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In the Beginning Was the Word: A Reflection in Two Images

Two days before the shattering events of January 6 in Washington, D.C., I became aware of a painting called In the Beginning Was the Word, by the German artist Hermann Otto Hoyer (1893-1965). Dating from 1937, 14 years after the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” which landed him and his supporters in jail, the work de­picts a youthful Adolf Hitler addressing a rapt group of men and women. He and his listeners are enclosed in sha­dows, but their faces are illuminated by a seeming divine light. Standing in front of a partially visible Nazi flag, his left hand placed firmly on his hip, the suit- and tie-clad Hitler dramatically raises his slightly open right palm as if displaying to the group a new-found powerful truth. Hoyer, whose right arm was badly injured in the First World War and who later becamea member of the Nazi party, has portrayed his subject as a quasi-messianic figure, the bearer of salvation to the German people.

The painting’s title, taken from the opening sentence of the Gospel of Saint John, is among the various phrases and symbols which the Third Reich appropriated and corrupted. When Hitler first saw the painting he was so impressed that he bought it. Now considered “too blatantly propagandistic” for public viewing, the canvas is currently in the custody of the U.S. Army at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Belvoir, Va.

Compare this with another painting by a different artist. Other than himself, the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606-1669) most frequent subject was Christ, whom he depicted in paintings, drawings, and etchings throughout his prolific career. Christ Preaching (also known as La Petite Tombe, or The Little Tomb), an etching and drypoint print dating from around 1652, makes no reference to any particular biblical text, but instead represents a general scene of Christ preaching to the people. The haloed Christ stands at the center of the composition, his hands raised in the orans position, the attitude of prayer assumed by a priest when standing at the altar. With the exception of a boy beneath his feet who is distractedly doodling in the dirt, Christ is surrounded by a crowd of 25 seated and standing male and female adult figures. A palpable stillness envelops the scene, wherein all listen intently to Christ’s words. One leans in slightly; another, looking up at Christ, rests his chin in his hand; and another, his face turned slightly to the viewer, appears to ponder a point Christ has made.

Differences in era of execution, subject matter, and medium notwithstanding, the Hoyer and Rembrandt compositions share a few important traits. Both depict a central figure, who is in the act of addressing others who listen closely to that figure. In terms of their settings the nearly bare and nondescript room in Hoyer’s work contains only the flag, a table, and two chairs seen from the back. Rembrandt has placed his scene in a shadowy inner courtyard, where the humble figures sit on the ground or on any available stony surface. Both Hitler and Christ engage with their listeners through gesture: the former’s is confident and insistent; the latter’s pastoral and beneficent.

However, it is words that are the focus of both works: words as catalyst, balm, words as both containers and conveyors of truth, and words as definers of the subjects who utter them.

In the Beginning Was the Word announces the artist’s intention forthrightly, which is to throw us backward to 1923, to the moment marking the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, to a dumpy room filled with presumably everyday Germans, whose faces register a mix of uncertainty and curiosity as they hang on the future Führer’s every word. They are hearing the first words Hitler spoke that grew into the torrent of words that ensnared an entire nation. While we do not audibly hear Hitler speaking to the attendees, Hoyer makes those words visible through his central subject’s slightly forward-inclined stance, the raised hand, and the intensity of his face. Saint John’s opening acclamation which continues, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is transformed in Hoyer’s work to imply that the Word is now, not with God, but with this man who would become worshipped as a god, because he and his godlike words were one.

Like Hoyer’s painting, Christ Preaching may also be understood as a work depicting two subjects, one visible, the other invisible but no less significant. While essentially a representation of Christ performing one of the actions he did most often in his earthly life, the etching is also a subtle yet powerful visualization of Christ’s words as expressed through preaching. Whereas Hoyer’s painting title correctly asserts that in the beginning was the word (although attaching it to history’s most well-known demonic figure), Rembrandt has shown the Word, the Logos that is Christ. Christ is praying (his orans posture) while preaching; the listeners are seeing the Word while hearing it.

The question then before us is: what effect do the words have on these listeners? What can these silent pictures instruct us about words and speech, particularly in a time of contentious human communication?

While we know from extensive visual and written historical archives to what point Hitler’s words eventually led his country and the world, Hoyer’s work affords, through paint, hints about the power that words held over those who heard them, as can be discerned when we look at the group of men and women in In the Beginning Was the Word. With every eye fixed upon him, Hitler is clearly engaging and probably convincing his small audience of the rightness of his ideas. In Rembrandt’s etching, however, we can sense that Christ’s words emanate from him unforcibly and lovingly, and that they create a serene and comforting ambience, as opposed to the unyielding tension in the Hoyer painting. If we are to reflect on the nature and use of words by secular and faith leaders, In the Beginning Was the Word and Christ Preaching stand as compelling iconographic examples and aids for understanding these components of leadership.

The Old and New Testaments have much to say about speech, and over one hundred verses are devoted to the power of our words, such as this verse from Proverbs: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (18:21, ESV). Whether in words or in print, Hitler and his Third Reich could determine who lived or died, and, for a time, scores of followers ate the fruits of that devastating power. Or this: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:18, ESV). These words, spoken by Christ, identify what constitutes “defilement,” and it is incumbent upon us to be attentive to our and others’ words, as they are the true reflections of the heart. Rembrandt’s etching captures the “grace and truth” which Christ embodied, and the artist succeeded in representing that what came out of Christ’s mouth came from his heart, which was filled only with love and compassion.

The horrific scenes on January 6 that seemed to gush from our television and computer screens began their existence as hate-inspired words planted in the hearts of individuals, who not only gave their assent to hatred, but chose to act on it violently. The words that moved the mobs to rampage and to destroy were not with God and were not God, but instead appeared driven by demonic and nihilistic forces.

The words we use and the words we hear are consequential. Hoyer and Rembrandt showed us that. Their works are only silent pictures, but they speak loudly. Will we listen?

Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City. She writes on topics of faith.

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