Monday, December 15, 2014

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (and best wishes to my Rel 348 class)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Parable of the Blind (1568)

In a post on December 5, I included a photo I took of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Parable of the Sower (Timken Museum, San Diego) while I was at the SBL conference in November. Bruegel is another artist whose works on the parables I would like to include in the book but cannot. The above painting is especially interesting, for a number of reasons.

Luke calls this saying a parable (6:39), although most scholars categorize it as a proverb, and therefore it is missing from most studies of the parables of Jesus. As Mikeal Parson's forthcoming Paideia commentary on the Gospel of Luke notes, the question the Lukan Jesus asks, "Surely a blind person cannot lead another blind person, can he? Won't they both fall into a pit?" expects a negative answer to the first section (no, a blind person can't lead another) and a positive answer in the second part (yes, they both will fall into a pit). This proverb is found in a number of places (e.g., Plato, Philo, et al.).

By the way, I include the above information with permission. I am fortunate to have a pre-publication copy of the manuscript from Baker Academic (I am writing a blurb for it), and Parsons's work, as always, is brilliant and innovative, as well as informative and accessible. When the book comes out this spring, I highly recommend buying it. 

Back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting. Bruegel includes not two but six blind men, and the dramatic result is one dominated by realism. Some viewers find it painted with objectivity; others find humor in the depiction; others detect empathy, while still others detect some condemnation of "sinners" who are being punished. The blind man farthest to the right has already fallen into the pit/pond, and the man right behind him is starting to fall as well. The state of the six men varies in stages from the man on the left being totally unaware of the situation and walking normally (but with assistance from the man in front of him) to the man on the far right being (completely?) incapacitated by his fall (the foreshortening of his body and his body's position might even seem to bring to mind a helpless turtle being placed on its back/shell). 

The other five men seem destined to repeat the fate of the first man, as the proverb suggests. Note the church in the background, with its vertical spire contrasting to the diagonal procession of the men. The cows and the cowherd in the background are unaware/unconcerned about the men's fate. Life goes on.

Bruegel included blind individuals in a number of his paintings (e.g., The Fight between Carnival and Lent and The Sermon of St. John the Baptist). Some scholars argue that his depiction of the blind men in this painting is so accurate that physicians can even diagnose which disorders of the eye afflict some of them. As one site argues: "the man third from the left is suffering from leucoma of the cornea, while the man in front of him has amaurosis."

I find Bruegel's work fascinating, like the work of Hieronymus Bosch before him (I was mesmerized by Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado in Madrid, his Death and the Miser at the National Gallery in DC, and some other works I have seen), and want to learn even more about them when I can. But first there is a book on the reception history of the parables that needs to be finished . . . .

Right now, as I write this blog post, my Religion 348 students (New Testament) are finishing their final exam. By midweek (after I finish my grading), I hope to restart work on the book. I have to say, though, that the students in this class were outstanding, and the class (from my perspective, at least!) was great. I am extremely fortunate to have such great students/people, and it was a joy to walk in the classroom this semester, both in this class and in my Hebrew Bible class. It would be difficult if not impossible to find a place more dedicated to teaching/learning than Oxford College of Emory University. 

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