Art Reflections

Sunday 25 October 2020

An unfortunately unknown colonial artist produced what is probably the most delightful and endearing piece of American folk art, entitled simply and appropriately Baby in Red Chair (c. 1810-1830). The simplicity of the title and the anonymity of the painter befit the image itself.

A small child sits safe, secure and comfortable in its rustic red chair, at peace with the world and everything in it, unconcerned with the troubles of the day or the morrow. Its little folded hands, tilted head, closed eyes and half smile all bespeak contentment and quiet joy. This child accepts confidently and without the need of words that it is loved and cherished, and that all is well and will be well.

It reminds me that fidelity to prayer of any kind can lead us eventually to a prayer of silent presence before the Lord. This child is an image of someone deeply at one with the Lord in prayer, and so totally at peace with all else as well. But we needn’t wait until our prayer develops to such a stage. Christ taught us to strive toward peace: setting aside fears and anxieties, excessive desires and self-esteem, confident in God’s unconditional love and providential care, grateful for all that has been, open to all that shall be, and becoming more childlike even as we age.

Sunday 18 October 2020

The Pharisees and Herodians, who opposed each other on the issue of taxes, joined together to ask a question to get Jesus into trouble with either the people or the Romans. Peter Paul Rubens pictured His response in The Tribute Money (1610-1615). With St. Peter beside him, Jesus takes the coin of tribute bearing Caesar’s image, points to heaven and fixing an unflinching gaze on them responds his famous “Render unto Caesar.” They react with indifference, rejection, evasion, puzzlement, anger. He escaped their trap. The man in the turban—probably Rubens—looks at us to draw us into the event and to ask what we make of it all.

In the same chapter of Matthew three other questions are posed. Sadducees, who believe in the Torah but not the resurrection, ask a question about the resurrection to reduce it to an absurdity. Jesus refutes them with a Torah text they should have understood better. Pharisees, who are legal fanatics, ask about the greatest law, and Jesus silences them with the perfect reply. Then He questions them. Every Jew knew that the Messiah is the Son of David. Why then, He asks, does David in a well known psalm do what no Jewish father would ever do—call his son Lord (Ps 110:1). They are dumbfounded and cannot reply.

Sunday 11 October 2020

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He sent his servants to summon the guests, but they wouldn’t come. He sent other servants to stress that the meal was ready, but the guests made light of this, went about other business, and abused and even killed his servants. The king punished those individuals and then sent his servants out a third time into the streets to invite anyone and everyone to come to the feast.

Andrei Mironov, a contemporary Russian artist, chose to illustrate this third invitation in his Parable of the Wedding Feast (c. 2014). The three servants aren’t at the doors of selected individuals, but on the open road, gesturing and crying aloud to all and sundry: young and old, soldiers, beggars, men plowing and sowing, people driving sheep and cattle, carrying baskets and water jugs, conversing and arguing. All are called to come to the celebration. The people circle around the servants, leaving the space between us and the servants open. They do not look directly at us, but we know that we too are invited to the eternal feast in the Kingdom of His Son, not through any merits of our own, but out of God’s infinite graciousness.

Sunday 4 October 2020

The faithful who attended services at St Francis Church in Borgo San Sepolcro would have seen the front of Sassetta’s altarpiece featuring The Virgin and Child with Saints. The back, however, portrayed his Ecstasy of St. Francis (1437-44), visible to the friars in their choir stalls. The image was meant to inspire the monks to grow in the spiritual life as Francis did, especially making them aware of the need to overcome their sinful inclinations by striving after the opposite virtue.

Francis bearing the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side stands in the midst of a mandorla, symbolizing the glorious heavenly realm. At his feet are three persons, three animals and three symbols of vice. A young woman gazes into a mirror while leaning upon a boar. While it might be vainglory, the pig clearly indicates lust. A soldier with a sword and a lion indicates pride. A widow with a wolf squeezes a moneybag in a press, which stands for avarice. Around Francis’ head, three angels who stand for the vows of religion counteract those vices. The angel in white with a lily is chastity, the angel bearing a yoke obedience, and the angel in a patched robe poverty.

While these vices and virtues have special meaning for religious who have taken the three vows, we might paint a different picture for ourselves. What are our main weaknesses and temptations? And what are the opposite virtues we need to practice? How would you symbolize your virtues and vices? And is there another saint who might be your patron in this undertaking?

Sunday 27 September 2020

Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), stolen 30 years ago and not yet recovered, shows a surging sea throwing the disciples’ boat upward. The foaming sea, the angle of the mast and the disciple vomiting over the side of the boat all show the violence and danger of the storm. Five disciples in the sunlit prow battle the tempest while nine others in the darkened stern (one in the cabin) have roused Jesus from sleep, frantic for His help.

Five and nine? That’s too many disciples. The figure in green holding his hat and looking directly at us is Rembrandt and the other extra disciples are placeholders for us. Rembrandt often puts himself into his paintings; here he’s a storm-tossed disciple and he wants us to be the same. Just as Ignatius would have us put ourselves into our Gospel contemplations, Rembrandt invites us to imagine ourselves in the boat with him, to experience the wind, the spray, the blown spume, the pitching craft.

He wants us to recall our own experiences of emotional upheaval and trouble, and to remember in all such moments to call upon the help of Christ who is always with us and has power over everything that threatens us.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Matthew, as a tax collector, was utterly despised. He would have been see a collaborator with the Romans, and like all tax collectors he would have squeezed the last cent he could from everyone. He may have come to hate his work, and longed to be rid of it, but who would accept him? Jesus saw him and, as Pope Francis’ motto says, had mercy on him and chose him. In Caravaggio’s painting, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), Jesus stretches out His hand, Adam’s hand from the Sistine ceiling, but now Adam is the new Adam giving life rather than receiving it. The light of grace, traversing the cross in the window, falls full Matthew’s face. Sitting amid four persons—an aggressive servant and a fearful one and two oblivious tax payers—Matthew points to himself in total disbelief that a respected rabbi like Jesus would choose him as a disciple. Caravaggio, a supporter of the papacy, has St. Peter also calling Matthew, but I think Peter was probably saying, “Lord, I said I was a sinner, but this man really is one.” From that moment, as Jesus preached God’s mercy to the crowds, they would see the one-time tax collector among His disciples, and they would know, no matter what their lives had been like, that there was also hope for them.

Sunday 13 September 2020

The decor of the chancel chapel of the famous Franciscan Church in Florence, Sancta Croce (Holy Cross), is the Cross of Christ. Its stained glass emphasizes the theological and devotional importance of the cross especially to the Franciscans. The walls are decorated with Agnolo Gaddi’s frescos of the Legend of the True Cross. The chapel also houses a relic of the True Cross and The Cimabue Crucifix (1288). The friars believed their daily lives were sanctified and their growth in holiness empowered by their devotion to the Cross and even more to the reality symbolized by the Cross, that the Son of God loved them and gave up his life for them.

One fresco, The Retrieval and Trial of the Three Crosses (c. 1385-87), portrays the story that Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, while excavating the site of the Holy Sepulcher, discovered three crosses and a titulus bearing Jesus’s name (right side). Unsure which was the cross of Jesus, she had the crosses applied to a sick woman (or a dead man) and the third cross instantly restored the individual (left side). This demonstrates the power of the Cross to heal, to give life, and to sanctify the daily lives of all men and women, including the Franciscans, which may be why three Franciscans are anachronistically pictured working in the background.

Sunday 6 September 2020

Jesus, like St. Paul and other rabbis of His day, had learned and practiced a trade. He could support Himself by the work of His hands and the sweat of His brow. But when John Everett Millais in his Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50) portrayed what carpentry actually looked like—in Victorian England and first-century Israel—he met with controversy and criticism. The London Times wrote that Millais’ “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.” Even Charles Dickens, a realist concerned with the working conditions of the poor, lambasted the painting as too realistic.

The boy Jesus has torn His hand on a nail and blood has fallen onto His foot, foreshadowing future wounds. Joseph and Mary comfort Him, St. Anne removes the offending nail, and young John the Baptist appropriately brings a bowl of water. Workers could identify with this working-class Holy Family. But it was such a scandal for the upper classes that it had to be taken down just days after it was exhibited. When God became human, however, this is how He chose to spend the first 30 years of His life. Happy Labor Day.

Sunday 30 August 2020

In the main vestibule of the National Gallery in London hangs one of its largest acquisitions, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1869) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Puvis suppressed perspective to produce a simple, flat, pale piece reminiscent of Renaissance or Byzantine frescoes and so suggestive of antiquity that we feel  present to this scene.

The executioner, his body coiled and about to strike, the servant shielding her eyes from the imminent horror, Salome with her platter ready to receive the severed head, and Herod who feared his guests more than his God—they all seem somehow disturbed, trapped by circumstances and isolated in their hidden thoughts. John, oblivious to them and fearless of death, focuses his attention rather on the shining cross, a symbol of what he had lived for and is now peacefully prepared to die for. He had answered God’s call, fulfilled his mission faithfully, and now it was over, and he is ready to go to his God. We might wonder who or what would we be willing to die for, for that is certainly a meaningful something or someone worth living for. Perhaps, like John, we are meant to point others to Christ, to prepare His way into their lives.

Sunday 23 August 2020

Rembrandt’s drawing of The Healing of the Mother-in-Law of Saint Peter (c. 1658) was problematic for him because he was consistently more faithful than other artists to the Gospel details, and the synoptic evangelists describe this event differently.

Matthew wrote that Jesus touched the woman’s hand (Mt 8:15), which is how Jesus usually heals. He touches the sick and the fullness of life that resides in Him flows into them. And the people all tried to touch Jesus, because healing power flowed forth from Him (Lk 6:19).

Luke wrote that Jesus rebuked the fever and it left her (Lk 4:39), which is how Jesus exorcizes an unclean spirit. He doesn’t touch them; rather, He commands the evil spirits to leave and they obey.

Mark wrote that Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up (Mk 1:31). More than 40 times in the New Testament the word “raised up” (ἤγειρεν) means “to raise from the dead,” which suggests here that sickness is an early encroachment of the power of death and that Jesus’ healings ultimately indicate His power even over death itself.

Rembrandt avoids any theologies of sickness or healing. He simply pictures Jesus helping a woman up with both hands, a person of kindness and humanity helping someone else in need.

Sunday 16 August 2020

The Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (c. 1100-1131), painted by an unknown artist probably in Constantinople, is the type of icon that emphasizes the natural tender attachment between mother and child. They embrace cheek to cheek, and Jesus’ left hand reaches around to embrace His mother’s neck.

Her head is bowed toward Him, but her almond-shaped melancholy eyes are fixed on us. Her left hand calls our attention to Jesus, who gazes up with wonder at his mother’s sadness. She is deeply concerned for her Son, knowing there is suffering in His future. But she is also our mother and is concerned for us, knowing that we will be the cause of His suffering. Her gaze speaks of disappointment, sorrow, love and forgiveness. Her love for her Son is the ideal of a Christian’s relationship to Christ, and she invites us to share it.

Icons are not meant to portray what a person looked like in life; they are windows into heaven through which we see the person’s present spiritual reality. Assumed into heaven, Mary still regards us as her beloved children, still is concerned for us, and still invites us to share her love for her Son and His love for her.

Sunday 9 August 2020 

Tiepolo’s drawing of Christ Leading Peter, James, and John to the High Mountain for the Transfiguration (c. 1785-1795) is a rare instance of this scene in Western art. Depictions of the ascending of Mount Tabor entered Eastern iconography about 840 years after the first known Transfiguration icon.

Jesus selected those three disciples to be with Him earlier in the house of Jairus and later in Gethsemane, wanting them to witness His power and glory to prepare them for His agony. On Tabor they would overhear His conversation with Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) and so learn what the Hebrew Scriptures said about His forthcoming crucifixion. In Eastern icons rays of light descend from Christ to each disciple, opening their eyes to see His glory, and indicating that they too, and we as well, will one day share it.These three were special friends of Jesus even among the Twelve.

Manresa retreatants are also special friends of Jesus. For, of the 2.4 billion Christians in the world, how few have received the grace of a retreat, called, like these three, to come aside with Jesus, to climb the spiritual mountain of prayer and to gain a deeper knowledge of Christ and His relationship with them. 

Sunday 2 August 2020

Bernardo Strozzi’s painting, Feeding the Multitudes (c. 1631-1644), unlike most paintings of this story, does not show the multitudes. It’s also called The Miracle of the Five Loaves and Two Fishes, although it doesn’t show the miracle either.

The disciples had asked Jesus to send the people away so that they could get something to eat. Jesus points toward the multitude—5000 men, plus women and children—and tells the disciples to feed the crowds themselves. Andrew gestures toward a small boy holding a basket with five loaves and two fish. He’s saying that this is all they have to work with. His expression says the task is impossible. Two disciples look at Jesus from behind wondering perhaps if he were serious. A third disciple stares at and so draws our attention to the pitifully few items in the basket. Even the little boy seems apologetic that he has so little to offer.

Strozzi has portrayed the problem: Christ is giving His disciples a task beyond their ability or resources. But as the disciples begin to distribute the food, giving pretty much everything each of them has to the person in front of them, they find over and over again they still have enough for the next hungry person. We too seem sometimes called upon to do the impossible, but find that with God’s help nothing is.

Sunday 26 July 2020

In Rembrandt’s magnificent Supper at Emmaus (1648) Christ’s subtle halo is reflected and expanded by the huge arched recess behind Him. Its grandeur proclaims both His divinity and the solemnity of the moment. It so evokes the apse of a basilica that the table in front of it becomes an altar and the scene eucharistic. The table’s open side toward us bids us join the disciples at the very moment their eyes were being opened to recognize the risen Lord.

The mingled themes of blindness and sight fascinated Rembrandt and they appear here and in many of his other works. Like these two disciples, we need to have our eyes opened to see the divinity of the risen Christ and His presence in the Scriptures and the breaking of bread, in the stranger on the road and the guest at our table, in the person at our door in need of shelter and food, in all the people in our lives, and in all the moments of our lives, both joyful and trying.

A restorer took eleven months to remove seven layers of varnish so that we might see Rembrandt’s work more clearly. What must we do to see the Lord in our lives more clearly?

Sunday 17 July 2020

St. Thomas had seen the ravaged body of Christ, had seen Him buried, and could still see the other apostles hiding in the upper room. So, although he had probably said more than he meant to, he did have reason to doubt. Christ understood and came to disperse that doubt. In Caravaggio’s somewhat gory Incredulity of Thomas (c. 1601–1602) Jesus pulls the doubter’s hand into the gaping wound in His side.

This event was recorded for our sake, to tell us that we are blessed, even more blessed than St. Thomas. For he saw and so believed, but we believe without seeing. Our faith is being tested these days. Christ shows us and draws us into the woundedness not of His risen body, but of His members on earth. We are meant to see Christ in those who suffer and to expect that one day their wounds and ours will become as glorious as Christ’s are. St. Peter adds that though we have not seen Christ, we love him (1 Peter 1:8). So, without seeing, how strong is our faith and our love, and how aware are we that Christ is still with us in every place and time and situation?

Sunday 12 July 2020

Vincent van Gogh based his The Sower (1888) on his favorite painting, Millet’s work by the same name. But Millet’s image focused completely on the sower. In van Gogh’s broader canvas the sower is a smaller and humbler part of a much greater picture.

Van Gogh’s sower strides across the field broadcasting seed generously, knowing there will be waste and loss. The birds and path are represented, the thorns and rocks not very evident. The artist isn’t stressing the different ways the Word is received—an allegorical interpretation probably later than Jesus.

His focus is at the top of the painting, where above the harvest field of mature grain, the sun, a symbol of God, broadcasts life-giving rays generously in all directions. And as beams of light radiate outward, they draw our eyes back inward to the sun itself.

As a former seminarian and missionary and as the son and grandson of pastors, van Gogh knows well that the sower’s task is to sow the seed, but it is only God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6 and Mk 4:26-28). Our labor is important, but in the spiritual life God and grace are primary—an important lesson to learn in our individualistic and results-oriented culture.

Sunday 5 July 2020

Grant Wood undoubtedly painted this satirical Daughters of the American Revolution (1932) as payback for their antagonism to him three years earlier. Its Cedar Rapids chapter, out of sheer anti-German prejudice, had scuttled the public dedication of his monumental stained-glass window in the Veterans Memorial Building, because he had used German workmen and German glass in its production. This was a very low period in the history of the DAR. They had refused to allow Paul Robeson in 1930 and Marion Anderson, famously, in 1939 to use their Constitution Hall because of their “white-performers-only” policy. When Anderson sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial 75,000 people crowded the National Mall to hear her.

Wood’s painting contrasts two kinds of patriotism. Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (a German!) recalls Washington and his soldiers and all those since who dedicated themselves and their lives to establishing, defending, and promoting the values and ideals for which America is rightly praised. In contrast, the three elderly women in their faded dresses and others like them give lip service to our nation while undermining those same values and ideals. America is still divided today into such disparate groups engaged in an existential fight for the soul of the nation.

Sunday 28 June 2020

Our celebration last week of the birth of John the Baptist reminded me of Dieric Bouts the Elder’s unusual painting, Ecce Agnus Dei (1463). In John’s Gospel the Baptist was standing at the Jordan River with two disciples, and when he saw Christ passing by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:35-36). The two disciples heard this and began to follow Jesus.

In this rendition, however, Bouts replaced the two disciples with the donor of the picture, who undoubtedly had specified the change. The painting then became so personalized that it could hang nowhere except in the donor’s house, which is what he intended.

The man can afford to commission paintings. He’s well-off and dresses accordingly. He’s portrayed here as a devout Christian who wants to be reminded daily to follow Christ by the constant presence of this painting and by John the Baptist, who is probably his patron saint. He may well be a follower of Devotio Moderna, the prevailing religious movement at the time that focused on the imitation or following of Christ.

We might imagine ourselves in this man’s place and hope to be constantly reminded by that image to go to Christ and to follow him daily.

Sunday 21 June 2020

Christ and Abbot Mena (8th century), the oldest known Coptic icon, depicts Christ with His arm around the shoulders of Abbot Mena in a gesture of affection and protection. He seems to be introducing Mena to the host of heavenly saints that he is to join. The icon has also been called Jesus and His Friend, which subtly invites us to place ourselves in Mena’s stead and enjoy the Lord’s friendship. Christ looks at us with overly large eyes that accentuate the warm, friendly, personal quality of His image and invitation.

This composition might be founded on pre-Christian images of Osiris (the god who died and rose again) protecting Pharaoh as he leads him through the darkness of the afterlife to enter into union with the god and so enjoy eternal life.

Friday’s solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus celebrated that warm love of Christ for us at the very heart and center of His being.  May we grow more deeply convinced of that enormous unconditional love and of the close friendship Christ desires to have with us. And may we entrust ourselves to His loving protection and care as our constant friend and companion in all the vicissitudes of our lives.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Fritz von Uhde typically recast Gospel scenes like The Last Supper (1886) into more modern settings and dress, so that the more familiar images might deepen our understanding of Christ and draw us more easily into the scene. Not everyone in his day appreciated this technique, but this image does evoke feelings more difficult to experience in traditional representations of Christ’s last meal.

We would feel comfortable with these disciples, real people rather than stereotypes, mostly working-class men, whose expressions and gestures express a sincere love and dedication to their Master. Their eyes and attention and hearts are fixed totally on Him. And Jesus, His hands on the cup, is in the act of giving Himself entirely, giving His body and blood, to them and for them. That mutual self-giving creates the unity desired in this shared meal. Only Judas distances himself from the group. That unity is the meaning of the meals Christ shared with others during His public life, all His table fellowship brought to its fullest implications in this final Eucharistic meal: we who feed on the body of Christ become the body of Christ, one with Him and with one another. And yes, that is the face of Anton Bruckner at the far left.

Sunday 7 June 2020

This icon by Andrei Rublev, commonly called The Old Testament Trinity (ca. 1411), recalls how the Lord visited Abraham under the guise of three men acting in such unity that Christians interpret them as a manifestation and foreshadowing of the Trinity.

This image of three perfectly equal persons is the embodiment of spiritual unity, peace, harmony and mutual love—an example of how we should live in community with one other.

The basic composition of the image is a vertical circle that encloses and unites the three persons—the Trinity in themselves. A secondary compositional element is a horizontal circle—roughly the table top—which reaches out to include us with the three persons. We are drawn into this unity by the open space at the table, the indentation in its front, the nearness of the cup to us, and the inverse perspective that converges on us in front of the icon. This tells us that our calling in this life and our destiny in the next is to be brought into and to live within the Trinity’s community of eternal love.

Sunday 31 May 2020

The Descent of the Holy Spirit (16th-century),  a Russian icon from Novgorod, pictures twelve apostles seated in a semicircle to symbolize the unity of the church, the body of Christ. To create this unity the Holy Spirit descends on them in twelve rays that emanate from a mandorla, the mysterious presence of God, at the top of the icon.

They hold scrolls to signify that the Spirit is sending them to preach the Gospel. Below in the darkness, King Cosmos, who represents the people of the world, is receiving the scrolls of their teaching.

Interestingly, St. Paul sits across from St. Peter, even though he hadn’t yet been converted. So, the icon proclaims, not just an historical event, but the Spirit’s continuous descent on the whole church, Paul and ourselves included. We too are each day being united by the Spirit to Christ and to each other in His one body. And we are also being called to preach the Gospel—especially by our lives, as St. Francis said, “Always preach the Gospel, and use words only when necessary.”

Sunday 24 May 2020

It was difficult to resist the temptation to post this miniature sometimes known as The Ascension of Jesus Dressed as a Jesuit (1602-1605) by an unknown Mughal artist, who understandably considered Jesus and His disciples as Westerners and portrayed them as such.

We see the usual components of an Ascension painting: Jesus, the disciples and angels, but the cloud itself is very significant. Scripture says “a cloud took Him from their sight.” The upward movement—the apparent going away—is interrupted by the cloud, because the Ascension is not about Jesus’ going away, but about His entering into and sharing God’s omnipresence to all of creation. In some twenty Scriptural verses a cloud is a characteristic element of God’s appearance or presence, as when God led the Israelites through the desert as a pillar of cloud.

By His death, resurrection and ascension Jesus transcends the limitations of space and time and matter so that He’s intimately though invisibly present in every place at every moment, and so with each of us today and at every moment of our lives. St. Matthew sums up the Ascension simply with the words, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)

Sunday 17 May 2020

On the Way to Emmaus (1992) by Janet Brooks-Gerloff pictures a couple walking away from us, their faces hidden, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple who might be his wife Mary, or who might represent you or me. While it is called On the Way to Emmaus, they are actually walking in a pathless desert toward a horizon and an unknown future of intermingled sunshine and rain. Their bowed heads, stooped shoulders and dark clothing speak of sadness, grief and the loss of hope. Someone they loved dearly and believed in deeply was gone. The powers of evil had won. Perhaps there is also some doubt. Was what Jesus said about God’s love and mercy really true?

But this was Easter Sunday afternoon. And Jesus, mysteriously, barely discernible, walks along with them. He tells them of how the Christ, and sometimes His followers, must suffer in order to enter into His glory. And although they will realize this only in hindsight, their hearts are already burning. Hopefully, we can be able to acknowledge, accept and live with our earthly sorrows and also our Christian hope without denying either, and also share both of these with others for our mutual support and comfort. 

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