Portable Piety: Hitting The Road With Those You Love

For those of my readers who find themselves in New York between now and March 20th, a visit to the New York Historical Society will bring a wonderful treat, both for lovers of art and for Christians generally. The centerpiece of their current show, “Maestà: Gaddi’s Triptych Reunited” is a glorious panel of the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, painted by the Early Italian Renaissance painter Taddeo Gaddi in around 1334.  The exhibition is an opportunity not only to admire a beautiful work of art, but also to think about how we ourselves can use similar objects today – even if we are not so fortunate as to own a masterpiece of sacred art.   

In art history, a “Maestà” is a type of image in which the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, related to similar examples in Byzantine art, are represented as seated together on a heavenly throne, often surrounded by saints and/or angels. This particular painting has been restored over the past two years and is now back on display at the NYHS, along with two panels which experts now believe were originally connected to it to form a folding triptych. By following this link one can see an animation of what the entire work of art originally looked like, before it lost its frame, was split into its component pieces, and dispersed to different collectors.  

Photographs of works of art hardly ever give us an impression of their size. In this case, the Maestà is not a huge altarpiece, like the famous “Descent from the Cross” (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden in The Prado, which shocked me by its massiveness when I first saw it in person: that work is about 7 feet tall and about 8 ½ feet wide. By comparison, the Gaddi is quite a small thing, comparatively speaking. When closed, the triptych would have measured around 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide, roughly the size of a college diploma.

Gaddi’s painting does not contain any portraits of the person or family that originally commissioned the work, but from its comparatively small size we know that it was intended for private, rather than public use. The buyer would have discussed with the artist what subject matter he wanted to appear in the piece, and in this case, clearly there were certain saints whom his family had a particular devotion to. For in addition to the scenes from the life of Christ, there are a number of saints portrayed in the work, who are not there by accident or simply for purposes of decoration. We can probably assume, for example, that if a husband and wife commissioned the piece, that their respective first names might have been Catarina and Cristoforo, because images of St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Christopher bearing the Christ Child appear on the outside wings of the triptych. This is what we would have seen as a visitor to the family’s home, if the piece was closed and sitting on a shelf or a table.

This triptych would have been used both as an aid to prayer and as a beautiful object to decorate the room in which it was placed, but its practicality for the devout Catholic was that it could also have been taken on the road. The portability of such a comparatively small work of art allowed the traveler to stop and focus on the spiritual life, at whatever roadside inn or ship’s berth he happened to find himself sleeping in, at a time when travel was particularly uncomfortable, arduous, and dangerous. Stopping to thank God for His continued Grace and protection for himself and for his family, the owner of this piece would be able to keep in mind who he was, and what he believed, even if he was far from home.     

Most of us are not so fortunate as to have objects like this to carry around with us, and yet the tradition of a portable devotional work is something which can easily be employed by anyone today at no significant expense. A very simple example of this is something which I employ when I travel, a practice that I inherited from my Mother. Many years ago I purchased two sizes of folding, leather picture frames with clear plastic panes. On one side of the frame, I place a photograph of my family; on the other, a simple postcard with a religious image, usually of Christ or the Blessed Mother or a favorite saint, picked up at one of my favorite art museums. It weighs practically nothing, and because the materials are all soft and flexible, it does not break, even if dropped or knocked over.

Another, slightly more hefty option for the contemporary traveler is to find a travel icon. Such objects are very easy to find these days, whether online or in a Christian bookshop, or indeed if you are fortunate enough to travel to places like Greece, Poland, or Russia. There are an almost infinite variety of single, double, or even triple-paneled images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels applied through various methods of decoupage to carved and stained pieces of wood. Over the years friends have gifted me a few examples of these from their travels to places like Prague or Ephesus, and I have purchased others of particular saints whom I admire. They fold up nicely, and stand steadily on a nightstand or desk.

Whichever option you choose, it is very easy in either instance to simply place this object in your carry on, or roll it up with some socks in your checked bag. Unlike the Gaddi Maestà, this should not be such an intrinsically valuable objects that, if it disappears into the great unknown of lost luggage, your level of upset would be catastrophic. Instead, as a simple reminder to yourself of who you are, and of He from Whom you seek grace and protection while on the road, they are an easy way to make any room you happen to find yourself in during your journey feel much more like home.        

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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!

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Cities, Art, and the Self: On the Virtues of Visiting Museums When Traveling

A good of friend of mine is headed to Barcelona this weekend, and asked me for a few recommendations on what he absolutely must see while he is there.  Knowing him reasonably well, and also what he ought to see on a first visit, I did not include many of the great art museums in the city since, despite Barcelona’s prominence as an art and design capital, sending someone to wander through hallways full of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and drawings would probably prevent them from seeing many of the interesting buildings, streets, and squares which make the city unique.  Yet in doing so, on reflection, I realize that I erred greatly. For he will only be getting a part of the story of what makes the city he is visiting so special, because we so often forget that works of art tell us a lot about both ourselves, and the cities where those works of art happen to be housed.

Take Michelangelo’s monumental “David”, for example, which is the most famous sculpture in the city of Florence.  The figure of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who managed to slay a giant several times his size, had a great deal of meaning for the small Florentine Republic, which often found itself fighting enemies much greater in size.  Or think of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, which despite its Milanese provenance has resided in France since the time Da Vinci moved there toward the end of his life, to work for King Francois I.  One sees this image and immediately thinks not of Northern Italy, but of Paris, since after leaving the royal collections she has been smiling down at the public from the walls of The Louvre since the late 18th century.

There are many more examples of works of art, commissioned by or which have passed into the public collections of cities around the world, which those among us with an appreciation for history and culture visit as if on pilgrimage when we go to certain cities.  One must see Velázquez’ “Las Meninas” in Madrid; in Dresden, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”; in Chicago, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on Le Grande Jatte”.  To go to these places and not see these masterworks is a bit like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheese steak.  They are so interwoven into the collective cultural fabric of the cities where these works happen to reside, that their omnipresence on everything from advertising posters on public transit systems to postcards and knickknacks at the newsagents’ almost causes us to forget they are there.

Art appreciation is not simply a course which one has to pass in high school, but rather it is meant to be something which informs you about not only where you live, but where other people live as well.  The next time you travel therefore, consider doing a little research in advance to see what are the important works of art in the city you happen to be visiting, to see what you can learn about the place you are sojourning, and perhaps learn a bit more about yourself in the process.  What sorts of images do you respond to, and how do they make you see the city in which you happen to be when you are looking at them?

For example, in Manhattan you can pay a visit to Sargent’s seductive and justly famous “Portrait of Madame X” at the Metropolitan.  Ask yourself how, even though she was a Louisianan painted in France by a painter from Massachusetts, Madame X rather aptly reflects the city and indeed the neighborhood in which she has subsequently come to reside, so close to the commercial palaces and fashion industry giants on 5th and Madison Avenues.  Her portrait created a scandal when it was displayed, yet now it seems surprisingly demure.  How has New York, and indeed the world, changed from the days in which her alleged love affairs and fashion sense were a cause célèbre in society?

Returning to Barcelona, what I should have done for my friend at the very least is to send him to the National Museum of Art of Catalonia, which without question has the best collection of art from the Romanesque period (roughly 1000-1300 A.D.) in the world.  Probably the two most important works of art in the collection are the “Christ Pantocrator” fresco of c. 1123 from the apse of the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, and the painted wooden crucifix known as the “Majestat Batlló”, of about the same date.  One sees the use of elements of their composition in objects and images all over the city, and in fact I have small-scale reproductions of both in my home oratory.  Their familiarity as images, their devotional quality as works of Catholic art, and their reminder of a time when my favorite part of the world was deeply and colorfully Catholic, help me to feel grounded in the way I think about my faith. They are visual reminders of my own perceptions of the world in a way which some other images of Christ may not be, no matter how aesthetically beautiful.

That, in the end, is one of the joys of coming to know and appreciate great art, for it tells you much about yourself and where you happen to be at this moment in your life; what does and what does not matter to you; even about where you are likely headed, than you might otherwise believe possible.

BatlloDetail of the “Majestat Batlló” (c. 1100-1125)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona