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.

15A: Christ and the Canaanite Woman

Art for Proper 15A in the RCL

Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Rembrandt

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Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn, began his career in Amsterdam where a large merchant class appreciated art and had the means to support it.  He gained early success but money management was not a priority with him and during the latter years of his life he struggled financially.  He continued to work steadfastly, however, and produced art of the highest order.

The biblical setting for the drawingChrist and the Canaanite Woman, is in the region of Tyre and Sidon; two ancient cities of Canaan on the Mediterranean Sea.  When Christ was there he was approached by a woman of Syrophoenician origin (far left in the drawing) who begged him to heal her daughter.  It was suggested by the disciples that she be turned away but Christ made it known that his ministry was for everyone and the woman was granted her request.

Read the entire post here: 15A: Christ and the Canaanite Woman – St. Margaret’s News

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Moses

More than one way to view Moses with horns.

Moses by Michaelangelo

Moses, marble, c. 1513-1515, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

After Moses talked with God on Mt. Sinai, he returned to his people but was not aware that his face was glowing. Because of his radiance, people were reluctant to approach him, but when he called they came closer to hear what the Lord had commanded. Moses placed a veil on his face but removed it while in the presence of God. The veil was placed on his face again when he returned to the Israelites.

While he was still a young man, Michelangelo’s stone carving skills were recognized and he was invited to study at the Medici workshop in Florence under the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Commissions followed and at age twenty-four, the well-known Pieta (now in St. Peter’s Basilica) was carved. His next major commission would be a statue of David for the City of Florence.

Pope Julius II was impressed with David and invited Michelangelo to Rome to design what would be, in effect, a grandiose monument, a tomb that he envisioned for himself. After Michelangelo began carving figures for the tomb, he was not pleased when he was redirected to paint frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was working again on the tomb when Julius II died (a year after the ceiling was completed). By then funds had depleted and the size of the tomb was scaled back. It was during this period that the Moses was carved.

Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s biographer, described the sculpture of Moses to be “…unequalled by any modern or ancient work. Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tablets, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, so difficult to render in sculpture, being soft … that it seems the iron chisel must have become a brush.” Although Michelangelo’s Moses displays remarkable carving skills, is engaging in its formal relationships, and is of psychological interest, tourists tend to be unduly preoccupied with the horns on his head.

Errors sometimes occur when languages are translated, and at times they lead to unusual descriptions (e.g. Cinderella’s “glass” slippers). In the fourth century, Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin, and found that the word, keren had various meanings. One meaning was, “horn.” In translation, Jerome described Moses’ face as being, “horned,” which was to say it was “glorified” or “radiant.” At the time of translation, Jerome was well aware of the multiple meanings of, keren, but elected to use “horn” as a metaphor for strength and power. Medieval artists took the words of the Latin Bible literally and depicted Moses with actual horns. Michelangelo knew, of course, that Jerome’s use of “horned” had been misinterpreted but he chose, nevertheless, to place horns on Moses’ head to impart a sense of strength and authority. Other historical figures have been given horns to suggest strength. Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun have been depicted with horns, and images of warriors with horned helmets are very familiar to us.

Depictions of a “horned” Moses decreased during the Renaissance and was seldom seen beyond the sixteenth century.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

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Image: Pvasiliadis at Greek Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

The Man with a Hoe

Matthew 13:1-9. Pause. Look. Listen. Let the parable take you where it will.

Millet,_Jean-François_-_Man_with_a_Hoe_-_Google_Art_Project

As the Sunday Morning Forum at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church prepares to meet, Hovak Najarian and Kathleen Kelly shared observations, poetry, and questions to lead into the Gospel parable (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) and to inspire your learning.

From Hovak:

Sunday’s Gospel gives us the parable of the sower and Jean Francois Millet’s painting,The Sower, came to mind immediately.  This popular painting has been reproduced many times and it is likely you are familiar with it.  [it is available on T-shirts.]  There is a great deal that could be written about Millet’s Sower, but the focus of Christ’s parable was on what happens when seeds fall onto various surfaces … the message is not about the sower himself.

From, The Sower, my mind shifted to Millet’s, The Man With The Hoe, and a poem by Edwin Markham.  Instead of writing a commentary this week, I would like to share this painting and poem with you.  It is not related to either of the readings for Sunday but the painting is worth seeing and the poem worth reading.

From Kathleen:
In one sense, it could be said that the parable IS about the sower —  a farmer who is willing to “squander” seed by tossing it in all directions  (without regard for the conditions) as though there is no limit to the abundance of this resource.

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

Image: Jean-François Millet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Link)

Rebekah watering the camels

A discussion snippet: art and the meeting of Eliezer and Rebecca.

Rebekah watering the camels.

In the Sunday Morning Forum at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, a discussion arose about the Poussin art (see our post) depicting the encounter of Eliezer and Rebecca at the well (see Genesis Genesis 24). Hovak Najarian later sent this note to the group:

Camels were not to be seen In the painting discussed at the Forum last Sunday.  “Those bizarre objects” (camels) had no place in the ordered classical setting of Poussin’s, Eliezer and Rebecca.
I thought you might enjoy seeing another artist’s depiction of Rebecca at the well.  The artist of the attached painting did not shun camels!  I could not find the name of the artist….
Do you know the name of the artist? Let us know.

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Eliezer and Rebecca | Art for Proper 9A

“Portray ‘several women’ in which you can see different beauties.”

eliezer-and-rebecca-at-the-well-1648

Eliezer and Rebecca, oil on canvas, 1648, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

When Abraham decided it was time for his son, Isaac, to be married, he wanted the bride to be from the land of his origin, Mesopotamia. He sent his servant, Eliezer, on a journey to select an eligible bride. When Eliezer reached the City of Nahor in Chaldea, he prayed that water from a well would be provided by the woman that was meant to be Isaac’s bride. Rebecca was at the well when Eliezer arrived and she gave water to him and his camels. After hearing the purpose of the journey, Rebecca received her family’s approval and agreed to marry Isaac. Nicolas Poussin’s painting depicts the meeting of Eliezer and Rebecca.

In the sixteenth century, an artwork’s complexity and its intellectual endeavor led to a hierarchy based on genre. The highest praise was given to history paintings. This genre included classical themes and biblical subjects, as well as historical events. A typical history painting was not only highly accomplished technically, it included numerous people in an architectural and/or landscape setting. In composition, there would be continuity through gestures, body language, facial expressions, and eye contacts. The recognized master of history painting during the seventeenth century was Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman, who lived and worked in Rome. At a time when seventeenth century art was often overabundant and unrestrained, Poussin was a classicist. His work was controlled and organized intellectually; he noted, “I am forced by my nature towards the orderly.”

While technical problems in painting were being resolved, the use of oil paints and great artistic skills brought about an appreciation that went beyond subject matter. The manner in which a work was painted – the accepted sense of “beauty” at the time it was made – appealed aesthetically to the senses and led to connoisseurship. Jean Pointel, a wealthy French banker and silk merchant was among the collectors of Poussin’s work. Without suggesting subject matter, Pointel commissioned Poussin to create a painting that, “would portray ‘several women’ in which you can see different beauties.” Poussin used this commission as an opportunity to depict the meeting of Eliezer and Rebecca at the well of Nahor.

In Eliezer and Rebecca, Poussin made no attempt to depict a Near Eastern setting. Even Eliezer’s camels – those “bizarre objects” – that would be included surely by a romanticist, were eliminated. At the left side of the painting, a group of Pointel’s “different beauties,” are posed like Roman statues. Except for the woman pouring water and glancing at Rebecca, they seem hardly aware of Eliezer’s presence (in the center wearing a turban). The three women to the right of Rebecca, however, are observing the proposal and reacting with facial expressions and body language. Every aspect of Eliezer and Rebecca is planned, ordered, and controlled. Poussin’s figures exist in the realm of an idealized classical world.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

Hagar in the Desert | Art for Proper 7A

Evoking a response to the story

Hagar in the desrt (Lipchitz)

Hagar in the Desert, bronze, 1949, Jacques Lipchitz, 1891-1973

 

So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” … So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. Genesis 21:10, 14

Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was old and childless, so in order for her husband to have an heir she suggested he father a child with their servant, Hagar. A son was born to Hagar and named Ishmael. Several years later, Abraham was visited by three men and told Sarah would have a child. Sarah laughed, she seemed too old to have a child but in time she bore a son, Isaac. Meanwhile, her unhappiness with Hagar and Ishmael increased greatly and she asked Abraham to send them away.

A typical painting of Hagar and Ishmael’s departure shows Abraham pointing as if to say, “Go.” Sarah remains in the background watching. Other paintings depict Hagar and Ishmael in the desert when they were exhausted, without food or water, and near death. Often, the angel that rescued them is included.

While still a youth, Jacques Lipchitz, left his native Lithuania to study in Paris. When he arrived in 1909, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were challenging the concept that a painting must depict a subject as we see it. They came to the conclusion that a painting was an object in itself and it was not required to be like a window through which we see a depiction of a still life or scene. They believed art could refer to a subject – to be a composition about it – not just a depiction. It was realized our experiences provide much more information than can be offered in a painting with a single point of view. Instead of presenting a subject from only one vantage point, Picasso and Braque included sides of objects that were not in their line of sight, yet known to be there. In order to do this, they simplified the subject by focusing on its underlying geometric structure, selecting essential aspects of it, and then reconfiguring it into a composition. A critic dubbed this, Cubism.

Three years after Lipchitz arrived in Paris, he met Picasso and began to explore form in sculpture from a cubist’s perspective. Paris became his home. When in 1941 it was apparent Hitler’s army was going to invade France, Lipchitz, a Jew, left France to live in New York. In America, his sculpture remained abstract but it was no longer in the cubist style. His work became curvilinear and expressionistic.

Lipchitz’s Hagar in the Desert is a dramatic interaction of related shapes, not a literal depiction. The figure of Hagar with Ishmael’s head in her lap and the angel overhead are suggested but they do not follow anatomical proportions and are not arranged in physical order. The subject of this sculpture – Hagar, Ishmael, and the angel – was formed by Lipchitz as a study in solid masses and spatial relationships.

In 1948 and 1949 when Lipchitz created his first two versions of Hagar, he was concerned very much about the conflicts that were set in motion when the new state of Israel was formed. He hoped that peace would prevail. With regard to Hagar in the Desert, Lipchitz said, to him it was, “a prayer for brotherhood between Arabs and the Jews.”

Hovak Najarian © 2017

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

Trinity Sunday Year A

Art and Faith on Trinity Sunday

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam (detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling),
fresco, 1508-12, Michelangelo, 1475-1564

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” is a much-quoted statement that sometimes is attributed to Confucius, but this observation is neither completely true nor oriental in origin. The quote originated in America and gained attention from commercial advertising in the 1920s. In some instances a picture or schematic image may be clearer than a complex verbal description, but there are times also when ideas found in words are impossible to illustrate by means of art. The creation story in the Book of Geneses is far less than a thousand words, yet a single painting cannot depict adequately all of the events contained in the narrative.

When artists depict subject matter from the creation, they tend to select the more dramatic events. Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel excludes the third day when grass, herbs and trees were created, and omits the fish and fowl that were created on the fifth day. The frescos begin with God separating light from darkness and is followed by the separation of water from the land. In the third panel God is shown creating the sun, moon and planets. The well-known fourth panel depicts the moment God gave life to Adam.

In, The Creation of Adam, Adam is reclining on the earth in the relaxed manner of Roman river gods. His left forearm is resting on a knee and his hand is extended as God reaches into the empty space that separates them. They do not touch but there is a sense that in the small space between their fingers, the spark of life, like an electrical arc, has been passed from God to Adam.

An oval shaped cloak serves as a backdrop for God and he is surrounded by figures. It is in our nature as humans to make connections and project meaning onto things we see. A long-standing belief is that the woman in the crook of God’s left arm is Eve. Because God’s hand is touching a child that is next to the woman, however, it has been suggested recently that she may be the future Virgin Mary and the child is Jesus.

Much has been written about what Michelangelo was attempting to communicate in this painting and most of it is speculation. When an imaginative medical student saw, The Creation of Adam, the cloak and figures around God, brought to mind the shape of a human brain. From this, he thought it was possible that Michelangelo was intending to indicate symbolically that while life was being given to Adam, the gift of intellect also was being bestowed. This interpretation has captured the fancy of people who look for secret meanings. The suggestion that intellect was being given to Adam is repeated now even by tour guides at the Sistine Chapel. There is no incontrovertible evidence that a cryptic message was placed in this painting.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

Lasers reveal long-hidden Roman frescoes with biblical themes

Technology, art, and faith come together.

Doorway arch fresco depicting Christ and the Apostles at the Domitilla catacombs in Rome. Frescoes dating back to the fourth century A.D. have been restored with laser technology in underground crypts. Photo courtesy of Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology

This was originally posted by Josephine McKenna on June 6, 2017 on the Religion News Service website. Additional images from the catacombs appear in the original post.

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ROME (RNS) Ancient frescoes have been rediscovered inside the 1,600-year-old Domitilla catacombs after Italian art experts used laser technology to remove centuries of grit and grime.

The catacombs, or underground cemeteries, are named after a Roman noble family and are considered the most extensive in the Italian capital, drawing thousands of tourists.

The painstaking seven-year restoration, backed by the Vatican, focused on two burial chambers commissioned by successful bakers working in ancient Rome in the fourth century.

The restoration revealed spectacular frescoes showing how wealthy Roman aristocrats abandoned their pagan mythology to embrace Christianity.

Archaeologist Fabrizio Bisconti, head of the Vatican body responsible for ancient archaeology, said many frescoes had been discovered in Rome’s catacombs over the past 25 years.

But he said the latest revelation is significant, as the rooms had been completely covered in a black patina and graffiti.

“With the use of laser, the decorative work of the two chambers is shown in all its splendor, offering us a real discovery, even though the two chambers have been known about for many centuries,” he said.

The Domitilla catacombs are close to the ancient Appian Way and contain an underground basilica and four levels of corridors, chambers and crypts where 150,000 Christians and martyrs were buried. They span more than 10 miles.

The frescoes that were brought to light had been hidden under layers of dirt, algae and smoke left behind by oil lamps.

Using lasers, restorers discovered frescoes of pagan figures as well as biblical figures such as Moses and Noah on the chambers’ surface.

One ceiling fresco features an image of Jesus on a throne and two men, believed to be saints or Christian martyrs, seated beside him.

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, said the catacombs were a reminder of “the passage of conversion to the new faith” and the importance of Domitilla as a Christian burial site.

“Between the third and fourth centuries they welcomed both the common faithful and the martyrs,” Ravasi said in a statement.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many of the catacombs were forgotten and later raided for their art treasures. They were rediscovered in the 16th century by Antonio Bosio, an archaeologist who loved to leave his name scribbled on the frescoes in charcoal.

A new museum featuring sarcophagi, busts and epitaphs is expected to open at the catacombs this month.

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More images: Lasers reveal long-hidden Roman frescoes with biblical themes

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“He ascended into heaven…”

Visualizing the Ascension of Jesus.

While Jesus was going and [the apostles] were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:10-11 NRSV

Master of the Rabbula Gospels, The Ascension, 586

The Ascension of Christ, illumination on parchment, 6th century,
Master of the Rabbula Gospels.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

During the sixth century, artists were approximately eight hundred years away from being able to create pictorial depth through linear perspective. In addition to technical limitations, artists faced decisions about how Jesus would be depicted and how angels would fly. How would a person’s inner light be represented? Creating a composition required decisions as well; how was it to be organized?

Pictorial depth in, The Ascension of Christ, an illuminated Syriac Gospel Book, is limited. The figures are standing at ground level like relief sculpture and the composition is balanced in bilateral symmetry. The right and left side of the painting balance each other equally and Mary with a halo and blue robe is at the center. Her arms are uplifted in prayer. Byzantine royalty often wore blue robes and by the sixth century, the color blue, representing heavenly grace among other symbolic associations, had been adopted as the color by which Mary, “Queen of Heaven,” would be identified. Uplifted arms while in prayer was a gesture used by early Christians and continues today in some Pentecostal and charismatic churches. Except for the angels and Mary, most of the figures are looking upward at Jesus.

As Christ was ascending, two men in white robes appeared. Each is depicted as an angel with wings and a halo. Angels in the Bible were not assigned wings but artists reasoned they would need them in order to fly. The angel on the left of Mary is looking at Paul (identified by a long dark beard and bald forehead) and is pointing upward at the ascending Jesus. Paul was not a follower of Jesus at the time of the ascension but was brought in by way of, “artist’s license.” The angel on the right is talking to the white-bearded Peter. They, and the others, are being told Jesus “…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In the sixth century, Christ’s ascension was depicted in various ways; one was not to have his body in the picture at all. Only his feet and the hem of his robe would be shown as he entered clouds above. Sometimes only his feet remained in the picture. In another approach, Jesus would move upward by climbing a mountain.

In his journey heavenward, Jesus is surrounded usually by a glowing light or is encompassed, as here, by a full body halo known as a mandorla. In the above depiction, two angels are holding the mandorla to assist Jesus in his ascent while two other angels are moving upward bearing crowns. Jesus is standing within the mandorla with his hand raised in a final blessing to those who have gathered below. The biblical account of Ezekiel ascending to heaven on a chariot was familiar to people at this time and, as seen here, a depiction of the ascension in early Christian art often included chariot wheels beneath the mandorla.

Hovak Najarian © 2017