Jeremiah is the gloomiest prophet in the Bible and one of the most popular because he more than any other expresses the agonizing and self-doubt experienced by people of faith. A fierce critic of his contemporaries, persecuted and imprisoned, he witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and is said to have composed the book of Lamentations. It is for this he is remembered, in art, literature and music, as much as for what he says in the biblical book that bears his name.
Michelangelo’s introspective painting Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel in Rome (1511) best expresses the melancholy of this lonely prophet weighed down by the pressures of a hostile world . Rembrandt’s dark Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630) shows the blinded King Zedekiah and the doomed Temple of Solomon in the background (Jer 52:11-13). Donatello’s marble statue in Florence (ca. 1427) portrays a man wracked with exhaustion and self-doubt (figure 3) and a stone statue by the twentieth-century Zimbabwean artist Andrew Mabanji in St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, shows Jeremiah carrying the inscription “The Word is a fire in my heart…” (Jer 20:9; figure 4).
In the Jewish liturgy, the book of Lamentations is the scroll traditionally read during the fast of the Ninth of Ab commemorating the destruction of the temple and other catastrophes in Jewish history, and Chagall portrays the prophet as a modern Jew mourning the death of the “Six Million” in the Holocaust (1956; figure 5). In Christian tradition Jeremiah is associated with the passion of Christ as in the medieval illustrated Biblia Pauperum where he accompanies scenes of the kiss of Judas (Jer 9:8) the mocking of Christ (Lam 3:14), and Christ carrying the cross (Jer 11:19). In Claus Sluter’s statue on the well of Moses in Dijon (1395-1406), Jeremiah’s scroll has the words of Lam 1:12, beginning O Vos Omnes, “All you who pass by” (figure 6).
In literature Jeremiah appears in a powerful poem by the sixth-century Hebrew poet Eleazar ben Kallir, composed as a dirge for the Ninth of Ab and still printed in Jewish prayer books. The metaphysical poet John Donne wrote a lyrical translation of “The Lamentations of Jeremy” probably around the time of his wife’s death in August 1617. Other poems include Robert Burns’s agonized paraphrase of Jer 15:10: “Ah! Woe Is Me, My Mother Dear!” (1771-1779) and Gerald Manley Hopkins’s angry sonnet inspired by Lam 12:1: “Thou art indeed just, Lord, I contend” (1889). The African American spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead” was inspired by Jeremiah too (Jer 8:22).
Since the early Middle Ages, passages from Lamentations were sung at Mattins (morning prayer) in Holy Week, and there are many choral settings including two motets by Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), Leçons de ténèbres by Couperin (1714), Stravinsky’s Threni (1958), and O Vos Omnes (Lam 1:12) by Victoria (1585), Vaughan Williams (1922), Pablo Casals (1932), and many others. In 1591 William Byrd composed a beautiful motet inspired by the image of Rachel weeping for her children (Jer 31:15-17), and his anthem Plorans Plorabit no doubt laments the state of the English monarchy in the early 1600s (Jer 13:17-18). Haydn’s Symphony no. 26, composed for Easter week, is known as La Lamentatione (1768), and Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah symphony (1943) contains musical allusions to the Jewish liturgy as well as verses from Lamentations sung in a soprano solo (Lam 1:1-3, Lam 1:8, Lam 4:14-15, Lam 5:20-21).