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Can the LORD Now Feed Them?

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Joost Joustra

God’s accusation against the people of Israel in Hosea 4 reads as somewhat disjointed and repetitive at times, but the prophetic message is clear. In a series of oracles, Yahweh denounces the Israelites’ worship of false gods, comparing their actions to adultery. Their behaviour is sinful, ‘swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery’ (v.2), and God threatens them with punishment.

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope in this text: ‘Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them, like a lamb in a broad pasture?’ (v.16). These phrases seem crucial among the accusatory words that dominate Hosea 4, and point ahead to the pronounced possibility of repentance in Hosea 14: ‘Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously…”’ (v.14).

This glimmer of hope can also be found in the three works by Pieter Aertsen, Donatello, and Andy Warhol. Not immediately noticeable to the viewer, the ‘flight into Egypt’ painted in muted tones in the far background of Aertsen’s Butcher Shop—a desperate moment in the Holy Family’s life fleeing from Herod’s terror—also offers hope: ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son”’ (Matthew 2:15). In fact, Matthew was echoing God’s Word from Hosea 11:1, ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’. In the midst of anguish, and in the background of a feast of flesh, Aertsen paints the fleeing Mary handing out food to a barefoot beggar. This tiny but meaningful detail is likely to be a eucharistic reference. As in Hosea, such details remind Aertsen's viewers that they ultimately have to look past earthly, fleshly temptations, to what is harder to see.

Andy Warhol’s appropriated message from an advert, on the other hand, appears entirely unambiguous at first glance. Repent and Sin No More!, together with the related Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away! from the same series, are late works made up of words instead of images. Their clarity is increased by the black-and-white contrast and their immediacy by their placard-like appearance. God’s words in Hosea’s prophecy address the people of Israel similarly: ‘The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame’ (v.7). Just as Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away! gives the people a choice, so does Repent and Sin No More!. Human agency can lead to repentance, as the episode from St Anthony’s life depicted by Donatello in Padua also shows. Hosea’s faithless audience is condensed into a single heretic in medieval Rimini, the mule’s Cathar owner ultimately convinced by orthodox Christianity. The Miracle of the Mule leads to a dramatic moment of conversion for the Cathar—‘they shall be ashamed because of their altars’ (v.19)—while in Donatello’s narrative the Christian altar of the consecrated Host takes centre stage behind St Anthony.

Sinners are Hosea’s protagonists and addressees, just as they are to different extents in the works by Donatello, Aertsen, and Warhol. And ultimately, as becomes clear through the prophetic arc across Hosea’s fourteen chapters, these sinners can be saved.

Hosea’s ‘They shall eat, but not be satisfied’ (v.10) finds a counterpoint in Aertsen’s painting and Donatello’s relief sculpture, where the connotations of sustenance of the body by eating, and sustenance of the spirit through the Eucharist, are played out beautifully.

Warhol’s work is altogether more direct, but it too has affinities with Hosea. Both seek to amplify their cries. Warhol cleverly uses reproduction, repetition, and black and white, to give impact to his slogan.  God in Hosea 4 reinforces his announcement to the Israelites through repeating what is essential:  sinners will come to ruin. Warhol’s work echoes Hosea’s warning, continuing a prophetic tradition at an unexpected time and place. As John Richardson concluded in his eulogy for Warhol: ‘Andy’s use of a Pop concept to energize sacred subjects constitutes a major breakthrough in religious art’ (Richardson 1992: 141). Richardson was right for Warhol but could have equally been talking about Pieter Aertsen and Donatello, who (without Pop) ‘energized’ their sacred subjects through their artistic inventions.

 

References

Richardson, John. 1992. ‘Eulogy for Andy Warhol’, in Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! Late Paintings and Related Works, 1984–1986 (New York: Rizzoli), p. 140