In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.
Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.
Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.
After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”
The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias, ca. 1799–1800
William Blake (British, 1757–1827)
Pen and black ink, tempera and glue
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Blake illustrates these verses from Luke (1:5–13) that describe Gabriel’s announcement.
The priest’s fear and astonishment in the face of the heavenly apparition are vividly described, as are the details of his colorful costume and the furniture of the Temple. Clouds of bubbles from the burner Zacharias holds join the smoke and flames from the fire on the altar of incense.
The picture belonged to an important commission. It is one of fifty Old and New Testament subjects ordered from the artist in 1799 by his principal patron, Thomas Butts, a clerk in the war office.
Thrones were set up and the Ancient One took his throne. His clothing was snow bright, and the hair on his head as white as wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A surging stream of fire flowed out from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads attended him.
Book of Daniel, chapter 7
The Ancient of Days, William Blake, etching with watercolor, British Museum
Ancient of Days, or Head of Days, is a name for God in theBook of Daniel: in the original Aramaic Atik Yomin; in the Greek Septuagint Palaios Hemeron; and in the Vulgate Antiquus Dierum.
The title “Ancient of Days” has been used as a source of inspiration in art and music, denoting the Creator’s aspects of eternity combined with perfection. William Blake’s watercolour and relief etching entitled “The Ancient of Days” is one such example.
In Eastern Orthodox Christian hymns and icons, the Ancient of Days is sometimes identified with God the Father or occasionally The Holy Spirit; but most properly, in accordance with Orthodox theology he is identified with God the Son, or Jesus Christ. Most of the eastern church fathers who comment on the passage in Daniel (7:9-10, 13-14) interpreted the elderly figure as a prophetic revelation of the Son before his physical Incarnation. As such, Eastern Christian art will sometimes portray Jesus Christ as an old man, the Ancient of Days, to show symbolically that he existed from all eternity, and sometimes as a young man, or wise baby, to portray him as he was incarnate.
The Ancient of Days. A fresco by Damiane from Ubisi, Georgia, 14th century
This iconography emerged in the 6th century, mostly in the Eastern Empire with elderly images, though usually not properly or specifically identified as “the Ancient of Days.”The first images of the Ancient of Days, so named with an inscription, were developed by iconographers in different manuscripts, the earliest of which are dated to the eleventh century. The images in these manuscripts included the inscription “Jesus Christ, Ancient of Days,” confirming that this was a way to identify Christ as pre-eternal with the God the Father. Indeed, later, it was declared by the Russian Orthodox Church at the Great Synod of Moscow in 1667 that the Ancient of Days was the Son and not the Father.
In the Western Church similar figures usually represent only God the Father. Building his argument upon the Daniel passage, Thomas Aquinas recalls that some bring forward the objection that the Ancient of Days matches the Person of the Father, without necessarily agreeing with this statement himself.
Creation of Eve, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1509-10, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Rome
The LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all wild animals; but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.
So the LORD God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The LORD God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman, ‘ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken.” That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.
Today’s reading describes the creation of Eve and remains the basis for the Christian theology of marriage. No matter where one stands on the literal truth or application of the Genesis tale, it has certainly been a fertile subject for artists. The most well known image of the creation of Eve is undoubtedly that by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, shown above.
From Art Encyclopedia: “The iconography follows the tradition of showing God standing on the Earth alongside his creatures, but the artist nicely exploits the format of the small field by showing God’s head bumping up against the frame. The Sistine Chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Since Mary is regarded as the second Eve, who erased the original sin of that first woman, it is logical that the scene representing the Creation of Eve should be placed in the exact center of the ceiling.”
Birth of Eve, Wiligelmo, 1110, Cathedral of Modena, Italy
The relief sculpture above is from the west facade of the cathedral at Modena. It was sculpted by the Italian Wiligelmo, who brought life-sized sculptures to Italy in the Romanesque Period. The scenes are sculpted in high relief, with Roman arches and columns behind. We can see the stylistic quirks of the period, such as the unnatural body proportions and lack of naturalism. At left, we see Christ in a mandorla supported by two angels. To our right the next scene is the creation of Adam, followed by Eve’s creation from his side as he sleeps. Finally we see the pair with the tree of the temptation.
Creation of Adam and Eve from Gate of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1425-52, gilded bronze Baptistry, Florence.
“Created in the mid-15th century and installed in the eastern portal of the Baptistery, the Gates of Paradise have been praised by generations of artists and art historians for their compelling portrayal of scenes from the Old Testament. Over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of Renaissance art and a touchstone of civic and religious life in Florence. This exhibition showcases three panels from the left door of the Gates of Paradise, which depict the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. The exhibition also includes figures and heads of prophets from the doorframe, and it explores the evolving nature of art in Florence and Siena during Ghiberti’s career with works from the Art Institute’s permanent collection.
The Adam and Eve Panel documents Ghiberti’s earliest work on the doors and features a splendid depiction of nude figures in a landscape set off by angelic hosts. Ghiberti combined four major episodes from the story of Adam and Eve into this harmonious panel. The creation of Adam, illustrated in the foreground on the far left, shows Adam in a state of semiconsciousness, rising in response to God’s life-giving touch. In the center, as angels look on, God forms Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. The temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent is shown in the background on the left, while the right side of the panel depicts the couple’s expulsion from Eden. Subtle shifts in the scale of the figures reinforce discrete episodes in the story of the Creation. Ghiberti modulated the scale and degree of projection of the angels to visually separate the four scenes.”
Creation of Eve, Giusto de’ Menabuoi, 1376-78, fresco Chapel of S. Giovanni Battista, Padua
Menabuoi was a 14th century Florentine painter mentioned by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. His frescoes in the Chapel of S. Giovanni in northern Italy’s Padua were executed between 1376 and 1378.
Creation of Eve, Henry Fuseli, 1793, Oil on canvas, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Created for his gallery of images illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost, Fuseli’s Creation of Eve shows her rising from Adam in the conventional manner, but with an ambiguous image of a man in the upper right. Is it God? This work apparently created some theological controversy. Much of Fuseli’s work is known for its surreal, supernatural content.
Angel of the Divine Presence Bringing Eve to Adam (The Creation of Eve: “And She Shall be Called Woman), William Blake, 1803, Watercolor, pen and black ink over graphite, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
From the Met website: Blake considered the Bible to be the supreme poetic work and here evocatively re-imagined the Old Testament theme of the creation of Eve. Instead of showing the first woman emerging from Adam’s side, Blake presents the couple meeting with ceremonial solemnity. A divine figure prepares to join their hands while a recumbent Adam looks up eagerly as his mate steps down from blue-tinged clouds. Objects in the landscape elaborate the meaning: the grape vines entwined around the tree symbolize marriage; the exotic red and blue plumed birds represent the newly created souls; and the giant oak leaf on which Adam reclines forecasts humankind’s suffering. A lion dozing near grazing lambs at lower right signals the peace of the pre-fallen world. Blake made this finished watercolor for his loyal patron Thomas Butts.
Genesis Windows, Marc Chagall, 1963, St Etienne Cathedral, Metz, France
Readers of this blog know that Marc Chagall is one of my most beloved artists, so it’s fitting that this page conclude with Chagall’s image of Eve. He depicted the creation of Eve in one of his many stained glass projects, this time from the cathedral at Metz. In the third window, Eve is the figure with rose coloring through torso and legs, rising from the supine figure of Adam. Here’s a detail:
Chagall wrote: “To me, stained glass is the transparent wall between my heart and the world’s. Stained glass is uplifting, it requires gravity and passion. It must come alive through the light it receives. The Bible is light already, and stained glass should make this obvious through grace and simplicity.” (more on the Cathedral and its stained glass here)
Satan Descending Upon the Earth, Gustave Dore, 1866, engraved illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly, Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
“The seventy-two disciples returned rejoicing and said to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus said, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power ‘to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
At that very moment he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
Turning to the disciples in private he said, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Satan in All His Glory, William Blake, 1805, Tate, London
This watercolour shows Satan as he once was, a perfect part of God’s creation, before his fall from grace. His orb and sceptre symbolise his role as Prince of this World. It is also an extreme example of the damaging effects of over-exposure to light. The sky was originally an intense blue, now only visible at the lower right edge. The only colours which have survived unaltered are the vermilion red Blake used for the flesh, and red ochre in Satan’s wings. The paper has yellowed considerably. There is no evidence left of any yellow gamboge or pinkish red lakes.
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.
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 yearof 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 creaturesappeared. 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 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.
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
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
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.