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March 04, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Rubens 4evangelists.jpg

The Four Evangelists
Sir Peter Paul Rubens

In this work, symbolism, body language, and composition are important. Peter Paul Rubens is depicting the writing of the Four Gospels as a meeting between mortal writers and heavenly inspiration. From left to right, the writers are Luke, Matthew, Mark and John. They are each represented by their symbols that, in art, also sometimes act as their genii: an ox, a man (here an angel), a lion, and an eagle respectively.

This work is divided into two sections. The left three-fourths contains the first three writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are gathered around a table and listen intently to the angel as he tells them what to write. Since the angel is Matthew’s genius, he is the one shown writing. Mark just listens. According to scholars, Mark may have been the first Gospel written. If that was believed in Rubens’ time, then it’s not surprising that Mark is pictured leaning on closed books. His part is finished. His genius is asleep, tired from the efforts. Mark seems interested in what the angel is saying because he may be hearing new information—information that is now going into Matthew’s Book.

Luke looks at what Matthew is writing. There is no book or ink well in front of him. His ox is awake. The author is waiting his turn. Luke is holding a scroll in his left hand, not a book like the others. This might be a quick reference to the Hebrew Testament. Each of the Gospels presents different aspects of Jesus. Luke and Matthew present the genealogy of Christ, but where Matthew’s goes forward from Adam, Luke’s goes backwards from Joseph. The scroll is behind Luke and is the older literary medium, so I think it might represent the older section of the Bible, but I really don’t know for sure.
Between Mark and John, Rubens has placed a virtual dividing line. John is very obviously set apart from the others. His posture is different—where the other three are sitting and slouched over, John is standing straight up. He is not paying attention to the angel. Instead his head is tilted back, looking up at the eagle. The bird was behind the curtain and only revealed when it was thrown back, and it is possible that only John can see it. This may represent a special knowledge—a “revelation.” His book is also closed. He has to wait for his turn at the writing station.

The division of the authors is quite interesting because they are divided in the same way as many Biblical scholars divide the Gospels—the three Synoptics and John. In theory, Mark was the first Gospel to be written and then Matthew and Mark borrowed and expanded from him. John’s Book is supposed to be completely original ideas. I don’t know if this theory was around in Rubens’ day, but this painting seems to say so to me.

Color also divides the work. The Three are draped in black or dark gray cloth. Matthew is dressed completely in black so his face and hands, and the hand of the angel, stand out. John is the only one in white. This may represent his special status among the Apostles. He was one of Jesus’ inner circle of Disciples with Peter and James. He was called The Beloved Disciple because he was the closest to Jesus. He witnessed the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension; was tasked with taking care of Mary; and was privy to the final revelation of Jesus Christ.

Matthew’s black garment occupies the exact center of the painting. This “void” is surrounded by the arms and heads of Matthew, Mark and the angel. The Evangelists’ eyes stare intently at the angel. Being in the center of the work, my eyes tended to go there first. Because they are looking at something, my eyes follow theirs. After hitting the angel’s face, I then follow the line of his pointing arm down to the Book, the real focus of the painting. So then, this painting is about the Christian belief that the Bible is “God-breathed”, that the human authors were told what to write by the Holy Spirit. Rubens then focuses this idea. Rubens shows us the biography of Jesus being written, the central figure of the Christian Bible. This work is about one of the most fundamental teachings of Christianity: the divine origins of the Bible.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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