Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Thomas Merton and I Share a Fire Watch

Trappist Blogging
in Honor of Thomas Merton's
100th Birthday:
Essay 1 of 6 on
"Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,"
the epilogue of 
The Sign of Jonas

Part One:  Thomas Merton, Writer

Thomas Merton would have turned 100 this coming Saturday (January 31, 2015).  I’d like to think he would have celebrated it in silence at his beloved monastery Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky.  Maybe he would have ascended Gethsemane’s tower to look out again upon the world, as he described in this passage from the “Fire Watch” epilogue to his book The Sign of Jonas:

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens.  The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer.  Will it come like this, the moment of my death?  Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Unexpectedly, the door swung open for Merton just 16 years after he wrote “Fire Watch,” accidentally electrocuted while attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok, Thailand in 1968.

Two decades after his death, I began a slow yet steady exploration of his vast legacy of writings.  Most nights, there’s a Merton book by my bed.  In my better moments, I attempt to model my life on him.

Not that I’ve taken vows or adopted a habit of silence!  Celibacy’s not for me and I generally prefer to rise after the sun, not at 4 a.m. for prayers and hymns.  I don’t wear a robe to work.

Eadmer of Canterbury Writing,
Unknown, Flemish, Belgium,
about 1140-1150, tempera colors
gold paint, and ink on parchment,
7 x 4 1/2 in.,
Ms. Ludwig XI 6, fol. 44v
The J. Paul Getty Museum
But after more than twenty-five years of intermittent immersion in Merton’s often profound writings, I’ve become convinced that his central vocation was not being a monk, but being a writer.  He cultivated a writer’s curiosity, always probing and questioning and looking for deeper levels.  While initial spiritual experiences may have taken place while on his knees in monastic prayer (or on his knees in monastic housekeeping), his insights became clarified in recollection afterward, as he religiously wrote in his journal or pecked away on his typewriter.  He sought for a difficult balance, striving to be simultaneously fully awake to the material world while remaining ever conscious of a spiritual dimension behind the veil.  He valued both.  This is the Merton that I hope, in my better moments, to emulate.

I don’t remember why I picked up a biography of Merton in 1986, eighteen years after his tragic accidental death.  I must have heard something that nudged me in his direction.  In any case, I read the biography and it didn’t impress me much.

I don’t remember why I persevered, moving on to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s best-selling autobiographical account of his spiritual awakening, but I do remember the jolt I felt when Merton suddenly connected with me.  Despite all the biographies, reminiscences, critical analyses, and blog entries written about him, an understanding of Merton is inseparable from wrestling with his own words.  He probably wasn’t a saint, but he was an extraordinary writer.

This is why Merton’s experience on the fire watch—a solitary walk through his monastery one night in 1952—opens out onto the universal.  Merton the artist consciously and intentionally shaped a short prose masterpiece out of an experience which is ultimately beyond words.  Through his artistry, “Fire Watch” is a spiritual journey that’s not restricted to Trappist monks on vows of poverty, but accessible to people everywhere.

Part Two:  My Fire Watch, January 24, 2015

The Crescent Moon, detail, by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881),
pen and sepia ink and graphite on wove paper,
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

I rise after everyone is asleep.  That’s no easy task as my wife’s a night owl…  It’s much, much later than Merton’s fire watch rounds which began with the monk’s 8 p.m. bedtime.  My wife typically stays up until 2:30 (as, somewhere in Kentucky, the monks are entering their last hour of sleep before their first prayers and hymns of the morning!).

As with Merton’s rounds, a fire watch in my house naturally begins in the basement.  Given our situation, it’s therefore initially more of a water watch than a fire watch.  Opening the basement door, my biggest fear is to see a rising tide of water at the bottom of the stairs (unfortunately, this is an anxiety stemming from experience).  Even with Merton, the term fire watch only captures part of his responsibility.  Fires were frequent in that part of Kentucky so they were the greatest concern, but the watchman is really called to be on alert for signs of all manner of disaster.  If Merton found a flood in the basement, he’d have to raise the alarm.  He’s the watchman, after all.

So I furtively turn on the basement lights and, with relief, see only dust and shadows below.  I descend the stairs, then check the furnace and the outlets.  I check for any signs of water pooling near the walls.  Nothing to report.

Moonlit Landscape
with Bridge
, detail,
by Aert van der Neer
(1603/1604 - 1677),
probably 1648/1650,
oil on panel.
National Gallery
of Art
I return back up the stairs, entering the kitchen.  I check the oven and the coffee maker, then sniff the air for smoke.  Everything’s off.  Everything’s safe.  I cross into the dining room and notice I should change the table cloth.  But that’s not a fire watch job; it can wait.  And so it goes as I move along a sort of oval path through our living room, the foyer, the family room (passing the curious dog), the laundry room, the powder room, and back to the kitchen.  The watchman sees no cause for alarm.

At this point in his duties, Merton enters into the silence and contemplates the deeper call of his work.  The silent nighttime patrol isn’t really about safety at all:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light:  a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

Alone on the first floor, with my wife and daughter asleep above me on the second, I pause to think.  My outward responsibility as watchman is to protect.  But, according to Merton, my equally important inward task is to embrace this opportunity to be with God in the darkness, “in the house that will one day perish.”  So I settle into the silence.

The furnace rattles on.  The dog looks up.  I feel distracted.

The next stage of the fire watch beckons.  I ascend the stairs to the second floor, flashlight in hand.  Everything looks as it should.  As with Merton, “the flashlight creates a little alert tennis ball upon the walls and floors.”  I shouldn’t wake them.  We watchmen must keep our vows of silence.

I have a wife and a daughter living at home, and a son away at college in Maine.  I feel my job should be to protect them all.  The watchman must be ever vigilant.  But in the silence and darkness, knowing my Merton-assigned task is to simply be with God, it becomes obvious that this house’s watchman is helpless.  My wife is wrapped in a solitary silence.  My daughter is sound asleep.  Six hundred miles away, my son is alone in his dorm room.  And the watchman is alone in the hall, solitary and powerless to keep anyone truly safe.

Moonlight (Mondschein), 1895
by Edvard Munch (1863-1944),
etching and Aquatint.
National Gallery of Art
In our shared helplessness, I share something in common with Thomas Merton, on July 4, 1952, wandering alone through the monastery, enduring an examination of conscience, isolated in the heart of darkness.

Between the silence of God and the silence of my own soul, stands the silence of the souls entrusted to me.  Immersed in these three silences, I realize that the questions I ask myself about them are perhaps no more than a surmise.  And perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions.
“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Thomas Merton

There’s little I can do—of practical value anyway—so I head back to bed.  

In Kentucky, in a monastery near Bardstown, Merton’s brothers are waking up as I fall back to sleep.

© 2014 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Menotti's Epiphany: Amahl's Roots in Hieronymus Bosch

Epiphany Blogging:
Hieronymus Bosch’s
The Adoration of the Magi
and Gian Carl Menotti’s
Amahl and the Night Visitors

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch,
ca. 1470-75, oil and gold on wood, 28 x 22 1/4 in.,
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Christmas Eve at 9:30 in 1951, an estimated five million Americans tuned in to watch an opera on television as NBC broadcast the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.  To introduce the opera, Menotti himself directly addressed the audience, explaining how he was inspired by the above painting by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

Gian Carlo Menotti introducing
the 1951 NBC broadcast of
Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Menotti’s epiphany before the painting didn’t occur at an academic level—he says nothing about the artist’s technical use of form, color, or line.  Instead, he describes a two-way interchange, where Bosch offers a unique, original vision and Menotti responds with memory and imagination, allowing the painting to direct his thoughts back to his youth.  The magic of art occurs within this exchange between two people who lived five centuries apart.

This is how Menotti described the moment of inspiration he experienced when encountering Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Details, The Adoration
of the Magi
by Hieronymus Bosch,
Metropolitan Museum
of Art
“This opera comes out of my own childhood because, you see, when I was a child I lived in Italy and in Italy we have no Santa Claus.  I imagine that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle all the Italian children.  Our gifts were brought to us by the three kings.  I actually never met the three kings…  How hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of these three kings!  We would always fall asleep just before they arrived.  But I do remember hearing them.  I remember the weird song in the distance.  I remember the sound of the camel’s hoofs.  And I remember the tinkling of the silver bridles.

“And I remember that my favorite king was King Melchior because he had a nice long white beard.  My brother’s favorite was King Caspar whom we insisted was a little crazy and quite deaf.  I don’t know why he was so sure that he was deaf.  I suspect it was because he never brought him all the gifts he asked for.  Anyway, our people brought us the gifts and I should have been very grateful to them.  Instead I came to America and I soon forgot all about them.  Here we have so many Santa Clauses all over town and there is the big Christmas tree on Rockefeller Plaza, all the windows on Fifth Avenue, the choir in Grand Central Station, all the Christmas carols on the radio.  All these things made me forget the three dear old kings of my own childhood. 

“Well, this year I got into real trouble.  I was supposed to finish an opera for NBC and I just didn’t have an idea in my head.  So I was walking one afternoon, rather gloomy, through the Metropolitan Museum and I chanced to stop in front of this painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  And as I was looking at it suddenly I heard again the weird song of those three kings and I suddenly realized they had come back to me and they’d brought me a gift.  The opera you will hear tonight is the gift of these three kings and I hand it to you and hope you like it.  Thank you.”

Detail, The Adoration of the Magi
by Hieronymus Bosch
It’s fascinating to conjecture the extent to which Menotti genuinely drew upon this picture in composing the opera.  Just substitute Amahl for Joseph (lame and leaning upon his walking stick) and the story practically writes itself!

For a full description of the original 1951 broadcast, visit the TV Party website.

And to view that original broadcast, once the talk of the nation, here it is on YouTube!

© 2014 Lee Price

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Nativity Essays: William Blake and a Gnostic-Style Manger Scene

Nativity Blogging
for the Season of Christmastide 2014-15:
William Blake’s
The Nativity

The Nativity by William Blake,
1799 or 1800, tempera on copper, 10 3/4 x 15 1/16 in.,
gift of Mrs. William Thomas Tonner, 1964,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The most memorable Christmas Eve sermon I’ve ever heard was delivered by Pastor Brian Rhea (now pastor at Newcombtown United Methodist Church in Millville, New Jersey) shortly after the birth of his second child.  Fresh from experience, Brian vividly shared just how gross childbirth really is, with all its blood, tears, and other leaking fluids.  And he didn’t imagine the manger was all tidy and neat either!  It was truly a great sermon.

Today’s featured painting by William Blake (1757-1827) is the polar opposite.  Blake’s The Nativity has to be the most antiseptic of all childbirth paintings.  The baby literally flies out of the womb, spotless and glowing, into the hands of the waiting midwife, in this case Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Detail, The Nativity by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

While it would be impossible to realistically reconcile Brian’s sermon with Blake’s painting, I’d like to think that both descriptions fall within a broad Christian tradition that’s always been open to embracing paradoxes.  Blake’s painting is the real boundary-tester.  As expressed in his poetry and artwork, Blake’s mysterious, complex, and intensely personal beliefs evince strong Gnostic tendencies, and Gnosticism has been labeled heretical by the mainstream church for nearly two thousand years.  But given a choice between celebrating visionary genius or the cold judgments of Inquisition-style church tribunals, I’ll go with genius any day.  Blake’s okay by me.

"The Tyger" by William Blake,
Songs of Innocence and
of Experience
Wikimedia Commons
William Blake dedicated his life to expressing his radical and mystical ideas through poetry, painting and etching, and the art of printing.  He’s probably best known for his poetry book Songs of Innocence and of Experience which contains the famous poem “The Tyger”:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forest of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Nativity is one of fifty small Bible-based paintings that Blake made for Thomas Butts, an English War Office clerk, in 1899 and 1890.  For this project, Blake enjoyed considerable artistic freedom in choosing his subjects and approach.  While many of the paintings have been lost, there is enough of a record to attempt a reasonable guess at the scope of the ambitious project.  In Blake as an Artist, art historian David Bindman suggests that “the series probably consisted of approximately fifteen Old Testament subjects and thirty-five from the Life of Christ.”

Detail, The Nativity
by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Nativity would have been the second of the Life of Christ paintings, following The Angel Gabriel appearing to Zacharias, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and preceding The Adoration of the Magi in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.  In The Nativity, Joseph supports the unconscious Mary as she gives birth.  The child, his arms outstretched in a cruciform position, flies toward the outstretched hands of Elizabeth.  An infant John the Baptist sits in the lap of Elizabeth.  Behind Elizabeth, oxen contentedly feed from a trough.  The star of Bethlehem—cruciform, like the baby—shines through the window.

Throughout the ages, most Gnostic sects have professed a belief that the material world we live in is flawed beyond redemption and that secret knowledge is needed to unite the soul with the perfection of God’s spiritual realm.  This type of belief can become very dualistic, with earthly and human life viewed as untouchable.  A belief of this sort tends to rule out an understanding of Jesus as wholly Man as well as wholly God (a basic paradox of mainstream Christianity).  In most Gnostic sects, the earthy childbirth described in Pastor Rhea’s sermon would be altogether too yucky to apply to the spiritual being of Jesus.  Therefore, Blake paints a pristine, miraculous, and apparently pain-free birth.

Blake painted The Nativity in tempera, laying the paint over a mixture of whiting and carpenter’s glue adhered to a copper surface.  While he adopted this technique in the hope of preserving the original colors, his method failed, resulting in two centuries of darkening and surface cracking.  It’s not what Blake wanted, but I love the effect.  It brings out an other-worldly, archaic beauty in Blake’s vision that can’t be easily dismissed.  It’s hauntingly weird.

Detail, The Nativity
by William Blake,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Reference Sources

Blake as an Artist by David Bindman
William Blake:  The Seer and His Visions by Milton Klonsky
Genius by Harold Bloom
Philadelphia Museum of Art Collections

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nativity Essays: Meditation on Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Child

Nativity blogging
for the Season of Christmastide 2014-15:
Sandro Botticelli's
The Virgin Adoring the Child

The Virgin Adoring the Child by Sandro Botticelli,
1480/90, tempera on panel, 23 3/16 in. diameter,
Samuel H. Kress Collection,
National Gallery of Art

Christmas morning craziness is over but it’s still Christmastide, the twelve days of Christmas that stretch from the midnight announcement of Christmas day to the Epiphany arrival of the three Magi.  The Christmas company has departed.  Alone at last, Mary watches over her baby.  This is a part of Christmas, too.

I’m too introverted to be comfortable with the classic Nativity scenes.  They’re typically crowded with kings and their retinues, shepherds flocking down from the hills, angels on rooftops and dancing with the stars, and a stable-full of oxen and asses.  To find Mary and the baby, you have to search through all the turmoil.

The Adoration of the Kings by Sandro Botticelli,
1470-75, tempera on panel,
National Gallery, London
Painting in Florence and Rome in the late 15th century, Sandro Botticelli had a knack for crowded Nativity scenes.  In this early Botticelli Adoration of the Kings, I count more than 50 onlookers, a half-dozen horses, and a peacock (it’s on the wall on the right).  If it looks like a parade, that’s because Botticelli was almost certainly working from impressions of his hometown’s famous Brotherhood of the Magi pageants, known for their opulence.  A sense of wealth overwhelms the humbleness of the manger setting.

Technically, Botticelli’s early crowd scene is impressive, with its high-Renaissance mastery of architectural perspective and its varied portrait gallery.  Botticelli skillfully utilizes the tondo (round) format that was becoming popular at the time for paintings designed for private devotions.  But this crowded house isn’t what I crave from a Nativity scene.  For my private Nativity devotion, I prefer quiet, mystery, and a dash of expectant hope (the same elements I always hope for in a Christmas Eve service).

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings tondo came early in his career, perhaps one of his first works after finishing an apprenticeship with Fra Filippo Lippi in his early twenties.  As Botticelli matured—and his artistry became even more assured—he continued to paint Nativities, Magi scenes, and virgin-and-child images.  With some of his paintings, he started to pare the crowds back, placing more emphasis upon Mary and the baby.

Detail, The Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art
In The Virgin Adoring the Child at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, painted circa 1490 when Botticelli was around 45 years old, the Nativity is reduced to its barest essentials:  Mary and child.  Even Joseph is absent.  The only intruders into this pastoral scene are a discreet ox and donkey, content to keep to the shadows.

Mary crosses her hands in a traditional sign of resignation to the will of God.  As in all of Botticelli’s mature works, Mary expresses a sadness that acknowledges an awareness of her son’s destiny.  Jesus’ sacrifice is hers as well.  Her sorrow will continue unabated through the lamentation and Pieta depictions of Mary cradling the body of the crucified Jesus.  In birth and in death, the figure of Mary calls us to contemplation of the fragility of humanity.

Exquisitely framed by a ruined stable wall, this Botticelli tondo is a triumph of personal devotion imagery.  We are asked to enter into the spirit of Mary.  The world is quiet, the child calls to us, and we respond with grace.  Above, revealed in a corner of sky, the Star of Bethlehem still shines, trailing glory.

Detail, Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art

Reference Sources

Botticelli by Barbara Deimling
Botticelli: The Artist and His Works by Silvia Malaguzzi
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya

© 2014 Lee Price

Friday, December 19, 2014

Meditation on Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation

Annunciation Blogging
for Advent 2014:
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s
The Annunciation

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner,
1898, oil on canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Detail, The Annunciation by
Henry Ossawa Tanner,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, Mary’s toes peek out from under her robe.  She’s a teenage girl getting ready for bed—not beautiful perhaps, but when the light shines on her she’s radiant.  She’s a girl who has no idea how pretty she is.

Most representations of Mary in art depict her as older and classically beautiful.  She usually appears gentle, obedient, patient, and humble.  Maybe a little dull, too.  She rarely looks like the teenage girls I’ve met.

But, in all fairness, the classical representation of Mary is perfectly in line with the information that the evangelist Luke supplies in his gospel telling of the Annunciation.  When sending the angel Gabriel to her doorstep, God implies that Mary is just about perfection on earth.  This is the porcelain Mary of the Old Masters.

Painting in 1898, working from the same text as the religious artists who preceded him, Henry Ossawa Tanner teased out an endlessly interesting Mary who succeeds in being a teenage girl while also suggesting why God might look on her with approval.  It’s a difficult balance, miraculously achieved by Tanner.  I like to think he was working from that little section in the middle of the scene where Mary talks back to Gabriel.  “How shall this be,” she asks the angel, “since I have no husband?”  A good actress could say that line many ways.  It could be said with harsh disbelief (“Get real, angel…”), or deep sarcasm (“yeah, right…”), or confusion (“I think you may have the wrong Mary…”), or concern (“do you know something I don’t know”), or curiosity (“tell me more…”).

Tanner’s Mary is a charmer.  Overcoming any initial fear, she leans forward toward the angel.  She gives a little half-smile, as if coaxing Gabriel to tell more.  “I’m listening,” she seems to say.  “You have my attention.  Now convince me.”

Detail, The Annunciation by
Henry Ossawa Tanner,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
She looks smart.  And she looks like she could be wickedly funny.  There’s a wit to the way she cocks her head, waiting for a response.  “How shall this be since I have no husband?”  She’s sharp enough to say it with quiet irony.  Then she patiently waits for the reply.  She’s a listener.

Her hands are clasped, perhaps implying that the angel has interrupted her mid-prayer.  But now the prayer is forgotten as Gabriel fully commands her attention and interest.  She is mulling the words of the angel, his prophetic announcement that she will be the mother of one who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever.”  That’s a big—and potentially awkward—claim for an unwed teenage girl from a small village like Nazareth.

But the light that fills the room is real.  Her inclination is to accept the miraculous.  And so she asks the question, “How shall this be…” already inwardly knowing that she is strong enough and brave enough to face this future.

That’s just my interpretation.  The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Henry Ossawa Tanner was doubtless better schooled in the Bible than me.  He taught Sunday School in his young adult years, regularly attended church throughout his life, and painted Biblical scenes with commitment and enthusiasm for more than three decades.  A couple of years ago, I attended the Henry Ossawa Tanner special exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where you could view the range of his religious painting.  A gentle spirituality permeated the show, with The Annunciation setting the tone.

You’d think the innovative use of blinding light to represent the angel Gabriel would dominate the picture.  But Mary more than holds her own.  I keep coming back to Tanner’s representation of Mary because it’s her humanity that ultimately makes the painting so captivating.  It’s a humanity that is at the core of the Annunciation story and is so often missed.

Reference Sources

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit edited by Anna O. Marley
Philadelphia Museum of Art Teacher Resources
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version

© 2014 Lee Price

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation

Annunciation Blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Annunciation
by Jan van Eyck

Fade in.  An angel appears before Mary.  The angel makes a surprising proposal, Mary responds with a question, the angel reassures her, and she graciously agrees to the plan.  The vignette has a beginning, middle, and end.  Classically constructed, the scene begins with the angel announcing, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with You!” and ends with Mary entering into an agreement, “(L)et it be to me according to your word.”  Fade out.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
As told by the evangelist Luke in his gospel, the Annunciation has the shape of a conventional narrative.  It unfolds like a well-constructed movie scene.

Most art of the Annunciation—both literary and visual—treats the scene as conventional narrative, in the manner of Luke.  The artist thoughtfully selects a moment in the story that captures what they want to express about the text.  It could be the second when the angel enters, or the angel greeting Mary, or Mary’s asking “How shall this be?” or Mary’s final note of gracious acceptance.  That’s the normal way of doing things.

Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece The Annunciation employs a very different strategy, sometimes used by the Old Masters but rarely to this extent.  The whole story flashes before us at a stroke, with van Eyck treating time with the creativity that Cezanne would later bring to the treatment of space.  In van Eyck’s The Annunciation, there is no natural beginning or end, no unfolding of narrative, no reading from left to right.  The story is shaped into an image that instantaneously contains the whole.

Within a single frame, the angel enters, the angel speaks, Mary responds with a dramatic gesture symbolizing alarm, the angel reassures, and Mary speaks the final words.  It’s all there.

But this brief Annunciation story is wrapped within a much larger story. Biblical history, prophecy, and theology surround the main characters through the illustrations on the tiled floor and the paintings and stained glass that decorate the walls.  The remarkable details on the two most prominent tile scenes depict David slaying Goliath and Samson pulling down the temple, events that were believed to prefigure the works of Jesus.  This mighty encompassing framework is an important part of van Eyck’s vision.  Vast history is telescoped into a narrow scene with the Annunciation particulars in the foreground and the Biblical backstory lining the background.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
Detail of The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
Van Eyck’s grand painting is awash in symbolism, with the drama enacted in a sacred space—the church interior.  The angel utters the visible words “Ave gratia plena” (translation: “Hail, full of Grace…”) and the words of Mary’s response, “ecce ancilla domini” (translation: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord…”) appear upside down.  They have been flipped because they are addressed to neither Gabriel nor the viewer but rather upward to God, whose Holy Spirit is descending as a dove on streaming rays of gold leaf.

The apostle Paul famously said in his first letter to the Corinthians that we see through a glass, darkly.  Rooted in secular time and space, most of the world’s artwork explores the limited viewpoint which is part of the human condition.  But in this one painting, van Eyck ventures to depict a world stripped of its mundane and profane elements, where every detail resonates with the sacred.

It’s a God’s eye view, filled with awe and joy.

Reference Sources

National Gallery of Art Collection Highlights, Explore This Work
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece

Annunciation blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Mérode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlandish, ca. 1375-1444, Tournai)
Date:  Circa 1427-32
Oil on oak, 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in. (open)
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Cloisters Collection, 1956

One day, God sent an angel to carry a message to a young woman in Nazareth.  In the painting above, we see a depiction of the scene.  The artists offer a 15th century Netherlandish interpretation of the story of the Annunciation as related by the evangelist Luke in the first chapter of his gospel.  For us today, as well as for people who lived in the Netherlands nearly 600 years ago, the Biblical story is far removed from present experience.  To enter the scene requires an act of sympathetic imagination.

The early Netherlandish artists were poets of the imagination.  In their extraordinarily beautiful works, time and space are collapsed.  Past, present, and future merge together into one; a house in Nazareth becomes a house in Belgium which stands for a house anywhere… everywhere.  Through contemplation of their paintings, viewers are invited to enter into the scenes as part of the work of devout meditation.

Detail, right panel of
the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of
Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan
Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Standing prayerfully before the Mérode Altarpiece, a masterpiece of early Netherlandish art by Robert Campin and his workshop, you might consider the perspective of the donors on the left, Joseph on the right, or Mary front and center.  Each perspective would offer different avenues for exploration of the painting and its themes.  In the left panel, the contemporary donors approach the story reverently but are forever kept at a distance—they are outsiders gifted with a view of the miraculous, once removed.  In the right panel, Joseph models a conscientious, methodical approach to the task at hand (the task being the work of salvation).  These characters are models meant to encourage us.  It is good to be like a reverent, wealthy donor.  It is good to be a diligent worker like Joseph.

But on a much grander scale, Campin calls for everyone, regardless of gender, to identify with Mary in the magnificent center panel of the triptych.  Her unexpected meeting with the angel Gabriel has cosmic implications; everything on earth and in heaven will hinge on her response.  She has the freedom to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord” or, conversely, she has the freedom to say, “remove this cup from me,” as Jesus would later consider requesting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Perhaps she even has freedom to decline to acknowledge the presence of the angel in the room—to continue reading her book, her eyes fixed on the expected rather than the unexpected.

When Campin and his workshop artists painted this triptych in the early 15th century, there was a religious movement in the land called Devotio Moderna, a turn toward a set of monastic-based practices of humility, obedience, and simplicity.  It was a pre-Protestant critique of the wealth and empire of the dominant Catholic culture, offering a deep spirituality accessible to the growing middle class.  As part of the rather mystic approach of Devotio Moderna, Christians were called to meditate on Biblical scenes as if they were inside them—to imaginatively converse and interact with the characters within the scenes.

Detail, center panel of the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Some art historians believe that the early Netherlandish artists like Robert Campin intentionally created some of their artworks to serve as instruments for meditation in the new Devotio Moderna style.  Deep in reverent prayer, you enter the scene.  The time that separates you by 2,000 years from an ancient—and seemingly irrecoverable—reality becomes meaningless.  The deep past is no further away than the second that just passed.  Similarly, the vast distance that separates you from Nazareth becomes meaningless.  It is all holy space.

The moment is now, in Nazareth twenty centuries ago.  The moment is now, a cloudy day in Belgium six centuries ago.  The moment is now, experiencing the painting in The Cloisters in Washington Heights, New York City.  The moment is now, wherever you are.

There’s an angel in the room.

Campin, assisted by his workshop of talented artists, invites the viewer to look up and greet the miraculous.  And he implicitly challenges the viewer to respond as Mary would:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Luke 1: 46-48

Reference Sources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection Online
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price