Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Taking Up the Cross

Francois Duquesnoy, St. Andrew
French, 1629-1633
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica
Then he said to all,
"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?"
Luke 9:23-25

It's never easy to take up the cross, nor should it be. Sometimes it will lead you to laying down your own life for the sake of the Name.

St. Andrew by Francois Duquesnoy (at right).
Duquesnoy was one of three other sculptors employed by Bernini to create the colossal statues that stand in the niches built into the gigantic piers at the crossing (where nave and transepts intersect) of St. Peter's Basilica.
According to tradition, after preaching the Gospel in what is today Turkey and the Balkans, St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter, was crucified on an X-shaped cross during the reign of Nero.
As with the other three piers and their related statues, they are part of an amazing statement of the faith which Bernini developed in his designs for the furnishing of the crossing area. One of the greatest art history teachers I ever had, Irving Lavin, has written extensively on this design. Some of his work may be found at this link . For the specific information on the crossing, its niches and statues, follow this path (for some reason the precise link can't be copied): click on "Library" from the links at the left side of the page, then on the image of the cover of "St. Peter's in the Vatican" (red cover with circular image of the basilica, second from the right in the second row), then "The Crossing Piers" hyperlink.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the Divine Image He Created Them

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam
Italian, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
God created man in his image;
(Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam)

in the divine image He created him;
(ad imaginem Dei creavit illum)

male and female He created them.
(masculum et feminam creavit eos.)
Genesis 1:27 in the New American Bible and Latin Vulgate translations.

High above the heads of those who stand or sit in the Sistine Chapel (Rome, Vatican), be they tourists craning upward with open mouths, the cardinals in solemn conclave to elect a Pope or the Pope celebrating Mass, fly the great ceiling frescos of Michelangelo. Painted between 1508 and 1512, by commission of Pope Julius II, these paintings are one of the great monuments of Western art.

Detail showing Eve in God's left arm
In those four years, Michelangelo took a bland, early Renaissance ceiling, painted dark blue with silver stars, and transformed it into a ceiling of majesty, with central scenic panels, divided by illusory architecture and telling the story of salvation from the Creation of Light to the Flood. In the areas between the vaults he also presented the prophets of the Old Testament, the sibyls of the ancient pagan world and the ancestors of Christ.

Probably the most familiar of all the images from the ceiling is the one that illustrates the passage of Genesis 1:27 from today’s readings (reproduced above right). Usually called the “Creation of Adam”, it actually shows something more complex. Yes, God is reaching out to the reclining (and not yet fully alive) Adam to animate him. But look further. As He animates Adam with His right hand, the left arm of God is wrapped around the shoulders of the already created Eve. She for her part grasps His arm and looks with evident interest at the about to be animated Adam.

Michelangelo, Creation of Eve
Italian, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

There is another account in Genesis, also familiar to us, of the creation of Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Michelangelo also painted that story on the Sistine ceiling.  This is the more traditional artistic view of the Creation of Eve but it lacks much of the energy, the grace and the mystery of Michelangelo's first image.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Two Michelangelos

 Michelangelo Buonarroti, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1542-1545
Vatican City, Apostolic Palace, Pauline Chapel

"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?'
And he said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, 'What shall I do, sir?'
Acts 22: 6-10
With these words Saint Paul described the powerful experience that befell him on the road to Damascus, an experience that completely reshaped his life. From that point on, the persecutor of the Way in Jerusalem became the great apostle of the Way to the entire world, to Jew and Gentile alike. From this point on the man who had held the cloaks of those who had stoned Saint Stephen to death for proclaiming Jesus the Nazorean as Lord, was himself persecuted, imprisoned and martyred for the sake of that same Jesus. From that time on Saul of Tarsis became Paul, the preacher and teacher.

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

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

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Conversion of Saint Paul (detail)
Italian, c. 1542-1545
Vatican City, Pauline Chapel

In the composition, Michelangelo recapitulates some of his work in the Sistine Chapel, especially the “Last Judgment”, while harking back as well to such early Florentine works as the long-vanished “Battle of Cascina”.

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

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Odescalchi Balbi Collection


The second version, which did get installed in the Cerasi Chapel, where it remains today, is often called “The Road to Damascus”. It is an extraordinary painting. Instead of a narrative full of frantic movement we are faced with the experience itself. With our vision blocked by the body of Saul's horse, we are, as it were, inside the silent center of the experience at the moment it happens. We are one of Saul’s companions. We see him in his weakness, his shock, his blindness. 

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul
Italian, c. 1600-1601
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerisi Chapel

We see him sprawled on his back, in a tangle of arms and legs: his own and those of his horse and other companion. We do not see the cause of his fall, we see, as his companions did, only the light. But, although we cannot even see much of his face, we see the intensity of his reaction. We know he is listening to a voice we cannot hear. And we are struck with wonder.

Michelangelo Merisi called Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (detail)
Italian, c. 1600-1601
Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerisi Chapel

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

© M. Duffy, 2009, pictures updated 2024.