Sunday, December 28, 2014

Matthew 2.1-12: Epiphany in the Details

What if this is where the story (Matthew 2:1-12) stopped?

Edward Burne-Jones, The Star of Bethlehem, 1887-90. Watercolor and bodycolor,
101 1/8 x 152 in. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

If this is the end of the story, is it enough?

Three magi have walked into the scene. They bring gifts. They represent various ages and various races. They are pilgrims. Melchior is a knight in armor, so perhaps we are supposed to see him as a crusader. Balthasar at the right wears a robe decorated with a ship, an indication of his journey. We might see Gaspar's white hair and beard as an indication of his wisdom.

The three have followed the star, here carried in the hand of an angel. They stand before the Christ child, Mary and Joseph. The baby shrinks away from the three toward his mother. Do you think this is what they thought they would find at the end of their journey? Are they pleased with the wicker and thatch shelter? Are they disappointed with who and what they find? They have taken off their crowns, and Gaspar's is on the ground. What if the story ends here? Is it enough?

Though they have found their way to the Holy Family, they have not yet bowed down and worshiped Christ. Not yet acknowledged this baby as the king they were seeking. Will they now? Will they ever?

Burne-Jones has left them as eternal seekers. On the brink of redemption.

It was a story in which the artist saw himself. In a memoir by his wife, Burne-Jones is quoted as saying that the painting was physically exhausting: "...a tiring thing it is, physically, to do, up my steps and down, and from right to left. I have journeyed as many miles already as ever the kings travelled." (G. Burne-Jones, Memorials. 2:209) In the photo he stands in line with the three visitors. Are his brush and palette the gift he brings to the child?

Perhaps this is the story of each of us. Making the journey as we seek God, and getting to the moment. The moment where we must decide about worshiping and presenting our gifts. Will they - and we - make the journey and arrive but never commit, kneel, acknowledge?

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 60:1-6, click here.
For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12, click here and here.

Who are these guys and what is the boat-like object at the bottom right? And what do they have to do with Epiphany? Click here for the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page to read more about the painting and the ship. Click on the Food&Faith Matters link below to find out about a Galette des Rois.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Luke 2.35: Pierced

"A sword will pierce your own soul also."  --Luke 2:35

When Simeon prophesies that Mary's future holds pain like she's been stabbed, Mary must have been bewildered. What kind of greeting is that for parents who have brought their baby to the Temple for a blessing?

That sword has been literally portrayed in devotional images of Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, with seven swords pointed directly at her heart. Other artists have been more subtle, but the acknowledgement of Mary's sorrow is still present in pictures of the mother with her infant. The reference may be overlooked because it seems so normal, but as you consider images of the enthroned madonna with her child, look for irises.

The iris family of plants are, in Germany,  known as schwertlilien, literally translated "sword lily", so the iris became a symbol of Christ's passion and a reminder of the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary's soul.

To spot the irises in art you'll need to spend time with the background of images. Perhaps the best known (because it is in the title) is the Madonna of the Iris, formerly attributed to Albrecht Durer, now attributed to his workshop. Mary and the Christ child sit relaxing while the infant nurses. In the background is the spiky stem of the iris plant, remarkably similar to Durer's botanical study of iris trojana.
(left) Madonna with the Iris. Workshop of Albrecht Durer. 1500-1510. National Gallery of Art, London.
(right) Albrecht Durer. Iris Trojana. 1503. Watercolor and gouache on paper. 
The placement of the iris with Mary and Jesus is a reminder of the future of the child, and the pain of that future for his mother. Artist Marcello Fogolino places the iris in the right hand of the Christ Child as he sits on his mother's lap.
Marcello Fogolino. Madonna con bambino in trono e i SS. Giobbe e Gottardo. 1508. Brera, Milan

The idea that the iris represents the suffering of Christ is reinforced by the accompanying saints in Fogolino's painting. At the left is Job, his skin covered with sores. At the right is St. Gotthard of Hildesheim. Though well-dressed, he, too, is related to suffering, as he is the patron saint of gout sufferers. The Church of San Gottardo in Milan is dedicated to this saint.

Perhaps this week an arrangement of iris would be an appropriate accompaniment to the worship service. Choose white iris to emphasize that the liturgical season has moved from Advent to Christmas. And now that you know the iris as a symbol of pain and suffering, you might understand why the Edwardian-era chromo-lithographed Christmas card below is a little...awkward.

See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for an introduction to the image of the Nativity at left. Click on this link.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Christmas 1B (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), click here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Missing the Magnificat Point

In the gospel reading for Advent 4B, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she has found favor with God. Mary's response to this visit is the song known as the Magnificat (because in Latin the first word of the song is "magnificat"). Mary sings about the world turned upside down by the Messiah: the proud are put down, the humble are exalted, the hungry are filled, the rich are sent away empty. The world is changed. But it may be that Italian artists of the proto-Renaissance and early Renaissance didn't quite get the point of the Messiah.

When you see paintings of the annunciation at its simplest, you'll see Mary and Gabriel. In all of the images below, Gabriel is on the left with Mary on the right. The earliest of these five is the altarpiece by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333). Martini is a prominent figure of the Siena school. Notice that Mary shrinks back slightly from Gabriel who kneels before her. Between the two figures are two pieces of vegetation. A vase of lilies, symbol of Mary's purity, sits on the floor. Gabriel holds an olive branch in his hand. The olive symbolizes peace, with which Gabriel greets Mary.
Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi. Annunciation with Two Saints, 1333. Originally for chapel of Sant'Ansano, Cathedral, Siena. Now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Roughly a hundred years later, Bicci de Lorenzo (born and died in Florence) paints a similar arrangement. Gabriel stands this time, but there is no vase of lilies. Instead he holds a stem of lilies in his hand.
Bicci di Lorenzo. The Annunciation. 1433. For altarpiece of Madonna and Child with Saints for Compagni Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence. Private collection. 

A little more than ten years after Bicci, Giovanni di Paolo (working primarily in Siena) keeps the same composition. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, olive branch.
Giovanni di Paolo. Annunciation. 1445. Pinacoteca, Vatican, Room II, Inv. 40131.

Five years or so after that, Filippo Lippi paints the Annunciation. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, a stem of lilies. Can you guess Lippi's hometown?
Filippo Lippi. The Annunciation. 1450-1453. National Gallery, London.

Fast forward another two decades or so to Francesco di Giorgio who paints the annunciation. Same compositional arrangement - Mary at right, Gabriel at left. In Gabriel's hand? Olive. Look under the photo to see where this Annunciation lives. 
Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The Annunciation. 1470-1472. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena. 
For museum:
Are you getting a sense that something is going on here? Something is. The lily is a civic emblem of the (then) city-state of Florence. Florentine artists were no doubt pleased to have their emblem in the hand of God's messenger come to earth to announce the salvation of humanity. The artists of rival city-state Siena were less than pleased - were in fact determined not to have the emblem of their enemy in the hand of God's messenger. Hence, the olive branch in Sienese Annunciations. It's more than a little ironic - celebrating the coming of the Messiah who will turn the world upside down, but being certain that God has nothing to do with people who aren't "us."

Who are these women? And what do they have to do with the Magnificat? Click on  the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page and see who they are. 

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7) click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

John 1: John...An Angel?

The Orthodox tradition refers to Jesus' cousin (and baptizer) John as the Forerunner. In some icons he is written as the Angel of the Desert. The oversize wings are probably the most obvious reason for John's identification as an angel. We should remember that the word angelos can mean angel but also messenger, and certainly John was a messenger, as described in John 1 (the gospel reading for Advent 3B).
John the Forerunner. 17th century. Moscow School. Trevetyakov Gallery.
In icons of John the Forerunner, the central figure is shown large, with body-length wings, usually holding a scroll and a chalice (or salver or footed paten called a diskos, the dish that holds the bread) and a scroll. Sometimes the chalice contains John's own head, a prefiguring of his beheading. In the icon shown, the chalice contains the figure of Christ, naked and lying down. John points to the Christ, in the icon as he will in life.

In his hand John holds a scroll, generally a symbol of a prophet. In Christian tradition, John is the final prophet in the line of prophets in Hebrew scripture who foretold the Messiah.

Surrounding the figure are episodes from the life of John the Forerunner. Some are familiar - his birth, the dance of Salome, his beheading. Other episodes are from legend. At the left of the composition, an angel leads the infant John into the wilderness. As told in the Prologue of Ohrid (1928), to escape Herod's order to murder the children, Elizabeth took John to the wilderness. They were pursued by soldiers but hid in a miraculous opening in the rock. Zechariah was slain at the altar on Herod's order - Herod being furious that John had not been killed. Forty days after Zechariah's death Elizabeth also died. John stayed in the wilderness being fed and cared for by an angel of God.

Often John is perceived as the slightly quirky (locusts, honey, animal fur) member of Jesus' family. Does your perception of him change if he is known as the Angel of the Desert?

Take a closer look at the audience drawn to the river by John's preaching on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page

This week's Food&Faith Matters page considers gardens, seeds and sheaves from Lent 3B's readings in Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. The link is at the bottom of the page.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61), click here.