Ed Riojas The Parables of the Vineyard

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Edward Riojas' Comments on The Parables of the Vineyard 

It swirled around in my head for a good while until I found reason to coax the thing out. The idea seemed worth exploring; the image worth fleshing out and sharing. With the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Church looming this year, there is now even more reason to unveil this peek into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I envisioned this as a piece that might have originated from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but clearly didn’t. I wanted a painting that used visual devices from the Northern Renaissance, but one that also contained unique ideas. I saw a piece that might be catechetical; perhaps even exegetical; one that would draw the viewer into its strange, confessional detail instead of gilding over religious fluff.

Cranach did, indeed, create a painting on the subject of the vineyard, but it relied on a rather propagandist view of Roman Catholics undoing the work of Lutherans. I chose to use a similar formula of including movers and shakers within the Lutheran Church, but ignored the Roman ingredient found in Cranach’s piece.

The result is, I think, an odd, little piece. It is also arguably one of my most important. It is called “The Parables of the Vineyard,” for it meshes several parables into one.

One may begin exploring the painting in the upper left, where a floating banner declares, “There was a Master of a house who planted a vineyard.” The passage, from Matthew 21, is more commonly known as the Parable of the Tenants. In the parable, the Master puts a hedge around the vineyard. I saw this as the Ten Commandments that not only keep us within the Kingdom, but also protect us from what is without.

The Master also built a tower. To my knowledge, no artist has ever depicted this as a church tower. I took the opportunity to use All Saints’ Church – also known as Schlosskirche or the Castle Church of Wittenberg – as the tower.

Perhaps an argument for not using a church steeple as the tower is the condemnation by the vineyard‘s Master and His giving the vineyard to others, but one must remember that the church building – though new in Luther’s day and later totally destroyed – was originally a Roman Catholic façade and not Lutheran property. It is also a reminder to us that we, too, could easily forfeit our heavenly treasure through denial of The Word in all its truth and clarity. Luther's words, in German, give clout to the church tower, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

In the same parable, the Master sends servants to gather fruit. One is beaten; another killed. Christ indicates in Matthew 5:12 that this was the fate of the prophets and could be ours, too. On the left, under the blazing sun, a prophet of old holds a scroll of The Word and is beaten. On the right, under a conspicuous crescent moon, one of the faithful is martyred at the edge of a scimitar. I don’t think I could be more visually-pointed. Chaff burns outside the vineyard, and flames lick at the heals of the wicked.

Outside of the vineyard, too, the Savior hangs on a cursed tree, but its base crushes death and Satan. Blood and Water issue from the side of the Savior and into the vineyard. His blood pours into a winepress that the Master dug, which, in turn, fills a Chalice. Water from the Lord’s side pours into an eight-sided well, into which a tomb has been dug. The tomb was used, but is now empty.

Christ is the vine and we are the branches [John 15:5], and the faithful follow the Lord’s example by working in the vineyard. Here Christ is pruning vines [John 15:2]; there He is grafting in new plants [Romans 11]; yet again He is outside urging more workers into the vineyard [Matthew 20]. This narrative view was a common device in sacred art when capturing a single moment in time would not suffice.

As was often the case of Renaissance sacred art, some of the workers may be recognizable. Martin Luther works beside LCMS President, Rev. Dr. Harrison. Outside, Luther, Katharina von Bora Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and J.S. Bach are summoned by Christ and the Kingdom’s work. Lastly and least of all, I tag along.

The gate to which we head is decidedly small. I mistakenly drew it that way, but left it, believing that Someone else was guiding my hand. Christ is the narrow gate; He is the Alpha and Omega; He is the capstone; He is the cornerstone. Christ is all.

This vision of the Kingdom is appropriate for such an anniversary. It reminds us of the work that has been handed to us by the Master of the House – work that not only needs to be done during this landmark year, but every year henceforth.

Copyright © Edward Riojas