Tag Archives: Jesus

Entry into the City

John August Swanson  Acrylic   1990

Today Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Jesus.  He and the Disciples are journeying to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  They have recently come from Bethany, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

In the days it took Jesus to reach the city of Jerusalem, the story of the miracle of Lazarus spread quickly.  The teachings of Jesus were already somewhat known in the area, and His arrival caused quite a commotion.  When it became known that Jesus was entering Jerusalem, the people went out into the streets to see who He was, and to welcome Him.  The people spread cloaks and branches for His donkey to tread on.  They sang Psalms and celebrated.

Palm Sunday is my favorite liturgical day of the year.  When people hear this, they generally think it is because it’s a happy, celebratory occasion.  That is not the reason.  It’s actually much more ominous and reflective.

I have a horrible fear of mob mentality.  I always have.  I hate crowds and crowded spaces.  I might blame it on reading Lord of the Flies when I was a bit too young.  More likely, it’s from watching a terrifying episode of The Twighlight Zone entitled “The Shelter” (also at a young age).

A group of friendly neighbors turn on each other when the Civil Defense makes an announcement that an object is heading their way.  They assume they are facing the impending doom of a nuclear attack, and desperately seek help from the only family with a fallout shelter, the same family they teased moments before for its existence.  I probably watched that episode twenty-five or thirty years ago, and I still have nightmares about it.

What does this have to do with Palm Sunday and the happy ride into Jerusalem on a donkey by Jesus?  For me, it’s a stark reminder of how quickly things can change, especially when people aren’t thinking for themselves.  In just a few short days, Judas betrays Jesus.  But more importantly, the crowd, this very same crowd cheering, turns on Him and call for His life.

One reason I think they are so easily swayed is because of their lack of information and knowledge about who He was.  While they joined the exalted cheering and singing of Psalms, they yelled out, “who is it?”  Matthew’s gospel says there was a pretty generic answer given, “Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee.”(Matthew 21:10-11).

This reminds me of being in the airport and seeing everyone grab their phones and rush to get a photo of someone you don’t recognize.  Someone throws out a name that is vaguely familiar or a movie or TV show you’ve heard of, so you grab your phone and get excited as well.  But when someone else somehow becomes more popular for a day or two, you suddenly find you’re more interested in Barabbas the thief than the prophet you were infatuated with days before.

You follow the whims of the crowd, however uniformed, however dangerous.  This is what Palm Sunday teaches me.  Think for yourself.  Be informed.  And be leery of masses of people who don’t.

John August Swanson is a painter and serigrapher.  I’ve nearly used his paintings for this blog for several different Christian holidays, but for various reasons have always chosen something else.  He has an immense body of religious work, but also some secular as well, including an excellent circus series.

I love that his work is influenced by his mother’s Mexican tradition, but mixed with a look of Russian iconography.  The facial features remind me of Medieval religious work, but the color palette is more Mexican folk or early 20th Century American Regionalism.  It gives the feeling of representing a historical event, while simultaneously seeming modern and current.

My favorite part of this painting is the clouds.  I think that’s why this painting fits me so much better than most other paintings of the triumphal entry.  They give the feeling that something is about to change, something is coming.  It might be a celebration now, but something foreboding lies ahead for Jesus.

So while we celebrate, let us look to what we know the rest of the week will bring.

Swanson detail

Detail of Entry into the City

See more of John August Swanson’s work here:  John August Swanson

Read the Biblical texts of the triumphal entry here:  Matthew 21:1-11

 

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Adoration of the Magi

Albrecht Durer   Oil on Wood  1504

The story of the Magi, the Three Kings, the Wise men, however you know them, it’s one of my favorite Biblical stories.  I love the mystery of who they were, where they were coming from, and where they went after they saw baby Jesus.  Matthew says “they returned to their country by another route” in order to avoid King Herod.  But where was “their country?”

Most Western Protestants and Catholics follow the tradition of three Magi, although some traditions say there were up to 12.  Traditionally, there are three men, Melchior of Persia, Casper of India, China, or “the Orient”, and Balthazar the African Wiseman, possibly from Ethiopia.  They are known by different names and countries in different traditions.

I’ve always had this nagging question no one seems to have a good answer for.  What would three men of such different ages (traditionally 20, 40, and 60) from incredibly different backgrounds be traveling together for?  Some traditions even suggest Balthazar was Muslim.

I think it seems more likely that all three were Zoroastrian.  This would probably explain not only why the three were traveling together, but also the use of the term “magi.”  Although it was also associated with magicians, alchemists, and astrologers, it was also commonly used to describe followers of Zoroaster.  (A people I hope to expand on in a later blog.)

The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are another mystery.  Who gives a baby incense and embalming oil?  Of course, the symbolism is heavy in this story.  Gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for death and the subsequent Resurrection.

Still, what mother wants to deal with that?  Oh great, let me lug this stuff around while I ride a donkey.  You could have just paid for a room at the inn so we weren’t still hanging out in this stable 12 days later.  Of course, I may be a bit more practical than one that has just experienced a virgin birth and is by now quite accustomed to visits by angels.  A surprise visit in your recovery stable from some random foreign dignitaries must have seemed quite in the ordinary.

I’ve pasted the story from Matthew 2 below.

Albrecht Durer is one of my favorite artists, and is by far my favorite printmaker.  Since this blog is already long, I’ll save his story for another time.  I’m sure I’ll post a block print of his sometime soon.

I do want to mention the person that commissioned this painting.  Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, commissioned the painting in 1504 for the church in Wittenberg.  You may think he or the church seem vaguely familiar.  He was an early ally of Martin Luther. The church at Wittenberg is the same church where Luther nailed the 95 theses, prompting the Protestant Reformation.  Frederick actually hid Martin Luther at Wartburg Castle to avoid arrest.

You can read a blog I wrote about another piece involving a dream Frederick III had about Martin Luther here.  Frederick III’s Dream

At first glance at this painting you may just see three Magi, but you’ll notice there are actually four.  Kneeling in front of the baby is Melchior, the oldest, traditionally aged 60, and representing Persia.  He presents gold.  Over his shoulder is Balthazar, representing Africa or Arabia.  He’s the youngest and is presenting the gift of myrrh.

And although it seems obvious that person next to him must be Caspar, I disagree.  Caspar is the Magi from India, or some even say China.  To me, the figure on the far right with his hand in his bag is more likely the third of the traditional Wise men.  His complexion, facial features, and attire show this man represents the East.

Then who is the long-haired man in the middle?  Albrecht Durer himself.  The artist created several self portraits, and there are just too many similarities to ignore.

Now most scholars look at this painting and say the three men in the center are the Magi, including the obvious self-portrait.  The fourth man is always considered a servant.  But why would there be only a servant for Caspar and not the others?   And why is he presented in such an “ethnic” way?  No, I’m sticking to my claim that Durer represents someone else, possibly one of the 12 Magi, or maybe just himself.  There are so many different stories about these men, and practically every nation claims one of them represents their culture.  Some even believe one was from Tuscany.  I think he’s representing Europe.

I love the wonderful architecture in this painting.  There are arches connected to what seems to be a crumbling wall.  I especially like the roof over the cow and donkey that is attached to what seems to be part of an arch.  Notice that little detail near the top that looks like it’s some sort of pin keeping the curved  block attached.

And the animals, although we can’t see much of them, are marvelous.  Look at the expression on that donkey.  The fur on the face of the cow is so rich and varied.  I just want to reach in and pat him on the nose.

And of course, we can’t leave out my favorite part, the stag beetle.  On first glance, my thought was whoa, what happened to the proportions?  Then I remembered seeing another wonderful painting of Durer’s, one of this same beetle.  I can’t seem to come up with a good reason for this, but for some reason Christ was sometimes symbolized as a beetle during the 16th century.  Whatever the reason, it makes for an interesting and visually appealing part of the painting.

durer

You can read a very insightful essay about this piece that I enjoyed here: Durer Magi

If you’re anything like me, the story of the Magi will continue to be an intriguing  story and mystery for years to come.  I hope you look up other versions of the story you know.

Happy Epiphany!

Here is the Biblical account of the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.  It is the only one of the Gospels to include the story:

The Magi Visit the Messiah

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

 

Be Be

Paul Gauguin  Oil on Canvas  1896

I was having a hard time deciding which of the hundreds of thousands of Nativity paintings I should share for Christmas.  Then I remembered this very interesting and unusual painting by Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin during his second stay in Tahiti.  I thought I would share it as it is not very well-known and is quite an unusual take on the very familiar scene.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Gauguin.  I prefer the Renaissance masters for religious images like the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Pieta.  But it’s the history, the story behind the story that interests me with Gauguin.  Like Picasso, it’s not the aestheticism I enjoy, it’s the reason he painted what he did.  (To read my blog on Picasso’s Guernica,  click here Guernica).

Two Decembers ago, Kip and I attended a lecture at the St. Louis Art Museum about Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and its influence on his work, which was quite interesting. Although he originally left his wife and kids to go to Tahiti to get inspired and get rich, it seems that he spent a great deal of his time conquering very young teenage girls.  He returned to Paris to a relatively positive reception to his new work, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Tahiti to take up residence (without his wife and children).

The first time he went to Tahiti was only about two years after his short-lived stay at The Yellow House with Vincent Van Gogh, which ended with Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.  Although their relationship was strained to say the least, they continued corresponding until Van Gogh’s suicide about six months later.  Although it doesn’t seem that Gauguin used the loss of his contemporary as a reason behind the first trip, I can certainly understand how it could have been.

Van Gogh desperately wanted Gauguin to be the first of his friends to join him at The Yellow House to start an artist colony.  When Gauguin discovered he couldn’t tolerate living in Arles with a genius that happened to also be unbearable to live with, he had to go.  Van Gogh never recovered.  Gauguin had to feel some regret, some remorse, and to some degree, like the cause of Van Gogh’s quick decline and death.  A remote island full of beautiful young girls seems like a logical place to go.

In 1895 Gauguin returned to Tahiti to live with his very young Tahitian wife, Pau’ura, who was also his most widely used model for many of his nudes.  It was during this period in 1896 when he painted Be Be and Nativity.   Pau’ura was most likely the model for Mary in Nativity, seen below.

nativity

Nativity   Paul Gauguin Oil on Canvas  1896

It’s wildly annoying to me that Be Be and Nativity are not in the same museum, as they are obviously meant to be viewed together.  Painted in the same year, both paintings show the same scene from different angles.  Nativity shows a Tahitian Mary on a very yellow bed, with animals around her.  The color scheme is so typical of Gauguin, bright, bright yellow with rich browns.

But Be Be is the painting I enjoy the most.  At first glance one might think it’s just a painting of a Tahitian woman holding a baby.  Then you notice the angel to her right, and the halo encircling the baby’s head.  The same livestock are in front of her as in Nativity.  And then you notice at the very top of the painting Mary herself, also with a glow about her.  Then it seems obvious that this is indeed, the same location, the same baby, the same stable.

So who is this woman?  Some believe she is Pau’ura.  Honestly, I don’t buy that.  She may have been the model, but I have serious doubts that a playboy like Gauguin was so infatuated with his young wife he made her the center of a religious painting, particularly because he had multiple young girls in his bed.

I tend to believe she is a representative of humankind in general.  Mary is long ago, in the background.  Jesus is being held by the native girl front and center.  She is us.  She is every Christian that holds Jesus as the center of their religion.  She is just a regular, normal girl, with Christ at the center of all things.

Today Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.  They continue to hold the Christ child lovingly, just as the young Tahitian girl does for Gauguin.  Merry Christmas!