June 12th 2021

“The Sermon on the Mount”   Jan Bruegel the Elder, 1598,  J. Paul Getty  Museum, Los Angeles.   You can view this painting online at    

Although the scene shown here is the Sermon on the Mount, I think it could have been named for a parable such as that of the mustard seed in today’s gospel reading, where great things come from tiny beginnings.  The painting itself is very small. It is only 26.7cm  X  36.8cm.  It is full of even smaller detail, which is why it is well worth looking at online.    A large crowd have gathered in a clearing at the edge of some woodland.  Despite the small size of the painting, you can read the expression on each face. Tall trees tower above the crowd and take up much of the surface of the painting.  Again the detail is amazing.  You can almost pick out individual leaves.  As in today’s parable of the mustard seed,  the birds of the air can be seen in the branches.  Jesus is just a tiny figure in the crowd.  You can see him preaching at the centre of a pool of light that falls between the trees.  He is distinguished by a halo and a pale yellow tunic and he stands on a platform made from branches.  Many people are listening intently, but some are not.  As your eye moves away from him,  you will notice that several figures are distracted by other concerns.  One example is the woman in the bright yellow dress who is seated right in the centre on the edge of the crowd.  I think that we are meant to notice her.  She is petting a dog but looks rather pampered herself.  One hand is on her stomach as she surveys the snacks being offered by a man on her left.  Perhaps Jesus has just said that we shouldn’t worry about what we are to eat!  To her right a circle has formed around another woman who must be worrying about the future as she having her palm read.  Directly above her, and just within the shade of the tree,  two friar-like figures are looking at her,  and seem to be ignoring Jesus.   Clearly there are references here to the Sermon on the Mount  in these details, but the over all image reminds me of the parable of the mustard seed.  Although this setting is more like a northern forest that a hillside in Galilee, these large trees did once spring from small seeds and there is ample room in the branches for the birds of the air to nest. But it is the contrast between the expansive and leafy haunt of the birds and tiny figure of Christ below which suggests today’s parable to me and indeed, the portrayal of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  The kingdom begins with Jesus.  But in the minds of the people gathered this is a travelling preacher of little status.  Yet his parable assures us that his kingdom will grow and endure.  In this contrast between the tiny figure almost hidden in a large crowd and the great unmissable trees with birds among their branches,  perhaps the artist intended to give the parable spoken by Jesus visual expression.  


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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