Friday, July 29, 2016

Sawdust and The Savior

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Is not this the carpenter’s son?” Matthew 13:55

Before beginning His ministry, Jesus presumably worked in Joseph’s workshop. We aren’t told anything about it, but sons customarily learned the family trade while earning their keep. Most Biblical folks held jobs. It is natural to assume, therefore, that The Christ tired His hands while working wood in His earthly-father’s shop.
“Joseph the Carpenter”
Georges de la Tour. 1645.
(Louvre, Paris)

The theme of Jesus working in the woodshop has long been popular among artists. There are icons on the subject, masters have tinkered with the theme, and Bible storybook illustrators still relish the chance in showing Christ working with planes and saws. And hammers. And nails.

Georges de la Tour went minimal with his depiction, but perhaps the artist skimped a bit too much. Even the title of his piece, “Joseph the Carpenter,” denies Jesus – or at least ignores His presence. Still, the piece richly plays light against dark, and deeply models the figures. Joseph’s furrowed brow is lit by de la Tour’s signature light source – a single candle, held by Christ. The piece uses understated symbolism in painting Jesus as The Light of the world, although the reality is that carpenters would definitely want more light than a single candle when working with sharp tools.
“Christ in the House of His Parents”
John Everett Millais. 1849–50.
(Tate, London)

John Everett Millais took a stab with his controversial “Christ in the House of His Parents.” The Pre-Raphaelite artist took cues from earlier traditions in loading the margins with symbolism, but the scene is somewhat awkward and certainly schmaltzy. In the tableau, a young Jesus has gotten a wound from an errant nail, and Saint Anne, John the Forerunner, and the Mother of our Lord all come to the rescue of the stigmata. John, of course, looks a bit too much like Bam-Bam. Hyper-critical contemporary of Millais, Charles Dickens, raked the image of Mary over the coals as, “[An alcoholic] so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.” Ouch, Chuck!
“The Shadow of Death”
William Holman Hunt. 1873.
(Manchester Art Gallery, England)

Supposedly, William Holman Hunt’s take on Jesus in the carpenter’s shop was a much better success. I have a strong affinity for the Pre-Raphaelites. If, however, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was hung on this piece alone, I would detest them all. It is loaded with schmaltz, garish color, and an unbelievable pose. I can‘t think of a more ridiculous image of Christ on the planet. What is supposed to be Jesus’ post-sawing stretch exists solely to create the shadow of Christ on the cross. The only stretch is the contrivance itself. The image is hard to look at, and falls flat as a silly liturgical dancer. On velvet.

None of these examples show Christ as simply working at the vocation of carpenter, without visual gimmicks or contrived settings. It is worth noting that Jesus urged his disciples to be “Fishers of men,” while shying from that particular vocation Himself. He was a carpenter. Jesus probably wasn’t one so that future artists could show Him prophetically building a cross or impaling His foot on a nail. Perhaps He worked as a carpenter because the craft relies solely on using thoroughly dead material, and giving it new life and purpose as a totally different thing.

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