New resource: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

I’m super-excited to share with you all a major new project I’ve contributed to, which is the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), a free online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible through the skillful selection of works of art. Launched November 6, 2018, at a reception at the Tate Modern, the VCS is directed by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London and is funded in large part by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson.

As Quash explains in the introductory video, the VCS aims to demonstrate how visual art itself can serve as biblical commentary, and when placed in conversation with other “visual commentaries” on the same text, the meaning of said text potentially becomes all the more clear. This practice of compiling diverse theological perspectives on a biblical text for their dialogical potential has ancient roots. The Jewish Talmud, for example, gathers together the viewpoints of different rabbis, not because they all necessarily agree but often because they constructively disagree—and there’s value in that conversation. The equivalent in the Christian tradition is the Catenae.

Translating this tradition into a modern, visual format, the VCS comprises virtual “mini-exhibitions” of three works of art per biblical passage, along with a short textual commentary on each artwork and one comparative commentary. (Currently about one hundred passages have gone live, and the goal is to cover the entire Bible.) The commentaries are written for nonspecialists but are grounded in detailed theological and art-historical research. Care is taken to secure the highest-quality images, which you can zoom in on.

Art historian Matthew Milliner calls the VCS “the Biblia pauperum of our time,” referring to the relatively accessible block-printed picture Bibles of the Middle Ages:

Let’s face it: new commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors make the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually . . . wait for it . . . free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

YES. I would love to see pastors and seminary students using the VCS as a resource for their biblical and theological studies and sermon preparation.

(Related posts: “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”; “Two unlikely characters sharing the same space”)

The exhibitions are arranged by biblical text for easy searching—and there are so many fantastic ones. I especially enjoy the ones that include a contemporary art selection. For example, Ayla Lepine ingeniously chose Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls from the 2015 Venice Biennale to converse with Esther 8, in which Esther pleads for the deliverance of her people. Ursula Weekes curated an eclectic trio of portraits—of Florentine noblewoman Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, German Reformer Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife), and former US First Lady Michelle Obama—to interact with the famous “wife of noble character” passage from Proverbs 31. And Pablo Perez d’Ors places Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas, made of found objects and inviting viewer participation, side by side with Old Master paintings to probe the significance of that famous resurrection encounter.

Esther 8 (VCS Commentary)

Proverbs 31 (VCS commentary)

Doubting Thomas (VCS commentary)

“Physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight,” Quash says, affirming the seventh-century monk John of Damascus, who wrote that “just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation” (In Defense of Icons 3.12).

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I curated the “Bodily Resurrection” exhibition for the VCS, which takes as its basis 1 Corinthians 15:35–58. After reading the passage many times, including in the context of the whole epistle, and meditating on it, I wanted to investigate how the church has interpreted it over the centuries, so I read Caroline Walker Bynum’s excellent book The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, which quotes from and summarizes a wealth of patristic and medieval writings on the topic. That led me to Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh, an extensive treatise from the early second century. They were both fascinating reads.

In addition to the Pauline metaphor of the seed, Bynum writes,

the resurrection of the body is also described by theologians as the flowering of a dry tree after winter, the donning of new clothes, the rebuilding of a temple, the hatching of an egg, the smelting out of ore from clay, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down, the growth of the fetus from a drop of semen, the return of the phoenix from its own ashes, the reassembling of broken potsherds, the vomiting up of bits of shipwrecked bodies by fishes that have consumed them . . . (6)

I realized that I had never really thought about the logistics of the doctrine of the general resurrection, and although, as with other doctrines, the mechanics are not what’s important, it was interesting to consider what my resurrected body might look like, and how (and from whence) it will be reconstituted once it decomposes, turns to dust. Some of the conjectures I found to be quite amusing—like Gregory of Nyssa’s claim that in heaven we will have neither genitals nor intestines, because there will be no procreation or digestion(?). Or Augustine’s suggestion that we will receive back all the bits of ourselves that we ever had, including nail and hair clippings, but the excess will not necessarily go to our fingers and heads but rather will become absorbed into our flesh (so that we don’t look freakish).

I spent a lot of time wrestling through the paradox, held consistently by the church throughout the ages, that the resurrection body will be both identical to the one we have now and new. This particular passage from Paul seems to emphasize the new aspect. He contrasts “physical”/“terrestrial” and “spiritual”/“celestial” bodies. What does he mean by the latter?

Choosing only three images to open up this rich theological doctrine was a real challenge, and I cycled through dozens before landing on the ones I did.

At the outset, I was cognizant that the resurrection Paul writes about, which will occur “at the last trumpet,” is distinct from the spectacular rising from the graves that occurred on the day Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:52)—so although there are many fine examples of that latter episode in art, I passed them over for this assignment. I also passed over images of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, since that narrative is rooted in a different passage (see the VCS exhibition), even though there is an obvious intertextual link between the two.

I was intrigued by the “second Adam” motif present in the Pauline text, and I considered several artworks that follow that vein, including ones depicting the “Harrowing of Hell,” or, as it’s called in the Orthodox tradition, the Anastasis, in which the resurrected Christ pulls up Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament saints from Sheol. This iconographic type would have made a particularly apt pairing with the passage’s triumphant ending: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” But strictly speaking, the harrowing has already taken place (according to church tradition, on Holy Saturday), and although it prefigures the future resurrection, I wanted to keep the focus on the yet-to-come event that Paul is talking about. Plus, I figured that the harrowing will almost surely make an appearance in some other VCS commentary.

Anastasis (Istanbul)
Anastasis fresco in the parecclesion of Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 1315.

A related image I found, a contemporary one, very unique in its approach and theologically loaded, is a life-size painting by Caleb Stoltzfus that shows the glorious nude Christ, his puncture wounds visible, pulling up a man from the dust. It’s titled Resurrection. I love this image, and there’s much that could be said about it—but ultimately, I felt that it fit better with the passage preceding mine, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Read the artist’s commentary at http://www.calebstoltzfus.com/blog/resurrection.

Resurrection by Caleb Stoltzfus
Caleb Stoltzfus (American), Resurrection, 2016. Oil on linen, 6.5 × 5 ft.

In my image search, I also examined a lot of symbolic bird imagery of the resurrection—that is, phoenixes and peacocks. The phoenix is a mythological bird that dies but then rises up from its own ashes, and the flesh of the peacock was thought to not decay, giving both birds a theological weight since the earliest era of Christian art, where they sometimes stand in for Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, our own. Thinking I’d draw this visual tradition into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15, I came close to selecting Hope, a Renaissance painting from Umbria, Italy, from a set of three allegorical paintings on the theological virtues; in it Hope is personified as a woman who squints her eyes toward the sun and catches a wind as she stands beside a phoenix on its pyre—suggesting the Christian hope of life after death. Although hope is implicit in the Corinthians passage, it’s not a keyword, so I ultimately decided not to include the Umbrian painting in my selection. Peacocks, however, did make the cut! (See below.)

Theological Virtue Hope
Italian (Umbrian) painter, Hope, ca. 1500. Tempera and gold on wood, 29 1/8 × 17 7/8 in. (74 × 45.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another shortlisted artwork was the Last Judgment triptych by Jean Bellegambe, a French-speaking Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century. I was particularly drawn in by a detail at the bottom of the central panel, which shows skeletons in the process of acquiring flesh, and an angel reassembling body parts. It is very common in historical works of art for the resurrection of the dead to be subsumed under a larger visual program of the Last Judgment—but Paul doesn’t discuss judgment in my given passage, so I decided to move away from that context.

Last Judgment by Jean Bellegambe
Jean Bellegambe (French/Flemish, ca. 1470–1535/36), Triptych with the Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1525. Oil on oak panels. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Probably the most unusual thing I discovered in the course of my research was the “regurgitation motif,” which shows animals vomiting up human body parts (from the corpses they have eaten) for reassembly on the last day. Several early church fathers mentioned that this would happen in their theologies of the resurrection, but its visual origin is attributed to the posticonoclastic East and the Carolingian-Ottonian West; it continues down into modern times in Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian frescoes. One of the best-known examples (in the West) is from the monumental twelfth-century mosaic at Torcello near Venice.

Resurrection of the Dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.
Sea giving up its dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.

Bynum cites a handful of other examples in her aforementioned book and discusses the motif in depth, contributing to one of her main theses: salvation is regurgitation, damnation is swallowing. An absolutely brilliant argument, drawing heavily on visual theology.

It’s likely that Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . .”) influenced the creation of this motif. Because Paul himself doesn’t mention the mouths of animals giving up their dead, I decided not to go with the extraordinary Torcello mosaic. But I was able to sneak in a reference to that tradition by way of a side detail in one of the paintings I chose. It’s almost comical to look on, how literal it is. But it’s also thought-provoking. If our dead bodies are eaten and digested by worms or carrion beasts—or, God forbid, we meet our end through the mouth of a wild animal—then what remains of us, if we are divided into parts, mere particles, even? Will we ever be made whole again? If we are both body and soul, as Christianity attests, then isn’t our material continuity essential?

Other runners-up that didn’t make the cut were Wassily Kandinsky’s eschatological paintings—for example, All Saints I and Composition V. I wanted to choose artworks from three different countries and eras, and for the modern period, I just had to go with Stanley Spencer, who is renowned for his many resurrection paintings, localized to his hometown of Cookham in the UK. (I also felt a little beyond my depth writing about Kandinsky’s radical style and spiritual approach to painting.)

All Saints Day by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), All Saints I [Allerheilgen], 1911. Reverse glass painting, 20 × 24 in. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany.
Composition V by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 6 1/4 × 9 ft. (190 × 275 cm). Private collection.

The inclusion of Spencer also influenced my choice, after some consideration, not to go with the Harrowing panel from Nicholas Mynheer’s Wilcote polyptych. (Two twentieth-century British paintings would have presented too limited a range.) It would have fit well with the Corinthians passage, which talks about us being sown in the dust and reaped in glory—and its juxtaposition with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, on the opposite wing of the altarpiece, further underscores this theme. I wrote about the altarpiece as a whole a few years ago at Art & Theology.

The Harrowing by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), The Harrowing, extreme right inner panel of a polyptych, 1999. Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

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So what did I end up choosing?

  • A fifth-century Christian sarcophagus from Italy, emphasizing Paul’s metaphor of the body as seed that, once buried, will flower forth in life
  • A thirteenth-century German psalter illumination that shows the dead casting off their grave-clothes and “putting on” immortality
  • A twentieth-century painting by the British master Sir Stanley Spencer, who set the resurrection in a local churchyard, using his friends and neighbors as subjects

Bodily Resurrection (VCS commentary)

I feel that these three artworks give sufficient variety and engage meaningfully with Paul’s text. Hop on over to the Visual Commentary on Scripture for high-resolution viewing and to learn more! I recommend that you start by reading the comparative commentary: https://thevcs.org/bodily-resurrection/last-trump.

And be sure to check in periodically at the VCS website, as new content is added regularly.

Upcoming lectures

“The Perils and Peculiarities of Visually Depicting the Trinity”
Speakers: Dr. Ben Quash, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London; Dr. Scott Nethersole, Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art
Date: February 21, 2018
Location: Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London
Organizer: Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College and the Courtauld Institute of Art
Cost: Free
Description: Nethersole will discuss Botticelli’s Trinity Altarpiece, with special attention paid to its unsettling disjunctions of scale and space—a theological decision on the part of the artist. Then Quash “will examine some of the larger theological problems that are raised by trinitarian visual imagery, and look at . . . some of the successes and failures of various artistic experiments, including one or two very recent ones.” Q&A and informal reception to follow.

Holy Trinity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Holy Trinity with Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and Tobias and the Angel, 1491–93. Tempera on panel, 215 × 192 cm. Courtauld Gallery, London.

“Religion in Museum Education” (conference)
Speakers: Dr. Caroline Widmer, Dr. Anna Chiara Cimoli, et al. (see link for full list)
Date: February 23, 2018
Location: Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute, Florence
Organizer: Forum on Museums and Religion, an initiative of the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute’s Museum Studies MA program
Cost: Free
Description: This one-day conference will bring together museum educators and religious authorities to discuss how secular museums housing religious objects might develop educational programming that highlights sacred functions without risking the impression of a religious agenda. Lecture topics include “Understanding Religion through Art,” “Sharing the Sacred with Schools,” “Teaching from Paintings with Religious Subject Matter,” “Churches as Living Museums,” and more, and case studies will come from the British Museum, the Uffizi in Florence, Museum Rietberg in Zurich, the National Museum for the History of Immigration in Paris, and the Shoah Memorial and Pinateca di Brera in Milan. The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion.

“The New Iconoclasm: A Christological Reflection on Making and Breaking Images”
Speaker: Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University
Date: February 28, 2018
Location: Alumni Memorial Common Room, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, USA
Organizer: Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA)
Cost: Free
Description: Carnes’s lecture will draw on the content of her new book from Stanford University Press, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia. “Christians of many epochs—glutted with images, shocked by them—have resorted to the iconoclast’s hammer or its successor, the authoritarianism of empty space. Natalie Carnes proposes a better way to live through our senses” (Mark D. Jordan, Harvard University). “A major contribution to the discussion of image as and in theology” (Judith Wolfe, University of St. Andrews).

Image and Presence (book cover)

“‘In the manner of smoke’: Leonardo, Art, and Faith” (5-hour mini-course)
Lecturer: Rev. Iain Lane, Tutor in Christian Doctrine and the Visual Arts
Date: March 3, 2018
Location: Holywell Lodge, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England
Organizer: St. Albans Cathedral
Cost: £25
Description: “Leonardo da Vinci produced some of the most compelling images in the history of Christian art. . . . This study day explores each of Leonardo’s surviving, overtly Christian works in detail, exploring their meaning and setting them in context. The picture which is revealed is of an artist of profound religious sensibility rooted in both scientific rationality and a deep awareness of the human condition: a man who embodied a unity of vision which has arguably been lost in our own age.”

Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519), Annunciation, ca. 1472. Oil on panel, 98 × 217 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

“Swords into Ploughshares: The Ambivalent Role of the Arts and Religion in Building Peace”
Lecturer: Dr. Jolyon Mitchell, Professor of Communication, Arts, and Religion at the University of Edinburgh
Date: March 7, 2018
Location: Sarum College, Salisbury, England
Organizer: Centre for Theology, Imagination, and Culture at Sarum College
Cost: Free (advance booking required)
Description: This lecture will explore the role of different media arts in both inciting violence and promoting peace, drawing on examples from countries such as Israel-Palestine, Mozambique, Rwanda, and the UK.

“Scandal and Glory: The Cross in the Bible and Poetry”
Speakers: Paula Gooder, Director of Mission, Learning, and Development in the Birmingham Diocese; Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral
Date: March 13, 2018
Location: St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
Organizer: St. Paul’s Cathedral (Adult Learning initiative)
Cost: Free
Description: “Is Christ on the cross our brother in suffering or our King in triumph? Jesus’ death is at the heart of Christianity, but the four Gospel accounts are very different and the cross has been seen as both the throne of God’s glory and the place of ultimate desolation and defeat. In addition we have 2,000 years of interpretations, paintings, poems, theologies, and liturgies that add to the complexity, and sometimes to the confusion. . . . Paula Gooder and Mark Oakley will look at different aspects of the cross through the Gospels and poetry, exploring some of what we might learn from it not only of sin and reconciliation, but also of new life, love, freedom, and creation made new.” Q&A to follow.

“Art and the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation and Visual Exegesis”
Speakers: Dr. Natasha O’Hear, Lecturer in Theology and Visual Art at ITIA, University of St. Andrews, Scotland; Dr. Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham
Date: March 16, 2018
Location: The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London
Organizer: Art and Christianity
Cost: £12
Description: Drawing on their recent award-winning book Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia, the O’Hears will explore the visual history of the book of Revelation as well as the notion of the artist as biblical exegete. The focus will be on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6) and the Rider on the White Horse (Rev. 19).

Picturing the Apocalypse

“Women Artists and the Modern Church in Britain”
Lecturer: Dr. Ayla Lepine, Visiting Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex
Date: April 4, 2018
Location: The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London
Organizer: Art and Christianity
Cost: £14.21
Description: “From the turn of the twentieth century to the present, women have produced diverse and complex works of art for and in response to the Church. This talk explores the relationship between Christian sacred spaces, from vast and well-known cathedrals to rural chapels, and women artists in a period in which feminism, culture, and Christianity engaged in new dialogues.” Artists include Winifred Knights, Elizabeth Frink, Enid Chadwick, and Tracey Emin.

For You by Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin (British, 1963–), For You, 2008. Neon sign. Liverpool Cathedral, England.

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Many of these events I found out about through the weekly Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) e-bulletin compiled by Dr. Chloë Reddaway. If you would like to be added to the ASK listserv or announce a relevant event through it, contact her at chloe.1.reddaway@kcl.ac.uk.

Note: The two book cover images on this webpage are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Art & Theology will earn a small commission on any purchase that originates here.

John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London

John the Baptist’s feast day is coming up on June 24, and London’s National Gallery has provided a great way to immerse yourself in his story—through art! The museum has produced a ten-video series called Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading, in which Professor Ben Quash, director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, joins Dr. Jennifer Sliwka, curator of art and religion at the National Gallery, for a stroll through the museum and some nearby sites to discuss various works of art in which John appears.

Quash and Sliwka teach a collaborative master’s program in Christianity and the Arts, which invites participants to

investigate how Christian scripture, beliefs and practices have found expression in art over 2,000 years; trace the idea of beauty in Western theological tradition; make use of examples in London. . . . The MA will enable students to work across disciplinary and specialism boundaries, and in particular to explore simultaneously the art-historical and theological dimensions of Christian art – approaches which are generally pursued in isolation from one another.

Their analysis of the paintings in this video series is superaccessible to those with no art background, and familiarity with Christianity isn’t assumed either.

The ten videos—about eight minutes each—are embedded below.

  1. Introduction

Artwork: Saint John the Baptist from Carlo Crivelli’s Demidoff Altarpiece

  1. Visitation

Artworks: a Visitation painting from the workshop of Goossen van der Weyden; Francesco Zaganelli’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Birth and Naming

Artworks: scenes from Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s Baptism Altarpiece; a predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo

  1. Infancy

Artworks: Garofolo’s The Holy Family with Saints; Bronzino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints; Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

  1. Wilderness

Artworks: Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert; Saint John the Baptist by an anonymous Italian artist from about 1640–60; Moretto da Brescia’s Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist

  1. Preaching

Artworks: Raphael’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching; Pier Francesco Mola’s Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness; Parmigianino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome

  1. Baptism

Artworks: the baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral, designed by William Pye; Adam Elsheimer’s The Baptism of Christ; and the most famous painting of this subject in any collection: Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Martyrdom

Artworks: Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta; Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

  1. The Baptist’s Head

Artworks: Caravaggio’s Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist; Ana Maria Pacheco’s Study of Head (John the Baptist III) at a private residence (includes an interview with the artist)

  1. Power and Judgment

Artworks: the anonymous English Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey (John the Baptist was his patron saint); a scene above the central panel of Giovanni dal Ponte’s Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece depicting John the Baptist preparing souls to enter into heaven; and The Wilton Diptych, depicting John the Baptist presenting King Richard to the heavenly retinue


To engage with more art from the National Gallery, consider buying one of the two books I reviewed here.

The art of contemplative seeing (as modeled by Moses)

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things . . .”—Psalm 119:18

“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”—C. S. Lewis

Images have revelatory power. God spoke through them in ancient times: a ladder (Jacob); sheaves of wheat (Joseph); a ripe grapevine (pharaoh’s cupbearer); birds eating cake (pharaoh’s baker); cattle eating cattle (pharaoh); a wheel inside a wheel (Ezekiel); dry bones reconstituting into living human beings (Ezekiel); a broken statue (Nebuchadnezzar); four beasts (Daniel); a sheet filled with animals (Peter); and fantastical creatures doing battle (John). Some of these images were received during sleep, while others were waking dreams—visions—and while verbal statements by God sometimes accompanied them, the images left definite impressions that plunged the seer into a deeper awareness of God’s nature and/or will.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Edward Knippers
Edward Knippers (American, 1946–), Moses and the Burning Bush, 2008. Oil on panel, 6 × 4 ft.

Another famous image through which God spoke was the burning bush on Mount Horeb, which interrupted Moses during his workday. Notice his double take:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1–4)

In Abiding: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013, Ben Quash notes that when Moses first sees the bush, he simply receives the visual data: bush on fire. But then as he starts to compute what he sees he realizes that hey, the flames are engulfing it, but it’s not being consumed; this is a “great sight” that deserves a closer look. So he turns aside from his intended path to dwell more consciously and deliberately with the strange bush. It is only then—when Moses has stood still long enough—that the voice of God addresses him. And he is utterly transformed by the encounter that follows, whereby he is called to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt and lead them in settling a new land.   Continue reading “The art of contemplative seeing (as modeled by Moses)”