Jesus calling Zacchaeus | Art for Proper 26C

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.”



Jesus Calling Zacchaeus
a woodcut made by and unknown artist

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

In the early 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, developed a successful printing press with moveable type. The technology spread rapidly and within a few decades Gutenberg’s invention was being used at other cities in Europe. In Ulm, (about 135 miles from Mainz), Johann Zainer set up a press to publish both sacred and secular books. Among them was, The Spiritual Interpretation of the Life of Christ, c. 1485.

With the invention of moveable type, it was no longer necessary to hand-letter a text but readers of the day were accustomed to seeing illustrations in a book. Publishers met this expectation with woodcuts. An image, carved in relief on a block of wood and set in place, could be inked and printed together with the text. The time of hand-painted illustrations, as in a codex, had passed. For special editions, however, woodcuts often were colored by hand after being printed.

Included in Zainer’s illustrated book about Christ’s life is, Jesus Calling Zacchaeus. It is a composition that may have been based on a contour drawing made originally as a study for stained glass. This image depicts an occurrence at the time Jesus was passing through Jericho while on his way to Jerusalem. Because of the crowd, Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector and a man of short stature, was unable to see Jesus. In order to have a higher vantage point he climbed a nearby sycamore tree. Jesus saw Zacchaeus and spoke to him by name.

In this woodcut, Christ is the central figure and is greater in size in keeping with the practice of depicting important people to be larger than others in a composition. Two people follow Jesus but the crowd that is noted in the Bible, is not shown. Instead, attention is on Jesus at the moment he arrives at the tree where Zacchaeus is perched. One of the figures behind Jesus spots Zacchaeus and turns to a person next to him and points, perhaps saying, “Look, there is a man in that tree!” Jesus’ left hand is raised to greet Zacchaeus, while his right hand motions for him to come down. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately,” Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus to his home but the crowd was dismayed that Christ would choose to stay with a tax collector.

While with Jesus, Zacchaeus was repentant and offered to give half his possessions to the poor. If he had cheated anyone, he said, he would repay them four times the amount. Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to this house…”

Note: The sycamore tree mentioned in the Bible is related botanically to fig trees. It is not of the same specie as the familiar sycamore in America or the maple-related tree in England. This tree, often called, “sycamore fig,” has edible fruit and has been cultivated in the Holy Land since ancient times. The above woodcut is unusual in that clusters of figs have been included among the leaves of the tree.

Hovak Najarian © 2016


The Pharisee and the Publican | Art for Proper 25C

Luke 18:13 “…the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'”

The Pharisee and the Publican, wood engraving, 1864, John Everett Millais, 1829 – 1896
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In mid nineteenth century France, Neoclassicism continued to be the style taught in academies, and Romanticism was receiving a great deal of attention. Realism (paintings of everyday activities of common folks) also had followers, and other artists were painting landscapes in the open air. To varying degrees, English artists were influenced by these styles but they tended to remain independent.

Three young English artists – John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – were not enamored with French styles or with contemporary painting in England. They also were not pleased with the direction art had taken in the centuries following the Renaissance. In 1848, they formed a brotherhood and called themselves, “Pre-Raphaelites.” Other artists joined them. As a group, they found inspiration in nature and in the art of the middle ages – a time before the painter Raphael and the Renaissance – hence the name, “Pre-Raphaelites.”

Within a few years, Millais’ outlook expanded and he moved away from Pre-Raphaelite principles. He did, however, continue his interest in the spiritual aspects of art. Among his many works are drawings that illustrate parables found in the Bible; these were reproduced as wood engravings by the noted Dalziel Brothers and published in 1864 under the title, “The Parables of Our Lord.” The Pharisee and the Publican is an illustration from this book.

In a typical illustration of this parable, the Pharisee is at a temple, standing in the foreground with arms raised pretentiously in prayer. The publican is often on his knees in the background. In Millais’ composition, the positions have been reversed and the contrast between the two is made even greater by the use of light and shadow. The tax collector is standing in the dark area of the foreground and is the immediate focus of our attention. It is the Pharisee who is now in the background. He and the other men are secondary figures and light in value.

There are differences in body language as well. The publican’s weight is on one leg as he slumps over and leans against a Solomon’s column for support. There is a sense that his mind in burdened and even the twist of the column suggests swirling thoughts. His hands are “beating his breast” and his head is downcast as he is saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” By contrast, the self-satisfied Pharisee is standing among other worshipers and is leaning back in pride. His chin is thrust forward as he strokes his beard.

Note: “Solomon’s column,” is one of the terms given to pillars that have a corkscrew-like shaft. Constantine brought a set of these columns to Rome (for St. Peter’s Basilica) and it was said they were from Solomon’s Temple. This source is unlikely but the descriptive term, “Solomon’s column,” continues to be used.

Hovak Najarian © 2016

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha | Art for Proper 11C

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
VELÁZQUEZ, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103,5 cm
National Gallery, London
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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on canvas, 1618, Diego Velázquez, 1599-1660

In the seventeenth century, Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn were the two most noted artists in northern Europe, and Diego Velázquez was the unrivaled master of painting in Spain. Velázquez graduated from Don Francisco Pacheco’s workshop academy in Seville, married his daughter, and a few years later moved to Madrid. Soon he was working for King Philip IV at the Spanish Court where he remained throughout his life.

While he was still in Seville, Velázquez further developed skills and expanded his range of subjects by painting domestic settings. Kitchen scenes were popular with the public and often they conveyed an underlying message connecting everyday life in Spain with biblical events. “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” depicts a scene of a maid preparing garlic mayonnaise to go with the fish that will be served for dinner. The maid’s expression indicates she is upset and the woman behind her is calling attention to a scene in the upper right corner of the painting. We can not be sure if the smaller scene (like an inset) is intended to be a reflection in a mirror, a hatch (an opening) through which we are looking into an adjacent room, or a painting on the kitchen wall. Velázquez used devices such as reflections and paintings within paintings throughout his career.

In the usual interpretation of this painting, the two figures in the kitchen and the figures in the upper right hand scene are many centuries apart in time. The smaller scene shows Jesus seated in the home of Martha and Mary (Luke 10: 38-42). Mary is seated at his feet and Martha is standing behind her. In the biblical story, Martha became busy serving food and drink while Mary seemed oblivious to the fact that her sister was doing all of the work alone. Instead of helping her sister, Mary sat down and listened to Jesus. Martha was frustrated at this and wondered if Jesus cared that her sister was leaving all of the serving chores up to her; she hoped Jesus would ask Mary to help her. Jesus told Martha that her concern was misplaced and that in sitting and listening to him, Mary had made a good choice.

The frustration of the maid pictured by Velázquez is similar to that of Martha. She is trying to make preparations for a meal but is working by herself and is distraught about all that needs to be done. The woman behind her is calling the maid’s attention to the scene of Jesus, Martha, and Mary; pointing out that spiritual nourishment is an important part of life as well.

It has been suggested this kitchen scene is not set in seventeenth century Spain but rather is in the home of Martha and Mary when Christ was there. If this interpretation of the painting is accepted, the person believed to be an upset maid in the kitchen is actually Martha herself and the second woman with Jesus in the smaller scene is another guest.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Elijah on the Fire-cart | Art for Proper 8C

Elijah on the Fire-cart
Elijah on the Fire-cart (on the decorative band)
Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
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Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Elijah on the Fire-Cart (within a decorative band), Fresco, c.1304-06, Giotto di Bondone, c.1266-1337

When image makers created icons and illuminated manuscripts for Byzantine Churches, their efforts were toward projecting a spiritual realm; they were not trying to depict the familiar world of our daily experiences. In Italy during the late thirteenth century, however, changes were taking place; interest in earthly matters and the physical world was leading the way to the Renaissance. Art gave visual form to this changing world and Giotto (JOT toe) played a key role in the advancement of painting. Early in his career, he worked with Cimabue who was shifting away from Byzantine art but Giotto broke from it even further. He depicted biblical subjects with gestures and expressions of real people in a natural world.

Very early in the fourteenth century, Giotto received a commission to paint frescos in the Scrovegni (The Arena) Chapel in Padua. The cycle of paintings depicts events in the life of Mary’s parents, the life of Christ, and the Last Judgment. These paintings fill the entire walls of the Chapel and are divided by wide borders that simulate marble mosaic patterns. Within the borders are images of saints, prophets, and Old Testament figures that are related in subject to the paintings adjacent to them. The image of “Elijah on the Fire-Cart” – painted in a quatrefoil within the border – is not a dramatic presentation; the chariot and horses are not engulfed totally in flames but the plumes of fire and overall red coloration of both the horse and cart indicates it is definitely afire. A whirlwind is not indicated but drama was not Giotto’s intent. The placement of Elijah is in accordance with a custom of showing parallels between Old and New Testament events. As a person progresses forward in the Chapel the small painting of Elijah’s ascension inside the border will be seen just before seeing, “Ascension of Christ” to its immediate right. “Elijah and the Fire-Cart” serves only as a small tie-in within the border.


The Scrovegni Chapel: The wealthy Enrico Scrovegni purchased land for a palace and private chapel at the site of a former Roman amphitheatre known as the “Arena.” Hence, the chapel is known as “The Arena Chapel.”

Quatrefoil: In the fourteenth and fifteen century, circles and squares were regarded to be perfect shapes. A “quatrefoil” (meaning four leaves) is a framework made of four circles of equal diameter arranged so they all overlap equally in the center. When the overlapping lines of the circles are removed, the space it creates serves as a frame for decorative additions to architecture. Giotto’s “Elijah in the Fire-Cart” is painted in a quatrefoil.

Space Probe: Haley’s Comet passed by the earth in the year 1301. Three years later when Giotto painted the “Adoration of the Magi” in the Arena Chapel, he used an image of the comet as the star of Bethlehem. In 1986, when the European Space Agency launched sensors to examine the nucleus of Haley’s Comet, they saw it fitting to name the probe, “Giotto.”

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Elijah Fed by the Angel | Art for Proper 7C

Elijah Fed by the Angel
Elijah Fed by the Angel
Oil on canvas, 370 x 265 cm
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
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Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Elijah Fed by the Angel, oil on canvas, c.1577-78, Tintoretto, 1518-1594

During the Renaissance, the composition of many paintings seemed staged but on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo did not organize figures in tableau-like fashion. Later, when he painted, “The Last Judgment,” he introduced even greater dynamic movement. Many sixteenth century artists admired this aspect of his work and it was Venetian painter Tintoretto’s stated desire to emulate the drawing ability of Michelangelo. Like Michelangelo, Tintoretto was praised in his lifetime and history also has treated him kindly; today, he continues to be regarded as an artist of the highest rank.

When Tintoretto received the commission to create paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice (an institute dedicated to charitable work), he was free from the whims of patrons. He was given permission to develop his own themes. On the ceiling of Sala Superiore (the upper room of the Scuola di San Rocco) – referred to occasionally as Tintoretto’s “Sistine” ceiling – he painted thirteen scenes from the Old Testament. The themes are on the subject of thirst, hunger, and disease; Tintoretto’s “Elijah Fed by an Angel” is one of the illustrations showing God’s providence in times of hunger.

Biblical events leading to the time when Elijah was fed by an angel goes back to when the people of Israel along with King Ahab, and the priests of Baal went to Mt. Carmel for a display of God’s power. The priests of Baal and Elijah each built an altar. When the priests prayed for fire to offer a sacrifice, their efforts were in vain but when Elijah prayed, an intense fire engulfed the altar of God. After this demonstration, hundreds of the priests of Baal were put to death and King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, a follower of Baal, became livid. Elijah feared for his life and fled to Beersheba in Judah where he went into the wilderness. He sat under a shrub, prayed, and being exhausted, fell asleep. While asleep, an angel brought bread and water to him. Tintoretto’s painting depicts Elijah lying motionless as he is sleeping in the shade at the edge of the desert. Above him is the angel descending with wings and arms outspread. Elijah was awakened by the angel and he ate the bread; he then fell asleep again. Elijah was awakened once more and told to eat because a long journey awaited him.


A painting is a surface on which pigment has been arranged to create an image. The arts of literature, music, theater, and cinema are like journeys. A duration of time is required to travel, read or listen. It also takes time to fully absorb a painting but its subject can be seen superficially in its entirety at a glance; further study will reveal details and deeper content. Artists have found that similarity (of colors shapes, lines, and textures) forms a very strong visual bond. “Elijah Fed by the Angel,” is unified clearly by similar curvilinear forms. The curves unify the composition and are also related visually to the oval-shaped canvas.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Elijah and priests of Baal | Art for Proper 4C

Elijah and the Priests of Baal
Lucas Cranach the Younger
Elijah and the Priests of Baal 1545
Oil on wood
1.275 x 2.42 m
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
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Elijah and the Priests of Baal, Oil on Wood, 1545, Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1515-1886

German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder was known as one of the foremost painters and printmakers of the Northern Renaissance. For much of his life he worked for the Electors of Saxony and was an avid supporter of the Protestant Reformation. His son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, apprenticed with his father and often worked on paintings in the studio with him. At the death of his father, he took over as supervisor of the art workshop. Both Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger were friends of Martin Luther and each painted several portraits of him.

Lucas Cranach the Younger’s “Elijah and the Priests of Baal” depicts the result of a long conflict between the Prophet Elijah and King Ahab. When the king married the Phoenician princess, Jezebel, she brought the worship of the idol Baal with her. She convinced Ahab to allow the worship of Baal in Israel and had Jewish prophets put to death. Elijah left Israel and upon his return saw that conditions had become impossible; he demanded a showdown. He told King Ahab to take the people of Israel and the priests of Baal to Mount Carmel. When they were together he told the people their faith could not be divided; they couldn’t have it both ways. He said, “If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” Elijah then proposed a test. Two altars would be built; firewood and a bull as a sacrifice would be placed on each one. Then each would pray for fire to burn the wood and offer the sacrifice. The priests of Baal built their altar and prayed fervently until after midday but their efforts were futile. When it was Elijah’s turn, firewood and the bull to be sacrificed were placed on the altar. For good measure, he dug a trench around its base and asked that four jars of water to be poured over the wood. He asked the same amount to be poured on it twice more causing the wood to be well drenched. As he prayed, fire from above came down dramatically and consumed everything. The water-soaked wood, the sacrificial offering, the stones, and even the water in the trench were engulfed in flames. When the people saw this, they fell down and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

The painting, “Elijah and the Priests of Baal,” is crowded densely with people who are there to witness the resolution of this conflict. The altar built by Elijah is on the left side in the foreground and a dark cloud has gathered at the top center of the painting. Pellets of fire from the cloud are sending intense heat to the altar and even the water at the base of the altar is touched by the flame. Elijah is standing to the right of the altar with his arms raised in prayer and in the lower left corner are Elijah’s assistants with their empty water vessels. The altar of Baal is on the right and its wood and sacrifice remain untouched but the persistent priests of Baal are continuing to dance and pray even as the altar built by Elijah is consumed in flames. The crowd on the left is in awe, as is King Ahab who is standing between the altars and looking at the miraculous fire.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

A beautiful response to Luke 3:21-22

May Imagine Us Beloved by Kayla McClurg invite you deeper into the “now” of the long-ago and far-away event of the Baptism of our Lord.

Imagine with me, if you will, a world in which vast numbers of people are hearing and beginning to integrate at heart and soul level that we, the same as Jesus, are God’s beloved. That we, too, are intended to hear the blessing Jesus heard at his baptism; that God bends over each of us and whispers, “With you, even in your current state of unfinished glory, with you I am well pleased.” Continue reading “A beautiful response to Luke 3:21-22”