During my first semester of seminary, I took a foundational course titled An Introduction to the Old Testament. Our final was a ten-page paper on a piece of art (painting, sculpture, poetry, or music) based on the Old Testament. The professor instructed students to follow his detailed outline and required at least 15 references that included both gender and racial diversity. My professor stressed upon his students the need to view the Old Testament through various lenses: cultural, geographic, social, gender, and race. His course opened my eyes to textual biases and the need to be aware of different views to fully appreciate God’s Word.
I chose Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606–69) The Blinding of Samson, painted in 1636 and currently on display at the Staatliches Kunstinstitut Galerie in Frankfort am Main (Germany). It is a massive painting in the typical Rembrandt style of light and dark. Delilah is exiting the cave as Philistine soldiers, dressed in Oriental clothing, gouge out Samson’s eyes. On display is a scene of beauty, action, and horror. My scholarly research uncovering truths and biases in both the painting and the Biblical story.
Another Dutch oil painting from about the same period (1620) is The Childhood of Christ by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) who was born and later painted in Utrecht, the second largest city in The Netherlands. He painted in the same Rembrandt style of dark scenes punctuated by brilliant light. In a New Testament scene not recorded in the Gospels, we see Joseph, Jesus’ father, doing carpentry work while teaching his young son his trade. The room is dark except for a single candle which brightly illuminates their faces. Joseph concentrates on his work while Jesus stares at Joseph in wonder.
Jesus seems more interested in relationships than physical work. Honthorst wants his audience to understand Jesus’ mission by observing his facial expression and focus. Pictured in the right background are two angels with a faint outline of wings behind one of the women. They represent God’s divine presence during his training. This commonplace scene shows the importance of mentoring relationships, along with skilled competency. God is with us in all circumstances; there is no secular and sacred divide.
Scripture shows little concern for the childhood of Jesus. Besides the birth, circumcision, flight to Egypt, and study in the temple, all found in the beginning of Matthew and Luke, we know little of Jesus’ upbringing prior to his ministry. But we do know that he worked with his hands: “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55 NRSV). The Greek word is the noun tektōn (τέκτων) which is translated as artisan/craftsman, in particular a carpenter, woodworker, or builder. The NRSV translates it as carpenter, although scholars have debated Jesus’ occupation because Galilee had few trees and there were Roman stone building projects nearby.
Why is religious art, like Rembrandt’s and Honthorst’s, important? First, this art is the sheer beauty created by artists using their God-given gifts to illuminate Scripture into vivid pictures. There is much truth in the saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Paintings help viewers remember Biblical stories, just as stained glass within churches taught the illiterate masses the Bible. Second, art gives a personal interpretation and allows the viewers to contemplate whether they agree or disagree. While I enjoyed both pictures, one can find cultural and historical biases in the depictions of the Old and New Testament. I lived in The Netherlands for two years and viewed hundreds of seventeenth-century Dutch masterpieces. These paintings represent a particular historical understanding of the world. The Dutch were Calvinist Protestants who fought Catholic Spain during the Eighty Year war (1568–1648). Their style was distinctly different than the Catholic art of southern Europe.
And third, art can elaborate text where it is silent. There is no Scriptural support for Honthost’s painting of Jesus as a child, but we can quickly reason that Jesus had a childhood and occupations were regularly passed down from fathers to sons during the first century CE. We can speculate on Jesus’ upbringing in a working-class family with little means. It is easy for the viewer to be drawn to the innocence of Jesus’ face and Joseph’s calm demeaner. Mentoring is so important in all phases of our lives and to see this happening between Joseph and Jesus invites joy. The Spirit was present during the creation of this masterpiece and still there for those who can experience its beauty.