Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

Art Criticism #Fail: Taking A Second Look At Christ

One of the problems with looking at art, let alone writing art criticism, is that it can be easy to forget the meaning of what it is that we are looking at. Perhaps because we live in an age in which we are taught that meaning is subjective, this mindset not only taints the viewer but the reviewer as well. I must confess that I can easily get wrapped up in the finer points of technique, or in recounting the history of a particular work, and overlook the spirituality of the art I am thinking about when I write a blog post or review an exhibition.

Last week for example, I wrote a summary of some interesting summer art exhibitions that I recommended to my readers. I mentioned a show about 1930’s American painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and suggested that visitors should also stop and check out the museum’s latest addition to its collection of Old Masters, a painting of Christ carrying the Cross by Sebastiano del Piombo. I pointed out that there are several versions of this piece, since it was one of the artist’s most popular compositions at the time he painted it, but that nevertheless it was a good buy for the Art Institute and worth seeing.

Reaction to the Art Institute’s acquisition of this painting could not have been more different across the spectrum of art media. Over on Apollo for example, contributor Louise Nicholson pronounced the piece “superb”, praised its condition and composition, and noted its blending of the monumentalism of Michelangelo with the “mystical twilight” landscape of the Venetians. Meanwhile, at-large critic Blake Gopnik over on ArtNet described the painting as “important, but flawed”, explained that del Piombo rarely managed to emerge from the shadows of his contemporaries, and opined that this is another instance among many in del Piombo’s career in which this was the case.

Yet none of us who wrote about this piece, myself included, wrote a single sentence regarding the spirituality of this painting. Intrigued by its provenance, lighting, and angles, and in the rush to give an opinion on the significance of the piece, we forgot that this was more than just a work of art: it was created as a means for spiritually connecting the viewer to Christ. In other words, all of us failed to actually *see* the picture.

If you have a tablet or laptop computer, or you can kneel down on the floor for a moment, take a look at the accompanying photograph of this painting from below, and consider its impact from that angle. Here is Jesus falling on the Via Dolorosa, His face grimacing in pain as the road to Calvary unwinds before Him. If you happen to position yourself to the right of this image, as you look up at it you get the impression that He is looking at you. This painting is a direct, in-your-face reminder that God is doing this for YOU, as you kneel in prayer before it.

Meanwhile the figure of St. Simon of Cyrene, who has just been roped in by the soldier shown in the shadows to help Christ carry His Cross, may cause us to reflect on different aspects of the Way of the Cross. There is a practical determination in his expression, as he figures out how best to help pick up the Cross that Jesus has fallen under. However there is also an illumination of St. Simon’s face, as he is caught up in the same light that illuminates the features of Christ. Is he getting an inkling of something else at work here? Is he realizing that this is going to turn out to be an even more extraordinary event in his life, than the already extraordinary event of his being forced by the Romans into helping a condemned prisoner whom he does not know?

Look also at the depiction of Jerusalem in the background of the painting. Although we know from the Bible that Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus around Noon, and that He died around 3pm, notice that the red skies over the city already look more like sunset than midday. Perhaps del Piombo is artistically anticipating the darkness that we are told fell over the city, when a powerful storm came up, and an earthquake rent the veil of the Temple in two. The artist may be telling us that, even before Christ arrived at Golgotha, the world was already darkening in anticipation of what was about to happen.

Perhaps because so much Christian art has been created over the last two millennia, and so much of it is crowded into our art museums, we have become indifferent to works like this. But consider what a great weight an artist like del Piombo bore on his shoulders, in painting this image of Christ carrying the Cross on His. This was not a work of art that was intended to flatter a wealthy patron, or decorate that empty space over the sideboard. It was intended to make the viewer pray, and in particular to meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus.

What a tremendous challenge it must be, for any artist to really try to get that right. And what a pity that both the public and critics so often miss the forest for the trees, when we look at such spiritually significant works of art. We can only hope to remember, and try to do better by it.


Why You Need Both Give-Ups AND Take-Ons For Lent

For those of you who follow me on social media, you should be aware that I’ll be absent from Facebook, FB Messenger, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, and WhatsApp during Lent. (I think that’s all of them, whew!) You’ll still see blog posts like these, since they post automatically across my social media accounts once I publish them. And you’ll see me around the social media feeding trough come Sundays, catching up with what I’ve missed. However for the most part, I won’t be around online the next few weeks.

There are very good arguments to be made for *not* giving up social media for Lent.  In fact, Allison Gingras makes a few good ones here. Certainly, if you make your living in media – which I don’t – there’s no sense in giving up social media, which is an inherent component, these days, of most media careers. We hardly read anything printed on paper, any more, and audio or video appearances are more widely distributed through social media.

However in my case, social media has, at times, become an occasion of sins, plural, so it’s a good time to step away. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to come back after Easter and start being nice to Planned Parenthood, the Kardashians, or Lena Dunham: they get what they get. What it does mean is, I’m going to be doing some substitution, as I remove social media from the daily routine, to hopefully come back better than I was.

I’ll say that, over the years, I’ve found that “give-ups” aren’t enough for Lent. You’ve got to replace them with something else. We each get into a repeating pattern in our lives, so that when some aspect of that pattern is altered or removed, we feel out of balance. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary from contemporary thought gurus, human beings prefer order and structure to chaos and uncertainty.

So when we remove one thing from the everyday, we have to replace it with something else. I made a list of “give-ups” for this Lent, which are counterbalanced by a list of “take-ons”. In other words, for each thing I give up, I’m taking on something else to replace it, such as prayer, a corporal work of mercy, etc. For me, this method tends to work better than simply giving up something I like, with no other thought than the countdown to Easter Sunday when I can have it again.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you’re a sports junkie, and you watch several hours of games a week. What about looking ahead on the sporting calendar, marking off a match each week that you want to see but that you will give up, and using the time slot you would have spent watching a game for slowly and thoughtfully reading your Bible? Or what if, supposing you’re giving up soda for Lent, you calculate what you would otherwise spend each week on that Diet Coke, and then make out a check to a religious order or charitable organization for that amount, picking a different one each week?

That’s what I mean about balancing things out: the give-up must be matched by a take-on. It’s when things are imbalanced that we eventually tip over into failure, whether that’s eating too much, exercising too much, or yes, being on social media too much. I think the key point to remember is that you’re not supposed to give up sweets or take on jogging during Lent because it’s easier to do that in late Winter or early Spring than it is in January. You’re supposed to be doing this because it draws you closer to Christ. Otherwise, you might as well just go follow Oprah, with whatever weight-loss scheme or self-help author she is interested in promoting (and profiting from) this week.

Christians are to follow Christ, and no one else – and His path is one marked by both suffering and hope. “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” we say at Mass, during the Creed. But do we really? Because in order to experience that, we’re going to have to take up our cross, follow Him, and die, in order to experience new life with Him.

If you believe what you claim to believe, as a Christian, then make this Lent one in which you die to yourself, and rise to Him – perhaps in ways more profound than you can imagine, as you stand on the threshold of the season.

Joy to the World: Scott Hahn and the Substance of Christmas

[I’m honored to be part of the blog tour for Dr. Scott Hahn’s latest offering, “Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does)”, published by Image Books. Be sure to check out the other reviewers’ thoughts as well.]

In the first chapter of Joy to the World, well-known Catholic apologist and scholar Dr. Scott Hahn presents us with a scene of family life which many of us will find familiar. Tired and worn out as a result of being dragged from church to church, Hahn’s daughter has had just about enough for her 12-year-old sense of patience. Yet when she is given the chance to be of service to someone else, in a way which she did not expect, and which involves a precious baby, everything changes. Of course, in the book, this is taking place not in some American suburb, but in Bethlehem; just as the light clicks on for those of us who are familiar with the Nativity story, so too does the light click on for Dr. Hahn as he and his daughter pause in their Holy Land pilgrimage.

With that very effective hook, Dr. Hahn takes the reader on a journey through thousands of years of salvation history. In “Joy to the World” we meet many characters, whether they are ancient Hebrew Patriarch, Judean client-king, or mysterious Persian magus. Here, Hahn successfully manages to balance between penning a popular reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus, and a scholarly work with concepts and references which reveal connections hitherto unknown to those outside of serious Biblical studies.

Take for example a section in the book in which Dr. Hahn points out three possible interpretations as to why St. Joseph, as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel, decided to quietly divorce the Virgin Mary. There is the theory which I suspect many of us probably adhere to, which is that being a just man, he didn’t want to see his young bethrothed stoned to death, and so acted out of pity. Another is that he was so perplexed by the situation given what he knew of Mary, that he didn’t want to be a part of it. And then there is the theory that when St. Joseph realized Whose Child the Virgin Mary would be bearing, he did not consider himself worthy to take on the role of caring for the Messiah.  The reader can decide for himself which theory he believes, but explorations like this fill “Joy to the World” and make it an extremely interesting survey of some of the fascinating areas which scholars delve into in trying to understand the Nativity.

Dr. Hahn similarly takes an entire chapter to lay out the political situation in Judea at the time of the birth of Christ. As one might expect, he explains how King Herod the Great came to the throne, and the horrors that the monarch got up to in order to preserve his place. Yet Hahn also weaves in the threads of prophecy regarding Herod’s lineage, as well as other, false Messiahs that popped up before and after Jesus, and the sense even in Rome at the time that something was about to happen to the ancient world, changing it forever.

By no means is this relatively short book an attempt to completely catalogue all of Biblical scholarship concerning the Birth of Jesus.  Rather, it is a companion for meditation, and a resource for further study, thanks to the selection of endnote materials which give the reader the opportunity to further explore some of the ideas covered by Dr. Hahn in the book.  As such, I can see it making a wonderful gift for someone who is interested in getting deeper into the study of their faith, or even for someone who isn’t quite sure what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the nature and origin of Jesus.

And indeed the idea of “family” is something which Dr. Hahn returns to again and again, not only exploring the dynamics of the relationships between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also using this model as a way to, by extension, explore the nature of our relationship with God.  As His adopted sons and daughters, we are part of His family as well, if we choose to accept his invitation.

For me the takeaway from this book is something more than simply interesting factoids about the Birth of Jesus, and more in the realm of  “substance”. The familiar persons from the Nativity can often seem to be little more than bits of chalkware plaster that we take out of a box from the cupboard and unwrap from their newspaper shrouds, where they lay hidden for most of the year. They present various poses to us, but at times they can seem to be little more than figures in a pantomime, if we do not consider the risks they took, and the changes they underwent, often in defiance of the conventions of their times, to bear witness to the Gospel.

What Dr. Hahn gives us are not pretty, glossy cardboard cutouts, but real individuals, insofar as we can know what we do about them. The shepherds smell; they are not welcome in their community, thanks to the dirty jobs they have to do. The magi are not simply fortune tellers or astrologers, they are actually feared by the Roman Empire because of the huge societal influence they hold over the people of the Near East. Even the angels are not just ethereal figures with tresses of Breck-girl hair, they are powerful beings who help shape the course of human history as they do God’s Will.

There are many books available for spiritual reading on the subject of the Birth of Christ. Adding this one to your list this Advent and Christmas will bring a renewed sense of the truly astonishing premise of the Incarnation: that God would humble himself to be born as a human being, into an existing human family, at a particular time and place in history. No wonder, then, that ever since that birth, we have reckoned our days from it.