ALL HALLOWS EVE: ‘The Adoration of the Trinity’ by Albrecht Durer (1511)
Halloween! It is a fun and freaky day filled with parties and parades, pranks and pumpkins and of course tricks and treats. It is with great pleasure that people attend horror gatherings dressed as vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, witches or other fancy characters. Party halls and homes are decorated with tombstones and coffins. For it is believed that on this fatal day the veil between this world and the next is lifted and all hell breaks loose!
However, just as the many masks worn by children and adults on October 31st, Halloween itself is guised under a long forgotten faith and a super enchanting history. Popularly attributed to the Celtic traditions, the Catholic origin of the festival can be traced to the papacy of Pope Gregory IV (827 – 844 A.D.) who instituted the feast of All Saints on the first day of November. In anticipation and preparation for this great liturgical celebration, a Vigil would be organised the night before. This vigil was known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ or ‘All Holy/Saintly Eve.’ Thus Halloween is simply a corruption of the original root word.
Beyond the modern macabre of the culture of death lies a Catholic celebration of great gusto and life. The spirit of this feast is fabulously rendered by the great German artist Albrecht Durer in one of his most celebrated paintings titled ‘The Adoration of the Trinity’. The massive altar piece was commissioned by a rich merchant, Matthaus Landauer, of Nuremberg in 1508 for a chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity and All the Saints.
The composition though complex bears a symmetrical scheme. We are greeted at the terrestrial sphere by none other than the artist himself. The horizons of the earth-bound are bedecked with stone-clad medieval castles, dry desert regions, the empty sea and chilly glaciers. However the grass, quite literally, is greener on the other side (foreground). Our docent, Durer, stands at the peak of a hill, holding a wooden board bearing his credentials. His dwarfed being is juxtaposed against a massive multitude of heavenly hosts. It is the ‘New Jerusalem’, the ‘New Garden of Eden’ and the ‘Unending Sabbath’.
As we lift our sights and our hearts, we encounter the ‘Throne of Mercy’ or the ‘Throne of Grace.’ God the Father, represented as an elderly and enlightened being is cloaked in robes of gold and pearls and crowned with a glistening tiara. As flanking angels uplift His garb, the Father opens His merciful heart to reveal His everlasting love through the sign of the Cross. ‘For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son’ the image echoes. The forlorn face of the suffering Christ is crowned with piercing thorns.
The marvellous mystery of the humanity and divinity of God is unfolded through the unity of the Spirit, depicted in the form of a dove and surrounded by an endless choir of cherubs. Their ceaseless Hosannas are resounded by the next group of immortals. To our right, in the middle layer, are presented the forerunners of Christ which includes the Patriarchs and the Prophets of the Old Testament namely King David as identified by the fiddle, Moses as identified by the tablet of the Ten Commandments, John the Baptist as identified by his clothing in camel skin and several others.
On the other side, to our left, lie the martyrs, each hailing a palm frond as a symbol of victory and eternal life. St. Agnes is recognized by a lamb, St. Catherine of Alexandria by the sword and the spiked wheel, St. Christina by the millstone around her neck and St. Barbara by the Chalice and the consecrated host. The blissful faces of the martyrs, prophets and saints diffuses the unfailing grace they experienced in their life.
Right below them on billows of clouds float the faithful. To our left are seen members of the clergy and the religious, including hermits, monks, cardinals and Popes. To our right are the members of the royal family, rulers, statesmen, soldiers, theologians, scientist, thinkers etc. At the centre is featured the unending assembly of the laity of different races and creeds. As they gaze upwards, they witness the everlasting promise of God made visible through a rainbow in the sky, a sign of His everlasting covenant. It is a covenant rooted in love and cherished by the faithful, also regarded as Saints.
Thus the celebration of October 31st entails not the ghoulish version of the commercial world. To degrade its substance to an annual fright fest is similar to belittling Christmas to Santa Claus. Far from it! It is the commemoration and the celebration of heroic virtues, holiness, victory over sin and death, the slaying of darkness and the triumph of pure, agape love. Let this love, as experienced and expressed by a wide variety of Saints, embrace us this ‘halloween’!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
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