Monday, December 15, 2008

Why Is There a Snail Next to Gabriel?

One of the things I love about the Christmas season are the lovely greeting cards people send each other. For many people it is their only exposure to the beautiful art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods and to paintings with religious themes. Recently in my grammar art classes we have been looking at the Christmas story as told in art and in the logic and rhetoric painting classes students have been painting Medieval Christmas images. Most of us are familiar with scenes of the Nativity, but there are many paintings that tell other parts of the story, too.

In the book of Luke, the Christmas story begins with Gabriel telling Mary the good news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. These scenes are typically referred to as "Annunciation" paintings and obviously include Gabriel and Mary. However, many of these images also contain other objects that may leave us wondering. Why is there a snail in the front of Francesca del Cossa's version (seen at right)? While viewers today may be stumped, viewers during the Renaissance would have been familiar with the many symbols that we look past or scratch our heads at in these paintings. The snail was thought to live underground in the dark in its shell for three months of the year when it would re-emerge. If this makes you think of the time Christ spent in the tomb, you have solved the riddle. Many of the extra items in these paintings hint at the end of Christ's time on earth, even as His time in human flesh is just beginning. Lilies are an obvious symbol, but take note of how many there are in a painting. Not only do they refer to Christ's death and resurrection, but if there are three of them then they refer to the Trinity. While three is also a visually pleasing number, many instances of three are meant to be symbolic of the Trinity: three windows in a background, three divisions in the architecture, three vases on a table. Colors also have great significance in Renaissance art. Mary is typically depicted wearing blue because it is a heavenly color. White objects frequently refer to purity and red is the color of Christ's blood shed for us.

While viewing the Annunciation images, students noted that not only were there many recurring symbols, but the storyline of the paintings rarely varied. Traditionally Mary is depicted as being interrupted in her devotions by Gabriel's visit, so she is usually seen kneeling with an open Bible nearby. Luke 1:26-27 says, "In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David." It really doesn't say what Mary was doing--she may have been sleeping, which is how one Henry Ossawa Tanner painted his version (look back a couple posts to see his version). Which also brings up the quandary of what really is Biblical versus what is simply traditional. Well, the best way to find that out is to open one's Bible and read for yourself, but we do talk about these things in class. Lilies aren't mentioned in the Bible, and neither are haloes, which are always of interest to students. One of the most common questions I am asked is why some of the people have gold circles around their heads. We discuss that this is an artistic device to set apart the saints in the image; then we talk about how the Bible defines saints (all believers). But then, just when the students grow used to seeing the haloes we see a painting that doesn't have them and the question becomes why aren't there any! If you pay attention to the haloes, you will notice that Christ's frequently has a crucifix in it because He died on the cross for us.

This fact created quite a stir when we viewed Nativity images by Duccio and Giotto (shown at left), both of which show two babies with crosses in their haloes. Only the kindergartners solved the dilemma on the first try--there are two baby Jesuses in these paintings. That fact doesn't make sense to most of us, and since we are not familiar with such artistic devices these days it may leave us confused. The device is called simultaneous narrative, which simply means telling more than one part of the story at the same time, and was not uncommon in art of this time. One of Botticelli's paintings shows seven different episodes in the life of Moses--all in one scene. Many adoration paintings show the angel announcing to the shepherds and the shepherds arrival at the same time. Gentile de Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi" (shown below) shows four moments in the story of the visit of the Magi.

In annunciation and nativity images, however, we frequently find another device that is like simultaneous narrative, but instead of telling other parts of the Christmas story, reminds us of why Christ came. In addition to symbols that refer to the crucifixion and resurrection, there are sometimes hidden references to the sin in the garden from which arose the need for a Saviour. Rogier van der Weyden's panel from the Columba Altarpiece (at left) shows Adam and Eve standing under the tree carved into the wooden furniture on which Mary is kneeling. But these references can be found in many paintings from this time period. If there is a stained glass window or carved sculptures or small figures in the background of a painting they bear close scrutiny and you will frequently find an Old Testament story told and many times it will be the story of the first couple on earth, reminding us of why Jesus has come.

I could write pages and pages about the many symbols found in just the Christmas story, but suffice it to say that if there is something unusual in the painting, it probably had meaning--even if we don't understand it now. If you have any questions a short search on the internet will usually turn up answers, or leave a question in my comment section--I'll try to find the answer and get back to you. A couple other important symbols to note are the dove of the Holy Spirit that descends on Mary and bare feet, which are a sign of holy ground. For a quick rundown: dogs represent faithfulness and loyalty, cats slothfulness, magpies Christ's suffering, irises sorrow and columbines were thought to look like the dove of the Holy Spirit. See if you can spot all these things when you peruse paintings. Merry Christmas, and may God bless you greatly in the year to come.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My own angel

I recently took part in a Christmas ornament swap in the Christian Paper Artists group. Here is a photo of one of the angels I made. The collaged background made them all slightly different, but the colors and design elements were the same. One the back I wrote a snippet of the Christmas story from Luke about the multitude of the heavenly host singing praises to God.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An American Annunciation

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

The United States does not have the same long tradition of religious painting that Europe does. One rather obvious reason is that we just don't have long traditions because the country is a young one. Our painting heritage also focuses on different things, like landscapes and the spirit of the west. While still in our teens (comparatively speaking) modernism hit, which totally changed most subject matter. Henry Ossawa Tanner was the son of a preacher, which perhaps explains his exploration of religious themes in his art, or maybe it was the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the reason, I find his version of the Annunciation lovely. As much as I admire the many beautiful Renaissance and Baroque versions of this topic, I think Tanner's version is more realistic in its simplicity. I like how the focus is on Mary and not the grand architecture surrounding her. I like how we are left to wonder what an angel would really look like. But most of all I like how her face reflects her wonder, her question of how this could be, and her humble acceptance of God's will for her life. Tanner shows us a girl who is on the beginning of a difficult road, but who approaches it without fear--a reminder of how believers should approach the Christian faith. If you are not a believer, I would offer the angel's words to you, to "fear not," and invite you to look a little deeper this blessed season to see what the Christmas Day is really celebrating.

"And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation."

--Luke 1:46-50

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hand carved stamps

While following a link today I found a post about carving stamps that I wanted to share. Hand carving my own stamps is something I started last year and don't have enough time for (some of my friends might be amused to know that I have finally realized that I enjoy cutting things up--I'm constantly cutting out stars and snowflakes this time of year and was always the official Keeper of the Knives wherever I worked). If you are interested at all in trying this activity, check out this link for some inspiration--I see that I need to set my sights a little higher, or rather, larger. Enjoy it!

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Annunciation

Orazio Gentilleschi, The Annunciation 1623

This is one of my favorite Annunciation paintings. I love the bright colors and the dynamic composition as the eye moves down the sweep of the curtain to the line of Gabriel's back, then back up his arm to Mary's face, where our gaze comes to rest. Her humility shows on her face as she ponders the angel's greeting and the news. Notice the dove of the Holy Spirit entering at the window above and the rays of light that signify God's presence. The lilies are a reminder of how Christ's life will end--in the pain and death of Easter, but also in glorious resurrection. Mary wears the traditional blue outer garment, which symbolizes heaven. Gabriel is bare footed, reminding us of God's command to Moses to remove his shoes because he was treading on holy ground. Altogether it is a very graceful and peaceful image.

"Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her." --Luke 1:26-38

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Holy Star


As shadows cast by cloud and sun
Flit o'er the summer grass,
So, in thy sight, Almighty One,
Earth's generations pass.
And while the years, an endless host,
Come pressing swiftly on,
The brightest names that earth can boast
Just glisten and are gone.
Yet doth the Star of Bethlehem shed
A lustre pure and sweet,
And still it leads, as once it led,
To the Messiah's feet.
O Father, may that holy star
Grow every year more bright,
And send its glorious beams afar
To fill the world with light.

William Cullen Bryant 1875

Thank you to my lovely friend Gayle, for sharing this beautiful poem celebrating the reason for this season of celebration.