“Watching Luke Paint the Virgin”

Thoughts on Marcus Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Studies – Part 1

The image on the front of the book is of Simon Marmion’s (Valenciennes, circa 1460) St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child. More than a trendy ancient-looking picture, Bockmuehl reflects on this image as an analogy for the Evangelists as “spiritual artists.”

Marmion’s painting depicts Luke painting the Virgin and Child (by the 6th century Luke was regarded as the painter of Mary and eventually as the patron saint of icon painters). On closer inspection one will notice that Luke’s painting differs ever so slightly from the flesh-and-blood Mary and Child. While the life-size figure portrays a realistic-looking girl, simple and somewhat fatigued by the playful child who tugs at her necklace, the portrait has the image reversed, Mary’s head is covered, her features less pronounced and skin more translucent, and the child is no longer mischievously grasping but peacefully resting. The portrait reflects what one might expect in an icon.

What do we make of the difference? Do we assume that Marmion is being playful? That he is an incompetent artist? Or that he is deliberately distorting the image with the intent to deceive? None of these options is viable for a 15th century Book of Hours, Bockmuehl says. Marmion’s depiction is thus “serious and deliberate.” Bockmuehl says, “In thus distinguishing the empirical subject from its artistic representation, Marmion draws out the exquisite and excruciating dilemma of the religious artist.” (18)

Bockmuehl’s point is that the work of the student or scholar is very similar to that of Simon Marmion: in interpreting the Gospels we are “painting the biblical author painting Christ.” In the painting, Luke is not giving a photographic reproduction but an exposition of the subject’s deeper, perhaps more real, significance. The analogy here is very important. Bockmuehl stresses the significance in the recognition of the difference and relationship between the two images. One misstep is the assumption that the two images must be identical. Another misstep is to stress the differences between the images by arguing for the significance of one over the other: the “real” Mary and child is the only one that matters, or the icon is the only one that matters. Bockmuehl argues that the two images only make sense in relationship to each other, thus the interpreter fails to do justice to the text if he or she denies either the difference or the sameness of the image of in the text.

The dilemma between the images, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ, is of course not a new one. Does this analogy help us better navigate the conundrum? It is important to remember that when we read the Gospels, as when looking at Marmion’s painting, we are not looking at two separate images, but one painting. The Evangelists do not offer photographic representations of the historically reality. Can we admit that? The writers themselves are engaging in exposition of what happened in space-time history. I would argue, as does Bockmuehl, that the “artistic” depiction is not less real than the “historical” image but more real. Both Jesus of Nazareth and Christ the Son of God are true depictions of the same reality and must be held together.

This analogy doesn’t answer all the questions raised in regard to NT interpretation, but it is a starting point for engagement in that discussion. What do you think of the analogy? Can we see the writers of the NT as spiritual artists rather than neutral,objective recorders? If there are differences between the images, should we emphasize one over the other?

grace and peace,

Seth

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One thought on ““Watching Luke Paint the Virgin”

  1. I like the analogy. The image of Christ we get in the gospels is certainly not a photograph, but rather what a literary person like me might call a character sketch. The point is not to show us every single detail, but to make a particular point and to show a particular message. I think it helps to compare and contrast the different images each gospel presents, to keep in mind who they were “painting” for, and to consider whether or not that message would be the same for a modern audience.

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