Archive for the ‘Christian art’ category

The Conversion of St. Paul

January 27, 2009
Paul by Bellini, 1471-74

Paul's vision on the road to Damascus by Bellini, 1471-74

This last Sunday we commemorated the conversion of Paul. Needless to say, this has been a subject of many artistic representations. This first painting is by Giovanni Bellini (15th century). Paul appears to have fallen from his horse.  If you have heard Father Troncale’s story, you will know why I felt it  necessary to include this one first. Others have rendered the scene differently, as in the painting below.

You will note that the artist, Giorgio Vasari, included no horse. However, Jesus is holding a book  upon which are the symbols for alpha and omega.  paul-conversion-21This is for our benefit, presumably, since Paul is now blind.

Fra Angelico also felt the horse was needed in his painting below:


Archbishop Rodi gave a fine homily during his visit at the Saturday mass.  Among other things, he said that his favorite New Testament character is Ananais of Damascus who only appears once– he is the one who is sent to Paul to pray with him and relieve his blindness.  Ananais is a wonderful example of someone obeying God but not doing anything spectacular in and of itself. Yet the result was amazing.  Below is a modern rendering of the scene which is a study for a window at St Paul’s Church) by Benjamin West.


I really like this depiction.  In Acts 9:11-17 we are told plainly that Paul is in the house of one Judas, on Straight Street. However, the scene here appears to be out of doors. The dark clouds are parting (I think this must be an allusion to Paul’s blindness) and the dove just above Ananais’s hand makes plain that a miracle is taking place.

I think it is interesting that the men Paul brought with him to help arrest the Christians and drag them back to Jerusalem are also present in this scene. They are depicted as soldiers and I have to wonder, since we are not told, what they made of this 3-day blindness and recovery. I wonder, too, at the courage of Ananais! He knew Paul’s reputation and that his coming to Damascus meant trouble for the believers there. But Ananais said yes to God and the rest is, as they say, history.


St. Stephen, The First Martyr

December 26, 2008

Rembrandt's painting (1624) of the stoning of St. Stephen.

Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  We know about him only from the account of his selection as a deacon and his death in Acts. Stephen was one of the first group of deacons appointed by the apostles (Acts 6:1-5).  We are told that he was performing signs and wonders and finding a receptive audience among the people of Jerusalem. This led to enmity on the part of certain gentile converts to Judaism who denounced him as a blasphemer.  In his defense before the elders, Stephen reviews salvation history from Abraham to Jesus and arouses the murderous anger of the assembly by concluding his defense thus:

 “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. (NASB, Acts 7:51-60)

Here Stephen is receiving the martyr's crown.

Ruben's painting depicts Stephen receiving the martyr's crown. This is a portion of the whole painting which is part of a tryptych.

Stephen’s execution is also the first time we meet Saul who, we are told, heartily agreed with putting Stephen to death. This event marks the beginning of the first great persecution of the Church (Acts 8:1) which scatters the believers throughout Judea and Samaria. As a result, the Gospel was spread further, which was hardly the end Saul and the other persecutors desired.

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belevedere, California has a very nice summary of what we know about Stephen and how the Church subsequently viewed and honored him. From that site I learned that the medieval church made Stephen the patron saint of stonemasons and of headaches (!). I was reminded that, of course, the carol Good King Wenceslaus celebrates him. I also learned, finally, why our British brethren refer to Dec. 26 as Boxing Day.

St. Stephen was a popular subject for painters. There are a wealth of images, particularly Renaissance and Barock paintings, on the Internet. Usually Saul/Paul will be found depicted in them– he may be young, or bald and bearded (the way he was typically portrayed in art). He is often standing apart, as the account in Acts describes. This can be seen very clearly in the painting below:

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

Juan de Juanes painted this between 1560 and 1565. Saul is in the background looking on.

If you would like to see more paintings of this or other biblical subjects, there are a great many sites you can visit. One such is Biblical art on WWW and it is an amazing resource. You can search for art by keyword (for example, bread), by subject (e.g. Ruth), by artist and by text. If you decide to search by biblical text, you will be presented with a list of the books of the Bible. When you find the one you want, click on it and then choose the passage that you are interested in. It is hard to imagine that there can be any painting anywhere that cannot be located through this site. Please take a look and, if you find anything really wonderful, let us know!

Mary: Through the Eyes of Others

November 29, 2008

My last post on representations of Jesus in other cultures got me to thinking that the mother of Christ has been portrayed in many wonderful ways. So, I poked around the web and found a few to share here.

Chinese Madonna of unknown origin

Chinese Madonna of unknown origin

 The lovely Chinese Madonna below is centuries old and was recently found on a scroll in the Field Museum (Chicago). A story in the Honolulu Advertiser describes its discovery. Because the birth and death dates of the artist are known, the painting can be dated to approximately 1500.

Chinese Madonna, ca. 1500

Chinese Madonna, ca. 1500














I found the Ethiopian representation on a site that needs to be seen to be believed:  There you can click on any continent you are interested in and find pictures and commentary that are simply wonderful. The mural below was painted sometime after the 17th century but the church itself is one of the many ancient churches in Ethiopia that are rock hewn. This one, Abreha wa Atsbeha dates to the 4th century.

Ethiopian Mary

Ethiopian Mary

A picture of the church can be found at Discover the Real Ethiopia

Finally, here is a Japanese representation with an interesting  history.


I found this at a site called Laputan Logic (scroll down to the entry called “Japanese Whispers”.

This is a very interesting post on Christianity in Japan. The author describes the various persecutions of Christians in Japan (Christianity was totally proscribed in the early 17th century and Japanese Christians faced horrific persecution) and says that this particular representation disguises the Virgin as Kuan Yin, a compassionate deity in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.  The whole post is very interesting and well worth reading.