Dignare Me Laudare Te, Virgo Sacrata

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Catholic Masterpieces VII: "The Ansidei Madonna"

[Updated on 18 February 2009 to fix inactive image.]

This week's Catholic Masterpiece is yet another painting from the National Gallery's collection. Only 2 out of the 7 art pieces that I have featured so far have not been from this museum. Because of my recent trip there, and because I have the museum's companion guide, it is easier for me to write about paintings from that museum. As the weeks go on, I will have to spend a bit more time looking for some that aren't in the National Gallery. There are plenty of places that I can look to for assistance.

This painting is known as "The Ansidei Madonna." It was painted by Raphael in 1505. It was originally an altarpiece in the chapel of a family whose name was Ansidei. It belongs to a type of altarpiece known as sacra conversazione ("holy conversation"). These altarpiece feature an enthroned Madonna and Christ Child, who are communing with saints. In this case, the saints are St. John the Baptist (on the left), and the patron saint of the chapel, St. Nicholas of Bari.

St. John the Baptist is wearing a tunic of camel's hair (Mark 1:6), and a red cloak, signifying his death as a martyr. He points to the Child, while looking up towards the inscription above Mary's head, which says Salve Mater Christi ("Hail, Mother of Christ). St. Nicholas of Bari, who was a bishop, is dressed in bishop's garments, and at his feet are three gold balls, which represent bags of gold which he donated as dowries to three poor girls.

What isn't immediately obvious about this painting, especially to those who aren't familiar with traditional Catholicism, is the eucharistic symbolism contained within it. Below Mary's feet are three steps, which an archiectural feature that can be found leading up to most traditional altars. Mary herself can be thought of as Christ's first "tabernacle" on earth. She is in the center of the painting. What is found dead-center above the main altar in churches built before the 1960s? It is the taberacle. Above the Virgin's throne is a baldachin, another architectural feature found in the sanctuary of many churches, above the altar. Raphael, who was obviously familiar with these features, incorporated them into his painting. It's a wonderful testament to traditional artistic "language" of the Church.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Catholic Masterpieces VI: "The Virgin in Prayer"

[Updated on 18 February 2009 to fix inactive image.]

I haven't been to many art museums over the course of my lifetime. The most famous one that I have visited is the Louvre (I went there in 1997). I have also visited the National Gallery of Art twice over the past 2 years. More recently, I toured the National Gallery in London with a good friend of mine in September 2004. It was here that I saw one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen up close.

This painting, "The Virgin in Prayer" was painted between 1640 and 1650 by Giovanni Battista Salvi, who was also called Sassoferrato. He began his artistic career in the service of the Benedictines. At the age of 21, he painted copies of pictures at their monastery in Perugia. He then moved to Rome, and worked for many different employers over the course of forty years.

The deep blue color of the Virgin's cloak comes from the use of a pigment known as ultramarine. The main source of this pigment is a mineral that was mined in present-day Afghainstan, its only source for hundreds of years. Due to the remoteness of its source, ultramarine was expensive to obtain, and the highest-quality ultramarine equaled - and sometimes surpassed - gold in price.

The companion guide to the National Gallery describes the painting in the following manner: "The Virgin in Prayer, her veil leaning out of the painting into our space, is praying over us, for us, as an example to us, in submission to the will of the Father, to the Son. She has been abstracted from narratives of the Annunciation, the Adoration, the Nativity, so that we may pray through her, lose our fretful egoism in her infinite mercy and humility, as the artist has submerged his handwriting in the icon. Her eyes are lowered, but if we look up at her from a hassock or a prie-dieu, a sickbed or a deathbed, her tender glance will fall on us. She is alone, without the Child, our [M]other, our nurse, intercessor on our behalf, and Sassoferrato's message is that to submit to her is to reclaim our strength, our freedom, and our dignity."

I don't know who wrote that description, and if he was Catholic or not, but they are fitting words for this painting, even though I think words cannot describe the beauty of this painting, which in turn, is a depiction of God's most beautiful creature. I ended up buying a print of this painting in the museum's gift shop, and I hope to get it framed someday. It just goes to show that Catholicism has inspired some of the most beautiful art in the history of the world.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

"The Scouring of the Shire:" Another Possible Reason Why It Wasn't Filmed

It's been for too long since I have posted something other than my regular "Catholic Masterpieces" feature. It's time I right that "wrong!"

I am unlike many of my friends and colleagues, both on the Left, and in traditionalist Catholic circles, in terms of Tolkien's writings. I did not read "The Hobbit" until I was in high school, and I didn't have a copy of "The Lord of the Rings" until right before the movie came out. In fact, I finished reading "The Fellowship of the Ring" in the movie theater, right as I was about to see its movie adaptation. It wasn't until last summer that I read it from beginning to end, and I didn't even get around to reading the appendices (I know, 40 lashes for me with a wet noodle). I started reading it again this past summer, and I got as far as the end of the first part of "Return of the King," when the Men of the West come unto attack at the Black Gate of Mordor. I had to put it down then, and I didn't get back to it until very recently.

I was off today for Veterans Day, and I finally read "The Scouring of the Shire." Anyone who has read the book and has seen all of the movies knows that Peter Jackson and his crew did not film anything from this second-to-last chapter of the book. One commentator, after he saw the movie adaptation of "Return of the King," commented that this reflected the difference between the Americans and the British in terms of the aftermath of World War II. The Americans returned home to a land that was left pretty much unscathed from the ravages of war, whereas the British returned home to see the devastation of the Blitz. Perhaps this British outlook made it into Tolkien's writing, since he lived through that war.

Peter Jackson commented that "Return of the King" had more footage shot for it than the other two installments of his movie adaptation. The ending to this last movie was already pretty long, and the decision was probably made that the "Scouring" was probably too anti-climatic for this production. Many devout Tolkien fans criticized this omission, along with other omissions and changes in these movies. Some material that was omitted in the theatrical releases was restored for the Extended Edition releases on DVD (and from the look of things after viewing the "teaser" for the Extended Edition of "Return of the King," some great scenes are going to be added to this release).

As I reread "The Scouring of the Shire" today, I remembered something that I thought of when read this chapter for the first time last year. Tolkien was well known for his criticisms of the modern world, and I believe he inserted some of his observations into the narrative of this chapter. I must summarize the chapter, in order to reveal what these observations.

When Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Frodo arrive at the Brandywine River crossing, which is the entrance to the Shire, they notice that a spiked gate has been built across the path. After demanding to be let in, the hobbits guarding the bridge reluctantly let them in, but not after encountering further resistance from one of the Outsiders who had helped to overpower the Shire. After they had subdued this "ruffian," the returning hobbits asked if they could stay at the "very gloomy and un-Shirelike" guardhouse that had been built on the Shire-side of the bridge. They learn that this wasn't allowed, among other things. The ruffians have become "gatherers and "sharers," and they "do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again." Inside the guardhouse, they find lists of Rules that has been put into effect across the Shire. Many of the activities that all hobbits had previously enjoyed, such as the brewing and drinking of ales, and the smoking of pipeweed, had been severely restricted, if not banned outrightly.

The next morning, as the newly-returned hobbits made their way toward Hobbiton, they find out that all of the inns have been closed, and that the "shirriffs," who were few in number and had few administrative duties before the hobbits departed, had expanded into something like a secret police force, spying on the citizens of the Shire on behalf of the "Chief" and his vile Men. Any hobbit that tried to stand up for his rights was taken by the ruffian Men to be imprisoned in the "Lockholes," where they were often beaten. All of the buildings that had been built since the four hobbits left on their quest to destroy the Ring were built in a similar fashion to the guardhouse at the Brandywine Bridge, ugly, "un-Shirelike," and poorly constructed.

After encountering more of the ruffian Men and driving them off, the four hobbits rally the other hobbits to finally stand-up their oppressors. As the resistance begins, Sam and Frodo reach Bag End, and find that their home has been devastated. They discover that Saruman was behind all of these changes. As he, and his Men, are forced out, Saruman meets an "untimely" end, and in the aftermath, the four hobbits begin to set things right in the Shire.

What is pretty obvious to me, and what has probably been missed by countless numbers of "Lord of the Rings" fans, is that Tolkien is describing the aspects of a totalitarian state, especially a socialist one. The rulers of such states preach the equal distribution of all goods in a society, but what ends up happening is that the ruling class ends up being enriched by their "redistribution," while everyone else is left with little. The many laws and regulations of the state restrict the activities of most people, and anyone who resists the actions of the state are beaten, sent to prison, or even killed. The quality of architecture, both in beauty and in construction, goes down, and the landscape is ravaged, due to selfish aims of the state. Due to all of this devastation, which Sam described as being "worse than Mordor," the hobbits rightfully drove out their oppressors, and they began to heal their wounded land.

I think it is entirely possible that the producers of the "Lord of the Rings" realized the point-of-view Tolkien was taking in this chapter. Given the Left-wing bent in the film industry these days, it might have been deemed too politically-incorrect for someone's tastes. However, the producers also included some very "Christian-sympathetic" material in the films, especially in the Extended Edition of "Fellowship" (Gandalf referring to himself as "a servant of the Secret Fire," which is Tolkien's name for the Holy Ghost, and the very Marian sculpture on the grave of Aragorn's mother), which they could have easily left out of the film.

My personal opinion is that they should have filmed "The Scouring," and just put it back in for the Extended Edition of "Return of the King." I think it is an essential part of the narrative, and it reinforces the point that even if you think evil is defeated, it will always try to reveal its ugly head, sometimes in a way that is far too close to home.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Catholic Masterpieces V: The Altar of St. Joseph

I'm actually posting this on Sunday 7 November, but the post date will say Saturday 6 November, because I wanted an update for this past week. I didn't get to posting an installment of Catholic Masterpieces this past week because of Election Day, a lack of sleep, and a rather busy Friday.

This installment of Catholic Masterpieces is actually about an entire altar dedicated to St. Joseph. It is located in the Basilica of Mary, Help of Christians, which is located in Turin, Italy. It was built by St. John Bosco as "a monument to the Virgin Mary... [and] as the mother church and spiritual centre of Salesian Congregation." St. John Bosco was also the founder of the Salesians.

An acquaintance of mine was in Europe during the last week of October, and he brought back holy cards of the painting over the altar. He gave one to me, and the others to some colleagues of mine.

The altar itself was built in the traditional configuration. It is set against a wall of the basilica, and is "framed" by classical pilasters (the flat "columns") of the Corinthian style. Above the altar is a large painting of the Holy Family, who are depicted in a cloud above the Basilica, as it was in 1869. The depiction is based on a vision St. John Bosco had during his life. St. Joseph appears in the center of the painting, holding the Child Jesus. The Child is shown giving St. Joseph red and white roses. It appears that St. Joseph has taken the other roses and has thrown them toward the earth. St. John Bosco explained that "the white and red roses are the graces God gives us: even the red roses, accompanied by pain, suffering and sacrifices, come from God, and they are the best."

Mary stands beside Jesus and St. Joseph, with her hands folded as in prayer. She glances toward the two of them, showing her "motherly approval." Above the Holy Family are two angels holding a scroll with the following inscription: "Ite ad Joseph" ("Go to Joseph"). These are the words of Pharoah, in Genesis 41:55, to the people who came to him in need during a famine. The Catholic Church has applied these words, which refer to the Joseph of the Old Testament, to St. Joseph. Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, was raised by Pharoah to one of the highest positions in the land of Egypt. In a similar matter, God raised the lowly carpenter St. Joseph, a descendant of Jacob, to be "the man closest to Christ" - his earthly father and guardian. The Church directs the faithful to "have recourse to St. Joseph in all their spiritual and temporal necessities," just as Pharoah directed those in need to his servant Joseph.

May we have we recourse to St. Joseph in all of our needs.

St. Joseph, ora pro nobis!