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.

Bishop Bernward's Bronze Doors
German, 1015
Hildesheim, Cathedral of St. Mary

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, takes 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.

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.

Raphael, Feed My Sheep
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
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.

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 at the top 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.
Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens
Italian, 1515-1516
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
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)

© M. Duffy, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

Of Rocks and Stones

Moses Strikes the Rock
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 769, fol. 118r

 “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.

The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.  But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.

And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.

The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”

Matthew 7:24-27 (Excerpt from the Gospel for the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

The readings for today’s Mass, the ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time,Year A, are full of references to rocks. In the Psalm the Lord is the rock of refuge and a fortress (Psalm 31:3-4, with the response “Lord, be my rock of safety”). While, in the Gospel, Jesus uses the analogy of buildings built on stone and those built on sand for those who take His message to heart and act upon it to those who do not (Matthew 7:21-27). When storms and troubles come, the house built on stone survives; the house built on sand is destroyed.

The meanings of the words “rock” and “stone” in the Scriptures often seem to mean the same thing. I know that there have been debates over the exact meanings of the original words and their precise meanings, but in English there is little difference. We call cliffs “rock” formations, we call building materials “stone” and we call small particles of minerals “rocks” or “stones” pretty interchangeably.  In jewelry we call most of the shiny minerals we insert into gold, silver or platinum "stones" while unusually large units of one particular clear stone, the diamond, are often referred to as "rocks".  

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Moses Striking the Rock
From a Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1320-1340
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
MS KB 71 A23, fol. 57r

These occurrences today led me to do a little musing on some rocks and stones in Scripture. The list is by no means all inclusive, just a few things that popped to mind.

God alone is my rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:3)

In the desert, Moses strikes the rock to produce water (Exodus 17:1-7).

Christ is the “spiritual rock” that refreshed the Israelites in their wanderings (1 Corinthians 10:4).

Christ is “the living stone, rejected by human beings” and His followers are themselves “living stones to be built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

Peter is the rock on which the church is founded (Matthew 16:13-18).

Rocks and stones figure prominently in the temptation of Christ. Satan demands that Jesus change rocks into bread, that He throw Himself off the temple parapet so that He will be supported by angels “lest you dash your foot against a stone” and takes Him to a “high mountain” (a very large rock) (Matthew 4:1-9 and Luke 4:1-12).

Temptation on the Mountain
from Pelerinage de Jesu-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 193v

And, of course, Jesus is laid in a tomb cut out of the rock, with a large stone blocking the opening (Matthew 27:59-60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53).

Michelino de'Molinari de Besozzoll, Jesus is Laid in the Tomb
From a Prayer Book
Italian, c. 1425-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 944, fol. 24v

On Easter morning, the stone is rolled away (Matthew 28: 2; Mark 16:2-3; Luke 24:2; John 20:1).

Agnolo Bronzino, The Resurrection
Italian, 1552
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata

There are many, many such Scriptural images of stones and rocks and, in the history of Christian art, there are far too many images using rocky landscapes for me to attach appropriate images. However, one of the stoniest images I can think of is the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio’s “Meditation on the Passion”.

Vittore Carpaccio, Meditation on the Passion
Italian, ca. 1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In this imaginative painting, the dead Christ is seated in a chair resembling a throne, which includes a Hebrew inscription on the back. The chair is broken, as if struck by lightening and plants have begun to grow on it. To the right sits the figure of Job, dressed in a loincloth. To the left sits Saint Jerome, the translator and commentator of the Bible. He is identified by the inclusion of his pet lion, located in the distance behind his chair.

Almost everywhere one looks there are rocks. In the left background is a rocky cliff, in which there appears to be a cave, or possibly, a rock cut tomb. Small stones and parts of skeletons litter the ground. We are invited by the two figures, one from the Old Testament, one a Father of the Church to contemplate the Divine Mystery of the Redemption.

© M. Duffy, 2008

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?")

Limestone Relief of Ahknaten, Nefertiti and Two Princesses Offering to the Aten
Egyptian, 18th Dynasty, c. 1353-1336 BC
Cairo, Egyptian Museum

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, Nefertiti and two princesses offering to the Aten”, Cairo, Egyptian Museum, left), 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” below). 

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.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, The Sacrifice of Noah
Italian, c. 1508-1512
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Sistine Chapel

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 ( 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.

Nicholas Serracini, Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste Interior
Italian, c. 1900-1910
New York, Church of Saint Jean-Baptiste

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 or any other traditional belief.

Consequently, it is now very difficult for patrons of religious art to find persons who practice high contemporary style 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 Museum 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".

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1606
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Patronage problems are nothing new, of course. One of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, “The Death of the Virgin” (Louvre, c. 1606), was rejected by the church for which it had been commissioned. The church 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.

© M. Duffy, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi in the Vatican Stanze

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

Raphael Sanzio, Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament
Italian, 1510-1511
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Apostolic Palace, Stanza della Segnatura

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.

Raphael Sanzio, The Mass at Bolsena
Italian, 1512
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Apostolic Palace, Stanza di Eliodoro
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 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 (, 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!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Why Christian Art Is Lame, #2

William Holman Hunt, Light of the World
English, c. 1851-1852
Manchester, City Art Gallery

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. 

Warner Sallman, Christ at the Heart's Door
American, c. 1950s
Anderson, IN, Anderson University,
Scheierman Gallery
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.

© M. Duffy, 2008

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why Christian Art Is Lame #1

Piero della Francesca, Madonna and Child with Saints, Angels
and Federico da Montefeltro
Called the San Bernardino Altarpiece or the Montefeltro Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1472-1474
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

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 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, seem 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 of what I mean are:

Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from New York's Neue Galerie 

and Henri Matisse's La Musique of 1939 from the Albright-Knox Gallery (or Buffalo AKG Art Museum) in Buffalo, NY.


In both paintings the human figures are seen as flattened against the flat patterned backgrounds. They are as much a pattern as those backgrounds.

With these and later, even more attenuated, images of human beings it becomes more difficult to tell a visual story that can appeal to (or even be understood by) most people.  Consequently, attempts to use this new visual vocabulary for religious purposes often fall very short of being attractive, comprehensible and didactic.

©  M. Duffy, 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Oxen Under the Font

Reinier de Huy, Baptismal Font  showing scene of the Baptism of Jesus
Mosan, c. 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, The Baptism of Jesus
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Barthelemy

The font is decorated with four scenes of baptism, beginning with the baptism of two young men by John the Baptist in the Jordan.*  

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Two Youths by John the Baptist
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy

Among the scenes of subsequent adult Christian baptisms are two which show the use of similar fonts. 

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Cornelius
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy

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.

Reinier de Huy, Baptism of Crato
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy

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.

Reinier de Huy, Baptismal Font showing the Oxen
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Barthelemy

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

 he “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”.

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. Therefore, 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.

NIcholas of Verdun, The Molten Sea
From the Klosterneuburg Altarpiece
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey Museum

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

* There is one earlier scene that is not specifically a baptism.  This is a scene in which Saint John the Baptist is seen preaching repentance to several male figures, one of whom is a soldier.  This presumably refers to the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which soldiers question John about how they should act "Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”" (Luke 3:14)

Reinier de Huy, Saint John the Baptist Preaching Repentance
Mosan, c. 1107-1118
Liege, Church of St. Bartelemy

© M. Duffy, 2008.  Pictures updated 2022.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition 
© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.