Central panel of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” altarpiece by Hubert & Jan van Eyck, c. 1430
The Shepherds of Arcadia (Et in Arcadia ego), Nicolas Poussin, 1637


From today’s Gospel:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them,  “What are you looking for?”

 In the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Familiarity is a fine thing but today,  as you were listening to words “Behold the lamb of God” three German words might have formed in your mind: namely sitz im leben  and with them the that fine German name Herman Gunkel.

Indeed you might even have been thinking “Wo ist mein Gunkel,wenn ich ihn brauche?” (Where is my Gunkel when I need him?)

This fine phrase – sitz im leben — much beloved of certain Biblical Scholars for the last hundred years or so [1] essentially means ‘setting in life’. It points to the very interesting question of what something means in its context – be that social, cultural, literary and beyond….

Which brings us to the question of: what do you suppose that phrase, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ meant to John the Baptist and his hearers when he made this exclamation? And what does that mean for us? And how do these meanings connect?

Moreover, as the academic J. H. Roberts puts the matter, at one level [2]:

Though the message of John. 1 : 29, 36 may be pretty well understood by the average reader of the Bible, it presents the scholar with quite baffling problems …

For example:

  1. There is the point that nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel is the idea suggested that Jesus is the paschal lamb.[3]

Then again,

  1. The Greek word amnos is not the term for the paschal victim in the Old Testament, and
  2. it was not the function of this victim in any case to take away sin

 – and so on and so forth.

Yet, transcending all these academic issues is surely a quite fundamental overarching point about the Evangelist author himself,  namely,  that St John wrote his Gospel after and in the light of  the suffering, death and exaltation of Jesus.

In the face of such utterly transformative events, it was both natural and right to interpret the earlier events in the life of Christ in the light of what happened in his passion and resurrection

Thus, St John was able, quite justifiably,  to see in the Baptist’s cry: “There is the Servant, the kingly Messiah’ in accord with the larger meaning of Isaiah. 52/53[4]:

Surely here indeed,  the kingly Messiah had brought about the salvation of God’s people by means of his suffering and death ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ [5]

By accepting such an overarching meta-narrative approach, any limited effort to find merely one definite Sitz im Leben can quite appropriately set aside a move that allows a much greater richness of approach– for both the author of the Gospel and as today – in a manner which transcends such narrow questions  as what john the Baptist himself believed at the time of the events reported. (Which remains an interesting academic matter but not one that is vital for us.

Hence the Gospel message concerning Christ viewed from the perspective of the gospel as a whole includes

  • the idea of an offering/sacrifice;
  • and the idea of the redemptive-historical work of salvation by God –which is enriched and illumined by the imagery of the paschal lamb (and the sacrifice made by the Israelites before the flight from Egypt)

While there is later the further idea added of the lamb as leader of the flock, (which is recurrent in the Revelation of St John), a perspective that stands in close relationship to this preaching about the Servant who was destined to be exalted in glory as Ruler, God’s kingly Messiah.

When taken together this collectively entails that in the image of The lamb of God we have an image which, through time,  has come to possess and disclose extraordinary power.

All of which clearly invites complex visualization and it is that which brought to mind

The Ghent Altarpiece   sometimes also known as the Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) [6]

Quite appropriately it is a highly complex work.  In what we may, for present purposes, think of as the main painting (of the lower tier of the interior as it were — which becomes visible when the main panels are opened)  we see the single large painting, from which the altarpiece takes its name.

This shows, in a highly sophisticated manner, the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mystic Lamb (which is the symbol of Christ as actually present), placed on an altar surrounded by fourteen angels and set in a rich and fertile hedged meadow, on the outskirts of an urban context that looks remarkably like Ghent or Bruges….

Four groups observe, in this meadow. On the top left, there is a procession of bishops and cardinals. On the top right, comes a group of women martyrs bearing palm leaves as the symbols of their martydom.

On the bottom left, we see a group of kneeling Jewish prophets behind whom are great pagan philosophers and scholars drawn from all over the world, as evidenced by their different styles of attire.

And then, on bottom right, we see the twelve Apostles, followed by Popes and other clergy. Saint Stephen is shown carrying the rocks of his martyrdom.[7]

All these groups are looking towards the altar in the centre of the meadow which is thus the central point of the entire painting in every way                                                                                                             

The angels surrounding the altar hold the instruments of the Passion

  • the pillar against which Christ was lashed,
  • the nails used to fix him to the cross,
  • the sponge dipped in vinegar.

Then in the very center, we see that blood is pouring from the lamb’s body into a chalice a last detail which–while small in scale– is absolutely central to the real meaning of the entire work, which is all about

  • sacrifice,
  • blood,
  • and indeed the role of the church visible with the priesthood–at one with Christ– in effectually administering the holy sacraments.

Meanwhile, in front of the altar there is what might at first seem something strange – namely a fountain—but this of course is nothing less than the ‘Fountain of Life’ from which a trickle of the water falls out towards us the viewers of the painting —who are thereby also brought into its drama, wherein —through its central act,  the blood of Christ gives us life through this divine economy into which we are called.

And as one further but important  detail I may appropriately note here – at this time when we are celebrating the long and important ministry in this parish of Deacon Daphne, that in classical mythology Daphne was that mysterious thing known as a nymph – perhaps best described as “a force of nature reified”.

The ancient Greek Daphne was a daughter of the river god Peneus and the nymph Creusa in Thessaly and as such always associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks –and other bodies of fresh and flowing water – so may we not see in that fountain of life in the foreground of the painting some adumbration of the vital Diaconal role and ministry in the church and indeed general economy salvation !

But to press on further here, we must note finally here, the inscription on the altar which states in Latin the key text of today’s Gospel:

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

All of this when brought together, brings us to a fascinating tension in this work between

  • the realism of the style

and the

  • deeply analogical and metaphorical character of the meaning, it is intended to represent.

This invites reflection on those two great and deep Greek words of mimesis and anamnesis which I have referenced here before and which can be loosely rendered respectively as imitation and representation   versus recollection, calling to mind – with the latter being  daily iterated in the words of the Eucharist itself; ‘do ye this in remembrance of me’

But when we think about the realism of the painting how far does that go?

For there is here

  • realism of form , whereby aspects of the world of our experience are represented


  • more deeply perhaps, a realism of meaning: whereby a transcendental and spiritual reality– lying behind the world of experience– is somehow captured or adumbrated through elements of this created world that are here visual (and elsewhere verbal as in the word of  Scripture)?

So it is with all that in mind, that I  now would like to consider briefly a quite different and much later painting  by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)[8], The Shepherds of Arcadia

This painting – which is, in its own terms, quietly obscure –  has come to prove quite fascinating over time, because of the challenge of how to interpret it.

In basic terms,  as we look at it, we see quite simply three shepherds and a rather grand woman –for whose presence it is hard to derive an obvious reason– all placed by something that seems to be a tomb.

The wider symbolism (as evidenced by the chitons, chaplets and sandals) discloses that this is all taking place in Ancient Greece. More specifically,  it is set in the lushly beautiful land of Arcadia,  which was a real place in ancient Greece that later became idealized.[9]

It seems that the first visual representation of all this –under the familiar memento mori theme (popular in 16th-century Venice)  made concrete via the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, was by the artist Guercino in his earlier version of the scene, painted between 1618 and 1622[10]. There the memento mori message is reinforced by a skull placed in the foreground, beneath which the famous words are carved et in arcadia ego—but once again,  what do they actually mean?

In one sense, it is simple enough and can be rendered:

‘In Arcadia, (there) am I’.

(And the usual initial interpretation is that the “I” refers to Death, and “Arcadia” means a current utopian land outside our here and now.

Yet,  Poussin’s biographer, André Félibien,  interpreted the phrase to mean an implicit past,  such that “the person buried in this tomb once lived in Arcadia” (as in ‘I also was in Arcadia’) where Arcadia is THIS WORLD rather than any other—but one experienced by the person in the tomb in the past.   In this interpretation,  the meaning is that the person in the tomb once enjoyed the pleasures of this life, in our world.[11]

Nowadays, as befits an era of alienation and secular nihilism it is the (former) interpretation where the word ‘ego’ refers to Death that seems generally preferred.[12]

(Common to both interpretations is a wider deeply ironic contrast which is being drawn in the painting: between the shadow of death and the usual idle merriment that the lives of those in ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.)

But then again, we need to remember that it was Poussin as one of the greatest classical artists of France who painted this picture and that points to something further.  And when we look at what is happening in the picture very closely we can indeed see something more. For one of the two shepherds is recognizing the shadow of his companion on the tomb and seems to be circumscribing the silhouette with his finger.

And why might that be so significant ?

The answer to this,   goes back as far as that great grandee of the ancient Roman world, Pliny the Elder, who (in his Natural History) XXXV 5, 15), sees this moment of adumbration as the moment in which the very art of painting itself is first discovered.

Thought of in this way, the shepherd’s shadow is the first image in art history.

But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death (in the first version symbolized by a skull on the top of the tomb).

Thus perhaps,  we are invited to see that,  from the prehistorical era of the earliest cave painting onward, the discovery of art and the engagement (and projection of meaning that it allows), has been the enduring creative response of humanity to our human condition and the shocking fact of our mortality.

Thus we can see here death’s claim to rule even Arcadia as challenged by art (arguably symbolized by the beautifully dressed but otherwise mysterious woman in the painting). Thus she stands as revealed in Arcadia with the universal significance of meaning itself – whose prerogative death has only the power to usurp.

This casts art as standing in the face of death as enabling anamnesis through mimesis and so allowing us to recall absent loved ones, and a consolation in the face anxieties and angst, able to evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, and overcome in some measure the individual human condition of isolation, and indeed to facilitate the expression of the unutterable[13]

Yet here perhaps there is one very subtle gesture in the painting that merits thought for we see (on looking carefully) that the woman has placed what seems to be a calming hand upon one of the shepherds in such a manner as suggests an invitation to the calm of resignation –in accepting that such is the way of things.

For in the end here art and its projections of meaning may go on,  but however long we flourish, each one of us must ultimately die…..

Poussin’s painting  is very much NOT a Christian one, even though it makes a very deep point about meaning and the place of art in sustaining it.

And that takes us back to the first painting.

For Art there,  makes possible a uniquely powerful expression of the meaning and ultimate telos of goal that is at the heart of the Gospel and Christianity, even though that meaning ultimately transcends art as well: for the meaning of Christianity must always transcend (i,e be greater than) the temporal media through which it comes to expression,  in this life.

Where Poussin offers resignation van Eyck speaks to that fuller and eternal reality of Christian hope

And that is why we can be helped through the van Eyck to affirm the words in the Gospel when Andrew says to Simon, just as the Wise men did of the epiphany and those other Shepherds in Bethlehem before them:

“We have found the Messiah”….


[1] Evidently, the term Sitz im Volksleben (‘setting in the life of the people’) was employed first time in 1906 and then later the phrase, Sitz im Leben in 1918. The latter term being used by classic form critics. See Chris Tuckett,, Prophets and paradigms: essays in honor of Gene M. Tucker ed. Gene M. Tucker, Stephen Breck Reid 1996 p. 113,  Form-Criticism of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 197; and Christopher Mark Tuckett:  Reading the New Testament: methods of interpretation 1987 – 2014″

[2] “The lamb of God”,  Neotestamentica, Vol. 2, The Christ Of John: Essays On The Christology Of The Fourth Gospel (1968), pp. 41-56

[3] While one passage might be quoted in support in John. 6 (where Jesus is said to be the Bread of Life,  which some would argue points toward the idea of the Passover)  C.H. Dodd argued instead that the comparison made there is to the manna in the Sinai and not to the Passover.

But this argument,  even if true, does not exclude the idea of the lamb being seen as the paschal lamb,  and Dodd himself grants that chapter 6 does seem to be related to the eucharist and this certainly was related to the paschal meal.  Moreover St John at least had in mind (via the tradition of the date of crucifixion) that Jesus died as the paschal lamb.

[4] ….he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed…..;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.

[5] This is assured by translating whatever prior Aramaic term the Baptist used, with ho amnos tou theou – a move which allows combining the various lines of thought associated  with the Servant

  • his atoning sacrifice
  • the slaughtered lamb
  • the glorious triumph attained by the Servant.

As an interpretation of the Evangelist’s  airov would then have the connotation of substitutionary bearing of sin,  53 and tou kosmon 54 would emphasise the universal value of

the substitutionary and expiatory death of the Servant: the nations and kings of the world would be brought to do homage to the Servant-King,55 for his death was to be not only for Jewry, but with a view to the gathering of all God’s scattered children (John 11:52).

When the solution of the problems of St John’s gospel (1 : 29, 36) is sought in this direction, it becomes clear that these verses are in line with the tradition of the earliest congregation as depicted in the first part of Acts.

There are many indications that the Pais-christology was far more widespread in the early church than can commonly be understood by reading a translation of the N.T. or even by a cursory reading of the Greek text itself. We have found that knowledge of this earliest tradition by John the Evangelist is at least to be seen in 1 : 29, 36.

[6] This astonishing work was commissioned by the prosperous merchant Jodocus Vijd, deputy burgomaster of Ghent, and was begun in 1425 by Hubert van Eyck, who however died before any significant work had been completed on it and  Jan van Eyck took it over.

[7] The further side panels on this tier show various groups of saints (with, to the left, Judges and Soldiers of Christ; and on the right, pilgrims and hermits) all painted against a backdrop of a single landscape with verdant slopes but a stony path. (and on the extreme right there is a towering figure of St Christopher, patron saint of travelers —but we must not digress).

[8] Who was himself almost the life’s work of Anthony Blunt, sometime Keeper of the Queen’s paintings – notoriously exposed late in life under Mrs. Thatcher as one of the notorious Cambridge spies but I digress….

[9] The first literary record in the Western canon of a tomb with a memorial inscription[9]  set amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia is to be found in Virgil’s Eclogues V 42 ff.   It was this idea that was taken up anew and revived much later during the Florentine Renaissance and the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the 1460s and 1470s, and  by 1504, Jacopo Sannazaro had established the Early Modern concept of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, only now to be remembered in regretful dirges.

[10] Now in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

[11] This reading was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, e.g.  William Hazlitt who wrote that Poussin “describes some shepherds wandering out in a morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this inscription, ‘I also was an Arcadia’.”  See “Why the arts are not progressive – A fragment’, in The round table: a collection of essays on literature, men, and manners, by William Hazlitt. Edinburgh and London: Constable. 1817. p. 258.

[12] The vagueness of the phrase is famously discussed by the art historian Erwin Panofsky in his essay: Meaning in the Visual Arts. University of Chicago Press, 1983.

[13] See, Becht-Jördens, Gereon; Wehmeier, Peter M., Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 2003, pp. 181–209.

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