“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.

 

Ecce Ancilla Domini

The Annunciation by Rossetti

Ecce Ancilla Domini, oil on canvas, 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828 – 1882

The Biblical account of the Annunciation: Luke 1:26-38

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

At the time Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted, Ecce Ancilla Domini (Latin: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord,” also called, The Annunciation), England was the most advanced industrialized nation in the world. In the following year, 1851, the Great Exhibition in London (the first “World’s Fair”) celebrated the advancements of industry and culture. Like leaders of industry, English artists of the day were looking toward the future. Unlike many artists of his generation, however, Rossetti and like-minded friends did not follow their contemporaries. Instead of looking toward new directions in art, they looked back to medieval times and called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the name is in reference to a time before Raphael and the fifteenth century Renaissance). Among their beliefs was that art lost its spiritual quality after the Renaissance.

In subject matter, paintings of the annunciation depict the angel Gabriel greeting Mary to tell her she would bear a son and call him Jesus. Fifteenth and sixteenth century artists often placed this event at an intimate indoor setting or on a porch. Mary is pensive usually with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit above her head.

In contrast to idealized settings – often with dramatic lighting – created typically by artists of the Renaissance and beyond, the Pre-Raphaelites depicted subjects as real people in natural surroundings. In Rossetti’s, The Annunciation, Gabriel does not have dazzling rainbow-hued wings and Mary is not sitting in a throne-like chair. Instead, she is on her bed in a loose white nightgown looking as though she was awakened just a few minutes earlier and is now sitting up trying to process the message that Gabriel brought. She seems somewhat bewildered. A wingless Gabriel is standing upright by the bed, looking like an ordinary man floating in air slightly above the floor with his feet in flames. [Rossetti’s brother posed for Gabriel and he was originally without a halo. His younger sister, Christina, posed for Mary.] As in traditional depictions, Gabriel is presenting a lily (symbolizing purity) to Mary; a small haloed-dove is nearby. Although the red rectangular shape in the right foreground may not be recognized immediately, it is a sewing stand with its work-surface folded down. The image on it is a long-stemmed lily that Mary has been embroidering.

When Rossetti’s Annunciation was exhibited initially it did not receive favorable reviews. Critics were not accustomed to biblical subjects being treated in this non-traditional manner.

Notes:

In addition to painting, Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote poems. The poetry of his younger sister, Christina, however, received far more acclaim. Her, poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” was set to music by Gustav Holst and is a Christmas hymn of the Anglican Church. This poem also was set to music as an anthem by Harold Darke. Anglican Churches honor Christina Rossetti with a feast day on April 27th.

Hovak Najarian © 2016

The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves | Art for Proper 29

Luke 23:33 “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves
MICHELANGELO Buonarroti
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)
The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves
1522-24
Red chalk, 394 x 281 mm
British Museum, London
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Crucifixion of Christ and the Two Thieves, c. 1522-24, Red Chalk, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564

When early Christian artists began creating visual images of their faith they were faced with questions such as what did Jesus look like? Could or should God be portrayed – if so, how? How would the crucifixion be depicted and what would be the shape of the cross?

Although there were fervent associations with the crucifixion, it was not depicted in art for several hundred years after the event. Then, when it began to be shown, artists did not attempt to give a realistic interpretation. Instead, the crucifixion was used as a symbol. It was in the sixth century that scenes familiar to us today began to appear; in the years that followed, details of the event were reconstructed as artists followed biblical descriptions and used their imaginations. Jesus and the thieves were shown on crosses; Jesus in the center and the thieves on each side. At first, only a few people were present but as compositions became more complex, figures were added; among them were disciples, the three Marys, bystanders, and soldiers (one with a spear and others throwing dice for Christ’s cloak). Some artists placed angels above the cross of Jesus and often a skull was placed at the foot of his cross to indicate this was “the place of the skull.”

Michelangelo’s chalk drawing, “Crucifixion with Two Thieves,” was sketched possibly as a study for a painting and was not intended to be a complete or permanent work. Because chalk does not have within it a binding agent such as egg yolk or linseed oil, it can be rubbed off a surface easily. Some details in this drawing are not clear and almost lost.

Michelangelo depicts the crucifixion as it is taking place. A man on the top of the central cross is making an adjustment to Jesus’ arm while a figure is on a ladder at his feet. Another person is on a ladder at the feet of the thief on the right and an additional ladder is being brought to the site; it is presumed this is to reach the feet of the thief on the left whose unsupported legs are dangling loosely. [It also may be interpreted that this ladder is being removed from the scene] Under the cross on the left are two horses (their images are very light and barely distinguishable). Below the central cross, Mary has fainted and is being assisted. Others are consumed with grief.

The familiar Latin cross has a horizontal section approximately one third down from the top but many other forms have been made. In this drawing the thieves are attached to crossbeams at the very top of the vertical posts, whereas the cross on which Christ is placed is “Y” shaped. This was not a Michelangelo innovation; the “Y” shaped cross was among the earliest depicted in scenes of the crucifixion.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Fall into Ruin of the House of God | Art for Proper 28

Luke21:6 Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Fall into Ruin of the House of God
Fall into Ruin of the House of God
Click image for more information.
Click to find Haggai among the Amiens Cathedral 44 Prophet Quatrefoils
The Lord shows Haggai his vision of the ruined Temple
Quatrefoils on the western exterior, depicting the Temple which the people have allowed to fall into ruin
1220-1240
Cathédrale d’Amiens
Relief sculpture
Amiens, France
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Fall into Ruin of the House of God and The Lord Shows Haggai the Ruined Temple, Stone, c. 1220-1240, Western exterior, Cathedral of Amiens, France

In the year AD 1220 when the construction of the Cathedral of Amiens began, the invention of the printing press was still more than two centuries away. Books were handmade and not available usually to the general public; a majority of people were unable to read. For them, subjects in the Bible were learned through the spoken word and the visual arts. Illustrations in mosaics, stained glass, paintings, and sculptures, re-enforced visually the biblical stories they heard. These arts were an integral part of their churches.

The three recessed arched entrances of the Cathedral of Amiens are covered completely with relief sculpture. The walls are flanked by biblical figures carved in high relief and the space above the central doors – the tympanum – depicts the Last Judgment. From eye level to ground level, a base with two rows of relief sculpture framed in quatrefoils continues around the interior of all the buttresses of the façade. The figures in the base of the central portal depict virtues with their corresponding vices. From there, the rows continue with scenes of the Major and Minor Prophets. The images depicted in the top row show significant events in a prophet’s life; other important events associated with him are placed directly below it.

The prophet Haggai (HAG-eye) is represented by four scenes but he is not pictured on the upper row and he appears in only one of the quatrefoils. The Temple in ruins shown above is in the upper row and God is standing in the quatrefoil directly beneath it; Haggai is seated to his left. God is pointing to the Temple above him and calling Haggai’s attention to the fact that it has been left in ruins by the people. The scenes representing most of the prophets are self-contained; the subjects are complete in themselves. The ruined Temple differs, however, in that it is linked to the scene of God and Haggai below it. The two images support each other to complete a visual message.

In ancient times, people and animals in distant lands tended to be a mystery; often the descriptions of them were a result of the imagination. A host of animals and creatures – sometimes with frightening powers – were imagined and became part of the lore that was passed down through the ages. Bestiaries compiled during the Middle Ages included special attributes and symbolic associations with creatures such as unicorns, basilisks, and griffins. These and other imagined animals often appeared in medieval art. At Amiens, the ruined Temple of God is being inhabited by reptile-like creatures crawling among the fallen stones and rubble.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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

 

Resurrection of the Flesh | Art for Proper 27

Luke 20: 33 “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Resurrection of the Flesh
SIGNORELLI, Luca
(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)
Resurrection of the Flesh
1499-1502
Fresco, width 700 cm
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Resurrection of the Flesh, fresco, 1499-1502, Luca Signorelli, 1441-1523

Art created in Italy during the turn of the century from the 1490s to the 1520s elicits a sense of awe in us even today. During those years, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo painted the “Last Supper,” Raphael painted “The School of Athens,” and Luca Signorelli painted his fresco cycle in Orvieto Cathedral. Artists of the High Renaissance achieved their remarkable results because problems that dogged earlier artists for many centuries had been resolved.

The problem of creating pictorial space was resolved in the early fifteenth century but creating a convincing likeness of a human figure from any point of view was another major challenge. Figures in early paintings were depicted usually in a front or side view with little or no sense of movement; they often were ill-proportioned, stiff in appearance, and in sculpture-like poses. Signorelli’s mastery of anatomy, perspective, and foreshortening gave him the skills and freedom to paint the human form in every conceivable position. He seemed to delight in doing so.

At the Cappella Nova (the “New Chapel” – now called the Chapel of San Brizio) in the Cathedral at Orvieto, Signorelli was commissioned first to complete ceiling frescos that were begun by Fra Angelico. Signorelli’s work impressed his patrons (also, his fee was less than that of other artists and he worked faster) and this led to a commission to paint seven side walls. Among the frescos of the side walls are scenes depicting the end of time. The painting, “Resurrection of the Flesh,” illustrates the text found in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment…. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51-52, RSV)

In this painting, two larger than life angels are in the sky. They have sounded their trumpets (with Crusader flags attached) and the dead are emerging from the earth; many have risen in full flesh. Others are only partially above the surface and are in the process of lifting themselves out. Some are still in skeleton form; here and there only a skull has popped up. In the central foreground, two men are assisting full-fleshed figures that are emerging and on the far right a man is having a conversation with a group of standing skeletons. Signorelli’s skills matched his fertile imagination and his ability to depict freely the human figure impressed and influenced many of his contemporaries; Michelangelo was among his admirers.

[Signorelli did not seem to have an interest in the accuracy of a skeleton’s form. His rendering of the pelvis is quite inaccurate.]

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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