Anne, the mother of Mary

•June 4, 2013 • Leave a Comment

A friend has just started painting an icon of Anne and Mary. I never thought about Anna, but she must have been a very special woman.

This beautiful icon by Kathleen Anderson shows the three generations together: Anna, Mary and Jesus

 Saint Anna with Theotokos and Christ Child

Saint Anna with Theotokos and Christ Child

This icon from the Diocese of Detroit is less beautiful but it spoke to me and explained something about the previous image.
St Anne - Donna Rathert
Mary is shown inside Anna, and Jesus inside Mary, like “Russian dolls”. This reminds me that all of a woman’s eggs are present in her body when she is born, so the egg that Jesus came from was inside Anna’a body when she was pregnant with Mary. Icons are very wise aren’t they.

Italian artists I: Descending into sheol in Assisi

•May 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The basilica of St Francis in Assisi is actually two basilicas, one above the other. The upper basilica is famed for its frescoes by Giotto depicting the life of St Francis. They are fine work, but descend into the lower basilica and another kind of experience awaits you.

In the nave there are two depictions of the crucifixion. Both depict the moment immediately after Christ’s death.
On the north side is Giotto’s, a fine work, but the one that always draws me is that on the south side by Pietro Lorezetti. It is a horrifying picture, quite hard to really look at.

Crucifixion - Pietro Llorenzetti

14 angels fly around the cross in obvious distress. Some wring their hands in anguish; others cover their faces, unable to look. Finely dressed citizens, merchants and soldiers throng around the cross, jostling for the best position from which to view the spectacle.
On either side of Christ, the two criminals have been crucified in positions which must have dislocated their shoulders. One has a halo, the other not. Jesus’s followers are gathered together to our left, not at the foot of the cross because they cannot get close enough. Mary has fainted, and Mary Magdalene and John The Beloved Disciple are taking care of her.

The painting is distressing, but not as much as much as the next of Christ being taken down from the cross.
Pietro Lorenzetti - Deposizione
Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)Unlike the last, this fresco aims for realism. A ladder is thrown up against the cross, a T-shape with four nails fixing the cross piece to the upright. Joseph of Arimathea has gone up the ladder to retrieve the body whilst Nicodemus pulls the nails from Jesus’s feet with a pair of forceps. Jesus slumps in the arms of his family as his body is carefully let down. Mary Magdalene has caught her lover’s body tenderly around the legs. Her head rests on his thigh, conveying a mixture of tenderness and anguish. Mary cradles her dead son’s head, his hair falls around her hands. John The Beloved Disciple kisses his feet in a tender farewell. The fresco depicts a cauldron of emotion and has all the immediacy and power of a news photograph from a war zone. Jesus’s halo is barely visible; his light is going out.

On the other side of the arch, Jesus’s corpse is being gently laid into its tomb by the same group of seven. As John carefully lowers the shroud, Mary embraces her dead son and kisses him. Jesus has no halo; his light has been extinguished. Jesus is dead.
Pietro Lorenzetti - Entombment (ca. 1320)
The spiritual power of the frescoes drowns out the inane chattering of the tour guides, most of them monks, who are waving their laser pointers and cracking jokes. One is explaining what kind of pigment has been used to make the red paint. Curiously, it is cinnabar, which seems significant to anyone interested in alchemy. The tourists leave having seen nothing.

Seraphim in Haghia Sophia

•April 18, 2013 • 1 Comment

Seraphim in Haghia SophiaThe vast Cathedral of Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Istanbul has four huge seraphim, one on each of the four pendentives which support the vast dome. These seraphim are executed in mosaic and are thought to have been created during the restoration of 1348, but they may be older. During the Ottoman period, the faces of the seraphim were covered in plasterwork – Islam forbids the representation of forms in religious pictures. This plasterwork started to flake off and another restoration was carried out in 1847-1849 by a Swiss architect, who covered the faces with gold stars. He was the last person to see the faces of the seraphim until 2009, when restoration work at Haghia Sophia uncovered the face of one of the seraphim, which is fully four feet across.

What I find extraordinary about this serpahim is how closely the face resembles a Green Man

The measurements of the earth

•December 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

God as architect of the universe - Bible moralisée, France, 1250
This image from 1250 shows God the architect measuring the creation with a pair of compasses or more properly dividers. Such images are not unfamiliar: they just show the creation of the universe, right?
Well, there is bit more to it than that.

First of all, who is the figure holding the dividers? It’s a man: not God the Father, but God the Son – Jesus. The creation he holds shows the earth (in the centre) tohu bohu, the mysterious phrase from Genesis 1:2 translated formless and void. The drawing reminds me of pictures from cellular biology.
According to Margaret Barker, Genesis can be read as a two stage creation. God (Elohim, the spirits) creates the universe, but then the earth is formed by the greatest of the sons of El: Yahweh. And Jesus is Yahweh. This was the understanding of the early Church. The letter to The Hebrews plainly states: In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Nor was this new theology. For instance in Proverbs 8 we read: The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works

Secondly, why the dividers? Is Jesus measuring the earth? In the world-view of the bible, to know the measurements is to know the mysteries. Paul writes, May we comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height (Ephesians 3:18). Mysteries are revealed. The measurements of the Ark were given to Noah by God, and those of the temple. After the temple of Solomon was destroyed, a mysterious figure appears to the prophet Ezekiel giving him the exact measurements of the temple:

Behold, there was a man whose appearance was like the appearance of bronze. He had a line of flax and a measuring rod in his hand.
Ezekiel 40:3

A similar figure appears to Zechariah and has a lot in common with the description of Jesus Christ in Revelation 1:18.
Similar figures may be seen in the Queen Mary Psalter and the Holkham Bible Picture Book (both 14th century), a Norwich Cathedral roof boss (Image 331) (15th century), and in stained glass in the south transept of York Minster.
Now we come to Blake’s famous engraving from his 1794 book Europe: a Prophecy
William Blake: The Ancient of Days (1794)
This work is normally titled Ancient of Days but is in fact untitled. Blake said that the image appeared to him. He called the figure Urizen and saw the act of delineating the creation as the chaining of the imagination by reason. In this view, the whole creation was a mistake, and we were better off as unembodied spirits. There are resonances with the Freemasons (whose symbol includes a pair of dividers). Blake’s work has transcended his own negative interpretation, and now stands as a potent symbol of creation.
The naming of the work as the Ancient of Days is an interesting one. In the West, this term is now understood to mean God The Father (following Aquinas), but in the Eastern rite he is identified as God The Son. As John said, in the Beginning was The Word, the creative Word of God, and through him all things were made. All manifestations of God on earth (including The Ancient of Days) are manifestations of God The Son, for no-one has seen the Father except the Son.

The Summers Day

•December 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

– Mary Oliver, “The Summers Day”

God can be loved, but not thought

•July 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

No one can think Of God himself.

And so my wish is to give up everything that I can think of and choose as my love the one thing I cannot think.

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

– The Cloud of Unknowing, C14th.

I the Lord have dried up the green tree, and caused the dry tree to flourish

•July 8, 2012 • 1 Comment

Petrus Christus – Our Lady of the Dry Tree (1462)

I the Lord have dried up the green tree, and caused the dry tree to flourish
– Ezekiel 17:24

The image on my Taschen desk calendar for March 1st was this stunning painting, “Our Lady of the Dry Tree”. It immediately brought to mind the German Advent carol “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging”:

Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
Kyrie eleison
Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
der hat in sieben Jahr kein Laub getragen.
Jesus und Maria!

Was trug Maria unterm Herzen?
Kyrie eleison
Ein kleines Kindlein ohne Schmerzen,
das trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen.
Jesus und Maria!

Da haben die Dornen Rosen getragen,
Kyrie eleison
Als das Kindlein durch den Wald getragen,
da haben die Dornen Rosen getragen.
Jesus und Maria!

Mary walked though a thorn forest,
Kyrie eleison
Mary walked though a thorn forest,
which had borne no leaves for seven years
Jesus and Mary!

What was Mary wearing under her heart?
Kyrie eleison
A small child without pain,
was Mary wearing under her heart.
Jesus and Mary!

The thorns have born roses
Kyrie eleison
Because Mary bore Jesus through the forest
The thorns have born roses
Jesus and Mary!

Seeing the letters glittering in the thorn tree in this image reminds me of the almond tree, which is associated with the menorah in the first Jewish Temple (the Temple of Solomon) and the presence of the divine wisdom (Hokmah or Sophia). The letters hanging from the tree are like the almond flowers, or the candles of the menorah (which was decorated with almond flowers: see Exodus 25). Recall that 70 years after King Josiah’s purge of the temple, in which the angels and the menorah were removed, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were deported into captivity in Babylon.

According to the website The Secret History of Art, Petrus Christus was a member of a religious confraternity called the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree. They write: Because of its unique nature, it is safe to assume that the imagery comes from the rituals or specific belief-sets of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, rather than any published source in literature, Biblical apocrypha, or mythology. In this case, I have to disagree with art history: this is a clear reference to the Holy Wisdom. The evidence is that Petrus Christus and the Confraternity, at some level, understood this.

By the way, the letter a is thought to stand for Ave Maria. Fifteen in number, the fifteen letter a‘s represent the fifteen decades of the Rosary, whilst the shape of the thorn tree shows that the thorns are a reference to the Crown of Thorns.

The painting hangs at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid.