Cheers to You, Chicago

Good Morning, gentle reader. I’m still recovering from a slightly surprising bout of jetlag from my trip to Chicago this past weekend, and from last evening’s coverage of the Met Gala – told you so – but let’s stay on the positive this morning. I wanted to share with you just a few observations about the great time I had in the Windy City; the images illustrating today’s post are taken from my Instagram chronicle of my adventures there.

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to the Catholic Art Guild and its President Kathleen Carr, as well as to Father Joshua Caswell and everyone at St. John Cantius, both for the honor of inviting me to speak to them, as well as for welcoming me with such graciousness and warmth to their community. They do great work, and I’m deeply grateful to have contributed in a very small way to what they are trying to accomplish. The audience was clearly interested in and receptive to what I had to stay, and I ended up staying nearly an hour afterwards to chat with and answer questions from some of those who decided to stick around and wait to share some kind words with me, including some of my blog subscribers and social media friends whom I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to meet in person. The event was recorded, and will be on YouTube at some point; I’ll share the link once it’s up.

St. John Cantius is a magnificent place, of such grandeur and historic importance to the people of Chicago that it really needs to be put on the short list to be named a Minor Basilica. It was built by poor Polish immigrants who had very little, but gave the best of what they had to glorify God, making the rest of us (or at least, me) feel humble and selfish by comparison. I had a private tour with Father Caswell the morning before my talk, and not only enjoyed hearing the stories behind the building’s construction and decoration, but during our tour we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a really spectacular practice session on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, which you can hear in this video I shot while we were looking about the place.

I had intended to make a return visit to the Art Institute while I was in town, to see a few of my old favorites in their collection, but due to time constraints as the result of a busier-than-expected social schedule, I wasn’t able to get there. What more than made up for that was the discovery of a new art museum which I had never heard of before. Loyola University of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest Catholic institutions of higher learning in the country, and much to my surprise they have a small but very interesting art museum. The Loyola University Museum of Art – or LUMA, as it is called – is just across from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower and, as one might expect from a university art space, has a main floor gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions.

However what makes LUMA truly special, in my eyes, is what the visitor finds upstairs. In a series of several rooms on the upper floor one finds dozens of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture, as well as liturgical and decorative objects. Most of these objects are of the sacred art variety, and particularly focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe and the Americas. As I observed to my host, when later recounting my visit, if this had been an art and antiques gallery, I would have wanted to purchase almost everything on display.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover that a version of one of the most well-known paintings of Sassoferrato – aka, Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) – was one of the highlights of the LUMA collection. His “Madonna and Child With Cherubs” (c. 1650) is probably well known to you from Christmas cards, spiritual books, prayer cards, and the like. It’s a large, radiant work of great tenderness, that invites quiet contemplation.

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Another superb piece at LUMA is “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1640), attributed to another great Italian Baroque painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). “Guercino”, as he is more commonly known, was a contemporary of Poussin (1594-1655), and you can clearly see in his coloring that both he and the great French Baroque painter were on the same page. I love the intimacy in this detail of the Madonna and Child from the painting, with Jesus asleep from exhaustion, and the very motherly concern on the face of the Virgin Mary, as the Holy Family heads into exile and an uncertain future.

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In a completely different vein is this 15th century Netherlandish painting of “The Way to Calvary” by a follower of the great Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose retrospective at The Prado two summers ago was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It’s not the weirdest Bosch (or in this case, pseudo-Bosch) painting out there, but as you can see in this detail it has both the insightful, cruel caricatures and a few of the creepy-crawlies that one expects to find in the master’s work. This is really terrific stuff.

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There are also many Iberian works in this collection, which is not surprising for a Jesuit school. I was surprised however, to come across a sculpture by Pere Oller (before 1394-1442), one of the most important Catalan medieval sculptors. It comes from the tomb of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, which was commissioned by his son Alfonso V for the royal pantheon at the Monastery of Poblet, located in the mountains roughly midway between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona. The tomb itself is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops along with many other religious buildings and works of art in Catalonia, but pieces of it are scattered here and there in public and private collections. LUMA’s is one of the surviving figures of mourners from that sculptural ensemble.

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Finally, there is this magnificent carved, painted, and gilded statue of the Immaculate Conception, and as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not writing down who it is by. (Unfortunately the LUMA website doesn’t list all of their holdings, either.) She is from Spain, about life-sized, and in a remarkably good state of preservation given her age. That face is really something.

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In addition to the many paintings and sculptures on display, there are practical-luxury items such as a charming German drinking vessel in the form of a golden owl, or heavily carved Italian furniture with all kinds of interesting animal paw feet. In the same display case one can see a wrought-iron door knocker from the Middle Ages in the form of a fearsome, spiked beastie – you had to be careful when grasping that handle – alongside colorfully glazed Renaissance ceramics. You could easily and happily spend a couple of hours here, admiring all of these beautiful things. And the best part is: no crowds, and admission is free.

To end with today, I wanted to suggest a bit of long-term planning for you. On November 4th, the Catholic Art Guild will be holding their annual conference, which features talks by a number of great speakers, including the Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart, currently the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary. The event will take place at the Drake Hotel, which has always been a required stop-in for me when I’m in town, as you can see in these two pictures taken several decades apart. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m planning to be there, and I hope you’ll consider joining me for a return visit to one of America’s – and the world’s – best cities.

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Hooray For Hermits: Art Celebrating The Eremitic Life

While many subjects depicted by the Old Masters portray events from long-ago days, or people engaged in activities which seem incredibly remote to contemporary eyes, there is one area of human endeavor as depicted in the arts which has changed very little over the last 2,000 years: eremitic life. In Christian practice an eremitic (or “hermit” as we usually call them) is someone who has chosen to remove themselves from the world, in order to deepen their spiritual life and their relationship with God. The solitary aspects of their lives have fascinated artists for centuries, but such lifestyles are not a thing of the past. In fact, many hermits still live among us today.

As regular readers know, for several years now I’ve served on the Board of the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, which support the establishment of a permanent hermitage in the Diocese of Portland, Maine. At the moment we’re still raising funds for the actual hermitage, but we do have a hermit: our dear Franciscan friend, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, who is also the Chaplain of the Coming Home Network International. Brother Rex was recently interviewed by the Catholic News Agency, and I think you’ll enjoy the article – and not just for the great picture of him with a chicken.

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People are often surprised to learn that, yes, there are still hermits among us in this day and age, including right here in the United States. As Brother Rex mentions in the article, he’s aware of a half-dozen or so just in Maine alone! The degree to which those called to this intense form of spiritual life interact with the world depends on various factors, such as the particular religious order which they join. There are, for example, men and women religious who live in solitude, like the wonderful Sister Veronica Paul – whom you should follow on Twitter along with Brother Rex, even if you don’t belong to any particular form of religion – who still manage to engage with the rest of us for periods of time before returning to their solitude.

In art history, there are many depictions of Christians who chose to follow the path to eremitic life. Sometimes these men and women lived in their form of isolation for their entire adult lives, while others did so only for a period of time. The degree to which they removed themselves from day-to-day concerns, and how they chose to live out their vocations, can vary greatly.

A typical example of what most of us think of, when we hear the word, “hermit”, is this work from 1670 by the Dutch Baroque artist, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), now in the National Gallery here in Washington. In it, we see an anonymous Franciscan hermit on his knees at prayer, meditating on a crucifix amidst the ruins where he has chosen to live. Dou was one of the most successful Dutch painters of the second half of the 17th century, and toward the end of his career he seems to have become somewhat enthralled by the subject of the eremitic life, for there are several other works by him depicting hermits “in action” as it were, such as this example at the MIA in Minneapolis and another at the Wallace Collection in London.

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Among the more famous women in history who lived the eremitic life is St. Mary of Egypt. (c.344-421), who simultaneously felt drawn to changing her way of life and indulging her love of sex. In fact, she is said to have made her way on pilgrimage from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to Jerusalem by offering her services to others who were traveling to the Holy City as well. There, she underwent a conversion experience, and retired to the deserts in what is now modern Jordan, to spend her life in solitary fasting and prayer.

Although also revered in the West, she is particularly admired in the East. Icons such as this one, recounting the story of her life, have always been very popular in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. She has also, albeit less frequently, been the subject of Western art, such as in this copy of a 15th century Gothic sculpture at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris (the original is preserved inside the church), or in this c. 1660 painting by the Spanish Baroque artist José Claudio Antolinez (1635-1675), now in – ironically enough – the collection of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

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To close however, I want to show an example of a scene that is touching but rare in Western art. It is said that Zosimus, a monk living near the Jordan River, used to take time to wander the Judean desert by himself for 40 days during Lent. One day he stumbled across St. Mary of Egypt, who was living in a cave, and she told him her life story. She asked him to return the following year on Holy Thursday, so that she might receive the Eucharist, and he promised to do so; the painting below, by a follower of the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) depicts that return visit the following year. When Zosimus returned to bring St. Mary communion the next year, he discovered that she had died in her cave, so he went about giving her a Christian burial.

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Perhaps the takeaway here is that, like all hermits who came before and after her, even though this woman gave up everything to follow her call to the eremitic life, at the end of her earthly life she lacked for nothing. We are lucky, gentle reader, that such individuals still live among us, to advocate on our behalf, and that of the whole world. Please support them, as you are able.

The Courtier In The Federalist: “Jacob And His Twelve Sons” @ The Frick

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the terrific exhibition “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle” now at The Frick Collection. If you have the chance to get to New York between now and the closing of the show on April 22nd, it’s well worth your time, as I explain in the article. My thanks as always to my (very patient) editor Joy Pullman, who somehow manages to condense my excessive art history verbiage into something readable.

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