Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece, c 1425 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

It seems fitting to start the Advent season with a reflection on the moment it all started … nine months before Christmas.

The Annunciation has been a popular scene in art for hundreds and hundreds of years. The angel visits Mary, who is usually depicted with prayer books to indicate her piety, and delivers the news that Mary is going to give birth to the Son of God. She’s a virgin, of course, and this is usually symbolized by combining lilies (meaning purity) and a vase (symbolizing her womb). Painters usually include something to indicate the immaculate-ness of the conception itself, like a dove or a beam of light or—as we see here—a little homunculus (a miniature Christ descending with a cross).

This version by Campin has all the usual components, but there’s much more to make it a complicated and fascinating painting. The main scene is unfolding in the center panel. Mary is as pious and virginal as ever, and the immaculate conception is about to take place. Note the other things we see: another book and scroll (a nod to the Old and New Testaments), a towel and laver (probably a reference to the instruments a priest uses in preparing to perform the Eucharist), and a snuffed-out candle (more on that in a minute), all in the context of a typical 15th-century Flemish house. All of these things (other than the angel, of course) would have seemed oh-so-familiar to an original viewer. Here was a Mary they could really relate to.

In the left panel is a portrait of the man who paid for the painting, along with his wife. They are in a walled garden (also symbolic of Mary) that contains a variety of flowers that symbolizing things like salvation, purity, innocence and all associated with either Mary or the infant Jesus. There’s a little self-promotion here—he is apparently so pious himself that he gets to peek in on this most miraculous of moments.

The right panel shows Joseph in his carpenter shop, albeit a 15th-century Flemish version of one.  Apparently, he specializes in mousetraps because there is one on his workbench and one on display for shoppers walking by. What he’s working on at the moment is a bit of mystery, but one scholar has convincingly argued that it is a spikeblock—a board with nails sticking through it that would be tied on a long rope around the waist of a criminal so that with every step the nails would poke him in the shins. In contemporaneous paintings of the Christ carrying the cross, sometimes Christ would be wearing a spikeblock along with his crown of thorns. Here, we have a foreshadowing of the end of Christ’s earthly life even at the moment of his conception. He is coming to suffer for our sins. This idea is echoed in the center panel by the little homunculus already carrying the cross.

But what about the candlestick?

A lit candle was a typical symbol of the incarnation. Here’s how it went: the wax is Christ’s very human flesh, but still perfect because it was made by sinless bees; the flame is the divine part of Christ—the illusive, powerful, light-bringing fire of God; the candlestick is Mary, who bears Christ into this world. So why does Campin snuff out the candle? One scholar has pointed out a common understanding that when Christ was born, his divinity had to be concealed because a baby would be easy prey for the devil. So it would make sense for the flame of the candle—this baby’s divinity—to be extinguished. No need to call attention to the fact that God has just come into the world in the flesh.

Campin references the devil in one other part of the painting, says another scholar. The mousetraps. A mousetrap works when the mouse thinks everything is going its way and then winds up stuck. God’s plan for salvation laid two traps for the devil. The first was the incarnation itself. Once the devil figured out that Jesus was God, he thought he had it easy—just kill Jesus and you’ve killed God. The second trap (and the one that really got the devil) was the crucifixion. The devil thought he had defeated God by killing him, only to discover three days later that he had been tricked. Saint Augustine had written centuries before this painting, “The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death.”

So, this painting is about the moment of the incarnation, but it points far beyond that event. It points into the future—years later Christ will suffer and die for the sins of the world (for my sin). And, it points to a much bigger idea—that this seemingly innocent moment was a part of a large-scale spiritual war. Personally, I don’t often think about such intrigue and subterfuge when I look at the little crèche on my shelf. I guess I’m not looking deep enough—or big enough.


Trinity Sunday

July 1, 2011

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c. 1427 (Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

Masaccio’s Holy Trinity is not necessarily about the Trinity, but it’s one of my favorite artworks from the Renaissance.

The basic iconography is straightforward. At the center is the crucified Christ. God the Father stands behind the cross with his arms extended, echoing the outstretched arms of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is a dove that floats between the heads of the Father and the Son. On the ground below, we see Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the Younger. To the outside are the two donors (the couple who paid for the painting), kneeling and looking up (sort of). At the very bottom is a sarcophagus with a headless skeleton lying on top.

The whole scene takes place in a barrel-vaulted chamber that has been painted with such expertise that it looks like it is an actual room. But, in order to get that effect, the viewer has to stand in a very specific spot in the room. If your eye is at that precise spot (you need to be about 5’6” tall), then the painted room looks like it recedes past the actual wall of the nave in which you’re standing. It’s a space that is inhabited by God himself.

But here’s the cool thing. If you stand in that exact spot, the ledge for the donors and the sarcophagus seem to project out into your physical space. In this way, the physical wall on which the image is painted delineates two realms—the spiritual (God, Mary, and John) and the physical (the donors, the dead guy, and you).

What links the two realms? The figure of Mary. She looks right at you and gestures toward God as if she is inviting you to contemplate the divine. And, because she is ever and always looking and pointing, she continually directs your gaze back to God whenever you attention wonders.

Just in case you need a reason to meditate on the Trinity, Masaccio gives you one. The inscription above the sarcophagus reads (translated): “I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.” In other words, you’re going to die. It’s a memento mori geared to make you think. It reminds me of the street evangelists who call out, “Are you ready to meet your Maker?”

So, you’re thinking about your own mortality and the coming judgment day, when Mary catches your eye. And she offers an answer. Look up! Turn your eyes to Jesus. Contemplate the work of the Trinity. God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, gave his only Son, who died to pay for your sins. If you turn to God and believe, then you will be saved from eternal damnation.  And to inspire your devotion, Masaccio provides an image of the spiritual realm that seems so real, so continuous, that you might be drawn to meditate on the divine, the Godhead, the Three in One.


June 2, 2011

Tim Hawkinson, Pentecost, 1999

This week we’re celebrating Pentecost. The story? After the Resurrected Christ ascended to heaven, his followers were all together when a wind blew through the room and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. “Tongues of fire came to rest on each one of them” and they began to speak in languages that were not their own but others could understand. In this way, people from distant countries heard the message of Jesus.

I think most images of Pentecost are just boring. They usually show group of people huddle around with little red-orange flames over their heads and maybe a dove or ray of light above. Not much food for thought, generally. So this week, I’m going to look at a work that is entitled “Pentecost,” but is not trying to depict the event itself. In fact, the artist—Tim Hawkinson—says that he named it only after he finished it. Still, I think this sculpture does give us something to think about.

This is a huge and complicated artwork. It consists of a tree-like form made out of cardboard and paper tubing with twelve life-size figures attached in various places. When a motion detector senses that someone has walked into the room, the figures begin to move, each one hitting the tree with a different body part and creating a noise like a drum. The beats are irregular, but rhythmic.

The figures seem so isolated from one another—not only because they are physically distant from each other, but also because they usually look out or down or up or askance, and not toward each other. They seem completely unaware of the existence of the others. But, when they detect the presence of human, each reaches out by making a sound repeatedly, almost like an S.O.S.

The call out is effective, because most visitors will walk up to a figure, often getting very close to examine its mechanism or to listen to its particular beat. They essentially engage the figure, answering its call. In effect, that’s what happened to the disciples. People were attracted by the sounds they were making—“He’s speaking my language!” They came close to hear. They were drawn in.

Even as separate as the figures are, there is something strikingly communal about this. They are all connected to this tree-like form, which could suggest that there is a bigger entity that connects them all. They each tap out their story, but that story resonates alongside the stories of others, and together they tell a bigger story. For, while their separate rhythms overlap without a unifying melody line, the overall effect is still melodious, even beautiful. One can imagine the crazy cacophony of Pentecost … and the beauty of it all.

Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ, c. 1440-41 (Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy)

What is it this week? I picked Fra Angelico’s Mocking of Christ. I’ve never spent much time thinking about this episode in the Passion of Christ, perhaps because your run-of-the-mill protestant church doesn’t dwell on this part very much.

Grunewald, Mocking of Christ, 1503 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany)

I like Fra Angelico’s version a lot. The standard approach is predictable—a crowd of men gathered around Christ acting out the insults that are listed in the gospel. Some of the images are unnerving, to be sure (like Grunewald’s), but I tend to lose interest pretty quickly. Not with Fra Angelico’s. He makes me do a double-take. In fact, he makes me take a long second look.

Apparently, he intended to create an image that would assist viewers (specifically, the Dominicans) in meditating on the passage of scripture. By disembodying the hands and head, Fra Angelico invites us to think about each mocking gesture in turn, even suggesting that those hands could be our hands. All I see, though, is a swirl of insults. Together they press in on Jesus. It feels claustrophobic and very uncomfortable. But, Fra Angelico doesn’t emphasize the viciousness of the actions or the heinousness of the mockers (which would allow us to easily disassociate ourselves from the guards and their actions), but the spirit that leads to such a dismissive treatment of Christ. That we can relate to. How often have I not taken Jesus seriously and essentially slapped him in the face? All the time. And that makes me no better than those guards.

But Fra Angelico didn’t stop there (it would have been enough). He also invites us to think differently about who Jesus is in the midst of such mockery. Unlike so many other representations, it is not Christ’s humiliation that we see here. He seems to be in complete control. While they mock his kingly status and his prophetic powers, we see the truth that Jesus really is sovereign over all and he really does have powers that would not only tell them who struck the last blow but actually blow them all to bits. It’s subtle, though, as it should be. Jesus certainly doesn’t lord such status and power over anyone. Here it’s a quiet and serene show of pre-eminence. I love that contrast. They are aggressive, yet fundamentally weak; Jesus is passive here, but is phenomenally powerful. They think the truth is a joke; Christ knows the joke is actually the truth.

Holy Ground

September 18, 2006

“The space between me and you is holy ground. I can do my best, but the Spirit will have to do the rest.” — Mister Rogers