Archive for the ‘Object of the Month.2021’ Category

Object of the Month: April 2021

The Entombment of Christ

Oil on canvas

Jusepe de Ribera, called Lo Spagnoletto

Spanish, 1591-1652

While Italian Renaissance artists benefited from a mutual sharing of progressive artistic advancements, Spanish artists remained deeply provincial until the Baroque age. Jusepe de Ribera spent his career in the Spanish-controlled kingdom of Naples where he adopted the naturalism of Caravaggio. Ribera’s works, imported from Naples to Spain, brought to other Spanish artists the lighting effects of Caravaggio, the most influential Italian painter of the 17th century. In addition, viceroys brought both originals by Caravaggio and copies back to Spain. Caravaggio’s dramatically deep chiaroscuro (the effect of light and shade) and rugged realism (portraying as accurately as possible the natural world) are evident in this work by Ribera.

When looking at religious art, it is best to begin with the source of the work. In this case it is the Biblical accounts of the burial of Christ which are detailed in all four of the Gospels and reveal the cast of characters present in the painting (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19). After His sacrificial death on the cross, Christ was hastily buried because of the imminent start of the Sabbath celebration. Joseph of Arimathea, a just man who had voted against the action of the Sanhedrin to put Christ to death; Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who had sought out Jesus by night to inquire how one could enter the kingdom of heaven; and Mary Magdalene, a wealthy follower of Christ who had seven devils cast out of her, are all mentioned as being present at the tomb. Other women are mentioned as well, but John the disciple and Mary, Christ’s mother are not mentioned in the Gospels as attending, but Ribera chooses to adhere to tradition and include them both.

Traditional Imagery

So, who is who? Traditional iconography would dictate that John is the young man in the back right who is wiping away his tears. Joseph would be the older man in the forefront with the red cloak; he is, after all, a wealthy man who has donated his new tomb for the Savior. That leaves Nicodemus as the older man at the head of Christ. Because of the long, free blonde hair, Mary Magdalene is in the center with Mary the mother of Christ in the shadows.

Though Christ’s body is pallid and remarkably whole given the scourging and the crowning of His head with thorns, the open wound in His side signifies Christ’s personal cost for man’s salvation from sin, which He purchased for all. Bringing forth blood and water, the soldier’s action revealed the emptying of life that sustained Christ until the payment of man’s sin was complete. Ribera places the body on a stone surface, likely the burial table in the tomb, which has a sharply defined corner. This compositional detail reflects the words of the Apostle Peter, referencing the Psalmist David and the prophet Isaiah who characterize the coming Messiah as a “rejected” stone of “stumbling and a rock of offense” which has become the “cornerstone.” A cornerstone sets the stability of the entire building, and the reader is told that “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (I Peter 2:6-8). Clearly, the kingdom of God is set upon the foundation of the death of Jesus Christ.

Ironically, however, at His death and burial, no one believed He would rise again. The incredulity of the disciples when the women reported the angel’s words at the empty tomb reveals that they did not understand the teaching of Jesus that He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:21). But anyone who does understand that saying, including the multitude of Christ’s followers in the days following the resurrection, can be assured that he or she will not be disappointed in believing and accepting the death of the sinless Christ to pay for their own sins.

What is interesting about Ribera’s composition of the Entombment is the placement of the two women. Mary the mother of Christ is no longer the prominent woman; she is nearly hidden in the shadows while Mary Magdalene is in the foreground mourning Christ with clasped hands and downcast eyes.

Scriptural Accounts

Given the controversies associated with the Magdalene, it is important to focus on what the Scriptures tell about her:

  • Luke tells that “some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” followed Christ as He traveled. The first listed is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” (8:2). These women are also characterized as supporting Christ and His disciples “out of their means” (Luke 8:3).
  • At the crucifixion, John reports that Mary was “standing by the cross of Jesus” with Mary the mother of Christ (19:25).
  • Mark then relates that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw where [Jesus] was laid” (15:47) and with “the women who had come with him from Galilee . . . returned and prepared spices and ointments” (Luke 23:55-56) for the more detailed burial after the Sabbath was over.
  • All four Gospels reveal that Mary Magdalene was up early on the morning after the Sabbath on her way to the tomb to minister to the Lord’s body. Here, clearly, is the biblical record of a woman dedicated to the life and memory of the One who had rescued her from Satan’s power.

Artistic Depiction

Ribera’s reversal of prominence may reflect the truth that at Christ’s death, His relationship to His mother ended. As the eldest son, now unable to care for His mother any longer, He transferred Mary to John’s care. But the prominence of Mary Magdalene in the central foreground of the group of followers mirrors the tender truth of a Luke 7 parable told by Jesus about a moneylender who forgave a large and small debt of two men as an illustration about another woman only identified as “a sinner” (likely a woman of loose morals). Although Magdalene is not this woman, her life attests to the same love that the “sinner” had for her Lord. Christ explains that the unnamed woman is like the man with the greater debt. Her “sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” The Magdalene had not one, but seven, devils cast out of her; there is no telling the damaging physical effects of her demon-possession. And though the demons were aware of Christ’s identity as the Messiah, they certainly would have kept their victim from realizing and accepting that truth for herself. The Magdalene of Ribera’s focus had much to be thankful for, and her dedication to the service of both the living and dead Christ reveals the depth of that love.

At the tomb early that Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and her companions were told that Christ was risen and instructed to tell the disciples. What a privilege to share that good news! But Mary was more than a messenger. Christ appeared to hundreds of His disciples in the days after His resurrection, but Mark relates, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons” (16:9). Given her love for Christ as evidenced by her eagerness to prepare His body properly for burial, it is no accident that she is the first to see the risen Christ whom she worships immediately, clasping His nail-pierced feet—the physical manifestation of Christ’s power to defeat death, her demons, and save her eternal soul.

Ribera’s composition places the viewer within the circle of mourners around the dead Christ with nothing in the composition to separate the viewer from the body itself. Thus, we are made to react as if we were within the frame. Do we see ourselves as sinners, loving Christ dearly, but devasted at His death, demoralized by the apparent emptiness of His promises of the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins?  Will we, like Mary Magdalene, recognize our Savior and hear Him say that He is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17)? We will, if this Easter, we believe the Gospel accounts of the Christ whom Mary followed faithfully.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: March 2021

Christ and the Samaritan Woman

Oil on canvas, c. 1620

Abraham Bloemaert

Dutch, 1566-1651

Abraham Bloemaert, whose career spanned more than 50 years, adapted to several major changes in prevailing artistic styles. His art began firmly rooted in the late mannerist tradition with its elongated figure-types and complex compositions, but later changed to the tenebrist style brought from Italy by some of his students. As the master of many important Dutch painters, including Terbrugghen, van Bijlert, and Honthorst, Bloemaert is considered one of the most important and influential Dutch artists of the early 17th century.

The subject of Christ and the Samaritan Woman enjoyed popularity for many generations in the Netherlands. While artists generally painted this theme in a landscape (horizontal) orientation, Bloemaert chose a vertical one. This change allows him to focus on the figures in the foreground without surrounding countryside to distract the viewer. It also allows him to create a more intimate portrait of the two major characters in the story.

According to Art Daily, “The bulk of his painted oeuvre is made up of history pieces, paintings with large figures depicting an episode from a story. . . . Since the fifteenth century, art theorists had regarded history painting as the apex of the hierarchy of painterly genres.” And since this is a history painting, “to comprehend such a picture, [viewers] have to know the story” (Art Daily).  Bloemaert portrays the Samaritan woman’s conversion as told in the Gospel of John, chapter 4. Of course, he needs to choose which moment in the storyline to freeze for the viewer’s consideration. But make no mistake, the whole story is important.

The Story

In John 4, a weary Christ confronts a marginalized woman with a simple question: “Give me to drink” (4:7). She responds with a defensive reminder that the “Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans” (4:9) who were usually ostracized as an ethnic group.  The Jews hold that their descent from Jacob is the purer one, unadulterated by intermarriage as the Samaritans’ was. This woman is in a very uncomfortable position from the beginning of the conversation. She has also come to the well at noon. Drawing water, then carrying water any distance in the heat of the Middle Eastern day is burdensome. She must have had a compelling reason for her presence at that time. The well was a social gathering spot, a type of “watering hole” for women from the village and even herdsmen from the fields. It seems clear that the woman is avoiding people.

Jesus then asks her another question, a “who” question somewhat like hers: if she only knew Who was asking a drink from her, she would ask Him for water, and it would be “living water” (4:10), superior to that from the well. Defensively, she notes He has nothing with which to draw water from the well, unlike her rope and pitcher seen in the painting. She follows up with a history lesson: Jacob, a common ancestor, dug the well, and it gives good water, tasty and plentiful. Christ responds with an elaboration on His “living water.” The major difference, He says, between the types of water is their thirst-quenching properties. How she must have tired of the hot, dusty chore of fetching water from a well probably some distance from the village. Then she asks for His water in order to ease her workload: “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).

Next, Jesus changes the subject abruptly and tells her to call her husband. Here seems to be the moment of the painting, and the marginalization of the woman increases. With His hand outstretched Christ tells her she has had five husbands and is currently living with a man not her husband. Morally, the woman is on the fringe of society; undoubtedly this fact is the reason for her midday water run. In the painting, she tilts her head downward. She must have been astonished by His knowledge; she may have been ashamed. She certainly tries to deflect the conversation.

This woman, like most people, does not want to come directly to Jesus. But she moves one step closer: “I perceive that you are a prophet” (4:19). She poses a religious red herring question about the worship of God: whether the Jews were right about Jerusalem or the Samaritans about their mountain. Christ kindly answers her question, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), from the line of David. She obviously knows her Old Testament and brings up not only the coming of the Messiah, but also His omniscience: “When He comes, He will tell us all things” (4:25). At this point Christ tells her, “I Who speak to you am He” (4:26).

She is on the fringes geographically. Though Jews would go miles out of the way to travel around Samaria if at all possible, yet Jesus “must needs go through” (4:4) the region. She is historically ostracized by the Jews as well and morally shunned by her village. But Jesus goes out of His way, literally, to tell her the truth about Himself. And she is the first to hear from His own lips that He is the Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who will accept His offer of living water. But it is the knowledge of her life that convinces her: she leaves her waterpot, goes into the village and tells all, “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? (4:29). The story ends with Christ staying two days in Sychar, Samaria, then returning to Galilee. There is no record of His working in any other town; it appears that meeting this woman and those of her village was His whole purpose for the journey into Samaria.

The Art

Bloemaert has symbolized the woman’s need by the empty copper pot near her feet; while the greenery at Christ’s feet is lush, testifying to the abundant life that Christ’s water gives. The choice of clothing color is also significant. While purple is the color of royalty, Christ’s inner garment is violet, a color representing love, truth, passion, and suffering. His outer cloak is a vibrant red, certainly an association with blood. As the Messiah, Christ would suffer a violent death for the sins of this woman and of the whole world, because He loved those who would surely die without His living water. That a dying Messiah offers living water is an interesting juxtaposition. The yellow of the woman’s gown signals revealed truth but can also signify degradation. Here Bloemaert’s color choices (his palette was distinctive) reveal the storyline too. A sinful, marginalized woman encounters revealed truth, both in word and in person. What she does with that truth removes her shame and allows her to live forever as a child of God.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

 

Published 2021

Object of the Month: February 2021

Torah Case 

Torah Mantle 

Torah Finger 

From the Bowen Collection of Antiquities

The Torah contains the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) divided into 54 sections. These portions are read out loud to Jewish congregations throughout the year in the synagogue, at ceremonies (like weddings, funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs), and at commemorative events in the Jewish calendar. But only a Sefer Torah (one that is approved and ritually clean) can be used in public Jewish worship.

Jewish tradition holds that the very words of the Pentateuch were dictated by God, and thus, are worthy of the extreme care given to ensure that all the 304,805 Hebrew letters in the Pentateuch have been accurately hand copied in a Sefer Torah. To make certain that nothing detracts from the words, only specific fonts are used, and embellishment or illumination of the text is prohibited. However, to show respect for a Sefer Torah and to reflect its value to congregants, the objects associated with it are often lavishly ornamented.

Torah Case: Tik

The Aron Kodesh (the “Torah ark” or “ark”) is the focal point in a synagogue. Depending on the means of the congregation, the ark may be a simple wooden cabinet or a large structure adorned with ornate carvings and precious materials. When the Aron Kodesh is opened the true valuables of the synagogue—its Sefer Torahs and items associated with their use—are revealed.

Generally, Sephardic Jews keep a Torah scroll in a cylindrical case, called the tik, which holds the scroll upright.  M&G’s Torah Case (tik) is a wooden, hinged cylinder covered in fabric and embellished with embossed silver appliqués. The top, decorative portion of the tik is called the Torah crown. M&G’s Torah crown appears to be a modified pomegranate shape. Since God instructed the Jews to use pomegranate motifs on the High Priest’s ceremonial garments, and they were also used to ornament the Tabernacle and Solomonic Temple, modified pomegranates are traditional tik adornments.

On chains from M&G’s Torah crown are tiny bells which would tinkle as the tik was carried from the ark to the bimah, the place in the synagogue where the tik would be opened and the Torah read. However, missing from M&G’s tik are two rimonim (Hebrew word for pomegranate); these decorated finials fit on the rods on top of the tik and serve as handles for opening the scroll. When the tik was fully open on the platform, the scroll (also missing from M&G’s tik) would be upright and a column of the Torah’s text would be visible for the reader.

The picture on the right highlights additional interesting details. For example, the inscription in the upper left reads: “This case of the Scroll of the Law was made by the good woman, the daughter of Meir Zekiel Samuel.” The inscription in the upper right reads: “This is the Law which Moses set before the children of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statues, the ordinances, etc.”

Torah Mantle

Ashkenazic Jews generally store Torah scrolls in mantles that have openings at the top to accommodate the handles of the atzei chayim (thetrees of life”), which are the wooden dowels on which the scroll is rolled. Torah mantles take various forms and can be made of simple cloth, rich brocades, or velvet. They are frequently embellished with elaborate embroidery and appliqué.

M&G’s Torah Mantle is maroon velvet embroidered with the tablets of the 10 commandments, the lion of the tribe of Judah, and crowns representing the Jewish kingdom. Other common mantle motifs include the tree of life, the star of David, pillars of the temple and the seven-branched menorah. Once an Ashkenazi Torah is carried to the bimah (platform or podium), the mantle is removed and depending upon local traditions, the Torah is either laid flat or supported on an incline before being read publicly.

Torah Finger: Yad

The actual writing of a Sefer Torah should not be touched. Not only would it be disrespectful to the words of God, the perspiration and oils from the hand could lead to deterioration and flaking of the ink. Damage to a Torah causes it to no longer be Sefer and thus unusable in Jewish public worship.

To read passages of the Torah during a service is an honor, but keeping one’s place during public oral reading is not always easy. To help prevent mistakes, a yad (sometimes called a Torah finger) is used. Yads often have a handle, a shaft, and a hand with a pointing finger. Some have chains used to hang them on the scroll when stored in the Aron Kodesh. A yad is often made of gold, silver, wood, bone or, like M&G’s Torah Finger, bronze. The person reading may follow the text with the yad, or another person may use the yad to indicate the text to be read.

The extreme care exercised when preserving the text of the Torah and the lavishness of the trappings which adorn the Torah give witness to the reverence the Jewish nation has for the words of God.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

 

Selected References

Baghdadi Torah Case (Tik): This gallery section shows the scroll within the Torah case.

Jewish Virtual Library: Torah Ornaments

Jewish Virtual Library: Ark

Why Do Sephardim Keep Their Torahs in Cylindrical Cases?

 

Published in 2021

Object of the Month: January 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Tempera on canvas, monogrammed and dated 1490 (lower left on base of column)

Antoine de Lonhy, called the Master of the Trinity of Turin

French (active in Spain and Flanders), c. active 1460–1490

French-born Antoine de Lonhy painted this vibrant scene around 1490. Although he trained in the Burgundy region of France, de Lonhy spent parts of his early career in Toulouse and Barcelona. He worked his later years in what is today the Piedmont and Aosta Valley regions of Italy. For many years, de Lonhy’s identity remained a mystery, and he was known only as the Master of the Trinity of Turin. Only in the past 20 years have scholars been able to identify de Lonhy and associate his name with his varied body of work. De Lonhy was a true Renaissance man whose work included panel paintings, illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, and stained glass, as well as textile and sculpture designs.

Mort de la Verge, Antoine de Lonhy

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple was originally painted on panel and at some point, transferred to canvas. M&G’s painting is believed to have been part of a large, lost altarpiece of a church in Piedmont. Another of de Lonhy’s works, Mort de la Verge, displays the same raised gold-leaf technique as well as similar colors and patterns to M&G’s Presentation. It is possible that both panels were once part of the lost altarpiece. De Lonhy’s masterful skill shines in all the details of this work, especially in his pristine architectural elements. The raised gold-leaf, particularly on the halos and borders of the garments, provides texture and dimension. His use of vibrant colors and patterns beautifully illustrates the joyfulness of the occasion. Mary lovingly presents the Christ Child to the priest while Joseph looks on carrying their offering of two turtledoves. Ironically, de Lonhy clad Mary and Joseph in rich, brocade garments which contrasts with the turtledoves, the offering of the poor.

Luke 2:22-40 illuminates the narrative of this scene. Jewish law required a woman to be purified 40 days after giving birth to a son. The mother was required to bring an offering of a year-old lamb or two young pigeons or turtledoves (for those who could not afford a lamb). This offering was presented to the priest who sacrificed them before the Lord to make atonement for the mother (Leviticus 12:1-8). The law of Moses also required the consecration of every firstborn male. In accordance with the law, Mary and Joseph traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to present Christ for consecration. Luke tells of the priest, Simeon, who was promised “by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” De Lonhy captures the moment when that promise to Simeon was fulfilled: Mary presented the Lord’s Messiah to Simeon for consecration leading Simeon to respond with praise to and adoration of God. Simeon witnessed with his own eyes God’s fulfillment of His promise.

Rebekah Cobb, Registrar

 

Published in 2021