David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994
(Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

When in San Francisco in November, I saw this painting at the De Young Museum. It caught my attention—perhaps because it offered a curious contemporary spin on the tried-and-true 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings that surrounded it in the gallery.

If you are not familiar with the term, “trompe l’oeil” is a kind of painting in which the artist tries to “trick the eye” of the viewer into thinking that what you’re looking at is real, not painted. Everything in this type of painting is “life”-size and hyper-realistic so it looks like the objects are just on the other side of the wall, or hanging on the wall of gallery itself. The viewer is confronted with the objects in a much more immediate way than with run-of-the-mill naturalism.

This painting is a little different because we know there is not a hole in the gallery wall that looks out over an expanse of water. And yet, the plastic pitcher and stack of white bread sandwiches is so real you can practically smell the grape juice and bologna. Even as a small image on my computer screen, the painting is conjuring those olfactory memories from my childhood.

But it wasn’t the extreme naturalism that drew my closer look then, or now; it was the allusion to the Eucharist. Not only are the constitutional elements grape and grain, but the white cloth evokes the “corporal cloth” that is used to catch any elements that drop from the paten during the Eucharist.

Because this seems so obvious to me, I was surprised that the label next to the painting mentions nothing of this. But what it does say opens up for me a new way of understanding the Eucharist.

The label explains that Ligare is referencing the juice and sandwiches that are given to people at the homeless shelter where he volunteered. Furthermore, he connects this practice to the Greek notion of hospitality called xenia, a word found inscribed on the stone in the painting. In this way, Ligare expands modern conceptions of hospitality—it’s not just welcoming friends into your own home, it is offering food and shelter to complete strangers as well.

I can’t help but push it one step further. At the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and poured the wine, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). He was looking at the twelve disciples—the inner circle, his closest friends—yet he told them his death would be for many—the multitude, the unknown, complete strangers.

So, one way of understanding Christ’s sacrificial death may be as a profound act of hospitality. All of humanity—all strangers to God because of being estranged from God—has been given life-giving sustenance.

We’re heading into the long and often lonely journey through Lent. This time, I’ll keep this painting close at hand to remind me of what’s coming. I may have a physical roof over my head, but spiritually I am homeless—empty and desperate. I will be so grateful for Christ’s hospitality in the end of the journey, whenever that may be.

Then, as now, I will drink and eat in remembrance.

 

(Oh… and no, the irony of bologna is not lost on me.)

 

 

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I’ll be honest and say that I don’t “get” Dürer. I understand that he was a master draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. His works really do blow his contemporaries out of the water, but they seem to be all flash and no substance. Maybe I’m just a skeptical viewer because I know how commercially minded he was. He wanted to sell his stuff and so he made stuff that sold. But clearly there’s got to be more to it than that. So …

Albrecht Dürer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1509-11 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Durer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1510 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

This little woodcut comes from a series he did called the “Small Passion”—36 very small illustrations that were bound together as a devotional book. It’s teeny and almost every scene is rendered in a way that is dramatically different from the way other artists had been doing it. It had wow-factor.

Jesus is obviously the focal point with the rays of light emanating from his head in an otherwise dark space. He cocks his head to the side as if to accentuate the dynamic diagonal line made by his arm and John the Younger, who leans against him somewhat awkwardly.

The disciples surround the table and turn to one another as if engaging in private conversations. The informed viewer might guess that they are reacting to Jesus’s revelation that one of them was going to betray him. “What’d he say?” … “Did you hear that?” … “What could he mean by that?” … “One of us!?!”

Most of them are confused, but one in particular is not—Judas, of course. He is sitting across from Christ, clutching the bag of silver that was his payment for turning Jesus over to the authorities. Instead of turning to his neighbor, he looks directly at Jesus who seems to be meeting his gaze. He knows that Jesus knows that he’s the one. More on that in a minute …

The stuff on the table are all symbols for the “rest of the story.” Judas’s act of betrayal is suggested by the knife directly in front of him, which points back toward the Passover lamb on the platter (yes, it’s a lamb). Jesus will be “the Lamb of God” who will be killed as a sacrifice to cover the sins of all. The cup and the half-eaten loaf are reminders of Jesus’s words during the same meal—“this wine is my blood, shed for you; this bread is my body, broken for you.” This is story and the theology of salvation all rolled into one.

To me, the most interesting part of the image is the knowing look shared by Jesus and Judas. Dürer draws this in such a way that suggests that there might be more going on here than accusation and obstinacy. Jesus tilted head conveys compassion and Judas leans in and looks up to Jesus. Judas does not seem to be the angry, evil character we’re used to.

I wonder if Dürer is trying to get us to see Judas’s point of view. He’s been a dedicated follower of Jesus, he knows Jesus is the Messiah, and he’s zealous. He’s heard Jesus talk about coming to Jerusalem to be arrested, tried, and killed. Maybe he thinks the time has come. Why not speed things along a little? And now, sitting at this table, Jesus has just said it. Judas looks at Jesus. Jesus looks back with a somber gaze. Is this confirmation? Is this the signal?

The thing is that it was a signal. Jesus knew. And Judas did put the plan into action. We condemn Judas, but what he did ultimately led to exactly what he thought it would lead to. Jesus was arrested, tried, and brought to a cross. And he became the Messiah—the savior of the Jews, the savior of the world. He finally revealed the true extent of his power and his glory, perhaps just as Judas had anticipated.

How often we take matters into our own hands. We think we know what God wants to happen and we decide to make it happen. On the one hand, this is attitude is rather arrogant and probably self-serving. But, on the other hand, I wonder how often God has used this very human inclination (especially in the Type-A folks) to bring certain things to pass. Seems a little complicated and potentially really messy, but I guess it’s a factor he has to consider anyway.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this, but there it is.

 

I feel compelled to add that I do not have evidence to support that Dürer meant to cast Judas in a sympathetic light. That’s my own reading.

Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800 (Trinity College, Dublin)

Chi Rho page, 34r, Book of Kells, c. 800
(Trinity College, Dublin)
Click the image to go to a digital facsimile of the book and scroll down to folio/page 34 to see a much better image.

This is the Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, a early 9th-century book that was lavishly decorated by monks somewhere in modern-day Ireland. It’s probably one of the most famous pages of any book ever, and it’s no surprise why.

It gets its name from the Greek letters that appear rather prominently: X-P-I (pronounced Chi-Rho-Iota), which are the first letters of the sacred name, “Christ.” The page appears in the book at the moment when Jesus is first called “the Christ” in the gospels, which significant because he’s being identified as more than just a prophet or rabbi. He’s the Messiah. Other manuscripts from this time and place have Chi-Rho pictures, but this page is far-and-away more spectacular than any other.

Visually, the page is stunning because everything seems animated (it’s no wonder that it inspired the 2009 animated film, “The Secret of Kells”). The letters seem to draw themselves, with the arching lines of the Chi, the Rho which curls in on itself, and the Iota that sprouts at its top. Small circles spin inside bigger circles and they appear to move like yo-yos along the bold outlines of the letters. The rest of the interlacing (or weaved patterning) seems to weave itself into knots. The only shape that seems still is the cross form toward the bottom—the bold yellow and black lines are strong and definitive, as if the design of the whole page started and stopped right there. Ah, yes, indeed.

This is where I could get all heady and pick apart some of the iconography. Suzanne Lewis wrote an article years ago that explained it in a way that still gives me chills.* I’ll simply say that there are three bits of imagery—cats and mice, an otter and a fish, and two butterflies and a chrysalis—which all point to Christ as the Eucharistic host. They emphasize that, with the Incarnation, God was made flesh and it is that flesh that we consume—metaphorically, at the very least—when we celebrate the Eucharist. In the theological narrative, what connects the Incarnation with Salvation is, of course, the crucifixion. The cross. The Chi. Perfect, no? Chills?

All that appeals to my mind, but it is still the visual power of the page that makes my soul hum. Monks decorated the books they copied not because they had extra time on their hands, but because they were passionate about the uniqueness of the words these books contain and they conveyed that belief by painting the pages with extravagant designs. This was the Word of God, and the Word of God is dynamic, powerful, extraordinary. These intricate illuminations never let readers forget that this was no ordinary text.

That seems so right to me. At some point along the line—perhaps around the time of the first publication of the Good News Bible—we shifted from treating Bibles as intensely special books to emphasizing the Bible is common and accessible to all. Not a bad shift, to be sure! But I do think we lost something. We lost the mystery, the holiness, the wonder.

No doubt I’ve lost it too … except when I look at a book like this. Then, the page, the letters, and the text itself seem so shockingly alive, it feels like I’m looking at something powerful and mysterious. It’s the Word of God, and don’t you forget it.

*Suzanne Lewis, “Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page in the Book of Kells,” Traditio 36 (1980), pp. 139-59

Caravaggio's Deposition from the Cross or Entombment, 1603 (Vatican Collection, Rome)

For the last week of Lent, an image of one of the last events of Holy Week: the Entombment by Caravaggio. Here, we see a group standing on a stone slab and lowering Christ into the tomb. John the Younger and Joseph of Arimathea hold the limp body, while Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands behind with two younger women, one of whom must be Mary Magdalene but the other is unidentified. This is not a scene of pathos or intense grief, but a relatively calm and realistic depiction of the closing event of Christ’s Passion.

Typical for Caravaggio, he doesn’t idealize these characters or sanctify the event. In fact, he goes out of his way to ruffle it up. The two men seem to struggle under the weight of Christ’s body—Joseph has a rather awkward hold on the legs and John’s right hand seems to be losing its grasp as his finger actually probes the wound in Christ’s side. One wonders how, exactly, they plan to lower the body into the tomb without dropping it.

One way to solve that problem is to assume that another figure is standing in the grave ready to receive the body. This figure is anonymous—you can’t see him, clearly, and the biblical account mentions only Joseph and the two Maries being present at the burial. This is brilliant, I think, because it allows for the viewer to assume that very position, so when you stand in front of this painting, you are standing in the grave looking up as these men try to gently lower the body toward you. You are there to receive it. Caravaggio invites you to participate. As I contemplate this, I think about my own relationship to Christ. Am I the devoted follower who has risked public condemnation by coming to help in the burial, or am I just a grave servant who has no more than a passing interest in this particular dead body? Am I grieving or merely curious or completely apathetic? The painting invites a little introspection.

But there’s more. This painting would have been situated above an altar in a side chapel of an Oratorian Church. This particular order was devoted to lay preaching and the practice of confession and communion (in fact, they held Mass up to 20 times a day!). Now, this side chapel would not have been used for Mass, necessarily, but the indirect connection suggests another interpretation of the painting. In the Catholic Mass, the priest turns his back to the congregation and lifts the host (the bread) above his head and then lowers it again. It is in that moment that the host is consecrated—that is, it is converted into the body of Christ. If the priest were performing the Mass before this particular altar, the painting would echo the significance of the gesture. The priest is standing in the grave, receiving the body of Christ; he then turns and offers it to the people in the form of the consecrated host.

This is unbelievably powerful in my mind. Personally, I don’t ascribe to transubstantiation (that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ), but this painting forces me to consider the power and significance of Communion. When I take my little cup of juice and my piece of cracker, I may be reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and of the community of believers around the world, but frankly I rarely think about the fact that, as I walk forward to receive Communion, I am walking forward to receive symbols of the physical body of Christ—the dead, tortured, heavy body of Christ. He died for me. He was buried for me.

Let me not forget where I stand.

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1495 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy)

This week, I’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. I’ve spent a lot of time with this painting over the years, but it’s always fresh. Seems so cliche to say that. But what? It’s true.

Here’s the thing. I think Leonardo’s solution to the compositional problem is so great. The problem? How do you compose a painting with 13 figures that is neither boring nor chaotic. For generations, painters had been more afraid of chaotic, and so opted for more boring compositions in which all the disciples are seated in a row and have basically the same upright posture with minimal gestures. Leonardo changes all that, but he doesn’t sacrifice order for the sake of interest.

Indeed, the structure of the painting is so strong and so deep–the horizontal and vertical lines of the table, the ceiling, the windows and the tapestries on the walls keep the image stable and rooted. The disciples are predictably divided in half on other side of Christ, maintaining the all-important symmetry. But it’s not boring. The groupings of disciples are varied, creating an undulating line across the middle of the painting. The lines of their bodies create dramatic diagonals that cut across the image while their gestures lead the viewer’s eye toward the center—to Jesus.

Jesus words–“One of you will betray me”–has just sent a shock wave through the disciples and you can practically hear their alarmed responses. I am drawn in by the responses of the individual disciples—their looks of bewilderment and dismay. James’s “Hold-on-a-minute”, Matthew’s “What-was-that?”, and Andrew’s “Whoa!” I find them so human, so real. This was a group of people who had been together almost continuously for years. It had to have felt like a family. Leonardo shows that intimacy. This feels like a family. And now, they find out that one of them is going to betray Jesus. I sense their confusion and shock. They didn’t get it.

And then there’s Christ. His head and torso form a perfect isosceles triangle–a still, stable center in the middle of the disciples’ vibrating gesticulations. So true, isn’t it? All hell is about to break loose with his arrest, trial, and execution, but here we see that he is still in complete control. He is, and will continue to be, Almighty God. I love that.

I think Leonardo manages to draw us in to the drama of the narrative. He allows us to feel what it would have felt like to be in that room that night. The painting engages my heart, not just my mind. I feel the alarm, the horror, the concern, but I also feel the authority and power of Christ. It makes me want to curl up under that security blanket and pretend the chaos is not happening.