MISERY MEETS MERCY: ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’ by Rembrandt (1644)
As the nineteen year old protégé sits across the river-bank in the Dutch city of Leiden, he arduously strains to get to the heart of the biblical moment through his art. His first painting was ‘The Stoning of Stephen’ dated 1625. Then on there was no looking back. His unique, uncompromising and innovative style brought the Bible to life.
‘The Bible was real to Rembrandt: a real book about real people…His Jesus is a Jew, and not a particularly handsome one. His apostles are men who fear when they should be brave and sleep when they should stay awake, rough and rustic men, unsophisticated, often slow to catch on, men who show not the slightest hint of sainthood. His patriarchs are as flawed, as conniving, as prone to mistake and subject to weakness as the Bible reports them to have been.’
– John Durham ‘The Biblical Rembrandt ’
Rembrandt called a spade a spade through his fierce and yet gentle strokes of paint. To the modern eye his distortions and abstractions may appear dull and husky but when peered through the window of one’s soul, the painting introduces us to the genius of the ‘painter of painters.’ The mystery and magic in his art can be explored through the painting in consideration.
Titled ‘The Woman Taken in Adultery’, the painting was executed in 1644 and is now housed at the National Gallery in London. The subject draws inspiration from the Gospel of John chapter 8, verses 1 – 11. A woman caught in adultery by a group of ‘pious Pharisees and scribes’ is dragged and casted before Christ. Indeed a clever attempt to kill a ‘mocking bird’ and a scapegoat by a single stone.
The simple truth: if you are ‘high’ all the while you must be snorting coke!
Here is the simple truth; No one is on a ‘high’ twenty four seven and if you are ‘high’ all the while you must be snorting coke! I write this with a sense of irony because our world has now come to seek these peak moments constantly, every hour if not every day.
No one really has these constant euphoric moments and exhilarating days and the absence of them should not lead one to fallaciously conclude that they are ‘depressed’. Sadly the term ‘depression’ is very widely used by people who are not actually depressed but temporarily unhappy. And to be honest, I take umbrage to the glib use of the word ‘depressed’ by some flippant teeny boppers and those who don’t really understand what people who truly suffer from depression go through.
Most people have ordinary days but that does not mean they have ordinary lives. Our lives are filled with beautiful tasks that have been made to sound mundane and we have foolishly come to believe it to be true. As a consequence we have come to accept that the acts we perform each day are no more than boring routine actions.
So let me give you an example. If Master Chef told you that today for breakfast you would be served piping hot fermented batter of ground rice steamed in circular moulds and served with a dip of spicy coconut shavings you would end up eating nothing more than our humble ‘idli’ made to sound like it was being named dish of the year.
So why then have we come to believe that the routine is mundane? Why have we come to believe that feeding our family, cleaning our home, working a nine to five job, celebrating a birthday in the confines of our home or walking in the park is boring? These actions of ours bring life to others and there is nothing mundane in life giving actions.
The 24 Hours for the Lord initiative was first launched in 2014 by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. This year’s theme is ‘Compassion’, taken from Psalm 103:13: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.”
NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: ‘Childhood of Christ’ by Gerrit van Honthorst (c 1620)
Gerrit van Honthorst is one of the leading masters of the 17th century Dutch painting. He was born in Utrecht in 1592 to a painter of tapestry cartoons. Essentially trained in the studio of Abraham Bloemaert, in 1610-12 he set for Rome and embraced the Baroque boom. Greatly influenced by the art of Caravaggio, he subscribed to the artist’s radical vision and adopted his revolutionary idiom. His great devotion to darkness and light earned him the title ‘Gherardo delle Notti’ or ‘Gerard of the nights’.
The play of light and darkness is very prominent in all of Honthorst’s paintings. Their function is not purely artistic as it is analytical in character. It penetrates into one’s intellectual, cultural, philosophical and spiritual being and arouses much speculation and contemplation. Unlike the gold flooded backgrounds of Medieval art, Honthrost’s baroque paintings stressed on ‘Divine Darkness’ as a mysterious medium of enlightening and strengthening faith. Darkness, according to his art, is fundamental for the attainment of spiritual perfection.
The absolute beauty of the play of light and shadow is gracefully expressed through today’s painting titled ‘The Childhood of Christ.’ To our extreme right stand two child-like angels with flowing drapery and fluffy wings. Their dreamy demeanour allures us to a higher realm while their little fingers direct us to the scene set before them.
Engulfed by shadows, to our left, stands the elderly Joseph. His wavy silver-white hair and lined forehead maps the journey of his life. And yet his gleaming eyes and sturdy hands waver not from work. With rolled up sleeves, Joseph dwells deep into midnight memories as he carves new ones with his robust tools.
FROM GOLGOTHA TO GLORY: ‘Transfiguration’ by Fra Angelico (1442)
The essence of today’s Gospel finds a deep rooted expression through the painting in consideration. It is titled ‘Transfiguration’ and executed by the fabulous Fra Angelico. The honorary epithet ‘Fra Angelico’ or ‘the Angelic Brother’ was attributed to the painter after his death in 1455. Baptised Guido di Piero, his love for Christ led him to enter the religious order of the Dominicans in 1420.
Vasari, the great author of the ‘Lives of Artists’ (1550), describes Angelico as a ‘simple and most holy man who painted with facility and piety.’ Vasari goes on to describe his saintly life stating, ‘Fra Angelico never set his hand to a brush without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifix without tears streaming down his cheeks. He befriended the poor and now is befriended by Heaven.’ Truth as these words hold, in 1982, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the beatification of this ‘Blessed’ painter, recognising him as the ‘Saint of all Artists.’
But where and when did it all begin? In 1435 Cosimo de Medici, the rich banker and Gonfalonier of Florence, donated a sumptuous amount to renovate the Dominican convent and the Church of San Marco. Fra Angelico was given the task to paint the altar piece and decorate the walls of the Church and of the Convent.
Of all the religious orders, the Dominicans attributed great consideration to visual images as mediums of prayers, meditation and study. The cell of each friar was furnished with not only a bed, desk and kneeler but also a contemplative fresco representing an episode from the Life of Christ. These paintings often depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Dominic as prayerful and powerful witnesses to the Divine source of action.
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.