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.


Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?

This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!

Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.

Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.

Cranach-Weimar-det2Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.

The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.

Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.

The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.

Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.

I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.

Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.


Yellow Christ

September 22, 2014


Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889

Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889 (Albright-Knox Gallery)

Back to some religious subject matter. I tend to treat Gauguin with a little skepticism, but I like this painting—perhaps because it’s just a good painting (visually speaking), perhaps because it strikes a chord.

First, the visual. Gauguin puts the cross off-center, so that it’s anchored to the top and left edges, giving the painting a strong structure. Yet, because we don’t see where it connects to the ground, the cross seems to hang rather than stand. Three women kneel on the ground in a semicircle that connects (through line and color) to the rock wall that snakes across the middleground and leads back to the village (also bluish). 

Because the body of Christ is the brightest yellow in the painting, it not only draws our attention, but it is linked to the landscape—and the rolling fields more so than the trees—and sets him apart from the women.

The subject is ahistorical, of course. The setting is Brittany, in France, in the late 19th century. In that context, these pious women would be kneeling in prayer before a crucifix, but this crucifix holds a figure of Christ that seems more real than sculpted or painted.

One explanation suggests that Gauguin painted a spiritual experience–these women are so devout that they are being given a vision of Jesus as he hung on the cross. They look down in the painting because Gauguin wanted to convey that this is a powerful interior experience. The vivid contrasting color and the rather thick outline of Christ’s body not only emphasizes that he is distinct from them (and their muted blues), but also gives the viewer a potentially powerful visual experience of the crucified Christ.

The experience of these women–as Gauguin paints it–is enviable. I hear about people who have visions or other types of intense spiritual experiences and I think, Must be nice. They receive assurances, they have personal encounters with Jesus, they get regular reminders of God’s grace! But then I remember that a life characterized by mystical experiences is probably the result of a deep and abiding faith. Right. 

In an earlier phase of life, I think you would have found me in the middle of that group of women, trying (though not very successfully) to cultivate a practice of contemplative prayer.

Now, I more often feel like the man climbing over the wall. I have no idea why Gauguin put him there, but when I see him, I see someone making a break for it. But why? Is he freaked out by their religiosity? Does he have something seemingly more important to do? Is he afraid of engaging in that kind of spiritual practice? Has he just had enough? 

I can’t answer the question for me either, but it could be any of those reasons. I’m glad that Gauguin put him in there because it’s probably good for me to reflect on such things. I’ll do that. And maybe I’ll wander back to the circle.




Sistine Chapel … Look Up

September 3, 2012

Michelangelo, The Bronze Serpent, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Last corner. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at this corner of the Sistine Chapel. It’s so dramatic!

The panel depicts a story from the Old Testament. The Israelites were out in the desert and they did something to tick God off (again). To punish them, he sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded (again). God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whoever looked at the sculpture would be saved.

Michelangelo is very literal in his interpretation of this story. Snakes fly through the air to attack the mass of people on the right. They coil, constrict, and bite. There’s no hope for these victims as they struggle and succumb. Meanwhile, the crowd on the left gaze up at the golden serpent in the middle. They look mesmerized.

I like the way Michelangelo contrasts the bronze snake wrapped around the pole with the green snake coiled around its victim right below—it’s so similar, even down to the tip of the tail around the poor guy’s ankle. Yet the contrast is stark. The bottom serpent is the agent of death, the top one is the agent of life.

But that sculpted snake is more than a miraculous cure or a protective shield, it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. The Israelites deserved to be punished, but God is offering a way out and all the people have to do is look up–to put their trust in the power of that piece of metal.

Of course, that story has long been understood as a parallel to the New Testament story of salvation. Christ, too, was lifted up on a pole of sorts when he was crucified, and we, too, can be saved by simply looking to the cross. All we have to do is believe and we will be spared the punishment that is due because of all our disobedience.

Michelangelo makes the choice pretty clear. We can writhe in agony as we get what we deserve, or we can look up and be mesmerized by the mercy and grace of God. Hmm … that’s a tough one.

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the four corners of the Sistine Chapel. We see four Old Testament stories: David killing Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Esther orchestrating the death of Haman, and the bronze serpent—all stories of unexpected salvation for the Israelites. In each, they seemed doomed. In each, God provided a way out. And (importantly) in each, salvation came through believing in God’s desire to save. David, Judith, and Esther all believed that God was on their side, that God wanted the Israelites to live on. They acted on that belief, just like the Israelites who looked up at a sculpture of a snake in order to live.

So what does it mean for us? Not sure. I would like to act based on certain beliefs like these OT heroes did. But what do I believe? And what action does it require? My convictions seem rather general and lackluster. I think I need to listen a bit harder to what God might be telling me. Where is the battle line? Where are the stakes high and action called for? If you have any ideas, I’m listening.

Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In one corner of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted the story of Judith and Holofernes. If David is the unexpected boy hero (his story is in another corner), then Judith is the big female hero. She’s got it, all right.

The story is found in the book of Judith, which is not in Protestant Bibles, so it’s less familiar than some other stories. Once again, the Israelites are at war, this time with the Assyrians, and are not doing so well. Judith decides to take matters into her own hands and ingratiates herself with the enemy. Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian army, takes the bait and invites the alluring Judith to his tent. He proceeds to get drunk, and when he passes out, she cuts off his head and carries it away in basket. When the body is discovered, the Assyrians freak out and abandon their position, and the Israelites carry the day.

During the Renaissance, this story was quite popular–perhaps because it involved war, murder, and a beautiful woman, but probably because it offered a stellar counterpoint to the story of David and Goliath. Just like with David, we have an unlikely hero who single-handedly pulls off a total victory when the Israelite army seems tied up in knots. And here again, a mighty adversary loses his head.

So what’s Michelangelo’s spin on this story?

Instead of the climax, we see the denouement. Judith and her maidservant are sneaking off with the head (on a platter, this time). Judith looks over her shoulder at Holofernes as if she expects him to come chasing after her. What’s odd is that it does seem like he is still writhing on his bed like a snake that has just been decapitated. Fitting, I think.

I appreciate that Michelangelo depicts both men in the scene as physically big and muscular, but also incapacitated. Their strength is worthless to them. Meanwhile the women are shown in action, their bodies mirroring each other in order to double the effect. Their strength is in their boldness (note the vibrancy of the colors) and also their gracefulness (it almost looks like they’re dancing). Some people have claimed that Michelangelo was misogynistic, but I think this is a nod to the strength of women.

I’m glad that the Bible (or the extra-biblical texts) record the stories of women like this, and I’m even more glad that artists have chosen those stories for the walls of such hallowed places. It’s good for us, no?

Michelangelo, David and Goliath, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Up in one of the corners of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted a scene from the story of David and Goliath. He had already depicted the story in stone with impressive results. Before, he showed a strong and determined (and naked) David right before the battle (see my post on that one). This time out, David seems like a scrappy young kid in the act of slaying a giant. I like it.

You’ll remember the story. The Israelites are embroiled in a war with the Philistines. The latter would like to end it once and for all in a one-on-one fight between the best warriors from each army. The Philistines have a giant named Goliath; the Israelites have … well … nobody—at least no one that seems able to defeat this guy. Then David comes along. He’s a teenager (either pious or just plain cocky) and he is astonished that the Israelites have so little faith in God. He volunteers and with only a slingshot defeats his mighty foe.

Most interpretations of the story imply that Goliath fell over dead when the rock from David’s slingshot hit his head, but Michelangelo puts a more dramatic spin on it by suggesting that the rock only knocked Goliath down. He shows a tension-filled moment when the huge Goliath stirs and starts to rise again. Will David have time to strike before Goliath throws him off?

The composition adds to the drama. Michelangelo incorporates lots of diagonals—like the sides of the tent, David’s leg combined with Goliath’s right arm, and (most prominently) the line created by the other three arms. The latter is accentuated by the blade of the sword which arcs back. This creates a sense of movement. You can practically feel the swoosh of David’s arm as he swings his arm around.

Yes, of course, David wins. We don’t need to see blood spurting or a head held high to know what happens here. This is the triumph of the little guy, but we must remember that the point of the story is that the victory was actually God’s. This is not a fair match-up (look how small David looks!), so God had to orchestrate the battle so David came out on top (literally, here).

And that’s the point, right? We are all scrawny little teenagers facing our own personal giants. It’s nice to imagine that the fight could be over with one rock out of a slingshot, but I like that this image suggests that our battles might not be so easy. Instead, we need to take on that giant with confidence, determination, and a fair bit of chutzpah. No fear. No hesitation. It’s a pep-talk in paint.

Does it work?

Michelangelo, The Flood, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

When you walk in the Sistine Chapel and look up, the first three scenes you’ll see on the ceiling tell the story of Noah (honestly, they are rather crowded scenes with relatively small figures, so you’ll need opera glasses). Michelangelo chose to paint the Flood, the Sacrifice of Noah, and the Drunkenness of Noah, which are some unusual choices and so worthy of some deeper consideration.

The first part of the story is relatively well-known. Sometime after Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, humanity has largely turned away from God. Fed up with it all, God decides to wipe everybody out with a massive flood, but chooses to save the one man he finds to be righteous—Noah. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his immediate family and pairs of animals. When the rains come, the ark becomes a floating shelter.

Michelangelo paints the moment when the flood is rising and people are trying to save themselves. It’s a sobering scene. A husband carries his wife on his back up the hill, a mother tries to save her two babies, a father hoists his adult son onto the rock, couples hold each other. These are supposed to be the people who are evil through and through, but that’s not the impression we get here. Instead, we see people who love each other—they are mothers, fathers, innocent children. Are they really that bad?

And so, Michelangelo forces us to consider the most difficult part of this story: the fact that God killed lots of people. It’s easy to picture the people as despicable, horrible, and no-good (a whole society of criminals, say) and overlook just how alarming this divine act really was. Was everyone really that bad? The Bible says that “every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time.” Really? It seems like such an absolute statement has to be hyperbole. I think Michelangelo agrees with me here. He seems to suggest that the real picture had to be more complicated than that. But the problem is that he doesn’t offer any answers to this theological question. Ugh.

What I think he does do is pose a different question: Are you any different from them? Each one of us is pretty bad, after all—maybe we haven’t murdered someone, but we all have ugly thoughts, immoral desires, and impure motivations, which is what these people were accused of. Would I have been deemed righteous like Noah? Mmmm … probably not. So, I would have been facing the same fate at the rest.

I guess this makes Michelangelo’s panel a morality tale. The message? Shape up, because you too will be judged. You can’t rely on being “good enough.” Pursue righteousness. Get rid of those inclinations toward evil. Be good.

Where’s grace in all this? Noah. He could not have been completely righteous, right? He simply “walked faithfully with God,” which prompted God to extend grace to him in the form of a lifeboat. We don’t need to be pure in order to be saved, we just need to walk faithfully (with earnestness and integrity) with God. Then, Christ becomes our lifeboat.

In the painting, three guys are getting pulled onto the ark. They can’t be Noah’s sons, because there are already at least four men on board. This seems to be Michelangelo’s way of depicting grace. When the waters started to rise, these three didn’t simply look for higher ground or find a little boat for themselves (both of which are logical actions in those circumstances), they turned toward the thing that will really save them. They finally believed Noah’s warnings. They believed God. And so, they too are saved. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

That’s a lot of meat

November 11, 2011

Pieter Aertsen, Butcher's Stall, 1551 (Uppsala University, Sweden)

This week, I’m taking a closer look at Aertsen’s Meat Stall from 1551. In its day, it was wildly innovative in terms of subject (raw meat) and composition (just wait).

Meat, meat, meat. Aertsen took great pains to paint each bit of flesh with realistic precision. As one art historian has noted, some of the pieces seem so fresh they might still be warm. It’s a profusion of meat displayed for the visual delectation of the viewer. Your mouth should be watering. (If it’s not, blame 21st century squeamishness.)

The foreground might be full of meat, but that’s just the beginning of the painting. Through the various windows and doors of the stall, we see other scenes. On the right, the eye winds its way through an alley strewn with oyster shells where a man fills a jug from a well, to a back tavern in which two couples seem to be indulging their appetites.



On the left side, we look out onto the road to see a procession of worshipers on their way to a church. Anachronistically, Joseph and Mary with an infant Jesus are also there. They are fleeing to Egypt, but they have stopped to give a bit of bread to a poor young boy. Theirs is an act of extreme charity—they have so little, yet they give what they can.


The moral of this painting is easy, right? In the face of temptation, there are two ways to go: give in to your carnal desires or resist the temptation and pursue virtues like charity. Got it.

But I think Aertsen has done something far more interesting than a simple morality picture here. He pushes all the meat so far forward in the painting that it reaches into our own space. In effect, he dangles all this deliciousness before our eyes, so our attention keeps coming back to it. We may glance at the scenes beyond, but they are so small and so sketchy, that they hold much less visual interest for us. Isn’t that just how temptations work? We might know where we ought to look or where we ought to pour our time and energy, but the things that tempt us always loom large, they are always more enticing.

The challenge, then, is to fight the urge. But the metaphor here is not repentance, or turning away from temptation, it is looking past that which tempts us. We have to look beyond the mesmerizing foreground of this painting and peer deeper into the image to see truth and be edified. I like the way Aertsen changes the metaphor for us because it calls attention to just how powerful and seductive temptations are. It may be nice to think about simply turning away so you don’t have to look at the thing which tempts you, but how often does the temptation actually leave your sight, or mind, or body? This painting suggests we need to look past those things that look so good, even as they dangle in front of our eyes, in order to pursue what is good, noble, and worthy. Sounds easy, but Aertsen’s painting demonstrates just how hard that is.

All Saints

November 1, 2011

Fra Angelico, Predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, c1423-24 (National Gallery, London)

It is getting close to All Saints’ Day. There are not many artworks that try to depict the great cloud of witnesses. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is one. The predella of Fra Angelico’s Fiesole Altarpiece is another.

The altarpiece was originally painted for the high altar of San Domenico in Fiesole, Italy, but was later moved and then divided up. The main panel shows a Madonna and Child flanked by Thomas Aquinas and three famous Dominican friars. The predella—the relatively small base of the altarpiece—somehow ended up in London. It shows a crowd of people worshipping a risen Christ. When the altarpiece was all together, it was something of a before-and-after lesson, with the crucifixion being the pivotal unseen event. With the predella now on its own, I think it is actually more powerful because there is nothing stealing our attention. Instead, we can get sucked into the details, into the lives, of the people represented.

At the very center of it all stands Christ dressed in white and holding the traditional banner of resurrection. This is the Risen Christ victorious. Surrounding him are clusters of angels playing every instrument you can imagine. Some seem to be singing; others simply gaze in his direction.

Left-center panel

The two panels on other side of the center contain a whole host of familiar faces, including biblical figures from both the Old and New Testaments, prominent church leaders, theological scholars, and male and female martyrs. Many can be identified through the attributes, like Peter’s key (right side of the top row in the left panel) and John the Baptist’s hairy garment (middle of the top row in the right panel).

The two outermost panels show groups of Dominicans, both men and women. Here again, most are identifiable by their attributes and (just for good measure) their name which is written on them. There is no doubt that this altarpiece was meant to honor the Dominican saints which had gone before.

What I love about these panels is the way Fra Angelico shows a multitude of saints and yet lets them maintain their unique identities. The claims-to-fame of the biblical figures are well-known in our time, but the stories of some of the others are rarely retold anymore, especially in Protestant churches. Here’s just a sampling from the right panel:

Right-center panel

  • Saint Victor of Marseilles (middle row, fifth one, in blue) was a Roman soldier who refused to offer incense to Jupiter and instead destroyed the altar. Consequently, he was crushed by a millstone and beheaded, which is why you can spy a millstone resting beside him.
  • Saint Lawrence (middle row, sixth one, in red) was a deacon in the Roman Church who was known for his generosity toward the poor. Legend says that the Prefect of Rome suspected that the church had great wealth and ordered Lawrence to bring “the church’s treasure” to him. When Lawrence instead brought the poor and declared them to be the church’s treasure, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to die a slow death by being cooked alive on a gridiron. You can see that gridiron here in front of him.
  • Saints Cosmos and Damian (second row, in the middle, matching pink robes) were brothers and both physicians. They were well-known in their day for providing medical care to both rich and poor without any payment, all because of their love for God. When a wave of persecution broke out, a Prefect ordered them to renounce this devotion to God. They refused and were tortured, but remained miraculously unharmed until they were finally and resolutely beheaded.
  • Saint Agnes (bottom row, seventh one, in blue) was a young girl of twelve or thirteen when she was martyred. The facts are unclear, but it seems that she boldly declared her faith in God during a period of intense Roman persecution. She is shown with a lamb that symbolizes her purity.
  • Saint Catherine (bottom row, middle, in pink with crown) was also martyred at a young age—perhaps eighteen—for declaring her faith during a time of persecution under Emperor Maximus. The legend says that she went head-to-head with Maximus himself along with his smartest scholars and prevailed, and in the process, persuaded many to believe in God. He condemned her to die a torturous death by the wheel, but the wheel itself was destroyed upon her first touch. Incensed by this, Maximus had her beheaded, but she became forever associated with the spiked wheel, which can be seen here as well.
  • Saint Helena (bottom row, pink and green, with a staff) was the mother of Constantine, which was her primary claim to fame, but she received sainthood for her piety. The historian Eusebius wrote of her, “She became under his (Constantine’s) influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.” The maternal figurehead of the Roman Empire famous for her commitment to God—that’s a big deal.

Here’s the point. When Fra Angelico painted all these saints, he painted their stories of faith and dedication to God. This is what faith looks like. It looks like serving the poor and the sick out of love for God. It looks like declaring your allegiance to God just when the fire gets hot. It looks like being a model of devotion for a whole empire of new Christians. And for each of these stories of faith that are represented here, there are countless more. I wonder if I would be numbered among the saints. What have I done to demonstrate my love for God? What would my attribute be? How about you?

Davids and Goliath

October 3, 2011

Donatello, David, 1430s (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence)

Donatello, David, 1430s (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence)

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04 (Accademia Gallery, Florence)
















Let’s consider David. There are lots of images of David, but in Florence there are two biggies: one by Donatello and the other by Michelangelo. Same figure, same story, two very different statues.

Donatello’s is a bronze that stands about five feet tall (but it’s on a four-foot base, so you look up at it). It shows a moment after the battle. David has killed Goliath with a slingshot and has cut off his head with the giant’s own sword. He stands over his enemy, but there is no look of triumph on his face. Instead, he gazes down almost meditatively.

Michelangelo’s couldn’t be more different. It’s marble and about eighteen feet tall (it, too, is on a base, so it’s even taller when you see it). Here, we see David immediately before the battle. His slingshot is slung over his shoulder and a hefty rock rests in his right hand. He looks sideways toward his enemy with steely determination.

The points of contrast between these two sculptures are obvious. The material and size are so different because the two artists had very different commissions: Donatello was making a statue for the courtyard of a prominent citizen; Michelangelo was making a statue for the roofline of a cathedral. But their eventual placement doesn’t explain some of the other choices, like which episode they chose to depict or how they portrayed the body of this giant-slayer. That’s what I want to think about … how do these sculptures offer different, but profound, ways of meditating on one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament?

Donatello’s is perhaps the more straightforward of the two. He portrays David as the boy he was when he fought Goliath. He seems so young, so vulnerable. By sculpting him nude, Donatello allows us to register that David was, in fact, pre-pubescent. He had no business going up against a grown man, let alone a giant. And his vulnerability is actually underscored by the hat and boots he is wearing. Without those, his nakedness might not feel so uncomfortable, but as it is, I get a little queasy at the thought of this boy walking out onto a battlefield.

I like that Donatello puts a rock in one hand and a sword in the other. The huge sword looks threatening, but too heavy and awkward for David to even lift. In contrast, the rock doesn’t look threatening in the least, yet David wielded it with lethal skill. And so Donatello conveys a significant point of the biblical story—that what looks to human eyes as strong and powerful can be rendered weak, and what looks to be weak can be made mighty by the power of God. David knew the truth: Don’t put too much stock in the way things appear. I’m not sure I know that truth.

And then there’s Michelangelo’s version. This is no boy. Why the lapse in historical accuracy? I think it’s pretty simple. Michelangelo is not as interested in historical accuracy as much as the deeper truth about the story. So when he sculpts David as this tall, muscular, adult male, he is not suggesting that David was actually stronger than the Bible leads us to believe, but that David had an inner strength that made him as strong as the strongest warrior. That inner strength, we know, is his faith in God. It is because of his unswerving belief that God will give him the victory that he can look across the battlefield with such confidence and determination. He is human, so Michelangelo has put a little hint of fear in David’s furrowed brow, but that doesn’t change the power that David exudes. If Goliath could have seen David like this, he may have been a little more nervous.

One story, two statues. Both challenge me. When facing a giant, take a second look with eyes of faith.