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.

 

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