A VISION OF PARADISE: ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ by Botticini (1475 – 1476)
The Son, adored and nursed by the sweet Maid,
A thousand fold of love for love repaid.
Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
Next to His throne, her Son, His Mother placed;
And here below, now she’s of heaven possessed,
All generations are to call her blessed.
Thomas Ken (1637 – 1711)
The words of this beautiful hymn are brought to life by the painting in consideration. We are ushered into the great mystery that operates at three levels – the earthly, the intermediate and the heavenly. At the centre of the grassy mountain-top lies an open white berth. The apostles huddle around it in awe and amazement for the berth of the Blessed Virgin Mary contains no longer her body but a meadow of lilies. As we join the apostles to gaze at the beauty of the fragrant flowers we are joined by two individuals, in particular a man and a woman, kneeling on either side of the plateau.
These individuals are no ordinary but the patrons of the painting. In 1474, Matteo Palmieri (1406 – 1475) commissioned ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin’ for his burial chapel in the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence where several members of his own family were already buried. Located nearly five hundred metres to the east of Brunelleschi’s Cathedral dome, San Pier Maggiore was one of Florence’s oldest and most prestigious ecclesiastical institutions.
The painting was executed by the Italian painter Francesco Botticini as a tempera on wood. Although originally installed in the Church of San Pier Maggiore (1477), the altar piece was taken down in 1784 when the Church was demolished. In the late 1880’s it was then purchased by the National Gallery where it continues to be housed.
THE SISTER ACT: ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’ by Johannes Vermeer (1654 – 1656)
If Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael form the traditional trinity of Italian Renaissance, then Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer rank among the most admired of all Dutch Baroque Masters. While the first two have scores of stunning Christian art to their credit, Johannes Vermeer is a not so familiar face in the field of faith. However, one of his earliest, largest and only biblical commission revolves around the New Testament story of the two sisters, Martha and Mary welcoming the travelling Christ to their home.
The narrative, as recorded in the gospel of Luke chapter 10, is often painted as a picture of sibling rivalry where Martha, the busy bee, is depicted working hard in the kitchen while her Cinderella-like sister, Mary sits silently at the feet of Christ, listening to His word. The account provokes us to fall into the trap of taking sides and leads us to believe that Jesus did the same by upholding the meditative Mary instead of the mocking Martha.
Vermeer, in his painting ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’, seems to labour neither binary. Rather, true to his style, he connects several competing features in a seemingly perfect whole. His painting draws forth the essence of the Gospel rather than frolicking around the drama that surrounds it.
Within a sombre space of a shadowy room are placed the three protagonist. Christ, dressed in purple and blue, is seated on an armchair. A soft glow surrounds his serene face. He gazes at Martha who seems to have just entered the room, carrying along some freshly baked bread in a basket. As she sets the dinner table, Martha nonchalantly leans forward hearkening to the words of the Master. Her eyes are downcast, her posture intent. She does not appear to rebuke or scoff as is popularly represented.
We continue to visit the people of Ambedkar Nagar in Malad East once a week. Walking through the area is often a challenge. The debris that scatters the place is filled with glass and dangerous objects. Besides, Ambedkar Nagar is on a hillock and this means that you have to trudge up a rocky slope. Sewage mixed with rain water constantly flows through the area making it treacherous and of course terribly unhygienic.
Our doors at St Jude Church, Malad East, are constantly open and we have built a bond of love with these people. We continue to care for their injuries (Thank you Bro Paolo and Mabel).
Besides regularly changing their bandages (yup one month later) we are providing for surgeries that need to be done due to bad medical procedures carried out in the municipal hospitals in the initial days of the tragedy. We have also helped several people buy spectacles as they lost them in the flood. A few people in need of cataract surgeries will also be treated in the next few days.
I am grateful to Dr Agarwal, an ophthalmologists who runs a charitable organization for providing timely assistance and care to the poor. Also Reena Furtado who introduced us to Dr Agarwal and who often silently bears certain expenses herself. To my friend Vinay Pinto who has been an angel of mercy over several years by providing medical treatment for the poor who come to our ashram and to Dr Allan Alappat who even though is often exhausted visits the ashram and treats all these people free of cost both at his dispensary and at the ashram.
Radhe Shyam lost his father, mother and sister the night the wall of the national park collapsed killing 31 people in Malad East, Mumbai. He, has a brother, sister-in-law and a six months old niece all of whom who miraculously survived the tragic night of the first of July.
Over the last one month Bro Paolo has been tending to the wounds of both the brothers one of whom who received a severe back injury. Each time they visited us they would recall the horrors of that night. Radhe Shyam still can’t sleep at night. He says that his dreams are filled with sadness and fear. The hole in his heart gets bigger when he goes to the piece of land he once called home, now nothing but a heap of rubble. Through these tears, Radhe Shyam and Uttam also see the ‘kind’ hand of God who spared their lives.
Now, it is time he moves on and even though he does not want to accept the home the government offers him in the polluted area of Mahul, he feels he has no choice. There is a sister whom he has to marry and a brother and his family whom he has to take care of. The injuries they suffered that night have now altered the choices they can make to earn a living; a chronic back injury does not lend itself to hard labour.
Radhe Shyam deserves to smile, even if it was for just an evening. So when I asked him what he needed for the new rented house (read one room tenement in the slums) he turned up with a list that had ten odd items; surprising for a family that has lost all their possessions and three loved ones. I thought that this simple man who loves God (what ever his faith be ) deserves more.
The façade of the Cathedral in Orvieto – A picture book in stone
The work on the Cathedral began in 1290 and went on for 150 years. While this was completed in 1444 the work on the façade spanned a period of 300 years and is a blend of several styles. The façade can be well described as a wonderful picture book and set up at a time when most people could not read or write.
In the bottom panel are four large relief panels in marble. From left to right one can see the story of creation found in the book of Genesis followed by the Tree of Jesse which gives you the genealogy of Jesus. These two panels on the left are taken from the Old Testament. To the right one sees two panels from the New Testament. The one closest to the main door depicts the life of Jesus followed by the fourth panel which depicts the last judgment.
So detailed are these works that one can even see the teeth of persons depicted. In the panel of the last judgment, on the second line from the top, among ‘the blessed’ is a man carrying a set square which is how an architect was depicted. This is the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani who was commissioned to work on the church and solve several issues concerning the load-bearing capabilities of the building, especially of the choir. He substantially changed the design and construction of the building, increasing the similarity of the building to Siena Cathedral. The architecture of both buildings sometimes is classified as a sub-style of Gothic architecture; Siennese Gothic style.
Above the four panels are the sculptures of the evangelist depicted in their symbolic forms; a man, a lion, an eagle and an ox. Above the marble reliefs on the right hand side, captured in mosaics, are events from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in whose honour (the assumption) the cathedral is named. The mosaic depicts the birth of Mary and is flanked by mosaics of her parents, Joaquim and Anna. Just above this scene is the presentation of Mary in the temple. On the left hand side, to the top is the marriage between Mary and Joseph. Below this scene, on the left is the annunciation with Mary and the angel which flanks the triangle that depicts the baptism of Jesus.
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.