Through a contemporary style that pays homage to orthodox icons, Alexey Pismenny depicts the Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree in a composition of three related scenes. Each of these scenes is a moment in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13. The narrative begins with the top left scene of Pilate overseeing an execution. It then moves across to the right, to the scene of the collapsing tower at Siloam about to crush its victims. True to the fashion of traditional icons, both of these scenes are symbolic, rather than literal—they offer us just enough detail to recall the story told more fully in Luke.
In the foreground of the painting, we encounter Christ the Teacher, flanked by the fig tree and the man threatening to cut it down. Christ steps in to intercept and to offer a lesson, as he stands in the traditional teaching pose with one hand raised in instruction. There is a profound lesson in the juxtaposition here of teaching and violence, reinforced by the perfect alignment of Christ’s teaching hand and the lowered axe head. Instead of strong-arming the figure with the axe, Jesus leads him to see another way through the wisdom of his words.
The depiction of the fig tree offers us an image of hope. It is no longer the barren fig tree that stands accused. Rather it has already been tended to by Christ—the spade and bucket rest by the trunk of the tree already having been used to bring the tree back to life. Signs of life spring forth as leaves sprout from the gnarled branches. This tree is going to live and bear fruit, because Christ has given it life.
The composition of these three scenes calls us to conversion, just like the parable told to those hearing the words of Jesus. The two background scenes remind us of the finitude of life, the sin, and the suffering we experience when alienated from God. Apart from God we wither in a fruitless existence that leads to eternal isolation. Jesus offers himself to keep us from this fate and calls us to life and communion in hope.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.