Two unlikely characters sharing the same space

I have tremendous admiration for Ben Quash for the contributions he’s made to the field of Christianity and the arts. As a professor at King’s College in London, his primary research interest is the way in which the arts can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. (Same as mine!)

His latest book, Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit, examines what happens when people in new contexts engage with old material, be it biblical narratives or texts, doctrinal formulas, or works of art or literature.

Most interesting to me was chapter 4, “In my flesh I shall see God,” an extended analysis of the Renaissance painting Contemplation of the Dead Christ by Vittore Carpaccio. Quash discusses the painting as a meditation on time, prophecy, death, and redemption.

Carpaccio's Dead Christ

Vittore Carpaccio, Contemplation of the Dead Christ, ca. 1505. Oil on canvas, 145 x 180.5 cm. Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

The dead Christ is of course the focal point of the image, but second to him is the hermit figure sitting under the tree in the middle ground—identifiable as Job through cross-reference to The Meditation on the Passion, another of Carpaccio’s paintings in which a very similar-looking figure sits on a marble slab with the Hebrew inscription “My redeemer lives 19,” a reference to Job 19:25

Artistic depictions of the dead Christ were nothing new; neither were depictions of a contemplative Job. Linking these two figures together as part of the same picture, though, was. In Contemplation of the Dead Christ, Carpaccio combines Byzantine iconography of Christ’s corpse being prepared for burial (the Epitaphios) with the northern European motif of Job as a proto-Man of Sorrows and as a result does something new with both.

Contemplative Job

Here Job is much more than just a model of biblical patience; he is a prophet who foretells Jesus’s resurrection. “The brilliance of Carpaccio’s artistic invention,” Quash writes, “is to make Job the ‘presence’ of Christ’s resurrection in a painting that holds off from showing the resurrection explicitly. . . . Job, the resurrection-seer, keeps the flame of resurrection promise alive while Christ himself is dead.” (119)

The Resurrection is echoed in other parts of the painting as well. For example, the tree Job leans against boasts a strong leafy branch that dominates the barren one, just as Christ’s resurrection will soon tower over his death. Also, the musician on the hill plays not a flute but a trumpet, some triumphant fanfare which indicates that something important is being celebrated or announced. Even the tools of burial subtly suggest the life-giving rituals that the Church celebrates on this side of the Resurrection: the water basin near the mouth of the tomb evokes the rite of baptism, while the embalming slab is reminiscent of a Communion table. Quash claims that such symbols of Resurrection are more effective than a literal depiction.

TrumpeterMan with basin

We might also inquire, Quash prompts us, whose space is being depicted in the painting—Job’s or Christ’s:

The assumption we have been working with so far is that what we have here is Job being admitted to a New Testament ‘space’. The Gospel scene is the ‘literal’ context, and Job is the product of a figural flight of fancy – an embellishment of a New Testament moment. But maybe there is greater ambiguity at work here than that. Might it be that this is a painting first and foremost of Job, in his ‘literal’ context, but with the vision vouchsafed to him in that context made visible to us too – unfolding all around him? Might it be that the contents of his inward sight are being rendered external and shareable (as a prophet’s visions should be)? Is it, in other words, first a painting of Job and then of Christ, rather than first a painting of Christ and then of Job?

By this ambiguity, the painting invites us to ask the question ‘who is in whose landscape?’. Is Job admitted into the dead Christ’s landscape because he was a ‘seer’ of Christ? Or are we witnessing the entry of Christ (and his history) into Job’s landscape, because God came to meet him in just this mode, as a God in the strange form of human flesh? In this case, the painting would become a creative meditation on the act of prophetic seeing itself, in which the painter aligns himself with a person who anticipates Christ (rather than someone who simply recalls him), and – perhaps – feels thereby a special affinity with an Old Testament perspective. The work of the artistic imagination, which in turn shapes and inspires the imaginations of the viewers of its work, would thus find itself compared with that of the prophetic imagination. (111)

Brilliant!

Carpaccio's dead Christ

Quash addresses several other aspects of the painting that I won’t hit on here, including how Carpaccio’s cultural and historical context in sixteenth-century Venice created conditions favorable to his drawing Job out of seclusion; the reasons for the painting’s appeal to modern viewers and what a modern set of conditions can contribute to interpretation; and how it compares to Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.

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The detail images in this post were made possible by the Google Art Project, a virtual museum of high-resolution art images that you can zoom in on and save to your account. If you haven’t yet explored this amazing tool, do it!

This entry was posted in Theology, Western Art and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Two unlikely characters sharing the same space

  1. amybfetzer says:

    Speaks to how my mind toggles via the Holy Spirit ~ creating connections which give me footing. Thank you for writing & sharing this.

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