Sunday, December 7, 2008

Images of Advent II.1

Raphael, Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1506
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum


“John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him and were being baptized
by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark 1:4-8
Gospel for Sunday, December 7, 2008




Poor John the Baptist! Probably no other saint in the Roman Catholic canon and certainly no other saint referred to in the New Testament has suffered a worse fate at the hands of artists from the Renaissance onward.

Apart from his very necessary appearance in images of the Baptism of Christ, St. John the Baptist almost always appears in several other roles. He is either:
a. the slightly older baby cousin of Jesus,
b. the goatskin clad “wild man” of the Judean desert,
c.  the preacher and teacher,
d. the scantily clad stylized prophet with homoerotic overtones ,
e. the head on a platter carried by Salome or
f. a static saintly figure among several others.

John as baby cousin 

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the Rocks
Italian, 1483-1486
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Usually accompanied by his signature cruciform staff which sometimes bears the wording “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold the Lamb of God”- John 1:29) and lamb, sometimes already wrapped in a goatskin, the infant or child St. John is shown associated with his younger cousin, Jesus. John is usually shown paying homage to Jesus, while Jesus is frequently shown giving John His blessing. Mary and Elizabeth often appear as well and Joseph appears sometimes.

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the Rocks
Italian, 1495-1508
London, National Gallery






Two of the best known of this type are Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks in the Louvre (on the left), about which much nonsense has recently been written, and a second version in the National Gallery, London (on the right).




Bartolome Murillo, St. John Baptist as a Child
Spanish, ca. 1670
Madrid, Museo del Prado








There are two other interesting pictures of St. John as a child. One, by Murillo in the Prado, shows St. John, holding a cross of twigs, accompanied by a lamb, already wearing a goatskin wrap (underneath a red wrap), in prayer as inspiration pours from heaven.











The most unusual one that I know of is also by Murillo and also in the Prado.


Bartolome Murillo, The Children of the Shell
Spanish, ca. 1670
Madrid, Museo del Prado


It shows the two cousins, John and Jesus alone together, accompanied again by a lamb. Jesus wears a fine cloth wrapping, while John wears a small goatskin and carries his cross-shaped staff with a banner. In addition to the fact that there are no adults present, what sets this picture apart is the action. In a reverse pre-figuration of the Baptism and in a reflection of Jesus as the Living Water, it is Jesus who gives John a drink from a shell. Behind them a group of three baby cherubs look on prayerfully.




© M. Duffy, 2008


Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pavlov’s Dogs in Church

The Noon Mass today at my parish in Manhattan celebrated the feast of All Souls by integrating the Fauré “Requiem” into the liturgy (Novus Ordo in English). It was beautifully performed and gave a highly dignified, aesthetically pleasing tone to the day. One thing did amuse me, however.

For whatever reason the soprano solo, “Pie Jesu” (which it has been my pleasure to sing for several concerts and funerals in the past) is set to follow the “Sanctus”, where normally there would be a “Benedictus”. Occasionally, in previous instances where I have heard or performed the piece in a real liturgy, the “Pie Jesu” has been shifted to Communion time. Today it was performed in its original place. This caused so much confusion among parishioners when it ended that I could only think of Pavlov’s dogs. Instead of standing or kneeling for the Consecration, which was the appropriate action, some were sitting, some were standing, some kneeling. (I was kneeling, in case you want to know.)

Clearly, the sitters, who appeared to make up the majority of the congregation, had lost their place because of an unfamiliar event. Which leads me to wonder, what does this say about people’s attentiveness at Mass to begin with? Ah, it’s that snake again!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Devil made me do it!

Adam and Eve in the  Garden
German, 1015
Hildesheim, Cathedral of St. Mary
"The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you?
He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”

Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?
The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.”


The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.”

Genesis 3:9-13

The cathedral of St. Mary in Hildesheim, Germany possesses some of the earliest examples of bronze doors in post-Roman Europe. The doors were commissioned by Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim in 1015. They stand at the beginning of the revival of European art following the trauma of the Viking disturbances of the later ninth and tenth centuries and which led on to Ghiberti’s great bronze doors for Florence Cathedral four hundred years later.

The doors show scenes from Genesis, from the creation of Adam to the murder of Abel by Cain, on the left panels and scenes from the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the encounter between the Risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, on the right panels. The most often reproduced of all the scenes is the immediate aftermath of the Fall. In the scene, God is questioning Adam about his disobedience. Adam, attempting to cover his nakedness with one hand, still manages to point to Eve in order to shift the blame. Eve, in her turn, shifts the blame to the somewhat dragon-like serpent at her feet. You can almost hear their voices saying “It’s not my fault!”

How great a comment did the Ottonian craftsman who designed the scene make on human nature! And how little does human nature change! Who among us has never tried to shift the blame to the one who caused our troubles, whether they be troubles of life or money or society. But, just as Eve and Adam were responsible for their own actions in eating the apple, so are we. Just as they did we use our free wills to follow that snakish voice that says to us “you will be like gods”. And when we are caught in our folly, we say “the serpent tricked me”. Original sin, anyone!

© M. Duffy, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Exaltation of the Holy Cross – September 14, 2008

Piero della Francesca, Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Italian, ca. 1452-1465
Arezzo, San Francesco
Sorry for the long absence. August is often a difficult month for me and this one was no exception.


Right now I’m just going to post the very beautiful meditation on the Eucharist given by Pope Benedict at the close of a period of Eucharistic adoration following the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. I'll have some other thoughts later in the week.

"Lord Jesus, You are here!

And you, my brothers, my sisters, my friends,You are here, with me, in his presence!

Lord, two thousand years ago, you willingly mounted the infamous Cross in order then to rise again and to remain for ever with us, your brothers and sisters.And you, my brothers, my sisters, my friends,You willingly allow him to embrace you.We contemplate him.We adore him.We love him. We seek to grow in love for him.We contemplate him who, in the course of his Passover meal, gave his body and blood to his disciples, so as to be with them “always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).We adore him who is the origin and goal of our faith, him without whom we would not be here this evening, without whom we would not be at all, without whom there would be nothing, absolutely nothing! Him through whom “all things were made” (Jn 1:3), him in whom we were created, for all eternity, him who gave us his own body and blood – he is here, this evening, in our midst, for us to gaze upon.
We love, and we seek to grow in love for him who is here, in our presence, for us to gaze upon, for us perhaps to question, for us to love.
Whether we are walking or nailed to a bed of suffering; whether we are walking in joy or languishing in the wilderness of the soul (cf. Num 21:4): Lord, take us all into your Love; the infinite Love which is eternally the Love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, the Love of the Father and the Son for the Spirit, and the Love of the Spirit for the Father and the Son. The sacred host exposed to our view speaks of this infinite power of Love manifested on the glorious Cross. The sacred host speaks to us of the incredible abasement of the One who made himself poor so as to make us rich in him, the One who accepted the loss of everything so as to win us for his Father. The sacred host is the living, efficacious and real sacrament of the eternal presence of the saviour of mankind to his Church.
My brothers, my sisters, my friends,Let us accept; may you accept to offer yourselves to him who has given us everything, who came not to judge the world, but to save it (cf. Jn 3:17), accept to recognize in your lives the presence of him who is present here, exposed to our view. Accept to offer him your very lives!
Mary, the holy Virgin, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, accepted, two thousand years ago, to give everything, to offer her body so as to receive the Body of the Creator. Everything came from Christ, even Mary; everything came through Mary, even Christ. Mary, the holy Virgin, is with us this evening, in the presence of the Body of her Son, one hundred and fifty years after revealing herself to little Bernadette.
Holy Virgin, help us to contemplate, help us to adore, help us to love, to grow in love for him who loved us so much, so as to live eternally with him.
An immense crowd of witnesses is invisibly present beside us, very close to this blessed grotto and in front of this church that the Virgin Mary wanted to be built; the crowd of all those men and women who have contemplated, venerated, adored the real presence of him who gave himself to us even to the last drop of blood; the crowd of all those men and women who have spent hours in adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar. This evening, we do not see them, but we hear them saying to us, to every man and to every woman among us: “Come, let the Master call you! He is here! He is calling you (cf. Jn 11:28)! He wants to take your life and join it to his. Let yourself be embraced by him! Gaze no longer upon your own wounds, gaze upon his. Do not look upon what still separates you from him and from others; look upon the infinite distance that he has abolished by taking your flesh, by mounting the Cross which men had prepared for him, and by letting himself be put to death so as to show you his love. In his wounds, he takes hold of you; in his wounds, he hides you. Do not refuse his Love!”
The immense crowd of witnesses who have allowed themselves to be embraced by his Love, is the crowd of saints in heaven who never cease to intercede for us. They were sinners and they knew it, but they willingly ceased to gaze upon their own wounds and to gaze only upon the wounds of their Lord, so as to discover there the glory of the Cross, to discover there the victory of Life over death. Saint Pierre-Julien Eymard tells us everything when he cries out: “The holy Eucharist is Jesus Christ, past, present and future” (Sermons and Parochial Instructions after 1856, 4-2.1, “On Meditation”).
Jesus Christ, past, in the historical truth of the evening in the Upper Room, to which every celebration of holy Mass leads us back.
Jesus Christ, present, because he said to us: “Take and eat of this, all of you, this is my body, this is my blood.” “This is”, in the present, here and now, as in every here and now throughout human history. The real presence, the presence which surpasses our poor lips, our poor hearts, our poor thoughts. The presence offered for us to gaze upon as we do here, this evening, close to the grotto where Mary revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception.
The Eucharist is also Jesus Christ, future, Jesus Christ to come. When we contemplate the sacred host, his glorious transfigured and risen Body, we contemplate what we shall contemplate in eternity, where we shall discover that the whole world has been carried by its Creator during every second of its history. Each time we consume him, but also each time we contemplate him, we proclaim him until he comes again, “donec veniat”. That is why we receive him with infinite respect.
Some of us cannot – or cannot yet – receive Him in the Sacrament, but we can contemplate Him with faith and love and express our desire finally to be united with Him. This desire has great value in God’s presence: such people await his return more ardently; they await Jesus Christ who must come again.
When, on the day after her first communion, a friend of Bernadette asked her: “What made you happier: your first communion or the apparitions?”, Bernadette replied, “they are two things that go together, but cannot be compared. I was happy in both” (Emmanuélite Estrade, 4 June 1958). She made this testimony to the Bishop of Tarbes in regard to her first communion: “Bernadette behaved with immense concentration, with an attention that left nothing to be desired … she appeared profoundly aware of the holy action that was taking place. Everything developed in her in an astonishing way.”
With Pierre-Julien Eymard and Bernadette, we invoke the witness of countless men and women saints who had the greatest love for the holy Eucharist. Nicolas Cabasilas cries out to us this evening: “If Christ dwells within us, what do we need? What do we lack? If we dwell in Christ, what more could we desire? He is our host and our dwelling-place. Happy are we to be his home! What joy to be ourselves the dwelling-place of such an inhabitant!”
Blessed Charles de Foucauld was born in 1858, the very year of the apparitions at Lourdes. Not far from his body, stiffened by death, there lay, like the grain of wheat cast upon the earth, the lunette containing the Blessed Sacrament which Brother Charles adored every day for many a long hour. Father de Foucauld has given us a prayer from the depths of his heart, a prayer addressed to our Father, but one which, with Jesus, we can in all truth make our own in the presence of the sacred host: “‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’This was the last prayer of our Master, our Beloved … May it also be our own prayer, and not only at our last moment, but at every moment in our lives:
Father, I commit myself into your hands; Father, I trust in you; Father, I abandon myself to you; Father, do with me what you will; whatever you may do, I thank you; thank you for everything; I am ready for all, I accept all; I thank you for all. Let only your will be done in me, Lord, let only your will be done in all your creatures, in all your children, in all those whom your heart loves, I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you, Lord, with all the love of my heart, for I love you, and so need to give myself in love, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”
Beloved brothers and sisters, day pilgrims and inhabitants of these valleys, brother Bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious, all of you who see before you the infinite abasement of the Son of God and the infinite glory of the Resurrection, remain in silent adoration of your Lord, our Master and Lord Jesus Christ. Remain silent, then speak and tell the world: we cannot be silent about what we know. Go and tell the whole world the marvels of God, present at every moment of our lives, in every place on earth. May God bless us and keep us, may he lead us on the path of eternal life, he who is Life, for ever and ever. Amen. "


(Pope Benedict XVI, September 14, 2008, Lourdes, France)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

July 26 – Saints Anne and Joachim

Note:  You can read more about Saints Anne and Joachim in my ongong series of articles "Glorious St. Anne" (click here) to access the first in the series.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus. Although there is no evidence about them in the New Testament, there had to be two people who were Mary’s parents. We do not know if Anne (Hannah) and Joachim were actually their names, but those are the names that have been associated with them from an early extra-Biblical tradition.

Over time, most of the devotion to this couple has centered on St. Anne, the mother, rather than St. Joachim, the father. It is, of course, the mother that provides the actual physical link, a sort of holy version of mitochondrial DNA, for out of the mother comes the Mother and from the Mother comes the Son. That is why some of the most famous images of St. Anne, Mary and Jesus in the history of art have the somewhat curious look of Russian nested dolls. Among the famous images are those of the early fifteenth-century Florentine artist, Masaccio (Florence, Uffizi) as well as the later fifteenth-century Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s image exists in two versions, a large drawing (more properly a cartoon) in the National Gallery in London (at left) and a modified painting in the Louvre in Paris. In these images, Jesus sits on Mary’s lap, while Mary herself sits on her mother’s lap. While emphasizing the blood relationship of the group, the arrangement seems today somewhat awkward, even comical.

This may be why, following the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, painting in the Catholic countries (there was little such work in the Protestant countries) the emphasis shifted from the mere blood relationship to Anne’s role in preparing Mary for her eventual role as Mother. Thus, the most popular image of St. Anne became that of “The Education of the Virgin”. Almost all of these images show St. Anne teaching Mary by encouraging her to read the Scriptures. Among the most famous versions are those by Peter Paul Rubens (Brussels, Museé Royaux des Beaux-Arts) and Georges de la Tour (New York, Frick Collection -- see yesterday's post for image). But there are many others.

By contrast, Joachim plays only a small role in the iconography of this holy couple. Probably the most famous example of his inclusion comes from Giotto’s paintings of the lives of Joachim and Anne in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Here are laid out the stories taken from the early traditions, of the couple, humiliated for their childlessness, and of the response to their prayers in separate angelic visitations and of their touching meeting at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

Today, we honor them both for their role as parents and grandparents.

Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Good St. Anne

Georges de La Tour, Education of the Virgin
French, ca. 1650
New York, Frick Collection
My Manhattan parish, St. Jean Baptiste (St. John the Baptist) had been the home of a novena in honor of St. Anne since 1892. In that year we received a relic of St. Anne, a portion of the relic held in St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.

We are currently in the midst of the 2008 novena, the 117th year. Crowds come from all over the New York/Long Island/New Jersey area, especially on the last three days. The culmination of the novena comes on the feast day of Saints Anne and Joachim, July 26th.

Each day of the novena there are two novena services, with Mass and a special preacher. In the evening there is a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, followed by Benediction and veneration of the relic. I’ve been attending for twenty years now and each year I am impressed by the devotion of the people who come. They come in great diversity --- children and old people; black and white; European, African and Asian; wealthy people from Park Avenue and poor from the outer boroughs; people with advanced degrees and those with little formal education. Some of them come with very specific prayer requests to make to St. Anne, some come with no other thought than to honor the woman who was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. And every year there are stories of favors granted. After all, St. Anne has connections!

But I am mostly inspired by the procession with the Blessed Sacrament. It wends its way around the church, getting bigger and bigger every night, till on the feast day, it can barely move. Until three years ago it was candlelit, like the outdoor procession at Lourdes. I had always wondered why no one was every set on fire. Then, three years ago it happened. Toward the end of the procession there was a sudden flash of light as a carelessly held candle set fire to the long pony tail of a woman in front, who was totally unaware that her hair was blazing. And, thanks to the quick actions of several people around her, the first she knew of it was when it was already being extinguished. She suffered no more than a singed pony tail, thank God. However, the procession is no longer made with lighted candles.

Aside from such excitements, the principle thing that inspires me about the procession and benediction is how it represents two visions of the Body of Christ. During the procession and at the Benediction we adore the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic Host. Yet, the congregation, in all its amazing diversity, is also part of the Mystical Body of Christ. In the moments of adoration, we are in a sense, already on the threshold of heaven as we members of the Mystical Body contemplate Him veiled in Bread, as we will one day, hopefully, contemplate Him directly.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

World Youth Day



Like many other people I’ve been watching the World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney. It’s been mighty impressive to see so many young people from all over the world enthusiastically participating in religious activities. Combined with my own experiences during Pope Benedict’s visit to New York in April, it makes me ponder…..

When I was a young child there were many occasions for a young person to be part of diocesan-wide activities. My parents brought me, year after year, to a Rosary event that took place at the Polo Grounds (the home of the old New York baseball Giants team). Then there was the time that I was chosen to represent my school at a Mission Sunday event at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Along with a classmate, I was dressed as a miniature Daughter of Charity and joined hundreds of other children (boys and girls) attired as members of other religious orders. Not surprisingly our headgear attracted so much attention that our photo appeared next day in the pages of two New York newspapers! My father kept one of those pictures folded up in his wallet for years and years. I found it there after his death.

But in my later teen years and ever since, such big church events have been pretty hard to come by. The stadiums became the venues for rock concerts and the cathedral was a place to which one seldom went. In fact, it’s sometimes been difficult to see oneself as part of anything bigger than the attendance of the Mass I go to, or maybe the parish gathered for some special event. That’s why events like a Mass at a Yankee Stadium or a Central Park are great. One suddenly sees oneself as a member of something very large, a worldwide group of believers in the Gospel, in the traditions of the Catholic Church as the carrier of the Gospel, and, as the Body of Christ, congregated around His Eucharistic Body. Sometimes we need that kind of experience of being together as Catholics. Indeed, the character of the Catholic faith may positively require it.

How I wish there had been a World Youth Day when I was in my teens, twenties and thirties! (The first one happened near the end of my thirties and I was barely aware of it.) Events like it might have saved many of my cohort from loss of faith, from discouragement and drifting away. I pray that the young people who went to Sydney will be profoundly affected for their entire lives. Even if only 10% of those who go to each WYD remain permanently affected, what a blessing for the church!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Peter, Paul and Raphael

Raphael, Miraculous Draught of Fishes
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Today is an unusual day. It is both a Sunday and the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the two pillars of the early church. What makes today so special is that for this Sunday the liturgy for the feast of the day, St. Peter and St. Paul, take precedence over the Sunday liturgy. This illustrates how important these two apostles are for the church. It is also the day on which the special “Year of St. Paul” begins, a year set aside by the Holy Father as a year of special reflection and honor for St. Paul. It promises to be an interesting year.

Paul, as is well known, was initially an opponent of the fledgling Christian movement. He participated in the stoning of St. Stephen, the first to die because of belief in Jesus, and it was while he was traveling to Damascus, to stamp out the followers of the Way in that city, that he was struck down by the light that revealed to him the Person he had been opposing. He went on to spread the Gospel up and down the cities of Roman Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkans and, eventually, Rome, where he was beheaded as part of the persecutions under Nero. His burial place lies beneath the basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

St. Peter, after his denial of Jesus, went on to become the generally recognized leader of the apostles, charged by the Risen Christ to “feed my sheep”. He played a large role in encouraging the acceptance of the non-Jewish converts that Paul made during his travels. He also undertook missionary journeys, eventually also reaching Rome and dying in the same Neronian persecutions. Above his tomb grew the great basilica of St. Peter’s.
Raphael, Feed My Sheep
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Both men arrived in Rome, both died there and both are remembered in great Roman churches. In the early years of the sixteenth century both were remembered in the decorative tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X from Raphael, for display in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Palace. The tapestries were planned to cover the painted draperies that covered the lower walls of the chapel, to complement the cycle of frescoes by Perugino and others that covered the mid-level walls  and to complete (and probably to vie with) the great fresco cycle of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. The commission was given to Raphael in 1515 and the cartoons were completed between 1516 and 1520. The cartoons are full-scale, detailed and colored sketches which the tapestry weavers could follow to prepare the final, woven cloth.

Fortunately, seven out of the ten cartoons in the cycle were preserved, in spite of the tremendous upheaval caused by the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, the year in which the cartoons were sent north to Brussels to be woven. Eventually they came into the hands of King Charles I of England, a great collector of art. They were also preserved during the English Civil War, in which Charles lost both his crown and his head, and the subsequent Commonwealth period. At the Restoration of Charles’ son, Charles II, they were returned to the English Crown. Though still the property of the Crown, they are on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Of the seven surviving cartoons, four depict scenes from the lives of St. Peter and three from the life of St. Paul.

Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Probably the most well-known image is that of the Risen Christ telling St. Peter to “feed my sheep”. This image and that of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, shown above at left, are unusual in the cycle for being set in open landscape. The majority of the other surviving scenes are set in townscapes. Typical is the image of “St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, shown above. In a claustrophobic, closed urban space, Paul is seen from the side, gesturing to the multitude assembled to hear him. Because of the point of view, our attention is drawn more to the listeners and their reactions than to Paul himself. Most listen intently, some respond with enthusiasm. What Paul is telling them is:  "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious.

For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. . . . . . God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will 'judge the world with justice' through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead."

When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, "We should like to hear you on this some other time." And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers.” (Acts 17:22-23, 31-34)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Why Christian Art is Lame #3 (part of a series in which I try to answer the question "Why is Christian art so lame?")

There has been a disconnect between patron and artist. Art is and has always been an expensive proposition. It is not one of the necessities of life. On the contrary, it is a product of leisure and thought. This is true even for cave art. The cave dwellers needed to have gained enough food to provide them with the leisure to take the time to grind up their colors, plan their designs, practice making them and, finally, place the final designs on the walls of their caves.

From the beginning of art history the work of the artist has been intimately linked with the requirements of the patron. This is as true for the art of Amarna, where the pharaoh, Ahkenaten, requested from his artists an entirely new iconography to serve his new, single God ("Ahkenaten offering to the Aten”, Cairo, Egyptian Museum), as it is for the art of Michelangelo, as he struggled with both the demands of his own muse and the demands of Pope Julius II in creating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (“Sacrifice of Noah”). Up to the time of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (with the exception, after the Reformation, of the independent Netherlands) the Church was one of the primary sources of patronage for religious art. The other primary source of patronage was European royalty and nobility. Frequently, the two sources of patronage were in agreement. The Church commissioned works for itself and royal and noble patrons also commissioned works for the Church. In both cases the religious works of artists were as important to their survival as their secular works.

This symbiotic relationship came to an end under the triple pressures of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As a secular art market developed, with sales and commissions more and more frequently being handled by specialist art dealers, the importance of both the religious and "noble" art commission diminished. The style and subjects of art changed, with domestic scenes, landscapes and portraits taking a greater and greater share of artistic production. As the inheritance of the Revolution spread throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, fewer and fewer artists turned their thought to religious themes, while the forms of art went farther and farther from readable human forms suitable for the depiction of Christian themes.

At the same time, Church patronage became more and more conservative. New churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, were usually constructed to reflect historic styles: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Classical, Neo-Byzantine, Neo-Renaissance. Living as I do in New York City I am surrounded by multiple examples of this history. The interior decoration and furnishing of these historicizing buildings was conducted in the same manner, reproducing the styles of earlier periods. This often resulted in beautiful spaces, such as my own parish of St. Jean Baptiste in Manhattan at left (http://www.stjeanbaptisteny.org). However, it also meant that, by the first quarter of the 20th century, religious art and high art flowed in entirely different and often antagonistic channels.

Those artists who chose to pursue a career in high art frequently held beliefs quite opposed to Christian, or indeed any, religious belief. There are a few who seem to have been able to bridge the gap, but they stand out in art history by this very uniqueness. In addition, the art establishment tends to reward those who do not express religious content in their work. “Spiritual” content may be acceptable, but not religious content that positively references Christian belief.

Consequently, it is now very difficult for patrons of religious art to find persons who have both high contemporary style and who can imbue their productions with an inner core of belief. One can easily see why contemporary religious commissions appear somewhat awkward and self-conscious in a way the work of earlier periods never did.

Indeed, problems of even secular patronage have been fraught with difficulties in recent years. For instance, many American taxpayers, whose tax money funds the National Endowment for the Arts, were seriously riled during the early 1990’s by some of the works produced under funding from the NEA by Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”) or Robert Maplethorpe (homoerotic photographs). Their protests led to some modest cutbacks in funding. More recently, the New York art world has experienced controversy surrounding the inclusion of Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" in the 1999 Brooklyn Musuem exhibition, Sensation, in which the picture was composed of (among other things) pornography and elephant dung, and the cancellation of a 2007 gallery exhibition of Cosimo Cavallaro's "My Sweet Lord", more commonly known as the "Chocolate Jesus".

Patronage problems are nothing new, of course. One of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, “The Death of the Virgin” (Louvre, ca 1606), was rejected by the church for which it had been commissioned. The fathers found the bloated body of Mary, her exposed feet and the peasant-like mourners to be lacking in decorum. However, in 1606 the fathers were able to find another painter to give them the decorous picture they wanted. In 2008 their successors might have a harder time.





Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi

Among the many images of the Eucharist that were produced by artists from the Middle Ages through the Baroque are two by Raphael.



The first is known as the “Disputà, or the Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament”. It is one of the frescoes that adorn the walls of the Vatican Palace’s Stanza della Segnatura. This room, formerly part of a suite of offices, is now part of the Vatican Museum. The contracts for the decoration of this room and three others were given to the young artist, Raphael Sanzio, shortly after his arrival in Rome. It is here that he began to form his mature style, a style that would become normative for so-called “classical art” for most of the next 500 years.

The “Disputà” is one of the two major paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura. The other is “The School of Athens”. They each occupy solid facing walls. The subjects can be considered as forming a pair. “The School of Athens” is the domain of natural philosophy and centers on the figures of Socrates and Aristotle. They are surrounded by famous pagan philosophers, including figures representing Diogenes, Ptolemy, and others.

By contrast, the “Disputà” may be thought of as a school of theology, especially of Eucharistic theology. The center of the image is not some human figure; it is a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, placed on an altar. Also, the image is not entirely of this earth. It is divided horizontally, into a heavenly zone and an earthly zone. The Blessed Sacrament belongs to the earthly zone and is surrounded by theologians offering praise and acclaim. They include bishops, popes, monks, other clerics and laity (one of whom is clearly identifiable as the poet, Dante). In the heavenly zone, the glorious Risen Christ is seated directly above His Eucharistic Body. Above Him is God the Father and at His feet is the Holy Spirit. He is flanked by His mother, Mary, and St. John the Baptist and by Old and New Testament saints. Among them one can identify Moses, David, Sts. Peter and Paul and the Evangelists.

The gestures of all the figures in heaven and on earth form a grand crescendo of praise to Christ in His Eucharistic Presence.

In the adjoining “Stanza di Eliodoro” Raphael also created another Eucharistic image, the “Mass at Bolsena”. This is a time bridging image that shows Pope Julius II and his retinue as miraculous witnesses to a Eucharistic miracle which had taken place 200 years previously in the town of Bolsena, north of Rome. The image is painted on one of the side walls of the room (i.e., not the principal solid walls like the two pictures discussed above). The side walls are pierced by doorways, making a somewhat difficult shape for the composition.


The center of the image is located above the doorway and is another altar, in this case seen from the side. To the left side of the altar are the people who participated in the miracle that took place in Bolsena in 1263. To the right are the contemporary (1512-1514) Pope Julius II, his retinue of clerics and guards (who may be members of the recently formed Swiss Guards).

The miracle of Bolsena is one of several similar Eucharistic miracles that were subjects of images from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Nearly all describe somewhat similar characters and events: a doubter of the doctrine of transubstantiation receives a sign of the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated Host. At Bolsena the doubter was the priest who was celebrating the Mass and the proof was that, at the consecration, the Host began to drip blood, which stained the corporal on the altar. This event led the Pope, Urban IV, to extend the feast of Corpus Christi, which was already being celebrated locally in France, to the universal church.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Corpus Christi - Body and Blood of Christ

LAUDA Sion Salvatorem,lauda ducem et pastorem,in hymnis et canticis! (Lauda Sion, St. Thomas Aquinas)

(Praise O Sion, your Saviour, in hymns and canticles praise your Shepherd and King!).

Aquinas' beautiful words (go to http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/Hymni/LaudaSion.html for words and translation) for the sequence of Corpus Christi and the chant melody that carries them are seldom sung these days. That's a real pity, since they are a part of Catholic tradition that is very worth preserving. Perhaps with the greater interest in recovering the past that seems to be increasing lately they will be rescued from near oblivion.
They've been a part of my life for many years. In my parish church of St. Jean Baptiste in New York, which is in the care of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and is a center of Eucharistic adoration (http://www.stjeanbaptisteny.org), the words of this hymn run, in huge gilded letters, on a band of wall, high above the floor.
There is a great deal to be said about the feast of Corpus Christi and about the representation of the Eucharist in western art, but for now I just want to include this sketch of ca. 1630 by Rubens for an Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). It was eventually painted for the Shod Carmelite church in Antwerp by his followers Gerhard Seghers and Johannes van Mildert. The sketch is being featured on the opening page of the Metropolitan Museum website. Thank you, Met for remembering the day!


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Father, Son, Spirit

Andrei Rublev, Icon of the Trinity
Russian, 15th Century
 Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery
Today we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God. This mystery, revealed and not intuited, is unique to Christianity. And we know it was something that has been part of the faith from the beginning. The second reading from today’s Mass comes from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and contains the well-known Trinitarian blessing: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13)

There it is, approximately 20-25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a full statement of the faith of the church. Indeed, the entire letter is filled with Trinitarian references. Where could this belief in a single Godhead of three distinct persons have come from? It is foreign to both Judaism and Islam. It can only be from the revelation given to the Apostles at Pentecost as they reflected on their lived experience of Jesus and His teaching.

Throughout subsequent Christian life the church has reflected on this revelation in theology, literature and art. In literature we have Dante’s beautiful ending to The Divine Comedy where he describes three circles of light of different colors, sharing only one dimension. And yet, within that image there also appears a human form, for He took on our form as we were made in His image.

The visual arts also have reflected on the mystery in different ways and have presented us with three main, differing traditions. One very old tradition, mainly active in the Eastern Churches, and deriving from the description of the three mysterious visitors whom Abraham receives and entertains (Genesis 18), represents the Trinity as three more of less identical men. A famous example is the picture by the 15th-century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev. This Icon of the Trinity uses subtle differences of color and position to distinguish between the Divine Persons.

Andrea Castagno, The Apparition of the Trinity
to Saint Jerome and Two Female Saints
Italian, c. 1453
Florence, Church of the Santissima Annunziate
Although this image appears occasionally in the West, the primary Western representations of the Trinity fall into two distinct types. The main constant between them is the imaging of the Holy Spirit as a dove, based on the Gospels’ description of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). One type, predominant throughout the Renaissance, shows variations of an image known as the Throne of Grace. In this image God the Father is shown either seated or standing. He holds in His arms either the dead body of Christ or Christ still hanging on the Cross, much in the manner of the better known image of the Pietà. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers nearby. The image evokes the act of Redemption. It also conveys the message that the God who gave His Son shares our human grief and will be compassionate in His dealings with us. There are many famous portrayals of this image by some of the greatest of Western artists, both Italian and Northern, of the period before about 1600. The painters include: Botticelli, Andrea del Castagno, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, El Greco, Masaccio, the Master of Flemalle, Hugo van der Goes and José Ribera. I’ve included the version by Castagno, showing the “Apparition of the Trinity to St. Jerome and two accompanying female saints”.  The two women are probably St. Jerome’s disciples St. Paula and her daughter, St. Eustochium, who, in the late 4th century, followed him to Bethlehem where they established monasteries for men and women and gave their time to studying the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Castagno image is an interesting example of an artist trying to assimilate the recently invented science or perspective. This is seen in the extreme foreshortening of the image of the Trinity, which ends in fire to cover the lower part of Christ’s body in order to cover the too drastically foreshortened legs.

The other Western image, which eventually replaced the Throne of Grace, is a more straightforward, even prosaic image of the Three Persons. God the Father is shown as an older, bearded man, Jesus is shown as a young man bearing the wounds of His Passion, and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Gonzaga Family Adoring the Trinity
Flemish, 1604
Mantua, Ducal Palace
Sometimes they are shown seated side by side, sometimes God the Father is placed above Jesus, with the Holy Spirit placed below. I’ve included Rubens 1604 side-by-side image of the “Gonzaga Family Adoring the Trinity, showing the ducal family in prayer in the lower half of the picture while angels unwrap a vision of the Trinity, as if it were a tapestry, in the space above their heads. Clearly, in the 150 years that separate Castagno and Rubens the problems of foreshortening had been overcome!


Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why Christian Art Is Lame, #2

Much Christian art is often nothing better than sentimental eye candy. Alongside the problem of bodily distortions and eventual disappearance, is the problem of images that, while readable, have become trivialized and pedestrian. In other words, much of the “Christian art” of the last 150 years or so has been diluted by a spirit of sentimentality and wish not to give offense.

This trend can begin to be seen in some of the art of the first half of the 19th century, especially in the work of the German Nazarenes and the English Pre-Raphaelites. A popular image from the very beginning of this strain is William Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” (Manchester, City Galleries). Painted in 1851-52, this work illustrates the passage from Revelation that reads:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. (Revelation, 3:20)

While Holman Hunt’s image still retains some of the mystery and awe that had attended images of Christ from the earliest times, it also stands at the beginning of a series of images that progressively sentimentalized, trivialized and domesticated Christ and His presence. We all know the results of this process. We have lived with it all our lives, from the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” image of countless Good Shepherd pictures, to the works of Warner Sallman (such as "Christ At the Heart's Door", located at Anderson University, Anderson, IN, which clearly derives from Holman Hunt's picture) to innumerable devotional images of the Sacred Heart. In contrast to the portrayals of Christ in earlier art, where Christ is presented as a solid personality, in this strain of art Jesus is presented, as almost hollow, somehow lacking in personality and uniformly pretty. There is no blood, no confrontation, nothing that can offend the most delicate sensibility in its audience.

Add to this abstraction of personality the later strain of visual abstraction and one finds that recent Christian art no longer has much contact with a concrete reality, with the Incarnation in fact. It can be difficult to see in the late-19th and earlier-20th-century mild mannered Jesus or in the late-20th-century abstract Christ any relation to a living person, who is also God. The balance between the man and the Godhead has vanished into a dreamlike state of unreality. This Jesus is shown as already living in eternity, where no human emotion exists and, therefore, lacking in anything that might engage our own emotions. This may, perhaps, partially account for the impact felt by many from Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” which reinserted a strong dose of reality and emotion into what had become an almost dreamlike atmosphere of unreality. Whether this jolt will affect other visual Christian works remains to be seen.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why Christian Art Is Lame #1

A week or so ago I saw a question on a blog (and I have to apologize to the blogger involved because I can’t remember which blog it was on). I think the question was phrased “Why is Christian art so lame?”. It’s a question that I have been thinking about for some years. I don’t have an easy or quick answer. As with many subjects the answer is complex, because the situation has complex roots. But here’s a bit of an answer – the first of many, I suspect.

So, Christian art is lame because:

1. The idiom of art no longer speaks the idiom of human form. Since the second century Christian art has been a figural art, rather than a symbolic one. As the introduction to my blog (over on the right) points out, this is unique among the monotheistic religions. Both Judaism and Islam forbid the making of images of God. Christianity, because if its incarnational basis, is friendly to images, although there have been periods and places where iconoclasm has done much damage. Indeed, Christian art, for most of its history has been primarily based on images of God the Father, Jesus, Mary and the saints and angels. (On the left above is the 15th century image of Madonna and Child with Saints, Angels and Donor from Milan's Brera Gallery. The images, although created in paint in two-dimensions, seems to occupy a three-dimensional space. )

But it isn’t iconoclasm that has caused the current problems for Christian art. The problem lies instead in the way in which contemporary art deals, or better, doesn’t deal with human form. Since the middle of the 19th century, beginning with the early Impressionists, artists have flattened, decomposed, fractured and abstracted the human shape until it has virtually disappeared. It has become more and more difficult for artists to tell the Christian story, using a visual vocabulary that does not support a visual story. Two examples are: Gustav Klimt's 1907 portait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from New York's Neue Galerie (left) and Henri Matisse's La Musique of 1939 from the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY (right). The human figures are seen as flattened against the flat patterned backgrounds. They are as much a pattern as those backgrounds.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Oxen Under the Font

Reinier de Huy, Baptismal Font
 showing scene of the Baptism of Jesus
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Barthelemy
Over the last few days a number of blogs have reported on a recent letter from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy that instructs bishops to withhold providing parish registers to requests from Mormons (LDS). The reason for this lies in the Mormon belief in posthumous baptism, in which a living Mormon is “baptized” in the name of a deceased non-Mormon person. The practice has previously caused controversy, as in the case of protests from Jewish groups on the “baptism” of Holocaust victims.

The notices on the blogs were also accompanied by photos of a Mormon font for these posthumous baptisms. The photos triggered a visual memory from my earliest days of art history study.

In the early 12th century, the valley of the Meuse River (referred to as the Mosan region) produced some of the finest metalwork of the Middle Ages. Flowing through what is now France, Belgium and the Rhineland region of modern Germany, the artists were heirs to the Carolingian classical revival of the 9th century. The last and best known artist is Nicholas of Verdun, who created both the great altarpiece of Klosterneuburg Abbey, the beautiful shrine of the Virgin for Tournai Cathedral and the fabulous shrine of the Three Kings for Cologne Cathedral. But the image that came to mind when I saw the Mormon font is the beautiful work of the earliest of the major metal artists of the region. It is the baptismal font made by Rainier de Huy, sometime between 1107 and 1118. It was made for the church of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts (Our Lady of the Baptismal Fonts) in the town of Liège. It remained in the same church until the French Revolutionary wars, when Liège was seized by the French and the church was destroyed. The font survived and in 1804 was placed in the church of St. Barthlémy, Liège, where it remains today.

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Craton
From Baptismal Font
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy
The font is decorated with five scenes of baptism, beginning with the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. Among the scenes of subsequent adult Christian baptisms are two which show the use of similar fonts. The figural style is remarkably beautiful and classical in spirit. Each is presented as an individual, rounded figure, with classical drapery that hints at the weight and structure of the body beneath. One might almost imagine it to have been produced under the influence of an artist like Donatello, three hundred years later.

Rainier’s font rests on a stone base from which “protrude” the head and front quarters of ten oxen. However, the font originally rested on twelve oxen. The symbolism of these creatures leads back, in typological fashion, to a correspondence between the Old and New Testaments.

In the first book of Kings, the Old Testament describes the furnishing which Solomon ordered for the Temple. Among them was:

The sea was then cast; it was made with a circular rim, and measured ten cubits across, five in height, and thirty in circumference. Under the brim, gourds encircled it, ten to the cubit all the way around; the gourds were in two rows and were cast in one mold with the sea. This rested on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east, with their haunches all toward the center, where the sea was set upon them. It was a handbreadth thick, and its brim resembled that of a cup, being lily-shaped. Its capacity was two thousand measures.” I Kings 7:23-26

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Cornelius
from Baptismal Font
Mosan, 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy
The “sea” is a large bronze basin, filled with water. Indeed, I Kings even gives us information about the bronzesmith who fashioned it “King Solomon had Hiram brought from Tyre. He was a bronze worker, the son of a widow from the tribe of Naphtali; his father had been from Tyre. He was endowed with skill, understanding, and knowledge of how to produce any work in bronze. He came to King Solomon and did all his metal work.” I Kings 7:13-14

Clearly, Rainier of Huy intended to recreate the work of his early predecessor Hiram of Tyre, and to demonstrate that he too had “skill, understanding and knowledge of how to produce any work in bronze”.

NIcholas of Verdun, The Molten Sea
from Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abby Museum


In the font for Solomon’s temple, the twelve oxen clearly refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. In the Liège font they represent both the Twelve Tribes and the Twelve Apostles. Such typological references, seeing correspondence between the events of the Old and New Testaments were quite common in Romanesque art, probably more common at that period than later. Later in the century, Nicholas of Verdun used the same kinds of correspondences in the Klosterneuburg altarpiece where the biblical references are arranged in three layers: before the Law, under the Law and the time Grace of Christ. Threfore, each event of Grace has two parallel events from the Old Testament, one before the Exodus, the other afterwards. Interestingly, Nicholas used Rainier’s font as the model for his picture of Solomon’s font.

In the LDS temples the oxen supporting the font may refer back to the same points, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles.
LDS font from Oquirrh Mountain Temple (Utah)
American, 2009

Friday, May 9, 2008

Feed My Sheep

Those of us who followed the events of April 2005 heard the text of today’s Gospel, John 21:15-19, read at both the Masses celebrated for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI.

“After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, he said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
This dramatic scene, set on the shores of Galilee, brings together many elements. The risen Lord confronts Simon Peter with a repeated question: “Do you love me?” This is the very same Simon who, in his impetuosity and devotion had responded to a previous question “Who do you say that I am?” with the impetuous “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God” (Matthew, 16:15-16). He is the man who tried to walk on water to reach out to Jesus. But he is also the man who, in his fears and hesitations began to sick amid the waves and, on that final night, denied three times that he knew the man.

The three-fold question of Jesus in this Gospel has often been noted as a reflection of the three denials. The Lord is giving Simon the chance to erase each of those denials with an affirmation “you know I love you”. And, in exchange for these affirmations forgiveness for his betrayal is freely given, and more, Jesus reiterates his delegation of authority and duty to Peter, not only is he to be the rock, with the power to open or close the gates of Heaven, he is to feed and tend the sheep and the lambs. The Good Shepherd is commending His flock to Peter before His Ascension.

This dramatic moment does not seem to have been a favored topic in western art. This seems a bit surprising, since it refers back to the image of the Good Shepherd, which has been extremely popular from the catacombs to the present day. The main image that comes to mind is the beautiful one created by Raphael for one of a set of ten tapestries with subjects from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul that were ordered by Pope Leo X (Medici) shortly after his election as Pope. They were intended to hang on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, covering up the (by then) old-fashioned frescos by Botticelli and Perugino that still adore them. The commission was given to Raphael in 1515 and he had completed the full scale designs by the following year. These were sent to Flanders, which was then the premiere location for tapestry weaving in Europe, and several sets of tapestries were woven from them. One set is currently in the Vatican Museum. The original full-scale designs, called cartoons, were sent back to Rome from Flanders. There they remained for about 100 years. In the early seventeenth century they were sold to King Charles I of England. Charles was an art connoisseur and a great collector. Unfortunately, Charles was also a stubborn man whose love of a dignified worship service and whose political actions and attitudes roused the ire of his Puritan subjects. Their disagreements resulted in the English Civil War of 1641-1649. The royalist side lost the war and Charles was captured, tried for treason and executed. The majority of his large art collection was sold off at bargain prices. However, the Raphael tapestry cartoons were not among the items placed for sale. They remained in the possession of the Commonwealth until the Restoration of 1661, at which time they were returned to the Royal Collection. After several more centuries of wandering, they were given on loan by Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, to the newly founded museum that bears their names, the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they remain today.

Raphael’s tapestry designs recall his work in the earliest of the great stanze of the papal palace, the Stanza della Segnatura. This room, along with its sister stanze and the Sistine Chapel, are undoubtedly the primary jewels of the Vatican Museums. The stories in the designs are clearly readable, unlike some of the stories in the later stanze, and represent Raphael at the height of his career and confidence. In the design illustrating the reading for today’s Mass, for example, we can clearly read the shores and landscape of the sea of Galilee, the group of disciples, the figure of Peter, shown holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19), and Jesus, who points to Peter with his left hand and to a flock of sheep with his right. These directions would have been reversed in the actual tapestry, due to the fact that, although the cartoons were viewed from the front by the weavers, tapestry was always worked from the back, resulting in a reversed image.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Sack of Rome

Every year, on May 6th, the new recruits of the Papal Swiss Guard take their oath of commitment to the service of the Church and the safety of the Pope and the College of Cardinals during a period in which the Holy See is vacant. The date of May 6th was chosen for this ceremony because it commemorates the sacrifice of the Swiss on guard on May 6, 1527, the date known to history as the Sack of Rome.

In 1527 Europe was divided politically, as it had been many times in past centuries, and Italy was the scene of conflict (again, as it had been many times since the falling apart of the Roman Empire). Not for the first time the political divide pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V (Charles I of Spain), against France and an Italian league, composed of the Papal States and the city-states of Venice, Florence and Milan. Poor decisions by all the combatant powers resulted in the Imperial troops, composed mainly of Spanish and German mercenaries, assaulting a lightly defended Rome on May 6, 1527. The force of 189 Swiss Guard, formed only 20 years before, performed the service they had pledged themselves to, unto the point of death. Of the total force 147 were killed. The remaining 42 assisted the Pope, Clement VII (Medici), to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo. The Imperial troops, who were owed wages by the Emperor, then went on a spree of murder, rape, looting, desecration and destruction that lasted eight days. Since many of them were adherents of Luther, there was a distinct element of iconoclasm mixed with the general mayhem. At one point the Luterans organized a mock religious procession in front of the Pope’s refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, and shouted pro-Lutheran slogans. Much of the damage to historic and religious artifacts was irreparable and we are all the poorer on account of it.

This event had some of the same effect on all of Renaissance Italy that September 11, 2001 had on the United States. There was shock, grief and anger. And, like September 11th, some of the effects were short-lived. Politically, it was business as usual in Europe, for centuries to come, although the political power of the Papacy does appear to have been permanently reduced. Even religiously, the effects of the Counter-Reformation were still in the future.

In the past there was a belief that the Sack of Rome ended the High Renaissance. In the memorable phrase of Lord Clark, it resulted in a “failure of nerve” (Kenneth Clark, A Failure of Nerve, Italian Painting 1520-1535, Oxford, 1967). More recent thought has disputed this effect. It is true that the decades following the Sack were decades dominated by the Mannerist style, complex, difficult to read, nervous, oddly proportioned. However, many of these tendencies were already evident on work produced in Rome before 1527. It’s now thought that a mannerist-like phase is part of the normal artistic cycle, as the boundaries of an established style are stretched by experimentation, to the limits they can accept, until they are superseded by a new style.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A forgotten battle and an almost forgotten Pope

Andrea Vicentino, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1603
Venice, Palace of the Doge
April 30 is the feast of St. Pius V. Pius, who reigned from 1566 – 1572, is one of those late 16th-century Counter Reformation popes remembered for helping to pull the Church out of the confusion and gloom that descended on it after the shock of the Reformation. After the frequent scandals that had accompanied the lives of the prince-popes of the High Renaissance (men like Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X) these were mostly pious men of purpose, who lead fairly austere lives. Pius himself, born Antonio Ghislieri, was a friend of the great St. Charles Borromeo, one of the leading figures of the Counter-Reformation.

Battle Standard Carried at Lepanto
Italian, 1571
Gaeta, Museo Diocesano
Among the notable events of St. Pius’ pontificate are the reforms of the breviary and of the liturgy. It is Pius who authorized the Roman Missal that was in use until 1970. However, Pius is mostly remembered in the English speaking world for the promulgation of the bull “Regnans in excelsis“. In this bull, Pius excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I and released her subjects from their allegiance. Although well meant, this set the stage for such sad events as the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Armada, and the Elizabethan government’s persecution of English Catholics, who were now deemed to be traitors almost by definition.

Martin Rota. The Holy League
Croatian, c.1571
London, Trustees of the British Museum
  Here Pope Pius V is shown with his arms 
  spread over the shoulders of King Philip II of 
  Spain (left) and the Doge Alvise I Mocenigo (right) joining
   hands to form the Holy League of 1571.  
  God the Father and the Holy Spirit are seen above them, 
  while a male angel holds a crown above 
  the head of the King and a female angel holds the 
  cap of the Doges above the head of Doge Mocenigo.













What Pius is not remembered for among English speakers is his leadership of the Holy League which gained a tremendous victory in the last great naval battle of the classical world. That is the last great battle between naval forces composed entirely of oar powered galleys. The foe was the previously all-conquering Ottoman navy.

Most people know little of the Ottoman Empire, although they may have heard of it. From the 14th century the Ottoman Turks (the name comes from the founder of the ruling line, Osman) expanded their rule throughout the remains of the old Byzantine Empire, until, by 1400, all that remained of the Empire was the city of Constantinople itself and some tributary territories in the Balkans and Greece. In spite of desperate efforts by the Byzantines, their Empire, direct descendent of the ancient Roman Empire, fell to the Ottomans, led by their young Sultan, Mehmet II, on May 19, 1453.

From this point on the Ottomans controlled the entire Middle East and Anatolia and pushed both east and west, into Persia and Egypt. They also began to push into Central Europe, conquering Hungary and reaching Vienna in 1529, although they were unsuccessful in their attempts to take it. The Ottomans also organized a fleet, which began to capture the islands of the Mediterranean, and they began to harass the Mediterranean mainland, especially in Italy.
Anonymous, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, after 1571
Private Collection


In 1570 they began their attack on Cyprus, then a possession of the Venetian Republic. Finally, the powers of Southern Europe became willing to follow the urgings of Pope Pius and to unite in the Holy League. They gathered a fleet to meet the Turkish navy. The command was given to Don John of Austria, an illegitimate son of the former Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and, therefore, half-brother to Philip II of Spain.

Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Papal States formed the backbone of the Christian fleet. On board the Spanish ship, Marquesa, was a young man who would later become known world-wide as the author of “Don Quixote”, Miguel de Cervantes.

Martin Rota, Battle Formations at Lepanto
Croatian, c. 1571 or later
Boston, Museum of Fine Arats
The ships of the Holy League met the Turkish fleet on October 7, 1571 off the coast of Greece, at what is now called the Gulf of Patras. Both fleets were primarily composed of oared galleys. The ships of the Holy League gained a tremendous victory, sinking or capturing the majority of the ships in the Turkish fleet.

By all accounts, the battle was an extraordinarily ugly fight.1  The Turks lost not only a disproportionate number of ships, but huge numbers of sailors and soldiers, by some estimates as many as twice the Christian losses.

Adriaen Collaert, the Battle of Lepanto
Flemish, after 1571
London, Trustees of the British Museum









Contemporary or near-contemporary paintings and engravings suggest some of the ferocity of the battle and, especially, the rather tight engagements that were at its core.


Andries van Eertvelt, the Battle of Lepanto
Flemish, c.1629
Private Collection
The victory helped to lift the pressure of Turkish aggression from the mainland Mediterranean countries. Although the Turks were able to replace the ships quickly, it took them much longer to replace the lost seamen. They continued to press into Central Europe by land for another hundred years, but the security Southern Europe gained from the victory of Lepanto helped to usher in the age of the Baroque in Italy and Spain.

Johann Jakob Zeiller, Pius V Prays to the
Madonna and Child During the Battle of Lepanto
German, 1762-63
Ottobeuren, Monastery Chuch of
Saints Theodore and Alexander
While the Holy League fleet was at sea the Pope had urged Catholic Europe to pray, in particular to pray the Rosary. The sailors and soldiers of the fleet were also urged to pray the Rosary before the battle began. The victory was, therefore, credited to Our Lady’s intercession. In gratitude, Pope Pius instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory on October 7. The name of the feast was subsequently changed to Our Lady of the Rosary, which is how we celebrate it to this day.

Franz Martin Kuen, Thanksgiving Procession and
Feast of the Rosary at Rome
After the Victory at Lepanto
German, 1768
Erbach Alb-Donau-Kreis, Church of St. Martin

















Titian, Philip II Offering the Infante
Don Fernando to Heaven
Italian, 1573-1575
Madrid, Museo del Prado


Many of the artists who have pictured the Battle of Lepanto were Venetian, quite appropriate since Venetian ships played a major part in the battle. Among them are the contemporary painters, Titian and Veronese. Whereas Titian’s picture “Philip II Offering the Infante Don Fernando To Heaven” is a predominantly secular image (Victory (or an angel) hands the palm of victory to Philip’s baby son, Ferdinand, as Philip holds him. In the background is a scene of the battle, in the foreground, a Turkish prisoner.



Titian, Spain Comes to the Aid of Religion
Italian, 1572-1575
Madrid, Museo del Prado











Titian also painted an allegorical picture which promoted Spain's leadership in the struggle against both the Ottoman Turks and the emerging heresies of Protestant Northern Europe, while recalling the role the Spanish monarchy had played in the reconquest of Spain from the Moors.  Spain, personified as two warrior women (presumably representing the double crowns of Castille and Aragon), come to the aid of the near naked figure of Religion, who is beset and apparently wounded by serpents, which infest the tree stump behind her.  On the left we can see the burning ships of the Turkish fleet at Lepanto.  The two commissions together suggest how Philip II, who was the great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, wished to be seen by the world.

Paolo Veronese, Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1572
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia



On the other hand, Veronese’s picture “The Battle of Lepanto”, while giving us a view of the battle, actually celebrates the miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary. The upper portion of the picture presents a view of heaven, where among the clouds and choirs of angels, the city of Venice, la Serenissima herself, kneels before Our Lady. Saints, including Peter and Paul and two Dominicans, join her in supplication, urging Mary to intercede. From heaven rays of light fall to earth, underlining the intercession that she grants.






However, like Titian, Veronese also painted another work that offers a slightly more secular view of the battle and its aftermath.  This is The Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, painted by Veronese in the late 1570s or early 1580s and possibly repainted in part sometime later.


Paolo Veronese Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto
Italian, 1577-1582
Venice, Palazzo Ducale
In it we see the victorious Venetian admiral, Sebastiano Venier, in his later years as Doge of Venice, being presented to Christ by Faith, holding a chalice, and St. Justine, holding the palm of martyrdom and the knife that killed her. Between them is the figure of the lion of St. Mark, one of the emblems of the Venetian Republic. Speculation has suggested that the figure now seen as Christ was originally that of St. Mark, the patron of Venice.  This seems a distinct possibility, especially since Christ appears to be holding an anchor stone, which would seem to be a more appropriate attribute of St. Mark.  In the left background there is a scene from the battle.  This heavenly reception for Venier is his reward for the victory.

One might think that, because Lepanto is now a widely ignored event, no artist has represented it since those who were contemporaries. But, in 2001, the American artist, Cy Twombly, who lives in Rome, executed a twelve painting series , called “Lepanto” for the Venice Biennale.
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001

Although abstract, the pictures do evoke the confusion and intensity of the battle and their bright colors recall both the rays of light from heaven in Veronese’s painting and the bloody decks of contemporary accounts. The cycle has since been exhibited in New York, Houston and Munich. So, there is still some resonance from the battle even in the secular world.

Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001
Cy Twombly, Lepanto
American, 2001














And so, every October 7th for the last 435 years Catholics have celebrated this victory that freed Southern Europe from a serious threat, guaranteed the continuing existence of Catholic Christianity and allowed a breathing space in which the arts could flourish.



© M. Duffy, 2008, 2016