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.