The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves | Art for Proper 29

Luke 23:33 “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves
Red chalk, 394 x 281 mm
British Museum, London
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves, c. 1522-24, Red Chalk, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564

When early Christian artists began creating visual images of their faith they were faced with questions such as what did Jesus look like? Could or should God be portrayed – if so, how? How would the crucifixion be depicted and what would be the shape of the cross?

Although there were fervent associations with the crucifixion, it was not depicted in art for several hundred years after the event. Then, when it began to be shown, artists did not attempt to give a realistic interpretation. Instead, the crucifixion was used as a symbol. It was in the sixth century that scenes familiar to us today began to appear; in the years that followed, details of the event were reconstructed as artists followed biblical descriptions and used their imaginations. Jesus and the thieves were shown on crosses; Jesus in the center and the thieves on each side. At first, only a few people were present but as compositions became more complex, figures were added; among them were disciples, the three Marys, bystanders, and soldiers (one with a spear and others throwing dice for Christ’s cloak). Some artists placed angels above the cross of Jesus and often a skull was placed at the foot of his cross to indicate this was “the place of the skull.”

Michelangelo’s chalk drawing, “Crucifixion with Two Thieves,” was sketched possibly as a study for a painting and was not intended to be a complete or permanent work. Because chalk does not have within it a binding agent such as egg yolk or linseed oil, it can be rubbed off a surface easily. Some details in this drawing are not clear and almost lost.

Michelangelo depicts the crucifixion as it is taking place. A man on the top of the central cross is making an adjustment to Jesus’ arm while a figure is on a ladder at his feet. Another person is on a ladder at the feet of the thief on the right and an additional ladder is being brought to the site; it is presumed this is to reach the feet of the thief on the left whose unsupported legs are dangling loosely. [It also may be interpreted that this ladder is being removed from the scene] Under the cross on the left are two horses (their images are very light and barely distinguishable). Below the central cross, Mary has fainted and is being assisted. Others are consumed with grief.

The familiar Latin cross has a horizontal section approximately one third down from the top but many other forms have been made. In this drawing the thieves are attached to crossbeams at the very top of the vertical posts, whereas the cross on which Christ is placed is “Y” shaped. This was not a Michelangelo innovation; the “Y” shaped cross was among the earliest depicted in scenes of the crucifixion.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Fall into Ruin of the House of God | Art for Proper 28

Luke21:6 Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Fall into Ruin of the House of God
Fall into Ruin of the House of God
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Click to find Haggai among the Amiens Cathedral 44 Prophet Quatrefoils
The Lord shows Haggai his vision of the ruined Temple
Quatrefoils on the western exterior, depicting the Temple which the people have allowed to fall into ruin
Cathédrale d’Amiens
Relief sculpture
Amiens, France
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Fall into Ruin of the House of God and The Lord Shows Haggai the Ruined Temple, Stone, c. 1220-1240, Western exterior, Cathedral of Amiens, France

In the year AD 1220 when the construction of the Cathedral of Amiens began, the invention of the printing press was still more than two centuries away. Books were handmade and not available usually to the general public; a majority of people were unable to read. For them, subjects in the Bible were learned through the spoken word and the visual arts. Illustrations in mosaics, stained glass, paintings, and sculptures, re-enforced visually the biblical stories they heard. These arts were an integral part of their churches.

The three recessed arched entrances of the Cathedral of Amiens are covered completely with relief sculpture. The walls are flanked by biblical figures carved in high relief and the space above the central doors – the tympanum – depicts the Last Judgment. From eye level to ground level, a base with two rows of relief sculpture framed in quatrefoils continues around the interior of all the buttresses of the façade. The figures in the base of the central portal depict virtues with their corresponding vices. From there, the rows continue with scenes of the Major and Minor Prophets. The images depicted in the top row show significant events in a prophet’s life; other important events associated with him are placed directly below it.

The prophet Haggai (HAG-eye) is represented by four scenes but he is not pictured on the upper row and he appears in only one of the quatrefoils. The Temple in ruins shown above is in the upper row and God is standing in the quatrefoil directly beneath it; Haggai is seated to his left. God is pointing to the Temple above him and calling Haggai’s attention to the fact that it has been left in ruins by the people. The scenes representing most of the prophets are self-contained; the subjects are complete in themselves. The ruined Temple differs, however, in that it is linked to the scene of God and Haggai below it. The two images support each other to complete a visual message.

In ancient times, people and animals in distant lands tended to be a mystery; often the descriptions of them were a result of the imagination. A host of animals and creatures – sometimes with frightening powers – were imagined and became part of the lore that was passed down through the ages. Bestiaries compiled during the Middle Ages included special attributes and symbolic associations with creatures such as unicorns, basilisks, and griffins. These and other imagined animals often appeared in medieval art. At Amiens, the ruined Temple of God is being inhabited by reptile-like creatures crawling among the fallen stones and rubble.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Resurrection of the Flesh | Art for Proper 27

Luke 20: 33 “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Resurrection of the Flesh
(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)
Resurrection of the Flesh
Fresco, width 700 cm
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Resurrection of the Flesh, fresco, 1499-1502, Luca Signorelli, 1441-1523

Art created in Italy during the turn of the century from the 1490s to the 1520s elicits a sense of awe in us even today. During those years, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo painted the “Last Supper,” Raphael painted “The School of Athens,” and Luca Signorelli painted his fresco cycle in Orvieto Cathedral. Artists of the High Renaissance achieved their remarkable results because problems that dogged earlier artists for many centuries had been resolved.

The problem of creating pictorial space was resolved in the early fifteenth century but creating a convincing likeness of a human figure from any point of view was another major challenge. Figures in early paintings were depicted usually in a front or side view with little or no sense of movement; they often were ill-proportioned, stiff in appearance, and in sculpture-like poses. Signorelli’s mastery of anatomy, perspective, and foreshortening gave him the skills and freedom to paint the human form in every conceivable position. He seemed to delight in doing so.

At the Cappella Nova (the “New Chapel” – now called the Chapel of San Brizio) in the Cathedral at Orvieto, Signorelli was commissioned first to complete ceiling frescos that were begun by Fra Angelico. Signorelli’s work impressed his patrons (also, his fee was less than that of other artists and he worked faster) and this led to a commission to paint seven side walls. Among the frescos of the side walls are scenes depicting the end of time. The painting, “Resurrection of the Flesh,” illustrates the text found in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment…. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52, RSV)

In this painting, two larger than life angels are in the sky. They have sounded their trumpets (with Crusader flags attached) and the dead are emerging from the earth; many have risen in full flesh. Others are only partially above the surface and are in the process of lifting themselves out. Some are still in skeleton form; here and there only a skull has popped up. In the central foreground, two men are assisting full-fleshed figures that are emerging and on the far right a man is having a conversation with a group of standing skeletons. Signorelli’s skills matched his fertile imagination and his ability to depict freely the human figure impressed and influenced many of his contemporaries; Michelangelo was among his admirers.

[Signorelli did not seem to have an interest in the accuracy of a skeleton’s form. His rendering of the pelvis is quite inaccurate.]

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry | Art for Proper 26

Luke 19:5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
The Limbourg Brothers
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
French Gothic manuscript illumination
book of hours
1412 – 1416
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (with Zacchaeus), illumination, 1412-1416, Limbourg brothers (active early 15th century)

In the early fifteenth century, painting on wood panels had gained popularity among artists in Europe but exceptional book illuminators were still in demand; among the finest were the Limbourg brothers (Paul, Jean, and Herman) of Flemish origin. Their book of hours, commissioned by the Duke de Berry of France, is regarded a masterpiece of the International Gothic style. “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” (with Zacchaeus) is from the Lenten cycle of, “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.”

Paintings of Christ entering Jerusalem are well known; they show typically a crowd waving palm fronds as Christ nears the gate of the city. He is on a donkey and is followed by Peter leading the disciples; a fine cloth is spread before him as he approaches the gate. Paintings of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus also are familiar. They show crowds in Jericho standing by the roadside to see Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus, being short in stature is sitting in a sycamore tree in order to see him. [Jesus spoke to him, stayed at his house, and Zacchaeus was converted.] In art, these two events are treated usually as separate subjects but in, “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” Zacchaeus makes an unexpected cameo appearance. Perhaps the Limbourgs reasoned he followed Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem and climbed a tree to gather branches and have a better view of this event.

Zacchaeus seems unnoticed by others in this painting. Christ is focused on the people in front of him and is offering them a blessing. Unlike the usual paintings of “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” there is no crowd with palms; instead, Zacchaeus is alone dropping branches from a flowering tree. [Palm Sunday also is known as “Flower’s Sunday” or by the name of the tree from which branches are taken. The general term “Branch Sunday” also is used.]

While the Limbourgs were working in France, Brunelleschi, in Italy, was working on details of linear perspective; a means by which an illusion of space can be created on a flat surface. Its use had not spread to France at the time the Limbourgs were active, thus the perspective of the architecture throughout the painting is awkward. The city gate is not in proportion to the size of the people and its entrance is too narrow to accommodate Christ on a donkey. Despite flaws, the human aspects of this painting are foremost. As Christ is entering Jerusalem, he bears a sense of authority and dignity. There is warmth and awe in the faces of the people who are there to welcome him.

[The three Limbourg brothers and the Duke de Berry died in 1416. It is likely they were all victims of the devastating bubonic plague.]

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Dream Vision | Art for Proper 25

Joel 2:28-29 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Dream Vision
DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)
Dream Vision
Watercolour on paper, 30 x 43 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Dream Vision, Watercolor, 1525, Albrecht Durer, 1471-1528

Dreams are not part of our physical world and often their images have no reference to anything we remember having seen or experienced. When a dream is vivid we tend to remember it and wonder if it had meaning. Yet, we tend to be skeptical of those who interpret dreams in other than general terms. It seems reasonable, however, that there are times when the content of a dream (e.g. recurring dreams) may be related to events in a life; especially if an event weighs heavily on a person’s mind. Those who look for meaning believe a great deluge and flood, as in the dream experienced by Albrecht Durer, is related to unexpressed fears and emotional turmoil. Whether or not Durer’s dream was rooted in fear is not known but there was a great deal of turmoil in Germany during the later part of his life.

Durer’s dream came at a time when he was much immersed in the work and teachings of Martin Luther. In 1525, Durer’s native, Nuremburg, became a Protestant city and this resulted in great anger from the Roman Church. Durer’s frightening dream took place that very same year. Upon awakening, he recalled the dream in writing and recorded it in a watercolor study called “Dream Vision.” His written account tells of an intense experience that left him trembling. Three years later, Durer died and Martin Luther wrote:

It is natural and right to weep for so excellent a man – still you should rather think him blessed, as one whom Christ has taken in the fullness of his wisdom and by a happy death from these most troublesome times, and perhaps from times even more troublesome which are to come, lest one who was worthy to look on nothing but excellence, should be forced to behold things most vile.

Dreams come in a variety of forms and, unlike the one experienced by Durer, many are pleasant. Often the term “dream” itself is used with positive associations and as a metaphor for a conscious desire; we may wish for a “dream” job, vacation, or home. On a conscious level, dreams also are visualizations of possibilities. Airplanes became a reality because humans observed birds and dreamed of flying. Because we dreamed, men walked on the moon.

The Book of Joel cites blessings that were to be bestowed on Israel. In addition to material blessings, God promised a special gift – the gift of the spirit, of dreams and visions; “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). Revelation, enlightenment, and wondrous achievements have been the result of this gift.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Parable of the Unjust Judge | Art for Proper 24

Luke 18:2 “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”

Illustration of the Parable of the Unjust Judge
John Everett Millais
Illustration of the Parable of the Unjust Judge from the New Testament Gospel of Luke (Luke 18:1-9)
The Parables of Our Lord (1863) Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Parable of the Unjust Judge, wood engraving, 1863, John Everett Millais, 1829-1896

In France – from the latter part of the eighteenth to beyond mid-nineteenth century – Neoclassicism was the style of art perpetuated by the state sponsored French Academy and its influence was widespread. Romanticism rose in opposition to it and had far reaching influence as well. England, however, tended to be independent and had its prestigious Royal Academy of Art; it was not easily swayed by outside styles.

Instead of falling in line with accepted mid-nineteenth century academic styles, seven young English painters of similar interests – led by John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – organized a secret society and called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was their belief that false ideals had artificiality entered art during the Renaissance. As the term, “Pre-Raphaelite” implies, they proposed starting anew by going back to a time before Raphael – to the Middle Ages. One of Millais’s paintings from this period, “Christ at the Home of His Parents,” caused a scandal because the Holy Family was not represented regally as it would have been in a classical Renaissance painting. Instead, Millais depicted a working class family with Christ (as a boy) in his father’s messy carpentry workshop. After his youthful efforts, Millais withdrew from the brotherhood and became an academic painter; his critics accused him of “selling out” for financial gain. In time, he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Art and later became its president.

Among Millais’ noted works was a series of drawings illustrating Christ’s parables. These drawings were reproduced as wood engravings by the acclaimed Dalziel brothers and published in 1864 as “Parables of our Lord.” Although some parables are difficult to translate into pictorial form, Millais’ “Parable of the Unjust Judge” is what we might imagine the scene to have been like. In this story, a poor widow desires justice but the judge hearing her case is not sympathetic or compassionate. Millais has placed the widow on the floor in front of the judge (seated with ankles crossed) on his cushioned, throne-like chair; an attendant stands by with a fan to contribute to his comfort. The widow is persistent as she leans forward over the judge’s legs and pleads with him while a guard with an arm on either side of the woman is trying to restrain her. The judge seems to regard her as a pest – he turns his face with a look of superior disdain and keeps her at bay with his right arm. His open left hand is in front of his face in a gesture that seems to be saying, “Enough already!” The man peering over the chair and the man standing at the judge’s immediate right are finding the widow’s appeal to be amusing. The scribe, however, seems sympathetic as he lifts his pen momentarily and looks up at the widow. The widow’s persistence paid off and her petition was granted.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Father Damien and Mother Marianne | Art for Proper 23

‘As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him’Luke 17:12

Father Damien and Mother Marianne
Father Damien and Mother Marianne
Date: c. 1980?
Building: Star of the Sea Painted Church
Object/Function: Stained glass
City/Town: Kalaupapa, Moloka’i
State: HI
Country: United States
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Click here for Hovak’s previous blog on stained glass.
Father Damien and Mother Marianne, stained glass, c.1980, Star of the Sea Painted Church, Hawaii, 1927-1928

Although leprosy (Hansen’s disease) has been known since ancient times, a successful treatment of it was not found until the twentieth century. For thousands of years the universal response to it was fear. People with leprosy were shunned and often resettled in colonies.

As a result of an increase in leprosy in Hawaii in the nineteenth century, a colony was established at Kalaupapa (a portion of an isolated peninsula on the island of Molokai). An afflicted person was taken there by ship and sometimes left callously in the water to swim ashore. Rather than have direct contact, at times food and supplies were said to have been dumped overboard to float to the shore via ocean currents. When lepers first arrived at Kalaupapa in 1866, there were no amenities and everyone was left on their own. It was not until Fr. Damien De Veuster, arrived seven years later that care was given and improvements to living conditions were made.

Fr. Damien, a Belgian, went to Hawaii as a missionary and was ordained in Honolulu. While serving on Oahu, many of his parishioners were dying from diseases brought to the islands by seamen and immigrants. When it was announced that a priest was needed at the leper colony, Fr. Damien volunteered. Upon his arrival, he set about immediately to establish a sense of community by building houses, roads, chapels, care facilities, and also establishing farms. Fr. Damien himself was struck by leprosy after serving at the colony for twelve years and Mother Marianne Cope volunteered to serve in his place. She attended to Fr. Damien during his last days and continued to serve the afflicted until her death from natural causes. At mid-twentieth century, new drugs were affective in treating leprosy and the law in Hawaii to isolate people with the disease was nullified in 1969.

The small colonial revival style Star of the Sea Painted Church was built in 1927-28 in Kalapana on the Big Island, Hawaii, by Fr. Evarist Gielen. He then painted murals on its ceiling to honor the work of Fr. Damien. The lower scenes were painted later (1941) by George Heidler. Still later (c.1980), stained glass portraits of both Father Damien and Mother Marianne were added. The portraits are unembellished and unpretentious; both figures seem self-assured and imbued with a sense of serenity. The Roman Catholic Church declared Fr. Damien and Mother Marianne to be saints in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

Star of the Sea Painted Church at its original location was in the path of lava flowing from an eruption of Mount Kilauea. In 1990 it was moved from Kalapana to a safe location at Puna, twenty-eight miles south of Hilo.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Door of the Apostles | Art for Proper 22

‘The apostles said to the Lord’ Luke 17:5

Door of the Apostles
(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
Door of the Apostles 1440-43
Bronze, 235 x 109 cm
Old Sacristy, San Lorenzo, Florence
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Doors of the Apostles, bronze, 1440-43, Donatello, c. 1386-1466

The Basilica di San Lorenzo (Basilica of St. Lawrence) was consecrated in AD 393 and played a major role in the history of Florence, Italy. It was the city’s cathedral for three hundred years and during the fifteenth century it was the parish church of the wealthy Medici family. Like many of Italy’s old churches, San Lorenzo underwent architectural modifications and additions throughout its years. In 1419, a proposal was made to make changes to the eleventh century Romanesque building. Giovanni de’Medici offered to pay the cost and Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the most influential artists of the early Renaissance, was selected to design the sacristy. His impressive plan won him a commission to redesign the entire church. He completed plans for it but because of delays only the sacristy (now called the “Old Sacristy”) was completed in his lifetime. Brunelleschi’s friend, Donatello, another of the most influential artists of this period was commissioned to design the sacristy’s bronze doors.

As a young man, Donatello gained valuable experience in modeling clay and casting bronze while he apprenticed with Lorenzo Ghiberti at the time the first set of doors were being made for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral. Ghiberti’s format was to use relief panels to depict scenes from the Bible and his figures were depicted in landscape and architectural settings. For the “Doors of the Apostles” at San Lorenzo, Donatello also used figures in relief but elected to place only two apostles in each of the ten panels and to use no background. Information about Donatello’s intent is lacking but it is reasonable to assume the two apostles in each panel are talking about Christ’s teachings or events that have taken place in their time together. Some seem to be praying but the facial expressions, postures, and gestures of others indicate they are engaged in serious discussions or even in heated arguments. At the time the doors were made, the depiction of this human side of the apostles caused controversy.

Today, Donatello’s “Doors of the Apostles” are overshadowed by the fame of Ghiberti’s doors which are nearby and called “The Doors of Paradise.” The Old Sacristy doors at San Lorenzo do not have a broad range of subject matter and are not located at the Baptistery of the largest and best known cathedral in Florence; instead the doors are at a quiet place – a sacristy – where two members of the Medici family are buried.

Although the construction of the Basilica di San Lorenzo was mostly completed by the end of the fifteenth century, one prominent feature – the façade – remains in its rough unfinished condition even today. In the early fifteenth century, Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to design the façade. Michelangelo designed it and even made a wooden model of it but it was not built. His design for the inside of the façade (looking back from the nave), however, was completed.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Dives and Lazarus | Art for Proper 21

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31

Dives and Lazarus
BASSANO, Leandro
(b. 1557, Venezia, d. 1622, Venezia)
Dives and Lazarus
c. 1595
Oil on canvas, 100 x 123 cm
Private collectionClick image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Dives and Lazarus, oil on canvas, c.1595, Leandro Bassano, 1557-1622

Dives (Dye-veez) – Latin for “rich” or “rich man” – did not deny himself anything that would bring pleasure. Leandro Bassano depicts him at dinner in fine clothes, surrounded by the people who serve him. He is having a sumptuous meal as he did everyday, and while he is dining, musicians entertain him and a prostitute sits at his side. There is not room on the table for all of the food that is served. In front of Dives are full plates of food piled on top of full plates, and more food is on its way.

In Christ’s parable (Luke 16:19-31), Lazarus is a starving man who is covered with sores. He went to the rich man’s house to lie down by the gate with the hope that something to eat would be given to him. In his painting, Bassano, using artistic license, places Lazarus inside the house and directly at the dinner scene with Dives. Lazarus, on the floor beside the rich man, is looking up and reaching out with an open hand but is being ignored; the table is overflowing with food but not even a morsel is tossed to him. Two playful spaniels have arrived at Lazarus’ feet and are licking his sores while at the same time a servant is threatening to beat him with a stick. Dives had no pity on those in need and lived his life in a heartless and self-indulgent manner. There was no empathy for those who were less fortunate.

Upon death, Lazarus was taken to heaven and the uncaring Dives was sent to hell. When Dives looked across a deep chasm that divided them he saw Lazarus in heaven in Abraham’s bosom. He called to Abraham and pleaded that Lazarus be sent with water on a finger to place on his tongue but his plea was denied. Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:25)

The artist Leandro Bassano was the youngest son of a family of artists. His father, Jacopo da Ponte, studied in nearby Venice and then returned to the city of Bassano and, like many other artists, became known by the name of the city where he lived and worked. His four sons worked closely with him and it is believed some of the work attributed to the father, Jacopo, were the work of his sons. Leandro’s work is closest in style to his father’s paintings.


The story of “Dives and Lazarus” became an old English folk song and the Christmas carol, “Oh Sing a Song of Bethlehem” is sung to its melody. Anglican and Episcopal hymns also have been set to this melody and Ralph Vaughn Williams’ composition for harp and string orchestra – “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” – is based on this folk song as well.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Educating the Rich on the Globe | Art for Proper 20

“If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” Luke 16:11-12

Educating the Rich on the Globe
Tom Otterness
Educating the Rich on the Globe
Sculpture,freestanding Metal
New YorkClick image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Educating the Rich on the Globe, bronze, 1997, Tom Otterness, 1952-

The excitement of finding, seeing, or experiencing something new or different seems to be built into our makeup as humans. We like to see technological advancements (new cars, airplanes, computers, etc.) and to talk about them as well. The fashion industry is known for its annual changes of colors, materials, and styles. Almost all other commercial areas of our lives also are subject to change; if nothing else, slogans and packaging are changed. In the arts, the avant-garde continues to push boundaries and as in almost every aspect of our culture, the pace of change has accelerated continuously within the past one hundred fifty years.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pop Art with its familiar images from our commercial world (e.g. soup cans, comic strips, and celebrities) re-engaged the public. Pop imagery arrived at a time when large sums of money were being invested in art; individuals with immense wealth, large corporations, and city governments were among the collectors. At a time when the definition of art expanded, and money was available, collectors seemed to be eager to identify with works that were new, thought to be clever, and on the leading edge. City councils found that placement of art on sidewalks, in medians, or in parks promoted a positive image and before long, the imagery of pop culture spilled over into commissions for “Art in Public Places.” Serious art and war memorials were for Washington, DC. Other cities were likely to select work that did not require an emotional involvement or a mental effort from people in passing cars or pedestrians. Humor rather than solemnity tended to be preferred and images were likely to be entertaining and non-controversial. Often this resulted in pseudo-sophisticated works that were hollow in content and only pretended to have deep meaning. Among sculptors who tapped into an opportunity to receive large financial rewards for public sculpture was Tom Otterness.

Otterness’ “Educating the Rich on the Globe” is made in a cartoon balloon-figure Pop Art style. The title would lead one to believe the sculpture deals with the subject of moral responsibility. Instead, it is simply a play on the words of its title – a deliberate misdirection and a strained attempt at humor. At its base, four small people are supporting a globe that is obscured partly by very large pennies. The coins are apparently the artist’s nod to the fictitious surname, “Pennybags.” Uncle Pennybags, the man that is sprawled on his back atop the globe is wearing his usual tuxedo, bow tie and top hat, and will be recognized immediately as the board game figure also known as Mr. Monopoly. He is being straddled by a child that is reading from a very large book. The Globe in the title refers literally to the globe in the sculpture and the Rich is referring to Monopoly’s mascot, “Rich Uncle Pennybags.” In total, “Educating the Rich on the Globe” depicts a child with a book pretending to be Educating a man called Rich who is literally on the Globe. This work begs for a deadpan response.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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