Sadao Watanabe

The Beauty of Coming to Ourselves

 

In his novel, The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy offers an interesting observation, prompted by the experience of hurricanes. It recurs as a theme in his later writing. Here is how one observer captures it:

At one point, Will (the main character) recalls a date with a girl… The date is a disaster until the two are caught in a hurricane. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case. Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” Percy writes. The hurricane, it turns out, saved the day: “The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value…”

In [another book, Percy] asks, “Why do people often feel so bad in good environments, that they prefer bad environments? . . . Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”

This has come to be called Walker Percy’s ‘hurricane theory.’ In a moment of crisis, ‘we come to ourselves,’ and discover our connection with others. Percy’s theory helps me address a lingering question, prompted by Mark’s story about a storm on the Sea of Galilee: why did Jesus go to sleep in the boat? I love the way that Sadao Watanabe so beautifully portrays the scene. Notice how he depicts Jesus’ arm, casually resting upon the edge of the boat, with his eyes peacefully closed, while the disciples look about in alarm.

Jesus —in this image— seems to know what they have not discovered: that he rests in the Father’s hands, as do they. And so, when he says, “Peace! Be still,” he may also be speaking to them, as he clearly is to the storm. In this storm, for at least a moment, they come to themselves.

 

This post is adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 24, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image of Jesus and the Disciples in the Boat is by Sadao Watanabe (1981). The observation about Percy’s ‘Hurricane Theory,’ is by Brett Yates, as quoted by Michael Potemra.

The Beauty of Shepherding

Sadao Watanabe, Good Shepherd

 

We live in a highly visual culture, where information is largely communicated through images. As a result, we often think with mental pictures. But are the images we commonly associate with biblical texts actually faithful to Scripture? Our most familiar image of the Good Shepherd may come from Tiffany windows showing Jesus carrying a lamb. Lushly colored, like much of late 19th century art, and romantic in expression, Tiffany windows remain popular and continue to be influential today. And yet, the Tiffany approach to the Good Shepherd may have more to do with the Luke parable about the person who goes in search of the one lost sheep than John’s presentation of Jesus’ words, where he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd of the flock.

Japanese Christian woodblock artist Sadao Watanabe made several prints of the Good Shepherd. This one is beautifully simple and typical of his hand-made cards. Looking over his life’s work, we can see significant parallels between his prints and historical European art. In particular, his portrayal of biblical people is influenced by medieval Christian stained glass and manuscript illustrations, as well as by Eastern Christian iconography. In this print, we see how an Japanese artist shares our Western tendency to see the Good Shepherd in terms of our Lord’s relationship with us as individuals.

Like familiar Tiffany images, Watanabe portrays the Good Shepherd who carries a single lamb. Less familiar are other elements of his print. The artist depicts a large vine laden with grapes, which represent at least two ideas. The promised land toward which God led Israel was filled with vineyards bearing abundant fruit. And in New Testament, the fruit of the vine gains eucharistic significance through our Lord’s cup at the Last Supper. Surrounding the shepherd figure, we see flowers, likely representing the passion flower, symbolic of our Lord’s saving death. Behind the main figure are large and small bands of white against a dark background. Though the symbolism here is not immediately clear, the artist may have had in mind the words of Psalm, 23, and the valley of the shadow through which the Lord safely leads us.

These distinctive aspects of Watanabe’s Good Shepherd do not necessarily set it apart from features of Tiffany Good Shepherd windows. But notice this subtle aspect of Watanabe’s print, which reflects the influence of Christian medieval art. Whereas Tiffany images of Jesus expressively portray his presumed personality and character, Watanabe’s Shepherd resembles traditional iconographic images, where the focus is more on the Lord’s action, and less on his personality. Along with the blank intensity of the eyes, the most strongly communicative aspect of the Jesus figure is his hands, and not his facial expression. Watanabe focuses on what the Good Shepherd does; and what the Good Shepherd does is devote himself to the sheep.

 

Sadao Watanabe, The Good Shepherd, 1968. See John 10:11-18; compare Luke 15:3ff. Click here for a link to my Sunday homily on the theme of the Good Shepherd, and on historical and artistic reflection which it has inspired.