Tuesday, March 25, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Agnus Dei (Zurburán)

As I mentioned yesterday, there are two overarching themes in the history of Spanish art, and often they work together in a single piece.  Those two themes are God and death.  Francisco de Zurburán does this often in his paintings.  Sometimes even in a still life, we will see allegories that point us to a much bigger message than what we can see on the surface. 
In this painting, "Agnus Dei," we see how Zurburán has beautifully depicted an image that was surely inspired by Isaiah 53:7 - "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.  He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."
The Scripture passage foreshadows the Passion of Jesus Christ very vividly, and Zurburán has done something very interesting with it by giving us a literal image of a lamb tied up to be slaughtered.  Now, Zurburán has done images of Christ crucified, and we've seen the brutal depictions of saints being martyred in Ribera's paintings, so I think Zurburán was trying something different with this painting that perhaps had not been done yet. 
What is particularly true about our culture today is that we've sadly become desensitized to images of death or harm towards humanity.  Of course I could go on and on about how movies, tv shows, video games, and certain sports are all about this violence.  Not to say I am holier than thou, I am simply stating what is true (By the way, The Walking Dead is one of my favorite shows).  And there is so much of it that we've become desensitized by it.  But... if you get an image of an innocent animal being harmed or killed, then everyone loses their mind over it.  Even though we eat them everyday, for some reason we can't stand to see cows, chickens, pigs, or ducks being killed.  I'm not as sensitive about animals that I would eat, but Heaven forbid if I ever see a dog being hurt or killed, I will start a riot.  Especially if that dog is a little puppy. 
See what I did there?  I think Zurburán wanted to do the same in his "Agnus Dei."  By giving an image of an innocent and harmless animal, and a young one at that, Zurburán is giving us a feeling of sympathy for this young animal as it is about to go to its death.  I think he knows that we are more sensitive toward baby animals than we are to our fellow man.  So maybe if he paints the Son of God as an allegory - in the form of a young lamb going to slaughter, we will have softer hearts for the way in which Christ went to death for us.  Now, whether any of this is what Zurburán had in mind when he painted this, I have no idea.  But this is definitely how I read this painting in today's culture.  We sadly live in a world that not only doesn't care about harm or death toward humanity, but one that has especially lost feeling toward the harm and death of Jesus Christ, and cares even less about His resurrection.  So maybe this painting says that we have to remind ourselves that as harmless and innocent as this little lamb is, Christ was even more so.

Agnus Dei
oil on canvas
c. 1635-40

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