There will be a screening of a new film by Nino Danino called Communion at The Red Gallery, Rivington Street, London EC3A 2DT, this evening, 28th November, together with a Question and Answer session with Aaron Rosen of KCL, Nino Danino, artist and lecturer at Goldsmith’s College and Rosalind Parker, curator of Urban Dialogues a Three Faith’s Forum exhibition. The event is organised by ACE and the Three Faiths Forum.
This Sunday the reading is for the final week of the year and does not come from Mark, but is chosen from John’s Gospel to fit the theme of the feast, which is Christ the Universal King. The chioce of gospel fits the understanding of Christ’s kingship being distinct and different from worldly kingship, at the same time situating it in the Passion and showing that its roots are in this action of God’s love. The panel we can see above, which shows the passage from the Gospel, is taken from the Maesta, originally on the high altar of Siena cathedral, one of the most ambitious altarpieces ever painted. Duccio painted the Maesta with a team of assistants between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in a solemn procession in the Cathedral. The Maesta is two sided. The front is Mariological with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and of Christ’s birth around the central image of Mary seated in majesty with the Christ Child. The back, with its scenes of the Passion is Christological. This was seen by the clergy when seated around the chancel for the praying of the Office and also for the celebration of Mass.
This scene of Christ before Pilate for the Second Time is taken from the end of the top left row of the rear of the altarpiece. Duccio uses a conflation of the gospel accounts. The sequence of panels depicting the passion is to be read boustrephedonically, that is up, along, down and up and so on, with the sequence ascending. Duccio was careful to arrange the design of images in each panel to fit the overall design and movement of the narrative and to give a sense of balance so the scene moves from left to right. In this painting, from the far left of the work, the artist positions a large body of figures- the Pharisees and soldiers, on the left, behind Jesus as he faces Pilate, who wears the robe given him by Herod to ridicule him from the scene below.
One is struck by the isolation of Jesus, by the clusters of the Pharisees and soldiers who both act as single masses. Just as in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper the artist shows the singularity of Jesus and the movement away from Christ in the groups of apostles, here we can see Duccio create a similar force. He clusters and positions the groups both close to but distinct from Jesus, fearful but, perhaps, deep down, curious about this figure. For what he is to do is something beyond human comprehension, and the strength and grace needed to do so unimaginable, but which shows love even beyond persecution.
Duccio seems to show Jesus leading humanity, albeit hesitantly, towards a different set of values from those of Pilate and the wordly power of the Roman Empire, towards kingship as service and love even at great cost.
A detail showing Christ at the centre of Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgement on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. From 1536 until 1541 Michelangelo painted the Last Judgement or Resurrection of the Dead on the wall above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel at the request of Pope Paul III, though the original request of the former Pope Clement VII had been for a Resurrection scene.
At this time, there was a desire for reform within the Church prompted by the crisis of the Reformation. The Consilio was drawn up at the request of the Pope by an inner circle of reformers. It was a radical set of measures for the renewal of faith. Michelangelo was close to the group which wrote the Consilio, which included Cardinal Pole and to its supporters, including Victoria Colonna and shared their desire for renewal. The Last Judgement is a painting full of religious intensity by the very nature of the subject, but Michelangelo’s rendering is especially so. The mouth of hell is centrally placed at the bottom, just behind the crucifix of the high altar. In one sense this might be a key to the painting. It is still the redeeming action of Christ on the cross that has the capacity to save all and this saving action represented in the Eucharist is celebrated on the altar beneath the painting. What happens above is an awful possibility.
What strikes one about the painting is the fact that it is one great blue field or space populated by many nudes. Michelangelo may have been influenced by the commentaries on St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians by Cardinal Cajetan, another reformer in the Church. The painting draws on 1 Corinthians 15 and the account therein of the bodily resurrection, and shares Cajetan’s emphasis on the resurrection being bodily for all humanity at the judgement. In effect, Michelangelo makes the nude body the vehicle for expressing both the glory of the elect and the bodily suffering of the damned. It also makes a visible statement about the individual and their bodily life on earth having relevance to eternal life.
Michelangelo creates an epic space with the figure of Christ coming as judge at the centre, based on the Apollo Belvedere, the classical sculpture in Rome. Next to him is Mary his mother and around him are the saints, while below are the elect being raised and the damned emerging to go to hell. All are bodily, the damned are not deprived of their bodies, but suffering in them. Marcia Hall notes that the saints included are those who lost their bodily integrity in one way or another in martyrdom, such as St Catherine, St Sebastian and St Bartholomew and that in depicting them, Michelangelo emphasises the change that takes place in the glorified body. Michelangelo may have wished to use the Apollo Belvedere as a model for Christ because there was interest in the writings of Copernicus about the sun being at the centre of the solar system. The painting shows Christ as Apollo, the sun god, at the dawning of the final resurrection.
The exhibition of Rembrandt and the Passion at the Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow is only on for another two weeks. The exhibition centres on a small authentic sketch, a work in oil on an oak panel by Rembrandt of the Entombment of Christ. The exhibition explores the background to the work, in particular the relationship between this sketch and the series of paintings commissioned by Frederick Hendrik, the Prince of Orange on the theme of the Passion, painted between 1635-9, and contemporary with this sketch, although a second overlay of painting, possibly from the 1650’s has been detected, too. This series is now in the Altepinakothek in Munich and the Entombment from the series is also on display, from which it is clear that the painting is not a preparatory sketch. The highly finished central area and the oak panel used suggest that it may have been painted for the open market. There are two paintings from the National Gallery, London in the show of the Ecce Homo and Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross, both oil sketches on paper made in preparation for etchings. Also on display is Jan Lieven’s etching The Raising of Lazarus a work which Rembrandt owned and is now in Brighton Art Gallery. They tackled many of the same subjects and may have shared a studio together. This etching may have provided the initial inspiration for the composition. There are also etchings of the passion by Rembrandt from the 1650’s in the exhibition, which seems to relate to the second layer of painting of the oil sketch.
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Mark 12:41-44
A drawing from the studio of Rembrandt, which may show the scene in the Gospel for this week where the widow places all her wealth into the Temple Treasury, referred to as the Widow’s Mite. The arched frame effect in the drawing was used by Rembrandt elsewhere and the arrangement of the scene is very like ‘ The Return of the Prodigal’ oil painting in the Hermitage, St Petersberg, with a similar cluster of other figures whose presence is mysterious. It’s the kind of scene which might have captured Rembrandt’s imagination due to the opportunity for human characterisation and drama and the setting in the Temple, bearing in mind ‘The Woman Caught in Adultery’ in the National Gallery, London, though he never painted the subject. The drawing in ink was acquired by the British Museum as by Rembrandt, though the attribution has not been sustained due to the quality. Its the gesture of the woman in the foreground which suggests the theme.
The Gospel of Sunday comes from the period just before Jesus’ death. He has triumphantly entered Jerusalem, expulsed the money changers from the temple and spent time there teaching and debating. The passage immediately following predicts the destruction of the magnificent building. in some ways we can see the figure of the Widow as like Christ, one who gives all, and whose gesture transcends the limits of the sacrificial economy of the Temple in a way that Jesus was soon to do once and for all. The artist through the overworking of the pen gives more emphasis to her presence and stresses her humility and the loving intent in her gesture, in contrast to the other more self conscious figure approaching the Treasury box.
Poussin painted two series of paintings of the Seven Sacraments, one in the late 1630s and the second in the 1640s. This one from the first series depicting Extreme Unction has been bought for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and is currently on display in the National Gallery, London. It shows extreme unction being administered to a dying man by a priest, accompanied by two acolytes, while his family and servants and a doctor look on. Poussin has set the event in the early Roman church, paying attention to the details of the architecture and furnishings as well as the dress of the figures. Nicholas Penny, the director at the National Gallery praises the painting for its legible narrative and clarity of composition and for the way he captures the grief, solace and hope which are part of the reality of a death bed scene imbued with faith.
The room with its doors and windows opening out to a hidden beyond makes a fitting setting to describe the passing nature of life. One is reminded of St Bede’s words from The Ecclesiastical History of the English Speaking People:
“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”
In Poussin’s painting there is a warmth to the light which bathes the man’s face and lights the scene from the left. The movement out of the room of the servant girl opposite the window, who catches our eye, might speak of the soul’s new lightness of step on its path to salvation.
The BBC has produced a series of four podcasts of about 15 minutes each on the chapel ceiling. The Rev Lucy Winkett reflects on the choices of themes and the overall theological vision of Michelangelo, making observations on different figures such as Jonah and Adam and the representation of God in bodily form, moving in a striking and engaging way in the paintings and the stillness of the central painting of the Creation of Adam. A.C. Grayling outlines Michelangelo’s intention to celebrate humanity and sets his achievement in the context of Renaissance humanism pointing out the naturalistic attitudes of the figures, and their very human states of mind. He sees Michelangelo as transcending Plato’s division between the world of being and becoming in a new synthesis. Rachel Campbell-Johnston describes the process of restoration and the different views about the success of the recent project and Martin Kemp speaks about the changing reputation of Michelangelo through the last 500 years and the iconic significance of the Creation of Adam in our own time.