Art Reflections


Peter Fennessy, SJ

The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses this dry-lacquer sculpture of Buddha (probably Amitabha), or at least what is left of it. The last fifteen centuries have stripped the statue of much of its pigment and gilding and has damaged it in other ways. It shows the wear and tear of time and so it evokes a serene melancholy and acceptance of the imperfection and impermanence of all earthly things. The loss of its hands in particular suggests an appropriate response to earthly imperfection and impermanence. Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire and attachments and that the remedy is to stop clinging to what cannot last. Without hands this Buddha cannot cling to anything. It physically exemplifies the detachment Buddha taught.

St. Ignatius Loyola told us that the purpose of his Spiritual Exercises was to free us in our decision-making from the influence of any inordinate attachments. He went on to say that to fulfill our purpose in life we must be indiferentes, that is, free enough to let go of anything we might desire or cling to in order to hear and choose and do God’s will. Although separated by geography, culture, millennia, as well as their philosophical and theological differences, Ignatius and Buddha agree on the essential need for that kind of affective freedom if we are to grow in our spiritual lives.

After the Annunciation, Mary had much to be concerned about. She was going to have a child that was not her fiancé’s, which might mean her being disowned and even stoned to death. But instead of worrying about herself, she walked about 80 miles to help her relative, Elizabeth, who was advanced in years and six months pregnant. Almost all artists who paint this story, the Visitation, depict the moment when Mary and Elizabeth first meet. There are also paintings of the birth of John the Baptist three months later, but it’s often difficult to identify Mary who was undoubtedly there.

You would be hard put to find a painting, other than Robert Anning Bell’s Mary in the House of Elizabeth (1917), that illustrates what Mary did between those two events, probably because what she did was too ordinary. She would have drawn water, baked bread, cooked meals, cleaned house, washed clothes and all the other tasks women did in those days. In Bell’s painting she sews and keeps Elizabeth company, while the older woman reads. Just ordinary tasks, but through them Mary gave Elizabeth three months of her life just as she gave God her whole life through the same sort of deeds. The angel watching through the doorway seems to approve. Our lives are made up of ordinary actions, and if we don’t give them to God, God will have very little of us.

Martha once welcomed Jesus hospitably into her home (Lk 10:38-43), and like a good host began to prepare Him a meal. But in Vincenzo Campi’s painting she seems irritated and upset. It’s because she’s got quite a bit of preparing to do, and she’s been left to do it all by herself, since her sister, Mary, was somewhere else listening to Jesus. But, where were they? Was the title of the painting, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (c. 1580), a mistake? It took a while for me to notice, through the serving hatch, Jesus and Mary in the next room chatting peacefully by the fireplace.

We can easily lose sight of Jesus amid the clutter of this painting or the clutter of our activity, even though like Martha we have invited him into our lives and want to serve him with our busy-ness. That would be a good reason for us to retreat from the noise and to seek Him again in the silence of our hearts.

When Martha complains, Jesus will gently remind her that the nourishment of God’s word is more important even than physical food, that Mary has chosen well, and that Martha is distraught because she’s doing too much. There’s a difference between serving God (our way) and doing God’s will. A simple one dish meal would have been enough.

We celebrate on this Good Friday the great victory of Christ over His enemies and ours. He gained that victory by dying on the cross, of which He had proclaimed, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

William Blake drew this pen and watercolor illustration of Michael Foretelling the Crucifixion to Adam (1807) for Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Warrior Archangel gestures to Christ as Adam gazes prayerfully up at His Redeemer. And just as Adam slept when Eve was formed, now Eve sleeps as the new Adam is foretold. That ancient serpent Satan has wound itself around the foot of the cross and slid its head behind the feet of Christ so that the nail that pieced Christ’s feet transfixed the serpent’s head as well.

Also at the foot of the cross on the left lies the body of Death, his face and beard that of an old man. On the right lies Sin, her body that of a young woman. Both of them sprawl upside-down with their arms spread out as if they themselves had been crucified, and so they were. The three Hell Hounds that always attend Sin are now dead themselves, their lifeless heads resting upon her body. The infernal Trinity of Satan, Sin and Death conspired to destroy Christ, but they have themselves been undone forever by their own stratagem.

As Holy Week draws near the question might easily arise, “Why the Cross? Does the Father demand the cruel death of His innocent Son?”

No, the Father doesn’t. We do. Part of God’s plan to create us was that the Son would share our humanity so that we could share His divinity. If, instead of sinning, we had preserved the integrity of the world God created, we would all have accepted Christ totally. There would have been no cross, no violent death.

But, Petrus Christus has painted in his Nativity (1452) a wooden structure that is the world our sin created. On its twin pillars Eve holds “the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe” and an angel drives Adam from paradise. Above, Cain and Abel offer sacrifice, but the “keystone” of the arch is fratricide. And we by our own sin widen the gap between the world God meant and the world we’ve made. Auden’s poem, The Shield of Achilles, poignantly portrays the difference between the two. God foresaw that in our world the Son would meet opposition, persecution and violent death. But Christ came to us anyway, and now as a newborn naked on the bare ground has made himself totally vulnerable to us and our sinful world.

Carl Spitzweg’s Ash Wednesday (c. 1857) portrays a harlequin sitting in a stone cell. His gaudy garb is the very spirit of Carnival: revelry, indulgence, clowning around, carelessness of ourselves, of others and of God.

But Lent has begun. The revelry of Mardi Gras is over. And the harlequin is now deep in thought. He may have been arrested for his behavior or have become repentant of it, so the room might be a prison or monastery cell. Or it might just be that inner chamber that Jesus bides us enter when we pray. The light of God’s grace falls down on him from above. The pitcher of water, his only visible sustenance, suggests a time for fasting as well.

While our lives needn’t have been a riotous carnival, and our Lent won’t be spent in a cell, it is still a time for reflection, and traditionally for prayer, almsgiving and fasting. But it needn’t be somber or grim. Lent, after all, in Old English means springtime, and so a season for new life and love. Quality time given to prayer deepens our love for God. Almsgiving is basically sharing ourselves and our goods with others, which St. Ignatius says is the essence of love. And fasting from any form of overindulgence frees us from its detrimental excess, brings us to a healthy moderation and so is a more authentic self-love. I hope your love this Lent will grow in all these ways. 

As we approach the end of the church year, our daily readings focus more and more on the last days and the King who comes to judge, until we slip into Advent and the King who comes to save. Since Manresa has reopened again, we too are coming to the end—for now at least—of the various online reflections that kept us in touch virtually until we could get in touch more personally.

This icon of the Deisis (late 15th cent.) by an anonymous Byzantine iconographer is the simplest form of the Last Judgment icon. It teaches that we have responsibilities, that our deeds have consequences, that Christ will render the final verdict on our lives and that Our Lady and the saints constantly beg the Lord to have mercy on us. Deisis (DAY-e-sis) means petition, entreaty or supplication. Christ sits on his judgment seat with His mother on His right, the Baptist on His left. They bow toward Him and hold out their hands to Him, pleading and interceding for us.

The icon screens found in many Eastern churches normally contain a Deisis row, where other saints and angels join the Virgin and the Baptist to pray for us. We should be consoled by this constant support. Let us join them to pray for one another. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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? 

Rembrandt’s only seascape, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), stolen in 1990 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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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? 

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? 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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.”

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) 

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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