Ezekiel’s Vision

As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house—
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
Ezekiel 2:2-5

The prophet Ezekiel was writing during the Jews’ exile to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. As we hear in today’s lectionary reading, the Lord speaks to Ezekiel and charges him with the thankless task of calling the Jews from their sinful ways. In the chapter preceding this one, however, we read Ezekiel’s description of his initial vision of God on the Cherubim, and a phantasmagoric vision it is indeed:

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions.—
On the fifth day of the month—this was the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile— the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the Lord came upon him.

As I watched, a great stormwind came from the North, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire. From within it figures in the likeness of four living creatures appeared. This is what they looked like: They were in human form, but each had four faces and four wings, and their legs were straight, the soles of their feet like the hooves of a bull, gleaming like polished brass. Human hands were under their wings, and the wings of one touched those of another. Their faces and their wings looked out on all their four sides; they did not turn when they moved, but each went straight ahead.

Their faces were like this: each of the four had a human face, and on the right the face of a lion, and on the left, the face of an ox, and each had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above. On each one, two wings touched one another, and the other two wings covered the body. Each went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they went; they did not change direction when they moved. And the appearance of the living creatures seemed like burning coals of fire. Something indeed like torches moved back and forth among the living creatures. The fire gleamed intensely, and from it lightning flashed. The creatures darting back and forth flashed like lightning.

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw wheels on the ground, one alongside each of the four living creatures. The wheels and their construction sparkled like yellow topaz, and all four of them looked the same: their construction seemed as though one wheel was inside the other. When they moved, they went in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. The four of them had rims, high and fearsome—eyes filled the four rims all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved with them; and when the living creatures were raised from the ground, the wheels also were raised. Wherever the spirit would go, they went. And they were raised up together with the living creatures, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. Wherever the living creatures moved, the wheels moved; when they stood still, the wheels stood still. When they were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up with them. For the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Above the heads of the living creatures was a likeness of the firmament; it was awesome, stretching upwards like shining crystal over their heads. Beneath the firmament their wings stretched out toward one another; each had two wings covering the body. Then I heard the sound of their wings, like the roaring of mighty waters, like the voice of the Almighty. When they moved, the sound of the tumult was like the din of an army. And when they stood still, they lowered their wings. While they stood with their wings lowered, a voice came from above the firmament over their heads.

Above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne that looked like sapphire; and upon this likeness of a throne was seated, up above, a figure that looked like a human being. And I saw something like polished metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed on all sides, from what looked like the waist up; and from what looked like the waist down, I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding him. Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speak.
Ezekiel 1:1-28

This mystifying vision has perplexed and exercised the imaginations of readers, writers, and artists ever since. The so-called chariot described in the passage, the merkavah or merkabah, has even spawned a tradition of mystical Judaism and comparisons with the Temple of Solomon.

Church father Jerome wrote in the preface to his commentary on Matthew’s gospel that Ezekiel’s vision of the Cherubim actually predicted the Gospels, since each one represents a Gospel author:

“The first face of a man signifies Matthew, who began his narrative as about a man…the second [face signifies] Mark in whom the voice of a lion roaring in the wilderness is heard. The fourth is the face of the calf which prefigures that the evangelist began with Zachariah the priest. The fourth John the evangelist who, having taken up eagle’s wings and hastening up toward higher matters, discusses the word of God.”

In other words, Matthew starts his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus as a man; Mark begins with John the Baptist, the voice of a lion crying out in the wilderness; Luke’s starts with a sacrifice, usually a calf (or ox) in the temple by Zachariah; and John’s gospel soars to heaven with its elevated vision of Jesus as the Word. This interpretation also comes from the text of Revelation 4:6-8 and is why the evangelists are portrayed in art with images of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle, as we saw in the Douce Apocalypse.

Ezekiel’s Vision of God in Art

 

Ezekiel's Vision by Raphael and and Giulio Romano, ca.1518 Oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Ezekiel’s Vision by Raphael and Giulio Romano, ca.1518 Oil on panel, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

In Renaissance Florence, this version by Raphael  and Giulio Romano shows a tiny Ezekiel at the bottom left as rays of light beam down upon him. The magnified image of God is supported by angels and cherubim, surrounded by radiant light as he delivers his message to the hapless Ezekiel. The influence of Michelangelo is apparent in this work. This painting was stolen by Napoleon’s army, but later returned to Florence. It has also been the subject of dispute as to who actually painted it. When it was displayed in a 2012 exhibit titled “Late Raphael” at the Prado in Madrid, it was labeled as “Giulio Romano on the basis of a design by Raphael.”

This painting was also woven into a tapestry image by the master weaver, Pieter van Aelst in Flanders. This tapestry once hung over the bed of Pope Leo X in the Vatican Palace.

Ezekial's Vision Tapestry by Pieter van Aelst, 1520, after Raphael's painting.

Ezekial’s Vision Tapestry by Pieter van Aelst, 1520, after Raphael’s painting.

 

Martin Luther, while he was hiding under a pseudonym at Wartburg Castle following his excommunication by Pope Leo X, began translating the original languages of the Bible into his native German. Published in 1534, it included woodcut illustrations created by the workshop of Lucas Cranach , some of them colored in like this one of Ezekiel’s vision.

Colored woodcut illustration of Ezekiel's vision by the workshop of Lucas Cranach for the Luther Bible, 1534

Colored woodcut illustration of Ezekiel’s vision by the workshop of Lucas Cranach for the Luther Bible, 1534

 

The nineteenth-century mystical visionary artist William Blake gives us this version:

The Whirlwind: Ezekiel's Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels (Illustration to the Old Testament, Ezekiel I: 4–28), William Blake ca. 1803–05, Pen and watercolor over graphite on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Whirlwind: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels (Illustration to the Old Testament, Ezekiel I: 4–28), William Blake ca. 1803–05, Pen and watercolor over graphite on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Blake makes all the faces human rather than adding the ox/lion/eagle faces in the text. Blake converses with Ezekiel in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:

“The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked
them how they dared so roundly to assert. that God spake to them;
and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be
misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.

Then Ezekiel said. The philosophy of the east taught the first
principles of human perception some nations held one
principle for the origin & some another, we of Israel taught
that the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first
principle and all the others merely derivative, which was the
cause of our despising the Priests & Philosophers of other
countries, and prophesying that all Gods would at last be
proved to originate in ours & to be the tributaries of the
Poetic Genius.”

Finally, I offer you a contemporary video, with a computerized graphics version of the elusive vision of Ezekiel.

 

Which is your favorite? Leave a message below! I encourage you to do a Google search of Ezekial’s vision of God, so you can see the variety of art and ideas associated with this strange vision described in the Bible.

Advertisements

Adoration of the Lamb

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript Image, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

Douce Apocalypse Manuscript Image, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

I recently happened upon the image above, which comes from a thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation known as the Douce Apocalypse. The manuscript is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University; it is named after Francis Douce, who bequeathed his collection to the library at his death in 1834.

The illustration depicts the adoration of God with the Lamb from Revelation 7:9-14.

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying,

“Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

In this manuscript illustration, we see St. John standing at the left side outside the frame, holding a copy of his book, as the elder pictured in the window explains to him that those in the white robes have survived the tribulation and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. The Lamb signifies the crucified Christ whose blood purifies the faithful from all sin.  The central image shows a mandorla encasing God enthroned with the Lamb. They are surrounded by the symbols for the four Gospel writers at each corner: Matthew as the winged man, John as the eagle, Luke as the ox, and Mark as the lion. In four horizontal registers we see saints or angels with halos at the top; next the twenty-four elders in prostrate worship; and the multitudes holding palm branches in the two bottom registers. All except John and God wear white, symbolizing victory and resurrection. The palm branches also signify victory and evoke Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, showing that the worshipers are now in the heavenly Jerusalem. Here, they are worshiping loudly, crying out their praise and thanks to God and their Savior, the Lamb. This is the promise held out to all who remain faithful to the Lamb.

 

The Sacrifice of Isaac

God put Abraham to the test.
He called to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
Then God said: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love,and go to the land of Moriah.
There you shall offer him up as a burnt offering on a height that I will point out to you.”
Early the next morning Abraham saddled his donkey, took with him his son Isaac, and two of his servants as well,
and with the wood that he had cut for the burnt offering, set out for the place of which God had told him.

On the third day Abraham got sight of the place from afar.
Then he said to his servants: “Both of you stay here with the donkey, while the boy and I go on over yonder.
We will worship and then come back to you.”
Thereupon Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders,
while he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two walked on together, Isaac spoke to his father Abraham:
“Father!” he said.
“Yes, son,” he replied.
Isaac continued, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“Son,” Abraham answered,  “God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.”
Then the two continued going forward.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.
Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
But the LORD’s messenger called to him from heaven,
“Abraham, Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he answered.
“Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the messenger. “Do not do the least thing to him. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son.”
As Abraham looked about, he spied a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. So he went and took the ram
and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham named the site Yahweh-yireh;
hence people now say, “On the mountain the LORD will see.”
Again the LORD’s messenger called to Abraham from heaven and said:
“I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing—all this because you obeyed my command.”
Gen. 22:1-18

Florence Baptistry

Florence Baptistry

The octagonal Florentine baptistery, built in the 11th-12th centuries, has three sets of immense doors decorated in bronze panels with biblical scenes. The first set of east doors (now on the south side) was created in 1329 by Andrea Pisano. In 1401 the cloth merchants’ guild of Florence announced a competition for the bronze panel designs on the east doors of the baptistery (now on the north), depicting scenes from the New Testament and images of the Church Fathers. Several artists competed and the young Lorenzo Ghiberti won the commission. It took him 21 years to complete the project and the exquisite artistry of the doors secured his reputation along with a commission to create the new east doors with scenes from the Old Testament, now known as the Gates of Paradise.

Eastern doors, known as the Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Baptistry, Florence, Italy

Eastern doors, known as the Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Baptistry, Florence, Italy

The finalists in the competition for the doors, Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, sculpted images of the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Brunelleschi would later go on to design the dome of the Florence Cathedral. The video below describes the competition and the design of the pieces by each artist.

 

wpid-ghiberti_27s-sacrifice-of-isaac1361217754408.jpg

 

In this sculpture by Ghiberti, Abraham stands at the center with his knife nearly at the throat of his beloved son, the child of his promise from God. Although he appears to be poised in mid-motion, the corner of his cloak is flung up behind his arm, revealing the violence of his action. The angel arrives at the last second, flying in from the upper right, calling his name to prevent him from completing his act of sacrifice.

Who can comprehend Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? At first glance it seems unfathomable. Nevertheless, the faith that God calls us to must contain this element of complete and total surrender to His will. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard discusses Abraham’s action in his work “Fear and Trembling.”

“Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.” 

Through his sacrifice, Abraham becomes the model of one who surrenders to the will of God. The Lord had already told Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, so in sacrificing the fruit of that very promise Abraham was showing his trust and hope that God would still fulfill his promise.

For Christians, the sacrifice of Isaac is also a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son on the cross for humanity. We read that Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice up the mountain, just as Christ carried the cross of his crucifixion up to Calvary. God himself undertook the very sacrifice of his son that he prevented Abraham from completing. The sacrifice of Jesus by God is done out of his love for humanity. This was a once and for all sacrifice that changed the destiny of humankind, making us all the beloved children of the promise.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16

Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son, confident that God’s promise would be fulfilled. What am I willing to sacrifice?

 wpid-ghiberti_27s-sacrifice-of-isaac1361217754408.jpg