The Art of Holiness

Painting the Wordby John DruryYale/National Gallery Publications. 192p $25

The past, as one historian aptly put it, has become a "foreign country." This is true even of our own Christian past. Though much has remained the same, much has at the same time changed in the landscape of our faith, rendering the Christianity of the past a "foreign country" to us. Thus the 21st-century viewers of European Old Master religious art, even the Christians among us, are all "visitors to this Christian world," as John Drury warns us in his introduction. His goal, therefore, is to provide us with a road map, a visitor’s guide of sorts, to this land, using as his principal resource a large selection of paintings (14th to 17th centuries, Dutch, English, French, Spanish and, above all, Italian) from the superb collection of London’s National Gallery.

Though trained neither as an art historian nor as a church historian, Drury proves himself equal to his task. An Anglican priest, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and the author of several works of New Testament exegesis and spirituality, Drury is an artist as well, having trained at Norwich Art School. All of this academic/pastoral experience and what the dustjacket describes as "a lifetime of enjoying paintings and thinking about them" have gone into the making of Painting the Word. The result is an informative, inspiring book, the reading of which will make your next visit to your local museum of fine arts a more rewarding experiencevisually, emotionally and spiritually.

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Drury’s work is decidedly Christocentric. The central core and bulk of the work focus on scenes from the life of Christ, even though Mary and the saints represent so immense a portion of Old Master artistic production. In these chapters, the constant leitmotif and nearly exclusive hermeneutical key is sacrifice. Artistic depiction of Christ and his behavior at any given point is understood principally in function of his role as sacrificial victim, which seems limiting at times. In any case, Drury aims not only to instruct his readers in art appreciation and Scripture but also to guide them in a spiritual exercise. His work, he states, extends the more common "historically iconographical, or picture-describing, approach" to art "into meditation." The presupposition is that these works of art can be still alive and relevant to us, emotionally and spiritually, as indeed many of them are. To help in this meditation, Drury also makes use of quotations from poetry and other literature of all ages and nationalities, some more felicitous, others less.

Generously illustrated with excellent color reproductions, Painting the Word "takes on whole paintings"; that is to say, it examines the entirety of what makes a painting a paintingcolor, light, composition, paint-handling, treatment of human figures, architecture, background landscape, iconography, etc. This is one of the most commendable features of the book. Another is the wealth of interdisciplinary informationbiographical, scriptural, historical, liturgical, technicalthat the author brings to his exposition. In discussing the light in Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepherds, for example, Drury not only explains the tradition and technique of chiaroscuro but also the rabbinic understanding of shekinah, pointing out that "[a]cross the street from Rembrandt’s studio lived [the famous and learned rabbi] Menasseh ben Israel" from whom the artist is likely to have received such information about the visible sign of God’s presence among us.

However, one body of literature essential to uncovering the meaning(s) these paintings had for their original audiences is overlooked by Drury: the prodigiously influential spiritual "bestsellers" of the past (such as Ludolphus of Saxony’s Vita Jesu Christi or Lapide’s Great Commentary on Scripture). These widely disseminated didactic, devotional, exegetical and homiletic texts effectively formed and informed the social-religious mindset of those who produced and viewed the medieval and early modern paintings here under examination. These works (often filtered to the masses through the popular preachers) in fact taught viewers what to see in any given religious image. Ignoring these texts, one can miss a painting’s original message.

For example, for Drury Titian’s Noli me tangere, depicting that first surprise encounter between the newly risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, is, above all, an expression of the deep, intimate love between them. In fact, what medieval and 16th-century commentators of this episode focussed on was not love, but rather rejection: Christ’s shocking refusal to let Mary touch him (hence the scene’s traditional, negative-imperative title). This prohibition was interpreted more often than not as a sort of punishment for Mary for not believing in the resurrection or as an expression of the prudent distance Christ supposedly kept between himself and members of the female sex.

This notswithstanding, Drury’s volume is a fine, rewarding companion to these works of art, recommended to those who are seeking to expand their knowledge of and appreciation for Christianity’s artistic heritage and to use it as a vehicle for their own spiritual development. One concluding word of caution, however: Painting the Word is lucidly written and largely conversational in tone, but its far-from-demotic prose style and its learned content will perhaps make it less appealing to those who prefer the "easy reads" of Sister Wendy Beckett. The work’s origins as sermons and lectures to the academic audiences of Oxford University show through.

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