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Monday over Coffee: God in Living Color.

Need Some Words of Encouragement?


God in Living Color.

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.
—Mark 4:37

I’ve seen the painting twice. The roiling, otherworldly sea, electric aquamarine in color. A bright, shining glow of yellow above Christ’s head. It mesmerized me both times. You may know the artist, the French Romantic Eugene Delacroix (1798—1863), whose painting, Liberty Leading the People, was lifted by the popular British band Coldplay for the cover of their Viva La Vida ‘album’ about a decade ago. In addition to famously painting Lady Liberty and the French tricolor, Delacroix created an astonishing amount of religious art, more than 100 canvases. He painted this scene from Mark 4, Christ asleep in a boat on a stormy sea, at least six times.

Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as, Christ Asleep during the Tempest, depicts a low-lying, lightning-lit vessel full of panicked apostles deep in high, blue-green seas. Two are rowing to save the boat, another is reaching for an oar lost in the waves, one has fainted, most are simply shouting in desperation, as Judas clutches desperately to a small money box at the bow and Jesus sleeps peacefully on a cushion near the stern.

It’s not a huge leap to picture ourselves in the boat right now, isolated and vulnerable on stormy seas. However, we can’t just physically shake Jesus awake to calm the rough, tumbling waters around us and quiet the threatening skies above.

Thirty-three years after Delacroix created it, a young Dutch painter named Vincent van Gogh, quite taken with the work, sent a letter to a friend after viewing the painting at a Paris exhibition: “Oh, what a beautiful picture by Delacroix,” Van Gogh wrote of the reclining figure of Christ. “He, with his pale lemon halo, sleeping, luminous, within the dramatic violet, dark blue…on the terrifying emerald sea, rising, rising all the way up to the top of the frame.” Van Gogh became fascinated by Delacroix’s use of color, how he could direct the eye, evoke emotion, and instill meaning with it. The son of a minister, Van Gogh wrote that the halo around Christ spoke “a symbolic language through color itself.”

Art historian Lauren Soth, citing Van Gogh's letters and avowed admiration for Delacroix, and this painting and comment in particular, believes he took up this symbolic language when he painted Starry Night over the Rhone in 1888. The work depicts a couple walking hand-in-hand on the bank of the river under a brilliant, star-decked night sky, using Delacroix’s dramatic Prussian blue and citron yellow; then paints the bursting evening stars above echoing Delacroix’s Christ-crown halo, symbolizing the presence of the Divine.


Van Gogh, who once served as a missionary pastor, painted Biblical scenes himself, and wrote of religious and spiritual matters in his letters and notebooks almost as much as he wrote of his art, seems to be saying that our yearning hope for consolation from God is on offer to us, just as Christ’s presence was for his bewildered disciples, if we will simply awaken to it. Just as heaven commingles with earth in the painting, God is with us within the vast array of elusive invisibilities all around us. In beauty. In the night sky. In vibrant heavenly light. In art. In love and in the consolation of friends. Awaken, he is saying, to God, in living color.

God —
 
When I examine the evidence — between the two of us — it’s probably me who is asleep in the storm, not You. Help me to wake up a little bit more so I can see what I suspect: You are closer than I think, more powerful than I believe, and more intimate than I can imagine. Help me to apprehend more fully what I deduce from the themes of Gospel and the beauty of sublime art — that heaven commingles with earth, that Your love is as fierce as the stars, the squalls will diminish, and trundling waves shall not swamp the boat. Widen my eyes to the consolation on offer to me today, in living color. Amen.

—Greg Funderburk

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