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

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 (Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery). This Icon of the Trinity uses subtle differences of color and position to distinguish between the Divine Persons.

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(Florence, SS. Annunziata, ca. 1453). 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. 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 worshipping the Trinity(Ducal Palace, Mantua), 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.