Scripture Reading - Genesis 28:10-17
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Images: Anselm Kiefer, Untitled, 1980-1986, Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, lead, charcoal, and strow on photograph, mounted on canvas; with stones, lead, and steel cable; in three parts. Dimensions: (panel with boulders) 130 1/4 x 73 in. (330.7 x 185.4 cm), (panel with ladder) 130 5/8 x 72 5/8 in. (331.7 x 184.9 cm), (panel with funnel) 130 1/4 x 72 7/8 in. (330.7 x 185.0 cm)
While many churches are closed to the public this year, art museums provide a sanctuary for the public to view, question, and wonder at humanity’s greatest questions poised within art. At the North Carolina Museum of Art, Anselm Kiefer’s three huge panels fill a wall and convey a sense of a triptych, an altarpiece, filled with ancient symbols and mystery.
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) is a German painter and sculptor born at the end of the Third Reich. His childhood playground was literally the remains of bombed buildings around his home as many cities were destroyed during World War II. Those ravaged landscapes and the spiritual and existential questions following the haunting history of the Holocaust shaped Kiefer’s work thematically as well as his use of materials such as lead, ash, and straw.
His work, Untitled, presents an unflinching Advent longing distilled in Kiefer’s cosmic drama that waits for resolution. Hence the title, Untitled. In the middle panel, a ladder made of lead extends out of the painting. It hangs suspended over a miasma of concrete, straw and ash dimly lit by golden currents that stream from the top of the panel.
It is Jacob’s ladder from the story found in the book of Genesis, in which the Hebrew patriarch Jacob has fled into the wilderness in fear for his life. That night he takes a rock for his pillow and dreams of a ladder coming down from Heaven with angels descending and ascending on it.
God speaks to Jacob in the dream and promises that no matter the circumstances, his people will be like the dust of the earth to be gathered through the ages. Then, without further explanation, God promises that through Jacob’s offspring all the nations of the earth would be “blessed,” the Hebrew concept that resonates with shalom, to be fulfilled, at peace. In the deepest of the dark, God would remain with his people and fulfill His word.
Directly underneath Jacob’s ladder lies the serpent, the most earth-bound creature in the Genesis story and known as the Deceiver. He is the one who twists God’s words and plants confusion and doubt in the hearts of the first man and woman. The evil enchanter proposes an alternative to God’s ordered kingdom: “Take control of your own life. Seize power on your own terms.” They did and humanity was lost. Upon the shores of time, chaos, death, and destruction reigned in fallen man.
The Genesis account expounds that peace with God, creation and one another was fundamentally broken. Yet God made a mysterious promise that there would a deliverer from the seed of a woman who would come and redeem the lost who trusted God (Genesis 3).
Kiefer has said in interviews that there is something deeply flawed in man’s thinking. It is inherently broken and destructive. In the shadows of postwar Germany and the holocaust, he has come to believe that history has a material reality, a weight that is not merely an ephemeral memory. Kiefer studied the ancient Hebrew stories and became fascinated with ideas of alchemy, that some deep magic could take the basest materials and transform them into gold.
When we look to the left of the center panel, we see a strange funnel-like object extending from the wasteland on the canvas. It is a wizard’s hat, the image or symbol of the alchemist. But this alchemist, rather than merely transforming lead to gold for monetary gain, transforms time and existence itself into something altogether different. This is where the sense of cosmic drama plays out among the three panels if we read them as a visual play.
Here, the alchemist’s hat corresponds to the cluster of stones on the opposite panel.
These stones are the weight of history which are gathered for an unknown purpose. Kiefer has said that when a star explodes, we may only see star dust but just because we do not see what becomes of the dust, does not mean that is the end of the story! So the idea of alchemy lives in Kiefer’s work: The work is never finished, it is always in a process although to what end, he does not know.
Kiefer is not a Christian. He simply believes in a theology of making, that the material world is imbued with meaning and in the hands of an artist (or alchemist) has to potential to transcend “what is” into something “other.” Yet he also believes that this cosmic mystery is inherently absurd if there is no great magic that can ultimately redeem all of life and time itself. His criticism oddly enough echoes that of C.S. Lewis’s words in his sermon, The Weight of Glory:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
It is possible that Kiefer ultimately sees the horrors in man, and for those who have suffered, his criticism resonates with their own experiences. In Psalm 62, the Hebrew psalmist cries out to God to help him wait for the Lord’s salvation after suffering at the hands of men:
1Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. 2 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.
3 How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down— this leaning wall, this tottering fence? 4 Surely they intend to topple me from my lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.[b]
5 Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him. 6 Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortres