Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) 1541 - 1614
Adoration of the Shepherds
1612- 1614
Oil on canvas
319 cm x 180 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

This is one of the artist`s last and most important works

It is the painting for his family`s funerary chapel in the  Church of the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo where he was eventually buried.

The work hung there until it was moved to its present position in the Prado

The first shepherd is probably a self portrait of the artist

It was in this Church where his first major Spanish commissions (between 1577 and 1579): the high altarpiece of The Asssumption of Mary; the Resurrection; Saint John the Baptist;   the Apostle John;  and The Trinity were situated

It is a work of contrasts: darkness and light.  Red-orange, yellow, green, blue and pink illuminate the darkness. The infant child is the source of illumination

Mother and child are centre of the work. Mary unwraps the child`s wrappings to reveal her son and the Mystery of the Incarnation

The result is surprise, astonishment and silent joy

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God formerly The Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here we see the Theotokópoulos depicting Theotokos, the God-bearer with her Son

In Lux Veritatis (published significantly on 25 December 1931),  Pope Pius XI celebrated the 1500th anniversary of the Third Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 431. 

The use of Theotokos was formally affirmed at the Council. The competing view, advocated by Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, (with his followers "the Nestorians") was that Mary should be called Christotokos, meaning "Birth-giver of Christ," to restrict her role to the mother of Christ's humanity only and not his divine nature.

As well as celebrating Mary`s role as Theotokos, we also celebrate the Divinity of Christ, Christ as God made Man. "Theanthropos" (God-Man)

The work is perfectly suitable as a work for a funerary chapel. 

It looks forward to the Resurrection

"30. Moreover, this doctrine which has ever been handed down may be proved and con firmed, as all can see, from the dogma of man's Redemption. For how indeed could Christ be called "the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans viii. 29), or be wounded because of our iniquities (Isaias liii. 5; Matt. viii. 17), and redeem us from the servitude of sin, unless He had a human nature like as we have? And so, too, how could He make perfect satisfaction to the justice of the Heavenly Father which had been violated by mankind, unless He possessed an immense and infinite dignity by reason of His Divine Person?"

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Luc Olivier Merson 1846–1920
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Oil on canvas
71.8 x 128.3 cm (28 1/4 x 50 1/2 in.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Primarily a history painter, Merson`s oeuvre contains a large number of religious works which were based on the Apocrypha or the Golden Legend

He was also responsible for a number of mosaics in the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre

In this work above he composed an entirely original iconography on the Holy Family which became very popular

He painted this theme a number of times. This version in Boston is only one

The child Jesus rests in the arms of his mother. Both are in the niche of a sphinx. They are illuminated by some form of divine light

Joseph lies on the ground near a fire which is slowly going out

Sometimes the work highlights the fact that they are beside the ruins of an Egyptian temple. 

Alternative titles include: A l’ombre d’Isis and  Les Vierges mères

The infant Messiah, the Light and bringer of the Gospel, rests in the remains of a temple  of Ra-Horakhty 
of an Egyptian religion whose gods have died out. He has ousted them and taken over their thrones

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Woman of Silence

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) 
The Madonna and Sleeping Child with the Infant St John the Baptist ('Il Silenzio')
Oil on canvas
51.2 x 68.4 cm
The Royal Collection, London

Mary enjoins silence from an Infant John the Baptist as the child Jesus sleeps

The atmosphere is subdued and the characters seem to come out of the shadows in the background

The seemingly simple scene prefigures the Passion.

Christ rests lying on a table, a kind of altar. In face he rests on a white sheet, remiiniscent of a shroud. Mary holds the lifeless child as she will do later in a Pietà 

Cherries, the fruits of Paradise, and symbols of Heaven, lie near the grasp of the sleeping child

The centrepiece of the composition is the gesture of the Virgin putting to silence

Pope Benedict XVI once spoke of the importance of silence and Mary as the woman of silence

"Inward and outward silence are necessary if we are to be able to hear this word [of God]. 
And in our time this point is particularly difficult for us. In fact, ours is an era that does not encourage recollection; indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that people are frightened of being cut off, even for an instant, from the torrent of words and images that mark and fill the day. 
It was for this reason that in the above mentioned Exhortation Verbum Domini I recalled our need to learn the value of silence: 
“Rediscovering the centrality of God’s word in the life of the Church also means rediscovering a sense of recollection and inner repose. The great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence” (n. 66). 
This principle — that without silence one does not hear, does not listen, does not receive a word — applies especially to personal prayer as well as to our liturgies: to facilitate authentic listening, they must also be rich in moments of silence and of non-verbal reception."

Silence is also a favourite theme in the teaching of Pope Francis

In a talk to young pilgrims from Lithuania, he said:
"Another good way to grow in friendship with Christ is by listening to his word. The Lord speaks to us in the depths of our conscience, he speaks to us through Sacred Scripture, he speaks to us in prayer. Learn to stay before him in silence. to read and meditate on the Bible, especially the Gospels, to converse with him every day in order to feel his presence of friendship and love."
A witty Anglican clergyman once compared the Church to a swimming pool. He said that the most noise and shouting was at the shallow end. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Leo Bible

Beatae Virginis Mariae Sacrae Scripturae librum a Leoni Patricio accipientis et Iesu Christi pictura (2v)
From  Biblia. Vetus Testamentum 
Illustrated manuscript
10th century
The Vatican Library, Rome

In the late  9th century or early tenth century AD,  Leo, patrikios, praepositos (grand chamberlain and highest-ranking eunuch) and imperial sakellarios (treasurer) commissioned an illustrated Greek Bible ("The Leo Bible")

The work now in the Vatican Library is the earliest surviving illustrated Byzantine Bible (Rome, Vatican, Bib. Apostolica, MS. Reg. gr. 1)

All the illustrations in the Bible are now on line: a work of collaboration between the Vatican Library and a private foundation, the Polonsky Foundation (as well as the Bodleian)

In the first illustration Leo the patrician is shown offering his work to the Theotokos, the Virgin

Icon-like she is shown pointing the way to her Son or is she beckoning her Son to Leo. She, like all icons, is through prayer and meditation, the gateway to the divine, her Son, the Saviour

It was only in the middle of the ninth century AD that the anti-image movement of the iconoclasts had been defeated

There had in fact been two main iconoclastic uprisings: the first was in 713-87; the second in 813-42. In both cases one Emperor had attempted what he saw as vital Church reform as a result of a strict literal interpretation of the Second Commandment. 

In both cases after the emperor had died, the successors reinstated the icons. During the times of iconclasis, the icons were put into hiding where they were guarded in silence. It was popular piety which which was the impetus for their restoration

Leo speaks to the Virgin through his dedicatory preface on the page.

The Theotokos is silent and merely gestures

He is elderly, white haired and beardless and  realises that for him his time on earth is coming to an end and without issue

He  offers the written Word of God to the progenitor of the Word who without sound points the way to the Lord, the Living Word

By the seventh and eighth centuries, the Dormition of the Virgin and her glorification by her Son had been firmly established in the Byzantine Church and elsewhere

In the Doctrine, what was important was the news that one of our own kind—the Theotokos, the source of the Saviour’s humanity—herself already shared, after death, in the glorious life of the risen Christ, and that Christ had appointed her as our patron to help us navigate the same journey

Here  we see Mary as patron, chief of all saints, intercessor for humanity with her Son

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel

Sister Wendy Becket at the Louvre

BBC Arena (BBC Channel 4) today broadcast Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel

Sister Wendy Becket, 82, talks frankly, humorously, and profoundly about her life and spirituality for the first time.

She relates the Gospel story alongside her selection of paintings by the greatest old masters, revealing the emotional insights they have given her

The documentary can be seen for the next seven days

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Happy Christmas and New Year

Louis Cretey (1630/1635 or 1637-after 1702)
The Nativity
Oil on canvas 
58.1 x 74.9 cm
Institute of Art, Detroit

Louis Cretey has been described as   one of the best seventeenth century French artists "within the Lyonnaise school at a time when artists excelled. Above all, he is one of the most original, a veritable creator of forms, a skill not within everyone’s reach."

A mysterious figure, neither classical nor academic. He is sui generis. And poorly understood

Above we see him tackling the  joyful mystery of the Nativity of Christ, the greatest event in the history of mankind but also one of the strangest and most remarkable

In a recent audience Pope Francis said that Christmas  is a “feast of confidence and hope, that overcomes uncertainty and pessimism.” The reason for our hope, he said, is this: “God is with us, and God still trusts us.”

“God has willed to share our human condition to the point of making himself one of us in the Person of Jesus, who is true man and true God"

May you all have a holy and happy Christmas and New Year

Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Vesica

Eric Gill (1882‑1940)
Madonna and  Child in Vesica
Wood engraving on paper
105 x 44 mm
Tate Britain, London

The vesica piscis or almond (mandorla) is a symbol of ogival shape which appears when  two circles of the same radius, intersect in such a way that the centre of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. 

It has two meanings in Christian iconography

First by referring to the  fruit of the almond, and the seed in general, it is a symbol of Life 

Second, as the intersection of two circles it represents the intersection of  two worlds, the human and the divine. It is therefore only meet that  Jesus the Divine Word made man, is shown as the  mediator between the two realities

Unfortunately the cultists, the phony mystics and the New Ageists have attempted to hijack the symbolism

The similarity of the shape to "icthus", a fish is not perhaps without coincidence

As well as in religious painting the shape is also seem in architecture: for example, in a Gothic tympanum of a doorway.

Here we see the shape to full effect in a tenth century illustrated manuscript in The British Library in London:

Christ Enthroned Among the Choirs of Heaven
From The Aethelstan Psalter
Ink and pigments on vellum
F.21r, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII
The British Library, London

Here we see   Christ seated on the heavenly Jerusalem and holding a cross, with the wound in his side and the Alpha and Omega at his shoulders. 

He is borne in a mandorla, the pointed shape which indicates a 'view into heaven' and often implies vision of the Second Coming. 

The ranks of the choirs of martyrs, confessors, and virgins, identified by labels, surround him

The almond is the first flower of spring and Pope Francis has on a number of occasions spoken of the image of the almond blossom.

On the Vigil of Pentecost 2013 he said:
"This experience of faith is important. We say we must seek God, go to him and ask forgiveness, but when we go, he is waiting for us, he is there first!  
In Spanish we have a word that explains this well: primerear — the Lord always gets there before us, he gets there first, he is waiting for us! To find someone waiting for you is truly a great grace. You go to him as a sinner, but he is waiting to forgive you.  
This is the experience that the Prophets of Israel describe, comparing the Lord to almond blossom, the first flower of spring (cf. Jer 1:11-12). Before any other flowers appear, he is there, waiting.  
The Lord is waiting for us. Moreover, when we seek him, we discover that he is waiting to welcome us, to offer us his love. And this fills your heart with such wonder that you can hardly believe it, and this is how your faith grows — through encounter with a Person, through encounter with the Lord.  
Some people will say, “No, I prefer to read about faith in books!” It is important to read about faith, but look, on its own this is not enough! What is important is our encounter with Jesus, our encounter with him, and this is what gives you faith because he is the one who gives it to you!"

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pilgrimage to Bethlehem

David Roberts 1796 - 1864
Church of the Nativity
1842 - 9
Oil on canvas 
112 x 142 cm
Paisley Museum and Art Galleries, Renfrewshire

The Scottish artist David Roberts made his first visit to the Middle East in 1838-9, which resulted in his best known work, a set of 247 coloured lithographs of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia, published 1842-1849.

He was one of the first independent and professional British artists to experience the Orient at first hand. 

On 6th April 1839, he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He wrote in his journal:
""While I was sketching the Church of the Nativity, a man arrived from Jerusalem with the sacred fire which the priests say comes from heaven; and the whole of the Arab Christians turned out to receive him, carrying banners and headed by their priests."
Here is his depiction of the town of Bethlehem from a sketch he made in 1839

David Roberts 1796 - 1864
Bethlehem: Looking towards the Dead Sea
Watercolour over pencil
235 by 336 mm
Private collection
(Inscription on the left hand side: Site of the house of Jesu Convent of The Nativity; further inscribed upper left: Mountains of Moab; and upper centre: The Franks Hills)

One hundred and sixty years after Roberts visited Bethlehem and the Basilica, another pilgrim came: Blessed Pope John Paul II on 22 March 2000

In his homily there he described his visit to Bethlehem ("The House of Bread")  as "the heart of my Jubilee Pilgrimage. The paths that I have taken lead me to this place and to the mystery that it proclaims."

He went on:
"In the cave of Bethlehem, to use the words of Saint Paul in today’s Second Reading, “God’s grace has been revealed” (Titus 2:11). In the Child who is born, the world has received “the mercy promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants for ever” (cf. Lk 1:54-55). 
Dazzled by the mystery of the Eternal Word made flesh, we leave all fear behind and we become like the angels, glorifying God who gives the world such gifts. With the heavenly choir, we “sing a new song” (Ps 96:1):
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those whom he loves” (Lk 2:14)"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Nativity of St Luke

Antoniazzo Romano (Antonio Aquili) (1430/5-1510)  
Natività con i santi Lorenzo e Andrea
Nativity with Saints Lawrence and Andrew 
Tempera on panel
142 x 176 cm
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica Palazzo Barberini, Rome

The angel unfurls a banner with the Good News:
The infant lies on the bare ground adored by one and all, Here we see the Flemish influence of Hugo van der Groes

The infant lies on a bundle of grain. He is to be the new bread of the Eucharist

Christ is priest as well as sacrifice

In the foreground are the anemone and cyclamen: flowers that symbolise the passion of Christ

On one side the angel gives the  news to the shepherds. 

In the foreground, the central image: the Holy Family by their hut or stable with the animals  accompanied by Saints Lawrence and Andrew who will follow Christ into martyrdom

The animals are an ox and an ass

On the right shepherds tend their flocks in a pastoral scene reminscent of Lazio

And in New York (see below)  is a similar but smaller work by Romano which was meant to be the central panel of a three-part predella that originally included the Feast of Herod (Gemäldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin; no. S 4, 29 x 45 cm) and Saint Jerome Healing the Lion's Foot (Ca' d'Oro, Venice; no. 118, 29 x 45 cm). The centre altarpiece would have been a Madonna and Child 

Antoniazzo Romano (Antonio Aquili) (1430/5-1510)  
The Nativity
c 1482
Tempera on panel
29.2 x 67.3 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There are of course some differences:

It is not a stable but a cave where the Holy Family lodge

Mary and Joseph are younger and more vigorous and the motif of adoration of the Christ Child  is emphasised more

Only the parents are shown in adoration

As befits one of the three founders of the Compagnia di San Luca, the guild of painters in Rome, the narrative of the Nativity is firmly based on the Gospel of St Luke, probably the most repeated narrative of the Birth of Our Lord and the one best known

Even after nearly two thousand years, the story never fails to surprise and inspire

Here we see the statutes of the Company of St Luke being presented to St Luke, who is accompanied by his "symbol", the ox, the sacrificial animal of the Old Testament and one of the animals traditionally depicted at the crib of Our Lord

St Luke receives the statutes of the University of Painters
Statutes of the Company of St Luke
Codice minato dall’Accademia di San Luca di Roma, Archivio Storico, Fondo B. 4, 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Christmas Theme

Antoniazzo Romano (attributed to) (1430/5-1510)  
Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (triptych, centre panel)
Oil on panel
55 x 32.9 cm
The Courtauld Gallery, London 

The infant John the Baptist gazes intently at the Christ child but with Love 

Filled with Love, Mary gazes at the viewer and with her hand gestures the viewer to look on Christ and come forward to him

A Loving Christ gazes into the distance at someone and raises his hand in blessing

The background is gilded. The setting is  Heaven

Mary and Christ both wear tunics of gold. However her veil and cloak is blue adorned with a star. His  cloak is red, symbol of the Passion

John is wearing the sack clothes and ashes of his later years

Mary acts as the throne of Christ, a living throne

If one could go back two thousand years and looked at Mary, Christ and the Baptist, one would not see much to look at. Easily passed over and forgotten about

Without faith, one would simply see a Palestinian mother holding her child accompanied by another gurgling infant

With faith, the scene changes into a glimpse of the Divine and that is what Romano is depicting. 

Hence what would have been a portrait painting becomes an icon

Pope Benedict XVI on 4th January 2012 explained in his catechesis on the Nativity of the Lord:

"God becomes so close that it is possible to see and touch him. The Church contemplates this ineffable mystery and the liturgical texts of this Season are steeped in wonder and joy; all Christmas carols express this joy.  
Christmas is the point at which Heaven and earth converge and the various expressions we hear in these days stress the greatness of what has came about: the remote — God who seems very remote — has become close,  
“The inaccessible wanted to be accessible, he who exists before time began to be in time, the Lord of the universe, veiling the greatness of his majesty, took the nature of a servant” St Leo the Great exclaimed (Sermon 2 on the Nativity of the Lord, 2.1). 
In that Child who needed everything as all children do, what God is — eternity, strength, holiness, life and joy — is united with what we are: weakness, sin, suffering and death. 
The theology and spirituality of Christmas use a phrase to describe this event, they speak of an admirabile commercium, that is, a wondrous exchange between divinity and humanity. 
St Athanasius of Alexandria says: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (De Incarnatione, 54, 3: PG 25, 192), but it is above all with St Leo the Great and his famous sermons on Christmas that this reality became the object of profound meditation."

You may wish to consider this when you buy your second class stamps for your Christmas cards this year. The work is part of Royal Mail's 2013 Christmas Stamp Issue 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Antoniazzo Romano

Antoniazzo Romano  (1430/5-1510)  
Triptych: Bust of Christ, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Peter. 
Closed: Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Colombe
Ca. 1495
Distemper on panel
94 cm x 132 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Antonio di Benedetto Aquilio, called Antoniazzo Romano,  (1430/5-1510)  was the leading painter in Rome during the later fifteenth century, one of the three founders of the Compagnia di San Luca, the guild of painters in Rome, for which he signed the statutes in 1478.

From the 1470s until his death, he garnered some of the most prestigious commissions in Rome

Over decades he was called to decorate the most important holy places in the city:  the Basilicas of the Twelve Holy Apostles of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and  St. John Lateran, the Pantheon, the Janiculum, the churches of San Pietro in Montorio and San Onofrio

He was known in his day as  "Pictor Urbis"  - Painter of the City

Considering that his contemporaries and competitors included Benozzo Gozzoli, Piero della Francesca, Domenico Ghirlandaio,  Melozzo from Forlì, Piermatteo of Amelia and Perugino, this was no mean feat

His style and composition are said to be "conservative". This was probably due to the fact that the commissioners and audience for his works were mainly senior prelates of the Roman Curia, religious communities and members of the Roman aristocracy

As he was the favourite of court of Alexander VI (the Borgia pope), his popularity went into decline when the court of the Borgias fell

In this painting the central figure is an icon painting of Christ in the Byzantine style

In the interior he is flanked by Saint Peter, with his keys, and Saint John the Baptist

Both have ribbons praising Christ

On the outside (when closed) are Saint John the Evangelist holding a feather and his Gospel, and Saint Colombe (a ninth century saint), accompanied by the bear that miraculously saved this Spanish nun from being raped

Likewise they hold ribbons praising the Lord

In this work the backgrounds are gilded

The work is reminiscent of the triptych in the  Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies) chapel now  a side chapel from the Scala Sancta  of the Lateran Palace, Rome. 

The name of this chapel is now the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum

In medieval times this was the private chapel of the Popes

The centre of the work in the Lateran palace is a 5th century depiction of Christ: the Acheiropoieton:  "Not painted with (human) hands"

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mary, Jesus and .... Prophet

Virgin and Child with Prophet
c. AD 230 - 240
Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome

Last month The Queen of the Catacombs, the Catacombs of Priscilla, on Rome`s Via Salaria reopened after a five year closure due to restoration

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi  re-opened them and Google Maps now provides a virtual tour of the Priscilla complex 

One of the highlights of a visit is to see the remains of the freco above depicting Mary and the baby Jesus together with a Prophet who is pointing out a star shining above Mary and Jesus

It is regarded as the earliest known depiction of Mary, the Blessed Virgin. 

It dates from about AD 230 - 240

There is some controversy about the man or Prophet standing next to the holy family and pointing to the star

A number including the Priscilla website say that the Prophet is the Old Testament prophet Balaam

That is because he is pointing to a star and that the reference is to the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24  and in particular verses  15 - 17:
"“A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel” 
The identification of Balaam is fraught with difficulty

Balaam was not a good man although God used him to make prophecy

In the New Testament, Balaam is vilified as an avaricious man who through bribery curses Israel

In Revelation 2:14  we read of false teachers at Pergamum who held the "teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication." 

In both 2 Peter 2:15 and in Jude 1:11,  Balaam is cited as an example of a false prophet motivated by greed or avarice. 

It is therefore difficult to see why Balaam is depicted in a holy place

The star might be a reference to the star rising out of Jacob in Balaam`s prophecy but more convincingly could also be a reference to the star above the stable in Bethlehem housing the Nativity scene involving the Magi as narrated in Matthew 2
"1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,
2 saying, “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage. ... 
9 After their audience with the king they set out. And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
10 They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
11 and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

The star could also be a reference to the Star of David known in Hebrew as the Shield of David or Magen David. The term "Shield of David" is also used in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) as a title of the God of Israel. 

In Europe many medieval cathedrals and churches display the Star of David: notably those in Burgos and Valencia Spain; Florence Anagni Aquileia and Orvieto Italy; and Brandenburg Stendal and Hannover Germany

The relationship between Mary and stars is also well known and dates from the earliest times

Revelation (12:1, 2 & 5) describes the Woman of the Apocalypse: And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars

The title of Mary as "Star of the Sea" is well known and of very long standing

Father Joseph Wilpert in his Die römischen Mosaiken und Malereien der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. bis XIII. Jahrhundert (1903) rejects the identification with Balaam and proposes Isaiah as the prophet depicted

As does H. Thode in his Michelangelo: Kritische Untersuchungen über seine Werke`, vol. iii, Berlin, 1913

Isaiah 9  and Isaiah 11 appear to be most apt

Friday, December 06, 2013

Joan de Joanes

Joan de Joanes 1507 - 1579
The Immaculate Conception
1535 - 1540
Oil on panel
215 x 184 cm
Fundación Banco Santander, Spain

This is one of the earliest depictions of the Immaculate Conception in Spanish religious art

It is by one of the most important painters in the Spanish Renaissance, and one of the great religious artists

The influence of Italian art is clear. However it is not certain if he did travel to Italy. He may have imbibed this influence through Italian artists in Spain and/or through works of Italian art which made their way to Spain

His work on the Immaculate Conception  had a profound influence on the Seville school (Pacheco, Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán) who refined, simplified, humanised, popularised  and internationalised the image of the Immaculate Conception with which we are probably more familiar with today

He and his father were from the city of Valencia

Juan`s father, the artist Vicente Juan Masip (1475– 1545) had painted an earlier Immaculate Conception  for the Jesuit church in  Valencia. That picture was apparently  inspired by a revelation undergone by the painter's confessor, the Jesuit Father Martin Alberto. 

This veneration of the Immaculada was a precursor to the great veneration accorded to the Immaculate Conception in seventeenth century Spain which was the hallmark of Spanish life at the time

The iconography in Juan`s work is a composite of complex symbols and litanies celebrating the life of the Virgin and her role in the church, starting at conception and  culminating in her  coronation as Queen of Heaven

Throughout all stages of her life she is shown as the closest to God and a prized treasure of the creation of the Trinity

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Simeon's song of praise

Harmenszoon van Rijn Rembrandt (1606-1669)
Simeon's song of praise (Nunc dimittis)
Oil on panel
60,9 x 47,9 cm
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

The theme of the painting is from Luke 2: 22 - 38 :the story of Simeon when Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple to be presented to God 

Simeon, a devout old man  recognised the child as the Saviour and praised him to God

Simeon describes Christ as "a light for revelation to the Gentiles" (v.32)

In the painting the child is the source of Light held by Simeon

Outwith the child, everything else is shrouded in darkness

Christ illumines the mysteries of man

“29 Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word, 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”

"Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace - now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word" (Lk 2: 29). 

Simeon`s prayer is also the prayer of man on the threshold of death after a lifetime of hope and prayer

Simeon had experienced Advent for most of his life

His is a prayer of faith the same as  "In manus Tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum"

And thus the prayer Nunc Dimittis  is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Compline, the Prayer of the Night

But Simeon also addresses Mary, the other figure of Light in the picture
"Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against....
And a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed" 
In obedience to  the Mosaic Mary is purified. And in her arms, and in obedience to the Mosaic Law Christ is redeemed

By Mary,the Word of the New Covenant is revealed to the people and temple of the Old Covenant and to the Gentiles

And in the process her soul will be pierced

Despite this warning and prophecy she continued on, in the same manner and spirit she  said yes  at the time of the Annunciation

Sunday, December 01, 2013


Albano Poli, Stained glass windows in Chiesa di S. Francesco d'Assisi, Colombare di Sirmione, Italy © Progetto Arte Poli

Albano Poli, Stained glass windows in Monastero di S. Chiara, Naples, Italy © Progetto Arte Poli

Leo Zogmayer, Stained glass windows in Parish Church of St Andrew the Apostle, , Mitterkirchen im Machland, Austria © Glasmalerei Stift Schlierbach

Siegfried Anzinger, Stained glass windows in Parish Church of St John, Weyer, Austria © Glasmalerei Stift Schlierbach

Every two years in Vicenza, Italy the Italian Bishops Conference sponsors a World Fair of "Church Supplies",as well as of  Liturgical and Ecclesiastical Art

It is called "Koinè Expo"

In Easter of this year we  had "Koinè 2013" The images above are from the press release regarding the main theme of this year`s exhibition on Stained glass

The art is of a high quality. It would look beautiful in an art gallery or modern office block. The main problem about some of the highlighted designs is that they are abstract in conception and the general public does not like abstract art. Some say that it is an acquired taste but many art experts and historians do not like it either.

Why attend a place of worship if you are surrounded by art you do not like ? Or art that grates on your nerves ?

That leaves aside the other question which some would wish to debate: is it religious Catholic art ? (which of course assumes that there is a common and accepted definition of "religious Catholic art" and its purposes)

The next fair is to be in 2015 and called Koinè 2015

Koinè has been on the go for over 20 years since 1989

The website states:
"Koinè Fair consists of 4 days of exhibition and conferences. A unique formula conceived to meet visitors purchasing needs for high-caliber church supplies and educational needs for trends, keynotes, tracks, for the episcopate, church leaders, architects, liturgists and specialists. 
Design monographic exhibitions and 4 study days trainings guided by the Italian National Conference of Bishops and the major local Dioceses set new standards and define the liturgical trends for architects, designers and manufacture ... 
360 exhibitors booked 22,000 sqm of exhibit ground in 2013 edition and presented the complete spectrum of products and services for churches and the global distribution channels. 20% of them were international, thus the leading European manufacturers where all represented."
It is part of a lucrative series of fairs and markets  in modern ecclesiastical liturgical goods and art. Other fairs include: Utrecht`s Kerk&Gemeente; Gloria, in Augsburg; Sacroexpo in Poland; Dikè in Valencia, Spain.

Koinè 2015 will mark especially the closure of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. That is to be the main theme

The press release and website state:
"Koinè confirmed its vocation to be the global intersection between the world of production and that of design thanks to the contribution of the Scientific Committee of Koinè Research, the Diocese of Vicenza, the National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage and the National Service for worship buildings of the Italian Bishop Conference, along with the ones of Narthex (French Bishop Conference), and other international guests, whose ongoing ideas and support converted Koinè into the privileged industry “trend-spotting” observatory. 
Throughout the 4 days of cultural installations and international  conferences attracted church leaders, architects, operators, liturgists and experts, thus giving life to unique and focused training/learning, geared specifically to professionals in the trade. "
Now you know one of the sources from where the modern designs come

The Scientific Committee of Koinè Research oversees the projects, the content and the activities of the scientific section of Koine. The Scientific Committee is composed of religious and lay members, it is currently composed of:
Msgr. Fabrizio Capanni, Head of Office for the Pontifical Commission for Cultural Heritage of the Church
Msgr. Francesco Gasparini, Director of the Vicenza Diocese Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage Office
Msgr. Guido Genero, liturgist
Stefano Mavilio, architect
Msgr. Giuseppe Russo, Director of the SNEC – National Service for worship buildings, Italian Bishop Conference
Msgr. Stefano Russo, Director of the UNBCE – National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage, Italian Bishop Conference
Msgr. Giancarlo Santi, architect and President of AMEI – Italian Ecclesiastical Museum Association
Don Roberto Tagliaferri, liturgist – St. Giustina Institute of Pastoral Liturgy, Padua

For an idea of the thoughts of these experts you may wish to consult the magazine Thema, the Italian magazine of the  Centro di studi architettura e liturgia” of  Pescara, where there are many articles about the ideas behind the new Italian sacred art

Here are are some images from past exhibitions

Other past highlights from past exhibitions can be viewed here showing chasubles, stoles, liturgical objects, church seating, "eucharistic containers", main entrances of churches, chalices and patens, lights, flmes and light holders

Koinè 2003 Exhibition “Chalice and paten”. Project by Alberto Maria Prima. Manufactured by Mesa (Cadorago, CO)

Koinè 1993 Exhibition “Seat for the Church” bench designed by Paolo Favaretto. 

Koinè 2005 Exhibition “The Chasuble” hors-concours section, design by Nanni Strada.

Gerhard Richter, Cathedral St. Peter and the Virgin , Cologne, Germany

Koinè Research 2011: The chasubles by Wefers Germany

Koinè Research 2011: The stole - stoles realised by Pia Puonti, Giulia Rizzo, Matilde Coco, Attiliana Argentieri 

DeiSign 2010  Chalice and ciborium  First prize sezione professionisti Progettisti: Duccio Scarpetti, Michelangiolo

Chalice and ciborium  DeiSign 2010: 2nd prize sezione professionisti Progettisti: Claudio Bosio, Alex Bombardieri