The Annunciation

The Annunciation is a very common subject in classical art.

Almost every Medieval and Renaissance master painted their own version of this scene, and its easy to understand why. It centers around one of the most fascinating and mysterious aspects of our faith: the virgin conception of our Lord. It depicts a moment which not only signals the advent of our hope and salvation, but also one which is rich with potential for creative exploration.

Many Annunciation paintings are staged similarly.

Fra. Angelico, The Annunciation. 1435-45.
Tempera on board, The Prado, Madrid.

The angel Gabriel arrives from the left side of the painting, he has interrupted the devout and humble Mary who sits or kneels, reading Scripture. Her reaction to his appearance ranges from serene to startled to knowing and wise. It was assumed that viewers at the time would recognize the scene on sight; the words exchanged between Mary and the angel are often left implied, though some artists painted dialogue flowing from their mouths. White lilies can be found in the background, or being offered by Gabriel, symbolizing Mary’s purity. The Holy Spirit descends upon her: this scene represents the moment of conception as well. In Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation, we are reminded of exactly what is at stake when we view the far left section and spy Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Eden.

These pieces are full of symbolism and meaning: the perfect example of a painting meant to be “read” like a story.

The Annunciation, Paolo de Matteis, 1712, 
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis.

I think one of the reasons why this scene fascinates painters and viewers alike is the intensity and gravity of what Mary is hearing and accepting in faith: the drama of the moment, the pure humanity of it. I think its why this subject has been painted over and over again throughout history. I read the passage and I want to go back in time, to be a fly on the wall, just to see Mary’s face, hear the shock in her voice, watch as she experiences the joy and pain of realizing who she is going to give birth to, witness the faith she exhibits as she humbly submits as God’s servant.

I think we have an innate desire to draw closer to these deeply intimate and human moments that surround our Lord’s life here on earth.

Annunciation, unknown, 1420,
 Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

These moments show us who Christ is to us: heralded by angles, conceived by a virgin, born of a human woman. He is God. He is Man. He made himself one of us so that we might one day be one in him, and we cling to these snapshots of his life as we cling to the hope we have in him.

A Gospel for Van Gogh

I suppose Vincent Van Gogh isn’t quite what we’d consider a religious artist. His style is unique and expressive; the subjects of most of his paintings include landscapes, still lifes, and figures, and although less popular than his other work, he did actually create some religious pieces. When you consider that his father and grandfather were ministers and that he was once dedicated to following in their footsteps, it isn’t all that surprising. The fact remains, though, that one of his most famous pieces is a rather unflattering painting of a church.

In 1877 Van Gogh began studying theology in Amsterdam. The academic requirements were too strenuous, however, and the teachings incongruent with his beliefs, so in 1878 he relocated to Brussels to pursue a shorter program and become an evangelical missionary. After three months he left to take a position as a lay preacher and evangelist in Belgium. He was eventually asked to leave the position due to his extreme beliefs and behavior. Fueled by his family, who made it very clear how disappointed they were in his repeated failures, Van Gogh suffered a major spiritual crisis soon afterwards. In 1880 he abandoned all hope of a religious career and turned his sole focus to art alone.

A decade later Van Gogh, who was suffering from severe mental illness and emotional instability, had settled in the south of France where he painted “The Church at Auvers”.  This painting clearly reflects his turbulent feelings for the Church. The sky is dark, foreboding, and the church has cast a shadow over itself. Its colors are dark and muted, the lines of its structure are eerie and otherworldly. Indeed, the only part of the painting which looks joyful is that which has not been touched by the shadow of the church.

“The Church at Auvers”, 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

What a sad reality we witness when we view this painting- not one lived only by Van Gogh either, but by many of those who have been deeply wounded by the Church. What a troubling thing to realize that this is a reflection of how so many people feel when they behold their neighborhood church. “The Church at Auvers” doesn’t look comforting, or like a house of God. It looks scary- threatening. This is not how I see my church. Its not how I want others to see it either but I can see how it happens, how pain caused by our sinful nature gets in the way of the Gospel.

Imagine what would have happened if Van Gogh had a different relationship with the Church. What if he had been given different support or better encouragement? What if he had encountered a better theology or had the Gospel spoken to him more often? What if he had been rejected less by the Church and loved more by it? It doesn’t sound like Van Gogh was cut out to be a preacher, but would he have been more dedicated to speaking the Gospel through his artwork? Would he have at least had a better relationship with the Church or even suffered less?

Perhaps nothing would have changed. Maybe he would have been just as agitated with the church and would have endured the same anguish. We’ll never know. I still can’t help but wonder, though.

The Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell or Christ’s Dissent into Limbo, Master of the Osservanza, c. 1440-1444, Siena, Italy. The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums.

The Harrowing of Hell is just one panel of a larger altarpiece which depicts several vignettes from the Passion of our Lord. In the painting, we see a cut out scene of a dark cave, and several of the faithful departed huddled within. Two men, perhaps Noah and Abraham, kneel before Jesus.  Behind them stand John the Baptist who is, as always, pointing to Christ and turning to his companion (likely King David) to tell of the coming of the Savior. In the back corner we see Adam and Eve, patiently awaiting the fulfillment of that long-ago promise.

What I love about this painting is an almost cartoonish detail that I completely overlooked when I first viewed it. If you didn’t already see it, take another look at what Christ is standing on. In a day or two He is about to appear to His disciples in a locked room. Jesus clearly is not encumbered by an obligation to use doors at this point, but here he is depicted not only entering through the doorway but breaking down the door, squashing Satan in process! I can almost imagine the devil standing there thinking he had won, taunting the poor people in that cave and gloating about the death of the Messiah. Then BAM! Jesus breaks in and just flattens him.

What’s even funnier is the drama of a door being broken down seems to be in direct contrast with the serenity of the figures in the scene. The Savior has come to minister to these people, and clearly, they have been waiting. This painting is beautiful, peaceful, rich. I look at it and wonder what made the artist include such an odd detail.

Humorous as it may seem to our modern eyes, though (and who knows, maybe it was funny back then too?), what it highlights is Christ’s victory over sin and death, it shows that Satan had been defeated once and for all. Not only is Christ standing, unharmed in the dominion of evil, but he has trampled the Accuser in his own house. So, in victory, the Messiah stands with the devil firmly under His feet, and preaches the Gospel in the depths of hell.

Through the Cracks of Context

“A beautiful thing never gives so much pain as failing to hear and see it.”

-Michelangelo Buonarroti

 

As Christian viewers, we see art history differently than the rest of the world sees it.

When we gaze upon a masterpiece of the Renaissance we may be awed and amazed by the time, talent, and skill the artist wielded, might be struck by the years the art has seen and survived, possibly drawn in by some mysterious link to the past. As believers, though, there is another level of context; we are viewing a visual representation of the word of God.

 The religious art of antiquity speaks to us, tells and retells the stories of scripture, reminds us of who we are and who our God is.

In her introduction to “The Square Halo, and Other Mysteries of Western Art” Sally Fisher makes the following declaration: “Important as it is to study a work with the eyes of the past, it is more important to admire it with our own.” When I first read it, my inner art historian was appalled, offended even. How dare she? Of course study is more important than admiration. How can anyone fully admire a work without having studied the historical and cultural context of its creation?

Some of my favorite pieces of art I cherish more because of the context or drama behind them than their aesthetic.

Fisher goes on to use Michelangelo’s most famed work to prove her point: “The famous often-reproduced section of the Sistine ceiling, in which God’s hand reaches toward Adam’s, has a crack in it. I find that crack an eloquent and moving part of the picture: perhaps it is lightning, or perhaps it signals catastrophe, perhaps even as the sky is coming apart, the hands come together. I suspect, personally that the deep appeal of the image of those two hands lies partially in that crack.” I find the argument fascinating, even if I disagree. It’s true that the image in question is pervasive in our culture, in can be found referenced in advertisements, films, comics, and children’s cartoons. Everyone has seen it in some context and I’m sure most of them know where it originates.

The question, though, is this: are the cracks in the ceiling the reason for the image’s intense popularity?

Now, some of the cracks in the ceiling if the Sistine Chapel are incidental; they are structural as one would assume at a cursory glance. However, there are some that were apparently painted by the artist. There is some speculation as to why Michelangelo would do this. Was he trying to convince Pope Julius II (who forced his hand- almost literally) that he wasn’t up to the task of painting frescoes? Its quite possible- he wasn’t a fresco painter and really, really, didn’t want to take the job. Maybe he was trying to get out of the commission by tricking the pope into thinking the results would be a disaster from the start. Michelangelo was likely aware that the ceiling was prone to cracking, perhaps he was preemptively attempting to camouflage future imperfections. Maybe the cracks do have some hidden meaning or symbolism. I’ve never been close enough to know which cracks are real and which are painted, though, and surely there are cracks all over the ceiling, illusory and otherwise. So, what would make the cracks around Adam so much more intriguing, then?

The Sistine Chapel is large.

There are paintings covering almost every inch of wall and ceiling- brilliant paintings. The Creation of Adam is but a small section, so why is it the object of so much obsession? Is it because the cracks in it add so much to the aesthetic and drama of it that we can’t help but be drawn in by it? Or is it a fascination with the mystery of our creation?

I believe we view this section of the Sistine ceiling and we see ourselves.

We look at this image and we witness humanity coming in contact with the divine. Are we witnessing the moment God breathes life into Adam as traditionally interpreted? Or are we instead witnessing the consequences of sin? Could this be a heartbreaking moment of separation? Are we being reminded of a life-giving God or of the nature of our fatal sin? Is this law or gospel? Perhaps it’s both.

 Perhaps in this little section of ceiling we are reminded of our whole story.

I think our fascination with Michelangelo’s work here would be just as strong with or without its cracks (intentional or no) and I can’t help but wonder if Fisher was aware that the cracks she insists on admiring outside of the painting’s context may have been painted by the artist himself in the first place. What she certainly fails to consider is that when we Christians view these pieces we don’t see them for their aesthetic beauty or historic value alone, we see them for the elegance with which they make scriptural connections, and value them for the way they speak to our hearts, minds, and spirits. Our context runs deeper. Religious art isn’t just decoration. It isn’t another log in the history books or display at a museum. Religious art is life and death, law and gospel. It is the Word of God, reimagined in a visual language. For us, context is everything.

Without our context, we are lost.

Can the Darkness Condemn the Light?

“Can the darkness condemn the light?” -El Greco (1541-1614)

Domenikos Theotokopulos, born in the 16th century and commonly known as El Greco, is a European artist with one of the most distinctive styles of his time. Originally from Crete, he studied in Venice, worked in Italy for some time, and went on to heavily influence not only the Spanish Renaissance and generations of artists thereafter (Picasso and Cezanne among them), but his work was a major factor in the development of the Expressionist and Mannerist movements.

As a young artist I was fascinated by his style, which was a major departure from that of his contemporaries. His figures are distorted and his compositions seem to either flow upward or fall haphazardly. Considering the major developments and trends of the Renaissance included the accurate anatomical representation of figures and linear perspective, his paintings almost seem wild. Artists at the time were using science to inform their work, they were learning biology to increase their knowledge of the human body and using math to create perfect compositions. El Greco seems to fly in the face of these conventions, with no small amount of confidence in his defiance. He is reported to have said of Michelangelo, “He was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” To be fair, Michelangelo probably wouldn’t have argued the point but it seems a rather extreme thing to say about the painter of the Sistine Chapel.

When I began studying El Greco’s work, the first descriptor that came to mind was “moody”. I don’t know why but I’ve always been attracted to this quality in his paintings. Perhaps it is because it is so different from my own, or because it is so different from that of his contemporaries. Maybe it is because the work pushes toward expressionism, perhaps betraying an underlying emotion or mental state. As I’ve mentioned before, I often battle varying degrees of depression and anxiety. I’ve known what it is to live in a distorted reality, to look at the world around me and know that what I see is not quite right, to live in the place that El Greco painted so often. This dark and dramatic way of handling the work has a particularly interesting effect on his religious scenes.

Take “The Resurrection”, 1597-1600, as a perfect example. One might expect this to be a bright and joyous painting considering the subject matter, but the muted colors, stormy background, spectral figures, and “S” curve composition come together to create a resurrection scene that evokes a feeling of other-worldliness more than one of celebration. The result is a mysterious look at our faith, one that doesn’t balk from the darkness that surrounds us but rather sees it as another facet of our lives and our walk with God. El Greco’s work here is more intuitive than technical, as though he felt his way through the creative process rather than planning out its execution. I can’t speak to what the artist was thinking or feeling when he did this piece but I find myself wondering if he was in a melancholy state of mind. I wonder if he doubted his faith in low moments and if he found comfort in his work, in the Scripture it illustrates.

For all its moodiness, I find El Greco’s work comforting. I sometimes wonder if I can be crushed by depression and still live in the joy of my salvation. Can I experience overwhelming anxiety and yet trust God’s promises? Can I feel entirely unsure and yet know that my future is secure in Christ? If I feel hopeless, is the hope of my faith still intact? I look at this painting and, whether it’s intended it or not, I see a “yes” to all of those questions. My feelings do not dictate who I am in my walk with God, Christ does. My depression does not rob me of my salvation or the joy and hope that I have in it. I can live with the darkness and yet live in Christ. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to El Greco’s style, I see myself in it: a melancholy artist living with joy and hope that comes only through faith in Christ.

Art is a Language we all Speak

My favorite thing about studying in Italy was getting the chance to travel and see religious art and architecture around the country.

The history was so rich and I absolutely relished being surrounded by it. Everywhere I travelled there was a main cathedral, usually at the city center, always referred to as the “Duomo”, not for the often domed architecture but for the Latin word for “house”. As the city’s main dwelling place of God, it was often built imposingly large, made to be visible (and the campanile, or bell tower, heard) from any point in the city. It was a beacon, the center of daily life.

What fascinated me most about the duomos were their baptistries, which were built as separate structures.

It was forbidden at the time to enter a cathedral unbaptized which, as I understand it, was symbolic of the idea that we must be baptized to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In order to accommodate this, baptistries were built outside of the cathedral, resulting in some of the richest imagery and symbolism I saw during my travels.

Almost every baptistry I visited was built as an octagon.

I’ve been told this symbolizes new life and resurrection, either by adding one to the Hebrew number of completion (seven) to represent a complete life cycle and new birth, or by referencing the eight souls God saved in sparing Noah and his family from the flood. Some baptistries are small, intimate spaces with limited standing room around a central font. Some are large and built like stand alone chapels, with rows of pews facing an altar. Some contain modest frescoes depicting the baptism of our Lord. Some glitter with opulent gold mosaics, arranged in imagery which tells the entire gospel story. Many are lined with symbolic artwork, showing floods of water, and the new life of budding plants.

Big or small, ornate or humble, with each baptistry I visited, the feeling that overwhelmed me was one of comfort.

Every aspect of the architecture revealed the purpose of the structure. Every image reminded me of who I am in the waters of my baptism. Living in a foreign country, I often felt out of place. As much as I loved Italy and its culture, it was sometimes quite clear that I was an outsider. At the same time, I didn’t quite feel able to connect with life back home either. My experiences and ideas were changing so rapidly that it was sometimes hard to tell who I was at all. But then I would step into one of these beautiful baptistries and immediately know that the only identity that mattered was the one given to me by my God. I was baptized. Saved. Set apart.

As I stood in buildings dedicated to the saving of souls, I was moved by artwork which told me in no uncertain terms that I was a child of God.

This is why liturgical art can be so important. I had found myself in a peculiar situation where I had no one speaking my identity to me in terms that I could understand. I was isolated from the comfort of my home church, with limited alternatives. I often felt lost. But I was surrounded by artwork which transcended language and cultural barriers, artwork which spoke the gospel and pointed me straight to Christ.

Pointing to Jesus with Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonnarotti’s “Holy Family” is also referred to as the “Doni Tondo” in reference to its round shape (“tondo”) and the family which commissioned it (the Doni family).

It is perhaps one of my very favorite oil paintings in History. It resides at the Uffizzi in Florence, Italy and the first time I saw it in person I was enchanted, though I couldn’t say why at the time. I remember being pulled in by the rich colors and smooth brush strokes first, and then being carried away by the sweeping composition. When I began to really look at the painting, I realized how odd it was. Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child seem awkwardly tangled up together; it’s almost impossible to tell whether Jesus is falling into His mother’s arms or being hoisted into Joseph’s. Then there are the strange figures in the background, many of which seem to flaunt their gratuitous nudity.

I spent a long time staring at that painting but couldn’t quite figure it out.

Some years later I began studying oils myself, my very first attempt being a study of a small section of the Doni Tondo (which was probably quite overambitious of me if I’m honest). I started to look into the context and symbolism of it and found that it is the only surviving panel painting which Michelangelo saw through to completion (he did not see himself as a painter and was also very, very prone to leaving pieces unfinished); he finished the commission right before trudging off to Rome to grudgingly start work on the Sistine Chapel.

The meaning behind the painting’s components is widely debated.

Some claim that the nude figures in the background symbolize Christ’s dethroning of paganism, others say that they are repentant sinners hoping for the saving waters of baptism (it seems Vasari believed Michelangelo included them simply to show off his skill). Some think the grass under the Holy Family symbolizes new life and salvation (or is grass sometimes just grass?).

The beauty of religious art is that these details are open to interpretation and can spark thought and meditation in the viewer.

The second time I encountered this painting in person was five years after that first meeting. I was studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti and living about half of my life in the museums of Florence. My classmates and I were touring an empty Uffizzi with a professor. When we reached the Doni Tondo I spent as much time as I could with it before the risk of being left behind pulled me away.

 

This time I noticed something different, something more important and poignant.

As I stood there staring at a painting that had commanded my admiration and respect for years, I saw something I hadn’t seen before: every other figure in the composition is somehow pointing to the Christ Child. Mary and Joseph are solely focused on the babe. The figures in the background seem to lean in his direction. And just to the right of the Holy Family, a young John the Baptist looks up to Jesus with the faintest hint of a smile, with hope for salvation, his small staff cutting a line that points directly at the face of the Savior.

And isn’t that just what we want from art in the church: work which will focus us on Christ, point to our hope, and guide us to meditate on our salvation?

Art Underground

The catacombs of Rome are a vast, labyrinthine network of passageways.

They are cavernous: dark, cold, bleak, and eerie. Death lingers there. In the stillness and quiet of the depths, you can feel it. Long after the tombs fell into disuse, forgotten for centuries, they still whisper of finality… as though you can hear the last breaths of those ancient bones echo in the distance.

Yet in this desolate place we find some of the earliest examples of Christian art: rich frescoes which tell a different story.

When newly painted, these artworks spoke directly to a persecuted church, often retelling stories of deliverance for God’s people; they illustrated miraculous healing at the hands of Christ. To those who mourned, huddled far underground in secret and in fear, they told of a bodily resurrection and a new life to come.

(Christ Heals a Bleeding Woman, Artist Unknown, 4th Century CE,   Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome, Italy.) {PD-Art}

Over the years these pieces survived, to resurface and tell us again and again of our hope in the dark, our promised salvation.

They still speak of the true finality of a death on a cross, of Christ’s final victory over the grave. I can’t help but think that there is no better place for work of this kind. It stands in the midst of the darkness, looks death right in the face, offers life, and clearly speaks the name of the Light of the World: Jesus Christ.

                    (Christ as the Good Shepherd, Artist Unknown, 3rd Century CE, Catacombs of Saint Priscilla, Rome, Italy.) {PD-Art}