Friday, December 25, 2020

The Christmas Stag


The Vision of Saint Eustace by Pisanello, c. 1438-1442

As the French story of the 13th century tells it, Saint Eustace was a Roman soldier of the second century A.D., originally named Placidus, who was enthusiastically participating in a Roman hunting party. He sighted a stag and broke away from his party to follow the deer's trail. Suddenly, the stag stopped and turned 180 degrees around to face his hunter, and Saint Eustace then saw that between the stag's antlers was the image of Christ on the cross. At that moment, Placidus heard God speak, telling him that he must be baptized in the Christian faith. Placidus immediately went and did so, taking Eustace as his Christian name. His wife and two sons were baptized with him. 

Recently I saw a stag race across our street and disappear into a wooded area behind a neighboring row of houses. An hour later I was with my collie dog on a walk that took me into that area and was stunned to turn a corner and see standing about 15 feet away the stag, very much taller than I, looking directly at me. I had interrupted his grazing in a back yard. He seemed to be asking me, "You're not coming closer, are you?" but not as a threat and certainly not in fear. My answer was "No, I am not," and I turned myself and my dog back to the path we had come from. Even in this prosaic encounter, the stag had a stature, beauty, and dignity that gave him an other-worldly aura and authority.  

Pisanello paints Saint Eustace's encounter with the stag amidst a woodland filled with flora and fauna, reminiscent of the all-encompassing mille-fleurs and fauna of medieval tapestries--a medieval sensibility in which the natural world symbolized and conveyed God's messages to those made in His image. Many of Pisanello's most accomplished works have been destroyed, but surviving are detailed watercolor sketches of ducks and birds and larger mammals--evidence of the artist's keen dedication to capturing the wonders of the natural world. In the wooded background of The Vision of Saint Eustace, now darkened by age and damage, we see a pelican,  ducks, does, fawns, other stags, rabbits, hunting dogs, a blue jay, a bear, a heron and baby heron, and a squirrel in a forest strewn with tiny flowers--purple and white violets (the flower of humility), bluets, and perhaps Stars of Bethlehem. 

The stag appears with a visual message, bearing Christ on the cross in his antlers. The deer or stag as messenger was a recurring theme of the early Middle Ages, when the great conversions to Christianity--as foreshadowed by the conversion of Saint Eustace in the second century--were accomplished in the regions of what is now Western Europe, Ireland, and the British Isles. The stag seems designed to the role of God's messenger by virtue of the magnificence of his antlers--akin to the beauty and power of an angel's wings. His antlers point upward. The image of the stag points to the miracle of both the awesome power and loving and noble gentleness of our Lord, whose birth we celebrate today. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Titian's Supper at Emmaus

Supper at Emmaus, Titian, 1530, The Louvre

The great Venetian Renaissance artist,Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian, in 1530 painted this beautiful evocation of the Supper at Emmaus, as told in Luke 24:13-35. 

The Story
The story in the Gospel of Luke is prefaced by the words of the women, telling the disciples what they had seen and heard at the tomb of the risen Lord that Easter morning, but “…these words seemed to them”—to the disciples—“an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all those things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him” [emphasis added]. 

The two disciples and the stranger continue to walk together, and the disciples tell him of what has happened to Jesus of Nazareth and how “our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.” They relate how it is now the third day since Jesus died, and that some of the women “were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” [emphasis added].

Christ gently chastises his two disciples, saying, “‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” 

As they near Emmaus, the disciples ask him to stay with them, rather than go on alone, “ ‘for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were openedand they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” [emphasis added].

Many years later Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), revered as the father of Christian worship, preached on the Supper at Emmaus (Homily 23 in his Homilies on the Gospels). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus “did not, in fact, have faith in him, yet they were talking about him. The Lord, therefore, appeared to them but did not show them a face they could recognize. In this way, the Lord enacted outwardly, before their physical eyes, what was going on in them inwardly, before the eyes of their hearts. For inwardly they simultaneously loved him and doubted him; therefore the Lord was outwardly present to them, and at the same time did not reveal his identity. Since they were speaking about him, he showed them his presence, but since they doubted him, he hid from them the appearance by which they could have recognized him.” 

The Painting
Titian paints the moment when the disciples suddenly realize that the stranger in their midst is Christ. Christ’s left hand is on the bread, and he raises his right hand in the gesture of blessing. At this moment, the disciple on the right—dressed as a contemporary Italian friar—brings his hands together and partially rises, perhaps to fall to his knees before Christ. The other disciple draws back in consternation. 

The moment of recognition comes just as Christ repeats the blessing and giving of the bread, as in the Last Supper that initiated the Eucharist. Titian draws upon  Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, painted in the 1490s: a long frontally positioned table covered in white linen with Christ in the center flanked by his disciples, all of whom have highly individual reactions to Christ’s blessing of the bread. 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495

It is noted by art historians that the disciple to the left in Titian’s painting has a pose closest to that of Judas in Leonardo’s painting—a posture of withdrawal from the figure of Christ. At first I didn’t think this could be, but the half-medallion on the wall behind this disciple has the vague outlines of the torso of a hanging person, dressed in 16th-century garb, and a hook hangs from this medallion, while immediately to the right in sketchy white are what seem to be the shapes of a ribcage and perhaps a skeleton head. If this is at all a correct reading of this object in the upper left of the painting, then it is likely that there lies the shadow of death, Judas’ death in particular, in contrast to Titian’s celestial coloring of Christ, signifying the triumph over death. 

Christ’s face, at the horizontal center of Titian's painting, has a serene, other-worldly quality—it is bathed in light and his downcast eyes, as in Leonardo’s painting, suggest a humility that is turned to that which is unseen. His face is in keeping with the sacramental actions of his hands. The friar to his right looks of this world, but his humility in pressing his hands together as in prayer and his positioning as if about to kneel before the now-recognized Lord, show his love of Christ and his own nascent holiness. 

Leonardo’s famous painting situates the Last Supper before a trinity of windows opened to distant views of hills and sky. Titian’s single window opens up to a fully painted landscape and sky. The single tree stands as a remembrance of the wooden cross upon which Christ had died. (The tree seems slight, but alive, compared with the adjacent monumental Roman column behind Christ.) To the right, the earthen colors of the mountain continue into the brown cassock of the friar, and the beautiful blue, pale violet, and grays of the more distant mountain and sky are echoed in Christ’s gown and mantle. Titian chose to paint a sky in which the sun is unseen, but its light comes from behind gray storm clouds against an ascending sky of clear blue—a metaphor of light for the emotion evoked by the story itself. Titian’s unity of color signifies the harmony of Christ, God’s natural order, and the followers of Christ. 

On the other side of the painting are more secularized individuals. The innkeeper has no awareness of or interest in the emotional tumult caused by the disciples’ realization that Christ is present. The innkeeper’s face is turned away, and his left hand sports a large ring of gold, perhaps pointing to the subject of his thoughts. Judas’s left hand, palm up, is immediately under the innkeeper’s hands. 

Under the table a dog growls at a cat. In medieval and renaissance Christianity, dogs symbolized loyalty, watchfulness, and trustworthiness—not like the disciples that slept as Christ prayed in Gethsemane although he had asked them to watch, or like Saint Peter, who denied Christ three times, as Christ told him he would do—loyalty, watchfulness, and trustworthiness in contrast to fallen man. The cat often symbolized cunning and deceit, such as in the betrayal of Judas, sitting directly above. 

The most diminutive figure is that of the adolescent servant bearing food, who looks beyond Judas to the friar at the far side of the table but with no apprehension of what is taking place. His innocent interest, however, brings him far closer to Christ than the complacency of the oblivious innkeeper. 

In all figures, Titian has painted hands that speak volumes of the inner life of their owners. The boy’s hands show a delicacy and tenseness of expectation and willingness to serve. Judas’ hands demonstrate his extreme surprise in seeing Christ, whom he had helped bring to what he believed would be certain death. The innkeeper’s hands, with his thumbs hooked in his belt, point to his earth-bound nature. Christ’s hands are carefully positioned in sacramental action, with the fingers of his blessing hand gracefully arched. The friar’s hands are those of one in prayer—any surprise he feels at his recognition of Christ is superseded by his humble desire to worship his Savior.

A striking feature of Titian’s painting is the prominence of the starched pure white tablecloth that stretches across the composition and touches all figures. Leonardo’s Last Supper table also has a white cloth with its fold lines, but our eyes quickly pass it by to look at the action above. In Titian’s painting, the white cloth is a symbolic reminder of the white linen burial shroud that enfolded Christ in burial and also of the white cloth laid out on a Christian altar. And this crisp, beautiful linen also brings to the mind the unseen women, who washed, starched, folded, and laid it—women such as those who loved Christ and first received the news that he had risen, and believed.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Happy Easter, Everyone!

Resurrection of Christ, oil on wood by Pietro Perugino, c. 1496–98.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

The Crucifixion Diptych by Rogier van der Weyden, 1460, Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene: An Image for Our Times

Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene, by Hendrick Jansz Terbrugghen, 1625, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Saint Sebastian (256-288) was a Christian martyr who was tied to a post in Diocletian's Rome and shot through with arrows as punishment for his refusal to renounce his Christian faith. He did not die, however, thanks to Saint Irene, the widow of another martyred Roman Christian, who came to cut  down Sebastian from the post and bury him. Finding him still alive, she brought him to her home and nursed him to health.

The 17th-century Dutch artist Terbrugghen (1588-1629) paints the moment when Saint Irene and her servant rush to free Saint Sebastian and begin attending to his wounds. The painting, nearly 5 feet by 4 feet, is among the treasures at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio.

Terbrugghen was one of a group of Dutch painters who lived and painted in Italy, learning fluidity of form and drama from the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610). After seven years in Rome, Terbrugghen returned to his native city of Utrecht in 1614.

In the late Middle Ages, the arrows that pierced the body of Saint Sebastian became a metaphor for the fatal piercing of the flesh by the bubonic plague--the disease of the Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th century and continued to recur regularly in European cities. For this reason, Saint Sebastian is venerated by the faithful as a protector against the plague.

Saint Sebastian's protection was immediately relevant to the inhabitants of Terbrugghen's Utrecht, where the dreaded disease returned each summer from 1625 to 1629. Terbrugghen brings this home in two ways.

First, as Valerie Hedquist points out in an article for the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art (Volume 9, Issue 2 Summer 2017), the painter adds buboes on the body of the dying Saint Sebastian--on the inside of his right elbow and prominently on his right knee. He also shows the blackening of the saint's skin from the internal hemorrhaging the disease causes. The metaphor is now the reality.

Second, Terbrugghen heightens the immediacy of the drama by placing us so close to the life-sized figures. Saint Sebastian's right knee juts out beyond the picture plane, putting us right into the scene and drawing us upward toward the expressions of urgency and care in the faces of the saint's rescuers. As the art historian Wolfgang Stechow writes,
"... the action of the two women is the very life-blood of the picture. Loving care is about to conquer death; it is a tense struggle but it is a noiseless one. No punches are pulled in the depiction of the nearness of the end: the body of Sebastian is olive-grey, his mouth drooping, his left arm hangs limp, touching the ground behind his right foot. Yet the activity of the women bespeaks efficient help--but without resort to any ado. Wonderful is the quiet contrast between the neighboring hands at the upper left, and particularly, how the lifeless flesh of Sebastian's right hand yields to the pressure with lively resilience. It is as though this contrast sounded the key for the entire picture. Above the slumping head of the Saint appear the reassuring smile of Irene and the busily alert profile of her servant. The lifting of the arrow by Irene's gentle right hand is a masterpiece of depicting an action bent upon easing pressure and soothing pain, her left hand is a little wonder of subtle luminosity (The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 96, No. 612, March 1954).  
Almost 400 years later, Terbrugghen's masterpiece prompts the modern-day viewer to pause and consider the courage of our first responders and hospital doctors and nurses as they act with all due haste to care for those sick with infectious disease.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Thoughts of Two Mothers

Illustration by Shirley Fields

I recently read two Persephone books back to back that portrayed mothers in England in the years between the two world wars: Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (Persephone No. 41) first published in 1933, and The Squire by Enid Bagnold (Persephone No. 103) first published in 1938.
Hostages to Fortune chronicles the trials, dappled with happiness, of Catherine, her husband William, and their three children from 1917 to the mid-1930s, when England was struggling to recover from the losses of the First World War. Both William, a doctor, and Catherine are middle-class, living in an old, drafty home and keeping a large vegetable garden and fruit trees as an economic necessity. Catherine sews clothes, does the shopping,  teaches her children how to read and write, and wrestles with the servants--a cook and a nurse.

Hall at Shinnecock by William Merritt Chase, 1892

The Squire relates the unspoken thoughts of the lady of the house in the several days leading up to the birth of her fifth child and the month thereafter. As the title connotes, the Squire is a member of the upper middle class, living in the Manor House on the village green. The lady of the house is referred to throughout as the Squire, because her husband is away on a three-month business trip to Bombay. The Squire works on her flower garden, does sporadic hand sewing, keeps an eye on her imaginative and boisterous four children, and wrestles with the servants--a butler, a cook, a kitchen maid, a nurse, and a nursemaid, at least.

Both books are semi-autobiographical, both Cambridge and Bagnold were highly successful novelists, both had abiding marriages and several children. Delightful in both books are the distinct and expressive personalities of the children, portrayed in loving detail with snippets of fresh and lively dialogue. And in both books, the main character's primary concern is her children and her relationship with them.

The differences between these novels lie in the character and circumstances of the women. In Hostages to Fortune, we see the growth of a woman who has deep doubts about her ability to love her children enough, to teach and guide them, eventually comes to like and accept them, and have confidence in her own mothering. In the first third of the book, she is frustrated because her enormous workload in keeping her home and family going with very little money makes it impossible for her to pursue her youthful dream of becoming a writer; her children are her top priority and she does not want to hand over their care to other people. We hear Catherine's laments that the family never has money for the slightest luxury or vacation. Her husband is absorbed in his dedication as the doctor to the village and surrounding countryside and only learns to appreciate his children as they grow older.

The family has few leisure moments together when they are all relaxed--a rare jaunt to the countryside in an afternoon. They spend hours each week in the garden, working, playing, fighting. At the end of the book, Catherine and her husband are riding home in the car after a "last day" graduation party for her oldest daughter, and he puts his hand on her knee in gratitude for her years of effort for him and their children. Catherine is also thinking of the past 15 years of doubts and difficulties and recognizes that her children will soon be leaving and she must let loose her hold on them; she realizes that she cannot plan her children's future happiness.

The Squire's contemplations are far different. The birth of her fifth child, which she looks forward to in total confidence, prompts her to ponder the nature of time, the "naval line" between herself and her children, and how her children embody her own immortality. At the end of the book, "with a deep female pride, she felt herself an archway through which her children flowed; and cared less that the clock in the arch's crown ticked Time away." She considers her mother, herself, and her newborn daughter as one being progressing through time. She thinks of her children as extensions of herself. These thoughts of an existential nature may be prompted not only by the Squire's age--forty-four--but also by the horizons of 1937-1938 that threatened war, yet again. At the closing of the book, she writes her weekly letter to Bombay, but otherwise, her husband is in the outer orbits of her mind.

The Mirror by Mary Cassatt, 1905

Thus, although the subject of these books is the same, each produces very different impressions in the reader. With Hostages to Fortune we watch a woman who gropes her way to overcoming challenges posed by her economic circumstances, her desires, and her lack of experience. In the end the author evokes a  family bound by a strong though silent continuity of love, a family she holds together. In Enid Bagnold's novel, the Squire loves her children as herself and in the final analysis, is the master of the house but psychologically alone.