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.

Begin quote

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.

end-quote-black-71by52

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

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

 

Like us

How would you portray the face of Jesus?

Once again we find the intersection of art and faith to be both interesting and challenging. Watch this short video of one priest’s quest over the years to seek the face of Jesus:

The video is part of a story on Religion News Service: The Many Faces of Jesus. What do you think?

Mercy

… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.…  Matthew 25:35-36

Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy

A Caravaggio masterpiece on mercy calls to Pope Francis across the centuries

Begin quote

(RNS) If Pope Francis wanted a single image to illustrate the special Year of Mercy that is the current focus of his ministry and, indeed, the theme at the heart of his pontificate, he could do no better than choosing an underappreciated masterpiece by the thrilling Italian artist known as Caravaggio.

In fact, the 400-year-old canvas, an altarpiece in a Naples church titled “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” may represent the perfect combination of the man — or, rather, two men — and the moment: a brilliant painter with a scurrilous reputation who was striving for redemption, and a popular pontiff struggling to make the church more welcoming to outcasts.end-quote-black-71by52

Why does this painting call across the centuries?

I invite you to read the entire essay posted by Religion News Service on March 30, 2016 and learn more about Caravaggio, this remarkable painting, the theme of mercy, and how this painting (and Caravaggio himself) calls us to act with mercy and live with hope. ~Fr. Dan

Keep learning

Vatican restoration uncovers work of Renaissance master

Art restorers recover the 500-year old apartments of Pope Alexander VI, bringing new life to the works of the Renaissance artist “Pinturicchio.” The restoration brings attention not only to the masterful frescoes but also to the the story of the controversial pope who commissioned them, Rodrigo Borgia.

Source: Vatican restoration uncovers work of Renaissance master on Crux

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.”

 

2016-1030-prop-26c-jesus-zacchaeus

Jesus Calling Zacchaeus
a woodcut made by and unknown artist

Click the image for more information

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
Click the image for more information

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