Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Painting on the Canvas of Time

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1951...
Sabbath-blogging, essay 6 of 9 on
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

“The art of keeping the seventh day
is the art of painting on the canvas of time
the mysterious grandeur of the
climax of creation:
as He sanctified the seventh day,
so shall we.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

The sun set on Friday night at 7:50.  I lit a candle and said this prayer:

“Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has set us apart by his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.”
 (Prayer found in Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab.)

Each week, I’ve been introducing new elements into play as I attempt to observe the Sabbath.  This was my first time lighting a candle for the occasion.

Initial-word panel with gold letters
and inhabited by dragons at the
beginning of Numbers in the
"Coburg Pentateuch," from
Central Germany (Coburg),
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts.
On Saturday morning I slept in, waking naturally at 8:30.  I showered, dressed, and headed out for the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I had a loose idea of an itinerary, but sought to keep any plans as flexible as possible.  I didn’t want to feel hostage to the clock on my Sabbath.

On my first reading of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was surprised to discover that I had observed Sabbaths at various times in my life—I just hadn’t realized they were Sabbaths!  For instance, when my son served as a volunteer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, I fell into a routine of accompanying him into the city then splitting off to spend time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  For me, that time spent alone in the galleries with great art was prime Sabbath time.  I’d leave the museum refreshed, relaxed, recharged—spiritually energized.

It’s always fun to walk up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its iconic Rocky steps.  At the entrance, I picked up the museum’s daily events flyer and discovered they had a special exhibition on “Hans Memling and the Iconic Image of Christ.”  This was an unexpected treat for me!  I love the early Netherlandish art of the 15th and 16th centuries (artists like Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Gerard David, as well as Memling), even once leading an adult Sunday School class on the subject.

Occupying a modest room in a remote corner of the museum, the Hans Memling exhibit centers on Blessing Christ, a small painting on temporary loan to the museum.  As the label explains, the painting neatly combines the medieval-style icon traditions with the more realistic face modeling of the Renaissance.  To interpret the little painting, the one-room exhibit surrounded it with complementary examples of religious art of the time.

My attention was drawn to a painting of the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin by Hans Memling, Netherlandish
(active Bruges), late 15th century, oil on panel,
11 1/2 x 9 3/4 inches.
From the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Also by Hans Memling, this image of Mary was another very small work, perhaps the only surviving fragment of a larger altarpiece.  Mary demurely looks down, as she often does in paintings of the Annunciation as she ponders the message of the Angel Gabriel.  It’s an unusually serene image, ideal for contemplation.

I spent some time with it.  I think it was a gift to me on my Sabbath.  

According to the story in Genesis, God created the world in six days.  On that sixth day, He created man and woman in His image.  Therefore, isn’t it part of the very built-in nature of man to create in turn?  In the image of God, we create for six days and then rest on the seventh, filling that seventh day with appreciation for God, for the creation, and for the work that we accomplish as God’s image in the world.

Over 500 years ago, Hans Memling added to the sum total of beauty on the earth.  On the seventh day, I appreciated his sublime work.

“The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation:  as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we.  The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common.”

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Chapter 1:  “A Palace in Time”

Detail of the illuminated manuscript above.  Initial-word panel with
gold letters and inhabited by dragons at the beginning of Numbers
in the "Coburg Pentateuch," from Central Germany (Coburg),
From the British Library Catalogue
of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Reference Sources

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Sabbath Keeping by Lynne M. Baab
Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva J. Dawn
A Day of Rest: Creating a Spiritual Space in Your Week by Martha Whitmore Hickman

© 2013 Lee Price

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