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.


Tanzio da Varallo, Rest on the Flight to Egypt, c. 1625-30 (Museum of Fine Art, Houston)

I was just in Houston and saw this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts. It strikes me as one of the most realist depictions of this subject that I’ve ever seen.

First, the subject. It’s the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, a story found in the gospels. Matthew explains that, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Nazareth because the baby was in danger. Instead, the little family fled to Egypt and stayed there until the coast was clear. In art, this episode is often depicted with the threesome resting on the road.

What is so compelling about this rendition is the facial expressions. Joseph leans back and looks over his shoulder at Mary and Jesus as if he can’t quite believe what he’s gotten himself into. I think there is even a touch of disdain in his face. And Mary looks back at him with an expression of pleading as if she detects his surly attitude.

This rings true on so many levels.

First, Tanzio captures some real relational dynamics here. Who among us cannot relate to either Joseph or Mary here? On the one side, feeling trapped in a circumstance that is less than ideal and resenting it a little (or a lot). On the other side, knowing that one’s partner is checking out and desperate for reassurance. It’s helpful to imagine that even Joseph and Mary, as pious as they were, may have reacted like real people.

Second, it kind of cracks me up that this relational strain is happening on a roadtrip. Let’s face it, being stuck together while traveling can bring out the worst in us. We need to stop again!?!

And then, in the midst of all this, the baby just squirms around on his mother’s lap, seemingly oblivious to this marital tension. How true.

Tanzio does include a more mystical element. Mary’s gesture across her chest leads our eye back to the corner where we can see what looks to be two men and a cross. This could be a reference to the apocryphal story in which the holy family encounters two thieves who turned out to be the very thieves crucified with Christ many years later. Or, it could be a more direct reference to Christ carrying his own cross to Golgotha—a journey to his death, rather than a journey to escape death as pictured here.

Either way, it foreshadows Christ’s death. I may be reading into it here, but perhaps Mary is pointing out to Joseph that the reason they are fleeing now is so Jesus can fulfill his ultimate purpose much later. If that’s the case, this is not your run-of-the-mill sentimental depictions of Mary.

In fact, this changes the way I read her expression. Maybe she is not pleading, but actually asking him to snap out of it. Tanzio does paint her with colors that are both brighter and cooler than those found in the rest of the painting, giving her more substance and independence visually. Whereas Joseph seems to lack a backbone, her form suggests strength and fortitude even with some indications of road-weariness.

I appreciate that Tanzio doesn’t sugarcoat things here. It’s a realistic and uncomfortable painting. It makes us look and think. It puts an edge on the gospel that should make us all the more aware of the craziness of his plan to save us.

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.

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Sandro Botticelli, Cestello Annunciation, 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

One of my students wrote a paper on this painting this semester. It has lingered with me into the Advent season. My thoughts so far …

It’s a standard Annunciation in many ways—the angel kneels to tell Mary that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. There are lilies and a walled off garden to symbolize Mary’s purity and a book on a stand to indicate that she is pious and thus worthy of this honor.

But what captures my attention is the way Botticelli has painted Mary. Her gaze may be downcast in a sign of acquiescence, but her body is curved dramatically away from the angel with both arms signaling to him to back off. Furthermore, Botticelli puts her right up against the frame, which gives us the impression that she has been backed into a corner.

And that is one way of looking at it—God is a little heavy-handed here. An angel comes and tells Mary that she has been chosen to become miraculously pregnant with the savior of the world. What’s she going to say? “Umm, no, thank you.” Does she really have a choice in the matter? You know how it feels when someone springs a question on you and, lacking any time to really think it through, you just agree. Mary looks how I feel in those situations.

At the same time, I think Botticelli suggests how Mary might have actually responded to the news. Many other Annunciations show Mary with a completely calm demeanor, as if she’s been expecting this message all along, which does match the biblical account that reports she responded immediately with, “I am the servant of the Lord. Be it with me as you have said.” Sounds great, but Botticelli’s painting has me wondering if this is a nice gloss that Mary put on the story when she told people about it later on. What really happened was a little more shock and fear and disbelief.

Or, of course, maybe my reading of the painting says more about me than about Mary or Botticelli.

If it had been me, I would have given that angel the straight-arm, just like Botticelli’s Mary does. Then, I would have asked a few more questions. I would definitely have kept my distance. But, then, there was a reason Mary was the chosen one. Here’s to you, Mary.

One last thing. Through the opening in the wall, we can see a river weaving its way back into the distance, where it cuts between a somewhat fanciful castle on the left and a heavy walled structure on the right. The bridge over the water does not stretch the whole way. It is not clear why, but it serves as a nice metaphor for what’s happening in the scene in the foreground. With the Annunciation, God has begun to span the impossible gap between earth and heaven, between humanity and himself.

I’m so glad Mary was up for it.

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.



Christmastide … Look up!

January 3, 2014

Jacob Jordaens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1617-18 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, France)

Jacob Jordaens, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1617-18
(Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble, France)

‘Tis the season of pictures of baby Jesus. So you just  have to appreciate the Baroque artists who were clearly trying to find some new way to paint the familiar scenes. Jacob Jordaens is definitely in this camp.

This is a scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds. A rather diverse group of humble folk have gathered around Mary and her newborn babe. A large man strides forward from the right carrying lantern and leading a large ox, while the man standing on the other side seems lost in thought. An old man and woman crouch down to get a better view and a younger boy sneaks a peek over Mary’s shoulder.

They have come to witness the birth of a savior. Mary and Jesus are clearly the focal point of the painting. They are the brightest element—so bright, in fact, that the baby seems to be a light source himself, which is no surprise given the notion that Jesus is the Light who came into the world to pierce the darkness. He certainly seems to do that here.

But that visual pun became so common in the Baroque period, that it seems hackneyed now. What is truly unusual about this painting is that young man with a budding mustache who is looking straight out at the viewer. It’s a little uncomfortable, honestly. And it doesn’t really make sense until you realize that the figure to his left is not another shepherd, but an angel bedecked in fine robes who seems to be jostling to the front of the crowd. The young man seems to put his hand up to prevent getting thwacked by a wing and looks out at us as if to say, “Do you see what’s happening here? This is a little crazy.” Indeed. This is crazy.

One more thing … Only the boy in the foreground seems to be missing the moment as he futzes with a candle. In fact, he is so preoccupied by this little light right in front of his face, that he doesn’t look up to see the True Light.

Look up! This is it! He’s here!

Bruce Herman, Miriam: Virgin Mother, 2009 (Collection of Gordon College)

Bruce Herman, Miriam: Virgin Mother, 2009
(Collection of Gordon College)

This painting has been on my mind for a couple years—since I had the good fortune of seeing it in person. The two outside panels are pretty standard motifs—the Annunciation and the Visitation. The middle is all-together different, which is why this work is so compelling to me.

Chronologically, the right panel is first. Here we see the angel visiting the young Virgin Mary to tell her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God. I appreciate how the artist paints the angel. First—and thankfully!—no feathery wings. He is huge and muscular, and yet he seems to try to make himself as unimposing as possible by crouching down and tucking in. With one arm, he gestures up to indicate the source of his message (that is God), and the other arm extends to touch a vessel, which is a fairly standard symbol in such scenes because Mary’s body is about to become the “vessel” that holds God for nine months. Mary also touches the pot. With her hand on the top, she seems to be taking an oath like a witness swearing on a Bible. Somehow, she seems both reticent and confident.

The left-most panel shows a later part of the story. After the angel’s visit, Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth. It just so happened that Elizabeth herself had conceived a child under miraculous circumstances about six months before. When Mary appeared on her doorstep, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, as if he knew that the Son of God, a mere fetus at the time, was only a belly away.

With the jars between the two women echoing the shape of the swelling (or soon-to-be swelling) bodies, Herman makes it clear that both women are vessels that carry the word/Word of God. Moreover, he aligns their figures to the columns behind, which conveys that the whole structure of the story of salvation is built on these two women.

The most powerful panel, I think, is the middle one. Here we see Mary, overcome by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is moment of conception, or maybe just the moment when it all starts to sink in. The vast expanse of gold leaf above her creates a field of shimmering light. She twists her torso to look up. Her eyes seem to gaze at something beyond this visible world. Her mouth opens slightly as if in wonder. She seems bathed in the light of the Holy Spirit as it comes upon her. (Even I feel compelled to use euphemistic language for this. Too holy.)

After years and years of looking at Annunciation and Visitation imagery, this middle panel helps me look past the doctrine and theology of these events, and to contemplate them as lived experiences. Mary is not just a symbol of faithfulness and piety, she was a real flesh-and-blood, very young Jewish woman. And she had—hands down—the most mind-blowing experience with God. Just think about it. God impregnated her.

When we tell these stories over and over again, especially in clichéd forms like Christmas pageants and precious nativity scenes, I think these narratives start to feel like myths or legends.  I just might print out this painting and tack it on my frig for the month (sorry, Bruce) to remind myself just how astonishingly real these stories are.

Virgin and Child
(14th century)

I’m teaching Medieval art this term and we looked at icons this week. Now for a deeper look.

This is a stereotypical icon—a small, painted panel with a holy figure and lots of gold. In reality, Byzantine icons were quite varied in size, medium, and content. What unified them was their origin and function. They were believed to be direct impressions of a spiritual reality, and thus reliable as visual testimonies of spiritual truth. As such, they were tools for worship and prayer.

Icons tended to have the same style. The figures and especially their clothes are stylized, which means that the forms have been reduced to lines and areas of color. The images are not realistic because viewers are not supposed to think that they are looking at something from the material world, but at something transcendent. The gold background does the same thing. Instead of painting a setting for the holy figures to inhabit, the artists put them in an ethereal gold field, as if to underscore that what we see is a spiritual, non-material, transcendent realm. When you look at an icon, you glimpse the holy.

This is called the Hodegetria Virgin. The term “hodegetria” can be translated “she who knows the way” and is used for images of the Virgin when she is gesturing toward an infant Jesus. Usually, she is looking out toward the viewer, so it appears that she is telling us that Jesus is the way of salvation.

So, here’s the deal. I admit that when I look at this icon (or any icon, for that matter), I do not think I’m looking at some transcendent reality that has been directly imprinted onto this panel in gold and paint. I suppose I’m too cynical, too aware of the artist as a mediating factor. Maybe I need more faith, or more trust in God’s role in inspiring that artist. Maybe I need a little more Orthodox mixed in with my Protestant in order to really experience this image as it was intended, and as I would want to.

It’s strange because this whole blog is supposed to be a testimony to my belief that God’s truth can be conveyed through the visual arts. So, now I get skeptical?


I guess I’ll keep looking at this one.

Epiphany … Huh.

January 8, 2013

Johann Nepomuk Strixner, Nativity, 1826
(Jundt Art Museum, Spokane)

Epiphany has come and gone, and I almost missed it entirely until I came across this image this afternoon.

It’s a lithograph from the 19th century, but it has the look and feel of a much earlier artwork, probably because the artist copied a lot of Renaissance prints. This one has the typical ramshackle stable that seems too small to shelter even one sheep, let alone Mary, Joseph (not pictured, poor guy), and a newborn baby. As usual, Jesus is buck-naked and looks more like a little old man sitting there on Mary’s lap. And, of course, the three kings, looking very European despite their Middle Eastern origins, are kneeling with their presents. Nothing too surprising there.

What caught my eye was the king on the right. While everyone else seems to be still, he is shown in motion. As he kneels, he raises his hand and we might assume that he’s taking off his crown, as if to show his own humility before this new baby king.

But his hand doesn’t go to his crown, exactly. Instead, it looks like he’s scratching his head.

“Huh. What’s this?”

The other two seem to get it and accept it. It may be a little strange to worship a baby, but they don’t seem to hesitate. The third king is a little slower. He’ll get there, but he is caught up in the wonder of it.

I like that this artist (or someone before him) has hinted at the strangeness of it all. We’ve been through this narrative so many times that it doesn’t strike us as odd. But, let’s face it, this is one strange story. It should take us a bit to wrap our minds around this one.

Baby king.

Proclaimed by the stars.

Born in a barn.


Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1898  (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1898
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

One more Annunciation—this one by Henry Ossawa Tanner. It’s one of the most unique, and most compelling, depictions of this event out there.

First, a little background. Tanner was an African-American painter who was more successful in Paris than in the U.S. In 1897, a benefactor offered to pay for Tanner to go to the Holy Land to see firsthand the land, people, and architecture. This is one painting that resulted from the trip.

It’s no wonder, then, that this painting has a more authentically Middle Eastern feel—the rounded plaster arches, stone floor, wool rug, and hanging blankets. Mary is virtually lost in all the folds of blankets and bedclothes. But there she is—young, timid, but strong.

Tanner makes sure we don’t miss her. The vertical parts of the arches and the stripes of the hanging blanket draw our attention to her, and the super dark shadow behind her provides a visual anchor that keeps our eye on her, and specifically her face.

In fact, we keep looking at her, in spite of the fact that there is a brilliant shaft of light that seems to glow or even pulse in her presence. This, of course, is the angel.

I love this image of an angel. I’ll admit that I’m sick of angels with robes and halos and wings and carrying bouquets of lilies. I feel like artists got stuck in a rut with that one. This, on the other hand, pricks my imagination. This angel is something to be afraid of (thus the “Do not be afraid.”). This angel is someone to believe when he says, “You’re going to have a baby and he’s going to be the Son of God.” When a talking shaft of light appears in your room, you can’t really doubt or dismiss what it tells you.

Mary’s response, “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be as you have said.” It’s easy to attribute such a response to Mary’s profound faith in God—that is, until you look at this Mary. She’s unbelievably young. This is a girl, a child herself. She doesn’t even seem old enough to be pregnant, let alone pregnant with the Son of God and mature enough to handle it.

Frankly, this painting makes the whole story mind-boggling. Can you imagine your 13-year-old in this situation? Now, I realize the culture was very different then—girls had much more responsibility and they were expected to be engaged at a very early age—but young is young. God put a lot in the hands of this young girl.

I’m just amazed. That’s all.