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….

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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.

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!

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1898  (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1898
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

One more Annunciation—this one by Henry Ossawa Tanner. It’s one of the most unique, and most compelling, depictions of this event out there.

First, a little background. Tanner was an African-American painter who was more successful in Paris than in the U.S. In 1897, a benefactor offered to pay for Tanner to go to the Holy Land to see firsthand the land, people, and architecture. This is one painting that resulted from the trip.

It’s no wonder, then, that this painting has a more authentically Middle Eastern feel—the rounded plaster arches, stone floor, wool rug, and hanging blankets. Mary is virtually lost in all the folds of blankets and bedclothes. But there she is—young, timid, but strong.

Tanner makes sure we don’t miss her. The vertical parts of the arches and the stripes of the hanging blanket draw our attention to her, and the super dark shadow behind her provides a visual anchor that keeps our eye on her, and specifically her face.

In fact, we keep looking at her, in spite of the fact that there is a brilliant shaft of light that seems to glow or even pulse in her presence. This, of course, is the angel.

I love this image of an angel. I’ll admit that I’m sick of angels with robes and halos and wings and carrying bouquets of lilies. I feel like artists got stuck in a rut with that one. This, on the other hand, pricks my imagination. This angel is something to be afraid of (thus the “Do not be afraid.”). This angel is someone to believe when he says, “You’re going to have a baby and he’s going to be the Son of God.” When a talking shaft of light appears in your room, you can’t really doubt or dismiss what it tells you.

Mary’s response, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be as you have said.” It’s easy to attribute such a response to Mary’s profound faith in God—that is, until you look at this Mary. She’s unbelievably young. This is a girl, a child herself. She doesn’t even seem old enough to be pregnant, let alone pregnant with the Son of God and mature enough to handle it.

Frankly, this painting makes the whole story mind-boggling. Can you imagine your 13-year-old in this situation? Now, I realize the culture was very different then—girls had much more responsibility and they were expected to be engaged at a very early age—but young is young. God put a lot in the hands of this young girl.

I’m just amazed. That’s all.

Advent Again … Pierced

December 18, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973 (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973
(Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Titian, Annunciation, c. 1535 (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

Titian, Annunciation, c. 1535
(Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

Another annunciation. This week I’ve been looking at Gerhardt Richter’s 1973 version of Titian’s 1535 painting. He says he copied it from a postcard he got on a visit to Venice. Of course, he did much more than copy it.

It must be said that the standard take on Richter’s painting is that he was making a statement about the ‘end of art’—that a painting like Titian’s cannot be made any longer. There has been just too much water under that art historical bridge.

Fine. Okay. Now, I want to just look.

Richter takes Titian’s relatively sharp composition and puts a soft filter on it, like we’re looking through a window that’s fogged up or frosted and we can’t quite make out what’s going on. Sure, we can see the main features (Mary, the angel, the setting), but it’s hard to make out some of the other elements—the partridge, the fruit, the basket, and even the lily are all but lost. And thus, much of the symbolic content is neutralized. Without symbols to talk about (which is always a safe place for me), we have to contend with the main action.

What have we got?

Richter exaggerates an already dynamic composition. Our eye immediately drawn to the angel’s bright red swirling drapery. His arm and finger lead our gaze over to the diagonal shaft of light, which directs us to look at the brilliant face and hand of Mary. The pages of the book (which are considerably brighter in Richter’s version) lead us to look back toward the angel in some kind of feedback loop.

Regardless how many times my eye circulates through the painting, I always end up staring at that light, which seems so aggressive to me. Richter has dissolved the image of the dove (so sweet, so delicate) into a big burst of white that extends and pierces the space. It seems like this is the instant right before that light strikes Mary. She has no idea what’s about to happen—just look at her serene face. She’s about to get blind-sided. With the Holy Spirit, no less.

Mary didn’t ask for this. She did not volunteer to give birth to the Son of God. God picked her. He thrust this on her. Sure, it’s an honor to be chosen, but it comes with a terrible burden. She will be pierced.

Other parents have recently been pierced. It has been only three days since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Those parents didn’t sign up for that—they never expected their children to die such horrible deaths.  A crushing burden has been laid upon them. It’s a nightmare.

We often think of Mary as extraordinarily blessed to be chosen, but today I see only the pain she will endure. That beam of light, which is supposed to signify the conception of God in her womb, seems only to be a sword that will cut her deep.

Hail Mary, full of grace.

Advent Again … Hovering

December 10, 2012

Titian, Annunciation, 1564
(Chiesa de San Salvador, Venice)

It’s December. It’s Advent. Time to look at some Christmas art. No offense to Titian, but this painting is one that I would expect to find on a dollar-store Christmas card. And, maybe for that exact reason, it deserves a deeper look.

It shows the angel appearing to Mary to tell her that she’s going to give birth to the Son of God. Some of the usual iconography is there: the book in her hand to suggest that she’s a pious young woman; the dove to indicate that she will be impregnated by the power of the Holy Spirit; and the vessel on the floor to remind us that she will be the “vessel” of God.

But in other ways, this is a surprising depiction of the event. The setting is ambiguous, but it certainly isn’t the typical cloistered interior. Instead, this space is wide open to the outside. What’s more, clouds billow and cherubs hover overhead, parting just enough for the Holy Spirit to descend on a brilliant shaft of light. It’s a little dramatic.

My attention is drawn to those little angels—in part because some of them are oddly contorted, but mostly because they are the most dramatic element of the painting. They don’t just hover, some of them seem to swoop and lunge. And many of the faces express delighted expectation. They know what’s happening and it seems like they are crowding around to get a good view.

We, too, know what’s happening. We know that Mary is going to give birth to Jesus who will be the savior of the world. But do we, here at the beginning of Advent, look on with the same kind of anticipation as the angels? I think I mostly anticipate the trappings of Christmas; I don’t necessarily anticipate a birth.

I delivered my second child a couple months ago and I awaited that birth with intense anticipation. I couldn’t wait to have that baby out of my body, but I also couldn’t wait to meet him. I knew that a big story would start unfolding the moment he was born.

Here we have another big story that will start to unfold once the baby is born. I would like to be filled with anticipation, but it’s hard because I know the story already. Then again, so did the angels, right? And here Titian imagines them hovering around excited to see it all anyway.

I think I will practice hovering this month.

Michelangelo, scenes of Creation, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

As you walk from the west door to the front altar in the Sistine Chapel, the scenes on the main panels of the ceiling go backwards in time. You start with scenes from the story of Noah, then comes the scenes dealing with Adam and Eve, and finally you see these three scenes of creation. Michelangelo actually painted the ceiling in this reverse chronological order, so here in these later images, we see some of his most dynamic and gutsy compositions.

The bottom (first) panel depicts the separation of light and darkness on the first day of creation. In the next panel, the third and fourth days are combined, so we see the creation of dry land and vegetation on the left and the creation of the sun and moon on the right. The top panel shows us the second day, when God separated the waters, although some assert that this could also show the fifth day when God filled the waters with living creatures.

One thing is immediately apparent: this not the usual way creation was depicted in art. Here we have a God who may have the grey beard, but is anything but an old man. His body is muscular and energetic. He flies through the air, twisting and turning, reaching and pointing. His authority over the universe is expressed in his powerful and commanding presence in space.

This approach solves a big representational problem. In the biblical account of creation, God speaks the universe into being. He says, “Let there be light,” and light appears in the darkness. He says, “Let there be plants,” and green things emerge from the new soil. But how do you paint that kind of speech act? Michelangelo doesn’t even try. Instead, he translates that speech into gesture. The force of God’s creative power is expressed in the force of his gestures. He points, pushes, raises a hand, and the universe is compelled to follow his command.

What I love about these paintings is the way they reach past the literal account of the creation found in Genesis 1, and get to the heart of the narrative—that is, God’s marvelous creative power. The story underscores the extent of God’s creative act (there was nothing, now there is everything), but also the simplicity of God’s power (he only spoke, but those words were enough to make the universe and everything in it). These paintings communicate that quiet but absolute authority.

I suppose that should make me nervous, but it actually is comforting, probably because I believe that God is good. The God that wields such power is not capricious or violent or maniacal. And so I breathe easier knowing that God has got everything under control, even when things seem to be falling apart.

Perhaps this is why, when I look at these paintings, my eye tends to gravitate towards the figure in the middle of the center panel—the one below the sun. He looks up at God with an expression of awe and admiration. On my better days, I feel like him. He is very aware of the great power and authority of God. And so he seems just slightly nervous, as if he’s not quite sure what to expect next, but he wants to keep close. His eyes are wide open. His eyes are fixed upon God.

Again … on my better days.

Michelangelo, The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, just slightly past the midway point, is this two-part scene. On the left is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Fall of Humanity and on the right the Expulsion from Eden. Here we have a tight narrative in which Adam and Eve’s actions on the left lead inexorably to the event on the right. No turning back.

The story is found in the book of Genesis, right after the story(s) of Creation. God has told Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden, except for the fruit of one tree. For a while it seems like they are fine with that, until the Serpent comes along and convinces Eve that she should eat it and then she turns around and convinces Adam he should too. Bad idea. They immediately feel guilty and try to avoid God when he comes looking for them. When God eventually confronts them, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent, but all three get punished. Among other things, Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise. And, because of their disobedience, now every human being is prone to disobeying God—that’s the “Fall of Humanity.

Michelangelo puts his own little spin on the text, which has some theological implications. Notice how both Adam and Eve reach for the fruit. Eve has to twist around and reach behind her to take fruit from the Serpent (yes, the Serpent has a female torso … don’t get me started). The awkwardness of her gesture is heightened by the dead tree branch that follows the same line. For his part, Adam grips the tree and seems to pull it towards himself in order to get what he’s after. In this way, Michelangelo underscores how both are complicit in the Fall, but he seems to suggest that while Eve was passively receptive to the Serpent’s manipulation, Adam’s disobedience was assertive and willful. He’s going to take what God has forbidden.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Our eye moves to the other side of the painting by following all those parallel and arching arms over to the angel at the top and then further to the pained faces of Adam and Eve. My, how things have changed.

The two look so young and innocent on the left, now they look old and gruesome. Sin has clearly taken its toll. Michelangelo has depicted the new state of their souls—that is, guilt-ridden and depraved—in their physical bodies. Their faces are weathered and wrinkled, their hair has become disheveled and stringy, and Eve covers her naked torso as she cowers and turns away. Adam also turns away, but it looks like he is trying to straight-arm the angel who is driving them out of Eden. If his posture is feebly defensive, the angel’s is forceful and aggressive, as if Michelangelo wants the angel to embody the anger of God.

I am struck by how incisively Michelangelo conveys the effects of sin here. First, he shows how sin has made us into despicable creatures. We are no longer the humans that God originally created us to be, for sin has eroded the innocence and dignity that characterized humanity before the Fall. At the same time, Michelangelo also portrays the shame and deep regret we sometimes feel when we become deeply aware of our sin and its consequences. I personally relate to Eve. I, too, have wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide because I have screwed up. Agh, what have I done!?!?

There’s not really any good news in this panel. Adam and Eve are left in this regrettable state. God is no where to be seen. There is no hint of any plan that God might have to reconcile with these two, or with humanity in general. Michelangelo leaves us with a pit in our stomach. While I would like a glimpse of hope, perhaps it’s better this way. It makes us live with this stark reality for a while.

Then, we start looking around for a sign of God’s grace. Don’t worry, it’s there.

Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and the Women at the Tomb, 1438-45 (Convent of San Marco, Florence)

I’ve picked such quiet paintings for Lent this year, it seems only fitting that I pick a quiet one for Easter too. This fresco by Fra Angelico seems like the perfect thing.

Fra Angelico packs a lot into this image. The women have come on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Christ, but instead they are greeted by a “man in white”—here, depicted clearly as an angel. He imparts his message with two gestures. He points downward into the empty tomb (“Jesus is not here”) and upward toward a vision of the risen Christ (“because he is risen.”). The women, still clutching their jars of ointment, react with dismay and maybe disbelief.

Jesus appears in all his risen glory in an aureole above the women. Fra Angelico is careful to stick to scripture here. According to the biblical account, Jesus wasn’t present at this point of the story, but Fra Angelico still wants to include the reality and wonder of Christ’s resurrection even as he meditates on the very human experience of the women. So, he sets Jesus apart, giving a vision of the risen Christ only to the viewers of the fresco. Us.

And what a vision! It may not be dramatic—Fra Angelico is always understated—but Christ is still exalted. With the bright white behind him and rays of light streaming out, it looks like he’s glowing. He carries the palm branch of martyrdom in one hand and the flag of the resurrection in the other—and together those symbols tell the story. He died a martyr’s death and then rose from the grave in order to reconcile us to God and conquer death once and for all. Jesus doesn’t really play the part of a victorious hero here, but he does have a look of confidence about him.

If only the women could see the vision! One of them will meet Christ close to the tomb in a little while, but the others will have to wait. For now, all of them are reeling. And you can see why! They’ve spent the last two days mourning the death of a beloved teacher-friend-son, and now they are told he’s alive again? What!?! Um, could you repeat that? One of the women peers into the tomb as if she wants to see for herself, and he others haven’t yet dried their eyes…

They will, though. And they will become fierce witnesses to this most astonishing of all miracles. I don’t know about you, but I just love these women. Their devotion to Jesus and their strength of character inspires me. They left the tomb, went back to the house where the disciples were hiding out and, even though they knew those men would call them crazy, they were the first to proclaim, “Christ is risen!”

He is risen indeed.

And down in the corner is St. Dominic, kneeling in prayer. He models for us so that we, too, may stop to meditate on the wonder and significance of these events.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Baby Jesus on the Rocks

October 10, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86 (Louvre, Paris)

I’m lecturing on this painting in two separate classes this week, so I thought I might spend a little more time with it today. The painting ought to be sweet—a young Mary with two chubby babies and an angel—but instead it leaves the viewer (well, me) with a strong sense of foreboding. I want to explore that a little.

Let’s start with the setting. It’s a natural grotto, of sorts, but Leonardo does not paint a cozy shelter here. This is a dark and mysterious place, and this little group seems particularly vulnerable here. The landscape itself seems to threaten them from every side. Even the ground in front of them drops off steeply—how far it goes, we do not know, but that baby seems dangerously close to the edge.

Who is that baby? I like that Leonardo doesn’t make it automatically clear. You might guess that the baby under Mary’s arm is Jesus (that’s a very motherly gesture, after all), but it’s not him. That is the infant John the Baptist. The other baby is Jesus, identifiable by the gesture of blessing he extends toward baby John, who is kneeling in response. They are only babies, but their toddling movements even now mark the true nature of their relationship.

So it is Jesus that sits so close to the edge. What’s more, he seems off-balance. It looks like he is pushing off with his left arm, but his feet are crossed and his momentum seems to be propelling him down toward us. It is easy to imagine him toppling over the edge. Mary’s gesture can be understood in a number of ways, but today I wonder if she is reaching out to take hold of Jesus and scooch him away from the edge. Her face may be calm, but her hand seems charged or dynamic. Perhaps she, too, senses just how vulnerable he is.

How often do we think about the vulnerability of baby Jesus? Don’t we often take story of salvation for granted? God came into the world as a baby, and then he grew up and saved the world. True, but perhaps we should stop a minute and ponder that the entire plan of salvation rested on a baby—an exposed, little baby in a big, dangerous world. Maybe it is because I have a toddler myself that I am acutely aware of how many ways a child can hurt themselves or be hurt by others. The dangers are everywhere, and I live in a relatively safe time and place. How much more threatening was the environment around Jesus (especially given Herod’s paranoia)?

Leonardo may be emphasizing the vulnerability of Jesus here, but he also reminds us that Jesus had a host of angels and God the Father himself looking out for him. This angel appears at Jesus side and clutches him under his arm, securing him against a hapless fall. How often will the angels have to protect Jesus as he grows? How often will he face threats of assorted kinds, and even more so because he isn’t just any child, he is the Son of God.

Could that be the meaning of the angel’s gesture? She looks straight at us and she points to John. Perhaps she is explaining to us what is going on here, just in case we’ve missed it. She calls our attention to John because he gets it. He recognizes that this baby is the Messiah. Make no mistake, a lot could happen between now and the culmination of God’s plan for saving the world, but that plan is now underway. Hallelujah. Watch out.