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The Book of Ezekiel

Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during the Babylonian exile of the Israelites. Ezekiel was more a mystic than Isaiah and Jeremiah. Yahweh gave him fantastic visions and these are presented in the Book.

In a first vision, Ezekiel saw four creatures. Each creature had a human form. Each was winged and had four faces: a human face, a lion’s, a bull’s and an eagle’s. The creatures moved at the command of the spirit. Next to each creature was a wheel, and within each wheel was another wheel set perpendicular to the first so that the wheel had not to turn to run in another direction. The wheels moved with the creatures. Above the creatures was a solid surface and above that Ezekiel saw a throne, upon which were a brilliance and the form, the appearance of a human being. A voice spoke to Ezekiel then and told him to get to his feet. The voice of Yahweh ordered that Ezekiel would be sent to the Jews that had been stubborn and obstinate. Yahweh took out a scroll on which were written lamentations and cries of grief. Yahweh told Ezekiel to eat that scroll and start speaking the contents to the exiles. Yahweh furthermore told Ezekiel that when Ezekiel would warn a wicked man and the man did not renounce evil, then that man would die. If Ezekiel however failed to warn somebody for his wickedness, then the man would die also, but Ezekiel would be held responsible for his death. Thus Yahweh called Ezekiel to be his Prophet.

Ezekiel foretold the siege of Jerusalem and even more than Jeremiah, Ezekiel is the Prophet of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Ezekiel predicted the coming of famines and plagues, of bloodshed and wild animals jumping on the Israelites. Ezekiel spoke out against the Mountains of Israel and gave a horrible picture of the punishments that would fall on the Israelites. Yahweh told that the end was coming to the four corners of the country. Ezekiel described all the sins of Israel he had seen committed so that the Jews well understood why they were condemned.

Ezekiel had a vision of the form of a human being that downwards was fire and upwards shone with light. The spirit took Ezekiel by the hair and lifted him through the skies to Jerusalem. There, Yahweh brought Ezekiel into the court of the Temple. There was a reptile in the Temple, a repulsive animal, and all the foul idols of the House of Israel carved all around the walls. Seventy elders were worshipping the idols. Ezekiel saw the scourges of the city approaching, carrying weapons of destruction. Six men advanced then, each holding a deadly weapon. One of the men was dressed in white linen and he had a scribe’s ink-horn in his belt. Yahweh told that man to mark with a cross on the forehead all the ones that grieved at the loathsome practices of the city. The armed men hacked down all the people that had no mark on the forehead, starting with the Elders that had been worshipping idols. The winged creatures were still there, around Yahweh. Yahweh ordered the man in linen to take burning coals from between the creatures and scatter it over the city. Thus Yahweh brought his justice on Jerusalem. Yahweh however promised to collect the people when they had been scattered and to give back to them the land of their ancestors. The winged creatures then raised their wings; the wheels moved with them, and the glory of Yahweh rose from the centre of the city and halted on a mountain to the east.

Yahweh spoke to Ezekiel. He spoke against the false prophets, against false prophetesses, against idolatry. Yahweh told that although he would send his four scourges: sword, famine, wild beasts and plagues, to denude the land of human and animal, a few humans would be left in which Ezekiel could take delight. These would comfort Ezekiel with their conduct and their actions. Yahweh explained in allegorical fashion then the whole history of Israel, a story of granting life, installing a law, then of infatuation with idols and of punishment.

Yahweh told parables to Ezekiel. In one of these, a great eagle came to the Lebanon and flew to the top of a cedar tree. The eagle took off a branch and brought it to a city of merchants. Then he took a seed of the country and put it in a fertile field next to a stream. The seed became a vine. Through the presence of another eagle, the vine twisted its roots and branched out, bore fruit and became a noble vine. Yahweh asked whether the vine would succeed, whether the eagle would not destroy it. Yahweh addressed Ezekiel and explained how he had brought Israel’s kings and princes to Babylon so that the Kingdom would remain modest. A prince rebelled and sent envoys to Egypt to ask for help by troops. Would he succeed? Would the prince remain unpunished? Yahweh said the prince would not be saved.

These messages of Yahweh are repeated in several texts and allegories in the Book of Ezekiel. They all bear the same message. They contain first a description of the sins of Israel, then they describe in horrible terms the scourges brought by Yahweh on Israel and the Babylonian captivity. But always Yahweh promises to bring back the exiles that have found in Babylon new piety and solace in abiding by Yahweh’s ways.

The Book of Ezekiel also contains a series of prophecies given by Ezekiel against the nations, like in the Book of Jeremiah. Yahweh speaks against the Ammonites, against Moab, Edom, Tyre, Sidon and Egypt. All these lands would be ruined by Yahweh’s punishments and anger.

Ezekiel again had a vision of attacks on Jerusalem, of the taking of the city and of the ravaging of the country. He saw dreadful images of the destruction and desolation. But always Yahweh gave him also the image of a flourishing country to which the Israelites would one day return.

Ezekiel spoke out against Gog, prince of Mesheh and Tubal in the country of Magog. Ezekiel predicted his destruction by the armies of the other nations. He warned Gog against attacking Israel and wanting to loot it. The Prophet promised Yahweh’s revenge on Gog. He promised him a place in the Valley of Obarim for his grave and for his court so that the place would be called the Valley of Hamon-Gog.

The last part of the Book of Ezekiel is dedicated to a vision of Ezekiel on the return of the exiles from Babylon. Ezekiel sees the Temple of Jerusalem restored with gates and courts, the various Temple buildings, the Ulam and the Hekal. Ezekiel saw the sanctuary and the wooden altar, as well as the consecration of the altar. He saw the rules of admission to the Temple, the new functions of the priests and of the Levites. He described the various feasts to the honour and glory of Yahweh such as the Feast of Shelters and Passover. Through Ezekiel, Yahweh ordained how these feasts were to be held after the return to Israel. Finally, Ezekiel told which frontiers Yahweh decided for the new Holy Land. Yahweh, through his servant Ezekiel, then proposed a distribution of the Holy Land among the tribes of Israel. Yahweh fixed the limits of the portions and he reserved a lot for the priests, but Yahweh also commanded that the Israelites should draw lots among the tribes for the portions of their heritage.

The Vision of Ezekiel

Francisco Collantes (1599-1656). Museo del Prado – Madrid. 1630.

Francisco Collantes was a Spanish painter, who was born in Madrid and who also worked there. He painted landscapes and devotional pictures. Little more is known of his life but his remaining paintings. Spain also owned the Kingdom of Naples in the seventeenth century and in Collantes’ paintings one senses influences or at least full knowledge of the Baroque, Neapolitan, Italian and Flemish styles. Collantes painted Roman landscapes, so he may have visited Italy, Rome probably and maybe also Naples with which the court of Madrid had close relations. Nevertheless, nothing of those travels or of his supposed teachers of painting can be asserted with certainty.

Francisco Collantes painted a picture of the haunting visions of Ezekiel. The prophecies of Ezekiel are of the most terrible of the bible, the most dreadful and apocalyptic. Ezekiel was witness to the destruction of Jerusalem after the first siege of 598 BC. He was taken away in exile and he prophesied in Babylon between 593 BC and 571 BC. His visions are fantastic, mysterious and based on the duality of punishment and redemption. Yahweh promised to destroy Jerusalem, but he also promised to bring forth a new nation from the ashes of the devastated one. Collantes has understood this theme well, and so instead of painting a scene of destruction he painted a scene of resurrection, for which however there existed a tradition well before him. The scene has been misunderstood by some writers, who have seen in the painting a picture of the end of Jerusalem, a Last Judgement, an Apocalypse theme. The picture is terrifying enough, but Ezekiel’s vision is one of the up-rising of the new Israel.

Yahweh said to Ezekiel, ‘As I liven I swear it, those in the ruins will fall to the sword, those in the countryside I shall give to the wild animals fro them to eat and those among the crags and in caves will die of plague. I shall make the country a desolate waste, and the pride of its strength will be at an end. The mountains of Israel will be at an end. The mountains of Israel will be deserted and no one will pass that way again G38 .’ Collantes showed the desolation of the ruins in his painting. He showed the remains of imposing buildings, maybe the rests of the Temple of Jerusalem. Columns of glory and strong walls have collapsed, roofs have fallen down. Yahweh has reduced Israel to rubble. The sky is menacing and agitated above the ruins. There is no clear sun shining on the broken arches. The desolation is all around, and no one seems to be living anymore in Jerusalem, not even animals. The ruins have the colour of ash and the destruction has happened a long time ago, for nature is crawling in on the stones. Bushes grow at the highest parts of the walls that still stand.

But the Prophet Ezekiel also heard other words of Yahweh. Ezekiel was sitting in a valley full of bones, with vast quantities of dry bones spread on the floor of the valley. Ezekiel there had a vision that Yahweh said, ‘Come to the four winds, breath; breathe on these dead, so that they come to life G38 .’ Yahweh told, ‘The Lord Yahweh says this to the bones: I am now going to make breath enter you, and you will live. I shall put sinews on you, I shall make flesh grow on you, I shall cover you with skin and give you flesh, and you will live; and you will know that I am Yahweh G38 ’. Ezekiel did as Yahweh had ordered him to do and the breath of Ezekiel entered the bones. They came to life and stood on their feet, a great, an immense army. Then Yahweh continued, ‘I am now going to open your graves; I shall raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, my people, and put my spirit in you, and you revive, and I resettle you on your own soil G38 .’

Francisco Collantes thus painted Ezekiel conjuring the bones in the ruins of the valley of the bones. He breathes upon them and calls the dead to life with roused hand. Collantes showed the bones assembling to skeletons, flesh growing upon the bones, men forming. He showed graves opening and the dead crawling out of the tombs. Heavy tomb lids are being pushed away and the dead come out, protecting their eyes from the meagre light in the valley, which is yet blinding those who have been rotting in their graves and darkness for so long. Slowly, the men come to their feet and will soon become a mighty new army for Israel.

Collantes painted a scene of classical ruins, among devastation and in a wasted land of rocks and broken walls. He may have seen the ruins of Rome and kept this desolate scene well in his mind. Collantes’ vision was grand, as grand as the vision of the Prophet. The scene of the dead rising from their tombs and the bones assembling is a terrible view. Collantes might have painted this as a triumphant scene of hope and life, but he chose to show a scene of ash-colour and of terror, a view of pessimism and gloom, as might have dominated the Spanish soul in his times. He painted in overall grey colours, only modulated some in the lower part of the picture where men come to flesh, and in the upper part where the blue sky is perturbed by heavy clouds. The only pure colour in the painting is on the Prophet Ezekiel, dressed in a blue robe and brown cloak. Collantes nowhere used bright orange, yellow, pink, red or pure green. His colours are the hues of death, as must have suited his mood while he read the story from the Book of Ezekiel with its dark and horrifying prophecies.

Collantes used also an imposing composition. He used the right diagonal for this. The diagonal starts in the lower right corner on a dead figure opening a tomb, one of the major images of Ezekiel’s vision. Then the line goes upwards over Ezekiel, who towers over the scene of the resurrecting men, to the high walls of the destroyed Temple, and towards the left upper corner of the frame. The viewer has no doubt about the direction of this line because Ezekiel points with his hand upwards, towards the tall ruins but also to the skies. Such upwards direction was often desired by painters because it creates a strong spiritual feeling of elevation and of epic in viewers. Collantes succeeded in his picture with this effect, since the Prophet wakens up the dead by his breath, challenging and changing through God the laws of nature and arousing the dead to bring forth a new army for Israel.

Francisco Collantes painted an impressive scene. He represented one of the most epic narratives of the formidable visions of Ezekiel. It would be hard to represent these stories from the bible more powerfully in a large, open scene. Collantes enhanced the scene by his composition and by the mood evoked in viewers by the ashen-grey hues of his picture. When one reads again the Book of Ezekiel, it is hard not to have in mind another image than this painting of the Spanish artist. Yet, there was a tradition among painters to show exactly this theme from the Book of Ezekiel and there is a fine example of half a century before in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco of Venice, in Italy.

The Vision of Ezekiel

Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1519-1594). Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Venice. Ca. 1577/1578.

Jacopo Tintoretto started to paint in the Scuola di San Rocco in 1564. He worked for the Scuola until 1587, more than twenty years long and he even drew up a contract with the Scuola for an annual allowance instead of being paid picture by picture. The last payment was made in 1594, the same month he died. The complete work of paintings on the ground floor, the hall of the hostel and the upper hall is on of the most grandiose undertakings of human culture and of the pictorial arts. On the ceiling of the upper hall Tintoretto painted scenes from the lives of Moses and of Jesus but also of various scenes from the Books of the Prophets: from Elisha and Elijah, Jonah, and Ezekiel. Tintoretto painted these around 1577 to 1578, more than fifty years before Francisco Collantes made his ‘Vision of Ezekiel’. Tintoretto painted his own ‘Vision of Ezekiel’ on the same theme from the Book of Ezekiel, the moment when God orders Ezekiel to breathe over the bones that cover the Valley of the bones, to bring to life a new army for Israel. Apart from the theme, there could be no greater difference between Collantes’ and Tintoretto’s pictures however.

Jacopo Tintoretto handled his painting with all the power of imagination and the all the power of a completely free style of depiction, owing no influence to no other painter of before his times. Tintoretto had a long oval to cover on the ceiling. So he painted a long scene, with god at the top hovering in the sky above Ezekiel and above the Dead. God hangs in the skies and orders Ezekiel with an outstretched arm. Viewers in the hall have to bend their neck on their shoulders to look upwards, so much so that now mirrors are provided in the Scuola so that viewers can sit down and look at the ceiling in the mirrors. Tintoretto made God look down so that he also has to bend his neck to look down upon Ezekiel. Golden rays emanate from his face and reach the Prophet. Ezekiel stands among the dead, enveloped by a divine wind that makes his red cloak flow around him and away from him. Ezekiel towers above the dead. He opens a grave to let the skeletons out. Beneath him, the bones of other skeletons gather, take on flesh and turn into men. This is one of the strongest scenes of creation in the Bible and Tintoretto grasped the grandeur easily and totally. The scene is so grand that it seems to pass beyond the borders of the picture: Tintoretto painted God not entirely inside the frame but only partially so that the viewer intuitively imagines an image larger than the actual surface. Tintoretto showed Ezekiel in full effort of opening the lid of a tomb, look up at God, over his shoulder, so that the eyes of Ezekiel and of Yahweh touch. God’s glorious rays drive into Ezekiel and the divine power pours into the prophet to bring the dry bones to life. Ezekiel is not the fine wise man, not the wizard, but the Herculean force that is at work as much as God.

Tintoretto painted no background behind Ezekiel and God. He would only paint the essence of the scene, so high up on the ceiling, so that the scene could be still rapidly be perceptible to viewers and as God comes down from the skies; the sense of space that is already magnificent in the high Scuola hall is amplified still by Tintoretto’s picturing. Tintoretto needed no landscape, for the force of his expression is so powerful that it makes details superfluous. Therefore also, Tintoretto could use raw brushstrokes, rather large patches of colour, which blend marvellously when seen from below. And yet he used strong combinations of hues in a wealth of shades. God wears a red robe and a green cloak. The cloak entangles God, envelopes the robe so that the red and green areas alternate around the figure of God. Tintoretto painted a deep red and a dark green and he showed contrasting chiaroscuro with bright red and brighter green areas. The warm colours of red and green dominate in the scene also on Ezekiel cloaks. Here the red glows, brighter, and with golden touches to indicate the light falling on the folds. On Ezekiel too the shades of colours are powerful, broad and refined. Tintoretto showed even in yellow-golden hues the muscled knees and legs of Ezekiel. Finally, chiaroscuro in yellow, golden and some green shades are also on the bodies in the making, low in the painting. To show the shadows Tintoretto used a wealth of hues so that the Impressionist painters of centuries later could not claim to have discovered the power of uncommon hues in shadows on flesh. No one painted so freely and seemed to experiment in colours with unrelenting certainty as to their effects of juxtaposition as Tintoretto.

Jacopo Tintoretto’s pictorial vision was totally un-traditional. Tintoretto reached out for the limits of the art of painting. His scene of Ezekiel is the most dynamic as could be shown on a canvas and as splendid in expression of colours as one could bring. The ‘Vision of Ezekiel’ is a fine picture, but very conventional. Collantes made Ezekiel stand nicely in the valley, commanding the dead. Ezekiel stands there, vertical and normally. Collantes painted ruins and the landscape around the Prophet and all this is finely painted, but so predictable after all. Tintoretto however broke every rule of convention. His energetic vision is entirely different and far more powerful. Tintoretto was a painter from the transition period between the Renaissance and its Mannerism alternative, and the Baroque. Tintoretto could have been creating the Baroque in the Scuola. He showed how forceful energy could be shown in a picture, how illusion of movement not from before or from after the action but in its very moment could be drawn and how colours could be used to enhance the effects of dynamic lines. In his ‘Ezekiel’, all members of the bodies of Ezekiel and of God and even of the dead are shown in action. Arms are outstretched, faces turn, robes flow and there is not one strictly vertical line in the picture, for all liens and directions are slanting. Francisco Collantes’ picture is however dominated by long vertical lines and although the scene seems therefore epic, it lacks in energy. It remained a static scene. Tintoretto’s energy was the quintessence of Venice, where people were accustomed to move, to be inventive, to look far and into the future, to break rules in trade and industry, and yet work together in a highly regulated society.

Had Francisco Collantes, the Spanish painter who made another well-known version of the same scene in Madrid known of Jacopo Tintoretto’s picture? Spain was much connected to Italy, and certainly to the Neapolitan court. Collantes may have travelled to Italy. His first stay would have been in Naples and he may have seen drawings, copies of Tintoretto’s paintings there, in Naples. He could have travelled further on, to Venice. But it is almost impossible for a painter not to have been influenced then by Tintoretto’s compelling visions of painterly innovation. Collantes’ composition is so calm and so far from Tintoretto’s style that we may assure ourselves of the fact that Collantes never saw Tintoretto’s paintings in real or in engravings, or that if he had seen them he had rejected the style as being unfit for the Spanish mind and royal court.

Other paintings:

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