I Have Seen the Lord!

Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb weeping.
And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb
and saw two angels in white sitting there,
one at the head and one at the feet
where the Body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

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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.

The Visitation

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45

 

The Visitation, Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Visitation,
Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Mariotto Alberti’s painting of the Visitation, is considered to be the masterpiece of a relatively minor Renaissance artist. In this work we see the harmony and realism, luminous colors, volumetric modelling of the figures, and architectural perspective of the High Renaissance.  In Giorgio Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550, he wrote of the artist:

Mariotto was a most restless person and carnal in the affairs of love and apt to the art of living, and, taking a dislike to the studies and brain-wracking necessary to painting, being also often stung by the tongues of other painters, as is their way, he resolved to give himself to a less laborious and more jovial profession, and so opened the most lovely hostelry outside the Porta San Gallo, and at the sign of the Dragon at the Ponte Vecchioa tavern and inn. This life he led for many months, saying that he had taken up an art that was without muscles, foreshortening or perspective and, better still, without faultfinding, and that the art that he had given up imitated flesh and blood, but this one created flesh and blood; in this if you had good wine you heard yourself praised, but in that every day you were blamed. But at last the low life became an annoyance to him, and, filled with remorse, he returned to painting.

 

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Anonymous German, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, German,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

This delightful sculpture, less than two feet tall, comes from the Met:

“This representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s joyous meeting comes from the Dominican convent of Katharinenthal, in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland. Carved of walnut, with the original paint and gilding almost completely preserved, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth are each inset with crystal-covered cavities through which images of their infants may originally have been seen. The representation of the Visitation, incorporating images of the unborn Christ and John the Baptist, is found with some frequency in late medieval works from German-speaking lands.”

 

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life, Dieric Bouts (Flemish), Ca. 1445, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life,
Dieric Bouts (Flemish),
Ca. 1445,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Dieric Bouts is one of my favorite artists of the Northern Renaissance. This polyptych, a four-part altarpiece, shows the Annunciation, Visitation, Adoration of Angels, and the Adoration of the Magi.

The architectural frames of the panels are based on Rogier Van der Weyden’s Miraflores Triptych in Berlin; it evokes the entrance to a Gothic portico, and alludes to the New Law that is brought about with the birth of Christ.

The biblical passages in the archivolts strengthen this idea:

  • in the first panel, showing the Annunciation, the framing arch is decorated with the story of Adam and Eve;
  • in the central panel, the arches of the Visitation and the Nativity show scenes from the Passion of Christ;
  • in the Epiphany, the arc is decorated with episodes which followed the Resurrection, alluding to the universality of Christianity.
Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life Dieric Bouts (Flemish) Ca. 1445 Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life
Dieric Bouts (Flemish)
Ca. 1445
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Van der Weyden’s influence is clearest in the Visitation, but Bouts also draws on the art of Van Eyck in his concern for light and color, while his interest in landscape denotes  the influence of his native Holland. Bouts never saw the Holy Land but he is known for including landscapes of his native countryside in his works, as we see here.

In the Visitation, note the age difference between the two women, with Mary radiantly youthful and Elizabeth wrinkled with age. I love the way they tenderly touch each others’ pregnant belly, such a loving and intimate gesture.

That gesture helped me make a connection with the story that I hadn’t experienced before. Imagine yourself in the scene and that you are touching the Virgin Mary’s pregnant belly; feel the baby inside her move and kick. Imagine your startled joy, just as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb!  This encounter makes Elizabeth sing out her praise; what sort of praise is breaking forth from you?

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful to you, dear Readers. May your life be filled with abundance and grace and may your gratitude to God be overflowing.

As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem,
he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.
As he was entering a village, ten persons with leprosy met him.
They stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying,
“Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”
And when he saw them, he said,
“Go show yourselves to the priests.”
As they were going they were cleansed.
And one of them, realizing he had been healed,
returned, glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.
He was a Samaritan.
Jesus said in reply,
“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”

Luke 17:11-19

 

codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers-1024x521.jpg

Cleansing of the ten lepers, c. 1035-1040, Codex Aureus Epternacensis

 

The Codex Aureus of Echternach(Codex aureus Epternacensis) is an 11th-century illuminated Gospel Book, created in the approximate period 1030-1050, with a re-used front cover from around the 980s. It is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany.

The manuscript contains the Vulgate versions of the four gospels plus prefatory matter including the Eusebian canon tables, and is a major example of Ottonian illumination, though the manuscript, as opposed to the cover, probably falls just outside the end of rule by the Ottonian dynasty. It was produced at the Abbey of Echternach under the direction of Abbot Humbert.

The manuscript has 136 folios which measure 446 mm by 310 mm. It is one of the most lavishly illuminated Ottonian manuscripts. It contains over 60 decorative pages including 16 full page miniatures, 9 full page initials, 5 evangelist portraits, 10 decorated pages of canon tables, and 16 half-page initials. In addition there are 503 smaller initials, and pages painted to resemble textiles. The entire text is written in gold ink.

Visit Wikipedia for more on Codex Aureus.

 

I liked this simple reflection on the gospel passage that I found from the Boston Catholic Journal:

“We are familiar with the story. It can be summarized in a sentence: Jesus heals ten lepers and only one comes back to say, “Thank You.”

Deceptively simple, yes?

Very clearly, it is a story about ingratitude.

It is also, however, a story about obsession. We are so obsessed with the gift that we are forgetful of the Giver. We are overwhelmed with our good fortune and so utterly absorbed in it, obsessed with it, that we have forgotten not only the Giver — but our own genuine poverty apart from Him.

We do not see the Giver for the gift.

It is an odd permutation: the Giver is God. The gift is from God. And then the gift itself is deflected from God — becoming a good greater than God.

The problem is that the gift is, well … a gift.

It is not ours.

It is His!

Our ingratitude is, sadly, quite common. What is uncommon is our obsession, our susceptibility to utter self-absorption — something that is both striking and revealing:

Our capacity for happiness apart from God is only revealed when we are given something — and ourunhappiness apart from God when we are deprived of it.

And we are blind to both.

But take heart. Jesus also healed the blind …”

Daniel Interpreting the Dream of Nebuchadnezzar

Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar:

“In your vision, O king, you saw a statue,
very large and exceedingly bright,
terrifying in appearance as it stood before you.
The head of the statue was pure gold,
its chest and arms were silver,
its belly and thighs bronze, the legs iron,
its feet partly iron and partly tile.
While you looked at the statue,
a stone which was hewn from a mountain
without a hand being put to it,
struck its iron and tile feet, breaking them in pieces.
The iron, tile, bronze, silver, and gold all crumbled at once,
fine as the chaff on the threshing floor in summer,
and the wind blew them away without leaving a trace.
But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain
and filled the whole earth.

“This was the dream;
the interpretation we shall also give in the king’s presence.
You, O king, are the king of kings;
to you the God of heaven
has given dominion and strength, power and glory;
men, wild beasts, and birds of the air, wherever they may dwell,
he has handed over to you, making you ruler over them all;
you are the head of gold.
Another kingdom shall take your place, inferior to yours,
then a third kingdom, of bronze,
which shall rule over the whole earth.
There shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron;
it shall break in pieces and subdue all these others,
just as iron breaks in pieces and crushes everything else.
The feet and toes you saw, partly of potter’s tile and partly of iron,
mean that it shall be a divided kingdom,
but yet have some of the hardness of iron.
As you saw the iron mixed with clay tile,
and the toes partly iron and partly tile,
the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly fragile.
The iron mixed with clay tile
means that they shall seal their alliances by intermarriage,
but they shall not stay united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
In the lifetime of those kings
the God of heaven will set up a kingdom
that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people;
rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms
and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever.
That is the meaning of the stone you saw hewn from the mountain
without a hand being put to it,
which broke in pieces the tile, iron, bronze, silver, and gold.
The great God has revealed to the king what shall be in the future;
this is exactly what you dreamed, and its meaning is sure.”

Daniel 2:31-45

 

Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's First Dream, Mattia Pretti

Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s First Dream, Mattia Preti

 

We’ve looked at another work by Mattia Preti, his painting of John the Baptist.

From the Getty Museum website:

Although Mattia Preti (1613 – 1699) spent much of his life elsewhere, he is traditionally associated with the city of Naples. Together with Luca Giordano, Preti extended the reputation of Neapolitan painting throughout Italy and internationally. Originally from Calabria in southern Italy, Preti went to Rome around 1630, sharing a room with his brother Gregorio who had arrived about two years earlier. Gregorio may have been Mattia’s principal teacher, although they both also studied at the Accademia di San Luca.

While in Rome during the 1630s and 1640s, Preti achieved his first success. His easel paintings, particularly his early ones, are painted in the style of Caravaggio. His mature style, which reached its epitome in Naples from 1653 to 1660, is intensely dramatic, uniting a Caravaggesque realism and expressive chiaroscuro with the grandeur and theatricality of Venetian artists like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto. In 1661 Preti went to the island of Malta, where he remained for the rest of his life. While receiving most of the island’s church commissions, he also worked for patrons from across Europe. Preti’s contributions to the late Baroque style in Naples greatly inspired later painters, notably Francesco Solimena.