In this tiny painting, Christ stands behind a makeshift podium slightly to the left of the centre of the painting, his head highlighted by a halo of luminous yellow. Much of the crowd of people around him listens intently, while some seem distracted or uninterested. The artist seems to ask whether we, the viewers of this painting, are listening to Christ’s message. Or are we (like the group of five figures in the right foreground) more interested in the day’s gossip? Are we distracted by material goods, like the woman in a sumptuous yellow dress in the left foreground who pats a dog while a gentleman offers to buy her a pretzel? Do we trust in God’s guidance or do we try to control the future ourselves by consulting fortune-tellers, such as the well-dressed man in the left foreground who is having his palm read?
Eleven of the disciples stand behind Christ, signifying their belief in Christ’s teaching, and also indicating (by their number) Judas’s future betrayal of Christ. Christ’s simple dress suggests a focus on his words rather than on outward appearance. The crowds represent people from all of society, from the rich wearing elaborate silk gowns to the poor wearing simple cloaks, and suggest the wide range of people in the New Testament who came to hear Christ’s message.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Sermon on the Mount, like many contemporaneous Dutch and Flemish paintings that depicted Christ or John the Baptist preaching outdoors to sixteenth-century crowds, was painted during the Reformation, when the importance of studying Scripture, made more accessible through sermons, was being emphasized. By including so many engaging interactions between the figures, Brueghel encourages the viewer to look closely and see how true righteousness of the heart flows outwards in our relationships with other people, in our worship, in how we use our time, and in how we use our wealth.
5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
7 28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.