each second the computer code reinterprets information from the artist’s original photographic survey of the site and recreates the scene anew, rendering day and night in real time, hovering between then and now. In 1901, Spindletop was the location of the world’s first significant oil strike: an event which changed the course of history, and humanity’s relationship with the environment. Nowadays the landscape is desolate, the previously fruitful wells are dry. Using the form of a flag, Gerrard makes visible Spindletop’s devastating, invisible legacy: the carbon dioxide which fills our atmosphere, the result of our mania for consumption. ‘How long must I see the standard?’ asks the prophet (v.21): how long will humanity continue to lay waste to our environment?
Through painting Rembrandt turns base pigments like lead white into something that seems to be gold, paralleling the memento mori figure, whose fine clothes fail to hide the reality of her mortality. Historically, art itself has often been seen as a vanity, an expensive distraction from truly charitable and worthwhile ends, something which, like wealth, you ‘can’t take with you’. But as a means of human expression—and nowadays, as a means of protest—art can be a way for us to make sense of the world around us, in all its difficult, contradictory reality, and a means by which we can raise even greater awareness of the problems we face. Jeremiah was well aware of the power of visual language, but his vivid warnings were ignored, and destruction ensued. Will we listen this time?