Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Feast Days’

El Greco’s “Vision”

December 31st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

“Vision Of the Immaculate Conception”, by El Greco

This is El Greco’s1 Vision of the Immaculate Conception, 1608-13, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain). It is a truly amazing interpretation; very different from Guido Reni’s (see below) soft, peaceful, and harmonious rendition that we looked at a few weeks ago!

El Greco presents the doctrine of “Immaculate Conception” as a mystical, spiritual event that has cosmic consequences. It is literally “out-of-this-world”. Everything natural –space, proportion, gravity, anatomical accuracy, light, day and night, logic— have been abandoned so as to transport us into a spiritual state of ecstasy. We experience this doctrine.

The sun and the moon.

All of existence is here electrified by the event of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Saint Anne.  The cosmos is set on fire as it begins recharging –as its redemption gets underway eventually culminating in the Incarnation (and Passion and Resurrection). The Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Incarnation/Nativity are linked. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the glowing dawn announcing the approach of the brilliant sun. In the lower center we can see the sun breaking through the morning sky while the moon, to the right, still rules the darkness. The stage is set, the curtain is rising and the anticipation palpable. The world, darkened by sin, suddenly finds itself aflame in anticipation. The flashing whites and intense colors suggest the burst of fire from a match suddenly lit. The painting exudes promise and hope for full illumination. Heaven itself, symbolized by the angels playing string instruments accompanied by excited cupids, breaks out in joyful sound.

The excitement is communicated by El Greco’s decision to use an ambiguously balanced arrangement as his overall principle of design. Balance is ‘sensed’ and achieved intuitively rather than formally or overtly. An imaginary center axis line in this painting reveals significant differences between the two halves of the design. Diagonal movement to the left is opposed by a movement in the opposite direction. Large simple areas are balanced by more complicated ones. Also, intense colored shapes and white shapes balance darkness. The off-centered reds and yellows are balanced by the large blue shape in the center.

Opposing diagonals create excitement.

The contrasting or opposing diagonal directions convey movement and excitement. Diagonal lines (directions) are unstable and convey a sense of tension. (Horizontals and verticals –of which there are none except one in this work– convey stability and rest.)

El Greco also knows, however, that too much excitement -physical or otherwise- makes us feel sick (and can symbolize the triumph of sin) and so he subtly introduces some visual stability and rest. The use of equidistant tricolor harmony (red, yellow and blue) as in the Reni painting offers us balance. In addition, he arranges for some ‘centering’ to act as visual anchoring within the design. In fact we could almost call this an approximately ‘symmetrical’ design as his composition masterfully keeps us visually in suspense.

Visual anchors unconsciously keep us from losing our balance.

The attributes of the Virgin (roses, lilies, a mirror, and a fountain of clean water) indicative of the event of the Immaculate Conception appear at the bottom right of the painting. A view of Toledo, Spain appears on the left.

Toledo on the left, roses and lilies in the center right, and fountain on the right.

I’m tempted to ask the question: Which is the more appropriate painting from a liturgical/sacred art point of view? Which is more appropriate for use in the liturgy – for prominent display in a chancel: Reni’s “Immaculate Conception” or El Greco’s “Vision”? Do they both qualify? How do we decide?

Happy New Year!


1 Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, Greek (1541 – 7 April 1614); a painter of the Spanish Renaissance.

In honour of the feast of St. Clement

November 23rd, 2010, Promulgated by Ink

From the epistle 1 Clement (Chapters 60-61)

Thou hast made manifest the everlasting constitution of the world by the things that happen. Thou, Lord, who art faithful in all generations, hast founded the world; thou who art just in thy judgments, who art wonderful in strength and greatness; thou who art wise in creating and prudent in establishing the things that are made; thou that art good in the things that are seen and faithful among them that trust upon thee, merciful and compassionate, forgive us our transgressions and unrighteousnesses, our sins and our negligences. Take not into account every sin of thy servants and handmaids, but purify us with the purification of thy truth, and make straight our steps in holiness and righteousness and singleness of heart, that we may so walk and do such things as are right and well pleasing before thee, and before our rulers. Yea, Lord, cause thy face to appear to us in peace to our good, that we may be sheltered by thy mighty hand, and preserved from all sin by thy lofty arm, and deliver us from those that hate us unjustly. Give unity and peace both to us and to all that dwell upon the earth, as thou gavest to our fathers when they called upon thee with faith and truth, so that we should become obedient to thy all-powerful and most excellent name, and to those who rule and govern us upon the earth.

Thou, Lord, hast given the authority of the kingdom to them through thy almighty and unspeakable power, so that we, knowing the estimation and honour given to them by thee, might submit ourselves to them, in no way opposing thy will; to who give, O Lord, Health, peace, concord, stability, so that they may discharge the rule given unto them by thee without offence; for thou, heavenly Lord, everlasting King, givest to the sons of men glory and honour and authority over the things that are upon the earth. Do thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to what is good and pleasing before the, that, fulfilling with peace and meekness and piety the authority given unto them by thee, they may obtain mercy from thee. Thou who alone art able to do these and greater good things among us, to thee do we give thanks through the high priest and protector of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom to thee be the glory and majesty, now and to all generations, world without end. Amen.

Mysteries of the Rosary in a Hong Kong church

June 14th, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

While in Hong Kong in May, my wife Pat, and I attended Sunday Mass at Rosary Church in Kowloon. The origins of this church go back to the time of the Boxer Uprising –1900– when British military regiments were mobilized to Hong Kong and stationed in Kowloon. A Father Spada secured property from a Canossain mission to serve the needs of the Catholic military and laity. In 1901 a church was built but was soon too small to meet local and expatriate needs. In 1903 a Portuguese Catholic made a generous donation for the building of a new church. The foundation stone of the new structure was laid in December of 1904. Rosary Church was completed in 1905. A large scale renovation took place in 1991. The parish has about 2,600 registered members.

Click on image for a sharper, larger display.

One of the noteworthy things about this church, in addition to its architectural style, are the tondo paintings over the altar depicting the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the Rosary. The five Luminous Mysteries were recently added below the others. (If you know of any church in the Rochester diocese that assigns such a prominent place to the Mysteries of the Rosary, please let me know.) The paintings were rather small and so the scenes depicted are not easily discernible from very far away. Nonetheless, the upfront presentation of the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary is quite appropriate, liturgically, and not just because a church might be named for the Rosary.

The Mysteries of the Rosary are in fact celebrated as feast days in the Church’s calendar –at least many of them are: the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism of Christ, the Triduum, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption, etc..

"Festival Days" represented in the squinch areas of an Orthodox church.

This reminds me of the Byzantine or Eastern Orthodox canon for the decoration of churches. The Eastern Church adopted a canon whereas the Western Church never did. In the Eastern the feasts  —Festival Days— of the Church calendar are usually represented in the naos (nave) of the building in the pendentive or squinch areas below the dome, if the church has a central dome. The Festival Days of the Church are, in addition, often depicted in a row running the width of the iconostasis screen (the wall of icons that represents the point at which heaven and earth meet), above the Deacon and Royal Doors.

"Festival Row" of an iconostasis screen.

Images of the Mysteries of the Rosary are a great way to decorate the interior of a church near the chancel area, as the entire Gospel is constantly on display. The whole year is visually presented even as the assembly celebrates just one of the feasts or just one of the days of the Liturgical year.

We understood not a word of the Chinese language used at Mass in this church but the images of the mysteries depicted over the altar helped us to actively participate when the spoken word took over as the dominant means of expression in the ceremony. Without any real conscious effort we were able to mediate on the truths of the Faith even as the rest of the congregation listened to those truths proclaimed by the reader or expounded upon by the priest. If those images helped us, who understood not a word of the language, how much more did they enrich the participation of those in attendance who did speak the language?


Book Suggestion: Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church by Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall.