The Vision of the Lord directing Abraham to Count the Stars

Envisioning a turning point in Salvation History.

The Vision of the Lord Directing Abraham to Count the Stars, wood engraving, 1860, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Book of Genesis gives an account of Abram being visited by God. Abram was notified of God’s covenant and that he (Abram) would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Abram was told, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them” and God said, “So shall your descendants be.” Abram was ninety-nine years old when his name was changed to Abraham (“father of many” in Hebrew) and a covenant with God was made.

In nineteenth-century Europe during the lifetime of German artist, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, there was renewed interest in classicism. This interest in Greek and Roman art was due partly to the discovery of the Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum during the eighteenth century. In AD 79, these two cities were buried by the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius. Cultural changes also brought conditions that favored a return to classicism. Artists who worked in this “neoclassic” style tended to take a formal and intellectual approach to art. Their contemporaries, the Romanticists led by Eugene Delacroix, however, believed art should come from the heart and reflect emotions. When Schnorr first studied in Rome, he admired the art of the late middle ages and Early Renaissance. Later, he was influenced by artists of the High Renaissance, but by mid-nineteenth century, at the time he engraved, The Vision of the Lord Directing Abraham to Count the Stars, there was dramatic action (a characteristic of Romanticism) in his work.

Schnorr first studied engraving with his father and then attended the Vienna Academy in Austria. From there he went to Rome and joined a brotherhood of likeminded artist who sought a return of spiritual content in art. The artists that were part of this fervent group affected biblical manners in their clothes and hair and were soon called, “The Nazarenes.” After ten years in Rome, Schnorr returned to Germany and settled in Munich where he established a successful career painting frescos and designing windows for churches.

While on a visit to London in 1851, Schnorr was commissioned to create a Picture Bible. During the next eight years, he completed more than two hundred wood engravings in which he interpreted biblical stories and events. Schnorr’s Bible contains the dramatic engraving that depicts God calling Abraham’s attention to the heavens. When Abraham looked at the stars, he was awed and fell to kneel on one knee. God is there before him pointing to the stars. As in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, God is shown surrounded by figures symbolizing unborn generations that are to come to earth when it is their time.

Hovak Najarian © 2018

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Flood

Imagining the moment before the covenant with Noah is made.


God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I am now setting up my covenant with you, with your descendants, and with every living being with you-with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you.” ~Genesis 9:8-10 CEB

The Flood by Abaquesne

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

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

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 flat piece because clay shrinks when it is fired and in the process, large pieces 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

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: “The Flood” on the Web Gallery of Art

The Race Track | Epiphany 5B

Light and life confronts darkness and death.

And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.  ~Mark 1:34

The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)
oil on canvas, c.1886-1908
Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1847-1917

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, America was engaged in rapid growth in the areas of manufacturing, commerce, and the building of railroads. The arts were not a priority. Serious artists were likely to go to Paris to absorb the culture and milieu during an era that brought great changes in the arts of Europe. Artists who remained in America often studied in New York City and then lived there, or nearby, as they built careers and established reputations.

Like the bohemian life in Paris, artists in New York’s Greenwich Village lived in a place where they could work, socialize, and be unencumbered by the expectations and values of society at large. For most of his adult life, Albert Pinkham Ryder, lived in The Village and was dedicated to painting. He had no desire to pursue fame, or accumulate material wealth. While his contemporaries in France, the Impressionists, were going outside to paint the effects of sunlight, Ryder stayed indoors and most of his images developed from within himself. An exception was The Race Track that he painted as the result of a direct experience.

Ryder often dined at a hotel in The Village where his brother was the proprietor. In a conversation one evening, he learned that his waiter gambled on horses and was excited about a much publicized race that would be held the following day. The waiter was going to place his entire savings on a horse that he believed would win. On the day after the race, Ryder returned to the hotel but the waiter was not there. When he inquired, he was told the favored horse came in third and the man lost his entire savings. He was unable to cope with his loss and took his own life.

Ryder’s painting, The Race Track, also known as, Death on a Pale Horse, depicts a lone skeleton-like figure on horseback carrying a scythe and circling the race track in a reverse direction. The track’s fence is broken in two places and the landscape is barren except for a lone dead tree. The race track, a metaphor for life, circles endlessly. In the foreground, a snake represents symbolically Satan, temptation, and betrayal. The man that took his life was possessed with gambling and to Ryder, the race track was, in effect, his death. As in the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Ryder has placed the figure of death on a pale horse.

Hovak Najarian © 2018

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Collect: Andrei Rublev, Monk and Iconographer, 1430 (Jan 29)

Generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer, Andrei Rublev was born around 1365 near Moscow. His “writing” persists to this day.

Holy Trinity. Icon. Andrei Rublev.

Generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer, Andrei Rublev was born around 1365 near Moscow. While very young he entered the monastery of The Holy Trinity and in 1405, with the blessing of his igumen (the Orthodox equivalent of abbot), he transferred to the Spaso-Andronikov monastery where he received the tonsure and studied iconography with Theophanes the Greek and the monk Daniel. Among his most revered works are those in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir.

The icon (“image” in Greek) is central to Orthodox spirituality. It finds its place in liturgy and in personal devotion. An icon is two dimensional and despite being an image of someone it is not a physical portrait. Western art, especially since the Renaissance, has sought to represent figures or events so that the viewer  might better imagine them. A western crucifix seeks to enable us to imagine what Golgotha was like. Icons seek to  provide immediate access to the spiritual and the divine unmediated by the human, historical imagination. Read more

Holy Women, Holy Men

The Collect for the Commemoration

Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.

Today’s Collect simply give thanks for “the gift of …monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev.” As we view his writing, and the writings of others in icons throughout the Church, let us always give thanks for the gift of individuals with a wonderful talent to open the heavens for us. ~Fr. Dan

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

The Nativity

Our faith, our story, seen through the eyes of Duccio.

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

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

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 newborn 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

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Image: Web Gallery of Art

The Wounded Angel

Finding meaning in the carnage of terror and the belief in Guardian Angels.

Wounded Angel
The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg, 1903

The following meditation was originally posted by Teresa Berger on 2 October 2017 on Pray Tell: Worship, Wit & Wisdom (a blog maintained by Liturgical Press, the School of Theology, St. John’s in Collegeville, MN, and the St. John’s Seminary). It was posted on the morning of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, NV and the observance of the Feast of Guardian Angels by the Roman Catholic Church.

Begin quote

Like many of you, I woke up this morning having Guardian Angels on my mind, whose memorial the church sets before us today. Like most of you, I woke up this morning to news of the carnage in Las Vegas. It seems almost impossible to hold the two together – until, that is, I remembered the startling painting by Hugo Simberg, “The Wounded Angel” (1903), which I saw in the Finnish National Gallery a couple of years ago. The painting shows an angel on a stretcher carried by two boys. The angel’s wing is torn, the eyes are covered by a bandage, and the figure leans heavily on the stretcher.

This morning, I see many Guardian Angels like that, being carried away, wounded and exhausted, in Las Vegas.

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning

The Angel of Death and the First Passover | Art for Proper 18A

The Angel of Death and the First Passover, was one of four hundred illustrations in Charles Foster’s book, Bible Pictures, and What They Teach Us (1914)

The Angel of Death and the First Passover

The Angel of Death and the First Passover,
engraving, c. 1897, C. Schonhew, 19th century

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

When the time came for the Israelites to leave Egypt and be free from slavery, Moses and Aaron were told about the Passover. God gave them specific instructions with regard to what the people of Israel were to do. A lamb was to be killed, prepared, and then eaten. Blood from the lamb was to be placed on the lintel and door posts of each home. If doors were not marked, the firstborn child and animal of the home would be struck down. C. Schonhew’s engraving depicts the angel of death casting an ominous shadow as it glances at a door to see if it has been marked. Within the home, a Hebrew family is preparing to partake of the Passover meal.

In this engraving, we are attracted first to the activity of an angel patterned after a classical goddess. If she were without wings, had a bow and quiver, and in a wooded area, she could pass easily for the Roman goddess, Diana. To the left, a sphinx seems to be observing the angel as it passes by with sword in hand. The dead figure near its base indicates the person’s doorway was not marked. In addition to the sphinx, references to Egypt are in the background. An obelisk and a wall with marks suggesting hieroglyphics inform us of the culture in which the Passover took place. The tip of a pyramid is beyond the wall.

To the right of the angel is a less active scene. Through an arched opening we see a family gathered solemnly around a table. A tray with a roasted lamb is in the center and the head of the family is leading them in their first Passover meal. They seem to be unaware that the angel of death is passing by their home at the very moment. In order to present separate activities simultaneously, Schonhew divided the engraving into two contrasting areas. On the left, the angel is in motion. There is a sense of urgency about her movements and she is surrounded by dramatic lighting. In contrast, figures on the right are standing still with heads bowed.

The architecture of the interior is in keeping with the exterior but in order to present a direct view of the family, Schonhew departed from two point perspective by aligning the arched wall with the picture plane. This frames the scene and separates it to focus attention on the family. At first glance it may seem we are viewing the interior through a “picture window” but plate glass was not available until the seventeenth century. During the time of Moses, windows would have been simple openings in the wall with no glass.

Note: The Angel of Death and the First Passover, was one of four hundred illustrations in Charles Foster’s book, Bible Pictures, and What They Teach Us (1914). Many of the artists responsible for the work published in Foster’s book were not identified. Schonhew’s name is known only because he signed the above work. Efforts to locate biographical information about Schonhew have not been successful.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

David Playing the Harp before Saul, 1530, Engraving, Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). In a note attached to this post, Hovak describes the process of engraving.