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.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Sack of Rome

New Swiss Guardsman making his oath of commitment.  He holds up three fingers in honor of the Holy Trinity
as he grasps the Guard's flag and swears to defend the Pope.
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 of 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. 

Dirk Volkertszoon Coomhert, After Maarten van Heemskerck, Castel Sant' Angelo Beseiged by Imperial Troops
From The Victories of Emperor Charles V
Flemish, 1555-1556
London, British Museum
The caption reads pretty much the same in all three languages presented:  "With Rome captured, Pope Clement was closed into the tower of Hadrian.  But after paying much gold and silver he was released." (My free translation for all three.)  One can see that the Pope has appeared in the center of the loggia on top of the building at the sound of the trumpet blown by the mounted man at the middle of the composition.
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.

© M. Duffy, 2008