Archives For Art

Does God abandon his People, Israel? That’s the question running through the entirety of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s also a question Marc Chagall, a Jew, struggled with in his art during the horrors of the 20th century.

For a recent sermon on Romans 8, I invited friend and art historian, Janet Laisch, to bring Paul’s wrestling to light by bringing Chagall’s artwork of the Crucified Christ to light.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Like the Psalmist using words to pray for God’s protection and forgiveness, Chagall one of the most famous modern artists and a Russian Jew used his art to pray to God for protection and forgiveness.

Like Paul in Romans 8, Chagall asks—through his art and poetry—if God has abandoned has abandoned the Jews.


This is Chagall’s Vitebsk a pen and ink on paper show the Pale of Settlement or territory on the outskirts of Vitebsk, within the border of Tsarist Russia where Jews like Chagall were forced to live.

Chagall was born July 6, 1887 and created art until the night before his death in 1985.

On the right, Chagall is holding a paint palette and is out of proportion—too large—for the space. In real life, Chagall was too “large” for the Pale and eventually move to St. Petersburg to study art, then Paris, is exiled in USA and returns to France until his death.

The church dominates the horizon in this drawing and in real life even for Jews like Chagall, the church dominated his life. The church led anti-semitic pogroms where Christians raped and even murdered Jews that Chagall witnessed growing up in the Pale. The state condoned the church.



This image, Rain, 1911, charcoal and oil, shows the compound where Chagall lived with his large family of eight surviving children; he was the oldest and his mother doted on him. Compared to Christians outside the Pale, their clapboard home was modest though compared to other Jews living on the compound, Chagall’s family lived well. His mother ran a grocery—foreground right—which supplemented his father’s job as factory worker. They rented out huts on the compound for extra income which enabled Chagall to attend school with Christians.

This led to an artistic awakening. After he first saw a classmate drawing, Chagall decided he wanted to become an artist. His mother accepted and his father gave-in to Chagall and they paid for art lessons and for him to move to St. Petersburg. He became so successful there that a benefactor paid for Chagall to move to Paris.



After moving to Paris, Chagall painted I am My Village (1911) and is characteristic of his work. It has bright colors, expresses joy through whimsical symbols—two small figures in the center show one upright and one upside down– and folk references: Vitebsk town and a woman milking the cow. He ignores rules for realistic color and proportion in favor of whimsical designs. His friend Picasso complimented as one of the best modern artists other than Matisse and of course, Picasso himself.


However, Chagall’s art and prayers become more sad between 1933-52 coinciding with German Aggression, WWII and the Holocaust. Like Psalm 44, Chagall paints lament poems and prayers. This photograph shows Chagall painting Solitude.

After Chagall returns from Israel, he focuses on Old Testament and other bible scenes. Chagall wrote about Israel, “I walked the very streets Jesus walked.” Thus, Chagall, a Jew, follows Christ’s footsteps.



This image is Solitude, an oil on canvas from 1933. It marks the year Hitler becomes Chancellor. The painting like Romans 8 seems to ask God if he has abandoned the Jews. Vitebsk, in the background, is recognizable by the church steeples. In the foreground an Hasidic Jew, perhaps even Chagall, wears a prayer shawl or tallit and clutches the Torah. He looks very depressed. The fiddle beside him, if it were being played might console him. Beside it, a white cow, the original title of this work, and also a reference to Israel herself from the Old Testament. The depressing answer—Chagall feels- is given away by the angel in the night sky flying away. Chagall feels abandoned but continues to pray.

This Russian icon represents the work Chagall would have remembered and loved from sneaking into Christian churches. Chagall wrote, “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring him out in my young heart.” Crucifixion_of_Jesus,_Russian_icon_by_Dionisius,_1500

Between 1938-52, Chagall painted a series of crucifixion images. He is not the first Jewish artist to paint the crucifixion. In the late 1800s artists responded to Theologians who sought to remind Christians that Christ was a Jew. Chagall was the first Jewish modern artist though. And other followed. None painted as many. Some said he was obsessed painting more than 30 crucifixions in a span of 14 years.5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesus

White Crucifixion from 1938 is the first in the series. Chagall painted it in response to the Nights of the Broken Glass where Christians did almost nothing to stop Jews from being murdered. It is also Pope Francis’ favorite work of art.

Here Chagall juxtaposed Christ’s suffering with contemporary Jews’ suffering. Chagall painted a complex theology. In the center, Christ is the Christian Messiah—with a halo and the white light descending from the top of canvas represents divine light like a Russian icon.

Also, Jesus is a Jew.

He wears a tallit, the acronym INRI is written in Hebrew, “Jesus of Nazareth—King of Jews”

Above the cross, Old Testament prophets replace Christian angels and at the base of the cross the candles may reference Yom Kippur. Chagall repeatedly included symbols of Yom Kippur in the crucifixion images.

Circling Christ are the atrocities committed again Jews. A Nazi soldier is burning and desecrating a synagogue. Other recurring images: wandering Jew—who Chagall identifies with himself—refugees: woman clutching a baby, man clutching a Torah, a man with a sign “I am Jew, a boat of refugees, a burning town with a small cow, and Communists soldiers carrying the red flag march forward. We know that the communists were no better friend than the Nazis to the Jews.


Chagall paints these images as a prayer pleading for help from God and help from Christians.


Another Crucifixion image, Persecution from 1941 coincides with Chagall fleeing France and escaping to America before the Nazi invasion. Chagall feels guilt that he is safe while is brothers and sisters are not.

Again, Chagall emphasizes that Christ is a Jew. He wears a tallit and the chicken at the base of the cross is a symbol of Yom Kippur.

After fleeing to USA, Chagall refers to himself as the wandering Jew, “The man in the air in my paintings…is me.. it used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I’m not fixed anyplace.” In Medieval Christian legend, the wandering Jew who was present at the crucifixion was doomed to wander the earth forever until he accepts Jesus as Messiah.


This photograph captures an ancient Jewish folk custom that Chagall practiced. The chicken is whirled three times above their head and sins are symbolically transferred to the chicken so they are free of sin for the new year



Another crucifixion from the war years is Descent from the Cross 1941. Here Chagall identified himself with crucified Christ. The INRI acronym is replace with Marc Ch. He is dealing with the guilt of being safe in USA while his brothers and sisters suffer. A man with a chicken head helps Chagall down—the chicken head symbolizes Yom Kippur that Chagall will be forgiven. An angel flies in from right and hands the artist a paint palette and brush—symbolizes a resurrection. Chagall wrote a poem about this and other paintings where he painted himself as a crucified Jesus.


The gift of painting is from God. Chagall’s prayers are answered. God does not abandon him.


Yellow Crucifixion from 1942 is Chagall’s response to Nazis “Final Solution.” Newspapers disclose that Jews were being moved from ghettos to concentration camps for extermination. The yellow background symbolizes the yellow star of David—labeled Jude—which Jews were forced to wear. 
The yellow smoky background may symbolize the poisonous fumes of extermination—the Jews like sheep to slaughter.

The Divine Christ—halo—is a Jew. He wears the prayer bands on arm, phylactery on forehead and at the base of the cross the ladder is a symbol of Yom Kippur—as are the green torah scroll, the candle and horn.

Chagall juxtaposes suffering Jews with Christ’s suffering. On the left, the ship sinking, a drowning man and two struggling in the water may reference the tragedy SS. St. Louis—the refugee boat that after landing in Cuba only disembarked a few Jews—sending the majority back to Europe and back to the Nazis.

Next, the Holy Family on a donkey may reference their flight into Egypt and their escape from Herod who murdered Jewish babies.

A man with a sign “I am Jew” wanders while a village burns.

Chagall wants the viewer to equate the suffering Jews with Christ. They are from the same stock. They need our help—he prays and pleads.



This image, The Crucified from 1944, depicts a horrific nightmarish street scene where three crucifixions line the streets and three more Jews die in the snow. The only living person is the fiddler on the roof. It coincides with the German occupation of Chagall’s boyhood home, Vitebsk. Chagall is very explicit. Contemporary Holocaust victims are suffering like Christ suffered. Like Christ they are innocent.



Chagall painted Apocalypse (shown above) in 1945, the same year when pictures of concentration camp victims were published. Like the title implies Chagall saw the Holocaust as great battle between good and evil. He seems to pray that God must see Jews on the right side? Christ is naked. He is completely exposed and humiliated like the victims. He is no longer shown divine but Jewish. He wears phylactery—mini prayer book—on his forehead, his tallit is nailed to the cross. The Nazi soldier like a monster from the apocalypse has a tail. Chagall laments the loss of humanity—that nothing was done.


This crucifixion image is much more hopeful. Exodus from 1952 captures the postwar return of the Jews to what is left of their homes. The flame on the bottom, left indicates that homes do not offer much. They are still in need of our help. Christ as a Messiah—with halo—lights the way. The crowd moving looks happy and hopeful. Some smile and talk. At the top right, a rooster—symbolizes forgiveness. The Jews must move forward with their lives. The woman in a wedding dress is Chagall’s beloved wife and Moses—Chagall’s birth name– at the bottom right may be the artist himselfreuniting with his fellow Jews.



After the war, Chagall continues to explore religious Old Testament stories and crucifixions though the colors are brighter and more cheerful. In Romans 8, Paul referenced the sacrifice of Issac as an Old Testament event that prefigures the crucifixion. The subject is hopeful. God does not abandon us, the angel intercedes before Abraham sacrifices his son.

Chagall also designed many stained glass images for Cathedrals throughout Europe and America.


Chagall’s stained glass offers a beautiful expression of God’s love. Chagall depicts the crucifixion on the top left. In the center, a couple embraces and is surrounded by flowers. Chagall in this image designs a crucifixion image as Christians understand it—God’s ultimate sign of love. Chagall here creates an answer to his prayers.

God never abandons his people.

To Live Is To Know God

Jason Micheli —  July 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

This is from my friend, art historian, Janet Laisch:

God instructed Moses to “make a sacred Tent for me, so that I may live among them, (Exodus 25.8) and thus God resides in the eleventh century Monastery of Dafni, located just outside Athens, Greece (image shown above). The building follows a traditional Byzantine church plan– a cross inscribed in a square. It is not just a quiet place for reflection but a means to follow Christ– a cruciform cocoon— that transforms those who worship, take communion, hear the word of God, and encounter Christ’s life and miracles in this very space.  
In accordance with Orthodox teaching about the Church, the interior of the church itself is understood as a three dimensional icon.  With adjustments, the model of the cosmos by Dionysius the Areopagite who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul speak and also became the Bishop of Athens is reflected in the program of Byzantine church decoration. The Byzantine cross cupola church as the name implies has a cross shaped plan where a dome arches over the crossing point. This cross in square plan symbolizes Christ’s cross as well as the four points of the compass.


Byzantine church architecture focused almost exclusively on elaborate interior decorations. Jewel mosaic icons thought to create a holy space where the congregation would be confronted with the true nature of the cosmos without worldly distractions cover the walls and ceiling. From the domed cupola to the marble floor, the program had a significant purpose: to illuminate God’s love, to impart this to the worshipper, and to create an encounter with the Holy. From an early Christian perspective the church represented a mini cosmos or heaven on earth where the world was already redeemed.



Congregants traditionally enter through the west and proceed east to receive communion at the altar though they can also enter via the narthex. From the earliest ancient belief, like the rising sun, Christ is expected to come again in the east.  At the entrance, an icon (shown above) with a gold background depicts Mary and Joseph presenting Christ at the Temple (from Luke 2:22) and thus connects this monastery to Christ’s lifetime of ministry at the temple.


 Also, at the west entrance are reminders that because of Christ we are all redeemed even if our faith is lacking.  The Resurrection icon is above. The Orthodox iconography for the resurrection is slightly different than in western art. Instead of Christ rising from a tomb, he is shown as a valiant soldier. Christ stabs Satan with his great cross and breaks open the gates and bars of hell to free the souls. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.…” (Romans 8) With one hand Christ pulls Adam out of a grave, while next to him Eve waits her turn.  Next to her are King David and King Solomon.  On the other side John the Baptist stands with one arm raised and holds his fingers to make a circle or sign of everlasting and holds three fingers indicating the triune nature of God. The church is freed of sin and becomes a model on earth of the redeemed cosmos having already reached salvation.


 Modern viewers can identify with the Doubting Thomas icon (shown above) also at this entrance. Thomas reaches out to touch the wounds which Christ reveals to help his friend believe. Belief in God requires faith not proof but here God offers Thomas and us proof of his resurrection. From this we know that despite our doubt, God’s infinite power and love will make up for what we are lacking and that faith like any gift originates from God alone.  Much like Jesus proved to Mary sister of Lazarus and then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11)”.



 The largest and most important icon is found in the very center of the church and at the greatest height. Above the crossing square is a weathered but utterly beautiful domed cupola where Christ resides in gleaming gold watching over everyone at the center of this mimetic mini cosmos. This image is standard for Byzantine churches post iconoclastic controversy. Christ is portrayed frontally as a half figure and framed by a circular rainbow of gems and gold tesserae.  It is known as Christ Pantocrator or the all-knowing Christ who is enthroned as the ruler of the universe.  What happens in this church mirrors what happens in heaven though is not yet visible to the human eye. The cupola or dome symbolizes heaven—the invisible space where God resides.
To live is to know God which means realizing he exists at the center of life rather than the periphery. Christ’s power transforms everyone even in small ways when they come face to face with this image of God inside this church. Within the dome, just below Christ, are the images of the 16 prophets of the Old Testament who foresaw the coming of the Messiah.


Below the dome, four pendentives support the dome and are decorated with icons. On each pendentive, there is an image of Christ’s life or the life of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated. On the north pendentives looking toward the altar is the Annunciation (shown above) and looking toward the entrance is the Nativity (shown below) which remind us that God became incarnate to live among us.


On the south pendentives looking toward the door is the Baptism (shown below) where the three natures of God are clearly visible. A hand representing God the father extends toward a dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ is shown with a halo and cross receiving baptism from his cousin John the Baptist. In 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius. Arius questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth. Led by Bishop Athanasius, the council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and condemned Arius’ teaching that Christ was the first creation of God.  The Council of Nicaea declared Christ– God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
 The last pendentive, looking toward the altar shows this Transfiguration icon. As told in the Gospel of Mark the four apostles closest to Jesus ascend Mt. Tabor and while up there recognize Christ’s divine nature as depicted through the mandorla or almond shape surrounding Christ colored in bands of blue and silver. This mandorla and rays of light emanating from Christ symbolize divine-uncreated light and emphasize that Christ is the creator rather than being created. Below these pendentives are additional scenes from Christ’s life including miracles such as the Raising of Lazarus.  At the east end, we find the altar.


Above the altar are icons: the Entry into Jerusalem, Christ’s Crucifixion (shown below) and Descent from the Cross. The Crucifixion is shown above. The altar is reserved for clergy serving communion. According to Orthodox belief, the celebrating priest appears as an icon of the high priest, Christ himself. The visual reminders of the body and blood of Christ are the very icons just above the altar in the apse: a portrayal of Christ Crucifixion shows both his body and blood.  The altar itself is understood as an icon of Christ’s grave and an icon of his high throne in Heaven.
According to Orthodox religion, one of the most central actions of the Liturgy is the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine that constitute Christ’s body and blood. While congregants take communion inside this church, God resides over communion in heaven where the whole of the church mirrors this purpose.


Below these icons is another level in the hierarchy which includes the saints. The lowest level of icons is at shoulder level and depicts angels. The figurative decoration stops at shoulder height so the congregation is the next level in the hierarchal arranged microcosm. At the very bottom, decorative marble plates are inset in the wall. In this way when we enter the church, we become integrated in the icons. Since we are made in the image of God, we become a part of the complete church decoration.  The act of going to church, worshipping and taking communion brings us closer to God and more reflective of his image. Believers and nonbelievers alike– will all one day encounter God for ourselves. For now the church offers us a role in the cosmos of the redeemed and to hear the word of God.











St Denis 09_15This is from my friend, Janet Laisch:
This Sunday is Pentecost– a feast day as important as Christmas and Easter though less widely celebrated.  It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the birthday of the Church, which means it also celebrates us and our place in the world as icons of the Trinity. The story of Pentecost became a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century– as icons, grand refectory and altarpieces. Of these Pentecost paintings, Jean Restout II, a French Baroque painter, captured most energetically and dramatically the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles through use of chiaroscuro or strong contrasts of light and dark.  His Pentecost,an oil on canvas from 1732 now housed in the Louvre in Paris once adorned the refectory or monk’s dining room (see image below)  of the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see image above) just outside Paris. The refectory became one of the most prevalent places to display these images as it duplicated the communal space where the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit on that historical day as told in the book of Acts.
With its chiaroscuro, exaggerated view from below, grand size, and the extreme perspective of the rows of columns to the left and right, Jean Restout II’s painting is reminiscent of Baroque ceiling paintings.  In this image, columns delineate the space of grand cathedrals and separate holy space from pagan space. Viewing it in person, the medium of oil paint enables actual light to reflect from this painting, so the painted light and cloud representingGod glows as a light source in this painting. The cloud and bright white rays of light descending from the upper third of the painting represent God both through the cloud as mentioned in Exodus and the uncreated light so common in Byzantine icons. Light rays emit the Holy Spirit as flames which hover above the heads of Mary, the Apostles and other believers. Some individuals turn away from the light overwhelmed by it; others kneel and pray while others exit and presumably begin the work of spreading the message of the Church through words and acts. 
Mary stands majestically following apotheosis iconography paintings of her (see image by Titian below); she appears deified as she lays her hands across her chest in reverence to the one true God. The deification of humanity happens because Jesus came down to us. The Eastern Orthodox belief that “God became man so that man could become god” reigns true in Mary. Mary who stands in the center represents the eventual theosis of humanity. God will restore humanity as icons of the Trinity as originally intended at creation.
The gestures and actions of the other figures represent our varied places in this story. As stated in Acts, Apostles go out into the world to communicate the message of God– in any foreign language to all the world- —a dramatic overturn of the language barrier that the Tower of Babylon created in the Old Testament.  The Apostles began to speak and preach the Gospel in a multitude of tongues which were the languages of the nations of the earth.
Unlike earlier static Byzantine icons, Jean Restout’s is kinetic. The painting’s message is the action and emotional reaction of each person to the Holy Spirit’s descent.


Though the painting has been moved from the refectory at Abbey Saint-Denis to the Louvre, it still imparts a powerful message to each of us: heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth “moves” into the “heavenly sphere” since Christ is no longer visible to us, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. Therefore Pentecost is not only an historical event but a changed world and an invitation to all of God’s people. Pentecost occurs during the Jewish Shevout or harvest festival so we might understand that theanointed disciples are about to harvest the world. We are pulled into this story and have a direct role to play in the work of the church and our relationship with others.


An icon of the Pentecost helps explain this point.  A standardized Byzantine Pentecost icon (above) represents the Apostles sometimes without Mary seated around a table; one seat, the head of the table is intentionally left empty. This empty seat is Christ “invisible” to humankind though eternal; God is represented as the blue and silver circular mandorla or uncreated light and the Holy Spirit is embodied in the rays of light descending from the uncreated light and the flames hovering above each of the Apostles’ heads.  The semi-circular wooden table is intentionally left open so that viewer can join the group. The table is a direct reference to a meal both Eucharistic –this world and a meal for the end of time–eschatological. “King Cosmos” stands below the table holding a scroll surrounded by the darkness the world must overcome. King Cosmos represents the world, which the anointed disciples are about to harvest, and he and several Apostles hold scrolls intended to represent the word of God translated for all to know.

RubilevTrinityAt Pentecost, the Trinity has now been revealed to us; thus our theosis and salvation begins now, here on earth because of this revelation. Abraham was given the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God as told in Genesis 18: 1-3.  The Byzantine Old Testament Trinity icon (above) captures part of the mystery of the trinity– the relationship between three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (above). Made by God in the image of the Trinity, we too are intended to be in relationship to each other–created with the ability and need to love beyond ourselves. Rather than a limited love, the Trinity teaches this love is infinite.  Becoming a Trinity icon means we become fully human. 





Looking at Ascension

Jason Micheli —  May 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

This is from my friend Janet Laisch:


This Thursday is Ascension Day– a feast day– to celebrate the Ascension of Christ and a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century.  
In Christ, God’s fullness has been revealed.  His sacred image forever a part of our world. The Transfiguration, The Entry into Jerusalem and the Ascension of Christ are three moments of special, very public recognition of the divine nature of Christ and for this reason they were introduced into the repertoire of Christian art at the height of the Arian crisis.  Arius, a priest in Alexandria, posed the problem.  Arius  questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth.
The Council of Nicaea was not convoked to declare Christ emperor but to declare him God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” The new focus of Christian art in the fourth century aimed at advertising this very belief—that God the Son is eternal and divine– and so an abundance of Ascension icons and grand apse mosaics resulted. 
My very favorite example is a late medieval fresco which is part of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel cycle in Padua, Italy—near Venice– dating from 1305 (see below). 
To me, entering the Scrovegni Chapel is a kind of “heaven on earth” experience–every surface is covered in rich fresco paint. Standing inside the building, you are wrapped in the Biblical story. Giotto’s painting captures the Ascension of our Lord as told in Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24: 50-53; Acts: 1:9-11; John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8. In this single painting, Giotto captured multiple moments of the Gospel simultaneously.  
Giotto’s image reveals the marriage of heaven and earth. We see in the upper half of the fresco, Christ surrounded by a gold mandorla and standing on a cloud, disappearing from human view. Christ’s outstretched fingers are outside the picture plane–outside of our human view– though we know these fingers still exist even though we cannot see them. The cloud is not Giotto’s invention but from scripture–scripture of this very event and from many Old Testament accounts including Exodus where the cloud symbolizes God.  
The cloud, then, realizes God’s presence at this event. Jesus’ ascension into the cloud, according to Benedict, does not mean that Christ was transferred to some “remote region of the cosmos,” but rather that He entered “into the mystery of God.”  We are told through the Bible that we too will at Christ’s Second Coming enter into this cloud and become one with the mystery of God. The mandorla or almond shaped space in Christian art represents the uncreated light of Christ, reminding us that Christ like the Father and the Spirit are as John states, existing before the creation of the world. Christ is eternal. 
Rather than set up a dichotomy between heaven and earth, Giotto painted the blue background to marry the upper and lower halves of the picture and multiple points and spaces in time. We see simultaneously the realm of “appearance” and the realm of “true reality”; we see simultaneously the fleeting earth and the permanent heaven.  As onlookers, we watch as Christ disappears from human’s ability to view Him. 
We see simultaneously as the angels inform the disciples and Mary to stop looking for Christ and begin the work they have been trained to do and Christ standing on the cloud of God.  Giotto depicts eleven disciples and Mary each kneeling in reference to our Lord. Each person is ordained with a halo reminding us that because Christ came down to earth, he taught us how to be fully human and also how to be fully divine.  The halos denote not their status as  the one true God but as part of His divinity in future time. 
Giotto’s art reminds us of the importance of our experiences here on Earth because unlike earlier artists he conveys what it means to be fully human.  Human emotion and individuality are important features of Giotto’s work that differ from earlier Medieval artists. Giotto first used chiaroscuro or modeling of light and dark to depict the disciples and Mary as  three dimensional human figures. Breaking from tradition, Giotto strives to convey a sense of space by layering the figures one in front of the other. Kneeling in prayer, they are grounded rather than floating so there is a sense of earth’s gravitational pull. 
Long considered the father of Renaissance art, he painted simplified stage space: brown rocks connote earth. Giotto included only the needed details and nothing more.  Christ’s Ascension and the people who will become the Church at Pentecost are the subject—other details are not needed or included. His interest is to paint a reality so that we can learn and identify with the image depicting a sacred event.
The earth is where these early Christians kneel and the base which will become the Church—God’s will on earth. 
Having been inside this very chapel, I am reminded that heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”  is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth moves into the heavenly sphere, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. 
We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. In Giotto’s image, as in most Ascension iconography, angels appear to Mary and the disciples just after Jesus’ departure. The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” It is our time now, under the influence of Christ’s Holy Spirit, that we must get to work! As followers of Christ, we must foster this marriage of heaven and earth. We grow the mission of the church and in so doing we become fully alive in Christ.  
That Christ once lived on earth among us,  our relationship with Christ is everlasting. Not even death, nor tragedy nor disease can separate us from this marriage. 
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth–may no one pull asunder.




This is my friend, Janet Laisch. I was last week so didn’t get to post it on Holy Thursday. Better late than never…


In AD 200, the birth of Christian art represented the new covenant through abstract references to the Last Supper where Christ commanded us, ” to Love one another as I have loved you.”  Christians began making art on the very walls of the catacombs where they buried their dead and among the first brush strokes they painted were grape vines and leaves to express their belief in an afterlife and their belief in Christ’s new commandment. During the second half of the third century, artists began to depict Christ and His disciples reclining at the Last Supper and other agape feasts.  Ancient Christians blurred the lines between eschatological agape feasts and the Last Supper believing that all feasts celebrated agape love as commanded by Christ.


In the Gospel of John, for theological reasons, John put the Last Supper before the Passover feast from John 13:1; Jesus was killed at the same moment the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple—making Christ the new Passover sacrifice. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels, the Last Supper is explicitly identified as the Passover meal from Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7. Early representations corresponded more closely with the Jewish practice of conducting Passover meals round low tables, or no tables at all, with diners semi-reclining on low lounges. The Gospel writers explicitly reference reclining at this meal.  This catacomb fresco (above) shows Christ beardless and young surrounded by disciples and like later Last Supper paintings it represents the moment when Christ says one of you will betray me as the disciples respond to Christ by pointing at themselves and saying is it I? Mark 14.

nave_apoll 15-03-02/29

At Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, a sixth century Basilica, mosaics (above) depict men and women processing toward the altar with communal offerings for the Eucharist.  These images reenact communion as it was celebrated at this church and others like it in the sixth century. Just above these processional mosaics are scenes from Christ’s life including an image of the Last Supper where Christ and his disciples recline together in a communal meal with fish and wine on the table.  Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Just as a typical Roman feast featured diners reclining on couches—propped up on their left elbows—around a central table or a few smaller tables in a dining room or triclinium, early Last Supper representations depict Christ and the disciples reclining as described in the synoptic Gospels: Luke 10:39. Food was generally served in a few communal dishes, in which diners would dip their bread or eat with their hands. Wine flowed freely and was served in bowls.


 In 1305 Duccio painted this image (above) as part of an altarpiece originally placed in the Siena Cathedral. Beginning in the early Renaissance, artists preferred to represent Christ and the Disciples sitting upright along a communal table with Christ in the center and an elaborate Passover dinner including lamb lay out on the table. Last Supper images continue to reflect traditions of when they were painted rather than Christ and disciples from first century Palestine and Christ and the disciples look more Italian than Middle Eastern.  Judas the betrayer is most likely sitting opposite Christ with his hand reaching toward Christ’s outstretched arm.



In the Renaissance artists begin to distinguish Judas the betrayer more explicitly from the other disciples as seen in Fra Angelico’s example from 1450 (above).

By the middle Renaissance Last Supper images moved from churches to monasteries as this one by Fra Angelico decorates the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Fra Angelico’s painting makes clear what Renaissance artists sought to achieve: a clear parallel between the Last Supper and Catholic mass. Disciples sit at the table where only a white table cloth and the Eucharist cup remain. Here, the disciples kneel as Christ distributes the communal wafer and holds a common cup. In the foreground on the left a woman kneels probably the blessed mother, Mary while on the right, Judas is depicted as the only disciple wearing a sinister black halo.


lstsupMore often Last Supper images like this one by Leonardo da Vinci from 1495 (above) decorated the refractory or monk’s dining room wall throughout the Renaissance.  Artists rendered the figures life size and at eye level so monks could imagine participating in the meal along with Christ.Viewers became so familiar with this drama-charged image and so accustomed to the iconography of Christian art, that they would hardly remember it as a cross-cultural art work. They might even need to be reminded that the Last Supper was an event which involved Jewish people and occurred in Palestine. Judas sits beside Christ and rests his hand on the table as referenced in the Gospel that the one who betrays me rests his hand on the table. Through a carefully delineated under drawing and one point perspective where the vanishing point meets at Christ’s head, Leonardo da Vinci achieved serenity in this scene. This painting marks the calm before the storm of the Reformation, before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door in 1517 (below).


In newly-Lutheran parts of Germany, Protestant iconoclasts, sometimes in mobs, physically stripped and defaced countless works of church art. By 1522 Martin Luther recognized art as a valuable educative tool and artists once again created art to instruct viewers.



The German Reformation painter, Luis Cranach the Elder painted this Last Supper in 1547, (above) replacing Leonardo’s long bench with a round table. Jesus is not even placed at the center, but appears on the far left, consistent with the Lutheran practice of distributing the bread and the wine from the side of the altar. Cranach depicts Martin Luther at the Last Supper. Luther symbolized everyman and is taking part in the meal as he receives the cup of wine from a servant.


As the Counter Reformation warred throughout Catholic Europe, Veronese a celebrated Venetian painter was called before the Inquisition to defend his choices for this rendering of the Last Supper in 1573 (above).  Venice long a trade crossroads attracted people of diverse cultures, so unlike earlier paintings, in addition to Last Supper participants, Veronese decorated the foreground with “foreign” people, a young dwarf holding a parrot, a man with a bloody nose and a dog. When questioned Veronese explained that he liked to adorn with figures of his own imagination to fill any left-over space in the picture. After being asked to remove the dog depicted in the center foreground, Veronese decided instead to rename the image Feast in the House of Levi which ended the controversy.  This Inquisitorial hearing inspired a hilarious Monty Python sketch:


The Pope commissioned works of art as part of the Counter Reformation and Poussin found the Pope and a circle of patrons in Rome interested in stoic philosophy commissioned canvases like this one (above).  Similar to catacomb paintings and early Basilica mosaics, Poussin painted the Palestine tradition of Jesus and the disciples reclining during the Last Supper meal as referenced in the Bible. Poussin’s objective as a classical antiquarian was to study and depict ancient traditions. Washing feet before a meal is an ancient tradition and though not explicitly stated in the synoptic gospels is an understood tradition of the Jewish Palestine. In John 13 , he explicitly states that Christ washes the disciples feet as an act of love and purification. A copper bowl and clean bare feet figure prominently in the foreground referencing Christ washing the disciples’ feet as a way of demonstrating His love for the world. At the Last Supper Jesus gave his disciples a new command to love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. One way Jesus demonstrated His love at the Last Supper was to wash his disciples’ feet and take the role of the servant.


Hundreds more Last Supper images fill the pages of Art History books, many adhered to Leonardo’s format. In 1955 Dali painted the Last Supper (above) in a unique and poignant way where Judas is not included at the modern low stone table. A single glass cup and broken bread adorn the table as the remaining 11 disciples bow their heads in prayer rather than eating or gesturing as commonly depicted in earlier portrayals. Dali created a hologram rendition of Christ who both sits at the table and floats in the baptismal waters below. Christ gestures as if speaking. He points to His body and to the heavens symbolizing his two natures: completely human and completely divine. A third aspect of Christ hovers above to complete the trinity: the Holy Spirit is present above the communion table. As in the Bible the meal takes place in the second floor of a home though all the furnishings are ultra modern and a glass enclosed space reveals a lake and canoes below referencing also when Christ first called the disciples from their fishing jobs to be fishers of men. The placid nature of the water and the color palette give the scene an other-worldly feel. Dali painted in an ultra realistic classical manner that appears almost like a photograph yet he includes many dreamlike impossible details to create a style called surrealism. Dali paints this image as a way to recall Christ’s memory and as a way to depict his view of heaven so it is both an image of the Last Supper and an image of the agape feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As varied as these art images of the Last Supper are and as varied as the descriptions of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels and John are, we know that Christ invited us all to the table. As Christ said about the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me…I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.” Christ invites us all to partake in the meal as a foretaste of the feast to come.

Looking at Lent: Lazarus

Jason Micheli —  April 11, 2014 — 1 Comment
This is from Janet Laisch:
When Christians began creating art in about AD 200, Raising of Lazarus scenes still seemed far too pagan. Matisse like art covers catacomb walls with abstract shapes and lines adapting pagan symbols with purposeful variation: Eucharist vines replace acanthus leaves. No crosses yet.  After meeting Christ, Christians refrained from creating art for nearly 200 years not just because of the Old Testament commandment against graven images but also because Christians equated making art with paganism. By the first half of the third century, Old Testament stories decorated the walls of catacombs, especially the Jonah story which could be understood as a precursor to Christ’s resurrection.
About five hundred later, New Testament scenes including the Raising of Lazarus also appear. The earliest versions followed standardized minimal iconography because even then Christians feared worshipping the image and the revelry of making it. The purpose of these early scenes is only meant to remind believers of Christ’s ministry to encourage prayer and worship. The Raising of Lazarus (see below) depicts a larger than life Christ as young, beardless and like a magician holds a wand as he waves it toward a much smaller entombed and completely mummified Lazarus. The perspective is close up without Mary, Martha or a crowd and the scale accentuates Christ’s divinity.


Once Christianity became the official religion of Rome under Constantine ca AD 312, Christian art changed dramatically from depictions on catacomb walls to elaborate government sponsored mosaic programs covering the walls of Basilicas where Christians worshipped in public. Even in the sixth century, artists depicted the Raising of Lazarus in a similar way: the focus remained on the miracle and relationship between Christ and Lazarus.
Though now believers lingered over details and studied the relationship between many images as part of a larger program of art just as reading about Christ’s ministry is better understood as a whole.  The image below depicts a sixth century mosaic from the Basilica Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna. The gold background represents the eternal, heavenly space so like God eternal, the image transcends time and reminds the viewer that this NT scene prefigures Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection.  Lazarus’ face is visible unlike earlier versions in catacombs.


By the twelfth century, iconography for Raising of Lazarus has changed as seen in the icon (image below) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Now a throng of people fill the space as well. Among the crowd Martha and Mary stand or kneel in prayer while individuals cover their noses disgusted by Lazarus’ pungent death smell. These icons much like the earlier mosaics encourage the viewer to study the image and experience the story as a participant in the crowd. The gold background represents heavenly space and time eternal.


Even throughout the Renaissance, the iconography changed very little; though artists became increasingly interested in depicting three dimensional space and human emotion. Giotto’s fresco (shown below) from 1305, uniquely shows a disciple, most likely Peter, because of the halo and short cropped beard or Thomas who is specifically mentioned in this Biblical passage touches Lazarus. On Lazarus’ right, two women cover their noses disgusted while Martha and Mary kneel at Christ’s feet. Overall, Giotto conveys stoicism through calm and controlled brushwork.


In 1609, Caravaggio broke from tradition, heightening the drama by painting Lazarus still dead and almost naked in the center foreground of this oil painting. Martha holds her brother’s head while a man steadies his torso; thus, Caravaggio, followed Pieta iconography instead of Lazarus iconography viewing Lazarus’ Resurrection as a precursor to Christ’s death and ultimate Resurrection.
The Pieta or the pity depicts the deposition from the cross and Mary holding Christ. The stark contrast of light and dark only further dramatizes an already charged emotional scene. Caravaggio also identifies Christ as the Second Adam by borrowing from familiar iconography; Christ extends his arm in the same manner as Adam extends his arm toward God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling.


Art contemporary to Caravaggio’s includes this Rembrandt etching in which the dramatic use of light and dark is rendered again. Rembrandt’s composition and figural poses became the inspiration for another great Dutch master, Vincent Van Gogh who in 1890 painted a colorful version.

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Van Gogh layered paint so thickly that it resembled carvings for a woodcut and has a three-dimensional sculptural quality. Though he used Rembrandt’s work as inspiration, Van Gogh painted it uniquely his own.  Unlike Rembrandt’s Van Gogh’s is a close-up view cropping out Jesus and the crowd to focus our attention on Lazarus, Martha and Mary who rests at Lazarus’ feet. Christ appears absent; though God’s presence is symbolized through the sun. Van Gogh, the son of a preacher who spent time as a pastor, may have identified with Lazarus’ resurrection as a parallel to his own salvation while convalescing at the mental asylum in St. Remy after the famous incident when Van Gogh cut off part of his ear.


The Raising of Lazarus is such a popular image for artists as it makes us see that Christ “is the resurrection and the life.” Just as surely as Lazarus had died, Christ resurrected him. Mary and Martha felt so abandoned when Christ waited to return while they mourn their brother’s death without Him, yet while they mourned, Christ had a plan, saying to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I will go and wake him up.”

When Christ returns, Martha and Mary each rebuke him, “If you would have been here, Lord, my brother would not have died.” The crowd questions Christ a third time, “He gave sight to the blind man, didn’t he? Could he not have kept Lazarus from dying?”  As believers they know that God can do anything so they ask why Christ didn’t intervene. Christ says, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Christ says he wants us to “see the full glory of God.”

This story like a microcosm of life shows how we anticipate Christ’s return, how we question death and tragedy like Mary and Martha.  Christ had a greater plan and made his plan known the day he returned. Christ returned; he did not abandon. Christ said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Then Christ resurrected Lazarus. Christ does not only say these powerful words, he proves them and He will again.

JanetThe overlap between art and faith coincides at a number of points.

Both rely upon tradition and discipline to think about the things which matter.

Both use symbolics to make a prophetic point about the world as it is beneath our pretensions.

In both art and faith, the debate between what is sacred (or just appropriate) and profane is continuous.

In fact, I would argue the ongoing power and relevance of both art and faith is due to their ability to blur the line of convention and provoke just such a conversation.

Recently, some have raised the question of the appropriateness of the word ‘toilet’ in a sacred setting.

Is the word itself profane?

Or does context- how and to what end it’s used, say raising money for an indigenous community- determine it’s propriety?

Can an ordinarily ‘profane’ word become ‘sacred?’

Janet Laisch, an art historian and church member, picks it up from here.
Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968il_340x270.545836925_2ejm

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1964 above is displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA) as a replacement for his original from 1917. After his brother’s death during WWI, Duchamp moved from Paris to NYC and helped form the Society of Independent Artists as a way for emerging artists to exhibit their work without censor. In preparation for the first show, Duchamp purchased a mass produced plumbing object from the Mott Hardware store, signed it using his alter ego R. Mutt short for Richard Mutt and dated it 1917.  Duchamp categorized this entry as sculpture and paid the required $6 fee only to have it rejected and “lost” or destroyed. The controversy that ensued became part of the object’s meaning and eventually the impetus for Duchamp to recreate it and have it displayed permanently at the SF MOMA.

The following is a direct quote from a 1917 periodical: “The Richard Mutt Case,” from The Blind Man, May 1917:



“They say any artist paying six dollars may exhibit.” Mr. Richard Mutt sent in a fountain.

Without discussion this article disappeared and never was exhibited. What were the grounds for refusing Mr. Mutt’s fountain:

 1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar.

 2 Others, it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing.

Now Mr. Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ show windows. Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object. As for plumbing, that is absurd. The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”


Creating art during WWI when most objects were mass produced and easily replaceable, Duchamp asked: should art still be hand-made, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, unique?

Should art be visually pleasing?

Must art require impressive technical skill?

What is art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Through the use of only minimally manipulated mundane ready-made objects, Duchamp sought to move away from the established definition that art should showcase the visual and technical skill of the artist and instead made art about a concept. The idea the object conveys is the more permanent nature of the art(ifact) as long as it has a vehicle for communicating its message. The object itself will eventually disappear much like Duchamp felt after his own brother’s death during WWI.

The idea once created remains a part of history as long as it is remembered either by creating a replacement or by communicating about it. For this work, Duchamp chose the plumbing object, displayed it at 90 degrees and signed it in black and called it sculpture.  Applying a title not associated with its original use may change it very drastically.

The very title—Fountain—transforms the way I view this ready-made object.

Duchamp wanted people to reconsider it– that is why he provided it with a new name. He wants us to free associate using the plumbing object and title to form new ideas and think about society in a new way.



For example, we find it absurd to drink water from Duchamp’s Fountain or vile and revolting.

Hopefully we are angry enough that we don’t want anyone to drink non potable water.


It is a loaded image because it reminds me of really vile behavior and oppression when different standards were not recognized as evil.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

We don’t have to agree that this object is art or that Duchamp is brilliant.

I hope we can agree that these people are beautiful, one-of-a kind, unique, and irreplaceable.

When it comes to ‘toilets’ and getting toilets and clean water to children like these, the question is not between the sacred and profane.

It’s a question of what is holy.

To give to the Guatemala Toilet Project, click here.



christ-and-the-samaritan-woman-at-the-well-1796From Janet Laisch-

When I look at Angelica Kauffman’s version of Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, I imagine what it would be like to speak with Christ face-to-face as the Samaritan woman did about 2000 years ago. In Kauffman’s depiction, she painted herself as the Samaritan woman.  Kauffman’s self portraits resemble the Samaritan woman so much that we may conclude that she identified with her in some significant way. Kauffman was a wealthy upper-middle-class woman who faithfully lived with one husband and began an art career as a child prodigy painting portraits of aristocrats and historical subjects with a moralizing message. She lived in Rome, studied at the Academy and while there learned to revive the harmonizing style of the famous Renaissance painter Raphael in particular. By 1796, she was one of only a few women who sold regularly her historical paintings. For Kauffman, a Neoclassical painter during the Enlightenment period, “reason” overshadowed her faith at times. On the other hand, the Samaritan woman lived in the ancient Roman Empire. After five unsuccessful marriages and while living with a man with whom she was not even married, she met Christ who loved her. Seemingly so opposite, both women were indeed sinners. Both women grappled with their faith. Both women experienced doubt. Christ offered to fill both women with living water so they would never thirst again.

Christ sat and conversed with the Samaritan woman face-to-face and offered her his living water.  The story as told from John 4:5-42 reads
“In Samaria he came to a town named Syhar, which was not far from the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by the trip, sat down by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw some water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink of water.” (His disciples had gone into town to buy food.) The woman answered, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan–so how can you ask me for a drink?” (Jews will not use the same cups and bowls that Samaritans use.) Jesus answered, “If you only knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his sons and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?” Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.” “Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water.” … The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus answered, “I am he, I who am talking with you.” …Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” So they left the town and went to Jesus. …Many of the Samaritans in that town believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I had ever done.”
This faith altering conversation takes place at a well recognizing that without clean water life is not sustaining. Christ invites the woman to sit with him asking her for a drink of water, seemingly disinterested in her lower status as a Samaritan woman. To convey this scene, the artist shows both figures seated on the side of a stone well. A gleaming metal vessel for collecting clean water sits between Christ and the woman symbolizing the woman’s need for tangible evidence over her faith in Christ. Painted on a large scale 4 x 5 foot canvas, Kauffman chose to fill the foreground with life size, realistic, and proportional figures of Christ and the Samaritan woman. When we step in front of this canvas, their conversation is at our eye level so that as voyeurs we can easily watch and eavesdrop their every word. The perspective showing these figures close up allows us to see their expressions, their sustained eye contact, and their gestures.


Kauffman drew graceful lines which impact how we perceive their conversation. From the Bible passage, we learn that Christ already knows everything about her, some facts about which she is not proud. However, Kauffman painted these two people engaged in conversation rather than in an argument. This image appears fluid and graceful in part because of the decisive, fluid lines Kauffman drew under layers of oil paint. If we were to diagram each figure, the lines would be continuous and deliberate without rigidity or agitation so when we look at this painting, we immediately sense calmness about the Samaritan woman’s spiritual awakening. We feel Christ’s love toward this woman and her recognition that he both knows everything about her and loves her. Christ’s confrontation seems meaningful and caring rather than damaging or harmful.  Kauffman like other Enlightenment painters depicted subjects that convey a moralizing message through a story derived from history. Kauffman recognized this Biblical story is based on historical fact and provides a moralizing lesson that should be valued equally to other historical paintings.


In addition to drawing graceful lines, Kauffman’s limited realistic color palette conveys a sense of harmony between the figures.  Similar to the famous Renaissance painter Raphael, Kauffman used harmonizing hues derived from primary colors: red, blue and gold mixed with black and white to paint the entire canvas; the palette is limited so we immediately accept the canvas as a unified image and it impacts how we understand their shared respect and love.  An example of Raphael’s palette can be seen in the image below. Both Christ and the Samaritan woman wear bold red and deep blue, drawing our focus first to them. Christ and the Samaritan woman’s skin share the same rosy hue, similar curly auburn hair and hazel eyes–details which also help us read them as unified pair. In addition, the color of the stone well is in the same color family as the gold vessel and gold sash in the woman’s hair. Rather than a golden halo around Christ’s head, the beautiful natural environment in the background denotes the divine on a monumental scale. images-1
In the background, the artist used a less saturated blue hue for the sky and landscape than the vibrant blue hue used for Christ’s cloak and the woman’s hair sash so it turns our attention back to the figures as the main focus. Kauffman like Raphael painted a harmonious background, suggesting a sense of receding space through atmospheric perspective–the blue, hazy mountain range may represent the outskirts of Rome that so fascinated her and other Neoclassical painters. The mountainous landscape created by God resides with the man-made citadel and they do not look incongruous. This harmonious juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane mirror the harmonious conversation between the divine Christ and the worldly Samaraitan woman.


To further this sense of reality, Kauffman represented the people by capturing realistic portraits, including a portrait of herself as the Samaritan woman. An example of one of Kauffman’s many self portraits can be seen below. Both Christ and the Samaritan woman wear garb typical to ancient Rome, masterfully draped on the figure to reveal convincing three dimensional bodily forms beneath them. Their gestures convey meaning beyond a superficial conversation and their interlocking facial expressions share a level of understanding between them. True to this Biblical passage, Kauffman painted the woman engrossed in conversation with Christ. Kauffman plans a unified composition; their body language communicates that each actively listens to the other. Christ and the woman sit turned toward each other with their knees almost touching.  They make eye contact as they speak and listen in turn. By the end of the conversation, she sees the world through Christ’s eyes. She is transformed. Her view of life changes.  Christ knows and loves her recognizing that she has great purpose. Her left arm is open; though her left hand may gesture toward Earth and her right arm clutches her worldly possession. Whereas Christ’s left hand points upward and his right hand rests on his heart. She leans toward Christ–presumably open to changing her mind. The woman at the well and Kauffman herself were far from shy or taciturn. Both women acted in society–Kauffman as a portraitist and history painter competing on equal footing with men. The woman at the well–by the end of the story–urgently shared Christ’s message with the entire town which resulted in a huge growth in Christ’s followers. Both women are nonconformists, acting authentically as themselves.
Kauffman who studied Raphael’s work also borrowed symbolic gestures from his School of Athens for great purpose. A detail is shown below. In this painting, Raphael juxtaposed two philosophers: Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right  whose opposing views can be summarized through hand gesture, much like Christ on the left and the Samaritan woman on the right. Plato points up because in his philosophy the changing world that we see around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal and includes goodness and beauty. For Plato, this otherworldly reality is the ultimate reality, and the seat of all truth, beauty, justice, and wisdom.  Whereas Aristotle holds his hand down, since in his philosophy, the only reality is the reality that we can see and experience by sight and touch precisely the reality dismissed by Plato. Aristotle’s Ethics–the book that he holds–emphasized the relationships, justice, friendship, and government of the human world and the need to study it.  Kauffman painted Christ pointing up, similar to Plato’s hand, suggesting that Christ references the eternal unchanging world whereas the woman’s hands match more closely to Aristotle’s hands suggesting that she focused on what could be seen.
From John’s Biblical account of this story, we know that Christ’s love transformed her. The woman felt so deeply loved that she needed to speak about what Christ had shared with her. She told everyone in town about the Messiah–the eternal, unchanging Christ she had met at the well. As a result she helped spread Christ’s message so more people could drink his Living water.


from Janet Laisch:

Duccio’s Maesta from 1308 depicts stories from Christ’s life for us to contemplate during Lent (see image below). Take a look at your calendar and count the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and you’ll realize it comprises more than 40 fasting days of Lent. The early Church designated each Sunday during Lent as a feast day. During Lent we punctuate the fasting with a feast which begins with taking Holy Eucharist each Sunday.

The days leading up to Easter recount Christ’s Passion story beginning with the Thursday before Easter as the Last Supper and Christ’s arrest, Good Friday as Jesus’ Crucifixion and Deposition and Saturday as Christ’s Entombment– all of which Duccio depicted on the back of the Maesta (see main panel below).

Each Sunday feast during Lent provides reprieve from fasting and a reminder of Christ’s Resurrection and our own. Feasts as described in the New Testament: the Wedding at Cana and the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22 represent the importance of celebrating with Christ as heavenly host.

St. Thomas Aquinas described the eschatological interpretation of the banquet likened to the events at the end of time:

“The banquet where you, with Your Son and holy Spirit, are true and perfect light, total fulfillment, everlasting joy, gladness without end, and perfect happiness to your saints.”


Using tempra paint on poplar wood, Duccio depicted the Wedding at Cana as part of the Lenten images on the base or predella of the Maesta. Duccio used gold leaf on the architectural features and the background of each image to unify these scenes and to denote the heavenly realm. As baptized believers, we use these images to partake in the life of Christ.

Jesus calls his disciples as shown in Duccio’s image below where Christ calls two brothers Peter (in the boat on the left) and Andrew (in the boat on the right) at the sea of Galilee.

After calling his disciples,
Jesus performs his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. The biblical story of the Wedding at Cana as recorded exclusively in John says:
“Two days later there was a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine had given out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They are out of wine.” “You must not tell me what to do,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” Jesus’ mother then told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” The Jews have rules about ritual washing, and for this purpose six stone water jars were there, each one large enough to hold between twenty and thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill these jars with water.”
They filled them to the brim, and then he told them, “Now draw some water out and take it to the man in charge of the feast.” They took him the water, which now had turned into wine, and he tasted it. He did not know where this wine had come from (but, of course, the servants who had drawn out the water knew): so he called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone else serves the best wine first, and after the guests have drunk a lot, he serves the ordinary wine. But you have kept the best wine until now!”
Jesus performed this first miracle in Cana in Galilee; there he revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
Next to the image, Calling of the Disciples, Duccio painted the Wedding at Cana. At first look, our eye may be drawn to the figures wearing red, but a viewer from 1300 would have been drawn to the most expensive materials first–the gold leaf background and deep blue paint that Mary and Christ wear. The deep blue paint was produced from precious stones. From the left side of the table, we see Mary and Jesus each with a sacred gold halo. Several of Jesus’ disciples had also been invited to the wedding and sit beside him.
Next to Christ is either a disciple or another wedding guest. Then, we see Peter, identifiable as he is wearing the same blue vestment from the previous image, and a cropped beard and a halo. Two more men wearing red catch our eye–one of whom has a halo and is probably another disciple. Then, next to him, at the far right end of the table sits Andrew. Notice how this figure resembles Andrew from Duccio’s Calling the Disciples image. The white patterned table cloth also catches our eye as a focal point. The meal indeed is important. Much of the food has already been consumed; though, bones, perhaps from a lamb, pieces of bread, knives, six bowls and glasses of ruby red wine remain on the table.


Duccio captures multiple moments from the biblical story in this picture. The background tells the first part of the story. Mary and Jesus gesture as if in conversation. Their expressions and gestures seem calm as they exchange playful banter. “When the wine had given out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They are out of wine.” “You must not tell me what to do,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” The disciples and other guests look at Christ, presumably awaiting the miracle that Mary described will soon take place.
According to the story, Jesus performed this miracle after Mary’s request, though we don’t know if it is a direct response to her request. Rather it may suggest instead her shared knowledge of the events before they took place.
Mary and Jesus take on their new roles at this Wedding. Wearing blue and gold with halos at the head of the table Mary and Jesus sit in the position of Bride and Groom. Mary as the bride—the second Eve– communicating with Jesus–the bridegroom–the second Adam about the events that will transpire.
Next to Mary is a wine pitcher symbolizing that Mary seeks the new wine of the kingdom. Jesus performs this miracle and Jesus is this wine poured out for all of us. Mary has full faith that Jesus will perform his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana and so tells the servants to “do whatever he commands.”
Duccio depicted this pivotal moment–as Jesus turns water into wine in the foreground for us to see clearly with our own eyes.  Notice four amphorae vases and two water barrels together equal six liquid containers as described by John. These six vessels hold water and parallel the Genesis story of creation and the six days used to create the world beginning with separating the waters. Two beardless servants carrying barrels pour out clear liquid–water– to fill the amphora vases. Simultaneously another servant pours from an amphorae vase deep red wine into one of the smaller patterned pitchers.
In the center of the picture, Duccio captures the next sequence in the story. The moment after the water has turned to wine.  A servant pours out the wine to fill glasses with the miraculous red wine. Duccio paints the drinking vessels so we can see the ruby red wine in each of them. Looking at this image we are reminded that Jesus went to parties, drank wine and as host multiplied it for others so everyone was filled.

By turning six jars of water into wine, Jesus first reveals himself as the Messiah to the disciples, to the servants, to all the wedding guests and to us.
Typically the wine is of lesser quality by the end of the night because in Hellenistic culture, as still today, by the end of the night people have had plenty to drink and their palettes dull so they are less discerning about its quality. However, John states in this passage that the best wine is saved for last. From Duccio’s painting, those drinking the wine and pouring the wine look well pleased with its ruby rich color and presumably its taste. Jesus saves the best wine for last and if we want it we need only ask.

From this we might view this image as a foretaste of the feast to come in heaven.

The wedding feast is likened to the kingdom of Heaven and Jesus is the ultimate host who supplies everything needed at the very best quality for his guests even when his people are not always that discerning.
A later painting of the Wedding at Cana by Veronese depicts a grand party with people of different races found throughout the expansive space. Party goers even get a little rowdy, climbing columns but nothing appears sinister. The attention to fine clothing differentiates most of the participants from Mary and Christ who wear more simple garb and have halos. As a microcosm this image represents that when Jesus performs his first miracle, he reveals himself as the Messiah to all the world. This feast may represent the eschatological view of heaven. The second Adam–Christ– and the second Eve– Mary– invite everyone to this feast where the best is still to come. Christ himself said in Matthew 22, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this.”


This is from Janet LaisCh~
Lent is about reconciling through Christ as seen in the Calling of St. Matthew.


This Church, San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, proclaims a message– not from its monochrome façade but rather from the art inside. Cardinal Matteo Contarelli saved money for years to pay for the decoration of a chapel inside this church with scenes from the life of Saint Matthew. Once inside, enter the last chapel just before the high altar and see for yourself how Christ called Matthew to follow him. Jesus never said worship me, but rather he said follow me. Christ initiates reconciliation of us and the world here and now on earth.


Caravaggio planned three paintings of Saint Matthew, starting with the moment Saint Matthew’s life began as God intended–the moment Matthew understood Christ’s calling. These three images moving left to right represent the Calling of Saint Matthew, the Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and together they tell a story about the relationship between Christ and all mankind as found in Matthew chapter 9.
“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose up and followed him.” As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Caravaggio layered oil paints with all the realism and drama true to Baroque art from 1600 AD to involve the viewer and to inspire a spiritual awakening in us. Like a director, Caravaggio constructed meaning through setting, lighting, character, costume, and gesture.  Caravaggio depicted this room and these men as a microcosm for the whole world and us in it–where filth and grime and elaborate outward costumes symbolize sin. Soot and grit cover the walls and even the window appears impenetrable to light of what may be the backroom of a seedy pub.  To some it may seem an unlikely place to meet Christ, but the Bible says that he came for the sick and the broken so any place, any time offers opportunity for Christ’s presence. Light enters the room from the upper right corner, perhaps from an open door, as Christ enters this dark room.  Caravaggio used the technique of tenebrism whereby he painted a stark and sudden contrast between light and dark colors– to communicate Christ’s ultimate power in this room and throughout all the world through reconciliation. Christ’s outstretched arm points gracefully calling Matthew to follow him. Matthew perched as one of five males, like peacocks– suited in lavish velvet, crimillion, leather and feathers– around a wooden table counting their day’s earnings. Armed with swords to defend their greed and vanity, they represent how far man has fallen.
Caravaggio used line to direct our attention to the main idea: Christ is calling Matthew despite his sin. Trace a diagonal line from Christ’s graceful, outstretched hand, to the redhead male pointing to himself.
Det. Matthew_Contarelli Chapel
Pointing to himself, Matthew (see above) communicates recognition that Christ calls him, and his eyes fill with hope. Despite his sin when Christ arrives, Matthew meets Christ’s gaze, wide eyed, transfixed in a spiritual awakening. Christ sees Matthew for who he is: everything he lacks and everything he will become.

Michelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew_(detail)_-_WGA04118 The_Inspiration_of_Saint_Matthew_by_Caravaggio

A golden coin rests on Matthew’s hat (see image above) to betray his mind’s obsession with money as a Roman tax collector for Herod. During the Roman occupation, Matthew accumulated wealth by oppressing his own people, paying handsomely himself and the Roman infedels who conquered the Hebrews at Capernaum.  We know from reading the Bible and from looking at the next image in Caravaggio’s Contarelli chapel cycle that Matthew follows Christ without hesitation.  Christ transforms Matthew so that his outward appearance matches his inner faith: Matthews like Christ wears a robe and tunic and a golden halo gleaming divine inspiration (see above) like Christ rather than a coin over his head during his days as a tax collector.

Calling of St. Matthew (detail - Matthew)


Two of the five individuals seated at the table do not notice Christ’s call. They instead greedily count their money. As voyeurs of this scene, we know their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing Christ who has entered their very space.



Caravaggio painted the old man (image above) with closed eyelids as he adjusts his glasses to symbolize the depth of his spiritual blindness. His near sightedness will only allow him to focus on finite pursuits rather than the infinite gifts offered through Christ.


The young man’s near sightedness allows him only to see the coins on the table rather than look up to see Christ entering from across the room. The money or debt they count is their own sin; they cannot forgive others or themselves to recognize that Christ has already forgiven them. Counting money prevents them from realizing that reconciliation occurs now here on earth as God does not count our sins against us.


Caravaggio portrayed the boys faces (see image above) lit up from the divine light. Their expressions and actions connote open minds and hearts as they turn away from the money on the table and gaze up at Christ instead. These two young men act as foils to the two money counters’ spiritual blindness.The boy on the right looks at Christ with his mouth slightly parted; he swings one leg over the bench and leans his body toward Christ as he begins to stand up. Caravaggio painted these boys again in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew where still dressed in their finery they use their swords to try to defend Saint Matthew from the Roman soldiers who will eventually crucify him. A self portrait of Caravaggio is also included in this image as the story continues. We might see ourselves in these two boys and with our own free will to make a decision regarding our own next step whether or not to follow Christ.


Christ and Saint Peter look out of place, like time travelers, with bare feet wearing robes and tunics from ancient Rome whereas the tax collectors wear seventeenth century finery. Christ’s entry into this pub imposes radical change on the whole world. A bulky, stalwart Saint Peter acts as an ambassador to Christ, helping Christ gather disciples. He holds a staff to indicate that following Christ won’t be easy and standing next to Christ, we are reminded that Christ will never leave either.


Up close, we notice that Caravaggio accentuated Christ’s bone structure and humanness using the same technique of tenebrism–stark white paints next to bold blacks hues. The beautiful angle of his high cheekbone, his nose and lips reinforces that Christ became fully human and lived on earth among us. Though Caravaggio depicted Christ differently than the other figures; his movements epitomize grace and a halo glows above his head.  Unlike us, Christ is also fully divine. Christ’s expression and movements capture his decisive nature that unlike us, he does not waver. He knows exactly his ministry, and he calls his disciples to follow.


Above Christ’s hand, the windowpane forms a cross, reminding us of Christ’s actions for us. Reconciliation is an accomplished fact through this cross and a continuing process here and now on earth. Christ doesn’t just save Matthew for eternal life but also saves Matthew in this life. Christ wants to do the same for all of us.


Looking at this Creation painting by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel, we see that Caravaggio has borrowed the graceful lines of Christ’s arm and hand from another master for great purpose. Caravaggio communicates through line and pose that Christ is the second Adam who redeems man. The transference of reconciliation takes place from God to Jesus to us. Reconciliation takes place now here on earth. Jesus accomplished reconciliation through the cross and continues this work now here on earth through each of us. If we pray to hear the next step, knowing that if only Christ invades our space like he did with Matthew, we would get up and follow…follow absolutely anywhere… without question. Then we must also stop and listen. Only then can we realize that Christ already does.


Fasting with Christ

Jason Micheli —  March 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

By Janet Laisch~

Each Ash Wednesday, I try to prolong the ephemeral cross on my forehead from fading, praying to absorb its meaning before it washes away.

Jesus never said worship me but rather He said follow me.

During Lent, we have 40 days to contemplate his life so that we may incorporate it more wholly into our own being. During Lent in 1308, a grand ceremony processed through the streets carrying Duccio’s Maesta, an altarpiece, to the Siena Cathedral and placed it, all 7 x 13 feet, gleaming in gold and tempera paint, at the crossing square –the very heart of the Cathedral– where the vertical and horizontal axes meet of this cruciform building plan. Entering this Cathedral, and walking to the crossing square, we begin our Lenten journey by looking at images of Christ’s life. 



Today the Maesta has been dismantled, cut up and sold to the highest bidder. Scenes from Christ’s life that once decorated the back are now housed in museums and private collections, but we can at least view the majority of these scenes at the Siena museum. 
Originally placed in the center of the Cathedral, like sculpture, the believer could walk around it to encounter snapshots from Mary’s life and Christ’s infancy on the front and Christ’s adulthood on the back. Snapshots of the very stories as told in the Gospels.  The Maesta, the Italian word for majesty, shows the Virgin enthroned holding the infant Christ and surrounded by saints. The predella, or stand, on which the altarpiece rests, depicts the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt, to name a few of the other major events on the front.


Walking around to view the back of the painting,  it depicts major events of Christ’s adulthood–not a single moment — but instead many acts to observe during Lent.  The Passion is told in thirty-four scenes, beginning on the bottom left with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Using gold leaf in each scene, Duccio unified these images of Christ’s life so we can consider them together.



Drop your eyes to the left side of the predella (image below) where a scene depicts the Temptation of Christ, now at the Frick Musuem in NYC. The scenes that follow show Christ calling his followers, the wedding at Cana, the Transfiguration and the raising of Lazurus to name a few.




In this Temptation of Christ, Duccio paints the moment when Christ commands Satan away. The space surrounding Christ shows how Christ through fasting becomes vulnerable to the temptations of Satan and also more open to God. The angels stand to Christ’s right ready to direct Christ out of the desert to begin his ministry. It is the perfect image to study at the beginning of Lent as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. 
Duccio used artistic elements to emphasize Christ’s resolve against sin. Satan first tempted Christ, who had been fasting, to turn the stones surrounding him into bread. Duccio represented these stones as the very rock that supports Christ’s feet in the center of the painting. 
Satan next tempted Christ to test God. Rather than give into sin, Christ stands on a rock that looks more like a hill than a mountain. Duccio used scale to emphasize that Christ conquered sin and could easily step down from the mountain without testing God as the devil commanded.
Lastly, Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only Christ would worship him. Duccio manipulated scale to emphasize Christ’s power over this temptation as well; in the foreground, the towns should appear larger than Christ as they are closer to our view; however, the kingdoms in the foreground are just as small as those in the background. Scale then communicates power and here clearly Christ is most powerful as he is largest.  
 Duccio used line to communicate Christ’s power and resolve against sin. If you were to draw a diagram of this painting, you would draw smooth continuous lines, lines without agitation. 
Christ’s right arm gracefully extends from his body sending Satan away to the shadowy background. The devil in response to Christ raises his hand to communicate that he has given up and then turns and steps away. These graceful, continuous lines do not  depict a battle scene or struggle between the two main characters, but rather Christ has drawn a line to separate himself from sin.
Duccio divided the panel into two halves through color; notice the contrast in color between the background and foreground– Duccio painted the background using browns and grays whereas Duccio painted the foreground using pinks and blues. Christ directs Satan back to darkness whereas Christ inhabits the lit space. Also the artist used color to communicate Christ’s superiority to the devil and all temptations. 
Our eyes first notice Christ who stands slightly off center because Duccio has painted Christ wearing red, the highest saturation of color anywhere in the painting.
If instead Christ were wearing black like Satan, we would view the scene very differently. We would sense Christ’s struggle. If Duccio reversed the colors, painting Satan red and Christ gray, we would interpret Satan as the dominant figure. Through color choice, Duccio communicates that Christ dominates the scene–a metaphor for Christ’s actual resolve to conquer these temptations.
Duccio juxtaposed Satan and Christ; their bare feet next to each other as well. Duccio depicted Satan as a dark monster with webbed feet, large pointed ears, and  wings; whereas Christ has a beautiful face surrounded by a gold halo. Duccio applies decorative punching around Christ’s face and outlines him in greater attention and detail than Satan. The halo reminds us of Christ’s divinity; He is Lord on earth.
As Lord, Christ humbles himself hence the bare feet. Looking closely at this image, it like so many earlier Byznatine icons, has been touched by human hands. Visible scratch marks cover Satan, as an attempt to mulitate him believeing the image had magic power. 
Despite all of our sins, we are made in Christ’s image not in Satan’s image.
Throughout Art History, artists have portrayed this story. Artists in Northern Europe depicted The Temptation of Christ less frequently than artists in Greece and Italy. Artists in Greece and Italy also depicted this subject most frequently in early Christian history and during the Renaissance. In Greece, it is more often portrayed as an icon (above), and in Italy, it is more often portrayed as part of a larger sculptural program on doors (above) or painted as one of many scenes on altarpieces like Duccio’s.
When it is painted independently it is rare. 
In modern art, Christ is more typically shown contemplating, alone in the desert rather than tempted by Satan (below).  

Lent begins Christ’s forty-day fast and temptations in the desert.

As Christians we don’t observe the temptations of Christ from a safe distance. We have been baptized into Christ, and so throughout Lent, we participate in the mysteries of Christ knowing that His Resurrection is a reality as well.

The root of temptation is the same–to work apart from God.  Jesus knew the force of temptation better than we do, because He resisted temptation fully whereas we do not. This artwork with its many images of Christ’s life is a perfect place to start our Lenten journey. It is not what we give up for Lent that is most important, it is whether or not we can become vulnerable to absorb more of Christ into us.


closeup1 2We just wrapped our winter sermon series on marriage and love.
Too often when it comes to love, sex and passion people presume that the Christian tradition only has list of ‘thou shalt nots.’ On the contrary, the only Puritanical Christians were the Puritans. From the earliest of the rabbinic traditions to the earliest of the ancient Church Fathers, sexual ecstasy- and its preceding mutual vulnerability- have long been considered something like a parable for how God loves us.
God sees us completely as we are…naked…and loves us.
I asked my friend Janet Laisch to write a post showing how this has been reflected in Christian art:
PHD968While plenty of artists portray love, and only a few artists identify their inspiration as Song of Songs, only Bernini achieved in sculpture what Song of Songs achieved in writing: the physical expression of love is a gift from God which connects us with the divine and with what it means to be fully human. Similar to how the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem, is found in the bible, this erotic sculpture is found in a church. Both share an explanation of our union with God through the metaphor of erotic love. In 1645, Cardinal Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome. Like all Baroque art, Bernini sculpted it to trigger a religious response in the viewer; though not all artists who created religious art were as deeply religious as Bernini.
The first time I visited the Cornaro Chapel, I was stunned by what I saw. At first glance, a holy light emanated from gilded heavenly rays above the sculpture and the entire sculpture floated so that the figures levitated on the cloud below them. Walking close enough to touch the sculpture and looking up, a secret window, hidden behind the wall revealed the actual light source. Touching the cloud, it felt like cold stone rather than billowy cotton which had been reinforced with concrete below and behind it to make this stone appear to be floating. Bernini achieved a masterful installation where the event appears in action like a scene in a play rather than stagnant stone. It will not surprise you that Bernini was not only the most celebrated sculptor in all of Rome, but also a set designer, painter, architect, gilder, glassmaker and playwright and he married “one of most beautiful women in all of Rome” who became the model for Saint Theresa. Combining these art forms, Bernini hoped to elicit a religious response in each of us.
By looking, we too become voyeurs to Saint Theresa’s vision. Two theater boxes flank the sculpture on the left and right and realistic, portrait-like sculptures of the wealthy donor–Cardinal Frederico Carnaro–on the right side react to what we see together. It is important when defining this work to mention what it is not, this art is not pornography; it is inside a church. We are experiencing a holy vision first-hand. It parallels the Song of Songs 6:13, when people watch the woman lover, “Dance, dance girl of Shulam. Let us watch you as you dance. She responds, “Why do you want to watch me as I dance between the rows of onlookers?”
In the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Bernini expertly conveys different materials from a billowy cloud to feathery angel wings; the differences in texture make the image appear more real and more immediate as if it is taking place in front of our eyes. Bernini sculpted, in white marble, Saint Teresa and the angel. He cut away marble to reveal flesh–stone that appears alive rather than cold.  Bernini chiseled away from a block of marble to reveal flesh underneath. Bernini’s work characteristically captures a moment in time and appears kinetic: hair and drapery sweeping in the wind. His marble becomes flesh malleable and reactive to other marble. A marble hand depresses a marble body, clearly indenting the marble where the two stones meet. The difference between these two sculptures illustrates just how effectively Bernini made marble appear to react like flesh; below Bernini’s sculpture– a love scene from a pagan story, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which church fathers glossed in Christian terms starting in the Renaissance– is shown first while Rodin’s, from 1882, The Kiss, is shown second.

The Kiss 1901-4 by Auguste Rodin 1840-1917

Like the Song of Songs, the theme of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is how erotic love and passion are analogous to what union with God must be like.  Theresa’s vision represents from Song of Songs, ” Asleep on my bed, night after night I dreamed of the one I love; I was looking for him, but couldn’t find him. ” For Theresa, who is a sainted nun, her union with the divine happened through a vision which she recounted in graphic physical detail. Saint Theresa wrote, “It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not wont to see, save very rarely…. In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvellously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim…. I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”
The male angel is indeed stunningly beautiful and he smiles, clearly deriving his own pleasure, as he looks at the nun’s beautiful face and lifts her robe slightly. With the angel’s other hand he holds an arrow, which he  points not at her heart as St. Theresa had written, but lower on her body.  St. Theresa’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her lips are parted. Her drapery hangs in a kinetic frenzy mirroring her physical experience. The floating cloud references the intensity of her pleasure.  The obvious reference to a physical, erotic union cannot be ignored. She experiences ecstasy through divine union in her mind, soul and body. Her faith in God only increases the intensity of her vision.
Remembering that the model for Saint Theresa is Bernini’s own wife adds to its meaning; he portrays his wife’s ecstasy resulting from this divine union. Bernini is both a passionate artist and a deeply religious man. When he married his beloved wife, he experienced a spiritual awakening, he changed, and he forever deepened his faith. Here he not only portrays Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy then, but also his own wife’s ecstasy. Here he invites God into every aspect of his marriage.  When we recognize this truth as well, when we too invite God into our own marriage, our love only intensifies and brings us closer to each other and to God’s plan for us.




This is from friend, Janet Laisch. Here she takes a look at the Transfiguration’s depiction in Christian art. ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848Most of us would like to see an image like the one above–a beautiful person through whom God’s light emanates and makes His presence in our lives known here on Earth. This mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, said to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel near the Sea of Galilee (map shown below),  as described in the book of Mark, and depicted in art beginning in the sixth century
Mark wrote about the transfiguration,

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
galileeSaint Catherine’s Monastery (image shown below) at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the very location of the first theophany when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush as described in Exodus 3 and to Elijah, though only in a soft whisper as accounted in the book of Kings.
It is inside Saint Catherine’s monastery that the earliest, from 565-6, surviving image of Christ’s transfiguration can be found.
In the apse, just above the high altar a team of mosaic artisans laid tesserae, cut semi-precious stones, glass and gold and set them directly into wet plaster to adhere to the wall.  Each character from the Transfiguration can be identified from left to right:  Elijah stands with his fingers blessing Christ, a young clean-shaven John kneels, turning his head toward Christ, a gray haired and bearded Peter is laying down, turning his head toward Christ, a young, bearded James kneels and turning his head toward Christ, and Moses stands on the right blessing Christ.  Christ invited the three apostles closest to him to ascend Mount Tabor, knowing they would experience together God first-hand.
In the center, Christ is enveloped in a mandorla–an Italian word for almond which results from two circles overlapping –and used in Christian art to symbolize the sacred moments when the human and divine meet and which transcend time and space. Within it, the blue bands become darker as they move toward Jesus. As divinity increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness.The darkest color represents the “uncreated light” of God; God is dark because He existed before He created light for all the world.
From Christ and from the mandorla, rays of light emanate, touching the prophets and apostles. Christ’s ring finger and thumb form a circle– the alpha and omega– the beginning and the end. A dark blue band surrounds this scene decorated with medallions of the twelve Apostles. The three Apostles included in the Transfiguration have been replaced by medallions of Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered by another series of fifteen medallions with busts of the Prophets, including Jesus’s human predecessor, King David in the center.
ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848038This mosaic should be understood according to its placement in the church–above the high altar where the sacrament of holy communion occurs. Congregants experience Christ as truly present during Communion through bread and wine.
Through communion and prayer at the high altar, this scene served a purpose to inspire a Holy vision or at least to enable the viewer to contemplate the event and feel invited to partake in it.
Furthermore, the Transfiguration image should be understood in context of the images surrounding it just as one story in the bible has greater meaning when understood in the context of the continuity of the old and new testament, this image has greater meaning than a single image.
335-066It is Christ’s sacrificial role that is particularly important (see image above). Four symbols along the vertical axis represent God incarnate:
(1) Jesus Christ in the mandorla
(2) directly above is a cross in a medallion–symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
(3) overlapping this cross is an image of a lamb –recalling John’s description of Christ as a sacrificial lamb in Revelations 5:6
(4) and directly below Peter is a medallion of King David, to whom Jesus is a descendant by blood through Mary.
The juxtaposition of God’s incarnation and transfiguration stories is popular in manuscript illumination as well, particularly after the iconoclasm controversy resolved. In an illuminated manuscript from circa 1025, (image shown below), the vellum image is divided into two registers. In the top register, the artist depicted the nativity when God became incarnate and in the bottom register, the Transfiguration. In both registers Jesus is larger than the other figures, establishing His greater importance through size.
Too, this mosaic (image above) is on the east end of the church where the sun rises and where Christ will come again. There is a direct link between this theophany and Christ’s Second Coming. God becoming man is necessary before the second coming when Christ will raise from the dead and make Creation whole again through our unity with God. Humankind can only ascend and become deified as gods– with a lowercase g– and mirror God’s image because God had descended to the earth and lived among us.
Looking again at the mosaic at the Monastery, the apostles witness that which the old testament prophets had until the Transfiguration only looked forward–God standing before them in human form. Thus, the continuity between the old and new testament is represented (see image below).  Place your finger on Elijah who stands to Christ’s left and stop at the image of John the Baptist in a medallion. Here John the Baptist is the new Elijah–they are two prophets who went against the grain of society.
Now look at Moses and trace your finger to the right stopping at the image of Mary, Mother of Jesus in a medallion. The first theophany is highlighted twice more in the mosaics of Moses loosening his sandals (image below) and Moses receiving the law tablets (image below). If we understand the continuity of the old and new testament, we may see the relationship between God’s first theophany and the incarnation of God at Christ’s birth.
Mary’s womb like the burning bush contained God’s light and so God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush is analogous to the birth of Jesus Christ.
And too the appearance of God on Mount Sinai is analogous to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.
335-066Another surviving Transfiguration apse mosaic can be found at the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (image above), Italy dating from 533-549, though it is depicted symbolically rather than figuratively. The man standing in the center is not Christ but rather the Bishop of Ravenna who strategically aligns himself with the story (image below). He is symbolically deified. To his left and right are a total of twelve sheep representing his “flock” or church members.  Above them is the transfiguration scene, with Christ symbolically represented as a cross in a circular “mandorla.”  Like the previous mandorla, it along with the gold background symbolically represent a timeless, eternal image. The artist does not attempt to convey a realistic space. To the left of the cross is a single lamb, most likely Peter, the only apostle who spoke to Jesus during the transfiguration and to the right, James and John are depicted as lambs.  Above the cross on the left is Moses and the right Elijah. From the top, a hand descends symbolically as God’s theophany when He spoke and enveloped them in a cloud.
The Transfiguration and the end of time are combined in one scene. The lush green background filled with lambs references the end of time when God’s Creation is made whole again.  Above the scene there are two city gates, on the left is Jerusalem and on the right is Bethlehem with six lambs ascending the hill, referencing the continuity of the Old and New Testament through the juxtaposition of these old and new testament cities. Above from left to right are the four evangelists in symbolic form, the eagle John, the winged man, Matthew, Christ Pantokrator-a compound Greek word meaning all accomplishing, the Lion Mark, and the Ox Luke.  This image aligns the Transfiguration with the end of time when Creation is restored.



Unlike earlier representations, Renaissance and Baroque examples typically depict God’s appearance as a cloud at the Transfiguration (see three examples below). “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Also the colors are reversed from earlier mandorlas since these examples show brighter color resulting closer to Jesus. These later images remind us too of Christ’s apotheosis when He is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.
Transfiguration_RaphaelRaphael painted the Transfiguration in about 1520. The account of the Transfiguration is followed in this work of art as it is in the bible by the episode of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit.


Gherardi,_Cristofano_-_Transfiguration_-_1555The Mandorla in the Transfiguration images also aligns this story with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming when all the world will be healed. Representations of the Second Coming show Christ surrounded by the mandorla, familiar Transfiguration iconography.  At the transfiguration, Peter does not want to wait for the Second Coming as he prefers to stay on Mount Tabor where he feels an intense unification with Christ. Mark wrote,”Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  God became man so that we can begin the process of becoming whole again on Earth.
Fortunate people recognize when they have experienced such a theophany at work in their lives so they too can become the person God intended for them to be. If any of us experience a theophany, God’s intense presence in this lifetime,  like Peter, why would we ever want to go back down the mountain?




From friend, Janet Laisch, for 3 Kings Day…
While excavating in nearby Vespignano, I visited the Uffizi Gallery as frequently as possible, and one of my favorite works of art there is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi– a large, square, (8 feet x 8 feet, 1 inch), unfinished drawing, begun in 1481. Seeing his unfinished art is like entering his studio and watching him at work; it’s a unique way of understanding his mind and his method.
Even though Leonardo daVinci’s Magi, does not adhere to every detail of the Biblical account, it captures the story’s meaning in a profoundly beautiful way.

The Epiphany, celebrated twelve days after Christmas, is one of the most often depicted Biblical stories in western art as told in Matthew 2:7-12:

“Visitors from the East..They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, knelt down, and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”

Some artists adhere only loosely to this story, choosing instead to showcase their ability to choreograph crowds of people, and paint an array of colorful textures in an elaborate landscape. Donors who commissioned the work, like political propaganda, paid money to include family portraits among the retinue of kings bringing gifts to Christ.

Compared to most western art, Adoration of the Magi scenes characteristically depict some of the only examples of people from Eastern and African origins rather than only western European origin.

Here are a few examples.
by Benozzo Gozzoli
by Albrecht Durer
by Hieronymus Bosch
by Peter Paul Rubens
Leonardo, first a scientist and an inventor, began this work (shown above) only after completing preliminary studies. His notebooks include studies for this work:  a one-point perspective plan, shown below, which he partly abandoned, illustrates how he used one point perspective to plan the background battle scene. To remedy the distorted upper right corner that resulted, he simply omitted it in the final plan.
His Adoration of the Magi drawing, pictured above, captures, in the hazy background, this battle scene among pagan ruins, probably representing the battle and ultimate defeat of paganism marked by Christ’s birth.

As the only Epiphany art depicting a battle scene, it is both a poignant and original choice.

Also notice the roof outlines in this study, which he also abandoned, suggesting that perhaps Leonardo considered depicting this Magi scene in or near a house as described in Matthew.

drawing-1024True to how Leonardo worked, after finishing several studies for this drawing, he laid and revised pencil lines directly on the wood panel.Leonardo carefully choreographed each person in the foreground, creating a controlled rather than haphazard crowd. To anchor the protagonists, they form a triangle in the center of the composition.
Mary’s head forms the point of the triangle and then following Christ’s extended arm to the bowing Magi’s feet, the right point of the triangle is visible; the ground itself forms the base of triangle and two bowing magi on the left form the left side of the triangle, finishing the line at Mary’s head, forms a complete triangle. He orders the crowd behind Christ and Mary in three U-shaped rows, and each individual turns his or her head in different directions– some people gesture wildly with opened mouths, presumably to speak about beholding Christ for the first time.
Only after finishing the composition did Leonardo begin layering dark washes over these pencil lines. Even at this stage, Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato or smoky, hazy atmospheric perspective makes the image appear to emerge from the canvas. In the unfinished drawing, Mary and Christ emerge in sharper focus than the hazy background battle scene. Too, the contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro helps Mary and Christ stand out against the dark rocks and people surrounding them, since Leonardo has applied fewer dark washes to Mary, Christ and the three Magi at their feet, who are lighter in color, and in sharper focus.  Leonardo is most famous for blending brushstrokes so the under drawing is undetectable in his finished works.
If Leonardo had finished, he would have added more washes and color. A glimpse at some of his finished works such as the Mona Lisa below, reminds us that Leonardo’s sfumato technique, much like modern portrait photography, allows the subject to be in sharp focus while the background is out of focus or blurred.
Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks
Leonarodo’s Last Supper
Also by looking at Leonardo’s finished paintings, we can clearly imagine the colors Leonardo would have applied to finish his Adoration of Magi. By looking at his paint palette, we know he included white, black, red, blue and yellow, which he mixed to create unique variations on aquamarine, burgundy, brown, olive green, and goldenrod. I imagine for Mary, who is painted in a soft S curve, that Leonardo would have applied blue for her dress and red for her shawl. Christ as he is drawn appears sturdy and confident and would wear red around his waist, as his right hand blesses the kings before him.

Similarly, we can imagine what God’s finished Creation would look like, starting with the invitation he extends to us all through Epiphany.


Matthew’s important words from the Epiphany story, “visitors from the East” probably apply to an even broader diversity.

Surely when Christ reaches out his hand to accept gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought from the East and from Africa, it is God’s acceptance of His diverse people as stated explicitly in Acts 11: God has ushered in everyone– to follow his message.

The Adoration of the Shepherds:

This is from friend, Janet Laisch

Immediately after Caravaggio unveiled the Palermo Adoration, it stirred controversy for its depiction of the Holy Family. If you travel to Sicily in hopes of seeing Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds from 1609, you will learn it probably no longer even exists.

The Mafia “pulled off one of the biggest art heists of the century” when they stole Caravaggio’s imposing– 11.5 feet x 8 feet — oil on canvas, which hung above the altar at the San Lorenzo Chapel in 1969. See the Palermo Adoration below.


If you drive two and half hours east from Palermo to Messina, you can appreciate Caravaggio’s traditional version of the Adoration of the Shepherds at the Regional Museum. See the Messina Adoration below.



In both compositions our eyes first notice Mary as she is wearing red near the center of the canvas and Christ at whom she gazes. The Palermo Adoration instigated sharp criticism of Caravaggio’s portrayal of the Holy Family.
Caravaggio depicted Mary as sacrilegious since she does not wear a shawl to cover her bare head, neck and shoulders and appears disheveled from childbirth.
Caravaggio painted a realism true of any mother post delivery.
Yet Mary is not just any other mother. She is Christ’s mother.
Christ too lays naked on a bed of cloth and hay mostly in shadow, and it is unclear whether or not Joseph is depicted at all.
Usually when Caravaggio depicted Biblical stories, he preferred depicting raw, authentic emotion that heightened the drama of the event over established tradition.
However, in a traditional manner, the Messina version shows Mary wearing a shawl to cover her neck and head. She holds closely a swaddled, spotlighted Christ whose arm stretches out to caress Mary’s body. Joseph is clearly included and depicted traditionally as an old man standing to Mary’s right. He too wears red, drawing our eyes to him and elevating his status above the shepherds.
Caravaggio is famous for organizing compositions using diagonal lines. In the Palermo Adoration, an angel descends into the scene drawn in powerful diagonals—follow the diagonal line by tracing a line from one outstretched finger to the other arm’s outstretched hand, then follow the diagonal line by tracing the angel’s leg to torso to head.
These diagonal lines charge the painting with activity and immediacy much like a photograph captures a pivotal moment at an event. Too, a man has his back to us, suggesting an unplanned moment is captured. Whereas in the Messina Adoration, the figures themselves are carefully posed along a diagonal line, which stabilizes the composition and focuses our attention on Mary and Christ–the protagonists– who sit on one end of the line slightly apart from Joseph and the shepherds.
For each painting, the light source enters from the left side. However, Caravaggio uses this light source very differently in the paintings.Caravaggio’s most striking element is the stark contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro. Caravaggio highlighted with light colored glazes the areas spotlighted by this light source and painted in dark glazes, the areas left in shadow.  Caravaggio’s mastery of depicting light and shadow heightens the emotion making the event more immediate before our eyes.
Both images show Christ’s first invited visitors: humble shepherds from the story of Luke 2:16.
“So they hurried and found Mary and Joseph and saw the baby lying in the manger. When the shepherds saw him, they told them what the angel had said about the child.”
These shepherds, unlike the Magi, who visit Christ on Epiphany, do not bring tangible gifts. Instead, Caravaggio depicted their adoration through individual expression and body language. Each face reveals Caravaggio’s ability to paint uniquely different features and expressions. Each body conveys emotion through posture and gesture.
In the Palermo Adoration, two men, possibly both shepherds turn to each other in conversation. The man sitting stirred disapproval as he exposes his bare calves and thighs which are highlighted with bright light much more prominently than Christ who is mostly in shadow in the center of the painting. His back is toward us. He does not carry a staff or rod, so he is most likely Joseph, though painted in an unflattering manner. The man standing is unquestionably a shepherd holding a rod used to protect his flock. The man standing to Mary’s right has been identified as St. Francis of Assisi, largely because the church where this painting once hung was dedicated to him. Too, his brown robe is “Franciscan.” However, he could be a young Joseph or a shepherd bowing his head in prayer.
The man to Mary’s left has been identified as Saint Lawrence though he is more likely a shepherd, since he holds a shepherd’s staff rather than St. Lawrence’s gridiron. In the Palermo Adoration, the identity of each of these men is open to interpretation which goes against the established tradition of depicting this event.
On the other hand, the identification of the remaining characters in the Messina Adoration is straightforward. As stated previously, Joseph is depicted to Mary’s right. Two shepherds kneel and lean toward Christ; one folds his hands in prayer while the other holds a staff. Behind them, a third shepherd stretches his neck to peer over their backs as his hands grip a rod used to protect sheep.
Caravaggio’s Adoration paintings remind us that angels first shared the news of Christ’s birth with the lower class–shepherds who rested in the fields with their sheep at night. It reminds us too that these shepherds followed immediately God’s call.

Regardless of social stature, God invites everyone equally, to meet Christ–starting with those who need him the most.

Advent Through Art: 4

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2013 — Leave a comment
This is the last reflection from Janet Laisch.
One Christmas Eve morning, before sunrise, I left the townhome on Via del Seminario where I had been living with an Italian family in Rome to spend Christmas with my parents. I had planned a five hour layover in London to see Night Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans from circa 1490 at the National Gallery.
This painting, pictured above, most accurately portrays the mystical momentimmediately after Christ’s birth– uncluttered with Shepherds, Magi or donors and set at night in a barn rather than a sunny, elaborate landscape–details not mentioned in the Gospels.
Luke 2:6 describes this part of the Christmas story with “and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son…and laid him in a manger–.”
The most striking element of this painting is the mystical mood achieved by painting Christ as the light source in the center of the painting. His glowing light illuminates Mary’s intent eyes, slightly parted lips, and praying hands. We witness her response when she faced God as an infant –the moment before the angel has announced the news– the moment before the shepherds have arrived.
Like any new mother, Mary cannot take her eyes off her child, yet she ponders a far greater wonderment than any other mother.

She knows God will live on earth among us and she will have a hand in raising Him.

She knows too that God will guide her.
Christ emanates light on the five female angels on the left (a detail of three of them shown above). The angels react in varied ways. Three hold their hands in prayer; one of whom looks out to the distance in focused prayer, one looks down at Christ frowning, and one celebrates with childlike exuberance as she throws her hands in the air and smiles with raised eyebrows.
Behind Christ, the viewer finds, an ox and donkey and above Christ, the rafters are painted in shadow and establish that the event is taking place in a barn. According to Luke, “there was no room for them to stay in the inn.” An atypically young Joseph stands behind Mary mostly in shadow; he is bearded with his hands crossed over his chest in reverence.
A place–at the front right–is left open for us to stand beside the manger and partake in this event. It is a small artwork–just 2 x 3 feet, so unlike large altarpieces, its main purpose is private devotion rather than decoration.
To achieve this mystical mood, a dramatic contrast of light and dark oil paint was used. The technique, called chiaroscuro, also established convincing three dimensional setting and figures on a two dimensional wood panel.
After outlining the entire scene in paint, Geertgen tot Sint Jans blocked the foreground, middle and background with black glaze and painted the first glaze of Christ’s body a stark white. Additional glazes were layered to accentuate this contrast between the most important elements of each figure and the less important details.
The artist laid paints with both narrow and wide brushes, smoothed and blended colors with a cloth and even rubbed away color as needed to highlight the light source and areas directly hit by this light source so our eyes are immediately drawn to Christ, followed by Mary’s face, hands and then the angels. Oil paint, unlike fresco or tempera paints, enables light to penetrate layers of paint and reflect back through the surface allowing for infinite gradations of tonality.
The background scene narrates the Biblical story as it continues in Luke 2:8-12:
“There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them…This very day in David’s town your Savior was born–!”
In the background the artist painted a distinction between holy light and light from the fire. The angel’s holy light, like a spotlight, illuminates the background space so that the viewer can identify shepherds, their flock, and a grassy hill whereas the small manmade fire appears dim like a single candle flame in the distance.
Once home, I attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service, an established tradition that included the moment before midnight when the congregation sang Holy Night.
The sanctuary was dark other than a single lit candle.
This flame represented the light of God as He entered the world through the birth of Jesus. Each congregant passed this flame increasing its intensity through our shared belief.
This bright glow became more like the Holy light that emanated from Christ as seen in the image of Night Nativity.
Like Mary encountering God’s gift of Christ, if our faith allows us, any lingering disbelief will be snuffed out as we accept the flame passed to our unlit candle.

Advent Through Art: 3

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

This is from Janet Laisch:

One winter in Rome, on my way to research at the Vatican Photo Archives, I stopped and requested a ticket to attend Papal Mass. On that third Sunday of Advent, I arrived early enough to enter the Vatican and find a vantage point of the Pope. However, the Pope’s proclamation was well beyond my understanding of Italian.

Rather than leave my seat, I reviewed my camera’s images.

These images depicted the story I had hoped to hear.

Pope Benedict XVI conducts the holy mass of Pentecost Sunday in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

The advent story continues about a week prior to Christmas with Mary and Joseph on a journey to Bethlehem as Luke win 2.1-5.
“At that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own hometown. Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David. Joseph went there because he was a descendant of David. He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant…”
Only about a week before Mary gave birth, with a full, round belly and a desire to nest rather than undertake dangerous, unplanned travel, Mary and Joseph journeyed 70 miles south through rocky terrain and dangerous circumstances to fulfill Biblical prophecy.


Very few art pieces exist showing the Journey to Bethlehem. Thus, I appreciated this mosaic at the Chora Church in Turkey dating from the twelfth century even more for its rarity. Entering the Chora Church is different from entering the Vatican. To walk through the Chora Church is like entering a life size jeweled box where every surface sparkles as colored glass, gold and semi-precious stones reflect and refract light. The artisans achieved this shimmery quality using chisel blades to hammer stones or tesserae into varying sizes and shapes.
Next, they incised this image using a sharp instrument and laid pigments to guide the placement of tesserae. The team climbed scaffolding to reach the upper walls and carefully placed thousands of tesserae into a wet plaster foundation.
At the Chora Church, large gold tesserae sparkle in the background of the Journey to Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, depicted on the left, is the smallest image of the mosaic which helps create a sense of three-dimensional space. Smaller glass tesserae represent red roof tiles, stucco townhomes, towering stone walls, and soaring cypress trees. In the middle-ground, gray, with accents of blue and white tesserae represent the rocky terrain from Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey.
In the foreground, green tesserae depict lush grass rather than dry, desert more typical of topography near Bethlehem. A life size Mary has the most convincing proportions whereas a haloed Joseph following behind Mary is elongated.
Typical to Joseph imagery, he walks with a slight stoop of an elderly man. The smallest tesserae in varying shades depict detailed and loving expressions on their faces. Joseph’s eyes are turned toward Mary who has her head turned towards him. One of Joseph’s sons is leading them carrying a small knapsack.


The next mosaic, at the Chora Church, depicts the registration for their taxes. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, sits on a throne at the left flanked by an armed military guard. In the middle, scribes hold a scroll recording names and taxes paid. On the right, Mary is standing tall with her head bowed toward the officers. Joseph is shown with his sons helping her. As in the previous mosaic, the background shimmers in pure gold tesserae.

Light is an integral medium of these mosaics; it not only enhances color and tonality, it makes surfaces kinetic like a hologram.

This kinetic quality encourages the believer to reach out and touch the rough and smooth surfaces and feel the stones dip and climb beneath their fingers.

Before church leaders proclaimed the Gospel in vernacular, one significant way Christians learned Bible stories was by interacting with images like these. Christians must have had a similar experience as I had, listening to the Pope speak in a language other than their native tongue. The message was lost.
Art, as a universal language, illustrates the Bible– stories so vital to knowing God.























553993_10200871642814777_972049269_nThis is another reflection from Janet Laisch

The second Saturday of Advent, I traveled from Rome to Florence to tour the former Monastery of San Marco, where the artist and monk, Fra Angelico lived. I walked around the loggia, admiring its repetitious lines and cross barrel vaulting that encouraged reflection.

I thought of my grandmother saying that everyone is called to do something, the fortunate ones follow their callings.

Fra Angelico surely did.

As a Dominican monk here, he painted a fresco cycle starting in 1438. Stepping inside, I saw Fra Angelico’s Annunciation fresco; it measures 7.5’x10.5′, and true to frescos, it is in beautiful condition. Fra Angelico created a three dimensional space using linear perspective with a high vanishing point most convincing when viewed from the first floor.


Once I ascended the staircase, I approached the painting at eye level. The angel Gabriel and Mary inhabit a space that mirrors the monastery: the garden, the cross barrel vaulting, and windowed monk’s dorm are distinguishing features of San Marco.

Too, the protagonists were painted life size rather than to scale; if Mary stood up, she would hit her head on the ceiling. The most elaborate portion of the fresco are the angels’ wings.

Only in person could I appreciate how beautiful and otherworldly they are; they literally sparkle from the shimmery, brightly colored mica rocks used to create the paints reserved only for Gabriel.

The light source highlights Gabriel who was painted with much more detail in gold leaf unlike Mary who wears muted beige and blue that blend into the stone background.


Gabriel clearly impressed Mary; her lips are parted in awe.

Gabriel has just delivered seemingly devastating news that Mary, a virgin, unwed, young, and not wealthy is with child.

In response Mary appears calm. Her parted lips are the only indication that she might feel overwhelmed. In acceptance, Mary intently makes eye contact with her visitor; her arms mirror his arms, and both protagonists slightly bow their heads in reverence.

Their eyes and arms communicate a shared response.

She trusts his message is Gospel and delivers the word of God. Fra Angelico painted Mary accepting the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will give birth to Jesus Christ our Savior from the Gospel of Luke 1:38. “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.”

Contrastingly, Simone Martini’s Annunciation from 1333 portrays Mary shrinking back in fear of her calling from Luke 1:29-35: “Mary was deeply troubled…and …wondered… How, then, can this be?” Unlike Martini, Fra Angelico portrayed only the protagonists without distraction from standardized symbols used in hundreds of Annunciation scenes that were painted by Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque artists; symbols not found in the bible.

Fra Angelico did not include lilies, a symbol of the Virgin’s chastity, nor is Mary holding a Bible, a symbol of her piety.
The angel does not hold an olive branch- a symbol of peace. The only details needed were those from San Marco, so the viewer could imagine inhabiting the “same space” as the protagonists.

Farther down the corridor, I entered the monks’ dorms. Each cell measured 10 x 10 feet–43 cells in total. In dorm three, there is another example of an Annunciation by Fra Angelico. This private devotional piece is even sparser than the previous example.

Here the barrel vaulted room is mirrored in the painting; a Dominican monk views the Annunciation from the left; similar to the monk, who lived in this very room and would have prayed before this image each day.

The monk’s goal is that we experience the Biblical narrative firsthand as a holy vision. We too can imagine what this announcement would have felt like to Mary. She is neither wealthy nor wed and for a woman living in her day, she would have been shunned had Joseph not married her. Yet she bows her head, folds her hands over her chest and looks at
Gabriel accepting God’s calling.

Fra Angelico inspires the viewer to be like Mary, and accept God’s call.

I returned to Rome. The piling snow, like insulation, muted the sounds associated with this crowded city.

It became quiet enough to listen come what may. My thoughts turned to Mary who decisively and humbly accepted her call from God; during Advent, as we anticipate Christ’s Second Coming–another gift from God– we too should listen to how God calls us.

Each of us is called again and again to act in both simple and great ways. We may not live in a monastery where quiet reflection is a part of each day.

However, if we learn to listen, we may just be able to respond to God’s calls as Mary had done–with quiet acceptance.


Advent through Art

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2013 — 5 Comments
In many ways, the mystery of the incarnation- God taking flesh in Jesus Christ- is best conveyed not through language but through the medium of oils and brushes. 
A good deal of the world’s most significant art is Christian in theme and a sizable chunk therein depicts the scenes of the Nativity stories. 
For this reason, I asked a good friend of mine, Janet Laisch (church member/confirmation teacher by hobby, art historian by training), to reflect on Advent through an art lens. 
Despite her irrational love of the National Cathedral over the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, she knows her stuff: 
One winter, I spent Advent in Rome researching at the American Academy.

Advent from the Latin word adventus, means “coming” and Christians anticipate Christ’s Second Coming starting the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

The first weekend of Advent, instead of hanging out at my favorite café, where locals were always ready to chat, I boarded a train to Padua to visit Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. It was the last tour of the day and lucky for me, I was Giotto’s only audience.
Unlike at a museum, these scenes comprise a cycle in the very chapel Giotto painted the art to be enjoyed, seven hundred years ago.

Camouflaged as a plain red brick building of unimposing size and structure, the interior is drenched in color. Pure color from nature: blue lapis lazuli, red, orange and brown ochre, purple snail dye. Too, the gold leaf is beautiful; light bounces between gold leaf stars on the ceiling and gold leaf halos surrounding each holy figure on the walls.

Nearby Venice long considered a trade crossroads between east and west, meant Giotto had access to materials from Jerusalem and beyond to make his paints. It took nearly five years to fresco the chapel walls and ceiling. Giotto laid wet paints on wet plaster surfaces, and as plaster and paint dried, the two bound together.

A lasting technique from ancient cultures produces enduring art.


The chapel reminded me of a life size Advent calendar–the thick card stock paper with tiny doors, one to
open each day of Advent.

My godparents had given me one as a preschooler and out of sentimentality or habit; I reused it every year, even in Rome.

In this chapel, each door had already been carefully peeled back to reveal a Biblical drama.

I stopped at the threshold and looked up.

Like a voyeur, I peered into the past to experience firsthand:



the Expulsion of Joachim, the Annunciation of Anna.


And the Meeting at the Golden Gate, stories as described in the apocryphal St. James. In the foreground, the Virgin’s parents, Joachim and Anna, embrace each other most intensely with their eyes. Eyes wide open communicate shared anticipation for their role in the birth of Jesus.

They share identical news delivered in separate visions:

God’s promise that they would have a daughter–the Virgin Mary– who would one day deliver Christ to save us.

Giotto stages the figures and background to heighten the drama. Brick imitates brick. Deliberate details identify the background as The Golden Gate of Jerusalem still standing today– the very gate Christ the King rode through triumphantly on Palm Sunday.

Joachim and Anna are painted convincingly 3-D. Their figures curve inward and mirror the arch behind them.

The arch, since ancient times, is a stable building element. They are the stable foundation of Christ’s lineage.

The women in the background, with happy expressions, stand in as us, the observers, who celebrate with Joachim and Anna.


Walking to the east end of the chapel, I admire three rows of art from ceiling to floor. Each row represented a story within the larger narrative of Christ’s life.

The story begins on the upper level to the right of the chancel arch, with events of the lives of the Virgin’s parents on the right hand wall and the Life of the Virgin on the left. The middle level portrays Christ’s infancy on the right and his adult mission on the left.

The lowest row depicts the Passion of Christ on the right followed by the Crucifixion and Resurrection on left, ending with God the Father enthroned on the back wall, above the arch. I find Advent stories: the Annunciation of the Virgin, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, and Flight into Egypt.

Coincidentally, the 40 scenes numbers the same as the 40 days of fasting the Eastern Church practiced during Advent.

Then a guard who lost track of the time as badly as I had informed me the chapel had been closed.

Using a familiar Italian expression, he reminded me to return, “Domani. Non ti preoccupare.”

I replied, “Si. Domani. I am not worried.”

Quite certain that we were not both talking about the same thing.

Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Jason Micheli —  February 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

1223-Jump-Elie-01-popupJames Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at UVA, writes convincingly about the causes of Christianity’s rise in the ancient world. The faith spread, Hunter argues, not by being a religion promulgated by the poor, as the popular myth tells it. The faith spread by being, almost from the beginning (think of the wealthy women mentioned in the Gospels as ‘sponsors’ of Jesus’ movement), a religion of the elite.

Christianity was from the get-go a religion of the culture-makers. Christianity changed the world because it so quickly changed the hearts, minds and worldview of artists and intellectuals who shape and change culture.

That is why Constantine was able to convert to Christianity. It was politically expedient to do so because the cultural elite of Rome were already largely Christianized.

For Christians to change the world anew, to influence culture and not just retreat from it, they need to reengage the arts and intellectual disciplines as Christians- and I’m not talking about those terrible looking Amish romance books you see in the ‘Christian fiction’ section at Barnes and Noble.

I’ve brought this up before and I bring it up again because of Paul Ellie’s article in the NY Times Book Review: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith? 

Ellie points out that fifty years ago writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Reynolds Price and even John Updike wrote ground-breaking, lauded fiction that was suffused with their Christian convictions. Today, Ellie observes:

A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new ­occupants.

To Ellie’s reckoning, only Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead (click and buy it now!) counts as an analogous, contemporary novel with equal parts Christian sensibility and aesthetic quality. It’s a beautiful book in case you haven’t read it.

Following the contours of Hunter’s argument above, you could see the loss of faith in fiction as something of a harbinger. As art goes so goes popular culture. The absence of a credible Christianity in contemporary literature could portend a popular culture in which Christianity plays an even more marginal role:

In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall.

Ellie’s use of the world ‘frontier’ is a wise one for Hunter’s argument can point the other way too. Christianity finding itself on the margins, almost as immigrants in a strange new land, can be seen as an opportunity to reengage the faith in new, creative ways, to rediscover the ‘core’ of our story and convictions and to reemphasize the importance of training Christians to enter their fields of study as Christians.

This opportunity then is one not limited to the world of art and literature. It’s the opportunity which God, in God’s infinite sense of humor, has laid open to the whole Church.