... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith
Editor: Michael Burgess (Parish Pumk, UK) looks at great works of Christian art. You can see the image below or by Googling ‘Vase of Flowers’ by Jan Davidsz de Heem.
‘He gave us eyes to see them’: Flowers – the beauty of the Lord
In this month of September we give thanks for God’s blessings in all that the earth yields us. Those blessings are focused in this wonderful painting of Jan Davidsz de Heem. He was born in Utrecht in Holland in 1606 and studied art under his father’s guidance. De Heem then moved to Antwerp, where for the rest of his life he created paintings of such beauty and depth that one of them – a portrait of Prince William III surrounded by blossoms and fruits - received the highest price ever paid for a painting at that time.
In the ‘Vase of Flowers’ de Heem has gathered together a bouquet of variegated flowers and plants for our delight. Time stands still in his painting in two ways. First, these thirty-one blooms could never have flowered at the same time, but through the magical touch of the artist, they do for us. Caught on canvas, they are as fresh and vibrant as the day they were painted in 1645.
But there are signs that the gifts of nature do wither and die as we look closely and see on the marble slab a snail. Nearby is a salamander eyeing his next meal as a spider hangs on a thread from one of the flowers. In the centre another snail looks at his food, the beautiful and rare red and white tulips. Yet we look again and see also signs of new life: the reeds of wheat are symbols of the Eucharistic bread; the caterpillar and butterfly on the striking white poppy at the top are signs of resurrection; and the peas in their pod and the blackberries mark out the fruitfulness of creation.
The artist shows us a glorious range of flowers – some well-known, others more exotic and brought back to Holland through the colonial expansion of the 16th century. Tulips and poppies dominate, but to the left are small scented roses. Each is a testimony to the beauty and goodness of the world we live in.
A 100 years later, Christopher Smart wrote in ‘Jubilate Agno’: ‘For the flowers are great blessings…For the flower glorifies God…For the flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ.’
And 200 years later Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.’
And we, in our own century, can echo poet and painter as we praise God, the author of such flowers and plants that make up a world of ‘all things bright and beautiful.’