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.

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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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Holy Land, Holy Headache

This past Saturday I had the chance to attend the first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery here in D.C.  In the hour and a half I was there, before I had to retreat into the coolness of the somewhat distant Basilica, I saw hundreds of people gathering to speak with the vendors and representatives of various organizations working in the Holy Land.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, it was great to note such a good turnout for a first event.

Ironically, while standing in line for food I overheard two old ladies behind me, complaining about the somewhat disorganized nature of the food area. “I don’t know why this is so haphazard,” said one to the other. “You’d think that after so many years, they would get this food line right by now.”  Unless she was a time traveler of course, this complaint seemed rather bizarre under the circumstances.  Perhaps the stifling summer heat had made these ladies testy, but the petulance seemed so out-of-place with the peaceful and pleasant gathering of many different types of people together, to learn and share their experiences and prayers for peace in the Holy Land with one another.

Of course the truth is that, given the peace and good will which one experienced at the Festival, it’s hard to reconcile that with what we read in the news of late.  Israel and Palestine’s ongoing attempts to try to obliterate each other through the application of their respective interpretations of lex talionis are, frankly, tiresome and headache-inducing.  And as a result, conflict fatigue may well lead those of us who are not directly involved, into the temptation of simply allowing the two sides to just tear each other to bits and be done with it.

Except that to do so would be a failure on two fronts.

First, for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we have to look at all of those involved in the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land as our brothers and sisters, because that’s what Christians do.  Christians don’t get to play favorites with non-Christians when it comes to loving your brother, saying that you prefer Jews, or Muslims, or Zoroastrians, or secularists.  So yes, that means you have to love ALL of them, folks on the left and folks on the right, not just the ones whom you happen to agree with, or have fewer problems with, politically or theologically speaking.

Second, we have to remember that for whatever reason He chose it, God particularly loves this part of the universe He created.  God chose to become incarnate here, of all the places He could have picked from on the planet.  He grew up in a dusty little village, in a place which was considered so obscure a backwater as to be mocked even by one of Jesus’ later disciples (“But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ” St. John 1:46)

He did not select somewhere more geographically grandiose, such as the epic vastness of the Russian steppe, or the verdant luxuriance of the Amazon rainforest.  He did not appear among a people who had been contentedly insular and stable for millennia, like the pre-Revolutionary Chinese, nor among a people known for habits of analytical detachment and personal reserve, like the Scandinavians.  No, he picked this place, and this great mixing bowl of hot-headed peoples and clashing cultures, which for thousands of years have been unable to get along with one another.

Tomorrow, July 16th, is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, patroness of the Carmelite Order.  Mount Carmel is of course in the Holy Land, and well-known as a sacred spot for communicating between Heaven and Earth long before the monks arrived, as evidenced by the Prophet Elijah’s frequent retreat there from the dangers of Jezebel and the priests of Baal.  The date itself has personal significance for me, individually speaking, but historically, July 16, 1944 was a date of great importance.  It’s the date of the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.  Ultimately that discovery led to the end of World War II, but at a horrific cost, one which still haunts our planet as we worry about dirty bombs, rogue missiles, and mutually assured destruction.  It’s a concern that grows ever greater in this part of the world, among the known and emerging nuclear powers.

We have an opportunity here, on the eve of this Feast in honor of Christ’s Mother.  Christians should be reflecting on what each of us is doing individually, to pray for peace in the Holy Land, as well as in trying to defuse tensions among the groups involved in the fighting, which have only lead to a never-ending cycle of hatred.  Clearly finger-pointing, recriminations, and reprisals get the parties involved nowhere.  Perhaps it’s time for all of us to drop to our knees, instead of dropping bombs or, in the case of those of us outside the conflict zone, sweeping generalizations and condemnations, and turn this persistent headache over to God.

"View of Haifa and Mount Carmel" by I.C. Stadler (1801)

“View of Haifa and Mount Carmel” by I.C. Stadler (1801)