“Wonderful” Honthorst: A Newly Restored Nativity With A Very Special Beastie

Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.

In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”

Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.

In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.

The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:

When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

St. Luke 2:15-20

There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.

Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”

“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)


Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

St. Luke and the Smashed Statue

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, the Gospel writer and good friend of people like St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who among other things is honored as the patron saint of artists. It is also a good opportunity for us to reflect on the importance of art to Catholics, particularly in light of what happened over the weekend with the scandalous destruction of a statue of the Virgin Mary by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As has been reported elsewhere, though of course not in the so-called mainstream media, the group broke into a church in Rome, smashed the doors of the sacristy, and desecrated a crucifix. They then carried a statue of Our Lady out into the street, smashed it into the pavement, and then jumped on it to smash it even further.

Those who have visited my ongoing web project Catholic Barcelona where I am cataloguing the interesting churches, chapels, and other Catholic sites in Barcelona – a project currently on hold as I await my next trip to that city in December – know that such actions infuriate me both as a Catholic and as a lover of art. People of the same political persuasions as today’s current batch of “protesters” escalated their movements into a virulent form of anti-clericalism in Spain in the 1930’s, and did tremendous damage to the Christian fabric of Barcelona in particular. One need only see what was done to sites such as the formerly magnificent Jesuit church on the Ramblas to begin to imagine what artistic losses we have suffered as a result of such actions.

Interestingly enough, in the late 19th century a number of Catalan cultural figures were seeking to bring together like minds to try to integrate their artistic careers with the Christian faith and combat such secularism, and decided to seek the patronage of St. Luke. In 1893 they formed The Artistic Circle of St. Luke, and sponsored lectures, exhibitions, courses, and the creation of a study archive for their members and the benefit of the public. The group thrived during the same period that Barcelona was undergoing a phenomenal artistic and cultural renaissance, with the work of architects like Gaudí, painters like Miró, writers like the Folch i Torres brothers, and political cartoonists like my own great-grandfather – all of whom were members of the Circle. Because of their Catholic association, the Circle of St. Luke was forcibly closed for several years by the leftists beginning in 1936, as part of their efforts to stamp out the Christian faith in Barcelona.  Although they later reopened, they have gradually lost some of their focus, and have become today something less than what they once were, i.e. cultural figures who sought the patronage of the patron saint of artists and the integration of their Catholic faith with their artistic output.

Those of my readers who are not Catholics may not have a full understanding as to why the iconoclasm displayed by the individuals shown in the Occupy Rome vandalism is so appalling to those of us of the Catholic faith. From an artistic point of view, the particular statue that was destroyed in the attack was not of any great intrinsic significance. The image is a fairly standard, mass-produced one, probably made of molded and painted plaster, that one could purchase from a religious supply house. It is not as though the protesters broke into one of the great Roman churches and smashed a sculptural masterpiece by Michelangelo or Bernini.

Nor, must it be said, do Catholics need art in order to be able to worship God, which is a common misconception. The Church recognizes that, for many people, an image is a tool can help focus one’s prayer life. Yet the images themselves are neither worshiped nor necessary, as such images are in pagan or animist religions. After all, the same religion that built the lavishly decorated Jesuit churches in Rome – full of statues, pictures, and so on – also built the stark, minimalist churches of the Cistercians and Trappists, where there is little or no decoration at all.

The Catholic view of such artistic objects is that they are the equivalent of family portraits and photographs, which most of us display proudly in our homes to remind us of our departed loved ones, whom we hope to meet again in the next life. We do not worship the photo of grandpa on the bookshelf in the family room, nor the portrait of a great-great-aunt that hangs in the upstairs hallway. These things are simply reminders of our connections to these people, and they work as visual stimuli to cause us to remember them and to think about them, and probably more frequently than we otherwise would, if these images were not on display before us.

Similarly, while I was not fortunate enough to have met someone like St. Dominic, the great 12th century Spanish religious founder and preacher, I can have a statue or picture of him on my desk as a reminder.  The image of him, as imagined by an artist, helps me to recall his life, his preaching, and the work he did for Christ. And with that reminder, hopefully I will also be reminded that I should try to follow his example of obedience to God’s Will, and to speak out on behalf of the Faith when given the opportunity to do so.  Should the statue be broken or the picture destroyed I will regret its loss, of course, but it is not by any means necessary that I should have one.

Whether through acts of blasphemy, scandal, or the like, the destruction of an artistic image of Jesus, or one of the saints like the Virgin Mary, cannot destroy God or His Church. Catholics do not need images to worship God, or honor the men and women who have served Him, any more than, in a secular context, we Americans need things like gravestones, memorial plaques, the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Rushmore. In the end, the destruction of this particular image by leftists in Rome only hurts those who actually destroyed it, for unless they repent of their malice they will someday have to answer for what they have done.

For those of us who are Catholics, perhaps we should ask St. Luke, as the patron of artists, to encourage this parish community in Rome to come together after this act of destruction, and see whether someone can get them a replacement statue for the parish church, so that the parishioners will once again be able to reflect on the life of the Blessed Virgin – someone whose life story so captivated the interest of St. Luke himself – and pray for the conversion of those who sought to harm God by such shocking, but ultimately futile efforts.

Detail of “St. Luke” by El Greco (c. 1605)
Cathedral of Santa Maria de Toledo, Spain