The vanitas tradition in 17th-century Dutch still-life painting draws inspiration from the Vulgate version of Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas” [“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”]. The Latin vanitas means “emptiness” or “futility” and was used to render the Hebrew term hebel, which primarily means “vapor” and refers to that which is fleeting and perishable (Ps. 62:9, 144:4). In this painting, Pieter Claesz, a German-born painter based in Haarlem, depicts human mortality with a skull and bone. The table is cluttered with other items suggesting transience and the futility of human pursuits. Along with an overturned chalice, there is a timepiece, a writer’s quill, and a music manuscript. The smoke is an especially poignant symbol of ephemerality. The impermanence of human existence underscores human dependence on a sovereign and eternal God.
The parable of the good Samaritan, here depicted by the Italian mannerist painter Jacopo Bassano, illustrates generosity and one person’s support for another, devoid of prejudice. In the context of Catholic Venice in the 16th century, Bassano’s work takes the church to task for failing in its obligations to care for the sick and needy.
Jacopo Pontormo painted the Visitation (1514–16) for the Church of the Annunciation in Florence, Italy, where the fresco remains. The scene depicts the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–45). Elizabeth is the first person to confess that Jesus, even in the womb, is “my Lord” (1:43). Pontormo offers a creative depiction of the scene, adding various details to shape the viewer’s interpretation. Unlike the biblical narrative, Pontormo’s fresco is filled with an entourage of characters. In a complex combination of hand gestures, Joseph and Zechariah guide the viewer to the scene. In the upper portion, the painting depicts the sacrifice of Isaac, suggesting a parallel between the faith of Abraham and Mary, united by the common sacrifice of their sons. Flanking Abraham and Isaac are two angels holding Latin inscriptions which apply to both scenes. Translated they read: “S/he [Mary/Abraham] owes him [Isaac/Jesus] to God” and “Nor does he [God] promise in vain.” In Pontormo’s visual interpretation, God’s promise to provide Abraham with offspring finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. A third inscription, “Look favorably Most Excellent God,” on the wall between the two scenes unites the two by invoking divine favor upon both Abraham’s and Mary’s faithfulness. A prophet with a codex bears witness to the event.
In Fra Angelico’s depiction of Christ’s ascension, Mary occupies center stage. A monk at the monastery of San Marco in Florence in the 15th century, Fra Angelico painted the work to decorate the doors of a silver treasury for an oratory to be constructed near the chapel of the Santissima Annunziata in the church of the same name. The 11 apostles, two angels, and Mary are united in a circle in the lower half of the painting. Peter, with his keys, is identifiable at Mary’s right. The top and bottom borders of the composition contain Latin inscriptions on scrolls, citing Psalm 17:11, “And he ascended upon the cloud, and he flew upon the wings of the winds,” and Mark 16:19, “The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken, was taken up into heaven. The ending of Mark.” The painting is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) painted The Conversion of St. Paul to be paired with Crucifixion of St. Peter and to establish a theme of suffering in the private chapel of Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi, treasurer general under Pope Clement VIII, in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Caravaggio does not embellish the narrative with reference to an apparition of God or angels (Acts 9:1–6, 22:5–11, 26:13). The psychological dimension is very modern: Saul, the persecutor of Christians, is knocked flat on his back before the viewers’ eyes and almost into their space. He is converted through the penetrating light of God—“a light from heaven flashed about him” (Acts 9:3). He does not react in fear but opens his arms to receive as much of the light as possible. His eyes are closed to indicate the blindness that he endures for three days. His commission to be the apostle of the gentiles is symbolized by Caravaggio’s depiction of him in Roman garb. The presence of the horse, while missing in the biblical text, is a common feature in visual depictions of the event, underscoring his standing as a Roman patrician and explaining how he “fell to the ground” (Acts 9:4).
The Resurrection of Lazarus, a triptych from 1461, is the earliest documented work by the French Renaissance artist Nicolas Froment. What is distinctive about it is the scene on the viewer’s right, in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet as her brother, Lazarus, looks on (John 12:2–3). From the beginning of the interpretive tradition, Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, had been confused with Mary Magdalene and the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50), a composite solidified in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great near the end of the sixth century. As a result, most of the images of the anointing of Jesus in medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art are set in Simon the Pharisee’s home and frequently carry iconographic elements associated with Mary Magdalene (portrayed with red hair and often in a prostitute’s attire). Here Froment presents a decorously dressed Mary, complete with head covering. Although there is apparent commotion among the onlookers in the background of the scene, the anointing itself is presented as a quiet and dignified act of devotion, in parallel with the opposite panel, which shows Martha, in nunlike attire, kneeling piously before Jesus in order to tell him her brother has died (John 11:32).
Painted by Michele Tosini (called Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, 1503–1577) in 1565 at the height of his career in Florence, this work combines the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21) with the three temptations of Christ (Luke 4:1–9). It should be read in a counterclockwise direction. The temptation to turn stones into bread, on the right, shows a hunched-over devil in discussion with an attentive Christ. “Command these stones be made bread,” the tempter says to Christ. In the second temptation, directly above the baptism, the devil leads Christ up the mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. Christ raises his right hand as if prepared to respond, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Tosini draws a contrast between Christ’s humility in the center of the painting toward John and his defiance of the devil. Christ and the devil stand on top of the dome of the Jerusalem Temple in the third temptation. The devil is suggesting that Christ throw himself down and be protected by the angels. Christ responds by raising his right hand in refusal.
In 1562, Benedictine monks commissioned Paolo Veronese to decorate the refectory at their monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The monks contracted for a painting of monumental proportions (22 feet by 32½ feet) to cover the entire wall of their dining hall, creating the sense of extended space. The painting is inspired by the miracle of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–11), but Veronese produced a scene that more resembles the festivities of a Venetian banquet than a wedding feast in ancient Galilee. More than 130 figures surround Christ, who is seated in the center next to Mary. They include princes, turbaned Orientals, and musicians. Nonetheless, there are significant echoes of the biblical account. In the foreground, on the viewer’s right, a servant pours wine into an ewer. A surprised nobleman, standing behind the servant, examines a glass of wine (John 2:9–10). Directly behind Christ in the background, a servant slices meat (an allusion to the “lamb” of God?). The painting hung in the refectory for more than two centuries until, in 1797, Napoleon’s troops confiscated it and (despite its size) shipped it to Paris.
In 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition held by the Arte di Calimala, the guild of importers and finishers of woolen cloth, to decorate the north doors of the baptistery in Florence. Baptism of Christ was one of 28 panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The baptistery was an especially important building for the Florentines, because the patron saint of the city was John the Baptist. Ghiberti’s bronze panel, although still in a medieval quatrefoil shape, is considered one of the earliest examples of Italian Renaissance art. Ghiberti selected the moment in the narrative when Christ is praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove (Luke 3:21–22). Ghiberti portrayed the dove emerging out of the panel toward the viewer. This feature, along with the placement of Christ’s feet in the river believably covered by the water, is evidence of the advancements Italian Renaissance artists were making in depicting nature. Christ is posed in a stance used by classical Greek sculptors.
Christ Pantocrator means “all-powerful or Almighty Christ.” The Pantocrator image, which typically depicts Christ seated in enthroned glory, was (and is) especially popular in the Byzantine icon tradition. The Florentine artist Giusto de’ Menabuoi painted this Pantocrator in the Baptistery of the Duomo in Padua around 1375. Christ is depicted seated in power and judgment. Inscribed on the book in his left hand are the words Ego sum alpha et omega—“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8). In the book of Revelation it is God who speaks these words; here Christ has been elevated to an equal status with God.
The English poet William Blake is almost as well known for his engravings and watercolors as he is for his poetry. In 1795 he produced this watercolor depicting the scene in the book of Ruth when Naomi has just informed her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, that she is returning to her native land of Judah. She encourages each of them to return to their “mother’s home.” In response, Ruth and Orpah “wept aloud and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’” Blake has captured the pathos of the moment. Ruth clings to Naomi while Orpah turns in tears toward her Moabite home. Ruth explains her decision “Where you go, I will go . . .” Ruth’s words are often used in wedding ceremonies to express vows between spouses. In their biblical context, they express a loyalty that goes beyond family ties or national allegiance. “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”
The dead Christ sits between St. Jerome on his left and Job on his right. Christ appears to be sleeping—a reference to the resurrection. The skull and human bones near Job associate him with death and disease. Vittore Carpaccio, a Renaissance artist from Venice, pairs Job with Jerome, the great biblical scholar of the patristic period, who wrote that Job “prophesies the resurrection of men’s bodies at once with clearness and with more caution than anyone has yet shown.” “I know,” Job says, “that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth . . . and I shall see God” (Job 19:25). The Hebrew inscription “My redeemer lives 19” is legible on the marble slab on which Job sits. The inscription faces toward Jerome, who has influenced the Christian interpretation of Job as a paradigm of patience, a believer whose suffering compares with Christ’s, and a prophet who foretold Christ’s resurrection.
A non-Israelite woman (in Mark, a Syrophoenician; in Matthew, a Canaanite) approaches Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter. Jesus replies that it is improper to give the “bread of the children” (Israelites) to the “dogs” (gentiles). The woman responds that even the “small pups under the table” (Amplified Bible) eat the crumbs that fall from the table. After this brief repartee, Jesus tells the woman to go home because the demon has left her daughter. In Matthew, Jesus informs the woman that the healing was a result of her faith (Matt. 15:28), but the Markan Jesus simply says, “Because of this answer [logos, literally “word”], go; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:29, NASV). It is not just her cleverness that Jesus admires; it is the word (cf. Mark 7:13) that she proclaims, the word that the mercies of God should be made available to the gentiles now and not at some point in the distant future. The scene is illustrated in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a devotional book of hours made by the Limbourg brothers in the early 15th century. The upper panel depicts the woman pleading with Jesus, who has turned away from her; the woman’s possessed daughter is visible through a window on the right. In the lower scene, the woman is still pleading on behalf of her daughter (now out of view), but now Jesus offers a gesture of consent and healing—the reward for a desperate mother’s persistence.
One reading of the story of David and Bathsheba depicts their encounter as a tryst between consenting adults or perhaps even as the result of Bathsheba’s plan to seduce David. Much of the history of art supports this reading. A nude or partially nude Bathsheba proves too much of a temptation for King David, who watches her from his palace. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has called this interpretation into question. Bathsheba is not a willing participant in an affair, much less a seductive femme fatale; rather, she is as an unwilling victim of unwelcome sexual advances and assault. Details of the text support this reading. Although it is spring and time for kings to go to war, David has chosen to remain behind (1 Sam. 11:1), a fact unknown to Bathsheba. David is in control. He is the subject of most of the verbs: David inquires about Bathsheba, he sends for her and “lays with her.” Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reflects the traditional reading, while also subtly challenging it. David (often shown watching from a tower or roof in earlier art) is absent from the scene, but Bathsheba is still objectified: David’s gaze has been replaced by the voyeuristic viewer. But Bathsheba holds a letter from the king (a detail missing from the biblical account), presumably demanding her presence at his palace. As a servant dries her feet, Bathsheba muses over the king’s “request.” He is, after all, the king, and what choice does Bathsheba have?
Caravaggio (1571–1610) depicted the beheading of St. John the Baptist for the oratory chapel dedicated to the same subject in the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta on the island of Malta. Malta was the military outpost of the Roman Catholic faith that was entrusted to the Knights of St. John. After being exiled from Rome, Caravaggio fled to Malta in June 1607 in the hopes of receiving a papal pardon and of becoming a knight himself. The Knights commissioned Caravaggio’s largest painting (over 16 feet wide)—and the only work that bears his signature—to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. John lies on the floor like an animal about to be slaughtered. The woolly hooves of his hair shirt are visible under the red cloth. The executioner has already killed John with his sword (located on the ground to the left of the body) and now prepares to slice off his head with a small knife. The jailer and an old woman witness the event. A servant girl, not to be mistaken for Salome, is identifiable by her apron and dress and holds a basket in which to bring the head back to Herod. Two prisoners have front-row seats at the gruesome event.
May 18, 2015
Art selection and commentary by Heidi J. Hornik, who teaches in the art departmentat Baylor University, and Mikeal C. Parsons, who teaches in the school’s religion department.
Holy Trinity was executed around 1426–27 and is located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fresco was commissioned as a funerary monument by the Lenzi family, and two members of the family are depicted kneeling in prayer on either side of the cross, below Mary and the Beloved Disciple. The upper part of the fresco depicts God the Father supporting the arms of the crucified Son. Between the Father’s beard and Jesus’ head is the white, dovelike form of the Holy Spirit, uniting Father and Son. Masaccio is following a well-known artistic convention of associating the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) with a crucifixion scene as a way of reflecting the profound mystery of the Trinity. While many detractors of Christianity have pointed to the crucifixion as evidence of the absurdity of the Trinity, Masaccio claims it is in this very same moment that the essential unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is most clearly revealed. Here there is no depiction of God turning his back on his Son. Rather, here is a loving Father, who in the mystery of the Trinity is at one with the Son and the Spirit and suffers on the believer’s behalf.
The image of the ascension in the illustrated Rabbula Syriac Gospels is one of the earliest depictions of the scene on parchment (586 CE) and sets the iconography for centuries to come. The figure of Christ is positioned in a mandorla (almond-shaped frame) with his right hand in a blessing gesture and his left holding a scroll. Flanked by angels, he is bearded and wears a golden nimbus. There is a clear distinction between this heavenly realm and those figures who remain on earth. Center stage in the earthly realm belongs to Mary, who stands directly beneath the mandorla of Christ. Her hands are open in exaltation and direct the viewer to the angels standing beside her. While Mary is not explicitly mentioned by Luke as being present at the ascension, she is introduced immediately thereafter (Acts 1:14). Her growing importance in the theological tradition had been signaled by her designation as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, and she becomes more prominent in both literary and visual presentations.
Caravaggio’s painting depicts the story of the apostle’s incredulity the way most of us remember it, but not exactly the way it is presented in John 20:27–28. In the narrative Jesus invites Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” But the narrator does not state that Thomas actually did what Christ invited him to do; rather, Thomas responds with a confession: “My Lord and my God!” Caravaggio, however, graphically displays Thomas’s forefinger entering the gash in Christ’s side. Christ guides Thomas’s fingers into the wound with his left hand, while his right hand pulls back the drapery that covers his chest. Christ’s calm expression contrasts with the intense and surprised reactions of Thomas and the other two disciples (the figure on the left is most likely Peter). The dramatic tenebrist light further accentuates the moment in which Thomas encounters the bodily wounds of the risen Christ. Caravaggio’s figures, painted in earth tones, are not glorified but are representative of the common man. This scene is a favorite of all those who “have not seen but yet believe.”
This painting of Christ driving the money lenders from the temple, by the Late Renaissance painter Ippolito Scarsellino, depicts a story told in all four Gospels. In John’s Gospel, the event occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (John 2:13–22). Jesus is immediately identifiable slightly to the left of center in the painting, with arms raised and wearing a pink gown and green mantle. He has removed his belt and made it into a flail. The scene takes place on the porch of the temple in Jerusalem with the Solomonic twisted column clearly visible as one of the money changers grasps it while he stoops to collect the basket of coins he has spilt onto the ground. Sheep, birds, cattle, and horses are all present in the painting, echoing details of John’s version of the incident and indicating that the temple has become a marketplace where sacrificial animals are sold and money is exchanged. One of the birds has escaped, and a young boy, oblivious to Jesus’ actions, tries to trap the bird on a stick. Two women rush off while attempting to regain the attention of a child who is enthralled by what Jesus is doing. During the Catholic Reformation (the time of this painting) this scene, also known as the Purification of the Temple, was used to illustrate the church’s need for reform.
Dura Europas was an ancient and obscure military outpost and trading center near the Euphrates River on the edge of the eastern Roman Empire. Its rediscovery in 1932 revealed several important archaeological finds, including a Christian house church and a Jewish synagogue. The synagogue was remarkable for the frescoes that covered its walls. One of the central figures depicted in the synagogue is Abraham, shown receiving God’s promise that Abraham will be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4). Abraham’s crossed and covered hands portray his acceptance of this promise (on the gesture, see Shabbath 10a in the Babylonian Talmud). Abraham’s white hair reflects the ancient Jewish tradition that “there never was a man upon whom grey hairs were sprinkled until Abraham came” (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer LII). The vaulted heaven indicates that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Early Christians, especially Paul, saw the Abrahamic promise as scriptural warrant for the inclusion of the gentiles in the people of God (Rom. 4:13–25).