Archive for art

Moving over the waters

Six Days of Creation (detail) Czech Bible of 1506 Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University

Six Days of Creation (detail)
Czech Bible of 1506
Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.


The other day I happened upon a wonderful exhibit from Bridwell Library’s Special Collections. The First Four Centuries of Printed Bible Illustration presents some outstanding images in glorious, generous detail. (Thank you Bridwell, for making the images large enough to explore!) It’s quite a treat.

This woodcut especially caught my eye–I can’t remember ever having seen a creation image like it. I love the texture of the waters. I love the way God seems strong and active. It’s an image of creative activity where you can imagine why God would rest after six days.

The entire page is a wonder. God’s hands are so expressive; every panel is dynamic, yet balanced.

I find myself feeling grateful. Thankful that such a work has survived the years. Thankful that we live in an age where I discover such treasures on my computer. And thankful that someone was willing to photograph it and share.

Czech Bible, 1506 Bridwell Library, SMU

Czech Bible, 1506
Bridwell Library, SMU
(Click to enlarge image)

Paintings in place – St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel

Today I thought I’d share a video from The National Gallery, London. We see so many images in books and on screens–and in galleries. It’s good to be reminded that some paintings have been made for particular spaces and particular points of view.

Caravaggio’s paintings have captured my imagination since my days as a student. He was a complicated person and some of his work is unsettling, but it rewards attention. I hope you enjoy this brief tour of the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

Risen indeed

Isenheim resurrection

The Resurrection
Matthias Grünewald, 1512–1516.
from the Isenheim Altarpiece

The movements of the soul – Christ among the doctors


For years this painting–Albrecht Dürer’s Christ Among the Doctors–has seemed to me profoundly odd. It’s so crowded! All those heads and hands and books. Why on earth would the artist pack a painting that way? And truth to tell, it feels a bit uncomfortable and almost creepy. What is going on here? I couldn’t figure it out, but this summer I had the opportunity to see the painting in person, and standing in front it, I felt like I finally made some progress.

I knew the subject, of course: a young Jesus is in the temple among the teachers, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2: 41-52)  And I knew that gesture has long been an important carrier of meaning in art. “These movements of the soul are made known by movements of the body,” wrote the great Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti. So I at least had some context for this painting that Dürer created in five days while working in Venice.

One of the things I like to do in a museum is take pictures of paintings with my cell phone. Not just pictures of the entire painting, but close ups of the interesting bits. Details. I find it helps me think. And after looking at Dürer’s painting with my camera, here’s how I see it.

It’s the composition that reveals the story. At the center of the painting is a wheel of hands. Jesus’s young hands are making a point while the pale hands of the aged, blind teacher reach out to touch his arm and restrain him from speaking. That teacher–a doctor of the Law–is painted as a caricature, and caricature, like gesture, can be a quick way to convey a entire packet of meaning. We should understand this man’s blindness as both physical and spiritual. His hands are large and cold-looking as they try to overwhelm the boy Jesus’ hands.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors hands center



Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors Christ top


While none of the other faces are caricature, some of their expressions contribute to the viewer’s feeling of discomfort or danger. On either side of Jesus are two groups of three figures that mirror each other. Two of these figures are searching in books, arguing with Jesus about points of law. Two men catch our attention with their wild eyes: one looks at Jesus with suspicion; another looks out at the viewer with an expression of alarm.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors upper left eyesAlbrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors upper right










But in the midst of this swirl of confusion, mistrust, denial, and disputation, one of the teachers has stopped arguing. He looks at Jesus with what seems to me a world-weary hope, and Jesus, who has turned away from the blind doctor, meets his eyes with compassion.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors Christ and Listener


While all around people are moving their hands and rustling pages, this man has closed his book, and rests his hands on top of it as he listens attentively. In this stillness, he receives understanding.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors books and hands


The story that began with a wheel of hands, ends with hands at rest. As he does throughout this work, Dürer first makes his point by showing us a pair of images–here two books.  And then, like a storybook’s closing “The End,” the artist completes the narrative and confirms its meaning his by placing his signature and date on a bit of paper slipped between the pages of the closed book.


Albrecht_Dürer_-_Jesus_among_the_Doctors listening hands


“The movements of the body reveal the movements of the soul,” says the artist. “Be still and know that I am God.”


Little David and the Chunky Flap Book

Little David and the Giant


Little David and the Giant is one of a series of “Bible Story Chunky Flap Books” put out by Random House in the 1990s. This one was written by Mary Josephs (is that a pseudonym?) and illustrated by David Wenzel.

Even when my kids were tiny I was incredibly picky about the Bible storybooks I bought. I had rules: no bad theology, no ugly pictures, don’t stray too far from the scriptural account. That excluded a lot of board books. Three Mary Josephs’ works passed my test and stood up to repeated reading: Little David and the Giant,

Daniel and the Lions (illustrated by Pamela Johnson)

Daniel and the Lions

Lions crop

and Jonah and the Whale (illustrated by Benrei Huang)

Jonah and the Whale

(I think that whale knows a secret.)

At about $3 for a board book that fits in your hand, you might not have expected a quality experience, but I really liked these Chunky Flap Books because their use of the flaps was fun and creative.

David Loaded Sling

Open the first flap to let the stone fly…

David slew the giant


And down Goliath goes!

Even the language is an occasion for happy discussion. How many books for 2-year olds include the word “slew?”

Just goes to show that sometimes there is treasure buried in the field, so keep digging!

Now, to add to the spirit of discovery and general merriment, here’s a jazzy song about Goliath with lyrics by J. Paul Williams and music by Joseph A. Martin. Everyone seems to enjoy singing this one. Hope you enjoy it too.

And why should kids have all the fun?

Goliath was a mighty man, he stood over ten feet tall.
Goliath was a mighty man, he had a lot of gall.
He laughed at David and David’s God
He made fun of old King Saul.
Goliath was a mighty man, but you should have seen him Fall.
Fee, fi, fo, fum,
Fee, fi fo, fum

Goliath was a mighty man, he was a warrior bold
Fee, fi, fo, fum,
Goliath was a mighty man,
fee, fi, fo
His temper uncontrolled
He laughed at David and David’s God
He made fun of old King Saul
Goliath was a mighty man
But you should have seen him,
Yes, you should have seen him,
O, you should have seen him fall.

Now you’ve made me mad. You are just a lad.
Birds and beasts will have a feast.. Prepare to meet your God!

David stood up to Goliath, he didn’t even have a sword.
All he had was five round rocks and the power of the Lord.
He put a rock in his old sling-shot and when that stone had flown,
It hit Goliath between the eyes and he..let..out.. a..groan!

Goliath was a mighty man, he stood over ten feet tall.
Goliath was a mighty man, until he lost it all.
He laughed at David and David’s God
He made fun of old King Saul
He wasn’t really great at all
You should have seen him
Yes, you should have seen him,
You should have seen him…… fall!


Samuel Helping in the Temple

Samuel Helping in the Temple
painting by Harold Minton
The Bible Story Book, Bethann Van Ness, Broadman Press, 1963.

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. (1 Samuel 3:1)

Bible Story Book cover Bethann Van Ness

Children are so often shown being helpful in Christian publications. The message is clear that everyone can and should make a contribution, and that God can use anyone for his purposes–even a child. We’ll look at more of these images in the weeks ahead.

My Jesus and I

My Jesus and I cover


Sometimes I pick up a book and worlds open.

My Jesus and I is another educational work from the Salesian order, written in 1949 by the Most Rev. Louis LaRavoire Morrow to help elementary age children prepare for their First Communion. It was originally intended for use in a classroom with an instructional poster set, both of which are still in print.

The book is gentle and directly emotional. Each page has a line of a prayer with a question or commentary underneath it, and a picture from either a Bible story or from a child’s daily life as he or she is accompanied by good and bad angels, Mary, and Jesus.

A letter printed inside the back cover explains:

My Dear Child:

I have made this little book for you, because I want you to know Jesus better and better each day. He is a good Friend, who loves little children like you….

Jesus wants little boys and girls to know how He lived, and what He taught. He wants us all to be good, loving one another, and obeying our teachers and parents.


My Jesus and I is both sweet and strange. I find I’ve grown quite fond of the helpful little angels in these illustrations. They are so busy! Sometimes they are happy, sometimes dismayed, but always present, even if they are just tending the garden while you play.


Thy will be done sick


On another page, Mother Mary wakes a sleeping child while Jesus points the way to church. These are some of my favorite angels–one holding the ringing alarm clock (see the jagged sound lines!) and the other digging a shoe out from under the bed. Oh, that Sunday morning always brought such attendants!


Sunday morning


If you look at a lot of Christian children’s books you’ll find that many of them are written by women, but My Jesus and I was written by a Catholic Bishop. Who was he? I wondered.

Born in Weatherford, Texas in 1892, Louis LaRavoire Morrow grew up in Mexico (his double surname follows Hispanic custom) and, after becoming a priest, lived in the Philippines and India. He became bishop of Krishnagar in West Bengal, India and his ministry spanned World War II, the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Partition of India. He was also a Council Father to the Second Vatican Council. The Sisters of Mary Immaculate (an order which he founded) describe him as a “staunch believer and supporter of the Human Rights Programme of the United Nations; and also an ardent advocate of women’s rights.” He was a prolific writer of educational materials.

As I mentioned, My Jesus and I is still in print, and there is some discussion surrounding its depiction of evil. The current edition has apparently replaced several of the images of Satan with something more modern and less-affecting, but judging from the comments on Amazon, not everyone is in favor of the change. They are wild images, but no scarier than the Ghost of Christmas Future, and always presented within an atmosphere of calm.


Jesus temptation Hallowed be thy name



Sometimes temptation actually looks rather friendly. “Do you want candy?” The kindly devil has brought a chair to help the child reach that forbidden treat while the good angel gently pulls the child towards a picture book.




One final note: while she is not credited, many of the illustrations in My Jesus and I are signed by Anita Magsaysay (later Magsaysay-Ho), an important Philippine modernist painter. I imagine all the original images are her work.

Anita Magsaysay signature

In her biography (written by Alfredo Roces) Magsaysay-Ho said,

“In my works I always celebrate the women of the Philippines. I regard them with deep admiration and they continue to inspire me—their movements and gestures, their expressions of happiness and frustration; their diligence and shortcomings; their joy of living. I know very well the strength, hard work and quiet dignity of Philippine women, for I am one of them.” 



We have seen his star in the east

The Christ Child Pictures by Maud & Miska Petersham

Wise men right crop


Wise men left detail


Wise men right detail

from The Christ Child pictures by Maud and Miska Petersham

Look at those tassels swinging! And such colors and patterns!

Born this day

Shepherds and angel glory

The Christ Child as told by Matthew and Luke
Made by Maud and Miska Petersham
Doubleday and Co., 1931.


Christ Child Petersham crop

The Christ Child as told by Matthew and Luke
Made by Maud and Miska Petersham
Doubleday and Co., 1931.



Methinks I see an heav’nly host
Of angels on the wing;
Methinks I hear their cheerful notes
So merrily they sing.

Let all your fears be banish’d hence,
Glad tidings I proclaim;
For there’s a Savior born today,
And Jesus is his name.

Lay down your crooks, and quit your flocks,
To Bethlehem repair;
And let your wand’ring steps be squar’d
By yonder shining star.

Seek not in courts or palaces,
Nor royal curtains draw;
But search the stable, see your God
Extended on the straw.

Then suddenly a heav’nly host
Around the shepherds throng,
Exulting in the threefold God
And thus address their song.

To God the Father, Christ the Son,
And Holy Ghost ador’d;
The first and last, the last and first,
Eternal praise afford.

Shiloh by William Billings, 1746-1800


Billings NewEnglandPsalms00bill_0008  Billings Newenglandpsalms title page bill_0009



Christmas Day in the Morning!


On Christmas Day in the Morning! Cover illustration by Antony Groves-Raines Carols collected by John Langstaff

On Christmas Day in the Morning! Cover illustration by Antony Groves-Raines
Carols collected by John Langstaff


I can’t imagine celebrating Christmas without music. These joyous illustrations come from On Christmas Day in the Morning! a book of carols gathered by music educator and founder of Christmas Revels John Langstaff. The witty pictures were created by Antony Groves-Raines, an Irish artist especially known for his advertising work for the Guinness company.  To get in the spirit while you look at the pictures, listen to Orla Fallon’s rendition as you scroll down.

Angels making music half title page


Christmas Day



Christmas Day right

As the revels end, the angels pack up their instruments, climb what must be Jacob’s stepladder, and bid us adieu.


Angels packing up

Detail verso page

Merry Christmas!