Monthly Archives: February 2013

Blessed Fra Angelico OP (Blessed John of Fiesole) 1395-1455

Fra Angelico The Annunciation, Convent San Marco, Florence c.1450

Today, the Church keeps the memory of the artist, Blessed John of Fiesole, more commonly known as Fra Angelico, who was beatified by Bld. John Paul II on October 3rd 1982, and in 1984 made a patron of artists, though his memory and sanctity have always been celebrated on this day, the anniversary of his death, in the Dominican Order. He belonged to the community at Fiesole and then at San Marco in Florence during the height of the early Renaissance. There are a number of Renaissance artists who were religious, friars or monks, including Lorenzo Monaco, Fra Filippo Lippi and Fra Bartolomeo, but it is Fra Angelico who is singled out for his sanctity and for his ability to convey a religious vision with skill, simplicity and clarity.

He is most well known for his work in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, but he also completed many paintings for the convent at Fiesole previous to this, many of which are now in galleries and museums throughout the world. He worked in the cathedral of Orvieto and was also called to paint in Rome by Pope Eugene IV and he continued to work for Pope Nicholas V. He died in Rome and is buried in the Dominican priory church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome.There are a number of studies of his work in English:

Diana Cole-Ahl: Fra Angelico. London 2008

George Didi-Huberman: Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration Chicago 1995

William Hood: Fra Angelico at San Marco Yale 1993

Sarah James: Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry and a Vision of the End Aldershot 2003

Laurence B. Kanter: Fra Angelico. Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue New York 2005

John T. Spike: Fra Angelico, New York 1997

Vatican Editions: Fra Angelico and the Chapel of Nicholas V,  Vatican 1999

There are many others in Italian which I am unfamiliar with apart from a brief introduction by Mgr Timothy Verdon and a comprehensive study by Eugenio Marino OP;’ Il Beato Angelico’ (2001) He was the Prior of the Dominican convent in Fiesole 1960-63,  and then member of the community of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

One of the collects for this day from the Dominican Sacramentary is as follows:

God of eternal beauty,by your ineffable grace Fra Angelico studied and taught the mystery of your Word. With the help of his prayers may we be led at last to contemplate the radiance of your majesty face to face. We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C) John 2:1-11

(This has been posted after the Sunday )

The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday (C) is from the Gospel of John and recalls the Marriage at Cana from the beginning of Christ’s ministry, where ‘he let his glory be seen’ (John 2:1-11). Actually, while in the Eastern churches the Epiphany is strictly speaking the term given to the Baptism of the Lord, in the Western church, three different moments, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism and Cana make up the celebration of Epiphany. They are all moments when God’s glory is revealed. This is one reason that on the second Sunday year C we celebrate this moment. Another reason is that it is an opportunity to hear part of the opening two chapters of John (now read on 2nd Sunday over the three year cycle), which give a vision of the new creation being brought about by the Incarnation.

The scene of a feast at Cana lends itself to the context of a wall painting in a refectory, though the standard subject had been the Last Supper, perfected by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan sixty years before. Paolo Veronese executed a number of refectory paintings in the 1560s and 70s of different feasts from the Gospel accounts, beginning with this one of the Marriage at Cana in the refectory of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. He continued with three versions of the Feast in the House of Simon, for monasteries and a priory in Verona and Venice between 1556 and 1572, now in the Brera, Milan, Turin, and at Versailles, and a Feast in the House of Levi for the Dominican priory of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, now in the Accademia. This final one began as a Last Supper but Veronese was brought before a delegation of the Inquisition at Venice, and questioned regarding his treatment of the subject in the light of the new principles for painting emerging out of the Council of Trent. An account of the Inquistion proceedings draws attention to the sheer number of figures in Veronese’s painting and to German soldiers shown drinking wine and eating bread, which in the context of the institution of the Eucharist and in view of the Reformation, raised concern. Veronese changed the title of the painting, rather than make the alterations.

Veronese’s first refectory painting, the Marriage Feast at Cana has to be imagined or seen in its original setting, (a photograph now in the refectory allows one to see it thus) the newly rebuilt monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed in the grand style by the architect Palladio. With its prominent situation on the island visible across the lagoon from St Mark’s square, the impact of this white stucco classical façade, whose entrance is approached from steps rising out of the water and the light stucco interior, cannot be underestimated. Veronese’s painting was to complete Palladio’s refectory design in the same style. Seen in this context, rather than the cluttered space of the Louvre, where it now is, it is more easy to appreciate the vivid symphony of colours which make up the painting. It became one of the most visited sights in Venice over the coming two centuries, until it was removed by Napoleon.

However, looking at the scene of Veronese, notwithstanding the complementarity of the space as a foil for Veronese’s colourful masterpiece, it does seem strange that Veronese has painted the wedding feast at Cana as such a complex and exhuberant banquet for a monastic refectory, a place where monks are still working out their salvation, even though it is, at the same time, a place where a foretaste of the heavenly banquet can be experienced. This is one of the issues that strikes one about the painting, whether it has a religious sense fitting to the context and subject?

In a way, Veronese draws together the deeper link between the paschal Mystery, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, and a celebratory feast in the same way that John himself does in the Gospel passage. John’s account of the wedding at Cana records on Jesus lips the words: ‘My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:4) and he observes of Cana, that there Jesus ‘let his glory be seen’ (John 2:11) thus linking the scene in Cana with the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, the pre-eminent time of glory, as John sees it, when Christ is finally revealed as king on the cross. Cana is also the only time in the gospel Jesus addresses his mother as ‘woman’, apart from the crucifixion further linking the two. John himself, then brings a feast and Christ’s passion together.

Veronese does this in a parallel way. Christ and Mary are presented iconically, and frontally, and their gaze arrests the viewer. At the same time, there is a drama unfolding in the busy scene of a the celebratory feast, with all its participants in which, at the same time, the servants realise a miracle that has taken place in the transformation of the water into wine.  Their realisation is that of  the viewer who is drawn to the still figures of Christ and Mary, whose glory is being revealed.

There are small details, too, and significant aspects. One of the carvers in the scene, positioned above Christ’s head has a knife raised above a lamb, which in turn lines up with an hourglass, according to David Rosand, surely a reference to the Passover of the Passion, and the line ‘My hour has not yet come’. Furthermore, no-one is represented as eating: they are conversing, listening, savouring and tasting, perhaps, meditating, enjoying each other’s company, others are preparing and serving food, playing music, attending to guests and to one another, but it is not a picture of people being satiated. In this way, the festive and communal aspect of the heavenly banquet are rendered while at the same time, all the arts of living are depicted here, as if artful living, of whatever form, is in itself a graced endeavour that prepares one for salvation. Kate Hanson in an article points out that there is artistry being depicted in the way the food is being served, and that just before this time, the culinary arts were being codified and recognised in the work of Platina, Scappi and Maestro Martino in publications in Venice,( as Vasari did the same for art). The musicians  playing for the feast may be portraits the painters of Venice, with Veronese in white, and Tintoretto both playing the viola da braccio, Titian, playing the viola da gamba, and Bassano on flute, though this is contended more recently. However, whether these are portraits or not, they still depict the same artistry that Veronese’s painting is itself an example of, and in this way may be part of Veronese’s reflection on skill and artistry as a parallel to the grace-filled vocation of the monk, within a visually complex and engaging masterpiece.

ASCHA symposium in New York next week.

Eugene Delacroix: Deposition 1844, in Saint Denys du Saint Sacrement Church, Paris

The Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) have organised a symposium titled:’Sang Sacre: Conflicting Associations in French Art’ taking place in New York on Tuesday12th February (next week). The brochure, which gives details of the lectures, is available to download as a PDF.

The Vatican Museums as places to deepen faith through art

Elizabeth Lev, Renaissance art historian, author of the Tigress of Forli, who writes on art for Zenit, the Catholic news agency, recently described on the site an initiative she has been involved in at the Vatican museums, designing a course on Christianity and art to enrich the knowledge of the guides in the museum. What follows below is a summary of her article.The course took place last week. The aim was to enable guides to engage visitors seeking to know more about the faith that inspired the works on display. It is not the first initiative that the Vatican Museums have been involved in to harness the collections as a means to evangelise, and deepen faith. It is a project that Pope John Paul II encouraged and Pope Benedict XVI developed and outlined in 2006, onwards, the year the 500th anniversary of the Vatican collection was celebrated. He appointed a new director Professor Antonio Paolucci, and in turn a department of ‘art and faith’ was set up. Lev mentions the previous projects of the department in the article; “art and faith” themed itineraries, a DVD on the Via Pulchritudinis and an exhibition, “Called to Love,” for World Youth Day 2011. Yesterday, an exhibition opened at Castel Sant’ Angelo called on the Path of Peter, showing the apostle’s journey in faith through art down the ages.

Elizabeth Lev describes designing the course, which was delivered in 11 sessions last week.  Cardinal Ravasi, Archbishop of Milan and head of the Pontifical Council of Culture began the week outlining the curriculum with a talk “Why do Christians have art?” and the course went on to look at different periods in the history of the Church and art, and the relationship between the two. It was presented by specialists amongst the staff, and from outside, Lev herself and Sara Magister, expert on the collection of Julius II (who recently outlined a new interpretation of Caravaggio’s Calling of St Matthew) as well as other speakers including Mgr Timothy Verdon, who has done similar work with art in churches of the Archdiocese of Florence.




Exhibition opens in Rome: The Path of Peter

Gerrit van Honthorst: The Liberation of St Peter. 1616-18, Berlin 

One of the initiatives organised as part of the Year of Faith in the Catholic Church, which runs from  11 October 2012 until November 24th 2013 is an exhibition which opens today at Castel Sant’ Angelo, Rome, just down from the ancient circus where St Peter was martyred and buried, now St Peter’s Basilica and the piazza in front of it. The exhibition looks at the life of St Peter through art and music down the ages.

In a press conference to launch the exhibition, Archbishop Reni Fisichella outlined the context and motivation behind the exhibition, to some extent echoing the reasons behind the year of faith outlined by Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei in 2011. He explained that faith is not something just for a committed group of believers, but also an expression of humanity’s need to understand the desire for God.He described a general feeling of fatigue and indifference that affects faith today, which makes it seem limited to a small group of persons and without wider appeal, and in addition, the growth of enthusiasm for scientific progress and new lifestyles leading to the idea that it is good to limit faith to the private sphere. At the same time, however, he noted ” it is easy to see that the desire to enjoy the beauty of nature and works of art is constantly increasing.” People are searching for something profound, and a beauty that is lasting. Works of art, the fruit of a different age provide a means for many to explore faith through culture.

Fisichella noted that the life of the first Pope is a remarkable journey of faith, one for today’s humanity, which seeks, finds and having found follows. The exhibition, as outlined in the press release, presents faith as an enchanted response to an encounter, to the provocation of God, who always makes the first move, through bewilderment, disorientation and the shattering of certainties to the warmth of brotherhood and fellowship and the transformation of the person, who, in him or herself, becomes an artistic masterpiece.

The exhibition has gathered together works from many different museums and collections in several different countries, some seen for the first time. They range from the 5th through until the beginning of the 20th century. George de la Tour’s ‘The Liberation of Peter’ from Berlin (above) is included alongside works by Lorenzo Veneziano, Gerrit van Honthorst, Guido Reni and Marco Basaiti, which narrate different episodes in the life of St Peter. The exhibition is open until May.


2nd February, Presentation of the Lord

Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple,1342,Panel.  Uffizzi, Florence

The feast of the Presentation was first commemorated as the Hypapante in the early Greek church. In the 6th century the Emperor Justinian established the 2nd February as the feast day throughout the Eastern empire, while in the West the feast of the Purification was established in the fifth century and expanded to include a procession of candles hence the name Candlemass. The liturgical text for the feast is the account in Luke’s gospel of the event in the infancy of Christ (2:22-38). Artists in the Middle Ages also drew on pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ. In one sense, there are two events, the presentation and the purification celebrated in this feast. It was frequently a subject in narrative cycles such as Giotto’s  in the Arena Chapel, Padua, and was also suitable for an altarpiece because of the association with sacrifice and the temple, and the presence of Christ being offered. It had been depicted since the 9th century.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti   ( c1290-1349) was one of the foremost artists of Siena, praised later on by the Florentine artists Ghiberti and Vasari. His Presentation was one of a series of paintings for altarpieces around the transepts of Siena cathedral commissioned from different artists which developed the Mariological and Christological aspects of the newly completed Maesta by Duccio on the high altar. The four paintings, of the Birth of the Virgin, the Annunciation, Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Presentation were in sequence moving from left to right, in four chapels dedicated to patrons of Siena. This panel is the central part of the altarpiece in the last chapel of St Crescentius, who was depicted on one of the wings.

Lorenzetti’s treatment of the Presentation is a significant rendering of the subject in several ways. I’m indebted to Heidi Hornik and Mikael Parsons  Illuminating Luke for their observations on this painting.  It is the first use of a temple interior to set the whole scene within the confines of an altarpiece, made possible by a developing grasp of perspective and the influence of Giotto’s frescoes. Lorenzetti uses the space effectively for the subject, more so than later artists, such as Giovanni di Paolo.The Temple also reflects the real architecture of its setting in the cathedral. After his initial design, Lorenzetti actually added a choir beyond the altar in the pictorial space to lead the viewer into  the picture. The child is the first real depiction of an infant, as opposed to a small version of a grown figure.

Lorenzetti developed the iconography, too. While the altar was traditionally a key element , his painting has the first depiction of a high priest in the scene, distinct from the figure of Simeon. This may be part of the way in which Lorenzetti focusses more specifically on the salvific meaning of the infancy gospel passage and the transfromation of the old into the new. While other artists  focussed on the human and emotionally charged moment when the Christ child is handed back to Mary, influenced by pseudo Bonventure’s Meditations on the Life of Christ, as did Duccio in the Maesta panel, and Giotto at Padua and in Assisi, Lorenzetti shows the moment when Simeon, holding the Christ child,  gazes at him, and says,” my eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared for all peoples,a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” Anna’s words too, are telescoped into this moment. The eye is drawn from the rite of sacrifice of the pigeons (which is interrupted and may never happen) on the altar to the figure of Christ, held forth for all to see. Lorenzetti further emphasises the theme of salvation by placing a figure of the resurrected Christ in a tympanum of the nave, blessing the viewer.


Towards a Bibliography of Christianity and Art

Transpositions, the excellent blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, part of the theology department, recently invited the theologian and art historian Daniel Siedell to put together a bibliography of Christianity and Art, with more emphasis on the arts side of the conversation. In the blog post: A Curator Among Theologians, Suggested Reading, Siedell gives a personal list, at points annotated, which includes monographs on Munch and Cezanne, and several works on modern and contemporary art theory and criticism, giving an overview of modern art post 1945, as well as several works of philosophy and the theology of the Lutheran Oswald Beyer.

The post is also interesting because it also lists other current bibliographies, mainly coming from a theological perspective. It is helpful to see these all assembled together. Those of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts itself and of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, Duke University in the US are included, both put together by Jeremy Begbie. They seem to be the same, though differently annotated. There is another list from Hearts and Minds bookstore, and one from Matthew Milliner’s blog, too, ‘The Unmappable Terrain of Christianity and Art’ as well as another from Diary of an  Arts Pastor: ’35 Books on Theology and the Arts’.

Some of these are broad in their coverage including film and literature, though they are mainly about fine art. Any such list is going to be quite selective and personal. Jeremy Begbie’s ones helpfully differentiate between books of Theology for the Arts, and of the Arts for Theology, and are further divided into introductory, intermediate and advanced or academic levels. They are all useful starting points for a bibliography.