Friday, April 29, 2011

Thoughts on a Royal Wedding

OK.  It's a bit off topic for me, but obviously a lot of people are interested in this.   And, being that my parents were born as subjects of the British crown, albeit unwillingly, under Queen Victoria (my father) and King Edward VII (my mother), it is of some passing interest to me too.  There was much to appreciate in the day:
1.  The celebration of family, not so easily come by these days, even if one of the families involved has not had the best of track records in this or any other century.  I greatly appreciated the sermon by the Anglican Bishop of London.  You can read it here.
2. The connections with the past.  After all, a continuous, if sometimes convoluted, descent from Alfred the Great is nothing to be sneezed at.  Most of us are lucky if we can trace their ancestors back a couple of hundred years or so.  I can get to the last decades of the 18th century, but not beyond.

3.  The music.  The entrance piece "I Was Glad" by Parry is one of my all-time favorite anthems.  Indeed, it is the piece I hoped to have for my own entrance, had I been fortunate enough to marry .  I've been lucky enough to get to sing it twice. It is one of the greatest of those grand Anglican church pieces that the English choral tradion has produced.  The rest of the music was nice too.  I've always thought it is a pity that "Jerusalem" is so specifically English, as it has wonderful imagery.  I especially liked the "Ubi Caritas" by Paul Mealor.  The Westminster Abbey and Chapel Royal boys and men sounded great.

4.  The dress.  Actually, I'm more a shoe person myself and was trying very hard to catch a glimpse of the new Duchess of Cambridge's shoes.  But aside from a brief glimpse of the front of one I couldn't really see them.  The dress was OK enough, though a little too austere for my taste.  But then, I never really got over Diana's dress.  THAT was a dress!  A funny thing is that just yesterday I was viewing a retrospective video of Alexander McQueen's work that is online (link) at the Metropolitan Museum website.  A McQueen retrospective is opening at the Met's Costume Institute next week.  He is not a designer I've ever followed, although I've seen some of his work previously at the Met (as part of an earlier show) and in the windows of his shop in the Meatpacking District downtown.  Mostly they have seemed to me to be extreme, even weird, statements.  However, the video revealed that he (or his assistants working under his name) have been capable of producing pretty clothes.  Duchess Katherine's dress was certainly pretty.  So, I'm a bit more interested in seeing the Met's show.
5.  The place.  Westminster Abbey is, of course, a magnificent building.  But it's only partially English.  Although founded as a Benedictine abbey under the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, the current building was built not only by English but also by French masons brought over by King Henry III.  It was added to over the centuries by subsequent kings, up till the time of the Reformation.  Finally, following a building hiatus caused by the upheavals associated with: the Reformation (1533-ca. 1600), the Civil War (1641-1649), the Commonwealth (1649-1661), the Restoration (1551-1689) and the Glorious Revolution (1689), the finishing touch of the west towers was completed under George II in 1745 by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  Consequently, as for so much of England's ecclesiastical patrimony, it is a Catholic building adapted to Protestant use. 

I do wish their Royal Highnesses every good wish and God's blessings on their marriage.

Iconography of the Resurrection – Noli Me Tangere

Master Henri, Noli Me Tangere
from Livre d'Images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainault), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquistion francaise 16251, fol. 45v

“Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there,
one at the head and one at the feet where the Body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken my Lord,
and I don’t know where they laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there,
but did not know it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him,
“Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher.
Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father,
to my God and your God.’”
Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,”
and then reported what he had told her.”
(John 20:11-18)

This dramatic scene between the Risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene from John’s Gospel has given rise to the Resurrection iconographic type called the “Noli Me Tangere”, the words “Do not touch me” from the Latin Vulgate, the standard translation of the Bible into Latin, made at the end of the fourth century by St. Jerome. More recent translations, held to more accurately translate the original Greek, such as that from The New American Bible quoted above, translate this phrase as “Stop holding on to me...” or "Stop clinging to me...".
Noli Me Tangere
from a Gospel Book
German, c. 1015
Hildesheim, Hildesheim Cathedral Museum
MS DS 18, fol. 75v

As with much of the iconography of the Resurrection the "Noli Me Tangere” seems to have begun to appear in the middle ages in Western Europe.

Early examples come from the hands of the illuminators of medieval manuscripts.

Noli Me Tangere
from Miniatures of the Life of Christ
France (Northeast), 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 12r
Noli Me Tangere
Nine Leaves from a Psalter
German (Augsburg), 1225-1250
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 275, fol. 7v 

Noli Me Tangere (top level)
Italian, c. 1250-1300
Tuscania, Church of San Pietro
Noli Me Tangere
from a Psalter
Flemish (Bruges), 1250-1270
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 106, fol. 71v

Executed in a typical Romanesque and Gothic manuscript styles, the  figures of Jesus and Mary gesture toward each other but do not touch. In the later images the risen Jesus displays his wounded hands and side and feet. Mary kneels before him.

Noli Me Tangere
from the Hours of Yolande de Soissons
France (Amiens), 1275-1299
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 729, fol. 6v
Master of Roman de Fauvel, Noli Me Tangere
from Lives of the Saints
France (Paris), 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheqe nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 60v
Noli Me Tangere and Doubting Thomas
Leaf from the Ramsey Psalter
England (Ramsey Abbey), 1295-1315
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 302. fol. 3v
The illuminator who drew this Psalter's illustrations here puts together the two episodes mentioned in the Gospels in which someone reaches out to Jesus.  Mary tries to touch Him, while Thomas satisfies his doubts by putting his hand into Christ's side, with the guidance of the Risen Jesus Himself.

Jean LeNoir and Assistants, Noli Me Tangere
from the Breviary of Charles V
France (Paris), 1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 425

Two early examples of larger scale wall paintings come from the two “fathers” of what would become the Italian Renaissance – Giotto and Duccio.

Giotto, Noli Me Tangere
from Arena Chapel
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena./Scrovegni Chapel

Duccio, Noli Me Tangere
from Maesta Altarpiece
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Clearly, the overall iconography is being set in these early images. Since all Western languages are read from left to right this is the direction in which the action flows. The kneeling Mary is on the left and the Risen Jesus is shown moving toward the right. This is the layout for the majority of later images. 

Giotto, Noli Me Tangere
Italian, 1320s
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church, Magdalen Chapel

Noli Me Tangere
from Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol.57
Jean Colombe, Noli Me Tangere
from the Pontifical matutinale and missal of Jean Coeur
France (Bourges), 1460-1470
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 49, fol. 116v

Tilman Riemenschneider, Noli Me Tangere
German, 1490-1492
Muennerstadt, Parish Church

Bramantino. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1500
Milan, Civico Museo d'Arte Antica

However, some later artists reversed this arrangement to dramatic effect. By reversing the motion to a right to left movement the artist creates a less static composition. In some cases Jesus' motion of pulling His robe away from Mary’s grasp, is almost dancelike.

Mario Balassi. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1632
Florence, Ente Cassa di Risparmio
Francesco Albani. Noli Me Tangere
Italian, c. 1644
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museum zu Berlin

Tissot, Noli Me Tangere
French, 1884-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum,

Closer to our own day the subject was addressed by the Franco-British painter James Tissot, who spent the last twenty years of his life in illustrating Biblical subjects after much research and visits to the Biblical lands. His interpretation, located today in the Brooklyn Museum, shows a different imagining of the subject. Here Mary lies prone before Jesus, who appears to be reaching down to her, and the motion is front to back in the pictorial space.

Dali, Noli Me Tangere
from Biblia Sacra, Vol. 5 No. 20,

Salvador Dali also imagined the scene in his Biblia Sacra of 1969. Here the image is at first difficult to read, but as one looks it becomes clearer. The figures of Mary and Jesus are brought together into a great curve, only their respective heads appearing as clearly defined. She really is clinging to him and appears to be trying to touch his face, while he appears to have grasped her gently around the wrist.

Clearly, through the centuries, this dramatic and personal encounter between the Risen Christ and the faithful Mary Magdalene has given artists plenty of food for their imaginations.

© M. Duffy, 2011

For a look at an additional aspect of the Noli me tangere type of image, please see Iconography of the Resurrection -- Jesus the Gardener

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday

Fra Angelico and assistants, Meditation on the Passion
Italian, 1441-1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco
The atmosphere of the church on this day is one of contemplative silence. No Mass is celebrated today, until the evening when we begin the Vigil of Easter. We enter into the mood of the disciples. We are slightly stunned, quiet, reflective. But, we know the end of the story, as they did not. So we are also filled with hope and a suppressed excitement. We visit the Confessional, prepare the altar, practice our music, clean our houses, and dye our eggs. We know that the morning to come will change our lives. For those preparing for Baptism at Easter Vigil a completely new life, in Christ, will begin this evening.

So, I will leave you with two things today.

First is an image, not by Giotto, our companion this Holy Week, but by the mid-fifteenth century Dominican painter, Fra Angelico. It is a visual meditation on all the events of the Week just passed, a “Meditation on the Passion”. It comes from the Convent (now the Museum) of St. Mark in Florence. Fra Angelico and his assistants painted it for their Dominican brethren in the early 1440s.

In it we see the Virgin Mary pondering the image of her crucified Son.  He stands (as the Man of Sorrows) in the tomb, surrounded by the instruments of the Passion (the sponge on a reed, the spear, the nails, the Cross) and by vignettes of he events (the kiss of Judas, Peter's denial, the Mocking of Christ, the exchange of the silver bribe).  At the front right we see St. Thomas Aquinas kneeling in adoration, his pen in one hand, his closed book in the other.  Thomas, in addition to his theological work (Summa Theologica) was also a poet and authored many great hymns, many still in use. 

Fra Angelico and assistants, Christ in Limbo
Italian, 1441-1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco
Second is a beautiful piece of Christian literature, which speaks of this quiet day, and another work from San Marco by Fra Angelico and his assistants, which illustrates it. The author of the “Ancient Homily on Holy Saturday” is not known, but the beauty of his words is as effective today as they were when they were first written centuries ago.  I have read it several times at a Holy Saturday morning Tenebrae service and it never fails to move me deeply.

“Something strange is happening -- there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: 'My Lord be with you all.' Christ answered him: 'And with your spirit.' He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: 'Awake, o sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.'

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in Hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I in you; together we form one person and cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, Whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on My Face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On My back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in Hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise. Let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity. “

You may also want to read my essay "Meditation on the Passion -- Waiting" (here).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week with Giotto – Good Friday, Late Afternoon, the Lamentation

Giotto, The Lamentation
Italian, c. 1304-1308
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

“When it was evening,

there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph,
who was himself a disciple of Jesus.
He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus;
then Pilate ordered it to be handed over.
Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen
and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock.”

(Matthew 27:57-60)

Like the “Kiss of Judas”, this fresco of the “Lamentation” is among the most reproduced paintings in the world. It is also clearly one of Giotto’s greatest masterpieces, with a sureness of composition and execution that command attention.

The dead body of Jesus lies across Mary’s legs. Her right knee supports His torso; as she bends down to kiss Him. His head is supported by a woman seen only from behind. The rest of his body is also supported by women. Mary Magdalen supports his legs and feet, while another woman seen from behind supports the rest of his body and a woman seen in profile supports his hands. A larger group of women appear at the far left, expressing their grief in various ways. Saint John stands above the woman seen in profile and he expresses his grief with hands widely spread. To the right stand two male onlookers, probably identifiable as Joseph of Arimathea, who donated the tomb and who is mentioned in all four Gospels, and Nicodemus, who is mentioned in the Gospel of John.

The composition of the painting is very sophisticated, while the overall effect is one of quiet contemplation. There are three interlocking triangles that create the composition. A great diagonal stone parapet or ridge creates the first, descending from right to left, reversing the normal “read” from left to right. The positions of Joseph and Nicodemus reinforce the wide edge of this triangle, while John, with his outspread arms, repeats the triangular motif. The second triangle descends from the group of women at the left down to the seated figure of Mary Magdalen. The final triangle is formed by the group around the prone figure of Jesus. It reaches its peak in the head of the woman seen in profile.

Within this complex composition the drama is played out by gesture and gaze. Although we are aware of the three triangles, it is the faces that capture our attention, especially the faces of the dead Christ and of His Mother. All the other characters gaze intently at them, with the exception of Mary Magdalen, who gazes down at the feet of Christ. Their gaze guides us and through them we become part of the story too. We are here moving into the image stream that will lead to multiple great works of art and ultimately to that most famous of all, Michelangelo’s “Pietà”.

Detail, Central mourning group.

Detail, The group of women.

Above the quietly grieving humans, the angels show their grief in a multitude of ways: with tears, exclamations, perhaps even screams.

Detail, Grieving angels.

While the mood of the lower part of the painting is calm and quiet, the upper portion is very restless, with the angels posed in diverse attitudes of grief.

Detail, Trio of grieving angels on the left.

Detail, Trio of grieving angels on the right.  
Note that the lowest angel is tearing his or her hair in grief.

Detial, Grieving angel.

Even the bare tree branches appear agitated. The natural world too reacts to the death of Jesus. 

Detail, Tree at upper right.

© M. Duffy, 2011.  Pictures refreshed 2024.

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.

Holy Week with Giotto – Good Friday, Early Afternoon, the Crucifixion

Giotto, The Crucifixion
Italian, c. 1304-1308
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

“After they had crucified him,
they divided his garments by casting lots;
then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
And they placed over his head the written charge against him:
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

(Matthew 27:35-37)
“The Crucifixion” brings us to the culminating event of the Passion. Jesus is shown nailed to the cross. To his left are the soldiers and the mob, to his right are his Mother and her supporters, including the Apostle John and, at his feet, kneels Mary Magdalene.

Several moments from the Crucifixion narratives appear to have been conflated here. First of all, the soldiers at the right side of the painting are holding the tunic and appear to be arguing over whether or not they should cut it up. Second, among the crowd at the right, most of whom are those who have plotted or carried out the Crucifixion, is one person with a halo. Candidates for the identity of this person may be: Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, or Longinus (the name given by tradition to the unnamed centurion). Since this figure appears to wear Roman military red, with a black helmet, just like the other soldiers, I would opt for the identification as Longinus. The fact that his helmet has golden bands and some kind of extensions also suggests that this is their commander, reinforcing the identification as Longinus, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion.  As this person is gesturing toward Christ, this may be the moment when the centurion declares “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54) If this is correct, then this is the moment just after the death of Jesus.

Detail of the Roman soldiers.

This would appear to be a correct interpretation if we look at the reactions of Jesus’ friends and of the angels who surround Him in the skies. On earth Mary, His Mother, appears to have fainted. Her eyes are closed and she is supported at each arm by a friend, John to her left and one of the several women named in the Gospels at her right. 

Detail, Mary and her supporters.

Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross.  Her face reflects her own sorrow, as she gently touches the feet of Jesus.

Detail, Mary Magdalene at the feet of Jesus.

In the skies the angels dramatically express their dismay, their grief and even their anger. They exclaim, they avert their eyes, they wring their hands and one even tears his garments in the same gesture as Caiaphas in the scene of “Christ Before Caiaphas”.

Detail, One of the angels above the cross

Two angels hold bowls to catch the blood dripping from His wounded hands, while another holds his bowl to capture the blood spurting from the lance wound in His side. This detail reinforces the interpretation that this is the moment, shortly after death, when Christ’s side is pierced.

Detail, Angels on the left side of the painting.

Detail, Angels on the right side of the painting.

Detail, Angel at Christ's side, holding a bowl to collect the blood pouring from the wound of the lance.

Detail, Angel Tearing His Robe in Grief.  

We also notice that, under the rock on which the cross stands, is a grave containing a skeleton. A long-standing poetic and iconographic tradition held that Golgotha, the hill of Calvary, was also the location of the Garden of Eden and that the cross was made from the wood of the Tree of Life from the Garden. This tradition also held that Adam, the first man, was buried at the foot of the Tree.

Detail, The grave of Adam underneath the Cross

Two earlier examples of this iconography are shown here.

Mosaic, The Crucifixion
Italian, c. 1200-1220
Venice, Cathedral of San Marco 

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, The Crucifixion
Right wing of a Diptych
Italian, c. 1260-1270
Florence, Galleria degli'Uffizi

The death of the new Adam, Jesus, is thus linked with the death of the first man, Adam “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is the moment when the division caused by Adam’s disobedience in the Garden is healed by Christ’s obedient death, in the same Garden, at the same tree.

© M. Duffy, 2011.  Pictures refreshed 2024.

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.

Holy Week with Giotto – Good Friday, Mid-Morning, Via Crucis

Giotto, Christ Carrying the Cross
Italian, c. 1304-1308
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

“And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him off to crucify him. “ (Matthew 27:31)

“A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him."
(Luke 23:27)

This painting is the most dynamic of all the pictures we have seen since Palm Sunday. Movement is dramatically conveyed by the placing of the figures. Jesus is seen slightly to the right of center. One of the two figures leading the procession appears to have partially walked “out of the picture”.

Detail.  Leading soldiers

This movement “out of the picture” implies a conceptual revolution. It implies that what we are seeing is a slice of an independently existing reality, which we are observing through a window. This concept shows how radical and advanced Giotto’s thinking was and would be the driving force of the development of art throughout the Renaissance, culminating in such grand illusions as “The School of Athens” by Raphael two hundred years later.

Detail. The group following Jesus.  One of them if prodding Jesus with a stick.

In addition to the dynamic interpretation of the scene, emotion is also evident. Jesus is prodded by one of the guards. And Mary stands, in an agony of motherly grief, at the far left. She appears to be restrained by another person, though it may just possibly be an action of comfort instead.

Detail.  Mary

The painting of these figures is, in the main, more assured than the painting in the “Christ Before Caiaphas” and “Mocking of Christ” and may well be by Giotto himself. However, the head of Christ seems oddly out of proportion to his body. This is especially obvious in comparison with the heads of the other figures in the scene.  This may be an indication of the hand of an assistant or the work of a restorer during the intervening centuries.

© M. Duffy, 2011.  Pictures refreshed 2024.

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.