The Prodigious Flowering of Rage

by | May 22, 2022

712586810

Jarrett McLaughlin
“The Prodigious Flowering of Rage”
May 22, 2022
John 3: 16-21

 

Pre-Scripture

Today we are continuing our Faith and the Arts series with a focus on visual arts, in particular focusing on a work by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

After painting portraits for a number of Spanish nobility, Goya was brought on as a salaried artist by King Charles III and then appointed as First Court Painter by Charles IV. Because of this patronage he enjoyed no small amount of privilege, and yet Goya was the kind of artist who was unwilling to simply collect a paycheck.

His portraits of the royal family exhibit a certain refusal to flatter. And he just couldn’t resist layering in coded critiques of the corruption within the Spanish court.

It would seem none of his patrons noticed, though, as he continued to enjoy the patronage of Spanish royalty even if he was not entirely at home in that world.

It’s not an easy thing to both toe the line and cross it at the same time. That kind of dual existence is a burden in its own right…which is why the reading paired with this painter concerns a certain Pharisee visiting Jesus at an unusual time of day. A reading of verses selected from the Gospel of John, the third chapter.

 

Scripture – John 3, selections

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, [but] what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

Sermon:

Pop quiz! On the last page of the bulletin you will find three images. Two of the three are fine works of art. The other is a replica of…a picture I drew in a hotly contested game of Pictionary when I was a PCM student in the winter of 1998.

Now, would anybody like to wager a guess at what I was attempting to draw during that game of Pictionary?

Yeah…my team had no idea either.

I’ll give you a hint…..it’s an animal.

I regret to inform you that this was my attempt at drawing…a Hippopotamus. I’d love to say that the reason it turned out so poorly was because of the pressure I was under thanks to that stupid hour glass timer, but even if you gave me an hour, an entire day even, it wouldn’t turn out much better.

I am no artist and I made peace with that a long time ago.
Nor am I an Art historian.

Aside from a couple classes on the topic across the street some 25 years ago, my interest in art is purely amateur…which is to say that, to one as uncultured as myself, seeing a piece of art in person vs. printed on the pages of a book is not often that significant. One notable exception happened to me long ago during a visit to the Prado museum in Madrid.

I remember turning the corner into the Francisco Goya gallery. I was wholly unprepared for the size and scope of his paintings. I had seen them before, but not like this. They were enormous and dramatic and awe-inspiring. That which I had once examined on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page was blown up to the size of a Winnebago.

I wish that I could recreate that for us today but we will have to content ourselves with a smaller facsimile printed in your bulletin. This is Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808.”

What struck me immediately seeing the canvas at full size was the role of lighting. In the center of the composition there is a lantern on the ground, it’s light dividing the composition between that which is illuminated and that which remains in the shadows.

In the shadows we see a faceless, emotion-less, dehumanized row of French soldiers pointing their rifles as a unit at those on the other side of the canvas. The lantern spotlights a long line of victims rendered in muted colors – men, women, a priest even – heads bowed in anguish awaiting their fate, all except for that man in the middle wearing a bright white shirt, arms extended almost like a crucifix.

Completed in 1814 after French forces retreated from Spain, the painting depicts the events of the Dos De Mayo Uprising. Napoleon’s armies had invaded Spain and forced the royal family to abdicate.

The people of Madrid revolted, unsuccessfully, and any citizens suspected of taking part in the uprising perished at the end of a firing squad. The occupation and the resistance would continue for 6 years.

During all of this upheaval, Goya himself remained something of a chameleon. It is unclear to what degree he went along with the French.

When Napoleon retreated and the royal family returned, Goya
was inevitably questioned concerning his loyalty to Spain. He responded with “The Third of May, 1808” to demonstrate where his sympathies had always been. Perhaps that is true… or perhaps he just blew with the changing political winds? It is difficult to say.
That is precisely why he reminds me of Nicodemus. Biblical humor has a limited audience, but in Seminary our professor called this Pharisee “Nic at Night.”

That John takes care to tell us that he came to visit Jesus by night must be significant. The conjecture is that Nicodemus found something about Jesus compelling, but he was unwilling to risk his reputation by coming right out as a full disciple.

Seen in that light, Nicodemus could be described as wishy-washy; a flip-flopper; a chameleon; a coward even.
That bit of character development is crucial for understanding the frankly odd conversation that Jesus has with ol’ Nic at night.

It’s why Jesus tells him about being born again…or more literally born from above
It’s why Jesus says what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
It’s why Jesus says to his nocturnal visitor “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
That is pretty on-the-nose for ol’ Nic at Night

It would seem that Jesus is rattling Nicodemus’ cage; see if he can’t coax this Pharisee, who has far too much to lose, to come out from cowering in the shadows and to step courageously into the light.

For the Gospel of John, a secret, stealth disciple is no disciple at all.
You have to stand with Jesus in the full light of day.
Besides – living a dual life can be a heavy burden.

Goya’s painting clearly telegraphs some pro-Spain sympathies by humanizing the victims and dehumanizing the French aggressors, and yet Goya was never one to go for pure propaganda.
Remember that even as a court painter to the royal family where flattery was the path of least resistance, he just had to season his portraits with hidden layers of critique.

I believe that “The Third of May, 1808” is no exception – there’s more going on here than some pro-Spain propaganda. In the previous years, Goya had spent much of the French occupation creating a series of 82 prints called “The Disasters of War.” They are, in a word, gruesome, but Goya gave equal attention to atrocities committed by both the French forces and the Spanish rebels.

And that brings us to another important shift in art happening at this time. In Goya’s time, it was more common for Art that depicted war to present a more idealized, romanticized version of combat; sanitized heroics that had very little to do with actual warfare.

Think Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” which you can also find on the last page of your bulletin. It is an amazing painting, but I sincerely doubt the Delaware crossing was quite as dignified or as noble as the artist depicts.

By contrast, Goya depicted war at its most basic and brutal. There’s nothing heroic going on in this painting – it’s helpless victims standing before a robotically efficient firing squad. It’s the human capacity for unspeakable evil laid bare.

Goya was reckoning with something far more elemental. He was contending with Sin; our capacity to do horrific things to a fellow human being.

“For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Look again at the man in the center of the painting – wearing the white shirt with his arms extended out. If you look closely at the palm of his hands, you’ll find the mark of nails in his palm. The religious iconography is subtle on this paper and yet difficult to miss when the painting is the size of a subway car.

War crucifies, it seems to say.

It’s a sad thing to recognize that this painting is now over 200 years old and yet at any point in the two centuries since, that statement is always relevant and palpably real. War crucifies.

There’s a phrase that I kept encountering in my reading about Goya…that the arc of his work represents a “prodigious flowering of rage.” I don’t know who coined that phrase but it immediately jumped off the page. “The prodigious flowering of rage.”

Crucifixion ought to make us angry…it ought to disturb us and stir us to action. It ought to beckon us out of the shadows and into the light alongside the crucified. Of course that is easier said than done. There’s nothing safe about that at all.

During the time of the French occupation, while his countrymen were slaughtered on the regular, Goya himself was insulated from all of that danger. The speculation is that he never really recovered from the guilt, and that is why his art summoned increasingly dark subject matter until the end of his life.

Leading a dual existence is a burden. It takes a toll on the soul. Living in the light; standing with the crucified; it may not be safe at all, but living in the shadows has a price as well.

This is a sad painting from a sad artist which makes it a little more difficult to find the good news. But I think the good news is that it’s never too late…it’s never too late to step into the light, to stand alongside the crucified.

Pop quiz – this time the subject is Scripture. Does anybody know who buried Jesus in the tomb?

Joseph of Arimathea.

All four gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea, a man of means and standing in the Jewish community who had plenty to lose, risked approaching Pontius Pilate to ask for the body; that he buried him in a tomb that he himself had paid for.

All four Gospels say it was Joseph of Arimathea.
In three of the four Gospels, he acts alone, but not in John.
Guess who goes with him?
Nicodemus.

Some people might say that it was too little too late. But I have this feeling that a very risen Jesus Christ would not say that at all. Jesus wouldn’t rake him over the coals and say “I could have really used you last week when they condemned me to death.”

I have a feeling that Jesus would say to ol’ Nic at Night: “This is what it means to be born again…this is what it means to live in the light. This is how you see the Kingdom of God.
Now you get it. Now you understand.”