Art is God’s idea

Karl Zerbe: Job

ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 March, 2019

Karl Zerbe: Job

Faith, Without which we Could not Go On

by William R. Cross

Job’s name may be familiar, but what do we know of his story? This 1949 picture by Karl Zerbe (1903-1972) is a journey into the heart of suffering. It was a voyage shaped by the artist’s recognition, from America, of atrocities committed in the name of his native Germany.    

The nearly life-sized painting depicts a kneeling middle-aged man, his arms outstretched. Except for a loincloth and a shawl barely covering his gaunt shoulders, he is naked, like Adam, a man of mud. His enormous hands are open in gesture; he is in active dialogue. His posture invites multiple readings, of complaint, bewilderment or exhaustion. Yet one thing is unambiguous: he is outward-looking, listening hard. There is an honesty and a dignity to his pain. He holds nothing back.

The black and white bones against the yellow ground shimmer as elegantly as a Klimt-painted gown. Darkened embers (all similar in their sizes and shapes) contrast with white fragments, each unique, like shards of broken Hebrew letters. The blue stripe and tassels on the right suggest tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl, while the prominent crescents on Job’s shoulders evoke a yoke, a symbol of servitude. Or are they symbols of authority, as they were for pre-Islamic Persian monarchs? Similarly, do the deep creases in Job’s hands reflect a life of hard labor or the leather straps from tefillin, the phylacteries Jews wear in morning prayers to connect their hands, heart and head? Jewish scholars have found several Hebrew letters in the painting. One in yellow at the upper left corner and in red at upper right, is Shin, the first letter of the central prayer of Judaism (the Shema). It means “Hear.” The placement of tefillin on one’s hand forms the letter Shin. Might the letter appear on the palm of Job’s outstretched right hand?

“His ears are strangely pointed. Pointed ears have a long association with the caricatures of anti-Semitism, and of figures typecast as evil. But like the letter Shin these ears may denote attentive listening. At the end of the book (Job 42:5-6, English Standard Version), Job considers his own story and speaks to God:

            I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
            But now my eye sees you;
            Therefore I despise myself,
            And repent in dust and ashes.

Zerbe’s model for Job is Zerbe himself; the painting is a self-portrait made during a period of crisis in both his life and work. He had painted for a decade in encaustic, an ancient method of mixing pigment and wax at high heat and then applying the mixture to a panel or other substrate. But suddenly the vapors the process released into his unventilated studio gave Zerbe an extreme allergic reaction. He would never again make a work in encaustic. The act of art-making threatened the very life of the artist, although the health of one painter pales against the enormity of the Holocaust. Zerbe wrote of the painting that “it is a drama of faith, without which we could not go on . . . The miasma arising from humanity after the second world war, that pathetic mixture of hope, doubt, and despair, finally brought it to the point of concrete outward expression . . . an intermixture of physiological reaction and philosophical credo . . . symptom and symbol became fused in pictorial organization.”   

Hebrew scholars have long treasured the book of Job, and honored the memory of this man who worshipped the true God in the face of many reasons to lose his faith. But Job himself is not Jewish; he is from a loosely-described Eastern land, Uz. Zerbe depicts him to be not only “blameless and upright” but also Jewish. Job stands with and for the millions of Jewish men, women and children, each with his or her own story, who suffered torment without reason in concentration camps liberated less than five years prior to his making this painting. He sees in those people, and in Job, a character which commands admiration, as they lived and died in dignity within, and despite, conditions of cruelty beyond comprehension.

In painting Job as himself and as a man rooted in the particularity of Judaism, Zerbe also paints him as an archetype of unjustified and inexplicable suffering, an inspiration to all people in all time. Most men and women will not live with such horrific torment as those who died at the hands of Hitler’s executioners.  Yet all people experience profound pain, from the deaths of children to chronic disease. And in all these circumstances, as Elie Wiesel has observed, God himself is on trial. God places himself as the suffering servant, “pierced for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5) In picturing Job as Jewish and in seeing his own suffering in this man of Uz, Zerbe presents a powerful witness to the painful truth of evil and to resilience in its face, by the power of God’s ultimate sovereignty. Even – and perhaps especially – in the darkest hours God hears us and calls us to hear him. “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than the beginning.” (Job 42:12) May we too trust in the sovereignty which, through the darkness, Job saw and heard.


Karl Zerbe: Job, 1949, pigmented wax on Masonite, 94.3 x 65.09 cm. The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Karl L. Zerbe (1903–1972) is best known today as one of the three leaders of the Boston Expressionist school, with Hyman Bloom (1913-2009) and Jack Levine (1915-2010). Unlike Bloom (who immigrated as a young boy) and Levine, who was born in Boston, Zerbe came to the United States permanently at the age of 32, in 1935. He became a U.S. citizen four years later, nevertheless retaining an identity which was partly German despite spending much of his childhood in France and suffering persecution as a young man at the hands of the Nazi government, which would perpetrate far greater horrors. With a Catholic mother and a nominally Lutheran father, Zerbe was arguably gentile and unobservant in his religious practice. But his colorful, iconographically dense works testify to his immersion in a rich cultural life and to his debt to Jewish artists such as Bloom, Levine and Chaim Soutine (1893/4–1943) and to Christian painters including Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475–1528) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958). Through his teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Florida State University, he helped shape a generation of American painters.

William R. Cross writes a weekly column on art and the gospel for his fellow parishioners at Christ Church, Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA.



1. ART STATIONS OF THE CROSS AMSTERDAM – TROUBLED WATERS, An Exhibition across Amsterdam in 15 Iconic Destinations, 6 March – 22 April 2019. “Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ words from the cross resonate with the anguish felt by many people today. This feeling is especially acute for those on the margins of society, from refugees to victims of sex-trafficking. This unique public art project takes visitors on a creative and contemplative journey, using the story of the Passion to reflect upon contemporary injustices. The project takes inspiration from the tradition of the Stations of the Cross, which represent 14 events along Jesus’ final journey through Jerusalem—from his condemnation to his crucifixion and burial. In Amsterdam we have added a 15th station, a resurrection station. This exhibition charts its own Via Dolorosa or Way of Suffering with stops in 14+1 sites across the city center of Amsterdam. It weaves through secular as well as religious spaces, including the Oude Kerk, Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, the Hoftuin (Corvershof), Oudezijds 100, the Amsterdam Museum, the St. Nicolaaskerk, Keizersgrachtkerk, Moeder Godskerk, Waalse Kerk, the Mennonite Singelkerk, and The Small Museum at Paradiso. The exhibition focuses on Amsterdam’s historic identity as a port-city. The sea can be a place of miracles—as the Bible teaches—but it is also the site of trauma. Syrian refugees have attempted perilous crossings of the Mediterranean to escape their country’s civil war. Young people have arrived in Europe via shipping containers, only to be enslaved in sex-work.  And rising water temperatures caused by climate change have led to unprecedented natural disasters, especially impacting the poor. Instead of easy answers, Stations aims to provoke reflections: artistically, spiritually, and ethically. The artists: Arent Weevers, Jan Tregot, Janpeter Muilwijk, Hansa Versteeg, Erica Grimm, Lynn Aldrich, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Güler Ates, G. Roland Biermann, Masha Trebukova, Yona Verwer, Iris Kensmil, Anjet van Linge and Paul van Dongen. Amsterdam is the fourth location of the Stations of the Cross project after London, Washington D.C. and New York. The project is co-founded by Professor Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing, both based in the US. The Amsterdam exhibition is organized by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ArtWay, curator) and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth (Visio Divina, curator), Rev. Klaas Holwerda (PKN, program director), and Dr. Lieke Wijnia (University of Groningen, education coordinator) in cooperation with ArtWay (initiator). For more info about the stations, the route, the program, and the symposium I Believe in Contemporary Art (March 23), see

2. CALL FOR PAPERS - 10 October – 12 October, Porto, Portugal: Sixth International Conference on Contemporary Religious architecture, 'Architectures for a New Liturgy - Religious Heritage Actions after Vatican II'. The objective is to reflect on the footprint left by the renewal of the Catholic liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, especially in buildings of high heritage value; on the regulations issued by the different agencies responsible for their custody and on the relevance of contemporary artistic interventions in them. Call for papers deadline: 15 March. 

3. WORKS IN CLAY FOR CONTEMPLATION - 1 March – 18 April, Sarum College, 19 The Close, Salisbury, England: Works in Clay for Contemplation. The exhibition is a series of The Stations of the Cross: Stopping Places and a series exploring our inner pilgrimage, Journey. Mary uses porcelain clay, which is folded, torn and cut: stained coloured and marked, to create works for contemplation. For a deeper experience of the artwork, join Mary Flitcroft’s retreat, Holy Week at Sarum (15 to 17 April) where space will be given for contemplation – looking, making, and prayerfully exploring. Mo – Sa 9 – 17 h, Su 10 – 16 h.

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