Seeing Scripture: Biblical Illustrations at MOBIA

As I mentioned in last week's Of Many Things, the Culture section will frequently feature online-only content, especially helpful for those interested in limited-run exhibits, movies and shows.  Here is a lovely review, for example, by Leo J. O'Donovan, SJ, president emeritus of Georgetown, on a clever new exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City, which closes on Sept. 27.  It's called "Scripture for the Eyes: Bible Illustration in Netherlandish Prints of the Sixteenth Century.”  In his perceptive review, O'Donovan shows that while some of the art neatly transcended the religious disputes of the those contentious times, other pieces may have been "discreetly" or "overtly" partisan.   Moreover, one's religion--as today--could alter your interpretation of the work.  As O'Donovan writes:

But confessional prejudices could certainly alter the reception of the work. Thus Goltzius’s “Adoration” could be interpreted by Protestant Reformers as suggesting their own long journey of challenging the institutional church in their search for Christ, while Counter-Reformers might see their own journey through persecution and dissension as ending in true devotion before the Savior.  Similarly, in van Leyden’s “Return of the Prodigal,” [pictured above] Catholics might identify the father as an image of the institutional church welcoming back penitent Reformers, while Reformers could see him as God the Father accepting the contrition of a corrupt Roman Church. Goltzius himself, a life-long Catholic committed to ecumenical tolerance, could also be polemical but in an even-handed way, as is evident in two earlier engravings that address (and discourage) inter-confessional strife, “The Wisdom of Solomon” and “Dissent in the Church” (both c. 1578).

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The overriding impression of this innovative art is of creative interaction between popular piety and an intense interest in newly available editions of the Bible, both St. Jerome’s Vulgate and vernacular texts. The question of salvation became highly personalized. Treatises on modes of meditation proliferated. Mystic theologians were prized, including the Flemish Jan van Ruysbroeck, who presented Christ the mediator as reconciling the foreign and discordant elements of human experience. The sufferings of Christ were given increasing emphasis, with frequent depictions of the Man of Sorrows. Christ in the Wine Press, another popular image, could easily be taken to extremes: in 1619 Hieronymus Wierix depicts Jesus bleeding profusely as God the Father operates the press with the cross as its beam and the dove of the Holy Spirit alighting at its top.

Many of the prints on view are more peaceful, but none lack drama. Whether your interest is the Bible or first-rate art, and especially if you think both are indispensable, get out your magnifying glass and make your way to MOBIA if you possibly can before this show closes on Sept. 27.

 Read the rest here.  And see the slide show from MOBIA here.

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