I wanted a way of reading the Bible in the company of artists and poets, of paying attention to their commentary on scripture. I couldn’t find any one book that did this, so I decided to start collecting resources here. We hold a weekly Bible study in the EASE Gallery, and today we’ll be looking at the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Here are some paintings and poems I’ve collected to accompany our study.
The Jesse Tree from the Capuchin Bible, to accompany the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17
Jesse Trees began appearing in Medieval manuscripts like the Capuchin Bible in the 11th century. They soon showed up in stained glass windows, most notably in Chartes Cathedral. You will notice Jesse lying at the base of the image, with the tree growing out of his belly. It’s trunk grows up through depictions of King David and King Solomon, to a depiction of the Virgin Mary, to Christ himself. Those figures to the sides, draped with scrolls of text, are the prophets.
“The Temptation of Joseph,” an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, to accompany Matthew 1:18-25
For the perpetual excuse
Of Adam for his fall—”My little Eve,
God bless her, did beguile me and I ate,”
For his insistence on a nurse,
All service, breast, and lap, for giving Fate
Feminine gender to make girls believe
That they can save him, you must now atone,
Joseph, in silence and alone;
While she who loves you makes you shake with fright,
Your love for her must tuck you up and kiss good night.
For likening Love to war, for all
The pay-off lines of limericks in which
The weak resentful bar-fly shows his sting,
For talking of their spiritual
Beauty to chorus-girls, for flattering
The features of old gorgons who are rich,
For the impudent grin and Irish charm
That hides a cold will to do harm,
To-day the roles are altered; you must be
The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.
For those delicious memories
Cigars and sips of brandy can restore
To old dried boys, for gallantry that scrawls
In idolatrous detail and size
A symbol of aggression on toilet walls,
For having reasoned— ”Woman is naturally pure
Since she has no moustache,” for having said,
“No woman has a business head,”
You must learn now that masculinity,
To Nature, is a non-essential luxury.
Lest, finding it impossible
To judge its object now or throatily
Forgive it as eternal God forgives,
Lust, tempted by this miracle
To more ingenious evil, should contrive
A heathen fetish from Virginity
To soothe the spiritual petulance
Of worn-out rakes and maiden aunts,
Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” to accompany Matthew 2:1-12
The Journey Of The Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Flight Into Egypt, to accompany Matthew 2:13-15
Tanner was raised in the African Methodist Church, and turned to religious painting in the 1890s. The Flight into Egypt was his favorite biblical story, echoing, as it did, the black experience in America of danger, oppressions, and flight.
Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents, to accompany Matthew 2:16-18
Study the painting and you’ll see hardly any innocents in it at all. Where are the children whom Herod ordered killed? They’ve been painted over. Bruegel originally painted them, and he painted Herod’s soldiers to resemble the Spanish armies of the Holy Roman Empire who were rampaging across Flanders at the time. But Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, soon came into possession of the painting. Understanding that it represented a criticism of his own empire, he had it overpainted. Screaming children were turned into jugs and livestock. It’s as if Herod himself had gotten a chance to edit Matthew’s Gospel and alter the story of the massacre of the innocents.
Joseph Brodsky’s “Flight into Egypt,” translated by Melissa Green, to mark the return from Egypt to Israel and accompany Matthew 2:19-23
…where the drover came from, no one knew.
Their affinity made the heavens slate
the desert for a miracle. There, they chose to light
a fire and camp, the cave in a vortex of snow.
Not divining his role, the Infant drowsed
in a halo of curls that would quickly become
accustomed to radiance. Its glow would climb—
beyond that dark-skinned enclave—to rise
like the light of a star that endures
as long as the earth exists: everywhere.