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The Book of Job

Job was an honest man of the land of Uz. He had seven sons, three daughters, and a large property. He lived in ease. Satan tempted Yahweh with Job. He said that Job was pious and honest only because he lived at ease. Satan said Job would not remain so for long if Yahweh took away his possessions. So Yahweh gave Job in Satan’s power to test him. Job lost his family and his property but he continued to laude and to praise the wisdom of Yahweh.

The Book of Job is a long poem. It describes the dialogue between Job and three friends. They discuss Job’s fate. The friends are called Zophar of Naamath, Bildad of Shuah and Eliphaz of Teman. Later joins Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite but he merely restates the arguments. The men argue that Job must have sinned for God to punish him. But Job knows and pleads that he has not sinned. He remains confident in God despite all that happens to him.

In the end, Yahweh restores Job’s condition and gave him double of what he had before. Job’s trust in God was justified and Yahweh rebukes Job’s three friends.

The Book of Job breaks with the elder beliefs of the Bible that only when the Hebrews sin does God punishes them. From the story of Job on, disasters may fall on Hebrews without them needing to believe that they might have sinned. Thus the view of the relations between the Hebrew and his God drastically evolves.

The Triptych of Patience

Bernard van Orley (ca. 1488/149292-1542). Musée d’Art Ancien – Brussels. Ca. 1521.

Bernard van Orley, also called Barend van Orley in Flanders, was born in Brussels and he worked there all his life. He was born the son of a painter, Valentin d’Orley (ca. 1466-1532) and he had many sons, most of whom would also become painters. He was a master in Brussels and painted for Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, aunt of the future Emperor Charles V, who would also elevate Charles V and bring him in contact with humanists and artists. Barend van Orley was appointed painter at Margaret’s court of Mechelen in 1518 and he made many portraits. He was best known however for his realisations of cartons for tapestries. There were in the sixteenth century famous weaving factories in Brussels and Mechelen. During 1518 to 1519 he even directed the weaving of tapestries after cartons of Raphael and it may be through these contacts that he learned to know better the Italian style. He never travelled to Italy however, but he had colleagues that knew well Italian art and its evolving styles. When Margaret of Austria died, she was succeeded as Regent by Mary of Hungary, Charles V’s sister, who had been driven out of Hungary by the advancing Turks and whose husband, the King of Hungary, had died on the battlefield when his land was invaded by the Muslims. Barend van Orley became also her court painter in 1532. He was one of the pomading masters of Brussels, much linked to the dignitaries of the town so that when Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg visited the Netherlands, van Orley gave a banquet for him and Dürer also made his portrait. Van Orley painted less after 1525 and he may have stopped altogether after 1530. He designed tapestries then and he made also drawings for the glass pictures of the windows of the cathedral of Brussels. He had a large workshop and many pupils, Flemish-Brabant artists, among whom Michiel Coxie and Pieter Coecke van Aalst.

Barend van Orley’s best known and major painting is the ‘Triptych of Patience’ in the Museum of Ancient Art in Brussels. It was called the Triptych o Patience because van Orley’s own devise ‘Elx sync tÿt’ was found on the panel, meaning ‘to everyone his time’. The painting dates from 1521 and it was probably commissioned by Margaret of Austria as a gift to her councillor Antoine de Lalaing. B12. The painting is very strange, interrogates the viewer, and its panels can be interpreted in various ways.

The central panel of the Triptych of Patience shows the ‘Destruction of Job’s Children’. We see an extravagantly decorated building in which people fall and run, struck by a horrible plague sent by the devils. The scene is set inside an architecture of columns that support in the centre a set of roman arches. The columns are richly decorated with armouries, marble medallions, putti, statues of deities, and all sorts of intricate patterns. This decoration looks exaggerated and such prodigal ornaments contrasts totally with the Gothic restraint and austere lines we were used of Flemish masters of the times before van Orley. But the columns are also very rectangular and they evoke in the viewer an impression of angularity and sharpness, enhancing the feeling of cruelty and stress in the picture. The Roman arches are almost hidden because at the top of the panel the devils descend in avenging clouds of heavy and dark smoke. Under the black cloud of fate, van Orley painted personages in disarray. Here we only have to look at the arms to understand what happens. People are struck with terrible headaches, as their minds are being destroyed by the devils. The women and men all grasp their heads. Some have already fallen down to the marble ground, as if slowly struck by an invisible ail that inexorably creeps into their heads, make them stagger, loose equilibrium, and makes them sink to the ground. A lady on the left just brought wine in a fine wine-beaker but now the wine spills onto the marble floor. In the background, a table was dressed for diner and is now overthrown by the falling hosts. The dishes glide from the table as people draw the white linen away while falling unconscious. Here, people run away to avoid the disaster, but although they hold their arms high, they also have the horrendous pain in their brains that will bring them death inexorably.

Barend van Orley represented rather faithfully the story of the Book of Job. In the prologue, the Book tells that Job was the post prosperous of all the Sons of the East. He had seven sons and three daughters and these had the custom to hold banquets in each other’s houses in turn and to invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. On such a day a messenger arrived to Job to announce him that when his sons and daughters had thus held a banquet at the house of his eldest son, a gale had sprung up from the desert, bettered the four corners of the house so that the house fell down on the young people, killing them all. The messenger furthermore told that the fire of God had fallen on earth and burnt Job’s sheep and shepherds.

These scenes are all represented in the central panel for Barend van Orley not only painted the dark gale filled with Satanic devils that invades the house and he showed the distress of Job’s sons and daughters, but he also painted a landscapes with minor scenes behind the central scene.. In a small scene on the left we see Job sacrificing to Yahweh. On the right is another small scene in which we see a house burning, and Job is sitting naked in front of the burning house. Van Orley painted indeed the moment when the house of Job’s eldest son fell down, for we see broken columns destroying the diner table and also in other places columns are overturned and lying on Job’s children and their servants. There are but three women in the central scene but more men, more than seven, but servants also would have been at the banquet. Van Orley also alluded at the phrase stating that Job was the richest among the Sons of the East, for he apparently painted a Moor with a curved sword in front, an oriental host at the banquet. Van Orley showed a prodigal setting for his scene and he also painted all the gruesomeness of the striking down of Job’s children. The expressions on the faces of the men and women are terrible. Van Orley shows a man trying to jump away, into the viewer, with face turned to ashen, drawn traits in his face, crying out in anguish and pain, and tearing at his head. This man runs over another one that has fallen to the ground and in a last spasm this man grasps the legs of the shrieking, running man, hoping to be dragged off by the other. In further places of the panel, fallen columns have crushed the invited brothers.

The right panel of the opened triptych shows how happy job was, the richest man of the East. He is dressed splendidly, holds court, and receives the men that have come to do him honour. Job is the sound and honest man who gives his due, presents, and is otherwise blessed by God. The left panel shows another part of the story that the messenger brought to Job. The Sabaeans had swept down on Job’s possessions, put his servants to death and killed the donkeys that were grazing with them, and even the oxen with which the servants ploughed. Another messenger came in to tell Job that three bands of Chaldaeans had raided the camels and made off with them, killing Job’s servants in the act. In the left panel we see the bands raiding and camels are being led away in the background. So, if the right panel shows Job’s richness, the left panel shows the destruction of Job’s wealth, and the central panel shows the destruction of Job’s happiness: his children. There could hardly be a more terrifying scene and message to humans.

The closed panel also shows two panels with different scenes.

In the right panel we see an upper scene of a birth. There are several phrases in the book of Job in which Job deplores the day he was born. He says at the start of his poetic tale, ‘Perish the day on which I was born and the night that told of a boy conceived’. And further in the text Job exclaims, ‘Why did you bring me out of the womb? I should have perished then, unseen by any eye, a being that had never been, to be carried from womb to grave’. A mother in heaven holds the unborn child in this scene, which of course also reminds of the birth of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary in heaven. In the lower part of the panel we see a man floating among devils. We may suppose that the man is dead and that van Orley depicted a man from whom everything is taken. Job says, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return again’. G38...And also, ‘But a human being? He dies, and dead he remains, breathes his last, and then where is he? The waters of the sea will vanish, the rivers stop flowing and run dry; a human being, once laid to rest, will never rise again, the heavens will wear out before he wakes up, or before he is roused from his sleep’ G38. And elsewhere Job asks,’ Can the dead come back to life?’ G38. Van Orley thus painted on the same panel birth and death, two recurring themes in Job’s book. The man floats in a limbo among images of devils, water and heaven. Van Orley painted him as a fine man ,well muscled and we sense here the end of Gothic, when painters showed thin, emaciated nude bodies of men that were merely symbols instead of real depictions of men. In Italy also, more emphasis was given to the anatomy of the male body and we cannot but think of Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings. In van Orley’s painting we find Gothic elements, Renaissance style and also a very mannered way of depiction.

The left panel of the closed triptych contains a scene inside a house. People are seated at a table, gathered for a diner, and one of the hosts or the master of the house steps down to look at what happens on the other side of a balustrade. There we see a beggar with hands folded in prayer, asking for alms and help. The scene has been interpreted as a depiction of the parable of the poor Lazarus, a parable from the New Testament. The scene can however also well be interpreted as the representation of other phrases of the lamentation of Job. For Job answers to Bildad of Shuah, ‘He has alienated my brothers from me, my relatives take care to avoid me, my intimate friends have gone away and the guests in my house have forgotten me. My slave-girls regard me as an intruder, a stranger as far as they are concerned. My servant does not answer when I call him, I am obliged to beg favours from him!’ G38.

It is not necessary to seek other stories from the Old or New Testament to explain all the scenes on the panels of the Triptych of Patience. All the scenes can be explained as representing images recalled in the Book of Job. Van Orley read the Bible lamentation, took elements that particularly impressed him, scenes also that inspired him most to pictures, and then he painted five panels in a coherent view. The open panel shows from left to right the wealthy and respected Job, the destruction of his children and of his possessions and servants. On the closed panel from left to right, in the same direction of story-telling that van Orley started in the open panel, he painted Job as a beggar, forgotten in his own house, and lastly the recurring theme in the lamentation of Job, of birth and death.

The theme of Job is rare in painting. It is theme that was seldom took up by painters of the late Renaissance, the sixteenth century. Job’s fate does not make a joyous, triumphant theme. Painters in Italy preferred more victorious and nice scenes, in which the human figures were fine, powerful and in which they dominated nature and the natural forces. Van Orley showed a streak of the fantastic in the Northern character and the stronger feeling that it is man who is dominated by nature and fate. Only in Flemish, Dutch and German paintings does one find depictions of such sad themes in which man is not a winner but a loser, the plaything of fate. And in which horror is so openly shown, with the possible exception of paintings of the Last Judgement. The north had been for long the country of vast dark forests, of rain and fogs, of hazardous rivers, of spectacular mountains and impenetrable valleys. Here wars waged always and atrociously. The mood of this country, where ghosts and monsters were still easily imagined by its inhabitants, stayed in the mind of the people for generation after generation and lingered in the imagination even when forests were cleared, the lands tilled, and life made more comfortable. Fatality was inherently present in the subconscious, in a strange combination with a ferocious will to survive and to create. Occasionally, the old images of fear and helplessness when confronted with the powers of nature came back to the mind. They came back in scenes of horror and in scenes of wild, sombre orgies, in extravagant scourges of the earth that were unleashed on humans. Barend van Orley’s Triptych of Job’s Tribulations is one such manifestation.

Van Orley used the style of the moment to help support his expression and he forced that style far to his aims. He painted in a Mannerist style of Antwerp, which several painters used after travels to Italy. Jan van Scorel, Jan Massys, Jan Gossaert and other artists had travelled to Italy and seen pictures from the Italian renaissance. They had been impressed by the splendour. Views had evolved in Italy too, ornament and decoration enhanced and the human body shown in unnatural poises. The Italians too had started to feel freer in expression, to less emphasise fine drawing. The Northern painters had picked up the first manifestations of the ending of an artistic era and the beginning of a new one. They brought with them images of the Italian Renaissance in engravings and drawings and they tried to develop their own new way of showing scenes by which they could surprise and touch their viewers. Bernard van Orley may never have been in Italy, but he picked up style elements from the drawings and from the pictures of his fellow-artists. He had been exposed to them particularly in the cartons for tapestries sent to him from Italy. He used then the new elements and wrought them together with his own ideas to the extravagant scenes. Hence the Roman architecture overloaded with ornament so as to become fantastic and mysterious, menacing and daunting. Hence the overt show of emotions of horror, the wild movements of the people shown with upheaved arms and the shrieking, open mouths. Hence the overturned tables, the faces turned to ashen colours, the chaos of oblique lines. Van Orley then added the images of devastation, of burning houses, of wild soldiers killing shepherds and cattle. Van Orley had heard and maybe even seen the wild bands of unpaid hired soldiers that brought depravation and destruction to Flanders and Germany. He showed how the end of all was death and the fear of hell. The end was a dead body surrounded by devils ready to devour its soul that always was to a degree not just virtuous but also sinful. The past desolation of the North, where life had not been as easy as in Italy and filled with fears and apprehension, sometimes broke through in this way in Northern painting, such as it had with Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) and would soon again in certain pictures of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1527-1569). From this spirit also came the daunting landscapes of Joachim Patenier (1480-1524) and Henri Blès (1480-1550).

Barend van Orley was a great master of painting. He was highly skilled in his profession. He painted all details to the finest, in the best tradition of the masters of Gothic that worked in rich Flanders and Brabant. He painted exact chiaroscuro to show features of faces and bodies. Look for instance in the central panel to the woman on the left, dressed in a green robe. The chiaroscuro on her face and neck is very realistic, and such realism is not easy to paint. Van Orley also used the colours that suited the theme: sombre shades of grey, red, green, blue. He did not paint in bright hues of full intensity. He needed full, pure red for fire of course, but on his figures he used colours that are combinations of the pure hues and that are therefore diluted and unusual. Such colours are blue-grey, ashen-green, purple. They always indicate tension, awkwardness instead of joy and clarity. Van Orley subjugated his colours to the theme. His composition of inter-crossing lines represents chaos and movement well.

Barend van Orley’s triptych represents scenes from the Book of Job. His panels are called the Triptych of patience because of his personal devise written on one of the panels, but van Orley thoroughly read Job’s lamentation and he must have been much impressed by it. He let free a hidden part of his Northern character. He transformed the beginning Italian and Antwerp Mannerist style elements to an extreme that suited the theme and in that he went further than any Italian would have imagined in his times. The question that remains open is why he painted on such a sad, dark, moralising theme. Margaret of Austria commissioned the picture for one of her councillors. If she also gave the subject to Barend van Orley, it was quite an expensive way to give a message to her councillor. In any case, it must have been a theme that resounded in van Orley and by which he was affected. The lamentation of Job remains one of the most remarkable tales of the Bible.

Job chided by his Wife

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). Musée Départemental des Vosges, d’Art Ancien et Contemporain. Épinal. Ca. 1650.

Georges de La Tour was a remarkable painter. He was born in 1593 in Vic-sur-Seille in the North-East region of France called La Lorraine. He was one of the sons of a baker family. He may first have studied in Nancy, the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine. He may have travelled in Italy before 1616, but that remains speculation. In 1617 he married Diane Le Nerf, the daughter of a dignitary of the Duke, who had lived with her family in Lunéville and the couple moved also to that town. De La Tour would stay there and paint the rest of his life. The French King Louis XIII sought to affirm his domination over the rich Lorraine region. This became a fact in 1634, but it brought also more peace to the region – for a time. In 1638 Lunéville was sacked and burnt and de La Tour may then have temporarily moved to Paris and gained there in 1639 the title of Painter of the King, an honorary title, but which opened more doors. He soon returned to Lunéville however, to work for notables of the Duchy, for the governor de La ferté that Louis XIII had sent to the Lorraine. He could easily live of his art and he had a thriving business, so he grew to a quite wealthy man. He died in 1652 of an illness that struck Lunéville like a plague and that took first his wife before him.

Georges de La Tour is one of the most original painters of France’s seventeenth century. He essentially painted two sorts of works: daylight scenes and night scenes. But he was mostly interested in figures only and his paintings lack scenery totally. He may have known the Caravaggesque style, which was still very new when he too started to paint, or he may have developed his own view close to the style of the Italian innovator. Caravaggio applied sharp contrasts between dark and light and Georges de La Tour was also interested in the effects of light. Caravaggio painted his figures without scenery and he could not be less interested in landscapes - and so did de La Tour. But Caravaggio copied from live models and painted his personages in a hyper-realistic way. Georges de La Tour however gradually abstracted his figures and reduced them to concepts. He was more interested in the impression of a figure or a story upon the viewer and he must have found out that realism was not always necessary to surprise the viewer and show clearly the essence, the meaning of a scene. A viewer could be interested by a new, striking style of depiction and in figures devoid of details, reduced to type-forms and still easily and rapidly understand the concept of a scene, the meaning of a narrative in images. De La Tour practised to that aim one of the most difficult types of paintings: scenes lit only by a point source of weak light, by a candle or a torch.

There is something magical in scenes lit only by a point source of light, when that source is not of a very bright light. A candle brings a light that may be difficult to look at in its core for a long time because it is sharp enough there, at the fire, but it does not bear its luminance far and it is not very powerful. It fades away rapidly and leaves the background of a room very dark. It only illuminates the objects that are in its vicinity. Because it is not very powerful it soon dies out and does not form strong and gradual shadows. As the light stops at the corners, it tends to stop abruptly there. It continues to show volumes hesitatingly and as it is weak it does not lighten the background so that also no light is reflected back from the walls of a room back into the space. Candlelight and torchlight therefore tends to flatten objects in our vision. It leaves shadows harsh. It illuminates objects, but so little light makes side surfaces rapidly grey and it is able to show complementary colours on the sides. A viewer may observe chiaroscuro, but otherwise the dimensions of objects are simplified. A little away from an object, a viewer sees only the immediately lit surfaces; the rest remains black or very dark. Areas on which chiaroscuro is weak and that are surrounded by darkness, tend to be easily perceived as surfaces only, without volume. Even a weak chiaroscuro becomes a surface with light against a dark background, so chiaroscuro diminishes in value. Volume is less perceived. Softness of contours is reduced only with distance. The surfaces are seen by their geometrical shapes and the shapes tend to simplify, to be reduced in their contours to straight lines. So, candlelight reduces three-dimensional vision to two dimensions. This could be an ideal effect for rendering such views in paintings on flat surfaces were it not that few people really observed and analysed the effect, were aware of it. A few painters only throughout history have remarked the effect. They observed the particularities of vision in weak sources of light and remarked the flattening of objects, and the lack of reflection from objects. The sharpening and reduction of soft lines, the emergence of simpler shapes in the flattened surfaces, the sharper contrast between colour areas lit by the candle and between the black backgrounds have been shown by few painters. Even fewer among the few painters that truly observed these effects grasped the concepts at work, the specific properties of light of point sources and typified them, classified them, described them in words, analysed the concepts and then applied the ideas in pictures. De La Tour learnt all this gradually, as we can follow in the evolution in his works. Once the concepts understood and the effects named, the concepts could be used independently from life models or life views. After all, it would have been difficult if not impossible to paint in very feebly lit rooms.

Georges de La Tour knew the concepts of scenes lit by point sources of light. Once he had observed and analysed in his mind the effects, he kept the few main concepts as a new way of viewing and then he expressed them in a new way also of depiction. He showed his scenes in ever more purified, simplified means of depiction. The process at work of course is a process of abstraction. It was a process of abstraction of viewing, of effect on colours and areas instead of content. We use the word ‘abstract’ in painting nowadays mostly on the abstraction of the content, of the subject matter. But the process of abstraction in general means that one retains the main qualities of something and then represents that something by its main qualities alone. Georges de La Tour has observed and understood the effects of candlelight on an environment of a closed room. He abstracted the effects and then he applied the abstracted concepts in his paintings, ever more radically. ‘Job chided by his Wife’ is one of his pictures from the beginning of the period when he started to apply the principles. He advanced in this way of depiction, but after a while stopped in his process and returned even to easier figuration, easier for his contemporary viewers.

Job is seated on a box. A broken earthen pot is at his feet. He has broken off a piece of the pot. He is naked and holds his hands in prayer. He is emaciated, a thin man whose flesh is drawn over his bones. He has a long beard and this beard, as well as his unkempt hair gives the impression that he does not care for himself anymore, not for his body and not for his face. His wife approaches. She wears a candle, comes to Job, but she has not stopped caring for herself. She is nicely dressed in a robe of orange and light brown colours, which are rather joyous hues. She has a white cap on her head and she looks still youthful. She has an apron, which might indicate that she also has not stopped working in her kitchen. She touches Job’s head or seems to explain something to Job. Job looks at her and thus seems indeed to listen to her. She scolds job for abandoning hope, for abandoning to a fickle God instead of to care for earthly matters, for her, for the house, for life. What does she say?

De La Tour painted a scene from the beginning of the Book of Job. Job was struck by Satan in his possessions, in his children and in his servants. Now, Job got malignant ulcers all over his body. He was struck by Satan in his own body. Job took a piece of a pot to scrape at his ulcers and he sat among the ashes. It was then that his wife said to him, ‘Why persist in this integrity of yours? Curse God and die!’ But Job refused to say a sinful word and he replied, ‘That is how a fool of a woman talks. If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?’ De La Tour painted Job sitting in the ashes, maybe in a cellar, a broken pot at his feet, the pot from which he had broken a piece to scrape at his ulcers.

Georges de La Tour was only interested in his two figures. There is no background but the black void and even the box on which Job is sitting has disappeared to become a simple black mass under Job. De La Tour painted the light around the candle very bright, but the light then stops rapidly and radically on Job. We see for instance a bright crescent on job’s knee, but his legs are almost in complete black. His legs are only perceivable because of the contrast they make with the lighter areas behind them. Light falls on Job’s nude chest and here de La Tour showed his considerable skills in realistically depicting the anatomy of a naked, muscled man. But higher up the light fades again and the face of Job is only hinted at, otherwise disappears also in the black, dark grey, dark brown shades of Job’s beard and hair. Job is really a man who lives in the dark, in the shadows of life. He sits inertly. He is not at work anymore, not like his wife. He prays in the dark where he can be the naked human, naked like he came to life as he said himself so often and naked as he will return to god, in the two views that also Barend van Orley emphasised in his Triptych of Patience. Life is next to Job, life is the young wife. She stands there in clothes of nice, joyous, happy colours and although she towers above Job in pity but also in scorn, she leans towards him and consoles him while reproaching Job for his lack of hope in further life.

Georges de La Tour painted Job’s wife in fine, bright colours. He contrasted these hues with the sombre brown and black colours of Job. De La Tour indicated some chiaroscuro on Job’s wife, but very little. The areas of her robe give practically no illusion of volume; they remain flat to the viewer. The lines of the robe and apron are straight and clearly visible, as the areas of colours stop abruptly one against the other and against the black background. Because of the straight lines and flat surfaces of colour, the areas show simple forms, almost reduced to simple geometric shapes: to rectangles, triangles, simple combinations of these. Here de La Tour applied the concepts of the effects of candlelight on vision that he had observed.

‘Job chided by his Wife’ is a remarkable picture for its times. De La Tour observed specific effect of candle light on scenes of figures and then applied the concepts he had derived from his observation to a surprising new mode of depiction. The result is a picture with a style of the form of painting that looks very modern. But de La Tour was far from Cubism or from Abstraction as we know it now, even though quite a few art historians have tried to explain in these terms his original style. Nevertheless, probably by an act of observation, he reached a new expression of his religious scenes that still strikes today for being original, individual and modern. His style of painting was well received in the Lorraine and in France. The King of France as well as the Governor of Lorraine owned works of de La Tour and he died a wealthy man. Georges de La Tour’s works were not only masterpieces of depiction, of pictorial representation, and of rendering his messages. The style he developed suited marvellously his sensibility for showing certain scenes from the bible, scenes of intimate piety. The night scenes were like scenes from the soul of man, inner pictures. By reducing form and colours, by reducing ornament and decoration, de La Tour reached a sublimation of expression of spirituality that was very efficient to covey his ideas. Idea, form, content and expression became one and represented in the picture the essence of his message.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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