Let the Power of Christ Compel You

When searching through the Rijksmuseum for a painting to analyze, I was drawn to The Seven Wonders, by The Master of Alkmaar. What captured my attention was the pagan and religious symbolism combined with the reminiscence of the stylistic appearances between this painting The Last Supper. While they aren’t having dinner like in The Last Supper, both of the paintings were designed with a panoramic view of the image, similar style architecture, and the aforementioned pagan symbolism. I will be analyzing this through the means of the framework which Westermann has laid out. When discussing Dutch people’s national history he mentions, “(referring to the work of another painter) presents the Dutch people as essentially different from their former overlords, as a chosen people with a common history, led to independence by a divine intervention.” (99)  Westermann is showing that oftentimes religious symbols would make they’re way into Dutch paintings as a form of self-flattery. By declaring themselves as being led by “divine intervention,” there is an implication that they are being led by divine intervention because they are special or different from others. Westermann continues stating, “The Republic needed such accounts for its political cohesion, as its constituent provinces and towns shared an actual history of conflict between local interests rather than one of communal purpose.” (99) As seen in this painting, it doesn’t depict one single event, but rather multiple things happening in conjunction, being tied together by two factors: being in the same painting, and that Jesus is pictured in each “box.” So instead of one single painting representing a singular event (a communal purpose), such as a war, this painting falls in line with classic Dutch style, showing multiple smaller events happening which feed off the local culture and society. (with the local culture of society being tied together through Jesus being in each picture. 

Westermann focuses heavily on religious ties that Dutch painters used within their paintings. He says “Although many paintings addressed Dutch history, they did so by a typological means” (100), essentially saying that they would make references to older events while tying in their own history. Westermann notes that oftentimes these typological references would tie back to religious events depicted within paintings, “an analogous system governed seventeenth century representation of Dutch history, in which ancient Netherlands or even biblical events were represented with reference to contemporary conditions.” (100) When compared with the painting I choose, it is clear this follows the framework which Westermann noted within Dutch historical styles of painting. The previously mentioned religious connotations of this painting are being laid over a religious based painting background with “contemporary conditions.” Now this begs the question, what exactly is the “contemporary conditions,” in other words what is going on here and how does religion tie into it. While I do a “box-by-box” breakdown later in this paper, something especially important I noted was that in every box but the last one jesus appears uninvolved directly with what’s happening in the painting. In the final box (the leftwards most one) Jesus can be seen holding a chalice/orb and making a sign with his hand. According to christian mythology wordpress website, the hand sign he is making represents “benediction,” and has been used to give blessings at the end of church ceremonies. The orb/chalice that Jesus is holding is known as The Sovereign’s Orb, and it represents “Christ’s domination over the world.” An interesting proposition is that while Jesus is giving a blessing to a man who is being whipped, he holds the orb which represents his absolute domination over all. The logical conclusion I came up with is that the orb and the blessing both represent a bigger concept then is directly drawn from the painting. In every box, despite being the center of attention Jesus isn’t the main focus of the people. Yet every action which is being illustrated, or the “Seven Works,” are being done because of Jesus’s influence over the people. Thus, I believe the orb represents Christ’s direct domination over people, to the extent where the concept of his existence convinces a man to be willingly whipped, and his blessing represents the gift which is inspiring these actions. 

When discussing the “Dutch scene” for painting, Westermann notes that it became very popular to create landscape paintings. While this painting isn’t a traditional landscape painting, in the sense that it’s a cityscape rather than a landscape, it is in a panoramic view and depicts a larger than normal area, a cornerstone of landscape paintings. Westermann states that this tacit was implemented in order to represent an “imaginary journey.” As can be seen in this painting, its panoramic (landscape) style allows it to depict “windows” of different parts of a journey which is being illustrated by Alkmaar. Westermann says that Dutch artists would use the landscape style of artesty to display recreational activities and give a “snapshot” of Dutch life. Given that the activities are all religious based, this could be a call back to the Dutch viewing themselves as a chosen people. 

Now that aspects of Westermann’s framework have been laid out, it can be applied to the specifics of this painting. In the leftmost box, a woman has a basket of loaves of bread, which she is giving out to the citizens for free. The religious implications of this box would be the body of Christ, which is pieces of bread, and here this woman is giving it out for free, a charitable activity. The man who is begging on the ground appears to have stunted growth in his legs, and is begging for some food. The implication being he needs food due to his disability has prohibiting him from being able to work. The generosity of the charitable work she is doing falls in line with religious values from many sects, not just christianity. Religion often calls for charitable work with the implication that donating will give you good favor with God, a tieback to the concept of Jesus’s blessing being the reason why all of these activities are happening. 

In the next box (moving to the right), a man in robes is giving out wine to another group of people. Once again he appears to be doing it for free. Furthermore, there are more women behind him wearing the same clothes as the woman who was giving out bread, pushing the connotations that these are workers of the church who are giving these out. Similar to the last box, there appear to be people who are disabled, such as the man who is walking on crutches or the man who appears to be suffering from dwarfism. There is also the religious connection to the man giving out what appears to be wine, which in the church is considered to be the blood of christ. 

In the next box, a woman appears to be giving out clothing to those who can’t afford to buy more by themselves. Once again the theme of charity comes up in this box. Also, the people giving out the clothes appear to be wearing similar clothing to those in the previous boxes, which implies that this may be a whole church’s charitable work being dissected in various boxes. The religious implications are clear there, and the concept of Jesus’s existence “dominating” these people is being further backed up. 

Now the middle box is one which I found very confusing. Within it, Jesus is hovering above the citizens, along with two angels. Most mind boggling about this box is that the faces of everyone besides Jesus and the angels seem to be purposely blank. Where the other boxes have very detailed faces, in this box it’s hard to even triangulate eyes or a mouth. The significance of this alludes me but if I had to assume, it would be a tactic to draw the viewers eyes to Jesus. Similar to the aforementioned boxes, this one also contains religious workers who appear to be laying down a casket as a service. The presence of Jesus may suggest that he is watching over the person being laid to the ground, maybe judging whether he should go to heaven or hell. Each angel could represent a different route, with one taking the soul to heaven and the other taking the soul to hell. 

The next box appears to depict a conversation between the common people and religious workers. This could represent spreading the word of god, or trying to convert non-believers. 

The final two boxes seem to reflect off each other. The first one shows members of the church seemingly caring for the sick and helping those who cannot help themselves. While the final box appears to show people “repenting for sin” with even a man dressed in church clothing getting whipped by another. In the background there is also what happens to be a prison like cage in which people are looking out through the bars at the man being whipped. This juxtaposition could represent the hypocrisies in the church or it could even extend to the hypocrisies of society in total. This is also the box which Jesus appears with the orb while doing the hand symbol. Maybe it was meant to be read left to right, with the viewer ending on Jesus’s blessing, and his domination. Leaving the observer to consider the influence of being blessed by Jesus, or the fear of being victim to his domination. 

Bibliography

Harryharlow. “Christian Hand Signs.” Mythology and the Seasons, 5 June 2013, rosshyslop.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/christian-hand-signs/.

K’Ory, A P von, et al. “Symbols of Monarchy: the Orb and Sceptre • The Crown Chronicles.” The Crown Chronicles, 28 June 2020, thecrownchronicles.co.uk/explanation/symbols-of-monarchy-sovereigns-orb-and-sceptre/.

Westermann, M. (2016). A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
“The Seven Works of Mercy, Master of Alkmaar, 1504.” Rijksmuseum, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2815?rts=True.

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One thought on “Let the Power of Christ Compel You

  1. Nice breakdown of each image, descriptively–you’ve opened up some interesting insights, esp. re: the wine and the bread being transformed (back) into the everyday, as literal sustenance. Noting that Jesus is involved in the action of each scene is interesting, and I appreciate your honesty in struggling openly with possible meanings of the final panel, which is quite perplexing!

    Like

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