Advent offering 24 December

For our final advent offering of 2015, I thought I’d share some images of a gospel tradition that follows shortly after the story of the nativity. In Matthew 2.13-23, after the magi have paid their visit, God visits Joseph in a dream and tells him to take his family and flee to Egypt, as Herod intends to search for the child and kill him. This tradition has become very popular in art, with paintings from across the centuries showing these dramatic events as they unfold.

Often, artists have captured the family making this long and difficult journey, travelling through hostile territory, looking weary and unsure.

tanner flight into etypt
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight into Egypt (1923)
Hans Sandreuter Flight to Egypt 1885
Hans Sandreuter, Flight into Egypt (1885)
Carl Spitzweg, The Flight to Egypt (c.1879)
Carl Spitzweg, Flight into Egypt (c.1879)

Other artists have added to the gospel traditions, showing the family taking a rest on the journey, perhaps to emphasise how long and tiring their travels were.

Luc-Olivier Merson Rest on the Flight into Egypt 1876
Luc-Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1876)

Mary is snoozing with Jesus in the embrace of a Sphinx!

Rembrandt 1647
Rembrandt, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647)
Adam_Elsheimer_-_Die_Flucht_nach_Ägypten_(Schloss_Weißenstein)
Adam Elsheimer, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (17th Century)

Less often, we see the journey as it reaches its end, and the holy family arrive at their destination.

Edwin_Longsden_Long_-_Anno_Domini 1883
Edwin Long, Anno Domini (Flight to Egypt), 1883

One of my favourite images of this gospel tradition, however, has to be this modern take by Russian artist Ivan Korshunov.

Ivan Korshunov Flight to Egypt
Ivan Korshunov, Flight to Egypt (n.d.)

I love this visual interpretation of the story – Mary and Joseph are depicted as strong, confident characters, content in the knowledge that they are going to outrun any dangers that are snapping at their heels. On their motorcycle, they have speed and power. Mary smiles contentedly, her limbs wrapped around Joseph in a gesture of both comfort and desire. Even the infant Jesus seems blissfully unaware of his surroundings, snugly sheltering on his mother’s back. This is a family of refugees that exudes contentment and care, looking ahead to the safety of the life that awaits them in a new land, far away from Herod’s grasp.

Well, that’s it for 2015. From all of us at the Auckland Theology and Religion blog, health and happiness to you and yours over this festive period and we look forward to sharing more with you on the blog in 2016.

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Advent offering 23 December

With only two sleeps to go, today’s penultimate Advent offering brings us another beautiful image of the nativity, capturing the moment when the shepherds come to pay homage to the infant Jesus. The artist, N.C. Wyeth, uses light and darkness to great effect here, bringing a sense of wonder to the scene. As the shepherds crowd into the dark space of the byre, the only light source seems to be the infant Jesus himself, whose tiny sleeping body is emanating a warm glow that brightens his mother’s face and radiates towards those who draw near to him.

NC Wyeth Nativity 1912
N.C. Wyeth, Nativity (1912)

Back tomorrow for our final Advent offering – see you then.

Advent offering 22 December

With only three sleeps to go ’til Christmas, we move from yesterday’s annunciation to the shepherds to another iconic image from the nativity – the adoration of the magi, who follow a star from the East until it alights on the place that they will find Jesus. Now, according to Matthew 2.1-12, it’s likely these magi visited the newborn Jesus a little while after his dramatic birth in the manger, yet this is usually the location in which artists like to portray them. Another artistic tradition is that, typically, three magi are depicted; the gospels do not say how many of these ‘wise men’ there were, only that they brought three expensive gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. For all we know, there could have been many more. Which is why I find today’s Advent offering so interesting, as it chooses to eschew artistic traditions and offer us a glimpse of the other possibilities for this rather splendid visitation.

A_Adoração_dos_Magos_(1828)_-_Domingos_Sequeira
Domingos Sequeira, Adoration of the Magi (1828)

In Domingos Sequeira’s beautiful work, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are standing out in what appears to be a public thoroughfare, rather than in the manger where Mary gave birth. Above them shines that star with a near-blinding brightness; and it appears to have guided a whole host of magi to see this special baby. If you look closely at this image (and you can enlarge it here), you quickly lose count of how many magi-like figures are jostling to meet the holy family, carrying their gifts and paying obeisance. There are also many others present too, including women and children, who have perhaps come out to see these rather exotic visitors. And, in the midst of all the melee, the infant Jesus is ignoring everything that’s going on and staring rather sweetly at the shiny star that continues to hover over his head.

Back tomorrow for our penultimate Advent image for 2015.

Advent offering 21 December

Four sleeps to go ’til Christmas, so only four more Advent offerings left. Today’s artwork follows on with our Nativity story, focusing on the annunciation of the shepherds, as narrated in the gospel of Luke 2.8-14. I’ve chosen two very different images for you that relate this tradition. First, a beautiful painting by  German artist Heinrich Vogeler, which captures the moment when the angel first appears to the shepherds.

Heinrich_Vogeler_Verkündigung_an_die_Hirten_1902
Heinrich Vogeler, Verkundigun an die Hirten (1902)

The colour of the angel’s garment and wings is divine (a lovely change from the usual white) and goes rather nicely with her copper hair. The shepherds (a taciturn looking bunch) don’t seem to know what to make of her, while the cow in the centre of the image appears rather unimpressed. Perhaps once they all turn round and see that shooting star heading towards the byre in Bethlehem, they’ll get a little more excited about the events unfolding.

The second image I have for you is very different, capturing that moment in Luke 2.13-14 when the angelic messenger is joined by a ‘host’ of fellow divine bodies, who then proceed to burst into song. In this beautiful painting by Abraham Hondius, a riot of cherubim tumble from the heavens like confetti, while the central angelic figure lifts her arm as though to conduct them in their singing. The shepherds in this image do look suitably amazed, although note that, once again, the cow looks decidedly blasé.

476px-The_Annunciation_to_the_Shepherds_1663_Abraham_Hondius
Abraham Hondius, Annunciation to the shepherds (1663)

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Back tomorrow with some magi and mangers. See you then.

Advent offering 20 December

As we are just five sleeps from Christmas Day, the Auckland TheoRel Advent calendar will follow the tradition of previous years and focus for this last week on artistic depictions of the nativity story. Starting us off, a beautiful image of the central event in the nativity – the birth of Jesus. In the gospels, this event is mentioned almost in passing (Matt 1.25; Luke 2.7). Mary gives birth to Jesus in the byre they are sheltering in, with only Joseph present to serve as attending midwife. It’s a little while before visitors arrive (more of which tomorrow), so the couple have a moment to sit and reflect on how this event will shape their future. And while this hiatus in the action is not given explicit mention in the gospels, it has been captured beautifully by the artist I spoke about in yesterday’s Advent offering, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Holy_Family c1910
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Holy Family (1910)

In this image, Mary and Joseph look less like the jubilant parents of a newborn than two people caught up in a journey that was not of their own planning. Mary sits bathed in an ethereal light, not touching or looking at the infant by her side; instead, she stares into the fireplace, lost in thought. Joseph, meanwhile, stands a little bit away, his eyes closed, with an expression of uncertainty and even sadness on his face. Distancing himself from his family, he appears at a loose end, not entirely sure if he belongs.  He knows that the baby is not his – he knows that his wife-to-be has undergone an experience in which he can never fully share. Both he and Mary seem to apprehend that something monumental has occurred here – their lives have undergone a seismic shift from which they will never fully recover. And so, before the brouhaha begins – before the visitors start pouring in and the drama continues to unfold, they make the most of this quiet moment together, with its strange mix of intimacy and withdrawal, lost in their own, and each other’s, thoughts. Meanwhile, the infant Jesus, lying between them and glowing in the gloom, appears, at least momentarily, to have been forgotten.

Tanner also painted a picture of Mary herself with her newborn son, which again shows this mother deep in thought, and appearing to ignore the child that lies to her right. These images remind us that, while Jesus is the central character in the nativity story, there are two other crucial players within this narrative whom, in the excitement of the birth event, we all too often overlook.

Henry-Ossawa-Tanner Mary
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary (c.1900)

 

Advent offering 19 December

Today’s Advent offering comes from another of my favourite artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner. One of the things I love about his art is his incredible use of colour to portray the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Just look at the painting below, which depicts the tradition of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14.22-33).

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner,_The_Disciples_See_Christ_Walking_on_the_Water,_c._1907
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples see Christ Walking on the Water (c.1907)

The figure of Jesus stands in the top left corner of the painting – Tanner has portrayed him with little detail, so that he looks rather like an amorphous blob, similar in colour to the surrounding sea on which he stands. The disciples stand uncertainly on the boat, looking towards Jesus – some seem to be cowering at the back of the boat, as far away as they can from this supernatural event, while one (perhaps Peter?) stands up as though to get a better view.

Compared to the biblical tradition, where a storm is raging, the water is as calm as glass here. Tanner has infused this image with a glorious turquoise wash that brings an air of complete calm to the scene – an attestation by the artist, perhaps, that Jesus can indeed calm any of life’s storms.

Contrast this, however, with the image below, which has appeared in our Advent calendar back in 2013. In The Annunciation, Tanner’s colour palette is a flush of hot oranges and reds – we can feel the heat emanating from the (rather vulval-looking) angelic presence and sense the immenseness of the event for a very young and apprehensive Mary, who has been cornered by this divine messenger.

Tanner The Annunciation 1898
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation (1898)

Tanner shows us here how colour can affect our reading of a visual image – from cool waters to fiery angels, these paintings are designed to elicit in the beholder an emotional response, which reflects the interpretive intentions of the artist. The aqua tones in his depiction of Jesus calming the storm also soothes the viewer with promises of Christ’s power over chaos, while Mary’s unsettling encounter with the angel likewise unsettles us, making this annunciation event all the more awesome.

 

 

Advent offering 18 December

Today’s Advent offering will be a short one, as I’m heading off to do some Christmas shopping. As promised yesterday, I’m going to treat you to another portrait by that most wonderful artist Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve chosen one of his most famous portrayals of biblical characters, Bathsheba at her bath (1654).

Bathsheba
Rembrand van Rijn, Bathsheba at her bath (1654)

Unlike the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 11, Bathsheba appears to be bathing indoors, rather than on the roof of her house. There is therefore no figure of David in the background, watching with a lustful gaze. Instead, Bathsheba clutches a letter, presumably from the King, inviting her to visit him at the palace (the painting is known by the alternative title of Bathsheba with King David’s Letter). As she lets her handmaid assist her with her preparatory ablutions, her face looks sad and troubled, foreseeing perhaps the terrible events that will unfold in the near future – David’s (unwanted?) sexual attentions, her unplanned pregnancy, the death of her husband Uriah, and the loss of her and David’s infant son. And so, without David there, we are left, as viewers, to take his place as voyeur, gazing upon her vulnerable body and desiring it, regardless of the consequences.

Back tomorrow for another Advent offering!

Advent offering 17 December

Today’s offering comes from an artist who is a particular favourite of mine, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt was a prolific painter of biblical scenes and characters, imbuing them with meaning through his use of colour, tone, light, darkness, and detail. So today and tomorrow, I will consider two of his paintings: for today’s offering, I’ve chosen his wonderful portrait of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah.

rembrandt jermeiah
Rembrandt van Rijn, Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem (1630)

Rembrandt has depicted the prophet at the moment of Jerusalem’s destruction by invading Babylonian troops. He sits a distance away, head in hands, affirming his reputation for being one of the gloomiest biblical prophets in the Hebrew Bible. With his bare feet, he appears to have rushed off at short notice from the burning city (which we glimpse in the background), but not before he has  salvaged some precious remnants from the now-decimated temple. A gold dish and jug, some books, and a velvet embroidered cloth lie by his left side – all that is left of the house of God, in which Jeremiah would have served as priest. His deep sadness is contagious here – the sombre tones reflect a sense of loss and grief, while his small bundle of salvaged treasures are but a cruel reminder of how utterly comprehensive the overthrow of Jerusalem, and its temple, has been. No wonder then he lamented wih such ferocity throughout his prophetic ministry, no wonder his words were so bitter and heartsore:

My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
    Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
    I cannot keep silent;
for I hear the sound of the trumpet,
    the alarm of war.
 Disaster overtakes disaster,
    the whole land is laid waste...

…I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
    and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
    and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
    and all its cities were laid in ruins
    before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

Because of this the earth shall mourn,
    and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
    I have not relented nor will I turn back. (Jeremiah 4:19-28).

 

 

Advent offering 16 December

Today’s Advent offering is a brand new work from Iain Campbell, who is artist-in-residence at St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow, Scotland. He recently unveiled this beautiful contemporary depiction of the Last Supper, titled ‘Our Last Supper’. The painting features men from Glasgow’s City Mission – a Christian charity that cares for vulnerable adults who are impacted by poverty, unemployment, and other social problems.

Last supper
Iain Campbell, Our Last Supper (2015)

According to Campbell, viewers are usually surprised by the ordinariness of the figures in the painting, in contrast to the more idealized portrayals of Jesus and his disciples we usually see in Christian art. But, as he explains, ‘There’s a sense that there are some real raw stories behind the faces in the painting…We decided to call the painting Our Last Supper. It was based on something one of the guys had said to me: ‘I suppose for any one of us this might be our last supper.'”

Last supper detail
Detail of John Wallace

This is a powerful painting – I love the way it strips away the romanticization of the Last Supper tradition, which we often see in artistic portrayals, and brings to the fore themes of community in the midst of hardship, and the grim reality that  this common meal is necessitated by poverty and misfortune.  There is no messiah here, just a gathering of men with a shared sense of need and first-hand experience of marginalization, who look towards us and ask us to acknowledge they are there.

Last supper detail 2
Detail of Arthur Curtis

For further details of this painting and the artist, see the feature on the BBC Scotland website here.

 

 

Advent offering 15 December

Today’s advent image is brought to us by English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. Titled, Christ in the house with his parents, Millais appears to be following the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of bringing realism into his work, using bright jewel tones to depict this fabulously detailed domestic scene. Set in what appears to be a carpenter’s workshop, we see a young russet-haired Jesus being comforted by his parents after he has cut his hand (presumably on some tool or rough piece of wood in the workshop). This is a very human Jesus, caught in a mundane moment – very different to earlier artistic works which preferred to present Christ in more glorified or esoteric forms.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (1850)

John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (1850)

And yet, while the sawdust and blood roots this image of Jesus very much within the earthy realm, Millais also hints at the divinity of Christ through his use of various signs and symbols within the painting. The young chap on the right is John the Baptist (identified by hjs little animal skin skirt), carefully carrying a bowl of water presumably to wash Jesus’ wounds – might this prefigure the gospel tradition of John’s baptism of Jesus (Matt 3.13-17)? Perching on a rung of the ladder that leans against the wall behind Joseph, we see a dove, reminiscent of the spirit of God, which descends ‘like a dove’ upon Jesus once he has been baptised (Matt 3.16). Despite the domestic and very earthly setting of this family, Millais seems to suggest that God is most assuredly in their midst. Meanwhile, Jesus’ wound looks ominously like those wounds he will receive on his hands and feet at the crucifixion; indeed, in his father’s hand we see what looks like a large metal nail, akin to those that will later be driven through Jesus’ flesh into the cross. And speaking of crosses, the workshop is stacked with wooden planks; innocent enough, but they may remind us of the two planks of wood that will be used to construct the cross on which this young redheaded boy will one day die. Yet, in the background of the picture, a flock of sheep bustle forward to see what’s going on in the workroom. Perhaps this is to reassure the viewer, inviting them to recall Jesus’ legacy as the ‘Good Shepherd’ who, despite his death, will remain saviour and messiah for the Christian community.

Thus, Millais’ Christ in the house of his parents is an image that is both  poignant and hopeful. At the time of its exhibition, however, it was also controversial. Its domestication and humanising of Jesus and the holy family was considered blasphemous by some viewers, most notably Charles Dickens, who was particularly affronted at the ugliness of Millais’ Mary. Poor Millais, and poor Mary Hodgkinson, his sister-in-law, who had modelled as Mary for the artist. Personally, I think she looks lovely.