Art Lesson: Getting Down With Jesus And Mary

When strolling through a church or an art museum, it is quite easy to become bewildered by the profusion of images of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. The casual viewer, seeing century after century of different interpretations of the Madonna and Child, could be forgiven for thinking that these images were created entirely at random. Yet this is in fact another example of why paying attention to detail, and knowing your history, is so important in understanding Western culture.

The earliest known example of Mary holding Jesus dates to about 150 A.D.; it is located in the Greek Chapel inside the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Since that time, there have been tens of thousands of different depictions of the Madonna and Child. Because the Bible does not tell us what Jesus or Mary looked like, and we have no contemporary images of either to use as reference points, artists use their imagination in the creation of these pieces.

The majority of earlier paintings, sculptures, or mosaics typically depicted Mother and Son in one of two ways. Either the Virgin Mary was shown seated on a throne, holding the Christ Child in her lap, or she was shown standing and carrying the Infant Jesus in her arms. There are countless examples of these two archetypal images in Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic Art, and they are still popular today. The seated image, in particular, was often used as a way of representing not only Christ’s Divinity and Majesty, but also of His Mother’s own special role in salvation history.

Beginning in the 14th century however, and lasting up through the early 16th, an interesting way of depicting Mother and Son became popular. This was a form called “The Madonna of Humility”, which was particularly popularized by the Franciscans. While this sometimes took the form of Mary breastfeeding the Infant Jesus, more critically this type of image showed the Madonna and Child seated, not on a throne, but either directly on the ground or on a cushion on the floor.

This is a detail one can easily overlook. When seeing a myriad of images of the Madonna and Child in a gallery or cathedral, the eyes can blur over, and one painting or statue can seem very much like another. It is an important detail to remember, however, because it goes to the intent of the artist.

Stop and think for a moment about what this type of image conveyed to the viewer at the time it was created. After having become accustomed to seeing the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ as lofty, regal figures in churches and public buildings, seated upon a throne, here was something quite different. This type of image reminded the Medieval viewer of the humanity and humility of the two people being depicted. In representing a Jesus and Mary quite literally come down to earth, showing them actually sitting upon it as we ourselves might, the artists who created these images were expressing that love of humility which was so much a part of St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality.

Thus this seemingly innocuous detail, which we can so easily overlook, meant a great deal to the people of the time in which these works of art were created. It allowed them – and us – to reflect and mediate on how God humbled Himself to be born as a human baby, with a human Mother to care for Him. It also demonstrates why paying attention, when looking at a work of art, is so important in understanding the reasons why it was created, particularly in an age which has long abandoned not only Christianity, but also the study of Western history and culture.  

image

The Faithful Traveler – On Your Radio!

I’m extremely pleased to share with you that my dear friend Diana von Glahn – aka The Faithful Traveler – now has her own daily radio show! You can hear Diana on Monday thru Friday at 11am on RealLife Radio, streaming online wherever you happen to be. You can also listen on-air if you’re in the Lexington, Kentucky area on 94.9 FM and 1380 AM. Missed a show? You can catch the podcast version on Diana’s site, via iTunes, or the RealLife Radio site. And on the RLR site, you can learn about their other programming from people whom you may already know from the writing world, like Elizabeth Scalia and Allison Gingras.

If you’ve seen her on television or DVD’s, or heard her on other radio shows and podcasts, you know that Diana has a knack for this sort of thing. She is bubbly and a lot of fun, but can also quickly get to the heart of a serious matter being discussed. (It’s all that piercing legal analysis Diana and I learned at the knee of the late, great Dr. Charlie Rice at Notre Dame Law School.) And each week, in addition to special guests, Diana will have some great regulars: her husband and Faithful Traveler co-creator David von Glahn; Denise Bossert; Jeff Young, aka The Catholic Foodie; Amy Wellborn; and Jerome Robbins, many of whom may already be familiar to you.

If you like what you hear, be sure to consider two things. First, make a donation, since things like bandwidth and hosting do not come free, even if the download does! Second, go leave a positive review on iTunes or through Diana or RealLife Radio’s sites, so that they know you’re listening and enjoying the program. As content producers, we all live and die by feedback, so even if you just want to say “Great job!”, your comments are unbelievably welcome. Thanks!

image

This Centuries-Old Church Was Just Bulldozed

Here is a bizarre, and indeed sad, bit of news to start your Friday.

It appears that the citizens of San Pablo del Monte, in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala, have some rather strange ideas. Last weekend, they decided to demolish the 18th century Franciscan chapel of Santo Cristo. Yes, you read that correctly. The entire pasted-colored Spanish colonial chapel – bell towers, dome, et al – was completely razed by bulldozers early in the morning on Tuesday, with no word to either government or religious authorities.

The bishop of Tlaxacala, Francisco Moreno Barrón, has called the demolition an act of “barbarism”, which was not authorized by the diocese. In response, the Governor of Tlaxacala announced at a press conference that, in cooperation with federal authorities, he has filed charges against the person or persons responsible for the illegal destruction of the chapel. The action seems all the more surprising, in that the region is known to be a deeply devout Catholic area, so there is no suggestion that leftists carried out the action.

At present, local police believe this was an act of ignorance, which grew out of the combination of two rather unfortunate ideas. Some residents were concerned that cracks in the chapel walls indicated that it was in danger of collapse, and therefore razing the building was a matter of public safety. However authorities from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the federal agency charged with historic preservation of Mexico’s cultural patrimony, say that the building was structurally sound, and pointed out that any building more than a century old is bound to have some cracks in it which do not affect the integrity of the structure.

In addition, while it may not have been the initial justification for the demolition, ultimately locals may have supported it because it was commonly felt that the chapel blocked the view of the parish church across the street.  Said building is a comparatively more modern confection, in terms of construction date, which looks something like a child’s idea of a castle in the Alps. As one can see in the photographs accompanying the news reports, it was certainly a far better candidate for demolition than the Franciscan chapel.

Although the goal of historic preservation can create annoying procedural norms for developers, architects, and officials to follow, this latest example of what happens when it is ignored is a potent reminder of why enforcing such measures continues to be necessary, and why they ought to be taken seriously. Whether the destruction is as vast as that of Penn Station in Manhattan, or as small as that of this side chapel on the road to Veracruz, when we intentionally destroy beautiful and historic buildings, we irreparably lose an important part of who we are. These structures are not simply utilitarian combinations of materials expressing particular aesthetic views. They are places touched by the lives of those who built them, and those who passed through them, decade after decade, century after century. As such, they are one of the very few tangible connections we have to the past. When they are lost, they are lost forever.

image