Monthly Archives: January 2013

Baptism of The Lord Luke: 3:15-16, 21-22

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, National Gallery, London

(I’ve posted this late, after the Christmas season has ended but hopefully, it is still of some interest and value in seeking to continue the Christmas mystery into the year).

This painting by Piero della Francesca hangs in the National Gallery, London. It is the central panel of an altarpiece which most art historians date from midway through the artist’s oeuvre to about 1450-1, about the same time as the St Jerome in Berlin, which has a similar natural landscape suffused with light and its effects, and after the left hand panel and before the right panel of the Polyptych of the Misericordia 1445-60. The other parts of the Baptism altarpiece triptych were completed later by Matteo di Giovanni. It depicts the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism when the Holy Spirit is poured out on Christ. In the Eastern churches the Epiphany, the Baptism and the miracle at Cana are seen as all aspects of the Epiphany of Christ. It may be that Piero’s treament of this scene offers an interpretation of this.

Missing from the scene connected to this central panel is an additional panel above by Piero in the form of a disc which showed God the Father, probably similar to the foreshortened figure in Matteo di Giovanni’s later altarpiece from Asciano. As it is, we see the figure of Christ centrally placed at the moment of baptism and the Spirit’s descent. The water of the Jordan is shown as a river in the Umbrian landscape around Piero’s native town of Borgo Sansepulcro (seen in the distance) where the painting was executed. It winds its way towards the front plane of the picture and yet as the waters flow towards the figure of Christ they stop short as in the line from the Easter psalm 114 ‘the Jordan turned back on its course’. Here the river bed is dry and exposed. Through the effect of perspective the viewer is drawn into this same space with Christ of the action of the Spirit and New Creation. Furthermore since it is the central panel of an altarpiece, in its original setting in the chapel of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista, the scene in the picture takes place behind the central action of the Eucharist thus the action of the Spirit in both sacraments is visually linked.

It may be that Piero was influenced for the setting by Donatello’s font in Arezzo where the Baptism is set in a wood. He may have also been influenced by the mosaic figure of Christ in the Neonian Baptistery in Ravenna, which he had seen by 1451 and by Domenico Veneziano’s tondo of the Adoration of the Magi in Berlin, with its unified landscape. However, at the same time Piero draws together various features into a unity and coherent vision.

The other figures around Jesus and St John are significant. Behind, in the middle distance, is a naked about-to-be neophyte, one who follows Christ into the water. He does not see the phenomena of the epiphany yet in faith follows Christ into the water. Formally, Piero links this figure to Christ. He shares the same bare flesh never exposed to the sun as Christ, whose face is tanned. The neophyte is also in contrast to the heavily dressed figures behind who see and point to the epiphany in the sky but who walk away. As the art historian Carlo Bertelli points out, it is as if they see but do not believe, moving away from the action and skirting the river. It could be these figures are supposed to be Greek theologians, who had been in Italy at the Council for the union of the East and Western churches. However, in the painting they seem to stand in for not-seeing, for the Pharisees of the Gospel, while the naked man stands for faithful seeing.

Piero may draw this out in the treatment of the angels. They were a long standing feature of representations of the Baptism of Christ, usually two of them holding robes to wrap Christ in as he begins his ministry and mission, but here they stand discretely in classical poses in a distinct, almost heavenly space (the two trees seem to echo those in the account of Genesis 3) and occupy a considerable part of the painting. The angel on the right has the robe draped over the shoulder ready for Christ, but otherwise they look on from the side in quite a new way.( Piero may have been influenced for their classical pose by original Roman antique sculpture or by Nanni di Banco’s Quattro Coronati on Orsanmichele, Florence). The art historian Carlo Bertelli sees them as singing angels with hands linked and keeping time and that by presenting them in this way, the question about music, about whether it is perceived by the senses or by reason, which preoccupied humanists of the time, echoes the drama of faithful seeing and not seeing in the main part of the picture.


Babel and Contemporary Art and The Fantastic and Fabulous in 16th century Flemish Landscape Painting: Bosch, Brueghel, Bles, Bril at Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille

Today is the last day to visit the exhibition Babel in Contemporary Art at the Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille, together with the exhibition: ‘The Fantastic and Fabulous  in 16th century Flemish Landscape Painting: Bosch, Brueghel, Bles, Bril” at the same museum. In the 16th century art, the theme of Babel was very  popular, as can be seen in works by Brueghel, Cleve, Valckenborch, Verhaecht and Momper. To complement the exhibition taking in these works,  the first exclusively contemporary show to explore the topic has also been on show.  It includes works in all media, and takes in all aspects of the story from Genesis; the building and the destruction of the Tower, as well as the babble of languages. Works by Anselm Kiefer and Jake and Dinos Chapman are included.

The cultural heritage of the Catholic Church in Italy is now online.

The Catholic Church in Italy has recently set up an online database called Beweb listing all the paintings, sculptures and other liturgical treasures of the Church in Italy,  Ermanno Rivetti reported just before Christmas in the online edition of The Art Newspaper. The website contains almost 3.5 million objects belonging to some of the 63,773 churches of 216 dioceses in Italy. It is a landmark project, a collaboration between the individual dioceses, the Italian Episcopal conference as well as the Ministry of Culture and the Italian National Office for Ecclesiastical Heritage. It should be a model for the church in other countries, too.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, there has been a recognition of the value for mission of the rich cultural heritage of the church as well its importance to liturgical life. An attempt has been made to create institutions and structures by which to preserve the fabric in each diocese.  The first document of the Council on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter 7, on Sacred Art, called for the setting up of Diocesan Commissions to care for this heritage.  This particular project in Italy is the most advanced development yet and will eventually include architecture and literary archives.

The project is not finished by any means; the dioceses with the biggest collections, such as the Archdiocese of Florence still have a lot to catalogue. Some inconsistencies have been found and it is only possible to trace particular works to the diocese, while the actual church location is not given for reasons of security. Nevertheless the website should be a rich resource for research into artistic practice in different regions and iconography.

‘Goodbye to Canterbury Cathedral’ in which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams looks at the Cathedral- Last opportunity to download

Today is the last chance to download from BBC iPlayer the programme ‘Goodbye to Canterbury’ in which Archbishop[ Rowan Williams reflects on his own ministry and on the structure, the stained glass, tombs and treasures of the Canterbury Cathedral as well as its importance to faith down through the ages, before and after the Reformation. He looks at the extraordinary illustrations of the Book of the Gospels brought by St Augustine in 597 from Rome, the tomb of Cardinal Henry Morton, Archbishop in the reign of Henry VII, close up at the magnificent stained glass created by the ‘Methuselah Master’, and at hidden storerooms and corners- where some of the “cracks in the medieval vision of harmony” are to be found. A thoughtful and moving commentary, in which the former Archbishop looks favourably at the medieval vision of the Cathedral and ruefully upon the damage done to the fabric over the centuries by reforming minds, while respecting the changing vision of different generations. “Our ancestors went out of their way to create a space”  for the big issues says Williams, gently inviting the viewer to ponder the message that the building contains. Commenting on the fact that in WWII the local people worked in shifts to remove the incendiary bombs from the roof of the Cathedral when Canterbury was blitzed, he added “They were probably not all enthusiasts for Gothic architecture”. The programme ends with Dr Williams looking at the life of St Thomas Becket, partly at the now lost tomb and history of the shrine, but mainly at the martyrdom as a measure for our faith and for humble perspective his own ministry.

ASCHA symposium: SANG SACRÉ: Conflicting Associations in French Art, Pratt Institute, New York

Jean August Dominique Ingres: The Virgin of the Eucharist 1866

ASCHA the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art are organising a symposium in February entitled SANG SACRÉ: Conflicting Associations in French Art. It will be at the Pratt Institute, New York on February 12. 2013. The website introduction to the symposium states ” In Christian concepts of sacrifice and redemption, sacred blood—“le Sang Sacré”—suggests competing meanings, as represented in symbols, themes, and narratives. “Sang Sacré” has been identified not only with mortality and immortality, but also form the dialectic of truth and falsity. In the long nineteenth-century, French art demonstrated ways in which Christian associations with blood could be associated with power as an expression of the vengeful, the covenantal, and the salvific. In paintings, prints and architectural programs, symposium papers address the metaphysical and aesthetic attributes of blood as an interpreter of cultural, political or spiritual values and the connections between the material and the immaterial”. The presenters and lectures are as follows:

CORDULA GREWE, Associate Professor of Art History, Columbia University: Ingres’s Eucharist: An Anachronistic Reading

RONALD BERNIER, Chair, Dept. of Humanities + Social Sciences, Wentworth Institute of Technology: Respondent to Cordula Grewe

KIRK AMBROSE, Chair, Department of Art and Art History and Associate Professor, University of Colorado: Christian Blood in Nineteenth-Century Art History

 NORA HEIMANN, Chair, Department of Art and Associate Professor of Art History, Catholic University of America: Nineteenth-Century Prints of Eucharistic Devotion

ELIZABETH M. RUDY, Theodore Rousseau Assistant Curator, Harvard Art Museums: Post- Revolutionary Bloodlessness: A Political Exigency

 JESSICA BASCIANO, Visiting Assistant Professor, Bucknell University: Cemented by Blood: Expiatory Churches of the Early Third Republic

 ALBERT ALHADEFF, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Colorado: Blood as a Gateway to Redemption: Ensor as a Man of Sorrows

Details and registration via the website of ASCHA

4th Sunday of Advent: Luke 1:39-44

Mariotto Albertinelli, The Visitation, 1503, Uffizzi, Florence

Mariotto Albertinelli was a pupil of Cosimo Rosselli and then worked in a studio in collaboration with the artist who under the influence of Savonarola became Fra Bartolommeo. However, after a brief falling out over Savonarola, they continued in collaboration into the 1500s. This particular work was commisioned by the Congregation dei Preti, by Orsanmichele but not for their own church but for an altar for the oratory of the Confraternity of the Visitation. It is dated 1503.  Its a remarkable subject to choose for an altarpiece, where normally some more visible image of Christ is found in view of the eucharistic function, though certainly the Visitation expresses the theme of the Incarnation. The confraternity had links with Savonarola and it may be the image is  intended to convey the theme of simplicity which featured in Savonarola’s preaching

The arcade functions as a frame and a foil and offers some continuity with the real architecture of the setting, just as the arch of the frame echoes that in the painting. However, it also functions as a fictional setting or stage into which living action and Gospel drama has entered, a symbol of the old creation being transformed by the new.

Possibly, Albertinelli relied on Fra Bartolommeo for the monumental design, though it is distinct from the latter’s normal solid pyramidal layout and may be his own. The rounded forms and saturated colour are both characteristic of Albertinelli at this time. Here, there is a pyramid created, but it is a hollow one at the centre of the painting between the figures, to which the eye is drawn, the space between the wombs of the two women. Only their hands joined in friendship are found at this central point, a space full of the Spirit, which unites them and the two infants in their wombs.