Gloria, laus et honor… So goes the old Latin hymn. Sung traditionally on Palm Sunday, it foretells of the Passion of our Lord and His glorious Resurrection. The words bear quoting here:
All glory, laud and honor
To thee, Redeemer King
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring…
To thee before thy passion
They sang their hymns of praise
To thee now high exalted
Our melody we raise…
In the earlier mysteries of the rosary, we meditated on the joys and sorrows in the lives of Jesus and Mary. In the glorious mysteries, we praise and exalt the triumph of our Lord and His mother. They are mysteries of promise and jubilation for every Christian. Just as the sorrowful mysteries speak to and for all human suffering, the glorious mysteries are about the satisfaction of every human hope.
The Resurrection of Christ, active between 1820-1860: Jose Rafael Aragón (1796?-1862?), Museum of International Folk Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico
In this evocative piece, Christ rises out of His tomb toward heaven, His arms uplifted in triumph. Jose Rafael Aragón, a well-known santero artist (someone who makes sacred images), painted the scene on a hand-hewn pine board. He used tempera paint and gesso (gypsum). The now-warped panel was probably meant to be part of the decoration for a back altar. The years and elements have left their mark.
At first glance, one is drawn to the large, exquisitely expressive eyes of our Lord; they are typical of Aragón’s works. A second look reveals that the risen figure of Christ is accompanied on the left by two winged angels. Their smiles express their jubilation at seeing our Lord rise from the dead. Underneath the central figure of Christ is a sepulcher with a somewhat faint figure lying on the surface, his eyes closed. This figure is also our Lord and refers to the time He spent in the tomb before His resurrection. Folk artists like Aragón depict the biblical events in this step-by-step way to make the narrative background clear to the faithful in their communities. The coffin seems to be made of woven cane, like those Aragón would have seen in 19th-century New Mexico. Look a little closer, and you can make out a small, darker figure to the right. Who is he? What is the shaded quarter-circle in the lower right corner? And what about the pole to the right that looks as if it is topped with either flowers or flames?
This Resurrection scene seems to include references to the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord who…was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. The figure to the right is darker than the angels and appears to have cloven feet and a tail: an unmistakable reference to the devil. The dark quarter-circle is probably a spatial reference to the darkness of hell or the underworld. The pole could be a torch that lights both the entrance to the tomb and the way down to this place of the dead. Gospel accounts of the Resurrection vary as to the number of angels outside the tomb; Luke and John mention two angels, whereas Matthew and Mark mention just one. In his version, Aragón chose to use two, perhaps to reinforce the idea that the devil has been outmatched. Aragón’s painting attests to the biblical claim that the Resurrection was an actual physical event. The Jesus who leaves the tomb is no ghost; He is a man in a man’s body, as solid as when He lay in the manger or carried the cross. He has not merely escaped from the dead—He is not a revenant out on furlough—He has conquered death.
Aragón was a famed and prolific santero. Both his paintings and his sculpture were in great demand during his lifetime and continue to be. As with many other Southwestern folk artists of his time, not much biographical information on Aragón is available. His exact birthplace is unknown, but we know he lived and worked in Santa Fe and Pueblo Quemado (now Cordova), New Mexico. He was married twice. After his first wife died, he married a widow. While in Santa Fe, he was on the registry of a combined confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady of the Rosary. His principal years of creative activity occurred before the arrival in 1851 of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy (known as Bishop Jean Marie Latour in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop). Aragón continued to produce after this year, but all record of his activity stops around 1860.
Although many of his pieces went unsigned, they are easily distinguishable by the uniquely expressive almond-shaped eyes common to all of them. Aragón’s images are essentially two-dimensional. In some ways the flat surfaces, exaggerated details, and enigmatic references hark back to the medieval Romanesque frescoes prevalent in Europe centuries ago or even to the icons found in early Byzantine art.
The Ascension of Our Lord, circa 1740-1745: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1771) or Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia
Father or son? Who painted this picture? Giovanni Battista or Giovanni Domenico? A good argument can be made that either or both had a hand in creating this modello painting of the Ascension now located in the United States. Giovanni Domenico was his father’s assistant and associate, but he also worked as an independent artist. The two Tiepolos (there was a third, another son named Lorenzo Baldisserra) were busy artists from Venice who received commissions for work in Italy, Spain, and Germany. With their work in such high demand, it is possible that in order to meet a deadline, the elder Tiepolo would start a work and leave it to his son to finish. The Tiepolos’ main work was designing and painting frescoes on the ceilings and walls of churches, monasteries, and convents. In preparing these fresco designs, they usually started with a modello, or model painting. This small oil-on-canvas modello measures 30 by 35 inches. Recent research indicates that it was probably the design used for the nave of the Schloss Ludwigsburg Order Chapel near Stuttgart, Germany.
Giovanni Battista was known for his grandiloquent, dramatic style—blue skies, fluffy clouds, great luminosity, air, and lots of exuberant figures moving about. His son, Giovanni Domenico, had a somewhat more subdued style but was nonetheless able to express a wide range of human emotion in his work. This painting is both subtle and dramatic—hence the discussion over who actually did it. Notice that the scene includes twelve apostles, even though Judas Iscariat was already dead and the Ascension occurred before the new twelfth apostle, Matthias, had been chosen. No doubt an oversight on the part of the Tiepolos—these things happen. The main emphasis here is on Christ ascending from a rock into heaven. The rock is an allusion to Christ’s famous words to Peter: “And I say to thee, thou art Peter and upon this rock I shall build my church” (Matthew 16:18). In the painting, Simon Peter is most prominent among the apostles, standing just off to the right underneath the ascending figure of our Lord. The only other apostle we can identify with any certainty is John. He stands off to the left and looks upward, his hand on his chest. (John is always the youngest-looking apostle.)
Returning for a last look at the central figure, one observes how our Lord rises effortlessly into a huge cumulus cloud. His clothing floats vaporously about Him, recalling the following words: “And when he had said this, he was lifted up before their eyes, and a cloud took him out of sight” (Acts 1:9). Right before Christ ascended into heaven, He gave the apostles His last instructions: “…[He] opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures…” and he told them “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45, 47).
Pentecost or Descent of the Holy Spirit, 1600?: El Greco (1541-1614), Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
Pentecost comes from a Greek word meaning the 50th day. The word originally was used to designate the Jewish Feast of Weeks that was held on the 50th day after the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, or Passover. In the New Testament, the first Christians of Jerusalem were gathered together to celebrate this feast of Pentecost, when “there came a sound from heaven, as of a violent wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as of fire, which settled upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4).
Representations of this event vary greatly, but in early Christian art, the Twelve Apostles were often accompanied by the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this painting, El Greco has chosen to continue this tradition. But we also see the faces of two other women, one off to the immediate right of our Lady and another off to the left, with the face of a bearded apostle in between. According to one theory, these are the faces of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, a sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are the two women who, along with our Lady and the apostle John, stood at the foot of the cross and witnessed Jesus’ final agony and words before He died (John 19:25-30). One would expect that these women would gather with the other faithful Christians to celebrate Pentecost. Notice also how our Lady dominates the canvas and how all the other figures are positioned around her. This use of a strong, central figure surrounded by others was an arrangement El Greco used for many of his works. At the very top of the arch, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove in a triangular nimbus of fire. Flaming tongues alight above the heads of the first Christians. A master of artistic effects, El Greco sets the flames against a dark background, thus heightening the drama. He also breaks the continuous line of flames with the upraised hand of one of the apostles. Notice how bright their faces are.
This painting is typical of El Greco’s unmistakable style—the contrast between light and dark, the elongated and dramatic poses of the figures (one apostle on the lower right watches with his head and shoulders thrown back), the flowing movement of the robes, the free brush strokes. All point to the master’s original technique.
El Greco’s real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He was born in 1541 in Candia, the capital of Crete. As a young man, he left his homeland and headed to Venice to study. There he worked under one of the greatest painters of the day, Titian. After several years in Venice, he left northeastern Italy for Rome and continued studying and working as a young artist. He eventually ended up in Spain hoping to find work with Philip II. This did not work out, so he wound up in Toledo, where he lived the rest of his life. It was in this Castillian city that this singular artist came into his prime and created his many great masterpieces. There’s still disagreement about who commissioned El Greco to paint this Pentecost. Judging from its style, it definitely belongs to his middle years in Toledo, a period of great maturity and fullness in his artistic endeavors.
One of the gifts of the Pentecost was of course the gift of tongues, and so it is easy to think of it as a fairly noisy affair. Perhaps it was. But here, in what we may assume are the first moments of the great encounter, the Pentecost inspires an ecstatic silence, a calm after the period of anxious indecision when the apostles wondered how they were to follow Christ’s last orders.
The Assumption of the Virgin, circa 1626: Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Poor and half-educated, Nicolas Poussin almost did not make it as an artist. In fact, this small-town Frenchman was forced to return to his familial abode in Villers after a period of great hardship and humiliating failure in Paris. Not only had he been unable to make headway with his artistic studies there, but he had also fallen seriously ill. He was forced to return home to recuperate. In time, he recovered and made his way to Rome, where he finally met with success. He spent the remainder of his years in the eternal city, except for a brief stint of two years as court painter to the French king, Louis XIII. Poussin’s art reflects the influences he received from the world of ancient classical art, along with later Italian artists Raphael and Titian. From both of these, Poussin inherited the use of warm, vibrant colors and gentle sources of light. An extremely rational and methodical artist, Poussin is considered one of the finest painters of pictorial classicism in the 17th century.
This Assumption of the Virgin is a wonderful representation of the event. Our Lady rises into light and dark clouds surrounded by an entourage of beautiful cherubs. Along with his Spanish contemporary Murrillo, Poussin painted some of the most aesthetically pleasing cherubs and infants in the history of art. In contrast to the upright, solid strength of the two classical columns, we have the rounded, warm, and extremely touching figures of the Virgin and the little angels. Poussin emphasizes the main point of the mystery: that Mary in all her humanity was assumed body and soul into heaven. As if to further underline this fact, one of the cherubs directly underneath the Virgin tugs at her blue robes. Another off to the upper left points to the heavens. Still others peep innocently out of the clouds. And three down below are playfully tossing flowers into the tomb. Draped gracefully over the side of the dark and severe sepulcher is Mary’s white shroud. In this painting, Poussin has included a number of similar contrasts, all pointing to the differences between heaven and earth.
The doctrine of the Assumption was not officially declared as part of Church doctrine until 1950, when Pius XII infallibly declared, “The Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” The event was prefigured in the Old Testament when the prophet Elijah was taken up body and soul into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12).
The Coronation of the Virgin, 1358: Paolo and Giovanni Veneziano (Paolo 1321?-1362), The Frick Collection, New York
Christ wears a bejeweled crown and reaches over with solemn grace to place another crown of jewels on the head of His mother. It is a coronation scene befitting the queen of heaven. The artists, Paolo and Giovanni Veneziano, have chosen rich, brilliant colors on a background of authentic gold leaf. Both Jesus and Mary wear dark blue mantles over tunics. The tunics themselves are golden-hued with hints of red peeping through. Below our Lord’s feet is a golden sun with a face etched in red. Beneath our Lady’s robes is a silver moon with a blue face. The artists used real gold leaf, gold powder, and silver foil combined with tempera paint to create the bright tones in the panel. Finely ground lapis lazuli stone served as the pigment base for the beautiful blue of the mantles. At the very bottom of the painted panel are two pedestals inscribed with the date, MCCCLVIII (1358) and the artists’ names.
In the Book of Revelation, there is a passage alluding to the moon we see pictured here. “And a great sign appeared in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon was under her feet…” (Revelation 12:1). This image of Mary standing atop the moon was common in medieval art. Another inscription running along a narrow border just above the date and the artists’ signature reads:
Regina coeli laetare, alleluia
Quia quem meruiste portare, alleluia
The next two lines of this famous Marian antiphon are implied:
Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia
Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.
Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia
For he whom thou hast been made worthy to bear, alleluia
Has arisen as he said, alleluia
Pray for us to God, alleluia.
The first written record of Regina Coeli Laetare comes from the time of Pope Gregory I (590-604), but it may actually date back to the early Church. In the painting, the words of the Marian hymn appear next to a choir of angels singing and playing medieval musical instruments. The two angels immediately on the left and right of Mary and Jesus play handheld organs. The other eleven angels above the throne are playing the frame drum, straight trumpet, mandora (a type of mandolin), bladder or bagpipe, vielle (a stringed instrument), psaltery, lute, and shawm (a double-reeded wind instrument). They all proclaim the glory of the Coronation.
The Coronation of Our Lady is not directly referred to in the Bible, but a psalm prefigures the event: “…[T]he queen takes her place at your right hand in gold of Ophir” (Psalms 44:10). Another reference to Mary’s queenship occurs in the New Testament account of the Visitation. Elizabeth exclaims to her cousin, “And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). The Greeks, Romans, and Jews thought of a queen primarily as one who would give birth to a king or lord; by addressing Mary as “Mother of my Lord,” Elizabeth is implying her queenship.
The woman we met in the first joyful mystery as a young virgin taken by surprise has in this last glorious mystery been crowned Queen of Heaven. That a humble maiden from a subject people should be so honored would have seemed very strange in the ancient world. Even now it seems strange to those who hear it for the first time; it echoes the paradox of the Incarnation: God has become a poor man on the periphery of an empire, his young Jewish mother the wife of a carpenter. Christians, of course, learn to take this story for granted; great art can help to refresh our original sense of surprise at its paradoxical force.
In a letter titled Towards a New Partnership Between Religion and Art, Pope John Paul II says that artists disclose something of their own being through their creation. The history of art is therefore not only “a story of works produced” but “a story of men and women.” The pope goes on to focus on two things: the very strong link that exists between art and beauty and the many instances over the centuries in which art has been inspired by sacred Scripture. He observes that both the Old and New Testaments have served as endless sources of inspiration for artists of every kind. “Indeed…in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis…. [F]or everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.