The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a book. That is, Calvin Tomkins researched and wrote Merchants and Masterpieces to recount the history of wealth, taste, and civic-mindedness that gave the world the Met.
The St. Louis Museum of Art deserves to have such a book. Maybe, if I live long enough, I’ll write it myself. The museum houses a collection worthy of the fourth-largest city in America (which St. Louis was, in 1900). Mr. Halsey Ives, who served the Union as a draftsman in the Civil War, founded the museum. Anders Zorn painted this captivating portrait of him:
The Met in New York has a Vlaminck river scene, which I have much admired. So does the St. Louis Museum of Art. Le Havre: Le Grand Quais.
Of course the St. Louis Museum of Art has a painting by the greatest painter ever. A particularly interesting one. Here El Greco depicts St. Paul holding not just his sword, but also his letter to Titus.
Turns out 19th-century Missouri had its own “painter.” George Caleb Bingham. Here’s one of the paintings from the Bingham gallery, Raftsmen Playing Cards:
…Of course I couldn’t head back east across the Mississippi without stopping at St. Louis Cathedral. Pictures cannot do it justice. It is everything that the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington should be, but isn’t. (That is, a completely mosaiced neo-Byzantine jewel box.)
I leave you with the cathedral’s magnificent statue of the patron. (St. Louis campaigned in the Holy Land and brought the Lord’s crown of thorns back to Paris.) St. Louis, pray for us. See you back in Roanoke, Va., dear reader.
When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, in order that He might continually sanctify the Church…He is the Spirit of Life, a fountain of water springing up to life eternal.
…The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple. In them He prays on their behalf and bears witness to the fact that they are adopted children.
The Spirit guides the Church in the way of all truth. He unifies Her in communion and in works of ministry…By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. He renews Her and leads Her to perfect union with Her Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, ‘Come!’
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council extolled the Holy Spirit with these words.
Inspiring words. But what about paintings? Let me confide in you that I have never found a painting of Pentecost that I like. Eminent sacred artists have produced impressive renditions of Pentecost. And, of course, our own Stephen Brailo, of St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, has done for us a beautiful new baptismal mosaic, in honor of our former pastor. Msgr. Miller will visit next week at the 11:30 Mass for the dedication.
No offense to any of these artists. Of all the events depicted in Christian art, Pentecost poses the greatest challenge. For an obvious reason: The subject of the work of art is
“It is better for you that I go,” said the Lord Jesus. “Rivers of living water will flow from within the one who believes in Me.”
The one who believes. Faith. In the invisible.
Christ made the invisible God visible, by becoming a man. But then He ascended to heaven, out of our sight. From the true Temple above, He pours grace out of His own human Heart, upon the whole earth. It is better for us that He went.
That’s the thing about paintings of Pentecost: Jesus isn’t in them. He had completed His earthly pilgrimage by then.
The great artists have painted Christ, in the various events of His pilgrim life, so as to depict visibly the invisible life within Him. But painting the third divine Person, Who comes as a gentle wind, a breath, tongues of flame, a dove, an anointing, an interior inspiration… Well, I’m no artist. But I do know that painting something invisible is downright difficult. I think our Stephen Brailo deserves a lot of credit!
The Holy Spirit does make Himself perfectly visible in one way, though. By filling the hearts of the people He makes saints.
The Invisible shows Himself whenever a Christian bears witness to the hope that is in us. The unimaginable Spirit comes into view when someone has the courage to reach out in love. The gentle Spirit speaks when a parent or teacher or friend gives good advice, or soothes the pain, or encourages.
In other words, the invisible Holy Spirit is as visible as the living, breathing Church. The Church, consecrated in truth, burning with divine love, marching with certain hope towards the glory that awaits us.
How about this, dear artists? The third Person of the divine Trinity left Himself so difficult to paint, because He Himself is a painter. The Master Painter.
He painted the adorable natural world, using a brush that could make a universe out of nothing. He painted the unique beauty of the High Priest of all creation, Jesus Christ. And now He paints us—whenever we allow His holiness to overcome our sinfulness, and we do something good for God.
At Sunday Mass, we find ourselves in the middle of a three week tour of St. Paul’s treatise on love and unity. Next Sunday, Mass will be like a wedding. The second reading will be I Corinthians, chapter thirteen.
This Sunday, we hear the second part of the twelfth chapter, which contains one of the most entertaining passages in the entire Bible: Body parts begin talking to each other, like members of a self-pity support group.
The goofy-looking foot miserably laments, “I am not a hand, so I really don’t feel included!” The hand just sits there quietly, looking graceful and debonair.
Then the ugly, lumpy ear jumps in: “Look at me! I am not luminous and iridescent like the eye over here. So I just get shut off to the side and used as a kind of doorstop for people’s glasses!”
Let’s focus on this: In writing this section of his letter, St. Paul focused his imagination on the human body with the meticulous eye of a portrait painter.
The portrait painter wants to capture the details of all the various parts of a person’s human form, in order thereby to present the unique and distinctive whole: the personality of this particular human being.
If you don’t mind, let’s take an example. My favorite portrait painter is El Greco (as you can tell, because he is in the Hall of Fame to the right). He painted a portrait of a friend of his, a priest and Trinitarian friar, whom the king of Spain had appointed preacher to the royal court.
In the 1920’s, art snobs complained that suits of armor do not belong in world-class museums filled with paintings by such geniuses as Pablo Picasso.
Au contraire: Many suits of armor are exquisite works of art.
One may discover this fact for oneself by visiting The Art of Power, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is just about the coolest museum exhibit ever.
…Back to El Greco: His most famous painting is “Burial of Count Orgaz,” which is in a church in Toledo, Spain.
One of the benefactors of the church was such a good and pious man that, when he died, Saints Stephen and Augustine came down from heaven to lay the dead man in his casket.
(click once or twice on the picture to see it even larger)
The painting is so grand, it opens heaven up to our contemplation.
But for many of us the most excellent thing about the painting is…the vestments worn by the saintly clerics.
If you zoom in on St. Stephen’s dalmatic, you can see–right beside the little boy, who is supposedly painted to resemble El Greco’s son–a tiny little El Greco painting of the first Christian martyrdom, as embroidery on the vestment. (St. Stephen is the first martyr.)
In honor of St. Matthew’s feast day, we present El Greco’s portrait of him:
This painting is in the El Greco Museum in Toledo, Spain.
As you can see, El Greco’s figures are elongated.
The museum guide in the Prado in Madrid told us that all the people in El Greco’s paintings are 13% taller than they should be.
By the by…El Greco was indeed a Greek. He was from Crete. (He was a Cretan, though hardly a cretin.)
The Spaniards could not pronounce his name, so they called him “The Greek.” (No relation to Jimmy the Greek.)
Jean Poyet was a late-medieval illuminator who produced the beautiful image of the Mass you see below. He also drew a magnificent St. Matthew.
The picture of St. Matthew is in the “Book of Hours of Henry VIII,” which is in the Morgan Library in New York. Alas, I cannot find the image of St. Matthew anywhere on the ol’ internet, so here’s Poyet’s picture of the Holy Mass instead.
The Havemeyers had travelled extensively in Europe to acquire paintings by artists that the other American collectors did not know about.
One of the countries they visited was Spain, and one of the artists they “discovered” was El Greco.
Their interest in El Greco’s paintings transformed him from an obscure sixteenth-century painter to one of the giants of the art world.
When I was sixteen, I had the opportunity to visit Spain. We toured the Museo del Prado, and I laid eyes on the paintings of El Greco for the first time.
To say that they are ethereal is an understatement. To say that they are sublime is to say too little. To say that they are spiritual is true–but it sounds lame. El Greco is simply the greatest, in a class by himself.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables…At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:14-19)
The Lord Jesus drove the greedy merchants and money-changers from the Temple. The Jewish leaders envied Christ’s authority and power. So in the gospel reading, we have seen both greed and envy. These are two of the seven deadly sins.
Best View of the City of Washington: Our Lady of Perpetual Help soccer field, 1600 Morris Rd. S.E.
Best Oil Painting of All Time: El Greco Resurrection
Best Late-night Newsman Ever: Ted Koppel
Best Hotel Lobby for Killing Time in Downtown Washington: Renaissance Hotel at Ninth and Eye Sts., N.W.
Best Church in greater Rome: St. Paul Outside the Walls
Best Thoroughgoing Bad-ss in NBA History: Darryl Dawkins
Best Comic Monologue during the closing credits of a movie: Paul Reiser in Diner