The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is one of the most unlikely—and unorthodox—places to learn about the Bible. But God often chooses out-of-the-box people and places as his favorite classrooms.
If he once employed a talking donkey to school a prophet, then he can certainly use a nihilistic French artist from the early 1900’s to instruct believers today.
In fact, this artist, Francis Picabia, employed a method that
(1) brilliantly captures the literary artistry of prophets and apostles,
(2) shows how we should study them,
(3) and helps us understand what lurked beneath the water Jesus walked on.
Picabia is known for his “Transparencies.” These pieces are made by layering picture atop picture. In these works “meandering hieroglyphs and carefully modeled figures are juxtaposed or laid on top of one another like multiple-exposure photographs,” as Michael Kimmelman writes.
Picabia’s “Transparencies” do with art what the Bible does with words and narratives.
For example, his piece, “Salomé,” is based on the biblical account in which Herod decapitates John the Baptist. In the painting you’ll see the large face of Jesus in linear outline, a nude woman extending her leg in the foreground, John’s severed head, along with hints of radiance and a crown of thorns.
In “Transparencies,” every detail, holy and profane, intersects with and overlays the others. Story upon story is squeezed into one frame. The art’s message has depth. It’s multilayered and multidimensional. No detail is an island.
Picabia’s “Transparencies” do with art what the Bible does with words and narratives. The farther you travel from Genesis, the more pronounced this becomes. By the time you step into the last book, Revelation, you realize that not a single verse or image of that book is truly original. Everything intersects with and builds upon the books before it. Revelation is a kind of artistic Transparency with ten thousand biblical images and narratives squeezed into it.
The Bible is a series of layers, each story superimposed on other stories. To read any of them in isolation is to miss the point. That would be like staring only at the nude woman’s leg, or only Jesus’ face in “Salomé,” and assuming you grasp the message of the art. Every detail is married to the other details. Together they are one flesh, one work of art, one Bible.
Jesus walking on water is infinitely more than the miracle of a man defying gravity.
MORE THAN WALKING ON WATER
Jesus walking on the water is a splendid example of this kind of layering. In this single story—this Christological work of art—are layer upon layer of OT narratives, each one shedding light on the identity and work of Jesus as Yahweh-in-the-flesh.
Jesus is the Creator. The God whose Spirit hovered over the face of the dark, formless, void waters of the infant creation, now walks upon the waters of the sea like a boss. He treads upon his territory. He made these waters. His wet footprints mark his domain. This is one layer of the story.
Jesus is the Red Sea Savior. The God who carved a canyon in the middle of the Red Sea for Israel to pass through, now walks upon this sea to bring his disciples safely to the other side. Yahweh’s way was in the sea, his paths in the mighty waters, though his footprints may not be known (Ps 77:19). But now he makes a way through the Sea of Galilee (and for us in the sea of baptism). He is no longer present in a pillar of cloud and fire, but as a man, come to “exodus” his followers from danger. This is a second layer in the story.
Jesus slices up sea dragons. Riffing off mythologies common in the ancient world, the prophets depict Yahweh’s victory at the Red Sea as the Creator’s slaying of the sea dragon, Rahab or Leviathan. For example, Isaiah writes, “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a pathway for the redeemed to pass over?” (51:9-10). Egypt—that chaotic, anti-God power—personifies Rahab (Isa 30:7), the sea serpent Yahweh slices up. When Jesus walks atop that stormy sea, he also shows that he comes to conquer evil, to tread Rahab underfoot, to cut down the dragon that sought to devour him (Rev 12:4). This is yet a third layer in the story.
The Museum of Modern Art doesn't offer classes on How to Read the Bible but they unofficially do.
Therefore, in this single narrative work of art, what is transparent? That Jesus is the Creator, the Savior at the Red Sea, the Slayer of the dragon, the incarnate God who rules and reigns over his world to bring about redemption for his people.
All of this, and more, is layered in the story. Jesus walking on water is infinitely more than the miracle of a man defying gravity. It demonstrates that he is Yahweh, the Savior of Israel, the God of the OT, the redemption of humanity, and the re-creator of the world.
GOD’S ART GALLERY
The Museum of Modern Art doesn't offer classes on How to Read the Bible but they unofficially do. Stand in front of Picabia’s work. Stand in front of the Bible’s artistic narratives. Observe layer upon layer. View the transparency. See how detail is superimposed over detail. And how it all comes together in Christ.
When you open the Bible, remember you’re stepping into God’s art gallery.