This majestic oil painting by Raphael is surprisingly quite small (16 x 12 inches). The subject matter is the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God. I find it curious that Ezekiel is depicted as this tiny figure in the lower left of the composition. If his name wasn’t in the title, you would likely miss his appearance.
Typically, the iconography surrounding the central figure, God, was four Cherubims but Raphael, perhaps inspired by his contemporary Michelangelo, chose the four evangelists instead. The angel (Matthew), eagle (John), lion (Mark), and ox (Luke) almost appears as if they are taking God on quite the ride. The two small angels under God’s arms are perhaps trying to steady him.
Ezekiel has been called a “street preacher,” fearlessly going around Babylon and Jerusalem declaring God’s word and judgment to a people in exile. In Ezekiel’s world, all that was known and precious to God’s people had been pulled up by the roots and transplanted on foreign soil, resulting in misery and death. Is all lost?
After chapters of judgement in the book of Ezekiel, we come across a ray of hope when God lays out his plan for the future. Let me share what he says in Ezekiel 17:22-24:
Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
God makes it clear that he is the one who will be doing the work here. He repeatedly uses “I” expressions: “I myself… will set, break, plant, dry up, make flourish, etc.” Twelve times, God makes sure the people know that any sprig of salvation is his doing and no one else’s.
Being Human connection: God’s gardening efforts will bring life through fruit. The reader through today’s lens knows that the “tender one” (Jesus) will also bring ultimate life through death. Indeed, all is not lost. Everything—by God’s hand—has been gained.
Featured art: Raphael, Ezekiel’s Vision, c. 1518, Palazzo Pitti, Florence