Rest on the Flight into Egypt | Art for A Christmas 2

Matthew 2:13 An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…

Rest on the Flight into Egypt
(b. ca. 1430, Colmar, d. 1491, Breisach)
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
c. 1745
Engraving, 254 x 194 mm
Museum of Art, Cleveland
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This scene and folk story from The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (scroll down to chap 20)
travelled to Europe becoming, with many changes, The Cherry Tree Carol.
Known in several variations here is a performance by Joan Baez.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, engraving, c. 1470-75, Martin Schongauer, 1430 -1491

Johannes Guttenberg invented moveable type and printed the Bible not long before Martin Schongauer engraved, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” but since most people could not read, art remained an essential means of learning stories of the Bible. During the fifteenth century the range of subjects expanded widely and stories about Mary were enhanced with lore. In addition to events such as the Annunciation and the Nativity, stories based on tradition often were included in illustrations of her life.

When Herod learned the “King of the Jews” had been born he was troubled and ordered all males who were two years old and under in Bethlehem and its region to be killed. When an angel warned Joseph of Herod’s plan, “…he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod” (Mat. 2:14). Schongauer’s engraving is based on an account from the non-canonical book, The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, which tells of a rest stop taken while the family was on their journey. After three days, Mary was tired, hungry, and thirsty so they stopped under a date tree; Mary looked up at the fruit but could see that it was too high to reach. The baby Jesus said, “O tree, bend thy branches and refresh my mother with thy fruit.” Schongauer depicts five angels bending the tree thus allowing Joseph to reach the dates. Jesus then caused water to flow from the roots of the palm tree and the family was refreshed.

It was a common practice for artists of this time to include symbolic content in their work. Some of the flora and fauna in this print may seem gratuitous to us now but in its day the meaning would have been understood. The stag, a symbol for Christ and a destroyer of serpents, is standing watch through the trees in the background. It was believed a stag sheds its horns and then renews them after drinking from a spring – likewise people who drink from the spring of the spirit shed their sins and are renewed. In the right foreground, the dandelion, a symbol of Christ’s passion, is a reminder of the future that awaits the child. The lily at the left foreground is a symbol of Mary’s purity, and to the far left is a dragon tree. Two lizards are on its trunk and one is approaching it. The presence of lizards, serpents, and dragons represents the devil and lurking danger. At the very top of the tree is yet another symbol; a parrot. Because a parrot has the ability to fly and talk it symbolizes a messenger and is associated with the angel that brought word of the Immaculate Conception to Mary. In paintings of Mary, a parrot is sometimes placed by her ear as though it has just said, “Ave Maria.” When not with Mary, a parrot may be placed high in a tree (as here in the dragon tree) where it can not be reached by serpents.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Annunciation| Art for B Advent 4

Luke 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

The Annunciation
The Annunciation
Oil on canvas, 315 x 174 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
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Follow these links to see reduced size replicas that El Greco produced.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao

Follow these links to see other treatments of the Annunciation that El Greco produced.

Tempera on panel, 24 x 18 cm
Galleria Estense, Modena

Oil on panel, 63 x 76 cm
Private collection

Oil on canvas, 91 x 66,5 cm
Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

Oil on canvas, 291 x 205 cm
Colección Santander Central Hispano, Madrid

c. 1570
Tempera on panel, 26,7 x 20 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

c. 1576
Oil on canvas, 117 x 98 cm
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Oil on canvas, diameter: 128 cm
Hospital de la Caridad, Illescas

Oil on canvas, 128 x 83 cm
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

François I as St John the Baptist | Art for B Advent 3

John 1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

François I as St John the Baptist
(b. 1485/90, Bruxelles, d. 1541, Paris)
Portrait of François I as St John the Baptist
Oil on wood, 96 x 79 cm
Private collection

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Francois I of France was a contemporary of Henry VIII. He seems to have attempted at times to steer a conciliatory course during the Reformation, before eventually pursuing tactics typical of a monarch of his times. Click to open the Wikipedia article on Francois I.

(previously posted 12/11/11)

St John the Baptist | Art for B Advent 2

Mark 1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

St John the Baptist
St John the Baptist
Oil on panel, 69 x 57 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris
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(previously posted 12/04/11)

The Second Coming of Christ | Art for B Advent 1

Mark 13:26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.

Last Judgment The Second Coming of Christ
stained glass window
St. Matthew’s German
Evangelical Lutheran Church
Charleston, South Carolina.

Click image for more information.

(previously posted 11/27/11, updated 11/26/14)

The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel | Art for A Christmas 1

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us….

The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena)
The Nativity between Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
Tempera on wood
National Gallery of Art, WashingtonClick image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
(Previously Hovak has commented on works from the Maesta:
Christ’s Appearance to the Apostles and Solomon)

The Nativity (with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel), 1308-1311, egg tempera, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1255-1319

Duccio’s “Nativity” was once part of the Maesta (Majesty) which served as an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Siena, Italy. When the painting was completed in 1311, it was composed of a very large panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints and angels. Its base – called a “predella” (Italian for “foot stool” which it resembled) – was below the main panel. It served physically to support the altarpiece and visually to depict seven scenes of the birth and early life of Christ. In its original form, an Old Testament prophet stood to the right of each event holding a scroll on which a passage written by him pertained to the scene.

Duccio’s “Nativity,” the second scene in the predella, takes place in a grotto with Mary reclining on a red cushion in a royal robe of blue. In keeping with the practice of increasing a person’s size in accordance with their importance, she is much larger than the other figures. In the manger, the baby Jesus is being watched over by an ox and an ass and many angels have gathered above them; some are looking heavenward in praise and others are leaning over for an adoring glance at the baby. A small star is at the peak of the cave entrance with its rays shining onto the face of Jesus. Below the figure of Mary are two related scenes. On the left, two midwives are bathing the new born Jesus and on the right, angels are announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as they stand with a sheepdog and their flock. On the left side, Joseph is sitting outside of the grotto in a pink robe, To the right of this scene is a painting of Ezekiel holding a scroll with his words; “This gate shall be kept shut: it shall not be opened, and no man may pass through it.”

In the early eighteenth century, the Maesta altarpiece was taken apart in order to divide it between the two altars of the Cathedral of Siena. During this process, damage was caused and some parts of the painting became separated and lost. Other sections were purchased and placed in museums. One of the results is Isaiah now is not with the scene to which he and his words belong. The scroll he is holding states; “Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” and he was placed originally at the immediate right of the “Annunciation,” (the first scene of the predella). He was separated from it and is now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC standing next to the “Nativity.” Isaiah is not looking toward the birth of Jesus because in the original he was looking toward the archangel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The painting of the “Annunciation,” to which his words of prophecy apply is an ocean away in the National Gallery of London without its accompanying prophet, Isaiah.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Marriage of Sts Mary and Joseph | Art for Advent 4A

Matthew 1:20…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”…

Marriage of Sts Mary and Joseph
TORRETTI, Giuseppe
(b. 1664, Asolo, d. 1743, Venezia)
Marriage of Sts Mary and Joseph
Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph, marble, 18th century, Giuseppe Torretti, 1664-1743

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Baroque period in art was ebbing as patrons favored lighter surroundings. From this a decorative trend emerged in a style that is called Rococo; a name derived from ornamental sea shells used as embellishments in architecture. Giuseppe Torretti (also spelled Torretto), from a family of artists, was active during this period but while working with other sculptors in Rome, classicism influenced his work. In the “Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph” shown here, Torretti presents relief figures in a Baroque-like theatrical setting yet the robes being worn are in a classical style.

The subject of the marriage of Mary and Joseph has been included regularly in scenes of the Life of the Virgin but the story is not from accounts found in the Bible. It is mentioned in apocryphal sources which were compiled and included in a fourteenth century volume called the “Golden Legend.” In this account, Mary was living in the Temple and when she turned fourteen years old the priests decided it was time for her to marry. Young unmarried male descendents of David were sought to be her husband; Joseph, though older than the others, was included. All the men who qualified were asked to bring a branch and place it on the altar. The person bringing the branch that brought forth blossoms would be Mary’s husband. After the men placed their branches on the altar, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and the one brought by Joseph burst immediately into flowers.

Torretti places Mary and Joseph in the foreground kneeling at the altar and facing each other in front of a priest in a traditional Jewish ceremony. The bride and groom are barefooted as are the witnesses. Joseph is depicted as a bald headed man with a beard; he is holding a branch with blossoms in his left hand and Mary’s head is covered with a shawl. Because of damage from a fire several parts of the sculpture are missing; among them are the hands of the priest and those of Mary and Joseph. From a maquette (a small terra cotta preparatory sketch made by Torretti before carving this piece in marble) [click to view]  we know Mary and Joseph were reaching across to each other and holding hands. The priest’s right hand was extended in a blessing.

This relief carving of the “Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph” is in the dado of the Chapel of our Lady of the Rosary, in the Basilica dei Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of John and Paul), Venice, Italy. A fire destroyed the Chapel in 1867 and the sculpture was discolored and damaged. Torretti’s maquette for this piece is in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

St John the Baptist in the Prison | Art for A Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-3 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

St John the Baptist in the Prison
NAVARRETE, Juan Fernández de Spanish painter
(b. ca. 1538, Logroño, d. 1579, Toledo)
St John the Baptist in the Prison 1565-70
Oil on canvas, 80 x 72 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist in the Prison, oil on canvas, c. 1565-70, Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, 1526-1579

In the mid-sixteenth century when Juan Fernandez de Navarrete was a youth, a period of study in Italy was a prerequisite for a career in art. Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese were still living and Italy attracted artists from throughout Europe. Navarrete, a young Spaniard, visited the major art centers in Italy and stayed in Venice to study Titian’s use of color. Then, as now, there were cultural differences between Italy and Spain and Navarrete’s interest was in gaining knowledge of techniques, not subject matter. During the Renaissance, the depiction of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses entered into Italian art but were not of interest in Spain where very few nude Venuses or classical themes were depicted. Instead, subject matter in Spain tended to depict religious themes of devotion and piety.

Spain was a world power in the sixteenth century and King Philip II, who assumed the throne of Spain in 1556, ruled an empire that included Naples, Milan, and The Netherlands; even the far off Philippine islands were named for him. He was determined to rule as a strong Catholic King and was intent on keeping Martin Luther’s teachings and the reformation out of Spain. When he was building his extensive royal monastery-palace (called El Escorial) he wanted the best artist available to paint its walls. Titian, however, was too old and his other choices, Tintoretto and Veronese, refused to live in Spain. Navarrete accepted the position and became known as the “King’s Painter.”

Navarrete’s “St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is not filled with superfluous details. John is alone in a cell with a shaft of dramatic light coming through a window fitted with iron bars. In art, John the Baptist is identified by his camel-skin clothes; he is depicted usually as being wiry, not soft as depicted here. He sometimes carries a crudely assembled cross made with a simple piece of wood split at the top with a crosspiece inserted and held together with twine. In this scene, John’s shawl has been laid aside and he is hunched bare-shouldered over a table looking at the cross. His expression suggests this is a time of prayer, contemplation, introspection, and sadness.


At the age of three, Navarrete was struck with an illness that affected his hearing. This made learning to speak difficult and he became known as El Mudo (The Mute). He compensated by communicating through drawings.

“St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

St John the Baptist | Art for A Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-2 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

St John the Baptist (detail)
(b. ca. 1386, Firenze, d. 1466, Firenze)
St John the Baptist (detail)
Painted wood
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
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St John the Baptist

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist (detail), painted wood, 1438, Donatello, c. 1386-1466

The term, “Renaissance man,” (used loosely today when applied to a contemporary person) is in reference to the great achievers of the fifteenth century. They were not only a “jack of all trades,” they also were masters of them all. Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) was such a man. He chiseled stone, cast bronze, modeled clay and stucco, and carved wood as he created a wide range of sculpture including, statues, monuments, and reliefs. This was all done with a high degree of creativity and excellence. Further, his understanding of sculptural space enabled him to be sensitive to how his work would interact in its architectural setting.

The career of Donatello is well known; he worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral and he studied the ruins of Roman architecture and sculpture with Brunelleschi in Rome. In his work, he helped to bring sculpture out of the Middle Ages by re-establishing it “in the round” (capable of being viewed from all sides). His studies of Roman sculpture led to imbuing a sense of personality and character in the faces and bodies of the figures he sculpted. His St. John the Baptist’s eyebrows are raised, an eye is squinting, and in the boney fingers of his left hand is a partially unrolled scroll showing the beginning of the phrase, “”Ecce Agnus dei” (Behold the Lamb of God). He stands with his right arm raised and his mouth slightly open as though he is about to speak.

The description of John the Baptist in the Books of Mark and Mathew give us an image of a fearless, camel skin-wearing man who lived in the wilderness and ate locust and honey. In art, he is pictured often as somewhat like a wild man with unruly hair, unkempt beard, and an intense facial expression. As the subject of paintings, he is most likely to be at the Jordan River baptizing Christ or in a ghoulish scene with his head on a platter after Salome danced before Herod.

St. John the Baptist, in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, is different from most of Donatello’s familiar work. It is carved in wood and is painted. It is the only sculpture by Donatello in Venice and only his Mary Magdalene, which also is carved in wood, is similar in style. Until it was cleaned in 1973 its date was not known. Under the old paint from a previous restoration, it was discovered Donatello signed and dated it in 1438; much earlier than previously thought. How it came to be in Venice, however, is still uncertain. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence and it has been suggested a wealthy Florentine merchant living outside the city commissioned Donatello to carve the St. John for the church in Venice.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

The Flood | Art for A Advent 1

Matthew 24:39-40 …and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

The Flood
(b. ca 1500, Cherbourg, d. 1564, Sotteville-lès-Rouen)
The Flood
Ceramic mural composition
Musée National de la Renaissance, Écouen
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Flood, ceramic tile, 1550, Masséot Abaquesne, c.1500-1564

Clay often is regarded to be a lowly substance. It is formed by decomposed rock and organic matter and is used to make bricks and drainpipes. It is underfoot as pavers, and in art it is a material associated with pottery and the crafts. It is not used regularly by artists as a surface on which to paint. Masséot Abaquesne’s “The Flood,” depicting the landing of the ark, is an example of the problem with categories when art is shoe-horned into being either “fine arts” or “crafts.” Abaquesne used tiles, glaze, and metal oxides to create a painting on clay; not on wood panels or canvas.

Abaquesne had a successful ceramics business in Rouen, France. His studio specialized in majolica (muh-JAHL-i-kuh) and faience (pronounced fay-AHNS – French for Faenza, a major ceramic center in Italy), and he was influenced generally by Italian art. For “The Flood,” Abaquesne used a tiled surface instead of a large single piece because clay shrinks when it is fired and in the process, large pieces will tend to warp and not remain flat.

To make “The Flood,” a majolica technique was used. The earthenware tiles were fired at a low temperature then covered entirely with a white glaze but not fired again until after Abaquesne created his painting (on the unfired white surface) using coloring pastes made with oxides: cobalt for blue, iron for dark reddish brown and antimony for yellow. It was then fired in the kiln a second time. The work shown here is one of three created by Abaquesne on the subject of the flood. [Building the ark and boarding it are the subjects of the other two works.] This scene depicts the flood after the water has subsided and the ark has landed. In a dramatic depiction of the aftermath of the event, drowned figures are strewn about and a carrion-eating bird is dining on a dead horse. On the right side of the sky, a dove is returning to the ark with an olive branch and God is in a cloud on the left side observing everything below.


Majolica ware originated in Spain and during the Renaissance it became very popular throughout Europe. The name is believed to be derived from the Spanish island, Majorca.

In addition to a glazing technique,” faïence,” is a term given to a low fired non-clay material used in ancient Egypt for crafting objects such as small blue scarabs and hippopotami. When archeologists discovered these objects, the color reminded them of the blue glaze that was made famous in the town of Faenza, Italy. They referred to the material as “faience.” Although Egyptian faience is not glazed clay, the term has remained in use.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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