The Virtual Field Trip

JMJ

HOMEWORK for Church History class with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to select some art from the Web Gallery of Art, to learn how to use that tool, and to write a brief comment, including why this art, something learned about the artist, and how to use it in a parish ministry. I tended to feel like I was writing for the BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” I noted to Dr Clarke that I’ve not had to do this sort of work since failing “Art in the Dark” at NYU in 1983. I hope this is better…

This was the first time I’ve seen the wings closed (as far as I know). Ornate altars like this were often closed in Lent and Advent. The presence of the Annunciation icons on the outside of the closed wings struck me because the Annunciate is always in Lent. Advent, too, is a good time to see these images. 

I would use this in a discussion of liturgical art: why we veil statues in Lent/Holy Week.

This factoid has endeared him to my heart: he signed some art ALS ICH KAN (As I (Eyck) can), a pun on his name, which he typically painted in Greek characters. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Eyck  retrieved on 7 March 2020).

In the Biblical text, Judith is alone with the general passed out. In this image, she is not alone so I had to look that up. 

Turns out that showing Judith with her maid was an iconographic tradition intended to distinguish her from Salome. Wikipedia says, “In European art, Judith is very often accompanied by her maid at her shoulder, which helps to distinguish her from Salome, who also carries her victim’s head on a silver charger (plate). However, a Northern tradition developed whereby Judith had both a maid and a charger, famously taken by Erwin Panofsky as an example of the knowledge needed in the study of iconography.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_beheading_Holofernes retrieved on 7 Mar 2021.)

This would be useful in a discussion of the “other books” which don’t get so much playtime – even in the liturgy. Also, this would go well in a discussion of the place of women in our tradition.

In researching Caravaggio I found discussions of his presumed “sexuality” to be very interesting. Calling the artist “gay” or “queer” seems to reveal more about the attitudes of the writer as there was no such category of human being in Caravaggio’s culture or the Church’s understanding. I can imagine a very adult class on this topic: eroticism in art, or in the Church’s art. The artist’s use of chiaroscuro can be contrasted with the ample light used for the same effect in the work of the next artist, Fra Angelico.

This image caught my eye because of the ways it does not follow the iconographic tradition. Normally Jesus is depicted holding the Virgin’s soul while surrounded by angels as if he is standing outside of time. However here he is clearly standing next to the Apostles, in the world, as it were. I’m not certain of the artist’s intent, but the idea of Jesus coming to his mother’s death in this world is very moving.

Bl. John has a feast on the OP calendar which has three alternative readings for the Office of Readings on 18 February. The third one, “especially for prayer with a group of artists,” says the Blessed’s art depicts …[t]he ideal world, radiant with the aura of peace, holiness, harmony, and joy. Its reality lies in the future when ultimate justice will triumph over a new earth and new heavens. Yet this gentle and blessed world can even now come to life in the recesses of human souls, and it is to them he offers it, inviting them to enter in. It is this invitation which seems to us to be the message of Fra Angelico entrusts to his art, confident that it will thus be effectively spread... If its content and aim are such as Fra Angelico gave his painting, then art rises to the dignity almost of a minister of God, reflecting a greater number of perfections. We should like to point out to artists, who are ever dear to us, this sublime possibility of art. 

(The Venerable Pope Pius XII, opening an exhibition of art by Fra Angelico at the Vatican on 20 April 1955. Quoted in, Liturgy of the Hours – Propers for the Order of Preachers Revised Edition, 2019, Dominican Liturgy Productions, Oakland, CA.)

I would use this painting in a class on the evolution of the iconographic tradition a discussion point: he is only one generation after Giotto and the latter’s work is more like traditional icons. 

These two works come together because my piety leans heavily on the Incarnation as revolution: the God who feeds us all is fed by the virgin whom he made, God the Word who cannot speak, God the creator of all who has dirty diaper; the God of life who dies, the king who is willingly wounded by his subjects. This humble submission of God to the need for his creation’s salvation is very moving to me.

I was intrigued at the idea of tempera painting being moved from wood to canvas. That led me down a rabbit warren of artistic trivia! 

I’ve never been clear if Dürer was a Catholic or a Protestant – his works seem popular with both groups. So reading up on this was another trip down a series of tubes. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says this theory is rejected (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05209c.htm retrieved on 7 March 2021.) Sed Contra, the Lutherans claim his as their own, for ex: I think it can be safely said that Dürer, at the end of his earthly life, was steadfastly in the Lutheran camp. – Deaconess Carolyn S. Brinkley (https://lutheranreformation.org/history/four-holy-men-albrecht-durers-confession-faith/)

Certainly, for much of his life, he was Catholic, though. It is a profoundly Catholic sensibility that he brings to Protestant Bibles using his engravings. It would be interesting to use his work along with Leonardo’s in a discussion of how Catholicism might reach out – artistically – to evangelize Protestants. 

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.