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….


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?

Hans Memling, Last Judgment, 1467-71 (National Museum, Gdañsk, Poland)Last Judgment scenes are fascinating. They follow a distinct pattern: Christ in a position of judgment with some people being assigned to Heaven, others to Hell. Beyond that, though, there are a number of slight, but significant, variations. This week, I’m taking a closer look at the one by Hans Memling.

Here, Christ is enthroned on a rainbow, his feet resting on a sphere that represents the world. He is surrounded by Mary and John the Baptist (who represent the initiation of the plan of salvation) and the twelve disciples (who spread the gospel of salvation). Four angels hover above with the symbols of Christ’s passion (thus instruments in salvation): the pillar, the cross, the crown of thorns, and the nails and spear. The lily and the sword represent innocence and guilt, respectively, and they seem to be emanating from Christ mouth which suggests that he is proclaiming judgment on the poor souls below.

Immediately below Christ is Saint Michael, the archangel. By the Renaissance, he had become Christ’s right-hand man for Judgment Day. As people emerge from their graves to face judgment, he weighs them on a scale. If their souls are deemed pure, they are welcomed into heaven by Saint Peter (the one holding the key). If their souls are still marked by sin, demons drag them off to hell where they are tortured.

The contrast between the calmness of the left side and the chaos of the right is important. The men and women being ushered into heaven are very orderly, even as a few turn to witness an angel confront a demon who is trying to steal a soul away. The onlookers barely register alarm as they wait their turn to climb the steps to the pearly gates. But on the other side, it’s all commotion. The demons prod and whip the Damned, forcing the crowd into the fiery mouth of Hell. Unlike the upright bodies of the Saved on the left, the bodies of the Damned flail and twist and tumble. It’s horrifying.

Other artists take similar approaches to depicting the Last Judgment, but Memling includes a couple details that touch me. First, in the crowd of the Damned, there are a few figures who are reaching up to the saints above, pleading for help. Is it just too late for them? Memling seems to be telling his audience that they need to repent and believe now. You can’t wait until you’re feeling the flames of Hell to finally come to Jesus. It doesn’t work that way.

But my favorite part of this painting is on the other side. As the Saved climb the stairs they are greeted by a group of angels who offer them new clothes. They aren’t just new shirts and dresses, however, they are actually vestments. These souls are being dressed for worship. As far as I know, this is the only depiction of the Last Judgment that emphasizes the eternal worship of God in Heaven. Perpetual torture by demons or never-ending worship with the angels? Hmmm … tough choice.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed position), 1432 (Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium)

I’ve been looking at the Ghent Altarpiece this week. I love this one because it is so elaborate, so complicated, and so theologically rich—it summarizes the doctrine of salvation in a whopping 24 panels. I can’t possibly point out every amazing part of this artwork, but I’ll try to point out some sweet spots.

First, an overview.

When the wings are closed (the top image), the four lunettes at the top contain some prophets and sybils who foretold the coming of Christ. Directly below them, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she will bear the son of God—in other words, the fulfillment of the prophecy. The bottom four panels are more perfunctory because they contain portraits of the two donors on the outside of two painted statues that could be their patron saints: John the Baptist (note the shaggy garment) and John of Revelation (note the cup of snakes). All of this is painted in relatively drab colors with a fair amount of empty—let’s say, pregnant—space. Lots of expectation here.

Ghent Altarpiece (open position)

Ghent Altarpiece (open position)

When the altarpiece is opened, we see the end of the story. On the top level, you can see God (is it Jesus or God the Father? I vote the latter) enthroned and flanked by Mary and John the Baptist and a choir of angels. He is seated in majesty, supreme king and lord of all. If you follow the vertical axis from God Enthroned down, you can see a small dove (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) in a bright yellow-white light and then the Lamb on an altar (symbolizing Christ). The Trinity. The Godhead. Angels surround the altar, carrying symbols of Christ’s passion (the column and cross) and incense burners. This is the scene of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, as told by John in the book of Revelation. Crowds of saints and martyrs from biblical texts and from the whole of church history have gathered in the field to honor and adore the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. As a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, the Lamb has a wound in its breast, and the blood pouring out collects in a chalice in a nod to the celebration of the Mass, the ritual that commemorates that sacrifice.

Two important features remain.

First, the figures of Adam and Eve. I’ve always loved the fact that the van Eycks included Adam and Eve in this altarpiece. Their presence drives home the message of salvation—it was their original sin that necessitated the unfolding story of salvation—the story that was authored by the Godhead, prophesied by believers and pagans, and then accomplished when Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb. This work of salvation is received throughout history by the people of God and will be celebrated by all the saints in heaven forever more. Without Adam and Eve hovering ominously, we might not appreciate just how significant Christ’s sacrifice is. What’s all the fuss about? Well, we were all dead because of sin, but now we have eternal life. Big difference.

Which brings us to the other important element: the fountain at the bottom. We know from the x-rays that the fountain was added later. Whether it was an afterthought or a part of the original design is unknown, but it is now an integral part of the message of the altarpiece. Without it, the painting is a neat and tidy doctrinal statement that I can give my intellectual assent to and move on. But with the fountain there, the painting speaks to me. The inscription on the fountain says, “This is the fountain of the water of life proceeding out of the throne of God.” It is flowing, to be sure, but what I find so amazing is the little spout that protrudes out of the base of the fountain and channels that water of life into a rough-cut ditch that leads directly down and seemingly out of the painting. The water flows out of the fountain to all who believe, including me, as I stand or sit or even kneel before this altarpiece. That little spout makes me a part of this grand narrative, or at least it invites me to participate. How do I respond?