Sunday, April 27, 2008

More Visual Links to “Spe Salvi”

Reflecting on my post of yesterday I felt a tickle of memory. So, I pulled from my bookshelves the catalogue of the 1983 exhibition “The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art” and turned to the pages on the Museo Pio-Clementina, the member of the Vatican Museums that safeguards the collection of early Christian art. Paging through the catalogue entries I found what was causing the tickle and something else besides.

The something else is a monument inscription to a twenty-year old youth named Datus, dedicated by his parents (cat. 139, dated to 3rd or 4th c.). It is the very monument spoken of by Pope Benedict in the section of “Spe Salvi” that I included in yesterday’s post (Spe Salvi, Sec. 6). In English it reads: “Given by his parents for their well-beloved son, Datus, who lived 20 years, in peace”. Such inscriptions were not uncommon in the Roman world, as indeed they continue to be common in our own. The recent reinstallation and reopening of the Greek and Roman collections at the Metropolitan Museum show many similar inscriptions and monuments to children, young adults, wives, husbands, etc. There are some major differences, however, between this monument and those. It is, first of all, not a very impressive slab. The parents must have had some money in order to be able to afford the monument at all. However, by comparison to the monuments in the Metropolitan, they were not rich. The inscription is not as finely chiseled. It’s a bit ragged, in fact. So, the carver who made it was not one of the highly skilled. But, what makes it remarkable is not the inscription, but the rather clumsy image that occupies the left side of the slab. Christ, identified by a halo, holds a staff in his right hand and points it at a somewhat sketchily executed image of a building with a small pedimented porch with three steps. On the top step stands a figure, completely wrapped in bands like a mummy. It is the raising of Lazarus (John 11:39-44). The family knows the story of Lazarus and has the hope that as he was raised, so their “well-beloved son, Datus” will also be raised “in peace”. It is the self-same hope felt by Christians everywhere.

I confess though that this monument was not the one that caught my memory when I viewed the exhibition at the Met all those years ago. The one that caught my eye then, and that I have carried in my memory ever since, is the monument to Severa (cat. 136, dated ca.330).

In this stone the left side bears a portrait of a Roman woman, presumably Severa herself. On the right three figures in short tunics and capes, carrying gifts approach a woman seated in a wicker chair, who holds out her baby. The baby reaches his arms out toward the first of the three figures. In the space between the baby and the first figure appears a star. Behind the woman stands a male figure who points at the star. Quite clearly this is an early image of the Adoration of the Magi. The catalogue identifies the standing male figure as Balaam, who prophesied “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).

Important as an early image of the Adoration of the Magi is, however, the thing that made the Severa monument memorable to me was not the images, it was the inscription. The inscription, which is placed between the image of Severa and the scene of the Magi, says: “SEVERA IN DEO VIVAS (Severa may you live in God)”. This blew me out of the water when I first saw it. It was one of those moments when the veil of time, like the veil in the Temple on the first Good Friday, is ripped in two. It made the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians resonate “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead….For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. “(Colossians 2:12, 3:3,4) Therefore, this Roman woman and her family in 330 believed as I believe now. They have long since ceased to breathe and to walk in the world, but both they and I live in Christ. We are one body across the centuries because we live in Christ through baptism.

© M. Duffy, 2008

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Further on Early Christian Sarcophagi

Sarcophagus with Biblical scenes (detail)
Roman Early Christina, c. 300-400
Vatican, Pio-Cristiano Museum
Following the posting I prepared yesterday in reflection on the Gospel of the day, I was reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent references to other images that appear on early Christian sarcophagi in his encyclical, Spe Salvi. In sections 5 and 6 the Holy Father says:

It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free. In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this. Heaven is not empty. Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love. (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 5)

The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me ...” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Sec. 6)

So called Sarcophagus of Stilicho
Late Antique, c. 385-390
Milan, Sant Ambrogio

The images of Christ the Philosopher appear in a similar fashion to that of the Traditio Legis on some sarcophagi of the fourth and fifth centuries. Indeed, the chief difference seems to be that, as the Philosopher rather than the Lawgiver, Christ appears standing. See, for example, these two images from sarchophagi from the fourth (Milan) and fifth centuries (Ravenna).

Sarcophagus from San Giovanni Battista, Ravenna
Late Antique, Early 5th Century
Ravenna, Museo Nazionale

Examples of the Good Shepherd abound in early Christian art, both on sarchophagi, free-standing sculpture and in mosaics. Among the most famous images are the statue of the Good Shepherd in the Vatican Museum and the mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Both have deep roots in images from the pre-Christian classical world.

The Good Shepherd
Roman Early Christian, Late 3rd -Early 4th Century
Vatican,  Musei Vaticani, Pio-Cristiano Museum
I have particular affection for the mosaic from Ravenna because of its calm and serene atmosphere and because of the way Christ the Shepherd reaches across to tickle the chin of one of the sheep. She, for her part, raises her head in response to His touch. Possibly, she represents Galla Placidia herself, raising her head in hope and trust to the touch of her Shepherd and Redeemer.
The Good Shepherd
Late Antique/Early Byzantine, c. 425-450
Ravenna, Tomb of Galla Placidia

There is a long history of this gesture, sometimes referred to as the "chin chuck", that stretches from ancient Egyptian art to that of the nineteenth century. It is usually directed from man to woman or from parent to child. In this case, it flows from the Shepherd to the sheep, from the Redeemer to the redeemed.

© M. Duffy, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

When Angels Aren't...(or are they?)

Jan Gossaert, Madonna and Child with Music Making Angels
Flemish, c.1510
Private Collection

One of the most common images in Christian art, both Eastern and Western are angels. Angelic choirs surround us when we worship. They appear as adoring figures in paintings of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary. In scenes of the Annunciation, Gabriel is the resplendent messenger of God.

Angels are often active as witnesses to heroic martyrdoms. Sometimes, especially in the case of Michael, they are the subject of a work of art.

Many of them are the magnificent and solemn winged beings that one would expect of the spirits that stand before the throne of God and move swiftly to do His will in the universe. Some of them have a different function. Perhaps they represent a less exalted level within the divine economy. Indeed, sometimes not all of them are, strictly speaking, angelic. Some of them may even be putti.

Putti (or the singular putto) is an Italian word more common among historians of art and architecture than among the general population, but every one knows what they are. The secular version is especially prolific around Valentine’s Day. They are those charming, cute, mischievous winged children sometimes called cherubs or cupids and they have a history much too long for their tiny wings. They are the descendants of the Greek god of love, Eros.

Originally, Eros was depicted as an attractive, but fully grown young man, fully ready and capable of being the husband of the beautiful Psyche. He was also associated with the more mature aspects of human love, those associated with commitment and mature understanding. He was recognized as a god in his own right.
Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche
Italian, 1786-1793
Paris, Musée du Louvre

However, as the centuries progressed, he grew ever younger and came more and more under the shadow of his formidable mother, the goddess of sexual love, Aphrodite. By Hellenistic times (the 4th - 2nd century B.C.), he had become a mischievous toddler, armed with the fearsome arrows of desire which he used to create havoc among mortals.
Sleeping Eros
Greek, 3rd-2nd Century BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

He was attended by a train of similar figures, the Erotes, symbolizing perhaps all the strange and disconcerting alterations of everyday life which are associated with the idea of “falling in love”.

The Romans, as they did with so much of Greek antiquity, adopted him into their own pantheon of gods and he became the familiar Cupid, attendant on his mother, who became the Roman goddess, Venus.

Cupid from Ivory Pyxis (small box)
Roman, 1st Century AD
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Some of his old mystery was returned to him, however, in the persons of his attendant Erotes, who became identified with the native Roman spirits, the Genii, who were attendant companions to the souls of persons and who led them to their ascent to the gods.

They were imported into Christianity under the latter aspect, so that, by the fourth century, they appear, for example, in the mosaics of the tomb of Constantia, the daughter of Constantine, in what is now the church of Sta. Costanza in Rome.
Putti Treading Grapes from Mosaics
Roman, c. 350 AD
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza
There they are shown playing among the images of grapes and wheat, which refer, of course, to the Eucharist. They also appear on some Christian sarcophagi, especially those which show similar Eucharistic references, such as grape vines.

During the Byzantine period and the Western European Dark Ages they disappear. Angels during these times come into their own as splendidly dressed, solemn and beautiful winged adults. They represent the eternal world of Heaven, calm and serene, and reflect the awesome presence of God.
Madonna and Child with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel
Byzantine, 1180s
Monreale, Cathedral. Main Apse
As Europe recovered from the various invasions which had submerged the old Roman culture a thaw began to set in for angels too, but gradually.

Giotto’s great fresco of the Lamentation in the Arena Chapel at Padua features a group of charming small angels emoting in the sky above. They express their feelings of grief in no uncertain terms, tearing their hair, rending their garments, even screaming.

Giotto, Sorrowing Angels
Detail of The Lamentation from the Life of Christ Cycle
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

However, although they are small, there is no doubt that they are definitely angels and not putti. Their emotions, although strong, are serious and noble. Putti are never anything but playful.

By the time the softening into realism which began with Giotto had reached its zenith in the great artists of the High Renaissance, especially Raphael, putti had returned to their former position.

They appear everywhere. In the art of Raphael alone, they cavort in pagan cheerfulness in the decorations of the Vatican Loggia and appear in barely contained solemnity in religious paintings. To Raphael, indeed, we currently owe the ubiquitous image of the two little “angels” from the Sistine Madonna which currently decorate everything from stationery to umbrellas.

Raphael, Sistine Madonna
Italian, 1513-1514
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

At almost the same time, similar beings attend the goddess Venus in the work of Titian and Veronese.

Titian, Venus with a Mirror
Italian, c. 1550
Venice, Galleria Franchetti, Ca d'Oro

Once established in the work of such a great classical painter of the High Renaissance, the position of putti was firmly assured. They appear continually in both secular and religious painting, barely distinguishable from one another.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Immaculate Conception
Spanish, 1676
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
One need only think of Murillo’s well-known paintings of the Immaculate Conception and compare them to any mythological or amorous painting by Boucher or Fragonard, especially one involving Venus or human lovers, to see how closely the “cherubs” of the one are related to the “putti” of the other.
Francois Boucher, Allegory of Painting
French, 1765
Washington, National Gallery of Art

 To both the sacred and the profane these little winged characters impart their special touch of frolic and joy.

© M. Duffy, 2008

© M. Duffy, 2008 

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

In the beginning

This blog has several aims.

The first is to offer some thoughts, from a Catholic perspective, on the art of Western Christianity over the last 19 centuries. I intend to do this in both general and specific ways. The general way will begin with a particular work of art. In the specific case I will begin with the Word and will try to connect the liturgical readings to works of art that reflect them. Not every Biblical passage has a corresponding work of art, but many do.

Another aim is that of offering information and reflections on museum collections or special exhibitions that may be of interest to people interested in western art. I live in Manhattan and have ready access to its many museums and to museums on the entire eastern seaboard and sometimes in Europe.

And finally, I aim to practice the art of writing, at least the art of writing that has no connection to my working life. All my life, people have been urging me to write. I've wanted to, but felt I lacked a subject to focus on. Although I have an excellent education in the liberal arts and in the history of art in particular (I'm an abd from the Institute of Fine Arts of NYU) I have not had a professional art historian's career. But the frustrated teacher yearns to move herself into an expression of what is important to her. The final spark came from the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to New York the weekend of April 18 - 20, 2008. I hope this will be my contribution to the work of spreading the good news of Christ, the Word Incarnate.