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.

Rex

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.

Antolinez

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.

Teniers

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.

Flight Of Fancy: A Rare And Sacred Art Object

Diverging a bit from Tuesday’s post about a sculpture of a giant stick of butter, today I wanted to share with you a favorite type of art object which also looks like something other than what it is, but whose meaning is far more important. While the sculpture of butter requires interpretation and serves no practical purpose however, in the case of a Eucharistic Dove, we come across something which has both immediate and deeper meanings to it. For not only is the Eucharistic Dove a beautiful and practical form of storage container, it also helps to re-emphasize Christian teaching for the viewer.

A Eucharistic Dove, or more properly, a “peristerium”, is a box which takes the shape of a dove, and is designed to hold the Blessed Sacrament. Derived from the Ancient Greek word “peristera”, i.e. a female dove or pigeon, the object in question was sometimes also called a “columba”, that word being the equivalent of “peristera” in Latin. In English, the term “Eucharistic Dove” seems to have stuck with most art historians, and so shall we in the course of this post.

The dove has long been a familiar Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit, one of the three persons who make up the Christian Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (aka Jesus for the uninitiated), and God the Holy Spirit. You’ll recall from the Gospels how, at the Baptism of Christ, the Holy Spirit appeared descending from Heaven in the form of a dove, see St. Luke 3:21-22. Throughout the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the appearance of a dove always heralds God’s favor, making it an even more worthy shape for holding the Eucharist.

As mentioned earlier, the Eucharistic Dove box was designed to hold the already-consecrated communion bread known in English as a “host”. The box usually hung above or very close to the high altar of a church, typically from a canopy placed over the altar. Sometimes the object functioned as a case for a pyx, a type of small, pocket-sized box containing the Eucharist, which could be easily removed to bring communion to the sick and dying. Usually the Eucharistic Dove was made of precious metals such as silver, gold, or bronze, but there are examples in other materials, including carved wood and ivory. In many cases, these bird-shaped boxes were covered with enamel or precious stones to give greater glory to the even more precious object which they contained within them.

The earliest written mention of a Eucharistic Dove dates from a will of 471 AD, in which St. Perpetus, Bishop of the French city of Tours, bequeathed a silver one to a friend. Given how frequently they are referenced in surviving church documents from around that time however, it is believed that their use goes back much earlier. St. Basil the Great, for example, is said to have commissioned several of them in the 4th century AD, when he was a bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey. In Western Europe they seem to have been more popular in England, France, and Spain, while in places like Asia Minor, Greece, and the Holy Land, they were almost ubiquitous.

In the West, many of the best surviving examples of Eucharistic Doves were made in the French city of Limoges. Today, Limoges is perhaps best known as a center for fine porcelain manufacturing, but up until their destruction during the French Revolution, its workshops were famous for creating the finest ecclesiastical and luxury enamel work in Europe. Examples of Eucharistic Doves from Limoges are in many collections around the world, including here in America at The Met in New York, the MFA in Boston, and the Walters in Baltimore. Here I show you an example which is in the collection of the MNAC in Barcelona; you can see not only the beautiful detail work of the wings and feathers, but also the hidden compartment on the back of the dove where the pyx containing the Eucharist would have been placed:

Dove1

Dove2

As beautiful and interesting as these ancient objects are, if you’re not Catholic – or possibly even if you are – you’re going to have a hard time finding one of these bird-shaped boxes in your local church. That’s because they gradually fell out of favor in the Western Church during the later Middle Ages, and a greater emphasis was placed upon keeping the Blessed Sacrament secure in what we more commonly see in Western churches today, a heavy and locked tabernacle. As you might imagine, a relatively small box, hanging from a string or a chain, could be more easily stolen or, as happened at Lincoln Cathedral in 1140 during a Mass attended by King Stephen of England, the string carrying the box could break, causing the receptacle to fall and be damaged. And particularly after the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the Church wanted to keep the Eucharist safe from those who would seek to profane it.

While we hardly see Eucharistic Doves in the West these days outside of museums, and the likelihood of a revival in their use in the Latin Church is non-existent, they are without question one of the most beautiful and unique objects to have developed in the history of Christian art.

The Assumption: One Miraculous Event, Two Different Artistic Visions

Today as many Christians commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a hugely popular theme in art history, I wanted to share two interesting images of this subject with you. Even if you don’t believe in this dogma, or aren’t even a Christian, I think you’ll be able to appreciate both the beauty and the very different approaches that these artists take in looking at the same subject, albeit two centuries apart. The paintings not only demonstrate the development of Western art, but they also show how individual artists can take a common theme and re-interpret it in very different ways, and in so doing can speak to our own individual thoughts, preferences, and emotions.

The Assumption commemorates the belief, maintained in the Catholic, Orthodox, and certain Protestant churches, that at or shortly after her death, Mary the Mother of Jesus was received into Heaven, body and soul. It’s a belief of far older origin than most people realize, and commemorations of it are documented in 500 A.D. We’re going to focus on the art, not the theology, but you can do some more reading about the latter by following this link. [N.B. This is not the place for those of you who don’t believe in this dogma to get into it with those who do, so let’s just look at the art this morning, shall we?]

Beginning in the Middle Ages and up through the Renaissance, the most popular model followed by Western artists combined the death of the Virgin Mary and her Assumption into one scene, whose content was informed partially by pious legends and apocryphal stories which brought all of the Apostles back together in Jerusalem for her funeral. This was the model followed by many artists, including Raphael, El Greco, and perhaps most famously, Titian in his altarpiece for the Franciscans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. Over time, and perhaps in part due to the influence of the Counter-Reformation, this artistic model gradually fell out of favor, and artists began to depict the Assumption as an event which was primarily witnessed by angels, or by those already in Heaven, rather than by people left on earth.

Among the most richly-decorated depictions of the earlier model is that painted by the Early Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico around 1430-1434 for the Dominicans at the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It’s now in the Gardner in Boston, and if you get to visit you’ll want to take some time to soak in the magnificent colors of this Late Gothic/Early Renaissance painting:

Angelico

If you’ll remember my post from last week about the origin and value of pigments in art, you’ll realize that this smallish panel – which is only about a foot and a half wide and two feet tall – must have cost a fortune to produce. Just the upper triangle with the figure of Jesus reaching down to receive His Mother alone would have been incredibly expensive to paint, given all of the blue which Fra Angelico used in this section. Yet despite all of the bling in this picture, there’s something wonderfully touching about details such as this tender and eager reunion of a Son with His Mother.

Notice also the individualized angels in Heaven playing their instruments, and the Apostles getting ready to carry the body of Mary to her tomb. I love the detail of how white-haired St. Peter is rushing over to the head of the bier, so that he can grasp one of the poles for carrying the body. In doing so he is catching up to St. John who, as in the Gospel account of the Resurrection, got there first but is waiting in deference to the Prince of the Apostles. I also love the figure of the Apostle whom I assume to be St. Jude, who is shown dressed in red and black and carrying a club, the instrument of torture with which he was martyred. His crazy-curly, unruly hair is something I can greatly sympathize with.

A completely different interpretation of the Assumption, painted two centuries later by the great French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin in about 1630-1632, exemplifies the later model adopted by artists in depicting this event. It’s currently in the collection of the National Gallery here in Washington, and although not prominently hung it is worth seeing out, for it’s a jewel of a picture. At first glance this is a deceptively simple image, since the only concrete elements of the composition are the Virgin Mary, the chubby little angels, and the classical architectural setting – no host of earthly witnesses here:

Poussin

For me what’s particularly engrossing about this painting, apart from its glorious state of preservation and fresh colors, despite being almost 400 years old, is how it draws us in and convinces us that what we’re seeing is taking place in a three-dimensional space. The clouds wrap around the figures and draw them and our eye upward toward Heaven, a place that Mary is seeing for the very first time, with an expression of awe and wonder on her face. I also love it because despite the sense of swirling, upward movement portrayed by Poussin, this is really a quiet picture. We are privileged to see Mary returning to Her Son, but we are merely bystanders, not participants: this is a reunion that does not require an audience.

These two examples of very different interpretations of the same event show us how creativity in Western art was encouraged, rather than stifled, by the imposition of conventions, rules, and ideas. Illustrating something which was believed, but undocumented, was something of a challenge for these artists, since they had no contemporary descriptions of what the Assumption was like. And yet here we have two excellent examples of how each managed to approach the same subject in their own unique, very personal ways, creating works of art that played within the rules and yet brought out different aspects of this miraculous event for us to ponder upon, these many centuries later.