Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hodie Christus Natus Est!

Giotto, Nativity
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel
"While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
 She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7) 

These are the words of St. Luke, as he describes the birth of Jesus, His Nativiity.

The subject of the Nativity of Jesus has been a popular subject for artists in the nearly two milennia of Christian life.   There are so many works of art illustrating the scene that it is difficult to make a choice of which to talk about. 

Giotto, Nativity (detail)

But here is a favorite of mine (among many) -- Giotto's Nativity from the Arena Chapel in Padua.  I love the exchange of glances between Mother and Child.  Their regard for each other is serious, grave even.  Is Mary wondering what this miraculous Child will grow up to be?  Is Jesus wondering what this human life will be like?

Meanwhile, the shepherds hear the words of the exhuberant angels and Joseph, according to legends popular in the Middle Ages, sleeps outside the stable.  In Giotto's image all is calm, quiet and bright.

A Blessed Christmas to all!  And, as my gift to you, here is a performance of Palestrina's motet, Hodie Christus natus est.   

Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel! Savior of all people, come and set us free!

The seventh and final "O Antiphon", for December 23rd, reads "O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God".  The title, Savior of all people, applies to Christ in His Passion and Death. 

There are many works of art that show the Crucifixion, most often in a narrative sense.  However, the text of this antiphon suggests contemplation and adoration of Christ as Crucified Savior.  Three works of art come to mind as an interpretation of the subject.  

The first is the Adoration of the Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, painted for the chapel of the Vidjt family in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent between 1425 and 1432.  It represents a scene from the book of Revelation  (Rev. 7:9-10).  The blessed in heaven "from every nation, race, people, and tongue" adore the Lamb that was slain.  The Lamb is, of course, Christ and His placement on the altar reminds us of the Sacrifice of the Mass, which is a daily participation in His Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb, Central Panel of the Ghent Altarpiece
Netherlandish, 1425-1432
Ghent, Cathedral of St. Bavo
The second is the Landauer Altarpiece by Albrecht Durer, dated to 1511. It is an image of the Adoration of the Holy Trinity by all the saints.  Here, the Crucified Christ is displayed by God the Father for the adoration of all, the ultimate revelation of the God of Mercy and Love.

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

The final image is an engraving after a drawing by Gianlorenzo Bernini of the Blood of Christ.  It was engraved as the frontispiece of the book Unica speranza del peccatore (The Only Hope of the Sinner) by F. Marchese, published in Rome in 1670.  In this work, the Crucified Christ, on the cross, is held high by angels in adoring postures.  His blood pours down, forming an endless ocean of grace for sinners to draw upon. 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Blood of Christ
Engraved by F. Spierre for frontispiece of Unica speranza del peccatore by F. Marchese,
Italian, 1670
Vatican, Vatican Library

These pictures remind us of the reason for which the anticipated Emmanuel came to us.  As the carol "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" tells us, to make "God and sinners reconciled". 

© M. Duffy, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O King of All the Nations!

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam
Italian, 1508-1513
Vatican, Sistine Chapel
The sixth of the "O Antiphons", for December 22 reads:  "O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust".  It asks for Christ, King of the nations, to "save the creature you fashioned from the dust" which raises images of the creation of the first humans, Adam and Eve. 

Probably the most famous image of the Creation of Adam is that by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo's conception of the subject both embraces the iconographic tradition and departs from it.
Michelangelo, Detail of Creation of Adam
showing figure of Eve

The most traditional element is found in Adam's reclining posture.  The departures from the tradition are found, first of all, in the dynamism of the figure of God, who zooms in from the side on a cloud, surrounded by angels, and bestows life through that dramatic synapse between His extended finger and that of Adam.

And, most non-traditional of all is the figure of Eve.  She appears, tucked under God's left arm, which she clutches as she looks with curiosity (and perhaps some apprehension) toward her soon-to-be spouse.

Earlier images were more static, depicting God, generally unaccompanied, standing over the reclining figure of Adam as He calls life into it. 

Andrea Pisano, Creation of Adam
Italian, 1334-1337
Florence, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Eve did not make her appearance in creation images, except for those images that shows her creation from Adam's rib. 
Huntingfield Psalter, Creation of Eve
English, 1210-1220
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M43, fol. 7r (detail)
Richard de Montbaston, Creation of Eve
from Bible historiale
French (Paris), 1320-1330
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 322, fol. 11v
Creation of  Eve
from Weltkronik
German (Regensburg), 1355-1365
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 769, fol. 9r
Michelangelo also painted a far more conventional image of the creation of Eve, also on the Sistine ceiling.   It is far more static and traditional than the amazingly dynamic Creation of Adam.
Michelangelo, Creation of Eve
Italian, 1308-1512
Vatican, Sistine Chapel
© M. Duffy, 2011
1.  Steinberg, Leo.  "Who's Who in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam:  A Chronology of the Picture's Reluctant Self-Revelation", Art Bulletin, Vol. 74, Number 4, December 1992, pp. 552-566.  This article explores the chronology of attempts to identify the figures surrounding God the Father. 

O Radiant Dawn! O Sun of Justice!

Mosaic of Christ-Helios, Mausoleum of the Julii
Roman, mid-late 3rd century
Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, Necropolis
For December 21st, the fifth "O Antiphon" reads:  "O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death". 

Images of light are common metaphors for the divine and the image of the sun, especially of the sun at dawn dispelling the darkness of night, is frequently associated with Jesus.  One thinks particularly of the imagery implicit in the entry of the Paschal Candle into the darkened church at Easter Vigil, accompanied by the proclamation "Christ our Light" and the response "Thanks be to God". 

This particular "O Antiphon" of Advent brings to mind a distinct image, from the earliest period of Christian art.

This early image appears in the second half of the third century (ca. 250-300) in a tomb that has been excavated down on the lowest level of St. Peter's Basilica (see my article on St. Peter's for a description of this level).  It is a mosaic on the roof of the mausoleum of a family known as the Julii (the men would have the name Julius as the second of their three names and the women would have Julia as one of their two names).

At first glance the mosaic looks not very different from numerous pagan images showing the Greco-Roman sun god, Helios (sometimes identified with Apollo) driving his chariot through the heavens.  However, comparison with pagan images of Helios suggests a different meaning.

Relief of Helios from temple of Athena at Troy
Hellenistic, 300-280 BC
Berlin, Pergamon Museum
In the pagan images the head of Helios is surrounded by projecting sun rays that are evenly distributed and of one (or occasionally two) lengths.  No ray is specially singled out in any way.

However, on this tomb ceiling under St. Peter's, the rays look different.  There is an emphasis on several of them that makes them heavier and longer than the others.  This emphasis seems to create a cross pattern, similar to the later haloes with the cross that became standard for Christ.

Fra Angelico, Christ Crowned with Thorns
Italian, ca. 1440
Livorno, Santa Maria del Soccorso

It would, therefore, appear that the equation of Jesus with Helios, as demonstrated in this mosaic, may have resulted in the decision to attach the pagan celebration of the festival of Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun) to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus after the apostate Emperor Julian, grandson of Constantine, attempted to revive the pagan ethos of Rome.

It is also why the image of Christ in scenes of the Last Judgment so often show Him surrounded in a golden aura, like the sun.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O, Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!

Harrowing of Hell
From Petites Heures of Jean de Berri (Paris use)
French (Bourges), 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 166
The fourth of the "O Antiphons", for the 20th of December is: "O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom."   This addresses Christ, the descendent of David and Lord of Life and begs Him to set His people free from death.  It also brings to mind the words from the Apostles Creed "He descended into hell". 

The fact that this subject is found in the Apostles Creed testifies to its early appearance in Christian belief, as does the Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday, which is a reading from the Divine Office for Holy Saturday.  This belief is that during the time between His death on the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus descended to limbo to free the souls of the previously deceased just who were confined in waiting there.  Limbo is a place of darkness and peace, but not of the Presence of God, which had been lost through Original Sin.   Their souls were confined to limbo because had been barred from entering heaven by Adam's sin, but they were set free by Christ's saving death.  For them He truly became the Key of David, breaking down the walls of death and leading the captives to freedom and joy. 

There is a long tradition of images in art illustrating this subject. 

In the East the tradition culminates in the dramatic and dynamic Anastasis of the church of Saint Saviour in Chora in Istanbul, in which Christ seems to drag Adam and Eve from their graves. 
Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)
Byzantine, 1316-1321
Istanbul, Church of Saint Saviour in Chora

In the West the image appears in the Klosterneuberg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun, as well as in many paintings.
Nicholas of Verdun, Harrowing of Hell
Mosan (Meuse region), 1181
Klosterneuberg Austria, Klosterneuberg Priory

There are two distinct types of iconography that apply to most of these images. In one, Christ breaks down actual gates, which are often shown thrown to the ground or hanging off their hinges. 

Harrowing of Hell
From a Psalter
German (Swabia), 1230-1255
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M280, fol. 10r

Fra Angelico, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1437-1445
Florence, Museo di San Marco

Master of the Osservanza, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1445
Cambridge (MA), Fogg Museum

In the other Christ leads or sometimes drags the souls of the dead from the 'mouth of hell', shown as the jaws of a whale-like monster or from a cave that resembles an open mouth.

Harrowing of Hell
From Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Northern), 1170-1180
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M44, fol. 11v

Workshop of Duccio, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Andrea da Firenze, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Capella Spagnuolo

Alabaster Relief, Harrowing of Hell
English, c. 1440-1470
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Luca Penni, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, c. 1547-1548
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In both types He carries the staff, topped with a cross or with a pennant bearing a cross, that is His banner of victory over death.

Later images show Christ dragging the souls of the just from a more generalized image of a limbo jammed with just souls in waiting.  In these images the iconography of the gates or the mouth of hell is not as emphasized as in the earlier images.

Andrea Mantegna, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1468
Private Collection
Agnolo Bronzino, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1552
Florence, Church of Santa Croce
Tintoretto, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1568
Venice, Church of San Cassiano

© M. Duffy, 2011

Behold, the Handmaid of the Lord -- The Annunciation

"In the sixth month,
the angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.
(Luke 1: 26-38)

Today (and on the Fourth Sunday of Advent) the Church reads, as the Gospel of the Mass, St. Luke's description of the point at which time divides.  From this moment, there is time before and time after, whether you call the periods on either side Before Christ (BC) or Before the Common Era (BCE) or Anno Domini (AD) or Common Era (CE), the point is the same -- Christ has come into the world.  With Mary's statement of acceptance "May it be done to me according to your word" we enter a new place, with new possibilities. 

There are countless images of the Annunciation throughout history.  Too many, in fact, to write a history of the subject in the brief confines of this blog.  Such a note would go on forever!  So, I have decided to write about only one image, the panel painting by Fra Angelico now in the Prado.  It was painted sometime between 1424 and 1426, possibly for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, possibly for the Dominican church in Fiesole, where it was historically placed.1 

The 1420s were a time when Guido di Pietro (his Baptismal name), known as Fra Giovanni (the name Angelico was given to him posthumously on account of his paintings and life) was still a fairly young painter with a developing style.  At this point he stands on the cusp, as it were, of finding his final style.  This painting represents a point at which his earlier, delicately Gothic style was being influenced by the work of another Florentine painter, Masaccio, toward a slightly more monumental direction.  This painting is an almost perfect example of the early fusion of these two influences.  It is also a beautiful exposition of the implications of the Annunciation.

In this painting we see Mary, seated on a bench draped in fabric which also drapes the wall behind her, forming a kind of cloth of state.  She sits in an open, groin-vaulted loggia, an open prayer book on her knee, and responds gently to the approach of Gabriel, her gesture mirroring his.

Gabriel appears to have just landed, his wings still half open, his knees just beginning to bend.

From the upper left corner of the picture, the hands of God send streams of golden light toward her and, on those beams, the Holy Spirit is seen as a dove descending (just above Gabriel's head). 2

Above the column that divides Gabriel and Mary is an image of Jesus, presented as a bust in relief.  So all Persons of the Trinity appear in some way within the picture.

On Mary's side of the space, seated on the iron cross bar between the pillars, is a swallow, symbolic of the Incarnation.

The entire left side of the painting is occupied by a garden filled with highly detailed representations of plant life.  And, in this garden appears the scene from Genesis of Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden by an angel.  We see here the tipping point of salvation history.  Mary is being invited to participate in righting the wrong done by Adam and Eve.   Her obedient fiat (Be it done to me) will cancel their disobedience in eating the forbidden fruit. 

The painting represents the moment just before the world begins anew.  Mary's yes will begin it again, with Jesus as the new Adam and Mary herself as the new Eve in a new Garden of Eden of the spirit. 

© M. Duffy, 2011
1.  Kanter, Laurence.  "Fra Angelico:  A Decade of Transition (1422-32)" in Fra Angelico, New York, New Haven and London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 80-83.  This is the catalogue of an exhibition of the work of Fra Angelico held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, October 26, 2005 - January 29, 2006. 

2.  Ferguson, George.  Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, New York, Oxford University Press, 1966, pp. 25-26.

O Flower of Jesse's Stem!

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
French, 1140-1144
St. Denis, Abbey of St. Denis
The third of the "O Antiphons", for December 19th reads:  
"O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid."  
This title "Flower of Jesse's stem" derives from the lineage of Jesus.  He is a descendant of Jesse, father of King David and the presumed subject of the prophecy of Isaiah (read on the Second Sunday of Advent in Year A), which reads:

"But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
French, 1150-1170
Chartres, Cathedral
On that day,
The root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the peoples—
Him the nations will seek out;
his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isaiah 11:1-10)
This image, of Jesse as the root and Jesus as the flower (sometimes also translated as rod), resulted in one of the best known of medieval images, the Tree of Jesse.  This is not to be confused with the modern "Jesse tree" which is a sometimes charming Advent decoration, a kind of Advent calendar, especially in use in homes with children.  Instead, this is a serious didactic image, making visual the human ancestry of Jesus.

In most of the Jesse Tree images, we see Jesse, asleep, either lying down or sitting up.  Out of his body (generally, but not always from his mid-section, the location of his "loins") grows a tree or a vine, which branches as it grows.  The branches are occupied by his descendents, often shown in chronological order.  Most of the images choose to illustrate only a few of the descendents, although David is usually prominent.  Very rarely all the generations named in the beginning of Matthew's Gospel are shown.
Among the best known of the medieval Jesse trees are two famous stained glass windows, dated to the middle decades of the 12th century, at the abbey of St. Denis outside Paris and at Chartres cathedral in Ile-de-France.  These two immensely important churches were the hatching grounds for the Gothic style in architecture and embellishment that would dominate most of Europe for the following 300 years.  Their influence was widespread. 
Therefore, it is not surprising that the image of the tree of Jesse would appear in other forms of art during the remainder of the Gothic period.  It appears in particular in manuscripts painted all over Europe during these centuries, but also in other forms:

from France:
Jesse Tree
Psalter of St. Louis and Blance of Castille
French (Paris), ca. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 15v

Jesse Tree
Book of Hours
French (Rouen). 1475-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133 D 17, fol. 24r
 and nearby England:

Jesse Tree
Windmill Psalter
English (London), 1280-1299
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M102, fol.1v
Master of Queen Mary's Psalter, Jesse Tree
English (Canterbury), 1310-1330
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G53, fol. 6r
 to the northern territories of the Low Countries and Germany

Jesse Tree
Stained Glass
German (Swabian)
ca. 1280
New York
Metropolitan Museum

Jesse Tree
From a Psalter
German (Augsburg), c. 1230-1255
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 280, fol. 2r
This image is unusual in that, instead of ancestors of Christ sitting on the boughs of the
Tree, it is incidents from the New Testament depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, 
Presentation and Baptism of Jesus that appear.


Master of Cornelis Croesinck, Jesse Tree
Croesinck Hours
Dutch, 1489-1499
New York, Morgan Library
MS M1078, fol. 112v

and south to Spain, where the lower section of the central pillar of the famed Portico de la Gloria at the great shrine of Santiago de Compostela is decorated with a Jesse tree:
Santiago de Compostela, Portico de la Gloria
Spanish, 12th century
Santiago de Compostela, Cathedral
and to Italy, where the influence of the still existing classical style, plus the ethereal style of the nearby Byzantine Empire, resulted in such beautiful works as the Bible of Pope Clement VII.

Bible of Clement VII
Italian (Bologna), ca. 1267
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 22, fol. 346

Bible of Clement VII, Jesse Tree
detail view
Often the image of the branching vine or tree makes ingenious use of the shape of the page and takes advantage of the letter L, which is the initial letter of the opening of the Gospel of Matthew in the Latin Vulgate, "Liber generationis".  Jesse is shown lying in sleep as the horizontal bar of the letter, while his descendents occupy the vertical bar.

Northern French, 1229
New York, Morgan Library
MS M163, fol. 326r

Nearly all the images include Mary independently, in the level just below that of Jesus or she is shown holding the Infant Jesus. However, there are some variations.

For example, the image below, from the 14th century, focuses on Mary herself.  She is shown at the center of the composition, as the Virgin of the Annunciation because just above her ear is the dove symbol for the Holy Spirit.
Jesse Tree
From Bible historiale of Gerard des Moulins
French (St. Omer, c 14th Cemtury
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 152, fol. 467v

In the years bracketing 1500, at the very end of the Middle Ages are images that directly link the Tree of Jesse with the Annunciation, as for example, this image attributed to the Master of the Older Prayer Book of Maximilian I.

Master of the Old Prayer Book of Maximilian I
Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish, 1495-1515
New York, Morgan Library
MS M52, fol. 388v
Finally, one image combines many themes.  In similar fashion to the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, it combines the image of the Annunciation with the Tree of Jesse.  But, it also includes an image of Adam and Eve, also ancestors of Jesus, as they are of all humans, just above the figures of Gabriel and Mary.  Not only are they part of the ancestry of Jesus, they are also the means through which sin and death entered the world.  It is their Fall that was healed by Christ, beginning at the Annunciation. 

Hours of the Virgin
French (Rouen), 1495-1505
New York, Morgan Library
MS M174, fol. 21r
© M. Duffy, 2011