Year in Review

Thank you to all my wonderful readers, this little blog had almost 5,000 visitors this year! Here are your Top 10 favorite posts for 2015, with links to each one in their titles. Did your favorite make the list? Tell us in the comments, what was your favorite?

1. The Good Shepherd

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, mosaic, 5th c. Galla Placidia Mausoleum, Ravenna, Italy.

2. The Hands of the Father

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661-1669, 262 cm × 205 cm. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

3. The Transfiguration

Transfiguration mosaic in apse of St. Catherine's Monastery, ca. 565 AD.

4. Finding God Through Art

Golden Fire

5. St. Teresa of Avila

Ecstasy-Bernini

6. Stormy Weather

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, oil on canvas, 160 x 128 cm. Whereabouts unknown since the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery in 1990.

7. The Song of Miriam

Miriam by Anselm Feuerbach (1862); oil on canvas, 102cm x 81 cm. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

 

8. Sheep or Goat?

last_judgement_michelangelo.jpg

9. Doubting Thomas

Christ and St. Thomas by Andrea del Verrocchio, Bronze sculpture, Orsanmichele, Florence, Italy

10. Woman with the Alabaster Jar

St Mary Magdalen and St Catherine of Alexandria, Simone Martini,1320-25 Fresco, 215 x 185 cm Cappella di San Martino, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi.

Adoration of the Magi bark painting from Papua New Guinea

This is wonderful! Evangelizing with art!!

The Jesus Question

The organization Wycliffe Bible Translators is committed not only to translating the text of the Bible into all the world’s written languages but into its visual languages as well.

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known. Using the Kwoma palette of red, black, and white, Maira painted several pieces on the Genesis creation account and some on the early life of Jesus.

When these paintings were presented to the Kwoma people, their response was, “These are ours!” They were excited to see their culture honored in the telling of the gospel and were thus more receptive to it, more engaged.

Papua New Guinea nativity Nanias Maira (Kwoma/Papua New Guinea, 1975-), Ner Wiynmaiy, 2011. Painting on sago palm bark. Photo: Peter Brook.

Maira’s painting

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Massacre of the Innocents

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more
.’

Matthew 2:13-18

Massacre of the Innocents, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Massacre of the Innocents, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1486-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

From Web Gallery of Art:

“The Slaughter of the Innocents is on the third level of the left wall of the chapel, next to the Adoration of the Magi.

Vasari described this scene as being the best painting in the entire cycle “because it was executed with good judgment, ingenuity, and great skill”. In the fresco “… we see the cruelty of those who at Herod’s command kill the poor children without pity for their mothers… Many other emotions are also represented, so that no beholder can doubt the excellence of the master”.

It is surprising that this horrific event is given an individual monumental scene in the cycle of the life of Mary, and that the normally very popular Annunciation scene is pushed to one side. But the Slaughter of the Innocents provided Ghirlandaio with an opportunity to present a dramatic composition showing a lively crowd scene, scenes he had studied in classical models. It was not without reason that he placed a Roman triumphal arch covered with relief of classical battle scenes towering up behind the dramatic events. Once again the background of the picture acts as a backdrop, for the figures are bunched together on a densely packed front stage and are not integrated into architecture. The Slaughter of the Innocents takes place amid a violent swirl of movements and gestures. There is a dramatic confusion of people’s and horses’ bodies, which fall upon each other all around. Ghirlandaio depicts the classical model for the scene at the top on the arch.

The liveliest composition in the artist’s entire range of works, this large crowd scene is reminiscent of classical battle reliefs. The mothers of Bethlehem are in a wild panic, trying to save their children from the killers’ swords, which are flashing through the air. On the ground lie the mutilated bodies of the slaughtered innocents in pools of blood.

In the foreground on the right a desperately screaming mother, her red garment billowing in frantic folds, is tearing at the hair of one of the killers from behind. Pure horror is written on her face. The soldier, dressed in classical armor that has a blue leather body piece shaped to indicated the ribs, is bending right over backwards. The foreground of the picture is characterized by falling horses, bloody limbs and heads, streaming hair and drawn swords. On the far right the fleeing mothers are bunched together, but they will not succeed in escaping Herod’s order that all the children of the same age as Christ should be put to the sword.”

 

The horror of this scene is still being played out today, is it not? Whether they are shot by police officers, killed by drone strikes, brainwashed as little jihadi suicide-bombers, starved by austerity policies, or drowned while fleeing war…the list goes on and on. Pray for all the Holy Innocents being slaughtered in our world at this time by war, abuse, or neglect.

Dead migrant child on beach, 2015, Turkey

Dead migrant child on beach, 2015, Turkey

The Holy Family

 

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
of Passover,
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.

Luke 2:41-52

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna,

Disputation with the Doctors, Duccio do Buoninsegna, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena

 

Duccio’s known works are on wood panel, painted in egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. Different from his contemporaries and artists before him, Duccio was a master of tempera and managed to conquer the medium with delicacy and precision. Duccio’s style was similar to Byzantine art in some ways, with its gold backgrounds and familiar religious scenes but also different and more experimental. His paintings are warm with color, and inviting. His pieces held a high level of beauty with delicate details, sometimes inlaid with jewels and almost ornamental fabrics. Duccio was also noted for his complex organization of space. Characters were organized specifically and purposefully. In his Rucellai Madonna c. 1285 the viewer can see all of these qualities at play. Duccio began to break down the sharp lines of Byzantine art, and soften the figures. He used modeling (playing with light and dark colors) to reveal the figures underneath the heavy drapery; hands, faces, and feet became more rounded and three-dimensional.

Duccio was also one of the first painters to put figures in architectural settings. He began to explore and investigate depth and space. He also had a refined attention to emotion, not seen in other painters at this time. The characters interact tenderly, and softly with each other, it is no longer Christ and the Virgin, it is mother and child. With this he flirts with naturalism but his paintings are still awe inspiring. Duccio’s figures seem to be out of this world and heavenly; existing elsewhere with beautiful colors, soft hair, gracefulness and draped in textures not available to mere humans. His influence can be seen in the work of many other painters, including Simone Martini and the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti.

 

For a meditation on this reading and a lovely prayer by Pope Francis, please visit Integrated Catholic Life.

Incarnation

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, 
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth 
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, 
because he was of the house and family of David, 
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child, 
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, 
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields 
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them 
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, 
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy 
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David 
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: 
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:1-14

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

The art of Giotto Di Bondone lies between the flat Byzantine medieval style and the revolutionary art of the Renaissance and he is often called the Father of Renaissance art. He boldly experimented with naturalism, modeling, and perspective; he painted blue skies instead of gold and used other color more freely; he included naturalistic scenery; and he used shading to indicate volume. Perhaps most importantly, Giotto often showed the intense emotions of the moment in the faces he painted.

Giotto painted a scene of the Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, in Padua, in a fresco cycle regarded as his masterpiece. The layout in this scene is similar to Byzantine icons of the nativity but the artist has given it his own charm. We see the Holy Family within a lean-to set against a rocky hillside, with Mary, lying on a makeshift bed on a rock ledge, being handed the swaddled infant Jesus by an attendant. We are immediately drawn to the gaze shared between Mary and Jesus, as they stare intently at each other. Joseph is often depicted as seen here, with his head on his hand as if weary from their long journey. An angel announces the birth to the shepherds at right, while more angels fly above, looking up to heaven with their hands held in praise.

Notice the flaking of the blue paint on Mary’s garment and the sky. The patron and owner of this chapel, Scrovegni, insisted that in some areas Giotto overpaint with blue to highlight the extravagance of the chapel, since the blue is a very costly pigment made of lapis lazuli. Unfortunately, though, the technique used, secco or dry fresco, rather than true fresco that bonds with the wet plaster, has led to the paint flaking away over time.

The ox and the ass shown at left are not included in the biblical text, but they are seen in our earliest depictions of the Nativity, such as this 4th century Roman sarcophagus from Milan.

 

Detail from the "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus") ca 4th c., Sant'Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

Detail from the “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”) ca 4th c., Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

 

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco
San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Giotto is thought by many scholars to have also painted the Nativity scene above for the fresco cycle in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi. We see three scenes side by side that are parts of a progressive narrative. The center foreground shows the newborn Jesus being swaddled after bathing while Joseph looks on from the left, weary or thoughtful. Mary lies on her makeshift bed holding the swaddled infant, upon whom golden beams of light come down from above. At the right, the angel announces the birth of the savior to shepherds, and we have the requisite animals in attendance. More angels above and below indicate that heaven has broken into the earthly realm to celebrate this miraculous event, the birth of God as man.

Though I was first inclined to attribute this work to Giotto, after studying it and comparing it with his Scrovegni Chapel paintings, I’ve come to agree with those who argue against a Giotto attribution. The figures lack the emotional intensity we see in the first Nativity scene; the angels are arrayed quite statically, with none of the lively variety of the other painting; the modeling and scenery seem rather flat. If this was actually painted by Giotto himself after the Arena Chapel, surely he would have developed and refined his technique even further. What do you think?

Regardless of artist, though, in both paintings there is that gaze between Mary and Jesus. In the Arena Chapel image, Mary is receiving her baby into her arms for the first time. How great must her awe have been, knowing that the mystery of God made flesh was there in her loving hands, held against her adoring breast!? Imagine the overwhelming love that swells in her heart as she sees him gazing back at her!

I invite you now to imagine yourself in this scene. Who are you?

  • Are you Mary, staring adoringly at the Savior of the world, this tiny and helpless babe in your arms?
  • Are you Joseph, weary and detached?
  • Are you a shepherd, just hearing the Good News and trying to grasp what it means?
  • Perhaps you’re an angel, proclaiming the Good News for all to hear!
  • Or are you the baby, being held, nursed, and gazed upon with love by your mother Mary?

Choose one and sit with it for a few minutes. Let the experience penetrate deeply so that you can relate to Jesus in a meaningful and personal way. Allow your heart and mind to become immersed in the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation.

Glory to God in the highest! May there be peace on earth and goodwill among men.

Merry Christmas.

Couple Seeks Safety

Song by Brian McLaren

Not Welcome Here

A couple showed up last Sunday at church
They hoped we could help in their spiritual search
Their marriage is legal but our leaders say
It’s morally wrong so they sent them away and said …
Not welcome here, Not welcome here.
We have our beliefs to which we adhere
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear
So people like you are not welcome here.

A family showed up at border control
We want our kids to be safe. They said. That is our goal.
We’re homeless and hungry and frightened and poor
And our country is ravaged by hatred and war. We said
Not welcome here, not welcome here
How do we know if you are sincere?
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear
So people like you are not welcome here.

A couple rode in from some other town.
The woman was pregnant. They both looked worn down.
You know how things are. What else could I say?
I shut the door tight and sent them away.
Not welcome here. Not welcome here.
You know times are tough. Please don’t interfere.
It’s a dangerous world. There’s much we should fear.
So people like you are not welcome here.
Sometimes I wonder how it would be
If the tables were turned and instead it was me
A different religion or color of skin
A refugee hoping to be welcomed in …
You’re welcome here. You’re welcome here.
You’re safe here with us. You have nothing to fear.
It’s a dangerous world, but be of good cheer.
There’s a place here for you, and you’re welcome here.
You can hear the song and read about it here.

 

Saint Joseph Seeks a Lodging in Bethlehem, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum of Art

Saint Joseph Seeks a Lodging in Bethlehem, James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum of Art

 

About Tissot’s painting:

In the biblical narrative, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but must journey to Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph’s family, to be counted in a census imposed by the Romans. On their arrival in the town, Joseph searches for lodgings without success. Tissot contrasts Joseph’s anxious plea—calling up to townspeople in hopes of finding accommodation—with the Virgin Mary’s quiet resignation.

Tissot’s expeditions to the Middle East in the 1880s provided rich source material for his watercolor compositions. The thick masonry walls and labyrinthine alleys of Jaffa, an ancient port city near modern Tel Aviv in Israel, serve here, with minor revisions, as the backdrop of Bethlehem.

The Song of Zechariah

 

Zechariah his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
for he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hand of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:67-79

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

The Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

Zechariah’s Song 

by M. Louise Holert 

Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1:78,79.

The miracle, significance and implications of John’s birth are brilliantly presented in this tender scene. The miracle of John’s birth is indicated by the elderly Elizabeth – who gave birth “in her old age” – being served in bed by an attendant as the elderly Zechariah, on the left side of the painting, addresses his freshly bathed son.

Murillo captures the moment when Zechariah prophesies to his newborn son, foretelling his mission and message: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins . . .” The entire text of Zechariah’s Song can be found in Luke 1:68-79.

The painting reflects a biblical worldview, the predominant European worldview prior to the Enlightenment. At the top of the painting cherubs joyfully observe the miraculous event of John’s birth. Murillo unites heaven and earth in this tender scene, reminding us that John “was a man sent from God” (John 1:6).

John has just had his first bath, foreshadowing his mission as the Baptizer. The bath signifies baptism, the spiritual cleansing that will result as people respond to John’s message of repentance for their sins. The white towels, representing purity, are plentiful and central in the painting.

The scope of the painting calls our attention to the key event in the love story of salvation history – the Incarnation. John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah. He prepares the way for the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). To fully appreciate the significance of John it is important to know the prophecy of Malachi 4:5, “See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”

Murillo’s generous use of red has symbolic significance. As red is the church’s colour for martyred saints, Murillo’s use is most likely in connection with John’s martyrdom at the hand of Herod. By symbolically referring to John’s death in this painting of his birth, Murillo also reminds the viewers of the proximity between John’s birth and death and their own.

The dog on the chair in the right-hand corner of the painting represents faithfulness. It is most likely a symbol of John’s faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, which culminated in his martyrdom. The red tablecloth behind the dog reminds us of this.

Zechariah’s song is a helpful model to expand and enrich our own practice of prayer and praise. We might have expected Zechariah’s prophecy to be all about his son, but he begins his song by praising God for his redemption. He briefly addresses his son and prophesies about his future as “a prophet of the Most High” who will “prepare the way” for the Lord. Zechariah concludes his song acknowledging God’s tender mercy “by which the rising sun” has “come to us from heaven . . . to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

*******

Bartolomé-Esteban MurilloThe Birth of St. John the Baptist, c. 1655, oil on canvas, 145 x 185 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena,CA, USA. Image used by permission.

Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was the last great painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He created his first successful works – eleven paintings for a Seville convent – around 1645, which led to many commissions. Murillo mainly devoted himself to religious subjects. His models for his large devotional altarpieces, depicting biblical scenes, were often local peasants. In his early career Murillo was deeply influenced by Franciso de Zurbaran, from whom he learned the expressive effect of  light and shade. Another very significant influence on Murillo was the Italian painter Federico Barocci (1526-1612). Murillo, whose art is always gentle and tender, admired Barocci for the pleasing softness of his style.

 

This essay is from the Artway website.  Visit the Frick Collection for a 6-minute video of curator Margaret Iacono discussing this wonderful painting.