Check out my latest for The Federalist, in which I discuss 3 beautiful Old Master paintings depicting scenes from the Bible about the birth of Jesus, and the importance of the actual text contained within these works of art. You may be surprised at not only the presence, but of the significance of these painted words. My thanks to The Federalist for letting me share my thoughts with their readers and with all of you, yet again.
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.
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.