Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November 1 – Feast of All Saints

Celestial Rose, Illustration to Canto XXXII of
Paradiso, Third Book of the Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri
15th-Century Italian
Vatican City State, Vatican Library

On November 1 the Church celebrates the feast of All Saints. On this day we honor all those who through their lives, lived in faith and hope and with charity, have achieved the Beatific Vision of God. Some of them are saints who have been identified and formally recognized by the Church, but most are simply men, women and children who have passed without formal recognition and whose names are now forgotten. They are our ancestors in faith exactly as they are our ancestors in flesh and blood. They enjoy the peace, the glory and the vision of God that we hope eventually to attain.

For obvious reasons it is difficult to represent all the saints in art, but there are some works that come to mind.

The first is the literary image of the Celestial Rose from Canto XXXII of Paradiso, the final book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Every saint in heaven has his or her seat in the petals of this rose. Representing this in art is impossible, but a 15th-century Italian manuscript now in the Vatican Library gives an idea of what it might look like.

A diagram of how Dante imagined the interior of the rose to accommodate the saints within its petals was prepared in connection with the publication of Dorothy Sayers' English translation of 1962.

The next image that comes to mind is the exquisite altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan in the cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent. Known as the Ghent Altarpiece, its lower half represents the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Its inspiration comes from the description in the Book of Revelation of the Triumph of the Lamb (Rev. 7:9-10):

“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Lower Section of Altarpiece Interior
The Ghent Altarpiece
Netherlandish, 1425-1432
Ghent, Cathedral of St. Bavo
In the Van Eycks’ painting, which extends over five panels, the Lamb on the altar (who is Christ, especially Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, the Eucharist) occupies the central position of the central panel. He is surrounded by angels holding the instruments of the Passion through which He has triumphed over death. Two kneeling angels incense Him. Two groups kneel before Him. To the left are the Old Testament prophets and heroes. To the right are the Apostles, Fathers and other male saints. Advancing from the distance are two other groups; additional male saints from the left and female saints, some of whom carry the martyr’s palm, from the right. In the side panels more saints advance. In the background we can see the New Jerusalem, composed of a combination of actual buildings from several towns and imaginary ones.

A final image is that of Albrecht Dürer’s Landauer Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Trinity. Clearly deriving from the same inspiration as the Van Eycks’ picture, Dürer interpreted the text less literally. He replaces the Lamb with the image of the Trinity and places the scene in the skies. But, the essentials of the image are the same; God is surrounded by His saints.

Albrecht Durer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity
German, 1511
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

These are the images of what we celebrate today.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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