Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

Roundup: Sacred poetry, “Shifting the Gaze,” the Birchwood Painters, new films, and more

TGC ARTICLE: “18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.

Caravaggio_Incredulity of Thomas
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601–2. Oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm (42 × 57 in.). Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.

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POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,

Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.

Drink rain, hatless, laughing.

Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.

[Read more]

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ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Urwin, Mark_Annunciation (after Martini)
Mark Urwin (British), Annunciation (after Martini and Memmi), 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 30 × 25 cm.

Urwin, Mark_Last Supper (after Leonardo)
Mark Urwin (British), Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 25 × 75 cm.

Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Exhibition to Examine Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance European Art”: “Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? . . .

“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”

Balthazar detail
Detail of The Adoration of the Magi from a French Book of Hours (Ms. 48, fol. 59) showing the magus Balthazar (right), ca. 1480–90, by Georges Trubert. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.

(Further reading: “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes)

I appreciate the Getty’s efforts to be more inclusive in the visual histories they highlight and to solicit input from the general public to assist them in this task. They did the same for their 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.

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TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.

Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscape by the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.

* “Were Those Black ‘Servants’ in Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?”

Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue
James Earle Fraser (American, 1876–1953), Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, 1939. Bronze, 300 × 218 × 450 cm (10 × 7 1/6 × 14 3/4 ft.). Museum of Natural History, New York.

Kaphar, Titus_Shifting the Gaze
Titus Kaphar (American, 1976–), Shifting the Gaze, 2017. Oil on canvas, 210.8 × 262.3 cm (83 × 103 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.

Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”

It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).