Art Reflections

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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