Marian art at Dumbarton Oaks

Because May is Mary’s month, I thought I’d share some photos I took of various artworks of the Virgin that were on display during my last visit to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate, fifty-four acres, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, the former residence and gardens of Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1940 the Blisses bequeathed the estate, and their extensive collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, who runs it as a museum, research institute, and library. In addition to housing a stellar permanent collection, the museum also hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, including by contemporary artists. (When I was there I saw the wonderful Outside/IN by Martha Jackson Jarvis.)

The six Marian artworks featured below include paintings, sculptures, and a tapestry, and each originated in a different geographic region: present-day Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. All but the first are from the House Collection, on display in the beautifully designed Renaissance-style Music Room.

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Stone carving is an uncommon medium for Byzantine icons. While sculpture in the round was typically avoided by the church in the East, at least for devotional use, relief carving, with its closeness to two-dimensionality, was more acceptable, though still much rarer than painted wooden panels.

Virgin Hagiosoritissa (11th c)
Virgin Hagiosoritissa, Constantinople, mid-11th century. Marble, 104 × 40 × 7 cm (40 9/10 × 15 7/10 × 2 4/5 in.). Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In this carved icon Mary raises her hands in prayer on behalf of humanity, a type known as the Virgin Hagiosoritissa (Gk. “Intercessor”). Made before the development of the iconostasis, it was probably originally placed inside a church on the left pillar of the bema, or sanctuary, while an image of John the Baptist occupied the right pillar, with Christ at the top center, forming a group known as the Deesis (“Supplication”). These two individuals are traditionally shown as primary intercessors, flanking an enthroned Christ like courtiers, because they were the first to recognize Jesus’s saving role: Mary in her “yes” to Gabriel, John in his in utero jump for joy.

The Greek inscription at the top of the icon, ΜΡ ΘΥ, is shorthand for “Mother of God.”

View object record.

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Daddi, Bernardo_Madonna and Child with Saints
Bernardo Daddi (Italian, ca. 1280–1348), Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels, 1337. Tempera and gilding on poplar panel, 87.6 × 44.5 × 8.9 cm (34 1/2 × 17 1/2 × 3 1/2 in.). Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Bernardo Daddi was the preeminent Florentine painter after Giotto, who had pioneered a new naturalism and may have been Daddi’s teacher. Daddi operated a large and busy workshop, specializing in small-scale paintings and altarpieces commissioned by the well-to-do for their private devotions. While in this panel he uses the traditional Byzantine gold ground, representing the radiance of heaven, he moves toward the Renaissance with individualized facial expressions and depth in space. I love the tenderness of Mary who cuddles her son’s foot as he looks up at her admiringly, climbing over her lap and clutching at her collar.

“This panel was originally the central unit of a triptych, the wings of which are now missing,” writes James N. Carder. “The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child sits in the center on a high-backed throne. To the left stand Saint Peter, grasping two keys, and Saint Dominic, who wears a Dominican habit and holds a lily. To the right stand Saint James the Great, holding a staff from which hangs a small red purse, and Saint Paul, holding a knife. Behind each group of saints are two angels, and in the gable is a roundel with the bust of Christ making a blessing gesture.”

View object record.

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Riemenschneider, Tilman_Virgin and Child
Tilman Riemenschneider (German, ca. 1460–1531), Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, ca. 1521–22. Lindenwood, 95.3 × 35 × 21 cm (37 1/2 × 13 4/5 × 8 3/10 in.). Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

This similarly tender Madonna and Child image was made two centuries later by the German Late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider, who ran the largest sculpture workshop in Würzburg, producing an enormous number of religious images for churches. Jesus reaches his hand up to cradle his mother’s chin, his shirt swept back in a breeze, and she holds him with great fondness while also confronting the viewer with a contemplative air. She stands on a crescent moon, probably meant to associate her with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12, who gives birth to a male ruler whom the dragon seeks to devour.

Riemenschneider was “highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity.” He was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, emphasizing the simple beauty of the sculpted material, which in his case was usually lindenwood (aka limewood), alabaster, or sandstone. A wealthy, respected, landowning member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council. His high status and artistic career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he refused to obey an order to fight the revolting peasants and was imprisoned as a result.

Riemenschneider, Tilman_Virgin and Child (detail)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

View object record.

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From the French Late Gothic, the Music Room has this beautiful little broken Pietà. A Pietà (Ital. “pity, compassion”) is a representation of the dead Christ on the lap of his mourning mother, but here the figure of Christ is no longer intact. At first I assumed this was Mary in prayer or contemplation, but upon looking up the object on the printed key and finding it to be a Passion image, I can now see that the expression she bears is an elegiac one.

Virgin from a Pieta (15th c)
Virgin from a Pietà, made in France, last quarter of 15th century. Limestone with polychromy, 50.8 × 22.9 × 27.9 cm (20 × 9 × 11 in.). Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Many Christian images throughout history are contextualized to the time and place in which they were made, and this one is no exception. “The Virgin is clothed in a manner contemporary to the portraiture of fifteenth-century noblewomen, with a simple gown tightly fitted above the waist,” writes Kristen Gonzalez. “A mantle is drawn up over her head, underneath which a veil and barbeile partially obscure her head and lower neck. . . . The Virgin’s gown and mantle appear to have been painted blue and edged with gilding,” as the polychrome traces suggest.

View object record.

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“Small-scale tapestries with devotional subject matter were produced during the early modern period and were prized for this purpose throughout Europe, particularly among the elite circle of monarchs, princes, dukes, and the highest ecclesiastic echelons,” writes Elizabeth Cleland. “Part of the appeal of the scale of these devotional tapestries must have been their portability. They could easily be rolled up or folded and transported with other court paraphernalia from one location to another, thereby accompanying their often itinerant royal owners.”

Furthermore, unlike the monumental tapestries that were often part of a cycle and that were more decorative in nature, these smaller ones were intended to function individually, as single works, and in more intimate ways, for personal prayer and reflection. Dumbarton Oaks’ Christ and the Virgin, three feet square, may have hung in a private oratory (prayer room).

Christ and the Virgin tapestry
Tapestry of Christ and the Virgin, Flemish, probably Brussels, late 15th–early 16th century. Wool, silk, and silver and gold thread on wool, 96.5 × 96.5 cm (38 × 38 in.). Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

James N. Carder describes the image: “Side-by-side are seen the bust-length figures of Christ as Savior (Salvator Mundi), holding a cruciform orb and making a blessing gesture, and the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven and with her hands together in prayer before an open book on the ledge. The lower field of the foreground is profusely ornamented with floral (millefleurs) motifs, and above the arches are a row of Gothic ornaments and a cloisonné-like geometric band that are reminiscent of the tops of French enamel reliquaries.”

View object record.

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Lastly, a painting by one of my favorite artists, the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. The Visitation is a common subject in art that refers to the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary (shown at the right by El Greco) and her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. El Greco’s Visitation was intended for the Chapel of Isabel de Oballe inside the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, but it’s uncertain whether it was ever installed. Originally the canvas had a circular outline, but at some unknown date it was cut down on all sides.

El Greco_The Visitation
El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) (Greek Spanish, 1541–1614), The Visitation, ca. 1610–14. Oil on canvas, 96.5 × 71.4 cm (38 × 28 1/8 in.). Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

El Greco’s initial art training was in Byzantine icon painting on the island of what today is Crete, where he was born and which was then under Venetian rule. At age twenty-six he moved to Venice and learned the Italian Mannerist style, and ten years later he left for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Characterized by a spiritual fervor and a sort of proto-expressionism, his works were new and unusual and much sought after. The Visitation demonstrates his preference for boldly attenuated figures caught in strong highlighting, abstractions that “emphasize the ethereal and timeless nature of the biblical world,” says Carder.

View object record.

Roundup: Nuns onscreen; Jesus in pop music; El Greco knits

Nuns in pop culture: Anna Silman writes on the current “Nunnassaince” in movies and television, the biggest since the late 1950s and ’60s. She quotes Rebecca Sullivan, author of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, on the first wave as a reaction against the sexual revolution. For a list of flicks both new and old, see “Ten Essential Movies About Nuns.”

I’ve seen two movies from 2016 that center on a nun, or nuns. The first is Little Sister, a dramedy directed by Zach Clark. It’s about twenty-something Colleen Lunsford, a novice (prospective nun) who’s temporarily called away from the convent when her brother returns from the Iraq War, suffering from depression after a bomb left his face disfigured. In the town she grew up in Colleen is known as the Goth girl, so former high school friends are shocked to learn about her new religious vocation.

I wish the faith dimension was explored a bit more—the only insight we get into Colleen’s decision to become a Christian and pursue the monastic life is a line she mutters about structure and stability. (Was that her only motivation?) The film is more about reconnecting with family and recognizing that even though you grow up and your interests and bearing and goals may change, your past self, or selves, always remain a little bit a part of you. It’s empathetic and dark but also funny, and it shows how there’s no one mold that makes a nun; nuns come from different places in life, and oftentimes sustain (complicated) relationships outside the cloister. (Watch on Netflix)

The second one I’ve seen and commend is The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine. Set in a convent in late-1945 Poland and based on a true story, it documents the crisis of faith the nuns of that community are forced to undergo when many of them are raped by invading Russian troops and some pregnancies result. The nuns respond in diverse ways to the horror, struggling to regain their spiritual equilibrium. In desperation, they employ an atheistic French female doctor from the Red Cross, stationed nearby, to help them deliver their babies and to bear their secret. (Watch on Amazon Video)

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“If I Believe You: Agnostic Songs to Jesus” by Joy Clarkson: This article analyzes the song “If I Believe You” by the 1975—which opens with “I’ve got a God-shaped hole that’s infected . . .”—in light of the wider trend of self-proclaimed unreligious artists writing songs addressed to Jesus. Clarkson observes that (1) even within the profoundly secular industry of popular music, there is an openness to spirituality, religion, and Jesus; (2) songs written not only about Jesus, but to Him, create a unique discursive space; and (3) an invocation of negative transcendence may create an openness to a true spiritual experience. I’m intrigued by the titles of the books she references, including The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter (2010); Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (2011); and Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (2013).

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Knits by Petros Vrellis: Designed using an algorithm, Vrellis’s re-creations of figures from famous El Greco paintings are formed by knitting a single thread across anchor pegs on a circumference loom. Watch a time-lapse video of Vrellis putting together a knit based on El Greco’s Christ Blessing, below, and read more about his process here. (Another Jesus portrait Vrellis has done is based on El Greco’s Christ in Prayer, visible at 2:27 at the bottom right.) Vrellis has a master’s degree in art sciences; he enjoys exploring the potential of new media through digital art and interactive installations and considers himself more of a “toy inventor” than an artist. Thank you to Tobias M. from Vienna for informing me of this impressive work.

Christ by Petros Vrellis
Knit by Petros Vrellis (Greek, 1974–), based on the painting Christ Blessing by El Greco.

Some of Vrellis’s knits are for sale via Saatchi Art.

Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

fumi-e-3

e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues prays desperately on a cliff’s edge, foregrounded by a blood-drenched moon.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”

Roundup: Church engagement with the arts

“Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story,” St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, London: This program comprises a series of weekly noontime gatherings that use famous local paintings as a springboard into discussion of the biblical narrative and its implications for us today. I’ve enjoyed reading the few presentations given by associate vicar Jonathan Evens, posted on his blog: first, on J. M. W. Turner’s two paintings of Noah’s flood, and more recently, on El Greco’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.

El Greco_Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple
El Greco (Greek, active Spain, 1541–1614), Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1600. Oil on canvas, 106 × 130 cm (42 × 51 in.). National Gallery, London.

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VIBRANT music and arts festival, Cahaba Park Church, Birmingham, Alabama: On November 1, 2015, Cahaba Park Church held a Psalms-inspired music and arts festival. Eight visual artists from the church were selected to display their paintings, which were auctioned off to raise money for four nonprofits. The Corner Room performed songs from their new album, Psalm Songs, Volume 1; “Psalm 23” (music by Adam Wright) is the soundtrack for the recap video above. This next VIBRANT festival will be held on July 22.

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“Art and Spirit” exhibition, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles: Through April 24, the works of over fifty artists will be on display in the Neo-Gothic Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Most of the works are by emerging LA artists from Art Division, an organization that provides art training to young adults who lack the resources to attend university but who want to pursue a career in the visual arts; they were asked to respond to the theme “art and spirit.” A few of the works in the exhibition are by well-known artists such as Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Corita Kent, and Ed Ruscha.

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Portraits of Resurrection, 2015 Easter initiative, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California: Ex Creatis, the arts ministry at Saddleback, is always coming up with unique ways to incorporate art into the life of its church. Last Easter twenty-three volunteer artists sketched portraits of church attendees onto one of three floral prints (of the sitter’s choosing) made by three different artists in the church. These personalized works of art were meant to remind those who took them home of the new life they have in Christ.