Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Conversion of St. Paul

Michelangelo, Conversion of St. Paul
Italian, 1542-1545
Vatican City, Pauline Chapel

On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?'
And he said to me,'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, 'What shall I do, sir?'

Acts 22: 6-10

With these words St. Paul described the powerful experience that befell him on the road to Damascus, an experience that completely reshaped his life. From that point on, the persecutor of the Way in Jerusalem became the great apostle of the Way to the entire world, to Jew and Gentile alike. From this point on the man who had held the cloaks of those who had stoned St. Stephen to death for proclaiming Jesus the Nazorean as Lord, was himself persecuted, imprisoned and martyred for the sake of that same Jesus.

There are few more dramatic moments in the history of the early church than this event on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus. It is a drama that has received considerable attention from some of the world’s greatest artists. Among the greatest to have tackled it are two Michelangelos: Michelangelo Buonarotti (known as “Michelangelo”) and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (known as “Caravaggio”).

Both men initially imagined the scene as one of high drama and activity. Indeed, Michelangelo imagined it, in his great late painting in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel (painted 1542-1545), as an event involving large, active groups of figures in both heaven and earth. From heaven, Christ, surrounded by many other figures (angels, saints) plunges dramatically downward, a bolt of lightening springing from his hand, almost in the manner of the classical deity, Jupiter. The bolt hits the earthly group, which centers on the figure of Saul, lying on the ground, with his arm shielding his face, as a companion supports him. Other companions react by trying to shield themselves, or trying to flee, or simply by cowering, while one person tries to recapture Saul’s startled horse. Michelangelo’s Saul appears curiously older than he is usually depicted, being white bearded. He appears to bear a slight resemblance to Michelangelo himself. One wonders if there was some biographical content in his image. Or is it simply that he wanted to balance the older St. Peter, whose martyrdom is depicted on the opposite wall of the Pauline Chapel? In the composition, Michelangelo recapitulates some of his work in the Sistine Chapel, especially the “Last Judgment”, while harking back as well to such early Florentine works as the long-vanished “Battle of Cascina”.

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul
Italian, ca. 1600
Rome, S. Luigi dei Francesi, Contarelli Chapel
Caravaggio painted two very different representations of the event on the road to Damascus relatively early in his career (both are dated as being circa 1600). The first version is usually called “The Conversion of Saul” and resides in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome. It is typical of many of Caravaggio’s compositions from around this time. (One thinks, for example, of the “Martyrdom of St. Matthew” in the Contarelli Chapel of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome). There is a great rush of movement from the upper right where Christ and a supporting angel appear to plummet down, toward the lower left, where Saul lies, his hands covering his face. Caravaggio, of course, was the master of dramatic lighting effects, his great legacy to almost all later painters. And there is plenty of drama in the way in which the light from heaven illumines the face of the angel, the hands of Christ, the face of Saul’s startled companion and finally swells to a crescendo on Saul’s body and protective hands. This painting, commissioned by Cardinal Tiberio Cerasi for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, was never installed there. It was recently cleaned and exhibited in Milan during Advent 2008.

Caravaggio, Conversion of St. Paul
Italian, ca. 1600
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel
The second version, which did get installed in the Cerasi Chapel, where it remains today, is often called “The Road to Damascus”. It is an extraordinary painting. Instead of a narrative full of frantic movement we are faced with the experience itself. With our vision blocked by the body of Saul's horse, we are, as it were, inside the silent center of the experience at the moment it happens. We are one of Saul’s companions. We see him in his weakness, his shock, his blindness. We see him sprawled on his back, in a tangle of arms and legs: his own and those of his horse and other companion. We do not see the cause of his fall, we see, as his companions did, only the light. But, although we cannot even see much of his face, we see the intensity of his reaction. We know he is listening to a voice we cannot hear. And we are struck with wonder.

When you stand in the Cerasi Chapel, which is very, very tiny, the effect of this monumental picture and its equally monumental pendent, “The Crucifixion of St. Peter” is truly overwhelming. One of the aims of Counter-Reformation art and of Baroque art in general is to engage the spectator, to make the events of salvation history present to the viewer. It is hard to imagine a more truly involving work of art.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

New One On Me

Jan Gossaert, St. John the Baptist
Flemish, 1521
Toledo, OH, Museum of Art
This afternoon I took advantage of the Metropolitan Museum's holiday opening hours to revisit and complete viewing of the exhibition "Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures:  Jan Gossaert's Renaissance", which closed today.  I had made an earlier visit but, on that occasion, the onset of back pain had caused me to cut my visit short and leave with several rooms unvisited.  Since then I've tried several times to complete the viewing, but been prevented by this or that.  So, with one day left, I absolutely HAD to get there. 

Gossaert is not one of my favorite painters.  Indeed, I find most of his work rather ugly.  But he is important in the story of how the classical Renaissance aesthetic penetrated the northern European countries.  At the start of the fifteenth century Italy and the countries north of the Alps, were artistically different worlds.  By the mid-seventeenth century they were aesthetically unified.  Gossaert's work is part of the story of how they got that way.

One of  the rooms I had not viewed on my earlier visit centered on images of the Passion of Christ.  And among the works on display were the disparate pieces of what has formerly been known as the "Salamanca Triptych".  As the wall cards (and catalogue) explain, a picture of the "Deposition" had, at some point in the century after Gossaert's death, been attached to two wings, presumably from another triptych (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 1521).  The wings show on their reverse sides a typical scene of the Annunciation in grisaille, with Mary on one wing and Gabriel on the other.  On the front sides are two saints, St. Peter and St. John the Baptist.  When I saw the St. John the Baptist, I broke into a smile.  Here, two days after my post about St. John the Baptist and the Lamb, was another such image, and a new one to me!  The image here couldn't be clearer.  The Lamb of God sits at John's feet and there is no mistaking John's gesture.  So, I share this new image with you.

If you would like to see more of Gossart's work, please check out the exhibition website http://www.metmuseum.org/special/se_event.asp?OccurrenceId={E166EBFA-C573-4E54-80E8-42B4CCF0E616}

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Behold the Lamb!

Pietro Bernini, St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1612-1615
Rome, S. Andrea della Valle

"John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." 
(John 1:29)

Not only do these words from the Gospel of John provide the text for the triple acclamation/supplication prior to Communion in every Mass they also provide the image behind many works of art.

Most interesting in several ways is the relief (ca. 1612-15) by Pietro Bernini from the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle in Rome. Pietro Bernini was both an important sculptor in his own right and the father and teacher of the great GianLorenzo Bernini (the genius behind most of the sculpture and architecture of Baroque Rome, including such masterworks as the Baldacchino and Cathedra Petri in St. Peter's, the fountain in Piazza Navona and the colonnade in St. Peter's Square). 

Dirk Bouts, St. John the Baptist
Netherlandish, ca. 1470
Munich, Alte Pinakotek
This relief by Pietro belongs to a long traditon of images, both in Italy and in the north, that show St. John the Baptist accompanied by a lamb.

One example, by the Netherlandish painter Dirk Bouts of ca. 1470, is shown at the right. Here St. John points to a miniature lamb, seated on the Scriptures, an image referring both back to John's statement at Jesus' Baptism and forward to the book of Revelation.

Another by Hieronymous Bosch, shows a reclining but meditative St. John pointing to a lamb that lies on the ground in front of him, while rather weird and somewhat sinister looking plants grow up around them.
Hieronymous Bosch, St. John the Bpatist in the Wilderness
Madrid, Museo Lazaro Galdiano

El Greco, St. John the Baptist
Greco-Spanish, ca. 1600
San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum

Closer to Pietro Bernini's own time, the Greco-Spanish artist, El Greco, portrayed John again as a meditative figure, engaged in inner realms, while the lamb becomes more of a symbolic attribute than an actual reference to Jesus.

But, Pietro's approach is typical of the heightened urgency to communicate that was a mark of the earliest Baroque. These paintings and sculptures sought urgently to make contact with the viewer and to urge them to participate with them in a spatial experience. They frequently look directly out at the flesh and blood audience, which today includes us, and direct us to some other object, distant from both the viewer and the work of art. In the case of this Pietro Bernini St. John, his limbs projecting far beyond the wall plane, directs us to the altar of the Barberini Chapel. There the true Lamb of God appears whenever Mass is celebrated or the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle. This St. John truly urges us to "Behold the Lamb of God"!

Jusepe Ribera, St. John the Baptist
Spanish, 1644-1647
Madrid, Museo del Prado

The activism of Pietro's St. John is underlined by comparing it to the slightly later St. John the Baptist by the Spanish Baroque artist, Jusepe Ribera.  Ribera's St. John does make eye contact with the viewer, but his interaction with the lamb in the picture is not the urgent appeal to the viewer to "Behold the Lamb of God!".  This lamb seems more a pet than a saviour.

This activism, this breaking out of the visual plane that habitually distances the viewer from the work of art, was continued and refined by Pietro's son, GianLorenzo. Many of his works include at least one figure who directly challenges the viewer to enter into the visionary experience, made present before us in marble or bronze.