THE SALVATION STORY: The Parable of the Wicked Tenants by Maarten Van Valckenborch

THE SALVATION STORY: The Parable of the Wicked Tenants by Maarten Van Valckenborch

Time crept, Time strolled, Time ran, Time flew, Time gone!

The inherent, invisible, uncertain and ubiquitous feature of Time has always fascinated the human mind. It caused a visualization of seasons and months that commonly featured as ‘calendar art’. Over the years calendar art has been swayed by genres like landscapes, portraits, historical, religious, allegorical and mythological themes.

From within this context looms forth our painter and painting in consideration. Maarten Van Valckenborch, a Flemish Renaissance artist, was born in Leuven in 1535. In his ‘cycle of seasons’ Maarten presents 11 paintings (December missing). These paintings include illustrations from the New Testament in connection to the labours of the month.

Come October, Maarten paints the ‘Parable of the Wicked Tenants.’ (Matthew 21: 33 – 43). We are visually introduced to a lush green vineyard planted by a landowner. ‘He put a fence around it, dug a hole for the wine press and built a watch tower.’ As depicted in the top left corner of the painting, ‘he leased the vineyard to the tenants and then went to a distant country.’ All was well until harvest!

With autumn came the rich produce. However the scandalous tenants refused to give the rightful share to the landowner. They ‘beat, killed and stoned’ his slaves. In this circumstance, ideally, the landowner should have sent troops of armed slaves to enforce his rights and punish the wicked tenants. But he mercifully does the unthinkable. He sends his son thinking, ‘they will respect him.’

As the scene visually descends from the foreground to the background, the story progresses the other way round. The high horizon creates a sense of depth. Amidst shallow undulations and rocky terrains stand the landowner and his son. The son, dressed in flowing robes, bids goodbye to his Father. Sporting travelling boots and a hat, he embarks onto his mission.

As he treads downhill, the snaky paths lead him to the vineyard. Luscious vines sweep the slopes. Vintage scenes hovers the land. Grapes are gracefully being picked and pressed; casks are being filled with wine and sealed.

All of a sudden the tenants notice the landowner’s son. They nudge each other saying, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ As regarded in the bottom right of the painting, ‘they seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.’ The wretched men certainly deserved a wretched end.

The parable of the wicked tenants focuses as much on the rejected and the vindicated son as the sinfulness of the tenants. The landowner’s son who was killed ‘outside’ the vineyard is an allegory for Christ Himself who was also crucified ‘outside’ the city gates of Jerusalem.

Through the painting the artist presents two realities, the sacred and the human. While these parallel realities interact, the mode of depiction differs. Notice the body language, the posture and the stylized Italian manner of the ‘sacred’ characters as compared to the Flemish peasants garbed by a grotesque demeanour. Clearly the spectator is called to perceive the painting not as a whole but to contemplate on the miniscule parts that form the whole.

Interestingly Maarten uses three significant colours in his painting, i.e. red, blue and green. Does that recall something? Well yes! Red signifies blood; blue, water and green, hope. Hope was built on nothing less but Christ blood and righteousness. It was built in Christ alone; the Cornerstone. The blood that soaked the vines sprung forth a harvest of salvation!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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