Advent … An Old Fresh Look

December 10, 2018

Limbourg Brothers, Nativity (folio 44v), Tres Riches Heures, 1414-16 (Musee Conde)

This charming little image is a single page from a manuscript called the Tres Riches Heures(or, in English, the “Very Rich Hours”). As the title suggests, the manuscript is a Book of Hours, which was a type of devotional book that was very popular in the Medieval period. Books of Hours typically contained a smattering of prayers, hymns, and biblical passages along with images that could enhance one’s understanding of the text or encourage spiritual reflection.

This particular Book of Hours was created for the Duke of Berry in the early 15th century by the Limbourg Brothers, and it was—as the name suggests—“very richly” decorated with ornate letters and images. Each page is 8 ½ by 10 inches. All the text was hand lettered. All the pictures and decorations were painted with very expensive pigments using very fine brushes.

The illumination of the Nativity appears with a group of prayers associated with the Virgin. Here we find lots of familiar imagery. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, of course. A stable with the standard ox and ass. An angel visiting shepherds with their rather large flock by night. Even an angel choir.

But there are some unusual elements as well—the most obvious of which are the curious blue angels swirling around baby Jesus.

Limbourg Nativity-det2-JesusWhile somewhat strange to us, this imagery would have been familiar to original viewers. In the previous century, a mystic named Bridget of Sweden had a vision that became famous around Europe after her death in the 1370s. Consequently, it inspired a shift in the way the Nativity was represented. In her vision, she saw Mary deep in prayer when suddenly the infant Jesus appeared before her on the ground, naked and glowing. When Mary realized she had just given birth, she bowed her head and crossed her arms in adoration, saying, “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son.” Then Joseph, too, saw the infant and adored him on bended knee.

Following Bridget’s vision, the Limbourg brothers show the moment immediately after Jesus’s birth. He has just appeared outsidethe womb as miraculously as he appeared insidethe womb nine months before. Mary and Joseph’s first reaction, as it should be when gazing at the glowing Son of God, is adoration. We are left to imagine that Mary’s next move is to pick up that poor baby and swaddle him tight.

The Brothers add other bits to emphasize that this is not a typical birth nor a typical baby. The blue angels, for instance, cradle the baby in a nest of golden beams of light, acting as heavenly midwives for this miracle. Unlikein Bridget’s vision, they seem to be suspending him above the bare ground. This special babe is also bathed in light streaming down from a heavenly sphere above, where God the Father stands surrounded by blue and red angels, or more specifically cherubim and sheraphim. The orb in his left hand signifies his authority, as does the crown, but with his right hand, he makes the gesture of blessing, presumably directed toward the people below on whom the most precious blessing is being bestowed presently.

Limbourg Nativity-det1-GodWhat is more unusual for a nativity is the stream of light that flows out of God’s mouth. It descends all the way to the baby below, clearly conveying that this baby is the Word of God, spoken and now made flesh. And, just in case you’ve missed theseindications of the baby’s divinity, the artist throws in one more detail for good measure—a bright white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Its presence makes clear that this very human baby is also the third member of the Triune God.

While the Limbourg Brothers clearly stress Christ’s divinity, there are other theological assertions to be found here—some of which relate to the significance of the birth of Christ for human history. Take the dilapidated stable. It is easy to surmise that the shabby condition of the stable symbolizes the poor and humble conditions into which Christ was born, but historically it carried a different meaning. The old stable represents the Old Testament—or the old order of things—which at the birth of Christ is now passing away. Here the light emanating from heaven at this momentous occasion seems to actually break through the roof—the advent of the new actually causing the ruination of the old.

Limbourg Nativity-det3-statue

The Jewish law is not the only tradition being supplanted; pagan gods are also made obsolete. If you look closely at the hillside in the background, you can make out what appears to be a large golden statue of a pagan god elevated on a column. Once prominent in the landscape, it is now obscured by the dense beams of light that signal the coming of the true God. The old has gone the new has come.

All this gives me pause.

I have only anecdotal evidence by way of the Christmas cards that find their way to my house, but it seems that we tend to gravitate toward more cozy images of the Nativity—ones in which Mary is the doting mother and the baby is snug in her arms or nestled in a manger.

But the Limbourgs’ image doesn’t let me get absorbed in the preciousness of the moment. Instead, it prompts me to contemplate the theological meaningof this event and my own response. If I consider deeply the divine identity of this baby, my response would be more like Bridget’s Mary: to bow and adore him, but not the kind of adoration of tender and affectionate parents so in love with their newborn baby, but the adoration of a humble subject toward a righteous king.

Limbourg Nativity-det40guysOn either side of Mary and Jesus, we are given suggestions for other appropriate responses to this event. On the left, three shepherds push up against the fence. I especially appreciate the two guys in the back who seem to jostle to get a better view, similar perhaps to adults at our own Christmas pageants who shift to see what’s going on up front. As sweet at those pageants are, I wonder if I work as hard to see and understand the historic event. Can I imagine myself in these shepherds’ position, trying to wrap my mind around the wonders of what’s happening here?

Which brings us to Joseph. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Joseph. Here, the Limbourg Brothers give him a particularly old and somewhat regal appearance. He looks down at this baby that has suddenly appeared surrounded by bright blue angels, and he also bows in adoration. But he also registers his surprise, if in a most understated manner. While certainly extra-biblical, I appreciate the artists’ effort to remind us just how surprisingall of this is. This story has become so familiar that we can easily take it for granted: God comes into the world as a baby? Sure, why not. But the incarnation is surprising. The God in baby-form is surprising. Joseph ought to have been surprised when that baby showed up. So should we.

Like most Medieval artists, the Limbourg brothers don’t let us simply dwell on Advent. This image also foreshadows things to come. First, at the very bottom, the ground seems to drop off rather close to where the Holy Family are situated. Artists incorporated such holes or pits to subtly point to Christ’s eventual suffering and death. Likewise, the bare and twisted tree on the hill calls to mind the cross on Golgotha. These references are not surprising. Even in Bridget’s vision, Mary has a premonition of Jesus’s eventual suffering and bursts into tears. She hasn’t yet come to that in this image, but the Limbourg Brothers set the stage.

This Advent season, I hope I will be prompted to look with fresh eyes, to seek new and deeper understanding, and to bow down with deep adoration.



Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

Keith Haring, Merry Christmas, 1985

It’s the day before Christmas. And while I clean and wrap and wipe runny noses (including my own), I’m trying to keep my mind on what I’m really preparing for. Advent. The Coming.

I’m thankful for Keith Haring’s subway drawing, which bypasses the usual schmaltzy iconography to get to the essence of what we’re celebrating. Here is the Son of God come down–miraculously–in the form of baby. It even looks like God is having contractions!

Enough said.

Merry Christmas out there….

A Testimony of Grace

April 27, 2015

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990  (this edition: Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

Keith Haring, Altar Piece, 1990
(this edition is in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)

While in Denver for a short trip a couple weeks ago, I spent a few hours at the Denver Art Museum. They have this artwork displayed in a rather odd place—a wide corridor that connects their two main buildings. You could easily miss it, except it’s a Keith Haring, and Keith Haring tends to draw attention.

Haring made nine editions of this cast-bronze sculpture shortly before his death in 1990. A firsthand account of its making, written by Sam Havadtoy, has become the primary way that this artwork is popularly understood. If you’re curious, you can find it here.

Obviously, there is lots of Christian iconography here.

The viewer is immediately drawn to the baby in the middle of the center panel, presumably an infant Jesus in the arms of Mary. But the figure that extends up is also vaguely trinitarian–the many arms suggesting the omnipotence of God. The topmost pair echo the arms of the cross, and the head seems to look down. The short lines surrounding this figure convey a sense of energy.

On the left and right panels, Haring drew four winged creatures. Havadtoy described them as an image of a fallen angel (the Fall) and the resurrection (Christ’s victory). The people crowded below seem to dance, swoon, and reach up to heaven.

So, as far as I can tell, this is usually interpreted as a reflection on—if not an affirmation of—the sacred. I get that. Haring does express Christian theology about salvation in a rather tidy and compelling image.

But, there’s another way to read this—as a personal reflection on his own impending death.

When he drew so-called “radiant babies” before, he was connoting a range of things—sometimes Jesus, but also all of humanity and even himself. The main figure–an all-powerful, loving, tender God– cradles this little baby. Could Haring have imagined himself being held by God as he prepared for his own death? Could he have been contemplating how, despite his own sin, eternal life might be possible because of God’s love for him?

I don’t know. After a protestant upbringing and an affiliation with the Jesus Movement, he spent much of his short adult life being skeptical about religion and the church. He did come back around to Christianity, apparently, so it’s conceivable that he would do such an overtly theological artwork—especially when drawing on a triptych shaped like an altarpiece—but it is less clear if he would have endeavored a personal reflection on his own salvation.

But does it really matter? Haring understood how language and symbolism work. An author/artist uses a series of words/symbols to send a message, but the receiver might hear/read a different message because they understand the words and symbols differently. Ambiguity is part of the game of communication.

So, he carves these symbols into clay and they are cast into bronze. The message is sent.

I am satisfied.

Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


I tend to gloss over paintings of the Visitation, but this one by Luca Giordano caught my eye.

As the story goes, after the angel appears to Mary to inform her that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been surprised some months earlier with the news that she herself would become miraculously pregnant. By the time that Mary got to her house, the baby inside her was big enough for Elizabeth to feel him leap at the approach of the unborn Messiah.

In Giordano’s painting, Mary is the immediate focal point. She is in the center of the painting. She wears the brightest color in the picture. Every figure but one looks in her direction. She is a magnet for everyone’s attention, including ours.

But Giordano does a peculiar thing. We might look at Mary, but Mary is looking at Elizabeth, and we naturally follow her gaze. Basically, Giordano uses Mary to get our attention and then channel it to Elizabeth.

Situated more frontally, with her arms outstretched and wearing contrasting colors that make her stand out, Elizabeth is arguably the most important character in the painting, which makes sense because she is at the center of the biblical story. In the context of the gospel of Luke, both she and the baby inside her are the first to understand the significance of what’s happening. Four times she uses the term(s) “blessed” or “favored”–she understands that everyone involved here has been given a special gift.

Giodano, following lots of theologians and other artists, takes some liberties with the text to give us more to chew on.

First, Elizabeth’s arms are open. With her right hand, she greets Mary and with the left she gestures inside. She welcomes the mother of God. Her home will now hold the woman who holds the Son of God. The parallelism here makes me want to hold something too.

And then, there are several curious onlookers, namely the two husbands. Blind Zachariah pokes his head out the door and what appears to be a kneeling Joseph looks back over his shoulder. Elizabeth serves as a witness to both and both seem to be eager observers–they want the good news, perhaps more than most.

But that’s not all! Giordano throws in a few standard symbols for good measure. The dark hole under the steps foreshadows the dark stable where Mary’s baby–the Messiah–will be born. That event will mark the end of the pagan era, symbolized by the toppled Greek column. The birth of this baby will be both humble and historic.

My favorite bit of iconography is the hen and her chicks, which are seen frequently in paintings of the Visitation in the Baroque period. This little group connotes motherhood. Despite the very special nature of these babies yet to be born, both women have been called first to be mamas. I love that.

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

One of my students wrote a paper on this painting this semester. It has lingered with me into the Advent season. My thoughts so far …

It’s a standard Annunciation in many ways—the angel kneels to tell Mary that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. There are lilies and a walled off garden to symbolize Mary’s purity and a book on a stand to indicate that she is pious and thus worthy of this honor.

But what captures my attention is the way Botticelli has painted Mary. Her gaze may be downcast in a sign of acquiescence, but her body is curved dramatically away from the angel with both arms signaling to him to back off. Furthermore, Botticelli puts her right up against the frame, which gives us the impression that she has been backed into a corner.

And that is one way of looking at it—God is a little heavy-handed here. An angel comes and tells Mary that she has been chosen to become miraculously pregnant with the savior of the world. What’s she going to say? “Umm, no, thank you.” Does she really have a choice in the matter? You know how it feels when someone springs a question on you and, lacking any time to really think it through, you just agree. Mary looks how I feel in those situations.

At the same time, I think Botticelli suggests how Mary might have actually responded to the news. Many other Annunciations show Mary with a completely calm demeanor, as if she’s been expecting this message all along, which does match the biblical account that reports she responded immediately with, “I am the servant of the Lord. Be it with me as you have said.” Sounds great, but Botticelli’s painting has me wondering if this is a nice gloss that Mary put on the story when she told people about it later on. What really happened was a little more shock and fear and disbelief.

Or, of course, maybe my reading of the painting says more about me than about Mary or Botticelli.

If it had been me, I would have given that angel the straight-arm, just like Botticelli’s Mary does. Then, I would have asked a few more questions. I would definitely have kept my distance. But, then, there was a reason Mary was the chosen one. Here’s to you, Mary.

One last thing. Through the opening in the wall, we can see a river weaving its way back into the distance, where it cuts between a somewhat fanciful castle on the left and a heavy walled structure on the right. The bridge over the water does not stretch the whole way. It is not clear why, but it serves as a nice metaphor for what’s happening in the scene in the foreground. With the Annunciation, God has begun to span the impossible gap between earth and heaven, between humanity and himself.

I’m so glad Mary was up for it.

Gertrude Kasebier, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

Gertrude Kasebier,
Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

It’s Mother’s Day, so I thought I would reflect a little on the subject of motherhood. This is one of those classic pictorialist photographs in which the photographer stages the whole thing, uses a soft focus, and manipulates the negative and print in order to convey an idea. Here: motherhood.

Käsebier places the mother and daughter in a doorway, the girl standing at the back of the threshold as if slightly hesitant to move through it. The mother is positioned a little further forward, but turns back and places her arm across the girl’s shoulders as if to encourage her daughter to step out. She also seems to whisper in the girl’s ear—those words are not meant for us to hear.

The contrasts are striking. The mother is in a long, flowy, white robe or dress which pools at her feet. Her hair is back but loosely tied. She has no jewelry, no ornament. The little girl, in contrast, is clothed in a dark dress, dark tights, dark shoes. The collar and cuffs are starched and bow is tied to accentuate the high collar. Her hair is cut in a neat bob with straight bangs—a shape that resembles the shape of the buckle. She stands straight and looks directly out at us.

The idea here is not complicated. This girl stands on a metaphorical threshold between the private space of the domestic sphere and the larger world beyond. The mother has done her job to prepare the girl for this transition and now ushers her to the spot. The girl seems to hesitate, but there is also an unflinching attitude behind the directness of her gaze.

This is what parenthood is all about, right? We prepare our children to face the world beyond the realm of our control and protection. The mother here blends into the interior space, suggesting that she will stay behind even as her daughter moves out.

It is easy to read the mother’s gesture as one that is nudging her daughter forward, but as a mother, I now see it differently. I think that mother has grasped her daughter one last time before she walks through that door. And she leans down with one last thing to say. She doesn’t really want to see her little girl go.

Me either. But that’s what mothers do.

To put a finer point on it, Käsebier puts a painting of the Visitation on the wall behind them—two biblical mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) who also had to let their children go (sons, in their case), both to die, one in order to save the world. Thankfully, I don’t have to bear that burden, but honestly it doesn’t make it any easier.

Here’s to all the mothers out there who have loved and let go.



Christmastide … Look up!

January 3, 2014

Jacob Jordaens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1617-18 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, France)

Jacob Jordaens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1617-18
(Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, France)

‘Tis the season of pictures of baby Jesus. So you just  have to appreciate the Baroque artists who were clearly trying to find some new way to paint the familiar scenes. Jacob Jordaens is definitely in this camp.

This is a scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds. A rather diverse group of humble folk have gathered around Mary and her newborn babe. A large man strides forward from the right carrying lantern and leading a large ox, while the man standing on the other side seems lost in thought. An old man and woman crouch down to get a better view and a younger boy sneaks a peek over Mary’s shoulder.

They have come to witness the birth of a savior. Mary and Jesus are clearly the focal point of the painting. They are the brightest element—so bright, in fact, that the baby seems to be a light source himself, which is no surprise given the notion that Jesus is the Light who came into the world to pierce the darkness. He certainly seems to do that here.

But that visual pun became so common in the Baroque period, that it seems hackneyed now. What is truly unusual about this painting is that young man with a budding mustache who is looking straight out at the viewer. It’s a little uncomfortable, honestly. And it doesn’t really make sense until you realize that the figure to his left is not another shepherd, but an angel bedecked in fine robes who seems to be jostling to the front of the crowd. The young man seems to put his hand up to prevent getting thwacked by a wing and looks out at us as if to say, “Do you see what’s happening here? This is a little crazy.” Indeed. This is crazy.

One more thing … Only the boy in the foreground seems to be missing the moment as he futzes with a candle. In fact, he is so preoccupied by this little light right in front of his face, that he doesn’t look up to see the True Light.

Look up! This is it! He’s here!

Advent … Waiting to Wait

December 24, 2013

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Waiting at Grenelle, c. 1888 (The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Museum, Massachusetts)

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Waiting at Grenelle, c. 1888
(The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Museum, Massachusetts)

Advent is about waiting. But what does it mean to wait? What does it feel like? Can we wait in the midst of the craziness of December?

This Toulouse-Lautrec painting is titled Waiting at Grenelle. It shows a woman waiting at a table. Waiting for a man? Waiting for a client? Who knows.

The artist paints her from behind with the back of her chair separating us from her. Perhaps we’re walking by and we glance over, but we look a little longer at her precisely because she doesn’t see us looking. We are voyeurs. We think, Who’s this woman sitting all alone?

She leans forward on her forearms, causing her shoulders to push up slightly even as her chin tucks downward. She looks weary and bored. There is a glass on the table, but she shows no interest in it. Instead, she looks down at nothing at all, except maybe the reflection in the glass tabletop.

I notice the strain on the material of her dress as it pulls across her back. That’s the tension in the painting. It’s as if she’s trying to ease the pressure of the corset, which we can actually detect under her bodice. She seems further constrained by the bold white line that comes down from the top of the painting and nearly presses her shoulder. Visually, she’s hemmed in.

And she waits. Does she even know what she’s waiting for?

As I look at this painting, my soul heaves a little. December is so full, so hectic. I go, go, go, but my spirit feels stuck. I actually think that the stuck-ness is the more appropriate feeling, but with all the bustle I can’t just be stuck. I have to go and do!

So I almost envy her.

The irony here is that the artist probably wanted to convey a sense of malaise that characterizes modernity and urban life–a negative commentary on Parisian life in the late 19th century–but I see authenticity. Sure, she may feel alienated and despondent, but at least she’s feeling them.

From my point of view, she gets to be in that uncomfortable, even miserable, place of waiting. That’s what Advent is supposed to be and I actually want to be there.

Sort of.

Of course, I don’t want to stay in that place. Christmas is coming. I do want to breathe again. I do want to get up and dance.

But not yet.

(I started writing this a week ago … now tomorrow’s Christmas, so I guess the waiting to wait is over.)

Bruce Herman, Miriam: Virgin Mother, 2009 (Collection of Gordon College)

Bruce Herman, Miriam: Virgin Mother, 2009
(Collection of Gordon College)

This painting has been on my mind for a couple years—since I had the good fortune of seeing it in person. The two outside panels are pretty standard motifs—the Annunciation and the Visitation. The middle is all-together different, which is why this work is so compelling to me.

Chronologically, the right panel is first. Here we see the angel visiting the young Virgin Mary to tell her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. I appreciate how the artist paints the angel. First—and thankfully!—no feathery wings. He is huge and muscular, and yet he seems to try to make himself as unimposing as possible by crouching down and tucking in. With one arm, he gestures up to indicate the source of his message (that is God), and the other arm extends to touch a vessel, which is a fairly standard symbol in such scenes because Mary’s body is about to become the “vessel” that holds God for nine months. Mary also touches the pot. With her hand on the top, she seems to be taking an oath like a witness swearing on a Bible. Somehow, she seems both reticent and confident.

The left-most panel shows a later part of the story. After the angel’s visit, Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth. It just so happened that Elizabeth herself had conceived a child under miraculous circumstances about six months before. When Mary appeared on her doorstep, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, as if he knew that the Son of God, a mere fetus at the time, was only a belly away.

With the jars between the two women echoing the shape of the swelling (or soon-to-be swelling) bodies, Herman makes it clear that both women are vessels that carry the word/Word of God. Moreover, he aligns their figures to the columns behind, which conveys that the whole structure of the story of salvation is built on these two women.

The most powerful panel, I think, is the middle one. Here we see Mary, overcome by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is moment of conception, or maybe just the moment when it all starts to sink in. The vast expanse of gold leaf above her creates a field of shimmering light. She twists her torso to look up. Her eyes seem to gaze at something beyond this visible world. Her mouth opens slightly as if in wonder. She seems bathed in the light of the Holy Spirit as it comes upon her. (Even I feel compelled to use euphemistic language for this. Too holy.)

After years and years of looking at Annunciation and Visitation imagery, this middle panel helps me look past the doctrine and theology of these events, and to contemplate them as lived experiences. Mary is not just a symbol of faithfulness and piety, she was a real flesh-and-blood, very young Jewish woman. And she had—hands down—the most mind-blowing experience with God. Just think about it. God impregnated her.

When we tell these stories over and over again, especially in clichéd forms like Christmas pageants and precious nativity scenes, I think these narratives start to feel like myths or legends.  I just might print out this painting and tack it on my frig for the month (sorry, Bruce) to remind myself just how astonishingly real these stories are.

Virgin and Child
(14th century)

I’m teaching Medieval art this term and we looked at icons this week. Now for a deeper look.

This is a stereotypical icon—a small, painted panel with a holy figure and lots of gold. In reality, Byzantine icons were quite varied in size, medium, and content. What unified them was their origin and function. They were believed to be direct impressions of a spiritual reality, and thus reliable as visual testimonies of spiritual truth. As such, they were tools for worship and prayer.

Icons tended to have the same style. The figures and especially their clothes are stylized, which means that the forms have been reduced to lines and areas of color. The images are not realistic because viewers are not supposed to think that they are looking at something from the material world, but at something transcendent. The gold background does the same thing. Instead of painting a setting for the holy figures to inhabit, the artists put them in an ethereal gold field, as if to underscore that what we see is a spiritual, non-material, transcendent realm. When you look at an icon, you glimpse the holy.

This is called the Hodegetria Virgin. The term “hodegetria” can be translated “she who knows the way” and is used for images of the Virgin when she is gesturing toward an infant Jesus. Usually, she is looking out toward the viewer, so it appears that she is telling us that Jesus is the way of salvation.

So, here’s the deal. I admit that when I look at this icon (or any icon, for that matter), I do not think I’m looking at some transcendent reality that has been directly imprinted onto this panel in gold and paint. I suppose I’m too cynical, too aware of the artist as a mediating factor. Maybe I need more faith, or more trust in God’s role in inspiring that artist. Maybe I need a little more Orthodox mixed in with my Protestant in order to really experience this image as it was intended, and as I would want to.

It’s strange because this whole blog is supposed to be a testimony to my belief that God’s truth can be conveyed through the visual arts. So, now I get skeptical?


I guess I’ll keep looking at this one.