Friday, December 12, 2014

Abraham Bloemaert's The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (and best wishes to my Rel 205 students)

Abraham Bloemaert, The Parable of the Wheat and Tares
I know I have said this many times, but one of the more difficult aspects of writing the book is not being able to include some things that I would really love to include. Sometimes the reasons for excluding things are mundane, but other times there are more serious considerations. For example, after my paper presentation at the SBL meeting in November (2014), I was asked why I focused on Thomas Hart Benton's lithograph of The Prodigal Son instead of the more colorful painting that he made a couple years later. The mundane reason I gave was that I was able to take a photograph of the lithograph and thus could use it in the book without paying a fee. The serious reason was that, for a number of reasons which I will detail in later posts sometime, that I found the lithograph more moving, powerful, and, indeed, haunting.

Likewise, in Chapter 3 of the book, I only have about ten examples of the reception of the parables to discuss from the 1500-1700 era. Two of them will be works of art. Since I already included a Rembrandt work--the (in)famous etching of the Samaritan bringing the wounded man to the inn with the dog in the foreground demonstrating why Diogenes was called the "cynic" centuries before--I could not really include another example from art from Northern Europe. I will write on Domenico Fetti instead. Fetti has several brilliant works on the parables from which I will choose one or two to discuss.

So I will not be able to include such works as the one above by Abraham Bloemaert. I also would have liked to include other works, such as a couple by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Since I can't include them, I will write some short blog entries about such works from time to time, but I will not give them as much depth as some other things that I will include in the book. 

Bloemaert (ca. 1566-1651) was a leading artist in Utrecht (e.g., along with Gerard van Honthorst). The above painting is a 1624 representation of the parable, and it is the last of three times that Bloemaert interpreted the parable. He first painted the parable in 1604, a version that is found in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There is a young person sleeping in the foreground, with a cow that is gazing at the viewer, and others are sleeping on the left, a little farther back. In the background, Satan sows the tares while they sleep. Bloemaert's second version of the parable was another landscape, and this one was engraved and published by Jacob Matham. This one has three people sleeping (and a farm building is included again), and the landscape is dominated by impressive trees.

The third rendition is the most beautiful and impressive. Once again, a farmhouse appears on the left. We also see a number of farm implements, plants, a dovecote, a basket of food in the foreground. 

The focus is on the four people sleeping--four males and two females. Only two of them are fully visible, and the striking (and unusual) aspect of the painting is that those two people--one male and one female--are nude. In the background, the devil--with horns and a tail--sows the seeds of the tares in the wheat field.  

Some scholars argue that the painting links the fall of Adam and Eve with the Wheat and Tares parable--hence the two nude figures. That is unclear but possible. What is clear, however, is that Bloemaert here is condemning sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The laziness of the sleeping figures allows Satan the opportunity to sow the tares.

The dovecote can even imply sloth, since it is a birdhouse designed to trap birds for food (unlike the work needed to raise chickens, etc.) that is a common motif. As the Walters Museum website notes, the dovecote is often associated "with the morally lazy who take the easy way." 

The depiction of the goat is ominous as well. It looks straight at the viewer of the work, and serves as an illustration of lust, self-indulgence, and damnation (cf. the parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matt 25). The museum's website also notes that the peacock symbolizes pride, but that interpretation can be challenged. This peacock is barely visible (middle left), and peacocks (and horses) were common features in Bloemaert's representations of farmhouses. 

For more details, see Marcel Roethlisberger, Abraham Bloemaert and his Sons (1993).

All in all, it is a beautiful work, rich in color and meaning. If you are ever in Baltimore, it is worth the trip to The Walters Art Gallery to see it and their other works.

One final note: Best wishes to my Rel 205 (Hebrew Bible) students, who, as I wrote this post, are taking their final exam. I really enjoyed the semester with these wonderful students--not only are they great academically, but they are also wonderful human beings. 

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