Christ Pantocrator means “all-powerful or Almighty Christ.” The Pantocrator image, which typically depicts Christ seated in enthroned glory, was (and is) especially popular in the Byzantine icon tradition. The Florentine artist Giusto de’ Menabuoi painted this Pantocrator in the Baptistery of the Duomo in Padua around 1375. Christ is depicted seated in power and judgment. Inscribed on the book in his left hand are the words Ego sum alpha et omega—“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev. 1:8). In the book of Revelation it is God who speaks these words; here Christ has been elevated to an equal status with God.
The English poet William Blake is almost as well known for his engravings and watercolors as he is for his poetry. In 1795 he produced this watercolor depicting the scene in the book of Ruth when Naomi has just informed her Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, that she is returning to her native land of Judah. She encourages each of them to return to their “mother’s home.” In response, Ruth and Orpah “wept aloud and said to her, ‘We will go back with you to your people.’” Blake has captured the pathos of the moment. Ruth clings to Naomi while Orpah turns in tears toward her Moabite home. Ruth explains her decision “Where you go, I will go . . .” Ruth’s words are often used in wedding ceremonies to express vows between spouses. In their biblical context, they express a loyalty that goes beyond family ties or national allegiance. “Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”
The dead Christ sits between St. Jerome on his left and Job on his right. Christ appears to be sleeping—a reference to the resurrection. The skull and human bones near Job associate him with death and disease. Vittore Carpaccio, a Renaissance artist from Venice, pairs Job with Jerome, the great biblical scholar of the patristic period, who wrote that Job “prophesies the resurrection of men’s bodies at once with clearness and with more caution than anyone has yet shown.” “I know,” Job says, “that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth . . . and I shall see God” (Job 19:25). The Hebrew inscription “My redeemer lives 19” is legible on the marble slab on which Job sits. The inscription faces toward Jerome, who has influenced the Christian interpretation of Job as a paradigm of patience, a believer whose suffering compares with Christ’s, and a prophet who foretold Christ’s resurrection.
A non-Israelite woman (in Mark, a Syrophoenician; in Matthew, a Canaanite) approaches Jesus, begging him to heal her daughter. Jesus replies that it is improper to give the “bread of the children” (Israelites) to the “dogs” (gentiles). The woman responds that even the “small pups under the table” (Amplified Bible) eat the crumbs that fall from the table. After this brief repartee, Jesus tells the woman to go home because the demon has left her daughter. In Matthew, Jesus informs the woman that the healing was a result of her faith (Matt. 15:28), but the Markan Jesus simply says, “Because of this answer [logos, literally “word”], go; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (Mark 7:29, NASV). It is not just her cleverness that Jesus admires; it is the word (cf. Mark 7:13) that she proclaims, the word that the mercies of God should be made available to the gentiles now and not at some point in the distant future. The scene is illustrated in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a devotional book of hours made by the Limbourg brothers in the early 15th century. The upper panel depicts the woman pleading with Jesus, who has turned away from her; the woman’s possessed daughter is visible through a window on the right. In the lower scene, the woman is still pleading on behalf of her daughter (now out of view), but now Jesus offers a gesture of consent and healing—the reward for a desperate mother’s persistence.
One reading of the story of David and Bathsheba depicts their encounter as a tryst between consenting adults or perhaps even as the result of Bathsheba’s plan to seduce David. Much of the history of art supports this reading. A nude or partially nude Bathsheba proves too much of a temptation for King David, who watches her from his palace. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has called this interpretation into question. Bathsheba is not a willing participant in an affair, much less a seductive femme fatale; rather, she is as an unwilling victim of unwelcome sexual advances and assault. Details of the text support this reading. Although it is spring and time for kings to go to war, David has chosen to remain behind (1 Sam. 11:1), a fact unknown to Bathsheba. David is in control. He is the subject of most of the verbs: David inquires about Bathsheba, he sends for her and “lays with her.” Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reflects the traditional reading, while also subtly challenging it. David (often shown watching from a tower or roof in earlier art) is absent from the scene, but Bathsheba is still objectified: David’s gaze has been replaced by the voyeuristic viewer. But Bathsheba holds a letter from the king (a detail missing from the biblical account), presumably demanding her presence at his palace. As a servant dries her feet, Bathsheba muses over the king’s “request.” He is, after all, the king, and what choice does Bathsheba have?
Caravaggio (1571–1610) depicted the beheading of St. John the Baptist for the oratory chapel dedicated to the same subject in the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta on the island of Malta. Malta was the military outpost of the Roman Catholic faith that was entrusted to the Knights of St. John. After being exiled from Rome, Caravaggio fled to Malta in June 1607 in the hopes of receiving a papal pardon and of becoming a knight himself. The Knights commissioned Caravaggio’s largest painting (over 16 feet wide)—and the only work that bears his signature—to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. John lies on the floor like an animal about to be slaughtered. The woolly hooves of his hair shirt are visible under the red cloth. The executioner has already killed John with his sword (located on the ground to the left of the body) and now prepares to slice off his head with a small knife. The jailer and an old woman witness the event. A servant girl, not to be mistaken for Salome, is identifiable by her apron and dress and holds a basket in which to bring the head back to Herod. Two prisoners have front-row seats at the gruesome event.
May 18, 2015
Art selection and commentary by Heidi J. Hornik, who teaches in the art departmentat Baylor University, and Mikeal C. Parsons, who teaches in the school’s religion department.
Holy Trinity was executed around 1426–27 and is located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fresco was commissioned as a funerary monument by the Lenzi family, and two members of the family are depicted kneeling in prayer on either side of the cross, below Mary and the Beloved Disciple. The upper part of the fresco depicts God the Father supporting the arms of the crucified Son. Between the Father’s beard and Jesus’ head is the white, dovelike form of the Holy Spirit, uniting Father and Son. Masaccio is following a well-known artistic convention of associating the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) with a crucifixion scene as a way of reflecting the profound mystery of the Trinity. While many detractors of Christianity have pointed to the crucifixion as evidence of the absurdity of the Trinity, Masaccio claims it is in this very same moment that the essential unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is most clearly revealed. Here there is no depiction of God turning his back on his Son. Rather, here is a loving Father, who in the mystery of the Trinity is at one with the Son and the Spirit and suffers on the believer’s behalf.
The image of the ascension in the illustrated Rabbula Syriac Gospels is one of the earliest depictions of the scene on parchment (586 CE) and sets the iconography for centuries to come. The figure of Christ is positioned in a mandorla (almond-shaped frame) with his right hand in a blessing gesture and his left holding a scroll. Flanked by angels, he is bearded and wears a golden nimbus. There is a clear distinction between this heavenly realm and those figures who remain on earth. Center stage in the earthly realm belongs to Mary, who stands directly beneath the mandorla of Christ. Her hands are open in exaltation and direct the viewer to the angels standing beside her. While Mary is not explicitly mentioned by Luke as being present at the ascension, she is introduced immediately thereafter (Acts 1:14). Her growing importance in the theological tradition had been signaled by her designation as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, and she becomes more prominent in both literary and visual presentations.
Caravaggio’s painting depicts the story of the apostle’s incredulity the way most of us remember it, but not exactly the way it is presented in John 20:27–28. In the narrative Jesus invites Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” But the narrator does not state that Thomas actually did what Christ invited him to do; rather, Thomas responds with a confession: “My Lord and my God!” Caravaggio, however, graphically displays Thomas’s forefinger entering the gash in Christ’s side. Christ guides Thomas’s fingers into the wound with his left hand, while his right hand pulls back the drapery that covers his chest. Christ’s calm expression contrasts with the intense and surprised reactions of Thomas and the other two disciples (the figure on the left is most likely Peter). The dramatic tenebrist light further accentuates the moment in which Thomas encounters the bodily wounds of the risen Christ. Caravaggio’s figures, painted in earth tones, are not glorified but are representative of the common man. This scene is a favorite of all those who “have not seen but yet believe.”
This painting of Christ driving the money lenders from the temple, by the Late Renaissance painter Ippolito Scarsellino, depicts a story told in all four Gospels. In John’s Gospel, the event occurs near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (John 2:13–22). Jesus is immediately identifiable slightly to the left of center in the painting, with arms raised and wearing a pink gown and green mantle. He has removed his belt and made it into a flail. The scene takes place on the porch of the temple in Jerusalem with the Solomonic twisted column clearly visible as one of the money changers grasps it while he stoops to collect the basket of coins he has spilt onto the ground. Sheep, birds, cattle, and horses are all present in the painting, echoing details of John’s version of the incident and indicating that the temple has become a marketplace where sacrificial animals are sold and money is exchanged. One of the birds has escaped, and a young boy, oblivious to Jesus’ actions, tries to trap the bird on a stick. Two women rush off while attempting to regain the attention of a child who is enthralled by what Jesus is doing. During the Catholic Reformation (the time of this painting) this scene, also known as the Purification of the Temple, was used to illustrate the church’s need for reform.
Dura Europas was an ancient and obscure military outpost and trading center near the Euphrates River on the edge of the eastern Roman Empire. Its rediscovery in 1932 revealed several important archaeological finds, including a Christian house church and a Jewish synagogue. The synagogue was remarkable for the frescoes that covered its walls. One of the central figures depicted in the synagogue is Abraham, shown receiving God’s promise that Abraham will be the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:4). Abraham’s crossed and covered hands portray his acceptance of this promise (on the gesture, see Shabbath 10a in the Babylonian Talmud). Abraham’s white hair reflects the ancient Jewish tradition that “there never was a man upon whom grey hairs were sprinkled until Abraham came” (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer LII). The vaulted heaven indicates that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Early Christians, especially Paul, saw the Abrahamic promise as scriptural warrant for the inclusion of the gentiles in the people of God (Rom. 4:13–25).
Scenes from the story of Jonah were among the most popular in early Christian art. The Old Testament story of the reluctant prophet who, after a detour in the belly of a whale, travels to Nineveh to proclaim God’s message was compelling in its own right. This fourth-century Christian sarcophagus depicts the moment in which Jonah is tossed overboard in an effort to quell a raging storm that threatens the lives of all those aboard. The story took on additional meaning for early Christians, who interpreted Jonah’s emergence from the whale after three days as referring typologically to Jesus’ death and resurrection. This interpretation is found very early in Christian tradition (see Matthew 12:38–42) and grew in popularity over the next several centuries.
The adoration of the Magi was an important subject for Florentines, as many men were part of the civic organization dedicated to the Magi. Palla Strozzi, a powerful banker, commissioned Gentile da Fabriano (1385–1427) to paint this work for his family burial chapel in the sacristy of Santa Trinita in Florence. Da Fabriano’s paintings combine the naturalism of the Early Renaissance with the elegant, refined drapery style and meticulous attention to detail that characterize the International Gothic style. In this composition, the oldest Magus prostrates himself before the Christ child, who affectionately touches his balding head; the second Magus lifts his right hand to remove his crown; the youngest Magus stands waiting his turn. The predella (the horizontal panel beneath the central composition) shows three scenes from the infancy narrative of Christ: Nativity (bottom left) is believed to be the first painted night scene.
While in residence at San Marco’s, a Dominican monastery in Florence, Fra Angelico and his assistants were commissioned to decorate the meeting rooms and cells of the lay brothers, novices, and clergy. Many of the more than 40 frescoes depicted scenes of the crucifixion. One room that is slightly larger than the monks’ cells and in close proximity to the magnificent library (commissioned and funded by Cosimo de’ Medici) contains this fresco of the Sermon on the Mount. The room presumably functioned as a classroom. In Matthew 5, Jesus is presented as the “new Moses” whose teaching was intended not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.
This painting was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV for his private chapel. According to Roman Catholic tradition, Matthew 16:18–19 is the scriptural basis for apostolic succession and establishes Peter—here being handed the papal keys by Christ—as the first pope. The decoration of the Sistine Chapel, most famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling (1508–12), began in the 1480s with the walls of the chapel. The plan, established by the pope in conjunction with his advisers, was to depict significant scenes from the life of Christ on the north wall and the life of Moses on the south wall. Many of the most popular Renaissance painters throughout Italy were brought to Rome to paint in the new style, using linear perspective, harmonious color, balanced compositions, and lifelike figures.
This manuscript illumination depicting Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes (Matt. 14:13–21 and parallels) is from one of the most famous books of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg brothers. A book of hours is a set of prayers and meditations correlated with the canonical hours. This one consists of 206 pages (approximately 9 x 6 inches) with 66 large miniatures and 65 smaller illustrations. The Limbourg brothers were trained in the northern part of Europe but probably visited Italy and were influenced by the artists of Lombardy and Tuscany. The French court (King Philip the Bold’s brother was the Duke of Berry) enjoyed these custom-made, lavishly illustrated, portable prayer books.
In 1401, under the patronage of the Arte di Calimala, a competition to decorate the east doors of the baptistery in Florence was announced. Of the seven Tuscan sculptors who entered the competition, the young Lorenzo Ghiberti, barely 20 years of age, emerged the victor. The subject of the doors was the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), and the theme was that of divine intervention. In this climactic scene, Abraham is poised to strike a fatal blow with his knife. Isaac is depicted as what some have called “the first truly Renaissance nude”—perfectly proportioned, energetic yet graceful. An angel’s gesture stops the sacrifice, and the viewer notices a ram caught in the thickets in the upper left-hand register. This text has long challenged communities of faith. Some Jewish interpretations, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, posited that Isaac was 37 years old, and the near sacrifice was an act of faith of not one but two consenting adults, both Isaac and Abraham. Christian interpreters from the patristic period (if not earlier; cf. Hebrews 11:17) had interpreted the story typologically. Melito of Sardis, for example, wrote: “For as a ram he [Christ] was bound . . . And he carried the wood upon his shoulders. And he was led up to be slain like Isaac by his Father. But Christ suffered, whereas Isaac did not suffer” (cf. Frag. 9–11).
Giotto di Bondone painted a fresco cycle of the life of Christ at the Scrovegni Chapel (also called the Arena Chapel) in Padua, Italy, in 1304–06. Pentecost is the final scene of the cycle. The arrangement of the disciples around a table is similar to the painting of the Last Supper directly opposite on the south wall. Such balance is typical of Giotto. The artist placed the figures inside an architectural space, which creates the illusion that the event occurred within a small church. This is probably the first visual depiction of Pentecost in a prominent location. The Holy Spirit is represented through rays of light emanating from outside the room and above the painted ceiling. It is striking that this series on Christ’s life concludes not with the ascension but with Pentecost, the birth of the church. The image visually anticipates C. K. Barrett’s aphorism, “In Luke’s thought, the end of the story of Jesus is the church.”
An early Renaissance fresco by Fra Angelico (1395–1455) in the chapel of Pope Nicholas V at the Vatican commemorates St. Lawrence (m. 258) and St. Stephen. Scenes from the lives of the two martyrs extend across three walls of the chapel. The scenes were selected to show the saints’ parallel activities: being ordained, preaching, and helping the poor. They were both arrested, persecuted, and martyred. The arrest of Stephen can be seen on the left-hand side of the lunette, and the stoning is visible on the right. The wall of Jerusalem separates the scenes. The Sanhedrin brings Stephen to his doom before the men with the rocks who will stone him. As the stones are hurled at his back, Stephen kneels in prayers of petition, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59; cf. Luke 23:46), and forgiveness, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:60; cf. Luke 23:34).
The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, a popular theme in early Christian art, is depicted on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, a Roman prefect who became a Christian convert shortly before his death (ca. 359). The scene, used to depict Christ’s authority on earth, appears on the sarcophagus directly beneath an image of Christ enthroned with his feet on the head of Caelus, a primal god of the heavens in Roman myth—an image showing that Christ is also ruler of heaven. There are striking similarities between depictions of Christ’s triumphal entry and those showing the triumphal arrival or adventus of an emperor in a newly conquered province. But there are significant differences as well. In the adventus iconography, the emperor is typically depicted in full military apparel, riding a royal steed, and leading a military procession in a victory parade. Christ, on the other hand, sits astride a humble donkey, amid simple followers, with no royal or military entourage accompanying him. Christ is a different kind of king.