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date: 07 October 2022

“In My Father’s House” (John 14:2): Sacred Domiciles and Secular Residences in Iberoamerican Art as Metaphorical Architecture of Devotionlocked

“In My Father’s House” (John 14:2): Sacred Domiciles and Secular Residences in Iberoamerican Art as Metaphorical Architecture of Devotionlocked

  • Barbara von BarghahnBarbara von BarghahnDepartment of Art History, George Washington University

Summary

At least dozens of masters working in Spain, Portugal, and the Americas between the Renaissance and the 18th-century Enlightenment appreciated the multifaceted nature of Christ’s deceptively straightforward invocation in John 14:2 of “my Father’s house.” These painters drew on a vast and often esoteric array of biblical and mystical motifs, from Noah’s ark and Jacob’s ladder to Ezekiel’s mapping of divine real estate and Teresa of Ávila’s view of the Interior Castle. As Voltaire infamously noted of the “Holy Roman Empire”—that the phrase was thrice a misnomer—these artists, who gave aesthetic form to biblical words, explored the varied architectural implications of dwelling places, while theologians of that period understood Christ’s reference to “father” to be more inclusive of other family and associates.

From the start, “Father’s home” may be identified with a Hebrew sanctuary—whether biblical Tabernacle (Mishkan) and Temple (Beit Ha-Mikdash) or later synagogue (beit ha-knesset) or Christian temple. But the visual metaphor additionally extends to domestic dwellings associated with Christ’s mother, specifically the priestly houses of Joachim and Zacharias, and with his earthly father, Joseph the Nazarene carpenter. The phrase also gestures beyond historical homes of Christ’s family during his infancy and childhood, described in the New Testament and Apocrypha, to the Bethany house where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The adult Jesus actually seems to have regarded Lazarus, Martha, and Mary as extended family members.

Yet another meaning of “Father’s house” concerns nomadic homes, such as the tents described in the Books of Genesis that functioned as moveable dwellings and a reminder that all earthly homes are transitory. From the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s formal and symbolic dwelling place to the concept of a Holy House as a place to “grow in wisdom,” the wilderness dwelling encompasses the divinely protected ark of Noah and his nuclear family, which was addressed by Hugh of St. Victor as a mnemonic vessel of mankind’s salvation. Equally intriguing in an analysis of Christ’s words in the Gospel of John are paragones between Jacob’s ladder and palatine chambers of earth reached by private staircases and the means of ascent to cosmic rooms of glory. Jesus understood the definition of spiritual space provided by the prophet Ezekiel, and Teresa of Ávila in her Inner Castle embraces the notion of a mystic staircase for the soul to rise virtuously to levels of the crystalline empyrean, which is God’s effervescent domicile.

By imagining creative ways to map out the many types of dwellings to which Christ gestured in his reference to “Father’s house” onto actual sorts of houses and homes which they observed around them in the real world, these artists of Spain, Portugal, and the Americas in a way realized an aesthetic program that was steeped in imitatio Dei, or at least form that followed sacred content.

Subjects

  • Religion and Art

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