Monthly Archives: March 2013

Palm Sunday (C) Luke: 19:28-40, 22:14-23:56

Frederick Etchells, The Entry into Jerusalem, 1912, The Charleston Trust

Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie were close to members of the Bloomsbury group. They stayed with Vanessa Bell at Asheham, around the time of this painting and it may have come into the possession of Vanessa Bell then and moved with her to Charleston farmhouse in 1916. He was one of the artists who became involved in the Omega Workshops in 1913, organised by Roger Fry with a number of the Bloomsbury artists, designing and painting furniture and ceramics. Etchells also worked on the murals for the Borough Polytechnic in 1911 with Grant and Fry, painting one of Hampstead heath, and he continued to be close to Fry even when he later exhibited with the new Vorticist group, when his work took on more angular and abstract characteristics.

Etchells had trained at the Central School of Art but then spent a period in Paris, like Duncan Grant, where he came into contact with Picasso, Braque and Modigliani and other artists behind the innovations of Post Impressionism. His paintings show their influence. Etchells later became an architect after the war and it was he who advised Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant on the design and fitting of the wall paintings for St Michael’s Church, Berwick.

Palm Sunday’s readings are in two parts. The account of the entry into Jerusalem and the Passion are both taken from the Gospel of Luke. The Gospels, as Gerald Sloyan has pointed out, do not show all the detail, only what is important: ” Christ’s suffering and death were early transposed into the theological key of mythos“. Early Renaissance painted versions of this and other Passion scenes, such as those of Giotto and Duccio, mirror this in their spared down treatment of the theme. The artists of Post Impressionism sought to recover this approach to painting and set aside the emphasis on likeness and appearance since the Renaissance. A scene from the Passion narratives, where the evangelist has similarly limited his material to what is essential, provided an ideal vehicle by which to use the design to convey meaning, which Etchells does here in several ways.

Etchells has taken the traditional theme The Entry of Christ in Jerusalem and transposed it to an indeterminate shoreline. The shore, a frequent setting in 20th century art, is not only a place of leisure in modern life, but also it is something pared down and primeval, too. It makes an ideal setting for the cosmic event which is about to unfold as the Messiah begins the passage to New Creation. The detail is spare in Etchells painting, just as it is in Giotto and Duccio’s paintings which Etchells was almost certainly familiar with. What is important is not showing a likeness of reality but only essential elements. The figure of Christ moves from right to left parallel to the picture plane, greeted by several pairs and groups of three figures either side, some waving palm frond, those in pairs moving in rhythm. These stylised figures are reminiscent of the figures of Matisse in the Dance I. The treatment of the figures is very like the mosaic of the Magi in Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, which Grant had recently visited

Christ is riding into the setting sun, made apparent by the long blue shadows which fall behind the donkey. Christ will pass through darkness and death to become himself, the new life and light. Indeed, the blue halo around his head seems like the sun on the horizon.

This painting shows Etchells experimenting with the techniques of Post Impressionist artists (which in turn look back to Manet), in the flat planes and expressive use of colour. Etchells knew many of these artists and their paintings from Paris, but Fry had organised two exhibitions of Post Impressionist works at the Grafton galleries in London, in 1910 and in 1912, when Matisse’s Dance I and Red Studio were shown as well the plaster maquette for Back I. and works by Seurat whose le Cirque seems particularly influential. His use of the Golden Section in the painting and angles of 30 and 60 degrees, which were particularly harmonious, according to the theories of Charles Henry, published in ‘Cercle Chromatique’ can be seen also in Etchells’ work, designed according to harmonic proportions.

In Seurat’s Le Cirque, the spectators passivity is contrasted with the action and skill of the circus troupe. In Etchell’s painting, the spectators cheer and greet Christ with movement and graceful gesture, but there’s a similar contrast set up as Christ the solitary figure, on a donkey, moves between the figures waving on the way to the cross and to resurrection


1700th anniversary of the Constantine’s Edict of Milan is celebrated in an exhibition in Milan and Rome

One of the most significant anniversaries this year is one of importance in the history of Christianity, but has passed with relatively little notice. The beginning of this month saw the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan,as dated by tradition, by which Christianity was permitted alongside other religions in the Roman Empire. However, there has been an exhibition conceived and designed by the Archdiocese of Milan in the city to celebrate the event, Constantino dC 313,  at Palazzo Reale which finishes on the 27th  March and moves to  the Curia Livia in Rome in April. The exhibition looks at the events which led to the legalisation of Christianity  and other religions, at the founding of Mediolarum (Milan) in the 4th c AD, and at the beginnings of Constantine’s own promotion of  Christianity, which followed his victory in battle under the banner of the Chrismon symbol at the Milvian Bridge. The symbol is based on the intersection of two letters from Christ’s name Xhi-Ro. The exhibition traces the  growth in the use of the symbol as Christianity spread through the Empire. There is also a large section on the mother of Constantine, St Helen, who became a pilgrim to Jerusalem and the Holy Land and is believed to have found the True Cross. She is also credited with establishing the basilicas on the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Crucifixion and Resurrection in Jerusalem,  which had by then both become pagan shrines intended, ironically, to eradicate their original significance. Included in the exhibition is Cima’s painting of St Helen from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Pope Francis I chooses ring designed by Italian artist and jeweller, Enrico Manfrini back in the 1960s

Enrico Manfrini, Madonna and Child, Foundation Cariplo

It is probably more the result of providence than any particular statement of aesthetic preference that has led Pope Francis to choose for the Papal ring a silver (rather than gold) one that had already been fashioned long ago from a simple design by the Italian artist and sculptor Enrico Manfrini, for Pope Paul VI. Nevertheless, it is heartening for the Pope to draw attention to the work of an artist who responded faithfully at the time to the expressed desire of the church at the Council (in the document on the liturgy) that ‘ the art of our own days…be also given free scope in the Church…(123)

Enrico Manfrini designed medals and other works of art for Pope Paul VI, including a ring for all the bishops who participated at the Second Vatican Council and a pectoral cross as a gift from Paul VI to all the bishops participating in the Synod at Bogota in 1968. He had already designed the Porta della Glorificazione di Maria for the Duomo of Siena in 1958, and went on to design doors elsewhere, including for St Paul outside the Walls, Rome and St Paul in Damascus, as well as many Stations of the Cross. His designs look back to the early Renaissance, in particular the work of Donatello. He also made bronzes of Bld John XXIII and John Paul II, who admired his work, as did the philosopher Jean Guitton. He is represented in all the major collections of modern Sacred Art in Italy, including the Vatican collection initiated by Paul VI in 1973, and the collection at Villa Clerici, Milan

5th Sunday Lent (C) Woman Taken in Adultery John 8:1-11

Rembrandt: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1644, National Gallery, London.

This small panel painting of the Woman Taken in Adultery, as the theme of the Gospel reading for the 5th Sunday, is sometimes known, is very remarkable in the oeuvre of Rembrandt for the exquisite quality of the detailed painting and dramatic lighting in the foreground of the main subject, in contrast to the dim, monochromatic, heavily impastoed and indistinct background scene of the Temple, at a time in the mid 1640’s when he had already been developing a more evenly broad handled and painterly style for 10 or more years. Many contemporary paintings by Rembrandt such as the Adoration of the Shepherds, of 1646 show this development

Many artists painted this subject during the 16th and 17th century, not just in the Protestant countries in the North but also in Italy and elsewhere. Artists treated different moments in the encounter. By far the most common was to show Christ writing on the ground, as in Poussin’s version in the Louvre of 1653 and in Bruegel’s grisaille painting in the Courtauld, another was the moment when the scene changes as the accusers move away. Other artists, such as Lotto show the aggression of the crowd being focussed on Jesus, so that the scene becomes a precursor of the Passion. This last theme of heightened tension and aggression directed at Jesus is definitely present in the Gospel as a whole and in this passage. It may be partly why the 5th Sunday in Lent in the three year cycle shifts to John.

However, the Gospel passage is also focussed on the Lenten theme of repentance, and Rembrandt, who has shifted the action to an earlier point-just after the woman is brought to Jesus in danger of her life- stays close to this theme. The quality of the painting in the foreground is detailed and exquisite, using rich saturated colours to build up the play of light on fabrics and jewellry through several glazes. The woman is centrally placed and bathed in natural light which falls diagonally from behind Jesus, as if mediated by him, illuminating her and the steps in front. We are drawn into this scene of bathos.

In the background, to the left is smaller group completely apart, with backs turned, and then behind there is a raised area with Rembrandt’s vision of the Temple of Jesus’ time as a gloomy and imposing candlelit space. There, action is also taking place, also quite apart, which echoes indistinctly the action of the foreground. However, with the axis of the Temple being oblique and with the heavily impastoed and monochrome palette, it remains unclear.

It is believed that Rembrandt studied the Biblical accounts of the Temple as well as those of Josephus for his depiction. He may also have been influenced by the then newly-constructed Sephardic Synagogue in Amsterdam, which even today, when candlelit seems remarkably similar to the effect of his interior. He may also have adapted contemporary ark designs for the synagogue such as in the Jewish museum, London and used these to depict the Temple. The structure behind the High priest also seems like a Torah breastplate, although different in scale.

It is possible that Rembrandt’s aim is simply to contrast grace with the law in this painting and to show that what is happening in the background is about to be obscured or replaced by the light of the Gospel. However, it may be rather that Rembrandt is showing that what is important is conversion and transformation through the radiant and compassionate love of God, here mediated by Christ. The detail of the foreground highlights the simplicity of Christ’s brown garb and the purity of the light as it falls from above him onto the woman and the steps, in contrast to the elaborate impasto of the background scene.  In its message, the painting looks forward to the Prodigal Son in the Hermitage of many years later.

I am indebted to Michael Podro’s observations in the article ‘Rembrandt’s Woman Taken in Adultery’ in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 50, (1987), pp. 245-252 available for online reading at JSTOR,. He highlights the significance of the way Rembrandt has differently painted the foreground and background scenes, and suggests an additional possible link to the Calvinist and Arminian theological disputes in Amsterdam at the time.

4th Sunday of Lent (C) Luke 15: 11-32 The Prodigal Son

Guercino, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1619. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent (C) concerning the parable of the prodigal son has inspired a number of artists, perhaps the most well known is Rembrandt ,whose Prodigal Son in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg was the focus of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, and the postumously published ‘Home Tonight’. These books provide a classic instance of a theologian bringing fresh depth and understanding to art history through looking and reflecting on art in the light of faith and introducing painting to a wider faith audience, too. However, Rembrandt was not the only artist to be inspired by the parable of the Prodigal Son in the 17th century. There were many others, including Murillo and Guercino, who painted the subject seven times. The way Guercino treated the theme changed over the course of his oeuvre and is admirably traced by Heidi Hornik and Mikael Parsons in a chapter of ‘Illuminating Luke: The Public Ministry of Christ in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting’.

The painting above is from Guercino’s earlier period and is his earliest version. In later paintings such as at Wloclawek Diocesan Museum 1651 San Diego 1654-5 he concentrated on the penitent son’s response to the love of the father and the steps in his contrition. These and other versions are painted in his later classical style. However, in this magnificent painting the focus is all on the Father. In this Guercino is close to the heart of the Gospel parable, for in the context of Chapter 15 of Luke’s Gospel we can infer from the immediately preceeding parables featuring the shepherd searching for the lost sheep and the woman searching the lost drachma, that the focus in this story is likely to be on the seeker, the father, more than the son, or elder brother, though these are important, too.

Guercino concentrates on showing the father’s love, Christ’s image in parabolic form of God’s love for us, expressed through the urgency and intent with which the father is about to clothe the lost and found son in a fine clean linen shirt and bejwelled cloak. Both the servant and father are focussed totally on this, while the son, safe in the father’s tender embrace, is bathed in this expression of love. Indeed, we cannot see his face, the light rather catches his old shirt and the new, which seems like the baptismal garment of the new Christian. There is no central focus to the composition, which shows the figures close up to the picture plane and is almost cinematic in effect. However, it is the father who is closest to the centre, and he is the one who takes the initiative. Guercino moves the father’s head slightly to the right of the centre of the painting to give dynamism and lend dramatic action and emphasise his loving intent. There are other details, too. The father’s arm extends beyond that of the son as he reaches down, which may be an allusion to God’s coming down to us in Christ and the arm of the father and the servant form a cross, an expression of how this love will be manifested in Christ’s servanthood. Its a wonderful expression in paint of Christ’s parable about the love of God for each of us.

Google Art Talks: Pieter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel

Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel, 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Google Art Talks is a new online development at the Google Art Project. described recently on the company’s blog. It is jointly organised with some of the 150 or more major galleries whose art work is now featured on their site. In order to access the talks you have to register with Google Hangout. The talks can then be watched live online and questions can be posed to curators and other specialists.The first was at MOMA, New York last week and there will be another talk on Wednesday 20th March at the National Gallery, London when Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 and Arnika Schmidt, Curatorial Assistant will discuss the representation of the female nude through the work of Titian and Cezanne. The third in the series in April will be about Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, which will be discussed by a panel  featuring Peter Parshall, curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Further talks are planned with other museums. The talks can also be watched afterwards on the Google Art Project You Tube site,