Jan Brueghel: St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea
ArtWay Visual Meditation 21 January 2024
Jan Brueghel the Elder: Harbour Scene with St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea
Seeing the Unnoticed Extraordinary
by Otto Bam
This wonderful painting, dated 1596, is by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel. The artwork depicts a biblical scene that has rarely found its way onto a canvas: the Apostle Paul’s departure from Caesarea. Although this seems an obscure choice of subject, depicted as an event hidden away amidst the busyness of a bustling harbour, the painting illustrates the way the extraordinary can unfold unnoticed, in the background of the everyday.
I came across the painting recently at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, USA. It hangs at the entrance of a room, a few paces beyond an open doorway, rendering it visible a fair way off before you enter the room. How well the curators understood the way this work is most naturally apprehended. Indeed, you come to it like a traveller who, approaching the brow of a hill, glimpses first the sea that reaches into a picturesque horizon in the distance – that is, the upper half of the painting. Majestic ships lie under the romantic sky, obscured by a pleasant, ethereal mist. This is a heavenly view, and the eye moves across the horizon with delighted ease.
But as you summit the hill behind the bay your gaze moves downwards, from heaven to earth, where it is met with a much more earthly, human reality. The world of commerce and conversation, of conflict and laughter. Come closer, and you are drawn down and into the foreground, which is where you enter the scene, having reached the port. The smell of fish hangs in the air; the sound of passionate bartering and barking dogs. This is no longer merely a landscape, and neither is it merely a depiction of everyday life, for the painting is carefully structured to lead the attentive viewer into a reading of the scene. Notice one of the figures on the dock who is leaning on a walking stick with his back towards you, pointing to the right. Follow his direction and there you will find, so easy to miss, the haloed Apostle Paul surrounded by soldiers.
The book of Acts provides an account of Paul’s missionary journeys. Having completed three of these journeys, he is faced with a crisis. At Caesarea, on his way to Jerusalem, a prophet named Agabus predicts that Paul would be bound at Jerusalem and delivered to the Gentiles. Paul’s friends are alarmed and urge him not to depart for Jerusalem. But the Apostle responds: “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). The prophecy of Agabus will soon prove true.
Once one has glimpsed the Apostle in the bottom-right corner of the painting, the whole canvas becomes charged with symbolism. Look again at the dock where we first entered the scene. The fishermen’s baskets are overflowing with a great harvest, and more is being loaded onto the dock. And what a variety! Eel and manta ray and sole – too many to mention. This brings to mind how Jesus had told his disciples, the fishermen Simon and Andrew, that they would become “fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). The great variety of fish stands for the many nations that would come to believe through Paul’s witness to the Gentiles.
The Apostle is on the move, and the whole landscape takes on an irresistible momentum. The bow of every ship points in the direction that Paul’s journey will take him. Sails are filled with a strong easterly wind, and overhead the birds are almost all flying in the same direction. Amidst the rays of the sun there is a bird in crucifix shape. This recalls many depictions of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan (See “The Baptism of Christ” for example), with the dove descending from the sun symbolising the Holy Spirit. Paul’s journey across the sea now takes on a new significance. It symbolises the path of obedience which, though it leads through death, ends on the shores of eternal life.
But why is the main subject of the painting so hidden away? One answer would be that it has a demystifying effect. That what we think of as a significant historical moment is really just another occurrence, as insignificant as buying and selling fish. But another way to look at it is to realise that the most extraordinary things can easily escape our notice. We need to train our eyes to discern the miraculous in the everyday. The artist becomes a tutor for spiritual eyes and Brueghel’s painting can be thought of as a poetic of concealment and disclosure. He hides things so that we might enquire more carefully and truly see. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” So it was with the Apostle’s message to the Gentiles. And so it is with the Gospel today. May we have eyes to see the unnoticed extraordinary in our everyday.
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Harbour Scene with St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea, 1596; oil on copper; 35.9 x 54.6 cm; North Carolina Museum of Art.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), also known as "Velvet" Brueghel because of the delicacy of his brushwork, was an artist of remarkable versatility. He is justly renowned for his atmospheric landscapes and riverscapes, which come alive through the careful yet fluid strokes of his brush and the activities of the figures who populate his scenes. However, he also painted flower bouquets, many of which include depictions of precious objects, as well as mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects and evocative scenes of hell. His refined and delicate images, often painted on copper, were highly valued by kings and princes throughout Europe. Early in his career Jan worked mostly at a small scale and on a copper support; gradually the size of his pictures increased and he worked more often on panel or even on canvas. Brueghel often collaborated with other master painters, including Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Rottenhammer, Hendrick van Balen, Sebastiaen Vrancx, and Joos de Momper. He only had two known pupils, Daniel Seghers and his own son Jan the Younger, but an efficient studio staffed by paid professionals permitted copious production. Taken from https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.3626.html and http://janbrueghel.net/
Otto Bam is a South African writer and musician. He is the co-editor of ArtWay and the arts manager for the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology, where he also holds a fellowship. Otto has a master’s degree in English Studies from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, as well as master’s degree in religion and literature from the University of Edinburgh.
ART NEWS INTERNATIONAL
KIRBY LAING CENTRE CONFERENCE IN JUNE – FIRST THINGS FIRST: SPIRITUALITY AND PUBLIC THEOLOGY, 11-13 JUNE 2024 IN CAMBRIDGE. The aim of the conference is to establish an annual gathering that embodies our ethos: community – with great food and fellowship – rooted in spirituality, with intellectual rigour coram deo. The launch of the book The Artistic Sphere. The Arts in Neo-Calvinist Perspective, edited by Roger D. Henderson and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker will be an important part of the proceedings along with other arts-related events. We have chosen these dates so that if overseas participants choose to come in earlier and leave later there is good time for meals and conversation.
The theme for this year’s gathering is First Things First: Spirituality and Public Theology. Our aim at KLC is to accompany the Spirit on his mission, and in order to do this we need to attend in an ongoing fashion to spiritual formation. The journey in – spirituality – opens out to the journey out – our vocations in the world, and both are essential if we are to be salt and light. The gathering will include times of silence and worship, listening to one another’s stories, time for our hubs to gather as desired, rigorous exploration of the nature of public theology, and more.
We have booked a venue that can seat 75. In order to help us plan well we need a good idea of how many of us plan to attend as soon as possible. We will do our best to keep costs low and once we know how many will attend we will finalise the venue and accommodation. If you are serious about attending please register here and then once we know the costs we will alert you and ask you to register and pay online. More information and to register, see Events - The Kirby Laing Centre
THE ARTISTIC SPHERE OUT NOW! – The Artistic Sphere. The Arts in Neo-Calvinist Perspective, Edited by Roger D. Henderson and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, published by IVP- Academic. Among Reformed churches, the Neo-Calvinist tradition—as represented in the work of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, Hans Rookmaaker, and others—has consistently demonstrated not just a willingness but a desire to engage with all manner of cultural and artistic expressions. This volume, edited by art scholar Roger Henderson and Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, the daughter of art historian and cultural critic Hans Rookmaaker, brings together history, philosophy, and theology to consider the relationship between the arts and the Neo-Calvinist tradition. With affirmations including the Lordship of Christ, the cultural mandate, sphere sovereignty, and common grace, the Neo-Calvinist tradition is well-equipped to offer wisdom on the arts to the whole body of Christ. Read more
THE JOY OF EVERYDAY LIFE – The Joy of Everyday Life in the Netherlands and Denmark, The Nivaagaard Collection, Nivå, Denmark. Quiet moments and hard toil, exuberant company and rowdy parties, love and fighting – plus all the breaks in between. The prolific Dutch art world of the seventeenth century bore witness to a new trend, as painters increasingly began to depict everyday events and objects. During the Danish Golden Age of the nineteenth century, Danish artists followed suit and The Nivaagaard Collection has now gathered together some famous masterworks and hidden treasures from these two periods. The exhibition will include more than 100 works from leading museums and private collections in the Netherlands, USA, France, England, Sweden and Denmark. The Joy of Everyday Life in the Netherlands and Denmark focuses on what is known as genre painting – depictions of folk like in which ordinary people take on leading roles as narrative subjects within everyday settings. The scenes depicted are frequently sensuous and humorous, often peculiar and sometimes moralizing. And they are loaded with detail – from glimmering copper kettles to soft textiles and reflections in a beer glass. Even today, genre painting still manages to reach right our own life experiences and provoke feelings of presence, compassion, revulsion or perhaps even a smile as we come face to face with people from a forgotten time, depicted by some of the greatest artists in history. Read more
INTERVIEW WITH CALVIN SEERVELD IN PORTUGUESE. ArtWay has just published an interview with the philosopher Calvin Seerveld. The interview is conducted in Portuguese and translated by an interpreter. See the interview here
BEGGARS FOR HEAVEN: THE INHERITANCE OF JACQUES AND RAISSA MARITAIN. 13 March, 9:00am-6:00pm. Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, Cambridge. A landmark UK conference open to scholars, students, lay and religious; to appraise the spiritual and intellectual inheritance of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. The conference aims to explore the legacy of the Maritains, and the ways in which their work still addresses the cultural, political, and theological spheres, in the academy, and the Church. The conference will be held on Wednesday. Tickets
HOPE COLLEGE ARTIST IN RESIDENCE PROGRAM. Hope College runs the Borgeson Artist in Residence Program, a twelve-week summer artist residency. The residency seeks to support the creation of new art through the provision of a stipend, studio and living space on Hope’s campus, along with engagement with the college’s art and art history departments. Learn more + apply by February 17
“POETRY AND THEOLOGY: 1800–PRESENT” FEB. 2024. A joint venture between numerous departments at Duke University, the symposium features top scholars and contemporary artists in the fields of theology, literature, and poetry. The symposium will take place at Duke Divinity and will include paper presentations, public readings, and panel discussions. All events are free and open to the public. Learn more about the speakers and schedule of events.
See for more exhibitions, symposia and lectures, podcasts, videos, books, ArtWay news and more here
ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.
ARTWAY: OPENING EYES, HEARTS AND MINDS