Technology and the Church: Why Can’t We Have This in America?

In conversation recently with a few friends, I brought up a wonderful online service which I have mentioned before on these pages. It always surprises me to learn that people are not familiar with it, so this is a good opportunity to extol its virtues to you.  Moreover, and more importantly to those in the U.S., I’d like to issue a challenge to those with the resources and know-how, and ask why we don’t already have something like it on this side of the pond.

Church Services TV provides both streaming and archived video from a growing number of cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and chapels around Ireland and the United Kingdom.  Each location has its own “channel” in a drop-down menu, so that one can quickly search for the feed from a particular parish, or switch between one church and another.  Visitors can check the schedule posted on the site to see what events are coming up that day, such as Daily or Sunday Mass, and there is also a special events calendar, useful for future planning purposes.  If you’re lucky, sometimes you may stumble across an unlisted event: I’ve caught concerts, talks, and things like baptisms, weddings, and funerals on the Church Services site this way.

What I find to be one of the most special aspects about this technology however, is what it can bring to the visitor throughout their day.  When you’re at the office or at home, trying to get work done and the phone, the kids, and/or the dog are all driving you crazy, it would be nice to be able to just take a break and go away and pray for awhile.  Oftentimes, that option is nowhere near practical.  Since Church Services leaves nearly all of the camera feeds on the site running all day, even though you may not physically be able to get to church for a few minutes of prayer after you’ve nearly blown your top, you’re one click away from having a live window into God’s house whenever you want it.

Although at night, most of the cameras on the site switch to black-and-white security mode, and the churches themselves often turn off all the lights, that doesn’t mean the site becomes useless.  Even then, I think there’s something profound and encouraging about seeing the sanctuary lamp burning before the tabernacle, in the midst of the surrounding darkness.  When all may otherwise appear dark, the light of Christ’s Presence is shining forth.  It’s not Adoration, but it’s not a waste of time, either, especially after a rough day.

Now of course, an image on the screen is not the same thing as actually being present before the Real Presence, let alone receiving Holy Communion.  Nevertheless, one can see how there are many positive aspects of this kind of technology, which could be put to good use.  Much as radio and later television broadcast of the Mass has helped people like shut-ins to be able to pray and worship alongside their fellow Christians, while not a substitute for Mass or Adoration, this more recent technology also provides an opportunity for spiritual growth and refreshment to those who want to take advantage of it.

So this brings me back to my original question, because it strikes me that, if the good people of the Emerald Isle can put a service like this together, why don’t we have something similar in the U.S.?  Certainly, there are some churches around the country that have had low-tech webcams for years: I know of a few in places like Philadelphia and St. Louis, for example.  Yet to my knowledge, there is nothing comparable in America to this centralized site with so many participating churches, where not only can one watch live footage, but even go back and watch previous video.  There is clearly an opportunity here, waiting to be discovered and implemented.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I highly recommend that you bookmark the Church Services TV site, as I have, because you will be able to make good use of it when and if you need to.  And talk to your parish and your diocese about whether they might be interested in doing something similar where you are.  It would be great to see this service spread to more communities around the world, both as a source of spiritual growth for practicing Catholics, and as a tool for the New Evangelization.

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

Screenshot of the Church Services TV site

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>Yet Another New Old Master Discovery

>The Spanish press is reporting this morning about a potentially exciting find in the world of Old Master paintings which, if proven, will not only constitute an important discovery for the understanding of one of the greatest of all Old Master artists, but also demonstrate yet again how the use of the expert eye in tandem with increasingly sophisticated technological research in the field of art history is expanding the depth and breadth of our knowledge of Western art. Buried in the basement of the Yale University Art Gallery since sometime in the 1920′s, “The Education of the Virgin” is a scarred, forlorn canvas originally attributed to an unknown 17th century painter of the Seville school. It was donated to Yale as part of a collection amassed by a American shipping family that did business in Spain at the turn of the previous century.

The painting shows the Virgin Mary as a little girl, flanked by her mother St. Anne to her left, and her father St. Joachim to her right. St. Anne holds a book on her lap, and is pointing to a line in the text while guiding her daughter’s finger along the same line. The Virgin Mary, a beautiful little girl in a pink dress, stares out sweetly at the viewer who has seemingly interrupted the domestic scene. St. Joachim is leaning into the picture and is saying something to his wife; St. Anne appears to be listening intently and has momentarily stopped giving the reading lesson.

Some of the painting has been cut down at the top and bottom and at the side during its sad history, for truncated portions of at least two figures believed to be angels appear in the background. Genre details surround the figures, including elements which, as presented in the piece, themselves form what in Spanish art of this period is called a “bodegón”, or still life of things such as food and household items. There is even what looks to be a sleeping puppy at the foot of the side table.

In an article to be published next week in the print edition of Ars Magazine, John Marciari Ph.D., Curator of Italian and Spanish Painting and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art and previously a curator at Yale, has concluded that this unloved canvas of circa 1615-1617 is in fact by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. In a preview of the print article, Dr. Marciani notes that the combination of the appearance and style of the picture, as well as a technical analysis of the paints and the canvas itself, can only point to Velázquez as the painting’s author.

If Dr. Marciari is proved correct, this could be the earliest known painting by Velázquez, who was born in 1599; at the time of the estimated execution of this work he would have been between 16 and 18 years old. While this may seem incredibly early, Velázquez was in fact extremely precocious, not unlike other gifted young artists such as Raphael or Mozart. It is known that at the age of 12 he left his one-year apprenticeship with Seville artist Francisco de Herrera, and took up an apprenticeship in the workshop of the man who would later become his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. When he was 19, he married Pacheco’s daughter and subsequently left his native Seville for Madrid.

Pacheco’s style had a profound influence on the young Velázquez, and the works he began to generate during his earliest period tended to two types: genre scenes, and religious pictures which often appeared to be genre scenes. One of Velázquez’ earliest known canvases, “The Luncheon” of circa 1617, which is presently in the Hermitage, is of particular interest in the analysis of the possible new discovery. If we examine the figure leaning in from the left side of the picture, there is a striking similarity to the figure of St. Joachim in the Yale painting. We can also look at the circa 1618 canvas “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, now in the National Gallery London, which is a combination of genre picture and religious scene, noting the head and hand of the old woman (who is directing the servant girl on how to make a good Spanish ali-oli in the mortar and pestle), and comparing her to the Yale figure of St. Anne.

The Prado Museum, which houses the most important collection of Velázquez’ paintings in the world, has so far not commented on Dr. Marciari’s identification of the painting. However, a number of art experts both within Spain and internationally are recommending that the painting, which as described above is in a rather sorry state, be sent to Madrid for further technical analysis and investigation. Understandably, Yale is not going to undertake the expensive and painstaking process of restoration of the canvas if it cannot be definitively attributed to Velázquez. Naturally, any developments on this will be passed along to you, gentle reader.

Detail of “The Education of the Virgin” c. 1615-1617,
which may be a newly rediscovered painting by Velázquez.

>What We Know of Van Gogh

>Even as I am disappointed to discover that the Pope may not, in fact, be consecrating the Sagrada Familia this autumn [N.B. a couple of very misinformed visitor comments on that post, I must say] in the secular art world there has been yet another interesting discovery of a previously unknown work from an important artist. The Torygraph reports that a work which had previously been derided by many as a fake or a minor piece by a minor artist has now come to be accepted as an early work by Vincent van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has confirmed that the piece, now in the collection of the Museum de Fundatie in the Dutch town of Zwolle, is almost certainly an early work by the Dutch post-impressionist master. This is part of the ongoing effort of the Van Gogh Museum to conduct highly advanced scientific tests, including digital scanning and microscopic analysis, on a number of purported works by Van Gogh to determine their authenticity, as was recently featured on PBS’ Nova: Science Now.

Van Gogh is a figure so well-known for his later, heavy pieces bordering on abstraction, employing the use of thick impasto and palette knife, that a more conventional Impressionist-style view such as this causes a jolt in our perceptions of him. We need to remember that all great artists, be they painters, musicians, or novelists, grow and change over time. Even Pablo Picasso, to the surprise of many not familiar with his work, could draw and paint like an accomplished master of academic realism if he wanted to – the point of course, was that he DIDN’T want to.

Take a look, for example, at Picasso’s “Science and Charity”, now housed in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and marvel at the fact that this highly technical piece was painted when Picasso was only 17 years old. This does not seem to be from the same hand that painted the famous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in the MoMA Collection in New York just ten years later. Yet Picasso’s early experiences are the foundation for what came later; the two cannot be separated.

In the case of Van Gogh, we are not accustomed to seeing scenes of many figures in the Dutch master’s landscapes and cityscapes. His much-loved “Cafe Terrace at Night” painted in 1888, currently in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland, shows some figures, but they are quite far away from the viewer. The artist has distanced himself – and us – from the people portrayed, which if we want to play pop psychiatrist tells us a bit about Van Gogh himself at this stage in his career.

The newly-attributed painting, “Le Blute-Fin Mill”, was painted two years earlier than the “Cafe Terrace”. Van Gogh arrived in Paris for the first time in 1886, and this view of the Montmartre neighborhood dates from his first year in the French capital. Unlike the “Cafe Terrace”, here we seem to mingle with the crowds, rather than hide from them.

The staircase invites us to come enjoy the view of Paris from the top of the hill. Perhaps we will join the tourists who have climbed the windmill tower for a better vantage point, and along the way admire the beautiful ladies’ gowns. Even the two gentlemen at the bar-cafe at the bottom of the steps create a cheery mood in spite of the overcast skies, dressed in brightly colored coats and tall, polished boots. One gets the sense of people who want to get out and about, see and be seen, perhaps after having been cooped up for a few days because of rain or snow – something that many of my readers on the U.S. East Coast can no doubt appreciate.

For art historians, be they of the professional or armchair variety, the continued advance of technology provides us with exciting times. Just in the past year or so I have reported on discoveries of previously unknown or “lost” works by some of the great Western Old Masters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Velazquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Titian, and Ribera. Such discoveries fill in our understanding of the development of the artist’s technique and style, leading to a better appreciation of their work.