Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas: Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery, Washington.

Scholars have expended more time dealing with the controversy that has surrounded the attribution to Giorgione of the so-called “Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds” than they have in trying to understand what is actually going on in the painting. Here I would like to deal with the subject and meaning of this famous Nativity scene that is now in Washington’s National Gallery.

The subject of the painting seems so obvious. It is a depiction of the adoration of the shepherds who have left their flocks to seek out the newborn Savior after hearing the angel’s announcement.
Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made know to us..” So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds is the traditional gospel at the midnight Mass on Christmas . The actual arrival of the shepherds at the stable in Bethlehem is the passage used for the gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at dawn.
The relatively small size of the painting indicates that it was done not as an altarpiece but for private devotion. Although the subject is clear, there is a deeper meaning.* Why is the infant Jesus lying on the rocky ground and not in a manger or feeding trough? Why is he naked? Where are the swaddling clothes?

Actually the newborn infant is lying on a white cloth that just happens to be on the ends of Mary’s elaborate blue robe that the artist has taken great pains to spread over the rocky ground. Giorgione is here using a theme employed earlier by Giovanni Bellini and later by Titian in their famous Frari altarpieces. The naked Christ is the Eucharist that lies on the stone altar at every Mass. The altar is covered with a white cloth that in Rona Goffen’s words “recalls the winding cloth, ritualized as the corporale, the cloth spread on the altar to receive the Host of the Mass.” In Franciscan spirituality Mary is regarded as the altar.
Clearly, the viewer-worshipper is meant to identify the Madonna with the altar and the Child with the Eucharist. Bellini's visual assertion of this symbolic equivalence is explained by a common Marian epithet. The Madonna is the "Altar of Heaven." the Ara Coeli, that contains the eucharistic body of Christ” Ave verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine.**
The “Adoration of the Shepherds” represents the first Mass. This is not such an unusual concept. Many years ago I attended a talk on the famous Portinari altarpiece that now hangs in the Uffizi. The speaker was Fr. Maurice McNamee, a Jesuit scholar, who argued that Hugo van der Goes had also illustrated a Mass in that Netherlandish altarpiece around the year 1475. His argument centered on the spectacular garments of the kneeling angels that he identified as altar servers wearing vestments of the time. He called them “vested angels,” and they are the subject of his 1998 study, “Vested Angels, Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Painting.”

His Eucharistic interpretation explained the naked infant on the hard, rocky ground. The infant Christ is the same as the sacrificial Christ on the Cross. In a study of Mary in Botticelli’s art Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel referred to this connection.
it needs to be pointed out first of all that the Renaissance era saw the spread of practices of individual devotion to be carried out primarily in the home…From the theological perspective attention should then be drawn to the emergence of a new trend that…tended to identify the mystery of the Incarnation with the Redemption itself, focusing on the Passion with much less fervour than in the past: whence the growing popularity of  ‘incarnational’ iconographies celebrating the word made flesh, such as pictures of the Infant Jesus in his mother’s arms…while the demand for images with Christ on the Cross, very common in the fourteenth century was drastically reduced.***
It would appear that Giorgione has used the same motif although his angels have become little putti who hover around the scene. The shepherds represent participants in the Mass who kneel in adoration. 

There are many other iconographical details in this painting that could be discussed. Joseph’s gold robe indicates royal descent from the House of David. The ox and ass in the cave are symbols of the old order that has been renewed with the coming of Christ. So too would be the tree trunk next to the flourishing laurel bush in the left foreground. The laurel is a traditional symbol of joy, triumph, and resurrection.

Finally, it has been noticed that Giorgione has moved the main characters off to the right away from their traditional place in the center. Rather than diminishing their importance this narrative device serves to make all the action flow from left to right and culminate in the Holy Family.  Giovanni Bellini had done the same thing in his “St. Francis in the Desert,” and later Titian would use this device in his Pesaro altarpiece in the Frari. ###

*Two recent catalogs have offered interpretations. See Mario Lucco’s entry in Brown, David Alan, and Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, Washington, 2006. Also see the very strange interpretation of Wolfgang Eller in Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

**Rona Goffen, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice, Yale, 1986. P. 53.

***Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, “The Figure of Mary in Botticelli’s Art.” Botticelli: from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Savonarola, 2003. (ex. cat), p. 56.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book List: Catholic Church History


Here is a list of books that I would recommend for those interested in reading about the Catholic Church. For practical purposes I have tried to name only books that are currently in print. Of course, nowadays many out of print books can be found online.

The Bible is, of course, at the top of any list but special attention should be paid to the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul if you are interested in the history of the early Church.

The three great Christian apologists of the last century were Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. Belloc is not highly regarded by historians today but his historical works are full of great insight and passionate Catholicism. Chesterton's two great works were "Orthodoxy," and "The Everlasting Man." Both were written before he converted to Catholicism but were the source of many conversions.

C.S.Lewis never converted to Catholicism but no Catholic should be unfamiliar with his work, whether scholarly, apologetic, inspirational, science fiction, or children's fantasy.  Aside from his most well known works like, "The Chronicles of Narnia," or the science fiction trilogy, my personal favorite is "A Preface to Paradise Lost," (especially the latter half beginning with the chapter on "The Unchanging Human Heart"). I also recommend his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature entitled, "English Literature in the 16th Century." Catholic readers will enjoy the book's introductory essay, "New Learning and New Ignorance," as well as his discussion of the first translations of the Bible into English. Finally, if you can only read one book on this list, read his, "Mere Christianity."

For the early history of the Church I recommend "The Ancient City," by the great French 19th century historian, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. Read the first 100 pages for an understanding of the real religion of ancient Greece and Rome, and then skip to the last chapter,"Christianity changes the Condition of Government," where Fustel brings out the radical effect of Christianity on the Ancient world. A modern book that does much the same thing is Rodney Stark's," The Rise of Christianity," an extremely readable and provocative sociological study of the reasons for the success of early Christianity.

For the Middle Ages I can think of no better introduction than the work of another outstanding 19th century French historian, Emile Male. In three great works on the religious art of the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Male rediscovered the meaning of Medieval art. The second volume in the series is in paperback form under the title, "The Gothic Image." I would also highly recommend Dorothy Sayers' translation of Dante's Divine Comedy for her brilliant introductions to the three paperback volumes. Even if you find it difficult reading Dante, it would be worthwhile to read her footnotes. By the way, Sayers was an equally gifted contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and her detective stories are still worth reading. Monasticism was a central feature of the Middle Ages and a careful reading of "The Rule of St. Benedict" is the best place to start for an understanding of this institution.

For an introduction to the Renaissance and Reformation I recommend the essay by C.S. Lewis," New Ignorance and New Learning," mentioned above. For the Reformation read "The Imitation of Christ," the great spiritual classic usually attributed to Thomas a Kempis. This little book became the world's first best seller after the invention of the printing press and influenced reformers both Catholic and Protestant For the Catholic reformers see "The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila," and "St. Ignatius Loyola, the Pilgrim Years," by Fr. James Brodrick, S.J.

The great central issue in the Reformation was the Mass. For an understanding of the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent see "The Mass of the Roman Rite," by Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J. For a shorter overview of the Tridentine Mass I recommend the introduction by Fr. F. X Lasance to "The New Roman Missal," one of the best of the Latin-English missals that became so popular in the first half of the 20th century.

For other controversial issues of the Early Modern era, see B. Netanyahu, "The Spanish Inquisition," a balanced and exhaustive study by a great Jewish scholar. I also believe that George Bernard Shaw's introduction to his play, "St. Joan," gives some valuable background on the Inquisition. Arthur Koestler's, "The Sleepwalkers," is a readable account of the beginnings of the conflict between science and religion. The chapters on Copernicus and Galileo are eye opening.

The era of the American and French revolutions was not a period friendly to Catholicism. In Ireland and England Catholics were brutally suppressed. The French revolution sought to destroy the Church in France and in conquered Italy. Catholic Poland was partitioned by powerful enemies. As usual the conquerors wrote the histories. One has to read between the lines to discover the real state of the Church during this era. Unfortunately, one of the best sources for Catholic history and biography is now sadly out of print. I am referring to the great "Catholic Encyclopedia," published in many volumes in the early part of the 20th century with extremely learned articles on every aspect of Catholicism. However, it is available on line.

The Age of Revolutions was followed by the so-called Romantic era, a political, cultural, literary, and artistic reaction against the excesses of the revolutionists. Christianity, especially Catholicism experienced an explosive recovery. Literary giants like Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoyevsky turned to religious themes. Hugo's "Les Miserables" has become a classic but I must confess that I like the Broadway play better. Dostoyevsky was not a friend to Catholicism, but his novels, "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers Karamazov," should be on any reading list for Catholics.

For the American Catholic experience I recommend another provocative sociological and extremely readable work by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, "The Churching of America." The chapters on Catholicism are especially interesting. For missionary activity in America see Paul Horgan's, "The Great River, the Rio Grande in American History," a study of the American Southwest. His chapter, "The Desert Fathers," details the incredible work of the early Franciscan missionaries.

Finally, let me conclude with a short list of 20th century novelists. From America I like Walker Percy, especially," Love in the Ruins." The two outstanding English novelists were Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," was made into an excellent TV miniseries. I don't know if Greene remained Catholic to the end but his early Catholic novels like "The Power and the Glory," are extremely powerful. On the lighter side I heartily recommend his "Monsignor Quixote," which was made into an outstanding film starring the late Alec Guinness. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is the greatest writer of our time and his novels and histories should live forever. As an historian I found his "August, 1914," incredibly moving. Italy has also produced a great Catholic masterpiece. Eugenio Corti's, "The Red Horse," set in Italy during the Second World War can stand in comparison with Tolstoi's, "War and Peace." Sadly, I believe that another Italian masterpiece is now out of print. I am referring to the series of books written after the War by Giovanni Guareschi about the most lovable priest in all literature, Don Camillo. If you can find these at library discard sales the first in the series, "The Little World of Don Camillo," and the last, "Comrade Don Camillo,"
 will bring tears to your eyes.



Monday, December 8, 2014

The Madonna in Art

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Emile Male, the great pioneering French art historian of the nineteenth century, traced the development of depictions of the Madonna from the twelfth century to the end of the Middle Ages in the sixteenth century. He wrote mainly about what he had seen in the cathedrals of France but his work and findings could apply to all of European art. Below are some notes from the magnificent three volume English re-publication of his ground breaking study by the Princeton University Press. 

The Thirteenth Century*                                             

234-5. The cult of the Virgin that grew up in the twelfth century spread during the thirteenth. The bells of Christendom began to ring the Angelus. The Office of the Virgin was recited daily. Our most beautiful cathedrals were dedicated to her. The idea of the Immaculate Conception began to take form in the minds of Christians who for centuries had meditated on the mystery of a Virgin chosen by God. …New religious orders—the Franciscans and the Dominicans—were true knights of the Virgin and spread her cult among the people….

235. In all the books written to glorify the Virgin, perhaps the idea that recurs most often is that Mary is Queen….

La Belle Verriere: Chartres

235-6. Among the many ideas and feelings that clustered around the Virgin in this period, the idea of royalty was the one best understood and most strongly expressed by artists. The Virgin of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries is a queen….Mary is a queen who holds the King of the world. At no other period were artists able to confer such majesty upon the image of the mother of God.

239. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the Virgin of the theologians, as majestic as pure idea, seemed too remote from man. All the miracle attributed to her in the thirteenth century, all the times she appeared to sinners, merciful and smiling, had brought her closer to mankind. It was then that the artists, faithfully interpreting the feelings of the people, conceived the Virgin of the north portal of Notre-dame of Paris as a mother radiating maternal pride…the virgin had grown to womanhood; she is a mother.

In the fourteenth century, the Virgin and Child group, represented with such solemnity a century before, has only intimacy left. The theological ideas represented by the Virgin, became less and less accessible to artists. They did not comprehend…’that it was the desire of the Infinite god to unite with a Virgin’…they could no longer recreate the superhuman Virgins of the past. They were satisfied to represent a mother smiling at her child.

Andrea Mantegna: Mother and Child

Soon they would bring the Virgin even closer to humanity through her grief. But the Mater dolorosa that inspired so many masterpieces in fifteenth-century art, the Virgin old before her time who wept over the bleeding forehead of her son, does not belong to the century under study. [13th]…artists did not yet dare to express her grief….

239-240. It did not occur to thirteenth-century artists, as it would to those of the late Middle Ages, to represent the Virgin before her birth. The thirteenth century left this to the sixteenth. It was shortly after 1500 that the young girl with long hair, surrounded by the rose, the star, the mirror, the fountain, and the closed garden appeared in stained glass windows, tapestries, and Books of Hours. This Virgin—a pure concept, anterior to time, an eternal thought of god—did not yet exist. Such a lofty idea, and one imminently suited to serve as inspiration to artists contemporary with St. Bonaventura and Dante, was however unknown to them….

Tota Pulchra Es

Neither did thirteenth-century artists go back to the father and mother of St. Anne in the genealogy of the virgin….the artists dealt only with the story of St. Anne and St. Joachim, her first husband….

Giotto: Kiss at the Golden Gate
Arena chapel, Padua

The meeting at the golden Gate is the subject most frequently depicted. The artists of the late Middle Ages had a marked predilection for it. In fact, it was the only way that had been devised to represent the Immaculate Conception. Although the error had been condemned by the Church Doctors, it was repeated that Mary had been conceived at the moment when Anna and Joachim kissed.

 * Emile Male: Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century, Princeton, 1986. 

The Later Middle Ages:**

197. toward the end of the fifteenth century, a mysterious idea that had been secretly geminating in man’s soul for more than five hundred years, suddenly blossomed. It now seemed clear to theologians that the Virgin could not have partaken of original sin, being especially exempted from the law by divine decree. Mary, the perfect model of newly created humanity, like Eve at the time she was created by the hands of God, had come into the world free of the burden of sin.

 The dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an ancient idea that already had its followers in England and Normandy as early as the eleventh century.

198. This doctrine, supported by the Synod of Basel in 1439, approved by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476, and accepted as dogma by the Sorbonne in 1496, would inevitably have found its expression in art….

199. The task was difficult. How was one to represent the Virgin as a pure concept? How convey her creation without sin, by God’s decree, her existence in his thought before the creation of time?

From the fifteenth century on, artists tried to resolve the problem. They first thought of the woman spoken of so mysteriously in the Apocalypse. She has the moon beneath her feet, stars on her head, and the sun envelops her; she seems older than time, no doubt conceived before the universe….

In the fifteenth century, in fact, we find manuscripts containing a half-length figure of the Virgin, who seems to rise out of a crescent moon and to shine like the sun….there can be no doubt that the Virgin of the crescent moon was the first symbolic representation of the Immaculate Conception

200. In the early years of the sixteenth century, a most poetic figure of the Virgin appeared in France. She is a young girl, almost a child; her long hair covers her shoulders…The young virgin seems to be suspended between heaven and earth. She floats like an unexpressed thought, for she is only an idea in the divine mind. God appears above her, and seeing her so pure, pronounces the words of the song of songs: Tota pulchra es, amica mea, et macula non est in te (Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in the). And to express the beauty and purity of the betrothed chosen by God, the artist chose the most pleasing metaphors of the Bible: around her he placed the closed garden, the tower of David, the fountain, the lily of the valleys, the star, the rose, the spotless mirror.

Grimani Breviary

202. Such an image no doubt answered the innermost feelings of Christians, for it was soon repeated ad infinitum….

204. Images of the Immaculate Conception usually appeared alone. Their numbers increased due to the confraternities of the Virgin which celebrated her Conception,…

205. Thus, the Tree of Jesse was considered a sort of symbol of the Immaculate Conception….the true reason for the presence of the Tree of Jesse in so many churches lies, I believe, in the cult of the Virgin, and, especially, in the cult of her Conception.

209. Thus the era of the Middle Ages ended. For more than a thousand years it had worked to fashion the image of the Virgin; this was its ever-abiding thought, it secret and profound poetry. And it might be said that the Middle Ages came to an end at the exact moment when it had made this cherished image as perfect as its dream. ###

**Emile Male: Religious Art in France, the later Middle Ages, Princeton, 1986.

Immaculate Conception:
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT




Sunday, November 23, 2014

Feast of Christ the King

                                                Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

The feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ.The Second Vatican Council re-emphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year.

Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

            Thus says the Lord God,
            I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Old traditions held that the king even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our Revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A king was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

Today's gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. He says:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
A stranger and you welcomed me,
Naked and you clothed me,
Ill and you cared for me,
In prison and you visited me.

We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death but it is really about life. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.

The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows.  Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed. 

On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.

            The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
            And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,
            And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*


Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthians15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).

* Photographic images by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Francis Thompson: Motto and Invocation

I thought of Francis Thompson's little known "Motto and Invocation" as the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls were celebrated this weekend. Thompson was a nineteenth century author and poet whose most famous poem is the "Hound of Heaven."

                MOTTO & INVOCATION
St. John’s Gospel, chap. I, v. 3, abbreviated

Pardon, O Saint John Divine,
That I change a word of thee—
None the less, aid thou me!
And Siena’s Catharine !
Lofty Doctor, Augustine,
Glorious penitent ! And be
Assisi’s Francis also mine !
Mine be Padua’s Anthony ;
And that other Francis, he
Called of Sales ! Let all combine
To counsel (of great charity)
What I write ! Thy wings incline,
Ah my Angel, o’er the line !
Last and first, O Queen Mary,
Of thy white Immaculacy,
If my work may profit aught,
Fill with lilies every thought !
I surmise
What is white will then be wise.
To which I add : Thomas More,
Teach (thereof my need is sore)
What thou showed well on earth—
Good writ, good wit, make goodly mirth !


Holbein: Thomas More

Sunday, October 5, 2014

St. Francis in the Desert

   October 4 is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. In commemoration I add this post on Giovanni Bellini's famous painting of St. Francis in the Desert, one of the prized possessions of New York's Frick Museum.
Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert
(click on images to enlarge)

For over 50 years the Frick Museum in New York City has been my favorite museum. It is a small, easily navigated site quite unlike the Metropolitan only a few blocks away on 5th Avenue. It’s magnificent collection of paintings, acquired for the most part during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by steel baron, Henry Clay Frick, spans the gamut of Western art from late Medieval to the Impressionists.

You cannot visit the Frick and fail to notice that patrons invariably stop in the great central living room to stare and wonder at Giovanni Bellini’s famous, “St. Francis in the Desert.” On one occasion a museum employee confirmed my guess that this painting, despite the presence of works by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Renoir, is the most popular in the whole collection.

Born in 1430 Giovanni Bellini is arguably the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance. The Venetian version of the Renaissance has long taken a back seat to the Florentine but in the last few decades it has come into its own and today most scholars would agree that Bellini and his younger successors, Giorgione, and Titian, can hold their own as painters with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Indeed, the Bellini family studio is now seen as one of the great sources of the Renaissance. Giovanni and his brother, Gentile, who at one point went to Constantinople to paint the Sultan, inherited the studio from their father, Jacopo. Andrea Mantegna, a great painter in his own right, married one of the Bellini sisters and exerted a powerful influence on the studio. Scholars also suspect that both Giorgione and Titian were apprentices at the Bellini studio before they broke out on their own.

Although he painted the St. Francis around 1480, Bellini continued to paint well into the next century. Until his death he was sought after and courted by public, religious, and private patrons. He is best known as a painter of Madonnas and groups of figures ranged around the Madonna and Child often called “sacra conversazione.” Nevertheless, the St. Francis is a unique work in the history of Renaissance art.

What is going on in the painting? St. Francis stands in the foreground a little off center wearing his familiar robe.  Behind him is a kind of wooden structure that seems to lead into a cave. The mid-ground is largely made up of a barren landscape whose primary occupant is a small horse or ass. Prominent in the upper left is an oddly shaped tree that appears to be leaning toward St. Francis. In the distant background we see a majestic towered city.

In one interpretation of the painting Francis is receiving the stigmata, the actual wounds of Christ on his own body.  His hands are outstretched but it is hard to see if there are wounds. Moreover, traditional elements usually employed in depictions of the stigmata episode are absent. His companion, Brother Leo, is not shown and neither are Christ or an angel.

I prefer the interpretation of John V. Fleming in From Bonaventure to Bellini, an Essay in Franciscan Exegesis. In this often overlooked but extraordinary 1982 monograph Fleming argued that Marcantonio Michiel’s original description of the painting, when he saw it in the home of Venetian patrician, Taddeo Contarini, “St. Francis in the Desert,” was indeed correct.  Fleming saw the subject of the painting and every detail in it grounded in Franciscan spirituality.

The landscape in the painting is not La Verna, the site of the stigmata episode, but the desert of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. In particular, it is the Egyptian desert. The prominent animal in mid-ground is the Onager or wild ass of the desert while the heron standing before it is a bird of the Nile delta.

Franciscans often associated their founder with Moses and Elijah and their life in the desert. In the background beneath the city there is a shepherd tending his flock just as Moses did before his encounter with the Lord. Indeed, the leaning tree so prominent in the upper left is the famous burning bush in which the Lord appeared to Moses. It is a laurel which at the time was believed to be impervious to fire. We also notice that Francis has removed his sandals and stands barefoot in the same manner as Moses.

The wooden structure behind Francis is a Sukkoth, variously translated as tent, hut, booth, or tabernacle, a kind of portable structure used by the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert. The Sukkoth also recalls the scene of the Transfiguration when Christ was revealed in His glory accompanied by Moses and Elijah to the three apostles, Peter, James, and John. Dumfounded, Peter offered to build three booths or Sukkoth for the Lord and his guests.

If we look closely, we will see beneath the right hand of Francis a rabbit in a hole in the rock, and beneath his left hand a jug. The rabbit was a symbolic reference to Moses who hid his face from the Lord and the jug is a reference to Elijah. Indeed, the abundant vegetation sprouting around Francis is a garden or carmel, another reference to Elijah who was supposed to have been the founder of the Carmelite order. Francis stands between Moses and Elijah in the same way as Christ stood between them at the Transfiguration. In Franciscan spirituality and imagery, Francis was the new Christ.

Just as Moses came to lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt, so too did Francis come to lead his followers out of the slavery of sin. The city in the background then is a place of danger and peril, both physical and spiritual. The desert is symbolic of the life of poverty and humility preached by the famous founder of the Franciscan order.

Most of the paintings acquired by Henry Clay Frick had a special meaning for him. A committed Mason, Frick admired Francis because of his love of Nature. Others who have viewed the painting since Frick added it to his collection perhaps have had their own reasons for admiring it. Even if we know nothing of Franciscan spirituality, Bellini’s painting is still an image of a human being standing open and receptive to the divine light and transforming the world because of it. 



Friday, August 15, 2014

Feast of the Assumption

                                    Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Crowning of Mary
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

In 1950 when the world was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII promulgated the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Now Catholics didn't start believing in the Assumption only in 1950. Think of how many churches were constructed before 1950 dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Belief in Mary's Assumption can be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers and for centuries artists have delighted in rendering the scene of Mary being taken up into Heaven.

Of course, Catholics have always loved images of Mary. In the first reading from the Mass of the Assumption, we have the famous image from the Book of Revelation of "the woman clothed with the sun" who was about to give birth to a son, "destined to rule all the nations." In tthe gospel of the day we have St. Luke's account of the Visitation. Almost immediately after the Annunciation, Mary embarks on a journey to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is herself expecting. Artists have loved to portray this tender scene of the meeting of the two women. The young Mary, barely pregnant, greets her elder cousin whose pregnancy is well advanced.

St. Luke is the only evangelist to describe this meeting but, of course, he wasn't present. How did he get his information? It's possible that he was merely relating an earlier oral tradition and giving us an account of what the early Church believed Mary would have said on this occasion. Perhaps he talked with the Blessed Mother herself after the death and resurrection of her Son. In that event, this passage would represent her profound recollection of the Visitation in the light of everything that came after.

Nevertheless, what image does St. Luke give us of Mary? We certainly can't take from his account that Mary was a bewildered, frightened teenager. The very name, Mary or Miriam, means "the exalted one." Scholars tell us that the expression "leaped for joy" is only used in the Bible when one is in the presence of the Almighty, such as the time King David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Elizabeth's greeting,

            Blessed are you among women,
            and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

which we repeat every day in the "Hail Mary," proclaims that from Mary will come the Savior of the world.

The beautiful prayer of Mary which we call the Magnificat is a collection of verses from many sources in the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, those beautiful hymns of praise. We all know the beginning,

            My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
            my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
            for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
            From this day all generations will call me blessed:

This is the song of a great Queen who has accepted a great mission.

In artistic renderings of the Immaculate Conception Mary is portrayed as the woman clothed with the Sun, with the Moon at her feet, and stars in her crown. Her dress is white but she is covered with a blue mantle. Ordinarily, she is pictured with a red dress covered with the blue mantle. Now "red" is the symbol of earth or humanity but "blue" is the symbol of divinity. The artists follow the teaching of the Church. Mary is human but she has been cloaked with immortality. In the vigil Mass for today's feast, the words of St. Paul apply not only to Mary but to any who put on the mantle of her Son.

            When that which is mortal clothes itself with immortality,
            then the word that is written shall come about:
            'Death is swallowed up in victory.
            Where, O death, is your victory?
            Where, O death, is your sting?


*Photographic images of stained glass windows of Our Lady of the Assumption church in Fairfield CT are by Melissa DeStefano

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday


Agony in the Garden
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

The Palm Sunday reading of the Passion of our Lord is one of the highlights of the Church year. This year we heard St. Matthew's account of the Passion. Next year we will hear St. Mark's account and the year after we will have St. Luke's account. Of course, on Good Friday we always have the Passion according to St. John. Although each of the Evangelists approaches the life of Christ in a different way, they draw very close to each other when it comes to the Passion.

The narrative of the Passion which we have just heard seems like a great drama with a cast of characters with whom we can all identify. If we could be in the drama, what role would we play? Would we be like the disciples who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane? or would we be part of the crowd who mocked and taunted Jesus only a short time after cheering Him and waiving palm branches.

Maybe we would like a more important role. We could be Pontius Pilate who condemned Jesus, or Peter who denied Him, or even Judas who betrayed Him. Still, it is clear from today's readings that we are supposed to play the part of Jesus, Himself. The Church has always recognized that in His Passion and Death our Lord gave us an example which we must follow. Many times during His time on Earth Jesus said, "Follow Me”. Many times He urged us to take up our cross and follow Him.

Today's readings show that it is through the practice of humility and self sacrifice that we come to follow the Lord. Matthew begins his account of the Passion at the Last Supper. There Jesus told the disciples that He would give up His body and blood for us all, and that they should share in this sacrifice. When He asks us at every Mass to eat His Body and drink His Blood, he is also asking us to share in His sacrifice on Calvary.

Today's first reading is about humility and self sacrifice.

            I gave my back to those who beat me,
            my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
            my face I did not shield
            from buffets and spitting.

St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians says that Jesus "humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

This is the point of all of our little sacrifices during Lent. Everything that we gave up or did was to remind ourselves that we do not live just for ourselves.  Humility means giving up our own pride and ambition for the sake of others. Didn't our Lord say that we must deny ourselves in order to save ourselves? that we must lose our life in order to find it?

Our Lord was a great teacher but the Passion shows us that He taught by example.


Reading 1. Isaiah 50: 4-7
Reading II. Philippians 2: 6-11
Gospel. Matthew 26: 14--27: 66 (the Passion).

* Photo by Melissa DeStefano