Sunday, April 29, 2012

Miracles of St. Peter – The Brancacci Chapel

Masaccio, St. Peter Healing With His Shadow
Italian, 1426-1427
Florence, Santa Maria del Carmine, Brancacci Chapel
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said:
"Leaders of the people and elders:
If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved."
(Acts 4:8-12) First Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B)1

Since the liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church follows a three-year cycle (Years A, B and C) of readings on Sundays (and a two year cycle on weekdays). This means that, with a very few exceptions, the readings for a given Sunday rotate from year to year. However, there is sometimes a relationship between readings over the three-year cycle. The Fourth Sunday of Easter, which occurs this year on April 29th, is a case in point. It is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” and, in each phase of the cycle, features a Gospel reading that is drawn from different portions of Chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. This year (2012) the passage is the actual “I am the Good Shepherd” portion (John 10:11-18).

During the Easter Season, also, the first of the three weekly readings is drawn from the Acts of the Apostles. But, unlike the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the first reading varies by year within the cycle. In Year B (2012) the reading for this Fourth Sunday is a continuation of the readings from Acts that have been read at the daily Masses during the past few weeks. Acts Chapters 3, 4 and 5 focus on a series of events in the life of St. Peter and the other apostles at the very beginning of the Church.
Masaccio, View of Brancacci Chapel

During the years 1425-1427 these events from the life of St. Peter formed the basis for one of the seminal artistic projects that mark the beginning of the transition of Italian Renaissance art from the still medieval Quattrocento toward the pinnacle of the High Renaissance.

This project was the decoration of a chapel, financed by the Brancacci family, in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence by two artists with the first name of Thomas: Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, known as Masolino da Panicale, and Tommaso di Ser Giovanni de Simone, better known as Masaccio. 2
Masolino, View of Brancacci Chapel

The contribution of the older artist, Masolino, is limited. He began the project, with Masaccio as his assistant, but abandoned it for other work. From 1426 Masaccio carried on alone. The majority of the work in the chapel is his. However, he too was forced to abandon his work in 1427 when he was called to work in Rome, where he died, at the early age of 27, in 1428. The final paintings were completed by Filippino Lippi much later in the century.

The subject of the Gospel reading for today (see above) is the healing of a cripple by St. Peter. The illustration of this scene in the Brancacci Chapel is the work of Masolino and it is interesting as a comparison with a similar subject (the Raising of the Son of Theophilus) by Masaccio.
Masolino, Healing of the Cripple
Italian, 1425-1426
Florence, Santa Maria del Carmine, Brancacci Chapel

Masolino, detail of Healing of the

Masolino’s painting belongs to the still Gothic style that continued into the middle years of the 15th century. The figures are graceful and elegant, painted as though in silhouette against the background. They seem flat and the folds of their draperies are soft, graceful and more the idea of a fold than the reality of one. The clothing of the witness figures, who are dressed in contemporary, 15th century attire, is particularly telling. The emphasis is on line and pattern, not volume. Indeed, in the left of the two men, seen strolling in conversation to the right of the saints, we see the use of pattern at its most extreme.  His body is completely eradicated by the heavily patterned bell-like shape of his cloak, to the point that "he" becomes merely a patterned bell with legs and a head!

Masaccio, Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned
Italian, 1426-1427
Florence, Santa Maria del Carmine, Brancacci Chapel
Masaccio’s work, on the other hand, seems to come from a different world. His figures are sturdy and solid, existing in three dimensions rather than two. Their obvious volume is created by the play of light and shadow. The clothing in which they are dressed falls in heavy folds. The contemporarily dressed figures in his work appear to be portraits of actual people, including Florentine civic fathers and Carmelite friars, who staffed the church in which the chapel is located.
Detail - left side group
Raising of Theophilus
Detail - center group
Raising of Theophilus
Detail - Carmelite Friars
St. Peter Enthroned
Masaccio’s work at the Brancacci Chapel forms a bridge between the still-medieval aesthetic of the early 15th century and the work of the great masters of the High Renaissance. His realistic, solid figures challenged his fellow painters to imitate and go further. For the rest of the century Florentine artists and visitors from other cities strove to incorporate these characteristics into their own work. Finally, at the end of the century it had its full flowering in the work of Raphael and Michelangelo.


2. You can pay an almost virtual visit to the Brancacci Chapel at

© M. Duffy, 2012

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Meditation on the Passion – In the Tomb

Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation Oer the Dead Christ
Italian, ca. 1490
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
From the late afternoon of Good Friday until the evening of Holy Saturday the Church keeps prayerful, quiet vigil. The tabernacles are empty, the altars are bare, no Mass is celebrated. We remember the second day (from sundown to sundown) of the Passion, the day on which Jesus’ body lies in the tomb. We ponder the sacrifice and await what we know is the joyful outcome. 

Artists have done this also. They have wondered, as we do, about what was happening on that second day. Taking their guide from the phrase in the Apostles Creed “He descended into Hell” some have imagined Jesus freeing Adam, Eve and the righteous ancestors from their bondage in Limbo. Others have imagined the Body of Jesus simply lying in the tomb. Still others have imagined the Body of Jesus tended by angels, who console and prepare Him for the Resurrection. Last year we looked at the first of these.1 This year we will look at the second and third images.

Probably the most astonishing image of the second of these types, the Dead Christ, comes from the brush of Andrea Mantegna, one of the great north Italian painters of the Quattrocento. Often called the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, it shows the body of Jesus, depicted in excruciating detail, in extreme foreshortening, with the nail-pierced feet immediately before our eyes. It is barely a Lamentation, receiving the title only because of the partial inclusion of two people, a man and a woman, at the extreme left edge. The woman is sometimes identified as Mary, but I am doubtful about this. Rather, I think these are two older people of Mantegna’s era and not the richest of his contemporaries either. The woman is shown wiping her eyes, the other figure (presumably a man) is barely visible in profile. This startling image, combining the 1st-century corpse with 15th-century people, still startles us as it must have startled his contemporaries. 

This image, not idealized, detailed, even brutal, became a model for other artists to follow. And, although it was never a popular image, there were followers. Among them were other artists with a realistic, almost scientific bent: Hans Holbein the Younger, Philippe de Champaigne and Giuseppe Sammartino.

In these images we are presented with “just the facts”, a dead body, a cadaver.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Dead Christ in the Tomb
German, 1521
Basel, Kunstmuseum

Philippe de Champaigne, The Dead Christ
French, Prior to 1654
Paris, Louvre Museum

Giuseppe Sammartino, Dead Christ in a Shroud
Italian, 1753
Naples, Santa Maria della Pieta dei Sangro

In the third type, the Dead Christ tended by angels, we see something very different. These images have a deep relationship with the Man of Sorrows image, especially the form of the Man of Sorrows in which Jesus is supported by another person. But, in this variation, the humans have been replaced by angels.

The angels are sometimes sad and sorrowing, sometimes busy working on preparation for the Resurrection. They support and prepare His physical Body for its new, glorified existence.

Alessandro Allori, Dead Christ with Two Angels
Italian, ca. 1600
Budapest, National Museum
This tiny painting, painted on copper, is a bridge between the "scientific" Dead Christ and the
Dead Christ with Angels.  Here the angels tenderly minister to the Body of Christ, preparing it for its
new role. 
Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by  Angels
Italian, ca. 1474
Rimini, Pinacoteca Comunale
Not surprisingly, Venetian artists, like Bellini, were among the first to adapt the Man of Sorrows image to that of
the Dead Christ supported by angels.
Rosso Fiorentino, Dead Christ Supported by Angels
Italian, 1524-1526
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Rosso portrayed a typically Mannerist image of a contorted, unstable body barely supported by the angels.
Paolo Veronese, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels
Italian, 1587-1589
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
Guercino, Angels Mourning the Dead Christ
Italian, 1618
London, National Gallery of Art

1.  See also "O Key of David!  Come, break down the walls of death" at

© M. Duffy, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Meditation on the Passion – The Man of Sorrows

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows
Italian, ca. 1430
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his features,
beyond that of mortals
his appearance, beyond that of human beings—
So shall he startle many nations,
kings shall stand speechless;
For those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.”
(Isaiah 52:13-15) Excerpt from the First Reading for Good Friday Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord 

Among the many images that evoke the Passion the one that is probably the most shocking to our modern eyes is that of the Man of Sorrows. In fact, even among Catholics it is now little known, having been supplanted long ago by other images, such as the Sacred Heart, or more recently, by the Divine Mercy. I confess that I, myself, had never seen it prior to my second year in graduate school and, at first sight, I found it extremely shocking. Yet, it was once one of the best known and most wide spread of all visual meditations on the Passion.

The Man of Sorrows image has many variations and relationships to other images. Interpretation of these relationships is extraordinarily complex, far too complex to deal with in one article. Consequently, I will limit myself to merely describing the most common and simplest variation.

Naddo Ceccarelli, Man of Sorrows
Italian, ca. 1347
Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum

Lorenzo Monaco, Man of Sorrows
Italian, 1415-17
Private Collection

Master Francke, Man of Sorrows
German, c. 1430
Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle
Hans Memling, Man of Sorrows
German, After 1490
Esztergom, Christian Museum

At its most basic the image of the Man of Sorrows is: a half-length image of the crucified Jesus, showing His wounds. He may be shown as crowned with thorns or with the crown removed. His arms may be folded over His torso or they may be extended at His sides. Sometimes He seems to be sitting upright on his own power, sometimes His body is supported by others. In any case His wounds are visible. His head is inclined to His right.  And, most importantly, in the original image He is shown as dead, with closed eyes.
Fra Angelico and assistants, Meditation on the Passion
Italian, 1441-1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco
(In this interesting image, the Man of Sorrows motif is shown as if standing in the tomb, with hands extended.  Behind Him are the shroud, draped between the column of the scourging on the right and the sponge on a stick and lance at the left.  Directly behind Christ is the Cross, with two nails and the superscription ordered by Pilate.  Against a black background on either side of the central beam of the Cross are disembodied vignettes of moments in the Passion narratives:  the betraying kiss of Judas, Peter's denial to the maid servant, the exchange of silver coins, and the mocking of the blindfolded Christ, as well as the whip, hands that slip and tear and a spitting face.  In front of the tomb, Saints Mary Magdalene and Thomas Aquinas are shown in postures that indicate meditation and adoration.  St. Thomas also holds a book and a quill pen, denoting that he is going to write as part of his reflection on the Passion.)

Hans Memling, Virgin with the Man of Sorrows
Netherlandish, 1475-1480
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria
(Interestingly, Memling includes in the background disembodied body parts of the tormentors of Christ, 
in addition to the traditional instruments of the Passion.  As this work is about 30 years later than
Fra Angelico's work at San Marco it is quite possible that ideas from Angelico's image above and from his Mocking of Christ (also from San Marco) may have made their way to Northern Europe.)

The image of the Man of Sorrows appears to have developed first in Byzantine art, entering Western art by about 1300, probably via Rome and Venice. 1 From that point it spread throughout the West, so that there are examples readily available from nearly every country in Europe by 1500. And it is in the West that the tremendous development in the theme took place.

This is, above all, a devotional image and appeared in every kind of medium imaginable, including painting, sculpture, goldsmith’s work, lapidary.

Man of Sorrows
from Tres belles heures de Notre Dame
de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), ca. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 155r 

Cristoforo Scolari, Man of Sorrows 
Italian, ca. 1500
Dayton, Art Institute

Man of Sorrows, Triptych pendant reliquary
German, ca. 1400
Munich, Schatzkammer der Residenz

 It causes us to ponder the sufferings of Jesus and to evoke in us a sense of pity. Indeed, in Latin it is known as the “Imago Pietatis”, in French, it is the “Christ du pitié”, in German the “Schmerzensmann”. This fits into what we know of some emotional forms of medieval piety and it enjoyed a long life from its introduction till around 1600, when its basic form faded. However, it had a strong influence on other images, which have continued, even into the modern world. It affected, among others: the Ecce Homo, Deposition, Lamentation and Burial images, and other images that are no longer so much with us, such as the Dead Christ supported by saints and angels and images of the Holy Face. 

Giovanni Bellini, The Man of Sorrows Supported by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist
Italian, 1467-1470
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Simon Marmion, Diptych of the Virgin Mary Contemplating the Man of Sorrows
French, 1480-1490
Bruges, Groeninge Museum
Vittore Carpaccio, Meditation on the Passion
 Italian, c. 1490
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Here it is St. Jerome and Job, representing the New Testament and the Old Testament who contemplate the image of the Man of Sorrows.)

Albrecht Durer, Man of Sorrows
German, c. 1493
Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle
Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen
The Man of Sorrows
Dutch, c. 1510
Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh
(In this somewhat unusual variation, the Man of Sorrows
directs His blood from His hands and pierced side into a 
chalice.  Cosmic dimensions are suggested by this action, 
which is a direct referral to the Sacrifice of the Mass, as 
well as by the presence of the figure of God the Father at the
top of the picture.)

Il Rosso, Dead Christ Supported by Angels
Italian, c. 1524-1527
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Marten van Heemskerck, Dead Christ Supported by
Dutch, 1532
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten
 (It is likely that Heemskerck was familiar with the
painting by Rosso.)

Alonso Cano, Dead Christ Supported by an Angel
Spanish, 1646-1652
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Edouard Manet, Dead Christ With Angels
French, 1864
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(It would appear that Manet had the image of the 
Man of Sorrows in mind when creating this painting.)

In a more subtle way, the identification of the Dead Jesus with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant through the image of the Man of Sorrows has influenced the wider culture, beyond Catholicism. One example is found in the music of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah”.  Below is a recording by the great English mezzo-soprano, Janet Baker.


1. Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese, The Man of Sorrows in Venetian Art, edited by Catherine Puglisi and William Barcham, New York and London, Museum of Biblical Art in association with D. Giles Limited, p. 10. This book is the exhibition catalog for the exhibition “Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese” at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York from February 11 to June 12, 2011. In addition to the catalog entries for the works in the exhibition, the book includes informative essays on the Man of Sorrows image, primarily in Venice and the Veneto (the area of mainland Italy traditionally controlled by Venice). This is, however, merely a minute slice of the enormous diversity and geographic spread of the image.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday

Jesus Washes the Feet of His Disciples
from Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), ca. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS CLM 4453

Although, in this Holy Week, I am writing about visual references to the Passion of Christ, I would not want to forget that, integral to the final days of His life are the events of the first night of Passover, which we commemorate tonight.

On that last night before He died, Jesus gave two incalculable gifts to the future:  His model of service and His Body and Blood. 

He modeled the kind of service that He wishes us to give to each other and to the world by washing the feet of His disciples.

And He gave His Body and Blood for all times in the first Eucharist.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Last Supper
Italian, ca. 1486
Florence, Convento di San Marco
See also my other essays on these subjects: Holy Thursday With Giotto -- Washing Feet
 and Corpus Christi -- Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist

In the liturgy for Holy Thursday, the Church commemorates all three subjects and ends at Gethsemene.

Meditation on the Passion – The Ecce Homo

Maarten van Heemskerck, "Ecce Homo"
Central panel of triptych
Dutch, 1559-1560
Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum

Once more Pilate went out and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you,
so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”
So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak.
And he said to them, “Behold, the man!
(John 1:4-5) Excerpt from the Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

In the Latin Vulgate the final sentence in the excerpt from John, above, reads “Et dicit eis, “Ecce homo!” It is from these final words that another type of image, which meditates on the Passion of Christ, takes its name. This is the image known as “Ecce Homo”, which occurs in several variations.

The first, and most obvious, is an image that describes the Gospel event. Jesus and Pilate appear together, frequently on a balcony or terrace, in front of a group or crowd of people. Jesus wears the crown of thorns and a red cloak (not usually a purple one). Sometimes He is shown with a reed that appears to have been thrust into his manacled hands, so that one cannot say that He is actually holding it. He often appears highly bloodied from the scourging.

Examples of this type abound, especially in Northern Europe.   Among them are:
Guillaume Hugueniot, "Ecce Homo"
from a Book of Hours
Flemish, 1460-1475
New York, Morgan Library
MS G55, fol. 35r

Heironymous Bosch, Ecce Homo
Flemish, 1475-1480
Frankfurt, Stadaesches Kunstinstitut

Master of the Dark Eyes, "Ecce Homo"
from a Book of Hours
Dutch, ca. 1490
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS 76 G 9, 62v

Jan Joest von Kalkar, "Ecce Homo"
German, 1508
Kalkar (Cleves), Catholic Parish of St. Nicholas

Quentin Massys, "Ecce Homo"
Flemish, ca. 1515
Madrid, Prado Museum

Simon Bening, "Ecce Homo"
from the Da Costa Hours
Flemish (Bruges), 1510-1520
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 399, 70v

Titian, "Ecce Homo"
Italian, 1543
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Another type is more intimate. It shows a usually half-length Christ surrounded by mocking faces. Pilate may or may not be there.
Bernardino Luini, "Ecce Homo"
Italian, ca. 1515-1516
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
Correggio, "Ecce Homo"
Italian, 1525-1530
London, National Gallery of Art

Cigoli (Lodovico Cardi), "Ecce Homo"
Italian, 1607
Florence, Pitti Palace

In a third type, which also seems to be the latest type to be developed, the mood is even more intimate. The subsidiary figures have vanished and we are confronted with the figure of Jesus in what could be described as a “close up”. Jesus is usually shown in half-length, or even as a bust. We are brought close to His thorn-crowned face.
"Ecce Homo" from a Missal
South German, 1430-1440
London, British Library
MS Harley 2855, fol. 3v
Titian, "Ecce Homo"
Italian, 1548
Madrid, Prado

Guido Reni, "Ecce Homo"
Italian, 1639-1640
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Valdes-Leal, "Ecce Homo"
Spanish, 1657-2659
Private Collection

Occasionally, we are shown a variation on one of the themes. For example, Philippe de Champaigne confronts us with a full-length figure, without additional figures.

Philippe de Champaigne, "Ecce Homo"
French, 1654
Magny-les-Hameaux, Musee du Port-Royal des Champs 
The mood is quiet, He appears to be waiting. And, while He waits, blood flows from His wounds to the pavement in front of him. Like the third, close up, group of images, this image invites us to consider the causes and effects of the Passion, which are our own sins and weaknesses.

© M. Duffy, 2012