Friday, November 14, 2014

An Autumnal Abundance of Art -- New York 2014 UPDATED

The New York art museum scene is never dull, but at most times it seems manageable.  Occasionally, however, it erupts with the force of a volcano and it's hard to know what to look at first.  This autumn promises to be one such time.  With a few exceptions every major museum is planning something amazing within the period from now till the end of the year.  Here's a rundown of shows that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

I'll start with the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street) where I volunteer.  Currently on view are the following:
In Miniature (open till December 31).  This is a small show of delicate European miniature portraits from two distinct eras, that occupies just one room, .  One of the groups comes from Tudor England and the other from late 18th and early 19th century France.  The English group is of particular interest because of two portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger.  The sitters were William Roper and Margaret More Roper, the daughter and son-in-law of St. Thomas More. 
Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (open till January 4, 2015).  A stunning review of the art of the Ancient Near East as it traveled the Mediterranean trade routes from its original homeland in Iraq through Palestine, Crete, Italy and as far as the Iberian peninsula.  There are fabulous items on loan from the British Museum.  And don't forget to visit the Met's own Ancient Near Eastern galleries, where similar items are on display.  This is the world in which much of the Old Testament was set.
Grand Design:  Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry (open till January 11, 2015). Tapestry is an often overlooked form of art in the present day.  But in the late medieval period and the Renaissance it was one of the most important and visible forms of decoration for those who could afford it. The tapestries designed by Coecke van Aelst rivaled those of Raphael and may even have surpassed them. The works on display are in fabulous condition, the large areas woven in gold thread are still gleaming.  Also features some wonderful altarpieces by the artist and a good display on how tapestries are made.
Cubism:  The Leonard Lauder Collection (open till February 16, 2015).  This is the long-anticipated presentation to the public of Leonard Lauder's planned gift of his great collection of Cubist art to the museum.  This gift moves the Met's Modern collection from the second tier of collections to the top tier. Judging by the amount of interest shown in it even before it opened, this will probably be a very popular exhibition.
Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural Rediscovered (open till April 19, 2015).  Presents Benton's huge mural, once installed at the New School's boardroom, and recently donated to the museum along with preparatory drawings and paintings and other related materials.  The mural is installed to replicate its original placement and offers Benton's reflections on the reality of life in the United States in the 1920s, including the good, the bad and some of the ugly in a nation at work and play, from the farm to industry to city life.  It's already very popular.
Also currently worth a look are: Amie Siegel:  Provenance (open till January 4, 2015), Kimono: A Modern History (open till January 19, 2015), Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (open till February 1, 2015), and Thomas Struth: Photographs (open till February 16, 2015).
El Greco in New York (opening November 4 and running till February 1, 2015).  This will be a combined exhibition of the El Greco holdings from the Met and from the Hispanic Society of America, a too-little known museum devoted to the art of Spain and Spanish America that is located in upper Manhattan, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the master's death.  See also the El Greco exhibition that the Frick will be mounting at the same time.
Bartholomeus Spranger:  Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague (opening November 4 and running till February 1, 2015).  Spranger was an important Northern Mannerist and this is the first exhibition devoted to him in the United States.  The Northern Mannerists produced paintings that display the impact of the High Renaissance and Italian Mannerist painting on the jewel-like art of the Low Countries and lands of the Holy Roman Empire.  It should be interesting.  

And FINALLY,
The Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche (opens November 25 and closes January 6, 2015). This is the beloved annual display of the Baroque creche figures given to the museum by the late Loretta Hines Howard and her family (and overseen by them) that reminds New Yorkers and visitors alike of the real reason for all the hoopla of the festive season.  It isn't Christmas in New York until you see this tree and its surrounding figures.

And on your way in and out don't forget to notice the newly opened David H. Koch Plaza.  It's really nice and a vast improvement on the past!  Whatever your opinion of Mr. Koch, this was an amazingly generous gift to the museum and the city.


UPDATE!  On November 11th the Met unveiled the greatly missed statue of Adam by Tullio Lombardo, one of the great sculptors of the Venetian High Renaissance.
 The Adam is the first life-sized nude marble statue since
antiquity and the most important Italian Renaissance sculpture in North America.   In October 2002 the plywood support for the statue buckled, sending the famous statue to the marble floor of the gallery in which it was displayed and breaking it into 28 major and dozens of small fragments.  It has taken all of twelve years to complete the restoration.  The small exhibition surrounding the unveiling of the restored Adam demonstrates the process.

Now, on to other locations:
The MORGAN LIBRARY has one exhibition of intense interest.
The Crusader Bible:  A Gothic Masterpiece (closes January 4, 2015).  While this great manuscript, illustrating parts of the Old Testament, is in process of getting a new binding, 40 of the 46 pages owned by the Morgan will be on display.  The manuscript dates from the mid-twelfth century and may have been painted for St. Louis (Louis IX of France).  Its wanderings are rather amazing too! Check them out on the exhibition website http://www.themorgan.org/collection/crusader-bible/provenance .

The MUSEUM OF BIBLICAL ART is showing a traveling print exhibition, Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum.   The exhibition will also include additional items not from the Jansma collection.  


And finally, THE FRICK COLLECTION is presenting two exhibitions, one from its own collections and one traveling exhibitions.

El Greco at the Frick Collection (opening November 4 and running till February 1, 2015).  This exhibition of the three great El Grecos in the Frick will be specially displayed concurrently with the El Greco exhibition at the Met.
Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery (opening November 5 and running till February 1, 2015). This is a display of a small portion of the works from the Scottish National Galleries that will also be traveling to San Francisco and Fort Worth later in 2015 and will include works from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century that compliment works in the Frick.

In addition the Museum of Modern Art is currently running Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (running till February 8, 2015) which might be of interest as well.  The Guggenheim and Neue Gallerie are not currently running exhbitions that reflect the concerns of this blog, but that's OK.  They just ended spectacular shows on Futurism and on Degenerate Art:  the Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany that were well worth visits.   The Whitney Museum of Art just wound up its successful Jeff Koons exhibition and is preparing for its move from Madison Avenue to the Meatpacking District early next year.  The galleries are closed.

So, if you are in the New York area at any time between now and early February 2015 there is a LOT to see. Enjoy it all!

© M. Duffy, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Last Resurrection

Resurrection of the Dead
from Book of Hours
French (Rouen), 1450-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3134, fol. 67v
Jesus said to the crowds:
“Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.
For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”
John 6:37-40 (Gospel for the feast of All Souls)

This year we are in the somewhat unusual situation where Sunday falls on November 2, the feast of All Souls, or as it is now called The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.  Consequently, the readings are a reflection of the theme of the day, the eventual resurrection of all the faithful departed at the end of time.   This is the opening scene of the Last Judgment, also called the Second Coming of Christ, when Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead”, as both the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds tell us.

The Last Judgment is one of the most often imagined scenes in the entire history of art.  At one time nearly every church had a rendition of it, either as a painting or as sculpture.  The great cathedrals of medieval Europe, both Romanesque and Gothic, usually included the scene in the tympanum of their central portals.  If it was not there, it could be found elsewhere.  Most parish churches, no matter how modest, usually included the painted scene in their interiors.  Painters, both north and south, included it among their works and some of the greatest artists are known for their versions, among them Rogier van der Weyden and, of course, Michelangelo. 

But it is the detail at the beginning, the subject of today’s Gospel, the raising of the dead that I will be looking at here.   How do these artists imagine that event to be?  In what way do they see the dead coming back to life?
Resurrection of the Dead
from Book of Pericopes of Henry II
German (Reichenau), 1007-1012
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 201v
The earliest image that I have been able to find in a brief survey of resources comes from the justly famous Book of Pericopes (readings for the Mass) painted at the monastery of Reichenau for the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II in 1007-1008.  The scene is fairly simply set.  The angels blow their trumpets, while devils spit and the dead arise from their graves.  Almost all the dead seem happy to be awakened, although one man, right in the middle of the bottom half of the image, seems a bit confused by the event and another seems to be making a sign of annoyance toward one of the angels. But on the whole, the mood is a happy one.

Nicholas of Verdun, Resurrection of the Dead
from Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Belgian, 1181
Klosterneuburg, Monastery Church
One hundred and eighty years later the mood seems to be similar in the plaque from the great Klosterneuburg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun.    Some of the dead spring from their tombs,  while others seem a bit dazed. 

However, a more somber mood had already begun to appear.  The Last Judgment scene had begun to appear as the primary decoration over the entrance portals of the Romanesque cathedrals.  The idea of a self-judgment by each of the dead begins to appear.  Not all arise in the expectation of a heavenly destination.

Gislebertus, Saved Souls Rising
French, 1130-1146
Autun, Cathedral
At Autun Cathedral in the Burgundy region of eastern France, one of the greatest of these cycles, by the sculptor Gislebertus, was completed between 1130 and 1146.  Gislebertus tells his story in almost comic book fashion.  His souls arise as already marked by their eventual destination.  Those who are destined for Paradise arise with joy and those who are destined for Hell arise with fear.  
Gislebertus, Damned Souls Rising
French, 1130-1146
Autun, Cathedral


















As they come to the moment of final judgment, the fear of the damned turns to horror as they are dragged into the claws of the devils that transport them to Hell.  
Gislebertus, The Damned
French, 1130-1146
Autun, Cathedral















Meanwhile the saved rejoice and cling to the angels who have awakened them like small children clinging to their mothers.
Gislebertus, Saved Souls
French, 1130-1146
Autun, Cathedral

Still, the awakening of the dead continued to be a source of rejoicing or at least a cause of hope for most of the souls shown being raised in all the representations of the event in all of medieval Europe.   Most images of the raising of the dead present the souls rising filled with hope and joy, marked by their gestures of prayer or rejoicing.  Those images in which the entire Last Judgment scene is shown reflect the same division between hopeful saved and fear-filled damned as was seen in the Romanesque Last Judgments. 
Souls Rising
from Last Judgment
French, 1230
Reims, Cathedral
Souls Rising
from Last Judgment
German (Saxon), ca. 1300
Zschella, Evangelical Church of the Trinity




















Giotto, Saints and Resurrection of the Dead
from Last Judgment
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel
Master of the Parement de Narbonne, Resurrection of the Dead
from Tres Belles Heures of Jean de Berry
French (Paris), ca. 1380
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 169























Resurrection of the Dead
from Last Judgment
German , 1401-1415
Herzberg, Church of St. Mary
Lorenzo Monaco, Resurrection of the Dead
from Antiphonary
Italian, 1406
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection


































Robinet Testard, Resurrection of the Dead
from Book of Hours
French (Poitiers), 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1001, fol. 109r







Master of the Orleans Triptych, Resurrection of the Dead
French, ca. 1500
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection







































After the Black Death ravaged the population of Europe in the fourteenth century images of death became more macabre, making the images of the Last Judgment more horrifying, at least for the damned.  
Master of the Triumphs of Petrarch
from Allegory of the Victory of Fame
French (Rouen), 1503
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 594, fol. 178v

The saved still rise with hope and joy, but the damned begin to show more fear and horror.  


















We can see this in the scenes from several famous works, by Rogier van der Weyden (and other northern artists who followed him), Luca Signorelli and, of course, Michelangelo.
Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment Polyptych
Netherlandish, 1446-1452
Beaune, Musee de l'Hotel Dieu


Rogier van der Weyden, The Saved
Rogier van der Weyden, The Damned




















Jan Prevost, Last Judgment
Belgian, 1525
Bruges, Groeninge Museum


Lucas van Leyden, Last Judgment
Dutch, 1527
Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal



Luca Signorelli, Resurrection of the Dead
Italian, 1499-1502
Orvieto, Chapel of San Brizio

Michelangelo, Last Judgment
Italian, 1437-1541
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s vision of the Last Judgment became the paradigm followed by most subsequent artists.  The dead are seen to be heaving themselves from the earth and violently expressing their hope or fear.  
Jean Cousin, Last Judgment
French, 1585
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Hieronymous Francken, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1605-1610
Salzburg, Residenzgalerie



















Frans Francken II, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1608
Private Collection
Rubens, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1617
Munich, Alte Pinakothek





















The element of fear begins to become more evident with each new image, until it begins to be the dominant emotion.  The earlier calm and joyful rising no longer held the imagination in the way that it once did.  

However, the element of joy and peace returned with the Romantic era and was joined to the sentimental idea of reunion between lovers and families.  This spirit continues into the current era.
Victor Mottez, Resurrection of the Dead
French, 1870
Lille, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Cookham
English, 1924-1927
London, Tate Gallery
© M. Duffy, 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Spreading Ideas In the Arts

Albrecht Dürer, Christ in Limbo
from The Small Passion
German, Woodcut, 1509-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The autumn rotation of items from the department of Drawings and Prints currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum offers a wonderful “teaching moment” for the history of art in the period immediately following the Renaissance.  In three small rectangles of paper and ink we can trace the diffusion of an idea from Italy to Germany and back to Italy, then on to France and beyond. 

The three objects on display are a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, a drawing by Luca Penni and an etching by Léon Davent after the Penni drawing.  The subject of all three is Christ in Limbo (also known as The Harrowing of Hell or the Descent into Limbo).  This tells the traditional story of Christ’s descent into Limbo between his death and Resurrection.  Limbo is the waiting place of unbaptized but believing souls.  With his death they were now able to enter the living presence of God.  At his descent, he released all the souls who had been waiting there since the fall of man, including Adam and Eve and all the prophets and patriarchs and all the just who had died believing in God, but not yet able to know and believe in him.
Duccio, Christ in Limbo
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
 
Dürer’s woodcut comes from his Small Passion of 1509-1510 and reflects influences that had already reached him from Italian art, such as similar scenes by Duccio or Donatello.  
Donatello, Christ in Limbo
Detail of Resurrection Pulpit
Italian, 1460-1465
Florence, Church of San Lorenzo



























At the left of the composition we see a group of three figures, St. John the Baptist with Adam and Eve.
Albrecht Dürer, Christ in Limbo
from The Small Passion
German, Woodcut, 1509-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adam and Eve look back over their shoulders to study this descendent of theirs who is powerful enough to have broken into their world and is in the process of liberating others. 















Luca Penni, Christ in Limbo
Italian, 1547-1548
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art




This striking figure of three passed almost without change into the work of Luca Penni, an Italian born artist, trained in Rome by Raphael, who spent his later life working in France in the Mannerist style.  Penni and his compatriots, Primaticcio and Rosso Fiorentino, created what is now known as the Fontainebleau style for King Francis I of France.  This was the elegant, complex, aristocratic style that reigned in France in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Penni borrowed more than the three figures from Dürer.  He also borrowed much of the composition.  There is the same rounded doorway through which the souls are being pulled by Christ.  In addition, the wall of Limbo is shown as castellated.  And, the appearance of the two elders that Christ is clasping is very similar.  Furthermore, there is the same female head glimpsed in profile that appears between St. John the Baptist and Eve.  But there are also significant differences too.  Penni’s Christ is far more active in his movements than Dürer’s, as are the patriarchs.  In the Penni drawing they reach out to clasp Christ as well.  In fact, Penni’s composition, as a whole, seems far more dynamic than does Dürer’s, which seems by comparison very static.  The dynamic, though sometimes convoluted, forms of Mannerism contributed to the eventual development of the Baroque, when united with a weightier, more classical volume. 
Leon Davent, Christ in Limbo
After Luca Penni
French, ca. 1550
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Penni’s drawing was apparently executed with the intention of turning it into a print.  The actual printmaking was done by Léon Davent a few years later.  The process used by Davent was etching.   Typically for an etching made directly from a drawing, the orientation of the print is the reverse of the drawing.  This is because the printmaker has used the drawing, face up on the plate, tracing the lines from the right side of the drawing onto the wax coating of the plate, then removed the drawing and worked over the traced lines with the etching tool.  See more about the etching process here.


Alonso Cano, Christ in Limbo
Spanish, ca. 1640
Los Angeles, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art










Given that the print, be it woodcut, engraving or etching, could be diffused in multiple copies and spread widely through those copies this corner of the Drawings and Prints exhibition demonstrates how an idea or motif can have influence beyond its immediate time and place, passing from one artist and country to others. 

One such derivative can be seen in the painting by the Spanish Baroque painter, Alonso Cano.  While much is different in his composition, such as the position of Christ and the openings to Limbo, Cano has taken the idea of a group of three, composed this time by Adam and Eve with a child, and of the half turn of Adam and Eve toward Christ.  He has reversed the position of Eve, so that we see her from the back, but the group as a whole clearly relates back to the series of woodcut, drawing and etching that spring from Dürer through Penni to Davent's etching.

 © M. Duffy, 2014

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Beauty in Church? Why Art?

Interior of St. Jean Baptiste, New York, NY
During a recent concert
Nicholas Serracino, Italian, 1910-1914
Altar 1925-1930
Photo:  New York Times
A roundabout series of links from another blog (The Deacon's Bench) brought me to a recent article about the return of a number of Catholic churches in the United States to a more traditional "church" look following a period of time in which they had been stripped of all ornament and imagery.  You can read the article here: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/lovely-thy-dwelling-place

Jose Rafael Moneo, Cathedral of the Angels
American, 1998-2002
Los Angeles, CA















That all too many churches were nearly destroyed in this way is a sad fact of recent history, though it has happened before.  Historically, the idea behind it has come from those who feel that there is no room in the church for the visual, that all must be oriented toward the verbal.  This was true in the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century and it was true of the Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as of the "enlightened" French Revolutionists.  Our recent encounter with iconoclasm was driven by the call to simplicity and poverty -- to identify the church with the poor in spirit by getting rid of anything ornate or beautiful, although ironically, the cost of doing a really good minimalist interior may far exceed that of a more traditional one, due to the high cost of such favorite materials as marble or alabaster clad walls.

Comparison between the post-Vatican II Church of the Holy Trinity in Brainard, NE
with a recent renovation of the same church
Now, granted, some of what existed before Vatican II in the US may have been in poor taste, but by no means all.  That was not true, however, in other, older places, where the same iconoclasm also occurred during the 1970s and 1980s.  I experienced it particularly badly in Ireland, where real iconoclastic crimes were perpetrated.  My own parish in New York's Manhattan escaped fairly lightly, but not without some damage.  The beautiful two-step marble altar railing, with gorgeous mosaic inserts of flowers and other symbols set against a gold background, was ripped out and partly replaced by modernist wooden rails.  In addition, some of the splendid altar furnishings were removed (but happily stored) and rather cheap looking modern furnishings substituted.   However, much of that damage was repaired during the 1997 renovation, when the elaborately carved marble railing from the former lower church was substituted for those destroyed and the original altar furnishings were brought back from storage.

Henri Matisse, Chapel of the Rosary, exterior view
French, 1949-1951
Ronchamp, Alpes Maritimes, France
At the time the post-Vatican II iconoclasm occurred there was also a desire on the part of churchmen to identify with the avant garde in architecture, which at that time was resolutely minimalist, possibly in a misguided belief that this would make the church "relevant".  (To whom, one may ask.)
Henri Matisse, Chapel of the Rosary, interior view

It was the era shortly after Matisse's chapel at Vence and LeCorbusier's at Ronchamp (both in France). Whatever one may say about the architecture of these two buildings I don't think that one could call them warm worship spaces.  (And, interestingly, both men were agnostics who looked upon their work on these buildings as a challenge and exercise in form, not Christians looking to create a space for worship.)  Sadly, these buildings now have a tendency to look very much of their period and thoroughly outdated.









Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeannerat)
Swiss, 1950-195
Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut, exterior view
Ronchamp, Haute Soane, France

















Le Corbusier, Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut, interior view













The impulse to adapt churches to this pattern was akin to that which spurred so much copycat architecture in the secular world as well, as architects for business fell all over themselves trying to imitate the post-war work of LeCorbusier or Mies van der Rohe.
Le Corbusier, UN Headquarters
Swiss, 1948-1952
New York

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, exterior view
German, 1958
New York




















Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, lobby view
New York
The result can be seen in any fairly large American city today, street after street of nearly identical vertical flat roofed boxes, well meant, but intensely boring.

Recent skyscrapers constructed in London
It is hardly surprising then that in the secular world a revolt occurred, beginning in the 1980s, that has given us buildings with shape, either just at the top (as it had with the classical skyscrapers of the 1920s and 30s) or that play with the shape of the entire building, most notably an ensemble of recent buildings in London.  However, the interiors of these buildings are usually just as minimalist as those of their predecessors and sometimes not even as functional.  So, it is even less surprising that, after decades of enduring minimalist worship spaces, ordinary parishioners might yearn for the return of something on which their eyes can rest as their hearts are touched.

Abbey of St. Denis, Choir
French, 1144


Which brings me to the questions which form the title for this essay, why should churches be beautiful, why should there be art that is readable, didactic or affective?

Well, one explanation was given by Abbot Suger of St. Denis, back in the twelfth century "The dull mind rises to the truth through material things" and even more fully, in answering some of his own minimalist contemporaries (they had them then too) "To be sure, those who criticize us argue that holy mind, pure heart and faithful intention should suffice ... These are, we agree, the things that matter most; yet we profess that we should also serve God with the external ornaments of sacred vessels, in all internal purity and in all external nobility, and nowhere is this to be done as much as in the service of the holy sacrifice.
Master of St. Gilles, Mass of St. Gilles
French, ca. 1500
London, National Gallery
This painting shows the interior of St. Denis
before most of the furnishings left by Suger
were destroyed in the iconoclasm of the French
Revolution.
For it is incumbent upon us in every case to serve our redeemer in the most fitting way for in all things, without exception, he has not refused to provide for us, has united our nature with his in a single, admirable individual, and "setting us on his right hand" he has promised "that we will truly possess his kingdom" (Mtt. 25:33f.)."
1  It is to Suger, incidentally, that we owe the impetus for the birth of the Gothic style.


Another, contemporary, person who has spoken about the value of art in raising human consciousness to contemplation of the divine was Pope Benedict XVI:  "...some expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith."2








In my own life I see the effects that art and beauty can have on the majority of people.  
Hendrick Terbrugghen, Crucifixion with
the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist
Dutch, 1624-1625
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I volunteer, I observe that even the most secular of individuals, even those from non-Western cultures, tend to pause before a work like Terbrugghen's Crucifixion and ponder.  I don't really know what is in their minds, but something about the quality of the piece, 
stark yet not without beauty, pulls them up short, stops them for a moment, makes them think.  

Finally, we live in a world where the idea of the sacred has receded far from our daily lives and where education en masse has failed to introduce the young to Western culture or has introduced it in a negative way.  Therefore, many, many people today have no idea what the image they are seeing is actually about.  I have noticed this too at the Met, where the descriptions on the wall cards have been expanded recently to describe the action taking place in a painting or statue, be it a Christian scene or a mythological one, because the title can no longer be presumed to bring with it the necessary subject recognition.  

In this new world it seems a good idea for Catholics, whether adults or children, to be exposed to the images of their faith as often as possible so that it can become the ground of their psyche, which is more easily reached by art or music than it is by words alone. So, bring on the readable paintings, the Stations of the Cross, the stained glass windows, the marble altars, the gilding and the jeweled sacred vessels.  Let us see the scenes we hear about in the Gospels, let us touch a little bit of heaven on earth.  We need flesh on the words and food for our imaginations as much, if not more, than our medieval ancestors did.  


© M. Duffy, 2014

10/4/2014 Addendum:  In visiting the website of Magnificat, the small monthly prayer book that always features beautifully reproduced art on its cover and inside, for an updated image of its front cover to post in the right hand column of this blog I came across an address given by its American editor that deals with some of the same issues I have touched on here.  It makes interesting reading here.
_________________________________________________________
1.  Suger of St. Denis, On Administration (Translation by David Burr), from The Internet Medieval Sourcebook (© Paul Halsall January 1996 - July 2006), Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies, 
(http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/sugar.html).  For more on Suger see:  Abbot Suger and St. Denis:  A Symposiumedited by Paula Lieber Gerson, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986 available online at 
http://www.metmuseum.org/research/metpublications/Abbot_Suger_and_Saint_Denis
2.  Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience on Art and Prayer, August 31, 2011 quoted in  Duncan Stroik, "Benedictus XVI et Via Pulchritudinis", Sacred Architecture, Issue 23, 2013, p. 2.