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 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.

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 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.


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, 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