Let us help you meet an artist and his work

Note: These comments are prepared and shared with you so that you can meet Dieric Bouts (artist) and his subject The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, a detail of his altarpiece triptych in Sint-Pieterskerk, Leuven The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek is part of an altarpiece by Dieric Bouts (c.1415 -1475).  Although Bouts, The Elder (his sons also were painters) was Dutch, his career and artistic reputation was established in Flanders (now Belgium) where he lived and worked.  His triptych (trip-tik) for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven is regarded to be one of his finest paintings. A triptych (from the Greek: tri – meaning “three,” plus ptyche – the word for “fold”) is a three-paneled altarpiece found notably in churches from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.  Early triptychs were relief carvings in wood or ivory but egg tempera became the favored medium of painters during the thirteenth and fourteenth century.  Egg tempera offered a wide range of colors but by the fifteenth century it, too, was being replaced as oils became the medium of choice.  Oil paints offered ease of application and with it a greater range of effects could be achieved.  Dieric Bouts worked in oils on wood panels. In a triptych, the outer panels are usually half the size of the middle panel and are attached with hinges so they can be folded like shutters.  A typical triptych has a familiar Biblical scene in the large center panel while the side panels provide a supporting cast of figures or related stories.  The side panels may also include the donor(s) as part of a tableau.  When the outer panels are folded their reverse sides become the front of the triptych and they also are carved or painted usually in keeping with the overall theme.

Click the image to view the entire Triptych

In the center panel, Bouts’ principal subject in the triptych at Leuven is the Last Supper.  The two outer panels – each containing two paintings one above the other – are Biblical scenes from Old Testament events in which the provision of bread was interpreted as prefiguring the Last Supper.

The left hand panel: The upper painting of the left panel depicts the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek when Melchizedek offers bread and wine to Abraham as he returns from battle.  Below that painting is the Feast of the Passover in which unleavened bread will be eaten.

The center panel:  Christ is the focus of attention with his face just above the exact center of the triptych.  He and his disciples are seated at a table and are about to break bread and participate in the communion.  The architectural setting is gothic in style.

The right hand panel: The upper painting of the right panel is The Gathering of Manna.  Manna is described as a bread-like tasting substance provided by the Lord.  The painting below it is Elijah in the Desert.  Bread is given to Elijah by an angel.

In Bouts’ triptych, the four Old Testament stories in which bread plays a role are intended to communicate visually the message of a connection between the stories and the Last Supper. Additional Notes:

As is found often in Gothic and Renaissance painting, the clothing and architectural styles in the Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek are not in keeping with the time period being depicted.  The men are dressed in the manner of Europeans of the fifteenth century, and the architecture in the distance is not of Biblical times but rather typical of the time in which Bouts lived.  It even includes a gothic church.

Developments in the art of Europe varied from place to place and often it is difficult to give a name to designate a style.  Historians may refer to the style of fifteenth century Northern Europe as “Late Gothic” whereas the art of Italy during that same time period may be referred to as “Early Renaissance.”

A painting consists of pigment, a surface, and a medium.  Pigments are derived from many sources, ranging from earth colors to organic material.  A surface may be anything as long as it is compatible, or can be coated to make it compatible, with the type of paints that are being used.  The medium is a binder that mixes with the pigments to hold the fine particles together and to bond it to the surface that is being used.  Egg yolk is the medium in egg tempera; linseed or other oils are used in oil paints.

______________ © 2012 Hovak Najarian

The mural and the fresco

Editor’s Note: Hovak Najarian, Art History Professor Emeritus from College of the Desert, will begin to help us understand the art that informs our faith and understand the faith that informs our art. In our lectionary on Sunday we read from Numbers 21:4-9. Michelangelo’s fresco the Brazen Serpent, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, opens up this scene from the Exodus. Enjoy the art, enjoy this background to the art. Keep learning.

Become more familiar with often encountered terms:

Mural:  A mural is a large work of art that is usually created directly on a large architectural surface.  The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel often are referred to as “ceiling frescos” because the fresco process was used to paint them.  In the same manner, critics often refer to an oil painting simply by its medium, “oil,” but all paintings are not oils and all murals are not frescos  The terms mural and fresco are not synonymous.  Mural identifies a work’s category (the type of work that it is) and fresco refers to its medium (the material that is used to make it).

Fresco: In the fresco process, an artist paints directly on wet plaster with water based pigments.  Before painting begins, a plasterer covers an area of a wall (or ceiling) according to an estimate of how much the artist believes can be painted before the plaster sets.  While the plaster is still moist, the pigment is absorbed into its surface and when it is set the pigment becomes an integral part of it.  The pigment is not on the wall or ceiling, it is within its surface.

If a plastered area has set before it can be painted it is no longer capable of absorbing pigment and must be chipped off.  A fresh area of plaster is spread on the wall before work continues.  The removal of plaster is done along a contour of a figure in order that a seam is not apparent.  This procedure is repeated until the mural is completed.  It is a time consuming and messy process and is seldom used now unless a particular effect is desired.  Michelangelo worked on the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512 AD.

Sistine Chapel: This chapel is named “Sistine” because it was Pope Sixtus who had it restored in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

He wrote a letter to Jesus (or did he?)

Having introduced Hovak Najarian I share his first post as an author. For those who pray the “Way of the Cross” also known as the “Stations of the Cross” the legend/tradition presented here is preserved in Station 6: “A woman wipes the face of Jesus.” Growing up Roman Catholic I KNEW the name of this woman: Veronica. But did I know the truth? Decide for yourself. Leave a comment. ~dan rondeau

Image of a face from the Shroud of Turin
The image of a face from the Shroud of Turin

King Abgar V of Edessa 

In the early part of the first century AD, a time when the Romans and the Parthians were dominant powers in Asia Minor and the Near East, Abgar V, a nephew to Tigranes the Great, was the king of Armenia.  In order to stay out of the way of both major powers, he moved his court to the Mesopotamian city of Edessa where he could remain on good terms with both nations.  Edessa prospered during this time but while Abgar was away on a trip to settle a dispute between the Armenians and Persians, he became ill.  He remained ill after he returned home.  Having heard reports of Jesus’ miracles of healing, he decided to invite him to Edessa.

The legend:

King Abgar sent his archivist and court painter, Hannan, with a letter asking Jesus to come to Edessa to heal his illness.  Hannan also was asked to paint a portrait of Jesus in order that Abgar could see his image.  A return letter from Jesus stated he was unable to come to Edessa but later would send one of his disciples.  Hannan made a portrait and returned to Edessa with the letter and painting.  In his Historia Ecclesiastica (AD 325), Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea wrote of the correspondence between Abgar and Jesus and included a text of the two letters.  There may have been letters exchanged but both letters published by Bishop Eusebius have been proven to be fabrications.  A painted image of Jesus (known as The Holy Face) is of questionable origin as well.  Several early icons depicting the face of Jesus are known but there is no evidence to confirm that any of them were painted from life or if one of them was painted by Hannan.  A few centuries later it was said Jesus produced The Holy Face himself by pressing a wet cloth to his face and causing the image to appear miraculously.

After the death of Jesus, his disciple, Thaddeus, came to Edessa and gave Abgar a cloth on which there was an image of Jesus (known as the Image of Edessa) – as a result of the visit and the power of the cloth, according to the legend, Abgar was converted and healed.  The cloth was folded in such a manner that only the face could be seen.  In 942 AD, under the threat of being overrun, the Image of Edessa was turned over to the Byzantines as part of a bargain to maintain peace.  When it was taken to Byzantium (later called Constantinople and now Istanbul) and unfolded, the full figure of a man was revealed.  It is believed this is the cloth that now is known as the Shroud of Turin (a linen cloth with an unexplained imprinted image of a man who had been crucified).  It has been suggested this may have been the actual cloth placed on Jesus at the time of his burial.

Inasmuch as the cloth remained folded for many years and only the face was seen, it is speculated the legend of Veronica’s veil also is based on this shroud.  According to a story that has no scriptural bases, a woman used her veil to wipe the sweat off Jesus’ face while he was carrying his cross to Golgotha.  Afterward, a miraculous image of his face appeared on the cloth.  Church fathers accepted this story as fact and gave this mythical woman the name Veronica; a name derived from vera icon (Latin for true image).  The story has become part of Roman Catholic Church legend.

In ancient times it was not unusual for myths, legends, and partial facts to be blended, modified and embellished; later they would be recounted as “tradition” or even reported as fact.  If a tradition were of a religious nature, often it would be incorporated into church worship services and festival days.

The current status of these legends:

The Armenian Apostolic Church:

In the Armenian Church, Abgar is regarded to be a saint and his story continues to be told as tradition.  The Church calendar honors “St. Abgar” in a worship service in December of every year and the name Abgar continues as an Armenian given name.   It also is the root of the surname Abgarian (also spelled Abkarian, or Abcarian); from the family of Abgar.

The Roman Catholic Church:

Despite an absence of Biblical reference or historical evidence that a person given the name Veronica ever existed, canonization took place and now “St. Veronica” is celebrated on special church festival days.  The whereabouts of the veil is obscure; it is said to be in the Vatican archives but other locations have been suggested.   A great number of churches and schools are named in honor of Veronica and it is a popular given name.

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin underwent radiocarbon testing in 1988 and the result of the test indicated the cloth was made during the Middle Ages approximately 1300 years after the death of Jesus.  Unanswered questions remain, however, and the test result neither satisfied nor was accepted by people who believe the Shroud is, in fact, the actual cloth used to cover the body of Jesus.  The tested portion, they believe, was from a section that was a restoration and not part of the original cloth.  It has not been tested again.

Hovak Najarian © 2008