Saturday, May 13, 2017

100th Anniversary of the Appearance of Our Lady of Fatima

Title: The Immaculate Conception
Artist: Francisco de Zurbaran
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Size: 136.5 x 102.5cm
Date: 1661
Location: Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.

May 13, 2017, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children near Fatima, Portugal.

Mary’s oldest mention by name in the Biblical canon is in Gospel of Mark (6:1-6), when Jesus returns to his hometown to teach in the synagogue: When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Since that first account, much more has been written about Mary. In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons called Mary the "second Eve", because through her, and her willing acceptance of God's choice, God undid the harm that was done through Eve's choice to eat the forbidden fruit. A few centuries later, the theological treatises of Ambrose of Milan (e.g. ‘De institutione virginis et sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua ad Eusebium) would come to influence several Popes. Central to Ambrose is the virginity of Mary, and her role as Mother of God. In the 5th century, the Third Ecumenical Council debated this question, whether Mary should be referred to as Theotokos or Christotokos. Theotokos means "God-bearer" or "Mother of God"; its use implies that Jesus, to whom Mary gave birth, is truly God and man in one person. Ultimately, the council affirmed the use of the title Theotokos, and by doing so affirmed Jesus' undivided divinity and humanity. Thus, while the debate was over regarding the proper title for Mary, it was primarily a Christological question about the nature of Jesus (a question which would return at the Fourth Ecumenical Council).

Most recently, on May 13, 1981, on the 64th anniversary of the first Fatima apparition, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt. By John Paul II's own assessment, "It was a mother's hand that guided the bullet's path," and permitted that "the dying Pope stopped on the threshold of death." As the assassination attempt had taken place on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the pope had no doubt that his survival was due to the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. In gratitude, the Pope gave one of the bullets that struck him to the bishop in charge of the Fatima shrine and, to this day, that bullet remains in the crown of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary housed there.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), was a Spanish painter born of Basque ancestry in Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz Province. His use of sharply defined colours, minute detail in simple compositions, and the strongly three-dimensional modelling of figures all give his paintings a solidity and dignity. His work at its best fuses two dominant tendencies in Spanish art, realism and mysticism. This painting is a late work of Zurbarán. The Virgin is a slender, delicate young girl with an exquisite oval face and golden hair falling to her shoulders, a vision in white and ultramarine seen against a golden sky peopled with cherubs. Though lacking in vigour, this late work has all the painterly qualities and expressive beauty of the great monumental paintings of Zurbarán's early period.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 7 of 7

Title: Friend of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus)
Artist: Léon-Augustin Lhermitte
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 156 x 223 cm
Date: 1892
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Luke 24: 28-35 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.

For these disciples, their faces downcast, hope had been buried in the tomb provided by Joseph. But despite their heavy hearts, these disciples do one thing right in this story — something so apparently insignificant it would be easy to miss. They offer hospitality to Jesus: “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening.” As Jesus sits at the table, takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them, their eyes were opened. Jesus blesses their small act of generosity with the revelation of his presence. It is in the intimacy of fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, that they at last recognise him, and their perplexity over recent events is removed. It is through sitting with Jesus and listening to him that we get to know him.

Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 – 1925) was a French realist painter and etcher whose primary subject matter was rural scenes depicting peasants at work. He was a student of Lecoq de Boisbaudran, and gained recognition after his show in the Paris Salon in 1864. Lhermitte’s innovative use of pastels won him the admiration of his contemporaries, including Vincent van Gogh, and his many awards include the French Legion of Honour (1884) and the Grand Prize at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 6 of 7

Title: The Three Crosses
Artist: Peter Paul Rubens
Medium: Oil on panel
Size: 60.5 x 96 cm
Date: ca. 1620
Location: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Luke 23:39-43 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The faith of the thief on the cross is often dismissed, for he has the equivalent of a deathbed conversion. But the testimony he gives in his last moments is a most eloquent evidence of faith. He addresses his colleague first, expresses the injustice of the entire crucifixion by exclaiming, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then, anticipating the restoration and resurrection, the thief turns to Jesus with words full of faith, and asks to be included. This man, despite a life full of sin, comes to Jesus, and seeks forgiveness in his last mortal moments. He confesses his guilt and casts himself on Jesus' mercy and saving power. Ironically, though dying amidst mocking, Jesus has saved while on the cross. The request of the taunts has been granted to one who learned to believe. Luke could not have painted a clearer portrait of God's grace…

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640) was a Flemish/Netherlandish draughtsman and painter, widely considered as the most notable artist of Flemish Baroque art school. A proponent of an extravagant Baroque style that emphasised movement, colour, and sensuality, Rubens is well known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. Art experts have pointed out that Rubens did not intend the three towering crosses in this painting to have such a dramatic impact. It was only later that his original panel was mounted in a larger one. However, the work was reproduced in its present form during his lifetime, so the idea of portraying Christ’s death so bleakly is certainly authentic and came from Rubens’s circle.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 5 of 7

Title: Christ before Herod Antipas
Artist: Nicolaus Knüpfer
Medium: Oil on Panel
Size: 46 x 61 cm
Date: tbd
Location: Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Luke 23:8-12: When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

Christ being sent to Herod Antipas for judgement is an episode that occurs only in the Gospel of Luke. Herod would have had heard many things of Jesus in Galilee, where his miracles had for a great while been all the talk of the country; and he longed to see him, not for any affection he had for him or his doctrine like Zacchaeus, but purely out of curiosity. He hoped to see some miracle done by him, but Jesus would not gratify him with the performance of even a single miracle. The poorest beggar that asked a miracle for the relief of his necessity was never denied; but this proud prince, that asked a miracle merely for his own amusement, is denied. Herod thought, now that he had him in bonds, he might command a miracle, but to Jesus miracles must not be made cheap, nor Omnipotence be at the beck of any earthly potentate.

Nicolaus Knüpfer (ca. 1603 - 1655) was a Dutch painter of German origin. After initial training in Leipzig and elsewhere, in 1630 Knüpfer moved to Utrecht, where he studied with Mannerist painter Abraham Bloemaert. Knüpfer specialised in history paintings, producing works based on stories from the Bible, from Greek and Roman history and from mythology. In his own day, Knüpfer enjoyed considerable fame and was frequently commissioned by patrons. Typical of his style is the loose brushwork, the liveliness of the depictions and the rich palette, all of which can be seen in this painting of Christ before Herod Antipas. The wall with the low door, closing off the space, looks like a stage set. The curtains and the stage raised by three steps on the right and extending to the plane of the painting are theatrical. The king, leaning back on his throne, is shrieking with laughter and the soldier on one knee, dressing Jesus in a white mantle, has his back to us. His hulking comrade, leaning on his stave, calls through the door to recruit more spectators for Jesus' derision.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 4 of 7

Title: Zaccheus
Artist: J. Kirk Richards
Medium: Oil on Panel
Size: 72 x 25 in
Date: 2001
Location: Private collection

Luke 19:1-10: Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus has said that it is hard for a rich person to be saved, but the salvation of Zacchaeus shows it is not impossible. Though Zacchaeus had a great curiosity to see Jesus, having heard great talk of what kind of a man he was, he could not get his curiosity gratified because he was little, and the crowd was great. Christ did not ride in an open chariot, as princes do, that all men might see him; He came as one of us, lost in a crowd. But those that sincerely desire a sight of Christ will use the proper means for gaining a sight of him, and will break through difficulty and opposition, and be willing to take pains to see him. Christ looked up into the tree, and saw Zacchaeus.He encouraged weak beginnings, and helped them forward. He that had a mind to know Christ shall be known of him; he that only courted to see him shall be admitted to converse with him.

American artist J. Kirk Richards is becoming increasingly known for his accomplishments as a painter of Judeo-Christian themes. Richards was born near Brigham Young University in Utah, and as a teen he took private lesson from artist Clayton Williams to supplement his public school studies. Upon graduation was accepted into the BYU art program, studying with artists such as Bruce Smith and Hagen Haltern. During his Missionary work he spent time in Rome where he was able to immerse himself in the Italian culture of art, which he says had a lasting effect on his painting. He notes that the colors in Italy are reflected a lot in his work - the rust browns and a lot of the color choices, such as the muted palette and the color harmonies found in Italian architecture. More of his work is featured on his website

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 3 of 7

Title: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 160 x 142 cm
Date: 1654–1655
Location: National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Luke 10:38-42: As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary and Martha may be the most familiar set of sisters in the Bible. Both Luke and John describe them as friends of Jesus. Luke's story, though only four verses long, is unique, and has been a source of endless interpretation and debate. On the Surface, Mary’s eagerness to absorb Jesus’ teaching at the expense of a more traditional womanly role would have shocked most Jewish men of that time, and challenges the roles designated for women in the first century. In the religious context of Vermeer's time, the scene illustrated one of the fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants: the latter sought salvation in action while the former placed greater value on the contemplative life. Vermeer's treatment of this subject, which focuses on the message that Christ is transmitting, may reflect his sympathetic response to the Catholic Church in the mid-1650s.

Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 –1675) was a Dutch painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. Although moderately successful in his lifetime, he was evidently not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death. Even his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death, and he was barely mentioned in surveys of Dutch art for nearly two centuries. This early work by Vermeer shows few of the stylistic concerns that would characterise his mature works, instead using a more discreet number of elegant, yet complacent brushstrokes. Rendered with almost naive sincerity, this shallow treatment is evident on the robes of the figures of Christ and Martha, the folds indicated with free-flowing, sloshy brushstrokes, ignoring volume or an underlying substance. Christ, because of the soft glow that radiates from his head and his emphatic gesture, is the dominant figure in this piece. Since the 19th century Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 2 of 7

Title: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes
Artist: Konrad Witz
Medium: Tempera on wood
Size: 132 x 151 cm
Date: 1444
Location: Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva.

Luke 5:1-11: One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Christ’s calling his newfound disciples to be fishers of people is related in both Matthew 4:18 and Mark 1:16, but rather than focusing only on the calling of his disciples, Luke also relates this miraculous draught of fishes. By this vast draught of fishes, Christ intended to show his dominion in the seas as well as on the dry land, over its wealth as over its waves. Thus he would show that he was that Son of man under whose feet all things were put, particularly ‘the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas’ (Ps. 8:8). The size of the catch tells Simon and his companions that this event has been no accident. The greatest moment in their fishing career causes them to stop and ponder what God is doing. Jesus has taken Peter's humble faith and scared him to death with God's presence. But in the uncertainty that often surrounds faith comes the divine voice that says, "Don't be afraid."

Konrad Witz (ca. 1400 - ca. 1445) was a German-born painter from Rottweil in Swabia, active in Switzerland and generally considered a member of the Swiss school. Although few paintings by him survive, these few show that he was remarkably advanced in his naturalism, suggesting a knowledge of the work of his contemporaries Jan van Eyck and the Master of Flémalle. Witz's most famous works are the four surviving panels (forming two wings) from the altarpiece of St Peter he painted for the cathedral in Geneva (although the central panel is lost).  The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is Witz's masterpiece and his only signed and dated work. The landscape setting depicts part of Lake Geneva, and Witz's remarkable naturalism is evident in his observation of reflection and refraction in the water.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Luke for Lent - Part 1 of 7

The Lenten season, a time for fasting and abstinence, can also be a time for prayer and reflection. As the Gospel According to Luke has many unique parables, teachings, and narrative episodes, Lent seems like the ideal time to have a look at a few paintings inspired by some of these passages.

Title: Annunciation to the Shepherds
Artist: Adam Pynacker
Medium: Oil on Panel
Size: 38.7 cm
Date: ca. 1640
Location: The Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

Luke 2:8-15: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Although the Nativity narrative is also found in Matthew, the details of each account differ. Unique to Luke is the inclusion on the annunciation to the shepherds. Whereas Matthew records the recognition of Jesus by Magi, men of high reputation and standing, Luke describes the visit of shepherds, people of low esteem. Because their work prevented them from keeping the ceremonial law, shepherds were a despised class. Often regarded as thieves, they were considered unreliable and not allowed to give evidence in court. This is the beauty of Luke's gospel: God puts equal importance on each of us no matter our present station. Note as well that the angel calls Jesus “Savior”, one of only two times this word is used in reference to Jesus in all four Gospels (cf. John 4:42), a most outstanding term to be used for a new baby.

Adam Pynacker (1622 - 1673) was a Dutch landscape painter, active mainly in Delft and in Amsterdam. Having spent some time in Italy, he was one of the outstanding Dutch exponents of Italianate landscapes. In 1658 he converted to Catholicism in order to marry Eva Maria de Geest, daughter of renowned Dutch painter Wybrand de Geest. Pynacker’s style resembles that of Jan Both and Jan Asselyn, but his mature work often has a distinctive and attractive silvery tonality all his own, perfect for capturing the nocturnal arrival of an angel of the Lord.