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.
The importance of the annunciation to medieval and Renaissance Florentines is best reflected in the fact that until 1750 the beginning of the new year corresponded directly to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. Leonardo’s Annunciation, probably commissioned for the monastery of Monte Oliveto outside Florence, depicts the initial moment of encounter between Gabriel and Mary, when Gabriel announces to Mary: “The Lord is with you!” (in the Vulgate: Dominus tecum). Mary is seated behind a lectern, which is best understood as an altar, underscoring her priestly role. On the lectern rests a book whose fluttering pages (presumably stirred by the rush of Gabriel’s arrival) are stilled by Mary’s fingers. The 13th-century Meditations on the Life of Christ (written by a Franciscan monk in Tuscany) suggests that at the moment Gabriel appeared, Mary may have been reading Isaiah 7:14, a passage traditionally understood as a prophecy of the virginal birth. The lily that Gabriel holds is a symbol of Mary’s purity.
The transfigured Christ is miraculously lifted above Mount Tabor between Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). James, Peter and John (from left to right) react to the blinding light and powerful drama occurring above them. Raphael is often called the great assimilator of the High Renaissance style, and the work exhibits the expected characteristics of balance, proportion and symmetry. The transfiguration appears in the upper half of the large altar painting (13'4" × 9'2") while the story of the possessed boy (which follows the story of the transfiguration in Matthew 17) inhabits the earthly realm. This is the last piece of art that Raphael worked on before his death on Good Friday, April 6, 1520, at age 37. It was brought from his studio in Rome and placed above his bier during the funeral in the Pantheon. The painting was originally commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici for the Cathedral of Narbonne, France. He established a competition between Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian artist, and Raphael may have included the rendering of the possessed boy to outdo Sebastiano.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti created a profound visual interpretation of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. The viewer’s eyes (along with the eyes of most of the figures) are drawn to the character of Simeon, an older, bearded man, holding the Christ child in his arms. Mary holds the child’s white blanket, but her attention is directed to the child. Two women behind her look at Simeon, the only figure whose clothing depicts movement. Joseph seems to have just stopped a gesture with his hand. Likewise, the High Priest’s sacrificial act is arrested. Just as Luke combined two separate rituals, the purification and the presentation, into a single event (2:22–40), so Ambrogio telescoped two separate elements in the narrative, Simeon’s song (Nunc Dimittis) and Anna’s prophecy, into a single epiphany. While Anna is holding her prophetic scroll (which begins with the words et haec ipsa hora, “at that moment”), Simeon opens his mouth to speak. For Ambrogio, his patrons and his audience, this event was not simply a historical moment preserved in time. The viewer is invited to proclaim with Simeon: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation!”
The adoration of the shepherds was a very popular theme north of the Alps in the 15th century. Domenico Ghirlandaio learned about the subject in 1483 when Thomas Portinari, a Medici representative working in Flanders, brought a work by Hugo van der Goes to Florence. The Florentines favored the Epiphany scene of the Adoration of the Magi because in medieval Florence Epiphany was celebrated on the same day (January 6) as the baptism of Christ, and John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence. The birth of the Messiah, according to Luke, has the power to lift up the lowly, the despised and the violent (1:52). The occupation of shepherds may have conjured up an image of a despised and potentially violent group (see Josephus, The Jewish War). However, by their actions these rustic shepherds align themselves with a more positive portrait of the good shepherd—an image already evoked by the mention of the city of David, for David, of course, was himself a shepherd before becoming king. The Christ Child lies before a prominently placed Roman sarcophagus that foreshadows his death and that bears an inscription foretelling his birth.
Isaiah’s beautiful vision of peace in Isaiah 2 is the Old Testament lesson for the first Sunday of Advent. Evgeniy Vuchetich powerfully and evocatively captures Isaiah’s vision in this bronze statue. It stands in the garden of the United Nations, a gift from the Soviet Union in 1959. In the midst of the cold war, the gift was regarded by some as a propagandistic ploy by the Soviets.
Paul Gauguin strove to depict the simple, direct faith of a group of women from Pont-Aven, a rural community in Brittany, France. His style, based on pre-Renaissance sources, is devoid of linear perspective and conventional organization. In the foreground, the Breton women, dressed in their Sunday garb and kneeling in prayer, are envisioning the sermon that they just heard. They transform a common cow into a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God (Gen. 32:22–31). A tree limb placed diagonally across the expressive red background separates the cow from the struggling figures and serves as a visual representation of the river Jabbok. The Pont-Aven women learn from the sermon that the life of faith can be a struggle. Jacob wrestles at Jabbok and gets both a limp and a blessing.
Rembrandt captures the pathos of the initial encounter between an aged, loving father and his wayward son. The painter’s attention to detail creates the mood and emotional tone of the composition. The prodigal’s head is shorn; his clothes are nothing more than rags; and his left shoe has disintegrated, leaving his exposed foot as a metonym for the tender and vulnerable state in which he has returned. In the shadows, servants observe the scene, and in the foreground, the elder brother watches with arms folded in disapproval over the unconditional grace shown to a wastrel. Rembrandt has telescoped the father’s separate encounters with his two sons into one event. Like Jesus’ parable, the painting is open-ended: Will the older brother walk away from this intimate scene of reconciliation or will he join in this celebration? What would we do?
A woman searches for a lost coin in a dark room. The frantic nature of her search is displayed by the overturned furniture and the clothing strewn across the floor. This painting was the first in a cycle of paintings on parables by the Italian Baroque artist Domenico Fetti. In Luke, the parable of the lost coin is sandwiched between two traditional images of God’s redemptive activity—the “good shepherd” and “the loving father.” Cyril of Alexandria suggests a christological interpretation for the image: “That we then who had fallen, and, so to speak, been lost, have been found by Christ . . . by the Wisdom of God the Father, which is the Son” (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Homily 106). By the time Fetti paints the parable, this christological interpretation had given way to an ecclesial one in which the woman represents not Christ but the church: “Who are these three, the father, the shepherd, the woman? Who if not God the Father, Christ, and the Church? . . . The Church searches out like a mother” (Ambrose’s Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 7.207–8).
Mary and Martha are often portrayed as being in conflict with one another during Christ’s visit to their home. Martha is traditionally depicted hurrying around preparing food and drink to make Christ comfortable while Mary sits at the feet of Christ learning. But in this painting by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori, dated 1603, both women are attentive to Christ and are in harmony. Allori, a second-generation Mannerist who was known for his brilliant color palette, elegant profiles and elaborately stylized garments, identifies the roles of the women. Martha has a tray with glasses, ready to quench the thirst of Christ. She represents, in the history of interpretation, the vita activa. Mary, representing the vita contemplativa, is kneeling and leans toward Christ as she steadies herself on a book (presumably the Bible), emblematic of her studious devotion. St. Ambrose observed: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke). Still, Christ gestures toward Mary, a reminder that Mary’s is “the better part,” because actions—even acts of Christian charity and hospitality—if they are to be sustained, follow being. What we do flows naturally from who we are.
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