The Widow’s Mite | Art for Proper 27B

Mark 12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

The Widow's Mite
The Widow’s Mite, The Macklin Bible, 1794
Artaud, W. (William), 1763-1823 ; Delattre, Jean Marie, 1745 or 6-1840
Jean and Alexander Heard Library Nashville TN.
Click image for more information.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

The Widow’s Mite, 1794, Engraving, Jean Marie Delattre, 1745-1840, after an oil painting by William Artaud, 1763-1823

Today, a variety of photo-mechanical methods can be used to make reproductions of paintings but none were available during the eighteenth century. Unless a painting was public art or displayed in a church, it was likely to be in a private home and the number of people seeing it was limited. Artists such as Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt van Rijn remedied this in part by producing original prints (etchings, engravings, and woodcuts) in multiples. Fine art also was made available to a wider audience by employing skilled engravers to make detailed copies of paintings; the engravings then could be printed in large numbers. Engravings did not reproduce a painting’s colors, however, and the effect was similar to using the halftone process for printing photos in a newspaper. Like a halftone, engravings were printed usually in black ink and were primarily in a range of gray tones.

Thomas Macklin, an eighteenth century London art connoisseur, founded a business selling fine quality etchings and engravings but his most ambitious project was the publication of an illustrated Bible. It was published in seven volumes and illustrated with engravings of paintings commissioned from the finest English artists of his day. “Widow’s Mite,” by Jean Marie Delattre, is an engraving of a painting made by William Artaud for the Macklin Bible.

The setting for the “Widow’s Mite” is at a time when Christ was teaching at the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12: 38-44). He told listeners to beware of scribes whose actions promoted their self image of being important; this could be seen even in the length of their pretentious prayers. He mentioned also the various ways scribes misuse their position; among them was taking advantage of poor widows. A little later, as Christ sat across from the treasury where the wealthy came to donate great sums of money, a poor widow came and contributed only two mites. The illustration of this scene in the Macklin Bible draws our attention to the figure of Christ who is seated near center and radiant in white. The widow has a child in tow and Christ is gesturing toward her while facing his disciples and pointing out that although the widow’s contribution was minute, it was a greater sacrifice than donations from the wealthy because the rich gave out of their abundance.

Note

The Macklin Bible, published in 1800, has been described as the largest and most impressive Bible ever printed. The seven volumes are each slightly over nineteen inches in length and fifteen inches in width. Each volume is almost three inches thick and all of them together weigh 130 lbs.

The small coin referred to in the Bible as a “mite” was actually a lepton. There was not a coin called mite in use during the time of Christ. A mite was a coin issued in Southern Netherlands in the early fifteenth century and Tyndale, in his translation of the Bible in 1525, used the term as the amount of the widow’s donation. It was used again in the King James translation of 1611. Like the lepton, a mite was almost valueless. A mite’s worth was said to be less than a cent, a penny, or a farthing. It is difficult to calculate what its value would be today. “Very little” may be the best answer.

Hannah, prophetess and mother of Samuel, thanking God | Art for Proper 28B

1 Samuel 1:10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.

Hannah, prophetess and mother of Samuel, thanking God
Hannah, prophetess and mother of Samuel, thanking God
Miniature from the Paris Psalter 10th century
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France.
Click image for more information.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Hannah Thanking God, Miniature from the Paris Psalter, Manuscript illumination, 10th century

Image makers of the tenth century were generally awkward in their drawing skills and were successful only partially in their efforts to create an illusion of depth. Although Greek and Roman artists made progress toward creating a likeness of the physical world, the artists of the middle ages tended not to consult classical works. Yet, exceptions could be found among artists in Constantinople where the Paris Psalter was made and the influence of Roman frescos can be seen in some of its illustrations. There were variations, however, and the person that created “Hannah Thanking God” was less skilled than some of the other artists of the Psalter.

In this painting, Hannah’s relaxed stance with bent knee is Greek in origin but the architecture is confusing and much of the painting is filled with an off-kilter perspective. The architecture of the synagogue as well as its shadows, the landscape, and the lines of Hannah’s robe all are slanted to the right. It is very unlikely this was done deliberately but the effect seems to suggest, nevertheless, that all subjects are leaning toward God (who is not in the painting but represented by an arm and hand). In composition, this painting is the simplest of the miniatures in the Psalter and although it tends to lack artistic sophistication it is, nevertheless, a direct and sincere effort to depict a spiritual moment.

Hannah was unable to have children and her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, belittled her constantly for this. Her husband treated her well but Peninnah’s irritation went on for years and caused a great deal of grief. When Hannah was praying at the synagogue, Eli the priest misread her emotional state and thought she had been drinking. Hannah explained to Eli she had not been drinking and told him about her sadness and distress. Eli assured Hannah that God would hear her petition for a son and it would be granted.

This simple scene in the Paris Psalter shows Hannah standing outside the synagogue with arms raised in thanksgiving to God for her son, Samuel. How to depict Hannah was not difficult but how to depict God was a dilemma; artists seldom attempted it. Only a hand and a portion of arm were shown usually. It was believed that inasmuch as God was invisible, an image was not possible. Later, and only occasionally, artists depicted God’s face; usually as a bearded old man. In passing years, more of the body of God was shown and by the time of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century the entire figure was being represented. In this painting of Hannah from the Paris Psalter, God’s hand and a portion of a sleeved arm is seen in the upper right hand corner. Rays are extending from the fingers of God as a blessing is being bestowed on Hannah.

Note

In the Episcopal Church, The Psalter (the Book of Psalms) is included in the Book of Common Prayer. During the Middle Ages, however, the Psalter was likely to be a book commissioned by a wealthy lay person for use in a private chapel. As such, it was decorated elaborately and included usually devotional writings as well as miniature paintings that depicted the Passion or Old Testament subjects. The Psalter was used also as a book from which a person could learn to read.

© Hovak Najarian, 2012

Alpha Omega | Art for Proper 29B

Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Alpha Omega
Cristo barbato (dettaglio), affresco 60×72
Bust of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla.
Late 4th century
Catacombe di Commodilla, Roma.
Click image for more information.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

 

Alpha and Omega, Fresco from the Catacomb of Commodilla, Late 4th century.

 

For many of us during youth, a catacomb was imagined to be a place where one might wander into, become lost, and never find a way out. They were thought to be maize-like underground tunnels where secret rituals took place. Early Christians, it was said, hid from Romans in them. Reality is seldom as mysterious as the imagination and although it is conceivable a catacomb could have served as a hiding place, the evidence for this is lacking. The catacombs were burial sites for early Christians living in Rome and the rituals that took place were burial rites. When a Roman died, cremation was the usual practice but Christians buried their dead and believed in the body’s resurrection. The most common image painted on catacomb walls is that of Jesus raising Lazarus. Because space in the city was limited, Christians carved underground burial chambers in soft volcanic rock at the outskirts of Rome.

The catacomb of Commodilla has been of special interest because within it is an underground church built under the direction of Pope Siricius during his reign from 384 to 399 AD. Frescos cover the walls of the church and in the center of the ceiling – surrounded by smaller paintings – is a bust of Christ with the letters Alpha and Omega written on either side. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and are in reference to two statements in the Book of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, who is and was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8). This concept is stated again in the last chapter of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13).

This painting is one of the earliest depictions of a bearded Christ. Before this time, paintings were based usually on young males seen in Roman wall paintings and Christ was shown as a beardless youth (as in catacomb images of the Good Shepherd). Many centuries lapsed before Christ was regularly depicted with a beard. The image of a bearded Christ was used regularly first in Eastern Christianity and his features tended to be more Near Eastern. If the beard were removed from this painting, Christ’s face would still look Roman.

Note

In the Greek alphabet, some lowercase letters bear no resemblance to their uppercase counterparts. In the painting of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla, the Greek letter, “alpha” is written in uppercase and “omega” is in lowercase (like a cursive “w”). An uppercase omega is shaped like a horseshoe with “feet” extending outward from the bottom on each side.

In the latter part of the third century, some of the wealthy Christians chose to be buried in a sarcophagus; a stone coffin. It often was made of marble, carved elaborately with relief sculpture, and was intended to remain above ground. At one time, limestone was used for sarcophagi and it was thought it caused the body to decompose. The Greek word “sarcophagus” means literally, “eating of flesh.” The word “sarcasm” has the same root. To be sarcastic is to “tear the flesh.”

Hovak Najarian © 2012

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.

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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.

Note

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.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Christ Healing the Blind | Art for Proper 25B

Mark 10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

Christ Healing the Blind
Christ Healing the Blind, c. 1570’s,
El Greco, 1541-1614
Oil on canvas, 119 x 146 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkClick image for more information and two earlier versions by El Greco.

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, of Greek descent, was born on the island of Crete at a time when it was a Venetian colony. He began his career as an icon painter but while a young man he went to Venice to study painting with Titian, one of the great masters of the sixteenth century. He then moved to Rome, opened a workshop, and became familiar with the work of artists associated with the Renaissance and Mannerism. Next on his itinerary was Madrid where he hoped to work at the Spanish court. The king did not like his work, however, and after receiving a commission for a group of paintings at a church in Toledo, he decided to stay there and make it his home. In Spain, he became known simply as The Greek – “El Greco.”

While in Italy, El Greco painted three versions of Christ Healing the Blind; the one shown above was his last one. It has a few unfinished areas and was taken with him to Spain – perhaps to finish it there. At that time he was influenced by the artists of Venice and, inasmuch as this painting was not quite complete and not signed, historians first attributed it to two highly regarded Venetian painters. It was thought to be a Tintoretto and later, the work of Veronese. In 1958 it was determined to be the work of El Greco.

This painting is not from a specific biblical text but is a synthesis of several accounts of Christ healing the blind. The man pointing upward at the far left has had his sight restored and is telling about the experience to the people gathered. Another man is kneeling and his eyes are being touched by Christ. In El Greco’s first painting of this subject, he placed a dog in the central foreground sniffing the belongings of the man being healed. That space was left empty in the second version but in this, his third interpretation, the central foreground has been given over to a man and woman witnessing the miracle and gesturing in awe. Because of a likeness between the man in the foreground and the man being healed, it has been suggested the two figures in the foreground are the blind man’s parents. The men grouped together at the far right of the painting are believed to be Pharisees airing their criticism because the healing was carried out on the Sabbath.

El Greco’s greatest success and the development of his artistic style came during his years in Spain. Although he lived in Toledo until the time of his death, he remained emotionally close to his Greek heritage. When adding his signature to a painting, he always signed his given name in Greek and sometimes followed with, “from Crete.”

Note

El Greco’s life and work spans the time between Mannerism and the Baroque period. After the Venetian influence diminished, his style became so distinctive and personal that it defies categorization. His work is now regarded to be an early manifestation of “expressionism.”

Elongated figures are a characteristic of El Greco’s work in Spain. It has been suggested astigmatism was the cause. That is inaccurate. If average sized figures looked elongated to him, he would see the figures elongated in his paintings as well, yet to us, they would appear to be average in size.

Job Confessing his Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind | Art for Proper 24B

Job 38:1-7 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Job Confessing his Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind
Job Confessing his Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind
1803-05
William Blake 1757-1827
Pen, ink and watercolour over pencil on paper, 393 x 330 mm
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Click image for more information

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

In his youth, William Blake studied engraving and attended briefly the Royal Academy in London but his art did not reflect the academic teachings of his day. Instead, the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was Blake’s early interest and the influence of other historical sources was minimal. Unlike the landscape paintings of his contemporaries, Blake’s images came from within. He spoke of visits from heavenly beings and his work often is referred to as visionary. Even when we are unsure of what is being depicted, we become engaged usually by his provocative imagery.

The setting for the illustration of God answering from the whirlwind is at a time when it seemed nothing more could be done to further the anguish and discomfort of Job. All of his livestock was stolen, his thousands of sheep perished in a fire, a strong wind destroyed his house and killed his ten children, he was covered with sores, and his wife ridiculed him. His friends thought this was all brought on by his sins and advised him to confess. Job insisted adamantly that he had done no wrong and had, in fact, adhered to all of the teachings of God. At this time he had nothing more to lose and demanded answers from God regarding the cause of his losses and suffering. God came to him and spoke from a whirlwind. Instead of revealing reasons for the suffering endured by Job, however, God responded with profound questions on subjects ranging from the marvels of the creation to the wonderment of the earth and the heavens. As God brought attention to these things, Job came to realize how little he understood of the infinite differences between God’s realm and his. After God spoke, Job’s health, possessions, and family were restored.

Blake admired the work of Michelangelo and, in “Job Confessing,” a bearded God has similarities to the image of God in the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam.” Blake’s image, however, is lighter and much less physical in its appearance. There is a dream-like effect in the whirlwind that is formed by angels swirling around God and swooping down as they speed past Job and go on to move across the land. Job is kneeling and looking up with fingers spread in a state of awe. His wife and friends are overwhelmed and frightened as they bow down on the ground near him.

Note

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century there was a reaction to the impersonal intellectualism that tended to be part of neoclassicism. To the romanticists, feelings were important and their work often was imbued with emotional and dramatic content. Although Blake’s work was not part of the mainstream of art, it was part of the romantic tendencies of his time.

The Book of Job was of longstanding interest to Blake and he returned to it regularly. Twenty years after creating, “Job Confessing His Presumption to God who Answers from the Whirlwind,” he again took up the theme and made twenty-two illustrations on subjects based solely on the Book of Job.

Blake was not only a visual artist he also was a very gifted poet and writer. His poems, such as The Tiger, [“Tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forest of the night…”] are widely known.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Camel Pondering The Needle | Art for Proper 23B

Mark 10:24-25 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Camel Pondering The Needle, Pencil, © 2000 Julie Hirsch b. 1937 La Quinta CA
Camel Pondering The Needle
Pencil, © 2000 Julie Hirsch
b. 1937 La Quinta CA.
Fifteen years ago, when I needed a pamphlet illustration of today’s Gospel, my wife Julie gave me this sketch. SCH

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Commentary by Hovak Najarian

We are so accustomed to seeing line drawings that we tend to forget that lines are seldom seen in nature. Lines are an invention of humans and they often are used as a form of shorthand to depict a subject without focusing on every detail. Because it is in our nature to want a sense of completion, our mind supplies meaning to spaces within a drawing. An apple is a three-dimensional solid object but by drawing an outline of it on paper to indicate where the substance of it ends and the space around it begins, the idea “apple” is communicated. Our mind completes and interprets the area enclosed by the line. There are no actual lines on a camel’s face but, in Camel Pondering the Needle, Julie Hirsch follows the contours of its features. Even though other visual elements such as color, texture, and shape are missing, line is all that is needed to communicate its form. A closer look, however, is required to discover the drawing’s central message.

The drawing refers to Christ’s statement, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). Hirsch created an image of a camel contemplating this seemingly impossible task. The title tells us the camel is pondering a needle yet this beast of burden is looking straight ahead with no obvious needle in its line of vision. There is no dotted line (as in cartoons) connecting the eyes of the camel to a needle. The needle’s eye, however, is an essential part of the drawing. Artists such as Jan van Eyck and Diego Velazquez introduced subjects into a painting by reflecting them in a mirror. In Hirsch’s drawing we are given the sense that the eye of the needle is being observed keenly and being pondered deeply as we see its reflection in the camel’s eyes.

Note

Before there were written languages, drawings were used as a means of communication. When Phoenicians wanted to communicate a visual image of an ox (called “aleph”), they made a simple line drawing of its head and horns. At the time they made their phonetic alphabet (the word phonetic is derived from “Phoenician”) the drawing of an ox was simplified further into three straight lines. It looked like the letter “A” toppled over on its side with the cross bar extended. It is not difficult to imagine these lines as an ox head with horns and ears. “Aleph,” as a pictograph of an ox, became the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet (“aleph” continues to be the first letter of Hebrew and other alphabets). Their second letter was “beth,” their word for “house.” When the Greeks borrowed these letters; they placed the point of the “A” upward and “aleph” was changed to alpha in order to fit the sounds used in their language. The Greeks called their second letter beta. These two pictographs became the source of our word “alphabet.” In our alphabet, simple lines are made to create letters that represent sounds, and letters are placed together to make words. This contributed immeasurably to the spread of knowledge. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is not always true; yet today, thousands of years after the invention of written languages, drawings and other visual media continue to be essential. They enable us to communicate ideas that are impossible to express in words.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian