Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


First, Consider Orthodoxy

October 9th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. "Supper at Emmaus" center panel from the "Resurrection" triptych by artist Dick Kane, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Brighton

(This is the first in a series of posts on the Lourdes triptych of the “Resurrection”)

One of the ways that I determine if a work of liturgical art is good is by assessing its orthodoxy. A work of liturgical art displayed in a church, especially in the chancel or altar area, must be unambiguously orthodox. It must not veer from tradition in regards to content, faith, piety, and cherished tradition.[1] In addition, liturgical arts that illustrate Holy Scripture are scripture -in images- and therefore must not be altered in content to accommodate peculiar ideas or social and political issues, or to undermine tradition.

Let’s take a look at the new triptych of the “Resurrection” now displayed on the back wall of the chancel in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Brighton and measure it against my standard of unambiguous orthodoxy.

2. "The Resurrection", Dick Kane; Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Brighton

The three panels of the triptych depict events surrounding the resurrection of Christ. In the left panel Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene near the tomb (John 20.11-18). The center panel shows us the supper at Emmaus where Jesus is recognized by the two disciples whom he joined and walked with on the way into Emmaus. (Luke 24.13-35) In the right panel the resurrected Jesus has appeared to Peter and six disciples on the beach of the Sea of Galilee. He roasts some fish for their breakfast. The apostles are shown with a bulging net of fish filled to the top as a result of Christ’s instructions to put the net over the side of the boat, after catching nothing all night.(John 21:1-13) All three scenes are meant to testify, through eye-witnesses, that Jesus rose from the dead.

There is a problem in the center panel of the triptych that raises a question of orthodoxy. The painting veers from scripture and tradition by representing one of the disciples (the one on the left) as a woman. Both disciples, however, were almost certainly men and tradition has always presented that interpretation both in commentaries and in art.

Our Lady of Lourdes Church bulletin, October 2, says emphatically that the second disciple is (not just a woman, but) Mary, the wife of Cleopas.[2]  Cleopas is the only named disciple in the Emmaus story. In a homily delivered at Lourdes the priest is just a little less certain; he described the second disciple as probably the wife of Cleopas.

However, the identity of Cleopas’ traveling companion is not known. There have been various guesses: Some suppose him to have been Peter; it was also, early on, a very common opinion that it was Luke, and that the Evangelist, through modesty, did not mention his own name. Others even make Cleopas to actually have been Alphaeus, making the second disciple -the companion- the apostle, James, Alphaeus’ son.

And, yes, there have even been some people who have guessed that the second disciple was Mary, the wife of Cleopas. John 19:25 does mention “Mary the wife of Cleopas” that was at the foot of the cross of Christ. It is reasonable, they say, to suppose that the companion to Cleopas on the road to Emmaus was his wife. But, there is a big problem with this interpretation. Luke had previously mentioned “Mary” in Luke 24:10 as being among the women at the empty tomb that reported what they had seen and heard to the apostles and, in Luke 24:32 Cleopas said that “certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulcher”. If the companion on the road to Emmaus was Cleopas’ wife, he would have said, “My wife and other women…” or “Mary and other women…” or “The woman (Mary) and other women…”

Furthermore, if one of the disciples was a woman, why did Luke say “And they said to him (Jesus)…”? In first century Palestine, women did not converse with men in public, certainly not with strangers even if the husbands were present. The second disciple could not have been a woman. By employing “they” Luke is telling us that there is a conversation involving three men.

Nowhere is there any hint that Cleopas’ traveling companion on the road to Emmaus –the second disciple- was the wife of Cleopas.

3. "Jesus and the Two Disciples On the Road to Emmaus", by Duccio, 1308-1311, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena.

In addition, in the history of Christian art, liturgical or otherwise, I can find no representation of the Supper at Emmaus (except for possibly one [3] ) in which one of the disciples is depicted as a woman. The traditional imagery for this scene from the Gospel is overwhelmingly always orthodox, the two disciples are depicted as men.

4. "Supper at Emmaus" by Caravaggio and commissioned by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1601. The person standing is a servant.

So, what is the reason for this innovation? Why introduce an image of a woman to represent a person who was almost certainly a man and has always been interpreted and pictured as a man? I’ll leave you to your own conclusions (but it might help you to know that the lay pastoral administrator [leader] of our Lady of Lourdes is an active women’s ordination advocate “…working solely for the ordination of women as priests…  into an inclusive and accountable Catholic Church. To this end, we work to: renew church governance to be inclusive, accountable and transparent; bring about justice and equality for Catholic women; incorporate women-centered theologies into every-day Catholicism.” [4])

The concern, of course, is that innovative imagery in the liturgy could be a strategy of deception, a deliberate attempt to hide an agenda –“to slip one by”- or compromise objective truth for the purpose of manipulation. This is why orthodoxy is so important when it comes to the liturgy of the Church. The liturgy and all that is associated with it is “official” and communal, not personal or sectarian. If a person finds meaning in an innovative representation of the Supper at Emmaus or in a transgender crucifix and hangs such an image in his home, that’s fine. That is private spirituality. But, innovation in the liturgy cannot be tolerated because abuse will surely creep in. The last 40 years have proven it.

5. The “Road to Emmaus” Icon by Sister Marie Paul OSB of the Mount of Olives Monastery, Jerusalem (1990), a private commission by theologian Father Thomas Rosica. Here we see the companion as Cleopas' wife or, at least, a woman. Notice that the good sister even has Jesus (a stranger!) talking directly to the woman. Just in case you don't get sister's point she has reduced Cleopas' role to that of the second disciple. The artist has painted the veil of the woman white, the lightest tone in the icon and therefore visually emphasizes the woman. Look at the icon while squinting, especially at the area depicting the supper. This is the area of the icon with the sharpest contrast; the white of the veil boldly contrasts with the black of the wall, thus attracting the most attention. (Now look at the central panel in the Lourdes triptych. Where is the lightest color (white), strongest contrast, and most active (vibrant) pattern?)

In the case of the Lourdes triptych the proverbial “red flag” ascends the pole. Is there a hidden agenda in the case of the innovative triptych at Lourdes?

I believe so.

(I have some other issues with this triptych that I will share in a future post. I just wanted to start with a post that examines the orthodoxy of the triptych. Orthodoxy should be the first thing to look for in evaluating works intended to be sacred art used in the liturgy.)



[1] “…the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.” Chap. VII 122, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Second Vatican Council.

[2] or Cleophas, a different spelling. There is even some uncertainty, however, as to whom Cleopas actually was, making the companion even less likely to be Cleopas’ wife!

[3] Supper at Emmaus (1648), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669). It’s possible the disciple at the left end of the table was meant to represent a woman. Rembrandt’s painting, of course, was not meant to be a liturgical work (to hang in a church).







[4] from the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) webpage


Picture Sources

1. by a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes

2. Lourdes parishioner

3. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena.



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2 Responses to “First, Consider Orthodoxy”

  1. avatar Persis says:

    Bernie, I don’t know too much about art, especially religious art,
    but your comments here are spot on, IMHO.

    I look forward to future installments, I always learn so much from you!!

  2. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    I don’t mean this as a criticism, but in the past it seems that the Church made more of a commitment to liturgical art in that they paid gifted artist of renown to paint pictures that had a liturgical/ecclesial theme. These artist not only knew the theme they were painting but were also gifted technicians. We have to make the distinction between liturgical art and liturgical illustrations, note the difference, and put art in church and illustrations elsewhere, as in children’s books.

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