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….


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.


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.

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!

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.


Fabriano, Strozzi Altarpiece, 1423 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

The Feast of the Epiphany. We celebrate the three Magi who saw a new star in the night sky and followed it into a foreign land because they understood that it marked the birth of a new king. They got it right.

Fabriano’s altarpiece showing this story has some nice touches. In the foremost scene, it depicts the arrival of the three wise men to the stable. Mary holds a squirming baby Jesus while Joseph looks on and the two midwives hover close by. The wise men have brought with them a full retinue of servants, horses, and exotic animals which crowd in behind them.

In the arches above, three other scenes from the story unfold. On the left, we see the Magi perched on a hill and pointing up to a star. “Hey, look at that,” they seem to say. Just below them, road leads our gaze to the center scene which shows the entourage approaching Jerusalem, where they will meet with King Herod. The arch on the right depicts the three on their way to Bethlehem, having been told to look there for the new king.

They will pass through that small town and make their way to the front of the painting—to the humble stable. It’s a strange place for a king to be born, but they don’t seem to be bothered by this. Instead, they dismount and immediately pay homage to this baby-king. These are clearly wealthy and powerful men, but they humble themselves in the presence of Jesus.

Fabriano takes pains to lead our eye to the interaction between Jesus and the oldest wise man. Not only do the halos of the three Magi make a diagonal line to that spot, but the halos of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus form a curve that arcs downward as well. The ox, made prominent by the dark cave behind it, looks directly at the two figures, and the straight edge of its trough forms an arrow further drawing our attention to Jesus.

Why do I love this?

Look at what’s happening there! This old wise man has fallen to his knees and cast his crown aside. We see him as he takes the foot of the wiggling baby Jesus and brings it to his lips to bestow a gentle kiss. Jesus responds as any toddler might—he pushes his foot against the old man’s nose and reaches out to touch his shiny bare head. It’s a tender and oh-so-human moment, which is all the more wonderful because we know the true identities of these two.

I’m a little jealous of this wise man. He had the wisdom to see the message of that star, the courage to follow it not knowing where it would lead, and the humility to kneel before this baby. And, he was richly rewarded with a tender interaction that he, no doubt, treasured as he journeyed all the way back home.

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

Titian, The Nativity, 1532 (Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence)

I saw this painting of the Nativity for the first time a few weeks ago. Even though it is quite damaged and some parts are hard to discern, it still made a deep impression on me.

This has some elements that are traditional for a Nativity. Of course, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are prominently figured, but here Mary is tenderly wrapping up the naked little baby. The shepherds, having heard the good news, are coming in from the left with an ox and ass, which usually appear in the stable with the Holy Family. These two beasts symbolize the Old and New Testaments, but they also serve as the “silent witnesses” to the miracle. Also typical are the stable that is in disrepair and the classical column that seems somewhat out of place. Both symbolize the old law of the Jews that is in ruins or has been weathered away. Jesus will provide a new law under grace.

The two men in the dark shadows of the stable with a candle are unusual, but they could be referencing the idea that Jesus has come to be the Light of the World. The glow of their candlelight is echoed in the background where we see a light shining on a couple shepherds with their sheep. This is the backstory—the moment when the angel appeared to them to tell them the Savior had been born, a new light was dawning, and they decided to go check it out.

Now we come to the detail that makes this painting so unique and so powerful. Those shepherds don’t come empty handed. In all the paintings of the Nativity and in all the crèches out there, the shepherds usually have some sheep with them. They couldn’t leave their flock alone, after all, so they brought them with. In this painting, they also have a sheep, but it’s not jostling around at their feet. It has been slaughtered. These shepherds have brought a simple and valuable gift. It’s not gold or frankincense, but it is just as meaningful.

In fact, it’s profound. Remember, Jesus would grow up to be the Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. One day, he too would be slaughtered. His death would be the final sacrifice that would pay the price for the sins of all humanity. Titian ever-so-subtly makes the connection by having the limp body of the lamb mirror the little body of the baby—the cloth Mary holds up to a point echoes the triangular shape made by the legs of the lamb. This little baby is the Lamb of God.

It makes me a little sad. These Renaissance artists don’t pull any punches. They let you have it. Don’t get caught up in the preciousness and innocence of Christmas, because it’s just the beginning of a longer story that is heavy with conflict and death. I guess I would rather just focus on adoring this baby for now. The story can take that darker turn in a few weeks.

Rembrandt or Follower, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646 (National Gallery, London)

One of my favorite images of the Nativity is this little painting. It’s simple, yet profound.

It shows a group of shepherds gathering around the Holy Family. I love the realism here—the stable is so dark with two big cows pushed to the back and a hay loft overhead. And I love that the entourage of shepherds includes not only men, but women, children, and a friendly dog as well. It seems like the event has created quite a buzz. Two of the women lean in with a baby tucked under an arm, sharing a word, while two men kneel to adore the precious baby. One seems humbled and absorbed, the other completely amazed by what he sees. And, no wonder, right?

Notice the light sources in the painting. There’s one low and in the back of the barn—probably a lantern, just like the one being held by the man in the middle that emits a soft light barely strong enough to cast shadows on the floor.

The brightest light in the room, of course, is baby Jesus himself. He’s not just reflecting light, he’s beaming. The light that shines from his body is what illumines the faces of all those hovering over him. No wonder the shepherd looks so amazed. This baby is glowing!

The metaphor is obvious. Jesus is the Light of the World. He has come into this dark, dark world to be a light—the light of God. And that light shines for all humanity—not just the religious, or the powerful, or the righteous, but even for a bunch of ragtag shepherds, their wives, and their kids, even for you and me.

This is a good reminder for me. I feel so aware of the darkness of the world right now. I feel troubled, cynical, hopeless. But Jesus is still the light of the world. Can I let him be the light that pierces the darkness? Frankly, I don’t even know what that means, but I wonder if—just maybe—somehow—I can turn to the Light like these shepherd-folk and find hope again. Maybe.