Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nativity Essays: Meditation on Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Child

Nativity blogging
for the Season of Christmastide 2014-15:
Sandro Botticelli's
The Virgin Adoring the Child

The Virgin Adoring the Child by Sandro Botticelli,
1480/90, tempera on panel, 23 3/16 in. diameter,
Samuel H. Kress Collection,
National Gallery of Art

Christmas morning craziness is over but it’s still Christmastide, the twelve days of Christmas that stretch from the midnight announcement of Christmas day to the Epiphany arrival of the three Magi.  The Christmas company has departed.  Alone at last, Mary watches over her baby.  This is a part of Christmas, too.

I’m too introverted to be comfortable with the classic Nativity scenes.  They’re typically crowded with kings and their retinues, shepherds flocking down from the hills, angels on rooftops and dancing with the stars, and a stable-full of oxen and asses.  To find Mary and the baby, you have to search through all the turmoil.

The Adoration of the Kings by Sandro Botticelli,
1470-75, tempera on panel,
National Gallery, London
Painting in Florence and Rome in the late 15th century, Sandro Botticelli had a knack for crowded Nativity scenes.  In this early Botticelli Adoration of the Kings, I count more than 50 onlookers, a half-dozen horses, and a peacock (it’s on the wall on the right).  If it looks like a parade, that’s because Botticelli was almost certainly working from impressions of his hometown’s famous Brotherhood of the Magi pageants, known for their opulence.  A sense of wealth overwhelms the humbleness of the manger setting.

Technically, Botticelli’s early crowd scene is impressive, with its high-Renaissance mastery of architectural perspective and its varied portrait gallery.  Botticelli skillfully utilizes the tondo (round) format that was becoming popular at the time for paintings designed for private devotions.  But this crowded house isn’t what I crave from a Nativity scene.  For my private Nativity devotion, I prefer quiet, mystery, and a dash of expectant hope (the same elements I always hope for in a Christmas Eve service).

Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings tondo came early in his career, perhaps one of his first works after finishing an apprenticeship with Fra Filippo Lippi in his early twenties.  As Botticelli matured—and his artistry became even more assured—he continued to paint Nativities, Magi scenes, and virgin-and-child images.  With some of his paintings, he started to pare the crowds back, placing more emphasis upon Mary and the baby.

Detail, The Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art
In The Virgin Adoring the Child at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, painted circa 1490 when Botticelli was around 45 years old, the Nativity is reduced to its barest essentials:  Mary and child.  Even Joseph is absent.  The only intruders into this pastoral scene are a discreet ox and donkey, content to keep to the shadows.

Mary crosses her hands in a traditional sign of resignation to the will of God.  As in all of Botticelli’s mature works, Mary expresses a sadness that acknowledges an awareness of her son’s destiny.  Jesus’ sacrifice is hers as well.  Her sorrow will continue unabated through the lamentation and Pieta depictions of Mary cradling the body of the crucified Jesus.  In birth and in death, the figure of Mary calls us to contemplation of the fragility of humanity.

Exquisitely framed by a ruined stable wall, this Botticelli tondo is a triumph of personal devotion imagery.  We are asked to enter into the spirit of Mary.  The world is quiet, the child calls to us, and we respond with grace.  Above, revealed in a corner of sky, the Star of Bethlehem still shines, trailing glory.

Detail, Virgin Adoring the Child
by Sandro Botticelli,
National Gallery of Art

Reference Sources

Botticelli by Barbara Deimling
Botticelli: The Artist and His Works by Silvia Malaguzzi
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages by Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya

© 2014 Lee Price

Friday, December 19, 2014

Meditation on Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation

Annunciation Blogging
for Advent 2014:
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s
The Annunciation

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner,
1898, oil on canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Detail, The Annunciation by
Henry Ossawa Tanner,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Annunciation, Mary’s toes peek out from under her robe.  She’s a teenage girl getting ready for bed—not beautiful perhaps, but when the light shines on her she’s radiant.  She’s a girl who has no idea how pretty she is.

Most representations of Mary in art depict her as older and classically beautiful.  She usually appears gentle, obedient, patient, and humble.  Maybe a little dull, too.  She rarely looks like the teenage girls I’ve met.

But, in all fairness, the classical representation of Mary is perfectly in line with the information that the evangelist Luke supplies in his gospel telling of the Annunciation.  When sending the angel Gabriel to her doorstep, God implies that Mary is just about perfection on earth.  This is the porcelain Mary of the Old Masters.

Painting in 1898, working from the same text as the religious artists who preceded him, Henry Ossawa Tanner teased out an endlessly interesting Mary who succeeds in being a teenage girl while also suggesting why God might look on her with approval.  It’s a difficult balance, miraculously achieved by Tanner.  I like to think he was working from that little section in the middle of the scene where Mary talks back to Gabriel.  “How shall this be,” she asks the angel, “since I have no husband?”  A good actress could say that line many ways.  It could be said with harsh disbelief (“Get real, angel…”), or deep sarcasm (“yeah, right…”), or confusion (“I think you may have the wrong Mary…”), or concern (“do you know something I don’t know”), or curiosity (“tell me more…”).

Tanner’s Mary is a charmer.  Overcoming any initial fear, she leans forward toward the angel.  She gives a little half-smile, as if coaxing Gabriel to tell more.  “I’m listening,” she seems to say.  “You have my attention.  Now convince me.”

Detail, The Annunciation by
Henry Ossawa Tanner,
Philadelphia Museum of Art.
She looks smart.  And she looks like she could be wickedly funny.  There’s a wit to the way she cocks her head, waiting for a response.  “How shall this be since I have no husband?”  She’s sharp enough to say it with quiet irony.  Then she patiently waits for the reply.  She’s a listener.

Her hands are clasped, perhaps implying that the angel has interrupted her mid-prayer.  But now the prayer is forgotten as Gabriel fully commands her attention and interest.  She is mulling the words of the angel, his prophetic announcement that she will be the mother of one who will “reign over the house of Jacob forever.”  That’s a big—and potentially awkward—claim for an unwed teenage girl from a small village like Nazareth.

But the light that fills the room is real.  Her inclination is to accept the miraculous.  And so she asks the question, “How shall this be…” already inwardly knowing that she is strong enough and brave enough to face this future.

That’s just my interpretation.  The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Henry Ossawa Tanner was doubtless better schooled in the Bible than me.  He taught Sunday School in his young adult years, regularly attended church throughout his life, and painted Biblical scenes with commitment and enthusiasm for more than three decades.  A couple of years ago, I attended the Henry Ossawa Tanner special exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where you could view the range of his religious painting.  A gentle spirituality permeated the show, with The Annunciation setting the tone.

You’d think the innovative use of blinding light to represent the angel Gabriel would dominate the picture.  But Mary more than holds her own.  I keep coming back to Tanner’s representation of Mary because it’s her humanity that ultimately makes the painting so captivating.  It’s a humanity that is at the core of the Annunciation story and is so often missed.

Reference Sources

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit edited by Anna O. Marley
Philadelphia Museum of Art Teacher Resources
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version

© 2014 Lee Price

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation

Annunciation Blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Annunciation
by Jan van Eyck

Fade in.  An angel appears before Mary.  The angel makes a surprising proposal, Mary responds with a question, the angel reassures her, and she graciously agrees to the plan.  The vignette has a beginning, middle, and end.  Classically constructed, the scene begins with the angel announcing, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with You!” and ends with Mary entering into an agreement, “(L)et it be to me according to your word.”  Fade out.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
As told by the evangelist Luke in his gospel, the Annunciation has the shape of a conventional narrative.  It unfolds like a well-constructed movie scene.

Most art of the Annunciation—both literary and visual—treats the scene as conventional narrative, in the manner of Luke.  The artist thoughtfully selects a moment in the story that captures what they want to express about the text.  It could be the second when the angel enters, or the angel greeting Mary, or Mary’s asking “How shall this be?” or Mary’s final note of gracious acceptance.  That’s the normal way of doing things.

Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece The Annunciation employs a very different strategy, sometimes used by the Old Masters but rarely to this extent.  The whole story flashes before us at a stroke, with van Eyck treating time with the creativity that Cezanne would later bring to the treatment of space.  In van Eyck’s The Annunciation, there is no natural beginning or end, no unfolding of narrative, no reading from left to right.  The story is shaped into an image that instantaneously contains the whole.

Within a single frame, the angel enters, the angel speaks, Mary responds with a dramatic gesture symbolizing alarm, the angel reassures, and Mary speaks the final words.  It’s all there.

But this brief Annunciation story is wrapped within a much larger story. Biblical history, prophecy, and theology surround the main characters through the illustrations on the tiled floor and the paintings and stained glass that decorate the walls.  The remarkable details on the two most prominent tile scenes depict David slaying Goliath and Samson pulling down the temple, events that were believed to prefigure the works of Jesus.  This mighty encompassing framework is an important part of van Eyck’s vision.  Vast history is telescoped into a narrow scene with the Annunciation particulars in the foreground and the Biblical backstory lining the background.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish,
circa 1390-1441),
Detail of The Annunciation, c. 1434/1436,
oil on canvas transferred from panel,
Andrew W. Mellon Collection,
National Gallery of Art.
Van Eyck’s grand painting is awash in symbolism, with the drama enacted in a sacred space—the church interior.  The angel utters the visible words “Ave gratia plena” (translation: “Hail, full of Grace…”) and the words of Mary’s response, “ecce ancilla domini” (translation: “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord…”) appear upside down.  They have been flipped because they are addressed to neither Gabriel nor the viewer but rather upward to God, whose Holy Spirit is descending as a dove on streaming rays of gold leaf.

The apostle Paul famously said in his first letter to the Corinthians that we see through a glass, darkly.  Rooted in secular time and space, most of the world’s artwork explores the limited viewpoint which is part of the human condition.  But in this one painting, van Eyck ventures to depict a world stripped of its mundane and profane elements, where every detail resonates with the sacred.

It’s a God’s eye view, filled with awe and joy.

Reference Sources

National Gallery of Art Collection Highlights, Explore This Work
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Annunciation Essays: Meditation on Robert Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece

Annunciation blogging
for Advent 2014:
The Mérode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin

Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)
Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlandish, ca. 1375-1444, Tournai)
Date:  Circa 1427-32
Oil on oak, 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in. (open)
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtThe Cloisters Collection, 1956

One day, God sent an angel to carry a message to a young woman in Nazareth.  In the painting above, we see a depiction of the scene.  The artists offer a 15th century Netherlandish interpretation of the story of the Annunciation as related by the evangelist Luke in the first chapter of his gospel.  For us today, as well as for people who lived in the Netherlands nearly 600 years ago, the Biblical story is far removed from present experience.  To enter the scene requires an act of sympathetic imagination.

The early Netherlandish artists were poets of the imagination.  In their extraordinarily beautiful works, time and space are collapsed.  Past, present, and future merge together into one; a house in Nazareth becomes a house in Belgium which stands for a house anywhere… everywhere.  Through contemplation of their paintings, viewers are invited to enter into the scenes as part of the work of devout meditation.

Detail, right panel of
the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of
Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan
Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Standing prayerfully before the Mérode Altarpiece, a masterpiece of early Netherlandish art by Robert Campin and his workshop, you might consider the perspective of the donors on the left, Joseph on the right, or Mary front and center.  Each perspective would offer different avenues for exploration of the painting and its themes.  In the left panel, the contemporary donors approach the story reverently but are forever kept at a distance—they are outsiders gifted with a view of the miraculous, once removed.  In the right panel, Joseph models a conscientious, methodical approach to the task at hand (the task being the work of salvation).  These characters are models meant to encourage us.  It is good to be like a reverent, wealthy donor.  It is good to be a diligent worker like Joseph.

But on a much grander scale, Campin calls for everyone, regardless of gender, to identify with Mary in the magnificent center panel of the triptych.  Her unexpected meeting with the angel Gabriel has cosmic implications; everything on earth and in heaven will hinge on her response.  She has the freedom to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord” or, conversely, she has the freedom to say, “remove this cup from me,” as Jesus would later consider requesting in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Perhaps she even has freedom to decline to acknowledge the presence of the angel in the room—to continue reading her book, her eyes fixed on the expected rather than the unexpected.

When Campin and his workshop artists painted this triptych in the early 15th century, there was a religious movement in the land called Devotio Moderna, a turn toward a set of monastic-based practices of humility, obedience, and simplicity.  It was a pre-Protestant critique of the wealth and empire of the dominant Catholic culture, offering a deep spirituality accessible to the growing middle class.  As part of the rather mystic approach of Devotio Moderna, Christians were called to meditate on Biblical scenes as if they were inside them—to imaginatively converse and interact with the characters within the scenes.

Detail, center panel of the Merode Altarpiece
by the Workshop of Robert Campin.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Cloisters Collection.
Some art historians believe that the early Netherlandish artists like Robert Campin intentionally created some of their artworks to serve as instruments for meditation in the new Devotio Moderna style.  Deep in reverent prayer, you enter the scene.  The time that separates you by 2,000 years from an ancient—and seemingly irrecoverable—reality becomes meaningless.  The deep past is no further away than the second that just passed.  Similarly, the vast distance that separates you from Nazareth becomes meaningless.  It is all holy space.

The moment is now, in Nazareth twenty centuries ago.  The moment is now, a cloudy day in Belgium six centuries ago.  The moment is now, experiencing the painting in The Cloisters in Washington Heights, New York City.  The moment is now, wherever you are.

There’s an angel in the room.

Campin, assisted by his workshop of talented artists, invites the viewer to look up and greet the miraculous.  And he implicitly challenges the viewer to respond as Mary would:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Luke 1: 46-48

Reference Sources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection Online
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, translated by William C. Creasy

© 2014 Lee Price

Monday, December 8, 2014

Notes for an Essay Series on Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur

Winsor McCay's
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Turns 100!

Gertie peeks out.
The world’s oldest animated dinosaur, Gertie, turned 100 this year.  Gertie made her world debut in February 1914, with the animated dinosaur appearing to interact with her live creator, the brilliant artist Winsor McCay (1869-1934), on a vaudeville stage in Chicago.  Last month, I celebrated this important early cinema anniversary at a Museum of Modern Art film event hosted by John Canemaker (who led the audience in a “Happy Birthday” sing-along!) but I didn’t celebrate here on my blog, where I had really hoped to find the time to compose a multi-part blog series.

Someday I may still get to it, but in the meantime, here are my notes on subjects and questions that might reward future development:

        Pay tribute to a hundred years’ worth of changes to the exterior of the American Museum of Natural History (contrast today’s museum with a screen capture from 1914?).
        Illuminate those dark interiors of the American Museum of Natural History to better expose the museum!  (Poor McCay was hampered by a refusal from the museum staff to allow appropriate film lighting.)
        Compare/contrast:  From McCay’s personality animation of a mosquito in How a Mosquito Operates (1912) to the full-blown personality animation of Gertie.
On command, Gertie lifts her foot,
complete with animated shadow.
        What it would have been like to first-hand witness McCay’s vaudeville act with its lightning sketches?  And what would it have been like to have been in one of the first audiences for Gertie the Dinosaur, with McCay snapping his whip???
        Speculate on the vaudeville musical accompaniment that would have added a third component to the multimedia production (film, live performance, and live music).
        Explore Gertie’s use of the screen as an extension of the vaudeville stage, with great depth of field (a lake extending into the distance).
        What kind of a dinosaur is Gertie? This question would naturally lead to an exploration of turn-of-the-century dinosaur representation.
        What kind of a sea serpent is in the water? This question would naturally lead to an exploration of turn-of-the-century sea serpent representation.
        Gertie as a toddler.  Gertie with a diagnosis of ADHD.
        Gertie as a puppy.
        Gertie’s size, and the question of whether Gertie is treated to a pumpkin or an apple.
        The bizarre anatomy of the four-winged pterosaur.
        And Gertie’s eloquent tail—a charming example of McCay’s masterful ability to capture personality in subtle comic details.

Gertie's very eloquent tail.

© 2014 Lee Price