Holy Thursday Art

A happy, holy and blessed Holy Thursday to all who read this blog and their loved ones.

Let’s look at some nearly randomly chosen Last Supper art:

By anonimous master – Basilica di San Marco, turistic book, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4274743

Along the east coast of Italy, facing what used to be the Eastern Roman Empire across the Adriatic Sea, there are a number of churches that look east for their architecture and style. San Marco, in Venice, is the most outstanding. Above is a mosaic of the Last Supper, from sometime after the 10th century, capturing the moment in St. John’s Gospel where, at Peter’s urging, John lays his head on Jesus’s chest and asks who it is who will betray Him. Typically of iconography, little attempt is made at realism – feature, not a bug, as the point of all such art is to raise our minds to contemplation of the Truth, not artistic realism.

An oddity: all 12 apostles are shown – and each has a halo. Since, at this point in the narrative, Judas has not yet left to lead the soldiers to Christ, is the artist trying to tell us he is still an Apostle, still counted among the holy?

Here, for example, from a few centuries later:

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“The Last Supper” by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450)Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

Note that John still had his head on Christ’s chest, even though at this point Christ is shown consecrating the bread and wine. Judas, front center left, does not have a halo. He is depicted as having already abandoned himself to treachery and the devil. There’s a long history of northern Europeans – largely, the Germanic tribes – having a very legalistic view of things which the missionaries from Italy had a devilish time trying to convert them from, such as compiling books of exactly what penalty each carefully-defined sin would get them in the confessional. The Eastern artist wanted to convey that even Judas was chosen by Christ for holiness and salvation. Huguet wants us to know who the bad guy is.

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The Last Supper, Fra Angelico, 1422

Meanwhile, back in Italy at roughly the same time, Blessed Fra Angelico painted this Last Supper in San Marco – the Florentine Dominican monastery, not the Venetian Basilica.

Giotto, Last Supper, 1305. Awkward seating, odd dark halos, which everyone gets. Giotto was working out this whole realism stuff within the context of the Byzantine style of the time. It works better some times than others.

Fra Angelico wanted to be realistic, after the fashion of Giotto, with real figures shown doing real things.  He’s also working with the existing architecture – he’s fitting this fresco on a wall under an arch, which intrudes in the upper left. He takes these considerations, and makes them strengths. He can’t hang his Apostles suspended in mid-air behind a table whose surface is in another plane from wherever it is the Apostles are located, so he wraps the table around under the arch, gives the three Apostles sitting there a higher built-in bench to sit on so that they line up nicely heightwise with the Apostles along the other stretch of table.

 

But there’s not enough room to show all 12 in this manner. Our Byzantine artist in Venice would have just packed them in, and that’s what Huguet did – nobody is eating dinner in his picture, they’re practically sitting on top of each other.  Fra Angelico instead shows 4 empty seats that, had the Apostles been sitting on those benches, would have put them awkwardly with their backs to us, and instead has them kneeling – a nice reference to the way people would have received Communion in the churches in Italy in his day. These four Apostles obscure each other – unlike the other 8, they are not individuals, but a crowd. I think Fra Angelico did this on purpose, to have those 4 represent us, the people not at the table at the Last Supper, kneeling to receive Him today nonetheless. Also, he sticks Judas in that crowd, compromising on the halo question by giving him a dark one – Judas is still among the chosen Apostles, but he is losing the gift of grace as he embraces treachery.

Unlike the other paintings, here the table is cleared of dinner. “When supper had ended” we are told in Scripture, Christ consecrated the bread and wine. The other artists wanted to emphasize the Passover meal, and so showed it still on the table. Fra Angelico wants to emphasize the connection between what went on at the Last Supper and what goes on today at Mass, so the table is cleared. It is the Lamb of God distributing Himself Who is portrayed, Who completes and supersedes the pascal lamb of the Israelites.

Christ comes around the table to distribute Communion, just as the priest at Mass comes down to the railing. Assuming Christ was sitting in the middle, he’s starting with John, who would have been next to him according to John’s Gospel, and, as the youngest would be a beardless Apostle. But there’s also a clean-shaven Apostle on the end, so can’t be sure.

Finally, he puts Mary (I’m pretty sure) kneeling in lower left. Some tradition place her at the Last Supper, although she is not mentioned there in the Gospels. It serves Fra Angelico’s purposes to show her there – she is also us, in a way, the woman who said yes and for whom the Almighty has done great things. That yes and use by God for great things is what we aspire to.  Judas is in a kneeling crowd, a crowd of those aspiring to what Mary has achieved – total surrender to the will of God. He could have chosen otherwise.

There are hundreds of other wonderful representations of the Last Supper. Maybe in future years we’ll get to a few more.

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Being Rash for Christ

When reading the lives of the saints, it’s common to see both a relentless practical disposition and utter spontaneity side by side in the same person. This is that whole Catholic both/and thing Chesterton among others likes to go on about. Thus, great saints will typically devote themselves to a rigorous, no excuses life of prayer and discipline AND run off to convert the Saracens at the drop of a biretta. Or kiss the leper, give somebody the clothes off their backs, take a condemned man’s place – that sort of thing.

A certain tiny rash act on my part, not remotely in the league of anything an actual saint would do reflects,  I hope, a tiny bit of the spirit of the thing: I will, it seems, be in charge of a bit of continuing Catholic education at our parish. Because the director said I could do a class, and so I submitted an outline and that was that.

Here’s what I’ll be trying to do. First note my abiding hatred of the graded classroom model, so imagine this as being done in a way to defeat that model (which lurks, after 12+ years of Pavlovian training, in our minds despite our dislike of it and despite even efforts to root it out) so as to allow actual personal relationships to be formed – which is by far my most obvious weakness as a ‘teacher’. People are just so much more demanding than living in my own head! Anyway:

Feasts and Faith: Continuing Catholic Education Continue reading “Being Rash for Christ”

Christian Iconography: Color

Consider these icons, with special attention to the color of Mary’s clothing:

Our Mother of Perpetual Help – Cretan, 13th or 14th century. Today, his particular image is found pretty much anywhere there are Catholics.

Madonna & Child, Filippo Lippi, 15th century

Madonna & Child, Lorenzo Monaco, early 15th century.

Modern icon, probably a copy of a copy of the 12th century Virgin of Vladimir.

Five colors are prominent here: red,  blue, black, white and gold.  The first image, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, is one of the most copied works of art in history. The virgin is shown wearing a red gown and a dark blue to black cloak. Centuries later, Filippo Lippi paints Mary in a contemporary red dress, again cloaked in blue running to black. Lorenzo Monaco painted a little earlier than Lippi – he introduces a white gown with gold trim, and uses a much lighter, more vibrant blue for the cloak, lined with gold. Finally, the contemporary icon shows the Virgin in a red cloak lined in dark blue. The presumed original had Mary wearing a black cloak with gold trim. Continue reading “Christian Iconography: Color”

Christian Iconography: The Basics

Iconographical symbols are natural object and colors with deep, pre-logical meaning. Signs are more conventional carries of meaning, which may or may not use symbols to help bolster the clarity of their message. Christian iconography uses both symbols and signs to get across deep, pre-verbal messages and the specific identity of the persons and events portrayed.

First, a useful distinction – consider a stop sign:

This is a sign, which communicates meaning via convention and the word ‘Stop’: there is nothing about a red octagon that, in itself, means stop;

The color red, on the other hand, is used in the stop sign symbolically – unlike the word ‘stop’ and the octagon, red has meaning that precedes its use in a road sign. That meaning comes from universal human experiences, not from any conscious choice. Further, the meaning of the color red is at a deeper level than words – saying red represents blood and divinity and burning power, while true, does not mean that anyone *gave* those meanings to red.

A red octagon is a very good choice for a stop sign – easy to recognize, attention-grabbing color, plus the octagon shape is rare in nature, so the sign is unlikely to be mistaken for a natural object – a good thing, given its purpose. It is a convention built on common human experience. A green circle would not be nearly as good a stop sign, because the color and shape conflict with the intended meaning.

Christian iconography is like the stop sign, only much richer. It starts with colors and other natural objects redolent with meaning and uses them to communicate something deeper. It is a subset of the more general presence of symbols in Christianity, many if not most of which come straight out of Scripture: water, bread and wine, the cross, lambs, fish, and so on – it is not only or even primarily that these symbols are used in representational art – they dominate the poetry, the prayers, and the rituals of the Church, and have since the time of the Apostles, who lived the New Testament and were steeped in the Old.

These same symbols are used for icons of the saints, plus a new set of signs and symbols proper to the saints themselves. For example, St. Lawrence, an early deacon and martyr, is always portrayed with a grill, because he was famously grilled to death. St. Catherine is portrayed with a wheel, the means of her martyrdom. Less grim to modern sensibilities, St. Dominic is often portrayed accompanied by a Dalmatian dog holding a flaming torch in its mouth – because the Dominicans wore black and white – the colors of the dog – and Latin phrase ‘Domine Canes’ means ‘dogs of the Lord’ – so the Dominicans were the Lord’s Dogs, spreading the light of the Gospels – thus the torch. Puns and other jokes are embraced by the iconographers, as long as they get the point across.

If the iconographers are doing their job well, a single set of conventions, with a small number of variations, will develop for each traditional subject – no one had to make this happen, apart from the artists efforts to get the image right. The icon is right when the viewers understand it and see the deeper connections clearly. At that point, changing what has now become ‘traditional’ will become merely confusing – it will look wrong. For example, if you portrayed the Blessed Mother dressed in bright green, no one would believe it. The Blessed Mother wears a red or white with gold trim gown, or just maybe a gold gown – but that’s pretty much it. To the viewer, is you portrayed her dressed otherwise, you’d be trying to tell them something – it couldn’t just be ‘because I like green better’. If she’s wearing a cloak, it will be blue – almost always midnight blue – or black. You could just maybe get away with brown, but you’d have some ‘splainin’ to do.

To sum up: Iconographical symbols are natural object and colors with deep, pre-logical meaning. Signs are more conventional carries of meaning, which may or may not use symbols to help bolster the clarity of their message. Christian iconography uses both symbols and signs to get across deep, pre-verbal messages and the specific identity of the persons and events portrayed. Each subject commonly portrayed  – a saint, a biblical story, a martyr’s death – will have quickly developed a set of symbols and signs which become conventional because they strike everybody as ‘correct’. An artist who deviates from these conventional representations risks losing his audience.

Christian Iconography: Fra Angelico, Annunciation

You might also want to check out Christian Iconography: The Basics.

Here is a lovely Annunciation by Fra Angelico, from the Friary of San Marco in Florence:

This is one of a set of frescoes, one in each cell in the friary, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin painted in the early 15th century. The cells are tiny little rooms, where a Dominican friar would retire for solitude and sleep. Fra Angelico’s frescoes were meant as aides to the friar’s meditations, so a Dominican is depicted as an observer in each image. It would be interesting to know how, over the years, the various friars were assigned to each cell, as some cells have  cheery images like this Annunciation, while others depict scenes from Christ’s agony – was it random? Did the prior decide that Brother Matthew needed to spend some time praying over the Disposition of Christ’s Body, and so he was assigned that cell, while Brother John needed to lighten up, so he got the Nativity? Continue reading “Christian Iconography: Fra Angelico, Annunciation”

Christian Iconography: Madonna and Child

You might also want to check out Christian Iconography: the Basics.

Over on Fr. Z’s wonderful blog, the good father discusses a very interesting aspect of western Medieval and early Renaissance Madonna and Child representations – that the Child Jesus has a habit of grabbing His Mother’s veil or, less commonly, cloak:

By Duccio around 1300. A detail:

This gesture of the Christ Child is by no means universal – eastern icons, for example, often have the Child in a rather more formal pose, often issuing a blessing – but it is a strong theme especially in Italy.

Continue reading “Christian Iconography: Madonna and Child”