Sunday, March 20, 2022

Picturing the Parables—The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree and the Gardener


Jean Colombe, The Landowner, the Gardener and the Barren Fig Tree
From Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony
French (Bourges), c. 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 177, fol. 338r

“Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—

do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future
If not you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C


In the Gospel chosen for the Third Sunday of Lent in the yearly cycle for Year C, we are presented with two instances in which Jesus sets out examples of how God deals with our sins.  First, he relates two recent disasters that may have made people wonder, even as we ourselves often wonder following the disasters of our own time, both natural and manmade.  In the first event, Pilate, the Roman governor, had ordered that his troops mingle the blood of many Galileans with the blood of their sacrificed animals. Presumably, this resulted in their deaths, as the passage clearly implies.  This is a manufactured tragedy, an atrocity caused by tyranny.  In the second event, a tower fell on people in the Siloam area of Jerusalem.  One supposes that this is a natural disaster, due to unsteady foundations or perhaps to an earthquake.  In both cases Jesus reprimands his listeners for making a judgment on the people affected by assuming that their unpleasant deaths marked them as great sinners.  He reminds them, however, that because death can be sudden and violent, the need for repentance is absolute and immediate at every moment of life.  Our sense of wounded justice and our self-deception are not what God sees.  God does not use the disasters of life to punish us. 

Sycamore Fig Tree
From De Materia Medica by Dioscorides Pedanius of Anazarbos
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 940-960
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 652, fol. 266r

He also adds a parable to drive home the point that repentance is important, and that God is merciful.  He tells us of a landowner (God), who comes to a fig tree in his garden and finds that it is barren for the third year.  He requests that his gardener cut it down, since it is producing nothing and eating up the nutrients in the soil.  However, the gardener (also a personification of God) urges him to be merciful and to give the tree another chance.  If it is carefully nurtured for another year, it may become fruitful once again.  If not, it can be destroyed.

Parable of the Barrem Fig Tree in the Vineyard
Austrian, c. 1349-1351
Lilienfeld, Stiftsbibliothek
Institut für Realienkunde, Austria

Both the stories from the recent European news and the parable emphasize how God deals with us and our world.  He will give us time to repent in the hope that, if our souls are lovingly tended and ready to accept the care, we will be able to produce good fruit, no matter how barren our previous years may have been.  Further, God does not use disasters, whether earthquakes, plagues, or wars, to exact punishment on the guilty.  But it is up to us to receive his grace and to act on it. 

This hopeful story has much in common with some of the other Lenten gospels we have looked at over the years.  It resonates, for example, with the story of the Prodigal Son and the Woman at the Well.  However, unlike them it has not had much iconographic life.  I was surprised with how few images I was able to find, although it is possible that more exist.   The number of sites that carry iconographic materials have expanded enormously since I began writing this blog, which makes it even more surprising that so few images seem to be available. 

Parable of the Fig Tree in the Vineyard
Austrian, c. 1425-1435
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalsbibliothek
Institut für Realienkunde, Austria

Ludovico Mazzolino, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Italian, c. 1525-1530
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

One particular print image is widely held, however (I located seven in a brief survey of museum collections on the internet).  This is a late sixteenth-century printed image made by Adriaen Collaert, following a design by Hans Bol.  It comes from a series of the twelve months produced by the same team.  This format seems to have been quite a popular item in the late sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries in the Low Countries (today's Holland and Belgium).  It harkens back to the labors of the months from the calendar pages found in medieval prayer books.  But in these examples, the labors of the months relate to biblical passages.  

Adriaen Collaert after Hans Bol, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
From Emblemata Evangelica ad XII Signa Coelestia Sive
Flemish, 1585
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

So, for instance, the harvest and preparation for the coming year are associated with the story of the landowner and his gardener, who stand at the left of the image.  Meanwhile, all around them the other farm workers are collecting the abundant harvest of the other trees, filling bags with the crop and carrying them off.  Sheep are seen grazing peacefully and all seems at peace in the background.  That is until one notices that in the deep background, straight above the figures of the owner and the gardener as they confer over the barren tree, is a scene of warfare in which riders on horseback are shown with lances directed at figures who flee from them, while other figures, presumably dead or wounded lie around the base of a tower which is shown at the instant of collapse.  

Adriaen Collaert after Hans Bol, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Detail - Upper Left 
From Emblemata Evangelica ad XII Signa Coelestia Sive
Flemish, 1585
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

  Jesus stands at the far-left side of the page discussing with the Pharisees as he tells them these two stories. 

Adriaen Collaert after Hans Bol, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Detail - Lower Right
From Emblemata Evangelica ad XII Signa Coelestia Sive
Flemish, 1585
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Below the engraving is a Latin commentary on this Gospel passage from Luke (Luke 13, above) which reads in translation:

“The super-fruitful tree which in season yields fruit pleasing to the farmer is praised; the barren tree is deservedly cut down with an ax to be sold; but often the punishment of evil men may be deferred by prayers.” (My translation)

Other visualizations of this Gospel passage do exist, though none is as complete and defined as this one.  Some, like the Collaert engraving include parts of the Gospel of Luke that are described in the same chapter 13, such as the falling tower or the healing of the bent woman.  

Jean Bondol and Others, The Blood of the Galileeans is Mingled with that of Their Sacrifices and the Owner Discusses the Fig Tree with the Gardener
From Grande Bible Historiale Completé
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 B 23, fol. 502v
Claes Brouwer and Others, Miracle of the Woman Bent Over and Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 38,II, fol. 170r

Master of Edward IV, Jesus Describing the Parable of the Fig Tree to the Pharisees and the Disciples
From Vita Christi by Ludolf of Saxony
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1487-1490
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 894, fol. 219v
Here the parable itself is relegated to a small vignette just above the outstretched arm of Jesus.  The foreground and sides are filled with the Pharisees and the Disciples to whom Jesus is telling the story.

Some, like the two paintings by Abel Grimmer shown below, are modeled on the widely circulated Adriaen Collaert print already discussed.  Grimmer apparently copied in paint the series of twelve months and did it several times over.

Abel Grimmer, September, The Parable of the Sterile Fig Tree
Flemish, c. 1600
Private Collection

Abel Grimmer, September with the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Flemish, 1611
Private Collection

The seventeenth century Flemish engraver Nicolas Cochin also borrowed the composition of the Collaert/Bols print for his own, simplified, version.  His debt to the Collaert/Bols print is obvious, although he did not include the details of the falling tower and slaughtered people.  

Nicolas Cochin, Parable of the Fig Tree
From a Set of Twelve Parables
Flemish, 1672
Nancy, Museum of Fine Arts
In addition, the text on his print is a direct quotation of the words of the landowner from the Vulgate Gospel of Luke.  It reads:  "Ecce anni tres sunt ex quo venio quarens fructum in ficoluca hac, et non invenio, succide ergo illam, ut quid exiam terram occupat." Or in English "Behold, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and I find none. Cut it down therefore. Why should it encumber the ground?" (Luke 13:7) (Slightly modernized quotation from the Douai-Reims Bible.) 1

Others, especially those dating from the eighteenth century and later, reduce the field of vision only to the parable of the landowner and the gardener.   See especially the early eighteenth century prints of the Dutch engraver, Jan Luyken, all done within a handful of years and, although obviously related, subtly different from each other. 

Jan Luyken, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
From Historiae Celebriores Veteris Testamenti by Christoph Weigel
Dutch, 1708
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Jan Luyken, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
From a Bible
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This print includes a highly colloquial verse.  The meaning  can be translated very roughly as "You wait patiently for us to improve.  O, that we remembered you!" "You" being, of course, God.

Jan Luyken, Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
From The Scriptural Histories and Parables of the Old and New Covenants
Dutch, 1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

These appear in increasingly naturalistic surroundings until, by the end of the nineteenth century, they are totally realistic. 

Carl Rahl, The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Austrian, c. 1850
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

James Tissot, The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Until at the beginning of the twentieth century abstraction again entered the world of narrative art.  

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
Irish, 20th century
Dungarvan, Waterford, Ireland

© M. Duffy, 2022

1. Translation from the Douay-Rheims Latin Vulgate Bible found at

Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. All rights reserved.