Sunday, March 27, 2016

Thomas and the Bubonic Plague

...or "Napoleon is not Jesus". As if there was doubt. However...

The gospel reading for Easter 2C (John 20:19-31) is the familiar story of Thomas who wants to see for himself. And who could blame him? Wouldn't you rather see the risen Jesus yourself than just hear from friends about how great it was to see him when you weren't there?

Take a look at the two images here. Consider the similarities:Two men are at the center of the composition. One has his right arm raised while the other reaches out to touch under that raised arm. These two central figures are flanked by groups of people and the whole scene takes place within an architectural setting.

Those are the similarities. The differences are numerous, beginning with the people in the picture. At top is a mosaic interpretation of Thomas reaching out to touch Jesus' wounds and see for himself that it is indeed the risen Lord.

The bottom image is Antoine-Jean Gros' "current event" painting "Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa." Gros has echoed the arrangement of Thomas and Jesus, though he has swapped the power positions. In Gros' painting, Napoleon, at this point in his career First Consul, takes the position of Thomas. The place of Jesus is taken by the plague victim. The value of their clothing has changed as well. In the mosaic, Jesus wears the dark color and Thomas the light. Gros has put the plague victim in the lighter color and Napoleon in a dark jacket.

The intention of the touch is different as well. This week's gospel lesson tells us why Thomas is reaching out (though it does not say that Thomas actually takes Jesus up on the offer to touch). Napoleon is visiting French soldiers who have been stricken with plague. The visit happened in 1799 when the French army was engaged in its Syrian campaign. The general has appeared as this temporary hospital and stands in a shaft of sunlight as he fearlessly reaches out to touch a bubo on a particular soldier. The bubo clearly indicates that the soldiers are suffering from bubonic plague, a disease whose horror is reflected in the gestures of Napoleon's entourage. Soldiers use handkerchiefs to cover noses and mouths; an officer tries to prevent Napoleon from touching this pestilential soldier. Napoleon, however, is confident as he reaches out toward the soldier.

Jesus offers Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounds so that Thomas would know for sure that it is indeed the risen Christ. Napoleon is touching the soldier in order to boost the morale of his troops among whom panic and hysteria were rising at the plague's outbreak. It's probably worth mentioning, though, why Napoleon was anxious to have this large-scale painting (209" x 280") shown at the Salon of 1804, shortly before his coronation. He was fighting anti-Napoleon propaganda. His visit to the hospital was in March 1799. In May of 1799, as the French army was withdrawing from Syria to return to Cairo, Napoleon was concerned that his army would be captured by the Turks. Though there remains controversy surrounding the events, Napoleon was known to have ordered that an overdose of opium be given to the soldiers in Jaffa who were suffering from the plague. According to reports, that was about 50 soldiers. Napoleon is not Jesus.

(Top) Thomas and Jesus. Mosaic. 12th century. Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/monreale-cathedral. (Bottom) Gros. Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa. 1804. Paris: Louvre. http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/napoleon-bonaparte-visiting-plague-stricken-jaffa

Haven't gotten enough Napoleon for Easter 2C? See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for Napoleon and the Acts reading for this week. Just click on the link below. Really. Napoleon...twice...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

One Word

Just one word. Her name. That's all it took. While the unfathomable drama of resurrection is elsewhere in the gospel reading for Easter (John 20:1-18), there is deep personal drama in the one moment when Mary is known by and knows Jesus.

Mary.

She recognizes the voice. She looks up. And she knows. Jesus is alive. The Christ is risen.
Indeed.





















The sculptural group shown here, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, is by Bruce Wolfe. In the collection of Old Mission Santa Barbara. For the mission, see: http://www.santabarbaramission.org/ For Bruce Wolfe, see:  http://brucewolfe.com/religious-statuary/ 

Click on the Art &Faith Matters Facebook link below for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday posts.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Donkey

We have seen a donkey before in the story of Jesus. Long before we get to Palm/Passion Sunday (Luke 19:28-40 or John 12:12-16), the donkey has played a vital role in the life of Jesus. In the Christmas song/poem "The Friendly Beasts", we read this stanza:
"I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown,/"I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town."/ "I," said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

And here we are again. Another donkey. This time bearing Jesus through Jerusalem. Cheering crowds line the street. Cloaks are spread and branches waved. And the "vehicle" that made it possible was the donkey who carried Jesus in fulfillment of scripture. Was it a party atmosphere? Was it a solemn occasion? Two very different pieces of art paint two very different events...and two very different donkeys.

Hippolyte Flandrin's nineteenth-century painting of the subject shows a very balanced, almost rigid event. Strong horizontals (the road, the top of the crowd of heads, the city architecture) are perpendicularly counterpointed by strong verticals (Jesus' body, the crowd of people mostly standing upright, the palm branches, the vertical lines of the city wall). There is balance and measure. It is hard to imagine this crowd shouting anything as they stand so politely, watching Jesus ride by.

The donkey echoes that balance with strong vertical lines (legs) and strong horizontal lines (back). Accompanied by the colt, the donkey walks in measured step. The pace is surely slow. Jesus stares directly ahead, focused on the future. Surely his mind is filled with understanding of what he is riding toward.
Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin. Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.c. 1842.  Fresco. Paris: Church of St. Germain des Pres.
Information on St. Germain des Pres at: http://www.preservesaintgermain.org/
Which is why the manuscript illumination below offers such a contrast. Where Flandrin's understanding of Christ's entry into Jerusalem is one of balance and measure, the illustrator of the Armenian gospel book uses curves and contrast. The colors of the illustration are vivid and saturated. The vertical lines of architecture are minimized, and the vegetation is made of wavy, curvy lines in the leaves and branches and trunks. Even the ferns growing at the base of the center tree have curved ribs and fronds. Garment fabric collects in curves and falls in folds. One young parade-goer is spreading his garment in the street...and it isn't an outer garment. It's the whole outfit! People are waving, and hands are clapping. Complementary colors (red and green, especially) add visual life to the scene. Very unlike Flandrin's version.
Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, miniature from Armenian gospel, folio 7 verso. Armenian Museum, Isfahan, Iran.
But it may be the donkey that is the most different in the two versions. In the manuscript illumination, Jesus - riding sidesaddle - is on a bucking bronco of a donkey. All four of the donkey's feet have left the ground. The placement of the tree and the donkey with all four feet off the ground might even bring to mind a carousel horse (thanks to my friend Amy for that insight...and check the Art&Faith Matters FB page later in the week for more information on that).

The top line of the donkey's form creates a C-curve. The front two legs are also C-curves while the back legs are double-curved. The idea of the Messiah entering Jerusalem riding a donkey may have been foretold in scripture, but it appears that no one asked this particular donkey! Jesus, of course, is up to the challenge. He gives an almost "Look, Ma, no hands!" gesture (not that there are any reins in sight, to be honest). And how would you describe the expression on Jesus' face? It is a completely different picture of the events of the day.

Perhaps you've never considered that Jesus had this kind of ride through Jerusalem. I hadn't before seeing this picture. I had always imagined that the animal carrying Jesus did so with the decorum appropriate to his rider. But maybe not. Perhaps the bucking donkey with a mind of its own helped Jesus remember the stubborn, willful people for whom he came to earth in the first place.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Leave Her Alone

Lent 5C's gospel reading is John's version of a time when Jesus was anointed. John 12:1-9 places Jesus at dinner in Bethany. Lazarus is at the table, his sister Martha is bustling somewhere between the kitchen and the table, and their sister Mary walks into the room to do an amazing thing.

The story is told below in a painting by Frank Wesley (b. 1923 in India). While many artists have chosen to paint this scene (it's reasonably common as a wall painting in monastic refectories - dining halls - because it takes place around a dinner), Wesley's version offers a couple of insights that are missed in larger, grander works like Veronese's and Subleyras'.

The first thing that Wesley's painting offers is the absolute assertion that this is an intimate act. Unlike other paintings where the female figure may be slightly bowing toward Jesus or gesturing toward a box or bowl, in this painting Mary's left cheek is touching Jesus' left foot. She is prostrate, gently cradling Jesus' foot in two hands. She is not indicating that Jesus should wash the dust from his own feet. Rather she is showing what ministry may in fact look like.

A second insight afforded by Wesley's painting is the subject's complete disregard for anything or anyone that is outside Mary and Jesus are not the only people in the room, and this is not the only activity ongoing. . Imagine the empty plates making noise as they are carried from on the table or the clink of dishes and the splashing of water as cooking utensils are being cleaned in a nearby room. There is the color of the clothing worn by people around the table. Then Mary comes in the room and there is the cracking of the jar and the aroma of the nard as it fills the room. Imagine all that. You'll have to imagine that if you want to see it, because it just isn't important to Wesley's Mary. She has not been deterred, and she will be distracted. Even Jesus is only important as far as his feet go.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15; Lent 4C) showcased the extravagant spending of a young man and the extravagant love of a father. In this text, Mary continues the theme of extravagance in the form of costly gestures involving expensive ointment. Generally we think of Lent as a season of deprivation rather than extravagance, but these texts speak of generosity. It is not an inappropriate extravagance, Leave her alone, Jesus said. Now is no time for frugality. This extravagance on earth is participating with the work of heaven.

For the Frank Wesley painting, see: http://www.frankwesleyart.com/main_page.htm
For the alabaster jar, see: http://www.sothebys.com/es/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.35.html/2007/antiquities-n08373