Jeremiah and the Arts by John F. A. Sawyer

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).

John F. A. Sawyer, "Jeremiah and the Arts", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


John F. A. Sawyer

John F. A. Sawyer
Professor, Durham University

John Sawyer taught Bible, Jewish Studies, and Hebrew at Glasgow, Newcastle and Lancaster Universities and now lives in the northeast of England, where he is honorary professor in the Theology and Religion Department at Durham University. His publications include Prophecy and the Biblical Prophets (Oxford University Press, 1993), The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Sacred Texts and Sacred Meanings (2011).  He is currently working on Isaiah through the Centuries for the Wiley-Blackwell Bible Commentary Series, of which he is coeditor.

Indirect references to another idea or document.

The Christian springtime holiday that celebrates Jesus's resurrection.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

The standardized collection of practices—ceremonies, readings, rituals, songs, and so forth—related to worship in a religious tradition.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A formal category of prophetic oracle or lament.

Jer 52:11-13

11He put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him in fetters, and the king of Babylon took him to Babylon, and put him in prison until the day of his death.12In ... View more

Jer 20:9

9If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with h ... View more

Jer 9:8

8Their tongue is a deadly arrow;
it speaks deceit through the mouth.
They all speak friendly words to their neighbors,
but inwardly are planning to lay an ambus ... View more

Lam 3:14

14I have become the laughingstock of all my people,
the object of their taunt-songs all day long.

Jer 11:19

19But I was like a gentle lamb
led to the slaughter.
And I did not know it was against me
that they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its f ... View more

Lam 1:12

12Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day ... View more

Jer 15:10

Jeremiah Complains Again and Is Reassured
10Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor ... View more

Jer 8:22

22Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?

Lam 1:12

12Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day ... View more

Jer 31:15-17

15Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her childre ... View more

Jer 13:17-18

17But if you will not listen,
my soul will weep in secret for your pride;
my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears,
because the Lord's flock has been ... View more

Lam 1:1-3

The Deserted City
1How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a ... View more

Lam 1:8

8Jerusalem sinned grievously,
so she has become a mockery;
all who honored her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans,
and turns her ... View more

Lam 4:14-15

14Blindly they wandered through the streets,
so defiled with blood
that no one was able
to touch their garments.
15“Away! Unclean!” people shouted at them;
“Awa ... View more

Lam 5:20-21

20Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?21Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of ... View more

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