A superb example of how the form in a masterpiece carries the meaning
In the Roman Novus Ordo, on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Gospel reading contains these words: "Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden light." Meekness is strength shown gently by the exercise of self control. A milquetoast cannot be meek. The word rendered "easy" is better translated "beneficial:" "My yoke is beneficial, good for you." It is not "easy" in the modern sense of the word. The word in the Gospel is in fact the same Greek word which occurs in the Septuagint text of Psalm 33: "Taste and see that the Lord is good" -- which is the Communion Antiphon for this same Sunday.
Simon of Cyrene finds, in this painting by Sebastiano del Piombo, that the burden is light for him when carried together with Christ.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. (John 21:17)
Great religious art manifests the truth and very person of Jesus Christ by the various ways in which it digests, incorporates, and re-presents elements of Scripture. It is formed in the artist by a steady process of lectio divina (meditative reading of the Bible), prayer, and immersion in the liturgy (Holy Eucharist and the Divine Office). The religious artist shares with us, via the particulars of his work, the fruits of contemplation.
One of the greatest preachers with the brush is Tintoretto (1519-1594). On today’s feast –Ascension Thursday (displaced to Sunday celebration in America) – it’s worth exploring his painting of the Ascension of Christ (in the Scuola Grande of San Rocco in Venice), which draws us up through a symphony of biblical allusions to contemplate the fullness of the paschal mystery.
An often overlooked truth about art is that a good painting, like the liturgy and like Christian spirituality as a whole, is experienced bodily. We do not just look at it from outside; if we appreciate it properly, we move through it. Most paintings are designed to be entered from the lower border, near one of the corners. In this case, we are introduced to the scene by the foreground apostle holding a large open book; he has evidently been pondering the Scriptures.
The twist of his body, the turn of his head, and the sequence of alternating shadowed and lit planes and volumes (from book, to knee, to the other leg, to the river) all direct our gaze into a wilderness landscape where the apostles had been wandering and are now assembled. Together with the foreground apostle, we are to look at this scene from the perspective of one reading the Book.
The New Testament writers, and Christ himself, frame every event in terms of the history of salvation begun in the Hebrew Scriptures, without which we cannot understand Christ’s acts. The key event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, the departure of the Jewish people from captivity in Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land.
The apostles in Tintoretto’s canvas are reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Israel wandering in the wilderness. They have come to a riverbank. Above them Christ ascends and, at the same time, crosses over the river, moving from right to left.
This depiction, with Christ twisting as he ascends, bears several strong echoes of the account in the Book of Kings of the prophet Elijah’s transitus. Elijah crossed over the Jordan by parting the waters, just as Moses did when leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and as Joshua did when leading them into the Promised Land. Then Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind. Now Jesus, the Lord, fulfills what He Himself had foreshadowed through Moses, and through his own namesake Joshua, delivering His people from bondage and leading them into Paradise.
In contrast to the rather barren landscape below, as Christ ascends, He is surrounded by an explosion of Promised Land greenery, branches of palm and laurel borne by angels, emblems of his victorious passion. Saint Luke calls the suffering and death of Jesus an “exodus,” and Tintoretto’s painting richly testifies to the meaning this specific, inspired word opens for us.
Christ’s ascension completes his own exodus. But the implication, too, is clear: where he goes we are to follow. He is the “first fruits,” and in him our nature, including the body, is taken up. The ascending Christ we see here is fully corporeal.
Surprisingly, Tintoretto’s Christ is kneeling as he crosses over the Jordan. This unusual feature drives home still another lesson for us. Christ’s entire exodus is accomplished in obedience to the Father – which is why his suffering and death saved us. He was always, and in all things, wholly obedient to the Father. Even in His marvelous Ascension, He remains in a posture of obedience. And we too must follow Christ and strive to obey God completely, even at the cost of our lives. Sooner or later we all must pass over.
Furthermore, we Christians have already come to this riverbank, and have died and risen with Christ in baptism; we are already on the other side with Christ in His kingdom, since we are in Him and He is there.
And yet we are also still journeying in the wilderness. The apostles in the painting show us what we can do to receive strength along the way: fold our hands or cross them over our breasts in prayer; fall to our knees before the sanctuary rail (of which a rustic version is to be seen even here in the wilderness); partake of the Sacrament in which Christ remains bodily with us even as His body is also in heaven. And continually meditate upon the Holy Scriptures, for in them we find Christ, and He speaks to us.
A Byzantine hymn for the Second Sunday of Easter points to the mystical experience of Thomas, who touched, without being burnt, the Fire of the Divinity when he probed the wounds of the Risen Christ. All the Apostles touched Jesus; Thomas alone dared to put his hand into the pierced side. Why did he feel the need to probe the wounds?
Christ’s flesh veiled his Divinity. To Thomas the wounded flesh revealed the Divinity, so that he exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!” To those willing to see, the veil makes known what is beyond it; remember that “reveal” actually means “veil again.” If there were no veils, nothing at all could be seen or known in the world.
One of the virtues of Baroque art is its ability to make the veil of flesh palpable. I was moved by the role this picture by Caravaggio was given in Xavier Beauvois’ 2010 film, Of Gods and Men, a true story about Trappist monks in Algiers. The scene I refer to is fleeting but unforgettable. Brother Luc, a physician, has throughout the film been seeing Christ in all the sick and wounded persons he serves in the Muslim village. Now we see Luc at prayer in front of a copy of Caravaggio’s painting, his ear to the lance wound in Christ’s side (the pierced veil), as if he were listening to the Sacred Heart. Right after this we see Luc in the same position, but now his ear is against the window, and the veil (curtain) is drawn aside, as he listens to the footsteps approaching in darkness – terrorists who will kill the monks for the crime of being Christians. Like Saint Thomas, he and his brethren will seal with their deaths their faith in the Person who has veiled/revealed Himself to them: “My Lord and my God!”
El Greco's painting of the Expolio, the divestment of Christ on Calvary, is actually a synopsis of the Passion. The picture was painted for the sacristy of the Toledo Cathedral, where it still hangs, the room where priests vest for Mass. The ruby glow of Christ's vestment dominates the scene, but it will soon be divided by the executioners -- a reminder to priests to be ready for martyrdom. Its redness reverberates on many levels. It alludes to the robe the torturers put on Jesus to mock him, a robe dyed with cochineal -- the same substance El Greco used here as a colorant. It also refers to his garments being drenched with blood from the scourging and crown of thorns. "Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? 'It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.' " (Isaiah 63:1)
Some of El Greco's contemporaries referred to the painting as depicting the Arrest of Christ. It is that too. Note the crowd of armed soldiers and the rope. The composition is in fact based on earlier depictions of the arrest in Gesthemane. But we also see a man preparing the cross at lower right, while the three Marys on the left foreshadow the discovery of the empty tomb.
James Patrick Reid will lecture on "Art and Transformation in Christ" on April 12 at 7pm, in the Gentile Gallery at the university.
This vast painting by Tintoretto depicts the Lord washing the feet of his Apostles at the Last Supper. At first sight there appears a peculiarity: A dog occupies the center foreground, while Christ and Saint Peter are way over on the right. But try an experiment: Move so that your head is not in front of your computer but to the right of it, and then from that position look at the image obliquely.
As if by magic, the perspective has shifted. Now Christ and Peter are closest to us, and the central perspective of the painting leads from them to the Supper table and the Apostles who are learning to imitate Christ, and thence to the city (the place of mission), in this case Venice.
The effect is of course stronger in the real painting, because the figures are life size. The painting originally hung on the south wall of the 'choir' of a church, i.e., the space between the congregation and the sanctuary and altar. So the people saw the painting from the position we duplicated in our experiment. In the Prado Museum where the painting now hangs, it is on the right wall of the main hall, so visitors to the museum get this view as they approach the painting.
Tintoretto was always teaching the truths of the Christian Faith in his paintings. Here he reminds us that we must let Christ cleanse us of our sins before we partake of His Supper; and that once we are nourished with His Body and Blood we are to imitate His example of service.
February 18 is the memorial (celebrated in churches and chapels of the Order of Preachers) of Blessed John of Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico. Today we look at one of his masterpieces.
Today we look at the conversion of Paul as painted by another Michelangelo, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. His first try at it was not very successful. Trying to imitate the tumult of Buonarroti's fresco which we saw the other day, Caravaggio only arrived at confusion, and the picture was rejected by the patron.
Returning to meditate on the scriptures, Caravaggio found what his talent could express: the interior drama of spiritual illumination:
ACTS Chapter 9: And Saul, as yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest,
2 And asked of him letters to Damascus, to the synagogues: that if he found any men and women of this way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 And as he went on his journey, it came to pass that he drew nigh to Damascus; and suddenly a light from heaven shined round about him.
4 And falling on the ground, he heard a voice saying to him: Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
5 Who said: Who art thou, Lord? And he: I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the goad.
6 And he trembling and astonished, said: Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?
7 And the Lord said to him: Arise, and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do. Now the men who went in company with him, stood amazed, hearing indeed a voice, but seeing no man.
8 And Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. But they leading him by the hands, brought him to Damascus.
Now all the drama is internal, and is starkly expressed by the light of revelation banishing the darkness of ignorance. Art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has pointed out how the red cloak surrounding the sword alludes to the Christians' blood Paul had intended to spill; and how Paul's gesture, like that of a baby lying helpless, and also like that of a stricken man with outstretched arms, shows his new calling to imitate Christ's life from the manger to the cross.
"I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." By persecuting the Church, Christ's members upon earth, Paul has been persecuting Christ himself. The figures surrounding Christ centripetally, like spokes of a wheel, represent the persecuted Church; for even while they are pilgrims upon the earth they are citizens of heaven. A bolt from heaven explodes upon earth, sending Paul's entourage scattering. Paul is clothed in green and rose -- colors of spring, of rebirth.
After Saint Vincent de Paul met Saint Francis de Sales in Paris, he exclaimed "How good God must be, since the bishop of Geneva is so good!" Here we see the good bishop surrounded by the simple people who lovingly called him "father," (and he was glad they called him that rather than the customary titles used with bishops). The glow of the purple shoulder cape in Bonnard's canvas aptly conveys the beauty of the holiness of the office, which is most clear when the cape rests on the shoulders of one so good and holy.
Art historian Marilyn Aronberg Lavin showed that Piero della Francesca's "Baptism of Christ" actually has Epiphany for its theme. In the background the Magi journey toward Bethlehem, as one of them points to the sky. (There are four Magi here; the Scriptures never specify their number.) The Angels on the left allude to matrimony; note that two of them are crowned. As we sing in the Benedictus antiphon for Epiphany, "Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed away her sins in Jordan's waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia."
In these doors for the Church of Saint Stephen Martyr in Washington, D.C., artist Anthony Visco depicts the holy deacon's martyrdom and vision of Christ, with surrounding panels showing scenes from his life, including his ordination, his ministry to the poor, and his preaching. As he lived, so he died, loving, honoring, and serving the Lord. Such doors give the act of entering a church its full significance! Note that here, too, the saint leans into his death, and his diagonal inclination is drawn upward by Christ. To lean thus is not to fall, but to be uplifted.Read More
Carpaccio's painting reminds us that the sanhedrin cast Stephen out of the city and then stoned him. The holy deacon had just recounted the history of salvation to them -- salvation wrought in the wilderness, where Stephen himself is about to enter glory. Note the horizontal edge of the plain behind Stephen's shoulders, expressing stability and peace. The saint leans into his martyrdom, a movement driven by the white shape of his tunic below his dalmatic, and amplified by the light shape in the mountain above him. Truly the saint can lean into God's love, trusting Jesus to receive his spirit.Read More
The perspective which the Carmelite mystic employs in this drawing accentuates the κατάβασις (katábasis), the descent of Christ in his voluntary humiliation and suffering.
"For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross." -- Philippians 2: 5-8
"God helped her in the early morning light; the Most High sanctified His dwelling." El Greco's masterpiece, with its refulgence of both the sun and the moon, conveys the feeling of this antiphon from 2nd nocturn of the feast. Also this response to the 4th lesson: "I made an unfailing light arise in the heavens." And yet more: ""She is the splendour of the eternal light and the mirror unspotted. For she is more beautiful than the sun, she is purer than light itself." (response to 5th lesson) The painting furthermore contains imagery from a homily by Saint Germain: The ship at lower right alludes to the "port of salvation;" the "fragrant lily and unfading rose;" the "palace wherein is the spiritual bridal chamber;" and the "fountain of flowing waters."
There is a close connection between the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Both feasts celebrate the fact that she offered no resistance to divine grace. And El Greco's painting celebrates that connection. Consider the following verses from the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast of the Assumption: "Mary has been taken up into heaven! The angels are rejoicing;" "The holy Mother of God has been exalted above choirs of angels."
This two minute video will lead you into this icon of Saint Nicholas.Read More
Bellini records the characteristic geological formations of Alverna, a mountain whose rocks were rent, according to early Franciscan tradition, at the consummation of Christ's Passion (Matt. 27:51). The flora and fauna, however, pertain not so much to Tuscany as to the poetic images in Isaiah, the Psalms, and Job. The painting, like the early Franciscan tradition, is replete with biblical typology. The onager (wild ass) from the book of Job, the nicticorax (here a bittern) and pelicanus solitudinis (here a grey heron) from Psalm 101, typify solitude in the wilderness in Patristic writings. Like Isaac the Syrian, Francis contemplates "the flame of things." Or as Maximus the Confessor writes, "the unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of His beauty inside every thing." Francis is, in fact, likened to Moses here. Having come from pasturing his flock (the Franciscan Order) to the mountain, he removes his sandals and gazes at the laurel tree (which was believed to resist burning), as the tree bends under the radiance in the sky at the upper left of the picture. The rabbit (another representative of the hermit in the wilderness) peering out from a hole in the rock, alludes to Moses standing on a rock (Christ) and hidden in a hole in the rock on Horeb, witnessing the Glory of God who passes by (as recounted in Exodus). The whole painting is a visual theophany.
All things work together unto good for them that love God. The theology of Divine Providence shines forth in this composition. For more about art as a witness to Providence, see the essay "Fitly Framed Together" in the Writings section at www.SacredPaintings.org