07 March 2015

Church History (2014-2015, part-time) 4.2:
Field Trip 1, the National Gallery of Ireland

The collection in the National Gallery of Ireland includes an extensive, representative collection of Irish painting as well as works by Italian baroque and Dutch masters (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:

Church History elective module (TH 7864)

Years I to IV, MTh part-time,

Saturday 7 February 2015:

Field Trip 1 (continued), the National Gallery of Ireland


Last night [6 March 2015], we had an introduction to art and music in Church History. This morning [7 March 2015], we are visiting the National Gallery of Ireland which houses one of the great collections of Irish and European art.

The National Gallery is located on Merrion Square, beside Leinster House, the seat of the Oireachtas (Parliament), although we are going to enter through the Clare Street entrance.

The National Gallery was founded in 1854 and opened ten years later in 1864. Its collection includes an extensive, representative collection of Irish painting as well as works by Italian Baroque and Dutch masters, along with 31 watercolours by JMW Turner which are exhibited only in January.

The masterpieces include paintings by Velázquez, Murillo, Steen, Vermeer and Raeburn. In all, the collection includes about 14,000 works, including about 2,500 oil paintings, 5,000 drawings, 5,000 prints and some sculpture, furniture, mirrors and other works of art.

1, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ’

Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ’ (1602)

Perhaps our main interest this morning is going to be in the once- lost Caravaggio, ‘The Taking of Christ,’ which was found hanging in the Jesuit house of studies in Leeson Street, in Dublin in 1990.

The Italian baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) completed this work in 1602. It is in oil on canvas, measures 135.5 x 169.5 cm, and is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery from the Jesuit Community through the generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson.

‘The Taking of Christ’ was originally commissioned by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1602. Throughout history, few artists have caused as radical a change in pictorial perceptions as Caravaggio, who was the most famous painter of his time in Italy. He painted ‘The Taking of Christ’ when he was at the height of his fame.

Breaking with the past, the artist offered a new visual rendering of the narrative of the Gospels, reducing the space around the three-quarter-length figures and avoiding any description of the setting. All emphasis is directed on the action perpetrated by Judas and the Temple guards on an overwhelmed Christ, who offers no resistance. The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is Saint John the Evangelist.

There are seven figures in the painting: from left to right they are Saint John, Christ, Judas, three soldiers (the one farthest to the right barely visible in the rear), and a man holding a lantern to the scene. They are standing, and only the upper three-quarters of their bodies are depicted. The figures are arrayed before a very dark background, in which the setting is disguised.

The main light source is not evident in the painting but comes from the moon in the upper left. The lesser light source is the lantern held by the man at the right, believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, and presumably, representing Saint Peter, who would first betray Christ by denying him – yet Saint Peter would go on to bring the light of Christ to the world.

At the far left, Saint John the Evangelist is fleeing. See how his arms are raised, his mouth is open and gasping, his cloak is flying and being snatched back by a soldier.

Consider how the flight of the terrified Saint John contrasts with the entrance of the artist (Saint Peter). Scholars claim that Caravaggio is making the point that even a sinner 1,000 years after the Resurrection has a better understanding of Christ than does his friend.

Two of the more puzzling details of the painting are, one, the fact that the heads of Christ and Saint John seem to visually meld together in the upper left corner, and, two, the fact of the prominent presence, in the very centre of the canvas and in the foremost plane of the picture, of the arresting officer’s highly polished, metal-clad arm.

Questions to ask:

Why is this painting so popular?

What does this painting say to you?

What does it say about light and darkness and your images of Christ, of Judas, of sacrifice and betrayal?

How do we betray Christ today?

Some of the other paintings we might look out for include:

2, Fra Angelico, Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake, ca 1439-1442

Fra Angelico, Saints Cosmas and Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake, ca 1439-1442

Fra Angelico (ca 1400-1455) is one of the great Florentine Renaissance masters. In 1407 he entered the Dominican monastery of Fiesole, assuming the name of Fra Giovanni. Within a few years he had become the most acclaimed monastic painter in Italy.

This painting is in tempera on a wood panel, measures 37.8 x 46.4 cm, and was bought in 1886.

Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian were two physician brothers living in Asia Minor in the third century. They and their three younger brothers were Christians, and during the Diocletian persecutions they were compelled to prove their loyalty to the Roman gods with a sacrifice. When they refused, Lycias, the Roman consul, submitted them to a series of brutal tortures. Miraculously they survived the torments but, finally, the enraged consul ordered their beheading.

The episode in this painting tells of the failed attempt to burn the five brothers. A circle of flames surrounds them, but the fire turns against the torturers, under the incredulous eyes of Lycias and his dignitaries.

This small panel was part of the predella (lower register) of Fra Angelico’s most important altarpiece. Other parts of it are scattered in various galleries worldwide. The altarpiece was painted for the church of San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici. He shares the name of one of the brothers (Cosmas, Cosmo), and his family name echoes in the profession of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, for medici means “physicians” in Italian.

Some questions to consider:

Does a rich patron compromise the subject of religious art?

If so, what does this say about our stained-glass windows, family memorials, and other works in our churches and cathedrals?

Do you find this subject matter too gruesome and too removed from today’s way of thinking?

Does hold true for many other Patristic themes and topics?

What does martyrdom mean today?

3, Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435

Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This panel is attributed to the French artist Jacques Yverni, who died ca 1435-1438, and is thought to have been completed shortly before his death. His only known signed work is a triptych in Turin.

This panel is a work in tempera on wood panel, and measures 151 x 193 cm. It was bought for the National Gallery in 1965 by the Shaw Fund. The picture was transferred at an early stage from its original poplar wood support to canvas, and as a result has suffered some damage, evident principally in the draperies. Before its acquisition it was transferred to a new panel.

We see against a gold background, the Virgin of the Annunciation kneeling at an altar. As she receives the message from the Archangel Gabriel, she raises her right hand to her throat, while her left hand points to her open book and the words: Magnificat anima mea Dominium, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

A vase containing a tall lily stem, symbol of her purity, stands between them. Saint Stephen, who presents two donors, is dressed as a deacon. He holds the palm of martyrdom in his left hand, and the instrument of his martyrdom, a stone, can be seen on his head.

Above the archangel, God the Father appears in a celestial sphere, and emanating from the heavenly rays are the dove of the Holy Spirit and a tiny figure of the Christ Child.

Some questions to ask:

Why is the Virgin Mary painted in Deep Blue and Red, rather than light blue and white?

Does this make a difference?

How do you respond to the use of the words in a book?

Why is the Virgin Mary beneath a canopy and by an altar?

Why is Saint Stephen present in this painting?

How do you respond to the Trinitarian imagery in this work?

4, The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin (ca 1490)

The Enthronement of Saint Romold as Bishop of Dublin (ca 1490) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This painting is part of a series telling the story of a hermit said to have been martyred ca 775 AD at Mechelen in what is now Belgium.

His tomb at the cathedral in Mechelen became a shrine for pilgrims. Centuries later, a series of paintings about his life were commissioned, seven by this anonymous painter, and are painted in the meticulous style of early Netherlandish art.

This painting tells the legendary, if false, story that Saint Romold had been Bishop of Dublin.

Some questions to ask:

Why was this painting worked in this style?

What does it say about the claims of the mediaeval church?

How does it use Church History and for what end?

Why is the story of an eighth century bishop of Dublin a legend?

And what difference does that make to our understanding of Irish Church History?

5, Marco Palmezzano, ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513)

Marco Palmezzano, ‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513)

The Italian painter Marco Palmezzano (ca1460-1539) was a pupil of Melozzo da Forlí, and for a long period he collaborated with and imitated his teacher. He was active in the north-east of Italy, and his prolific work very much reflects the established artistic tendencies of that region.

‘The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints John the Baptist and Lucy’ (1513) is an altarpiece that is typical of his work. It is in tempera and oil on wood panel, measures 218 x 188 cm, and is signed in the lower centre: “Marchus Palmizanus/ Pictor/ orolivi fecit/ MDXIII” It was bought in 1863.

Although it us dated 1513, it has a symmetrical structure and other elements commonly used on the Adriatic coast at the end of the 15th century. The scene presents the Virgin on a high throne holding the standing Christ Child, with an elegant canopy above their heads. Behind them, an arch opens onto a detailed wooded landscape with distant mountains and a church on the hill. The architecture is heavily decorated with classical bas-reliefs and grottesche motifs.

At the foot of the throne, a small angel is playing a lute, and beside him are the two patron saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lucy. Although painted in a traditional manner and without any significant innovation, this Holy Conversation is appealing for its vivid colours and light effects.

6, Titian, ‘Ecce Homo’ (ca 1558-1560):

Titian, ‘Ecce Homo,’ ca 1558-1560

‘Ecce Homo’ was painted ca 1558-1560 by the great Italian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (ca 1488-1576), better known as Titian. This work is in oil on canvas, measures 73.4 x 56 cm, and was purchased for the National Gallery in 1885.

In the earlier part of his career, Titian had collaborated with Giorgione in Venice. Soon, however, he was fully independent and was recognised as the most talented artist in that city. His fame led him to become the favourite painter of the leading Italian families, as well as of Pope Paul III and of the Emperors Charles V and Philip II.

The episode of the Ecce Homo is a moment in the Passion of Christ. Having been scourged and ridiculed with a crown of thorns, Christ was presented by Pilate for the verdict of the people.

The image Titian offers of Christ in this painting is particularly moving. He appears powerless, in tears, and his tortured body is covered in blood. It is an image of real physical suffering, but it is also one of great spirituality.

The painting was carried out rapidly with fast dabs of paint. The speed of execution is evident in the number of visible readjustments, such as the repositioning of the sceptre.

7, Titian, ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (ca 1545)

Titian, ‘The Supper at Emmaus,’ ca 1545

This second work by Titian, ‘La cenai in Emmaus’ or ‘The Supper at Emmaus,’ was painted ca 1545. It is in oil on canvas, measures 163 x 200 cm, and was bought for the gallery in 1870.

Some questions:

Have you never considered you the Disciples at Emmaus were?

What was their gender?

Does it matter?

8, El Greco, The Vision of Saint Francis (ca 1590-1595)

El Greco, The Vision of Saint Francis (ca 1590-1595) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614) was a Greek artist who trained as an icon writer in Iraklion in Crete, where the 400th anniversary of his death was commemorated last year [2014].

His work bridges the gap between East and West, between the Renaissance and Byzantine worlds, and he worked mainly in Spain.

This painting, which shows Saint Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, dates from ca 1590-1595. It is in oil on canvas, measures 114 x 104 cm, and was presented to the National Gallery in 1914 by Sir Hugh Lane.

Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have experienced a mystical vision at Mount Alvernia in 1224, during which he received the Stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ.

This is one of a number of paintings by El Greco of the life of Saint Francis. Here we see Saint Francis looking heavenwards, as stormy clouds frame his body and seem to reflect his inner state. The marks of the stigmata are visible on his right palm. The skull acts as a physical reminder of human mortality.

9, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) ‘Kitchen Maid with the Supper of Emmaus’ (ca 1617-1622)

‘The Kitchen Maid’ by Diego Velázquez

‘The Kitchen Maid’ (in Spanish La mulata, La cocinera or Escena de cocina, Kitchen Scene) is one of a pair of domestic paintings by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez from his early Seville period. It may have been completed between 1617 and 1622.

The Dublin version was bequeathed by Alfred Beit in 1987. A 1933 cleaning revealed a depiction of the Meal at Emmaus on the wall behind the main figure. The other version is in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Some questions:

Who cooked the meal at Emmaus?

Who cooked and prepared the Last Supper?

Who prepared the other, countless meals with Christ in the Gospels?

10, Peter Brueghel the Younger, ‘A Peasant Wedding’ (1620)

Peter Brueghel the Younger, ‘A Peasant Wedding’ (1620) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), dates from 1620 and is signed in the lower left: “P. Breghel. 1620.” It is a work in oil on wood panel, measures 81.5 x 105.2 cm, and was bought for the gallery in 1928.

This peasant feast was a very popular image and was replicated many times. Its attraction lies in its animated and amusing portrayal of Flemish peasants who are enjoying a country wedding. The bride looks down demurely at her dowry plate, as the old woman to her right grabs the money pouch from one of the guests.

The figures are deliberately caricatured and comical, as they dance and make love at the wedding reception.

It is argued that subjects like this were intended not just as comical genre scenes but as satirical images conveying a moral message. The crude carvings on the table-top include a windmill, a heart pierced with arrows, a wine flask, an owl and two intertwined fish. They may be symbolic, but many seem to be simply rough score marks.

Some questions:

Are the ideas the church and society hold about matrimony the same, overlapping, different?

Has it always been so?

Who defines marriage and matrimony?

Should the priest who officiates at a wedding also attend the reception?

Compare the imagery in this painting with a nearby painting depicting the Wedding at Cana.

11, Erskine Nicol (1825-1904): ‘The 16th, 17th (Saint Patrick’s Day) and 18th March’ (1856)

Erskine Nicol (1825-1904): ‘The 16th, 17th (Saint Patrick’s Day) and 18th March’ (1856) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Although for most people in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day was still only a liturgical commemoration on 17 March, Nicol’s painting portrays it as an opportunity for commercial enterprise and revelry. A woman to the right, enjoying the amorous attentions of the man beside her, sits on a set of rosary beads, the pub is open and the church appears to be closed.

Some questions:

Do you enjoy Saint Patrick’s Day coming in the middle of Lent?

How is 17 March marked in the Church of Ireland?

Is this different in Northern Ireland and in parishes and dioceses in the Republic of Ireland?

Is it a day more for the pub than for the Church?

What do our celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day say about Irish identity?

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a field trip to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, on 7 March 2015 as part of the elective model TH 7864 with part-time MTh students.

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