Art of the Gospels, Part 3, Birth & Early Years

P1080204Okay, Scrapbookers, time for baby pictures. Of course, now-a-days we have sonograms and birthing selfies on our cell phones. Yuck. I’m glad that God commissioned something with more compositional value.  This tondo (Italina for round painting), attributed to Jacopo del Tedesco in the Borghese Gallery, shows Mary and Joseph, along with some shepherds in the window, admiring Jesus.  John the Baptist supports Jesus’ head and left arm, looking at Mary, as if enacting the baptism which he will perform later.  Joseph appears to be saying, “I’m too old for all of this.”

—- Before continuing, I want to give a shout-out to Roslyn for filling me in on a technical point.  If you want to see the pictures in a larger image, move your curse over and click.  To return to the blog, use the back arrow in the upper left corner.  Maybe evernone else knew this, but I learned something.  I know that many of the pictures that I present are pretty small on your comptures.  Thanks.

P1080206One type of composition of Jesus’ baby pictures are the Holy Family trio’s of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.  John the Baptist shows up in a number of these, sometimes appearing several years older than Jesus. In Lorenzo di Credi’s tondo at the Borghese Gallery, infant Jesus blesses John, who appears to bow before Jesus.  Italian painters of the 16th century tended to paint infants and children as small men and woman.  In this case, both Jesus and John have faces of fat, old geezers, more like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men.

P1080277A major theme of these pictures is the relationship of the family.  One view of Judaism and Christianity, is that God is seeking a relationship with people. How often are familiar terms, “Father”, “Son”, “Brothers” (sorry, for the sexism) used in the narratives.  Federico Barocci’s painting at the Vatican, shows Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as they flee to Egypt.  Unlike the tondo paintings above, Mary actually looks like an adolescent which she would have been.  She looks weary from their travels, and rather than looking at the interaction between father and son, she places a bowl near the ground to feed a bird.  Meanwhile, Joseph passes a branch with cherries to Jesus.  Their eyes meet.  This interaction is also uncommon in Holy Family portraits, where Joseph is often absent or absent-minded.  Barocci captures the glowing smile of Jesus, the happy smile of his father, and resting smile of Mary.  But, beyond being a pleasant, pastoral scene, Barocci symbolically reminds us of the importance of this family.  If you follow the lines of each arm, Joseph reaching to Jesus — Jesus resting his hand on Mary’s knee — Mary placing the bowl before the bird, they form an equilateral triangle.  The Trinity is embedded in this story, as it is in the story of Jesus’s life.

P1080315On the theme of the Trinity, as another form of Holy Family, Ludovico Carracci in the Vatican presents this gripping image of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As I suggested, many Holy Family and Mondona with Child images foreshadow Jesus’ ministry, persecution, and death.  In this image,  the Father is present as the Son is lowered from the cross.  Angels support Jesus’ limp body, hold the cross and nails.  The Father wraps his left arm under Jesus’ shoulder, while raising his right hand.  Is this P1080314a gesture of blessing and comfort to those at Jesus’ disposition?  Or, the Father raising his hand in anguish?  Looking at the Father’s facial expression, Carracci captures the sadness of a father seeing his son suffering the pain of humanity.  Unlike many human depictions of the Father, he is personal and affected by the events, not some distant cloud-dwelling stoic.

P1080237While our Advent Season mentality tends to lump Birth-In-The-Manager-Angles-And-Shepherds-Magi’s-Epiphany, these were really separate events. One convention of painting is to included several scenes into one painting.  Jesus might be swaddled in the manger, while angles are proclaiming to shepherds on a distant ridge, and shepherds are peaking through the windows of the barn all at the same time.

Jacopo and Leandro Bassano’s Adoration of Magi, at the Borghese Gallery, is filled to brim with stars, peacocks, barn animals, Magi, all climbing on each other to fit into the picture.  The foreground characters are more obvious, with the Holy Family and retinue of the Magi.  Some shepherds peer around the sides of the barn.  In the middle ground, more shepherds gather among ruins of ancient buildings

P1080296However, in the Gospels, the shepherds arrived before the Magi.  And, the Magi came to Mary’s home, after she returned from Jerusalem, not at the stable in Bethlehem.  Giovanni di Paolo depicts the Nativity setting, placing Mary and Jesus in the center, Joseph sleeping to the right, a couple of female attendants to the left, and the shepherds listening to an angle in the distant fields.  What stands out in this image is less the composition, and more the use of light, emanating not from a natural light source, such as the sun, moon, stars, or fire, but from Jesus and the angles.  Paolo literally paints the Light of the World.

P1080234As you will learn, my preference is for more intimate settings of the stories.  I will not deny this bias, as much as I enjoy symbol sleuthing and dazzling compositions.  Thus, Jacopo Bassano’s Adoration of the Shepherd, at the Borghese Gallery, appeals more to my taste.  Bassano places the sheep and shepherds front-and-center this time.  One has reclined right in front of Jesus and plays his pipe. Other shepherds to the right, and possibly Joseph on the left appear to be trying to keep all of the barn animals in place.  If you have ever gone into a barn full of animals, you know that they either will crowd you, or try to get out the door.  Though Mary is a bit over-dressed for the part, this is a wonderfully earthy scene.  But do not overlook the embedded symbolism.  The lamb, strongly lit in the center, is only inches away from the Lamb of God.  Birth, death and sacrifice are never far away.

P1080312While many Nativity paintings lump several events together, between the time the shepherds stopped by and the Magi show up, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple for presentation and circumcision.  Raphael painted this scene in the Vatican, with Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus to the priest in the center of the painting.  Who are all those folks in the side loggia?  Random onlookers, family, patrons?  I’ll bet whoever paid for this altar would recognize themselves there.

P1080295Elsewhere in the Vatican is an alter with an image of Christ being circumcised, painted by Ottaviono Nelli.  I went to a bris P1080294when I lived in Queens once. It was quiet the social event until the boy started crying. Do I carry on my conversation as if nothing were happening, stop and gawk, or have another mushroom cap from the hors d’oeuvres tray? This is the only painting that I found of Jesus circumcision.  Nelli puts Jesus front and center in the temple with quite the hoard looking on.

P1080336Technically, the Magi did not find Jesus in a manger. Mary and Joseph had returned to a house in Bethlehem. Paintings of the Adoration of the Magi which show a house often place it in ruins, as in Pinturicchio’s The Adoration of the Magi, in the Vatican’s The Room of the Mystery of the Faith. This may be more symbolic of the Jewish nation and Roman Empire, than the described location. Of course, the purpose of art is to go beyond depicting the events, in order to interpret the importance of the events and capture our interest in them. Otherwise, we just have paparazzi snapping photos of famous people checking in on a kid.

P1080211Murder of 1st Born The blood, gore, and escaping them of the Old Testament is not far away, when we read the account of the Holy Family slipping out from Herod’s wrath after the Magi duck out at night. Blood and gore make for great paintings, with contorted limbs and faces. The 20th century genocides only changed the technology by which we butchered each other. I do not think that Ippolito Scarsella was wanting to make some statement about the futility of violence in society, in his painting Massacre of the Innocents in the Borghese Gallery.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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4 Responses to Art of the Gospels, Part 3, Birth & Early Years

  1. Barneysday says:

    This is an awesome art tour, your second job could certainly be an art docent. Well done.

    I dont understand the painting nearly as well as you, and frankly usually find them heavy, dark and a bit depressing. you’ve provided me some enlightenment. Thank you

    • hermitsdoor says:

      If you have ever stepped into a church in Italy (or most of Europe, the amount of “stuff” is overwhelming and usually darkly lit (an Euro in the light box will illuminate the chapels where so many of these masterpieces are tucked away). Part of doing some homework ahead of time helps to train the eye to see both the grandure of the whole sanctuary, and to filter out all the gold and marble and other tourists. As you can imagine the bulk of the fresco, paintings and sculpture are scenes of Jesus’ birth and death. Future posts get kind of sparce of images, at least in Rome… then there are those dead saints whom I will not address: beheadings, more crucifixions, plucked out eye-balls, roasting over fires, consumed by wild beasts…

  2. The Vicar says:

    Thanks for the fascinating walk through the Gospel through the eyes and interpretations of the art community. Very insightful.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Thanks. Limiting myself to the Gospels seemed to be a project that I could complete. Then there are all the Hebrew Bible stories and martyred staints paintings which would way too much reading to try to accomplish!

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