Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Related post “B Easter 5, Art for May 6, 2012
Duration of time is a factor in many of the arts. In motion pictures and in the theater there is a passage of time as the audience is engaged from beginning to end. A period of time occurs also as the plot of a novel unfolds or as we listen to music. A painting differs from the above arts in that time is not an inherent part of how we experience it; we may choose to examine a painting at length but it is possible to see it in its entirety in a single moment.
When an artist wants to depict events that have taken place in time, they do so usually with a series. Each work depicts a particular event and stands on its own but taken collectively they encompass a period of time; as in Albrecht Durer’s Small Passion. A sequence, in which two or more events are shown in a single painting, however, is less common in the art of the Western World and is found more often in murals and relief sculpture. Michelangelo used a narrative sequence in several panels in the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel; most notably, The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This device also was used by an unknown Russian artist in the icon, The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Philip. Unlike the subject of a still-life or landscape (unless there is intentional symbolic content), the above paintings illustrate an event or story and it is necessary for a viewer to have prior knowledge of what is being depicted in order to understand the relationship of the images.
In the “Baptism of the Eunuch,” a carriage in which a high-ranking Ethiopian eunuch and Philip are seated is shown in the upper right side. Before Philip met him, the eunuch had been to Jerusalem to pray and had been reading the book of Isaiah but did not understand a particular passage. When Philip came to him and explained it, the eunuch expressed a desire to be baptized. They traveled together and when they reached a body of water, the baptism took place. In the sequence of events, the conversation between the two men and the carriage ride preceded the baptism but in this painting it is part of the background narrative and is included as a secondary subject. The baptism is the primary point of focus. The scene of the baptism is placed prominently in the foreground and Philip’s size dwarfs the eunuch. The artist may have been following the tradition of depicting a person’s size in accordance with their importance but it is also possible that the painter was somewhat unskilled and simply doing the best he could. In comparison to Philip, the eunuch is almost childlike in size and anatomically awkward. His light skin suggests the artist was not familiar with Ethiopians.
After the split in the Russian Orthodox Church during the seventeenth century, some icon painters became less traditional and by the eighteenth century European realism was a definite influence. “Baptism of the Eunuch,” is not in the style of Russian icons that developed out of Byzantine art. Yet, neither is there an indication the painter was aware of works by major European artists of the Renaissance, Baroque, or Rococo periods. The work has a folk art quality that lacks sophistication when compared to artists such as Rembrandt who also painted this subject. Regardless of this, there is a sense of sincerity and dedication in this artist’s work. Icons were not painted for personal glory but, instead, to enhance worship in a church or a private home.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian