Monday, August 01, 2011

Bitter and Sweet Almonds

For three months each year the Diocese of Strasbourg puts on an exhibition of modern sacred art ("Chemin d’Art Sacré en Alsace") in a number of churches in Alsace.

This year the Fourteenth Exhibition will be exhibiting works of art in 10 towns. There are 11 exhibits. This year the exhibition is under the patronage of MonsignorJean-Pierre Grallet, Archbishop of Strasbourg.

Each exhibit is set beside an extract from the Bible.

But each church is not an art gallery. The Diocese has stressed that the Church is a place of worship. The art is secondary to this primary purpose.

Art is to be seen as a way to Beauty and to Faith and an inspiration towards greater interest in the Word

Some of the exhibits are quite remarkable and thought provoking.

Here is a beautiful work by the French artist Marie-Paule Bilger entitled "Shaked"

Marie-Paule Bilger

It is being exhibited in the Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste in Lautenbach

The Biblical text is a rather unusual one. It is from Jeremiah Chapter 1: 11 - 12 It is from the section dealing with God`s call to Jeremiah:

"11 The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.

12 The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.” "

It would appear that verse 12 has a Hebrew pun in it. The Hebrew for watching sounds like the Hebrew for almond tree.

The almond tree is abundant in the Far East and around the Mediterranean. It flowers early and produces either a bitter or sweet fruit. In the Old Testament it symbolised watchfulness as well as God`s sudden and rapid punishment of the Chosen People

In paintings of the New Testament, almond branches symbolise the Virgin Birth and Mary. The Baby Jesus is seen circled by almonds (again leading to other symbolic interpretations)

Sweet almonds are prized for their sweet fruit. Bitter almonds not so. In certain species of tree, the bitter almond fruit yields hydrogen cyanide, the deadly poison (as will be known to readers of Agatha Christie novels)

The Biblical scene with Jeremiah was depicted by the American artist Benjamin West in a study for a commission given him by King George III in 1780 for the decoration of the Chapel Royal at Windsor Castle for scenes from the Old Testament. Unfortunately the King did not proceed with the commission from West. See below

Benjamin West 1738 - 1820
Jérémie voit une branche d'amandier fleurie : L'appel du prophète Jérémie
Jeremiah sees the flowering of an almond branch: The Call of the prophet Jeremiah
Grisaille ;Oil painting on canvas
93cm x 36cm
Musée des beaux-arts, Bordeaux

Vincent van Gogh was particularly entranced by almond blossom especially in Arles when it could bloom as early as February as a harbinger of Spring and the end of Winter.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Branches with Almond Blossom
February 1890
Oil on canvas
73.5 x 92 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
(Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

One sees the influence of Japanese painting on this enthusiasm. And also the Japanese influence on Bilger`s work ?

But in this painting it would appear that Van Gogh with his deep religious knowledge was also aware of the deeper symbolism of the almond tree. Here is what is said in the catalogue entry for the painting:

"On January 31, 1890, Theo wrote to Vincent of the birth of his son, whom he had named Vincent Willem. Van Gogh, who was extremely close to his younger brother, immediately set about making him a painting of his favorite subject: blossoming branches against a blue sky. The gift was meant to hang over the couple’s bed. As a symbol of this new life, Vincent chose an almond tree, which blooms early in southern regions, announcing the coming spring as early as February."