The Ghent Altarpiece

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK)
February 1 – April 30, 2020

Hubert (died 1426) and Jan (1390?-1441) van Eyck created the wonderful paintings whose centerpiece is “The Adoration of the Lamb,” completed in 1432. Peter and Linda Murray offer a description of this central panel as follows:

In the NT the vital words are those of the Baptist (John 1:29, 36), when he recognizes Jesus as the Christ: ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ These are the words of the AGNUS DEI, said daily in the Mass, always with the invocation ‘have mercy on us, give us peace’. In Rev. (Apoc) 5:6, 12; 12:11; and 22:1, the stress is on salvation emanating from the Lamb, since amid the Beasts and the Elders ‘stood the Lamb as if it had been slaughtered’ and ‘the river of water of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb’. This is the theme of van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb, where the pilgrims approach the altar on which stands the Lamb with blood flowing from his breast into a chalice. (Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 388)

The painstaking work of restoration of the panels began in 2012; this is described in “Realism and Revelation” in The Wall Street Journal, from which I quote:

A few weeks ago, the most recent phase of the restoration was unveiled, including the large front panel showing a bleeding lamb on an altar, surrounded by Christian martyrs, Jewish prophets and pagan writers. The panel—from which the altarpiece takes an often-used title, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”—has been transformed by its cleaning, with the lamb’s face revealed to have an intelligent, nearly human expressiveness.

The Ghent Museum of Fine Arts will have an exhibit, “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution,” from February 1, 2020. The Museum’s website offers an introduction to this masterpiece of the Belgian Cathedral of San Bavo.

Etching: A New Art Form

The paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were shared widely when woodcuts or engravings reproduced these forms of art. In the Wall Street Journal, Barrymore Laurence Scherer presents an exhibit, “The Renaissance of Etching” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 20, 2020.  His essay, “Outlining a Revolutionary Technique,” describes the advance: “But around 1500 printmaking itself was revolutionized when the technique of etching metal- primarily to decorate armor- was adapted to printing images on paper.”

The Met’s website of the exhibit allows us to explore the many Biblical scenes at leisure.

Tiffany Windows

The work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and his colleagues provides a delightful background for the celebration of Christian worship in many American Episcopal and Protestant churches from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago offers an exhibit of these windows, “Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” until March 8, 2020.
 
Edward Rothstein offers a review, “‘Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany’ Review: A Vibrant, Luminous Faith,” in the WSJ. He quotes the introduction to the exhibit, “explaining how Tiffany’s experimentation with glass- its coloration, its texture and its manufacture- led to the revival of a Medieval religious art form.”
 
The website of the exhibit gives a few samples of the themes relating to the faith-filled prayer evoked in the light of the windows: http://driehausmuseum.org/exhibition/eternallight/.

Jewish Treasures from Medieval France

The Metropolitan Museum Cloisters in New York City has an exhibit “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy” until January 12, 2020. See www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/colmar-treasure-medieval-jewish-legacy.

The Jewish Week has a special report by Diane Cole, which you can read at jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/jewels-give-voice-to-a-lost-community/. In The Wall Street Journal, Susan Delson described Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages with a reproduction of a page from a 14th century Jewish prayer book. The major collection of hidden jewels and coins was discovered in 1863. In addition, “research in the Colmar municipal library recently yielded another hidden treasure: fragments of Hebrew manuscripts that were later incorporated into the bindings of other books.” Several of these pages are among the pictures on the Cloisters’ website.

As we strive to promote understanding and harmony between Jews and their neighbors today, we appreciate the poignant reminders of the past and its burdens of persecution and suffering. May the principle of the Golden Rule be effective for a better future!

Rembrandt and Rubens

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), celebrated as painter, etcher and printmaker, died at the age of 63. He is commemorated in many places on this major anniversary of his death. Nina Siegal in the The New York Times essay, “The Relevance of Rembrandt 350 years later,” described the exhibitions. See also Russell Shorto’s essay, “Rembrandt in the Blood,” in the The New York Times Magazine.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) traveled widely in Italy and Spain in his younger years and quite early attained an international reputation. His story was presented by J.S. Marcus, “The Ruben Phenomenon,” in the The Wall Street Journal. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco offers an exhibit of young Rubens from April 6 – September 8, 2019; see https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/exhibitions/early-rubens.

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo

Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) had the distinction of teaching Leonardo da Vinci and other great Renaissance artists of Florence, Italy. “Verrocchio shone as a teacher, draftsman and sculptor – as well as architect and musician – but his talents reached their apotheosis in bronze casting…” (Brenda Cronin, “Teacher of the Old Masters,” wsj.com).

An exhibition opened on March 9th at the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello Museum in Florence; see www.palazzostrozzi.org/mostre/verrocchio-master-of-leonardo/?lang=en.  Some works will be exhibited in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from September 15, 2019; see www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2019/andrea-del-verrocchio-renaissance-florence.html.

Birds in Art

Phoenix Futon Cover Japan, Showa Period (1926-1989). Cotton, yuzen resist-dyed indigo. Purchase 1983 Thomas L. Raymond Bequest Fund 83.91. Part of the “Birding in Art” exhibit at the Newark Museum.

The Newark Museum has celebrated its treasures of Asian Art in many exhibits.  From March 13, 2019 until February 23, 2020, “Birding in Asian Art” continues this impressive tradition.

Detail of a miniature of an owl (Bubo) being attacked by three smaller birds. Image taken from f. 47 of Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Written in Latin.

This exhibit reminds us of the long history in the Mediterranean world of drawing moral and spiritual lessons from the wonders of nature. In Greek the Physiologos, a “discourse on nature” of approximately the third century A.D., gathered earlier traditions into a synthesis that became popular in the Latin bestiaries of the eleventh century and later.

Detail of a miniature of a crocodile. Image taken from f. 24 of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

The Book of God’s Word and the Book of Nature offered insights into the meaning of life for many generations of people who looked for ways to teach guiding principles in regard to faith and morality. The developments in East and West complement each other and may still have lessons for people of the modern world.

Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit and a man riding a camel. Image taken from f. 34v of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

Superpowers of the Ancient Middle East

The land of Israel lay between the great kingdoms of Egypt and Assyria, which often entered into battle on the territory of small countries lying between them. The hope expressed in Isaiah the prophet challenges people of faith throughout the ages:

On that day Israel will be a third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, when the Lord of hosts blesses it: “Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my inheritance, Israel.” (Isaiah 19:24-25)

Over the past two hundred years local people and archaeologists have made amazing discoveries related to the history of these lands. Last month, The New York Times reported on the discovery of a priest’s intact tomb from the period well before Abram’s visit recorded in Genesis 12:12-20 (click here to read the NYT article).

The British Museum in London possesses extraordinary works of art from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods as the context for the biblical record of the reigns of David and his dynasty in Jerusalem.

An exhibit in the British Museum until February 24, 2019 has the title “I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria.” Richard Cork reviewed this exhibit in “A Conqueror with a Taste for Art” in The Wall Street Journal. 

Mantegna and Bellini

Giovanni Bellini, “The Agony in the Garden,” circa 1465

The National Gallery in London has an exhibit of 90 paintings by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (circa 1435-1516). The former spent his early career in Padua, whereas the latter, son of the famous artist Jacopo Bellini, was raised in Venice. “However, when the former married Giovanni’s half-sister, Nicolosia, in 1453, the two painters entered into a close creative dialogue…[T]heir enduring artistic exchange indelibly marked their own art and that of their contemporaries.” (See Mary Tompkins Lewis, “Mantegna and Bellini’ Review: A Family Affair,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2018). This essay and Laura Gaseoigne’s “Different strokes, different folks” in The Tablet (London) of October 18, 2018 reproduce the magnificent “Agony in the Garden” by each painter.

The critics point to Mantegna’s influence on Bellini, along with the unique features of each, but neither of the above-mentioned reports mentions the following points:

  • Mantegna has Jesus facing angels holding the Cross, and behind his back a vulture gazes down from a scrawny tree top.
  • Bellini shows Jesus being confronted by an angel holding the cup of suffering.
  • Neither artist depicts a garden of olive trees as described in the Gospel traditions.

For a reproduction of several paintings in this exhibition, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/mantegna-and-bellini.

Pre-Raphaelite Artist at the Tate in London

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833 -1898) joined the founding group called “the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” and contributed in many ways the use of the Bible and ancient Mediterranean mythology to offer an elevated religious and moral tone to the Victorian scene. In the WSJ, J.S. Marcus presents “In London, Medieval Legends Through Modern Eyes” on the exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery.  His comment on Burne-Jones: “Self-taught and hardworking, and suffused with a spirituality inspired by the theologian John Henry Newman, he created a vast catalog of paintings, drawings, stained-glass windows, tapestries and furniture that typically relied on medieval and mythical themes and sources.” See the examples of his work on the Tate website at www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/edward-burne-jones.