Thursday, December 26, 2019

Matthew 2.1-12: Emperor, King, Murderer

No one names their child "Herod" anymore. And not just "anymore." Who would want their child associated with Herod? Herod's character is not one that most parents would want their child to emulate. The Epiphany text (Matthew 2:1-12) here shows Herod as a paranoid, power-hungry...scared...king who will stop at nothing to retain his power and position. He is more than willing to commit murder. The gospel tells of the massacre of the innocents at Bethlehem, but Herod the Great also murdered his second wife, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother. If Herod was willing to kill so many of his own family, we have no doubt he could have killed children he never knew or saw.

Does that evil, cruel part of his personality show on his face as artists depicted him? Which of the faces below is the face of Herod the Great?
Did the artist give you a clue? Is there something in one or more of these faces that is an external clue to the internal corruption and immorality of the person seated on that throne?

Modern depictions of the visit of the Magi to Herod's court may be more likely to show Herod in some kind of aggressive body posture with an angry expression on his face. Scripture describes him as sneaky and manipulative, trying to deceive the magi with promises of plans to worship the newborn king. It was only the warning of the angel that sent the magi home by another way. They seemingly would have had no clue otherwise.

That's often the way it is, I think. The external appearance is pleasing, reliable, amiable, and sympathetic when the truth of the person is unethical, self-centered, even evil. Herod is definitely the villain of this story, but his ability to present a deceitful appearance to the world is much more common and close to home than we'd like to admit. There may be a little Herod in us.

Above far left:  Edward II Receives the Crown (detail). c. 1307-1327. British Library: Royal MS 20 A II, fol 10. Above center left: Magi Questioned by Herod (detail). 14th century. Venice: San Marco. Above center right: Three Kings Before Herod (detail). St. Alban's Psalter. 1121-1146. Hildesheim: Dombibliothek. Above far right: Portrait of Charles the Bald (detail). Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura. c. 870. Rome: San Paolo fuori le Mura.

For additional thoughts on Epiphany, click here.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

John 1.1-18: Word, Light, Life

The opening words of John's gospel are familiar, in part because of their resemblance to the opening words of Genesis. The words take us back to the beginning, before things were created. Before then, John's gospel tells us, there was the Word (John 1:1-18). In somewhat circular language, the gospel writer talks about the world and the Word, light and life, acceptance and rejection, John and Jesus. The language is generally considered lofty and theological, ascending toward heaven, rather than concrete and earthbound. That is why John's symbol in the tetramorph of the four evangelists is the eagle.
Vincent Van Gogh. Still Life with Bible. 1885. Amsterdam: Vincent Van Gogh Museum. 
The early Van Gogh shown here may at first glance seem a plodding comparison to the lofty language of the gospel, but the painting seems to embody the two sides of the text: old and new, accepted and rejected, light and life...all in the context of the word. Van Gogh painted the work after the death of his father, a Dutch Reformed minister.

The Bible is open to Isaiah 53:3-4: He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The colors are muted and dark. Perhaps the painting intended the work as a study of black. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh talked about Theo's comments about black as a color. He then wroteIn answer to your description of the study by Manet, I send you a still-life of an open - so a broken white - Bible bound in leather, against a black background, with a yellow-brown foreground, with a touch of citron yellow. The bright yellow (so familiar in Van Gogh's palette) stands out against the darkness (which the artist appreciated as much as the light). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is a candle, extinguished, a symbol of the artist's recently deceased father. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

Here is the Word in a  hefty, leather-bound volume. Beside the Bible, Van Gogh has placed his own yellow-bound copy of Emile Zola's novel La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Living). The two books symbolize the conflicting world views of the artist and his father - though a summary of the novel reveals a story anything but joyful. Though Van Gogh was calling attention to the difference between the Bible and modern literature as dueling sources of authority, neither his dealings with the church or with modern life had led him to a happy state or a successful place. He himself continued to search for what would bring him to life. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

On Art&Faith Matters, see where else that yellow book shows up in Van Gogh's paintings.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Matthew 2.13-23: What Joseph Makes Possible

Ann Weems asked, "Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?"* That's what we tend to do...put mother and child in the center, and sheep and shepherds in front. Magi with camels off to one side. Angels in the sky. And Joseph in the back of the stable with the donkey and the ox. Joseph becomes just another working animal in the story. And it is true that Joseph is working throughout the gospel infancy narratives, but surely Joseph has a story worth telling. He does. It's in Matthew's gospel (2:13-23).

In the course of Matthew 1 and 2, Joseph is visited not once, not twice, but three times by angels. Joseph is called to move forward with his marriage to Mary. He takes his great-with-child wife on a 90-mile journey to his family's town of origin where his wife gives birth to a baby boy. After another visit from an angel, he is instructed to take his wife and child to Egypt. He must get them out of town as deadly danger marches toward them and keep them safe as they travel more than 400 miles. When the time is right, he will bring his family home. Joseph definitely has a story.

Joseph's handling of unexpected scenarios should earn him our admiration and respect. He is resourceful and capable. His actions show him to be devoted to his family and responsive to God's direction. No wonder God chose him.

Scenes of the family's travel to Egypt are often romanticized or sentimentalized. The two adults are often in the landscape with a moon shining down highlighting the people, the donkey (there's usually a donkey), and an obligatory palm tree. It is quiet and contemplative. The realities of traveling via donkey (even donkey cart) for 400+ miles with an infant are no doubt more prosaic than we imagine. And certainly they are more prosaic than Caravaggio's image here. But I think Caravaggio gets Joseph's role right.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Rest on the Flight into Egypt. 1597. Rome: Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Caravaggio has chosen a rest stop as the family travels. Mother and child both rest, their heads touching. The vegetation is lush, though stones are scattered on the path. Joseph and the donkey look at the angel who faces away from us and toward the family. The angel is playing the violin, presumably lulling mother and child to sleep. Joseph's eyes are focused on the angel, but in his hands he holds the music manuscript, making the angel's music possible.

That seems to be Joseph's lot: keeping focused on doing what God calls him to do while making other people's work possible. Bless him. Let's give Joseph a little more attention this Christmas season.

* Weems' poem "Getting to the Front of the Stable" is in the collection Kneeling in Bethlehem.

For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23, click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nativity: Familiar Details

If you've seen one European painting of Jesus' nativity (Luke 2:1-14), you may be inclined to believe you've seen them all. But what we understand as the "usual" arrangement for those nativity paintings has an interesting history. It has roots in Sweden.

In the tradition of icons, Mary is often shown reclining, resting after her labor and the birth of Jesus. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in Italy, the usual pose for the infant Jesus was on the lap of his mother Mary who is seated on a throne. Magi, saints, donors, and music-making angels visited the enthroned madonna, who is dressed in a red garment topped by a dark blue cloak. The Maesta Altarpiece (top left) was commissioned in 1308 by the city of Siena, Italy. Maesta means majesty, and this piece is considered among the most sublime examples of the type.

On the other side of Europe in Sweden, a widow named Bridget (Birgitta) founded a religious order after one of the many visions she was given in her lifetime. She left Sweden for Rome in 1349 and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1371-1372. While in Jerusalem she traveled to Bethlehem and received a vision of Jesus' nativity. She dictated the images to a scribe, and her vision became a strong influence on how the nativity was depicted in art.

Niccolo di Tommaso's Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity, the center panel of an triptych altarpiece (bottom left) is inspired by Bridget's vision. The artist and the mystic probably met in Naples, where both had ties and where Bridget was twice a resident and Niccolo had a patron and several commissions. Bridget returned from Jerusalem in 1372 and died in Naples in 1373.

Bridget's vision yielded the details of a cave with an ox and a donkey, a single candle on the wall, a golden-haired Mary wearing a white garment, Joseph who is an old man, Jesus lying directly on the ground, and more. Mary's actions are also new. As an enthroned madonna, Mary held her child on her lap, facing the viewer. In Bridget's vision Mary delivered the baby while on her knees. The "Adoration of the Christ Child" became a type after the diffusion of Bridget's vision. Mary no longer looks out at the viewer. Instead she looks at her son, who is so newborn that she hasn't even held him yet.

Niccolo has given credit to the woman whose vision has inspired this work. Bridget is shown kneeling at the bottom right of the center panel. She does not wear the Brigittine order's distinctive fabric crown with five red tips.

So many of those details are things we imagine have always been part of depictions of Jesus' birth. Surprisingly, always is only six or seven centuries.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maesta Altarpiece. 1308-1311. Siena: Cathedral Museo dell'Opera.
Niccolo di Tommaso. Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity (center panel). 1375-76. Philadelphia Museum of Art
For the text of Bridget's vision, click here.

For other thoughts on Christmas, click here and here.
For a view of Christmas Eve in Mexico, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Isaiah 7.10-16: Ask for a Sign

"Ask for a sign," Isaiah invites Ahaz. But Ahaz won't ask. (Isaiah 7:10-16) Maybe he didn't ask because he was afraid of what the sign would be. The sign-giver in the text is God, speaking through the prophet. The sign is meant to communicate the future of Ahaz' rule.

Sign painters in decades and centuries past didn't necessarily consider themselves artists, but they were definitely communicators on a giant scale. There work was as small as a card in a window and as large as the side of a building or the roof of a barn. The job was to make information as understandable as possible through size of letters, placements of words, and use of color. The information had to be comprehensible even from a moving car and persuasive. The point of the sign was to influence the viewer: to draw them into a shop or bring them to a tourist attraction or to sway them to try a product. The message had to be unmistakable.
 (Left) Uneeda Biscuit advertising mural on the side of the Union Hotel in Meridian, MS. 
(Right) "See Rock City" barn roof gets a new coat of paint. 
God gave the same kind of sign to Ahaz, even when Ahaz didn't want one. God's sign was a young woman who would have a child. The child would eventually replace Ahaz on the throne. God wrote it big. So big that we don't hear from Ahaz again in scripture until Isaiah 14:28 in an oracle dated the same year as Ahaz' death.

For additional information on the (almost) lost art of hand-painting signs, see The Pre-Vinylite Society, Brain Pickings, Craftsmanship Magazine, or the film.

For thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25, click here.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Matthew 11.2-11: John in Prison

John is in prison. We know how his story ends, and I suspect that he may know how it is going to end as well. He wants reassurance that Jesus is the one. Remember that John was the first to point to Jesus as "the one," but it's different when the end is in sight. John sends his disciples to get the word straight from Jesus. Are you the one or should we wait for another? John's disciples go to Jesus and then return to relay Jesus' message.

The two images here show John behind bars having conversation with people who are presumably his disciples. There isn't a clue that definitively tells us whether this is John commissioning the disciples or hearing their report. Either way, John's situation isn't changed, but if these are depictions of the disciples reporting back, John is that much closer to the end of his life.

The images are as you'd expect: imposing architecture with secure-looking bars cage in a less-than-robust prisoner who converses with a small group of people standing in the stone-tiled courtyard. But each of these images also includes an animal. And they are puzzling.
(Left) Giovanni di Paolo. St. John In Prison Visited by Two Disciples. 1455-1460. Art Institute of Chicago. 
(Right) Master of Astorga. St. John the Baptist Visited in Prison. 17th century. 
Giovanni di Paolo's version (left) has the animal chained to an outside wall of John's cell. The creature is lying belly-to-the-ground and looks away from John and the disciples. In the version by the Mastor of Astorga (right), the creature is sitting on its back haunches, echoing John's position by looking at the disciples wearing a collar but not chained to anything or anyone.

What are these two animals? One could identify the chained animal in Giovanni di Paolo's work as a leopard. The facial features are more cat-like as is the tail, and the spots aren't similar to any other dog in the artist's work. The dogs with the shepherds in his Nativity are furrier than this creature. And without the tell-tale spots. Leopards were known in Italy, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility that Giovanni di Paolo has depicted a leopard. The creature in the painting at right is more recognizably a dog.  

What do these two creatures add to the story? Leopards (assuming that's a leopard*) are symbols of sin or Satan. Sometimes they are used to represent lust. Here the animal is chained. Is lust chained here? Or sin? In this image, John the Baptist is the other being held captive. Is one supposed to see similarities between John and the animal? Why is the animal looking away from John? Add to the discussion that the animal is gone by the time of John's beheading (see Giovanni's adjoining panel in the St. John altarpiece here). 

The dog is a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness. Whose faithfulness is symbolized? John's faithfulness to Jesus? The disciples' loyalty to John? Perhaps this is a moment of transferring loyalties. Perhaps John is releasing his disciples so they can follow Jesus rather than John. Remember that here the dog is echoing John's position, though the dog is outside the cell. 

John's imprisonment no doubt led to depression. So we can assume that John was comforted by the report he received. The voice in the wilderness had, indeed, been crying the right thing. What do these animals add to the story? 

*The leopard as a symbol here may be related to Dante's Inferno, which Giovanni di Paolo illustrated. 

For thoughts on Isaiah 35:1-10, click here.