Vitality and contemplation

Four men and four books: this painting makes a study of rapt meditation, of purposeful remembering; a contrast not just ofold with young, but of the humbled wisdom of experience with an arresting and direct inspiration. The painting is a symbol of the Gospels and the men who, according to tradition, wrote them. The central figure in the light cloak is ''John.'' The old man on the right with pen poised, almost as if he is correcting his record, is thought to represent ''Matthew.'' Of the other two, which one is ''Luke'' and which ''Mark'' nobody has been able to guess. The absence of attributes, which are the traditional method for identifying evangelists in pictures, has even persuaded some commentators that the subject is not, after all, ''The Four Evangelists'' but ''Christ Among the Doctors.''

The Louvre, however, sticks firmly to the first title, its experts having argued, among other things, that the central figure is definitely an adult and not a 12-year-old child, as Jesus was, according to the account in Luke's gospel , when his parents found him holding his own with the rabbis and scribes in Jerusalem. Also they have pointed out that there are very few examples in 17 th-century Flemish art of paintings representing ''Christ Among the Doctors.'' It is intriguing, however, to note that Jordaens himself painted the subject much later in his career, as a huge altarpiece. In the drawings for the altarpiece - I haven't seen even a reproduction of the work itself - the artist shows a Jesus who is definitely a child surrounded by a remarkable assortment of scholarly physiognomies, some of them so unflattering that a deliberate satire on ecclesiasts might be suspected. After all, it was Jesus' precociousness which was the crux of the story.

In the Louvre painting shown here, which is a comparatively early work (approximately 1620-22), Jordaens presents no dramatically obvious contrast between the central youth's ''understanding and answers'' and the astonishment of the elders surrounding him. Instead, all four of them are united in their intentness, in their absorption in the ''Word.''

Jordaens was greatly influenced by the older artist, Rubens, and was used by that painter-impresario to assist in various of his own projects. Unlike Rubens, he did not come under the spell of Italian art by actually travelling to Italy, though he must have had considerable access to prints after Italian masters and to whatever original paintings came to Antwerp.

In his ''Four Evangelists'' the vigorous naturalism of Caravaggio is a clear presence, and the three older evangelists have ruddy, strong faces which are neither intellectual nor obviously pious; they have affinities with the rough peasant models which Caravaggio used in depicting the apostles in his religious works. Jordaens' ''St. Matthew'' is, in fact, based on existing oil studies of a known model, Abraham Grapheus. This expressive face was reused by the painter as a faun in an entirely different kind of picture. Some indication of his purpose in the ''Four Evangelists'' may be hinted when we realize that he thought the same features were suitable for the author of a sacred book and for a pagan wood deity. St. Matthew was a publican, a customs house officer, and as such belonged to a despised class. To picture him as a socially acceptable person would have been all wrong.

St. John, on the other hand, is represented as not just more innocent and youthful, and more prominent, but, by means of a subdued introversion of style, he is shown as perhaps the most spiritually open, most immediately connected and lucid, of the Gospel writers. His gospel differs from the others in its greater emphasis on eternal life as a present as well as a future possession, its development of the idea of the Holy Spirit, and its sense of the glory of Jesus' resurrection and ascension beyond the suffering of the crucifixion. Something of this is captured in Jordaens' fine painting.

It is a work with an unexpected mixture of robustness and restraint, stylistically. Jordaens was capable of a marvellous Flemish exuberance. Roger Fry discussed this trait in terms of ''a kind of poetical glorification of good cheer'' and described the painter's colour as taking on ''a kind of luscious ripeness and juiciness.'' At the same time, his religious paintings can make use of this kind of glory in paint and colour and reflected lights and still be undoubtedly sincere. Towards the end of his career he turned from Roman Catholicism to Calvinism, and this change is hinted in some of his more private works. His early ''Four Evangelists,'' however, might be described as richly baroque in its expressive realization of posture, facial meaning, and gesture (the hands in this painting are a study in themselves), though its format is quiet and self-contained: all its vitality is at the service of contemplation, its outwardness made to bow to its sturdy inwardness.

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