The Potter and Wheel | Art for Proper 18C

Jeremiah 18:2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”

The Potter and Wheel

W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859, picture p. 282
The Potter and Wheel
Jaffa, Palestine
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Potter and Wheel, Jaffa, Palestine, pen and ink (book illustration), 1859, William Hanna Thomson (19th century)

Clay is abundant. We tend to think of it as being almost worthless and despite the amount that is used (for everything from bricks to dinnerware), the supply is not being depleted. It is formed by the action of the elements as they break down and erode the surface of the earth. In the process, minute particles of decomposed rock and organic matter are moved by water to low lying areas where clay beds are formed. When clay is moist, it has great plasticity; often it can be used just as it is found. A potter wedges the clay – somewhat like kneading dough – to make it even in consistency and then a pot may be hand-built by the coil method, or “thrown” on a wheel.

A potter’s wheel is a simple device. Its top is a flat disc (today wheel heads are made usually from an aluminum alloy) and a shaft connects it to a larger and heavier disc below, a flywheel. The wheel head and flywheel are supported by a frame; attached to it may be a bench for the potter and a table that provides a place for a pail of water, clay, and tools. When making a pot on a wheel, a potter throws a ball of clay onto the wheel head. The hands are lubricated in water and the flywheel is kicked. As the wheel is turning, the hands are braced and placed on the clay to center it; the centered clay then is opened, raised and given form (bottle, bowl, storage vessel, etc). After a pot is trimmed and thoroughly dry (“bone dry”) it is placed in a kiln. The high temperature in a kiln fuses clay particles and hardens the pot.

In 1834, William McClure Thomson went to the Near East as a missionary and after twenty-three years in the Holy Land he wrote: The Land and the Book: Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. In his book, Thomson wrote about the setting in which Bible stories took place and his son, William Hanna, illustrated the text with over 200 drawings. “The Potter and Wheel” depicts a Palestinian artisan giving final shape to a pot that has been thrown. “Throwing” is a process that has not changed for thousands of years and when Jeremiah went to the potter’s house, as directed by the Lord, the potter at the wheel would have been very much like what Thomson depicts in the nineteenth century illustration above. At the time Jeremiah arrived, a thrown pot was still on the wheel; the potter was reshaping it because it was flawed. For Jeremiah, seeing the potter at the wheel was a graphic demonstration. Just as a potter controls clay, the form of nations is in the Lord’s hands.


Although firing gives clay strength in compression, it is weak in tensile strength; it can break easily. Thus a person who exhibits a flaw in character is said to have, “feet of clay.”

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Pride | Art for Proper 17C

Pride from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

Pride from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
Hieronymus Bosch
around 1500
Oil on wood
120 cm × 150 cm (47 in × 59 in)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Pride (Detail from: “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”), oil on wood, c. 1500, Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516

The list of “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust) is not biblical in source but instead was written by Evagrius Ponticus at a fourth century Egyptian monastery. It contained eight “sins” originally. “Vainglory” was one of the eight but its meaning overlapped with pride and it was dropped. Also, at one time, the list included “acedia.” meaning listlessness or torpor (a state of being found sometimes in people such as monks who lived a solitary life); it was changed to sloth. Although the term “deadly” seems grim and fatal, St. Gregory the Great noted the items on the list did not in themselves constitute sins. These were, however, behavioral characteristics or vices that could lead to sin. The “Seven Deadly Sins” also are called, “Capital Vices” and “Cardinal Sins.”

While the Renaissance was taking place in Italy, there were still Gothic elements remaining in Northern Europe. Classicism along with its gods and goddesses re-entered the art of Italy but painters in the North tended to be slower to leave themes that focused on morality. Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings included everyday people and often they were satirical and pessimistic; sin and punishment seemed to be his preoccupations. It has been speculated, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” could have been painted by one of Bosch’s pupils but scholars continue to support the belief that it is from the hand of the master.

The full painting of the “Deadly Sins” is rectangular in shape with a large circle dominating the center. The circle has been divided into seven sections (in the manner of a Lazy Susan) and a “sin” is depicted in each of the sections. The very center of the large circle is believed to represent the eye of God. Within its “pupil,” Christ is emerging from his tomb. Below it (in Latin) is written “Beware, Beware, God Sees” In the four corners are smaller circles where the “Four Last Things” are depicted; “Death of the Sinner,” “Judgment,” “Hell,” and “Glory.”

The scene, “Pride” (Latin: Suberbia), depicts a woman dressed in the typical Dutch fashion of her time. Just after entering a room she is shocked and immobilized when a mirror is thrust before her by a fierce looking demon that emerged abruptly from the shadow of the heavy wooden cupboard. The shock has forced her to look at her life and to become aware of pride.

Although to us it may seem like the woman in the painting is wearing a lampshade on her head, it is in fact a standard gauze headdress in the style of her day. Its back side is flat and does not reveal the interesting and often creative manner in which women’s headdresses were folded and pinned in front.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Prophet Jeremiah | Art for Proper 16C

Prophet Jeremiah

b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze
Prophet Jeremiah
Marble, height 191 cm
 Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Prophet Jeremiah, marble, 1423-26, Donatello, c.1386-1466

In the fifteenth century great changes were underway in Italy and Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) played a major role in developments that took place in sculpture.  Throughout the Romanesque and Gothic periods, sculpture tended to be an adjunct to architecture; it was stylized and sometimes column-like.  Often it was in the form of important saints and notable church figures lined in rows at the entrances of cathedrals or placed in niches built into interior or exterior walls.  Much of it was in relief and seemed incapable of escaping from a wall or column.  Even when it was free standing (not in relief) it was placed usually in a space that was surrounded closely and it was seldom created to be seen “in the round.”  While liberating sculpture from its subordinate role in architecture, Donatello became the most celebrated sculptor of the Early Renaissance and an influence on almost all sculpture that followed.

At age seventeen Donatello worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti during the time the first set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral was being conceived.  After a short time in the studio of Ghiberti, he went to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi to “treasure hunt.” Their treasure was the information they gleaned from the pieces of sculpture and architecture found among the ruins of Roman buildings.  This visit to Rome affected the future work of both men.  Donatello departed from his early training in stylized late Gothic sculpture and Brunelleschi went on to discover linear perspective and to build the magnificent dome of Florence Cathedral (known as Il Duomo).

In Greek sculpture the gods and goddesses were given idealized proportions; their bodies and faces were not those of real people.  The Romans also made sculpture depicting their gods but they carved portraits of their leaders as well.  These portraits depicted the sitter’s individual characteristics and expressions.  When Donatello left Gothic stylistic elements, he did not follow the Greek model of ideal proportions.  Instead, like Roman portraits, he brought a sense of realism and naturalism into his work.  This naturalism is evidenced in two marble figures in adjacent niches carved for the BellTower (designed by Giotto) of Florence Cathedral.

The two prophets – Jeremiah and a bald figure dubbed “Zuccone” (pumpkin head) and believed to be Habakkuk – each stand with loose informal toga-like wraps hanging from their shoulders.  Both are beardless and, in their characteristics, are like Roman orators; not like Greek gods.  The Zuccone is in a relaxed stance but rather
undignified with parted lips and almost quizzical expression.  Jeremiah is in a similar stance but has a full head of hair and a face that carries a sense of strength.  His firm jaw and tight lips convey seriousness and inner thoughts.  Yet his large eyes seem to express sympathy, gentleness, and perhaps even sorrow.  Donatello portrays Jeremiah as a real person; a human with whom we can identify, not as an impersonal idealized figure or as a bearded old prophet of long ago.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Triumph of Faith| Art for Proper 15C

The Triumph of Faith

VELLERT, Dirck Jacobsz.
(b. ca. 1480, Amsterdam, d. 1547, Antwerpen)
The Triumph of Faith
Grisaille on lightly tinted glass, diameter 22 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Triumph of Faith, grisaille on tinted glass, 1517, Dirck Jacobsz Vellert, c.1480-1547

Dirck Jacobsz Vellert, a major artist of the “Northern Renaissance,” worked in Antwerp but his designs for stained glass were not limited to regional projects; during his career he received widespread recognition. Today, however, many of his pieces are lost and his fame has diminished. “The Triumph of Faith,” was one of Vellert’s six panels based on the poem, Trionfi (Triumphs), by the fourteenth century humanist Francisco Petrarch.

A grisaille (gree-zai) – from “gris,” the French term for “gray” – often resembles a marble bas relief. This type of monochromatic work is painted usually only in gray and white values. Vellert’s grisaille, however, is not a painting; instead it is created in a technique similar to enameling on glass. Vellert began with a tinted glass panel and painted it with oxides. He placed it in a furnace repeatedly to fuse the image as it was being created.

In “The Triumph of Faith,” a crowd is on hand as the four evangelists, filled with faith, begin their journey into the world to preach the gospel. As a backdrop for this allegorical event, God is depicted in the upper middle ground wearing a crown and sitting on a throne-like chariot; the body of Christ is like a limp pieta in his lap. Two youthful angels (one is mostly hidden by God’s right leg), are on the throne with trumpets at their lips and they seem to be offering a send-off fanfare as the evangelists are departing. Matthew, symbolized by a human likeness, is pointing the way. The other three evangelists in symbolic animal form (Mark, a Lion; Luke, an Ox; John, an Eagle), are with him as they go into the world to spread the word of God.

Early Christian artists began using symbols for the four evangelists in the early fifth century. The lion and ox are pictured usually with wings – the eagle did not need wings added – but in “The Triumph of Faith,” Vellert has given wings to only the human symbol for Matthew; not to the lion and ox. The thought behind the symbols for the evangelists are as follows:

Matthew: The Book of Matthew begins with Christ’s human ancestry and in this gospel the human side of Christ’s life is given. Thus, Matthew’s symbol is a human likeness with wings.

Mark: The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the resurrection. Once it was believed a lion was lifeless when it was born; it would be awakened to life by its sire’s tongue and roar. Thus the lion became the symbol for Mark.

Luke: The Gospel of Luke tells of the passion of Christ. An ox was used in sacrificial offerings and by association it became the symbol for Luke.

John: An eagle flies into the heavens. John soared into the heavens in spirit and thus the eagle became his symbol.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Mission to Seafarers

Screenshot 2016-08-08 13.40.31

Though Sea Sunday (July 10, 2016) has passed it is always the right time to reflect on the work others (like seafarers) do for the common good. Want to get an idea of how dependent we are on the sea, ships, and seafarers? Start with this article from This is an incredible visualization of the world’s shipping routes. The article features an interactive map that helps you visualize the extent of shipping traffic.

As a church we seek to minister to those who labor on ships and in ports throughout the world (including our own Port of San Diego). Here is more about the Mission to Seafarers (MtS):

Allegory of Faith | Art for Proper 14C

Praying Saviour

DELL, Peter the Elder
(b. ca. 1490, Würzburg, d. 1552, Würzburg)
Allegory of Faith
Limewood, 51 x 72 cm
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Allegory of Faith, limewood, 1534, Peter Dell the Elder, 1490-1552

The traditional materials used for sculpture are stone, wood, clay, and bronze. Of these four, stone and wood are sculpted by a subtractive process. When a marble block or a section of tree trunk is carved, chips are removed until a desired form – the sculpture – remains. Because carving wood or stone is time-consuming and sometimes physically demanding, sculptors today often prefer to work in materials that offer less resistance. In the time of Peter Dell the Elder, however, both wood and marble were still very much in use. Dell worked occasionally in stone and bronze but the area for which he is best known is the long standing German tradition of wood carving. After Dell’s death, his son, Peter Dell the Younger, continued the work of his father’s shop in Wurzburg.

Dell’s “Allegory of Faith” is a type of sculpture called bas relief. It is a carved surface that is shallow in depth and like a painting, is to be viewed from one side only. Instead of being created with colors and values as is a painting, however, the subject matter is defined with shapes, textures and depth levels. For this relief, Dell used an even-grained, easily carved, light-colored wood called limewood (neither the name nor the tree is related to citrus). Its pale brown patina is the result of the natural aging process.

Like other art work of this period, Dell’s relief is intended to teach and inspire. The scene of this allegory depicts a young woman representing the human soul journeying through life. She is in a small ship and is being attacked by those who would distract her and set her off course. Death at the upper left side is on a horse; the devil at the upper right-middle is on a lion; and Frau Welt (an allegorical figure in German literature) is on a sea serpent. [From the twelfth century onward in German lore, the world has been represented as a seductress known as Frau Welt (Mrs. World). With her beauty and guile she tempts a person with promises of wealth, happiness, and fulfillment. Instead, if you follow her ways – the ways of the world – your journey is likely to result in sorrow, disease and decay.] Frau Welt is in the water at the right. Each of these adversaries is out to shake the faith of the young woman traveling through life and each has a bow with three arrows aimed toward her. The woman is steadfast, however, and her eyes are focused on the face of God above as she moves away from a city that is aflame. Christ is on the shore pointing the way. To assure that the symbols in this allegory are recognized, Dell has identified some of them; the ship is labeled, “Flesh and Blood.” “The Christian Life” is written on the ship’s rudder; this will keep her journey on course. While traveling the sea of life, her sail and rigging are, “Love and Patience.” She is guided by the “Word of God.” St. Paul, the Defender of the Faith, is standing at the lower left side of this scene holding a sword in his hand. When St. Paul was martyred he was beheaded with a sword and this (the sword) became one of his identifying symbols.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Still Life with Bouquet and Skull | Art for Proper 13C

Still Life with Bouquet and Skull

Adriaen van Utrecht: Vanitas –
Still Life with Bouquet and Skull
(c.1642, Oil on canvas, 67 x 86 cm;
formerly attributed to Pieter de Ring and Pieter Adrienszoon van der Venne)
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Vanitas Still-Life with Bouquet and a Skull, oil on canvas, c.1642, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1599-1652

In a book titled, The Painted Word, Tom Wolf gives an account of a New York Times art critic who was unable to comment on a painting because he did not know the theory behind it. Instead of a picture being worth a thousand words, today it may take a thousand words to help us understand a painting. This often is true of abstract art but it may be true of “realistic” paintings as well. Art is created in an historical time period and understanding the context in which it was made is essential to its meaning. A person looking at Adriaen van Utrecht’s “Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull,” without regard to the wealthy merchant class and the Protestant Reformation in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century, may think the skull is very much out of place and that it ruins an otherwise perfectly pleasant still-life.

In van Utrecht’s painting we see some of the recurring themes and objects of the vanitas genre (the term vanitas is Latin for “vanity”). Although these paintings were created more than four hundred years ago, they continue to have a message for us today. A bouquet of lovely flowers is featured in this still-life. If we were to be asked why flowers exist, it is likely we would agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson (said of a rhodora), “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Flowers bring pleasure but even while enjoying them, we are aware of their short “shelf life.” In a vanitas, flowers symbolize the cycle of life and often they will be shown in their various stages – bud, full bloom, and faded. They remind us that like flowers we too come forth, mature, blossom, and then fade. Contained in the painting also are objects that represent the passing of time; thus they are reminders of the transient nature of life and our mortality. On the table is a chronometer (a portable timekeeping instrument) and an hourglass in a wooden case (in the background). A smoking pipe and drinking glasses represent time spent in empty pleasures.

Items in the painting also represent treasures that were possessed typically by the wealthy Dutch merchants of Antwerp; a string of pearls, a gold chain, a ring, and money. The wealthy often displayed items such as rare sea shells; a nautilus is on the far right. A decorative pedestal serving dish above the nautilus denotes luxury.

As a reminder of the folly of acquiring treasures, vanitas often contained a skull; the universal symbol of death. In van Utrecht’s still life it is placed prominently atop a book that represents the limits of human knowledge. The skull’s presence among earthly treasures serves as a message, “As I am, so too you will be.” A crown of laurel leaves is placed over the skull to remind viewers that for the Christian there is victory over death.

There is irony in the fact that vanitas were expensive works of fine art and like other objects they too became commodities possessed by the wealthy.

Hovak Najarian © 2013