Oxford painter, sculptor, and glass designer Nicholas Mynheer works almost exclusively on religious themes, fulfilling commissions for churches throughout the UK (he’s working on two right now). His style is instantly recognizable—a distinctive blend of medieval, expressionist, and primitive influences resulting in simplified figures with exaggerated features and compositions full of color and movement.
In 1999 Mynheer was commissioned by St. Mary’s Church in North Leigh, Oxfordshire, to create an altarpiece for its fifteenth-century Wilcote Chapel. He decided to create a hinged polyptych (multipanel painting) that shows three Christ-based scenes in its closed view and then opens to reveal four additional scenes on the wings. (The center panel remains fixed.)
One of the challenges of painting a polyptych is figuring out how to arrange various episodes into one unified story, or, if portraiture is used instead of narrative, how to draw multiple figures into thematic coherence. The panels should not be isolated pictures but should speak to one another, aiding the viewer in worship. Mynheer achieves this unity brilliantly by establishing visual links through symmetry, which suggest associations of contrast between an earlier event and a later one: the expulsion versus the resurrection of the saints (sin and redemption), the nativity versus the pietà (birth and death), Jesus in Joseph’s workshop versus Jesus carrying his cross (wood as an innocent building material, wood as a horrendous instrument of execution).
When the wings of the altarpiece are open, the leftmost panel depicts the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had broken fellowship with God. Miserable and ashamed, the couple departs under the shadow of sin’s curse while a cherub enforces the banishment with a red-hot sword. As they go, though, they step—seemingly unawares—on a snake, foreshadowing the Second Adam who would come to crush Satan, as prophesied in Genesis 3:15. Continue reading “Wilcote altarpiece by Nicholas Mynheer”→
Today the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence is wrapping up a four-month-long exhibition titled “Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana,” which features over one hundred works of religious art from 1850 to 1950. Organized jointly by the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Archdiocese of Florence with the collaboration of the Vatican Museums, the exhibition shows that sacred themes were still being developed in the modern period.
The works featured in the promotional video above provide a sense of the range of styles and subjects represented: they are, in order, Pietà by Vincent Van Gogh; Saint Sebastian by Gustave Moreau; The Angelus by Jean-François Millet; Crucifixion by Renato Guttoso; White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall; Prayer by Felice Casorati; Madonna II by Edvard Munch; a 1947 study for the Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland; The Holy Family by Fillia; Flagellation of Jesus Christ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau; and The Annunciation by Vittorio Corcos.
Also included in the exhibition are works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Odilon Redon, Max Ernst, and Stanley Spencer—masters of international renown.
One fact of note is that in almost all cases, these artists were working autonomously—that is, not by church commission—and yet they chose to take up Christian subject matter, presumably because there’s something in it they found compelling.
To view a full list of works (with thumbnail images) as well as commentary on the three most famous ones, download the press kit.
Here’s some coverage from the Lorenzo de’Medici Institute—a school I attended for a semester back in 2009! I walked by the Palazzo Strozzi every day on my way to class.
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things . . .”—Psalm 119:18
“My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others.”—C. S. Lewis
Images have revelatory power. God spoke through them in ancient times: a ladder (Jacob); sheaves of wheat (Joseph); a ripe grapevine (pharaoh’s cupbearer); birds eating cake (pharaoh’s baker); cattle eating cattle (pharaoh); a wheel inside a wheel (Ezekiel); dry bones reconstituting into living human beings (Ezekiel); a broken statue (Nebuchadnezzar); four beasts (Daniel); a sheet filled with animals (Peter); and fantastical creatures doing battle (John). Some of these images were received during sleep, while others were waking dreams—visions—and while verbal statements by God sometimes accompanied them, the images left definite impressions that plunged the seer into a deeper awareness of God’s nature and/or will.
Another famous image through which God spoke was the burning bush on Mount Horeb, which interrupted Moses during his workday. Notice his double take:
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1–4)
In Abiding: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2013, Ben Quash notes that when Moses first sees the bush, he simply receives the visual data: bush on fire. But then as he starts to compute what he sees he realizes that hey, the flames are engulfing it, but it’s not being consumed; this is a “great sight” that deserves a closer look. So he turns aside from his intended path to dwell more consciously and deliberately with the strange bush. It is only then—when Moses has stood still long enough—that the voice of God addresses him. And he is utterly transformed by the encounter that follows, whereby he is called to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt and lead them in settling a new land. Continue reading “The art of contemplative seeing (as modeled by Moses)”→