Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jesus enters Jerusalem

The image is from the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.  Jesus, the Son of God, rides a colt, which is in keeping with the gospel of Luke account and is also a reflection of the Roman artisan's understanding.  A Roman sculptor might have depicted any of several Caesars this way, and Alexander the Great, and even Apollo.  But this sculptor, and the person who commissioned this who would have been either Junius Bassus himself or a member of his family, these people evidently knew Luke's account because that is Zacchaeus the tax collector climbing a tree, an event that happened as Jesus made His way into Jerusalem.  Luke's gospel was written to Romans and was likely the account that they knew, even after the Ecumenical Council known as the Nicene Council and the establishment of a canon.

Jesus's journey to Jerusalem actually takes up ten chapters of the Gospel of Luke, from 9:51 where it says that "Jesus set His face for Jerusalem", to 19:11 where it says that "Jesus neared Jerusalem where He would be offered up."  Those ten chapters tell us things that Jesus taught and events that took place on His way to Jerusalem.  Luke's account differs from the account in John's gospel in chapter 12, but not by much and not in essentials.  You could contextually explain the differences of the two accounts as the differences of how a Greek would describe the story to a Roman audience versus the way that a Jew would tell Jews living in Israel or in Turkey (or as it was known then, Asia).  Matthew's account is similar to John's (Matthew chapter 21), and Mark's account (chapter 11) is similar to those other two.  It is an event in all four gospels, of much the same account, differing in a few details, and in one case a word, "colt" versus "donkey".  Perhaps the two words were meant to describe the same thing.

Conquering kings often entered cities on donkeys or colts, it was a triumphal tradition dating at least six hundred years before Jesus entered Jerusalem.  He entered humbly riding on a donkey?  No.  Mary was humbly riding on a donkey before Jesus was born, instead of being carried in a wheeled cart, but Jesus entered Jerusalem with all the vestiges of a king entering a royal city, riding on a donkey or colt, things spread beneath his feet, lauded by the crowd on parade.

The essentials of the story are not details such as the animal and the palm leaves, the essentials are that Jesus entered Jerusalem in fulfillment of prophecy, He entered to people adoring Him and praising Him, He left the city being reviled and mocked, and He entered as a conqueror but not as a military hero -- He entered to conquer sin and death.  In Luke's account Jesus wept as He entered Jerusalem.

Luke states more directly a theme that all four gospels share, and that is that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem to die (Luke 9:51) and that He taught his followers along the way and continued to perform miracles, including raising the dead.  All four gospels have the journey to Jerusalem, the last days of Jesus before the last week, The Passion Week in Jerusalem.  In all accounts Jesus constantly explained His approaching death, much to the chagrin of disciples who were expecting a military Messiah.  They wanted the Koresh, He gave them the Lamb to be Slaughtered.

He entered in adoration.  As He said, if the people didn't praise Him the rocks would cry out.  When He exited He was reviled, beaten, made to carry a cross, crucified, and died on a hill outside the city as if He was a criminal.

The church is a church of prophecy.  Some prophecies have been fulfilled, some are yet to be fulfilled, such as The Resurrection of the Dead.  A great many pieces and repeated images in Early Christian, Medieval and Gothic art convey that constant theme, that the church is a church of prophecy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Medieval Hildesheim: Simple art, Complex history

Every semester as I teach Art History and we get through The Middle Ages, I use the 11th Century bronze doors of St. Mary's Cathedral of Hildesheim, usually simply referred to as Hildesheim Cathedral, to explain some of the thinking and style in European art by that millennial point.

Commissioned by Bernward, the doors were probably not actually made by his own hands but were likely fashioned by an anonymous master craftsman in bronze that would be known in the humble Medieval way as simply The Master of Hildesheim.  In the 11th Century Hildesheim was an important and sophisticated place, advanced in education, particularly in scholarship and theology.

The image above is of one panel on the doors.  The theme of the doors is The Fall of Humankind and The Salvation of Humankind, or you could say The Redemption of Humankind.  The picture is of Adam and Eve in The Garden of Eden after they have sinned.  They look convincingly ashamed.  Stylistically, however, they are not as convincingly natural looking as a Greek figure.  We generally refer to that as Byzantine, meaning that the copying of images within churches after the 6th Century rise of the Byzantine empires put an end to Greek naturalism and rules of Greek proportions and introduced centuries of art that by comparison seem crude or cartoonish.

Just look at Adam and Eve.  Their feet do not seem to rest on the ground.  Their bone structure is not evident, they only generally appear human in the most superficial ways.  If they were flesh and blood instead of bronze, there would be some serious doubt as to their ability to walk and survive.  In other words, their appearance is almost alien.  That is because the Medieval artist was dominated by the concepts of Sacred and Profane and he would not ever consider actually looking at and studying another living human for subject matter but would have instead relied on copying images available within the church, hence the cartoonish style.  To grasp this thinking I recommend Browning's poem "Fra Lippo Lippi" which dramatically explains the thinking of a medieval artist and the conflicts of that thinking.  Sacred things can be near the sacraments and the altar.  Things outside the church are profane things, and most of us, since we live and work outside the church, operate in the world of sin, or the profane world.  So thought a master artist of the first millennium.  That is why The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil looks like a giant sick dandelion instead of a tree.

The story of Adam and Eve and The Fall comes from the Old Testament, the very start of The Bible, in Genesis chapter 3.  So, we have the characters and setting in the art of the doors.  There is Adam, there is Eve, and at her feet there is the crafty serpent, Satan.  And, as I said, the tree.

But who is the other man?  You might at first mistakenly assume that it is a narrator pointing at our protagonists, but if you look you will see that they are looking at him and his pointing finger and a dialogue is evidently taking place.  He has a halo, and the man with the halo is pointing at them and telling them something.

In Genesis 3:8 it says, "They heard the sound of The Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day."  Well?  To walk, especially to make noise, you need feet, and a body.

Then, in the next verse, Genesis 3:9, God calls out to them.  Well, hey, to call out means you need a voice and implies the physical environment, its needs and limitations.

Obviously, in Genesis chapter 3 God incarnated in order to meet His creations face-to-face and have a little tête-à-tête about what they had done.

This is a complex theology, a concept called a theophany, generally interpreted as meaning that Jesus came to visit people in the past ages before He was born of Mary in Bethlehem.  These days someone might start talking about time travel.  A theologian of 1022 would have probably said that God is outside of time.  There are other theophanies in scripture, such as The Angel of the Lord with whom Jacob wrestles and the Son of Man who speaks to the prophet Daniel.  It is generally interpreted that every Old Testament occurrence of the phrases "The Angel of the Lord" and "in appearance like The Son of Man" are pre-incarnate theophanies of Jesus in the Old Testament.

That's some sophisticated knowledge and theology from an artist who seems to lack the sense to go look at a tree!  It is one of the paradoxes of the Medieval paradigm.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gallows Humor and The Anglophile

Okay, so, my latest heartless father remark came over the Christmas holidays to my youngest daughter, nine years old.  She had run up to cry in her room because we were telling her to stop sniveling and crying over trivial things, and she took that badly and went to cry in her bed.  Not being completely a heartless monster, I followed and went in to cheer her up and offer a little fatherly comfort.

"You know, we're fans of The Addams Family in this family," I told her. "We don't own any instruments of torture, but we seem to approve of it."

I have always been a smart-ass.  I don't mean to be snide and crass, it just seems to come naturally, a penchant for dark humor.  I am convinced that it is genetic.  There seems to be an Anglo bent toward making up satirical wit and little rhymes and jokes at otherwise serious things.

Talk about "serious as a heart attack", how much more serious can you be than The Black Plague?  But it fostered the children's song Ring Around the Rosy.

"Ring around the rosy" (the physical signs on the skin)
"A pocketful of posies" (they carried 'nose gays', bouquets to blot out the stench)
"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down" (the words at funerals and the reminder of death)

What about The Dissolution of the Monasteries?  What kind of a jerk throws poor monks out into the cold and lonely streets and burns down abbeys?  Oh, Henry the Eighth, of course.  Monks were widely satirized in England as Friar Tuck, and when they were no longer friars they became English Tommy like every other able-bodied Englishman, so Friar Tuck became Tommy Tucker.

"Poor Tommy Tucker sings for his supper.
What shall we feed him?
Brown bread and butter.
How shall he eat it without 'ere knife?
How shall he bake it without 'ere wife?"

Can you imagine Mother Goose's anonymous poets in the housing bubble bust of 2008?

"London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.
Build it up with iron bars, iron bars, iron bars.
Build it up with iron bars, my fair lady."

The Gunpowder Conspiracy may have gotten a fairly serious lyric with The Fifth of November, but think of the cynicism and satire of the phrase, "A penny for the old Guy?"

I suppose we will be always joking.