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.

Giotto, Triumphal Entry, 1305 (Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy)

Palm Sunday. It’s the day we commemorate Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem about a week before he was crucified. This painting is one of several panels that Giotto painted for the private Arena Chapel. I’ve looked at it only in passing before because there are other more interesting panels in the chapel, but as I look at it now, I find all sorts of things that get me thinking.

Jesus is prominently figured in the center riding toward the gate on a donkey. The story goes that he had commanded his disciples to go into a town and fetch the first “donkey” or “colt” (depending on the gospel you’re reading) that they saw. He added a key bit of information that would be otherwise unapparent: that the colt would have never been ridden before. By being the first to ride it, he would be claiming a messianic prophecy.

And so here he is, with his disciples trailing after him. They seem to be staring at the people on the other side of the painting who are treating Jesus as a king by waving palm fronds and spreading their own garments on the ground in front of him.

The disciples seem a little dumbfounded by this, as if they think this whole thing is a little crazy. And who could blame them? Until now, Jesus has downplayed his identity, and now, all of a sudden, he not only encourages people to think of him as king and Messiah, but the people are actually responding like he is! The disciples will be confused and even shocked by many of the events of the week ahead. Giotto suggests that their discombobulation started here. Things are beginning to move rather quickly in a direction they weren’t quite expecting.

While the disciples are already playing catch-up, the citizens of Jerusalem are taking it all in stride. I love the way Giotto underscored the eagerness of the people. In the background, two people are putting considerable stress on a couple of trees in order to get a view of the procession. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a woman seems to be struggling to get her robe over her head and a man lunges in front of the donkey to get his cloak in place. Another guy absentmindedly tugs on his sleeve as if he wants to follow suit but simply can’t take his eyes off of Jesus.

Oh, to be so starstruck! These folks are not asking a bunch of questions, trying to sort out the theology, or waiting to see what the experts say. They seem to get it straight away. Jesus is IT. Maybe they were just swept up in that mob mentality that surrounds any new celebrity, but in this case their devotion was absolutely appropriate. Jesus really was IT. Okay, he was not quite the “it” they thought he was—he wasn’t going to liberate them from the oppressive rule of the Romans, for example, but he was going to liberate them from a much greater oppressor—the rule of sin and death. Their enthusiasm was very well-placed.

As for me, I feel stuck somewhere between the disciples and the people. I want to be unabashedly enthusiastic about Jesus’ liberating work, maybe even to the point of making a fool of myself in public. But, honestly, I’m still a little confused by it all. I don’t feel liberated. It doesn’t seem like a new kingdom has been instituted. So, it’s a little hard for me to join this eager bunch.

Maybe I need to walk with the disciples as they follow Jesus around this week in a perpetual state of confusion so that I might better understand the clarity they received as they witnessed the resurrection. It’s a little crowded on that side of the painting, but maybe there’s room for me.

Raphael, Transfiguration, c. 1516-20 (Vatican Museum, Rome)

Typically, Transfiguration pictures are quite dull, which is surprising and ironic given the spectacular nature of the event itself. There is one exception, however. This one. It’s Raphael. And I think it’s fabulous.

The canvas is divided almost in half, each showing a separate part of the story. On the top, Raphael depicts the actual Transfiguration, which took place on a mountainside with only Peter, James, and John present (it’s always them, right?). All of a sudden, Jesus’ face started shining and his clothes became dazzling white. What’s more, the long-dead Old Testament All-Stars—Moses and Elijah—appeared and started conversing with Jesus.

It must have been quite a sight … and it has proven to be nearly impossible to depict. Raphael does it by having the threesome float in front of a dramatic cloud that is lit with a bright light directly behind Christ. Jesus doesn’t glow, exactly, but you get the point. It’s dazzling. Then—even better—he shows Peter, James, and John shielding their eyes as they crouch on the ground, having been thrust there by the force of the spectacular transformation. Their body language tells the story.

Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the painting, the other disciples (at left) are trying desperately to heal a boy (in blue) who is possessed by a demon. Despite all their training with Jesus, they could not produce the miracle. You can sense the distress this has caused—their concern for the boy, while evident, is arguably surpassed by their concern about their own failure.

The two events took place at the same time, miles apart, but clearly they were connected in the gospel writer’s mind. Even as Jesus was displaying his power, the disciples were experiencing their own impotence. If only they could access that power. If only Christ was there. Indeed, miles away. They didn’t get it.

Raphael underscores the contrast with the dark shadow ringing the edge of the bluff. As viewers, we sense the huge gap between the power available through Christ and the inability of the disciples to access it.

And yet, Raphael does give us a clue to what happens next in the story. There is one lighter patch in the otherwise black shadow and it highlights the hand of a disciple who is pointing toward Christ. Importantly, it also creates a bridge over the gap. This disciple and at least one other seem to know where the power lies. And, sure enough, Jesus eventually comes down off the mountain and heals the boy himself, castigating the disciples for their lack of faith.

I’m not sure if this painting gives me hope or makes me feel depressed. How often do I feel this helpless. I admit, sometimes I am trying to solve a problem using my own devices—my reason, my creativity, my strong work ethic—but often I also pray, but nothing happens. I feel as desperate as these disciples look. The painting reminds me that I do have access to the power of God, but it also suggests that at least some of the disciples knew that too. So what gives? How much faith do we need? I don’t know, but if the disciples didn’t have it, what hope have I?

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.