Friday, December 09, 2011

Admin Note

As I'm currently in Odessa, TX, visiting family, and am finishing up grading, posting will be a bit light this weekend.

I've been meaning to recommend this review at Armarium Magnum for some time, though.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Nativity in Paintings IV

Conrad von Soest 004

This is a painting by Conrad von Soest, from about the early fifteenth century; it is a small panel on the Niederwildungen Altarpiece, which, thanks to the joy that is Flickr, you can see in full here. This altarpiece is in a Protestant church in Bad Wildungen in Germany.

One of the big issues in any painting of the Nativity is what to do with St. Joseph. He doesn't have a big role to play; obviously all eyes are on Virgin and Child. And the Gospels don't actually tell us much about him. We know he was a carpenter (actually a tekton, which is a skilled artisan, but taking it as indicating a woodworker goes back at least to the second century). We know some of his dreams (which should have more paintings devoted to them than they do, although Rembrandt has a very lovely one and Daniele Crespi another). He never speaks -- not one word is attributed to him. What we do know is that he travels like crazy; every time we see him he is either in the middle of a journey, or about to start one, or has just finished one. He travels from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bethlehem to Jerusalem, down to Egypt, up to Nazareth, and the last we hear of him directly, he and Mary are taking yearly trips to Jerusalem for Passover. That's a lot of moving. But the Bible doesn't give much to paint when it comes to Joseph and the Nativity; and unlike most of the other details that are left open, you can't really do anything you want with him, although painters sometimes do get creative.

Usually we find Joseph holding a candle, and sometimes sleeping. This is one of those Bridgettine details; in Birgitta's vision, Joseph is holding a candle, whose light is obliterated, swallowed up, in the light from the Christ Child. It's a feature often found even in paintings that are otherwise not all that Bridgettine; the candle was in the Flémalle painting. Joseph is cut out of the Nativity at Night painting; but the painting on which it is based certainly had him, and almost certainly had him holding a candle. There are other things he can do. In the Hohenfurth painting he is pouring water. von Soest's painting, however, is the only painting I have ever seen in which Joseph is cooking a meal. Somehow I like that very much -- it shows Joseph as a practical man of action. With so much travel he must have been an excellent organizer.

Because we are never told Joseph's age in the Bible, there are two different traditions in painting: the Old Man tradition and the Young Man tradition. The Old Man tradition has going for it the fact that Joseph disappears from the scene relatively early; he was certainly alive when Jesus was twelve, but beyond that we are told very little. Third- and fourth-century legends, most notably the Protevangelium of James, always portray him as old, though. The Panarion of St. Epiphanius of Salamis, which is perhaps the first to give an age, goes so far as to claim he was about eighty (with four sons and two daughters) when he was betrothed to Mary. And overwhelmingly this is what we overwhelmingly get until about the seventeenth century, although most painters paint him as rather younger than eighty. But here and there in very, very early representations he is portrayed as a much younger man, and this has become more common in the modern era.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Inveni David (Re-Post)

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. This is a slightly revised version of a post from 2008.

Among Thomas Aquinas's extant sermons is one, usually known by the name Inveni David, which is devoted to St. Nicholas of Myra. The exact circumstances of the sermon are unknown, but we know that it was preached in December in Paris either on St. Nicholas Day or around that time. A Tale of Two Wonderworkers (PDF) by Peter Kwasniewski does a good job of giving the background.

The topic of the sermon is that God works wonders in His saints, and St. Thomas treats of this topic by taking a verse from the Psalms about David (a standard verse for saints who are bishops):

I have discovered David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him (Ps. 88:21-22).

Aquinas reads this as giving us a series of wonders that God works in the servants of God -- David in particular, of course, but also any servant of God. And thus Thomas uses it to speak of how St. Nicholas was such a servant. There are four basic parts to the verse, to which Aquinas assigns one feature of God's wondrous working in the saints:

(1) I have discovered David my servant: election
(2) with my holy oil I have anointed him: consecration
(3) my hand will help him: execution of duties
(4) and my arm will strengthen him: steadfastness

Thus Thomas will show wondrous election, singular consecration, effective execution of office, and abiding steadfastness in St. Nicholas. Actually, he never gets to the last; the sermon we have stops abruptly and without explanation after (3).

Wondrous Election

I have discovered David my servant, the Psalmist says; what's involved in discovering someone? Discovery, says Thomas, suggests rarity, at least to the extent that it needs to be discovered; it suggests search; it suggests disclosure; and it suggests conviction through experience. All these are elements of God's wonderful choosing of St. Nicholas: the first in that St. Nicholas was virtuous from youth, the second in that the Lord seeks faithful souls to delight in; the third in that Nicholas stood out through his pious affection and profound mercy and compassion; and the fourth in that Nicholas faithfully served the Lord's interests rather than his own. The third is particularly important for Aquinas; St. Nicholas is an example he holds up in more than one place for his compassion and mercy. He clearly likes the story of St. Nicholas finding a way to give gold in secret to the poor virgins so that they could have a dowry without the embarrassment of being beholden to him for it. Notably Thomas also uses his discussion of Nicholas's election to attack abuses by the clergy.

Singular Consecration

According to legend, St. Nicholas was elevated to the position of bishop by God Himself. The old bishop had died with no one obvious as a replacement. Those who were trusted with choosing the successor had a dream one night that they should consecrate as bishop the first man who walked through the door of the Church that morning. This happened to be Nicholas, who was at the time a young priest and a newcomer to Myra. He took considerable convincing, but eventually he was installed as bishop. This is perhaps subtly in the background here, although Aquinas doesn't mention it explicitly here (he does explicitly mention it elsewhere, so he knew of the story). Instead he focuses on the phrase with my holy oil I have anointed him. Oil has four uses, says Aquinas, all of which are suggested in this context.

First, oil is used for healing. Thus oil is an image of God's healing grace, and we see the operation of such grace in such a holy man as Nicholas.

Second, oil is used for lighting. To this extent it symbolizes the learning of wisdom, which is why it is associated with prophecy and illumination.

Third, oil is used for flavoring. In this sense it is an image of spiritual joy; just as a sprinkling of oil makes food taste better, so does a sprinkling of spiritual joy make good works easier. It is in this sense that oil is associated with priesthood.

Fourth, oil is used for softening and smoothing. Understood in this way it signifies mercy and kindness of heart which, of course, St. Nicholas had in astounding measure. Thus, says Thomas Aquinas, just as oil spreads itself out, so does mercy, and just as oil coats things, so mercy coats every good work. He then has a very interesting passage:

You ought to consider that in the future, according to the merits of graces the evidence of rewards will appear in the glorified bodies of the saints, and that even in this life the signs of their affection appear. This is evident in the case of blessed Francis, where the signs of the passion of Christ became visible, so vehemently was he affected by the passion of Christ. In blessed Nicholas's case, signs of mercy appeared when "his tomb sweated oil," thus indicating that he was a man of great mercy.

The linking of the two extremely popular saints, Saint Francis and Saint Nicholas, is rather interesting in itself, since, while Nicholas founded no order, there are nonetheless a great many similarities between the two, as regards their place in the Church and what they have left for posterity. It has also not gone without notice that here Thomas the Dominican goes out of his way to mention the stigmata of Saint Francis, which has suggested to some that his audience may have been Franciscan. Saint Nicholas was a favored saint of the Dominicans, playing a large role in early Dominican spiritual life, and thus the linking here strongly indicates that Aquinas wants to suggest something about the two orders taken together.

In any case, Thomas holds that this fourth signification of oil is why oil is often associated with kingship. And thus in these four ways, divine grace, prophetic wisdom, priestly gladness, and kingly compassion, God works wonders in His saints.

Effective Execution

My hand shall help him. The hand symbolizes God's strength, and Thomas suggests four ways in which God's strength is found to operate in saints like Nicholas. First, God drew Nicholas to Himself and away from evil. Second, God guided Nicholas as He does all the just. Third, He gave him strength and comfort. And fourth, because Nicholas showed exquisite mercy, God worked miracles through him.

And this is how the sermon ends, abruptly but memorably:

It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit, &c.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Nativity in Paintings III

Robert Campin - Anbetung der Hirten - ca1420

This is an early fifteenth-century painting by the Master of Flémalle, who has come to be identified with Robert Campin. Campin was something of a pioneer; he took realism in painting farther than most of his contemporaries (although, as you can see in the painting above, he also is considerably influenced by the conventions of manuscript illumination), and was one of the first to experiment with the switch from egg-based tempera to oil.

In paintings we find two major traditions for the location of the scene: the Cave or the Shed. Both are usually highly stylized, with the animal shed, for instance, often being little more than a canopy. The Nativity at Night appears to be in the Cave tradition, while the Hohenfurth painting is very definitely in the Shed tradition. Here we have a remarkably realistic, and very rickety, old animal shed; the fact that the shed is virtually falling apart does multiple duty here by creating a contrast with both the Christ Child in the foreground and the castle representing the centers of power in the background, and also by opening up more space for painting, thus allowing us to get the ox and (behind the ox) the ass.

The Cave vs. Shed option is an interesting one. Of course, when we talk about Christ in the stable, in our sense of the word, we are appealing to the Shed tradition. In fact, neither Matthew nor Luke give us any indication beyond Luke saying that there was a manger available. It could very well have been simply an adjoining room of the house dug in a little lower than the main room to keep the animals out of the latter; or, if the house was near a cave, a cave is certainly a possibility; it's unlikely to have been an out and out shed, but a sort of crude approximation to one adjoined to a house can't be wholly ruled out, either, since the word for 'manger' can also sometimes indicate an animal pen or stall.

The Cave tradition, however, seems to have the longest history; Justin Martyr in the second century states unequivocally in the Dialogue with Trypho (chapter 78) that Jesus was born in a cave just outside of Bethlehem:

Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.

And Origen writing a little bit later also states it. The Church of the Nativity itself is in this tradition: the Basilica of the Nativity (the Orthodox portion of the Church of the Nativity) is built over the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave that by long tradition is the place where Jesus was born, and, even if not, has for over a millenium and a half done as a proxy for it.

As far as painting goes, of course, artists will paint according to customs and times; and paintings will tend to paint Jesus as where the animals are in the culture in which the painter lives. The rise of the standalone Nativity creche has probably also given a boost to the Shed tradition since the thirteenth century, since it is easier to have a standalone stable than a standalone cave. In painting, the Shed tradition allows one to have a richer background than the Cave tradition; as with the painting above, the Shed tradition allows one to paint the Christ Child as situated within a much more vast world, while the Cave tradition instead puts greater emphasis on the foregrounded figures.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Nativity in Paintings II

Meister von Hohenfurth 002

This painting, by the Master of Hohenfurth, also known as the Master of Vyšší Brod, dates to the fourteenth century and originally was part of an altarpiece devoted to the life of Christ. The painting is a mix of Eastern and Western styles. The posture of the Virgin, lying in bed with the newly born Christ Child rather than kneeling before a manger is (at least in the late medieval and Renassiance period in the West) usually a sign of Byzantine influence, which often came by way of Byzantine communities in Italy. In general this attitude, associating the Nativity with more standard birthing practices, emphasizes the humanity of Christ, while the genuflecting attitude emphasizes the divinity of Christ; naturally, the more realistic the style of painting the more one would want to do to represent the divinity of Christ by symbolism, while in a more stylized style one might well prefer to emphasize the humanity of Christ.

Notice the ox and the ass, which are very nicely painted here in the background. They were there in the previous painting, as well, although there the ass is a little difficult to see. The two animals are not found in either Matthew or Luke, but are pretty much ubiquitous. They come from another Bible verse, Isaiah 1:3, in which the prophet says, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib." Indeed, the ox and the ass pre-date almost all other artistic conventions regarding the representation of the Nativity; it is possible to find very early representations of the Nativity consisting entirely of Christ in swaddling clothes with an ox on one side and an ass on the other, nothing else in sight. That particular representation seems to owe itself to another prophet, Habakkuk 3:2, at least in the Septuagint:

O Lord, I have heard thy report, and was afraid: I considered thy works, and was amazed: thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

Thus in those artistic representations Christ is known between the two living creatures, ox and donkey. The two animals gain more significance in that they they are sometimes seen as symbolic of the faithful children of Israel (the ox) and the just Gentiles (the ass); in that way, the placing of the Christ Child in the manger of the ox and the ass serves as a metaphor for the Incarnation itself, for we are the ox and the ass, and He has come among us. It is really rather remarkable how constant the imagery of the ox and the ass has been; we're talking about an artistic tradition that's only just short of two millenia old. It probably helps that the ox and the ass are a free detail: since the conventions for how one represents the ox and the ass are not very elaborate, an artist can do almost anything with them, and thus contribute something unique to the depiction of the scene. It's always interesting, when looking at a painting of the Nativity, to ask yourself: What is the artist doing with the ox and the ass? It's usually not anything theologically profound, but there are times when it really adds some nice touches to the painting.