Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Montalto Madonna'), about 1600 (National Gallery, London)

Annibale Carracci,
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, about 1600
(National Gallery, London)

I’m just back from London, where I spent many delightful hours at the National Gallery. This little painting caught my eye, which is little wonder because Carracci does that.

The motif is the Holy Family—the mother Mary, the baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. It’s a traditional theme in Christian art, typically used to promote modeling one’s own family after this mostly divine one. Here, though, John the Baptist is included as well. That’s not unusual and he does fit the theme (we was a cousin of Mary and Jesus), but it does shift the meaning of the motif, especially in this painting.

The first thing I notice is how the figures of Mary and Jesus are so tightly tied together. They are turned toward each other and their heads are gently touching. Mary’s arm and Jesus’ arm and leg make a strong rectilinear shape emphasizing their unity, and their garments, particularly Mary’s robe, enclose them. We instantly understand that these two are lovingly bonded.

Both, however, glance to the outside. Jesus looks over his shoulder toward his earthly father, Joseph. What is happening between them is hard to identify—the way Joseph leans in is not playful or even loving exactly, but it’s not threatening either. He looks curious, like he is puzzling over this baby, maybe because of something he just read in that book. Jesus, for his part, looks a little wary.

Mary’s glance is much easier to identify. It seems like the infant John has tugged on her robe, causing her to look back. She is very much aware of what John represents, which is the knowledge that her baby—this Jesus—will be the Messiah. Carracci underscores this by putting the characteristic cruciform staff in John’s hand. Instinctively, Mary turns away from John, shielding Jesus from that message, that cross. Who can blame her?

This pair seems pushed from both sides. The sweet bond between mother and son seems disrupted by indications of what is to come. Both the traditional Jewish scriptures and the soon-to-be prophet John foreshadow how this is all going to end.

Yes, we should all be thrilled that the Messiah is come, but at the moment he’s just a baby. Can’t all the prophecy just wait a little?

But, no. Here’s Ash Wednesday.


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.


Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Luca Giordano, The Visitaion, c. 1696
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


I tend to gloss over paintings of the Visitation, but this one by Luca Giordano caught my eye.

As the story goes, after the angel appears to Mary to inform her that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been surprised some months earlier with the news that she herself would become miraculously pregnant. By the time that Mary got to her house, the baby inside her was big enough for Elizabeth to feel him leap at the approach of the unborn Messiah.

In Giordano’s painting, Mary is the immediate focal point. She is in the center of the painting. She wears the brightest color in the picture. Every figure but one looks in her direction. She is a magnet for everyone’s attention, including ours.

But Giordano does a peculiar thing. We might look at Mary, but Mary is looking at Elizabeth, and we naturally follow her gaze. Basically, Giordano uses Mary to get our attention and then channel it to Elizabeth.

Situated more frontally, with her arms outstretched and wearing contrasting colors that make her stand out, Elizabeth is arguably the most important character in the painting, which makes sense because she is at the center of the biblical story. In the context of the gospel of Luke, both she and the baby inside her are the first to understand the significance of what’s happening. Four times she uses the term(s) “blessed” or “favored”–she understands that everyone involved here has been given a special gift.

Giodano, following lots of theologians and other artists, takes some liberties with the text to give us more to chew on.

First, Elizabeth’s arms are open. With her right hand, she greets Mary and with the left she gestures inside. She welcomes the mother of God. Her home will now hold the woman who holds the Son of God. The parallelism here makes me want to hold something too.

And then, there are several curious onlookers, namely the two husbands. Blind Zachariah pokes his head out the door and what appears to be a kneeling Joseph looks back over his shoulder. Elizabeth serves as a witness to both and both seem to be eager observers–they want the good news, perhaps more than most.

But that’s not all! Giordano throws in a few standard symbols for good measure. The dark hole under the steps foreshadows the dark stable where Mary’s baby–the Messiah–will be born. That event will mark the end of the pagan era, symbolized by the toppled Greek column. The birth of this baby will be both humble and historic.

My favorite bit of iconography is the hen and her chicks, which are seen frequently in paintings of the Visitation in the Baroque period. This little group connotes motherhood. Despite the very special nature of these babies yet to be born, both women have been called first to be mamas. I love that.

Gertrude Kasebier, Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

Gertrude Kasebier,
Blessed Art Thou Among Women, c. 1899

It’s Mother’s Day, so I thought I would reflect a little on the subject of motherhood. This is one of those classic pictorialist photographs in which the photographer stages the whole thing, uses a soft focus, and manipulates the negative and print in order to convey an idea. Here: motherhood.

Käsebier places the mother and daughter in a doorway, the girl standing at the back of the threshold as if slightly hesitant to move through it. The mother is positioned a little further forward, but turns back and places her arm across the girl’s shoulders as if to encourage her daughter to step out. She also seems to whisper in the girl’s ear—those words are not meant for us to hear.

The contrasts are striking. The mother is in a long, flowy, white robe or dress which pools at her feet. Her hair is back but loosely tied. She has no jewelry, no ornament. The little girl, in contrast, is clothed in a dark dress, dark tights, dark shoes. The collar and cuffs are starched and bow is tied to accentuate the high collar. Her hair is cut in a neat bob with straight bangs—a shape that resembles the shape of the buckle. She stands straight and looks directly out at us.

The idea here is not complicated. This girl stands on a metaphorical threshold between the private space of the domestic sphere and the larger world beyond. The mother has done her job to prepare the girl for this transition and now ushers her to the spot. The girl seems to hesitate, but there is also an unflinching attitude behind the directness of her gaze.

This is what parenthood is all about, right? We prepare our children to face the world beyond the realm of our control and protection. The mother here blends into the interior space, suggesting that she will stay behind even as her daughter moves out.

It is easy to read the mother’s gesture as one that is nudging her daughter forward, but as a mother, I now see it differently. I think that mother has grasped her daughter one last time before she walks through that door. And she leans down with one last thing to say. She doesn’t really want to see her little girl go.

Me either. But that’s what mothers do.

To put a finer point on it, Käsebier puts a painting of the Visitation on the wall behind them—two biblical mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) who also had to let their children go (sons, in their case), both to die, one in order to save the world. Thankfully, I don’t have to bear that burden, but honestly it doesn’t make it any easier.

Here’s to all the mothers out there who have loved and let go.



Christmas … Here He Is!

December 28, 2011

Jacob Jordaens, The Holy Family and Saint John the Baptist, 1620-25 (London, National Gallery)

I was just in London and got a chance to spend some time with this painting. I’ve been interested in it for a while, but this was my first long look and it sucked me in.

The subject matter is conventional. It’s the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—with a young John the Baptist thrown in to make a theological point. What is unusual about this depiction of the group is the way that it reaches out to the viewer. Mary leans forward and almost pushes Jesus toward us. “Here he is,” she seems to say. Her steady, direct gaze is almost uncomfortable because it’s insistent, unavoidable. I would start squirming, but she’s so young. What, about 14?!? Hardly old enough to have given birth to this baby, much less understand who he really is. And yet, she knows.

Jordaens’ Jesus is about as “healthy” as you could make him. I love it. His cheeks are so big and his tummy so round, I just want to scoop him up and squeeze him. He is a healthy, happy, very human baby. I don’t think we’re meant to worship him, like we might in front of other paintings of the baby Jesus. He doesn’t really exude a sense of mystery or divinity and he doesn’t inspire awe in us, exactly. He’s just a baby. That’s why Mary has to be so emphatic. Here he is.

If Mary expresses urgency in her face, then John is just plain excited. Usually John is more reverent toward Jesus—sometimes even kneeling in front of his only slightly younger cousin. Here, he has an expectant little grin on his face—like it’s Christmas morning and he’s excited for you to open the gift he got for you.


That’s it, isn’t it? It is Christmas. And here’s the gift.

Here … open it … it’s for you

Baby Jesus on the Rocks

October 10, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86 (Louvre, Paris)

I’m lecturing on this painting in two separate classes this week, so I thought I might spend a little more time with it today. The painting ought to be sweet—a young Mary with two chubby babies and an angel—but instead it leaves the viewer (well, me) with a strong sense of foreboding. I want to explore that a little.

Let’s start with the setting. It’s a natural grotto, of sorts, but Leonardo does not paint a cozy shelter here. This is a dark and mysterious place, and this little group seems particularly vulnerable here. The landscape itself seems to threaten them from every side. Even the ground in front of them drops off steeply—how far it goes, we do not know, but that baby seems dangerously close to the edge.

Who is that baby? I like that Leonardo doesn’t make it automatically clear. You might guess that the baby under Mary’s arm is Jesus (that’s a very motherly gesture, after all), but it’s not him. That is the infant John the Baptist. The other baby is Jesus, identifiable by the gesture of blessing he extends toward baby John, who is kneeling in response. They are only babies, but their toddling movements even now mark the true nature of their relationship.

So it is Jesus that sits so close to the edge. What’s more, he seems off-balance. It looks like he is pushing off with his left arm, but his feet are crossed and his momentum seems to be propelling him down toward us. It is easy to imagine him toppling over the edge. Mary’s gesture can be understood in a number of ways, but today I wonder if she is reaching out to take hold of Jesus and scooch him away from the edge. Her face may be calm, but her hand seems charged or dynamic. Perhaps she, too, senses just how vulnerable he is.

How often do we think about the vulnerability of baby Jesus? Don’t we often take story of salvation for granted? God came into the world as a baby, and then he grew up and saved the world. True, but perhaps we should stop a minute and ponder that the entire plan of salvation rested on a baby—an exposed, little baby in a big, dangerous world. Maybe it is because I have a toddler myself that I am acutely aware of how many ways a child can hurt themselves or be hurt by others. The dangers are everywhere, and I live in a relatively safe time and place. How much more threatening was the environment around Jesus (especially given Herod’s paranoia)?

Leonardo may be emphasizing the vulnerability of Jesus here, but he also reminds us that Jesus had a host of angels and God the Father himself looking out for him. This angel appears at Jesus side and clutches him under his arm, securing him against a hapless fall. How often will the angels have to protect Jesus as he grows? How often will he face threats of assorted kinds, and even more so because he isn’t just any child, he is the Son of God.

Could that be the meaning of the angel’s gesture? She looks straight at us and she points to John. Perhaps she is explaining to us what is going on here, just in case we’ve missed it. She calls our attention to John because he gets it. He recognizes that this baby is the Messiah. Make no mistake, a lot could happen between now and the culmination of God’s plan for saving the world, but that plan is now underway. Hallelujah. Watch out.

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1510-15 (Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France)

A long look at Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. This is another very elaborate altarpiece with 14 panels and iconography that is both dense and difficult. This week, I’m only going to look at the panels of the closed position; even then, it’s complicated.

The center image shows the very dead body of Jesus still nailed to the cross, which bows under the weight of this heavy burden. His head hangs low, his lips have turned blue, and his skin looks as if it has already begun to putrefy. His brow and hands seem frozen in the moment of his greatest agony. Below, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, swoons and is caught by John the Younger, while Mary Magdelene kneels in grief before the cross, the burial ointment at her side. Curiously, John the Baptist stands on the other side. More on that in a minute.

The predella below shows the next episode of the story, the burial of Christ. Here again we see the two Maries and John, this time preparing the body. While the atmosphere is almost impenetrably dark in the crucifixion scene, now we can see a vast landscape with leafless trees and a distant mountain. Still desolate, but at least we can breathe.

The two wings show portraits of saints—Sebastian and Anthony—both of whom were patron saints of plague victims, which was fitting because the monastery for which the altarpiece was painted had a hospital. For the  monks and the sick who would worship in the chapel and pray before this altarpiece, seeing these saints would have encouraged their faith.

Okay, back to John the Baptist.

What is he doing here? He was long dead by the time Christ was crucified, so it’s anachronistic to have him here, at the foot of the cross. But I love it that he’s there, bearing witness. It’s like he’s saying, “See! I told you so!” The prophets foretold it, and it has happened just like they (and then I) said it would. This man, this Jesus, is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

He seems so sure of himself. Standing there, with feet so firmly planted and such forceful gestures, he exudes confidence—confidence in  himself, but no doubt more confidence in God. That’s faith, you know? With all the emotion around the brutal death of Christ (seen in the figures of Mary and Mary Magdalene), John has taken refuge in the larger Truth. The Son of God came into the world as a flesh-and-blood human being to be the once-and-for-all sacrifice. It is finished.

The contrast is so rich. The bruises and punctures and welts on the body of Christ draw us into his suffering. His pallor underscores the completeness of his death. And how easily we get wrapped up in an emotional response until we’re reeling like the Maries. But John offers a counterweight. The voice that transcends time and the narrative moment to remind us that this was foretold. You knew it was coming. This was the plan all along. What’s more, John’s calm confidence also reminds us that this suffering death is not the end of the story. Just wait. It gets better.