Caravaggio’s “Doubting Thomas”

From a sermon by Rev. William Gleason:

Like many biblical stories, there are many pictures, icons and statues depicting Doubting Thomas; but the one I find most remarkable is the one painted by the 16th century artist Caravaggio. In it, Thomas is portrayed in a most animated, almost humorous, pose of skepticism: he is bent over so he can peer closely into the side of Jesus, his left hand perched doggedly on his hip, and his eyes are opened wide in order to scrutinize every bit of this wound. His right wrist is held by Christ, as He draws Thomas’s hand, his index finger extended, right into the hole that is in Jesus’ flesh. Two other disciples stand watching, mouths gaping open, as if they are more astonished by a shameless act of touching, than by the miraculous appearance of the crucified Christ.

But here is where Caravaggio has captured most vividly an essential element of this scene. Unlike many other pictures where Thomas is barely touching the body of Christ, this artist has Thomas’s finger stuck right into the side of Jesus, so much so that the Savior’s skin is pushed up by Thomas’s knuckle. Seeing this graphic illustration, I, too, find myself scandalized by this impetuous invasion of Jesus’ body. But that’s it! It’s Jesus’ body—His real, flesh and blood, living body. I can empathize with those men and women who simply could not believe what they were seeing. Or, perhaps, to put it more accurately, could only believe what they could see. . . .

Through the testimony of His Apostles, Christ continues to proclaim His victory over the world. When He showed Himself to them, He breathed on them His Holy Spirit and gave them the office and the authority that sets people free from the darkness of death: the Ministry of the forgiveness of sins. It is in forgiving sins that Christ imparts life and salvation. That forgiveness He dispenses by His Word and Spirit, by the preaching of His Gospel and Sacraments. The voice of Christ’s minister absolving sins is the voice of Christ absolving sins. The proclamation of the Gospel in the Church is the breath of the Spirit blowing through our land. The baptismal Font and the holy Chalice is where we find the flood of cleansing water and blood pouring forth from the side of Christ. And in the blessed Host the very body that Thomas once put his hand into, is now put into your hand and mouth so that you may believe and confess Christ as Lord and God. And when we sing after every Lord’s Supper, “Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,” we are making the bold confession of all those who behold by faith the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

via Weedon’s Blog: Pastor Gleason’s Homily.


The Statue of Responsibility

There is a foundation trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build a Statue of Responsibility. It would be on the West Coast to balance out the Statue of Liberty, with the two being the same height of 300 feet. It would portray one arm coming out of the ground grasping an arm coming down from the sky and would look like this:

Statue of Responsibility

Here is the website of the foundation. I mean, I know what they are saying, that liberty + responsibility = freedom, and they tie into Victor Frankl and man’s search for meaning and all that. But you can’t just create an allegory out of nothing. And though maybe it should be, “responsibility” just doesn’t have the inspirational pizzazz or the patriotic fervor or the tourist appeal of “liberty.”

What are some other monuments that we should have, and what should they look like?

Abstract art and Nature

Here is another way to look at abstract or non-representational art. . . .Most of us appreciate the beauty of nature. Most of us appreciate art that makes us aware. perhaps in a heightened way, the beauty of nature, as the best realistic landscape art does. But why is NATURE beautiful? Well, among other things, it has to do with the colors and textures and forms and details and all the little details coming together into a majestic whole. Look at a tree, even a bare tree in winter. Look at the tracery of the limbs, like lacework.

Non-representational artists are trying to achieve a similar effect, working with fields of color, shapes, and designs. They don’t represent anything, anymore than tree branches represent anything. But the result, if done well, can still be beautiful and even sometimes awe-inspiring.

God, if we may say so, is an abstract artist. He created pure aesthetic forms when He designed the universe. He wasn’t representing anything other than His creative will.

This, however, is also the reason representational art is beautiful. In that book I did, Painters of Faith on the Hudson River school artists, I show how those highly-realistic and mostly devoutly Christian landscape painters justified their own approach by saying that they wanted to imitate God’s art.

So there is a sense in which abstract art, in the sense of pure design, is prior to representational art, and the same aesthetic principle justifies them both.

Abstract art and the Bible

Thanks to Tickletext for this great quotation from the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura:

I’ve heard many people say of contemporary art: “my kids can do that.” I encourage them, then to try it themselves, don’t let kids have all the fun! Try to make drip paintings like Jackson Pollock. Or paint an object with encaustic, layering color upon color, like Johns. Try silk screening images like Warhol. You soon find out that in the ordinary gestures and materials, there are deceptively complicated and sublime twists. Our drips become unnatural and confined, where as Pollock’s drips dance, and form delectable edges that seem to undulate in front of our eyes. Our edges of encaustic strokes become unshapely, because If you try working with wax (as I have tried to in college,) you find out soon enough that it is unforgiving, making it very difficult to create a clean, sharp definition. The melting wax constantly oozes, and moves about, and the colors muddle. If you are finally able to paint a stripe with bright colors, the stripes would not resonate, in ways that Johns’ Flags do.

What’s the source of that quote, Tickletext? You may recall this post and this post about Fujimura.

The fact is, from a strictly literal Biblical point of view, abstract art–that is, non-representational art–may be less problematic than the realistic art that most Christians prefer today. The Commandment forbids making “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). It was paganism–and in particular, in our Western heritage, the pagan Greeks–who stressed that art has to be imitation; that is, a “likeness” of something.

The prohibition of likenesses by no means prohibited art. But the art it inspired was non-representational or abstract, art that depicted no likeness of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water. Pottery of the ancient Hebrews tended to feature complex geometrical designs. Pottery of the Canaanites featured deities, animals, and fish.

Now I don’t think the Biblical prohibition of likenesses DOES altogether forbid realistic art. The point of the Commandment is not to “bow down” to such images. Later in Exodus God commands the use of realistic art–such as representations of angels and pomegranates in the Tabernacle, with lions and palm trees adorning the Temple–so the Bible in principle allows for such things. But still, non-representational art is non-controversial at all according to the Bible. (For good examples of how beautiful such art created in the shadow of the prohibition of images can be, look at Islamic art such as Persian carpets.)

I get into all of this in my book State of the Arts.

Online family businesses

Bruce Gee is a long-time friend, baseball comrade, and commenter on this blog.   He makes and repairs furniture for a living.   He just put together this website for his business, Heartland Furniture. I thought I’d give him a plug.

He’s done work for us–fixing up an old cedar chest that had been in the family for years but was all banged up, refinishing some furniture that badly needed it–and he’s really good. I realize that you might not live in Wisconsin to avail yourself of his services, but he might be able to do something for you. If nothing else, admire his work.

We’re celebrating vocation. I’ve always admired craftsmen of every kind. If you have a similar at-home business with a website, I invite you to give the link in a comment.

Technology to detect art forgeries

Dartmouth researchers have devised a way to use technology to detect art forgeries:

Sparse coding technology has long been an important tool in neuroscience research, allowing scientists to quantitatively determine how optical information is represented by neurons in the brain. Dartmouth researchers have recently extended its use to the field of quantitative art authentication, or stylometry.

By using sparse coding technology to mathematically analyze and compare drawings by famed Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel with a known set of imitations, the researchers were able to distinguish between the genuine works and the forgeries. James Hughes, Daniel Graham, and Daniel Rockmore in the computer science and math departments describe their findings in the paper, “Quantification of artistic style through sparse coding analysis in the drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder” recently published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sparse coding technology was developed to emulate the human visual system. To translate the complex images first detected by eyes to the simpler models found in the brain, our visual system uses a number of “filter” neurons. These neurons are triggered by specific patterns in the image. The brain has evolved to efficiently identify many predictable patterns found throughout the natural world and is consequently able to minimize the number of filters required per natural image. Conversely, the brain requires many more filters to model images that it has not been previously exposed to.

Hughes, Graham, and Rockmore applied these ideas to their own art authentication technology. Essentially, they imagined a visual system that had evolved while being exposed only to Bruegel drawings. Thus, it would process Bruegel drawings using few filters but would have to use many more when looking at anything else—including Bruegel forgeries.

To create this model the researchers obtained a number of genuine and fake Bruegel drawings. They digitally broke the authentic works up into smaller pieces and using sparse coding technology identified the smallest or “sparsest” set of those pieces that could be used as filters. This set of filters essentially quantified Bruegel’s unique artistic style by capturing properties repeated throughout the artist’s works.

via DUJS Online » Dartmouth researchers spot art forgeries using sparse coding technology.

Good invention! It might not catch all forgeries, though. A problem in the modern art market is how to detect a genuine Jackson Pollock, whose major works consist of random spills of paint on canvas. Forgeries have come on the market that were made in exactly the same way and so look essentially the same. A genuine Pollock is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A fake Pollock is worthless. But how to tell them apart?

There actually is a way to tell sometimes.
This account of the Pollock forgery below describes how the fake painting was found to contain paint compounds that did not exist until after the artist’s death.

Which is the real Jackson Pollock?
The work on the left is a fake; the one on the right is genuine.

Why does it matter? If a fake Rembrandt looks as good as a real one, why can’t we just enjoy it anyway? (There is an answer to that.)

HT: Joe Carter