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The Sermon on the Mountain

The Sermon on the Mountain

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne (1631-1681). Musée Magnin. Dijon.

Matthew and Luke wrote about the sermon of Jesus on the mountain. In Matthew, the sermon is most formidable and epic. Luke’s story is more humble.

Luke states that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer on the mountain. Then he came down with his apostles and stopped at a piece of land that was at level ground. A large crowd of people had gathered there from Jerusalem and Judaea but also from Tyre and Sidon, the old Phoenician coastal cities. Luke recalls the beatitudes spoken for the poor, the curses on the rich, an entreaty to love one’s enemies and for being compassionate and generous towards one another. Jesus told the parable of the blind guiding other blind, and Jesus would have ended with another parable, the parable of the man that build a house on solid rock. A true disciple of God thus builds on what he or she has heard from Jesus. Then Jesus leaves, and he goes to the town of Capernaum.

Matthew writes that Jesus ascended the mountain. His disciples came to him there, and Jesus began to speak. With this scene of course, parallels are drawn with the handing over of the tablets of the Law to Moses on mount Horeb. Jesus gave rules to his disciples on the mountain. He started to say the Beatitudes, in which he praised the poor of the earth. They would be blessed, receive the earth in inheritance and be recognised as children of God. Jesus called them the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then Jesus told that he had not come to abolish the old Law, but to complete it. Jesus recalled the old commandments of Moses and he brought each to a higher level of spirituality. The old Laws were laws of human conduct in society; now Jesus brought them in the realm of individual spiritual conduct. It is forbidden to kill but you cannot even call someone a fool or a traitor in private. You could divorce your wife under the old Law by giving her a dismissal note in writing; for Jesus, divorce is simply forbidden. You will love your neighbour; but Jesus told to love your enemies. Alms giving should be done in secret; prayer should be done in private and not in public; fasting should be done in secret; treasures should be built up for life in heaven and not for life on earth. Jesus then gave the ‘Our Father’, the Lord’s Prayer. He continued to say that no one can be the slave of two masters, of God and of money. He urged his disciples to trust in divine providence, urged them not to judge so that they not be judged, and not to profane sacred things. He said, ‘ask and you will be given’; he repeated the Law rule to treat others as you would like to be treated. He warned against false prophets. Then Matthew recalls the parable of the house built on rock, like Luke. Matthew ends this part of his text by saying that the teaching made a deep impression on the disciples, because Jesus taught with authority.

We, who are not in the presence of Jesus when we read the sermon on the mountain, as written by Matthew, nevertheless cannot but be impressed by the words. Jesus’ sermon drew Moses’ law onto a much higher level, onto an in-human order, not to a level that is still attainable by a human being. Even saints can not control their thoughts to the degree that Jesus asked, commanded in this sermon. Thoughts well up in the minds of humans in a seemingly uncontrolled way but Jesus told that such thoughts should not even happen to somebody truly dedicated to the devotion of heaven. The sermon on the mountain is therefore the most formidable handing over of the new rules, which superseded the old rules of Moses, in the Gospels. The oldest text, the one of Matthew, seems to have grasped most the extraordinary meaning of Jesus’ words on the mountain. These were the new laws of a new religion.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne made a picture of the ‘Sermon on the Mountain’. He was the nephew of a far more famous painter called Philippe de Champaigne. Philippe and Jean-Baptiste were born in Brussels, now in Belgium. Philippe had first tried to build up a career in Antwerp, from the workshop of the great Baroque painter of Brabant Pieter Paul Rubens, but Rubens refused him. So he had gone to Paris and became a very well known painter there. When his son died, Philippe de Champaigne sent for his nephew, allowed him to go for a year and a half to Italy, and then from 1659 on employed Jean-Baptiste as his assistant. Jean-Baptiste perfected his skills as a pupil, but he remained in the shadow of his brilliantly successful uncle. Yet, he also made fine pictures in a style of his own and among these the ‘Sermon on the Mountain’ is one of his most excellent paintings. It is today in the Magnin Museum of Dijon in Burgundy, a museum and a collection mostly dedicated to French art.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne painted the moment at which Jesus delivered his teaching. Jesus is the central figure of the picture and the artist showed Jesus somewhat larger than the other figures. He also painted Jesus’ robe and cloak in light blue colours, unusual hues but the symbol of the heavens. There is a small patch of blue colour on either side of Jesus, but these remain inconspicuous as compared to the splendid blue area of Jesus. The attention of the viewer is thus immediately attracted to Jesus and this attraction is magical and powerful. De Champaigne applied various structures to focus on Jesus.

Jesus is in ecstasy. He does not look to the crowd but seems to utter words that are sent to him from heaven, as if he were but an instrument. A halo surrounds his head and a slight wind stirs up his cloak behind him, whereas all other robes and cloaks are at rest. The light of the scene comes from the lower left corner. It illuminates Jesus’ face and with the figures on the left side seems to indicate the left diagonal. Another direction is in the man in a blue robe on the right side. This movement is along the right diagonal. Jesus is caught in the crossing of the two diagonals of the frame, as shown by the figures, and he is also caught in the inverted ‘V’ made by the trunks of the trees behind him. Finally, a bare mountain rises behind the trees, and just behind Jesus. The mountain top is above Jesus and its sides go down in the lines of the people sitting around him, so that the viewer’s eyes look at a pyramid structure. Jesus is inside this pyramid. These are at least three strong suggestions of structure, which all emphasise the figure of Jesus. All the eyes of the people are directed at Jesus, so that the viewer always returns to the central figure.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne was a fine painter. He painted the trees marvellously. All the figures of the disciples are well rendered. He brought an exquisite landscape to the right and in that he could show that indeed the sermon happened on a high mountain. Jesus not just stands somewhat higher than his audience; de Champaigne showed easily how high the mountains were above the landscape by painting that view in a light blue haze, as if it were far below and far away. Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne was of course a Baroque painter, so his scene is lively, but a serene rest and dignity pervades his picture. He painted all the men with different, very characteristic strong faces. Some men are standing; others are sitting; still other lie around, relaxed and caught by Jesus’ spell. De Champaigne painted nicely the play of light on the folds of the robes and in the gradations from light to shadow on the people to the left, under the trees. His landscape in bluish hues of distance is imaginary but plausible. The main structure of the scene of figures is under the right diagonal, in the left triangle under that diagonal. The artist also drew subtly the attention of the viewer to the landscapes, since on the far right a man turns his back to the viewer, to summon other disciples, but thereby turning attention to the landscape on the right.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne did not leave a profusion of works to us. He was merely the assistant of his famous uncle. But he was beyond doubt a gifted artist, among the French community of painters of Paris, and even among the French painters living in Italy. He grasped well the epic, grand moment of ecstasy when Jesus delivers his emotionally loaded and so important Sermon on the Mountain, the one teaching that established the spiritual core basis of the Christian religion.

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