“Sacrifice of Isaac”, c. 1603, Carravaggio, Ufizzi, Florence
Caravaggio shows the terrible moment when Abraham has put forth his hand and taken the knife to slay his son (Gen 22:10). But an angel on the left stays his hand and points to a the ram on the right. From very early on Christians understood this story to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ. “The sacrifice of Abraham” is mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer and a number of depictions of this scene are to be found in the catacombs of Rome. Caravaggio’s version does not spare us from the terror of Isaac and the violence of Abraham’s grip. However, the most arresting element is the expression of Abraham. In fact, there are echoes of a famous relief in bronze of the same subject by Brunelleschi. In 1401 Brunelleschi submitted a trial panel of this scene for the Baptistry doors in Florence. He didn’t get the commission but the panel survives.
In Brunelleschi’s panel, Abraham grips Isaac violently by the neck with his left hand and with his right presses the knife against his neck. Abraham does not look at his son but stares at the angel who stays his arm. Caravaggio uses a three-quarter length format to draw us into the action. His angel is a strong youth whose extended arm leads the eye to Abraham’s hand and to the knife. The blade catches the light and stands out against Isaac’s pale flesh. As in the Brunelleschi panel Caravaggio has Abraham stare back at the angel. His expression is intense but very hard to read. More than the violent act intimated below by the cluster of hands, it is Abraham’s enigmatic expression which will hold the viewer’s attention. The angel points in the direction of the ram but also towards the landscape behind and the sky at dawn. The landscape could be one Caravaggio knew near Rome and the building on the hill looks like a church, linking the event on the mountain with contemporary faith in Christ.
In a bleak wasteland, Christ sits on the bare earth and looks down at the scorpion which he holds on the palm of his right hand. He holds the scorpion most carefully, with one hand under the other. His downward gaze suggests sadness, rather than fear or panic. There is a stillness about Stanley Spencer’s Christ. Everyone knows the sting of a scorpion can kill. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says is there anyone who…. if the child asks for an egg, will give the child a scorpion (Lk 11.12).” Perhaps the implication is that God is the Father who gives just such a thing to his Son. The hand that holds the scorpion is slightly swollen, suggesting that the scorpion may have already stung its host and yet he goes on gently holding it. There is another near his bare foot.
It is likely that Spencer’ wilderness draws on the rough terrain of a battle-scarred Macedonia where he had served in World War I and that his experiences of war inform this painting. This painting is one of a series showing Christ in the wilderness, which the artist began around the time of the outbreak of World War II. It was also a time of personal crisis. He had lost his marriage and had left the family home because of a relationship with another woman. This second relationship failed as well. He intended to paint 40 scenes, one for each day of Lent. In fact, he completed just 8. Spencer said that by undertaking this project he hoped to find himself once more. Each painting was to depict Christ relating to some aspect of the natural world and draws on his sayings and parables. He said, “I felt that because you have not anything much in the actual life in the wilderness except the temptation, that one has an excuse for imagining what his life might have been like.”
It is clear then that the artist took as his starting point the Gospel accounts of Christ in the wilderness, but that he is not trying to depict the temptations. It strikes me that this particular work may draw on Mark’s brief account which we have in today’s Gospel. In particular, he may have had in mind the statement, “he was with the wild beasts”. One interpretation of this line is that it suggests Isaiah ’s prophecy of God bringing about a harmonious co-existence between the predator and its prey, as in the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion of (Is 11:6-9). However, like the landscape behind Christ, which is scarred by the hostility of war, in these scorpions, Spencer presents the hostile side of natural world. Despite Isaiah’s prophecy, most often in the Old Testament wild animals were a source of danger from which God protected his faithful. For example, you can find this in the beautiful Psalm 90 which we pray at Compline. To those who take refuge in the Lord, the psalmist declares : “On the lion sand the viper you will tread/and trample the young lion and the dragon”. In the Psalm it is God’s angels who give the promised protection. Ministering angels are mentioned in today’s gospel. But in this image Christ does not call on his angels, Actually, Stanley Spencer may be evoking the crucifixion in that Christ lets the scorpion sting him, just as he will let himself be taken and crucified. If so, the sadness of his downward gaze would not be about scorpion’s hostile nature but rather humanity’s fallen state and the hostility he will encounter. In this way of reading the painting, Stanley Spencer is evoking Christ’s obedience, “even unto death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Perhaps, in his sorry circumstances, Stanley Spencer was pondering the sting of sin and Christ’s forgiveness for a sinner. Perhaps he had taken to heart the words of today’s passage,”repent and believe in the gospel.”
“Christ Blessing”, Giovanni Bellini, c. 1500, Kimbell Art Museum, Forth Worth, Texas. You can view the painting in higher resolution at https://www.kimbellart.org/collection/ap-196707
The Risen Christ raises his right hand in blessing. The landscape tells us that it is “early on the morning of the first day of the week” (Mk16:2). Three figures move through the early morning as did Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome in Mark’s account of the resurrection (Mk 16:1). By the time the sun has risen they will have found the tomb empty. On the left, the rabbits and the bare tree with its lone bird are familiar from other paintings by Bellini. The tree represents the old order which is passing away. The church tower on right is a symbol of faith in the Risen Christ, the Eucharist, and, therefore of Christ’s sacrifice and presence with us. On the left just below his hand raised in blessing a shepherd watches his flock reminding us that Christ is the Good Shepherd. With his left hand Christ holds a staff. This is the staff on which the banner of the resurrection is unfurled. You can see the wound made by the nail in Christ’s raised hand and that made the spear in his side. There is an unexplained light source to the left so that the raised hand casts a shadow on Christ’s torso, giving visual testimony to the reality of his bodily resurrection. This is a small painting (59 X 47cm), intended for private devotion. The figure of Christ resembles that found in some of his public altarpieces around 1500 and so it may be related to those commissions. But what is extraordinary about this painting is the way the landscape and the figure of Christ co-exist in a delicate and beautiful harmony. Lines from Hopkins’ “The Windhover” come to mind: “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” I imagine Bellini’s unexplained bird flying in the dawn light and for me Hopkins’ poem gains new depth. Often resurrection scenes seem a bit awkward, but here, nothing jarrs. Nothing is forced or contrived. Figure and landscape blend like a seamless garment. This is Bellini at his best. A contemporary poet lamented that had a figure of Christ been painted by Bellini, rather than by a lesser artist, it would’ve been “much more human and more divine”. Bellini sets before us a figure of the Risen Christ in which humanity, divinity and the whole creation co-exist beautifully. As we begin our Lenten journey, and as this time of lockdown continues, Bellini reminds me of the beauty of his gentle presence, that at he is always with us and his blessing is always upon us.
This small painting of St Mark the Evangelist owes much to the Eastern tradition of icon painting. But unlike in an icon, there is a fictive stone frame with inscription written on a fictive piece of folded parchment attached. Although some of the letters are lost it is thought that it originally read above the central fold , “Peace to you Mark, renowned Evangelist of magnanimous Venice” and below it “The work of Andrea Mantegna.” Centuries before, Venice had adopted St Mark as its patron saint. To the legend of of how his relics were acquired was added another in which St Mark, while sailing through that part of the lagoon where Venice would later be built, is told by an angel in a dream that this was where his body would come to rest. These legends claimed for Venice a destiny ordained by God and the protection and intercession of St Mark. Mantegna uses foreshortening and the stone framing to suggest an interface between this world and heavenly realm of the saints. St Mark appears as a real three dimensional figure who, along with the Gospel Book, cuts through the picture plane into our world. To my eye, something of the direct and rapid pace of Mark’s Gospel is evoked here in the way Mantegna brings St Mark into such close contact with us. His right arm almost reaches out to us, but holds back. The pose and lighting draws our attention to the raised hand and finger and in turn to the Saint’s right ear and eye. In his Gospel, Mark lays emphasis on the importance of hearing the Word of God and keeping it. For example, in Chapter 4 in which Jesus teaches in parables, the verb “to hear” is used 11 times. But the raised finger also directs us to his eyes. Mantegna’s St Mark stares into the distance as if looking inwardly to the glorious destiny of Venice but, perhaps, also to those who would hear the Gospel and believe. The apple on the ledge speaks surely of the fall and sin. Mantegna attaches it to a broken branch as if had been pulled off the tree with force. Both the broken branch and the apple symbolise the reality of sin and our need for repentance, and there may be in this an echo of the call to repentance with which Mark’s Gospel begins. The lavish bunches of fruit above the Saint would then suggest promise of the rich harvest awaiting those who believe (Mk 4:8).
Tintoretto painted this altarpiece for the Chapel of the Presentation in the Venetian Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini. It was commissioned by the Confraternity of Fishmongers who were the chapel’s patrons. The frame is inscribed with the year 1548, and has a relief of a fish on the bottom right. Prior to 1548 Tintoretto received several commissions from such humble confraternities. In that year, his “Miracle of the Slave” won him renown and far more significant public commissions followed. Some scholars date this painting as early as 1541. The delay in finishing the chapel is unexplained but in any case this It is likely to be one of his first altarpieces.
In Luke’s narrative three distinct events are combined. The first born son is presented in the Temple, the child’s mother is purified and the old man Simeon encounters the child and his mother. This is reflected in how artists depicted the scene. Some artists showed the meeting with Simeon happening at the entrance to the Temple. Sometimes the Temple is not shown at all as in Giovanni Bellini’s “Nunc Dimittis” (1505-10, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), which sets the meeting against a landscape. Sometimes the figures are set against darkness as in Bellini’s “Presentation of Christ” (c. 1470-75, Museo della Fondazione Querini Stampalia, Venice).
However, in the 16th Century Venice it became common practice to show the child being passed from Mary to Simeon and to show a “church-like” Temple setting with an altar at which the child was presented. In this work, Tintoretto shows the child who is about to be taken into the hands of Simeon at the centre. The pale skin of the child is surrounded by the white of the altar cloth, the doves and Simeon’s sleeves and beard. This blaze of white is surrounded by darker tones and then darkness. You can imagine how this painting would have looked during a Mass, lit by candles burning on the actual altar below it, and how anyone attending the Mass would easily make the connection between the child on the altar above and the sacrament on the altar below. Tintoretto’s use of light and darkness reflects the theme of Christ as the Saviour and the words of Simeon : “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). However, one of the most interesting things about this image is to be found in the background detail. Two men are holding processional candles. It is thought that in Venetian art, this is the earliest example of a paining of the Presentation which has candles included. And yet, at the time of Tintoretto, on the Feast of the Presentation every parish in Venice would have had the blessing of lit candles and a procession along the surrounding streets. The Feast of the Presentation was a particularly significant day for the Confraternity of Fishmongers. Their rule obliged all members to attend Mass on that day at their chapel. In the background of the painting twelve men are shown, two of whom bear lit candles. In fact, the group in charge of the confraternity were 12 in number and, if you look closely at the faces which emerge from the darkness, you will see that these faces might be their portraits. So you must imagine the candle lit scene with these humble but proud fishmongers gathered before the altar of their own chapel, gazing at Christ child and themselves, or later on their forebears, looking on, and with candles blessed and lit, ready to process out and bear his light into the life of the surrounding streets.
The Apostles Peter and Andrew kneel on the ground before Christ. They wear cloaks as if ready to set out on a journey. They are shown barefoot, in accordance with what Christ will say to them later on in the gospel when he sends them out: “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals nor staff” (Mt 10:10). Behind them a large body of water stretches back to a the hazy distance. Darker land rises steeply on either side, so that the eye is drawn beyond them to the light filled horizon. Behind on the left, we see them again, but this time in their boat with their nets and Christ is on the bank saying to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mk 1:17) On the opposite side, we see them for a third time. Now they accompany Christ as he calls James and John. The brothers are shown with their father Zebedee in a boat mending their nets. Looking at this fresco in isolation, and noting the dominance of the body of water, the link between following Christ and baptism is obvious. However, this fresco is not meant to be seen on its own. It one of a sequence of scenes from the life of Christ painted on the north wall of the Sistine Chapel. These correspond to scenes from the life of Moses on the south wall. The image on the south wall directly opposite this one shows Moses and the people of Israel, who have just crossed the Red Sea dry shod, and are watching as Pharaoh and his soldiers drown.
The Red Sea is at the centre of that image just as the Sea of Galilee is at the centre of this image. The crossing of the Red Sea can be seen then as a foreshadowing the waters of baptism. The dark horizon, the storm and churning water and drowning Egyptians are in strong contrast with the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee opposite. In fact another layer of symbolism derives from the chapel’s founder. This was Francesco della Rovere (1414 -1484) who became Sixtus IV in 1471. The name means “oak” and the frescos, including this one, show a rather large number of oak trees. Sixtus IV was a Franciscan Friar, who was a noted scholar, who became the Minister General of the Order in 1464, was then made a Cardinal, and, finally, was elected Pope. The scenes from the life of Christ have a particular focus on St Peter as you might expect from the chapel of his successor. But the focus on Moses as the precursor of Christ was less usual. The intention was to draw a parallel between Moses and Christ as givers of the old written Law and the new Law of the Gospel, respectively. However, another layer of symbolism only becomes apparent when you consider that the Pope who built the chapel was a Franciscan. In all probability, it was Sixtus IV himself who specified the content of the fresco cycles on either wall. His devotion St Francis and the to the Franciscan Order continued. It is said that he continued to wear his habit as Pope and was buried in it. In particular, he was behind the canonisation of the Franciscan theologian St Bonaventure in 1482. These frescoes need to be seen through the eyes eyes of Pope Sixtus. For someone like Pope Sixtus, St Francis and the Order represented a return to the golden age of the early Church and St Francis was Christ like in a very strong sense, something which his stigmata confirmed. In his writings, St Bonaventure had compared St Francis not just to Christ and to Moses. He adapted the language of the exodus to compare the Order founded to the promised land, and the corrupt and profane world the friars had left behind them to the slavery of Egypt. He wrote, “The cross of Christ will part the waters of the sea for them like Moses’ rod and they shall traverse the desert to the promised land of the living, where they shall enter by the miraculous power of the Cross, having crossed the Jordan of our human mortality”. This promised land, which is the life of the world to come, is just visible, bathed in light which shines through the distance haze at the very centre of Ghirlandaio’s fresco.
In today’s gospel passage, on seeing Jesus, St John the Baptist calls out “Behold the Lamb of God!” Although this scene is not shown very often in Western Art it has entered the iconography of the Baptist. For example, often St John the Baptist is shown pointing a finger towards Christ, or carrying a scroll bearing the Baptist’s words in Latin: “Ecce Angello di Dio.” In this painting by Giovanni Bellini St John the Baptist contemplates the Jesus as the Lamb Of God, but as you might expect from this artist, the symbolism is rather subtle. The Virgin holds the infant Jesus on her knee. He is a normal child. He looks strong and healthy. He looks as if he might be about to kick as babies sometimes do, but his mother’s gently holding hands keep him still. Her gaze is inward. Her stillness is focused on her child who looks outward towards the viewer and world. On the left St John the Baptist is easily recognised. In fact, he bears a strong resemblance to other contemporary depictions of the saint, most notably that of Cima da Conegliano at the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto (1493-5). Also he is dressed in what is more or less the same green garment, with that knot on the shoulder. He also is still and is deep in contemplation. Behind the figures there is a beautiful landscape. Both the figures in the foreground and the landscape are lit by the same light. The sun is low in the sky so that this must be either morning or late afternoon. Between the figures on the left, you can see a city on a river with a boat in its harbour and beyond it a fortress on a hilltop. The buildings are of a pale stone which catches the light and echoes the white headdresses. To the right you can see more buildings and a shepherd with his flock in a field. The location might be somewhere in the Veneto, but we know that, as in all of Bellini’s paintings, it is nowhere in particular. Yet, the distant peaks might be the Alps. In Bellini’s paintings, sometimes elements in the landscape have a symbolic meaning. The saint on the right has no identifying attribute. However, she inclines her head slightly, drawing our attention to a distant tower. Could this be St Barbara and the tower her attribute? It may not be her. Usually, she is shown holding a tower but such a device would be far too intrusive for Bellini. In this work there is a remarkably delicate harmony and balance which unifies the figures in the foreground and the landscape behind. But as exquisite as this scene is, it is only the backdrop. The central focus is on the infant Jesus. Now the child is naked. Usually, this was a way of drawing the viewer to contemplation of the Incarnation. God takes on human nature – the Word is made flesh. The naked child also suggests the Passion when the adult Jesus is stripped of his clothing on the cross. The child’s feet are crossed as might be those of any infant, but some have commented that this is how his feet will be positioned on the cross. It is Bellini intended us to see that the child and the man, Jesus the Lamb of God, is the object of the Baptist’s contemplation.
This type of painting wherein a number of saints are shown together has come be known as a Sacra Conversazione. Most often the saints bore no direct biographical links to each other. Saints were chosen for whom the patron had a special devotion or who were significant in some other way. Each saint is shown in contemplation. In Venice, altarpieces were often of this kind. They were large and the saints were shown in full-length. But Bellini’s and his workshop also produced numerous works for private devotion, including numerous half-length pictures of the Virgin and Child. In some saints were placed in contemplation on either side as in this work. But in the earlier works the figures were positioned either against the sky or darkness. It is thought that this is the first in which they are set against a full landscape. Of course, Bellini gives that landscape its own distinctive voice.
It is not known for whom or for where this painting was made. It is often referred to as the Giovanelli Sacra Conversazione because for over two centuries it was in the collection of the Giovanelli family in Venice. It wasn’t even attributed to Bellini, even though his name appears on the parapet at the bottom. In 1925, it was donated to the Accademia and was soon recognised definitively as from the hand of Bellini himself. It is dated to around 1501 on stylistic grounds and because of another painting in London’s National Gallery Collection which is thought to be based on this work. This painting is “The Virgin and Saints” by Andrea Previtali, who was a pupil of Bellini. It has a firm dating of 1504 and so by that year this work must have been completed.
This very large and beautiful painting, with it subtle use of light and colour, can still be found in situ in the side aisle of the once Dominican Church of Santa Corona in Vicenza. Christ is shown centre foreground. He is stripped for baptism, exposing his pale flesh. Light from the right falls on his skin so that this is what draws our eye first of all. Set against the darker tones of the landscape and of the Baptist above him on the riverbank, his skin seems to glow. On the opposite bank, there are three female figures and a tree. It is easy to see an echo of earlier works, such as that of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism now in London. One significant difference, is that Bellini does not even suggest the crowds mentioned in the gospels. His focus is on Christ alone. This same light from the right catches the inside of the bowl used for the baptism. It draws our eyes upwards to the heavens torn open and to the Father clothed in red and blue, surrounded by matching cherubs. As if suddenly let go by its keeper, the dove, who is the Holy Spirit, descends on Jesus. At this the first female figure on the left joins her hands in prayer. The other two each bear the garments of which Christ has divested himself. Looking up you can see that these are the garments of divinity, for they are worn by the Father. In this subtle way, Bellini creates a vertical axis and horizontal axis with Christ at the centre. On the vertical axis the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit are visible. On the horizontal we see the baptism.
Legend said that the waters of the Jordan ceased to flow when Jesus was baptised and so Bellini shows him standing on the dry gravel of the riverbed. Behind him the dark waters of the Jordan are held back. We can pick out the line of the water’s surface just behind his shoulders. This may hint at works by earlier artists like Giotto which showed Christ immersed in the waters. These waters are still, as in the legend, but there is no reflection of the sky or the heavenly scene above. Bellini keeps the two registers distinct, so that the primary focus is on the Incarnate Christ and his pale luminous skin. In the church the natural light falls from the right as it does in the painting. However, the landscape in the background is lit by a different light coming from the left. This means that, for example, we can see the Baptist’s cross as two thin lines set against the brightly lit slopes on the right. It draws our eye also to a hermitage and a figure who is making his way down to the river. Is it for baptism?
It is generally agreed that Bellini based this work on another painting of the baptism. It is was the work of the much younger Cima Da Conegliano and was painted between 1492 and 94 for the main altar of the Venetian Church of San Giovanni in Bragora (see above). However, Bellini altered Cima’s composition significantly. The tree is now further to the left so that the landscape behind Christ is empty. Nothing distracts us from his figure of Christ. Unlike Cima, Bellini actually shows God the Father so that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are visible along the central vertical axis. Cima had Christ turn towards the Baptist, but Bellini has him face directly towards the viewer. The dominance of this vertical axis is not to be weakened. As we follow these vertical and horizontal lines, Bellini is drawing us into contemplation of Christ who both human and divine.
In 1259 the Bishop of Vicenza had been given a precious relic of a thorn taken from the crown of thorns and had entrusted it to the Dominican friars of Vicenza. They named their convent and church after the relic – Santa Corona. From around 1480, alterations had been made to the church interior to create a shrine for the relic under the high altar. In particular, the choir was moved from the central nave. As a result this altar could be located at that point along the side aisle previously hidden from view by the adjacent choir in the nave Shortly afterwards, the commission for this painting came from a man named Battista Graziani, who had made a vow to erect an altar dedicated to his patron, St John the Baptist, in order that he might return safely from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is very likely that Bellini had in mind these pilgrims who would pass the painting as they came to venerate the relic. This explains why although In Cima’s painting Christ’s hands are joined, in Bellini’s version they are folded across his chest. The hands folded on his chest are a clear reference to Christ as the man of sorrows. Pilgrims who came to venerate the holy thorn would pause before this painting to contemplate Christ’s pure unblemished flesh, which was wounded for their sake. And if as you stand in the nave, and let your eye move downwards from the Father’s red garment to the Son, and then across from his red garment on the left, you will have traced with your eyes, and maybe your hand, the sign of the cross
You can view the painting in higher resolution at
Our Lady sits with the Infant Jesus on her knee. Clothed in a mantle of ultramarine blue, she is the focus of this lavish and incredibly detailed painting. A blue sky is visible through the empty arches of the ruins wherein she sits echoing the blue of her mantle. Joseph remains in the background, as he does in Matthew’s account of the visit, but the artist ensures that he cannot be missed, clothing him in a single garment of bright red. The artist has used the architectural perspective of the ruins to give the painting a sense of great depth and structure. Although about thirty main figures crowd into this space, the position of each figure is carefully considered. Notice that each person strains to see the mother and child receiving gifts from these exotic kings, and yet each seems to know his place. We find our place before Mary kneeling on the broken tiles. As well as kings, there are shepherds in attendance. Two of them look on in adoration from behind the broken fence in the centre and behind them, in the distance the annunciation to the shepherds is in progress. It is the elderly King Caspar who kneels before Our Lady. He has presented a chalice-like vessel containing gold coins, which is itself fashioned of gold. The child holds just one coin in his hand. One thinks of the passage later in the Gospel when Jesus is presented with a coin bearing the image of Caesar. Jesus will then say “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21) We can see the goblet’s lid on the ground at Our Lady’s feet. It bears the name “Caspar”.
Beside the lid are his bright red hat and his sceptre, both lying on the ground as if cast aside when he knelt down. A column rises behind him. At the top there is a relief showing the sacrifice of Isaac. Just as the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, this crumbling ruin represents the old age, which now gives way to the new age which this child brings. The old King wears garments of rich fabric and fur. Behind him stands the younger king, Melchior, also lavishly dressed. Melchoir holds another incredibly ornate metal receptacle. It contains frankincense. But the most elaborate vessel is the one carried by Balthazar, who stands to the left. As was customary by then, Baltazar is shown as of an African race. But Gossaert surpasses other artists in that he gets his features right. This looks like the portrait of a real African man. Of the three, his clothes are the most lavish and detailed. Around his shoulders there is a white stole. At it’s base it has the words from the Salve Regina woven in blue. His boots are extraordinary. They are made from some sort of very fine translucent material so that his toes are visible. What is quite curious is that Gossaert inserted his own name on the front of this king’s headdress. This is his signature. It also appears on the collar of Baltazar’s servant who is behind him and who is also a man of colour. This servant is distinguished by an elaborate turban of lilac blue. The reason why the artist chooses to place his signature on these two figures remains unknown, but it is clear that of the three kings, Gossaert gives attention to Baltazar. It is thought that this painting might have been an altarpiece for a chapel at the Abbey of Geraardsbergen, which was near Brussels. The relics at the Abbey were listed in 1519 and among them was “a piece of clothing of one of the three Kings”. It may be that the painting was for the chapel that housed this relic and Gossaert’s obvious skill in rendering textiles may be the reason why he was chosen. Of course this was a time and place when textiles were both a source and sign of wealth and status. At a guess, the relic might have been that of the garment worn by Baltazar. If you look online you can see a great deal more detail not just of fabrics and ornate metal work but facial features such as stubble and a hairy wart! There is even an angel hidden among the ruins!
Taken as a whole, the composition divides into an upper and lower register. The mother and child, the kings, their attendants, and the shepherds are all below while above them angels are floating in mid air. At the very top, we see the star which guided the kings to Bethlehem and to the very place where the child was to be found. Yet there is a subtle but definite correspondence between this world and the world above. This can be seen in the way the arrangement of the angels responds to that of the figures below. Most strikingly, Caspar’s kneeling posture is picked up by the angel above him and even by the dog beside him.
If you look closely, you can see that while the apparel of the angels is far simpler than those of the mortals below, our eyes are drawn to their wings. The colouring of each angel’s wings is unique to that angel. In the scene below, different fabrics are positioned to create a kind of visual counterpoint, so that, for example, the red stockings of Melchior pick up on the red of Baltazar’s cloak and both are held in contrast with green. The effect is deployed through the grouping to give the whole a quite controlled balance and harmony. But the artist does not need to show this harmony among the angels. Their is a freedom about each. All but one of them, look to the child on Mary’s knee. We cannot hear the angels sing, but we know that their song is one of enduring and unending praise.
The holy child lies in a manger watched over by his mother Mary. Behind her in the shadows, Joseph looks on. The ox and the ass are in the centre but it is Mary’s brightly lit face and those of the angels that draw us. Through the open end of the stable, you can see another angel announcing glad tidings to shepherds on a hillside. The facial expressions of Mary and of each angel are quite remarkable. Mary is caught up in wonder and love for her child, but there is a sadness there too. The child lies in a stone manger, which is almost like a sepulchre and perhaps suggests Christ’s Passion. In the manger there are sheaves of wheat which must symbolise the Eucharist. The child is is very small and the heads of the ox and ass are very large, so that the fragility of the child is emphasised. In this way, the artist seeks to convey the great mystery of the Incarnation. The most striking element in this painting is the light which radiates from the child and illuminates the faces. In fact, it is based on a vision of St Bridget of Sweden in which she saw the child radiate “an ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable with”. This painting has survived a fire, but not without damage. Its power to captivate remains and perhaps there is something added by its fragile state. Those who meditate on this painting today are meant to understand the same message intended by the artist, that this child is the “light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9) and “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35).
In the verse which follows today’s Gospel passage, John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) This exclamation just about sums up this painting by Zurbarán. This is not his only version of the subject, but it is generally thought to be his finest. In some of the others there is a halo or the inscription “Tanquam agnus” (“like a lamb”, after Isaiah 53:7-8). This version’s impact relies solely on the artist’s skill in rendering so realistically the various textures of the lamb, especially the thick matted wool. This naturalistic rendering of detail and the use of bright light against a dark background heighten the viewer’s sense of the physical presence of the lamb. In this way, Zurbarán conveys the force of the Baptist’s word “Behold!” In fact, in the early Christian art, Christ was frequently shown as a lamb, albeit in a rather more abstract form. This symbolism draws not just on Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John but also the Book of Revelation and is intended to convey not just Christ’s sacrifice on the cross but his victory over sin and death. In fact, this symbolism continued down the centuries and is found in many 17th Century paintings of the Nativity. For centuries, paintings of the Nativity of Christ included elements which symbolised his Passion and death. These elements ranged from more subtle hints at the Passion such as a particular bird, or piece of fruit, to the rather more direct device of a crucifix hanging on the wall of the stable or cave. And by the time of Zurbarán, when shepherds are shown bringing a bound lamb as a gift to the Holy Child this same symbolism remains. In Zurbarán’s Jerez “Adoration of the Shepherds”, (1638, Grenoble) the shepherds have brought a bound lamb, which is very similar to the lamb in this painting. Here he simply shows the lamb. Presumably this painting was made for a private patron who as a believer could infer the rest. To the modern viewer, this might seem an odd way of showing Christ, but for Zurbarán’s contemporaries this unblemished lamb was a rich symbol of Christ. It converted his meekness, innocence, purity and his willing acceptance of his sacrifice. And so the gift of the lamb symbolising our devotion also conveys the reason for it. He loved us first.
In this painting you really have to look carefully to see John the Baptist. Bruegel deliberately focuses our attention first on the crowd who have gathered to hear him and then our eyes follow a diagonal to a light filled landscape through which a broad river flows. Of course, Bruegel often showed the key scene in the background. In this one, John the Baptist ’s garment of camel hair blends into the shade of the trees. He just visible to the left of centre. The crowd who have gathered are of every age and walk of life. The message of John the Baptist is for everyone. There are two friars on the right and near the tree trunk. On the left, a pilgrim for Santiago de Compostella sits down. You can see the shells on his hat. There are representatives of various religions present too. Notice the turbaned Ottoman Turk on the left and the Chinese man in the centre foreground. It is really well worth looking at this picture on the link provided above. Some of the detail is so small you won’t see it otherwise. In the crowd each face and expression is different. You can even find Bruegel himself. He is the bearded man in the top righthand corner. Particular prominence is given to the fortune telling going on in the centre foreground. The man who holds out his palm to the fortune teller looks in the opposite direction from the Baptist. No doubt , a contrast is being made between the version of future events “revealed” on his palm and that proclaimed by the Baptist. In this picture some figures stand out because Bruegel has dressed them in pale blue. There is one such figure to the right of the Baptist. His arms are folded. We wonder if this could be Jesus? Close scrutiny of the distant landscape provides the answer. Just on the bend of the left bank of river, there is a crowd and in the water someone is baptising. They are barely visible so you need to look at this online. This is the one whom John declares to be mightier than him and who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. The real event is almost hidden and unseen and yet from the outset the whole composition has direct our gaze along a diagonal to that very spot.
At first sight, the gaunt figure of St Andrew dominates the scene. But as you look you begin to notice one by one the figures in the crowd who like you are looking at this scene of martyrdom. It is as if you were there among them. This painting is characterised by Murillo’s later “vaporous” style and yet no swirl of cloud obscures his detailed observation of the individuals who witness the saint’s martyrdom. Each one can be seen clearly and individually. We see their various reactions to the martyrdom too. Murillo captures the faces of several as if he were pointing portraits. For example, we can clearly see the features of a man of colour behind the cross and those of the one who looks back at him. Notice the face of the young boy behind both of them as he stares upward. On the left, a woman’s face is hidden in shadow as she turns away from the spectacle weeping, but another looks on intently and holds up her child to see the grim show. Behind them a figure points to the martyr as if commenting on his fate to someone behind him. There is a group of Roman soldiers on the right. Two of them are mounted on horseback. One is carrying the Roman standard. The other, who is clearly the one in charge of the execution, is mounted on a white horse. Visually, the white back of the horse is quite significant. It draws the light which descends from the sky above down to the earth, above which the martyr has been raised. In the very centre and beneath the cross, the tools of the executioner’s trade are visible. In this work, Murillo combines the realism of his earlier works with the idealism of later works. We see real people caught up in a sea of emotional responses to the saint’s martyrdom. But we also see the cherubs descend with the palm of martyrdom bathed in the golden light of heaven. Another artist might have shown the crowd in shadow and the saint surrounded by such a light. Indeed, the legend of the martyrdom St Andrew told of the saint being enveloped in a bright supernatural light. But the legend also said that despite his advanced age St Andrew took three days to die and that throughout his ordeal he preached the gospel to the thousands who came to hear him. Perhaps this is why Murillo makes the crowd so integral to this work as a whole. These are real people among whom the eye can move. It is as if the viewer were in the crowd. Colour is used to great effect. It draw the eye from one character to the next and also hold the scene together. For example, the red cloth wound around the woman’s waist on the left is picked up by the Roman standard and then again in the caps of the soldiers. The white border of her dress, the saint’s loin cloth, the horse and the dog all form an arch of white which complements the red. To my eye, it is as if you were in a darkened theatre watching the scene and then suddenly someone turned on the house lights, so that you now see not just the scene on stage but your fellow spectators. Tomorrow, we celebrate the Solemnity of St Andrew, Patron of Scotland. St Andrew pray for us.
The artist uses light and shadow to draw attention to the central figure of Christ and in particular, to his bare right shoulder and arm and his upturned face. Nothing is known about the commission. The painting only came to light after 1916 and then was thought to be a copy of a lost original. But this opinion changed when it was cleaned in and restored in 1974/75. The restoration showed that it had been extensively repainted. Perhaps this was because it was just too realistic. This is not your average devotional image. There is a realism about it which is quite shocking even today. If you look carefully, you can see that each of the three torturers has a specific task. The man on the left holds the torso upright. His hand presses into the flesh of Christ’s side. His collaborator on the right grasps a lock of hair with his left hand to hold Christ’s head still while with the stick in his right hand, he forces the crown of thorns into the flesh. The third man to the front with a bare back has bound Christ’s hands and holds the ropes tight. Titian’s version of this subject which is now in the Lourve was painted for the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan and must have been known to Caravaggio. It has been noted that Christ’s torso resembles that of the famous Belvedere Torso in the Vatican, but it is likely that that Caravaggio is also quoting the torso in Rubens’ treatment of the same subject about this time in Rome. It was painted for the Roman Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (1601-2) and is now in Grasse. But in these two works the actions of the torturers are generic. They lack the detailed realism of Caravaggio’s painting. This painting resembles the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo (1602) in that each of the three executioners has a clearly defined task. Their cold, dark and organised brutality is contrasted with Christ’s focused resignation as he gazes upwards in prayer to his Father. Caravaggio painted a number of other scenes from the Passion in these years in Rome. Each shows a tightly pack group of figures around Christ. This same contrast is repeated and in each Christ is the victim. Two details about this picture stand out for me. Christ’s right cheek and eye are swollen as if he had been punched sometime before. I don’t know of any other artist who shows such a detail. The other detail is hard to see in this image. It is the crown of thorns which is painted with great care and you can see the green of the branches. Here Christ is shown bound as a prisoner, the victim of assault, now undergoing even more torture. As in today’s gospel, it might prompt us to consider Christ’s kingship and his passion, and where Christ has positioned himself in our world and why.
Titian painted this canvas between 1534 and 1538 for a room in the Scoula Grande di S. Maria della Carità in Venice. Later on the room became part of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. “ The Golden Legend” relates that Mary was presented in the Temple. When Mary was weaned, her parents took her there to give thanks. When her parents placed her on the lowest of the Temple’s steps, the three year old mounted them without any help. This was a popular legend and Titian could draw upon the work of other artists who had painted this subject. However, the location specified for the work presented Titian with particular challenges. It was to cover a wall over 25 feet wide and there was a doorway on the lower right. Titian solved this problem by painting masonry around the door as if it were the lintel over an entrance to a cellar. Another door on the left was added later on. But it is Titian’s use of light that is most striking. Natural light in the room came from the left and Titian follows this in the painting. The frieze -like composition reads from left to right had been common in earlier Venetian narrative painting. Titian lets the procession follow the natural light. The buildings in the background on the right are darker than the landscape to the left, so that our eyes are drawn to the bright sunlit steps as they ascend towards the Temple entrance. The small girl is dressed in blue, echoing the sky and the mountains on the left. The child is surrounded by a kind of mandorla of golden rays so that man in the background must shade his eyes. Earlier artists used actual gold to show divine light. But Venetian artists such as Bellini replaced the reflective surface of gold by light as seen in the natural world. On the carved ceiling above the painting, there is a figure of Christ with the words “Sum Lux Mundi” – “I am the Light of the World” . It is Mary who is destined to be the bearer of the Light of the World. Previous artists gave her a lighted candle to express her unique role. However, by clever use of colour and light Titian shows her to be the light bearer and perhaps even the source of light. We celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday.
“St Martin and the Beggar”, El Greco, 1597-99, National Gallery of Art, Washington. St Martin of Tours (d. 397) is shown as a young and handsome knight, dressed in a suit of armour and, rather strikingly, mounted on a white stallion. While St Martin is most often shown as a solid of a horse who encounters a poor man, El Greco has chosen to present him in an idealised but contemporary manner. The suit of armour is contemporary and fashionably inlaid with gold. The hilt of his sword and his strips are also of gold. The beggar, to whom Martin gives half of his cloak, is tall and slender. Noticeably, his bare skin shows little evidence of the ravages of poverty, malnutrition, dirt or disease. There is a bandage on his right shin to which he points, but there little blood. The whole scene with the blue sky and the green landscape is harmonious and elegant. This painting which is almost two meters in height would have towered above the viewer when it was in situ as an altarpiece in the Chapel of San José in the city of Toledo. The city can be seen in the background below so that perhaps it is intended to convey St Martin’s protection for the populace. The painting was one of three commissioned for the chapel. In the centre was St Joseph with the boy Jesus. On the right was the a painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints Martina and Agnes. In fact, when St Martin encountered the beggar, he was a Roman Soldier under Constantine. When stationed near Amiens in Gaul, one winter’s day, he came upon a beggar shivering from the cold. He divided his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. Tradition says that later Christ appeared to St Martin saying, “What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me.” St Martin converted and later became a Bishop. Devotion to the saint was spread widely and he became an exemplar of charity, but also chastity and piety. The man who commissioned these paintings for his family chapel, was Martin Ramírez. He was a bachelor and no doubt aspired to these virtues. it is evident that he and other members of the family had a strong devotion both to St Martin and the Roman Martyr St Martina who was shown on the opposite wall. It interests me that St Martin’s suit of armour recalls that worn by the dead Count in El Greco’s earlier “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” of 1586-88. In both the suit of armour inlaid with gold is surely intended as a symbol of Christian virtue. The Memorial of St Martin of Tours is celebrated on Wednesday. St Martin of Tours, pray for us.
“The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, El Greco, c.1586-88, Church of San Tomé, Toldeo. You can see this picture in higher resolution at
The funeral of the Lord of Orgaz Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, had taken place over 250 years before El Greco was commissioned to paint it. The deceased had rebuilt the ancient church and had committed the leaders of Orgaz to pay alms each year to the Parish of San Tomé in Toledo. The alms specified were 2 rams, 16 hens, 2 skins of wine, 2 loads of timber, as well as a sum of money. In 1551 they stopped paying. The parish priest took them to court in 1564 and won in 1569. It was he who commissioned this painting. He is shown presiding over the burial. In fact the painting shows a tradition which had been handed down about the funeral. It said that such was the holiness of Don Gonzalo that Saint Lawrence the Deacon and Saint Augustine, the Bishop, descended from heaven to assist in his burial.
El Greco shows the noblemen of Toledo gathered for the burial. Against the black band of their clothes the eye is caught by the bright golden vestments of the Bishop and Deacon. The white surplice of parish priest shimmers echoing of the heavenly clouds above. The painting is hung above the actual grave near the entrance to the church, so that someone entering or leaving might think that the funeral was actually taking place. Certainly, it will call to mind other burials. In fact El Greco is evoking more than the reality of a particular burial. The line of noble men suggest a procession which was held each year on the Feast of the Church’s patron St Thomas. The posture of his corpse evokes the dead Christ as seen in so many depictions of his burial. But unlike Christ the dead Don Gonzalo is not wrapped in a shroud but wears the armour of a knight. This is deliberate. It is rather the sculpture you might find on the tomb of a knight. Don Gonzalo was noted for his charity, and so this virtue is represented by the Deacon Lawrence. He had founded an Augustinian house and so this is why St Augustine is in attendance. El Greco was a parishioner at San Tomé. The painting speaks of the man as he lived and his legacy which El Greco himself experienced. Above the burial scene, we see a light-filled heaven with Jesus enthroned on high, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist below him. Just as the saints assist with the burial below, an angel assists with ascent into heaven of the child-like soul of Don Gonzalo. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints and tomorrow the Commemoration of All Souls. No other work of art evokes, so poignantly, the great mystery that is the Communion of Saints, evoking with such tenderness their assistance to us in this life and their company in the next.
Tintoretto painted this scene for the righthand wall of the apse of the Church of San Marcuola in Venice. This large picture is to be viewed from the righthand side as it would have been seen in situ. For the lefthand wall of the apse, he painted a companion piece showing the Last Supper which is still in San Marcuola. He includes the Last Supper in this picture too. It is through the arch just above the head of Christ. It should be mentioned that Tintoretto painted another very similar version of this same scene because it now hangs in the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead. On the extreme right and nearest the viewer, Christ kneels with a towel around his waist. He is about to wash St Peter’s feet. On the far left, one of the Twelve is putting on his sandals. Sometimes this figure is identified as Judas but, if so, there is no reference here to his betrayal of Jesus. Like all the others, he is shown with a halo.
But it is what is happening in the background of this painting which is most intriguing. First, there is the strangely grandiose architectural setting. Secondly, there is the odd way he shows the Apostles. They are shown as ordinary lower class Venetians, who look out of place in this grand palace. One critic said that they looked like a bunch of gondoliers, and perhaps they do! While some of them sit at a table others are overly concerned with their leggings. The one standing to the right of the table is shown trying to pull on a legging, while another pair have got down on the floor, as one attempts to pull off a legging from the other. It is not very dignified.
In fact, there are many ways to view this picture and it is likely that Tintoretto intended it to be seen differently by different people. “Tintoretto” was a nick name he had been given. It meant “little dyer”. He was given this nickname because his father was a dyer of silk. This would suggest that his origins were humble. But just how humble his origins were is not known. But this story about his origins suited him. He adopted his nickname and signed himself as “Tintoretto”. It is worth noting that he got many of his commissions from parish confraternities, whose members were ordinary Venetians. To show the Apostles as ordinary fishermen may have been so that members of a confraternity could more easily identify with these first disciples. The seemingly comic attempt of one Apostle to remove the other’s legging might have been seen by them as a simple act of fraternal charity.
The city of Venice itself was believed to have originated as a small settlement of fishing folk, who were said to have lived together in equality. Venice was a republic and some contemporary writers, with whom Tintoretto had links, made the connection between the democratic republic and this founding myth. In their writing they often portrayed ordinary folk as comic figures, but this did not preclude such characters from speaking wisely and with moral authority. Tintoretto may have sought to achieve in paint what they achieved in ink. It is no accident that the grand architectural setting looks like a theatre set. In fact, it is taken from a contemporary illustration of a theatrical scene. The antics of Apostles in the background do look like they might be from a comic scene on stage. But to my eye at least, this grand vista brings out the contrast between the wealth and sophistication of Sixteenth Century Venice and the humble simplicity of the first fishers of men. But what Tintoretto was up to in the way he shows the Apostles in this work remains a matter for speculation. We celebrate the Feast of the Apostles Simon and Jude this coming Wednesday.
The denarius from today’s gospel bore the image of the Emperor and an inscription describing him as “divi filius” meaning “son of god”. On the back were the words “pontifex maximus”, meaning “high priest”. For Jews this coinage contravened both the second and third commandments (Exodus 20:3-4) and so was deemed idolatrous. In fact, Jews were allowed their own non-idolatrous copper coinage for everyday business, so mostly they didn’t need to use the silver denarius. For similar reasons, offerings for the Temple were paid in a special Tyrian coinage. The annual Temple tax was paid in the weeks before Passover. A pilgrim coming to Jerusalem for Passover paid the tax and paid to have an animal offered in sacrifice. And so traders were on hand to provide the animal and to exchange the pilgrims’ Greek or Roman coinage for the one acceptable in the Temple. Although the traders made a profit, they offered a service which helped pilgrims fulfil their religious obligations. When Jesus overturned the traders’ tables and drove them from the Temple precinct, the issue wasn’t so much about their trade as its location. It was the Temple authorities who had allowed them to set up shop within the Temple itself. Jesus’ protest is directed against the Temple authorities. In Counter-Reformation Rome, the cleansing or purification of the Temple symbolised the purification of the Church after the Council of Trent. It was chosen by three Popes, Paul IV, Pius IV and Gregory XIII, for the backs of their commemorative medals.
El Greco was born in Crete and trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon painting. He left Crete and having spent time in Venice and in Rome, finally settling in Spain. He would paint the scene of Christ driving the traders from the Temple several times. The first version of “The Purification of the Temple” , now in Washington, was painted about 1570-1.
In it you can see that he has put aside the very formal style of an icon and has absorbed the influence of Venetian artists such as Titian and Tintoretto. His figures are posed naturally in classical architectural spaces which make great use of Italian techniques in perspective. The version which is now in the National Gallery in London (above) was painted much later – about 1600. While he has retained some of his Italian influences, the figures fill the scene. The grand architectural setting is much reduced and is there only to unpack the spiritual significance of the action. At the centre is Christ, who is clad in in a red tunic around which is a blue cloak, coiled like spring. With great energy Christ is about to wield a whip against the traders who are all on the left. They recoil and raise their arms in an attempt to protect themselves from the attack. By contrast, the disciples are all on the right and are engaged in a calm discourse. The figure of Christ divides these two very difference scenes in two. One thinks of the veil of the Temple which will be torn in two (Matthew 27:51). Above the traders there is a carved relief of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. El Greco puts it there to symbolise sin. Above the disciples, there is another relief panel showing Abraham at the very moment when the angel stops him from sacrificing Isaac. It is surely placed there to symbolise the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Disobedience is contrasted with obedience and the whole composition echoes the final judgement, with Christ at the centre. There is a woman in the background on the right. It has been suggested that she is the widow who gave all she had to the Temple treasury (Mark 12:41-4, Luke 21:1-40). If so, she is one of the pure in heart, blessed because she will see God (Matthew 5:8). As in the gospel texts, her quiet presence surely encapsulates the meaning of the entire scene.
The Feast of St Luke falls next Sunday. In Christian art each of the evangelists has a particular symbol and St Luke’s is an ox (or a calf). This symbolism has it origins in two biblical texts. In Ezekiel 1:4-11 the prophet has a vision of four living creatures which are in human form, but with wings. Their faces have four aspects, a man on the front, a lion on the right, an ox on the left, and an eagle on the back. This symbolism appears also the Book of Revelation where four winged creatures surround Christ on his throne (Revelation 4:6-8). The first creature is like a lion. The second is like an ox. The third has the face of a man. The fourth is like a flying eagle. St Irenaeus (130 -202 AD) interpreted these texts as representing the individual evangelists. St Matthew was represented by a man, St Mark by a eagle, St Luke by an ox and St John by a lion. Later St Jerome (c.347 -420 AD) assigned the ox to St Luke and the man to St Matthew, but he differed from St Irenaeus in giving the the lion to St Mark and the eagle to St John. It is St Jerome’s symbolic scheme which has prevailed in later manuscripts and in Western Art. The Book of Durrow is unusual in that it follows the earlier symbolic scheme of St Irenaeus and not that of St Jerome.
The choice of the ox for Luke is thought to relate to the sacrifices offered in the Temple. St Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the Temple. Only St Luke has the child Jesus presented in the Temple and later found there among the doctors. It may be that the symbolism of the ox draws on the link between the Temple sacrifices, Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice on the cross and the presence of Jesus in the Temple in such Lucan scenes. The page shown above opens the Gospel of Luke in the Book of Durrow. It is almost as if the animal is moving to the right where the gospel text will begin. Although very simple and naturalistic, this ox is given a whole page, which also has a highly decorated border, so that we are left in no doubt about its importance. Is this St Luke shown in symbolic form and about to begin telling his story? The pattern of red dots can be found in a very similar ox in Echternach Gospels (Lindisfarne (?) c.690). It is thought that both may draw on Greek and Roman metal work which used stippling to suggest fur. What makes the Book of Durrow so precious is not so much the quality of the artistic work, but the fact that it is the oldest such manuscript to have survived. The symbols of the Evangelists and in particular this one of St Luke, remind us of how in each generation the word of God is embraced and treasured in all its richness and colour.
While this painting of St Francis is widely held to be one of Bellini’s greatest works, it not known who commissioned it. It is large enough to be an altarpiece, but this is unlikely as it is listed as being in a private collection in Venice as early as the 1520’s. In that list it is referred to as “St Francis in the Desert”. But scholars debate what painting actually depicts. For example, it is sometimes known as “St Francis in Ecstasy”. One of the key images of St Francis was of him receiving the stigmata. Some writers think this is what Bellini is showing. While Bellini’s painting does show red wounds on the saint’s hands, they are tiny. He has not included many of the other elements an artist would include in that scene. Usually Francis would be kneeling. Usually, Br Leo who witnessed the miracle, would be shown. Normally, the crucified Christ is shown above Francis, and from him, rays, one for each wound, terminate on the saint’s body. But in this image only the wounds on his hands are shown; there is no wound on his bare foot which is visible and his side is covered by his habit. The saint is standing and is completely alone. There is no crucified Christ in the air above St Francis, no supernatural rays, as there would have been in typical images of him receiving the stigmata. But the landscape is packed with naturalistic detail. There is a fortress, a walled town, a river, a shepherd with his flock, a donkey, a grey heron, and almost hidden on the bottom left, a small bird drinking from a spring of water. Perhaps the most unusual element in the landscape is the tall laurel tree. When you look at the leaves, you can see that they are brightly lit and that, in fact, there are two sources of light in the scene. There is the normal daylight which is perhaps early morning sunshine coming from the left and catching the walls of the fortress, the town and the donkey in the middle distance. But the laurel tree and St Francis are lit by a much stronger light which casts a long shadow behind the saint. The light suggests that what is being shown is St Francis in prayer. It has been noted that that the rock formation echoes the saint’s posture and that there is a general sympathy between the figure of the saint and the the landscape. Of course this sympathy echoes his famous canticle. But over the centuries symbols of St Francis proliferated and became very complex. Franciscan authors sought to show him as being like certain figures from the Old Testament and in particular Moses. The brightly lit laurel tree may be there to represent the burning bush. St Francis is barefoot as was Moses on Holy Ground. The choice of laurel may be to evoke the laurel wreath worn by the winners in the stadium and so allude to the comparison which St Paul makes in the First Letter to the Corinthians between the competitors in the stadium who complete for a wreath that will wither, and the Christian who competes for a prize that will never fade away (1 Cor 9:25). There is a sympathy between the way tree bends and the posture of St Francis. In fact the whole landscape may be an attempt to externalise the interior experience of the saint. The heron and the ass for example are thought to evoke his solitude, prayer and penance. However, such a symbolic scheme is hard to reconstruct and individual elects are over determined in their possible meaning. There may have been references to particular writings about St Francis known to both the artist and patron, but now unknown. However, some elements can be understood. For example, Bellini paints plants accurately and these are easily identified. For example, those growing on the small raised bed behind the saint are known to have been used in medicine. One amusing details is a rabbit looking out from a hole in the stone wall just under St Francis’ right hand. Some scholars suggest that the rabbit represents Moses who was silent before the Lord. The point of this symbolism is that Francis is like a new Moses, who supersedes the first Moses, as Christianity supersedes Judaism. Just to the left of the rabbit there is the dead stump of a fig tree which has been cut down. Above the rabbit hole another stump has an olive branch grated on, another symbol of Christianity. Because the Feast of St Francis falls on a Sunday this year, it is not celebrated. It brings to a close the Season of Creation and our pondering of our relationship and part within creation. St Francis pray for us.
St Jerome (c.347 – 420) is a Doctor of the Church and the author of the Latin translation of the bible known as the Vulgate. However, in this image Bellini shows him seated on rock in front of what must been a cave in the desert. He is dressed only in a thin garment and a lion kneels before him. The beast hold out his paw in the way a domestic animal might. But there is a large thorn protruding from the raised paw and the lion looks to be in pain. St Jerome raises his right hand in blessing. In the foreground a rabbit looks at us from his burrow. In the background, there is the stump of a tree and an ass grazing. In the far distance beautiful green hills rise and the eye finds its way to the distant horizon.
In Bellini’s day, devotion to the Fourth Century St Jerome was widespread. Images of the saint, painted on small panels for private devotion, were to be found throughout the Veneto and the North of Italy. By this time, there were a number of established ways of showing St Jerome. When in Rome he had been a papal secretary, and because of this, it was mistakenly assumed that he had been a cardinal. For this reason he is often should with the cardinal’s red hat. He was a scholar and writer and so is sometimes shown with books and a quill in his study. As a saint known for doing penance while in the desert, he is sometimes shown there and holding a stone with which he was said to have beaten his chest.
Perhaps the most common element in all of the depictions of St Jerome is a tame lion. The story of St Jerome and the lion is told in Jacopo da Voragine’s “The Golden Legend”. Voragine relates that n the later part of his life St Jerome lived in a cave in Bethlehem and disciples joined him. One evening a lion turned up in pain. A thorn had pierced his paw. St Jerome directed his disciples to wash the wound. In time the lion’s paw was healed and the lion itself had lost his wildness and lived there “like a house pet”. The community had an ass which carried firewood from the forest. The lion was tasked with watching over the ass. “The Golden Legend” says that the two were constant companions and that the lion watched over the ass like a shepherd. In this picture Bellini tells the story of the saint and the lion. He includes the ass in the distance but leaves out the other elements. Giovanni Bellini would paint St Jerome several times, but this version, now in Birmingham, is thought to be, not only his first depiction of the saint, but his earliest surviving work. While there is uncertainty about the picture’s date, experts all agree that this is a work from Bellini’s youth. The young Bellini presents us with a very simple but beautiful image of faith, compassion and a harmony between the natural world and humanity. It is worth looking at this image online and those distant hills to see how wonderfully Bellini shows us the beauty of the natural world.
St Matthew is seated with three younger companions around a small table. On the table there is an a ledger, an inkwell and a small money bag. The companion on the left is intent on counting coins. The other two look towards Christ and his companion. This is the counting house where Jesus saw Matthew sitting (Mat 9:9). Christ’s extended hand invites St Matthew to follow him. St Matthew points a finger towards himself as if unsure that Christ really means him. The dramatic light divides the canvas into four sections and has the effect of lending prominence to the window and its enclosed cross. It is just above Christ’s extended hand. The viewer can already see that St Matthew will move from darkness to light and take up his cross and follow Christ.
In 1565 Cardinal Mathieu Contriel commissioned two scenes from the life of St Matthew – his calling and his martyrdom – for the lateral walls of a side chapel in the Roman Church of San Luigi Francesi. This painting was for the left wall so that the direction of the light is from the back wall of the chapel where in fact there is a real window a bit higher up. There were various delays to the project so that it remained far from finished when the Cardinal died in 1592. In 1597, Pope Clement VIII put the project into the care of the Fabbrica di San Pietro. One of its members was Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal Del Monte, and so it is likely that the commission came to Caravaggio through his influence. This was his first public commission. The work was a spectacular success and was followed by the commission for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In that contract, Caravaggio is referred to as the most outstanding painter in Rome.
Christ’s companion is St Peter. St Peter is not mentioned in the gospel accounts of the call of St Matthew but here his hand also beckons to St Matthew. Why does Caravaggio make sT peter part of the narrative? One of the most significant moments in the Papacy of Clement VIII was the conversion the Huguenot Henry IV of Navarre to Catholicism and the consequent peace brokered between Spain and France. This is relevant not least because San Luigi was the French National Church and Clement VIII was passionately committed to the reconversion of France. The way St Peter’s hand echoes that of Christ might be intended as an allusion to role of Clement in the conversion of Henry of Navarre.
Having said this, there are about 40,000 books written about Caravaggio and a great deal has been written about this painting. There are a great many interpretations around. But here is one I like. St Matthew is shown as bearded and older than his companions but yet he wears the same fashionable contemporary dress. To my eye, he looks as if he has out grown them. These same young men appear in earlier works such as “The Cardsharps” or “The Fortune Teller”. In these earlier works Caravaggio used his friends and associates as models painted directly from life. This group around the table might be a scene from the actual life of the artist. By contrast, Christ and St Peter are barefoot and dressed in the timeless garments of classical art. Does St Matthew’s ambiguous pose say something about Caravaggio who, whilst living in the Palazzo of a Cardinal, was never far from the dark deeds of the Roman streets? Perhaps this very ambiguity holds out the possibility of conversion for anyone, as indeed, does the Gospel account of Matthew the tax collector turned Apostle. St Matthew pray for us!
In this small panel, the crucifixion is shown against a beautiful landscape near a bridge built where a river bends. It might well be somewhere in the Veneto. The bridge and the tracks made by people across the river plain draw the eye into the distant hills and countryside, and to the horizon beyond. Bellini captures the play of light on the water beautifully. This backdrop is in contrast to the stark scene in the foreground. The immense sorrow of both the Virgin and the Evangelist is visible in there expressions and in their poses. At the centre Christ hangs on the cross. The wound in his side tells us that he has died. From this small detail -just a stroke of blood red paint- we understand that the bird-like flock of angels in the sky behind the cross are hovering in lamentation. They echo the sorrow of the two figures below them. What is most striking about the painting is the great contrast between the background and the foreground. They might be two entirely different scenes. Although there are soldiers in the background, and they are surely the ones who crucified Christ, their poses are quite relaxed and casual. Near the centre, and to the left of Christ’s feet, three of them are chatting. On the far right, another leans against a grassy bank as if in conversation with the small figure in red. There is a similar pair further back on the left. All of these seem to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine. Their indifference to the suffering we see in the foreground is startling. I am reminded again of Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” and his words about “the human position” of suffering.
It is likely that in this composition the young Bellini drew on a sketch by his mentor, Jacopo Bellini. He would have been familiar with the use of landscape in such a scene among northern artists. But whilst Bellini sits within established conventions for such a scene, in this panel he makes his own unique statement. This picture might be contrasted with a crucifixion scene of perhaps a few years earlier by his brother-in-law Mantegna painted for the Predella of his San Zeno Altarpiece and now at the Louvre:
In both the cross is wedged into a stone pavement, but there the similarity ends. In Bellini’s painting the soldiers have moved on from their deed. We do not see the city or its walls or a great crowd of people as we do in Mantegna’s work. Bellini emphasises the sense of suffering in isolation against a backdrop of a beautiful, but indifferent, world. The only element which unites the crucifixion scene in the foreground with the landscape in the background is the play of light which is as pale and subtle on the cool waters of the river as it is on the pale skin of Christ’s body. Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. In my view Bellini’s paintings should give us food for thought and prayer.
As the Season of Creation begins this coming week, I thought this small painting by Giovanni Bellini might help us to ponder our place within the whole of God’s creation. The subject is St Jerome (347 – 420) who, as well being the scholar who translated the Greek text of the Bible into Latin, was also a papal secretary and a hermit in the wilderness, first near Antioch and then, in the latter half of his life, near Bethlehem. He was a very popular subject in Renaissance and Counter Reformation painting. Giovanni Bellini painted him several times as did later artists such as Caravaggio. In some works he is shown as a scholar seated in his study, reading the scriptures. He is sometimes shown as a cardinal with a red cloak and hat, because it was assumed that to be a papal secretary he must have held that office. In other works, he is shown as an elderly and ascetic hermit doing penance in the wilderness. The artist usually includes a stone with which he beat his chest and a crucifix by means of which he contemplated the sufferings and the death of Christ. He often wears a tunic and his his torso, arms and feet are bare. It was said that he lived in a cave, when at Bethlehem, and so his wilderness abode is often a place of rocks. It was said that his only companion was a lion which he had once healed and the beast remained with him. The lion is his most common attribute.
In Bellini’s Venice St Jerome was a popular subject in devotional paintings, partly because of links his native Dalmatia, but also because the idea of leaving the busy crowded life of Venice for a place of solitude and prayer on the terra firma had a strong appeal to his contemporaries. In this picture Bellini depicts St Jerome in a new way. Most of the usual elements are missing. The saint is seated on some rocks, absorbed in his reading. Behind him, in the distance we see a town and a city wall with defensive towers along its length. It might be a port with a fortress above. The saint is separated from this urban world of trade and politics by an open meadow, fields, and then, a body of water. The rocky surroundings suggest that the saint is in a very different terrain. A white dove is perched on a branch which might suggest the presence of the Holy Spirit but it may just be a symbol of peace. Bellini includes the customary lion on the bottom right. But we know that this was added later. What is new is that there are none of the usual attributes in the original painting nor is there is there any overtly religious symbol. The man could be a humanist scholar. In the Uffizi, there is a much larger painting of St Jerome in the wilderness by Bellini, in which the saint has exactly the same pose. It is earlier dating from 1480.
It is much “busier”. The city is much more prominent. There is a crucifix and a number of birds, a squirrel and even a lizard. Comparing the two, it is clear that in this later version Bellini sought above all to convert a sense of peace and harmony. The painting in the National Gallery In London is very small (18 1/2 X 13 1/4 inches) so it would have been painted for private devotion. The re-use of the same pose suggests that Bellini may have been commissioned to re-interpret his earlier “St Jerome”.
At first glance, your eye settles on the blue garment. It sits within a delicate palate of ochres, browns and greens. You find the same blue in the sky and notice how the clouds echo the white of the saint’s splendid beard. But what is most interesting about this picture is that Bellini painted the landscape, not simply as an appropriate backdrop for the saint, but gives it an equal voice, as it were. Although St Jerome seems to be totally absorbed in his book and oblivious to the landscape, actually, Bellini uses colour and the composition to show both the saint and the landscape as part of one harmonious whole. Viewed through modern eyes, with the Season of Creation in mind, this little painting is like vision of how we might have lived within God’s creation, and, perhaps also, it was intended as a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth promised in the scriptures.
“Denial of St Peter” 1601- 1607/10, Caravaggio, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. You can see this picture in higher resolution at
The story of St Peter’s denial of Jesus is told in all four gospels. Although the general shape of the story is there in each, the details vary slightly. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke say that St Peter wept, whereas John doesn’t. Caravaggio manages to include much of the details given in these narratives in a single scene. The general shape of the story is as follows. When Jesus was arrested St Peter had followed at a distance and stood with others warming himself at a fire in the courtyard of the high priest. A servant girl said to him, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus. “ (Mk 14: 67) He denied it. But then she said it to some bystanders. Again St Peter denied it. Finally, the bystanders said it to him as well and, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus. This time he swore, “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mk 14: 71). Then the cock crowed for the second time and St Peter remembered the words of Jesus, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” Mark says that then St Peter broke down and wept (Mk 14:72). In this picture Caravaggio includes elements of all three denials and, indeed, St Peter’s tears. The fire is suggested in the background with a few flecks of bright pigment. But it is the hands of the three characters that tell the story and with great economy. The raking light from the right lights up the face of the young woman in the centre. She looks back at the bystander but points towards Peter. In fact both of her hands point at St Peter. The third figure also points a finger at St Peter. In this way all three denials are represented. St Peter’s hands are closed on his chest. Is this a gesture of denial or repentance?The bystander wears a helmet, strongly suggesting that he is a soldier. In fact, the particular helmet used is a contemporary one. This detail is not in the gospels but it conveys just how close St Peter came to being arrested. The soldier wears armour which reflects the light. This reflection recalls a number of Caravaggio’s other scenes from the Passion, not least “The Taking of Christ”, which is now in Dublin the reflection is balanced against the light on St Peter’s face and hands. Are we meant to see ourselves reflected in the armour? The close up format has already drawn us in, connecting us with the scene and its reflection in our own lives. The finest part of the painting is the face of St Peter. The tears are beginning to form in his eyes. His look is one of immense sorrow. It is extraordinary.
This may be one of the two last works painted by Caravaggio. Most people agree that it was painted in the last months he spent in Naples before he departed on his fateful voyage to Rome. By September 1609 he had returned to Naples where he was given rooms by a branch of the Colonna family. Two of his biographers suggest that he needed the protection of the Colonna family from various enemies who were pursuing him. Negotiations for a Papal pardon were also underway which if granted would allow him to return to Rome. However, on 24 October Caravaggio paid a visit to a tavern and on leaving was ambushed by a group of men who were waiting for him outside. One of Caravaggio’s of injuries was a cut to the face. This was a common form of revenge for an insult to someone’s reputation. It would seem that his injuries were so severe that it took Caravaggio some time to recover. There is no evidence of Caravaggio doing anything much before May 1610. Then there are two final paintings: this one and another entitled “The Martyrdom of St Ursula”, which is still in Naples. The latter is well-documented and can be dated to that summer before his departure from Naples. It is thought that this painting was painted around the same time. In these last years of his life, Caravaggio painted quickly. Light pierces a pervading and largely undefined darkness. But experts say that the handling of paint in “The Denial of St Peter”, shows a loss of manual dexterity and that, although the extent of his injuries are not know for sure, there may even have been a loss of sight. In one sense you could say that although this is one of his last works, it is not his finest. It lacks the careful modelling of flesh tones and shadows which made his works so life-like. And yet on the right St Peter is portrayed with such extraordinary power. This subject is unusual in Italian painting. St Peter’s denial was usually shown as a part of Passion sequence. As a stand-alone narrative, artists or patrons tended to choose Peter’s repentance rather than his denial. There are a great many paintings which simply show St Peter weeping. Clearly, Caravaggio puts the focus on the denial, but he does not exclude the moment of repentance. This pivotal moment is subtly and very powerfully captured. It is perhaps all the more powerful when you see in it evidence of Caravaggio’s own diminishment. St Peter pray for us.
“Death of the Virgin”, 1601- 1605/06, Caravaggio, Louvre, Paris. You can see this picture in higher resolution but with some colour distortion at
A soft light falls from high up on the left unto a scene of death. The dead woman at the centre is surrounded by mourners. She is the Virgin Mary. Caravaggio follows the tradition that the apostles who were dispersed in preaching the gospel were transported miraculously to her deathbed. There is a woman on lower right who weeps; her face hidden in grief. There is a copper bowl at her feet as if to wash the corpse. She resembles Mary Magdalene as shown in “The Entombment” of a few years before. Similarly, the figure standing on the left is probably St Peter. Next to him, the kneeling apostle may be St Andrew. Just behind him, the figure whose right hand is raised might be St Paul. The man with his fists on his eyes may be St Matthew, and the standing figure on the right, St John. The more you look at these figures the more you sense their profound grief. Very often Caravaggio used hands to give expression to what a character was feeling. It is important to remember that Caravaggio would have posed his models very carefully and then painted what he saw. He had access to the collections of his patrons and in particular to the huge collection of sculptural antiquities of the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, in which there were any number of deathbed scenes. In fact, Giustiniani, who would have seen Caravaggio at work, wrote that Caravaggio adapted poses from antique statuary to convey thought and emotion. St Peter’s hands are enfolded in his cloak. This is the gesture of an orator as he prepares to speak. But it also one of reverence.
The raised hand of St Paul may represent a call for silence. There is certainly a sense of stillness as the light falls on the dead Virgin. She looks stiff with her outstretched feet but her face is at peace and although its parlour is that of death she might be asleep. Her hands are arranged like those of someone asleep. Nobody has laid the hands upon her chest as you normally would. The realism is surely unprecedented. It is as if she has just died. The apostles feet are bare but they are heavily clad. The weight of their garments seems to add to their overwhelming grief and gives them a timeless monumentality. If you have ever been at a deathbed, where someone is dying surrounded by their loved ones, you will not pass this painting by. It is that moment when the blood has drained from the face. The strange silence when her breath can no longer be heard. This is surely the point of St Paul’s raised hand.
The patron Laerizio Cherubini was a successful lawyer. He owned lots of property and he was involved in the work of charitable organisations such as the Arciconfraternia di Santa Maria dell’ Orazione et Morte which undertook the burial of the dead and to which he left money in his will. He was a very pious man and 4 out 6 of his sons entered religious life. One might guess why such a subject would have appealed to him, whatever he himself made of the final work.
The church of Santa Maria della Scala was in the rather poor district of Trastevere. The Church had been built in 1590 and was associated with the Casa Pia which was a sort of refuge for women who were in danger of falling into prostitution. In 1597 it was given to the “barefoot” or Discalced Carmelites who can come to Rome from Spain in 1597. The brown cloth over the Virgin’s knees may be an allusion to the Carmelite scapular, which promises mercy at the hour of death to those who wear it. The presence of Mary Magdalene is unusual but this might be an allusion to the work of the Casa Pia, given that she was commonly associated with repentant prostitutes.
This painting was rejected by the Carmelite Fathers, when it was completed in 1604/05. Their rejection focused on the way the Virgin was portrayed. She might have been a woman from the streets Trastevere. The physician and biographer, Mancini, who knew Caravaggio and his patron Del Monte in Rome, says that their reason was the lack of decorum and the lascivious treatment of the Virgin. It was suggested too that the actual model was a particular prostitute associated with Caravaggio. However, as with much of Caravaggio’s life, what actually was the case is unclear. Cherubini put the painting up for sale, and through the agency of no less a figure than Rubens, it entered the Gonzaga collection in Mantua. Moreover, before it left Rome, it was put on display for a week.
In portraying sacred figures as humble and ordinary people Caravaggio was doing what he had done before with great renown. Indeed, he is very much in line with the sermons of St Phillip Neri, and the writings on sacred images by Cardinals Fredrico Borromeo and Cesare Boronius. However, alliances must have shifted considerably within Rome in 1605. Clement VIII had died in March. His successor lived for only a month. The Borghese Paul V was elected in May. Meanwhile, the shifting balance of power between French and Spanish influence was reflected in fights between these factions on the city streets. It has been suggested the Carmelites’ rejection of Caravaggio’s work might have had something to do with an attempt to avoid the displeasure of the new Pontiff.
Another narrative scene from the life of the Virgin which bears comparison is his “Adoration of the the Shepherds” from 1609 and now in the Museo Regionale in Messina. Here too the Virgin wears a red dress. She is on the bare earthen floor of a darkened stable as the shepherds gaze upon her and the child.
Caravaggio wasn’t given the opportunity to paint a second version. Shortly after this rejection he would flee Rome, having killed a man. The commission passed to one Carlo Saraceni. The Carmelites also rejected his first attempt. But his second version is still in the church.
A quick look at both of this latter work shows how different the Carmelite Fathers’ tastes were to those who so prized the works of Caravaggio. Caravaggio does not show the desired heavenly scene, opening up to welcome the Virgin into heaven. There is just a timber roof enclosing human grief at the death of a much loved woman. However, there is the red mantle, which is a familiar prop from his works. Sometimes it served as a cloak for a St John the Baptist or a St Jerome, but here it is arranged like a make-shift canopy over the make-shift bed of the Virgin. The more you look at this work the more you begin to see the subtly of how Caravaggio suggests the transitus of the Virgin and indeed her Queenship. The eye is swept upwards from the red of her dress into the folds of the red canopy. The heavily shrouded figures below see only the dead body but the viewer has a wider view. The viewer sees below familiar grief at the loss of a loved one, or even his or her own death. But as the eyes are raised upwards, this red banner calls the viewer to the hope that Mary’s Assumption into heaven represents for us all.
This is Rembrandt’s first and only seascape. It was painted in 1633, which was early on in his career and shortly after his move from Leiden to Amsterdam. It is signed and dated but the details of the commission are now lost. Rembrandt shows the prow of the boat forced upwards by the waves, so that the whole vessel is on a tilt. To add to the drama the boat is perilously close to some rocks which are just visible on the left. In Amsterdam of the 1630’s, seascapes were becoming popular, but this subject was unusual. That said, he might have known a similar scene by Rubens and probably knew an earlier treatment of the same subject by Maerten de Vos (1532 – 1603), through a print. If this print was one of his sources, a comparison of the two, serves to show Rembrandt’s genius.
One particular detail suggests that he knew the de Vos print (above). There is a man in red who is being sick over the side of the boat. The de Vos print has the same detail. But Rembrandt’s treatment of the subject is very different. Most strikingly, he lowers the viewpoint so that he can make full use of the sky and also show the dramatic tilting of the boat. The light from the patch of clear sky catches the brightly-clad disciples and the foaming of the waves. Rembrandt conveys the violence of the storm in various ways. But it is the expressions on the faces of the disciples which draw in the viewer. If you zoom in online you can see their panic, desperation, sickness, despair and also courage In contrast to those who struggle with the sails, others are found lower down in the shadows and nearer to the viewer in a haven of relative calm which is centred on Christ. It is as if he were the still point at the centre of the storm. Of course, the scene depicted is not that of the sea storm in today’s gospel, but rather than told in Matthew 8:23 -27 and in Mark 4: 35-41. Rembrandt has Jesus being woken from sleep. He suggests Mark’s cushion and shows the boat filling with water.
The power of Rembrandt’s interpretation comes from the sweeping contrast between left and right. There is a shift from agitation to calm, between huge threatening waves and the much calmer sea beyond the boat on the right. Above the dark clouds recede to the right as the sky clears from the left. Christ rules the waves almost unseen from this haven of calm but soon he will be fully visible the clouds recede. The miracle that is about to happen is suggested by the way he uses light and shadow to convert the movement the storm. Rembrandt includes contemporary details to add to the impact. The boat was a contemporary fishing vessel known as a hoeker. Notice that a harpoon sticks out on the left even if whaling was not common on the Sea of Galilee! Actually the details of the boat are not quite right. But Rembrandt was not the sort of artist who would tie himself the a ship’s mast in pursuit of authenticity! His details are merely props to draw his viewers into the drama.
At the front of the boat and along the centre line of the canvas there is a figure dressed in bright blue. He stares out at us. This is Rembrandt himself. With one hand, he grips a stay rope, and with the other, he keeps his hat on. It wasn’t unusual for an artist to paint himself as an onlooker at some event. But here the artist is a participant in the drama. He too is in the boat. About this time he also included himself in his “The Elevation of the Cross” (below).
He is shown as one an executioners. In that work Rembrandt grips the bottom of the cross and helps raise it up from the earth. Here it is the boat and the apostles which are being raised up by waves. Christ is on the cross and in the boat, and in each it is he who will save those in peril. We are not in the boat. We are not participants. We might be in the water! But it is significant that Rembrandt has put himself at the centre. Rembrandt’s looks out at us, standing on the edge of the pool of stillness around the figure of Christ. Is he inviting us to enter into that same stillness which is faith in Christ, particularly when the storms of our lives threaten to overwhelm us. In the years that followed, Rembrandt himself certainly had his fair share of them.
It fell to Fr Fergus to clothe me in the Dominican habit. It was 5th October 1992. There were two of us. I remember that he preached a very fine homily. He said what we were called to do was make the Order’s mission happen, but we would do it as the the individual’s that we were. We had come early to “mind” Fr Bede and Fr Fergus, while the others were away at a chapter down south. Indeed, I do remember him saying that we had already made a good start; what with putting out milk bottles and the like! There was a reference in his homily to this drawing of St Dominic by Matisse which is on the wall of the Rosary Chapel of the Dominican nuns at Vence. It is just a bit north of Nice. Fr Edward Schillebeeckx has a published homily which begins with mention of this portrait of St Dominic. I think Fr Fergus must have quoted him.
Schillebeeckx noted that “Dominic was depicted in just a few strokes, but you could not say that the portrait was ‘abstract.’” He goes on to explain why. “You are impelled to fill in this sketch of Dominic yourself, and yet you feel that your own interpretation is under the spell and norm of this drawing.” You must fill it in from your own experience, from who you are, and from who you become, clothed in the Dominican habit as a son or a daughter of St Dominic.
It is important to be aware of the positioning and the scale of this portrait. It is on the lateral wall to the right of the altar. The Rosary Chapel at Vence is quite small. (see the plan) The nave is only about 20 feet wide. Our chapel here is Edinburgh is about 28 feet wide. The Rosary Chapel in Vence is about 10 feet longer than ours but it is much higher. The portrait of St Dominic is over 15 feet high. To give you an idea of how large it appears in situ, you might note that our lateral wall next the garden is only about half that at 8 1/2 feet high. The ratio of Dominic’s height to the chapel width is about 15:20. The chapel was designed as a space where some twenty Dominican nuns would chant the office, pray privately and attend Mass. Others were admitted into the nave, but only for Mass, so this chapel was the nuns’ private space for most of the day. It has the typical “L” shape so common in the chapels of contemplative women. The Dominican nuns could sit in their “wing” on the left, facing the altar but with a degree of privacy and seclusion. At Mass other worshippers could also sit facing the altar, but from the main body in the nave. Only the nuns looked directly at St Dominic. These nuns contemplated an image of St Dominic which was monumental in both style and scale and yet so simple. It is known that Matisse spent a long time honing down this image to the bare essentials. To understand the power of Matisse’s St Dominic you need to be able to see it as these nuns saw it. There are other figures drawn on the walls. All of their faces are blank. In the case of St Dominic, perhaps the oval face was left blank so that a Dominican nun might see her own face in it or that of another Dominican. This restraint in definition gives the viewer a freedom to interpret and contemplate. It could become face and figure of anyone who sought to live out a Dominican vocation. With this in mind, I think that the key to grasping the power of this simple line drawing – it is just black strokes on white ceramic tiles – is that it is made first and foremost made for Dominicans.
Matisse spent 4 years designing this Chapel. He was old and frail. But these years between between 1947 and 1951 were a time of intense dedication to this project. The link with these Dominican nuns came when his former nurse, studio assistant and model, entered a Dominican Convent. In fact, she had delayed entering the Convent so that she could nurse him after surgery in 1941. Her name in religious life was Sr Jacques Marie. The community at Vence ran a convalescent home for girls with consumption. Again when you enter the space it is important to remember that these women cared for sick people. Their vocation was to heal and bring comfort. This was how they followed in the footsteps of St Dominic. It is also important to note that the Rosary Chapel was designed to be used almost exclusively by women; the nuns and the girls whom they nursed. Throughout the design process Matisse was in close contact and dialogue not just with Sr Jacques Marie but also with two friars. One of these was Marie-Allain Couturier OP, who was an artist and writer. He had been brought in as the Dominican Order’s expert consultant. His collaboration was evidently fairly hands on as it is known that he modelled for the St Dominic portrait. There is evidence that quite a bond of friendship developed between Matisse and these three Dominicans. Through these three Dominican contacts, Matisse, although an unbeliever himself, was able to absorb Dominican traditions, liturgy and iconography. Matisse always insisted that for him this chapel was a religious space. And indeed it is. More significantly, it is a Dominican space. With its beauty and simplicity one senses his sympathy with the Order and especially with the habit. it has been suggested that for Matisse, the nuns’ search for spiritual perfection was akin to his own pursuit of artistic perfection. This beautiful, but simple, light-filled space certainly does approach perfection. So in this Dominican chapel, Matisse’s search for artistic perfection comes to fruition with a very definite Dominican shape. In fact, not just the Saint Dominic, but every element of the chapel is steeped in the traditions and liturgies of the Order.
You need to understand Matisse’s figure of St Dominic as part of this light-filled space, in which the white walls, floor and ceiling reflect the bright light of the Midi filtered through brightly coloured stained glass. The effect is expansive and beautiful. But it first and foremost is a space which the Dominican nuns who prayed and worshipped there could make their own. Even the white tiles on the floor have simple black lozenge at the corners where they meet. The murals in black line on white of St Dominic, Our Lady of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross are in sympathy, not just with the rest of the space, but with the material and spiritual culture of these Dominican women. The black on white simplicity suggests the Dominican habit. Matisse himself said that the black and white habits of the Dominican nuns were implicit in the composition of the chapel and the presence of a nun or nuns completed his design. Our Holy Father St Dominic pray for us!
On Wednesday, we celebrate the feast day of St Martha, who was the sister of Lazarus. The gospel for her feast day is John 11:19 -27, in which she professes faith in Jesus, before he raises Lazarus from the dead. In this work for a church in the Sicilian town of Messina, Jesus is on the left with his arm outstretched as he Lazarus is lifted from a tomb. Raking light picks out the body of Lazarus, which truth be told, shows little sign of life as yet.
The body of Lazarus looks stiff, as if from rigor mortis. The grave digger is lifting him up and supporting his body at an angle with a knee under his hip and an arm behind his shoulder blades. His hand touches the body of Lazarus quite near the heart. Is he waiting to feel a heart beat? Martha, the sister of Lazarus, holds his head close to hers. Is she listening for his breath? One of Lazarus’ arms seems to reach up to the light whilst the other falls down towards a skull lying on the ground. In this way, the transition from death to life happening within Lazarus is symbolised, but the cruciform shape of Lazarus’ body also prefigures the cross of Christ. In the Gospel of John the raising of Lazarus is a key reason why the enemies of Jesus resolve to put him to death (Jn 11:53). Indeed, they decided that Lazarus should die also (Jn 12:11) because for many he was a living sign of Jesus’ miraculous power. In fact, this painting looks more like deposition or an entombment than the raising of a dead man to life. The shroud held beneath the body of Lazarus recalls “The Entombment of Christ” which Caravaggio had painted for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, especially the detail of the hand supporting the side nearest the heart. The closeness of the heads of Lazarus and Martha recalls so many depictions of Mary and Jesus in which she holds him in death, their faces pressed together, their lips close as if they shared a common breath. Indeed, in this picture Caravaggio may be drawing on certain Byzantine icons of Mary holding her son, for there was an Orthodox community in Messina. The raised arm of Christ and the hand with the index finger extended is surely the same as in “The Call of Matthew”. Both pictures share a dark interior with brightly-lit figures arranged in a frieze like manner. But here an overarching darkness extends across the whole top half of the canvas. Where another artist would have placed a celestial scene, an angel or a saint, there is only darkness. Only the extended hand of Christ counters the stark reality of death. The visual link with Christ in “The Call of Matthew” might be deliberate. Many of the Church Fathers would have understood the raising of Lazarus to also be about the forgiveness of sins. The dead Lazarus was like someone still living but weighed down by sin. As at the command of Christ, the tax collector Matthew left a life of sin behind him, so too at Christ’s command Lazarus left the tomb and death behind him.
It is thought that Caravaggio suggested this subject to his patron. His patron actually shared the name Lazarus, but Caravaggio must have been keenly aware of his own sins. And certainly his sins and death were linked. He was “on the run” because of his crimes and the threat of death was hanging over him. He had killed a man in Rome and then fled south. Eventually he reached Malta. Either through his fame as an artist, or because he had friends in high places, Caravaggio became a Knight of Malta on 14th July 1608. The Order had had to obtain a special permission from the Pope to allow this to happen. His hope of a full pardon and of returning to Rome must have been bolstered when the permission was granted. However, it was not to happen. Within weeks of becoming a knight, Caravaggio was involved in another brawl. One man was badly wounded by Caravaggio and he found himself in prison. However, he escaped in October and fled to Sicily. But by leaving Malta he had broken one of the rules of the Order and so on 1st December he was formally expelled from the Order in absentia. The raised hand of Christ, who by his dying conquered both sin and death, may have had a more personal significance for the artist.
The saint is shown half-length, seated and leaning backwards. A raking light picks out the saint against a dark background. Her shoulders are bare and her long hair hangs loose, partly covering her chest. She leans back her head. Her eyes and mouth are almost closed. She clasps her hands. A bright red cloth enfolds her lower limbs. This red cloth is often worn by Caravaggio’s saints. Although the Magdalene was often shown in red, the red cloth is not included to identify her, rather it is the symbol of her sanctity.
Broadly speaking, the traditions about the life of Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection cast her as the repentant sinner engaged in penance and prayer in the wilderness. There is a ancient tradition that she lived in a cave in the Sainte-Beaume Mountains east of Aix-en-Province. In 1279 a sarcophagus was discovered in a nearby town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume and it was believed to enclose her relics. The town and the cave became a centre of pilgrimage. A large basilica dedicated to the saint was founded in 1295. It was given into the care of the Dominican friars and it remains in their care today. She is Patroness of The Dominican Order.
In the age of the Counter Reformation Mary Magdalene was an important saint for several reasons. For one thing, she belonged to “Golden Age” of early Christianity, upon which there was a renewed emphasis. Secondly, she represented the repentant female sinner. Thirdly, the sins of which she repented were deemed to be sexual in nature. This was a result of a “conflation” of a number of different female characters who appear in the gospels. This “conflation” is the reason why so many institutions, which in one way or another sought to “reform” women who had sinned in a sexual way, were dedicated to the Magdalene. Typically, artists showed the post -Resurrection Magdalene alone in a wilderness, often weeping and engaged in acts of prayer and penance. Sometimes, she was naked but covered by her very long hair. But traditions also said that in the wilderness she has mystical experiences in which she ascended to heaven. Sometimes she would be shown in mid-air accompanied by angels.
This is why Caravaggio’s treatment of the subject is so remarkable. Here her experience is completely internalised. Most significantly, she is shown in the way he shows other male saints. Her bare shoulders and the red cloak around her lower limbs are found again in Caravaggio’s depictions of the two other great saints of the wilderness and penance: Saint Jerome and St John the Baptist.
Caravaggio gives us just enough. He alludes to her penitence with a tear on her cheek and to her spiritual ecstasy by her posture, her slightly parted lips and her almost closed eyes. The clasped hands suggest the internal tension, but the raking light suggests spiritual illumination. The tradition mentions that in this state she heard celestial choirs. Caravaggio lets the raking light pick our her ear. There really telling parallel is with a painting of St Francis in ecstasy as he receives the stigmata. In “The Stigmatisation of St Francis” (1595/96), now at the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford, Connecticut, St Francis lies back in a similar posture to the Magdalene. In a similar raking light, we see that his eyes and mouth are barely open suggesting an inner experience in a similar way to that of the Magdalene.
Two of his biographers mention that Caravaggio painted a Magdalene and an Emmaus scene during the months he spent in the Albans Hills after fleeing Rome. The Emmaus scene is now at the Brera in Milan. The original of the Magdalene was generally thought to be lost. However, many copies which were made by his followers and so it was known indirectly through them. Caravaggio’s new way of showing a saint in spiritual ecstasy gained currency in Italy and indeed in Barque art. Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St Teresa” (1647-52) is a famous example. In 2014 the art historian and expert on Caravaggio, Mina Gregori (b. 1924), identified a painting of the Magdalene in ecstasy in a private collection as a lost original. Her claim is backed up by other evidence which suggests that when Caravaggio left Naples on what was to be his final journey, there was a painting of the Magdalene and two others of St John the Baptist with him in the boat. But when he was arrested, the boat sailed back to Naples with its cargo. These paintings were intended for Cardinale Scipione Borghese and the St John the Baptist now in the Borghese Gallery is thought to be one of them.
Was this painting of the Magdalene also in the boat? I find it interesting that he might have had with him two paintings in which two saints, male and female, are presented in a very similar way. It seems to me that in so many of Caravaggio’s paintings the bright red cloth is so often the emblem of holiness and not of sin. For me then this image, whether it is a close copy or the original, shows not the repentant female sinner so much as a a woman of great and unique holiness.
Imagine yourself coming over the brow of a hill, or emerging from the edge of a wood, and seeing this view before you. Perhaps the first thing you will notice is the man sowing seed just below you on the left. There are two grey sacks of what might be seed sitting at the edge of this barren patch of ground nearer to his cottage. Maybe it is his wife who is doing something near the door. In the centre foreground there is a tree stump and around it some stones. On the left there are some brambles. The soil doesn’t look very promising, but yet the sower sows. By contrast, on the right there is a very healthy looking crop of corn of some kind. Although still green, it is already tall. The sun shines on this field. Some of this corn has seeded itself around the tree stump among the stones. Near the edge of the crop of corn there is a small child playing in the sun. Another child has a climbed one of the trees. The could be his neighbour’s field and the children might be his as well. Shade and sunshine underline the contrast between the fortunes the two households. Is this why the sower looks to the right as he scatters the seed? Is he hoping for a crop like his neighbour’s? His patch of land shaded by the trees doesn’t look as promising and yet he goes on sowing.
Beyond these holdings the land falls away steeply. Below them a road winds its way through a meadow. There is man standing and another, on horseback, climbs the hill. You can see a church and beyond it another dwelling near the water’s edge. There are cows in the field. The lake stretches almost to the horizon. There are boats coming and going from a walled town. From this view point, another much bigger church rises high above the town’s roof tops. On a peak above the town there is a fortress. Across the water a crowd is gathering near the water’s edge. People are coming on foot from the town. Others have come by boat. The whole scene is suffused by the light of early morning. A new day has begun. Is this Jesus who is there on the shore speaking to them in parables?
In this painting Bruegel illustrates the parable of the sower but what is unique is that it is set within a much wider and vast landscape. It is the relationship between the natural world and the reception of the Word of God which Bruegel shows. We sense the beauty of both. Both parable and painting draw upon the common human task. But the tasks go on within the landscape and are part of it. Human living and the natural world influence and shape each other. The town and the church is no doubt built from locally quarried stone. The small boats are perhaps fishing vessels, harvesting the sea and yet subject to its perils. Human hands have laid out fields, planted crops, in the hope of a good harvest, cut down trees for fire wood, built cottages and thatched them with straw. And it can all find expression in the sower sowing.
The artist who became known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder signed and dated this work in 1557. Two years before, he had settled in Antwerp having had an extended stay in Italy. Little is known about him. But it seems likely that by this year he had established himself as a landscape painter. Despite his reputation as a painter of peasant scenes as if he were there himself, his landscapes are the work of quite a sophisticated and urbane artist who seems to have painted for a small circle of elite clients in the then wealthy city of Antwerp. In contrast to Italy, there was a demand landscape paintings.
The genre goes back a long way in Netherlandish art. It originated in the what might be termed “calendar art”. A good example is shown above. It is “The Month of March” in “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” by the Limbourg Brothers (c.1415). In Antwerp the great pioneer was Joachim Patinir (1480 – 1524). Patinir is credited with the invention of what became known as the “world landscape” (weltlandschaft in German) . These were fictional panoramic views from a height. The land falls away, and a sense of depth and distance is by created by the diminishing size of landscape elements and by the use of use of colour. Typically, the foreground would be painted in a darker earthy brown, the middle distance green and the distant horizon, where the earth and sky meet, light blue. But Bruegel uses colour to convey not just distance but also the atmospheric condition. Often the subject is biblical or historical, but the human figures are small within the vastness of the natural world. Although Bruegel’s scene are fictional, they show the world as it is. This is true also of his peasant scenes. Uniquely, the wedding guests actually eat and drink. An Italian artist would show guest seated at tables laden with food and drink, but they neither eat nor drink. Nor does he shy away from showing other bodily functions! Famously, the poet Auden begins his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” with “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position”. He was referring to Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” of 1558. It can be said that in his landscapes Bruegel does indeed show our “human position” within, and as part of, God’s creation. The landscape is not there simply to show off someone’s castle or as a backdrop to some typical human activity such as ploughing in March. It is painted for its own sake. Bruegel succeeds in conveying the time of year not simply by showing the human activity typical of the season but by close observation of how the landscape looks in spring or in the depth of winter. In short then, for modern viewers these landscapes speak of our relationship with creation. Here in what is perhaps Bruegel’s earliest serving landscape, the Word is sown in human hearts but it is within the whole of creation. This is the Word through the world was made positioning himself within that world.
The verses that we have just read are, to my mind, both some of the most consoling and some of the most perplexing in the whole of scripture. They speak to the mystery of who can receive Christ’s message.
Let’s remind ourselves where we are in the story. We’ve skipped ahead a little from last Sunday. We’re now in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, which begins with John the Baptist missing a step and wondering if Jesus was the real thing. After that, Jesus reproaches various groups, which immediately proceeds this passage. He chides the wayward people of Chorazin, Berthsaida and his own adopted city, Capernaum. In different ways, they fail to grasp the central message of who Jesus is and in what following Him consists. The backdrop then is the various ways in which people miss the point.
We move then to this Sunday’s Gospel, which in a few brief lines contains a great deal. Now it’s said that the rudiments of a good education are said to consist in the three Rs of Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. I’d like to suggest that the themes in view in today’s Gospel passage can also be thought of in three Rs: Revelation, Relationship, and Rest.
First: revelation. Jesus begins with a prayer of thanksgiving. He gives thanks to the Father for revealing “these things” to nepioi — variously translated as babes, children, or little ones. Indeed, the meaning need not be literal but can be understood more figuratively so that the New American Bible — which Catholics use in the US — translates the word as “child-like”. This conveys the sense not so much of age but of disposition. And St. Thomas Aquinas endorses this broader understanding. This sense is echoed later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus recapitulates his message even more starkly. Shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus again says to the disciples that unless you become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Children are contrasted with the wise, the professionals, if you like; the scribes and pharisees who throughout the Gospel, snipe, seek to undermine Jesus and eventually plot to kill Him. For all their learning, they cannot perceive who Jesus is because they are proud, seeking the glory that is God’s for themselves. You can know everything that it’s possible to know about Jesus and yet not know Jesus Himself as Lord. Witness many Theology professors who no longer believe. They reduce Jesus to common era prophet, the Gospel to mere artefact, our faith to elaborate edifice. The expression: “too clever for your own good” certainly finds application among the worldly wise. When wisdom becomes boastful or arrogant, it ceases to be wisdom but becomes a hollowed body of information, and ultimately ersatz. These phrases may have become familiar to us but we ought not to overlook just how perplexing they are. Jesus turns conventional reasoning upside down. The rule of faith is not so much elusive as inverted.
Yet, the message of who-Jesus-is, is disclosed to the child-like, or in the context of the disciples whom he is addressing to mere fishermen! What’s child-like in them? There are various aspects which converge. Commenting on this passage, St. Augustine writes that the key distinguishing mark of the child is “humility”. Just as well, St. Augustine hadn’t met my precocious little brother when he was growing up! And St. Hilary identifies the child-like quality with “simplicity”. Is there also something akin, I wonder, in the letter of St. Paul’s to the Corinthians, where he writes of his weakness or what we might call ‘vulnerability’, which he not only refused to conceal but boasted about. These are all features of being child-like.
More recently, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote of the child’s way or what she termed, “the little way”, which was, she explained:
“to recognise our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father …”
Being little means, according to St. Therese, “believing oneself capable of anything,” while never becoming discouraged over failures, “for children fall often, but they are too little to hurt themselves very much.”
In their humility, simplicity and vulnerability, children receive the gift of revelation by a courageous faith, a total trust in God, a belief not just in Jesus and his message but the sufficiency of it. God is enough; anything else is superfluous at best and a distraction at worst.
The second “R” is relationship. This refers to what is revealed: the relationship of the the Son to Father. In other words, Jesus’ divinity. And this carries an eschatological significance, alluding both to the Servant and the Son of Man, and the mutual knowledge of the Father and Son. Then there is a reference to Jesus revealing to those whom he chooses, having been authorised by the handing over of all things. The relationship aspect if even deeper in Luke’s version of this same passage. It is identical save and that Luke adds a further detail. Luke begins by saying “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit”. Thus the whole of the Trinity are in view. The whole of the Trinity act in concert. God’s work on earth as in heaven emerges from a communion of love between Father, Son and Spirit. In our own relationship with God, we enter into this communion and get caught up, if you like, in this dynamic, this relationship of love.
Finally, rest: the thing which Jesus promises to those who take on his light yoke. Do you feel weary? What about burdened? And how many of us yearn to rest? Rest is something we all desire Some 142 years ago, following the industrial revolution, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented: “from lack of rest, our civilisation is ending in a new barbarism”. Others thought that technology would mean that we could work less and rest more. John Maynard Keynes, for example, predicted that technology would free us from the toil of long working hours. And according to his reasoning, we should only be working 11 hour weeks by now. Yet others, like Tim Ferris — something of a productivity guru — extol the virtues of the 4 hour work week.
In recent months, whether due to quarantine, furlough or even crushing redundancy, much of the workforce have not been at work. I think the experience of the lockdown has shown that the absence of work is not the same as rest. Speaking to many of you, there’s certainly been a restlessness in the air. Others, happily, have been able to find rest; they have found contemplation and prayer, interiority and peace. That’s what rest is all about. The point is that rest is not simply a matter of time but a state of mind, an attitude, and — in the deepest sense — relationship. It’s a relationship, a burden that Jesus describes as “light” precisely because it brings us into loving friendship with the gentle and lowly one: Jesus Himself. The result is that the promised rest — the eternal rest which we long for in the next life — becomes ephemerally present in this life when we abide in Him.
In closing, let me try to put these “three Rs” together as a recap of today’s Gospel: only through child-like humility does Jesus reveal to us that true rest is found in relationship with Him. Of course, my rendering is just simulacrum to Jesus’ own beautiful words, which are addressed to us even now. Weary as we are, conflicted as we might feel, we can always turn to him in faith, we can always accept his invitation:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
… with reference to St Thomas’s time keeping!
Friday was the Feast of the St Thomas, who is known as “Doubting Thomas”. But I think if you go beyond the gospel texts and look into the traditions around St Thomas, there is a good case for dubbing him also the patron saint of those who are always late and especially those perpetually late for Mass! In John’s Gospel, when Jesus appears to the apostles the first time, Thomas is inexplicably absent. Later St Thomas is told by the others that they have seen the Lord, and he replies “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20:25). In the traditions that grew up around the Assumption of the Virgin, St Thomas is also late for that momentous occasion and is equally incredulous. In this picture, you can just see him in the background running to get there in time (see detail below).
Jacopo Negretti (c.1480 – 1528), known as Palma il Vecchio, received this commission when he was around 34 years old. It might well be his first altarpiece. But his Assumption of the Virgin is quite unlike any other. It is true that Palma seems to have borrowed elements from other artists, and art historians note similarities between the heads of some of figures and those in works by established Venetian artists such as Giovanni Bellini. But in this picture, what is so unusual is that Palma attempts to combine the Assumption of the Virgin with another quite distinct episode; namely the Donation of the Girdle. Although popular in Tuscany, the subject of the Donation of the Girdle was rare in Venice before Palma. It is true there is a drawing of the Donation of the Girdle by Jacopo Bellini in his sketchbook (c. 1440-70) kept at the British Museum, It shows St Thomas kneeling on his own before the Virgin. the image is rather faint so it is best to look at it on the British Museum’s website. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1855-0811-86
The Virgin is enthroned in a mandorla of cherubim and she drops the girdle earthwards. But Palma does not show Thomas kneeling in the foreground, rather he is running in the distance because he is late!
Like many artists of the day, Palma would have used “The Golden Legend” as his literary source. In it a number accounts of the Assumption of the Virgin are put together. The gist of them is that Jesus comes and takes the soul of his mother to heaven. Before he does so, the apostles, including St Paul but with the exception of St Thomas, are miraculously transported to her side from the various parts of the world where they are preaching the gospel. Jesus commands the apostles to lay the body of the Virgin in a tomb and says that he will return in three days to transfer it “out of reach of corruption”. They take her body to the “field of Gethsemane” where they find a tomb that is ready to receive the body. They seal the tomb and keep guard around it as commanded by Jesus. On the third day Jesus descends with angels in a bright light and the apostles witness him carrying away the Virgin’s body in glory. The apostles close the tomb and go back to the house of St John who was her guardian. In one of the accounts, St Thomas arrives after her Assumption but he refuses to believe until “suddenly the girdle that had encircles her body fell intact into his hands, and he realised that the Blessed Virgin had really been assumed into heaven body and soul.” The legend of the Donation of the Girdle was very popular in Tuscany and the girdle itself was preserved as a relic in Prato.
A typical example of its inclusion in this cycle of events may be seen Raphael’s “Oddi Altarpiece” painted in 1502-4 for the Church of San Francesco in Prato, which shows the Virgin being crowned Queen of Heaven while below her the apostles look upward as they stand around her tomb which is perfumed by flowers. Peter has his key, Paul has his sword and Thomas has the girdle. But this was painted in Tuscany, not Venice.
Certainly, to include Thomas running because he is late was even more unusual. The Brera has a panel showing the Assumption by Lorenzo Lotto (1480 – 1556/7) which also shows St Thomas running in the background in a similar fashion on the right.
It is worth noting that the two artists were contemporaries, and although Lotto left Venice in about 1503 they may have overlapped and must have shared the same early influences. Lotto’s Assumption is from the predella of an altarpiece painted for a church in the Marche town of Jesi in about 1512. Why the artist would show Thomas running has not yet been explained by precedent or custom. And yet to modern eyes there is something quite charming and even humorous about the detail.
Another unusual aspect of Palma’s Assumption is that there no sense that the Virgin is ascending into heaven. She is not looking towards heaven but rather her gaze is towards earth. She seems to hover and look down as if she is waiting for St Thomas to arrive. To my eye at least, the Virgin herself looks rather bemused at the late-comer!
“Saints Peter and Paul”, Carlo Crivelli, c.1470, National Gallery London. Saint Peter is on the right with his keys and Saint Paul is on the left with a sword. As was the established practice, Saint Peter is shown as older than Saint Paul, with white hair, a tonsure and and a beard. Saint Paul is shown with dark brown hair and a long beard. As in the gospels, both wear a tunic next to the skin with an outer garment over it. Their skin is that of fishermen; darkened by the sun and the wind. Their bare feet signify their following of Christ in the way of humble discipleship. In showing the two saints together in the same image, Crivelli may be drawing on the motif known as the concordia apostolorum, in which the two apostles embrace. There is a tradition that they met and embraced as they were led to their respective martyrdoms, but the motif of their embrace has several layers of meaning and it is found widely in early Christian art. One early example is an ivory belt buckle dating from the fifth century which was found at Castellammare di Stabia near Naples (see below).
However, Crivelli does not show them embracing. Rather, he shows a teaching moment.
In his left hand Saint Peter holds an open book, which was a sign of true doctrine. With his right hand, he points out a passage to Saint Paul. Both saints seem to be reading it intently. The Book in Saint Paul’s right hand is closed, but one page is marked. Crivelli used layers of gesso to give emphasis to the brass furnishing of these two books. Along with the haloes, the keys and the sword they stand out from the flat surface. Saint Peter is presented as the one who is instructing Saint Paul in important doctrine.
As you would expect this panel was not free-standing but was part of a polyptych. You can see it below on the right in an image of the reconstructed altarpiece.
It was made for the parish church of Porto San Giorgio which served as the port for the city of Fermo on the east coast of Italy. It worth remembering that Fermo was within the Papal States. The big controversy of the day had been whether ultimate authority in the Church rested with the Pope or with a General Council. It is fairly obvious that here Saint Peter is exercising that authority which he received from Christ and passed on to his successors as the Bishop of Rome.
One odd thing about this image is that Saint Peter is on the right and Saint Paul is on the left. Usually it is the other way around. (But not on the belt buckle above) But, of course, when you look at the whole polyptych, Saint t Peter is in fact to the left of the Virgin and Child, or significantly, at their right hands. This positioning of Saints Peter and Paul on the left and the right respectively gives priority to Saint Peter. Clearly, Crivelli needed to show the two Apostles together in the same panel and so he gives priority to Saint Peter in this rather idiosyncratic way so that he can have both saints on the right! There is a later panel in the National Gallery in London in which he shows Saint Peter dressed in the full regalia of a Medieval Pope.
But there is a further significance to their positioning on the left and the right. Saints Peter and Paul are often referred to as the pillars of the Church. There may be a reference in this to the two pillars at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon. “He set up the pillars at the vestibule of the Temple; he set up the pillar on the south and called its name Jachin; and he set up the pillar on the north and called its name Boaz” (1 Kings 7:21). Now the temple faced east and so Jachin is on your right as you entered and Boaz on your left. Although the meaning of these names is not certain, Jachin is commonly held to mean “he will establish with strength” and Boaz is the name of the Israelite who married married Ruth. In this reading, Saint Peter is the rock upon whom Christ founds his Church and Saint Paul is the one who gathers the Gentiles into the Church.
Porto San Giorgio was situated on the Adriatic and was a point of entry for Albanian immigrants. Initially, they came fleeing the plague but after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 they were fleeing the Turks. Some were rich. One tradition is that this altarpiece was commissioned by one of these immigrants who was a rich merchant by the name of Giorgio da Prenta Albanese. After the church was demolished in1803 the descendants of Giorgio da Prenta took possession of it. In 1835 they sold individual panels for a total of 90 scudi. However, there was a claim made against the purchaser by the Commune of Porto San Giorgio and the purchaser had to pay the Commune the much larger sum of 300 scudi. Obviously, both parties had some claim.
The central panel of the Virgin and child actually shows a donor. It is the tiny figure at her feet on the left. Is this Giorgio da Prenta? With his tonsure, his blacked hooded gown and grey cloak, he looks like a priest but analysis has shown that this figure is a later addition.
Nobody knows if Giorgio was the original patron or if his descendants had acquired the patronage later on. The panel on the far side of the Virgin and Child shows his own patron saint, Saint George, who is slaying the dragon. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that he is also patron of the port. Moreover, to ask the protection and intercession of a warrior-saint would seem reasonable given the threat of Turkish invasion from the sea. The polyptych then is like and assembly of prayers to the Virgin and Child, asking the intercession of Saints Peter and Paul, who handed on the true faith, and also of Saint George for protection against the pagan enemy without. These prayers would surely be close to the heart of the Albanian merchant and to the city where he had made a new home for his family.
Jer 20:10 -13, Ps 68, Rom 5:12 -15, Mt 10: 26 -33
Let me begin with what might seem a digression.
In recent decades there has been a noticeable increase in interest in the so-called “desert fathers and mothers” – men and women from the 3rd and 4th centuries who were hermits, monks, and nuns, living a very strict life, mainly in the deserts of modern-day Egypt.
The relatively new-found popularity of these figures might seem surprising, given how ascetical they were, how strict and penitential their lives were. But what, I think, makes their writings, or the various records of their words and actions, so popular today is their combination of high moral and spiritual aspiration with humility, a lack of judgmentalism, and their profound insight into the human heart.
Among the desert fathers who has gained particular popularity in recent decades is one of the very last of them: Evagrius of Pontus. I will say something about him soon.
Now, when we speak today about the passions or being passionate, we tend to use these terms in a positive sense. A person might write to an agony aunt or an agony uncle to ask advice about how to get passion back into their marriage; or we might speak of a good teacher as someone who is passionate about education. And so on.
But for people like Evagrius, the passions had a less positive connotation: they were forces within that were liable to disturb whatever degree of equilibrium we might otherwise have. They could be understood along the lines of sources of addiction or reactivity, internal forces over which we have only limited control. They disrupt our happiness, and disrupt our relationships with ourselves, with others, and, of course, with God. The passions on this view can be understood roughly along the lines of ailments that need a physician.
Now you do not need to opt completely for the positive picture or the negative picture of the passions. Both contain truth. Anyway, they are getting at different things, and I think that they don’t always contradict each other despite surface appearance.
But, in any case, there are important insights related to the passions in what people like Evagrius are saying. He is concerned with getting us to reflect upon what might underlie those forces or passions within ourselves that can cause us so much grief.
And in this Evagrius came up with a list of eight thoughts or sources of desires/passions that can lead us astray. In time Evagrius’ list of eight thoughts would become, for better or worse, the basis of the so-called seven deadly sins. But, in any case, here’s Evagrius’ list: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia or sloth, vainglory, and pride.
In putting forward this list, Evagrius was presumably well aware that each of these also reflected what is positive: for example, gluttony reflects that we can and ought to enjoy a well-cooked meal. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But one of Evagrius’ many fine insights is of particular relevance to today’s Gospel reading. And that insight is a simple but profound one, which is: that so much of what can go wrong in our moral and spiritual lives can be very closely connected to fear. And, by the way, while Evagrius might have been one of the first, he was by no means one of the last within the tradition to bring up the subject of fear a very important issue in the moral and spiritual life.
So for Evagrius, even the likes of gluttony is connected with fear. Evagrius links it with an underlying fear of not having enough food; and pride as well – it too is closely connected with fear, even if at first glance it might seem at the opposite pole to fear. In the person dominated by unruly passions, fear is everywhere.
You see, the proud person needs to vaunt himself before others. But why does he need to do this? Well, in part because he’s afraid of being seen as just ordinary, as unexceptional, or simply being overlooked because people are interested in other things. Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism captures this wonderfully: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” And we’ve all heard the bit about bullies being full of fear deep down.
In today’s relatively short Gospel reading we have Jesus saying to us not to fear no fewer than three times. Mind you, he does tell us to fear something once. So it’s three against one when it comes to not fearing. But, that said, it is noticeable how often in the Gospels either Jesus or an angelic messenger tell people not to be afraid. It’s clearly something that Jesus and angels need to address with us on a regular basis.
So today’s Gospel reading begins with:
“So have no fear of men for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.”
It’s not absolutely clear what exactly Jesus means here; but at the very least Jesus seems to be saying to us that those who will go about proclaiming the Good News should have enough confidence in the truth and power of the Good News, so as not to be afraid in a deep way – because it’s the kind of truth that issues from what is revealed to us by the God whose power is greater than the universe itself and whose message ought to empower us and give us courage. As Jesus says elsewhere: “the truth will make you free’ – and part of a deep freedom, is being free of unnecessary and unhelpful fear.
And then, with an almost maternal tenderness, Jesus speaks about not having to fear because we are precious in the eyes of God – the God who knows us so intimately that He has counted all the hairs on our heads. The kind of message here seems to be along the lines of Julian of Norwich’s famous: “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Of course, Julian does not mean that everything will go fine. She lived in a time of brutal warfare and of great pestilence. If her message were one of blithe optimism in such circumstances, she’d be more a silly-billy than the great theologian and spiritual writer she certainly was.
What she is saying is that there can be ugly and difficult and troublesome things, but in the big scheme of things that is within Divine Providence, and known to God, there will be vindication and victory; and because of this ultimate victory we need not be afraid. My own addition to this is that for this level of confidence in divine vindication to really take root in our lives usually requires a life that takes prayer, or at least relationship with God seriously, and so has allowed our ways of seeing things to be shaped by this Christian vision.
But, then, we notice that Jesus does say to us that we should be afraid of those who would destroy body and soul. So there are things to be afraid of. There is appropriate fear.
The Prophet Jeremiah in the first reading had good reason to have fear, being surrounded by his enemies. And if a big bear were chasing after me, It’d be right for me to be afraid; but this would be justified and necessary fear, not the unhelpful kind of fear that Jesus and Evagrius warn us of, the kind of fear that is a state of being, the kind of fear that can spread right through our lives and can sap us of our happiness, can prevent from being who we are being to be, and can undermine our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God.
So if I were to suggest to you just two things to take from today’s Gospel reading it would be a simple insight and a simple exercise.
First the insight: as Jesus and Evagrius suggest: fear can become a state of being, spreading across our lives, a major factor that is unhelpful is so many ways, not least morally and spiritually and in our relationships.
And, second, the exercise: in the days and maybe weeks to come, I invite you to consider reflecting a bit on how an inappropriate fear might be playing a role in your life, and then I advise you to bring this to God in upfront and honest prayer.
In this, I counsel you to show gentleness and compassion and patience towards yourself – after all, there’s no crime in being more fearful than is good for us. The point of the exercise is simply to try to identify in ourselves what might be holding us back, not so that we might beat ourselves up in a harsh accusing way, but, rather, with God’s help, that we might move forward.
And, let’s face it, recent events have probably not helped our fear levels one bit. There is a great deal of anxiety in the air, perhaps with some good reason (indeed, many are having a very difficult time of it); and it’s downright difficult not to get caught up in this at least to some extent.
But, all the same, today’s Gospel reading is a wise and realistic one, a Gospel passage very relevant to our current time. With tenderness and gentleness, and concern for our well-being, Christ says to us, “Be not afraid”, let fear not become a state of being, let it not take over.
And he says this not only because of his tender love for us, but also because of his ultimate victory. As he puts it elsewhere: “Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
So, brothers and sisters: Be not afraid. He has overcome the world. Amen.
This version of “The supper at Emmaus” was painted in the summer of 1606. Let’s compare it with the one he painted in 1601 for Cardinal Ciriaco Mattei which is now in the National Gallery in London (see below, opposite). It is clear that in the later painting Caravaggio has reworked the earlier composition. Both are around the same size and both were painted for private devotion. However, this later painting is very different. First off, it is so much darker. The disciples had said to their mysterious companion, “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is now spent. (Lk 24: 29)” In this picture night has fallen.
The earlier painting is almost theatrical. It is as if there is a spotlight on Christ and on the table. In the second painting the light has faded. In fact, Andrew Graham Dixon wrote that it was as if someone had turned off the lights. The Risen is different also. He is older, thinner and, to my eye, slightly smaller in stature than the other figures. Rather than emerging from the darkness, the figure of Christ seems to be disappearing into the shadows. His bright red tunic and white cloak are gone. Now he wears a more subdued blue-green garment.The whole palette is more restrained. In this later work the colours here harmonise. There is no strong contrast as that between red and green in the London painting. The table, the rug and the cloth are similar but the meal is much reduced. Gone is the basket of fruit with its fish-shaped shadow.
The table ware is more sparse and less lavish. There are two loaves of bread and a jug of wine wine and a few greens. The serving woman is new. She brings some roast lamb on a dish. Her sad expression and her charge surely point towards the sacrifice of Christ on the cross; the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The inn keeper is similar in both, but to my eye both he and the woman look more substantial than does the Risen Christ. This Christ looks poorer. If you compare his hands in the two paintings you will see that the hands in the London painting and strong and clean, but in the Brera painting, the hands are thinner and you can see dirt on his nails. Dirty feet abound in the Roman works, but not Christ’s feet. To my eye, this Christ looks like a gardener. The other painting dating from that summer was “The Penitent Magdalene”. His left hand is positioned so that it is juxtaposed with the greens on the table. Is there an allusion Mary’s assumed need for forgiveness?
Also in the first painting both his hands are raised. Here one rests on the table and almost touches the hand of the disciple on the right. There is something odd about the gesture of blessing in the London painting. He seems to be blessing the bird. This has led some writers to interpret this figure in particular as a quotation from other works which show the Risen Christ with his hand raised in blessing. In the later picture he does seem to be blessing the bread. The two disciples react in surprise, but their gestures are calmer. Another difference is the view point. Look at the shape made by the white cloth in both. In the later painting the scene is viewed from a lower down. All in all, the later painting is more harmonious, restrained, and also more contemplative. The mood is more subdued. This Christ is one who has suffered. The emphasis in the earlier painting is on a Christ who has triumphed.
I have read that there are no fewer than 40 000 books written on Caravaggio. Interpretations of his works vary enormously. Generally, it is acknowledged that with this picture Caravaggio begins to paint in a new way which will characterise many of his later works. Many scholars link this change to the details of his biography. However, it may not be that simple. On 28th May 1606, Caravaggio got into a brawl with Tomassoni Ranuccio. Both had their backers and in all eight men were men involved. But the fight was really between Caravaggio and Ranuccio. Caravaggio was injured but Ranuccio died from a stomach wound. Much is written but little is known about what actually happened. Few doubted that the man died by Caravaggio’s hand. But was Caravaggio provoked? Or was it he who provoked the dead man? Caravaggio disappeared. He would make his way to the safety of the Colonna estates in the Alban Hills south of the city. Some of the others fled Rome as well where they too found protection. It was a month later that proceedings began. The records are sparse but later on when Caravaggio himself died a newspaper reported that a banda capitale had been imposed on him for the killing. This was the severest of sentences. Anyone could carry it out or if he was arrested he would be executed immediately. But in the summer of 1606 Caravaggio was safe for a while under the protection of the Colonna Princes. It was here that he painted the second “Supper at Emmaus”. It was probably sold and sent back to Rome and was documented as being in the Patrizi Collection in the 1620’s. This is the work of an a man who was stalked by death. Moreover, this artist’s hands have taken a man’s life. It is hard not to see this later version of the Supper at Emmaus being in some way a response to what had happen just a few months before.
In the Roman works light is used in various ways. But in his religious works it came to represent the direct intervention of God. Think of “The Call of Matthew” or of “The Conversion of St Paul”. In this painting the light falls on all five figures, but less so on the two disciples who, as seen from their gestures, recognise Christ. The inn keeper is closest to Christ but he fails to understand. The serving woman looks downward lost in her own thoughts, but there is a sadness about her. It has been noted that she is remarkably like the St Anne of the “Madonna dei Palafrenieri” which he had painted only months before. However, this may be because now in hiding Caravaggio is without models and so paints from memory. Moreover, he must paint quickly. Another difference in this painting is that he paints thinly and lets the ground show through. This may be due to his reduced circumstances, but it also makes the image of Christ more transitory and fleeting. It is interesting that the other work which dates from this time is “The Penitent Magdalene”, who in her need for forgiveness is set against an undifferentiated darkness. Is Caravaggio pondering the possibility of forgiveness for himself, or is he seeing Christ in a new more humble way, freed perhaps from the dictates of Roman Counter Reformation decrees on decorum? What is certain is that if you stand before this painting you feel as if Christ is present but is just about to disappear. When he is gone there will just be unfathomable darkness. Could we read the painting as almost the reverse of what happened to the disciples? They moved from despair to faith. Is this about holding on to the fleeting moment when faith was strong? Each viewer will have his or her answer. The genius of this work is that the more you look, the more you need to ask the question.
“Christ’s supreme gift of love”. These five words are the best I can do to summarise what the Eucharist is, and why we celebrate this feast day. That’s a summary but let me share some of the thinking which underpins it.
1. UNIQUE SACRAMENT First, the Eucharist is not just a sacrament, it is The Blessed Sacrament. Other sacraments are gifts from God but the Eucharist is unique because it is the gift which contains the Giver. All sacraments are signs. But while other sacraments are signs of Christ’ action — Christ healing, Christ forgiving and so on — only the Eucharist is the sign of Christ’s very Presence among his people. Uniquely, the Eucharist is the sign of God’s Presence because it is God’s very Presence. This is why the Eucharist is supreme for it is nothing less than the gift of God Himself. And, above all else, Scripture tells us, God is Love. Thus the Venerable Fulton Sheen once said “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white host”.
2. LANGUAGE “Christ’s supreme gift of Love”. These five words say something of what the Blessed Sacrament is. They say something but they do not say everything — far from it. For it’s impossible adequately to describe the reality which we encounter in the Blessed Sacrament. More than anything else I can think of, the Eucharist exhausts our vocabulary; it transcends our human categories; and it taxes superlatives. Consider the innumerable titles, think of mystifying descriptions of Divine love made flesh, recall the maximal language: Sacrament Most Holy and so on. Ultimately, God and the gift of his Presence in the Eucharist, cannot be reduced to 5 words, or even 5 million words. St. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, had a good stab. He is said to have written 10 million words about faith, including much about the Eucharist. It’s not for nothing that Pope Urban IV in a masterstroke commissioned him to compose the beautiful proper texts for this Mass of Corpus Christi. But even St. Thomas admitted, and I quote, “No one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament”. And, many would say – myself included – that St. Thomas expressed the sweetness better than any other theologian. It is then against a background of the impossibility of saying everything about the Eucharist that the lesser though still unenviable task of saying something today falls to me. So how should I – how should any of us? – say something about this gift? It’s easy to feel lost for words?
3. PRAYER-POEM: ADORO TE DEVOTE Well, when ordinary language seems inadequate, we often turn to poetry. That’s what St. Thomas did at any rate. He composed a Latin prayer-poem, an oratio, that we call by its opening line “Adoro te devote” and which continues “latens deitas”. Those Latin words might be rendered in English— with a hat-tip to his Jesuit poet translator, Gerard Manley Hopkins — as “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore”. The prayer’s soaring beauty comes not only from rhyme and meter but from its sheer intimacy. Unusually for a prayer especially of the thirteenth century, it is addressed directly to Jesus Christ. More specifically, it is addressed to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and was written to be prayed sotto voce between the consecration and the Our Father. When we say or sing St. Thomas’ words, when we make his words our own, there’s a sense in which we join the Master-theologian on his knees in awe at the gift of the Eucharist.
4. PARADOX In the opening words of the oratio St. Thomas puts his finger on a beguiling paradox: Christ is utterly present yet also concealed — hidden under the appearance of bread. And so, to receive Christ’s supreme gift of Love properly, we need the eyes of faith to unwrap this gift, as it were,. And even faith only takes us so far, since we can only hope to see God face-to-face, as he really is, in heaven. In this world, we can only treasure the glimpse of God under the appearance of bread and wine.
5. BITTERSWEET And of course, at the moment, most of us cannot even do that! So the paradoxes multiply. This year, the Feast of Corpus Christi feels ironic, it feels remarkably bittersweet: bitter, because we cannot gaze be in His Real Presence, let alone receive Holy Communion, and sweet because Christ remains present even when we cannot see Him. Watching Mass your computer screens is nowhere near the same, I know — just as a Skype, Zoom or Facetime call isn’t the same as being with someone in person. And yet, Corpus Christi remains sweet because the gift is still there, is still offered in this Chapel this evening, even if we cannot receive it for now. So we continue to celebrate what the Corpus Christi Sequence, Lauda Sion, written again by Aquinas, calls the “beautiful joy”of the Eucharist. Ultimately, Christ’s supreme gift of love remains real, remains sweet, and is offered lovingly even when we’re deprived of receiving it sacramentally.
6. MEANING & FIRST READING What then might be the meaning of this deprivation, of this bittersweet paradox, this “loss and gain” to borrow words of St. John Henry Newman? What might be the meaning of all this? We might find a clue in the First Reading. It describes how the Israelites endured 40 years in the wilderness. God let them hunger so that they might be humbled and tested. He did all this to do them some good in the end. The historical parallel is striking is it not? Our own “great and terrible wilderness”, our own “Sturm und Drang” of nigh on three months of restrictions has undoubtedly been a test, a humbling and indeed a devastating tragedy to some. But to what end remains to be seen. Will this be a blip, a sort of gap in our lives or will it be an opportunity for purification and refocus, and do us some good like it did for the Israelites? The outcome is partly down to us, of course. My prayer and hope, though by no means a firm expectation, is that one effect of this temporary deprivation of the sacraments might make us value them all the more. Perhaps we’re being wrested from our complacency? Perhaps we’re being encouraged to receive the Eucharist not as routine or in some instrumental fashion but as supreme gift? Could a fruit of this hardship, this exile be to come to a newfound appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice at calvary, which made it all possible? Will the radical change in the way we’ve had to live our day-to-day lives prompt a decisive turning point in our interior lives? These are open questions addressed to each one of us. I ask them pointedly. They’re worthy of deep reflection and today especially in light the awful paradox of celebrating Corpus Christi away from the Blessed Sacrament, the striking parallels in the First Reading, and the forthcoming but gradual lifting of restrictions. We can avoid the questions, of course, but that does, in fact, constitute an answer of sorts, and a poor one. In the spiritual life business-as-usual is not an option. If all of this has been in vain, the hardships and tragedies only increase, not least to include a new one: the tragedy of missed opportunity. Some good must come out of this.
7. UNITY One good outcome that I’m confident will come about is a reforging of our community. I very much hope it’s an expanded community but even if it’s a smaller one, this will pass and we will be reunited again. The renewed coming together for the Eucharist will bring with it some new fruits, some new life. The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament of unity: we gather for its celebration and in its celebration — by its power! — we are united. In today’s second reading St. Paul addresses his Corinthian converts, gathered in house churches. Paul knew that the rich and powerful Corinthians gathered for the Eucharist but did not admit those whom they perceived as their lessers; they failed to welcome all. This didn’t just make Corinthians snobs, it made them lacking in faith because they failed to see the poor and slaves as their equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Such exclusion is not Christ-like, is not Christian, is not Corpus Christi. The Church is not an elite club but, in the words of Pope Francis, a “field hospital”. It’s a church of sinners from every walk of life. The importance of the Eucharist as sacrament of unity could hardly be overstated in these days of deep divisions, violent protests, and hate being shamefully banded around. As St. Paul writes simply, “we — who are many — are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. In the Church, and in Eucharist especially, the lost unity of mankind is restored because we are united in God Himself who is Love.
8. CONCLUSION We’ve come full circle. This unique sacrament, for which words are inadequate but which poetry seems to express best, which is paradoxically manifestation and concealment, which is remarkably bittersweet in these trying days of lockdown, and which will unite us together as One Body, is — I repeat — nothing less than “Christ’s supreme gift of Love”. The Bread of Life, the fruit of calvary, is offered as gift for the salvation of souls – and, we pray, our own especially. So when the time comes —and it couldn’t come soon enough! — how will you receive this gift? How will you receive Him?
The familiar story of the road to Emmaus, from Luke’s Gospel, concludes, “Then they told what happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). His work echoes several earlier depictions of this very scene. However, the composition has a strong relationship with that of Titian’s “Supper at Emmaus” now in the Louvre. This is true of the arrangement of the figures. Look at the innkeeper in both. However, there is one resemblance which is a very significant detail. Titian shows Christ blessing bread that is already broken. Caravaggio does the same. Usually artists choose either the blessing or the fraction, but here were have both. Or do we? When I lived in Rome, I ate something like one of those rolls every morning. The first thing I did was to open it up at the top, using my thumbs, but I would leave the bottom part intact. I would only break it into bits when I was going to butter it and eat it. I’m not quite sure of my facts here, but if it were hot from the oven, maybe I would open it up to let it cool a bit. It looks to me as if he has just taken the bread and done something like I used to do, and now is blessing it He breaks it apart in a moment and gives it to them as in Luke 24:30. Caravaggio puts the moment of recognition just before the fraction and distribution, which is right, because what he is showing is the dawning of faith in Christ’s presence.
Caravaggio painted this for Ciriaco Mattei while he was staying in the Palazzo Mattei. It was painted in 1601. A payment of 150 scudi was made for it on 7th January 1602, so it was probably painted in the latter half of 1601. He paints strongly and with exuberance. There are many areas of just a single tone of colour. For example, look at the flat uniform blocks of red on Christ’s tunic. No doubt to the delight to his patron, with great flamboyance he displays his illusionistic skills. Look at the basket of fruit, which seems to be about to topple off the table. For his patron, the basket of fruit is a reminder of the extraordinary naturalism which had characterised his earlier works. But both artist and patron would have known of how Pliny in his Natural History (XXXV) refers to a painting by the artist Zeuxis (5th Century BC) in which a boy is painted with a bunch of grapes, which he says were so deceptively real in appearance that the birds actually tried to eat them. Caravaggio’s fruit do indeed look as real. In the Palazzo Mattei, this work, and others by his hand, would have surpassed the naturalism of other artists, Most significantly, it challenged the contemporary tendency to idealise scenes from biblical narrative and mythic narrative. By contrast, think of how Michelangelo and Raphael painted 50 years before. Set against the eternal spring of Renaissance art, and the grandeur of its settings, this supper takes place in what looks like a rather common Roman tavern. This is Counter Reformation art. The early Christian era was to be re-embraced and engaged with. The detail of ordinary life should lead us to mediate on the mysteries of Christ’s life. One of these disciples wears a pilgrim’s shell. The innkeeper has his sleeves rolled up. Some argued that putting the two disciples and the innkeeper in a contemporary setting and clothes lacked decorum, Caravaggio’s method spoke to many. One biographer’s criticism was that the fruits in the basket were autumnal, whereas it had actually happened in Spring, that is the time of Passover and Easter. But there is a sense in which along with the fruit in the basket, Caravaggio’s art is maturing. The fruit are so real, they show signs of decay, which also must have been deliberate and is, perhaps, significant.
Although, Caravaggio painted what he saw before him in the studio, he did select and carefully pose what he saw. It was said that he carefully controlled the fall of light in the studio space. Nothing is there accidentally. In this painting the majolica jug, the glassware, the table cloth and the oriental rug might have been his own or that of his patron, and may have had a resonance now lost to us. But this realism is selective. On the one hand, analysis shows that as Caravaggio worked, he would carefully adjust the thickness of an arm or the size of an ear, so that it looked real. You can do that in oil paint – well if you have his talent!! But on the other hand, elements which were not significant did not get so much attention. In his “Conversion of St Paul” it is easy not to notice that the groom’s lower legs cannot be where they are. Here the great gesture of the disciple on the right with arms outstretched is a very powerful evocation of the cross. But is the hand farthest away in the correct position? Does it matter? Nobody would have any difficulty reading this as an arm outstretched. Sometimes, unimportant details were kept in shadows. Nowadays, this can be a result of the condition of the painting. For example, in his “Taking of Christ” , which was painted also for Ciriaco Mattei at this time, a tree truck is just visible behind Jesus and Judas. There is therefore the suggestion of both their fates. But it is also true that as his style developed, and in his later works, the requirement to include such details disappears into the dark brown and undefined ground.
His method of posing figures in a studio and then painting from a particular vantage point is used to great effect here. We look down on the table as if we are standing before it. We are not seated but there is room at the table! The elbow of the disciple on the left almost enters our space. As has been often remarked, you want to reach forward and push in that basket of fruit. As in the other famous works from these years, which I will mention below, light is used in various ways. In particular, in this work it is used to convey the moment of recognition. The innkeeper who doesn’t understand what the sign means, casts a shadow upon the wall. From this shadow of unknowing, the rather youthful face of the Risen Christ emerges. (By the way, this youthful face may be a quotation from a drawing of Christ’s head by Leonardo now at the Brera in Milan.) This way of drawing figures emerging out of darkness will characterise many of his later works. It is especially powerful here. There is the added detail of the fishtail shape made by shadow which the basket of fruit casts upon the table. All of these elements come together to evoke this moment of recognition and the birth of faith in his soon to be unseen presence.
It rather poignant to note that when Caravaggio painted this he was at the height of his career. He had completed the “Call”, “Martyrdom” and and “Inspiration of St Matthew” in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi Francesi, which first made his reputation. He probably had also finished his “Conversion of St Paul” and “Crucifixion of St Peter” for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Populo. His “Entombment” for the Chiesa Nouva would be completed in the year following. But this high point in his life was as precarious as the basket of fruit on the table’s edge. Most probably, he had no idea of the tragedy which would characterise the reminder of his days and see him dead within a decade. For me this painting of the Supper at Emmaus is all the more eloquent because he didn’t know what was ahead. Could he have known that he himself was working in a moment of favourable light, which darker forces, from both within and without, along with some level of contingency, would extinguish. For me this evokes what faith in Christ ’s unfailing presence really is in our lives. Next week, I hope to look at his second depiction of the Supper at Emmaus which is now in the Brera Gallery in Milan.
In this image, gold leaf is overlaid with pigments of red, green and white. The red is that of the Christ’s blood which flows from his wounds. The green is that of the crown of thorns. The white is that of the Holy Spirit and the throne on which the Father sits flanked by angels. Although, this image is slightly taller than it is wide (118X114.9 cm), it looks like a square. If you were to draw two diagonal lines across the painting from the corners, they would intersect at Christ’s upper lefthand torso just above his heart. The asymmetrical distribution of colour is complemented by the symmetry of the composition. The more you look at this painting the more you see.
Of course, you are not really seeing the Trinity. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God” (Jn 6:46). This kind of representation of the Trinity, where the Father is shown as the ancient of days seated on a throne and holding the Son shown as Christ Crucified, and the Holy Spirit as a dove, was well established in Western Art long before 1400. In the nineteenth century German art historians named such images with the Father seated and holding the dead or dying Christ as “Gnadenstuhl” which means “seat of mercy”. However the term predates them as well. The mercy seat was the cover or lid of the ark of the covenant which was kept in the inner sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple known to us as the Holy of Holies. Exodus 25:10 – 22 gives instructions about the construction of the ark. The wooden ark was to be covered in gold and its lid was to be made of pure gold. On either end of the lid there were to be two golden cherubim and the lid itself was called the mercy seat (Ex 25:17). And of the mercy seat the Lord says, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex 25:22). The length of the mercy seat is to be two and a half cubits. The cubit is an ancient measured based on the length from the elbow to the palm or extended middle finger. The English word comes from the Latin cubitum meaning elbow and the associated verb cubo meaning to lie down or recline. As a unit of measure the cubit was common to many cultures. It thought that in the Jewish usage a cubit was around 46cm, which makes two and a half cubits: 115cm which is the width of this painting. The more carefully you look the more you see!
The Day of Atonement the priest entered the Holy of Holies, and having offered incense before the mercy seat, he sprinkled it with the the blood of a bull as an act of atonement for his sins and that of the whole people (Lev 16: 27). This annual Temple ritual is picked up by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Christ is both priest and sacrifice. In our liturgy the second reading on Good Friday is always Hebrews 4:14-16. 5:7-9. The first reading for Tenebrae -that is from the Office of Readings- is Hebrews 9: 11-28. Each year we hear “he entered once and for all into the Holy place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). In this image then, gold represents the Holy Place of Hebrews, and Christ’s blood shed on the cross colours the robes of the Father and is reflected in the two cherubim. Their garments seem to me to flow. But this red is mingled with another flow of colour, that is the green. I said above that the green is that of the crown of thorns. However, it may be the other way around, for green is surely the colour of hope, and life, of youth and bliss. After all, this crown of thorns is unusually green. Personally, I associate it with the Passion narrative in Luke which has Jesus’ singular use of the word green. In Luke’s gospel when Jesus is led away to be crucified he encounters the women of Jerusalem and to them he says, “Do not weep for me, weep for yourselves and for your children …for if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk 23:28. 31). Of course, his words refer to Jerusalem and its future fall. But an artist who had to be a specialist in pigment would make the same association.
Of course, any attempt to depict the Trinity must be highly symbolic. The whole history of such images of the God the Father is riddled with religious controversy, not least around the prohibition of images of God in the Decalogue. However, Christians have depicted the Trinity from early days.
The so called “Dogmatic Sarcophagus” in the Vatican Museum, which dates from 320 to 350 , shows the creation of Adam and Eve with God as three distinct but identical men, but beside this scene is another in which God talks to Adam and Eve in the garden and he is shown as just one man. It reflects the dogmas defined at Nicea.
Triple-faced heads, which to my eye are more than a little monstrous in appearance ,were once quite a common way to show the Trinity. One such head survived the Reformation carved on a misericord at Cartmel Priory, Cumbria in the mid 15th Century.
Also there are many early images which use abstract forms such as three equal circles inside a circle. On the high cross at Kildalton on Islay, which dates from the 8th Century, the Trinity is represented by three eggs in a nest!
There are a great many paintings which show the Trinity using the basic format of the mercy seat. Sometimes, Christ is no longer on the cross but is held pietà-style by the Father. We have one here in Edinburgh in the National Gallery , which came from the Collegiate Chapel of the Holy Trinity. The chapel once stood where Waverley Station is today. What survives are the wings of a triptych by Hugo van der Goes (active 1467 -82), one of which shows the Trinity.
For me what is most moving about the altarpiece in London’s National Gallery is the Father’s hands. The Father is much larger than the figure of the crucified Christ but it is the hands which draw me. They are strong and take the weight of the cross easily but the it seems to me that the upturned fingers touch the cross gently. Moreover, his arms are holding the cross out towards the viewer. For me then, this is the Almighty holding, not just the crucified Christ, but each of us in all our littleness. It reminds me of a favourite poem : “ Autumn” by the German poet Rilke.
The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
as though above, were withering farthest gardens;
they fall with a denying attitude.
And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth, falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hands falling too –
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.
This little painting from London’s National Gallery (45.5cm X 44cm) is full of surprises. Pentecost is described in the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 1 of Acts says that after the Ascension, the Apostles went back to the upper room in Jerusalem. It names the eleven and refers to the betrayal and death of Judas. As a result Matthias is selected to replace him. However, according to Acts there were others with them: “All these devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers“ (Acts1:14). Acts 2 describes what happened on Pentecost and begins, “When the day of Pentecost came around, they were all together in one place”. The word “they” leaves room for asking were the people mentioned as being with the Apostles on their return to the upper room also there when the Spirit came? Before and indeed after Giotto Mary is shown with the Apostles at Pentecost and the tongue of fire is also above her head. But Giotto only shows the Apostles. This is true also of his slightly earlier depiction of the same scene in the fresco cycle of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
This is one reason why I think he may have been following not Luke’s Acts but “The Golden Legend” which was composed by Jacobus da Varagine between1259 and 1266. This was a compendium structured around liturgical feast days. It was very widely read and artists used it as their main narrative source. It has quite a full treatment of the Holy Spirit and, with respect to Pentecost, asks and then answers a number of very specific questions. How did the Spirit come? Well Varagine’s answer is the Spirit came with the sound of a mighty wind and fire in tongues of flame. But “The Golden Legend” is quite clear that the Spirit doesn’t come as a dove at Pentecost. Upon whom did the Spirit descend at Pentecost? The Golden Legend says it was just the Apostles. The text lays great emphasis on the significance of fire and flame for their future ministry of preaching and witnessing to Christ. It also says that when the Spirit came they were seated which was a sign of their humility. Both this scene of Pentecost and the one in Padua are in accord with “The Golden Legend”.
Luke says that they were all in one place. He doesn’t doesn’t specify where. However, it is assumed that it was the same room where they had eaten the Last Supper and to which they had returned after the Ascension. “The Golden Legend” says it was the Cenacle, which was the location of the Last Supper. But in both works Giotto shows Pentecost happening in a different room.
In the Scrovegni Chapel fresco the Apostles are seated on benches in a kind of loggia with gothic arches. It like contemporary architecture which must be deliberate. As you can see from the image, within the loggia the circle of golden haloes catch the light. Some writers think it suggests the Church. To my eye it is like a lantern or lamp lit shine before the nations of the earth. The rays coming down upon the apostles are also visible.
In the London panel there is a feeble looking dove in the centre sending down rather faint rays. In fact cleaning and analysis has shown that this dove and these rays were added later on. Indeed, originally, there just eleven Apostles. Another one was added not long after its completion on the far left. He is a bit smaller but has been painted over the adjacent apostle’s halo. However, the most significant discovery is that originally there were strong rays descending on each apostle. There were formed in gilded thin which was easier to apply but was quite expensive. The illustration below shows them as they would originally have been seen. They would have dominated the scene.
It is known that this panel was the last in a series of panels which were all cut from the same plank of wood. X-rays show the grain of the wood continuing as you move from one panel to another. There are seven in all. These are “The Nativity and Epiphany” (New York), “The Presentation” (Boston), “The Last Supper” (Munich), “The Crucifixion” (Muinch), “The Descent into Limbo” (Munich) and “Pentecost” (London). On the back of each panel there were batons so that they could be held together in a row. Together the set would have been just over 3m long. Such a large width makes it very unlikely that these formed a predella. Rather it is thought that they formed a dossal, which was a type of altarpiece not uncommon in places like Rimini, where Giotto had worked in this period. The crucifixion panel has the donors and St Francis kneeling at the foot of the cross. This means that the altar for which these were panels were made was in a Franciscan Church. As in the Scovegni Chapel frescoes, the room in which the disciples are seated at Pentecost differs from the room used for the Last Supper. This change of location would not have been without significance. In the Last Supper scene, the Apostles fill an enclosed space. There is no door visible because it is about them being together ate table with Jesus. in his scene of Pentecost, Giotto suggests a room that is elevated, which suggests the upper room but it also allows him to suggest the street below unto which the Apostles will emerge speaking in the language “of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). This room has windows and doors which are shut. The two figures listening outside brilliantly evoke the sound of the mighty wind and also invite us to listen. The taller figure on the left looks to me like a prophet. He is pondering the scene as he rubs his beard. Perhaps he represent the prophets of the Old Testament, all of whom were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The viewer would have stood or knelt before this altarpiece for Mass. It would have been lit by candles. The viewer’s eye would have moved from the haloes of the Christ child, Mary and Joseph, to next scene and the scene after, with haloes catching the light like “sparks running through stubble” and would have come to this final scene where these gleaming rays of golden light fill the little room, as it filled the hearts of the Apostles. And surely such an image would have linger in the mind as he or she went out from the chapel unto the streets of daily life.
How can you paint the Ascension? Artists have struggled. Sometimes you see just his Christ’s feet with the disciples below, as in Dürer’s “Little Passion”.
Another example is the scene at the top of “The Cloisters Cross” c.1100 and believed to have been made in Britain. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Sometimes, Christ soars up almost like a great bird. Giovanni Bellini painter Christ’s resurrection showing him in mid-air above the tomb, an image seems to have conflated the Resurrection and the Ascension. Put Moses and Elijah on either side and you have the Transfiguration. Many artists followed this composition with Christ floating above the ground so that it became hard to distinguish one subject from another.
Sometimes Christ is borne on powerful angelic wings as in Tintoretto’s “Ascension” at the Scuola San Rocco.
And how do you show the difference between the heavenly and the earthly realms? In Tintoretto’s work, heaven is light-filled and quite substantial. By comparison, the earth below is much fainter and insubstantial. Of course, the mystery of Christ ascending into heaven, and heaven itself, transcend our experience.
“The Ascension” from the Twelfth Century English Psalter shows heaven as a series of brightly coloured concentric circles into which Christ enters. The problem is more acute when you are painting in a Calvinist milieu, where there is a prohibition on depicting the divine, and a very pessimistic view of this life. However, in my view Rembrandt’s painting of 1636 is one of more successful images.
Christ ascends standing on a small cloud which seems to be continuous with the helm of his extensive cloak. Little cherubs look as if they are attaching themselves to the cloud as children might do were this a passing cart. But some of them look as if they are propelling it upwards. Their playfulness communicates joy. Christ is fully clothed in abundant white and radiates light. Yet we see that his feet are solidly planted on the cloud. We also see the wounds in his hands, once outstretched on the cross but now stretched out in glory, inviting those below to follow him. Were this a Catholic commission, the clouds above him might have opened to reveal the Father, Our Lady and the Saints. Indeed there is evidence that initially Rembrandt did paint the Father and the Holy Spirit but then thought better of it. Instead, we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove but also radiating light which falls on those below. The palm tree on the left, almost hidden in shadow, is a very Catholic symbol of the resurrection. On the right , the disciples are caught up into the scene above them. Some have hands joined but the one in the centre spreads his arms as Christ does, surely aspiring to follow him. This Christ is as human as they are, but his humanity is now exalted and glorified. This painting is one of a series of five paintings depicting the Passion of Christ commissioned for the Dutch Court through the offices of Constantin Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange. The original commission specified just two, which showed the elevation of the cross and the descent from the cross, which was to be after Rubens’ great work.
In the descent, Christ is shown in death. Christ’s broken body has none of the perfection of Apollo and the like. His agony now ended, it remains frozen on his features. The figure on the ladder to the left is Rembrandt himself, his face hidden in shadow. Rembrandt shows our human condition in all its frailty. Christ’s agony is raw and real. Within both these paintings light shines in a surrounding darkness, which effectively distances us from the scene, but at the same time draws us into contemplation. It is a bit like theatre and yet these figures are real flesh and blood. The call is to faith alone, for a Calvinist world is a radically fallen one and only Christ can lift us up. Christ, show clearly as one of us, both descends and ascends, his arms outstretched in love. One gets the impression that Rembrandt was no Calvinist!
“The Laundress”, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, c1886.
I have been thinking about snails, or rather the silvery trails they leave behind them. You see, there is now a pattern of silver slime on the stone behind the tabernacle. It catches the morning light as I sit for morning prayer. Like most normal things it is both unremarkable and profoundly remarkable. The slime that dries and now remains was simply a means for the snail to get about. With that mucus a snail can get right up that pane of glass behind me. It is not intended as a sign of its presence. And yet it is a sign for me.
This gospel passage can be thought of in terms of absence and presence. I read somewhere that presence and absence should not be thought of as opposites, but rather as sisters, for the opposite of presence is not absence but vacancy. Absence is charged. Indeed, sometimes, it is more highly charged than presence. Schoolboy Shakespeare: in the Merchant of Venice: Gratiano says “All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoy’d.”
Absence lingers somewhere between the remembrance of presence, whether good or bad, and the anticipation of that same presence, either good or bad. It is never neutral. Absence always implies presence.
These chapters of John’s Gospel, are set on the night of his betrayal, when he will be taken from them, which is also the night on which he gave us the Eucharist. “One of you will betray me”, sits at table with “Do this in memory of me”. For us, as we hear this gospel, we are taken back again to that night which is charged both with his presence and his absence.
In these long discourses, Jesus talks a lot about his going away and about his returning, about laying down his life and taking it up again, about being rooted in him as a branch in the vine, about sorrow and about joy, about the peace, which he gives not as the world gives. But in these chapters, he doesn’t use the words “Presence” or “Absence”. Luke does use the word “presence”. It is how the Archangel Gabriel introduces himself to Zechariah. “I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God”. What an introduction!! The word translated as presence here literally means who stands before the face of, that is in the sight of, God. The concepts of presence and absence are not John’s words but they certainly are ours and are central to the tradition of faith, which we have received. Both these words come from the Latin word for being “esse”. Absence is about being apart, ab -esse, whereas presence comes from being with, praes-esse. In each, focus is on esse, that is being. That is why the opposite of presence is non-being, or vacancy and nothingness, a vaccuum, a void. Now in this language of presence and absence there is a very definite standing back, a certain level of abstraction.
It all depends on where you start from, where you really position yourself. I can approach the world from a distance as if it were some kind of incredibly complex puzzle, as if the world and my experience of myself in the world was something to be figured out, as if it were out there. Or I can approach from within, which is more honest, because I cannot approach the world and myself from outside, because there is no outside position. The world is more like someone I gradually get to know, to enjoy or dislike, but someone I spend time with, as I would a friend or a foe. It is a more truthful place to begin. This is how the Hebrew Scriptures approach knowledge. It is interpersonal. It sometimes draws even on very intimate human relationships, to speak about knowing or keeping God’s Law. This is the background to these passages from John. He goes away, he returns, he sends a Counsellor to be with us and more than this to dwell in us. We cannot really grasp their sense unless we stand within them as it were. Unless we make them our own, which is of course to say, that we let them make their home in us.
The word which is translated here as “Counsellor” has spilled over into English as a name for the Holy Spirit. It is Paraclete. It literally means someone who is called to be beside you. So it someone who can come to your aid. The idea is of someone who stands beside you, especially if you find yourself in the dock in a court of law. Someone who can speak for you in your defence. Someone who can intercede for you. Someone who just is there for you. So it gets translated here as Counsellor, but others translations, say Advocate, Consoler, Comforter. The root meaning is of someone standing beside you and with you and who is completely for you. As they say these days someone “who has your back”.
It is the promise by which we live and move and have our being. It sits within the ancient promise made by God to Abraham, when God made a Covenant with him. We get this in the Benedictus, the song of Zachariah which we sing every day at morning prayer, where it says that freed from fear “we might serve him in holiness and justice all the days of our lives in his presence” (Luke 1: 75). Again, the word presence is our translation, what the Greek word actually means, “before the face of “or “in the sight of” as in Gabriel’s greeting to Zachariah.
This passage from John is about the working out of God’s promise to Abraham and to Israel and also to us. The promise holds good between the twin poles or sisters of presence and absence, where the Paraclete’s presence though gentle is deep and therefore all the more powerful. It is like a deep well in a desert place, that will never run dry. Absence is never God’s. He is there both in the familiar and unfamiliar. But in this time when most people can’t receive him in communion, he is present. Certainly, his absent is felt more keenly. But this is not vacancy. Rather it is this charged longing, however it finds expression. We live with both His presence and His absence at the best of times. Maybe when this time is over we may understand more deeply that they are not as different as we thought they were.
There is wonderful poem which I am going to read. It is a poem by the Irish poet, Ann Egan. The sight of a primrose swaying in the breeze near a quarry lake reminds her of a young Irish woman who left Ireland to work as a maid in Philadelphia but whose every day is full of longing for the one she has left behind.
“A Primose’s Sway” by Ann Egan, from “The Wren Women”, Black Mountain Press 2003
I watch a ripple cross
the quarry’s wildness
fall asunder reflecting
a primrose’s loneliness.
I think of you, Anne Kelly,
ancestor, emigrant, field girl
servant in Philadephia
your apron starched with longing,
for your home in the Derries.
Eyes blink and stare from brass
as you polish layer from layer
of a girl recalling her people.
Your knuckles lump and redden
With washing soda, you wring
memories of him under the holly.
You scrub his words into collars
his whistle lathers the wash board,
mangles the laundry to heaps.
When you hang out the washing
the shirts clap unseen hands,
and you’re in his arms dancing.
The flags give step for step
He’s whispering a future,
A new home past the quarry.
Linen sheets are sailing ships,
Dreams that make you leave
To steady a primrose’s sway
By the waters edge
where all shadows disappear.
Anne Kelly would never go home, but we will. This is gospel passage is suffused with profound hope for those who long to be in his presence. Of course, this is what Jesus calls eternal life. It is not about dying but somehow not really dying, but continuing in some unspecified and mysterious way. Having some kind of lingering presence in a few human hearts. It is about real genuine living with Him. It is about living before the face of him. And the key thing is that this has already begun in us and a sign of that is that longing for which we use the word absence. The last lines from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which we have on Holy Saturday are as follows:
“my spirit ponders it continually and sinks within me. But this I call to mind, in this I find my hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies have no end. They are new every morning and great is his faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion”, says my soul. “Therefore I shall hope in him.”
We come to this realisation by wining paths and stops and starts. The snail on the stone paving behind the tabernacle has left a winding trail as if it were going around in circles. But circular routes do lead home, once you realise where you have started from.
“Titus, the artist’s son” , Rembrandt, c. 1657, Wallace Collection, London. You can view this paining in high resolution on the Wallace Collection website, www.wallacecollection.org
When asked recently what my favourite portrait was, I could answer without hesitation. It this painting, which Rembrandt made of his son, Titus, as a teenager. It is generally dated to about 1657, which would make Titus 16 years old. However, the exact date of painting is uncertain. What matters is that Titus was no longer a child, but also was not yet an adult, when his father painted him. Since, the theme of the relationship between the Father and the Son appears again and again in the gospel passages read at Mass over the past few weeks, and today’s gospel reading also begins with it, I thought it might be interesting to look at this painting. To my mind this picture is about Rembrandt’s relationship to his son.
Rembrandt’s career took off in in the 1630’s. However, he spent lavishly. He bought an expensive house and collected famous works of art for which he sometimes paid well over the odds. Rembrandt had married Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1634. He was marrying above his station and the couple moved into a fashionable address in Amsterdam. Titus was born in 1641. He was the only one of their four children to survive. But Saskia died the following year. Saskia had money which went to Titus. Rembrandt had access to his son’s inheritance so long as he did not marry again. In 1650, Hendrickje Stoffels became his housekeeper and mistress, but they did not marry. There is an inventory of his possessions made in 1656, because in that year he was declared bankrupt. In 1655, when Titus turned 14, he was legally competent to make a will and did so in favour of his father. This was a way of protecting what remained of the boy’s inheritance from Rembrandt’s creditors, should the boy die before his father. As a brankrupt, Rembrandt was no longer competent to manage his business affairs. It was left to Hendrickje and Titus to manage the sale of his paintings and the production of his etchings.
“Self-Portrait”, Rembrandt, c.1630, Walker Gallery Liverpool.
In this portrait, the boy’s clothes are too big for him. This is a boy in a man’s clothes. For me me this is the first clue to what the portrait is about. The gold chain and the heavy coat was the dress of a prosperous merchant. Indeed, he is dressed rather like Rembrandt is in his self-portrait now in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. This was painted when Rembrandt’s career was taking off in 1630. Rembrandt continued to paint self-portraits throughout his career. There are about 75. He painted Titus several times, but none of these works have the seering poignancy of this work.
Light falls from the left onto the bright red beret with its gold trim. It catches the back of his shoulder, so we notice the rather grand coat and the gold chain. These clothes are not let fade into the shadows. Why has he dressed his son up in such expensive clothes at the very time when they are almost penniless? Does it hint at the wealth and status of his mother’s family? Or is it a kind of bravado? Is it an expression of hope for the boy’s future. Will he grow into these clothes? Or is irony? Each viewer must decide. The light catches the curls of hair which frame his young face. The hair is so beautifully painted that you could almost touch it. Whenever I have stood and looked into those big brown eyes, I have been transfixed. For me, there is within them a sadness for what has been lost and yet there is also a sense that Titus isn’t fully aware of the tragedy that has befallen him. This knowledge awaits him. He is a boy whose circumstances forced him to act as an adult. However, from the way Rembrandt paints his son, I can see that he knew well what he has done and what was lost. Notice the skin below his left eye It is as if it were still wet from tears recently shed. The curve of the eye brow and the other eye in shadow convey to me an inescapable sadness which has become normal for Titus. At this stage, it is very likely that Rembrandt himself would have had a huge sense of his own failure, not just financially, but as a father. And yet what is so obvious to me is the love with which he paints his son. There is the intimacy of the parent and the child. Notice that there the hint of facial hair above his lips and on his cheeks. Taking all of the above into account, what I see is a father asking forgiveness both of his son and of himself.
Of course, different people interpret these features in different ways. This is the genius of Rembrandt. We see a real person and perhaps in that person we may see ourselves too. There is evidence that Titus trained as an artist under his father. Some paintings by him are listed in the 1656 inventory. He married in 1668, but caught the plague and died that same year, before their daughter was born. Rembrandt, his daughter- in-law and the grandchild also died soon afterwards. They were all buried in rented graves.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Wallace Collection had twelve paintings by Rembrandt. It now has only this one. They others weren’t stolen or sold. It is simply that they are now judged as not by Rembrandt’s own hand. Many artists painted in the style of Rembrandt and he himself often signed the better works of his many students. However, nobody has ever doubted the authenticity of this portrait. Some would even say it is his most beautiful work. To my mind he paints not just his son, but also their relationship in a way which is startlingly honest. I connect it with John’s gospel, for in the son you see the father and in the seeing is manifest the bond of love between them. What is so moving for me is that this trinity of love is dressed for us in clothes of human frailty, failure and the contingencies of a human life.
Someone mentioned in an email that that this week he had seen his first swallow of spring out at Gosford. Perhaps the swallow in this altarpiece, which is perched above the Madonna and Child and gives the work its name, had just arrived in Heaven from somewhere south of the Sahara. For this is a heavenly scene and is as fine a picture as you will ever find of Our Lady enthroned as Queen in Heaven. Jesus said “I go now to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2) Crivelli evokes the transcendent splendour of a place in Heaven by using the most beautiful and fashionable things of this earthly life.
The swallow is significant. Not only is the bird a herald of spring and new life, but in 15th Century Italy it symbolised both Christ and Mary. There was a rather gruesome legend that if you should pluck out the eyes of swallow chicks, then the parent would take a blade a grass and use it to restore their eyesight. So the swallow symbolised Christ, who restored sight to the blind. But because this bird took such care in building a nest for her chicks , the bird also symbolised maternal love and therefore the love of the Madonna for her child and for us too.
This heavenly picture is about Mary and much of its rich symbolism centres on her maternal love. But of all the many paintings by Crivelli of the Virgin and Child, this is the only one in which the child is shown without clothes. To show the Christ child naked was quite common in late medieval and early modern art. The idea was to lay emphasis on the full humanity of Christ.
But if the humanity of Christ is being emphasised through a lack of clothes, the transcendent splendour of Heaven and of Mary enthroned is shown through the finest clothing and cloth of the day. This painting shows Mary as Queen of Heaven.
This altarpiece was made for the Ottoni family chapel in the Franciscan Church of the Marche town of Matelica. The Ottoni were the Lords of Matelica. Their family name derived from the Emperor Otto I, who, they claimed, granted them the right to bear the Emperor’s name in 962. Historically, they were knights which meant that, among other things, they had been posh mercenaries. Judging by this picture, they had become very style-conscious. They and their town of Matelica had become wealthy through the production of wool and textiles. No doubt, this fact explains such a particularly textile-rich take on Heaven. Saints Jerome and Sebastian, who attend their Queen, are turned out in their finest. We see St Jerome, not as we usually do, stripped to do penance, but robed in a splendid and luxuriant red cappa and hat. Crivelli lets the bright red cloth trail over the front step. St Sebastian is fully clothed as well, which is unusual for him. He is dressed as a fashion-conscious knight of the day would have been. The only allusions to him as a plague saint is the single arrow he holds in his right hand and the bow at his feet, which is there to show that he can deal with the arrows of the plague should they begin to fly. St Sebastian was also a soldier. Clearly, the Ottoni wanted him shown as a knight, who might frequent their own court. He is their representative in Heaven. At the very bottom, we see their coat of arms carved on the step, which tells you that this is their take on Heaven.
Of course, Mary is the most splendidly arrayed of all. Notice her golden sleeves. Crivelli has given another similar pair to St Sebastian. She wears a crown and, rather interestingly, two veils. One is beneath her mantle. It may be a sign of her betrothal to St Joseph. But there is another just under her crown. This one symbolises her betrothal to God. Behind her Crivelli hangs two lengths of expensive cloth. The colours are different but the pattern is the same.
As you would expect from Crivelli, there is a lot of fruit lying about in this Heavenly court. Apples recall the first Eve, and so, by association, Mary’s status as the second Eve. Peaches and pears are reminders of her Son’s passion. The cucumber on the upper left is a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. This symbolism derives from the story of Jonah who spent three days in the belly of a whale and who was associated with a gourd. The cucumber looks like one, or so I read somewhere in a book!
One unusual feature of the history of this altarpiece is that the Franciscans met most of the cost. They paid 310 florins, whereas the Ottoni contributed only 60 ducats. The local Franciscan Guardian, Fra Giorgio di Giacomo, was very “church-proud” and seems to have been the driving force behind the range of Renaissance side-chapels built on to the church in this period. This fact may explain why St Jerome holds a very Renaissance looking church. This is the standard pose of a saintly founder. But it is the importance of the church building itself with its modern design and beautiful interior which is emphasised. St Jerome points to the golden rays emerging from the open door, lest we miss the point. He represents this church enhancing friar! These side chapels were deep and narrow with a round window on the back wall. Altars were built on the side walls. In this picture, light descends from the upper left, as did the natural light. So really, you have to imagine this work against the wall in that poorly lit side chapel at the very moment when bright Italian sunshine streams down and picks out the the gold in all the fabrics and clothing.
There is am important difference between this work and earlier altarpieces by Crivelli. Mostly, his altarpieces were polytychs: that is a number of saints painted on individual panels, each in his or her own niche, arranged around a central panel showing the main saint. Usually, but not always, the Madonna and Child would be in the centre with a Pietà above them. The framing would be gothic in style with characteristic pointed arches. But this work is not a polytych. It is a pala which is a fixed arrangement of a large main painting with a row of smaller paintings below in what was known as the predella. This particular work is unusual in that it is still in its original frame with the predella pictures below. This was latest thing in Italian Renaissance style. Gone are all those the Gothic arches and golden backgrounds! The broad rectangular frame of this pala is decorated as if it were a set of pillars in a Renaissance palazzo. In fact, in 1482 the Ottoni family had rebuilt their palazzo in this style on the town’s main piazza.
Very little is known about Crivelli’s personal life. He and his brother were Venetian artists as was their father. In 1457, he was imprisoned for adultery with the wife of a sailor. He then left Venice and there is no record of him ever returning. However , he signed himself as “Venetus”. Crivelli settled first at Zara in Dalmatia, but then moved to Ascoli in the Marche and had a very successful career painting altarpieces for the churches in the region. The Franciscans were major patrons and also the Dominicans. Despite his consumate draughtsmanship, his beautiful use of colour, his exquisite rendering of detail and its rich symbolism, Crivelli was largely forgotten by art historians. He was a contemporary of Mantegna and Bellini and his work shows their influences. In the nineteenth Century his works became popular with British collectors. No doubt, this is why there are so many in London’s National Gallery collection. Unfortunately, many of his altarpieces were dismembered and then sold in different lots. The Madonna della Rondine wasn’t and it is still in its original frame, which makes it all the more precious. Perhaps if Crivelli had stayed on in Venice, his works would have been more widely known and loved sooner.
Ascoli, where he lived, was quite near the border with the Kingdom of Naples and it came under Neopolitan rule in the final decade of Crivelli’s life. The King of Naples knighted Crivelli in 1490. His signature, written in gold letters at the bottom right proclaims this fact. When the sun rose and streaming to the side chapel, the viewer would read not just his name but his new status as a knight (in Latin “Miles”): CAROLUS CRIVELLUS VENETUS MILES PINXIT.
Despite the evident mixed motivations in its making, this very beautiful painting of Our Lady crowned Queen of Heaven, with her recently arrived swallow in attendance, is surely one for this month of May, which is Mary’s month. Our Lady of the Swallow, pray for us!
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” and it’s the day upon which we pray especially for vocations. Somewhat awkwardly, however, this year (Year A of the liturgical cycle) there’s no explicit mention of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel Reading, taken from the start of chapter 10 of John. Jesus, in fact, makes a different claim in today’s Gospel: identifying himself as “the door”, or the “sheepgate”. It’s only in tomorrow’s Gospel — starting with verse 11 and following immediately where we stopped today at verse 10 — that Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd”. And so one could be forgiven for thinking we’re left with something of a misnomer! It’s not so much Good Shepherd Sunday as “Sheepgate Sunday” but perhaps that has less of a ring to it?!
But reading both Gospel extracts from today and tomorrow together and more closely makes clear that the “the shepherd of the sheep” referred to today is the same “Good Shepherd” referred to tomorrow. And so it’s not such a misnomer after all, even if we might be stretching things a little.
I’m stressing this because I want to illustrate a general point: the importance of reading around any Biblical text — what precedes and what goes after — in order to situate it in its context so as to better understand the Word of God. There’s a nice line written by Malinowski, the founder of modern anthropology, which is that there’s “no text without context”.
So let me add two further points of context, if I may.
This Gospel reading starts a new chapter of John’s Gospel, chapter 10, and that might be because Jesus begins to addresses a new theme. But, Jesus is, in fact, midflow. The business of chapter 9, in which he is addressing the Pharisees, is ongoing. So the particular context in which Jesus makes these remarks might be lost if we don’t remind ourselves, by reading what precedes, where Jesus is and to whom He is speaking. From that, we learn that Jesus is still in Jerusalem addressing the Pharisees. Remember that from Chapter 9 that they were seeking to undermine the healing of the man born blind, and to discredit Jesus. And this is important because the Pharisees are precisely in view when Jesus refers to “thieves and robbers”, “strangers” and — by implication — the bad shepherds, as opposed to “The Good Shepherd”.
A final point of context, reading even further back than chapter 9, is the Old Testament, which is replete with imagery of the Good Shepherd. For a long time, the Jewish people had understood the image of the Good Shepherd as a figure of God. In Genesis, for example, Joseph was saved “By the power of the mighty one of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, the God of your father …” Such imagery was also used by Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and of course by David in his Psalms, such as that favourite which we read a few moments ago: “The Lord is my Shepherd; nothing shall I want.” The point is that throughout the Jewish history, God is portrayed as the ultimate Shepherd of the people, providing guidance, sustenance and protection so when Jesus makes this claim of himself, the implication is clear.
Now, if it is right that there’s “no text without context”, it’s also the case that there’s no context without text. And this Gospel text is so rich in meaning. I’d like to say something about the strange sheepgate image with which Jesus identifies and then look more closely at some of the details which serve to colour the story.
Before Jesus identifies himself as the sheepgate, he refers implicitly to two different types of sheepfold in use by sheep farmers of the time and place. In the first two verses he seems to have in mind the kind of “communal sheepfold” that each village would maintain and to which several shepherds might return their flocks each night. The pen was protected by a strong door that could be opened only by the chief shepherd’s key. The second type of sheepfold is described in subsequent verses. Such a containment was provided for those nights when the sheep were to be kept out in the fields. Such temporary sheepfolds usually consisted of a circle of rocks, with an opening at one end. The shepherd himself would serve as the gate to such sheepfolds, laying across its entrance to sleep. Whether a sheep tried to leave or a wolf tried to enter, they would have to do so by way of the shepherd himself! The shepherd himself was the door and this is what Jesus is referring to when he talks about himself as the “sheepgate”. What might seem a bizarre image to us is more readily understood by his listeners. Being the gate – a sort of protector – was just part of what being a shepherd entailed in first century Palestine, and is also a part of how Jesus shepherds us today.
How Jesus shepherds us — the goodness of the “Good Shepherd” — is to be found in other rich details of the story. So let’s look at three such details, briefly.
First, Jesus says that “he goes before them”. Whatever hardships we endure, including those of the present lockdown, Jesus has suffered them before us through his passion and death. And by his resurrection, he has trail-blazed for us a path to heaven if we follow Him: “anyone who enter by me… will be saved”, he says. The Shepherd doesn’t merely facilitate this heaven-bound path but leads out the sheep, we the people into pasture, into eternal life. This is what Jesus does and in what Christian discipleship consists. How does this happen?
That’s described in a second detail: The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by their name. You might not think that farmers call their sheep names but they often do! Dolly the sheep, for example, stands in a museum not 1/2 mile from this chapel. The Lord calls each of us by name; his initiative comes first. Now it wouldn’t be Good Shepherd Sunday if I didn’t say something about vocation. In the Church, we sometimes say that everyone has a vocation. But that’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that everyone is a vocation. We often think that our existence is a bald fact. But it isn’t. To exist at all is to be called by God. Everyone is a vocation but it’s difficult to hear the voice of God amidst the cacophony of noise in the world. That is why silence is so important for prayer, and for which during lockdown, there is ample opportunity, but only if we seize it, only if we work to preserve some silence in our day in which we can hear the Lord’s voice speaking to us, calling us by name.
A third and final detail: this calling provokes a response: “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice”. Knowing his voice entails discerning between good and bad. There were thieves and bad shepherds in Jesus’ time and there are thieves and bad shepherd’s in our own. I’ve mentioned the pharisees of Jesus’ time but we might ask ourselves who are the 21st century pharisees leading us astray? Take some moments to identify those people and things that lead you astray so that in your weakest moments, when you’re tempted half the battle is won. Bear in mind that the devil is subtle and wily and that he works from within as well as outwith. Once we have discerned the authentic from the phoney, and identified the masters voice, we must simply follow him, even like sheep.
Time and again throughout the Gospel, Jesus says two of the most powerful words ever uttered: “Follow me!” Nobody quite knows to where he is asking them to go when He utters the injunction, only that there is something inescapably compelling about the invitation. Now, I’m not going to make a cheap and cringeworthy sales pitch about why young men and young women should join the Order of Preachers and become Dominican Friars and Dominican Sisters. The merits of doing these things can’t be put across in a homily but can only be glimpsed by the testimony of our lives. But I am going to invite everybody to examine their consciences and ask themselves how, whether they are following the Lord’s call; how, whether they are encouraging others to do the same. It’s something we should all pray for, and today especially. Because the key task of our lives, especially when we’re young is to discover, in St. John Henry Newman’s words, what “definite service”, what “work”, what “mission” is entrusted to us. St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast we celebrated on Wednesday, wrote “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”.
Dear young friends, I say to you directly: if you embrace your calling — whatever it might be — if you follow the Lord generously into whatever person the Lord is calling you to be, that though it may not always be easy, Our Lord Himself promises you life, and life in abundance! Do not be afraid! For to borrow from another of Our Lord’s agricultural metaphors: the labourers might sadly be few, but — make no mistake — the harvest is rich!
The painting from the National Gallery Collection in London was made as an altarpiece for a family chapel in the Franciscan Church at Fabriano in the Italian Marche region in 1491. In the centre are the Virgin and Child. Mary is seated on an ornate marble throne over which a rich cloth has been carefully draped. This orange backdrop sets off the deep blue mantle that she wears. You can almost feel the softness of the cloth and the hard reflective surface of the columns. There is a lily on her right and a rose on her left. Both flowers are symbols of the Virgin. St Francis is on the left, and St Sebastian is on the right. the central fold in the cloth traces the centre line of the painting. It is all so carefully balanced and each element is in perfect harmony with the rest. But, rather oddly, someone has left some produce lying around. There is a pear on the left and, hanging beneath it, what looks to me like a peach, although, it might be an apple. There is another similar fruit on the right hand side and hanging beneath this is what looks to me like a cucumber. On the floor beneath the throne plucked flowers have been scattered. These are no accident. These are Crivelli’s trademarks. Each had a symbolic meaning, even if that meaning is lost on us.
However, the snail at the bottom is probably just a snail. It might just be Crivelli’s way of showing what he can do. The viewer must decide if is painted or if really there on the surface. Crivelli was at he height of his career. He could demand large sums of money for his work. Now, notice the tiny woman beneath St Francis. The skirt of his habit almost enfolds her as she kneels before the virgin.
Her name was Oradea Becchetti. She is dressed in black because she is a widow. In her husband’s will he asked for the chapel to be founded. However, is not going to be defined by him. She wants posterity to know that she paid for this work with her money and that she paid quite a bit for it. The inscription at the base of the throne can be translated as “at no small expense and of her own money”. Although pious there is nothing meek or mild about her expression. She looks tough. In terms of Italian religious art in the 1400’s, Oradea is as remarkable and as unusual as the hanging cucumber. St Francis is there to present her to the Virgin and Child in Heaven. Clearly, she choose him to be there. He is an obvious choice, given the location of the work. But Oradea invited St Sebastian along also. The reason for his presence, shot through, as he is, with at least a dozen arrows, is rather less obvious.
The reason why images of St Sebastian with arrows are to be found in almost every art gallery across Europe is because St Sebastian was one of the great plague saints. The Black Death, or bubonic plague, hit Europe in 1347. Although it eventually subsided, localised outbreaks continued every ten or twenty years for centuries. It became a fact of life. In fact, the Marche region had just come through a series of outbreaks in the late 1400’s. there was little that people could do except pray that they would be spared. Wealthy families such as the Bechetti commissioned works for Churches and side chapels that included a saint whom they believed might intercede or even offer protection. St Sebastian was one of saints most commonly invoked, despite the fact that in this life he had no connection with the plague. He was Roman soldier from Narbonne who was stationed in Rome in the Emperor’s guard in the Third Century. He was a Christian and was accredited with conversions and with healing miracles. Condemned to death for his faith, he was tied him to a tree truck and shot through with a great many arrows. He was left for dead, but he survived. When he had recovered, he publicly berated the Emperors’ maltreatment of Christians (There were two Emperors at the time). This time he was clubbed to death and his body was thrown into the Tiber. Among Roman martyrs he was ranked as third after Peter and Paul. But the element of the story which gave him the greatest status was the miraculous way he recovered from being shot by arrows. It was as if he had returned from death as did Christ. Artists focused on this part of his story. The tried to present him as looking like Christ in the Passion. He is usually shown pierced through with arrows because Christ also was pierced, not by arrows, but by a spear. He is shown only in a loin cloth, not simply so that an artist could show off their skill with anatomy, but because Christ too was stripped. Notice that in this painting St Sebastian is tied to a column in place of a tree trunk. In this way the saint’s suffering is linked to Christ’s flagellation. And yet he doesn’t show any expression of pain. This again is how Christ was often presented. His calmness and serenity reflect both the martyr’s grace of being able to endure suffering and the peaceful heavenly repose wherein he now lives.
The arrows are worth thinking about. In fact, they were well established symbols of plague in both Jewish and pagan antiquity. But the one sending the arrow is usually an angry God in heaven. There is a famous image by Benozzo Gozolli from the Church of San’ Agostino in San Gimignano which dates from the 1460’s doing the rounds at the moment. In it St Sebastian spreads his cloak to protect the populace from a shower of arrows raining down from the sky. In fact, what is most unusual about this image is that it is St Sebastian and not Our Lady who spreads the cloak to protect people. I find it quite interesting that currently this image is most often cropped. They leave out the angry God in the heavens and his team of assisting angels. The full image can be seen above. We don’t blame God for the current pandemic. But to understand these works you have to understand that Italians in the 1400’s didn’t blame God either. They blamed themselves. Generally, it was understood to be a consequence of sin. I certainly am not saying that our sinfulness today has brought on the virus, but at the same time, there is much to ponder about how we have been living. I don’t mean sin, but I am thinking of the many ways in which we have made ourselves vulnerable.
In Crivelli’s painting there is a broken arrow on the ground. It is as if someone had intercepted it and broken it before it could do any harm. One role of the plague saint was to deflect the arrow. But there is a deeper aspect. Although innocent (as was Christ), St Sebastian takes the arrows into his own body. He suffers in the place of those who have sinned, which, of course, echoes the Song of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. Moreover St Sebastian is presented as calmly enduring his suffering. He is like the lamb led to the slaughter, opening not his mouth. As I say above, this serenity is a sign of his closeness to Christ in his martyrdom.
St Francis was also linked to the Passion by his stigmata. Here he shows the wound in his side. Both these saints suffered as did Christ and as a result it would be understood that they could plead all the more effectively.
So here we have this unusual and quite complex painting from a very talented but quite unusual artist. And yet, viewed from where we stand, it is quite simple to understand. We see a woman’s prayer for herself, her dead husband and her people in a time of plague. We see her perhaps long-delayed self-assertion as a woman too in her expression. It is worth mentioning that he Chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Consolation and the little widow has a rosary beads in her hands. Now in our time, surely we can join her and say, St Sebastian, St Francis and Our Lady pray for us.
Third Sunday of Easter, Luke 24: 13-35
At the very end of John’s Gospel there are these intriguing words:
“But there are also many other things, which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
So there might have been, and I strongly suspect there were, numerous post-Resurrection appearances by Christ that have not been written down for posterity. In this case, the evangelists would presumably have had to decide which events to include in their Gospels. And they would presumably have chosen those events that they felt were of particular importance to future generations, to hear and to reflect upon.
When I read the beautiful story of Cleopas and his companion on their way to Emmaus being joined, unbeknownst to them, by the Risen Christ, I feel that the evangelist Luke is doing many things at once. He is, for a start, recording an incident in the lives of two people, one of whom is named. But in recounting this story, Luke is also allowing Jesus to instruct us readers of the scriptures on how to understand them correctly.
“And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”
So we are to read the scriptures in the light of our knowledge of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus– so that even the events of what we call the Old Testament can be seen as leading up to, and preparing the way for, the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
So the mysterious companion whom we know to be Jesus goes a lot further than simply explaining some troubling recent events involving Jesus and an empty tomb. He explains the whole story of the Chosen People in the light of Christ. Looking back, events in the life of Moses and the prophets can be seen in relation to Christ, even though this perspective on things was not available at the time.
But a question I’d like to ask is: why stop at the Old Testament and the recent events in Jerusalem? Surely, the take-home message is that all history ought to be understood in relation to what is revealed in Christ.
Indeed, the scriptures themselves go forward in time, well beyond the day on which Cleopas and companion walked to Emmaus. So, for example, we read in the Acts of the Apostles about the life of the early Church, a time period of over 30 years. And then the scriptures fast forward and bring us to the end of time and the coming down of the New Jerusalem, presumably still a long way off in the future. And all this is seen in the light of Christ.
And then there is the great swathe of time in between the Acts of the Apostles and the coming of the New Jerusalem, the period we are living in right now. And so, no surprise, we are to read the story of this long period – with its many ups and downs to put it mildly – in the light of Christ. And since this period contains our lives, we are to understand our lives too through the lens of our Christian faith.
The famous philosopher Soren Kierkeegaard famously wrote that life can only be understood backwards but can only be lived forwards. Just as Cleopas and companion had to look back on events in order to understand them, so too we need to do the same if we are to understand our lives in the light of Christ. And in this we might encounter events in our lives that did not make much sense at the time, but when seen within the bigger context of our lives, we may hopefully be able to discern something of the work of Christ in it all.
And part of the beauty of this is that there might be many things in our lives that do not look like much in the eyes of others, but seen in the light of Christ, they can take on a new importance and value and profundity. When we see things in the light of Christ, we not only see them from a bigger perspective, but a bigger perspective that is saturated with mercy and tender love, and that is capable of bringing to light whatever good might be present in what might otherwise be negative.
Which leads me onto something I have not yet mentioned, but that is crucial to understanding what today’s Gospel is about. So far I have mentioned about Cleopas and companion coming to understand things in the light of Christ. But simply to put it like this is to risk focusing too much on the cerebral – as if it’s most fundamentally about sorting out the facts in our heads and then giving a correct interpretation of them.
But it is a lot more than just this.
You see, the story of Cleopas and companion on their way to Emmaus is not only about two people being brought to the correct interpretation of recent and historical events: it is about two people who have been accompanied on the way by Christ, who have come to know Christ personally by sharing his company, and who have listened to his word and opened their hearts to him, even when they did not even realise that it was Christ who was with them. In other words, it is not only about the stuff going on in our heads, in a narrow sense of this; it is about coming to understand through relationship, through friendship, through spending time with the Lord, and listening to him:
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
And it is also about being accompanied by the Lord, even when we do not recognise his presence. And, looking back on our lives, we might be able to discern that Christ was accompanying us all along, but, like Cleopas and companion, we did not spot it at the time.
Many of you will have doubtless heard the famous Christian poem of the footprints in the sand. It’s perhaps a little over-familiar, but it nonetheless says something important and relevant to today’s Gospel reading:
“One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
Of course, it’s by no means only Cleopas and companion who have found themselves puzzled by strange events in their lives. I suspect many of us are scratching our heads right now about our current situation with its lockdowns and the like. And who can blame us?
So today’s Gospel passage seems to be very suitable for trying to make some sense of puzzling times like our present situation. It might be some way off before when we can begin to make sense of it all. But today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on all things through the lens of faith in Christ; and it reassures us that Christ is with us right now, accompanying us in our puzzlement and frustration and worry. So let us pray that our minds might be enlightened and that we may recognise his comforting presence with us.
“My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
Here is the back garden as it was on 1st February 2009. The copse of trees was planted by the owner of number 24 around 1879 in an attempt to screen off the view of new hospital buildings from his garden.
In the next photo you can see the 19th Century kitchen extension which would demolished to make way for the new chapel. When the plaster board was taken off one interior wall, we found a section covered in sea shells. In those days the headless statue statue of St Dominic was lingering under a bush. You can also see the garden through the railing which used to be outside the Garden Room.
On Sunday 26th April 2009 we blessed the site. A line of pansies were planted to show how far the chapel would extend. You might be surprised to know that the altar is about halfway between the house and the back wall. We were not let make the chapel extend any any longer than it does because of the trees. Jordan was always on hand when there were new and interesting people about.
We got planning permission eventually in January 2010 and so construction could get under way. The first thing they did was breach the garden wall. The stone was kept for when it would be rebuilt. These pictures were taken on 23rd March 2010.
The old kitchen extension was soon demolished, but the stone from it was kept and was later reused in part of the garden path and the flower bed wall. Notice that there is just a single metal column holding up the two story bay window. Sometimes saying Mass I used to worry if the whole thing would collapse beneath me. The site was cleared. It was at this point that the stone mason found St Dominic’s head and put it back on. But two weeks later it disappeared again. He remains headless to this day. When they pulled back the top soil they uncovered two stone-lined wells. They are now covered up beneath the Chapel.
Here you can see the formation of platform of concrete on which the Chapel rests. These photographs were taken in June 2010.
The walls went up quickly. As you can see here they are far from solid. In fact the stone wall is brick inside with dressed sandstone on the outside. There was a lot of insulation in between. We had one stone prepared with a cross so that we could bless it as a foundation stone. It was put in place on 20th October 2010. The ceremony of blessing had taken place the Sunday before upstairs in the old chapel.
“Doubting Thomas”, c.1601/02, Caravaggio, Bildergalerie, Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany.
It is known that this work was painted as a private commission while Caravaggio was in Rome. It must surely have created a stir amongthose who saw it, because there was nothing quite like it anywhere in Rome. It was quite different in a number of ways.
First, it was an unusual choice of subject in Rome. The Holy City had no strong tradition of devotion to St Thomas. In the other great artistic centres of Italy, artists had been painting this gospel scene for centuries. Caravaggio would have known other versions of the subject if he had travelled to the cities of the North of Italy and it is quite a reasonable to assume that he did. He may have seen works such as those of Cima da Conegliano and many others. However, it is unlikely that he would have found this subject in any Roman church or collection.
Secondly, his treatment of the subject is new. The majority of artists showed the eleven disciples in a closed room with Jesus and St Thomas at the centre. Usually Thomas extends his hand towards the wound in Jesus’ side and sometimes Jesus guides his hand or raises his arm so that the wound is visible and accessible. Here, Caravaggio shows Christ and just three apostles in an undefined space. Like someone with a camera, he zooms in so that we are much closer to Christ and St Thomas and they are shown half-length. Moreover, Christ allows Thomas to actually stick his finger inside the wound, with an eye for detail that even lets the light catch the flap of skin raised by his finger. There is no blood, but this image is about as visceral as it gets.
Thirdly, before Caravaggio, nobody composed an image with such an intense focus on the wound. All four figures stare intently at the finger as it penetrates the flesh of Christ’s side. Light falls from above and picks out the top of the saint’s hand and his index finger. It highlights Christ’s hand as he delicately guides the hand of St Thomas. Look at the expressions on their faces! The wrinkled brows of the three disciples show their amazement, which, perhaps, is not just at the fact that Christ’s flesh is as real as theirs, but that Christ is actually letting this be done to him. The expression on Christ’s face, masterfully captured in shadow, with his lips parted, suggests that the wound is indeed tender. There are an number of other realistic details, not least the dirt beneath the finger nails of St Thomas.
Of all his works, this one was copied the most. Although, the exact circumstances of this commission are unknown, It is known that by 1606 this picture was in possession of Vincenzo Guistiniani, because in that year his secretary notes that his master had seen a copy of it in Genoa. Vincenzo Guistiniani and his brother Cardinal Benedetto were among Caravaggio’s most notable Roman patrons. But the question remains why would such a patron commission Caravaggio to paint this subject? Well, the answer may lie in the commission’s historical context. This is the Rome of Clement VIII. In the aftermath of the Council of Trent, the Pope had sought to use art and architecture as one means of renewing and refocusing faith. In Clement’s Rome, ancient churches were renovated and new paintings were commissioned to decorate them. The Jubilee year of 1600 was a focal point in this great program of renewal. Caravaggio was just one among countless artists who were drawn to Rome in the lead up to the Jubillee. The Guistiniani brothers were deeply embedded in this culture of renewal. When Caravaggio was painting this for their private collection, he was also working on his “Entombment” for a side-altar in the Oratorian Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova. The Guistiniani Palazzo was just a stone’s throw away from the Chiesa Nuova. The Guistiniani would have had strong links with the Oratorians. The public “Entombment” has strong links with with the Guistiniani’s private “Doubting Thomas”.
Notice in the “Entombment” (above) , that as John supports the dead weight of Christ, his hand touches the wound in his side. Moreover, the white linen shroud of the “Entombment” which stands out so strikingly against the dark background, is also draped around the body of the Risen Christ when he allows St Thomas to touch his wound. This shroud common to both, may well explain why the “Doubting Thomas” was commissioned. The Council of Trent recommended the use of relics to foster devotion because they provided a tangible link with the early martyrs and saints. The Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme preserved relics from the Passion. These had been taken there centuries earlier by St Helena. This Church was also being renewed for the Jubilee year and, in fact, three paintings had been commissioned from the young Rubens for the room where the relics were kept. Among these relics was the finger of St Thomas! In 1576 plague had broken out in Milan and the then Archbishop of Milan, St Carlo Borromeo, had recouse to pray before another relic of the Passion: the Holy Shroud. It was at this time that the relic was taken from France to Turin. It was to became hugely prominent in Counter Reformation devotion. Devotional writers connected it closely to the wounds of Christ. It bore their trace. In viewing or even touching the shroud the faithful were almost like St Thomas approaching the wound. In the decades after his death, Borromeo’s influence was considerable especially a community like the Oratorians. Above the entrance to the side-chapel for which Caravaggio’s “Entombment” was painted, there was already a fresco of the Holy Shroud. One cannot but wonder if, aware as he must have been of devotion to the Holy Shroud, Caravaggio had taken his realism a step further. The white linen shroud was rendered so realistically that a viewer might conclude that Caravaggio painted just any shroud, but the Shroud.
The “Entombment” was greatly praised when it was installed in the Chiesa Nuova. Vincenzo Guistiniani would have been caught up in this event and in its wider significance. As a true son of the Counter Reformation, he may well have commissioned an altogether more private and more intimate painting where the wounds of Christ and the Holy Shroud are in focus for his own devotion.
The story begins in darkness. It was “still dark”, St. John tells us, when Mary Magdalen went to visit the tomb, three days after his agonising death.
There was darkness outside for it was before dawn, and there was darkness inside, in Mary Magdalen’s heart for she was grief-stricken at the death of Jesus, her friend and Lord, whom she had witnessed being crucified in all its brutality. That remarkable man who had called her from slavery into freedom, from darkness to light, she saw tortured, humiliated and dead. And Mary Magdalen’s darkness was compounded with horror when she saw the stone rolled away assuming the body had been taken. She was, in all probability, an emotional wreck.
She runs to Peter and John and relays her worst fears: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”. In turn, Peter runs with John back to the tomb. Why is everybody running? Out of fear: they are running because they feared some sort of interference had taken place, deeply contrary to Jewish burial customs. So what begins in darkness is soon followed by fear. And their fear was not entirely misplaced, of course, some sort of interference had indeed taken place!
Next, when they entered the tomb, they saw the burial clothes folded neatly, and at that moment, it all made sense. They believed. They believed what they had failed to understand before: he must rise from the dead in order to fulfil what was foretold in the Old Testament.
Seeing the empty tomb and the folded linen was when Christ’s resurrection was revealed to them, their Eureka moment, a moment of epiphany when they finally understood. The Gospel doesn’t relate this detail but I like to think that it was this moment when dawn broke because it at this moment when the disciples first saw by the light of the Resurrection.
About 2000 years later those same pivots on which John’s account of the resurrection turns — darkness, fear, revelation — finds a certain parallel in our own troubled times.
First, who could doubt the very real darkness in the sufferings and hardships endured by so many people? This darkness takes various forms, whether it be losing a job or doing one at great risk without protective equipment; the loneliness of solitude or painful separation from family; having to suffer ill-health or even the loss of life. There are many more. Looking around, it seems that darkness abounds. But it is into our darkness that Christ’s Easter light shines. As John insists at the very start of his Gospel “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Second: whatever darkness we endure, there is the fear that a still greater darkness awaits us beyond. Fear throngs the very air we breathe. In recent weeks I’ve heard many people tell me of their anguish, stress and anxiety. For the most part the fear is not hysteria but a sincere troubling. But these fears, however reasonable, are subsumed by cosmic reality of Easter: i.e. Christ’s resurrection by which he won our salvation. So against the fears we nurse, recall Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, which we read last night, and hear the words spoken to Mary first by an angel and then by Christ: “Do not be afraid”. Thus St. John Chrysostom in his Easter homily about 1600 years ago made bold to declare “Let none fear death; for death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death”.
So far so good. What about revelation? Where is the revelation for us when you and I can scarcely walk out the front door, let alone behold an empty tomb? Well, God reveals himself in more ways than moving a stone and folding some linen but to receive His revelation requires faith. Faith is a gift, a grace from God to which we can assent, and which we must also nourish, especially in hard times. Many people come to Church of course in hard times but we can’t even do that. We Catholics feel this acutely being without the sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist – a loss we feel today more painfully than any other day in the liturgical calendar. This can leaves us feeling terribly lost, abandoned even. Do not despair because God gives us other gifts, besides. Let me mention briefly two: His Word and His Spirit.
God reveals himself through His Word. St. Paul wrote to the Romans: faith comes from what is heard. The Word of God, found in the Bible, is the means by which God speaks, not as a dead letter but to each of us actively, personally. Only yesterday, I was reading the end of John’s Gospel and it struck me that the Risen Lord appeared to the disciples twice in their confinement. Granted their lockdown was different to ours — their doors were locked because they feared the Jews — but the point I took away is that locked doors are no obstacle for Jesus. And more: on both occasions when the Risen Lord appears, he bestows peace upon the disciples and shows them his wounds. The wounds testify to the reality of the bodily resurrection, and which Thomas memorably concedes only upon inspection. But Jesus tells him “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Blessed are we who haven’t seen but have only heard or read, and yet believe. Search the scriptures for they are the means by which God reveals Himself to us. His Word is truth, and it encourages our faith because it testifies to the “Good News” that is Easter!
And God also reveals Himself through His Spirit. I’ve been struck by the power of the simple prayer, which we’ve been saying each day at Mass: the Spiritual Communion. A line reads: “Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You.” Such a prayer — such an invitation — is an Act of Faith because it calls upon Jesus who has left the tomb empty. As with the Scriptures, we call upon God’s spirit to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, and so nourish our faith for as Jesus Himself promises “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you”.
Friends, just as it was in the Gospel so it is for us today: darkness and fear give way to Easter revelation which today we receive in His Word and His Spirit, though sadly not in Holy Communion not in His Body, the Eucharist. But let us now channel that loss into deep prayer so that the heaviness of recent days becomes a levity for now, that our sorrow give way to joy, that the dead might have new life in Jesus Christ. For by His Resurrection, Christ was won victory over everything the world throws our way, including the Corona Virus! So in these difficult days, the poetic words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, might become our prayer this Easter morn: “Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us”.
“…to the dimness of us” The resurrection story — our story — might begin in darkness but it ends in the glory of Easter light, the dayspring.
Yes, “Let Him easter in us”; heaven knows we need it! Amen.
“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas and the Bishop Saint Magnus”, Cima da Conegliano, 1504-1505, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice.
When Cima da Conegliano received this commission from a guild of tradesmen, he was at the height of his career. In fact, many of his commissions had come from such guilds or scuole. This guild was based in Venice and was known as the Scuola dei Mureiri. Mureiri is Venetian dialect for builders or more specifically “wallers”. The term derives from the Italian word for a wall. This all sounds rather down market, but the members of this scuola must have been quite sophisticated, given their taste in art and architecture, at least if this painting is anything to go by. The painting is one of the most striking in the gallery’s collection and it is full of exquisitely rendered detail. The Risen Christ stands at the centre of the composition but the painting is really about the two saints. St Thomas is on the left, and St Magnus, the 7th century Bishop of nearby Oderzo, is on the right. The Risen Christ showing his wound functions as an identifier for St Thomas. St Thomas was chosen because he is the patron saint of builders. His association with building derives from the account of his missionary activity in India given in the Golden Legend and elsewhere. Sometimes he is shown holding a right-angled architectural instrument, but most often his identity is established by his finger touching the wound in Christ’s side. This Bishop Saint Magnus was also associated with building and was the patron saint of the scuola.
The Venetian Church of Santa Maria Formosa was said to be the first of the city’s churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The story was that in the 7th Century, Bishop Magnus had a vision of a very beautiful Virgin Mary (hence “formosa” meaning most beautiful ), who told him to build her a church in a location, which would be shown by a white cloud. And so he did. The Church of Santa Maria Formosa had been rebuilt in 1492 by the eminent architect, Mauro Codussi, and the architectural frame under which the three figures stand echoes his style of architecture. The strong light that cuts through from the left emphasises the this solid three dimensional architectural frame, as do the shadows cast by the three figures.
St Magnus and St Thomas were obvious choices for the altarpiece. What is unusual here is that Cima takes an element from the gospel narrative and uses it to identify St Thomas, just he he might have used a wheel for St Catherine, or a jar of ointment for St Mary Magdalene. The work is conceived of as a sacra conversazione , but it also presents the story of Thomas and the Risen Christ at least in part. In this, Cima does something new.
He had painted another version of “The Incredulity of St Thomas” about a year or so before. The earlier painting (see below) may be more familiar as it is in the National Gallery in London. It was painted for another guild’s altar in a Church on the mainland. The Church was a Franciscan Church. The Franciscan Order were the other great patrons of Cima. In writings, sermons and art, the Franciscans gave great prominence to the story of St Thomas and the Risen Christ. In fact, they placed great emphasis on the wounds of Christ. This was for two reasons at least. First, St Francis had received the stigmata and so bore the wounds of Christ. There were parallels between the story of St Thomas and his incredulity and that of certain individuals, who had doubted that St Francis had actually received the stigmata. St Francis had not let many see his stigmata during his lifetime. But when laid out in death, these individuals saw and touched them and so came to believe. Secondly, this story makes faith accessible in a very tangible tangible and bodily way. In particular, it connects the wounds of the Risen Christ with the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
It is worth comparing the London painting with the one in the Accademia. The narrative elements from John’s Gospel are included in the earlier picture. Christ stands among the apostles in a closed room and St Thomas touches his wound and so comes to faith. By contrast, in the Accademia picture there are no other disciples. There is no closed room. The arch under which they stand looks out over a broad landscape. And, of course, the Accademia’s painting includes St Magnus, who lived centuries later ,and is not part of the gospel story. This is because it is sacra conversazione between the two saints who were appropriate to the devotion of the clients. Builder saints will help builder clients!
The painting itself is exquisite in every detail. When viewed in the gallery, the blue sky is set off by the dark curls on the back of St Thomas’ head.
Christ grips the grips the hand of Thomas and guides it towards his wound.
The Bishop’s ornate vestments include detailed images of other saints. The image shown below is of St Barbara with her tower; particularly appropriate for a guild of builders.
The clouds above St Magnus are surely a reference to his legend and the building of Santa Maria in Formosa.
Here Christ stands against an open landscape, which evokes not only the goodness and beauty of creation, but also the goodness of the one one through whom all things were made.
But within that landscape there is a lone rider who seems to be moving away. He wears a turban, suggesting that he may be Turkish. In the years just before this painting was made, the Venetians had suffered great losses against the Turks, and this figure may evoke the Turkish lack of conversion.
Although the painting was meant to foster devotion to the two saints, it is also about the grace of conversion associated with St Thomas. When we think of the gospel story of St Thomas and the Risen Christ, we sometimes see it as giving us licence to doubt. We think that it is okay for us to have doubts, if even the Apostle Thomas doubted. However, this was not how the story was understood by earlier generations of Christians. They saw Thomas’ doubt as a good thing because it was his way of conversion. Nor indeed, did they always see St Thomas as the odd one out among the apostles. Quite to the contrary, in some works of art he is shown as representative of the the apostles who also shared his doubt. So the scene was understood to be about God’s generous bestowal of the grace of conversion and his gracious strengthening of those already converted. St Thomas pray for us!
Fr Fergus preaches on John 21:1-14
It must have been sometime in May or June 1993. I was back at home having just finished my final engineering exams in Galway. I had gone for a walk and returned to learn that my mother had received a phone call to say that some funding I had applied for had come through. I could now go to the UK for further studies, which I did. It was a turning point in my life.
The news was less of a surprise than a shock. I had been told that I had just missed out on the funding and should make alternative arrangements; but, in the very unlikely event that extra money came through, I was next on the list and they’d get in touch. I was all geared up to go to Cork, and was very happy at the prospect. My parents and I had even gone down to Cork to suss out the place and to get ideas about accommodation.
And although the news about funding was objectively wonderful, the plans I had settled on, and the peace of mind that went with it, were now completely upset. I’d have to think about accommodation in an overseas country and many other things. The arrival of the internet was a few years off and such matters were far more difficult to sort out in those days.
And, in addition to all this, my mother was upset with me heading far away; and, truth be told, it was also the same day when a family member was distraught after having had a bad haircut, which my mother was vainly attempting to rescue – probably not unlike the haircuts many of us are getting these days since we can’t go out to the hairdressers or the barbers.
So everyone was upset. Here we were afflicted with wonderful news and a bad haircut. I had certainly received wonderful news; but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I should have been dancing for joy; but I could not help feeling bothered, confused, and burdened. It would take at least several days for things to settle down in my mind, and for a lightness of heart to return.
The story of Easter morning as recounted in the Gospels is a very dramatic and extreme case of: it was wonderful news, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary get up early to visit Jesus’s tomb. They arrive with the sort of expectations that we would come with when visiting someone’s grave. Like me returning from my walk, there seemed to be nothing dramatic or unexpected on the horizon. They would come; they would do what they had to do; and they would go away. And that would be that.
But, instead, they received the most wonderful news, wonderful beyond imagination; but the whole way that morning turned out must have felt to them that it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
And, as if unwittingly reflecting what a profound shock the whole business of the resurrection was, we can see in the Gospel accounts, especially those of Matthew and Mark, that their great artistry as writers seems much less apparent when it came to the Resurrection. It’s as though the Evangelists are struggling to find words, or appropriate ways to speak, about something so radically new and wholly unexpected as the Resurrection.
And maybe that’s how it ought to be. After all, when it comes to something so radically new as the Resurrection, surely all our words and our ideas are to be found poor and inadequate.
So just compare the sheer craft employed again and again by the evangelists in ratcheting up the tension in bringing us to the events of the Passion and death of Christ; the artistry shown in the interactions with Judas, with Herod, with Pilate, and with the crowd baying for Jesus’s blood, not to mention Peter denying the Lord and the other disciples running away.
But when we come to the Resurrection accounts themselves, it’s all very quick and abrupt, almost disjointed. Mark’s account has the women running away afraid from the empty tomb and the angelic messenger. It was surely wonderful news, wasn’t it? But it certainly wasn’t supposed to be like that – with good people running away terrified.
And Matthew, as we have all just heard, and as scholars also tell us, gives us a more polished and elaborate version than Mark’s account; but it still lacks Matthew’s usual sophistication. Using the traditional literary devices of the time, he introduces an earthquake no less; and Matthew’s angel does not simply sit waiting for people to come, like the one in Mark’s account; no, he swoops down from heaven and rolls away the stone before people’s very eyes. It’s all very dramatic, almost theatrical. It is as though when it came to the careful setting out of events, especially in Matthew and Mark, that their artistry was more in its comfort zone when it came to the Crucifixion than the Resurrection.
You see, these evangelists as writers could cope well with the sorts of things they were used to in daily life: for example, the dynamics between people, such as those between Jesus and his disciples or the Pharisees; but in the Resurrection we encounter something that goes far beyond the sorts of things we see or hear or touch in daily life: we encounter nothing less than the pure and direct action of God.
Just as we cannot get our limited minds to understand the great mystery of the act of Creation of the universe out of nothing, even though we accept that it happened like this; so too it seems that the evangelists and the early witnesses to the Resurrection could not get their heads round an event just as miraculous and just as divine as the act of the Creation itself. This divine act of the Resurrection was nothing less than the transformation of earthly reality with its death and decay, so that a new age has now been inaugurated, a new age in which death is for ever overcome. This is a new age in which a man tortured and abused is now alive, not merely resuscitated, but alive in an eternally transformed way and who also offers the same gift of resurrection to you and to me.
And so in face of this turning point of all history and of all reality, the initial reactions of the women and of the disciples are understandably confused and bothered and this is reflected too in what the evangelists wrote. After all, their usual way of looking at things has been upset and turned upside down. It was fabulous news, for sure; but, again, it was not supposed to be like this.
But with time and space to reflect on things, they could begin to get their heads round it all. But to see this we need to look elsewhere than in the Resurrection accounts themselves. We might, for example, begin to notice that all the events in the Gospels, even the passion and crucifixion of Christ, are presented in a fundamentally victorious way that assumes, and is permeated with, the Resurrection.
And we see perhaps the most joyful response to the resurrection on Pentecost morning itself – a full fifty days later – the disciples, now enlightened by the Holy Spirit, so ecstatic and so animated by the divine, that onlookers thought they were drunk. This was surely the sort of celebration the Resurrection merits.
And yet our reactions, which do matter, are ultimately secondary. Whether our hearts are aflame with joy, or whether we feel burdened even right now, it ultimately does not matter too much: because the reality of the Resurrection with its victory over death and its inauguration of the New Creation, all this does not depend in the slightest on what our emotional condition happens to be at any given time. The Resurrection is, thankfully, much, much, much greater and more wonderful than that.
Wonderful news, for sure; but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I found out back in the summer of 1993 that our reactions to things can sometimes go off in unexpected directions; and we can all bring to mind similar experiences in our lives. But among the events that did not go as they were supposed to is surely the Triduum of the year 2020, a Triduum touched by anxiety and sadness during which we friars have felt acutely and painfully the absence of your physical presence with us.
But I can imagine myself as a very old man reminiscing, telling stories to young friars about, say, life in the Edinburgh of several decades before. And I can imagine myself telling amusing anecdotes to the young friars about the brethren living in Edinburgh at that time – that is, right now! – hoping that the anecdotes told about me are not too bad.
But the future young friars will presumably also ask about the Triduum of 2020. How did we possibly manage with the social media as it was forty or fifty years ago: the technology of 2020 was so primitive compared with the technology these days, they’ll say. And I’ll reply: yes, for sure, the Triduum wasn’t meant to be like that, but when the Good News is so good, such limitations, while they do matter, are by no means the main thing.
What matters is that Christ is Risen. Death and sin and all that life might throw at us have been fundamentally overcome; the New Creation has been inaugurated, and now that it has been inaugurated, it cannot be stopped. And that’s what matters – whether we are confused, whether we shed tears, whether we’re delira and excira – what really matters is that Christ is Risen and all that goes with that.
Thanks be to God. And a blessed Easter to one and all. Amen.
In his essay “The Best Picture” of 1925 (which you can easily find online) , Aldous Huxley wrote this of Piero’s “Resurrection of Christ”: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” During World War II, it was a vague memory of his words “the greatest picture in the world”, that caused a British army artillery officer to forestall shelling the town. In fact, unknown to the officer, the Germans had already left. The painting survived. In fact, for about 200 years it had been covered in plaster and yet it remained in tact beneath. Piero had painted the work for the council chamber of communal palace in the Tuscan Town of Sansepulcro. The foundation story of the town was that two pilgrims had come from Jerusalem with relics of the holy sepulchre and were directed to this location. Piero’s contemporaries thought it his best work, but, as Huxley points out, it’s relatively obscure location meant that the work was not widely known or appreciated. ,In his essay, Huxley didn’t really demonstrate why he esteems it so highly. But this is not to say that he wasn’t right.
A monumental Christ steps out of the sarcophagus. He stares straight ahead holding the customary resurrection flag in his right hand. Following Matthew’s account there soldiers asleep who were meant to be guarding the tomb. Pre-dawn light shines down from the left, on them and, presumably, also into the now empty space inside the tomb. The same light picks out the folds of Christ’s red shroud and the fine musculature of his torso. We even see the folds of skin at his stomach. This Risen Christ has the physique of a Greek God or a classical statue but there are two further things which strike the viewer at once. First, his skin glows to the extent that were the sun to go back on its course and it were to become night once more, you might believe that his radiant skin would still shine and light up the darkness. The second element is his extraordinary face. Piero was interested in the solidity of his figures and often they have an almost doll-like appearance. Recall the ladies in waiting to both the Queen of Sheba and St Helena in the Arezzo cycle. Not so with his Risen Christ. Some have seen in this face, the features typical of local inhabitants. It is certainly not the face of an Apollo. However, there is a body of opinion, that links the face to that of the Volto Santo, a walnut crucifix in the style of Christ Triumphant dating from the 7th or 8th Centuries, and hanging in the town’s Cathedral.
The face of Christ iin Piero’s fresco is the location of the apex of a triangle which has the ledge of the tomb as its base. Set above the horizontal tomb, Christ seems to burst forward from the tomb even though quite clearly he is motionless. We are held in his stillness. Effectively, the picture is divided into two registers. The vanishing point of the upper part, that is from the ledge of the tomb upward, is in the face of Christ. The lines of perspective converge in his gaze. But the positioning of the trees in the background suggest another set of vertical lines parallel to his upright body and converging on Christ from behind accentuating the effect. This is not the first time Piero juxtaposed Christ’s body with a tree. Consider his much earlier “Baptism” (1440’s), now in London. And there is something of the same monumentality about his Madonna in his “Polyptych della Misericordia” with her outstretched cape, also in the Museo Civico of Sansepulcro. Compare her solemn expression with that of this Risen Christ. The lower register belongs to the soldiers. Here there is a much lower vanishing point so that they are seen by the viewer as from below. This means that they are not lost as they would be if the vanishing point of this lower section was at Christ’s face. The shift in perspective is masked by the steep backgrounds, by the vertical side of the tomb behind the soldiers and by the vertical trees behind Christ. It is also masked by the painted columns on either side. At the base of their perspective columns the lines of perspective converge beneath the soldiers. At the top they converge on the face of Christ. Again, the vertical lines of the columns are continuous with the other verticals with the trees so that the eye doesn’t notice his “trick” of double perspective. These figures are not there merely to fulfil the narrative demands of Matthew’s resurrection account. Now the upper and lower scenes are linked in a number of ways, most clearly by Christ’s standard which descends behind the soldier in brown and rests on the ground behind him. His face is the only one we see in full. The foreshortening is masterly and it can be found in his sketch books. It is known that Piero spent a whole day on this face alone and had planned to do so. In fresco a painter must decide how much of the surface he will cover in any one day and instruct the plasterer accordingly, because he can only paint on wet plaster and it dries in a day. Restoration and analysis has shown that this face is the work of one day. Whoever he is, perhaps the suggestion is that he will soon awaken and see the Lord face to face. . On the painted plinth beneath the columns there was once a Latin inscription which looks like it read “HUMAN…..ORTE” . It has been suggested that that in fact the final word is “Sorte” so that it may have been a reference to human fate or destiny. Now it is known that Sansepulcro had an outbreak of plague in the 1467. It is not inconceivable that the town councillors gave the commission in the aftermath as a plea to the Risen Christ, the true victor over death, to grant eternal life to those who had died. The sleeping soldiers may represent towns people who now sleep in death. Finally, you will have noticed that the figure of Christ divides the background into a winter scene with bare trees on the left and a summer scene with trees in full leaf on the right. Indeed the posture of Christ with his right leg raised suggests that he is leaving winter behind and is the herald of spring. In this view, the resurrection is symbolised by something that happens in nature each year. But in fact, the trees on the right are evergreen cypresses, so that what is actually juxtaposed is an world on the left, where death holds sway, and on the right, the new age which Christ inaugurates, where life is everlasting and death is no more. The relevance of this work to a populace who had survived the plague but had lost loved ones, hardly needs to be elaborated. It explains too why the Risen Christ of Sansepulcro must echo their Volto Santo which was until then the emblem of the faith handed on in the town from one generation to the next, why the town council would commission such a work, not for a church, but for the place where they made their decisions, why they needed a work of art that showed a Christ figure who was God-like but also human so that he could be the strong victor over sin and death and the herald bestowing eternal life. The contemporary relevance of this great work might just be evidence that indeed Huxley was right in his estimation, even if he did not fully explain himself.
There is a weir on the river near where I grew up. There was a stone on which you could sit under the shade of a tree and cool your feet in the river water in on a hot day. As a child I didn’t know how significant water had already been in my life. It was with water that I had been baptised. We children did not yet know how the river that flowed over feet would be such an important symbol for the flow of our lives, a flow which took each person in a different direction and yet to the same place in the end.
The ritual of foot washing takes me back to that flow of cool river water rushing over my over my feet and making them clean. Of course, this year the ritual of foot washing is to be omitted and yet we must plumb still its profound meaning. We must look for signs of our baptism in other actions and other places. We must come by a less familiar path to the remembering of what he has done for us.
Each gospel gives the account of Jesus sharing his final meal with his disciples, but St John’s account is quite different. He does not tell us about the preparation for the meal or the location, beyond the fact that it must have been in Jerusalem. Nor does he tell us exactly when it took place, but the flow of the narrative tells us that it was on the night when he was betrayed. It is so closely connected with the events of the passion that it becomes a kind of prelude to everything that will unfold before us.
The week began with another meal, at Bethany in the home of Jesus’ friends: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. At some point during that meal Mary anointed the feet of Jesus and the house was “filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3). Jesus has always been the guest at meals in the gospels, but now he is the host and, as the host, he washes the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was to be expected, but done by a servant or a slave as the guests arrived. Jesus waits until they are all sat at table. It takes place in silence until Peter speaks.
St John tells us that Jesus loved his disciples. Moreover, they are described as “his own” (13:1). St John also says that Jesus loved them “to the end” (13:1). This can mean to the full, as in the jars filled to the brim with wine at that other feast at Cana. Or, it could have the sense of completion, as when after a journey you finally reach your destination. The very word that can mean limit implies that this love is without limit. It can also mean until his death. It can mean all of these and does. It is the prelude to what he will accomplish on the cross.
When Peter objects, hear again what Jesus says to him. “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me (13:8).” It is literally to have no sharing with him. Consider then what Jesus shows us by washing feet. It is not just about being the recipient. It is the measure of how we are to love, of how we are to live now.
A slave washes feet. But Jesus doesn’t do this act as would a slave. He does it in freedom and from a position of strength. St John tells us that he removed his outer garment, washed their feet and then put his garment back on again. What he actually says is that Jesus laid down his garment and afterwards took it up again. This is how he refers to the laying down and taking up of his life, and to the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Shepherd and foot washer are one.
So what are we to do this year? If not in Church, where will the washing of feet take place this year? I would suggest that it is well under way, in homes between family members, and in the spaces between homes where groceries are left on door steps, on the internet where people support and sustain each other. It can be found in hospitals and in care homes, in the staff and, I think, also in the patients. This unnamed but very real foot washing is indeed very advanced and widespread. You will see it in supermarkets and in city parks where people keep their distance, not primarily out of fear of contagion, but out of the proper exercise of love. “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (13:15)”.
On this holy night, the absence of foot washing, reminds me of how the cool waters of my baptism are become the stream of his life in me, and of how I so need to rest in the flow of his life, of his love and his grace. I need to have part in him.
Who is this?’ people asked, as Jesus, riding on an ass, with a crowd of supporters, arrived in Jerusalem, creating something of a stir (Matthew 21: 10), on the first day of what we know as Holy Week.
It’s the question of his identity. On this occasion it wasn’t prompted by anything that he said. It was what he did — riding into town on an ass. He was accompanied by excited, even elated followers, some spreading their clothes along the way, like rolling out the red carpet, while others were strewing the road with branches from the trees — hence the palms — it was standard practice at the time to lay down leaves and flowers on the street for a victory parade. They were shouting — ‘Hosanna for the son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. To that extent they knew who he was.
More specifically, in this cavalcade, riding on a she-ass, more specifically, Jesus was symbolically affirming his understanding of leadership and authority.
In many different cultures both ancient and modern people love parades and processions, especially if figures of great authority are on show. For our part, in Britain, consider the crowds in the Mall cheering the Queen in her horse-drawn carriage as she makes her way along to some State event. Or think of the President of the United States in a motorcade of some 45 vehicles, — a mesmerizing demonstration of power.
The symbolism of riding on an ass does not escape Matthew (21: 4-5). Weaving together quotations from Isaiah and Zechariah he explains that by choosing a she-ass to carry him into the holy city Jesus was fulfilling an age-old prophecy, signalling to the people — ‘the daughter of Sion’ — that their king had come — ‘humbly’. Like people everywhere, they had seen enough of powerful kings in the rulers of Babylon and now, under Roman occupation, they had troops clattering through the streets in their chariots. They might recall stories of the legendary Alexander the Great’s entrance into Jerusalem in 332 BC riding arrogantly high on his magnificent warhorse.
In contrast, as if mocking it, Jesus turns it upside down. No king in those days, no Roman imperial authority figure, no country’s leader in our time either, would ever appear so absurdly on the back of an ass. It’s almost a joke — not organized enough to count even as a protest march. If this is Jesus finally beginning to reveal his identity then isn’t he doing so by parodying everything that would naturally exhibit leadership, power and authority?
Back then in the Roman Empire, but of course not only there, authority was despotic, autocratic and dictatorial — imperious, coercive — domineering, to list some likely descriptions. Indeed, leadership is not to be domineering as it is among the pagans, as Jesus once said to his disciples (Matthew 20: 26). He has an entirely different way of exercising authority — non-violent, persuasive, peaceful.
‘Who is this?’, people ask, and his supporters reply: ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, in Galilee’ (21: 11)
That was of course true. Yet it doesn’t explain why he comes riding on an ass — to explain that, as Matthew notes, we need the four or five hundred year old prophecies about the king who comes humbly. But this is Palm Sunday of the Passion. We go on to listen to the Passion according to Saint Matthew and as we do so, we are drawn more deeply and explicitly into the identity of the central figure. The Roman centurion and his men cry out in awe : ‘ Truly this man was a son of God’ (27: 54). Or ‘the Son of God’? What could these pagan soldiers really have meant? And then what about the women — the ‘many women’; women ‘who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him’, the women who now ‘watched at a distance’ — “Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (27: 56) — what were they thinking?
It’s only the first day of Holy Week. Much else will be remembered and revealed. Palm Sunday is the start, where we are called by the Church to begin. ‘Christ is risen’ we shall tell one another when Easter Day comes; but our reaffirmation of who he is begins with the followers who so joyfully strewed his path with palm branches, believing him to be the long awaited king of peace, and with the Roman soldiers in their awe, whatever they meant by what they said; and finally the women, saying nothing that has been recorded, — watching and waiting.
“The Exaltation of the True Cross” and and “The Discovery and Proof the True Cross”. These two frescos can be seen below. We begin with the second image shown. As in other scenes in the cycle, Piero uses Voragine’s Golden Legend as his main source. Voragine tells how St Helen, the mother of Constantine, goes to Jerusalem to find the True Cross. Having interrogated some locals, and in particular one by the name of Judas, she has him confined in a dry well without food or water. Eventually, on the seventh day he shows her where the True Cross is buried. But when her men begin to dig, they find three crosses. This is the scene shown in the lower of two images, on the left. Confident that the identity of True Cross will be revealed to them, they carry the crosses into the city. When they come upon the dead body of a young man being carried along a street, they hold each of the crosses over him. The True Cross brings him back to life and this is the scene depicted on the lower right. The young man sits up on the bier with his back to us. The True Cross is extended over him. Although Piero uses the new method of perspective, particularly for the buildings on the right, he evokes a convincing sense of depth principally by the foreshortening of the young man’s body and the True Cross, and by the shadows cast by the figures in the light of morning. Of course, the symbolism of a dead man being raised from death around dawn does not require comment. The hill in the background suggests the Mount of Olives which is mentioned in the Golden Legend and the beautifully rendered city, shining in the light of the rising sun, which is meant to be Jerusalem, is actually Arezzo itself. The scene higher up shows the walls of Jerusalem and is set centuries later. St Helen had left a part of the True Cross in Jerusalem but it was stolen by the Persian King Chosroes. After a battle (which is shown below these two frescos) the Christian Emperor Heraclius defeats him and returns the relic of the True Cross to Jerusalem. The Golden Legend relates that when the Emperor and his entourage arrived at Jerusalem stones miraculously became a wall to block his entry. An angel reminds him that Christ entered Jerusalem in a far more humble way. When he takes off his shoes and walks towards the city with the relic of the True Cross, the wall disintegrates. Here the image of the Emperor is lost but you can see his bare feet as he holds the relic of the True Cross aloft. (Piero shows it in the form of a cross.) Outside the walls the leading men of the city kneel and take off their hats in adoration. The elderly man on the right might be Piero himself, on his way to pay homage. These two frescos are directly opposite the death of Adam scenes and those of the Queen of Sheba. The return of the True Cross corresponds to the twig planted on the grave of Adam. The pre-Christian Queen of Sheba corresponds to the Christian royal mothe , St Helena. The ladies in waiting surrounding St Helen in both scenes are arranged behind her in an apse-like manner in the same way as those of the Queen of Sheba. These two royal women, are both given the gift of recognising the True Cross and become part of its story. This story was not without political and religious significance. In the lifetime of Piero there was a move to reunite Eastern and Western Christians. Moreover, in the face of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, a united Christian front would be very important. The exotic clothes of Greek delegates at Council of Florence which ended in 1445 had caused a stir and it is thought that the exotic hear gear shown here is based on those worn by Greek delegates to the Council. Franciscan interests in Jerusalem and the relics of the True Cross may have also become significant. Whilst many such influences were at play, as well as the artistic tradition to which Piero belonged, what he achieves in this cycle of frescos is his own remarkable telling of central position of the actual wood, upon which Christ died, within human history. He starts with Adam and ends with the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem. In each scene he shows figures suspended in selected moments of that complex narrative. His purpose was not to present the world as he experienced it, but rather to unfold a sacred narrative that grounds and elevates all human history. And this is the narrative which brings us to this most singular of Holy Weeks. The shadow of the cross looms large, but by the grace won through it, may we understand its light. Faithful cross above all other, One and only noble tree, None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit can equal thee, Dearest wood and dearest iron, And they burden, dear is he.
“The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood of the Cross and the Meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba” from “The Legend of the True Cross”, Piero della Francesca, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. This fresco is directly beneath the scenes of the death of Adam, which were looked at in Part I. Like the scene above, the register is divided into two distinct sections. Notice both the symmetry and the contrast between the world of the first Adam and the courtly life of Solomon. Standing at the entrance to the chapel, your eyes would move down from the fresco above and you would see the right hand group first, that is, the meeting of Solomon and the Queen, and the left hand scene which shows the Queen of Sheba adoring the wood from which the cross will be made. Once inside the chapel, the left hand scene is more visible and the eye moves from left to right, so that in viewing these frescos in the chapel, your eyes would actually trace the sign of the cross. Sheba was a kingdom in the Southern Arabian Peninsula. The Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s wisdom and came “to test him with hard questions” (1 Kings 10:1ff). This sounds rather adversarial, but she was completely won over, when she heard his wisdom and saw the splendid palace which he had built along with his servants and courtiers. Now for the left hand section of this fresco, Piero della Francesca draws on an embellished version of 1 Kings 10 which is found in Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend. In fact, Voragine gives a number of variants, but Piero seems to following the one in which the angel had given Seth a twig from the tree for which Adam sinned, with the promise that when this tree bore fruit, his father would be healed and made well. But when Seth returns and finds that his father has already died, he plants the twig over the grave. It becomes a great tree, which lasts until the time of Solomon. Solomon had the tree cut down to be used in his palace. However, the piece of wood it yielded was either too big or too small for the existing structure. It was discarded to be used as a footbridge over a pond. When the Queen of Sheba came to this bridge she would not cross it. She stopped and knelt before it. In the Golden Legend she returns home and sends Solomon a prophetic message saying that a man would hang upon this wood and by that man’s death the Kingdom of the Jews would be destroyed. Solomon had the wood taken and buried deep beneath the ground. Piero includes a scene on the back wall where the wood is being carried away to be buried. On the right hand side, we have the meeting of the two monarchs in an open portico with splendid renaissance columns and showing clear lines of perspective, as disseminated by the work of Piero’s contemporary Leon Battista Alberti. 1 Kings 7.1ff says that it took Solomon 13 years to build his palace. It gives details for a part of it, called “The House of the Forest of Lebanon”. This probably the location which Piero depicts in the right hand side of the fresco. The central column divides the two scenes. In both, the Queen is back by an semi-circle of ladies in waiting, arranged almost like and apse. Their high foreheads and long necks conform to contemporary ideas of female beauty. Their clothes reflect contemporary fashion. Piero achieves a sense of depth by setting different colours against each other placing the figures in different plains. There is a sense of balance and harmony. The white horse, perfectly foreshortened matches the white cloak of an attendant. The two trees act as a canopy above the group, emphasising the dignity of the Queen and her retinue. The arrangement is reversed under the portico but again the same sense of harmony and dignity is achieved. The eyes moves horizontally from arm to arm and robe to robe. It like a procession frozen in time. All of these effects are enhanced by the low vantage point of the viewer. But looking upwards, The Queen, the plank and the column are seen beneath Seth, the twig being planted and the great tree. Standing outside the chapel, the central column would be seen to divide the fresco into two distinct scenes in a harmonious and balanced way. But viewed from inside, the plank of wood breaks the harmony. It is now oddly spaced in relation to the column and so what we see are two distinct scenes. The left hand scene is like a truncated nativity scene. In the place of the mother and child we find the wood of the cross. The two scenes now bear no spatial relationship. Thus the central focus becomes this rejected plank of wood. In this way, the prominence of the column yields to the significance of the plank of wood, which became a bridge, and then a cross. Tomorrow in the Liturgy, we begin Passiontide. We will drape the cross in purple, not to obscure it, but rather to emphasise its true significance.
“The Death of Adam” from “The Legend of the True Cross”, Piero della Francesca, Church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. Baccio di Magio, a wealthy merchant from Arezzo died in 1417 and left money for the decoration of the chapel in the Franciscan Church where he was to be buried (see above). However, for various reasons the decoration did not begin until the 1440’s. There was another delay when the first artist died in the early 1450’s. Eventually the commission was given to Piero della Francesca and it is likely that he began working began in 1457. Piero drew on the stories about the true cross which are found in The Golden Legend (c.1260) by Jacopo da Varagine. Taken together, these yield an overarching narrative about the wood of the cross which begins with the death of Adam and ends in the 7th Century. In other words, in this funerary chapel, Piero presents us with a narrative which places the cross at the very centre of human history. Moreover, it is the story, not just of the cross, but of the actual wood from which the cross was made, which Piero sets out in this cycle of frescos.
You can look at high resolution images of these frescos at http://project.ias.edu In this article, I want to look at the first scene which tells of the death of Adam. The diagram below shows its position high up on the righthand side of the chapel (marked ADAM). In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel, but Cain kills Abel and then flees. After this they have another son called Seth. In Chapter 5 of Genesis we are told that Adam was 130 years old when Seth was born and that he died 800 years later. On the righthand side of this composite image, Adam is shown as he is dying. He is surrounded by his family. On the far right Eve stands by his side. She is now an old woman (930 years old). The three other figures are Seth, who according to Genesis was by then 800 years old, his son and a daughter, who both young adults. Here is a family facing the death of a husband, a father and a grandfather as did the Baci family in 1417. Adam and Eve already knew death. The lost their son Abel. But his murder took place before Seth was born so these these two succeeding generations have no direct experience of death. These days people don’t think of Adam and Eve as real people, but i would wager that Piero and his contemporaries may well have done so. Indeed the significance of this moment should not escape us. Certainly, it resonates with me. Here youth and old age are shown side by side. three generations are held together by the bonds of family. This is like a family funeral today, one of the few times you see the different generations together. Seth is middle aged man, shown with white hair. But there is plenty of it and we can see from his bare chest that he is still in good shape! On the left hand of the fresco Adam has died and is laid out on the bare earth. A central part of the fresco has been lost, but you can see someone leaning over his dead body. This is Adam’s son Seth. He is planting a twig in Adam’s mouth. When Adam began to die, Seth had gone back to the gates of Paradise to ask the Archangel Michael for some “oil of mercy” so that Adam might go on living. The angel refused him but did give him a branch from the Tree of Knowledge and told him to plant it in Adam’s body. You can see them in the distance. A great tree overarches the whole scene. Piero positions the dead Adam’s foot in front of the tree’s base in order for us to understand that this is the tree which grew out of Adam’s mouth. It is from this tree that the cross will be made, but I am jumping ahead. You will notice that Piero is not really concerned about chronology. His concern is to speak directly to our human condition. Original sin brought death to Adam and his descendants, but the sacrifice of Christ on the cross overcomes original sin and death and brings life to Adam and his descendants. Understood as as the wood of the cross, the great overarching tree contains within it the remedy for the human predicament. It offers us both shelter and protection. There is a younger couple on the far left. Some commentators say that these are Adam and Eve as they once were when they were young and innocent in Paradise. If you look closely (online) you can see that the young woman who faces outwards bears a strong resemblance to the daughter of Seth on the far right. Notice too how one woman stenches out her arms in a dramatic expression of grief. It reminds me of the young woman in Caravaggio’s “The Entombment”. Perhaps in his depiction of grief at the death of Christ, Caravaggio was quoting this very fresco wherein Adam is mourned by his family. This youthful couple, whoever they are, are certainly meant to frame the entire fresco along with the aged Adam and Eve on the right. Very little is known about the life of Piero della Francesca or about his personality. Records reveal something of his movements around Italy but show little that would reveal the significance of the many details detail he includes in his paintings. However, this lends them a aura of mystery as you feel that nothing here is random. Each detail is charged with meaning, however elusive that meaning might now be. And yet, this depiction of the funeral of first human being speaks to our own experiences of loss and grief. In it we see the shape of our own lives. We can identify with Seth as he pleads with the angel and, later, as he does what must be done for Adam and his descendants. see a new generation come into being. We see Adam age and to die. We recognise in this family the bonds that unite us and endure. We see it physically in the family resemblances. We see it too on faces and in gesture which express strong emotion. It is as if for just a moment the world stood still high up on the chapel wall, and we can sense the deeper narrative. The deeper narrative, which is that of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world, is there to be seen in these primeval events. We see the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection for us all as we go through life. His arms spread lovingly above us on the cross are foreshadowed by the outstretched arms of the great tree in this fresco. We usually think of the cross as the place of suffering, but here it is seen as a sheltering tree offering us protection and the fullness of life. More to come!
“Narcissus”, Caravaggio, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini. Although lit from above by the same numinous light found in other works of Caravaggio, here the fair Narcissus looks away from it and gazes downwards at his reflection in the dark waters of a still pool. He is enthralled by his own reflection. Unable to embrace it, he will die soon in despair. In Ovid’s version of the ancient tale he is transformed into the flower. Perhaps, the floral pattern on the brocade which he wears is a hint of this transformation, but Caravaggio’s Narcissus kneels on barren ground and the water which holds his gaze is as dark as the River Styx. His posture is very odd. We might see a modern day runner stretching or someone doing in yoga or pilates! But quite deliberately, the light catches his knee cap, so much so, that we can’t ignore it. In Dante’s Purgatorio, there is mention of the pool of Narcissus when the poet reaches the terrace of pride. There the proud have a similar posture, with their knees near their chests as they are made to carry stones on their back and are crouched low. In the retelling of his ancient story, pride is one of the vices associated with Narcissus. But notice too, that the reflection as shown is impossible in our world. But in Stygian darkness, it locks Narcissus into a fatal embrace with his his image and this is surely the point and highly relevant to our time and culture. Some date this work to Caravaggio’s last year when he returned to Naples. The theme of death fits with his other late works. It is known that in those late years he also painted a young St John the Baptist beside a pool and drinking from a fountain. The young saint stretches across with an open mouth to drink from a jet of flowing water. He leans on his arms. Taken together with this “Narcissus” and set against the unfolding tragedy of Caravaggio’s last years, there is surely a contrast between dark deadly waters and the flowing waters which well up in us and bring us to eternal life. In retrospect the contrast is surely transformed: becoming choice for the viewer.
“32 Campbell’s Soup Cans” (detail) 1962, Andy Warhol, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York. When asked why he choose to paint the 32 varieties of Campbell’s soup, Warhol replied, that as a child he ate it every day. This raising of a common consumer product to the level of art might be seen as typical of this artist, who famously said that he was deeply superficial. However, the superficiality of Warhol masked a profound sense of the sacred in ordinary life. By painting cans of soup, arranged in rows as in a store, Warhol provokes the viewer to look again, but he does not give much away. It is worth scratching the beneath this surface. In fact, it worth doing a bit of digging. His choice of a much photographed subject and his use of screen printing suggested that anyone could have made these images. He projected and screen-printed images. In the years to follow, he would start with a particular photograph of a well-known subject, which he had lifted from newspapers and magazines and delivered a series of almost, but not quite, identical images. But the screen-printing process also flattened out the subject, loosing variations of light and shadow, and so losing the illusion of three dimensional space which had been the hallmark of Western art since the Renaissance. Some saw this as playful rebellion against an artistic canon. Opinions varied. The definitive clue came in the eulogy at his Memorial Mass, which was held on 1st April 1987. Privately, Andy Warhol had been a devout Catholic throughout his life. He was brought up as a Catholic of an Orthodox Rite. Each Saturday, his mother took him to the Byzantine Church of St John Chrysostom in Pittsburgh for Vespers and again on every Sunday morning for three Masses on the trot. This continued until he left for New York at the age of 21. For 20 years and for eight hours every week the Warhola boy sat facing a screen covered in icons what is known as the Iconostasis. The screen separates the congregation from the sanctuary. From 1951 when his mother moved into his New York apartment the prayed together each morning before he left the apartment. Most afternoons he would spent time in prayer in the nearby Dominican Church of St Vincent Ferrer. He always wore a cross and carried a rosary beads in his pocket. However, it was his Byzantine Catholic roots which shaped his art. With icons there is no attempt to represent real space, but rather the concern is with sacred space. Icons are flat, superficial and yet profound. They are repetitious because they are written according to strict rules. It is not about being original, rather it is a matter of producing, not so much an image of the sacred, but an image which itself participates in and mediates the sacred. On the icon’s surface the invisible becomes visible in a spiritual way, so that the sacred is not so much revealed as encountered. There is no doubt that Warhol’s images are like icons, but with a consumer product or media image rather than a sacred figure as the subject. But could Warhol really be using a soup can to convey the spiritual? The soup can might speak of contemporary American culture, even of the “American Dream”, or, because it tasted the same in the mouths of rich and poor alike, a supposed egalitarian ethos. But as an exemplar of the stable diet of the working class and religious youngster that was Warhol, it might also speak of the Eucharist. In his mother’s apartment where Warhol grew up, there was a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s last Supper. This image inspired his last works. For those who have eyes to see Warhol subtly elevates the humble and ubiquitous can of soup. The unseen mystery of the Eucharist is quietly suggested because soup nourishes and sustains. The whole point of an icon is encounter, which is very similar to the grace of transfiguration, which is a graced encounter with truth. Most people focused on the outside of the can, with its gleaming metal and coloured label, but, it has been noted, that very few considered what is inside. These days as you enter an Edinburgh supermarket, sometimes there will be people from a local food bank who will give you a list of items of which they are short. They always list tinned food. Actually, Andy Warhol was a regular helper at a homelessness project run by the Church of the Heavenly Rest. On the program for his Memorial Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral the Pastor of that Church wrote about Andy Warhol’s regular presence at the project. “He loved these nameless New Yorkers and they loved him back. We will pause to remember Andy this Easter, confident that he will be feasting with us at a Heavenly Banquet, because he had heard another Homeless Person who said: “I was hungry and you gave me food….””
Lyn Cronin offers a Reflection on the day.
A Service. A Burial. A Reception. An Extraordinary Day
We were driving to Stirling for an unusual funeral. We were to attend a Requiem Mass and re-burial of the remains of an unknown friar, discovered on a site, which had been redeveloped in Stirling. I was reluctant and somewhat worried by the prospect of yet more inclement weather on the road. We arrived safely.
I was quite unprepared for the impact and significance of the day’s events as they gradually unfolded.
The setting for the Mass was the beautiful Church of St. Mary in Stirling, sparely decorated with white walls and a sanctuary dominated by a huge mural of the Risen Christ. Before the altar stood a simple wooden box with a brass plate and handles, shockingly smaller than I expected for the remains of a human body – until I remembered that these remains were bones dating from the late 13th to early 14th century and had lain in the ground for about 700 years.
The Requiem Mass, led by Fr. John, was concelebrated by five Edinburgh Dominican friars and a priest from St Mary’s. The Catholic Students’ Union choir and readers from the Edinburgh Chaplaincy congregation all made their contributions. It was a particularly beautiful and inclusive service. Among the congregation were a large number of the Stirling Councillors (identified by their chains of office) with officials and others who had played their respective parts in making this day happen.
Fr. Dermot preached. In his sermon he made his personal connection with this unknown friar through the buckle found with the bones. A buckle has been an element in the dress of Dominican friars across the centuries. He brought this man to life in our imaginations by telling us of the daily rituals they both shared, unchanged over the years: to don the friar’s habit tied with belt and buckle at the start of each day and follow the call to the communal daily prayer and life shared within the Order of Preachers from the beginning. We received Communion. Those Councillors who were not Catholics accepted as a group the invitation to receive a blessing from a present-day friar. I realised just how special this occasion was becoming.
We were greeted by the briefest fall of hail as we stepped out of the Church. We walked up the hill in bright sunshine to the Snowdon Cemetery and the open grave prepared by Stirling Council already marked by a headstone. The Council grave diggers carried the coffin from the hearse and laid it to rest. After prayers we were all invited to throw soil unto the coffin. In my head the centuries collapsed. These bones were indeed the remains of a human being. I was not the only one to be moved by all this ceremony: one of the Councillors turned to me and said how moving the service had been and how privileged he felt to be part of it. I felt connected not only to the friar but to all who stood at the graveside.
More was to come: the Council hosted a reception in the Tolbooth followed by presentations of how this day had been brought about. It had required a year of preparation and the enthusiastic co-operation of many different organisations and interests.
Provost Christine Simpson welcomed us and set the context. The Council recognised that any remains exhumed in these circumstances deserved the respect of being committed back to the earth according to the rites, where known, of any religious belief. And so the Edinburgh Dominican friars were contacted and joined the Stirling team to prepare for this day.
We learned from a film and presentations by Stirling archaeologist Dr Murray Cook, and Baillie Chris Kane, about the historic times the friar must have lived through, may have witnessed, and perhaps even taken part in. So, our nameless friar was put firmly in a place and time in the middle of violent war and turbulent events which have shaped the history of Scotland. He is placed alongside the major players: Edward, Hammer of the Scots; his son Edward II; William Wallace; and Robert the Bruce. We feel these times still. They are part of our DNA.
Father John thanked the Council for their respect and recognition of a fellow friar from so many centuries ago. He told the audience about the work of present day Dominicans whose vocation is to preach and teach the word of God to all through Christ. He stressed the current cooperation between different Christian denominations and inter-faith perspectives.
This is a great story that springs from archaeological finds and their historical interpretation.
But behind the words I learned much more. I came away very impressed by the members of Stirling Council, who participated in the Requiem Mass and showed their sensitivity for the 700 year-old bones of a mediaeval friar. I admired and caught the immense enthusiasm of the archaeologist; and the civic pride of the Baillie. He saw our friar as a true, adopted, “son of the rock”. I felt pride too in being connected with the current friars and their work in our world.
So, our Goosecroft Friar, who lived through times of fear, war and violence, has become the source of goodwill, appreciation and understanding in the coming together of so many different attitudes, interests and motives many centuries later. This seems to me like real “Holy Ground.’’ Much to ponder and pray about. A day when time seemed thin and heaven just a little nearer!
This was extraordinary and significant day. We stepped through a warp in time and contemplated terrible events. We are pleased perhaps to be living now in our comfortable and peaceful surroundings in the 21st century. Then we realise in our global village that the same wars are still happening. We are facing our own plague: a virus which in a few weeks has spread to the ends of the earth. Even worse, we humans now have the capacity to destroy, not just our unwanted neighbours, but all life on our earth.
How will we fare? Where do we begin?
Perhaps we can find an answer by looking to another mediaeval person; this time a woman and better known than our friar – Julian of Norwich. She says : “Where do we begin? We begin with the heart.” “Our life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live.” “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
LC 7th March 2020
On 29th February 5 Dominican friars gathered in Stirling for the reburial of a friar whose remains were discovered a few years ago in Stirling. Stirling Council named him the Goosecroft Friar after the area on the edge of the Medieval Stirling where the Priory was located and where he was buried. This man had died between 1280 and 1320 at the age around 25-30 and so probably witnessed and he lived through the Wars of Independence. On Tuesday 28th April at 7pm in the Garden Room, Dr Murray Cook will talk on “The Goosecroft Friar: A Witness to the Wars of Independence”.
His remains had been found during the construction of a new building just opposite the railway station. The lengthy but excellent archeologist’s report can be found here.
Here is a video made for Stirling Council which features Stirling’s City Archeologist, Dr Murray Cooke, in conversation with Bailie Chris Kane as they explain this friar’s significance.
And Lyn Cronin offered a reflection on the day’s events.
“Christ in the Wilderness -The Hen”, Stanley Spencer c. 1954, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Stanley Spencer spent the winter of 1938/39 living alone in a room in 188 Adelaide Road near Swiss Cottage in London. There he began a series of paintings showing Christ in the wilderness. Spencer noted that the gospels say that the Spirit drove Christ into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights but give no account of what happened until the temptations at the end. He resolved to paint a series of 40 images of Christ in the wilderness, one for each day of Lent. Each painting was 22” square, and all 40 paintings were to be mounted on a ceiling and so seen together from below. He completed just 8 and left another unfinished. Christ’s body encircles the mother hen and her chicks, affording them protection. But is also pondering them. One little chick peaks out at the world from under its mother’s wing, another pecks at the ground and yet another emerges from under Christ’s garment. This painting is inspired by Christ’s lament over Jerusalem recorded in both Matthew and Luke, declaring “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a mother gathers her brood under her wings” ( Mt 23: 37) His longing is like the desire of a parent, to keep a family together. The cockerels moving in the background signal to us that Spencer’s Christ is focused on the maternal love of the hen for her chicks. Interestingly, Christ here is posed not unlike the mother of the child Jesus in a nativity scene by Giotto. In the life of a family there are moments which are precious but which the parent knows will not last. Children grow up and away. Parents grow old and die. And yet here, Spencer, who had lost his own family home, through an affair, shows this transient maternal love enfolded in Christ’s enduring love. This idea of God’s love as maternal goes back a long way. The pelican who fed her own blood to her young was a symbol of Christ for early Christians. In Chapter 60 of her “Revelations of Divine Love” Julian of Norwich describes Christ’s love in terms of a mother’s love for her children. But she notes that unlike a natural mother, who must bring us into the world to suffer and die, Christ “bears us into joy and eternal life”. “And when it was finished and he had born us to bliss, even this could not fully satisfy his marvellous love; and that he showed in these high surpassing words of love, “If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” ”
“St Sebastian tended by St Irene”, c. 1625, Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588-1629), Memorial Art museum of Oberin, Ohio. The early Christian martyr, St Sebastian, was shot through by arrows and left for dead. He survived but was executed a few days later. It is said that a woman named Irene and her maid nursed him after his first ordeal. This is ter Brugghen’s subject. The saint is painfully suspended by one arm. St Irene eases his pain by supporting him while she gently removes an arrow from his side. Together they form a human triangle wherein suffering is enfolded by compassion. Anyone who has ever been to A&E would find it hard to pass this image without being moved. A sapling set against an evening sky evokes both Isaiah’s Song of the Suffering Servant and Christ’s lonely death on the cross. Such is the evocative power of ter Brugghen’s masterpiece. This s“ubject gained popularity from around 1600, when Catholics, both great and the good, and indeed, not so great or good, gave themselves to works as well as faith. After Trent, the care of the urban poor, the hungry and those deemed to be icurabili assumed a new prominence. The popularity of St Irene’s deed may be due to Cardinal Baronius’ recommendation in his Annales Ecclesiastici of around 1600. However, devotion to St Sebastian goes back to the Middle Ages. According to Paul the Deacon a plague of 680 in Pavia was only stopped when a relic of the saint was brought to the city. St Sebastian’s intercession was invoked for at least two reasons. First, in the Golden Legend he is said to have healing powers. Secondly, the arrows evoked the experience of bubonic plague. The first sign of infection was a boil appearing on the groin. St Sebastian could intercede when plague was present and his protection could be asked when it wasn’t. Usually, he is depicted as a beautiful young man in a loin cloth with arrows piercing his flesh. Renaissance artists availed of the opportunity presented by the saint’s martyrdom to show off their skills in anatomy and their knowledge of the sculptures of classical antiquity. But the real reason why St Sebastian was depicted more or less naked was the desire to associate his death with that of Christ, who, as the Gospels relate, was first stripped of his garments and then crucified naked. But like Christ, he also embraced suffering. In the Counter Reformation period, when the threat of plague was waining, but the urban poverty was increasing, his heroic witness to the faith was joined by this other witness. In works such as this one by ter Brugghen, holiness was made visible and achieved not just in heroic witness, but in the embrace of suffering and through works of compassion. In these days of the Covid 19 virus, might we reconsider the erstwhile significance of Saints Sebastian and Irene. Saints Sebastian and Irene pray for us!
Stirling Council’s Archeologist, Murray Cook, writes, “In 2014 an archaeological excavation ahead of new flats opposite Stirling train station identified some buildings associated with the Medieval Dominican Priory (1230s to 1560) and a single body of a young man between 25-30 years old. The man was buried with a single belt buckle and we think he was a Dominican Friar, radiocarbon dating of his skeleton indicated that he died between 1380 and 1420, which means he could have witnessed both The Battles of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. We also know that Dominican Friars tried to negotiate with Wallace ahead of Stirling Bridge and hosted Edward I of England after The Battle of Falkirk. This individual is therefore one of the few, if not the only, Scottish witness to these key events that we know where he is buried. Stirling Council along with the Dominicans wish to rebury the Friar in a suitably respectful manner.” On 29th February, at 11am, we will celebrate a Requiem Mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church on Upper Bridge Street, after which a the remains will be reburied in the Snowden Cemetery, which is near the Castle. Following the Mass and reburial there will be a civic reception in Stirling’s Tolbooth which is nearby.
“The Seven Acts of Mercy”, Caravaggio, 1606/07, Chiesa Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples. Shortly after his arrival in Naples Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a Madonna of Mercy for the newly built Church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia. Mary had long been titled “Mother of Mercy’ and a whole genre developed in art, where she is depicted with a wide cloak extending protection to those beneath. However, here the cloak has become a winding length of cloth picked out for us by the light on the top left. It is like a sheet hung out to dry high above the street but now caught in a sudden gust of wind, blowing this way and that, evoking the Holy Spirit, who Christ said “blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8) The cloth is in harmony with the wings of the angels who support the Madonna and child but seem to rotate with it, giving visual expression to the dynamism of the Spirit descending into the darkness upon our world. But these figures are as real as those below, all lit by the same light and casting real shadows. One angel extends a hand towards four men and a woman engaged in the seven acts of mercy for which the painting would be named. The final judgement scene in the Gospel of Matthew (25: 35-36) gives a list. In time, burying the dead and the release of captives were added. What is very unusual is to show these merciful deeds happening together. On the far left an inn keeper gives two pilgrims (one is almost unseen) lodging for the night. Behind him Samson drinks water from the jaw bone of an ass, as once God quenched his thirst in the desert. The deeds of Samson were a popular theme at that time in Naples. In front of the two pilgrims a young well-dressed man divides his cloak in two and gives half to an almost naked man at his feet. He is a latter day St Martin who did the same and then was told in a dream that the poor man was Christ. Behind the almost naked man, and barely visible, another figure kneels with an anguished expression as if afflicted with some terrible illness. The young man attends to both. In the backgrounding one man is carrying out a corpse for burial. We see the feet and the shroud. The figure with the torch is a cleric who appears to be singing, suggesting that dead individual will receivie a christian burial. Finally, an old man puts his head through the bars of a prison window to suckle on the breast of a woman. There is drop of her milk on his beard. She raises here skirt to wipe his beard. This recalls a story from classical Rome where a young woman visits her imprisoned father and feeds him from her breast. Heavenly light descends into a darkened streets of Naples, picking out five individuals caught up in acts of mercy. The angels, the naked back, and the woman offering her breast, are the bright points of a triangle, through which the of fabric of human living is woven, connecting each deed with the billowing sheet above. These are ordinary folk. This is Naples as it was, under Spanish rule: an overcrowded city with massive poverty, where people died on the streets and prisons were terrifying. But Caravaggio, in line with his patrons’ wishes, shows a different Naples. It is one where mercy holds sway, and where good deeds shine in the sight of men and praise is due to the Father in heaven.
“The Presentation of Christ in the Temple”, Andrea Mantegna, c.1454, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche, Museen su Berlin. It is accepted that this painting dates from around the time of Mantegna’s marriage to Nicolosia Bellini and before he left Padua. The two figures, left and right, are thought to be Mantegna and his bride. It has also been shown that 20 years later, Giovanni Bellini made another version of his in-law’s work, and actually traced the central figures. Mantegna repeated himself in printmaking, but never in a painting. By contrast Bellini’s workshop produced copies of, and variations on, his works. Bellini’s version of the Presentation became a “best seller” and his wokshop produced many versions of this work and the closely related circumcision of Christ. It would seem that for Mantegna this scene with half-length figures set against a dark background was a one-off. It would also seem that it was a family matter. But in fact, with his presentation the young Mantegna broke new ground among artists in the Veneto and elsewhere in Italy. In Venice and Padua, icons of Our Lady and the child Jesus were used in public churches. In such images Mary and Jesus were often shown half-length and close up. But scenes depicting a story from the gospel always showed the figures full length. Here Mantegna combines the two types of image. This is a narrative scene, which captures that moment before Mary hands over the child to Simeon. And yet, the focus of the painting is on the mother and child. Indeed, in the relief-like quality of this work, Mantegna skilfully creates the illusion that the mother and child have entered into the very room where the painting hangs. Her right elbow is leaning on the illusionistic frame and the cushion on which the child is stood protrudes over the edge of the same frame. This fictional frame has been described as both lens and stage. It is as if we are given a window unto the sacred event, whilst the same event breaks into our world, offering meaning and insight into our own lives. The particular type of rose coloured marble was used commonly by artists to suggest both Temple and Altar, so that the allusion to the Eucharist and Mary’s compliance in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross are powerfully evoked. It is worth comparing it with Giotto’s Presentation from the Scovegni Chapel in Padua and noticing how much detail Mantegna omits so that the viewer is focused on the mother and child. At the time, a new devotional movement, which became known as Devotio Moderna, had arrived south of the Alps and tracts such as “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A Kempis (1418-27) were widely read and they greatly influenced the devout, whether literate or illiterate. This movement emphasised a more personal connection with Christ and with his mother. Readers were urged to imagine the gospel scene and ponder it. The use of images as an aid was encouraged, but there was also the caution that these were merely aids to devotion and not the real thing. Again Mantegna’s frame suggests as much. The child cries out as Christ would on the cross. His swaddling bands suggests the shroud. Indeed the frame is actually reminiscent of funerary reliefs from antiquity, which were certainly known by Mantegna and his contemporaries. The only figure in the painting to be shown in full length is Christ, who is held upright by his mother almost in the same way that a priest elevates the host during Mass. It was common practice for the wealthy to have within their house a private chapel or oratory and you can imagine this painting hanging in such a space, darkened by shutters, so that the figure of Christ in his swaddling bands, Mary’s headdress and Simeon’s fantastic beard, all glow in the half light. Moreover, whilst the original frame has been lost, analysis of the canvas edges suggests that it may have been painted to create the illusion that the fictive frame on the canvass and the real wooden frame were one continuous frame. And so, in the candle lit seclusion of a domestic oratory or chapel, this really would seem to be a aperture unto the divine, the invisible made visible. One contemporary writer said of this picture, “Like a large screen plasma television, Mantegna’s fictive frame succeeds in bringing a distant biblical event into the living room.” But this painting must have had some direct link to the lives of Mantegna and his wife. Perhaps it was connected to the birth of his first born son, after which his mother would have been taken to Church and “purified” as was Mary in accordance with Jewish Law. The couple look to the left, but with unfocused gazes, which suggests that they too are mediating on the sacred event. In this way, the viewer can situate herself within the frame and the narrative. Infant mortality rates were high and childbearing was a risky business. It would not be unusual, to say the least, for an expectant mother to seek the intercession and protection of the Virgin mother, in those perilous months leading to a birth, or afterwards, to give thanks for a healthy child. In my mind, there is a link to what I see happening in the lives of parents as they present their child for baptism, keenly aware that now the child is dependent on them, but that with baptism a new path opens up before the child, and that one day, he or she will make his or her own way in the world, leaving both mother and father behind.
“Cyclamen and Primula”, Winifred Nicholson, c.1923, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. The artists Winfred Roberts and Ben Nicholson were married in London in 1920. This picture dates from the first few winters which were spent painting in Switzerland. Ben had bought her some lily of the valley wrapped in tissue paper. This led to about six paintings of flowers wrapped in tissue paper which Winifred described in a letter as “sunlight in white paper”. In each, the flowers are placed on a window sill looking out over a landscape. Winfred later wrote: “the picture painted itself on that window sill”. In 1969 Winifred wrote, “flowers mean different things to different people…. to some they are button holes for their conceit -to botanists they are species and tabulated categories -to bees of course they are honey- to me they are the secret of the cosmos.” The cyclamen on the left are violet . Years later, she would write that the colour violet, “calls to a colour beyond itself on the scale, a colour that our eyes cannot see, although we know that it is there by the power of ultraviolet rays.” She treats colour as a composer does notes on the scale. In her “Liberation of Colour” (1944) she wrote that “Each colour is unique, but no colour can stand alone.” Each colour has its own note. Colours sing to each other. In this picture, she builds her composition within a subtle harmony of colour, so that the eye moves between the flower itself and the paper wrapping and the snow covered mountains behind. They toured Italy on their honeymoon, but both wrote that most of the Old Masters they saw were “overrated”. But Ben did collect pictures of some of them in three scrap books. Among these were Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino, wherein both Duke and Duchess are painted on separate panels but in front of a single continuous landscape. The relationship between the figures in the foreground and landscape behind are explored by means of continuity in colour and form, so while creating a certain amount of visual ambiguity, he nonetheless achieves a sense of depth, position and harmony. It is the relationship between the flowers on the sill and the distant mountain behind which conveys not just the sheer beauty of sunlight, but also its transience. Flowers fade and snow melts. Their marriage did not last. Ben left her in the autumn of 1931 and shortly afterwards moved in with the artist Barbara Hepworth. In the space between the two pieces of of tissue, there is an evocation of a journey which has begun but with a destination as yet uncertain. Did the artist have some sense of this in the early years of her marriage? It was today’s gospel, with its talk of a light and the two sets of brothers beginning their journeys that put me in mind of this painting and, in particular, the way the shadows on the mountain seem to suggest a road over the horizon. One of the greatest supporters of the Nicholsons and their generation of artists was Jim Ede, who, in order to give his collection a permanent home, founded Kettle’s Yard. He wrote that he had seen this picture reproduced and had always wanted it. Years later a Cambridge dealer recognised it despite layers of dust. He sold it to Jim Ede, for whatever he could afford. When the painting was cleaned, he wrote of it : “now is this delight of sunlight shadows and insubstantial substance.”
I heard the poem on the radio last Sunday called “What if this road” which is on the same theme. DM
What if this road by Sheenagh Pugh
What if this road, that has held no surprises
these many years, decided not to go
home after all; what if it could turn
left or right with no more ado
than a kite-tail? What if its tarry skin
were like a long, supple bolt of cloth,
that is shaken and rolled out, and takes
a new shape from the contours beneath?
And if it chose to lay itself down
in a new way; around a blind corner,
across hills you must climb without knowing
what’s on the other side; who would not hanker
to be going, at all risks? Who wants to know
a story’s end, or where a road will go?
“The Conversion of St Paul”, Caravaggio, 1602, Santa Maria Del Popolo, Rome. The scenes from the life of St Matthew in Rome’s San Luigi Francesi made Caravaggio famous. He was about 27. Within months, the very eminent Tiberio Cerasi, Treasuer General under Clement VIII, commissioned him to paint St Paul’s conversion and St Peter’s crucifixion for the side walls of the chapel in th“e Augustinian Church of Santa Maria del Popolo for which he had acquired burial rights. In the contract, Caravaggio is referred to as “egregius in Urbe pictor”, in order words, as the most best painter in Rome. The choice of two key scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul was hardly a surprising for a Roman side-chapel. This Church, located just inside the northern gate of the city was the first that pilgrims entered on their arrival. But it was unusual to put these two scenes together. The precedent was the two frescoes in the Vatican’s Capella Paolina, painted by Michelangelo for Paul III in 1545. Caravaggio and Cerasi knew that comparisons would be made. But just as St Paul’s conversion was the defining moment of his life, one could argue that these two works mark a similar point in Caravaggio’s development as an artist. Like most artists, Caravaggio would draw on elements seen in the works of others, but in this commission he did something entirely new. In the account of the conversion in the Acts of the Apostles there is the journey, the blinding light, the fall to the ground and the voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Companions are mentioned too. They stand “speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:8). Of course, artists had embellished this rather bare story. Michelangelo’s fresco shows Paul’s companions as a company of soldiers on horseback and Christ descends from the sky surrounded by a battalion of angels in a manner not unlike that of his final judgement in the Sistine Chapel. But Caravaggio simply paints what you might have seen if you were there. He does not attempt to show heavenly realms. He keeps the horse and the mysterious light and lays St Paul flat on his back. To modern eyes the saint is like someone on stage, lit only by a spotlight. But notice that unlike on a stage set, there is no distance between St Paul and the viewer. In the rather small Cerasi Chapel the prone body of St Paul is directly in front of your eyes. The horse is just above you. By showing the horse at an angle he provides a sense of depth in what would otherwise be flat darkness and gives credibility to the extremely foreshortened body of St Paul. The effect is astonishing in that the viewer cannot but identify with saint. Standing in the chapel, the viewer might even raise his or her arms to embrace the same light falling around St Paul. In earlier versions, the horses were war horses and the whole cohort were dressed as soldiers. Here St Paul is an ordinary young Roman soldier. The horse is a beast of burden, which would have been so common on the streets of any town or village and a reminder of home to the pilgrim. There is no saddle, so nothing suggests that St Paul was actually on the horse when he fell. The horse and handler may just be fellow travellers on the same road. I have never handled a horse but I grew up in an area where horse training was big business. One of the things, you notice as you wait to let the handler get the high strung race horse into a gate so that you can pass pass is the bond between the horse and its handler. This is no race horse but you can see this same intimate bond. Neither horse nor handler understand what is happening but they do understand each other. The horse’s hoof is raised so as not to injure the saint; a detail which speaks of the gentle nature of the animal, but also tells us that St Paul has fallen only moments before. The animal will soon move so as to stand on all fours. Modelled in bright colours, the drama emerges from the dark background. Perhaps the most remarkable and novel element is the fall of bright light into a darkened space. This play of light and darkness was to dominate in the rest of Caravaggio’s art. Like a single spotlight on a dark stage, it directs our focus, but for Caravaggio it does far more. His contemporaries did not have our wave theory of light. They took the phenomenon of light to be both natural and divine. In literature and scripture light stood for what we can know: darkness for what we cannot know. From a religious point of view, the interplay of darkness and light evokes thoughts of sin and grace. And since antiquity light was strongly associated with divinity. But Caravaggio’s theatrical lighting also conveys the self-revelation of a God who both incarnate and transcendent, and always beyond our capacity to know him fully. The disjunction and continuity between what we can see and feel here and now, and what we believe we shall see is at the heart of Caravaggio’s art and is central to the life of faith we now live. As St Paul himself says: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” ( 1 Cor 13:8). The Feast of the Conversion of St Paul is on this coming Saturday.
“The Baptism of Christ”, Piero della Francesca, 1450s, National Gallery, London. Stand in a still pool of water on a warm summer’s day and let the cool waters just reach your ankles. Place your pool of water in the midst of the kind of landscape that can be found around this artist’s native Borgo Sansepulcro. Look at the distant hills with their sparse growth and arid look. Feel the heat of the warm Italian sun on your head and shoulders. Notice the town itself in the far distance. Now look look down at your feet. Through the water you can see the gravel beneath your feet, glistening in the refracted sunlight. Just a bit further away you can’t see the bottom of the pool because at that distance what you see is the blue sky and the hills reflected by the water’s surface. This is where Piero della Francesca takes his viewer. Nowadays it is harder to see the line where the water meets Christ’s feet than it would have been when this work was first completed as an altarpiece for the Camaldolese monastery in Sansepulcro. Go online on the Gallery’s website and zoom in on Christ’s feet. You can just see the water’s edge. There was a legend that when Christ was baptised, the waters of the Jordan stopping flowing. It is this wonderful moment of stillness which Piero captures. The only movement in the picture is the water being poured unto Christ’s head by John the Baptist. You would hear it in the stillness of the summer’s day, so far away from the noise of the town. Three angels are in attendance as Christ is baptised. One of them bears the garment with which Christ will be clothed. You will see the Risen Christ wear this same pink cloak in the artist’s famous Resurrection which remains in the town to this day. It was painted in about 1470 which Piero was in his 50’s. But the baptism is much earlier. He was probably in his early 30’s, so that both the artist and Christ are beginning their life’s work. The tree behind Christ is a walnut tree. Notice that all of its leaves descend. The leaves of the tree further back are growing in the normal way as do those on the hillside beyond the river. The dense foliage of the walnut obscures the source of a subtle golden light which falls on the top branches, and seems to highlight the edges of the more shaded branches in the tree behind. If you do go online, check out what a walnut tree actually looks like. Piero has made its bark as pale as Christ’s skin. In fact, both skin and bark seem luminous. It was Donatello who first introduced trees into the iconography of the baptism. It was on a sculpted relief showing Christ’s baptism on a baptism font in Arezzo. In that panel the trees give depth. Piero’s trees give spiritual depth. Beside the river there is a field, which you can plainly see between Christ and the walnut tree. It is a field of tree stumps. Thus the symbolism of the cross is there in the tree, in Christ, whose garments will be stripped from him on Calvary, but who has stripped off his own garments for baptism. It is there too in the field of tree stumps. The Holy Spirit descends like a dove, foreshortened, so that you might think you are seeing a cloud. One of the overdressed men behind notices something because we can see him point. But what does he make of what he sees? Another man is stripping off his clothes. Clearly, with his shirt covering his head, he cannot see what we see, the miraculous moment when the river waters run still, and the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks. But, perhaps, he can hear heaven speak and is actually as motionless as the water. He might be undressing for baptism. But his skin is as luminous as the body of Christ and the bark of the tree, so I think that he has been baptised already. His pale skin, so similar to that of Christ, shines with the Trinity’s new life which we have come to share in baptism. In the words of St Paul, he is putting on Christ (Gal 3:27). We too are asked to go on putting on Christ, for we remain standing in the stilled waters of the font. DM
“The Adoration of the Kings”, Jacopo Bassano, 1542, National Galleries Of Scotland. We see the Holy Family with their haloes on the left. A beam of light from the star can just be seen above them. These are the only visual elements of the supernatural realm. Everything else is of the natural visible order. The kings greet the Holy Family. But this is only the left hand half of the painting. The other half is given over to a crowd of people who seem indifferent to the Holy Family. Taken as a whole, this is a very beautiful painting. Blocks of colour and texture are arranged carefully across the surface so that the eye is not dazzled or overwhelmed. In fact, the array of colour focuses the eye on the young man. His face is placed in the exact centre of the work. He is wearing a beautiful well tailored garment, striped in green and gold, which, it must be admitted, is perfect for someone with his colouring. This young patrician has exquisite good taste in clothes. He has good manners too. He bends his knee to bow before the mother of Christ. But he does not bow his head. He keeps his eyes fixed upon her. The studio ledger of the Bassani workshop shows that this was painted when Jacob Bassano was 32. Having finished his training in Venice, he had returned to work in the family business at Bassano del Grappa. In this work, Bassano follows the established tradition that the Magi of Mathew’s Gospel were three kings, one from each of the three known continents, and so representing all the nations of the earth. Tradition also made them young, middle-aged and old so that they represented the three ages of man. You might think of the three generations of the Florentine Medici who were Botticelli’s Magi in his treatment of the subject around 1475. But here’s the thing: the young man does not fit with such a scheme. He is entirely different to the other two kings who are pretty much what you would expect. For one thing, he is a bit too young and a bit too good looking. His handsome face dominates the whole picture. After all, the painting is surely not about him, but about Christ. Each king brings one of Matthew’s three named gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are usually offered in that order. But here the young man offers his gift first. It may even be the gold. While it is true that Bassano borrowed several elements in this picture but the young man is not borrowed. He is different. It looks like a portrait inserted into another painting about something else. If this is a portrait, then the two page boys behind might be his sons. Bassano copied but reversed this composition from a fresco of the same subject of 1520 in the Malchiostro Chapel in the nearby Treviso Cathedral, which was by the artist Pordenone. In both works, the older king leans forward in adoration. In both too, a servant with a rather athletic rump leans the other way. The buildings on the upper left are lifted stone by stone from those in a popular woodcut by Dürer. There the Virgin is seated within an enclosure. Oddly, Bassano has her sitting on a wall, which may be the boundary of an enclosure. The crowd on the right is very similar to another crowd in a popular engraving of 1517 by Agostino Veneziano, which was after Raphael’s famous depiction of Mary’s suffering as she watched her son fall under the weight of the cross. This is not the only echo of the Passion. Bassano places a freshly cut tree stump directly beneath the child. It was a standard reminder of the Passion. The fig tree which grows up beside Mary may also be an allusion to Jesus on the cross, but, equally, it may signify the fruit of Mary’s womb. The delicate columbine (from the Latin columba meaning “dove”), or aquilegia, growing at Mary’s feet is often used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Here symbols of both the Incarnation and the Passion are effortlessly interwoven for those who have eyes to see them. Anyone from the Veneto would recognise the landscape and the distant buildings in the background as typical of the artist’s native Bassano del Grappa. They can be found in several of his other works, not least in his beautiful “Flight into Egypt” of 1544 (See my discussion of it last week at www.scotland.op.org/news). You can see that Bassano used the same models for the Holy Family in both paintings. It has been said that, rather than forming an enclosure for the Virgin, the projecting wall divides the people into faith on the left and indifference on the right. But if so, then our young man has a foot in each half. Notice how the three gifts are positioned closely together between him and the Holy Family. The eye is led from this young patrician to the gifts and to their hands. What is extraordinary is that the young man’s hand almost touches that of Mary. This is very odd. His gaze may indeed be one of reverence, respect, and admiration, but is it adoration? Compare him with the old man, who is no doubt stiff and sore from his journey, but manages to support himself with one arm and raise his gift with the other. His aches and pains are forgotten. He is lost in adoration. A recently discovered ledger from the Bassani workshop records this commission and the deposit for it in 1542. It was paid by a Venetian patrician called Jacopo Ghisi. There was such a man with that name who was living in Venice at that time. He would have been 27 in 1542. However, the ledgers also record that in that same year the sum was returned to him. It is not known why. What Bassano painted was a young man showing great deference but clearly lacking something. Perhaps it is humility? With one hand he offers the gift, but the other hand remains on the hilt of his sword. He does not kneel, but rather bows as a courtier might do before royalty. He is both of the scene and yet not of it. Bassano puts him at the centre so that we don’t miss any of it and, in a way, the whole painting revolves around him. We see the gift in his hands but we can surmise what he lacks in his heart. On the left edge of the painting, you can see the heads of an ox and an ass. It is thought that the ox represents the Gentile world’s recognition of Christ as Saviour and, the ass, the Hebrew world’s failure to do so. Maybe this is what the painting is about: the recognition of Christ, not simply as an important future king but as the Saviour of all, and the rendering to him, not just of sincere and conventional allegiance, but of true worship.
“Flight into Egypt”, Jacopo Bassano, c.1544, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. The Holy Family is on the move. Behind them is the familiar landscape of Bassano del Grappa where the artist lived. But here they are led by an angel and accompanied by three young men, two details not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. But none of these three companions seems to be in much of a hurry. Other things distract them. The one on the left is releasing four live cockerels from a basket. The next is drinking and the third one, although almost completely hidden from view by the donkey, clearly has his back to the Holy Family but looks back towards his companion. Are these three of shepherds who have also decided to go to Egypt? If so they do share sense of urgency we see in the movement of Joseph, his donkey and the angel. There are many other details in this work and each open to various interpretations. Between the legs of Joseph and the angel there is a dog. To whom does he belong? Is it one of the three companions? Or is it Joseph? Or is it the angel? In the background there are tiny figures who going about their daily tasks. These villagers are unaware of the terrible event that will unfold when Herod’s men arrive to slay all the first-born sons in the area. We do not see what Breughel showed us in his “Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-67). Set against the backdrop of Spanish rule and the eighty years war, soldiers poured into a Netherlandish town and spilt the blood of the innocent children on the winter snow. Here nobody kneels in the snow and pleads for the life of a child. Bassano’s painting is focused on the biblical story of how Joseph was told to flee from Bethlehem, but his painting is a retelling of that story in the context of his time and place, and with a different emphasis. The dominant focus is on their movement across the canvas. But it was also true that in the region around Bassano there were pockets of Protestantism and many sympathisers. This picture can be read as an affirmation of what are key elements of Catholicism within the motif of a life’s journey. The angel leads the way, as a guide for the Holy Family, but also reminding the viewer of the Catholic belief that each of us had a guardian angel to lead and guide. The angel points to the stump of a tree. It is almost in Joseph’s path. Such stumps were a common in the art of the Veneto and beyond, as symbols of the death of Christ on the cross. From it, a fresh shoot is growing and so we are reminded of the life that comes through his death. It is a fig, which, of course, recalls the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. Near the virgin and child there is an olive tree which might recall for some the Mount of olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ, who in this scene escapes the soldiers, will eventually be arrested. Perhaps the cockerels are there to remind us of the passion and of how St Peter denied Christ. And the man is kneeling, as Peter will do before Christ, saying, “Leave me Lord for I am a sinful man It strikes me that these three would-be companions of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are leaving the familiar as Peter and the other disciples would leave their nets to follow him. It is quite remarkable and a bit incongruous that the one who is drinking is holding a spear, whereas the other two and Joseph each have a walking staff. Is he one of Herod’s soldiers, now come to faith? Or is he rather a precursor of the soldier who pierced the side of Christ with a lance and in the tradition was named Longinus, who saw blood and water flow from the wound and came to faith. And in fact is drinking wine and not just water so that in his evident thirst we see the great gift of the Eucharist as food for our journey in this life?
Jacopo Bassano had painted this scene at least twice before. In each version, he includes the three companions. It is only in this version that the three seem so distracted. Are they there to speak to us of how we relate to our journey? The first on the right may tell of how our faith can be weak and fail us, the second of our need for the nourishment of both word and sacrament and the third of how we sometimes focus on others and what they do rather, than what we should be doing. If the dog goes with the angel then this is a reference to the great journey of Tobias and of how by his faith in the guiding hand of an angel all turned out well in the end.
“Virgin and Child with Sts Jerome and St Louis of Toulouse” (“Madonna of the Orange Tree”) 1496- 98, Cima da Conegliano, Accademia, Venice. When I saw this painting recently on a visit to Venice, I was struck by the similarities between it and Filippino Lippi’s “The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic”, (c. 1485) which I had just written on in the current edition of “The Dominicans”. In both, the Virgin and Child are flanked by Jerome and a saint dear to the patrons. This painting was made for the Church of Santa Chiara on Murano, which belonged to a community of observant Franciscan nuns. In this painting St Dominic’s place is taken St Louis of Toulouse (1274 -97). St Louis was an aristocratic “boy” Bishop who took vows as a Franciscan shortly after becoming a Bishop. He died of a fever at the age of 23 having exhausted himself in the service of the poor. You can see the Franciscan habit beneath his cope. If you look at this painting online you appreciate just how beautiful it is. As in Lippi’s picture St Joseph can be seen in the background. He is standing beneath a tree while the donkey grazes nearby, As in Lipp’s work this is a rest on the flight into Egypt. In both St Jerome is bare chested and holds the stone with which he was said to have done penance in the wilderness of Judea. However he is there to remind the viewer that the Word made flesh is also to be found in the scriptures. Both paintings make reference to specific locations. In the work by Lippi, there is a Florentine dispensary which is associated with St Dominic. In Cima’s painting the town is probably Conegliano where Cima was born and where he died after his years in Venice. On the path leading up to the town two figures in oriental dress are walking away and are included to represent the non-Christian world, who have not yet acknowledged Christ. In which case, the rock on which the Virgin sits must be the rock of faith upon which the Church is founded. Both paintings have birds and animals in the background and recognisable species of plants in the foreground. Each has its particular symbolism. The pair of partridges symbolise those who come to faith in Christ. The partridge was said to hatch the eggs of other birds, but once hatched, the young chicks would leave them, being able to recognise their true parents. The watching white hare symbolises vigilance and contemplative solitude. The deer on the path is an allusion to the Psalm 42. The Aquilega at St Louis’ feet on the far right is a symbol of Mary and of her purity. Of course the most striking plant is the orange tree behind the Virgin. Although not an apple tree, it may allude to the fall of Adam and Eve and Mary as the new Eve. The colour is picked up in her clothing. Despite the amount of detail, there is harmony here and beauty, and yet what is most striking about Cima’s work is the silence. The viewer into the silent contemplation of the saints. it is not just the contemplation of the beauty of Creation but of the Word made flesh who has dwelt among us.
“Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Sts John the Baptist and St Lucy”, 1496 – 98, Cima da Conegliano, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. This artist is known for his altarpieces but at 53.9 cm X 71.6cm this painting must have been for an individual’s private contemplation. Viewed beside earlier works by Cima the lack of an architectural setting is notable. There is no arch, nor is there a canopy, with a length of fine fabric backing the Madonna and Child. These figures are set against a background of pure landscape. In the centre is the Holy Family. Mary is a beautiful young woman and Joseph is a much older man. She seems to be preoccupied, as if pondering things interiorly. He contemplates the child on her lap, who has one hand raised in blessing and the other reaching out to the angel. Here there is no man-made throne. It was Mantegna who first used natural rock as a throne and, clearly, Cima has borrowed his idea. The angels are also upon the slab of rock and are as wrapt with devotion as any shepherd or wise man might have been. They are flanked by St John the Baptist and St Lucy. The slab of rock slants downwards from right to left as if there was a movement from one martyr to the other. Unlike some of his altarpeices, there seems an internal logic to the choice of these two saints, above and beyond the patron’s wishes. St John the Baptist’s green garment emerges from the verdant landscape behind. The steep cliff, topped by vegetation, seems to be in harmony with the baptist’s curly head of hair. In the far distance, the landscape opens on water. The hill top fortress and the cloud above it are just perfectly positioned. On the right, St Lucy holds a lamp recalling her association with light and in particular divine light or wisdom. Behind her a meadow gives way to a wood and a town. In the clear air the distant mountains are visible and are as blue as the sky. The young oak tree forms a natural canopy, but ,with its two young branches, it also symbolises Christ born of the Virgin. The bare ground where the saints are positioned suggests and enclosure symbolising the mother’s virginity, but in its barrenness there may be a suggestion of the miraculous birth or even of creation ex nihilo. The saddled donkey grazing behind St Lucy on the meadow tells us that this is the Holy Family at rest on the flight into Egypt. This subject was a relatively new one at the time, but once recognised, the ministering angels make more narrative sense. To set the saints in a sacra conversazione against a pure landscape was also new. This landscape is reminiscent of the beautiful landscapes of the Veneto where Cima grew up. But here Cima unites both landscape and the foreground figures in a sublime harmony. It is as if the landscape were waiting for their arrival, and only with their arrival, does it reach its fulfilment. The criticism of Cima is that his works are all very similar. This writer does not quite agree. They are as variations on a theme, but the key might be to notice the subtle shifts from one work to the next. Reading this painting as a religious document, one may ponder what it has to say to us over 520 years on, about our relationship with the environment and with nature. Here is a world that is beautiful but can only find true harmony and its fulfilment in the advent of Christ. The viewer contemplates the first coming in the centre but the work taken as a whole (for those with eyes to see), shows forth the deeper beauty and fullness of his coming in glory. IN
“Burial of St Lucy” 1608, Caravaggio, Chiesa de Santa Lucia alla Badia, Syracuse. The two grave diggers, the soldier and the mitred bishop are far larger than the central group of mourners. With this deliberate distortion, they both frame and isolate that very moment just after the death of St Lucy, which was also her birth into the life of heaven. The presence of the Bishop tells us that Caravaggio follows the account of her death given in The Golden Legend, which relates that just before she died she received communion as viaticum. The strong diagonal which slopes down from the right towards the prone corpse of the saint, and the intense expressions of grief, recall Giotto’s famous “Lamentation of Christ”. The standing figures of the young man draped in red and the cloaked woman at his side, recall Our Lady and St John, who stood at the foot of the cross. This identification of St Lucy with Christ is completed by her arm stretched out towards the viewer as if in supplication. Her palm of martyrdom is no longer clearly visible. What we see is is her vulnerability, not her victory. The work was painted this shortly after Caravaggio had arrived in Syracuse in the October of 1608. He was on the run, wanted both in Rome and now also wanted by the Knights of Malta. The commission gave him a degree of protection, but it is recorded that while in the city he slept fully clothed and with a sword by his bed. Perhaps he identified with St Lucy’s vulnerability. The small face, directly behind the raised hand of the Bishop and looking towards the light, may be a self-portrait. According to The Golden Legend, St Lucy had been denounced as a Christian by her spurned suitor. The Roman Consul ordered that she be thrown into a brothel but, when not even a team of oxen could move her, she was subjected to a series of appalling ordeals: blazing flame, boiling oil and even being doused in urine. The Consul thought urine could dispel her evident powers of sorcery. But her suffering continued until for the Consul’s sake, someone thrust a sword into her throat. Then she died, but not before receiving communion. Caravaggio casts the “priests” of The Golden Legend as a bishop, and puts him in the company of a military man. Both mitre and armour are highlighted to acknowledge the city’s senate as the patrons and perhaps to suggest that the Bishop of Syracuse was involved in the commission. The huge stature of both distances them from the central event, as if they are recalling something from ages past. The cult of St Lucy spread far and wide, as did her relics. Now, they are mostly in Venice. In the Syracuse of 1608, reviving her cult as patron was seen as a way to renew the fortunes of the city. In other places, St Lucy is associated with light and sight because other later legends say that her eyes were gouged out and then miraculously healed during her ordeal. But first and foremost Lucy is a Christian martyr, which is to say that in the tradition of the Church her death is associated with that of Christ. In fact, Lucy became a victim of abuse because she would not renounce her faith. This simple part of her story is often overlooked. Caravaggio clearly identifies her with Christ, or rather, evokes the sinless victim upon the cross, who identified himself with her innocence, her faith and her vulnerability. Her feast day is this coming Friday 13th December.
“St John the Baptist with Sts Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul”, Church of Madonna dell’ Orto, Venice. 1493-5, Giovanni Batista Cima, known as Cima da Conegliano. This very beautiful work remains in the location for which it was painted. This altarpiece is on the right wall near the entrance. You cannot but notice it on your left as you leave the Church. Its original stone frame matches the stone work within the image. Cima adjusts the perspective lines accordingly. There is a trompe del l’oeil effect, so that the saints occupy what looks like real space. John the Baptist and his position in the history of salvation is the focus of the image. But, while he has the usual reed-like cross, there is no lamb, nor is he baptising. This is not the wilderness because we can see a town in the background. Nor does he point directly to Christ. He points upwards to the open sky above his head and he looks towards the actual daylight coming from the adjacent window. The ancient and ruined vault above him must represent pagan antiquity. The four roundels depict the vices of idolatry, luxury, violence, and, perhaps, pride. Their dominion will be overcome by the Advent of Christ. The four saints represent the Christian era and stand like four pillars of this new age. But in their midst, Cima elevates John, standing him on a stone pediment. This is the one of whom Jesus said, “There has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Mt 11:11)”. So John the Baptist represents the advent of faith in Christ, standing as first within an old order which gives way to the new age of the Church. As in the works of Giovanni Bellini, who was a contemporary of Cima’s, many of the details are symbolic. The viewer must make an informed guess. Perhaps the sparsely-leafed oak behind may recall the words of John: “Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt 3:10)”. Similarly, the ivy growing up high on the vault may be a sign of its ruined state. The fig, which is growing high up on the left, has no soil in which to root itself and will soon wither and die. It may represent Israel. The owl perched at the very top, which for us is a symbol of wisdom, may well represent the night and the darkness in which the light of Christ comes like the dawn. The light within the picture does come from the East. This not the midday sun but that of early morning. Various plants have took root in the soil. They are healthy, flourishing, and are carefully painted. Wild strawberries and violets may symbolise the Christian virtues of humility and meekness. We know that the patrons were engaged in the Levantine spice trade and that one had a particular devotion to St John the Baptist. Their origins were in Padova and the great Bascilica di San Antonio can be seen in the background. Their trade brought them into contact with a non-Christian world, and in 1493-5 its conversion to Christ was a very real aspiration for which one might ask the intercession of John the Baptist In the sky the clouds suggest for this viewer, at least, the words of Peter: “You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pt 1:19)”.
“The Crowning with Thorns”, Caravaggio, 1602/03, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna. When I saw this painting for the first time what struck me most was the force of the downward thrust exerted by the soldiers. In 1638, this painting is listed as belonging to Vicenzo Giustiniani. It may have first belonged to his brother Cardinal Benedetto who died in 1621. Both were patrons of Caravaggio. It is known that in 1683 it was placed above a doorway in his Palazzo. Caravaggio exploited the fact that Christ would be viewed from below. Looking upward, the viewer cannot but sense the soldiers’ brutal downward thrust as they force the thorns into his flesh and bone. Yet Christ’s shoulders remain upright. His posture is one of dignity. But his condition as a victim is seen in the way his head is thrust forward and his neck stretched out. Caravaggio uses the play of light and shadow to focus us upon Christ’s neck and shoulders and therefore upon him as a victim. The white feather and the highlights on the suit of armour contrast with Christ’s exposed white skin. The man in armour is obviously in charge of the brutal procedure. His armour renders him invulnerable. It gleams in the light and contrasts with the bare shoulders of the other three. Christ is naked except for his cloak. The blood is splattered on his bared chest reminds the viewer that the red cloak hides the open wounds on his back. Caravaggio uses hands to further underline express the imbalance in power. You can see that Christ’s hands are bound so that he must hold the makeshift sceptre between his fingers. The hand of the man wearing armour is not very far from Christ’s hands. Notice that the man merely rests his handoff the ledge. His hand does not take his weight. The hands of the soldiers have become fists as they exert great force. He achieves a similar expression by contrasting the crown of thorns in the headgear of the other three. From the white feather on the left, there begins what is a continuous line of light moving left to right and back again forming a kind of halo behind Christ’s head. At the centre of this image is Christ as the innocent victim of a brutal act but who, nonetheless, can retain a quiet dignity. In this we see his gentle sovereignty and his solidarity with other victims of our today. The detail of the crowning with thorns is not found in Luke. In the other gospels, he is flogged, and crowned with thorns. They place a cloth over his bleeding back, and then mock him as they kneel before him saying, “Hail King of the Jews.” Luke has Pilate’s soldiers mock him only later as he hangs on the cross and, of course, it is in Luke that he exerts his sovereignty from the cross in his words to the good thief and his continuous pleading: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Cardinal or his brother may well have commissioned this painting for their own apartments. When he or his brother looked at it, above a doorway in his rooms, who or what did they see? Was it the victim, the spotless lamb, who takes away their own sins and the sins of world, or did thy see God and how he freely chooses to position himself in our sinful world?
“The Crucifixion of St Peter”, Carravaggio, 1602, Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. In September 1600, Tiberio Cerasi commissioned two paintings from Caravaggio to decorate the side walls of a chapel he had acquired in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The subjects were the conversion of St Paul and the crucifixion of St Peter. Given that this was the first Church that pilgrims entered, once inside the walls of the city of Rome, the choice of these two saints is not new, but Caravaggio’s treatment of them is new. It is not Roman soldiers who crucify St Peter. It is three workmen wearing the same kind of clothes as the pilgrims themselves wore. Their dress suggests that this martyrdom is taking place not in the distant past, but in their own time. The men have nailed St Peter’s hands and feet to a wooden cross, and are attempting to stand the cross upside down in the earth so that St Peter will die upside down as he had asked. The shovel used to dig the hole lies on the ground and the blade glints in the light. The three are intent on their task. Their is no sign of emotion. They just get on with it. But the scene has the feel of a shameful deed that must be done under cover of darkness. One thinks of Edinburgh grave robbers. But now someone has spotted them. A light reveals what is happening. See how they strain to lift the cross. Their clothing lifts as they contort their bodies. But what is most unsettling is not their efforts, but their indifference. They might as well be lifting a stone or a pillar. St Peter is still conscious. You can see how his stomach is clenched in a sharp intake of breath in response to searing pain. He raises his head and torso. In the rather small Cerasi Chapel St Peter looks beyond the frame of the painting towards the chapel’s altar. In this way, we understand that for St Peter it is the sacrifice of Christ which is foremost in his thoughts. Tiberio Cerasi, who was very rich, had specified the use of the expensive blue pigment lapus lazuli. Caravaggio does use the pigment, but he tones it down from bright blue to the grey of the discarded garment on the right so that the earthiness of the work is undisturbed. You can almost smell the freshly dug clay. It clings to the feet of the man on the ground beneath the cross. St Peter’s rock is just a random stone boulder, unearthed from the ground. But the artist places it in the centre so that we cannot miss it. In this way it can symbolise not just St peter’s faith but that of the humble and contrite pilgrim. This scene bears comparison with many other depictions of Christ’s crucifixion. Here an anonymous worker shoulders St Peter’s cross, which evidently increases his suffering. He is a sort of anti-type to Simon of Cyrene. When Christ hung on the cross, it was in public. Here the viewer is the primary, and almost accidental, and secret witness. What we have stumbled upon in the dark is a hideous act perpetrated in the dark on night in a city which in this period was under curfew. Yet the light shows us that St Peter’s faith has not failed. But the pilgrim who has just arrived in Rome with sore and dirty feet, and a contrite heart, identifies, not with St Peter, but with the labourers who are crucifying him. From Santa Maria del Popolo, they will make their way through narrow dusty streets to the very place where St Peter died, asking there for his intercession, that Christ might strengthen their faith as once he had strengthened the faith of the repentant St Peter. St Peter pray for us.
“Mary Magdalene”, Caravaggio, 1595/96, Gallerie, Doria Pamphilji, Rome. Were you not given the title you might have thought that this is a young woman who has returned in a bad mood from the local swish party! Her accessories lie on the floor as if they are no longer of any value to her. Mary Magdalene is identified by her vessel filled with ointment and by her long hair. This is one of the first of Caravaggio’s religious paintings. Caravaggio does not show Mary Magdalene as the beautiful woman doing penance in the wilderness and clad only in her long hair as she stares heavenward, or as a beautifully adorned sinner with a taste for luxury, as did other artists. He seats her on a low seat, almost as if she is kneeling on the ground. She looks as if she has been crying. You can see a tear running down her cheek. Evidently she has no where but the floor for her jewellery. This and the sparseness of the room suggest that despite her jewellery and the luxuriant fabric of her dress this woman is poor. Her hands are folded on her lap, but we can see that they are slightly red and swollen as if by day she were a laundress. All these details suggest that she is the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, and who Luke says was a sinner (Lk 7:36-50). The conflation of that woman with Mary Magdalene was commonly accepted. What is extraordinary here is the contemporary realism with which Caravaggio depicts her, using, no doubt a young woman from the street life of Rome as his model. The woman from Luke had embraced the gospel message of repentance, and then, upon hearing that Jesus was to dine with Simon the Pharisee, she took a jar of ointment and went there and knelt on the floor to anoint his feet. Soon she will weep so much that she wets his feet with her tears and she will dry them with her long hair. What Caravaggio shows here is the very moment of repentance, before she goes to the Pharisee’s house. She has loosened her hair and removed her jewels and perhaps is praying for the courage to go to him and show him her deep devotion. This is the one of whom Jesus will say, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much (Lk 7:47) and then to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk 7:50). Perhaps her swish party days are at an end!
“The Penitent Magdalene with Two Angels”, Guercino, c. 1622, Pinacoteca Vaticana. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early and alone on the first day of the week and finds it empty (Jn 20:1). Yet the two angels correspond to Luke’s two men in dazzling apparel (Lk 24:4). As has long been the fate of St Mary Magdalene in human telling, the known facts are conflated, embellished and the unknown taken for gospel truth. Guercino focuses our attention on Mary. She is young and beautiful. However, she does look rather déshabillé, as if she had got out of bed in haste, and wrapping a cloak around herself, made her way to the tomb. This is not the only treatment of the penitent Magdalene by Guercino and, the truth be told, in those other works she is rather more déshabillé. These proved very popular and were copied many times. Here an angel holds the nail used to crucify Christ before her gaze. Nearby the crown of thorns rests upon the discarded shroud (Jn 20:5). The other angel with a bright outstretched wing directs our eyes, and not Mary’s, heavenward. This was a new way of representing the Magdalene. She is not the penitent in the wilderness of popular legend, nor is she the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper as in Mark 14:3. Nor is she as yet the witness to the resurrection, for which we Dominican friars adopted her as our patroness. Finding the tomb empty, she contemplates Christ’s suffering on the cross. Guercino painted this altarpiece for the high altar of the Roman Church of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertitie. It no longer exists. The street where it once stood is Via delle Convertite, which runs between Piazza San Silvestro and the Via del Corso. The church and monastery of the Convertite stood at the bottom corner of the triangle formed by Via del Corso on the East, the Tiber with the busy port of Ripetta to the West, and Piazza del Popolo to the north. This area was called the Ortaccio, which means evil garden. It was a kind of anti-Eden where prostitution flourished. The nuns of the Convertite were all former prostitutes, who had converted to a life of prayer and penance. Their patron saint was St Mary Magdalene because in popular legend she was cast as a repentant prostitute. Here Mary is young and beautiful. This was meant to underline the nature of her sin and the depth of Christ’s forgiveness. It is a very male perspective. In fact, it was men who were responsible for admitting these women to the monastery. It was written that the all-male Arciconfraterita della Carità were not to admit women whom they judged to be deformed or unattractive. The nuns were to be ‘true’ penitents. This also was the part of the city where Lombards tended to live. Devotion to the recently canonised Milanese St Carlo Borromeo was very popular. In the century before, he had walked barefoot through the streets of a plague-stricken Milan, in procession with the relic of the Holy Nail, which was believed to have held Christ’s feet to the cross. And so in contemplating the Holy Nail, Mary Magdalene contemplates the wounded feet of Christ which she at her conversion, supposedly had anointed, kissed and wet with her tears. That nuns of the Convertite were to identify with such a version of the saint but whether or not it worked is debatable. Much of monastery’s income came from laundry which meant that these nuns were on the streets going back and forth to the fountains they washed other people’s clothes. The infamous Magdalene laundries of the last century come to mind and the varying ways St Mary Magdalene has been pressed into service down the centuries.
“The Entombment”, Carravaggio, 1602-04, Vatican Museums. This altarpiece was originally intended for a side chapel dedicated to the pietà in the newly rebuilt Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (commonly known as the Chiesa Nouva) which was the Church of the Congregation of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Rome. What drew my attention first was the great slab of stone which projects out of the picture, and on it, the firmly planted feet of Joseph of Arimathea. Standing back a bit, the eye moves from the upward reaching hands of Mary Magdalene to the face of Joseph, who looks straight at us, then across the body of Christ and down to his arm which touches the cold stone lying upon the bare earth. Our Lady , now an old woman, is dressed almost as a nun might be. Her hands are outstretched as in those other paintings where her outstretched mantle offers merciful protection to those below. As an altarpiece, the painting positions the dead body of Christ so that it is in line with the consecrated host when elevated at Mass. But after Mass the bare feet remain. The bare feet of Joseph are matched by those of the dead Christ. In the thought and piety of the patrons for this work, and in the thinking of Caravaggio himself, going barefoot was a sign of faithful discipleship. Christ had instructed the Twelve not to take even sandals for the journey (Lk 10:4) But, of course, this is also a realistic representation of those who had no choice in the matter: the poor. This particular circle of patrons were part of what is now referred to as the pauperist movement. Under the direction of Philip Neri and his followers, they advocated frequent reception of the sacraments, spiritual exercises, the giving of alms and going on pilgrimages, but it was their attitude to the poor which was most distinctive. Although they worked to alleviate poverty, they did not see it as something to be eradicated. In fact, in these circles it was believed that poverty was ordained by God and cited scripture to support this view. This group saw the giving of alms as a spiritual act which was meritorious in itself. They saw the humility of Christ in the ragged clothes and humble demeanour of the poor on the streets of the Rome. For them it was entirely appropriate that Caravaggio’s paintings should be populated by non-idealised and realistic paupers. Their embrace of poverty was purely spiritual and rarely moved beyond almsgiving or participation in the work of confraternities set up to aid the poorest of the poor. In fact, throughout the 1600’s the number of poor people on the streets of Rome grew and with each passing decade attitudes to the poor hardened. It is not often noticed that in this image Joseph wears a reddish tunic girded with a belt made of rope which is very like the robe of the Arciconfraternita della of SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini e Convalescenti, which was a Roman organisation which sought to aid poor pilgrims. The patron for the painting was very likely to have been a member of this archconfraternity ,or at least a supporter of it. So while we see in this painting, on a human level, the great pathos of the burial of a loved one, and on a spiritual level, the sacrifice of Christ and the corporal works of mercy, behind it lies something which is darker, the reality of poverty and of the poor who are always with us (Lk 26:11) and a definite blindness to injustice clothed in spiritual dress. We might need to ponder what true humility is more deeply and more broadly, so so that like Joseph of Arimathea our feet are planted firmly on the rock.
“Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin”, Guercino, 1652-53, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Originally painted for the Church of San Francesco in Reggio Emilia, this work was in the collections of the Spencer family from the 1740’s until it was purchased for the Kansas Museum of Art in 1983. In fact, from the mid 1700’s, Guercino’s paintings were the most sought after by British collectors. In this there is much irony, because Guercino had refused an invitation from Charles I to go to to England. In his biographies of Baroque artists published in 1678, Carlo Malavasia wrote of Guercino that he did not “desire to converse with heretics, so as not to contaminate the goodness of his angelic habits, and so also to avoid exposing himself to such a disastrous voyage, in a climate so remote from his own people.” This was the first major work by Guercino to reach England. Painted in the world of the Counter Reformation Baroque, it could not be more Catholic. There is a long-standing and widespread tradition that St Luke was an artist and that he painted the Virgin and Child from life. For this very reason, St Luke is the patron saint of artists and of artists’ guilds. This painting sits within the Counter Reformation’s affirmation of sacred images in the face of the Protestant rejection of their devotional use as idolatry. St Luke is shown as an artist holding his brushes and a palate loaded with paint in his left hand. With his right hand, he points towards a painting of the Virgin and Child. Unlike earlier artist’s treatment of the subject, the Virgin and Child are actually not in the room with St Luke, nor in the adjacent room, nor is St Luke enjoying a vision of them, nor is it clear that St Luke has actually painted this picture. Certainly, this angel represents the divine inspiration that brought this work into being. The angel’s outstretched wing overshadows St Luke and the angelic hand touches the sacred image. However, the contribution of St Luke is ill-defined. Compare this to the way that Caravaggio had first depicted St Matthew as Evangelist in his “ St Matthew and the Angel” of 1602 (see scotland.op.org/news). The message here is surely that religious art can be on a par with scripture. Inspired by God, it is fit for true devotion. But notice the table in the background. Upon it there is upon it a sort of tableau. An ink well and an ox sit upon a book. The book is closed and the objects look as if they are not real, but just ornaments. By contrast the Virgin and Child look as if they are alive, not statues. The ink well and the ox are both symbols of the Evangelist. The book surely represents the Gospel itself. But these are clearly relegated to the background, whereas the painting is very much in the foreground. Is this a painting about the superiority of sacred images over the sacred text in a world where so many were illiterate? if so, then the painting is less about St Luke and more about the place of art in the life of faith. We understand St Luke as an artist in so far as he gives us some of the greatest of stories in the gospels in which events are so vividly described. Thanks to Luke’s consummate writing, in our minds’ eyes, we can see for example, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan or the two thieves on Calvary. But in this painting Guercino does seem to put the sacred text in second place. I just wonder if any of those 17th Century Spencers understand just how anti-Protestant their newly work actually was. The Feast of St Luke is celebrated this coming Friday.
“St Matthew and the Angel”, Caravaggio, 1602, formerly Kaiser-Friedrich Museum Berlin, destroyed by fire in1945. Some time after he had completed his “Call of St Matthew” and “Martyrdom of St Matthew” for the lateral walls of the Contarelli Chapel in Roman Church of San Luigi Francesi, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint this altarpiece. As stipulated, St Matthew is shown full length, in the act of writing his gospel with an angel on his right, but the work was rejected. A biographer said that it pleased no one. His second version which is still there in situ. His first St Mathew very different to the saint on the lateral walls. He is dressed in a workman’s tunic. His sturdy legs are crossed and his left foot almost breaches the painting surface round about where a priest would elevate the host at Mass. To our eyes, this is a most undignified Matthew. But in fact the pose with his legs crossed was an an established way of depicting sacred authors. For example, Michelangelo used it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. However, even with crossed legs, Michelangelo’s figures do not look like common labourers. By contrast, the child-like angel is finely dressed, as if to contrast the heavenly and earthly. The angel guides Matthew’s hand as he writes. Matthew has a look of incredulity, like that of an illiterate adult being taught how to write by an angelic child. It would seem that Caravaggio wants to emphasise Matthew’s humility before God’s inspiration. Notice that the view point is from above. In fact, Caravaggio has drawn on a well-known likeness of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was often shown as a humble character. The Church Fathers saw in Socrates a parallel with Christ, suggesting continuity between the pagan world and that of Christianity. Socrates said that the high point of wisdom was to realise that in fact you know little. Caravaggio lets the light fall on the page and on their hands, suggesting the light that shines in the darkness. The contrast between this old man and the beautiful angelic child marks the threshold between the old and the new dispensation, which is where Matthew’s gospel sits. Why was it rejected? Was it that this ungainly St Matthew as Evangelist, was so different from the earlier more distinguished St Matthew as the Apostle? Perhaps the answer lies in the difference between his two Matthews. His second closely resembles the more dignified model from the earlier ones. Moreover, the saint is upright, no longer wearing contemporary working clothes, but “biblically” dressed and seen from below. The angel hovers above him, like and annunciation, and this Matthew writes for himself. Perhaps, the, there is a hint in this second Matthew of Caravaggio’s inspired first Matthew.
“Madonna of the Rosary”, Caravaggio, 1604/05, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna. There are no less than four Dominicans in this painting, but only two can be identified. St Dominic is on the left and St Peter Martyr is on the right. In fact all that we know about this large altarpiece is that it was offered for sale in Naples in 1607 with a price tag of 400 scudi. By that date, Caravaggio had moved on to Malta in the hope of becoming Knight of Malta and thereby gaining immunity from prosecution. Nobody knows for certain when it was painted or for which church. The date given above, assumes it was painted in Rome along with altarpieces such as the Madonna of Loreto. It is certainly quite similar in style and some of the models used are the same. However, it may well been painted in Naples just after he arrived there in 1606. He had spent the summer in the the Alban Hills on the estates of the Colonna family and under their protection. The small man kneeling on the left is clearly the donor. But nobody knows for sure who he is. The column which rises behind him may well suggest that he is in fact a member of the Colonna family, and the great red cloth draped across the top of the picture may be there to evoke their protection and patronage, which Caravaggio enjoyed throughout his career. The donor looks out at the viewer as he holds up St Dominic’s cappa. This gesture is reminiscent of paintings of Our Lady of Mercy where the faithful are shown sheltering under her mantle. Again the red cloth might be intended to evoke her care for us all. The four Dominican saints stand and do not kneel before her. St Dominic is on the left with rosary beads hanging from his outstretched hands. His gazes back at Our Lady. You can just see a star on his forehead, which is one of his symbols. He is offering the beads to the people who kneel at his feet and it would seem that Our Lady is in fact ordering him to do so. This is significantly different from those paintings in which Our Lady gives St Dominic the Rosary. Here it is Dominic who hands on the Rosary to the faithful. This surely a pictorial representation of the Dominican motto, Contemplata Alliis Tradere, the handing on of the fruits of contemplation. The poor people reach out with a disconcerting urgency. We see their hands, not their faces. This fits with the recitation of the Rosary, as the beads are held in the hand. But Naples was at that time a city of huge economic disparity. The city’s streets teemed with poor people and the elite feared the mob. Perhaps ,Caravaggio intended to pick up on this, with his unsettling image of the poor. What is clear to me, is that this was painted for Dominicans and those closely aligned with them. On the right, St Peter Martyr can be identified by the still-bleeding gash on his forehead. The bleeding wound corresponds to Dominic’s star: so two modes of Dominican witness are presented. St Peter Martyr looks straight at us but points back at Our Lady and the Christ Child. It was his success in preaching against heresy which led him to martyrdom. The painting is part the Order’s promotion of Rosary and the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The mantle of protection extends to those who pray to her, especially in the Rosary. This painting really is a most eloquent statement of Dominican orthodoxy. , But those poor kneeling barefoot people leave me slightly uneasy.
“St Jerome” 1607/08, Caravaggio, Museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. St Jerome (c.342-420) was a scholarly priest whose life of prayer and penance led to him being recognised as a saint. His translation of the bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate, became the standard one used throughout Christendom. At one point, he was the Pope’s secretary and it supposed that he was therefore a cardinal. As a result, he is usually depicted with a cardinal’s hat as an attribute, although such hats were not worn in his lifetime. In this painting his hat is hanging on the wall. St Jerome spent some years as a a hermit and is usually depicted in a wilderness landscape with his chest bare. Here his life of prayer and penance is symbolised by the crucifix, the scull and the stone. This Jerome seems to be sitting on his bed and writing in a book. As if gripped by a sudden inspiration, he sits up on his bed and writes it down lest he forget. Notice that the candle on the right is unlit, but nonetheless, Jerome is bathed in unexplained light which is, of course, how Caravaggio often depicts the sacred writers. This St Jerome was painted for a Knight of Malta, called Ippolito Malaspina. You can see his coat of arms on the lower right. It was intended to hang in his home and no doubt be seen by his many influential friends and associates. It was painted just after Caravaggio arrived in Malta, hoping to become a knight and so be protected from the death sentence awaiting him in Rome. He painted it to impress the Knights and clearly did so, not least, the Grand Master of the knights, Alof de Wignacourt. In fact, Caravaggio also painted a portrait of the Grand Master, which is now in the Louvre. There is no doubt that the model for this St Jerome resembles Wignacourt as seen in the portrait. In the portrait he is shown wearing a suit of armour, not his own, but one from about 40 years earlier when the Knights played an important role in the victory at Lepanto. Wignacourt ,in a suit of armour, attended by one of his pages, contrasts with this St Jerome who is clad only in a loin cloth and cloak. The cloak has fallen from his left shoulder revealing the sagging flesh of old age. In fact St Jerome lived to be almost 80 and spent his last years in a monastery near Bethlehem. Interestingly, this way of depicting St Jerome with a bare chest, a white loin cloth and a red cloak was also how Caravaggio often depicted St John the Baptist, who also lived a life of penance in the wilderness. The pose here is very similar to his John the Baptist of 1606, now at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome. In both paintings, the subject is in a darkened space and is shown seated. The same supernatural light illuminates the bare torso of the Baptist, who turns as if he has just noticed that someone is about to approach. Perhaps Caravaggio sees the similarity between the young man in the wilderness who prepares the way of the Lord, who is the Word made flesh, and the much older man, whose life had been spent in service to the Word in the scriptures. Tomorrow is the Feast of St Jerome. It will be the 1699th anniversary of his death.
“Return of the Prodigal Son”, Guercino, 1619, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. When Guercino (1591 -1666) painted this image for the Papal Legate to Ferrara, Cardinal Giacomo Serra, he was only 28. Perhaps, he identified with the subject, as he returns to it again and again. There are at least five versions in galleries around the world, all with the Father, the servant and the younger son caught in close-up at the very moment when the son is about to be clothed by the father. It is as if we have just walked into the room just in time witness this intimate and private moment. We are in the father’s house. The chair on the lower left suggests the affluent domesticity into which the son is welcomed home. servant is on the right brings the fine garments in which the son will be dressed. The father’s arm is placed between the son and the servant as he reaches for the clean linen shirt. It is almost as if he were protecting the son. You can see the ring on the father’s finger and the shoe is in the servant’s hand. The father’s advanced age accent the son’s youthfulness. The old man has an abundance of whiskers. But the son’s face is smooth with no hint of a beard. His dark locks contrast with the father’s bald crown. No doubt influenced by Caravaggio or one of his followers, the young Guercino lets a beam of light pick out the youthful shoulders of the son and the wrinkled skin of the father’s face. Light falls on the hands of all three. The son has been welcomed back most tenderly. Notice the father’s hand on the small of his back. The father’s arms almost enfold the son while he removes his soiled and tattered shirt, the symbol of his waywardness and where it took him. As in his “Woman taken in Adultery “ of 1621, now at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the hands tell the story. These two works are remarkably close not just in time, but in his treatment of the wayward son and the woman who had been caught in the very act adultery. In each, Guercino captures both their vulnerability and their quiet dignity. Have a look online at both and ponder this similarity which (squint-eyed) Guercino clearly saw and portrayed four centuries before us.
“Wedding at Cana” , Tintoretto, 1561, Sacristy of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice. This was originally painted for the Confraternity of the Crocifieri, but was moved to the Salute, on their dissolution in 1657. So if you stand looking at the actual painting, you find that you have entered a wonderful banqueting hall, through a door, now behind you, on the left. Right in front of you, along the left hand wall is a long table, covered in a white linen cloth and laden with food, but the glass vessels upon it are empty. The men are seated on the lefthand side of the table with their back to the wall so that they are in the shade. In contrast the women are picked out on the righthand side of the table by the sunlight which pours in from the windows above. The scene is more like Sixteenth Century Venice than First Century Cana. The line of the table and its two rows of guests direct your eye to Jesus who is sitting with his mother at the far end. Near them, you might just notice the bridegroom who sits beside the bride. The hall is filled with busy servants. They are pouring wine from a large vessel and there are similar vessels nearby. In this way the story of what happened at Cana is told. However, there is more to be said. This is a very large painting, (436cm X 535cm) and must surely have been painted for a refectory to fill one wall and give the illusion of spatial continuity. You might think of Veronese’s lavish treatment of the same subject, or indeed, Leonardo’s last supper in Milan, both of which give this same kind of illusion. Like them, Tintoretto uses clear lines of perspective to make the room seem real. However, there are significant differences. The guests at Veronese’s Cana are European heads of state. Tintoretto’s guests are ordinary Venetians. In the works by Veronese, you might be looking at a stage set or a photograph in which each character is carefully positioned. Tintoretto manages to make it seem unposed, as if you had just opened the door. This is the key to so many of his works: you are in the room. Another difference is that Tintoretto paints the servants with the same care as he does the guests. This artist is seeing everyone in the room. Of course, he wants to to notice Jesus and the wine being poured, he uses perspective lines to lead your eye to him. Tintoretto must surely have understood the meaning of the parable in today’s gospel, that he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself exalted. He must have understood how Jesus, who is himself being watched, sees everyone in the room and not just those watching him. But, most significantly, he does what Jesus does. He puts us there at the feast.
“Salome receives the head of John the Baptist”, Caravaggio, 1609-10, National Gallery London. Caravaggio painted John the Baptist, again and again. There are at least 11 paintings that show John as a young boy or an adolescent posed in the wilderness, as if he were waiting for the moment when he would utter his great cry for repentance and Christ would appear. On 28th May 1606, Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl in Rome and left the city in haste. With a price on his head in Rome, he fled south from the Papal States to Naples, which was then under Spanish control. In this different jurisdiction he received a welcome and also several commissions. From there, he went to Malta and gained the patronage of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, who commissioned him to paint the martyrdom of John the Baptist. This is the famous painting now at La Valletta. The Oratory where it still hangs is dedicated to St John the Baptist. However, things went far from smoothly. By the time of its unveiling, on 29th August 1608, the Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, Caravaggio had gained a Papal Pardon and had become a Knight, but, then, he had got into more trouble, was expelled from the Knights, was imprisoned, had escaped , and went on the run, heading back north towards Rome. In this period, he would paint Salome with the head of the Baptist at least twice. He also painted a very poignant David holding the head of Goliath with his own features on the severed head. Many of his other works from these final years , speak more of of tragedy than violence and he is clearly preoccupied with death. This is the context of the London “Salome receives the head of John the Baptist”. The executioner takes up half the canvas, as with his right hand he holds up the severed head. His left hand is on his sword. But his expression suggests that he is moved by the tragic fate of the man. Salome holds out the metal platter to receive the head, but averts her eyes. There is no sense of triumph in these two protagonists of the Baptist’s death. . The victory of Herodias, is not theirs. They would seem to want to distance themselves from it. The elderly serving woman with wrinkled skin is there, perhaps, to emphasise the youth, beauty and innocence of this girl who has got caught up in her mother’s evil plot. In the old woman’s stare there is knowledge, as if this is not the first severed head she has seen. There is another version of this scene, now in the Royal Collection in Madrid, which is probably also from these years. In it the two women are in the same pose. In both, with the play of light and shadow, Caravaggio suggests a kind of two-headed monster, in which youthful innocence and knowing old age are strangely juxtaposed, as if, perhaps, this girl’s experience has gone beyond what should be the case for one so young. It seems to me, at least, that to some extent, Caravaggio identified with the Baptist, both in the early days when his star was rising and in the latter days when his own death stalked him.
“Christ embracing St Bernard,” Francisco Ribalta, 1625-27, Prado, Madrid. From about 1625 Francisco Ribalta and his son, Juan Ribalta, were in Valencia, where they painted this work for the Carthusian Monastery of Portaceli. Both would die within few years of the completion of what is considered to be among their finest works. The subject is St Bernard of Clairvaux, who was a major leader within a reform movement of Benedictine Monasticism. He founded the Cistercian Order at Clairvaux in 1115. The saint, with his strong emphasis on asecticism, would have appealed to the Carthusian monks of Portaceli. The subject is one of the mystical visions of St Bernard in which, while praying before a crucifix, the figure of Christ comes alive and embraces him. St Bernard kneels before Christ with his arms extended, but clearly they are being supported by the strong arms of Christ. The saint is in ecstasy with eyes closed and a smile just visible on his lips. Christ is portrayed as strong and with powerful shoulders, which is interesting, because in another of the saint’s visions, Christ told him that his greatest pain, while carrying the cross was in the shoulder that bore the crosses weight. St Bernard is in the choir dress of a Cistercian monk, the elaborate folds of which contrast with the bare flesh of the crucified Christ. But these beautiful folds draw the eye downward so that Bernard looks as if he is hanging, not from the cross but from the embracing arms of Christ. A blood vessel stands out on the side of Bernard’s head and his skin is covered with the sheen of sweat, both of which suggest the intense energy of this man of prayer, penance and preaching. The saint in this picture is no longer young. This man who for so many years followed Christ by the way of self-denial and led others in this same way is in his latter days now received by Christ in a gentle, open embrace. I am reminded of the English mystic Julian of Norwich and her “Revelations of Divine Love.” For much of the text, she seeks union with Christ by way of his suffering but towards the end there is a shift. Christ asks her, “Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?” to which she replies, “Yes, good Lord, by your mercy.” Christ then says, “If you are satisfied, I too am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss and endless delight to me that I ever suffered for you, and if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Christ goes on, “For my pleasure is your holiness and your endless joy and bliss with me.” Ribalta could not have known these writings, but perhaps by the end of his days he understand what both Julian and St Bernard understood. St Bernard’s feast day is this coming Tuesday. Please remember our own Cistercian Community at Nunraw in your prayers.
“Madonna di Loreto”, Caravaggio, 1604-6, Cavalletti Chapel, Church of San’ Augustino, Rome. On a darkened street a rather beautiful woman stands bare foot on a doorstep. She holds a child. An elderly couple are kneeling before her, each holding a stick. Obviously, they are pilgrims and, judging by their clothes, very poor. This painting hangs in a Roman Church, which was the second last stop for the pilgrims making their way to St Peter’s. Such people – the mother, the child, the pilgrims -were a common sight on the streets of Rome. There is two odd things; the size of the child and the woman’s halo. At his age, he should be out playing with other boys on the street. His nakedness references the Nativity as her halo. But now they live in Nazareth and the child is growing (Lk 2:40). The doorstep is that of the house wherein she and St Joseph reared Jesus in Nazareth, now transported to the Italian town of Loreto, miraculously, it was believed, by angels. This is a vision of the Virgin and Child quite unlike any other. But it is to this barefoot man and his wife that Our Lady of Loreto reveals her Son. Their vision echoes the Visitation, when the elderly and pregnant Elizabeth declares, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Lk 1: 43)” By the time of Caravaggio, devotion to Our Lady of Loreto was very popular. It was a wealthy Roman couple, who shared this devotion, who had commissioned this painting to hang in their private chapel, but to be seen by ordinary pilgrims as they neared their journey’s end. Although the Cavalletti were pleased with Caravaggio’s work, there were many in Rome who were shocked by it. This Mary is bare footed woman from the surrounding city streets. Usually, artists seated Mary on a throne, as befitted her status as Queen of Heaven, and placed a perfectly proportioned child on her lap. Here Jesus seems to have outgrown his mother’s lap. How can she beholding him so effortlessly? Now in paintings of the Madonna it was common practice to show the patrons kneeling before her. But this couple are far too poor to be the patrons. They are just two humble and elderly peasants who as they finish their pilgrimage, and perhaps their lives, are honoured with a vision of Our Lady and Jesus. Mary bears a Christ child, who has outgrown her lap, to these humble pilgrims with dirty feet. On Thursday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption where in Mary is assumed into heaven, body and soul. Here Mary and Jesus descend from heaven with bodies which are as real as our own. Surely, this painting is about how God’s graces are to be received? It is not the proud and haughty but the lowly whom he will raise up. This is Mary’s Magnificat, played out on a dark and dusty Roman street. This is the pilgrim’s hope.
“The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic”, Filippino Lippi, c.1485, National Gallery London (currently not on display). For many years we had an oil painting of St Dominic in our London Priory. It was very dark but you could make out St Dominic’s head, a lily and a book. A friar while visiting from Poland, who was also an art conservator offered to clean it. As the layers of dust and varnish were removed, the knife at the saint’s waist became visible and we realised that it must be a copy of the St Dominic in Lippi’s painting. It had been copied and given to the Priory in the 1930’s. There are may odd things about this painting, not least St Dominic with a knife. What is unusual about the Virgin is not that she is breastfeeding the child, but that she doesn’t seem to notice the two saints on either side. St Jerome is looking towards Our Lady but his eye has a far-away look. True to tradition, he holds a rock with which he will beat his chest in an act of self-mortification. St Dominic is absorbed in his book and seems oblivious to the mother and child. There are lovely and telling details in the background. In the branches of the tree a bird is feeding her young, echoing Mary’s nourishment of the child Jesus. on the right we see the cave of St Jerome. Outside it, his pet lion wards off a bear who is trying to enter it. Behind Mary a man is moving along the path with a donkey. This is surely St Joseph and, so they may be their rest on the way to Egypt. On the extreme right behind St Dominic there is a building by the roadside with people entering and leaving. You can just see a statue of a friar or monk on top and a bell surmounted by a cross. This picture was made as an altarpiece for a family side chapel in the Church of San Pancrazio in Florence. When the Dominican friars first came to Florence in 1216 they were lodged in a what was a kind of hospital which belonged to the Church of San Pancrazio. The building was associated with St Dominic because it was known that he had given the habit to a friar there. After a few years, the friars were given the Church of Santa Maria Novella and this included an infirmary in its cloisters. The tradition of medicinal healing continued and you can still purchase herbal remedies there today. This week, looking more carefully at St Dominic’s knife online, I now realise that it not a knife at all, but rather it is a set of three knife-like instruments attached to him by a brass chain. These may well be the instruments of a herbalist or apothecary. St Dominic is the one then who heals us through his preaching which in turn is the fruit of study. Our Lady nourishes the the child Jesus with her milk, just as we are nourished by him in the sacrament of the altar, above which this picture was hung. But the precursor to both is the repentance shown by st Jerome. We must first know our need of God’s mercy before he can nourish us and heal us. Actually, Lippi is giving us a Dominican sermon on mercy and grace. When our copy of Lippi’s St Dominic was finished, we were a wee bit disappointed, because it was still very dull and brown. You see, the copyist painted what she saw in the 1930’s. Lippi’s beautiful painting was not cleaned until 1959.
St Dominic pray for us!
“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha”, 1654-1656, Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Scotland. This painting is so different to the small domestic scenes, which we associate with Vermeer. Less than 40 of his paintings exist today and most are relatively small. Many of them seem to be set in the same two rooms of his home in Delft. In them the Vermeer paints not just the people but the room, the furnishings with same meticulous care. He is marvellously attentive to the play of natural light as it falls on the different surfaces. But here a dark insubstantial background, and a the brightly-lit triangular forms set to the fore, is like something an Italian artist of the Baroque would paint. Moreover, there is the subject. This is his only known painting of a biblical scene. As in his other works, there are women and the scene is domestic, but in this painting, Vermeer makes a theological statement and his theology is most definitely Catholic. At the very centre of the picture is the right hand of Christ, his finger extended as if teaching. But of course, for us, it is Michelangelo’s finger of God from the Sistine Chapel, quoted, for example, by Caravaggio his “Call of Matthew”. Of course, there is no evidence that Vermeer knew these works, but there is nothing to prove that he didn’t, at least, have seen prints. Christ’s moving hand, with it divine gesture, is deliberately placed in the centre. Vermeer surrounds with white light. The table cloth ripples from the movement. This oval frame is completed by Martha’s white sleeves. In this way, it is not just the hand, but also the loaf of bread which she offers him, which are set before us for contemplation. To my Catholic eye, this is Word and Sacrament. Vermeer married a Catholic and became one himself, shortly beforehand. They had a large family, 11 of whom survived. The little house in Delft could rarely have been the haven of tranquillity we see in so many of his paintings! So, while making a clear allusion to the Catholic Liturgy of the Eucharist, Vermeer tells the story of these women and Christ as in Luke, who framed his account of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha with the the story of the Good Samaritan and the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. “What must I do?” sits with “Teach us to pray” in this ordinary domestic setting. There are other lovely details. Martha is slightly stooped as if tired from work and her right hand is red as if from washing cloth. Perhaps, she not only laid the cloth on the table but washed and bleached it beforehand. By contrast, there is no sign of such activity in Mary’s left hand, on which she leans her head. As if in sympathy, the light picks out her finger just beside her listening ear. This painting is thought to be from Vermeer’s early years, before he developed the distinctive style we associate with him. Why it was painted is not known but, given it’s size, it was probably a commission. No doubt, the subject matter would have been set by the patron and, perhaps too, the size of the painting. Yet in this picture we glimpse something about the the real Vermeer, about whom we know so little. Here we see his Catholic faith and in particular, his faith in the Eucharist. And in fact, in the way he positions us with respect to Christ and the women in this work, there is no distance between us and them. We become more than mere, impartial, “fly-on-the-wall” viewers. We are invited to enter the room, to sit and to eat. We had this story of Christ in the house of Mary and Martha as the Gospel reading last Sunday and tomorrow is the feast of St Martha. Go and have another look at the picture this week!
“The Good Samaritan”, 1562-3, National Gallery London. The artist, Jacopo da Ponte (1535- 1592), who was known as Jacopo Bassano, was the son of an artist and had four sons, all of whom became artists. They worked alongside their father in his studio near the bridge over the river Brenta in the provincial town of Bassano del Grappa, which is in the Veneto and not far from Venice. Their home and workshop was near the bridge and hence the family name “da Ponte”. They often worked together on the same paintings, which makes attribution difficult. The question, “Which Bassano?” is never far away. Very often, Jacopo’s landscapes include a view of the town with nearby Monte del Grappa, even if the rest of the landscape bears no relation to the town’s actual surroundings. In this picture the Good Samaritan encounters the man who fell among robbers on a road which descends steeply to what is actually Bassano del Grappa, which does duty for Jericho. Further along the road, we can see both a Temple priest and Levite moving briskly away. One striking thing about this picture is its vertical thrust. Jacopo Bassano was one of the first artists of his day to paint this subject, but in his other versions the victim lies flat on the ground and the picture’s format is accordingly horizontal or ‘landscape’. But this ‘portrait’ composition emphasises how the victim is being raised up. Having bandaged his wounds, the Samaritan struggles to lift the wounded man up, so that he can put him on the donkey, which waits patiently in the shadows on the right. You can see strain on the Samaritan’s face, with his furrowed brow and flushed cheeks, and in particular, it is evident in his right leg which is taking the man’s weight. Several details are added to emphasise the differences between the Samaritan and the man. The bright garments of the Samaritan contrast with the nakedness of the victim. The Samaritan has a dagger on his belt which reminds us that the victim is now incapable of defending himself. The Samaritan is older. His bald head and swollen ankles suggest that he is a bit past his prime. The victim, although half-dead, has a fine head of hair, and sturdy muscular legs and so is obviously in his prime. The differing colour of their skin is brought to our attention too as the paleness the man’s skin reveals just how close he has come to death. But Bassano wants us to see similarities too. He places both their heads side by side. Both are looking down and have the same long nose. They could be father and son. The Samaritan has by this stage dressed the man’s wounds, but we can see his blood seep through the bandages. We can sense the Samaritan’s blood beneath his skin, flushing his face and his limbs. Below them, two dogs, which are standard in the works of Jacopo Bassano, lap up the spilt blood. It is not hard to make connections with other parables from the Gospel of Luke, not least the prodigal son and the the rich man and Lazarus. In all of this, Bassano leaves us to ponder the asymmetry of care and its position in our lives. The victim will live and, perhaps, he will live long enough to see the Samaritan grow old. In the Aeneid, Aeneas rescues his father from the flames of Troy. Artists often depicted the old man being carried by his son. The most famous is perhaps the sculpture by Bernini from around 1618. But the theme was ancient and well-known. This seems to be that same theme but in reverse. When this painting is compared to certain portraits, which are now attributed to Jacopo’s son Leandro, it is hard not to see the hand of the son in the very skilled rendering of bare flesh seen here, so that perhaps this hugely insightful work flows from the familial and professional dynamics between a father and his sons, all working together in their studio near the bridge over the river Brenta in the provincial town of Bassano del Grappa.
“The Assassination of St Peter Martyr”, c.1505-07, Giovanni Bellini. National Gallery London. A road, leading from a walled city, crosses the city moat and descends along the edge of a wide meadow, before it reaches the dense grove of trees, in which we witness the assassination of St Peter of Verona. There are a number of people in the background who seem to be having a normal day. In the grove we can see two men cutting down trees, their axes raised and about to swing. They do what woodsmen do. On the right, just on the edge of the grove, a shepherd with his dog lets his sheep rest in the shade of the trees. Maybe it is his child who is in the grove. This idyllic landscape has many of the hallmarks of Bellini’s other paintings, except that there is an odd and unsettling lack of symmetry. The long format and the row of tree trunks draw our attention to the road on which the saint walked. What is depicted here is the cold-blooded and rather gruesome murder of two Dominican friars. We feel the horror of what happened all the more because of the idyllic setting. On 6th April 1252 the Dominican Peter of Verona and his companion were assassinated in a wood while travelling from Como to Milan. First, they split his skull with an axe and then stabbed him through the heart. His companion survived long enough to tell how he heard Peter Martyr recite the creed as he died. It was said that as he died, the saint even wrote the word “credo”on the ground in his own blood. The assassins had been hired by some Cathars to whom Peter’s eloquent preaching had begun to pose a threat. The Pope reacted by canonising him within the year. There is a legend that on the day of his canonisation a Cathar master, living in Milan where the ceremony was due to take place, sent his servant out into a nearby wood to cut down some trees. The man was unhappy about this and prayed for a miracle. As he began to chop the trees, they began to bleed. Bellini combines this tradition with the actual martyrdom so that one scene can unfold the meaning of the other. The cuts on the trees are red as if they really beginning to bleed. However, as you might expect from Bellini, the blood is only just visible. It is the blows of the woodsman’s axe which speak to us of the violence inflicted on the saint. Now we understand why the shepherd is giving rest to his flock on the right. He is there so that we will recall the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and of how St Peter’s death witnesses to our faith in him. Is the odd little boy with a staff in the woodland undergrowth meant to suggest John the Baptist, who also was martyred and is often depicted in art as a young boy? Another artist would have used blood and other gruesome detail to convey the violence suffered. Bellini uses the rural landscape in the Italian Spring to bring out the truth of what is happening. It is no accident that Peter falls to the ground with a gleaming sunlit city in his sights. Whether it is intended as Verona or Milan or the town nearest the spot where he was killed, it must surely do duty for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the saint is being admitted. The city is in our sights too. We are placed on the road which begins with the witness of St Peter and ends in that city of light. This road may indeed lead us through dark woods, but look at the beautiful horizontal band of light reaching us through the tree trunks. All along the way Bellini lets the light of heaven shine through the tree trunks. Above all, Bellini wants us to commit such beauty to memory so that it can beckon us forward on the road we continue to travel.
“Christ on the Sea of Galilee”, circle of Tintoretto, c. 1570, National Gallery of Art, Washington. This haunting and mysterious image appeals greatly to many disciples of Christ today. You can find it on any number of Catholic websites. Nobody knows for sure who painted it. However, while its attribution to Tintoretto is now discounted, similarities with the work of Lambert Sustris who was a younger artist working in Venice suggest that he might be the artist. Mostly the is taken to be that of John 21, because, as in the gospel text, there are are 7 disciples in the boat and one disciple is about to step overboard. But there are some problems because although it is certainly Christ at the Sea of Galilee with the disciples in the boat but many of the details don’t fit. In John 21, the disciples have fished all night and caught nothing, but then Jesus calls to them, as he stands on the beach and tells them to put out the nets one more time. With the great catch of fish, the disciple whom Jesus loved recognises him and cries “It is the Lord!” and immediately Peter throws himself into the water to swim to Jesus. But in this painting, there is no sign of great catch of fish. If anything they are still fishing because one of disciples leans over the edge of the boat and seems to be checking a rather flimsy looking net. Presumably it Peter who is has one foot on the water but it looks like he is stepping rather gingerly from the boat with arms outstretched as if he were about to walk on a tight rope. He is not throwing himself in. And Jesus is not on the beach, he is actually walking on the water! The artist picks out in white the little splashes made by his steps. There is a strong wind too. The waves are high and the other disciples are trying to control the billowing sail. And finally, it is a night scene. Although there is light coming from the left, it is not yet day. In fact, this is probably a painting of the scene where Peter walks on the water in Matthew 14:22ff. Jesus had made the disciples get into a boat and go before him while he went up on a mountain to pray. But the wind is against them and they cannot land and, In the fourth watch of the night, that is just before dawn, Jesus comes to them walking on the water. They think he is a ghost, but he calls to them, “Take heart it is I, have no fear.” Then Peter says, “Lord if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus says, ”Come” and Peter walks towards him but then he grows afraid and begins to sink. Jesus holds out his hand to him, saying, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” To my eye, this is that scene in the fourth watch of the night. Jesus is walking on the water, and he is gesturing towards the disciple, who must surely be Peter. The figure of Christ looks rather ghostly which fits as at first the disciples thought he was a ghost. Analysis shows that the artist achieved this ghostly by deliberately painting a thin glaze of white over the red and blue of Christ’s garments. In this period artists in Venice began to experiment. For example, the artist Jacopo Bassano emerged as a very successful specialist in night scenes. I think the appeal of this painting to modern eyes of faith, is that it seems to capture our experience of the Church we know and love being at sea in a stormy world. We are more aware of our shortcomings as the Church and yet we believe in the Church. The opposition we face seems stronger too so that we are less sure footed than we once were. It is surely timely for each of us to hear again and take to heart his words to Peter: “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.”
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