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.
Lent: Jump into the deep end
You can’t learn swimming in shallow water, much less on land; you have to get into the deep end. The same can be said for the Holy season of Lent, you have to immerse yourself entirely to experience the fruits of this ‘joyful’ season. You could flirt with the season at its fringe, you could pick and choose some days in the season to fit into your schedule but the Lenten season will not return your affection if you merely flirt with it. This season demands your every attention.
Lent is intense! It requires a bit of pre preparation and the sacrament of reconciliation is one of them. I am not a big fan of the timing of this sacrament which is traditionally organized in preparation merely for Easter. It is my belief that if the season of Lent is a time to turn from sin and return to God (both movements are essential) then we ought to begin the season with the sacrament of reconciliation. Then you truly throw yourself into the deep end! Then you are immersed into the season of Lent. No wading into it, just jump in.
Lent is intense! It requires solitude to take in all that God wants to say to us. That’s why we abstain from stuff, in order to devote more time to God. For all our chatter we have with God the whole year long, this is one time of the year when God speaks louder than He ever does. His mission is clear; for us to sit up and take heed to what He wants to say.
His message is like that of a lover whose gramophone needle has slipped and repeatedly plays the same tune on the vinyl record; He loves us and wants us to come back. He speaks to use the loudest during the daily mass readings in the season of Lent. Listening is one part, being silent is the second and the more essential part. That’s when we move from listening to His Word to be hearing his message.
Simple Truths: God IS in your storm
Here is a simple truth; because the wind is against you it does not mean that God is not for you. Sadly many have come to believe that blessings are the only sign that God is pleased with us. While I get the sentimental belief that prevails I do believe that such beliefs are far from the Christian faith.
God is also in the storm and the Gospels tell us that. When the apostles were battling the waves (Matthew 14:24) they seemed to be alone for the Lord was not in their boat. Scripture tells us that Jesus came walking to them “early in the morning” while they struggled through the night.
When plagued with the tempests, the night seems to never end and it is in these moments that most Christians feel deserted and abandoned in their faith. We question our beliefs, we question God! Where is God? That is the question that tops the charts in our mind. Why won’t He come now to rescue us? Why does He wait to make an early morning dramatic entrance when any sign of His presence would soothe me in my storm?
The simple truth is that God never abandoned us in our storm. A careful reading of Matthew 14: 22-32 tells us that while the disciples battled the wind and the waves Jesus was by himself, up in the mountains that overlooked the Sea of Galilee, PRAYING the whole night, obviously for them. The Lord had his eye fixed on them in their storm.
Rejoice, Lent is approaching
In a week from now we will be enveloped by the colour purple. For a while we will bid farewell to the Alleluia’s; for a while the sanctuary will be devoid of flowers and ornamentation. These are merely external signs and symbols to remind us of the greater calling to shut ourselves from those things that clutter our world and enter a deeper union with God.
Many Catholics perceive the season of Lent as a downer, for linked to it are the three disciplines which in common practice is narrowed down to what you can’t eat. The season of Lent is not about what we can’t eat but what is eating us! So you can stop tip toeing over the contents of your next meal in Lent and devote that same time to examine the contents of your heart. Fasting is merely a discipline, a means to an end and not an end in itself and that ironically is what most Catholics don’t get.
So it’s not about what you can’t do in Lent but rather what you should do in Lent. It’s a positive season of renewal rather than the mournful approach it has been blanketed with. The disciplines are given to us so that we focus on God.
Hence the disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms-giving are not about what we do for God but rather what God wants to do for us. He wants to drown out the noise that surrounds our lives so that we may find time listen to Him speak to our heart. The sound of silence may not be what we are used to but it’s certainly what we need.
Surely the run up to Ash Wednesday may not seem as celebratory as Christmas but that is because of how we have been brought up to approach this period of grace. In the week to come we open our hearts to receive Jesus who will be our teacher and guide for the next forty days. Lent is approaching, rejoice!
Fr Warner D’Souza