Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the Beginning

It's an old art history trivia question that speaks to the gospel reading for Christmas 2C (John 1:1-18). Here's the set up: in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, we know that God's right hand reaches out to the newly created Adam. (Detail below.) Here's the question: where is God's left hand and arm? Don't look at the full view until you've made a guess.
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (detail). Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512. Vatican City, Italy.
OK, now look at the bottom of the page for the full view. Was it what you thought? And, actually what is it? Obviously it's God and a number of other figures floating in space on a cloak-like background. God's left arm is around a female figure, and God's left hand is touching an infant. Who are they?

There is no definitive answer, but there are theories. All the theories wind up with the infant as the Christ Child, so it is the identity of the woman that shapes the meaning of the composition. One theory identifies the female figure as Eve, waiting her turn to be created. Eve, whose name means life, will be the mother of all humanity. A second casting of the figures calls the female figure Mary, who will be the literal mother of Jesus. A third option is that the female figure is Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22ff.). Yet another proposal is that the female figure is the Holy Spirit (ruach, a feminine noun, in the Hebrew). With this interpretation, the figures become the Trinity, all three persons present in the beginning.

Each of the above propositions concludes with the identification of the infant as the Christ Child. The interpretations by turn feature the Christ as the second Adam, the son of God and one person of the Trinity. However it is interpreted, Michelangelo has caused the hand of God to rest eternally on the child. The artist has placed the Word in the beginning, exactly where John's gospel said he was.

On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week...Epiphany! Travel with the magi by clicking here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Luke 2.41-52: A Twelve-Year-Old Jewish Boy

The gospel reading for Christmas 1C (Luke 2:41-52) gives us the only story of the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. In the story, Mary and Joseph think that Jesus is traveling home with family members or friends, only to discover that he is nowhere to be seen. After searching "diligently" they find him in the temple, having theological conversation with the teachers there.

It is another of the stories that has probably lost some of its shock value over time. Of course the son of God would be disputing (one of the formal names for images of this subject is "The Disputation") with human teachers of faith. And yet the story - and images of it - have the power to raise conversation...and disputes.

German painter Max Liebermann created a painting of the subject exhibited at Munich's First International Art Exhibition in 1879. In the painting (below left), the young Jesus sits among the rabbis in a temple. The temple here is a combination of elements from synagogues that the artist visited as he was preparing the composition and subject. The curved staircase is a reference to the16th-century Levantine Synagogue in Venice. The paned window on the upper edge of the painting echoes the windows of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, which the artist visited in 1876. His models for the rabbis were Christians and for the young Jesus an Italian boy, choosing these models to avoid the "danger of caricature." He did studies of the figures and exhibited the painting for the first time at the International Exhibition.
(Left) Max Liebermann. The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple. 1879. Oil on canvas. Hamburger Kunsthalle. For the Hamburger Kunsthalle, see: (Right) Liebermann. Study for The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple. 1879. Crayon over Pencil. Kupferstichkabinett. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. For the study, see: service=direct/1/ResultLightboxView/result.t1.collection_lightbox.$
The painting was reviled. Liebermann's painting portrays a Jesus who was not a precocious theological talent outshining the Jewish scholars. Instead, what critics saw was, as art critic Friedrich Pecht wrote, "the ugliest, know-it-all Jewish boy imaginable." Pecht described the scholars as "a rabble of the filthiest haggling Jews." So outraged were German sensibilities that the painting and its creator were discussed in the German parliament, with the resulting opinion that perhaps future exhibition organizers would take an artist's religious sensibilities into consideration before exhibiting their work.

You see, Liebermann was Jewish. And in the third quarter of the 19th century, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany. The root of the problem was that Liebermann (a Jew) had painted a Jewish Jesus talking with rabbis who were listening to the child - perhaps not convinced by his argument but considering it. The usual approach to the subject was to contrast Jesus - a beautiful youth - with temple officials caricatured by gross and exaggerated features. As you consider the image here, though, you may be wondering about the uproar. In the years after the painting's premiere, the artist attempted to ameliorate the vicious comments by overpainting the figure of Jesus. The Jesus of the painting we see today is using his hands with restraint and has changed from a dark-haired boy into this blond-haired cherub. The drawing on the right is a preparatory sketch for the original composition.

Liebermann's approach was to include the most "real" persons, places and things in his telling of this story. For his efforts, Liebermann's painting was dismissed by critics like Anna Jameson in her book Legends of the Monastic Orders (1900). Her assessment was that Liebermann (and several of his contemporaries who shared his approach) had "translated into uninteresting prose an incident which belongs essentially to the realm of poetry." For the painting's original audience, it wasn't enough for Jesus to be shown as a 12-year-old boy who was listening, asking questions and amazing adults with his understanding and answers. Even though that is how Luke's gospel describes the event.

Max Liebermann resigned (before he could be dismissed) from his position as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933 because the Academy could/would not exhibit work by Jewish artists. Liebermann died in 1935. In 1940 his widow was forced to sell (to the German government) the Liebermann summer residence, a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The Liebermann villa is only a hundred yards from the villa where the Nazis held their infamous Wannsee Conference - where the subject was Hitler's "final solution". After which there was, jumping to an echo of the Bethlehem of Matthew's gospel, the sound of Rachel weeping for her children.

For the Levantine Synagogue, see:
For the Portuguese Synagogue, see:

On the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, see this version of the Nativity. Click here.

For additional thoughts on Luke 2:41-52, click here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Luke 1.39-45: Visit a Family Member

Luke's gospel records a visit between Mary and Elizabeth. It is the gospel reading for Advent 4C (Luke 1:39-45). What is the most important part of the story? That the women are pregnant? That they are different ages? That one woman acknowledges the superiority of the other? That one baby "leaped" in the womb at the voice of the other mother? At various times and places each of these things has been important. Watch the Art&Faith Matters Facebook post this week for additional images that illustrate each of these emphases. But for here...a different emphasis. A windsock.

The "Windsock Visitation" was created by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS for the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. In this version, the two women greet one another. There is joy in the meeting. But unlike many of the formal arrangements that you will see on Facebook, in this meeting there is an element (perhaps more than one, but certainly one) included that seems lacking in the other. A windsock. Well, perhaps not the windsock itself...but what it symbolizes.
For "Windsock Visitation", see:
For the Visitation Monastery, see:
The windsock is a symbol familiar to the Visitation Monastery. The sisters at Visitation Monastery hang a windsock outside the door every other day when neighborhood children are invited in to play and create and pray. Here Elizabeth has hung out the windsock for the child Jesus. The tails of the windsock are being blown by a wind - surely a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in this situation. The two women, their unborn children and the Holy Spirit have indeed made this a place of delight and rest. 

For additional thoughts on the Visitation, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook posts here, here, and here.
For thoughts on Micah 5:2-5a, click here.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Luke 3.7-18: Chop Down a Tree

Two images. Same subject (John the Baptist). Same setting (as we see him in the gospel lesson for Advent 3C...Luke 3:7-18). Same artist (Jacopo del Sallaio of Florence, Italy). Same pose. Same setting (a landscape). Same colors of garments. But what a difference five years makes. The image on the left was painted about 1480. The image on the right was painted about 1485. How would you characterize the changes?
 (left) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1480. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. See:
(right) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1485. Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. See:

What a difference five years makes in how the artist saw the text. John has aged, and his hair has darkened. The landscape that had full green trees is now mostly barren. The goldfinches of the earlier picture have disappeared from the latter. But the ax embedded at the base of the unproductive tree is much more visible. What had been a detail in the first picture has become the main point in the later version.

The reason for the prominence of the ax in 1485 is probably tied up in the life and hometown of the painter. In the earlier picture the city in the background is Florence, Italy. The presence of Florence is not surprising because John the Baptist is the patron saint of the city. Brunelleschi's cathedral dome is identifiable, along with the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and Giotto's bell tower. The glory of Florence is spread across the painting.

By 1485, though, there was a new resident in Florence, and the city was no longer imagined as a glorious panorama. The new resident was Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar appointed to teach at the San Marco Convent in Florence c. 1482. It was in Florence that Savonarola began preaching about the moral laxness and pagan tendencies of Florence's ruling classes, including the Medici family. His preaching made no real impression on Florence at the time - his delivery and accent were stumbling blocks - but it was the beginning of a decade of preaching that called for reform (in church and at court) and, increasingly, warned of the nearness of the apocalypse.

In other words, Florence should repent, and repent now, because God's judgment was coming. Soon. Or, to quote John, the city of Florence needed to repent, because the ax was already lying at the root of the tree.

Delivering this message didn't provide a better end for Savonarola than it did for John the Baptist. One was beheaded; one was burned at the stake. It might make a preacher a little hesitant to bring up the whole subject.

For thoughts on Zephaniah 3:14-20, click here.