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The early painters wrought not for fame or reward, but out of the fullness of their heart's devotion. They strove to impress upon canvas their heart's conception of the meekness and purity of the Virgin Mother, and the yearning, all-enduring love and tenderness of her Divine Son.
The art of this period was essentially religious, and so intimately connected were religion and art during the middle ages that painting itself was regarded as a religious exercise. A manual in use among the monks of those times, and which has been translated by M. Didron, contains minute directions for painting, among the chief of which were prayer and meditation. Fra Angelica, also called Il Beato, the Blessed, was wont to say that he who would represent Christ, should always live with Christ; and surely the gentle frate carried out his principles, for he was meek and unostentatious, and was never known to begin any work without the consecration of prayer.
How much more spiritual are all his creations than those of Andrea Del Sarto, whose works show not a trace of real feeling and devotion, and whose model for his Madonnas were the sensual features of his worthless wife.
It cannot be denied that to Catholicism belongs the glory of cherishing and fostering Christian art. Protestantism, whatever may be its capabilities in other directions, is too unemotional and deficient in the fine ardor of devotion which inspired the old painters. Protestantism cannot boast of one great name in Christian art, for the representative men of that school of modern art which approximates most nearly to the spirit of the old painters are Catholics. Cornelius was born in the Catholic Church; while Overbeck and Von Schadow were insensibly led to adopt her faith during the evolution of their artist life.
It is around the Divine person of our Blessed Lord, that “all Christian art revolves, as a system round a sun.” What higher ideal could the artist set for himself than the portrayal of that sacred face with all the mingled expressions of those qualities which were manifested in the union of the Godhead with the human nature—the mild benignity, the ineffable tenderness, the Divine love and compassion, together with that deep, mysterious sadness which chastened all! What wonder that to depict all this should be considered the very highest effort which creative genius should achieve ! Raphael certainly excels in the look of youthful and ideal loveliness which he gives to his Christs. The “ Christ in the Sepulchre,” and “The Transfiguration," are good examples of this. Then there are Ary Schaffer's heads of Christ in the “ Christus Consolateur” and “ Christus Remunerateur,” which are full of heavenly and spiritual expression. But, perhaps, the highest conception that has ever been realized upon canvas is Da Vinci's head of our Saviour in the “ Last Supper." One whose gentle art nature was in full sympathy with this subject, thus wrote of it: “In spite of all that fatality and folly have done to dim and defeature it, the essential divinity which once was impressed upon it, still shines forth with obscured, but inextinguishable grandeur.
Mild, sad majesty, sorrow sharp as the blade of death, and the grace of a spiritual sweetness which the treason of friends and the triumph of enemies disturbs not, but deepens, are stamped in glorious power upon this matchless face. The flowing hair, the bowing head, the submitting expostulation of the hands, form certainly the worthiest image of the Blessed Saviour that ever came from mortal thought.”
Sculpture, from the nature of the material to be worked upon, is not well adapted for the purpose of depicting the mild glory of Him whom we love to contemplate as the merciful Redeemer, but best symbolizes the strength, majesty and dignity of the Greek hero gods. Still a wide celebrity has been awarded to two statues of Christ by modern artists—the one by Thorwaldsen in the cathedral at Copenhagen, and the other by Dannecker, now at Stuttgard, and upon which he bestowed the loving labor of eight years.
The most venerated relic in the cathedral of Genoa is a picture which is said to have been painted by St. Luke, and which came into the possession of Abgarus, King of Edessa, shortly after the death of our Saviour, and was removed from Edessa to Genoa in the roth century.
Eusebius quotes ecclesiastical writings to show that this picture existed in the royal library of Edessa, in the middle of the 2nd century, and was then believed to be a work of the apostolic age.
There are numerous versions of the legend relating to this picture, all conflicting somewhat in detail. According to one of the Apocryphal Gospels, Abgarus sends his tabellarius, or secretary, Ananias, to Christ, praying Him to come and see him. Christ answered
that He could not come, but that He would send one of His disciples; and accordingly after his death, Thaddeus, one of the Seventy, was sent to Abgarus with a portrait painted by Luke.
Another legend is that Abgarus, who was afflicted with leprosy, sent Ananias to beg Christ to come and heal him, and if He could not come, to allow Ananias, who was a skillful painter, to take His portrait, so that, at least, he might have that. When Ananias finds Christ He is performing miracles, and so Ananias, who is unable to come near for the crowd, mounts an eminence near by and begins to take the likeness of Christ, but he is unable to make any progress on account of the miraculous light which seemed to emanate from His face. Christ, knowing the contents of the letter which Ananias had with him, sent Thomas to bring the messenger to Him. Then writing His answer to Abgarus, He gave it to Ananias to give to his master. But as Ananias still lingered, Jesus called for some water, washed His face therein and wiped it on a napkin, and lo, there remained on the cloth the impress of His Divine features. This He gave to Ananias, charging him to take it to Abgarus, that his longing might be satisfied and his disease cured. On the journey homeward, Ananias passed by a certain city, but remained outside the city gates for the night, and hid the portrait in a heap of bricks. At midnight the inhabitants of the city discovered the heap of bricks to be on fire. When Ananias was found, he owned the supernatural character of the picture from which light was seen to issue, but he was allowed to go on his way unmolested. The inhabitants of the city, however, kept a brick which had come in contact with the cloth and which had miraculously received the impression of the sacred image. Ana. nias reached his destination in safety, and gave the the letter and sacred portrait to Abgarus, who was immediately healed.
When he heard of the death of Christ, he was so enraged at the Jews that he was only prevented by the Romans from making war upon them.
Another legend says that the woman who had been healed by touching the hem of Christ's garment was named Veronica or Berenici. She greatly longed for a picture of Christ. So she brought a cloth to Luke, who painted upon it a picture of the Lord. But although Luke and herself thought it wonderfully like Him, when they saw His face it was widely different. A
second and a third picture were taken with no better success. Then Jesus said, “All of Luke's art is in vain, for my face is only known to Him who sent me." Then he bade the woman to go to her house and prepare a meal for Him, which she did joyfully. And when Jesus came to her house He asked for water. After He had washed His face, He wiped it upon a napkin, which received a miraculous portrait of His features. This He gave to Veronica, saying, “This is like me, and will do great things.” After the crucifixion, Titus and Vespasian were both afflicted with grievous maladies. They sought out Veronica, who went to Rome with the sacred picture, by means of which both were cured.
A still later story is, that Veronica was a woman who, while our Saviour was fainting under the burden of His cross while on His way to Calvary, came out of her house and compassionately wiped His face with her veil or handkerchief. Her house is still shown in the Via Dolorosa.
The Veronica in the cathedral of Genou is enclosed in a silver shrine, upon which is depicted, in bold relief, all the miraculous cures which it has performed. It is regarded as so sacred that it is shown but upon one day in the year. Another Veronica in St. Peter's, also attributed to a miraculous origin, is allowed to be seen by no one but the Pope and his necessary attendant after absolution and communion on Palm Sunday. Veronica is a corruption of vera icon-true image. It was customary for pilgrims to Rome to wear upon their persons a copy of this sacred image as evidence that they had been there. The pilgrim in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales had the Vernicle “served upon his cappe.”' There is also an allusion to this in “Piers Plowman."
Eusebius and other ecclesiastical writers make mention of a monument at Pancas (Cæsarea Philippi), which consisted of two figures—Christ and the woman whom He had healed. In one of the Apocryphal Gospels we read that Veronica, the woman who was healed of the issue of blood, was wealthy, and wishing to show her gratitude for the miracle effected upon her, she sent a petition to Herod, asking to be allowed to erect a monument for that purpose. His answer was in these words: “ This cure which hath befallen thee, O woman, is worthy of a very great monument.
Therefore, go and erect such a monument as thou wilt, knowing, by thy zeal, Him who healed thee." Accordingly, she erected two statues, made of molten brass, mingled with certain portions of gold and silver. We may, then, the more readily accept the testimony of Eusebius concerning the statues at Pancas and the Abgarus picture, inasmuch as he was strenuously opposed to the pictures or images of Christ, and seriously reproved Constantia, the sister of the Emperor, for wishing to have one.
There were two widely different opinions held by the early Church respecting the personal appearance of our Lord. Clement of Alexandria, Justin and Tertullian supposed that His external appearance was without beauty-was ugly and repulsive. Celsus the Epicurean, ridiculed the Christians for believing that their God was of a mean and ill-favored aspect. This view cannot be otherwise than repugnant to our feelings, and was indignantly refuted by Jerome, Chrysostom and others of the church fathers, who as vehemently upheld the contrary opinion. The tradition of Christ's ugliness arose, no doubt, from the desire of identifying Him with the Messiah of Isaiah's prophecy. The Jews have a tradition that the pretended Christ of the Christians was a fair and beautiful youth, and one of their Rabbins argues from this, that He could not be the Christ prophesied by Isaiah.
John of Damascus, a Greek theologian of the eighth century, says: “Christ was of stately form, beautiful eyes, fine formed nose, curling hair, figure slightly bent, and in the prime of life, black beard, more frequently like His hair, of the color of wine, His complexion, like His mother's, of the color of wheat, long fingers, sonorous voice and of sweet eloquence." All the old legends assume the resemblance between the Virgin and her Son. Dante alludes to this in the Paradiso:
“Now raise thy view Unto the visage most resembling Christ.” Longfellow, too, in his “Divine Tragedy,” makes a most graceful use of these old traditions. In the description of the wedding at Cana of Galilee the master of the feast asks:
“Who is the youth with the dark, azure eyes,
And hair in color like unto wine,
- How serene
His aspect is! manly, yet womanly." And the paranymph replies: