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.

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

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

Image: Pvasiliadis at Greek Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

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

“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

Supper at Emmaus | Art for Easter 3A

In the breaking of the bread … recognition

When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  (Luke 24:30-31)

Supper at Emmaus, 1628, oil on canvas, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

When Christ was crucified, the disciple’s world was shattered and their future uncertain. Where would they go? What would they do? Two of them were on the road to Emmaus, a village near Jerusalem, and as they walked, their conversation was about Jesus and the harrowing events of the previous week. What were they to make of news received from the women who went to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty? The women said angels told them Jesus was alive. While the disciples were walking, the resurrected Jesus joined them on their journey. They were unable to recognize him, however, and when this stranger (Jesus) asked what they had been discussing, they became still. Their heads were downcast. The disciple, Cleopas, asked incredulously, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened…?” When asked, “What things?” Cleopas, recounted the ministry of Jesus the Messiah and how he was sentenced to death and crucified.

As the travelers approached the village of Emmaus, it was near evening and the disciples invited the man accompanying them to stay instead of continuing on his journey. Jesus stayed, and when they were ready to eat, he gave thanks for the bread and broke it. As bread was given to the disciples, they were shocked when they realized suddenly the man they met on the road, and now was in their presence, was Jesus. After Jesus revealed himself, he disappeared.

As a youth, Rembrandt’s schooling was in Latin and Religion and in addition to his skills in art, he developed a deep interest in the Bible. In his drawings, paintings, and etchings, he returned to biblical themes throughout his life. Rembrandt was still a young man when he painted the Supper at Emmaus, and it is a subject he returned to later. His earlier painting, shown here, depicts the exact moment Christ revealed himself to the two disciples.

The light source in a painting establishes highlights, shadows, reflections, and it gives definition to three dimensional forms. Often the light is provided by a candle, lamp, or window, and at times more than one source is included. In addition to natural and artificial sources, light emanating from Jesus has been depicted in paintings since the early Renaissance. In Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus, the primary source of light comes from Jesus and much of the painting is in shadow. In the background is a dim light surrounding a servant who is unaware that Christ has revealed himself to the disciples.

Upon realizing they had been walking with Jesus on their journey, and that he was now with them at the table, the two disciples were overcome. One disciple fell to his knees at Jesus’ feet. [He is in deep shadow in the central foreground.] The disciple seated across from Jesus is recoiling in awe and is overwhelmed. Perhaps fright is being experienced as well. Rembrandt made dramatic use of light and dark tones to suggest something extraordinary was taking place.

Hovak Najarian © 2017

Image on the Web Gallery of Art

Water of Life | Art for Lent 3A

A visual exploration of John 4:14

“Jesus said, ‘ the water that I shall give will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life” John 4:14

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Broadbent, Stephen, 1961-
The Water of Life
Sculpture, freestanding, metal
Chester Cathedral
Chester GB
Click image for more information.

Detail Views

 

A short introduction to John 4:5-42, the Gospel Lesson appointed for Lent 3A in the Revised Common Lectionary:

Our gospel tells the story of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well. The narrative is rich with themes. Jesus is willing to break with custom in order to talk with one who is both a woman and a foreigner. True worship of God is tied to no particular place. He himself offers living water which wells up to eternal life. The woman learns that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and later others from the town come to believe that he is the world’s Savior. During an interval in the story, Jesus speaks with his disciples concerning his true food and drink, and tells them that the time of harvesting for eternal life is at hand. Introducing the Lessons of the Church Year

Please follow the Case Study link (below) to learn more about this sculpture in the Garden of the Chester Cathedral. ~Fr. Dan

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

Christ in the Desert

Wilderness. Temptations. Angels.

Christ in the desert by Ivan Kramskoi

Here is a link to our post of Christ in the Desert (Kramkoi) from March 3, 2014 (Lent 1A). The post features commentary by our Forum Member, Hovak Najarian.