Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11th May 2014
11 May 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
At Matins last Sunday, I spoke about St Matthew through the great painting by Caravaggio ‘The Calling of St Matthew’. This morning I shall be exploring St Mark, again with the aid of visual representation, coupled with his pivotal Gospel writings on the life and death and resurrection of Our Lord. One of the most rewarding aspects of ministering here in this great Abbey is the privilege of being able to help others discover more and more about God and his Son, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. This spirit of discovery applies to us all, whether we are young in the faith; perhaps a little unsure of religious etiquette and procedure, but eager to learn more; or seasoned ‘old hands’ well acquainted with both the scriptures and liturgical intricacies of the Church.
Discovery is all about detecting something new, something that had hitherto been unknown to us. You may have seen a rather enjoyable BBC2 television series entitled ‘Fake or Fortune?’ The journalist Fiona Bruce teams up with art expert Philip Mould to investigate mysteries behind paintings. It is all about hunting down a sleeper, and in this context a sleeper is a painting that passes miscatalogued through the auction rooms into the hands of someone who knows (or at least suspects) its real identity. It could have been over-painted, lost amongst a large collection in a busy saleroom, or simply misunderstood. I suspect that one of the most rewarding things about being an art dealer is the joy of discovery: the opportunity, once in a while, to bring to the attention of the public a little-known masterpiece which casts new light on a great artist.
The picture of St Mark (that you were given this morning) is just such a painting: particularly notable for its forceful characterisation, expressive power, and mastery of rapid brushwork: qualities that were particularly praised in the eighteenth century. It is one of Frans Hals’s very rare religious pictures, which belonged to one of the greatest collectors of the eighteenth-century, but then disappeared for over a century, before being rediscovered in the 1970s, masquerading as a Portrait of a Gentleman (with lacy cuffs and other fine adornment) and then correctly identified as one of Hals’s missing evangelist paintings. Until a couple of years ago the picture has remained largely hidden from public view in a private collection. Its resurrection highlights a powerful and original religious artist.
Unlike his pictures of Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark alone is depicted as neither reading nor writing, but rather holds the scriptures in one hand with his right hand on his heart. St Luke and St Matthew (now in the Odessa Museum) are shown as readers of the word; St John (now in the Getty Museum) is depicted as a youthful writer; and St Mark is presented as one who hears the word of the Lord and proclaims it. I suppose St Mark is shown to be in a more reflective mood (rather than reading or writing) because he and St John often tend to be portrayed as the more mystical figures among the evangelists. Rather like Michelangelo’s Isaiah, and indeed many other pictures of saints (who also hold a half-closed book), he seems caught in thought. And yet he appears as a more abstracted figure who, unlike most portraits of preachers, seems to make no eye contact with the viewer. With his book in his hand, Hals may well have intended him to symbolise the preaching aspects of the Ministry of the Word, a preacher-saint to counterbalance the reading and writing activities of Hals’s other evangelists—albeit a preacher-saint caught in a prayerful, reflective moment.
Like Rembrandt's later apostles and evangelists, Hals’s evangelists were painted in a predominantly Protestant environment where such representations would have been seen as anachronistic. Yet of all the four paintings, St Mark is arguably the most Italianate and most theatrical of Hals’s saints. He strikes me as a bold figure with a certain solemnity. Hals’s depiction of St Mark is also generally considered to be highly original in its departure from traditional iconography.
While St John looks upwards for inspiration, St Mark looks downwards with his head turned across the line of his body. Art historians often observe that he is the most theatrical, the most Italianate of Frans Hals’s saints. Compared to the earthy faces of St Luke and St Matthew, St Mark is relatively ethereal and idealised, with wispy hair and beard. Indeed many compare it with Rubens’s bearded figures, such as the striking head of the old man from the Adoration of the Magi that now resides in Antwerp. Rather like Frans Hals’s picture, Mark’s Gospel is also urgent, engaging and apocalyptic. Although the shortest and probably the earliest of the four, traditionally thought to be written under the influence of St Peter (and probably about the time he was being put to death by Nero, and while the Roman armies were moving in to destroy Jerusalem). When Christians sometime get a bit despondent about the state of things today, we shouldn’t forget that it has always been this way, when even the most golden days of the Church are full of temptations to despair.
And yet St Mark’s Gospel (rather like Hals’s picture) is full of realism, optimism, and engagement. Mark starts his book with words of discovery: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God’. He can write this because he believes that, as Christ says, ‘the one who endures to the end will be saved’, and according to tradition he, like the other apostles, put this radical endurance into practice, eventually dying for his faith in Alexandria where he has been revered ever since as the founder of the Church in Egypt and Africa. Mark practises this endurance even to the end, because he believes that ‘this is the beginning of the birth pangs’, that in the midst of the sorrows and tragedies of this world, something new and wonderful is coming to birth: the kingdom of God revealed in his Son. Today we know that the earliest manuscripts of Mark stop abruptly with the women running from the empty tomb. Yet Mark is a great evangelist because the good news he has is the news of the dawning of the new age of the resurrection: the age of peace and love and reconciliation and forgiveness; the age of the kingdom.
Hals’s picture of forceful characterisation and expressive power in the face of St Mark captures something of the power and glory of the Gospel—qualities of great faith and new resurrection life. Holding the holy book in one hand, with his right hand on his heart, St Mark is reflecting on the importance of this Word for the world: he is as one who hears the word of the Lord and proclaims it. The excitement of revealing a hidden master painting must be immense, but truly nothing compares with the discovery of finding the Good News of Christ.