No Room for God in this “Adoration of the Magi”

I really like the way Simcha Fisher analyzes this painting, “The Adoration of the Magi” by Tai-Shan Shierenberg.

Is it a problem that these “Magi” are not kings or wise men, that they’re not even all men, that they don’t have historically accurate clothes or hair, or that they don’t show any signs of bearing gifts or of having traveled afar? Not necessarily. These departures from more traditional art may irritate or perplex you, but they aren’t enough, in themselves, to disqualify this painting as religious art.

The reason I call it a secular painting is because it kind of . . . doesn’t have God in it. The Magi’s faces take up most of the canvas; but that’s not what I mean. I mean is that this painting is about the “Magi” themselves, and not about God. A depiction of the Adoration of the Magi might have all sorts of elements in it, but it absolutely must contain at least an indication that what they are adoring is God. This is what is lacking in this picture, and that is what makes it not religious art.

You can tell by the shadows and highlights that the light source is above and to the right, out of the frame. . . In a traditional piece of art depicting the Magi, the light would be emanating from below, from the Christ Child, or from above, from the divinely-appointed guiding star. In this painting, there is a significant break: the light — late morning sunlight, from the looks of it — is from above, from behind the faces, and to the viewer’s right. And it’s pretty clearly just the sun. Why this innovation, if not to make a point?

Read the whole thing; I agree with everything Simcha says, and I would add that in some respects this painting reminds me of some of the particularly “we/us-oh-yeah-you-but-mostly-we/us” centered songs that we use at Mass. Let me take pains to say I do not dislike all modern Catholic music, but a great deal of it is execrable, and in this case I’m thinking of a song like the we/us-fest that is “Gather Us In.”

We are the young – our lives are a mystery
we are the old – who yearns for you face.
we have been sung throughout all of history
called to be light to the whole human race.
Gather us in the rich and the haughty
gather us in the proud and the strong
give us a heart so meek and so lowly
give us the courage to enter the song.

That’s no more a “hymn” than this painting is religious art, and in both cases, the instructive edge that should accompany what is transcendent in sacred music and sacred art has been damped down in order to serve a refocusing, away from God and toward ourselves.

Part of this is simply a response to the Post Vatican II attention to enlivening the horizontal aspect of Mass, the unintended consequence of which was to under-emphasize the vertical. Ideally, the two should be in balance — a representation of the cross — and as I note in discussing this hymn:

Oh, God, by this commingling
of water and of wine
may He who took our nature
Give us His life divine

… it was one of those great hymns that provided catechesis; it accentuated and defined the vertical and horizontal aspects of the mass, while having the beneficial effect of adding to the sense of reverence, awe to the most solemn part of the mass, when earth and heaven are joined in Christ, and communion and community all support it. And it joined our prayers to the priests in a profound way — who sings prays twice — and that is part of community, too, and dare I say it, unity.

Instruction is missing in our religious art and music. We might look at a modern song and think, “nice melody, not impossible to sing and it sure makes us feel good about us” or we can look at a painting like the “Adoration” above, and appreciate it for its fine technique, but meaning has become muddled, and too often there seems to be no real center beyond ourselves — room for God in between the borders of the canvas, or the codas on the staves.

We are a culture that takes pictures of our meals and puts them on Facebook; takes endless snapshots of ourselves doing nothing at all noteworthy, and shoots them off to friends; watches meaningless reality-tv for purposes I don’t even understand beyond the “we/us-centricity” paradigm.

Form follows function. Religious art, whether painted or sung, is formed to follow the function of worship, which is the praise and attempted knowledge of God. In much of our Modern “religious art” we can see — as with these examples — the pieces being formed to follow the function of our cultural idolatry.

We cannot see God in our paintings, or find him in our songs, because we have crowded him out — or more accurately, we have obliterated him by the fore-placement of the shiny idol of ourselves, ourselves, ourselves, in order that we may see us, puny us, endlessly mirrored back in our direction.

As I note in my upcoming book, we love our Strange Gods, and create them non-stop. But we don’t have to.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Peggy m

    I wonder what you think of Alex Kanevsky’s “Annunciation” (2007). At first glance, it looks like a woman scrubbing a floor. The title makes you look again—is she on her knees before the (unseen) angel? Light does stream from someplace in front of her and beyond our view. As far as i can tell, the artist does not paint sacred art. The only comment by Kanevsky that I have read suggests that he sometimes chooses unexpected titles to “trigger” thoughts and associations. I am hoping to create paintings that impart religious meaning without using obvious symbols, so I am interested in how other painters approach it.

  • Manny

    I commented at Simcha’s but my comments went to some “potential spam and were to be reviewed. Hopefully they’ll be posted. Luckily I saved them and I’ll post it here. But here’s what my take on it. It’s different. I’m not saying I’m right. It depends on what the artist intended.


    I did not read the comments section, so I don’t know if I’m repeating someone else’s thoughts. I’m only addressing your understanding of the painting. You might be right, but there is another way to look at it. It could be that the “Magi” are experiencing a profound religious experience. In the biblical story all the Magi know is that a king will be born in Bethlehem. They do not know that this king will be transcendent and divine. When they get there their experience is profound, penetrating to the soul. The biblical story doesn’t go into detail, only that they “prostrated” themselves before our Lord. The question is what did this profound experience constitute? Did they suddenly realize their whole lives have been working toward the wrong end of holiness? Is their new life, after the epiphany, a burden now after new knowledge?

    This is not unprecedented. Read TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.”

    There is burden in the journey and there is burden in their new life. It is a realization of a new cross they have to bear. Here’s the last stanza:

    All this was a long time ago, I remember,
    And I would do it again, but set down
    This set down
    This: were we led all that way for
    Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
    We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
    But had thought they were different; this Birth was
    Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.
    I should be glad of another death.

    Now getting back to the painting. It depends on whether the artist is being cynical in the title with “Adoration” or whether “Adoration” is encompassing a deeper, total Truth that projects toward the crucifixion. The shadows can suggest that and can suggest the burdens of their personal sins and the cross they now will bear.

  • john d.

    A different interpretation: it looks to me like the light on their faces is from an reflected/illuminated source, such as an ipad or some sort of screen. Good art challenges…perhaps this is not expressing the ideal, but a “modern” take a on religion and one that is certainly not ideal, causing the viewer to reflect upon what is ideal and how we don’t live it. Or how we take our “gifts” and use them for ourselves.

    No, this piece is not my cup of tea, but maybe there is something more there. Or not. :)

  • Adam

    You remind me of a tendency that I see in a lot of modern culture: the need to rely on Judeo-Christian imagery without further exploring the depths of what that imagery is. It’s entirely glossed-over imagery, full of symbolism and yet symbolizing nothing. I remember a scene in “Pleasantville” in which a female character presents a male with an apple–clearly evocative of the fall–but completely missing what it’s supposed to be invoking. Or the scene in “Superman Returns” where Superman falls back to Earth–arms spread in a crucified pose–and ends up comatose for three days. It’s clearly borrowing from the Gospels without really commenting on Christ’s sacrifice.

    I get particularly frustrated in a lot of comic books that I read these days. A few years ago, DC Comics did a moment showing that the Green Lanterns and each of the other Lanterns (yes, there’s Red, Orange, and a whole rainbow of Lanterns) were created during a key moment in the Bible. It was fun, but really didn’t evoke more than “Hey, we used a scene from the Bible!” At a convention, I asked a comic creator why the industry does this. He gave an interesting dual answer on the enduring and powerful nature of Christian imagery, which is good: you can’t escape God’s intervention in the world. At the same time, few creators want to stir the pot beyond shallow imagery because, well, we can’t go about offending our audience.

  • Peggy m

    Not everyone appreciates Gerhard Richter’s window at Cologne Cathedral (the local cardinal did not), but I think it is beautiful and effective. It is not traditional, yet I think it conveys religious truth as much as any stained glass window can. Richter is a popular and well-respected artist, and the Cologne window attracts even non believers. A lot of people refer to it as “pixels”, but the design is based on paintings that Richter did years ago and had no reference to computers or photographs. Richter is not apparently a confessed believer, but he keeps returning to Catholic themes, and always with respect. I believe he has engaged the secular culture in sacred art, and on its own terms.

  • Manny

    Let me also add that the Christ child is clearly implied between the painting’s title and the focus of attention. So God is not necessarily absent. He clearly is not, and sometimes things are more powerful if they are offstage. A traditional painting of the Christ child has the child as the center, and clearly the subject. Here for better or worse the subject is the soul transforming experience of the Magi.

  • Manny

    Ooops, a typo. I meant to say “A traditional painting of the epiphany has the child as the center…”

    The more I think of it, the more my reading fits. One of the meanings of “epiphany” is this:
    a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

    The painting captures the sudden epiphany of the magi.

  • Victor

    (((see if @Pontifex has tweeted anything new, and there it is,)))

    Forgive me Anchoress if I am to quick to pass judgement after only having read a few of the twitter post and nothing else but I honestly believe that no matter what His Holiness says on twitter, “IT” will only annoy some and the “ONE” that truly does love what “Papa” has to say, “IT” might only bring them to a rage that really won’t help more than simply having a good talk on His Knees with GOD (Good Old Dad) until the urge go’s away. Who knows GOD might even send some of HIS ANGELS to help Him out and which humans can’t be swayed by angels, I ask? :)

    (((Benedict XVI‏@Pontifex

    Following Christ’s example, we have to learn to give ourselves completely. Anything else is not enough. )))

    “I” could also use some of those prayers that he’ll be saying. :(


  • Suburbanbanshee

    It looks like normal people looking at a normal baby, not like wise people looking at God made baby.

    Also, I get really tired of splotchy painting pretending to be arty. They don’t look like the painter is using tones to blend together at a distance; they look like they’ve got big face rashes and strawberry birthmarks.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Also a lot of sunscreen on their faces that they haven’t rubbed in.

  • bleary

    I think it looks like the paint-by-numbers kits I did as a child. Agree with what Simcha said, especially about the light source and its importance.

  • Subsistent

    Regarding the wording of Liturgical music: Without really disagreeing with anything Mrs. Scalia has written on this posting, I’d point out what my old Fr.-Stedman missal used to indicate: that in the Mass we offer our Lord’s sacrifice in grateful thanksgiving (Greek *eucharistia*) as well as in adoration, remembering that, as Thomas Aquinas has pointed out, it’s for OUR sake, our greater happiness, not for His own, that He seeks His glory: “Deus gloriam suam quaerit non propter se, sed propter nos.” (Summa Theol., II-II, Q. 132, art. 1, ad 1.)