Monday, April 9, 2018

Children don't have to go to heaven. A short reflection on the Feast of the Annunciation.

Children don't have to go to heaven.

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, on this special day, Christians around the world celebrate the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, when the angel foretold the coming of the Son of God, the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus Christ, the little maiden of Nazareth accepted this great responsability. Let it be unto me according to thy Word. For us Anglicans, the feast of the Annunciation is considered to be a principal feast, not only of the Virgin Mary, but also of the Lord and it also appears in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer.

For Christians, with the Annunciation came the fulfillment of the ancient prophesy of the Hebrews, Hosea says when Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. The messianic prophecy is made even more clear in Isaiah, where the famous passages still resound in our ears from the not so far Christmas: for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

With the Annunciation of the Lord by the ancient messanger of old, the Archangel Gabriel, the coming of Emmanuel is made real and the prophecy fullfilled, the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel is announced to the little maiden of Nazareth, the voice of the Lord thunders through his messanger and the future tabernacle of the Christ, the blessed Virgin, is highly exalted through words of praise Hail! Full of Grace! The Lord is with Thee! "I am with you, my Son shall be in you, oh holiest of women". Mary gently and humbly accepts... let it be unto me according to thy Word. The rest is the history of the Lamb which we just experienced through Holy Week and finally at Easter, God's revelation to humanity fullfilled in the completion of the old and new covenant and ready for his last coming. 

In the Renaissance, a time of literal rebirth of the arts and beauty, the Annunciation was among the most popular themes in Christian iconography, the greatest masters of the Quattrocento and the High Renaissance all the way to Mannerism depicted renowned renditions of this theme: be it the great Italians, from Fra Angelico to Filippo Lippi, through Botticelli, Perugino and Raphael to the Flemish masters such as Van der Weyden or Memling. In the Renaissance, ethereal renditions of this subject were at the same time distant and close to us, the almost void of emotions aristocratic, classical beauty of the angel and the Virgin, often seeming to dwell in reproductions of beautiful rooms, loggias set in what looks like Eden, the only detail to bring this apparent and stoic calm is the Holy Spirit or God's word falling from the sky, at the same time, the angel bends under the weight of the importance of the message he is carrying and the Virgin also bends in humility, accepting the mission of salvation for us all. The Annunciation is a sign of hope, of rebirth, it shows that the birth of a baby can break through the darkness of times and the Renaissance man understood this.

The mighty God made himself vulnerable in the Virgin Mary, this is what we commemorate. God became a vulnerable child for us all. Two days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when suddenly several well known online journals from all over the world started reporting the news of another attack by the Assad regime to some 300 poor Syrians. I was disraught, but scrolling down I began reading of how many children perished too, I became even sadder, I kept reading, scrolling... then it happened, some pictures of the deceased little angels appeared, there I lost it. I completely lost it. 
Words of faith in these moments can almost feel annoying, there is not much to say really, these children should be happy and playing. Their parents shouldn't be forced to take photoshraphs of them to let the world know, they shouldn't go through this. What can we do? The little we can do is probably to raise awareness, raise this issue, make it known, make us heard, loudly. Those children shouldn't be in heaven now. Children don't have to go to heaven. Children have to play. When the Virgin Mary knew she was waiting for her Son, Jesus was just as vulnerable, but he came to birth, when he was born Herod ordered the brutal slaughter of all the little children of Israel, Jesus survived despite the bloodshed, the announced Jesus had to fulfill the mission of salvation of the Father, the little Jesus is still here despite these horrors, this is important to know, he will always be here for the salvation of all; Emmanuel means God is with us, Jesus always is and will always be. But the problem is that we humans should strive for peace, slaughters of the innocent keep happening and they shouldn't, it is our duty. Pray for Syria. 

Children don't have to go to heaven.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, the glorious city of Zion, located in the beautiful landscape that is the Holy Land of Israel or as the Romans referred to it after the sacking of the Temple, Palestine; sacred to the Jew, Christian and Muslim alike is the city of God the Father, where his holy name is daily praised at what remains of the Holy of Holies, it is the city of God the Spirit, it is here that the Apostles received it while celebrating Shavuot, a celebration of the giving of the Torah, and the Harvest, it is the site of the Pentecost, and of course it is the city of God the Son, it is here that the little Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth became the Christ of the Cross and Resurrection. It is also where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites are found, where thousands of Christian clergy and pilgrims gather to give the incarnate God his praises. It is also interesting to know that where Jesus was, there was Mary, his virgin mother, highest among all saints. It is here that the little maiden that became a holy tabernacle of God, according to traditional legends, met her creator. One of the many Marian shrines of Jerusalem is indeed the Church of the Tomb of Mary.

This, one of the most fascinating churches in Israel, is located at the bottom of the lovely Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus retreated the night before the Passion, where Jews and Christians have been burying their dead for more than three thousand years and where they believe the Messiah will eventually come again, bursting all the tombs open and bringing all the dead back to life. The New Testament may be silent on the end of Mary’s life, but several early apocryphal sources, such as Transitus Mariae and others, as well as accounts by various early saints, describe her death and burial in Jerusalem. The ancient tradition regarding the death of Mary, the so-called Dormition, teaches us that the Virgin fell asleep, the beauty of early Christian and Eastern theology is that it doesn't try to explain the inexplicable. After she fell asleep, Christ received her soul directly and her body was resurrected on the third day, when she was taken up into heaven in anticipation of the general resurrection of the dead (the Assumption-theology also derives from this). According to tradition, her tomb was then found empty, leaving only a shroud and a cinture (the girdle) which eventually became a popular theme in the iconography of the Assumption. The Golden Legend, the Renaissance collection of the lives of the saints, instead states that all the Apostles, but Thomas, arrived late but were there (you can read more in my post about the Dormition, the link is above).

In 1972, Bellarmino Bagatti, a Franciscan friar and archeologist excavated the site and found evidence of an ancient cemetery of the 1st century on the site, as it was the case with Jesus' tomb. A small upper church in the Constantinian style was originally built on top of the present one in the 5th century but it was sadly lost during the Persian invasion of 614, when the Holy Sepulchre was also first destroyed, thankfully the crypt was left untouched. The church was rebuilt in 1130 by the Crusaders in the early Gothic style within a large Benedictine monastery, the Abbey of St. Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, a name still used sometimes to describe the church. Again, the church was destroyed by Saladin in 1187, but the crypt was again respected, only the entrance and staircase survived. In the 14th century the Franciscans rebuilt the church and later in the 18th century the Greeks took over the building during a Palm Sunday Mass, together with other holy sites, the Ottomans supported the Status Quo and since then it remained in their hands.

To the south, the building itself is preceded by an imposing walled courtyard with the 12th century Crusader Gothic fa├žade on its east end, the cruciform church is effectively a crypt as its gloomy interior, darkened and perfumed by centuries of candle and incense smoke, was excavated in the rock as a church during the 5th century, making it the oldest near-complete religious building in Jerusalem. Leading to it is a 12th century set of stairs, where the chapel of Mary's parents, Sts. Joachim and Anne, is to be found. On the eastern end of the church, what we could refer to as the apse, we find the chapel of the Virgin's Tomb, which is effectively a small Aedicule, not unlike the one at the Holy Sepulchre. This is where, amongst an exotic sea of flowers, icons, lamps and incense burners the supposed tomb of Our Lady is to be found, a bare tombstone, set in a Medieval structure ideated in order to make the flowing of pilgrims easy, just as in European shrines. Being able to pray by the place of the human that was the closest to God, our Mother in heaven, is indeed a powerful experience which should be part of any pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Just as in the Holy Sepulchre, this church was initially patronised by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, and therefore the tomb resembles that of Jesus, since the surrounding stone was cut to isolate the stone is a similar way.

Several denominations shared and share this site, it was initially Franciscan between 1363 and 1757, as most Crusader churches, they were expelled in the 18th century and the church fell into the hands of the Eastern Orthodox. Now the Greek Orthodox, among the greatest and most powerful landowners in Israel, own the church together with the Armenian Church. While the tomb of Mary is in the east end of the building, the Greek and Armenians, both owning the apse, have two altars on each side of the church. The Syriacs, Copts and the Ethiopians, as it often is the case in the Holy Land, have minor rights within the building. Interestingly, the church is also a Muslim shrine, few of us know that Our Lady, the Mother of Jesus, a prophet, appears several times in the Quran, a beautiful legend states that the place is holy as they believe Muhammad saw a light over the tomb of his sister Mary during his night journey to Jerusalem. To the south of the tomb there is a little niche, a Mihrab, that indicates the direction of Mecca. This was installed when Muslims had joint rights to the church, since the Islamic invasion and Ottoman Empire times, this lasted until the late 1960s, when Israel and what was then TransJordan were occupied by Jordan and freedom of worship was extremely limited for Jews and Christians alike until the liberation in 1967. 

The church is never really busy and not many know of it, but there I found a holy and mystic atmosphere, a transcendental sense of vicinity to the Virgin Mary that brought me close to the gentler side of our Creator and Maker in a very special place: Jerusalem. The incense, the gloomy crypt and the candlelight bring us all back to a time of old in which Mary was much more than just a saint, but the real Mother in heaven, the mother of the early Church and the Mother of Jesus who can only bring us closer to the Trinity and a into more intimate relationship with Christ through the echoes of her lauds and prayers. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Italians and the English, an affection running deep.

Ever since the 1340s, when Edward III sunk the Florentine economy while not being able to repay his debts to the Peruzzi and Bardi banking families who were financing the Hundred Years' War, causing a rather strong financial crisis, the English have more than made up for that little muddle with this peninsula. Indeed, our relationship is perhaps one of the best in Europe; yes, we were at war in WW2, though many Italians weren't really up for standing against their old allies of many conflicts, including the Great War, we are much more thankful for the Anglo-American liberation of Italy, and how not to appreciate those wonderful, romantic films such as Room with a View or Tea with Mussolini - the stories of Medieval and Renaissance clergymen and noblemen residing here are infinite, the Stuart monarchs even had Italian blood in them, since the 18th century cities such as Rome and Florence developed huge expat communities ever since the Grand Tour, with churches, tea rooms and much more, while taking the arts, literature and architecture of Rome back to Britain, where geniuses such as Christopher Wren reinvented them. So what do we owe Britain? You know what? What is it that unites us? Might it actually be the French? Despite my deep affection for the Bourbonic cause of the French monarchy and a possible restoration. I believe it is definitely the French that unite us. How?

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was born to nobleman Carlo Maria di Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino in Ajaccio, Corsica, a year before the island was transferred to France from Genoa. Considering that the Italian unification didn’t fully occur until 1870 and that he himself considered himself a Frenchman and a child of the much misunderstood but very bloody first French revolution, there is no reason to think of him as an Italian, moreover as he invaded and occupied Italy for several years in what can be considered an early form of military dictatorship. He wanted to be French but as a classical heir of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance. Now, what he did do during his time in Italy?

Let’s debunk a myth first; the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo at the Louvre, was the only Italian work among those of the great masters to not have been taken into France, as this wonderful portrait of a Florentine noblewoman was taken and completed by Da Vinci in Paris in 1516, and there it was bought by King Francis I of France, an avid art collector. The list ends here!

Now that my conscience has been cleared, I shall go on. Yes, not only Napoleon was an occupier of lands, he was also the first art looter of modern history. His quest for obtaining the best masterpieces of Europe can be resumed into one of his quotes: We will now have all that is beautiful in Italy except for a few objects in Turin and Naples. His intent was that of shaming the Italian states: Italy owes art its great fame and wealth, but it’s come the time to move everything to France, the land of the free. Of course, he also “took possession” of several works throughout Europe, many of the religious art he seized from churches, monasteries and cathedrals now forms the backbone of the French national galleries, a comprehensive list would be unnecessarily long, needless to say, it would comprise works of the caliber of Rubens and Rembrandt, his systematic appropriation of art can only be compared to that of Nazi Germany over a century later. Of all the works stolen in Italy (thousands), less than half returned after the Battles of Waterloo (1805) and Trafalgar (1815) because of pressure by the British to return them to their rightful owners who sent art experts to Paris to retake possession of the looted masterpieces, among those that remained are magnificent works by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, Perugino, Piero di Cosimo and Guido Reni. Ancient Roman statues or masterpieces such as Raphael’s Transfiguration thankfully returned, but these were exceptions. Indeed, a complete list can’t be included here - I will therefore mention one example dear to me.

In 1803, Napoleon’s sister, Paolina Bonaparte, married the extrovert art collector and Roman Prince Camillo Borghese who was born into one of the oldest and richest papal families of the Eternal City, a passionate and good looking man of his time who sadly ended up depressed, as Paolina lived an extravagant life at his expenses, with over 30 known lovers and extravagances such as being carried naked into her bath by her African slaves, knowing well that her husband couldn’t protest much when her brother was occupying Rome - of course, it is far from the historian in me to make any kind of judgement. The situation was quite tragic for the poor Borghese, but at least he had his large art collection to console him, a number of masterpieces accumulated by his family and also new ones he was adding up, such as an erotic naked statue of him by Antonio Canova. What remains of his majestic collection can still be seen in the beautiful Borghese Gallery in Rome. But why did I say what remains? You may wonder. Well, that is because Napoleon, during one of his visits to Rome, the self-proclaimed emperor, bullied the prince and husband of his sister, at the time a highly dishonouring move, into giving France 344 of his best artworks; they included 154 statues, 160 busts, 170 bad-reliefs, 30 columns and vases - they also included some of the most renowned masterpieces of antiquity such as the Ares Borghese, the Antinous Mondragone, the Borghese Hermaphroditus and the Borghese Vase. They were never given back. Now, multiply this with the equation of others not being his sister’s husbands and apply it to the whole of Italy, and to palaces, churches or galleries such as the Horses of San Marco the symbol of Venice, the sensual Apollo of Belvedere from the Vatican Museums or the Portrait of Leo X at the Uffizi and with them, thousands of others. See?

It is true that the French were not the first to take art works, hell, we Romans did it first, but as I like to remember, the English were quite polite and purchased them instead, for example, or at least took the effort to actually discover and preserve them. Do I think they should be returned? Let’s not be silly. Why would I go to Paris for then! Just one thing to say. Good job Admiral Nelson! (No wonder my cat is named after you). This is my favorite example of why we Italians return the favour of this special relationship. As I like to think Italy is an ageing Roman matron but England is her still flourishing young daughter, as Eleanor Lavish put it in Room with a View, quite eloquently: A young girl, transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn't she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Charles I and Charles II: two monarchs, two exhibitions.

If you happen to be in London at any point before the first half of April, you might want to visit a pair of two superb exhibitions: Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy of Art (27 January - 15 April 2018) and Charles II: Art & Power at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace (8 December 2017 - 13 May 2018). Focusing on some of the most controversial monarchs of British history, these two events are absolutely complementary and truly allow us to see the man behind the Stuart king.

The first exhibition on Charles I spaces over several rooms and it gives us a perspective on the superb sense of taste of that king, very much in line with continental standards. Perhaps the most misunderstood monarch Britain ever had, has, throughout the years, and because of small-minded historians, received a very bad reputation; that of a monarch who tried to overthrow parliament and not of the monarch who tried to prevent England from becoming the brutal theocratic and military dictatorship it was under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, not the monarch who tried to save the historical apostolicity of the moderate and by then Baroque, high Church of England of Archbishop William Laud; a monarch but also a martyr of temperate convictions whom Anglicans still regard as a martyr. The exhibition focuses on the hidden side of King Charles, an immense taste for art but also a deep understanding of how art was a symbol of power. The monarch's taste ranged from the highest forms of humanist Renaissance and Mannerist art, both Italian and Netherlandish/Flemish but also to the then contemporary Baroque style which expressed both emotion and power equally in dramatic ways. The glorious cycle of the Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna truly shows the political intention behind acquiring such works; others such as Titian's Last Supper, Rubens' Peace and War or the astonishing Mortlake Tapestries after Raphael, show the monarch's knowledge of the great names of his times as shown in actually owning some of those masters' most impressive works and also the relative broad taste of the king of what was essentially still a turbulent post-Reformation country. Indeed, King Charles I's court master was none other than Anthony van Dyck, perhaps the greatest portrait painter of the 17th century and throughout the exhibit his depictions of Charles I in all poses from the Charles I in Three Positions to the impressive Equestrian Portrait of his are absolutely exceptional. Indeed, the former was in fact made for sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who kept it for years in his Roman palazzo, before sending the king a bust on behalf of Pope Urban VIII Barberini as a sign of friendship and respect, a work also displayed in this show. A Stuart monarchy was a stable and respectable form of government for the English and a nation to be respected and admired throughout the continent. The show just proves this throughout its many rooms. But in 1649 the King's collection was scattered throughout Europe, following his shameful beheading at the hands of the Puritans, it was divided mainly between the Prado in Madrid and others - finally this event reunites such glory here in London. He was the first modern art collector and commissioner among Britain's monarchs. His last words were: I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the World.

The second exhibition on Charles II takes on the story following the quick demise of the Puritan Commonwealth that Charles died trying to prevent from taking power; it all starts with a poignant portrait of Charles I on the day of his trial, only a shadow of his former past glories. Following those dark years of iconoclasm, strict societal rules, and during which the royal collections were sold - Britain boomed into its Baroque renaissance with the Restoration. Not only, Charles II was the son of Charles I but he also managed to inherit his father's taste in art and managed to reimagine it in accordance with the return of the monarchy. The Puritans destroyed all the necessary regalia for the Coronation, including the spectacular Mass-set and Charles had them all recommissioned in a grander way for Westminster Abbey, a wonderful gilded set that is on display at the exhibition. After over a decade of republican rule, all ritual and courtly life were reinstated, art patronage resumed - art that seems to be rejoicing in the glory of the Restoration: the Monarchy is back! Indeed, the English people realised republicanism was a bad idea and many remained loyalist, the exhibition begins with objects used during the Commonwealth as symbols of loyalty to the Crown: these include devotional books with prints of Charles I, the martyr King, or plates that were hung in homes with portraits of Charles II. There are several pamphlets and prints showing the horrors and violence of the Commonwealth and the contrasting decency of monarchical rule. And suddenly it truly begins, a series of prints and portraits showing the return of the king, either enthroned, on a horse or other significant poses, and not a random king, but Charles II, who commissioned some impressive paintings and portraits himsef, enlarging the Royal Collection with spectacular works, such as Peter Brughel the Elder's Massacre of the Innocents or Orazio Gentileschi's Sibyl - not to mention the precious jewellery, the beautiful prayer books and Bibles or the stunning drawings by Leonardo or Italian Mannerist masters such as Polidoro da Caravaggio or Parmigianino - some of the greatest Italian artists of the time. Charles II not only followed his father in appreciating beautiful humanist continental Renaissance or Baroque art but he also used it as a mean of power and propaganda as well. In the exhibition are two of his royal portraits: one is by an Italian master, Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, and it represents the monarch as a classical god emerging from an intricate pattern of beautiful human and animal bodies emerging from the seas in a scene of true eccentric and Baroque triumph; the second being a more conservative portrait by John Michael Wright which sees the monarch loosely sat on a throne surrounded by draperies held by Italian-looking-like spectators, King Charles II stares into the public's eyes, holding the sceptre and orb, symbols of religious and temporal power, slightly smiling and spreading the legs of that richly decorated, sacred body which seems to communally claim, with a certain pleasure, that we are back, we are here to stay.

This exhibition is not only a wonderful example of a show on the grandeur of the British monarchy, but it represents that grandeur itself through a clever act of refined propaganda. Why? The show takes place in the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace, in both exhibitions most works were given by HM Queen Elizabeth II. It all continues... God save the Crown! I highly suggest you to see the two complementary exhibitions and experience the troubled history of these two great monarchs through some of the highest forms of beauty ever produced by mankind and that these two kings could indeed see and appreciate.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Down with the holly, ivy; all... not quite!

This article doesn't have the intent of being judgemental, but rather to be a source of inspiration and accuracy to those Christians who want to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in its fullness. For many January and the days following New Year's Eve or even Christmass for that matter are a time during which to remove decorations as quickly as possible. It is sometimes the case that one already sees people taking their trees down on December 26th or January 1st. But people also seem to start decorating by Thanksgiving in America or by mid-November here in Europe. How wrong is all of this? The answer is very much.

Christmass is surrounded by two important seasons: Advent and Epiphany. During Advent, liturgical colors in churches turn to blue or deep purple, symbolising this season of expectation in the shades of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who brought the Son of God to this very world. Adventus means coming in Latin, and as one prepares for this Advent of the Lord, this is also the right time to put Christmass decorations up. Preferably, on the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks before Christmass. In particular towns or cities around Europe it has been the case to put them up on local saints' feast days prior to Christmass, for example the Immaculate Conception on December 8th in Rome and St. Ambrose on December 7th in Milan. However, the 1st Sunday of Advent remains the best choice. Of course, the nativity scene should not have the child Jesus until sunset on December 24th.

Christmastide begins on the evening of the eve of December 24th, according to the ancient Jewish practice of changing the day at sunset which entered the Christian tradition of vespers/eves serving to the same purpose. Christians celebrate the Incarnation of that Son of God who will bring peace into the whole world, the Emmanuel born of the Virgin Mary. On the eve of December 24th we place the child Jesus in our cribs, check my nativity scene in the picture below. For the famous Twelve Days of Christmass, also known as Christmass Season, we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, from December 25th to the eve of December 5th, culminating in the feast of the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi and the spreading of the news of Christ's birth to the whole world. Removing your Christmass decorations during these holy days is an absolute sin!

The feast of the Epiphany, once known as Little Christmass, is the feast that celebrates the revelation of God's incarnate form in Christ Jesus, with the arrival of the Three Kings bringing their gifts of gold, myrrh and incense. In some countries in Europe, such as Germany, Italy and Spain, gifts are also given on this day. We place the Three Kings in our nativity scenes on this day, here to stay for the whole season of Epiphany, check again the picture above. You wouldn't think that creches were made to stay only for a few hours after the Magi had arrived! With Epiphany, very much part of the Christmass celebration, hence why it's a "sin" to remove the decorations at home before this day, it begins the third liturgical season dedicated to the spreading of the good news of Christmass and of the revelation of God's salvific mission into the world. This season of Epiphany lasts for a month, during which we celebrate important feasts such as the Baptism of the Lord, and it culminates on Candlemass, established by Pope Liberius in the 4th century to celebrate the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the Presentation of Christ Jesus to the Temple. Candlemass has traditionally been associated with the very end of Christmass, every Sunday of Epiphany we celebrate the Christmass and Candlemass is the 40th day. On Candlemass, we celebrate the ancient Jewish rituals following the birth of a child, the purification of a woman, the Virgin, 40 days after having given birth, and the ceremony of redemption of the firstborn, welcomed at Jerusalem's Temple by the whole community. Historically, this was considered to be the last day of the Christmass cycle. We remember Jesus, in the words of Nunc Dimittis, becoming a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel. The following day, from the Middle Ages through the Victorian Age, up until the early 20th century it was also the day when Christmass decorations could finally be removed. On this day candles are brought to church and blessed for the rest of the year, symbolising the same ritual occurred in Jerusalem. On Candlemass' eve, candles are positioned by the window, to share Christ's light with the whole world and to banish the demons of darkness away. Christ is our light and this is the last message of Christmass. Therefore, if you want to keep a Christian Christmass, fear not and keep your trees, decorations and nativity scenes until Candlemass! After all why not cheering up a bit with some Christmass spirit during this bare month of January? A Renaissance English poem, Ceremony upon Candlemass Eve, by Robert Herrick (1591-1674) goes:

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmass hall;
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Baptism of Christ.

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. After the Incarnation and the Epiphany, and before Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ to the Temple, this is the major milestone in the Gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, but spiritually speaking it is much more, regarding our economy of salvation, it is the way God gave mankind to be partakers of his body, the mean of his grace, the way to be part of the assembly of the faithful known as the Church. The event is mentioned clearly in the four gospels, not only that, but even secular historians regard the Baptism and the Crucifixion as the starting point for the study of the historical Jesus. In the accounts of Matthew, Luke, Mark, a voice thunders from heaven You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. In Matthew, John the Baptist says I have need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus convinces him to baptise him. In Luke, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on Christ, this is stressed even more in John, in which the other disciples are baptised. A location of the site of the Baptism is given, in Bethabara, beyond Jordan. Today thought to be on the eastern bank of the river Jordan, near Jericho. During my latest trip to Israel, in November, I was blessed to make the sign of the cross with those waters Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Originally in the early Church, Baptism was celebrated on the same day of Christmas and the Epiphany, whereas it is now the tradition of the Church to celebrate it on the Sunday following the Epiphany, when the Epiphany occurs on a Sunday, it might be celebrated on the following Monday. In the Baptism of Christ the Trinity appears in its full glory; God thundering from the heavens, the Spirit descending on Christ, the light of the nations - the sacrament through which our sin is washed away with the waters of the Jordan and through which he made us partakers of his body and blood, through which we became whole in him and we in him. Saint Irenaeus said He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men.

In Christian art, the Baptism of the Lord, has its own iconography, developed as early as the 4th century with the moving example from the catacombs of San Callisto in Rome. Christ, standing, is being baptised with water from the river Jordan, the Baptist pours it gently on his head. The scene developed substantially in Medieval art, and by the 15th century, there is a full iconography with the whole Trinity. God the Father, usually shown as a pair of hands, seems to launch the dove of the Spirit spreading its wings over, Christ, gently immersed in the clear waters and ready to spread that message to the whole earth, angels appear singing, playing instruments and giving praise to the first step of Christ's revelation towards Calvary. The Renaissance was a prolific time for this theme, perhaps the most notable examples, and my favourites too, are that of Piero della Francesca and Verrocchio/ Leonardo. The first, set in a bucolic scenery of Gothic echoes has in fact a very precise geometrical scheme, based on symmetry, Piero della Francesca's colours are extremely and yet gently cool. Although the Baptist is just pouring water on Christ's head, the scene gives a sense of great calm, above them appears the Spirit, ready to validate the action in the name of the Father, instead of him though is a tree, diving the scene from top to bottom, in the background are a multitude of people being baptised in eastern Renaissance clothing, an Italian looking Jerusalem is in the background. Three beautiful angels distantly but reverently take part in the scene, they invite the spectator to take part in it. The second work, begun by Andrea di Verrocchio, one of the great masters of Renaissance in Florence, was finished by Leonardo da Vinci nonetheless. Iconographically, the work is very similar, the Baptist, this time standing taller than Christ, pours water on his head with a tiny shell, the hands of the Father seem to free the dove of the Spirit above, ready to bless the unfolding event below with its golden rays of grace. Two much more youthful angels seem to discuss the scene, and we are almost drawn to try and hear what they are saying! This work departs considerably from Piero's sense of symmetry, here the two masters show Florentine extravaganza at its best; the Baptist and Christ seem to be bouncing in that very Quattrocento pose, almost as if their weight is entirely held by those elegantly curved legs - Christ's feet just appear under the water in an incredible illusion, the fruit of great talent. In the background is a splendid Florentine scenery, with hills, lakes, and even in this case with echoes of the Gothic world. Renaissance masters reinvented classical aesthetics and made Christian art and its heavenly message anew through it. Christ speaks to us, come and be baptised in my name. Happy Feast.