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.

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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.

 

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994
(Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

When in San Francisco in November, I saw this painting at the De Young Museum. It caught my attention—perhaps because it offered a curious contemporary spin on the tried-and-true 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings that surrounded it in the gallery.

If you are not familiar with the term, “trompe l’oeil” is a kind of painting in which the artist tries to “trick the eye” of the viewer into thinking that what you’re looking at is real, not painted. Everything in this type of painting is “life”-size and hyper-realistic so it looks like the objects are just on the other side of the wall, or hanging on the wall of gallery itself. The viewer is confronted with the objects in a much more immediate way than with run-of-the-mill naturalism.

This painting is a little different because we know there is not a hole in the gallery wall that looks out over an expanse of water. And yet, the plastic pitcher and stack of white bread sandwiches is so real you can practically smell the grape juice and bologna. Even as a small image on my computer screen, the painting is conjuring those olfactory memories from my childhood.

But it wasn’t the extreme naturalism that drew my closer look then, or now; it was the allusion to the Eucharist. Not only are the constitutional elements grape and grain, but the white cloth evokes the “corporal cloth” that is used to catch any elements that drop from the paten during the Eucharist.

Because this seems so obvious to me, I was surprised that the label next to the painting mentions nothing of this. But what it does say opens up for me a new way of understanding the Eucharist.

The label explains that Ligare is referencing the juice and sandwiches that are given to people at the homeless shelter where he volunteered. Furthermore, he connects this practice to the Greek notion of hospitality called xenia, a word found inscribed on the stone in the painting. In this way, Ligare expands modern conceptions of hospitality—it’s not just welcoming friends into your own home, it is offering food and shelter to complete strangers as well.

I can’t help but push it one step further. At the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and poured the wine, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). He was looking at the twelve disciples—the inner circle, his closest friends—yet he told them his death would be for many—the multitude, the unknown, complete strangers.

So, one way of understanding Christ’s sacrificial death may be as a profound act of hospitality. All of humanity—all strangers to God because of being estranged from God—has been given life-giving sustenance.

We’re heading into the long and often lonely journey through Lent. This time, I’ll keep this painting close at hand to remind me of what’s coming. I may have a physical roof over my head, but spiritually I am homeless—empty and desperate. I will be so grateful for Christ’s hospitality in the end of the journey, whenever that may be.

Then, as now, I will drink and eat in remembrance.

 

(Oh… and no, the irony of bologna is not lost on me.)

 

 

Tanzio

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.

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.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t “get” Dürer. I understand that he was a master draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. His works really do blow his contemporaries out of the water, but they seem to be all flash and no substance. Maybe I’m just a skeptical viewer because I know how commercially minded he was. He wanted to sell his stuff and so he made stuff that sold. But clearly there’s got to be more to it than that. So …

Albrecht Dürer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1509-11 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Durer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1510 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

This little woodcut comes from a series he did called the “Small Passion”—36 very small illustrations that were bound together as a devotional book. It’s teeny and almost every scene is rendered in a way that is dramatically different from the way other artists had been doing it. It had wow-factor.

Jesus is obviously the focal point with the rays of light emanating from his head in an otherwise dark space. He cocks his head to the side as if to accentuate the dynamic diagonal line made by his arm and John the Younger, who leans against him somewhat awkwardly.

The disciples surround the table and turn to one another as if engaging in private conversations. The informed viewer might guess that they are reacting to Jesus’s revelation that one of them was going to betray him. “What’d he say?” … “Did you hear that?” … “What could he mean by that?” … “One of us!?!”

Most of them are confused, but one in particular is not—Judas, of course. He is sitting across from Christ, clutching the bag of silver that was his payment for turning Jesus over to the authorities. Instead of turning to his neighbor, he looks directly at Jesus who seems to be meeting his gaze. He knows that Jesus knows that he’s the one. More on that in a minute …

The stuff on the table are all symbols for the “rest of the story.” Judas’s act of betrayal is suggested by the knife directly in front of him, which points back toward the Passover lamb on the platter (yes, it’s a lamb). Jesus will be “the Lamb of God” who will be killed as a sacrifice to cover the sins of all. The cup and the half-eaten loaf are reminders of Jesus’s words during the same meal—“this wine is my blood, shed for you; this bread is my body, broken for you.” This is story and the theology of salvation all rolled into one.

To me, the most interesting part of the image is the knowing look shared by Jesus and Judas. Dürer draws this in such a way that suggests that there might be more going on here than accusation and obstinacy. Jesus tilted head conveys compassion and Judas leans in and looks up to Jesus. Judas does not seem to be the angry, evil character we’re used to.

I wonder if Dürer is trying to get us to see Judas’s point of view. He’s been a dedicated follower of Jesus, he knows Jesus is the Messiah, and he’s zealous. He’s heard Jesus talk about coming to Jerusalem to be arrested, tried, and killed. Maybe he thinks the time has come. Why not speed things along a little? And now, sitting at this table, Jesus has just said it. Judas looks at Jesus. Jesus looks back with a somber gaze. Is this confirmation? Is this the signal?

The thing is that it was a signal. Jesus knew. And Judas did put the plan into action. We condemn Judas, but what he did ultimately led to exactly what he thought it would lead to. Jesus was arrested, tried, and brought to a cross. And he became the Messiah—the savior of the Jews, the savior of the world. He finally revealed the true extent of his power and his glory, perhaps just as Judas had anticipated.

How often we take matters into our own hands. We think we know what God wants to happen and we decide to make it happen. On the one hand, this is attitude is rather arrogant and probably self-serving. But, on the other hand, I wonder how often God has used this very human inclination (especially in the Type-A folks) to bring certain things to pass. Seems a little complicated and potentially really messy, but I guess it’s a factor he has to consider anyway.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this, but there it is.

 

I feel compelled to add that I do not have evidence to support that Dürer meant to cast Judas in a sympathetic light. That’s my own reading.

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?

Huh.

I guess I’ll keep looking at this one.

Sistine Chapel … Look Up

September 3, 2012

Michelangelo, The Bronze Serpent, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Last corner. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at this corner of the Sistine Chapel. It’s so dramatic!

The panel depicts a story from the Old Testament. The Israelites were out in the desert and they did something to tick God off (again). To punish them, he sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded (again). God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whoever looked at the sculpture would be saved.

Michelangelo is very literal in his interpretation of this story. Snakes fly through the air to attack the mass of people on the right. They coil, constrict, and bite. There’s no hope for these victims as they struggle and succumb. Meanwhile, the crowd on the left gaze up at the golden serpent in the middle. They look mesmerized.

I like the way Michelangelo contrasts the bronze snake wrapped around the pole with the green snake coiled around its victim right below—it’s so similar, even down to the tip of the tail around the poor guy’s ankle. Yet the contrast is stark. The bottom serpent is the agent of death, the top one is the agent of life.

But that sculpted snake is more than a miraculous cure or a protective shield, it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. The Israelites deserved to be punished, but God is offering a way out and all the people have to do is look up–to put their trust in the power of that piece of metal.

Of course, that story has long been understood as a parallel to the New Testament story of salvation. Christ, too, was lifted up on a pole of sorts when he was crucified, and we, too, can be saved by simply looking to the cross. All we have to do is believe and we will be spared the punishment that is due because of all our disobedience.

Michelangelo makes the choice pretty clear. We can writhe in agony as we get what we deserve, or we can look up and be mesmerized by the mercy and grace of God. Hmm … that’s a tough one.

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the four corners of the Sistine Chapel. We see four Old Testament stories: David killing Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Esther orchestrating the death of Haman, and the bronze serpent—all stories of unexpected salvation for the Israelites. In each, they seemed doomed. In each, God provided a way out. And (importantly) in each, salvation came through believing in God’s desire to save. David, Judith, and Esther all believed that God was on their side, that God wanted the Israelites to live on. They acted on that belief, just like the Israelites who looked up at a sculpture of a snake in order to live.

So what does it mean for us? Not sure. I would like to act based on certain beliefs like these OT heroes did. But what do I believe? And what action does it require? My convictions seem rather general and lackluster. I think I need to listen a bit harder to what God might be telling me. Where is the battle line? Where are the stakes high and action called for? If you have any ideas, I’m listening.

 

This week, I’m looking at another corner of the Sistine Chapel. This fresco shows three scenes from the Old Testament story of Esther. It’s a confusing panel, but it also packs a punch.

The story of Esther is a bit like a soap opera. Being quite the beauty, Esther was picked by Xerxes, the king of Persia, to be his next wife after he executed the previous one. Not long after, Esther’s cousin Mordecai, discovered a plot to kill the king. He told Esther, Esther told the king, and the assassins were caught. Kudos to Mordecai. Things got dicey, though, when Xerxes issued a decree that everyone should bow down to a high-ranking official named Haman and Mordecai refused because he would only bow to God. That hacked Haman off and, in revenge, he convinced the king issue another decree to kill all the Jews. What Xerxes didn’t know was that Esther, his lovely queen, was a Jew herself. And so the plot thickens. Mordecai convinced Esther that she had to intervene for the sake of her people, but to do so would mean risking her own life. She did muster up her courage to approach the king, and after a long string of dramatic events, he ordered Haman to be executed. All was well.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion of Haman, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

There seems to be some uncertainty about what exactly Michelangelo has depicted here. On the far left side, Mordecai is conferring with Esther, possibly telling her about Haman’s plot. On the far right side, we see King Xerxes in bed with Esther at his side. This could show the episode when Xerxes had some restless nights during which a scribe read to him from the annals and he realized he had never properly honored Mordecai for saving his life. That sort of fits, but the way he sternly points towards the crucified man on the other side of the door suggests that he is ordering Haman’s execution instead. Esther cowers by his bedside, clearly a little nervous that she might meet the same fate as his previous wife for overstepping her bounds.

This brings us to the most important part of the panel. At the middle of the panel, in an amazing demonstration of Michelangelo’s skill with foreshortening and anatomy, we see Haman striped naked and strung up on a tree. But here’s the thing … the biblical story says he was hung on a gallows, not crucified on a tree. What gives?

As usual, Michelangelo takes some liberties with the story to make a bigger point. There are several theories about this, but I am intrigued by the idea that Michelangelo is making a connection between Haman and Christ.

On the one hand, it seems so wrong to compare an evil, conniving character like Haman to Christ, but there is at least one important parallel. Jews have long seen the death of Haman as a moment of salvation of the Jewish people, just as the death of Christ was the salvific event for all humanity. In this way, Haman is an anti-type for Christ. He is everything evil; Christ is everything good. Yet, both of their deaths meant a whole group of people received new life.

Michelangelo makes this connection between the two, but he also underscores the difference between them. He twists Haman’s body so that he appears to be squirming in pain. He is not the noble figure surrendered on the cross, like Christ is usually depicted, but a despicable criminal dying a much-deserved death. No mercy here.

While the theological messages may be interesting, at the moment I am drawn to the way Michelangelo paints Esther as she addresses Xerxes on his bed. The whites of her eyes glow as she hides behind the other guy and glances cautiously in the direction of Xerxes’s gesture. Here is a woman who is more than a little nervous. Honestly, that’s kind of nice to see in a heroine. She’s not the icon of courage and resolve, but of apprehension and even hesitation. Still, she does the right thing.

Way to go, Esther. We don’t all have to be confident or eager, but would we all be more inclined to find the courage to do the right thing anyway.

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.