Dr Caroline Farey

The Nativity in the Initial P, c. 1395, by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci (1339 – 1399), by Dr Caroline Farey

2murano3Art, as the Catechism tells us, can communicate through beauty aspects of the truth that words alone cannot. In this posting Dr Caroline Farey of the School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey, Devon, England describes why this image was chosen to exemplify and communicate the idea of the via pulchritudinis - the pathway of beauty that leads to Beauty itself, and which is itself beautiful. This is an important aspect of the School's newly launched Diploma in New Evangelization, a distance-learning, interactive online course. Dr Farey also leads the School of the Annunciation summer school in ‘Finding Faith through Sacred Art’, August 14-17th at the same magnificent location and its not too late to enrol for that too. You can enrol through their website.

She writes: 'This picture and the whole page ‘evangelise’, that is, ‘proclaim the Good News’ and the artist friar, Don Silvestro, has chosen to proclaim it in glorious gold and exuberant life and colour!   The musical notes too join the joyous proclamation on the page to that of the choir who will sing from it.  The first two notes are an interval of a fifth, an uplifting interval, an interval used for the joyous moments in the Church’s liturgy. This illuminated capital letter ‘P’ is a depiction of the Good News that Jesus Christ, Son of God, was born of the Virgin Mary.  You can see that the P is the first letter of ‘Puer’ ‘boy child’. God is born a boy child, born of a virgin  ‘betrothed to a man to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.’  Luke chapter 1:27.

'No ‘news’, no facts, no truth, can compare with this.  No other religion ever claimed that Almighty God, Creator of the universe chose to enter his created world and its history, as a human being, at a specified time and place in a particular family that could be verified with parents, Grandparents and cousins.

Let us look closely at the Latin words. On this page we find that these do not come from the New Testament (as the image portrays), but from the Old, from the prophet Isaiah (Is 9:6)

  • ‘Puer nat(us) est nob(is)  ‘A child is born for us,
  • Et filius datus e nobis - and a son is given to us,
  • Cuius imperium - whose government  - (next page not shown) is upon his shoulder’.

'Here we have perfectly portrayed the unity of the Old and the New Testaments in Jesus.  As the Catechism tells us (CCC.102): ‘Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one utterance in whom he expresses himself completely’.   That is Jesus, the Son and Word and Image of God.   The Good News of God becoming man has been proclaimed in a hidden way throughout the whole of the Sacred Scriptures.


The Incarnation: a cosmic event

'Let us now look again at the miniature painting itself. This image portrays the event that changed everything, the whole of creation.  The open cave depicts the hard earth opening to let the love of God enter in and ‘dwell’ in our midst.  It follows the prophet Ezekiel (36:26) who speaks of our hearts like hearts of stone that need to be opened and replaced with hearts of flesh, hearts that receive the divine love of God by receiving the child Jesus.

It is a cosmic event, affecting all levels of creation.  Starting from the lowest level of inanimate and plant life we see that:

  • From the grey rock a tree breaks into leaf and blossom and red and white flowers sprinkle the barren earth like life newly bursting forth.
  • The animal kingdom is also affected, where, as Isaiah prophesied, ‘the ox knows its creator and the ass its Master’s crib;’.  (Is 1:3)
  •        'Mankind is portrayed by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds.  Mary and Joseph show us in their attitudes, the way to heaven. They show what to do in the presence of God made man.  Mary ‘carries’ the Christ child, not letting him go and holding him in such a way that he is available for others.  Joseph faithfully follows the instructions of the psalm, ‘come in let us bow and bend low, let us kneel before the God who made us’ (Ps 94:6).  He kisses the baby’s feet as he adores him as God, following the first commandment : ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might’  (Deut 6:5)

'You will find the shepherds in various stages of their journey.  The closest is appearing from behind the rock cave.  Others are at the bottom of the page: on the right one is still sitting absorbed with playing a bag and pipe of some kind. Others in the left corner are startled by an angel and the sheep are wandering in a  confused state through the decorative border.

  • As we move up the levels of the created world we see the angels here too, singing and dancing with Joy on the roof of the stable.
  • Both as the sky and as heaven, the shining gold background suggests rejoicing in heaven and on earth, ‘the glory of the Lord shone around them ...’and suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying  ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased’ (Luke 2:9 & 14).

'Let us look again at Joseph.  Here he is not portrayed sitting to one side, as in many images of this time.  Here he is taking the flesh of the feet of the child on his lips – what does this remind you of?  Yes, of receiving Christ in Holy Communion.  We must remember that this is a book for the liturgy of the Mass.  This page is the opening page of the Introit (opening prayer) for the Mass of Christmas Day.   Even as Mass begins, the image portrays that what happened on the first Christmas Day is the same as that which takes place at Mass, hence, of course, the name of the feast, ’ Christ’s Mass’.

'Lets look again at Mary.  Her inner dress and Joseph’s are the same colour – they are both human.  Mary is not divine.  Over her humanity, however, she has a mantle of blue indicating the ‘overshadowing’ of God the Most High (Lk 1:35) and the singular graces given to her for this moment.    Jesus’ garment matches the colour of the heavens, the glory of God.

'You will notice too that Mary is sitting on a most elaborate cushion with diamond decoration.   This suddenly reveals the artist’s concern to show Mary with the riches of a Queen, for the newborn King in gold on her lap, as well as to show her as Mother.

'In conclusion, we have the Good News portrayed here from the Old Testament prophesy to the New Testament event of the birth of Christ.  The Good News includes the ultimate Queenship of Mary as mother of the King of Kings and all of this is proclaimed for us liturgically with words and music, and eucharistically with Joseph’s adoration.'



Giusto's Institution of the Eucharist

This article is by Dr Caroline Farey of the Maryvale Institute. She and I worked together to design the Institute's degree level diploma (6 US credits): Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective. A distance learning course requiring one residential weekend, this can be taken either by application tothe Institute in Birmingham, England; or in the US through their centre based at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas (link here). Dr Farey writes:

Between 1465 and 1474, Giusto executed the Communion of the Apostles (The Institution of the Eucharist) which Vasari has described, and is now in the museum of Urbino. It was painted for the brotherhood of Corpus Christi at the bidding of Frederick of Montefeltro, who was introduced by Caterino Zeno, a Persian envoy at that time on a mission to the court of Urbino. Giusto is Joos van Wassenhove who was a Netherlandish painter, part of whose career was spent in Italy, where he was known as Giusto da Guanto (Justus of Ghent). He brought to Italy some of the characteristics of Dutch painting and combined them with the local Italian style.

This painting unites Jesus Christ, the Church and the Eucharist in a single harmonious illustration of the Catholic faith. It is perhaps important to begin with an initial teaching point: it is worth helping people realise that such a painting as this is has both an historical and a contemporary dimension to it. We do not need to believe, therefore, that the artist wishes us to see every part of the painting as an historical depiction. He is not necessarily wishing to communicate to us that the upper room really looked like this, or that the table was historically laid out like this, or that the apostles necessarily knelt to receive the body and blood of Christ as he has painted it here. Of course, they may have done. However, what the artist is also trying to show us in the painting is that what Christ did at the last supper with the apostles he, personally, still does for his disciples today at Mass.

One way to introduce this painting to those whom we are catechising is to begin by teaching about the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper from this piece of art. Then we can continue by explaining what the painting reveals about Mass today.

Christ at the Last Supper

Let us look at this painting first of all as depicting an event in the life of Christ.For this we can follow the Gospel accounts, especially that of St Luke.

  • In the Gospel of Luke chapter 22 we read that, during the Last Supper, a dispute arose amongst the disciples as to who was the greatest. Jesus replied to them ‘which is the greater, one who sits at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves’(Lk 22:27).Much in this painting depicts this dialogue. The Persian in the turban and the members of the confraternity in the red hats are disputing and Christ is portrayed as the one who is not sitting at table now but is among his disciples, serving.Look at the bending figure of Christ, beautifully depicting the reality of Christ the Servant.
  • We can also see here an artistic depiction of the central truth of the Faith, that God condescended to be born and to live among us, that the divine Second Person of the Trinity took flesh for our sake In the General Directory for Catechesis the part on the Pedagogy of God opens with a quotation from Hosea, ‘I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them’ (Hos 11:4, in GDC 137). The bending figures of the apostles around Christ also emphasises this mystery. By contrast, the Persian in the turban stands erect, with his head and shoulders thrown back. The painting is also showing us the amazing truth that Christ only ever serves himself to us – ‘This is my Body’. The Church, in her Tradition, follows this truth without deviation, accepting that Christ gives his whole self to us.
  • Christ, the one who serves, is portrayed as ‘greater’ by his stature and centrality in the picture. You can see that Christ is painted disproportionately larger in height than any other figure.
  • Directly in front of Christ on the floor we can see the jug of water and basin.The Gospel of Lukes tell us that the disciples were to meet a man carrying a jar of water and to follow him into the house which he enters (Lk 22:10).
  • John’s Gospel also links the Last Supper scene to water: ‘He rose from supper, laid aside his garments …poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (Jn 13: 4-5). It seems that in this painting this may have already happened – look at the bare feet in the picture!
  • John’s Gospel also speaks of Judas as the one with the money box, or bag (Jn 13:29), and we can see him in this painting clutching a moneybag in both hands, looking back into the room as he edges out of the open doorway into the night with dawn breaking already in the distance.
  • Eleven reverent apostles remain, three kneeling on the right and eight on the left. One in white at the back, perhaps the young John, still holds a bottle as though he had been serving, too, with his other hand raised as he gazes adoringly at Christ.
  • The one next to him is quite different. See how he seems to be staring intently at the disputants.He is holding a lighted candle, representing perhaps the light of faith, of truth, of Christ. He has seen the truth of Christ as the greater who has come among them as a servant and longs for the disputants to be enlightened by this same truth!

Christ in His Church

Let us look now for every indication that the painter is portraying Christ as present and active in his Church. What does the picture tell us about the Mass as it is celebrated in the Church?

·The building is the first sign, with its pillars and its windows portrayed like the apse of a Cathedral Church.

·The sanctuary lamp hangs directly above the figure of Christ, in shadow in the central round window between the pillars of the apse where the tabernacle would usually be found.

·The table is painted as though an altar, and the chalice and sacred hosts are placed as though on the altar at Mass.

·The apostle in white at the back on the left hand side acts like a server acolyte at Mass and the one beside him carries a tall candle.

·The jug and basin directly in front of Jesus remind the congregation of the sprinkling of water that can take place before mass on Sunday to remind us of our Baptism.

·Christ takes up the position that we normally associate with the priest.The priest is called ‘in persona Christi’, ‘in the person of Christ’ at this moment of distribution of the sacred species and throughout the Mass.

  • The apostles are painted kneeling and receiving the body of Christ on the tongue, as they would have done for most of the Church’s history until recently, as a sign of the holiness of the moment, hence the use for many centuries of the name ‘holy communion’.

This is the greatest moment possible on this earth of communion with Jesus, the Son of God, and it is the holiest moment possible, receiving the body and blood of Christ himself. The angels kneeling and adoring above the scene help to indicate this holiness.


The Symbolic Content of Rembrandt's Holy Family, by Dr Caroline Farey of the Maryvale Institute

This short posting, which focusses on the symbolic content in a painting is written by Dr Caroline Farey of the Maryvale Institute. She and I work as a double team, teaching in July at the residential weekend of the one-year distance-learning course about Catholic art and culture called Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective. This is the first a series on the symbolic content on art by Caroline and Dr Lionel Gracey, also of the Maryvale Institute. The Maryvale Institute is the only Pontifically recognised Higher Institute of Religious Sciences in the English speaking world and the course, in distance learning form with one residential weekend is offered through its base in Birmingham, England and in the US in Kansas City through the Maryvale Center at the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas. For further information go here.

Caroline writes:

The Holy Family by Rembrandt

In this painting we ponder particularly on Our Lady, as Mother of God, Mother of the saviour of the world, Mother of her Son.We can discern a triple revelation here.

The first act of revelation is from the Old Testament Scriptures to Mary.The light picks out the eager attentionon Mary’s young face and on the Scriptures that she is reading. Mary has suddenly but quietly turned in her chair from the text she has been reading to the fulfilment of those words that she now contemplates as ‘made flesh’ in the basket cot beside her.The Scriptures are telling her who her Son is.

But both her face and the book have parts in shadow too. Similarly Christ’s face is part in shadow and part illuminated.The shadows remind us of the shadow of the suffering and death he will endure, as she will, suffering foretold also in the Jewish Scriptures – the Old Testament.

The second act of revelation is by Mary to the world.She holds back a richly embroidered veil: by this she reveals Christ to us the onlookers.Mary has a place in God’s revealing of his Son.

The third act of revelation is by the sleeping child himself. In his sleep, he holds back a bright red coverlet revealing a lining of lamb’s fleece. Christ reveals himself, even as an infant fast asleep.The red coverlet, as we have seen in paintings before, flows over the edge like blood poured out, and it is highlighted further in its brightness in its juxta-positioning against the richly deep red of Mary ‘s skirt. Mary and the child both wear red. By the fleece Jesus is revealing himself as the lamb of God who is to be led silently to the slaughter.

The revelation taking place at the centre of the painting, through an interplay of light and movements, cloths and colours, is reinforced by other details surrounding Mary and the crib.Firstly, of course in the top left hand corner are the angels bursting in on the scene revealing to us that this is no ordinary carpenter’s child.Where are they looking? One is looking lovingly at Mary, the other looking soberly at the baby.Diagonally opposite the angels in the bottom right hand corner is the fire which, together with the angels is the main source of diffused light across the bare boards of the floor and the barren wall behind, with what look like further parts of the yoke being made by Joseph.A contemplative scene, which, despite looking so humble and ordinary is nonetheless imbued throughout by the grace of the Incarnation of the Son of God through Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God.