Sunday, February 26, 2012

"And The Angels Ministered To Him"

Christ Ministered to by Angels
From a Pictorial Bible
French (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninlijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 12v (detail)
Here the angels look like they are tidying Jesus up following His confrontation with Satan.
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert,
and he remained in the desert for forty days,
tempted by Satan.
He was among wild beasts,
and the angels ministered to him.”

Mark 1:12-13
Excerpt from the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B

All three Synoptic Gospels relate that Jesus spent a period of 40 days and nights in the desert immediately following His Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist and the dramatic recognition given by Heaven to this event. The number 40 obviously has resonance with such Old Testament events as the 40 days and nights of the Great Flood (Genesis 7:9), the 40 days and nights that Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24:18) and the 40 years in which the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-34).  Mark’s reference to the Temptation of Jesus is the shortest of the three. Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11) and Luke (Luke 4:1-13) both describe in detail the temptations tried by Satan, temptations to power and pride, which Jesus resisted. All three agree that at the end of these 40 days and nights, Jesus was tired and hungry.

Both Mark and Matthew conclude their descriptions with a reference to ministering angels who attend Him at the end of the time.

Unlike the temptations themselves, which are frequently depicted in art over the ages, the ministering angels are not seen that often. They appear in a few medieval manuscripts, usually in the background of a scene of the temptations.

The Temptations of Christ, Christ with Ministering Angels
From a Historien Bible
German (Swabia), c. 1375-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 268, fol. 28r

Maitre Francois, Temptation of Christ
From City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo
French, c. 1475-1478
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 11, fol. 423r (detail)
The scene of the angels ministering takes place at a table in the far background, behind the two scenes depicting the temptations.

Similarly, they appear this way in Renaissance depictions of the temptations.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Temptation of Christ (after restoration)
Italian, c. 1401-1424
Florence, Baptistry, North Doors
In Ghiberti's image, the angels hover, ready to give succor to Christ.

Sandro Botticelli, The Temptations of Christ
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel
Again the scene of the ministering angels takes place in the deep background, at the very top of the right side, beside the scene of Christ driving Satan away.

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ (detail)
The ministering angels set the table, while Jesus drives Satan away.

There were many depictions of the scene made between the 17th and 19th centuries.  In many of these the angels take on more of an active role, as waiters or foragers.

Moretto da Brescia, Christ in the Wilderness
Italian, c. 1515-1520
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Like the angels of Ghiberti, Moretto's angels are arriving to bring succor to Christ, as wild animals surround him and give him homage.

Cristofano Allori, Christ Ministered To By Angels
Italian, Early 17th Century
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

In some pictures of the aftermath of the temptation, the angels are presented almost as if they were winged waiters and waitresses, presenting trays laden with fruit.

Francisco Pacheco and Diego Velazquez, Angels Minister to Christ in the Wilderness
Spanish, c.1616
Castres, Musée Goya

Jacques Stella, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1635-1640
Portland (OR), Portland Art Museum

Jacques Stella, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, 1650
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Charles de La Fosse, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1685-1695
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Alessandro Magnasco with Antonio Peruzzini, Christ Served by Angels
Italian, c, 1705
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Many of the images appear overly pretty and sentimental. They are part of the trend that gave us the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” imagery that “domesticated” Jesus and lead to the current view of angels as rather fluffy, even cuddly beings, which they are not.

Christian Wink, Christ Ministered to by Angels
German, c. 1769-1770
Augsburg, Deutsche Barockgalerie

Thomas Cole, Christ Ministered To By Angels
American, 1843
Worcester (MA), Museum of Art

One artist did not follow this trend – James Jacques Tissot. In his interpretation of the phrase “angels ministered to him” the scene becomes something beyond a sort of supernatural room service and touches on the mystery that surrounds the Incarnate Word of God and His angels.

In this image, Jesus lies prostrate on the ground, His arms outstretched as if already on the Cross. He is surrounded by row upon row of faintly seen, blue tinged airy spirits, each of whose heads bears a star-like flame. Through his use of thin layers of color to represent the angels against the darkness of the night sky Tissot captures the hue of moonlight. Here, however, their moonlit color comes not from themselves, nor from the sun, but from the Incarnate Son who lies before them.  Further, by his distortion of proportions (a few of the angels have arms that would be impossibly long for most human beings) he emphasizes the non-human nature of these spirits. They offer Jesus, not material, bodily refreshment, but spiritual sustenance, consolation and adoration.

James Tissot, Christ Ministered To By Angels
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

As the Brooklyn Museum explains it “Rejecting art-historical traditions in which Jesus takes material sustenance in the form of dates and pomegranates, Tissot insisted on otherworldly agency. Here blue-hued, flame-haired angels extend their fingers to touch the prostrate form of the exhausted Jesus, who appears to assume a cruciform position.”1  Indeed, it is reminiscent of paintings depicting angelic comforters at Jesus’ Agony in the Garden on the night before He died. For, although Jesus is God the Son He is also a human being, humanly exhausted by His encounter with evil and temptation.

© M. Duffy, 2012

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1.  Comments from the museum website describing the 2009-2010 exhibition of the illustrations of the Life of Christ by James Tissot.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Illustrating Miracles: The Hole in the Roof

Master of the Registrum Gregorii, Jesus Heals the Paralytic
From the Codex Egberti
German (Reichenau), 977-993.
Trier, Stadtbibliothek
MS StB Hs 24, Unknown folio

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
-he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home."
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
(Mark 2:1-12) Gospel for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B*

When I was a small child, somewhere around age 4 or 5, my then parish church, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sponsored a campaign to encourage parishioners to read the Bible. As part of that campaign, several Douay-Rheims translations of the Bible,1 in various price ranges, were made available. My parents opted for the deluxe offering, a beautiful volume, bound in leather, with gilt-edged pages and red lettering for the statements of Jesus. 2  It also came with several sections that included maps and descriptions of biblical history, explanations of the Rosary and the Mass, plus a glossary and footnotes and a section for recording important family events. For me, however, the best feature of all was the illustrations. It was elegantly illustrated with both series of biblical illustrations by James Tissot. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both series have a New York connection. The Old Testament illustrations are now in the Jewish Museum, a few blocks from my current residence; while the New Testament scenes are in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, just across the East River.

At the time this volume entered our house I was too small to be able to read. So, like our illiterate ancestors in ages past, I looked at the pictures. They were fascinating. I knew some of the stories because I had listened at Mass to the Gospel readings (at that time the only portion of the Mass that was in English). As I learned to read, I read the captions and eventually proceeded to being able to connect the captions to the biblical passages from which they derived. Although I now own a variety of Bibles in several translations and editions, I still treasure this book and its pictures.

Among the illustrations that most fascinated me as a child was the scene described in the text of the Gospel for this Sunday. In this Gospel citizens of Capernaum bring their paralyzed family member or friend to Jesus, confident that He will heal their friend, IF they can reach Him. Blocked by the crowds surrounding Jesus, they climb onto the roof of the house where He is staying, tear a hole in it and lower their friend down into His presence. Tissot’s depiction, based on careful research gained from extended trips to the Middle East, seems very real and immediate. The strong composition, in which the downward motion of the descending paralytic, his arms spread wide, is met by the upward moving gestures of those who have risen to support him, leads down in a descending curve to the true focus of the picture, the seated Jesus, raising His arms in welcome and blessing. The picture is a dynamic, realistic product of a century of realism.

James Tissot, Healing of the Paralytic
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Earlier depictions were less so. Lacking both the ability and the interest to create a realistic vision, early depictions seem to have an almost fairytale quality. For example, a mosaic of the subject, composed around the year 500 for the Arian church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna shows Jesus, depicted in larger-than-life-size (to underline His divine status), standing with a slightly smaller disciple, while the friends of the paralytic lower him from the roof of a building. The paralytic and his friends are represented as extremely small figures, indicating their simple human status.  Moreover, the imprecise perspective in which the building is depicted makes it difficult to tell whether the paralyzed man is being lowered to the inside of the building or to the outside.

Jesus Healing the Paralytic
Byzantine, c. 500
Ravenna, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo

A very similar scene is found in a 12th-century pictorial Bible from the Abbey of St. Bertin in France. Again we see a cut-away view of the house, in which a giant-sized Jesus sits, addressing a crowd of smaller figure. Through the hole in the roof, which resembles a chimney, two men lower the paralytic. But the two men are so nearly obscured by what appear to be towers that the overall first impression makes it seem as if the paralytic is descending from above without assistance.

Christ Healing the Paralytic
From a Pictorial Bible
France (St. Omer), c. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 14r (detail)

In the mosaics decorating the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, executed around 1200, the hole in the roof has completely disappeared and the friends appear to lower the invalid, on his bed, from the edge of the roof, almost as if the building had a Roman-style atrium.  Also of note is the fact that Jesus no longer appears to be as big as the house.  He has assumed more human dimensions.

Christ Healing the Paralytic
Sicilian, c. 1200
Monreale, Cathedral

This demonstrates that, although we often think of Byzantine influence as being anti-naturalistic, more abstract and symbolic, here the later Byzantine style brings a greater naturalism than we see in the nearly contemporary work from the Abbey of St. Bertin.

A later, 15th century work, the Meditationes vitae Christi, illustrated by the Master of the Harvard Hannibal, and made for King Henry V of England around 1420, places the hole in the roof, but sets the descent, somewhat illogically, outside the house. This represents a period in which the artist appears to be struggling with the correct use of perspective.

Mast of the Harvard Hannibal, Christ Healing the Paralytic
From Meditationes vitae Christ by Pseudo-Bonaventure
French (Paris), c. 1420
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 B IV, fol.v59v

By the turn of the 17th century perspective difficulties had been overcome and the indoor location of the event could be presented properly. This can be illustrated by the work of two Flemish artists, Marten de Vos and Anton Wierix, done for Catholic editions of the Bible around 1600.3   Typical of the style prevalent at the time, the compositions are crowded and somewhat difficult to read, particularly the de Vos. But it is clearly obvious that the invalid has been lowered from the opening in the roof.

Anton Wierix, Christ Healing the Paralytic
From Evangelicae historiae imagines byJerome Nadal
Flemish, c. 1593-1595
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Marten de Vos, Christ Healing the Paralytic
Flemish, c. 1600
Bolton (England), Bolton Museum

It remained for the late 19th-century painter, Tissot, to present us with a dramatic, readable and realistic image.

© M. Duffy, 2012
*  Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1.  See  For a discussion of how the Douay-Rheims translation was influential in the Authorized Version (known as the King James Bible) see Nicolson, Adam.  God's Secretaries:  The Making of the King James Bible, New York, HarperCollins, 2003.

2.  The Holy Bible, The Catholic Press, Inc., 1950.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Saint of Romance?

Jeanne de Montbaston, Saint Valentine of Terni
From the Lives of the Saints
French (Paris), c. 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 210r

Each year, Christmas decorations and Christmas cards have barely been discounted when a new series of cards and decorative items begin to appear in stores. Store windows suddenly seem to feature nothing but items in reds and pinks. Red seems to be everywhere – on candy shelves, cards, wrapping paper, in florist’s windows, on textiles, you name it. So, we know that Valentine’s Day is upon us. Most people have a dim idea that somewhere back in history there was a Saint Valentine and that he had something to do with love. But what and when?

To begin with Valentine is a Roman name (Valentinus) and Valentine is a Roman saint, or at least one of the Valentines from the early Christian centuries about whom we have some sketchy information was described as a Roman priest. Another, contemporary Valentine was the bishop of what is now the city of Terni in Umbria. Since these two Valentines seem to have been martyred in Rome within the same timeframe and are commemorated on the same day, February 14, and both were reported to be buried off the Via Flaminia it is just possible that they may be one and the same person. A third Valentine was martyred in North Africa and is definitely a different person.1
Queen Mary Master, The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 243r

Beyond those bare statements we have no real information, merely legends. According to one legend, Valentine (whether the priest or the bishop) was arrested during a persecution under the Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (268-270), severely beaten and then beheaded.2

The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Speculum historiale of Vincentius Bellovacensis
French (Paris), c. 1335
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 5080, fol. 197r

Pope Julius I (337-352) constructed the basilica of San Valentino in the vicinity of the present day Piazza del Popolo. (This well-known piazza is the site of the original Porta Flaminiana, where the Via Flaminia entered the walls of Rome and became the Via Lata, the present day Via del Corso).3 This church was one of those frequently included among the churches visited by medieval pilgrims to Rome. 4

Jan van Haelbeck, The Martyrdoms of Saints Marius and His Wife Martha and Their Sons, of Saint Cyprianus and of Saint Valentine
From Ecclesiae Militantis Triumphi, plate 19
Flemish, c. 1600-1620
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Valentine’s association with romantic love comes from later, embroidered, tales of his martyrdom and the date of his feast day. According to some stories Valentine was accused of performing Christian marriages during a period of persecution when the practice of Christianity was considered a crime. This, combined with a later, medieval development cemented his association with romantic love.

The medieval development is recorded in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules (Parliament of Birds).

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;5

This is in recognition of the observation that it is in the middle of February, around Valentine’s feast day of February 14th, that birds begin their courtship in preparation for the new generation. (As a neophyte birdwatcher, I can attest that birds haven’t changed and that this is still true today. Here in Manhattan a couple of our resident hawks whose partners died during the year (Washington Square and Riverside Park nests) have paired up with new mates, the famous Fifth Avenue hawk pair of Palemale and Lima* are sprucing up their nest and the ducks are cavorting on the lakes doing their amusing courtship dances.)

Visually, Saint Valentine has mostly retained his original significance as a martyr. Throughout the Middle Ages he was depicted either as the bishop or as the martyr.

Hans Burgkmair, Saints Valentine, Stephen and Maximilian, Patron Saints of Passau
German, c. 1503-1505
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The martyrdom scenes sometimes involved discussions with the Emperor Claudius II, as described in the Golden Legend. 6

Richard de Montbason, The Martyrdom of Saint Valentine
From the Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voargine
French (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 241, fol. 69r
In the late sixteenth century the artist Jacopo Bassano painted an altarpiece of Saint Valentine Baptizing Saint Lucilla, a subject for which I have been unable to find any literary source.
Jacopo Bassano, Saint Valentine Baptising Saint Lucilla
Italian, c.1575
Bassano del Grappa, Museo Civico

I could not find anything in the visual record that appears to refer to Valentine as the saint of romance. We appear to owe this identification entirely to Chaucer’s connection of courting birds with the date of February 14th. Nevertheless, this is the identification that has stuck and that has entered the modern secular world.

Saint Valentine
Wood carving, German, ca. 1500
Oppenheim, Parish Church of
Saint Bartholemew
However, one reference to the real Valentine has also entered that world – the color red. Red is the color of the heart, to be sure, but its main identification is as the color of blood and, hence, the color of martyrdom. That is why priests wear red vestments when saying Mass on the feast days of martyrs. It is also why the cardinals of the Catholic Church “receive the red hat” and why cardinals and the Pope himself wear red as part of their clothing.

So, when you buy those red roses or that red box of chocolates for your beloved, remember that you are also commemorating the blood shed by a martyr over 1,700 years ago. Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!

© M. Duffy, 2012

Traveling home up Madison Avenue on Valentine's Day, following an afternoon spent at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, I couldn't help but notice that, even before the end of the day, many store windows had already switched the dominant color of their displays from red to green -- the color associated with Saint Patrick's Day.  Another day, another color, another saint, another story. 

*  Since this was originally published Lima has died.  Palemale's most recent partner is known as Octavia as she is his eighth mate!  This is distressing, as red-tailed hawks are one of those bird species that mate for life.

1. Thurston, Herbert. "Saint Valentine." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 15., New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1912. Can be accessed at:

2. Butler, Rev. Alban, Lives of the Saints, New York, Benziger Brothers, 1894, pp. 73-74.

3. Krautheimer, Richard. Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 54.

4. Birch, Debra J. Pilgrimage to Rome in the Middle Ages, Rochester, Boydell and Brewer, Inc. 1998, p. 94.

5. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Parliament of Foules, lines 309-311 at: See also:

6. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. III at For Claudius Gothicus see: