Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry | Art for Proper 26

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.”

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
The Limbourg Brothers
Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
French Gothic manuscript illumination
book of hours
1412 – 1416
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem (with Zacchaeus), illumination, 1412-1416, Limbourg brothers (active early 15th century)

In the early fifteenth century, painting on wood panels had gained popularity among artists in Europe but exceptional book illuminators were still in demand; among the finest were the Limbourg brothers (Paul, Jean, and Herman) of Flemish origin. Their book of hours, commissioned by the Duke de Berry of France, is regarded a masterpiece of the International Gothic style. “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” (with Zacchaeus) is from the Lenten cycle of, “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.”

Paintings of Christ entering Jerusalem are well known; they show typically a crowd waving palm fronds as Christ nears the gate of the city. He is on a donkey and is followed by Peter leading the disciples; a fine cloth is spread before him as he approaches the gate. Paintings of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus also are familiar. They show crowds in Jericho standing by the roadside to see Jesus who is on his way to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus, being short in stature is sitting in a sycamore tree in order to see him. [Jesus spoke to him, stayed at his house, and Zacchaeus was converted.] In art, these two events are treated usually as separate subjects but in, “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” Zacchaeus makes an unexpected cameo appearance. Perhaps the Limbourgs reasoned he followed Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem and climbed a tree to gather branches and have a better view of this event.

Zacchaeus seems unnoticed by others in this painting. Christ is focused on the people in front of him and is offering them a blessing. Unlike the usual paintings of “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem,” there is no crowd with palms; instead, Zacchaeus is alone dropping branches from a flowering tree. [Palm Sunday also is known as “Flower’s Sunday” or by the name of the tree from which branches are taken. The general term “Branch Sunday” also is used.]

While the Limbourgs were working in France, Brunelleschi, in Italy, was working on details of linear perspective; a means by which an illusion of space can be created on a flat surface. Its use had not spread to France at the time the Limbourgs were active, thus the perspective of the architecture throughout the painting is awkward. The city gate is not in proportion to the size of the people and its entrance is too narrow to accommodate Christ on a donkey. Despite flaws, the human aspects of this painting are foremost. As Christ is entering Jerusalem, he bears a sense of authority and dignity. There is warmth and awe in the faces of the people who are there to welcome him.

[The three Limbourg brothers and the Duke de Berry died in 1416. It is likely they were all victims of the devastating bubonic plague.]

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Ruth and Naomi | Art for Proper 26B

Ruth 1:16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.

Ruth and Naomi
Ruth and Naomi, Painting, 2001,
He Qi, China,
Oil on canvas, 119 x 146 cm
Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Ruth and Naomi, 2001, Mixed Media on Paper, He Qi (20th cent.)

The familiar, Moonlight Sonata was not inspired by the moon and Beethoven did not know it by that title. A German critic used that term to describe it a few years after Beethoven’s death. Music is the most abstract of the arts and a title of a piece may be simply something that pops into a person’s thoughts. When Aaron Copland wrote a ballet for Martha Graham, his focus was on composing music; he was not writing a score for a film and did not have a subject in mind. Graham liked the title of Hart Crane’s poem, Appalachian Spring, and decided to make it the title of her ballet. The ballet became widely known and Copland was amused when he would be told his music captured perfectly the image of springtime in the Appalachians. Today, the title of an abstract painting often is intended to provide meaning when none may be found in the work itself.

In the Book of Ruth we read the story of Naomi who left Judah with her husband and two sons and went to Moab. Her two sons married Moabites. Naomi’s husband died while they were there and later her two sons died as well. She told her daughters-in-law of her plan to return to Judah and tried to convince them to remain in Moab and possibly remarry. Ruth, one of the daughters-in-law, clung to Naomi and begged to go to Judah with her. In this touching moment Ruth said to Naomi: “Entreat me not to leave you…for where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God my God;” (Ruth 1:16).

None of the emotional content found in the story of Ruth and Naomi is seen in He Qi’s painting. Even to believe two women are being depicted depends entirely on the acceptance of its title. This subject is treated usually as two women embracing and we may assume this is what He Qi had in mind as well. If the title were not provided the painting could be interpreted easily as two figures dancing; possibly doing a tango or the west coast swing. As with music, an abstraction in art may be called anything.

To a person unfamiliar with art, He Qi’s painting may seem “modern” but it is related in form to the work done by French Cubists and German Expressionists during the early years of the twentieth century. In Ruth and Naomi there is a big dose of mid-twentieth century grade school cliché as well. A popular art assignment in the 1950s was to ask a child to fill a sheet of paper with curvilinear lines; then the shapes formed by the overlapping lines were filled in with different colors; He Qi follows this formula. His “Ruth and Naomi” may delight people enamored with bright colors but it lacks both originality and substance. Perhaps a painting can never depict fully the emotions being experienced in this heartwarming biblical story but treating it as an abstraction and giving it a title avoids the problem entirely.


Modern art is a term applied to work that emerged in the late nineteenth century and continued until the 1960s – 1970s. Although styles that came out of modernism are now somewhat passé, they tend to appeal to artists who are self-consciously trying to be forward thinking and yet seem to be unaware that art of the last century no longer represents the avant-garde.


© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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