Last week, I visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, with a specific goal in mind: Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpiece, “The Seven Sacraments”. My visit was not solely to admire this exquisite triptych but also to delve deeper into the meaning of the seven sacraments. This exploration hereunder will be guided by seven works of art as visual narratives, with Van der Weyden’s triptych serving as our starting point.
The Seven Sacraments in seven paintings
Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration and initiation into the Church that was begun by Jesus, who accepted baptism from St. John the Baptist. Baptism is understood, therefore, as the annulment of one’s sins and the emergence of a completely innocent person.
A sacrament that is conferred through the anointing with oil and the imposition of hands, Confirmation is believed to strengthen or confirm the grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit at baptism. The Confirmation rite is a relatively simple ceremony that is traditionally performed during the Mass by the bishop, who raises his hands over those receiving Confirmation and prays for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints the forehead of each confirmand with holy oil and says, “Accipe Signaculum Doni Spiritus Sancti” (“Be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit”).
This sacrament of reconciliation or penance, reflects the practice of restoring sinners to the community of the faithful by confessing one’s sins to a priest. The Roman Catholic Church claims that the absolution of the priest is an act of forgiveness. To receive it, the penitent must confess all serious sins, manifest genuine sorrow for sins, and have a reasonably firm purpose to make amends. The sacrament of confession was rejected by most of the Reformers on the grounds that God alone can forgive sins, and not through a priest.
The Eucharist (from the Greek word “εὐχαριστία” which means “thanksgiving”) is the central act of Christian worship, also known as Holy Communion and the Lord’s Supper. The rite was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper when he blessed the bread, which he said was his body, and shared it with his disciples. He then shared a cup of wine as his blood. Jesus called on his followers to repeat the ceremony in his memory. It is a commemoration of his sacrifice on the cross.
Ordination is a sacrament essential to the church, as it bestows an unrepeatable, indelible character upon the priest being ordained. The essential ceremony consists of the laying of hands of the bishop upon the head of the one being ordained, with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of grace required for the carrying out of the ministry.
Marriage as a sacrament, also known as holy matrimony, is the covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life, administered in the presence of a priest. However, the inclusion of marriage among the sacraments gives the Roman Catholic Church jurisdiction over an institution that is of as much concern to the state as it is to the church.
Anointing of the sick
This sacrament is conferred by anointing the forehead and hands with blessed oil and pronouncing a prayer. It may be conferred only on those who are seriously ill or on elderly people who are experiencing the frailties of old age. In popular belief, anointing is most valuable as a complement to confession or, in the case of unconsciousness, as a substitute for it. Anointing is not the sacrament of the dying; it is the sacrament of the sick.
As we near December and Christmas, all our attention turns to the story of the birth of Jesus. But how about his mother Mary? How about Mary’s pregnancy, and what did she do in those nine months before giving birth to Jesus? Around May that year, when Mary was 2 months pregnant with Jesus, she travelled some 150km from her home in Nazareth to a small town in Judea, to visit her relative Elizabeth who was 8 months pregnant of John the Baptists. This visit of Mary to Elizabeth is called the “Visitation” and is told in the Bible in the chapter that’s the Gospel of Luke (1:39-56). The Visitation took place on May 31st and Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, during which Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, on June 24th.
Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias were both very old and without children. Miraculously Elizabeth suddenly got pregnant, which was predicted to Zacharias by the angel Gabriel. Zacharias could hardly believe this, as his wife was too old to get a baby. Here is a similarity with the message Maria got from the same angel Gabriel: “Ave Maria, you will be pregnant and give birth to Jesus!” When Mary got pregnant, her fiancé Joseph could also hardly believe what had happened.
Mary knew well that her cousin Elizabeth had grieved for so many years on account of being childless. Mary travelled all the way to share Elizabeth’s joy and of course to help her in her household affairs and be with her during birth and in the months after the birth of the little John. It was a mission of charity.
Mary’s visit also brought divine grace to both Elizabeth and her unborn child, John the Baptist. Even though he was still in his mother’s womb, John became already aware of the presence of Jesus who was still in Mary’s womb. When Mary and Elizabeth met at the doorsteps of Zacharias’ house – the “Visitation” – Elizabeth spoke out with a loud voice and said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And Elizabeth said that as soon as she heard the voice of Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in her womb for joy. At that moment the still to be born John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Since the Medieval era, Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” has formed the second part of the “Ave Maria” or the “Hail Mary” song. The first part are the words the angel Gabriel said to Mary when he announced she will be pregnant of Jesus. One of the most famous composed music versions is Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” from 1825. Listen to it via the link, with English and Latin lyrics provided in the clip and hereunder.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedíctus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.
In response to Elizabeth, Mary proclaims the famous words “My soul magnifies the Lord” in what is now called “Song of Mary” or “Magnificat”. Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of giving birth to Jesus. While Mary speaks to Elizabeth, she also turns a bit into a revolutionary as she continues looking forward to God transforming the world. “The proud will be brought low, and the humble will be lifted; the hungry will be fed, and the rich will go without.” In her answer to Elizabeth, Mary transforms herself from an obedient humble girl into an adult fighter for justice and protector of the poor. This “Magnificat” is nowadays banned in certain countries, as seen dangerous by the ruling oppressors. Johann Sebastian Bach put music to the words and created in 1723 his masterpiece “Magnificat”. Listen to it via the link, at least for the first few minutes. Lyrics in English and Latin hereunder.
My soul magnifies the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has looked with favor on His humble servant; from this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name,
He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm;
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.
Magnificat anima mea Dominum;
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo,
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae; ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen ejus,
Et misericordia ejus a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo;
Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis, et divites dimisit inanes.
Mary, through her meeting with Elizabeth, is no longer a silent participant of the Christmas story. She is a protector of the suppressed and a revolutionary, a fighter for a better world. Celebrating Christmas, is celebrating hope for a better world, for true justice to come.
And for the sake of completeness, here is the full text of the Bible story of The Visitation; Luke 1:39-56, in the new international version.
Mary Visits Elizabeth (39 - 45)
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea,
where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Mary’s Song (46 - 55)
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (56)
July 22nd is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. But who is she, and how to recognize her in art? If there had been more gender equality in the days of Jesus, than Mary Magdalene certainly would have become one of the 12 Apostles. She was the number one female follower of Jesus and is generally considered a historical figure. Most likely Mary Magdalene was wealthy, mundane, intellectual and beautiful. Rumors say that Mary Magdalene was a penitent prostitute and the lover of Jesus, that she was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying His feet with her hair and rubbing His feet with precious ointment. These are fantasy stories made up from the Middle Ages onwards. But it’s through these stories that we can identify Mary Magdalene in art: as a beautiful long-haired woman with a perfume or ointment jar, or as a penitent sinner.
Mary Magdalene depicted as a prostitute or sinful woman, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus, was a popular image. As everyone has some sins, big or small, one would love to see a painting with a sinner whose sins are forgiven and who sees the light of salvation. So let’s now look at this painting by El Greco. It’s the ecstatic moment when the penitent Mary Magdalene converts to the heavenly light and the skull representing her earthly mortality is rolling out of her hand. And of course in the left bottom comer is the omnipresent ointment jar.
Another story is about Mary Magdalene wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume or ointment. Or washing His feet with her own tears and drying with her long hair. That’s pretty dramatic and will certainly appeal to any sinner who is looking for forgiveness.
As a historical figure, Mary Magdalene most likely was present when Jesus was crucified. See hereunder the crucifixion triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. And just so that we do not mix up Mary Magdalene with anyone else, she is the person carrying the jar with the perfume or ointment. The jar is Mary Magdalene’s traditional attribute and a great trademark to recognize her in art.
What is Pentecost and how is it depicted in art? Pentecost (UK: Whitsunday; NL: Pinksteren) is a Christian holy day, that must be seen in connection with Easter and the Ascension of Christ. It’s celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, and 10 days after Ascension Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word “Πεντηκοστή” and simply means “fiftieth”. What happened is the following: Easter is the moment of the crucifixion and resurrection; at Ascension Day the physical body of Christ goes up to heaven and with Pentecost the spirit of Christ comes back to earth in the form of the Holy Ghost. And the Holy Ghosts descend upon the Apostles, the disciples of Christ, so that they can start spreading His word around the world.
This can be depicted with great drama. Look at El Greco’s painting from c. 1600. The Apostles and Maria are being covered by light and flames coming down from above, and the Holy Ghost is descending in its classic form of a white dove. Their hands up in wonder, and their faces with big glorious admiration. Drama galore! Small mundane detail: the second apostle from the right in the top row has been given the portrait of El Greco himself, and he is the only one looking at us viewers.
If I may demystify this moment a bit, than let’s look at the fresco by Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted roughly 300 years before the El Greco painting. It’s the Apostles, sitting together in a meeting session. It’s a few weeks after the moment Christ left them, and can it be that they are going from a mourning phase into a phase of accepting what happened? They are discussing how to move forward and they are deciding to spread the good word of Christ around the world. They seem to have received a sparkle of hope; they are seeing now light in darkness. Giotto depicted this moment as rays of light (or fire) coming from above and spreading over the Apostles. Compare this to the El Greco painting where this abstract concept of seeing light in darkness has been turned into a visual concrete drama with rays of light, the dove and flames descending upon the Apostles.
to put Ascension and Pentecost next to each other, please look at these 17th
Century Dutch prints: Ascension as the physical movement of Christ up to heaven
and Pentecost as the spiritual movement of the Holy Ghost down from heaven.
Who is Saint Luke and how to recognize him in art? Luke is one of the Four Evangelists and the author of the Gospel of Luke, one of the New Testament books that describe the life of Christ. Luke is definitely a historic figure, who lived in the 1st Century and originally came from the then Greek city of Antioch, now on the Turkish-Syrian border. He was an physician, painter and writer and died at the age of 84. As he is one of the Four Evangelists, he became pretty popular and important in Western art. Luke was also a physician, and thus his name is used for many Saint Luke Hospitals all over the world.
In the 8th Century a story popped up telling that Luke once painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most likely just a cute legend, but it helps with recognizing Luke in art. He is shown as a painter at work, and his model is the Virgin. This also made Luke become the patron saint of painters. He gave his name to the Guilds of Saint Luke, which were the trade unions for painters in the 16th and 17th Century. Here is a 1652 painting by Guercino. Saint Luke shows the viewer his painting with the Virgin and Child. And look what’s on the table behind him. It’s a book. That refers to the Gospel he wrote. And on the book is an inkstand in the form of an ox. And the ox is the very most common attribute to recognize Saint Luke the Evangelist. The other three Evangelists also have their own symbols: Matthew – angel; Marcus – lion; John – eagle.
Here is another painting, from c. 1603, by El Greco (“The Greek”). His real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter but mainly living and working in Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted this magnificent portrait of Saint Luke for the Toledo Cathedral where it still can be seen. He must have felt close to Saint Luke, as they both came from Greece. Saint Luke shows us the Gospel, and his painting of the Virgin and Child is now incorporated in the Gospel book itself.
Most common is to depict Luke as a writer, together with an ox or a bull, which animal became Luke’s trademark symbol. The ox or bull, as an animal often used for offers, refers to Christ’s sacrifice and crucifixion. Here are a few Dutch Old Master prints from series with the Four Evangelists. The person writing, depicted together with an ox, can only be Saint Luke the Evangelist. Once you make the link between Luke and the ox, it will be super easy to recognize this saint.