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.
The story of Zeus and Callisto is part of Greek mythology and involves Zeus, the king of the gods, and Callisto, a beautiful nymph and one of the companions of the Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the equivalent of Diana in Roman mythology. Zeus is the same king of the gods as the Roman god Jupiter. The story of Zeus and Callisto serves as a tale about the capricious nature of the gods in Greek mythology. One of the most well-known versions can be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
According to the myth, Callisto was a devoted follower of Artemis (Diana) and like the other companion nymphs in the group of Artemis, Callisto also swore to remain a virgin for her entire life. They are hunting together, bathing together and were a great subject for painters throughout the centuries to depict a group of female nudes. With the exception of Vermeer, who portrayed Artemis and her nymphs in a very discreet and decent manner.
However, Zeus, known for his numerous affairs and infidelities, set his eyes on Callisto and decided to seduce her. Disguising himself as Artemis, Zeus approached Callisto and took advantage of her, resulting in Callisto becoming pregnant.
When the truth came to light, Callisto faced the wrath of Artemis, who was furious at her for breaking her vow of chastity. The goddess could not bear to look at Callisto anymore, and she banished her from her company. Callisto was devastated and left to live a life of solitude.
As her pregnancy progressed, Callisto’s appearance began to change and she now has a baby belly. Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods, noticed these changes and grew suspicious of her husband’s involvement. Feeling betrayed and enraged, Hera sought revenge on Callisto. After the nymph gave birth to a son named Arcas, Hera transformed Callisto into a bear.
Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto
In the meantime Arcas, the child of Zeus and Callisto, grew up and became a skilled hunter. He lived in a beautiful land and was chosen to be the king of that peaceful and pastoral area, called “Arcadia”, named after Arcas. Throughout history the name “Arcadia” has continued to be a symbol of an unspoiled and idyllic natural world.
As a bear, Callisto was forced to roam the wilderness, unable to communicate or return to her human form. Years passed, and one day, Arcas, now a young hunter, came across his mother-bear in the forest. Unaware that the bear was his own mother, he prepared to shoot it with his arrow. However, Zeus, who had been watching the events unfold, intervened to prevent a tragic outcome. To protect Callisto and her son, Zeus turned Arcas into a bear as well and placed them both among the stars, forming the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). In this way, they were immortalized in the night sky, and their bond was forever preserved.
Hera did not like this at all; too much honour for Callisto and Arcas to be in the sky as stars. So, Hera descended from heaven and arrives with her carriage drawn by peacocks on sea-level, to complain to her friends the god Oceanus and his wife Tethis, a sea-goddess. Hera tells them that, in punishment for having such honorable place at the sky, they should never let the Callisto and Arcas, as Great and Smaller Bear, touch their waters and be able to wash themselves. Hera therefore instructs the gods of the sea that they shall not let either constellation sink below the horizon, and passing into the waters of the ocean. Indeed neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor ever set below the horizon, viewed from most regions in the Northern hemisphere.
Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Smaller Bear)
The Big Bear constellation is also known as Ursa Major, which means “Great Bear” in Latin. The more popular term “Big Dipper” is actually a colloquial name for a prominent asterism within the Ursa Major constellation. The Big Dipper is a group of seven bright stars that form a distinctive shape resembling a ladle or a dipper. This shape is a well-known feature of the northern night sky. The Great Bear has served as a navigational tool for travellers to determine directions.
Polaris (North or Pole Star)
Polaris, commonly known as the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). It holds a special place in the night sky because it appears very close to the celestial north pole, the point in the sky around which all other stars appear to rotate as Earth spins on its axis. This makes Polaris a valuable navigational reference point, especially for travellers in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris appears relatively stationary in the sky while other stars appear to move in circles around it as the night progresses. This unique characteristic made Polaris an important celestial marker for ancient sailors, explorers, and navigators who used it to determine their northward direction. Polaris can be found by extending the two outer stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl (from the constellation Ursa Major) in a straight line. This extension leads you to Polaris, making it a helpful guide for finding true north in the night sky.
Greek and Roman Gods
The three gods involved in the story of Zeus and Callisto are:
Zeus (Ζεύς) is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods, married to Hera. His symbol is the eagle. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, also knows as Jove. Read more about Zeus in The Twelve Olympians.
Hera (Ήρα) is the goddess of marriage, women and family and the queen of gods, wife of Zeus. Her symbol is the peacock. The Roman equivalent is Juno. See Hera in The Twelve Olympians.
Artemis (Ἄρτεμις) is the goddess of the hunt, and to be recognised by the moon crescent as tiara on her head. Her Roman equivalent is Diana. More about Artemis in The Twelve Olympians.
The National Gallery purchased the life-size painting of Saint Bartholomew by Bernardo Cavallino at Sotheby’s New York back in January 2023 from the Fisch Davidson collection – one of the most important collections of Baroque art ever to appear on the market. The cost was $3.9 million (hammer $3.2m). This depiction of Saint Bartholomew, a most splendid work by Cavallino, dates to the 1640s, when the Neapolitan artist was at the height of his artistic powers.
Saint Bartholomew sits alone in the wilderness. His expression is one of grim determination, at once horrified and resolved. Enveloped in the folds of his mantle, he turns towards us, unable to look at the knife clasped in his left hand. This will be the tool of his martyrdom, for Bartholomew was flayed alive. One of the Twelve Apostles, Bartholomew was said to have preached the gospel in India and in Armenia. When he refused to make a sacrifice to the local gods, he was horribly killed, first stripped of his skin and then beheaded. Gruesome depictions of Bartholomew’s martyrdom were popular in seventeenth-century Naples and often showed the act of flaying in progress. This painting’s power comes from how extremely it has been pared back. Bartholomew is the sole protagonist in this almost monochromatic, intensely psychological picture. Stark light illuminates the mantle and the flesh, which provides the only colour in a work otherwise composed of silvery grey tones. We are not confronted here with violence: rather, it is the threat and imminence of violence that is so menacing. Instead of witnessing Bartholomew’s flayed flesh, the picture is dominated by the creamy mantle, whose folds are so elaborate that they cannot help but make us think of skin. Whether in the crisply delineated edges of the fabric or the strong sense of outline created by pulling the white paint right up to the flesh, everything seems to allude to layers and unpeeling, the act of incision unseen but ever-present.
Bernardo Cavallino (1616 – 1656?) was one of the leading Neapolitan artists of the first half of the 17th Century. While many details of his life and career remain shrouded in mystery, he was renowned in his lifetime for his small, sensitive paintings of mythological and biblical subjects which he painted for a private clientele. Cavallino probably received his training in Naples, the city of his birth. He was strongly influenced by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), and seems to have mostly worked for private patrons, producing small, sensitive paintings of mythological and Biblical subjects. This life-size depiction of Saint Bartholomew, with its drama and intensity, is one of Cavallino’s masterpieces. Although we do not know for whom he painted it, its size and grandeur suggest it was an important commission. It probably dates from the latter years of the artist’s life, in which he became increasingly focussed on the emotional power of his works. Just eight of Cavallino’s known works are signed or initialled, and only one is dated. Cavallino probably died during the plague that devastated Naples in 1656. He was well regarded in the decades following his death, but knowledge of his paintings – which were often mistaken for the work of other painters – remained rudimentary until the second half of the 20th century when scholars developed a fuller sense of his poetic contribution to 17th Century art.
The influence of the Jusepe de Ribera is immediately apparent in Cavallino’s Saint Bartholomew, which recalls Ribera’s life-size portrayals of saints from the late 1630s and 1640s and resonates profoundly with Ribera’s near-contemporaneous depiction of the same saint, today in the Prado, Madrid.
The whereabouts of Cavallino’s Saint Bartholomew were untraced until it was sold in 1903 (as by Ribera) at Christie’s, London. It next resurfaced in 1988, after which the painting’s correct attribution to Cavallino was reinstated. The painting was last exhibited in public in 1993, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in in New York, so the public will now be able to enjoy it for the first time in 30 years. Saint Bartholomew is on display alongside other Italian 17th Century Baroque masterpieces in Room 32 of the National Gallery, London, where Saint Bartholomew will make its natural home among pictures by artists such as Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, Reni and Ribera.
More about Saint Bartholomew and the Twelve Apostles, click here.
More about the National Gallery, London, click here.
The prophet Jonah (Yunus يُونُس in Arabic) is a prominent figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is best known for the biblical story of “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Great Fish.” According to the Bible, Jonah was a prophet sent by God to deliver a warning to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire and the biggest and most beautiful city of the ancient world; Nineveh is now Mosul in Iraq. The warning was that destruction of their city will happen because of the wicked and sinful behaviour of the Nineveh inhabitants. However, instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah attempted to flee in the opposite direction by boarding a ship heading to faraway. During the voyage, a great storm arose, and the crew believed that someone on board had angered the gods. Jonah eventually confessed that he was fleeing from God’s call, and he asked the crew to throw him overboard to calm the sea, which the crew then did. As the story goes, God calmed the sea, but also sent a large fish (commonly referred to as a whale) to swallow Jonah, saving him from drowning.
Jonah spent three days and three nights inside the fish’s belly, during which time he prayed and repented; he felt so very sorry that he had not followed God’s wish and order to go to Nineveh. He repents for his actions and promises to fulfill his mission if given another chance. In response to Jonah’s repentance and prayer, God commands the fish to release him. The fish spits Jonah out onto dry land, giving him a second chance. With a renewed sense of obedience, Jonah finally traveled to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of warning to the city. He warned the people of their wickedness and the impending destruction that would come if they did not repent. Surprisingly, the Ninevites listened to Jonah’s message, repented, and turned away from their evil ways. In response to their repentance, God showed mercy and spared the city from destruction. The story of Jonah is often interpreted as a lesson on the importance of obedience to God and the concept of divine mercy and forgiveness. It serves as a reminder that God’s compassion extends even to those who have strayed from the right path. It’s a message to everyone that even after having done bad things and being a not so good person, there is hope if you repent, change your life and say farewell to your sins.
The link between Jonah and Christ is a significant theological parallel found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The primary scriptural reference to this connection is found in the Gospel of Matthew, specifically in Matthew 12:38-41: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so Jesus will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” On this basis Christians saw Jonah as a type of Christ and his story as a promise of resurrection, first for Christ but then also for everyone and all of us, there will be resurrection after death. But of course under the condition of being a good person and having said goodbye to your bad habits and sins.
The story of Jonah underscores the idea that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are part of a divine plan, prefigured in the Old Testament narratives. The story of Jonah in the Whale in the Old Testament is seen as a prefiguration of Jesus’ resurrection. And subsequently as everyone’s resurrection from death at the day of the last judgement. With other words: the story of Jonah gives hope that there will be life after death, but only if one repents and is obedient and does not lead a sinful life.
Big Fish or Whale?
Although the creature that swallowed Jonah is often depicted in art and culture as a whale, the original Hebrew text uses the phrase “big fish”. In the art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the species of the fish that swallowed Jonah became closer to a whale. Most likely that’s also because in those centuries people got familiar with the concept of whales as truly big fish though prints of stranded whales. Before that hardly anyone will have seen a whale, let alone a huge whale that’s capable of swallowing a human person.
Nineveh was an ancient city located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in present-day Mosul, Iraq. It was one of the most important and influential cities in the ancient world and served as the capital of the Assyrian Empire for several centuries. The city’s history spans over 3,000 years, and it was a center of culture, commerce, and military power. Nineveh as capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire is considered to have been the biggest and most beautiful city in ancient times. Nineveh was surrounded by a series of massive defensive walls that were over 12 kilometers long. These walls were among the most impressive feats of engineering in the ancient world and provided excellent protection for the city. Despite its military might, Nineveh faced its eventual downfall. In 612 BC, a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians attacked and razed the city. This marked the end of the Assyrian Empire, and Nineveh was abandoned and largely forgotten for centuries. The ruins of Nineveh were rediscovered in the mid-19th century during excavations by archaeologists such as Austen Henry Layard. These excavations unearthed numerous artifacts and cuneiform tablets, providing valuable insights into the history, culture, and language of the ancient Assyrians.
Today, the ancient site of Nineveh, along with other nearby Assyrian cities like Nimrud and Khorsabad, are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, the region has faced challenges due to political instability and armed conflicts, leading to damage and looting of its precious historical remains, mostly by ISIS around 2014.
Al-Nabi Yunus (The Prophet Jonah) Mosque
The Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque (Arabic: جامع النبي يونس) also known as the the Prophet Jonah’s Mosque, is an important religious site located in Nineveh, now Mosul, Iraq. It holds significance for both Muslims and Christians due to its association with the prophet Jonah (known as Yunus in Islamic tradition) from his stories in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. The mosque is situated on top of a hill on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mosul. Its location is believed to be the site where the prophet Jonah was buried.
The Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque is considered a place of veneration for Muslims, who come to pay their respects to the prophet Yunus. However, it also holds importance for Christians, as Jonah is recognized as a prophet in Christianity as well. This interfaith significance has made the site an important symbol of religious coexistence. The mosque’s origins can be traced back to the 14th century. The site itself however, has religious significance dating back to much earlier times.
In 2014, during the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), the mosque suffered destruction along with other historical sites in Mosul. ISIS militants considered the veneration of shrines and tombs to be against their strict interpretation of Islam and targeted such sites. The mosque was used as a prison and later blown up by the militants. After the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in 2017, efforts were made to restore and rebuild the Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque. The reconstruction work has been carried out as part of broader efforts to preserve and revive the cultural and historical heritage of the city. During the reconstruction an even older Assyrian palace was found under the remains of the mosque.
Wives of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
In the context of the Jewish and Christian Bible, the term “matriarchs” refers to a group of prominent women who are considered the female founders or ancestral mothers of the Israelite people.
Sarah: wife of Abraham and considered the first matriarch. She is known for her faith and trust in God, as well as her role in the birth of Isaac, her son with Abraham.
Rebecca: wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. She played a crucial role in facilitating Jacob’s reception of his father’s blessing. Rebecca is remembered for her beauty, kindness, and her participation in God’s plan for the chosen lineage.
Leah: the older daughter of Laban and the first wife of Jacob. Though initially unloved by Jacob, she bore him many children. Leah is recognised for her perseverance and her significant role in the establishment, through her sons, of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Rachel: the younger daughter of Laban and the beloved wife of Jacob. She is known for her beauty and her deep love for Jacob. Rachel gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, two significant figures in the biblical narrative. Her tragic death during Benjamin’s childbirth is also a notable event.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold that the patriarchs, along with their primary wives, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, are entombed at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site held holy by the three religions. Rachel, Jacob’s other wife, is said to be buried separately at what is known as Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, at the site where she is believed to have died in childbirth.
Sarah (wife of Abraham)
Sarah is a biblical figure and the wife of Abraham. She is an important figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sarah and Abraham faced challenges in conceiving a child, but according to the biblical account, God promised them a son. In their old age when Sarah was 101, she miraculously gave birth to Isaac, who became a significant figure in the religious traditions that followed. Sarah is celebrated for her faithfulness, loyalty, and resilience. Her story emphasizes the importance of trust in God’s promises and the strength of the family lineage that descended from her and Abraham. On the Goltzius engraving we see the very old Sarah laughing when she hears the angels on the background tell Abraham that they will get a son. Sarah cannot believe what she is hearing. It’s the background narrative on te print that depicts the encounter between Abraham and three angelic visitors who deliver this important message.
According to the story, Abraham saw three men standing near him. Recognising their divine nature, he hurriedly approached them and offered them hospitality, inviting them to rest and partake in a meal. Abraham and his wife Sarah quickly prepared a generous meal for their guests, consisting of freshly baked bread and cooked meat. As the guests enjoyed the meal, they engaged in conversation with Abraham. During the conversation, the visitors revealed that they were messengers from God and brought a message of great significance. They informed Abraham and Sarah that they would soon have a son, despite their old age and Sarah’s previous inability to conceive. Sarah overheard the conversation from inside the house and laughed incredulously, as she found it hard to believe such news. In response to Sarah’s laughter, one of the visitors questioned Abraham about her disbelief, asking, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” This emphasized the divine power and ability to fulfill their promise. It also served as a reminder that God’s plans can exceed human expectations and limitations.
The story of Abraham and the three angels highlights themes of hospitality, faith, and divine intervention. Abraham’s generous and welcoming nature, serves as an example of righteousness and compassion. The announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy, despite her age, showcases the fulfilment of God’s promises and the possibility of miracles. And indeed, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
Rembrandt’s Abraham Entertaining the Angels of 1646 depicts the foretelling of the birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and his wife, Sarah. This episode, from chapter 18 of Genesis, begins with the visit of three travelers, to whom Abraham offers a meal and water with which to wash their tired feet. While eating, the guests ask about Sarah, and one of them announces that she will give birth to a son in a year’s time. Hearing this, the old Sarah, on the painting standing in the doorway on the right, laughs in disbelief, prompting the speaker – now identified in the text as God – to chastise her, asking, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” He thus reveals to the couple the divine and providential nature of his announcement.
Abraham (as Ibrahim) is also one of the most important prophets in Islam and is seen as a father of the Muslim people through his first child, Ishmael.
A Son Is Promised to Sarah, Genesis 18: 1-151One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground. 3Abraham said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”
“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.” 6So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.
9“Where is Sarah, your wife?” the visitors asked. “She’s inside the tent,” Abraham replied. 10Then one of them said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!”
Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent. 11Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. 12So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my my husband is also so old?”
13Then the visitor (who in meantime revealed himself as God) said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” 15Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord said, “No, you did laugh.”
Rebecca (wife of Isaac)
Rebecca is a biblical figure, also mentioned in the Book of Genesis. She is one of the matriarchs and the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. According to the biblical narrative, the patriarch Abraham wanted to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He sent his servant with a convoy of camels to his homeland to find a wife and there the servant encountered Rebecca near a well. He approached Rebecca and asked for a drink of water. In a remarkable display of hospitality, Rebecca not only gave him water but also volunteered to draw water for his camels until they were satisfied. He was impressed by her kindness and hospitality and believed she was the chosen woman. The servant gave her gifts of jewellery and asked for her hand in marriage on behalf of Isaac, and Rebecca agreed to go with him.
Rebecca married Isaac and became the mother of their two sons, Jacob and Esau. She played a significant role in the story of the deception that led to Jacob receiving Isaac’s blessing instead of Esau. The story of Rebecca at the well highlights themes of divine guidance, hospitality, and faith. It is regarded as a pivotal event in the biblical narrative, shaping through Jacob the future of the Israelite people.
A Wife For Isaac, Genesis 24: 1-67
1Abraham was now a very old man, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. 2One day Abraham said to his oldest servant, the man in charge of his household, 4"Go to my homeland, to my relatives, and find a wife there for my son Isaac. 9So the servant took swore to follow Abraham’s instructions. 10Then he loaded ten of Abraham’s camels with all kinds of expensive gifts from his master, and he traveled to the distant land. 11He made the camels kneel beside a well just outside the town. It was evening, and the women were coming out to draw water.
12“O Lord, God of my master, Abraham,” he prayed. “Please give me success today, and show unfailing love to my master, Abraham. 13See, I am standing here beside this spring, and the young women of the town are coming out to draw water. 14This is my request. I will ask one of them, ‘Please give me a drink from your jug.’ If she says, ‘Yes, have a drink, and I will water your camels, too!’—let her be the one you have selected as Isaac’s wife.” 15Before he had finished praying, he saw a young woman named Rebecca coming out with her water jug on her shoulder. 16Rebecca was very beautiful and old enough to be married, but she was still a virgin. She went down to the spring, filled her jug, and came up again.17Running over to her, the servant said, “Please give me a little drink of water from your jug.”
18“Yes,” she answered, “have a drink.” And she quickly lowered her jug from her shoulder and gave him a drink. 19When she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20So she quickly emptied her jug into the watering trough and ran back to the well to draw water for all his camels. 21The servant watched her in silence, wondering whether or not the Lord had given him success in his mission. 22Then at last, when the camels had finished drinking, he took out a gold ring for her nose and two large gold bracelets for her wrists.
50Then later Rebecca's brother said 51"Here is Rebecca; take her and go. Yes, let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.” 52When Abraham’s servant heard their answer, he bowed down to the ground and 53then he brought out silver and gold jewellery and clothing and presented them to Rebecca. He also gave expensive presents to her brother and mother. 54Then they ate their meal, and the servant and the men with him stayed there overnight.But early the next morning, Abraham’s servant said, “Send me back to my master.” 55“But we want Rebecca to stay with us at least ten days,” her brother and mother said. “Then she can go.” 56But he said, “Don’t delay me. The Lord has made my mission successful; now send me back so I can return to my master.”
“Well,” they said, “we’ll call Rebecca and ask her what she thinks.” So they called Rebecca. “Are you willing to go with this man?” they asked her. And she replied, “Yes, I will go.” 59So they said good-bye to Rebecca and sent her away with Abraham’s servant and his men. The woman who had been Rebcca’s childhood nurse went along with her. 61Then Rebecca and her servant girls mounted the camels and followed the man. So Abraham’s servant took Rebcca and went on his way.
62Meanwhile, Isaac, when one evening as he was walking and meditating in the fields, he looked up and saw the camels coming. 64When Rebecca looked up and saw Isaac, she quickly dismounted from her camel. 65“Who is that man walking through the fields to meet us?” she asked the servant. And he replied, “It is my master.” So Rebecca covered her face with her veil. 66Then the servant told Isaac everything he had done.
67And Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother Sarah’s tent, and she became his wife. He loved her deeply, and she was a special comfort to him after the death of his mother.
Leah and Rachel (wives of Jacob)
Leah and Rachel are prominent figures in the biblical narrative, specifically in the Book of Genesis. They are sisters and the daughters of Laban, who is Rebecca’s brother. They become the wives of Jacoband play significant roles in the story of the patriarchs.
Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, traveled to the land of his uncle Laban in search of a wife. Jacob encountered the beautiful Rachel at a well, where she was going to water her sheep. Jacob fell in love with Rachel at first sight and desired to marry her. In exchange for marrying Rachel, Laban asked Jacob to work for him for seven years. However, on the wedding night, Laban deceived Jacob by giving him Leah instead of Rachel. Upon discovering the deception, Jacob confronted Laban, who explained that it was not their custom to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder daughter. Laban offered Rachel to Jacob as well but required him to work for an additional seven years. As a result, Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, becoming polygamous according to the customs of that time. Leah, who was described as having “weak eyes,” became Jacob’s first wife, while Rachel, whom Jacob loved more, became his second wife.
The story of Leah and Rachel portrays a complex and often troubled relationship between the two sisters. Leah, feeling unloved by Jacob, yearned for his affection. She gave birth to several sons, including Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, on the other hand, initially faced infertility and struggled with jealousy over Leah’s ability to bear children. Eventually, Rachel conceived and gave birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Tragically, Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin.
The story of Leah and Rachel encompasses themes of love, rivalry, fertility, and the complexities of family relationships. Their roles as the wives of Jacob and the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel make them significant figures in the biblical narrative.
At the well, Jacob noticed a large stone covering its mouth. He asked the shepherds about the well and the people of the area. They informed him that they were waiting for all the shepherds to gather before they could remove the stone and water their flocks. While they were conversing, Jacob saw Rachel, Laban’s daughter, approaching the well with her father’s sheep. Overwhelmed by Rachel’s beauty, Jacob was immediately drawn to her. Filled with excitement, he approached the shepherds and asked them to remove the stone so that Rachel’s sheep could drink.
As Jacob helped Rachel water her flock, he was overcome with emotion. Without hesitation, he kissed Rachel and wept aloud. Jacob’s meeting with Rachel at the well is often romanticized as a moment of love at first sight. The story serves as a turning point in Jacob’s life, as it leads to his eventual marriage to Rachel and marks the beginning of his years of service to Laban in order to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage.
Jacob fell in love with Rachel and to earn her hand in marriage agreed to work as a shepherd for her father, Laban, for seven years. But, presumably under cover of the marriage veil, Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for Rachel. When Jacob discovered the deceit the morning after the marriage, he was bitterly disappointed. He reproached his new father-in-law, but Laban argued that the elder daughter must be married first. He compromised by offering to allow him to marry Rachel as well – in return for another seven years work. The determined Jacob agreed, and was eventually simultaneously married to both sisters, and had 12 children.
Jan Steen in the painting above, portrays the dramatic moment of surprise when Jacob discovers the Laban has deceived him. The younger woman in the bed is Leah whom Jacob married the night before. Her handmaid kneels before her offering a bowl of water. To the left stands Rachel, while Laban is obliged to explain the deceit to a beseeching and agitated Jacob. Celebrants from the wedding night’s festivities give context and a bit of levity to the scene. The rich, theatrical setting and lush appointments of the bedroom set the scene in the historical past, a device that Steen may have adopted from contemporary Dutch theatre.
The story of Jacob and the speckled lambs depicts a scheme devised by Jacob to increase his own wealth while working for his father-in-law, Laban. After Jacob’s marriage to Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, he agreed to work for Laban for a total of 14 years in exchange for marrying Rachel. During his service, Jacob became a skilled shepherd and developed a keen understanding of animal husbandry, although more relying on the hand of God than on Mendel’s Laws of Genetics.
Jacob noticed that Laban’s flock consisted mainly of solid-colored sheep and goats. He proposed a deal to Laban, suggesting that he would continue to work for him but requested a specific arrangement regarding the offspring of the flock. Jacob proposed that he would keep any lambs that were speckled, spotted, or otherwise marked differently from the rest of the flock as his own.
Laban agreed to this arrangement, likely thinking that the chances of such offspring were slim. However, Jacob had a plan. He took rods of poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled off strips of bark to create striped patterns on them. He placed these rods in the watering troughs where the flock would come to drink. When the flock mated, Jacob strategically positioned the rods in the watering troughs so that the sight of the striped patterns would be imprinted in the minds of the animals during conception. As a result, many of the offspring were born with speckled, spotted, or striped markings.
Over time, Jacob’s flock began to grow, and Laban’s flock dwindled in comparison. Jacob’s understanding of animal breeding and the use of selective breeding techniques allowed him to increase his own wealth while Laban’s flock decreased. The story of Jacob and the speckled lambs demonstrates Jacob’s resourcefulness and cunning in outwitting Laban and increasing his own wealth. It also highlights the theme of divine intervention, as Jacob attributes his success to God’s guidance and favor.
Jacob arrives at the well, Genesis 29: 1-141Then Jacob hurried on, finally arriving in the land of the east. 2He saw a well in the distance. Three flocks of sheep and goats lay in an open field beside it, waiting to be watered. But a heavy stone covered the mouth of the well. 3It was the custom there to wait for all the flocks to arrive before removing the stone and watering the animals. Afterward the stone would be placed back over the mouth of the well.
7Jacob said, “Look, it’s still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals. Why don’t you water the sheep and goats so they can get back out to pasture?” 8“We can’t water the animals until all the flocks have arrived,” they replied. “Then the shepherds move the stone from the mouth of the well, and we water all the sheep and goats.”
9Jacob was still talking with them when Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, for she was a shepherd. 10And because Rachel was his cousin, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and because the sheep and goats belonged to his uncle Laban, Jacob went over to the well and moved the stone from its mouth and watered his uncle’s flock. 11Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he wept aloud. 12He explained to Rachel that he was her cousin on her father’s side, the son of her aunt Rebecca. So Rachel quickly ran and told her father, Laban.
13As soon as Laban heard that his nephew Jacob had arrived, he ran out to meet him. He embraced and kissed him and brought him home. When Jacob had told him his story, 14Laban exclaimed, “You really are my own flesh and blood!”
Jacob Marries Leah and Rachel, Genesis 29: 14-30
14After Jacob had stayed with Laban for about a month, 15Laban said to him, “You shouldn’t work for me without pay just because we are relatives. Tell me how much your wages should be.”
16Now Laban had two daughters. The older daughter was named Leah, and the younger one was Rachel. 17There was no sparkle in Leah’s eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and a lovely face. 18Since Jacob was in love with Rachel, he told her father, “I’ll work for you for seven years if you’ll give me Rachel, your younger daughter, as my wife.”
19“Agreed!” Laban replied. “I’d rather give her to you than to anyone else. Stay and work with me.” 20So Jacob worked seven years to pay for Rachel. But his love for her was so strong that it seemed to him but a few days.
21Finally, the time came for him to marry her. “I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.” 22So Laban invited everyone in the neighborhood and prepared a wedding feast.
23But that night, when it was dark, Laban took Leah to Jacob, and he slept with her. 25But when Jacob woke up in the morning—it was Leah! “What have you done to me?” Jacob raged at Laban. “I worked seven years for Rachel! Why have you tricked me?” 26“It’s not our custom here to marry off a younger daughter ahead of the firstborn,” Laban replied. 27“But wait until the bridal week is over; then we’ll give you Rachel, too—provided you promise to work another seven years for me.”
28So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too. 30So Jacob slept with Rachel, too, and he loved her much more than Leah. He then stayed and worked for Laban the additional seven years.
Jacob’s Wealth Increases, Genesis 30:25-4325Soon after Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Please release me so I can go home to my own country. 26Let me take my wives and children, for I have earned them by serving you, and let me be on my way. You certainly know how hard I have worked for you.”
27“Please listen to me,” Laban replied. “I have become wealthy, for the Lord has blessed me because of you. 28Tell me how much I owe you. Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.” 29Jacob replied, “You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. 30You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done. But now, what about me? When can I start providing for my own family?” 31“What wages do you want?” Laban asked again.
Jacob replied, “Don’t give me anything. Just do this one thing, and I’ll continue to tend and watch over your flocks. 32Let me inspect your flocks today and remove all the sheep and goats that are speckled or spotted, along with all the black sheep. Give these to me as my wages. 33In the future, when you check on the animals you have given me as my wages, you’ll see that I have been honest. If you find in my flock any goats without speckles or spots, or any sheep that are not black, you will know that I have stolen them from you.” 34“All right,” Laban replied. “It will be as you say.” 35But that very day Laban went out and removed the male goats that were streaked and spotted, all the female goats that were speckled and spotted or had white patches, and all the black sheep. He placed them in the care of his own sons, 36who took them a three-days’ journey from where Jacob was. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed and cared for the rest of Laban’s flock.
37Then Jacob took some fresh branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled off strips of bark, making white streaks on them. 38Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated. 39And when they mated in front of the white-streaked branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted. 40Jacob separated those lambs from Laban’s flock. And at mating time he turned the flock to face Laban’s animals that were streaked or black. This is how he built his own flock instead of increasing Laban’s.
41Whenever the stronger females were ready to mate, Jacob would place the peeled branches in the watering troughs in front of them. Then they would mate in front of the branches. 42But he didn’t do this with the weaker ones, so the weaker lambs belonged to Laban, and the stronger ones were Jacob’s. 43As a result, Jacob became very wealthy, with large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys.
Abraham & Sarah
Two sons: Isaac (with Sarah) and Ismael (with Hagar).
Isaac & Rebecca
Two sons: Jacob and Esau
Jacob & Leah
Six sons and one daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah
In religious contexts, the term “apostles” typically refers to the twelve individuals chosen by Jesus Christ to be his closest followers and to spread his teachings. They are also known as the Twelve Apostles or the Apostles of Jesus. The apostles played a significant role in the development and early spread of Christianity. They witnessed Jesus’ teachings, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles became central figures in the formation of the early Christian community. They preached the gospel, performed miracles, and established churches in different regions. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word “apostolos,” meaning “one who is sent out.” The twelve apostles are traditionally identified as:
Peter: fisherman, leader of the apostles and first pope according to Catholic tradition.
Andrew: brother of Peter, also a fisherman.
John: “The Beloved One”, known as the author of the Gospel of John.
James: the pilgrim, also referred to as James the Greater.
Matthew: former tax collector, maybe the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
Thomas: known for his initial doubt about Jesus’ resurrection.
Bartholomew: preaching as far as in India and Armenia, skinned alive.
Philip: baptised an Ethiopian courtier.
Simon: martyred by being sawn in half.
James: also known as James the Less.
Judas Thaddeus: not to be confused with Judas Iscariot.
Judas Iscariot: infamously known for betraying Jesus.
After Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and subsequent death, Matthias was chosen to replace him. The apostle Paul (originally known as Saul) is also considered an apostle, although he was not part of the original twelve. Paul played a significant role in spreading Christianity throughout the Mediterranean and authored several spiritual letters (epistles).
It’s worth noting that in some religious traditions, the term “apostle” may be used more broadly to refer to other individuals who were not part of the original twelve but were influential in the early Christian movement. For example, the apostle Paul is often considered an apostle due to his significant contributions to the spread of Christianity through his missionary journeys and his epistles included in the New Testament.
Petrus (“Petrus”) was a fisherman named Simon. Jesus called him and his brother Andrew to be Jesus’ followers. He received the name “Cephas” from Jesus, which means “rock” in the local Aramaic language; hence “Peter” (Πέτρος, Petros), which means “rock” in Greek, the language of the first bible books. Peter is recognised as the leader of the 12 apostles and as the first Pope and Bishop of Rome. He was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero around AD 65. Peter’s attributes are a set of keys, one gold and one silver, which are The Keys of Heaven. He is buried in the St Peter Basilica in Rome.
A story from the life of Peter is as follows. When Jesus was arrested, Peter had followed at a distance. On the painting hereunder we can see what happened next. A servant girl apparently recognised Peter and said to him, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus. “ Peter denied it. But then she said it to some bystanders. Again Peter denied it. Finally, the bystanders said it to him as well and, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus. This time he swore, “I do not know this man of whom you speak”. Then the cock crowed for the second time and Peter remembered the words of Jesus, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” Then Peter broke down and wept (New Testament, Mark 14:72).
Andrew, in Latin “Andreas”, is the brother of Petrus. Both Andrew and Peter were fishermen by trade, hence the tradition that Jesus called them by saying that he will make them “fishers of men” These narratives record that Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and initially used a boat, described as being Peter’s, as a platform for preaching to the multitudes on the shore and then as a means to achieving a huge trawl of fish on a night which had hitherto proved fruitless.
Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion in the year 60, bound – not nailed – to a Latin cross of the kind on which Jesus is said to have been crucified. Yet a tradition developed that Andrew had been crucified on a cross of the form called crux decussata (X-shaped cross, or “saltire”), now commonly known as a “Saint Andrew’s Cross”, supposedly at his own request, as he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus had been. The “Saint Andrew’s Cross” is now also the national flag of Scotland. Several legends state that the relics of Andrew were brought by divine guidance from Constantinople to the place where the modern Scottish town of St Andrews stands today. Andrew preached along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev, and from there he travelled to Novgorod. Hence, he became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania, and Russia.
Andrew is traditionally portrayed with a long beard and a saltire cross. How to remember: the flag of Scotland and The Saint Andrews Golf Club, one of the oldest and most posh golf clubs worldwide
In the painting hereunder we find Jesus calling his first disciples. He approaches two fishermen at work on the Sea of Galilee: Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew. Their net is full when Jesus says to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (New Testament, Matthew 4:18).
The Apostle John, also known as Saint John the Evangelist and not to be confused with John the Baptist, holds a significant place in Christian tradition and the New Testament of the Bible. John had a brother named James (often referred to as James the Greater). John, James and Peter, formed the inner circle of disciples closest to Jesus. They were present at all the important events in Jesus’ life and ministery. John is often referred to as “The Beloved One”, the disciple whom Jesus loved. He is portrayed as having a close and intimate relationship with Jesus. According to tradition, John is also credited as the author of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. According to legend, John the Evangelist was given a cup of poisoned wine that he drank without harm. As emblems of the tale, John’s chalice symbolizes the Christian faith prevailing over death. In the painting above, Rubens depicted John with the chalice.
John (or Johannes) has an important presence at the crucifixion, as depicted in the painting hereunder. Immediately after Christ’s death, his followers lifted Jesus Christ down from the cross and lamented over his body. At the heart of the composition, the weeping Virgin kneels beside her dead son, supported by John. From the cross, Jesus had entrusted the care of his mother to his most beloved disciple. Joseph of Arimathea supports the dead body, Nicodemus holds up one end of the shroud. According to the Bible, these two men would anoint and bury the body. On the left, three women let their tears flow freely. One of them is Mary Magdalene (identified by her ointment jar), who dries her eyes with her cloak. On the right, by Christ’s feet, kneels a bishop, undoubtedly the man who commissioned the work. He is accompanied by Peter (with the keys of heaven) and Paul (with the sword used to behead him). The skull in the foreground is an allusion to Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion. The skull belongs to Adam, who was supposedly buried there. Van der Weyden rendered the bishop’s episcopal robes in breathtaking detail. The fact that the twelve apostles are depicted on the embroidered borders of the cope is significant. The bishop, after all, had followed in the footsteps of the apostles who spread the gospel after the Crucifixion. The presence of Peter and Paul behind the bishop can be explained in that light. As the first Bishop of Rome, Peter also had a special significance: he was the most eminent predecessor of the man who commissioned this painting.
James the Greater
James the Greater, in Latin “Jacobus Maior”, preached the message and teachings of Jesus in Spain and became the patron saint of Spain and, according to tradition, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela. This name Santiago is the local evolution of his name “Sancti Iacobi”. The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as the “Way of St. James”, has been the most popular pilgrimage in Western Europe from the Early Middle Ages onwards. James is styled “the Greater” to distinguish him from the Apostle James “the Less”, with “greater” meaning older or taller, rather than more important. James the Greater was the brother of John. James, along with his brother John and Peter, formed an informal triumvirate among the Twelve Apostles. He is mostly depicted clothed as a pilgrim, with a scallop shell (Coquille St Jacques) on his shoulder, and his staff and pilgrim’s hat beside him. Pilgrims to his shrine often wore the scallop shell as symbol on their hats or clothes.
How to remember? Think: Coquille St Jacques and Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Before becoming an apostle, Matthew (“Matheus” in Latin) worked as a tax collector in Capernaum. Tax collectors were often despised by their fellow Jews because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman authorities and were associated with greed and corruption. However, Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, demonstrating his inclusive message of grace and forgiveness. As an apostle, Matthew witnessed Jesus’ teachings, miracles, and ministry firsthand. He was chosen by Jesus to be part of the inner circle of disciples and was present at significant events such as the Transfiguration and the Last Supper. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Matthew, along with the other apostles, was entrusted with spreading the message of salvation and establishing the early Christian community.
Matthew is traditionally regarded as the author of the Gospel of Matthew, which is the first book of the New Testament. This gospel focuses on presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and the teacher of the new law. According to tradition, after his time with Jesus, Matthew traveled and preached the Gospel, possibly in regions such as Ethiopia or Persia. However, the historical records regarding his later life and martyrdom are limited and not universally agreed upon.
The painting hereunder depicts the story from the Gospel of Matthew (New Testament, Matthew 9:9): “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the tax collector’s office, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” Ter Brugghen depicts Matthew as the tax collector sitting at a table with few companions who seem to be more interested in the money and earthly tax collecting business. Jewish tax collectors in the time of Christ worked for the occupying Roman government, so they were especially hated in Israel. If that were not enough, tax collectors commonly took more than was required by the Romans in order to pay themselves. This meant tax collectors were frequently much wealthier than most Jewish citizens, who were just barely getting by day by day. The typical stereotype of a tax collector, in that time, was that of a greedy, sinful, traitorous sinner. On this painting Jesus Christ has entered the room, and is pointing at Matthew. Matthew is surprised and seems to say: “Who, me?”. This is a depiction of a moment of spiritual awakening and conversion, the moment when Matthew abandons everything and joins the circle and life of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Thomas, also known as “Doubting Thomas”, is particularly known for his initial skepticism regarding Jesus’ resurrection. After Jesus’ crucifixion, the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Jesus. However, Thomas expressed doubt and insisted that he needed to see and touch Jesus’ wounds to believe. Later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples, he specifically addressed Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds. Thomas, upon seeing and touching Jesus, declared, “My Lord and my God!” This incident reflects Thomas’ transformation from doubt to faith. Thomas’ subsequent activities and ministry are not extensively documented in the biblical texts. However, early Christian tradition suggests that he may have traveled and preached the Gospel in regions such as Parthia (part of modern-day Iran) and India and maybe even into China.
The subject of this painting herunder is taken from the Gospels (New Testament, John 20:24–28). The scene depicts the moment when Thomas, seeking proof of the Resurrection, places his fingers in the wound in Christ’s right side. Thomas not only rejected all the evidence of the Resurrection, but he also demands the most absolute, personal proof possible. He wants more than visual proof. He insists on disbelieving until he can physically touch the wounds in Jesus’ resurrected body. Which Christ allows him to do so. Here he gained his nickname: “Doubting Thomas.” This is the theme of human weakness in believing and the tendency to disbelieving.
The Apostle Bartholomew, in Latin “Bartholomaeus”, is listed among the apostles but is not as prominently featured as some of the others. He is mainly mentioned in the context of being one of the twelve and participating in the ministry of Jesus. According to early Christian traditions, Bartholomew is believed to have traveled extensively as a missionary, spreading the teachings of Jesus. Some traditions suggest that he traveled to India and Armenia, where he preached the Gospel and established Christian communities. The accounts of his martyrdom vary, but many sources indicate that he was martyred for his faith, with some accounts suggesting that he was flayed or crucified upside down.
One famous painting that features the apostle Bartholomew is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo. It is a monumental fresco located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. In this painting, Bartholomew is depicted holding his own flayed skin, as he was said to have been martyred by being skinned alive. In Michelangelo’s depiction, Bartholomew holds his skin in one hand, while his other hand holds a knife, symbolizing the instrument of his martyrdom.
Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners, tailors, leatherworkers, bookbinders, and butchers.
According to the Bible, Philip was from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, like Andrew and Peter. He is first mentioned in the Gospel of John, where he is called by Jesus to become his disciple. Philip played a role in several significant events in the New Testament. For example, he was present when Jesus fed the multitude of thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Philip continued to spread the teachings of Jesus and played a role in the early Christian community. Philip is particularly known for his encounter with an Ethiopian courtier or eunuch. He explained the Scriptures to the eunuch and baptized him, leading to the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia. A note: this could also have been Philip the Evangelist; it’s unclear if these two are one and the same Philip or both different ones. Philip the Apostle’s later life and his ultimate fate are not extensively recorded in the Bible. However, according to tradition, he continued to preach the gospel and performed miracles in various regions, including Syria and Greece. It is believed that Philip died as a martyr, having been crucified upside down. He is therefor often depicted with a cross.
Rembrandt painted the scene related to the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch. In his painting, Rembrandt depicts the biblical episode found in the Book of Acts (New Testament, Acts 8:26-40), where the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza. The eunuch is reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah but does not fully understand its meaning. Philip explains the Scripture to him, and upon their arrival at a body of water, the eunuch requests to be baptized. Rembrandt captures this pivotal moment as Philip performs the baptism.
The apostle Simon, also known as Simon the Zealot, was also one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus Christ. Not much is known about Simon’s background or his activities outside of being an apostle. The name “Simon the Zealot” suggests that he may have been a member of the Jewish political group called the Zealots, known for their fervent patriotism and opposition to Roman rule. As an apostle, Simon was entrusted with spreading the message of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Tradition holds that Simon continued to spread the Gospel after Jesus’ ascension, possibly traveling to Persia or further regions. Historical records regarding his later life and martyrdom are sparse and not widely agreed upon.
There are several paintings that depict the apostles, including Simon. However, there are no definitive or widely accepted artistic representations of Simon the Apostle, as there is no specific physical description of him in the biblical texts. In religious artwork, the apostles are often portrayed as a group or in scenes related to specific biblical events, such as the Last Supper or the Pentecost. In these depictions, Simon is typically included among the twelve apostles, but he may not always be individually highlighted or distinguishable. There is a vague story that Simon was martyred be being sawn in half and therefore in art, Simon sometimes has the identifying attribute of a saw.
James the Less
The apostle James the Less is called “Less” to indicate his relative obscurity or younger age compared to James the Great. Not much is known about James the Less beyond his designation as an apostle.
The martyr symbol traditionally associated with Saint James the Less is a fuller’s club, as he was said to have been martyred by being beaten to death with a club or a similar instrument. A fuller’s club was a tool used by fullers, the workers in the wool industry who beat or thump the cloth to clean, shrink and thicken it. James the Less is still the patron saint of the fullers and textile workers.
Judas Thaddeus is one of the twelve original apostles, but information about him is limited. Although he certainly played an important role in spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ after his death and resurrection. Judas Thaddeus is believed to have traveled to various regions, including Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia, where he is highly venerated as one of the founding apostles of the Armenian Church. His attributes are ambiguous. It can be a club as symbol of his martyrdom, or a book as general “scripture” reference, or a flame around his head which represents his presence at Pentecost, when he received the Holy Spirit with the other apostles. I like the option of a carpenter’s square the most, as a metaphorical symbol of Judas Thaddeus being an architect of the church. Judas Thaddeus is the patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes; good to know!
A note: Judas Thaddeus is to be clearly distinguished from Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
Judas Iscariot was chosen by Jesus Christ to be one of his apostles but is known primarily for his betrayal of Jesus. According to the Gospels, Judas agreed to betray Jesus to the religious authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. He identified Jesus to the authorities by giving him a kiss, leading to Jesus’ arrest. This event ultimately led to Jesus’ crucifixion. The act of betrayal has been widely condemned, and Judas is often portrayed as a symbol of treachery and betrayal. Judas’ story concludes tragically. After the betrayal, he reportedly felt remorse for his actions and attempted to return the money. However, overcome by guilt, he ultimately hanged himself.
On the frescos by Giotto, both from the wonderful Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, we can see (above) Judas who just plotted his betrayal and received the bag with the thirty pieces of silver; firmly in grip of the devil! And (below) Judas identifies Jesus Christ with a kiss, an act of friendship he would turn into betrayal.
The Apostle Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the twelve apostles following Judas’ betrayal and subsequent death by suicide. After Jesus’ ascension, the remaining eleven apostles felt the need to replace Judas Iscariot in order to restore the number of apostles to twelve, a significant symbolic number. They believed it was essential to have twelve apostles to fulfill the mission and ministry that Jesus had entrusted to them. To select a new apostle, the remaining apostles prayed and sought guidance from God. They determined that the new apostle must be someone who had been with them from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and had witnessed his resurrection. The apostles prayed, cast lots, and ultimately chose Matthias as the one to take Judas’ place. Matthias was then counted as one of the twelve, and he joined the other apostles in spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The biblical account does not provide extensive details about Matthias’ activities or specific teachings, and he is not mentioned again in the New Testament after his selection. In art, Matthias does not have a well-defined or universally recognized symbol. While he is often depicted as one of the twelve apostles, his individual attributes or symbols are not as established or consistent as those of some other apostles.
The Apostle Paul, originally known as Saul, is recognized as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the New Testament. Paul’s life and teachings played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was a zealous persecutor of early Christians. However, his life took a dramatic turn when he encountered a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. This encounter led to his conversion and subsequent dedication to spreading the Gospel. Paul’s epistles, or letters, form a significant part of the New Testament. They provide theological insights, practical guidance for Christian living, and address various issues faced by the early Christian communities. Paul’s teachings contributed significantly to the development of Christian theology and helped shape the early Christian community. His writings continue to be studied and revered by Christians worldwide.
In addition to his theological and missionary contributions, Paul also endured hardships and persecution for the sake of the Gospel. He was imprisoned multiple times, faced opposition from both Jewish and Roman authorities, and eventually died as a martyr, traditionally believed to have been executed in Rome. Rubens includes Paul in his series of apostles, as many other artists also did. The depiction of Paul with a sword is primarily influenced by his writings and teachings. In his letters, Paul frequently uses metaphors related to warfare and battle to describe the Christian life and the spiritual struggle against evil. He speaks of the “sword of the Spirit” as a metaphor for the Word of God, emphasizing its power and authority.
And hereunder the Caravaggio painting with the moment of the apostle Paul’s conversion as described in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. Paul (then still known as Saul) is shown falling from his horse and extending his arms to the blinding divine light that emanates from heaven, in a gesture of astonishment and surrender.
Peter and Paul
And to make the circle round, here is an El Greco painting that brings “Peter”, the first apostle, together with “Paul”, the last one. These two apostles are the most prominent figures in the early Christian community and have a common feast day. Peter, was chosen by Jesus as the leader of the apostles and is considered the first Pope. Paul, formerly a persecutor of Christians who underwent a profound conversion and became a significant evangelist and writer of several Epistles in the New Testament. The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is observed on June 29 to commemorate the martyrdom of these apostles and to celebrate the role of these apostles in spreading the Gospel and establishing the early Christian Church. The feast is marked with special Masses and liturgical ceremonies, and it holds particular significance in Rome, where the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls are dedicated to these saints.
Today 25th of March is the feast of The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son through a virgin birth and become the mother of Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to remember this date, as it’s a full nine months of pregnancy before Christmas, the birthday of Jesus. And it’s approximately the start of spring and the moment of the northern equinox when day and night are equally long. In medieval terms, start of spring is identified as the date of an unusual number of Biblical events: Adam’s and Eve’s fall into sin; Cain’s murder of Abel; Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac; the martyrdom of John the Baptist; and the Crucifixion. Still more strongly associated with this date is the Annunciation, at which, according to the Gospel of Luke, the archangel Gabriel brought word to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
The Annunciation has been one of the most frequent subjects of Christian art. Its composition and details vary in accordance with its setting: the Virgin might appear on a throne, in a loggia, in a bedroom, or outdoors, and she often is shown sewing or reading. A variant of particular interest is the depiction of the Annunciation at the Spring, also known as the Annunciation at the Well. Inspired by accounts preserved in early apocryphal (non-Bible) texts such as the Gospel of James, this variant of the Annunciation depicts the Virgin Mary greeted by the angel Gabriel as she is fetching water at a well.
There are two basic sources that describe the Annunciation. The Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) and the Gospel of James (v.11). Luke’s Gospel is part of the traditional Bible books and mostly the story that is depicted in Western art from the 14th Century onwards. The other source is the 2nd Century Gospel of James, which is an “apocryphal” book, meaning it’s not included in the traditional Bible collection of books. James’s Gospel is mostly the source in Eastern art up to the 15th Century and – remarkably – again by British painters in the 19th Century. The Gospel of James describes how one day Mary took the pitcher and went forth to draw water at a well when she heard an angelic voice: “Hail, you are highly favored, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.” And Mary looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.” During this first encounter, at a well or spring, the angel was heard but not seen. Mary appeared to be alone. Mary then went inside and it’s there that the angel appeared to her in person, while Mary is sitting on a throne-like chair.
From the 14th Century onward most Annunciations in Western art focus more on the story as written in the Gospel of Luke rather than the apocryphal Gospel of James. They dispense with the pitcher and the well and more and more they will also omit Mary sitting on a the throne-like seat. Many more images placed the event in a specific and unified space such as a portico (Fra Angelico), a private home (Rubens), or a church (Van Eyck).
When Cosimo de’ Medici rebuilt the convent of San Marco, he commissioned Fra Angelico to decorate the walls with frescos. This included the inside of the monk’s cells and inside the corridors; around fifty pieces in total. Out of all of the frescos at the convent, the Annunciation is the most well known. This fresco was not intended just for aesthetic purposes. Running across the loggia at the bottom of the fresco there is an inscription that instructs the viewer: “Virginis Intacte Cvm Veneris Ante Figvram Preterevndo Cave Ne Sileatvr Ave.” It means “When you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin take care that you do not neglect to say an Ave”. This was a daily reminder for the monks to pray.
March 25 was used as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries. The holiday was moved to January 1 in France by Charles IX in 1564. In England, the feast of the Annunciation came to be known as Lady Day, and Lady Day marked the beginning of the English new year until 1752.
Here are the two stories, written by Luke and by James, both accounts of the Annunciation and written down in the first few centuries after the birth of Jesus.The story as told by Luke in his Gospel (1:26-38) is focusing on the discussion between the Angel and Mary. It’s as follows:
Luke 1: 26-38
God sent the angel Gabriel, to a virgin named Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her
The story as told by James in his Gospel (v.11) gives also details about the setting. It happens at the well and inside Mary’s house, and it mentions that Mary is doing some sewing and needlework. It’s as follows:
And she took the pitcher and went out to fill it with water. And suddenly a voice could be heard, saying: “Hail, you who has received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are yiou among women!” And Mary looked round to the right hand and to the left, to see from where this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and she took her sewing basket with needlework, and she sat down on her seat. And then, look, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: “Fear not, Mary; for you have found grace before the Lord, and you shall conceive, according to His word.” And she is hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: “Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I give birth as every woman gives birth?” And the angel of the Lord said: “Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow you: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born with you shall be called the Son of the Highest. And you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” And Mary said: “See, I am the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be upon me according to your word.”
Musée du Louvre Paris is hosting an exceptional exhibition, “Les choses, une histoire de la nature morte” or “Things, a history of still life”. Still life, the exhibition argues, is not about “nature morte” which is the French expression for still life and literally translates to “dead nature”, but about a living form of art, animated by the heart and mind of the artist, the viewer and their surroundings. The French expression “nature morte” is implying that, in order to capture the richness of the natural world around us, it needs to be fixed and robbed of life. The Louvre exhibition changes this view. The “things” on the exhibition encourage to look at “still lifes” in a fresh way and to think and dream together with the artist. To contemplate the world of “things” as if they were indeed alive. The Louvre proves there is still life in still lifes.
Hereunder a personal selection, starting in 1964 and backwards to the 15th Century. I will try to emphasise the “life” in these still lifes.
Casserole and Closed Mussels (1965) by Marcel Broodthaers is a work that uses empty mussel shells as both subject and medium. The mussel shells were obtained from a restaurant that he frequented in Brussels. The cooking pot belonged to the Broodthaers’s family and was used right up until the time that the work was created. The mussel shell can be read as symbolizing the artist’s native Belgium, mussels being a popular national dish. Broodthaers’s use of mussels also refers to the representation of shellfish in Flemish 17th Century still life painting, where the empty shell became a symbol of vanity and the futility of luxury.
This Natura Morta is exemplary of Giorgio Morandi‘s art of translating the mystery and poetry of simple things. He would depict the same familiar bottles and vases again and again in paintings notable for their simplicity of execution. Morandi chose these ordinary objects and staged the pots and vases in an ever different manner, against a neutral background, and painted in soft whitish colors. They seem frozen in time, silent and secret. Morandi has thus immortalized these things and made them present to the world, in a way that exceeds their function and simplicity. Morandi made over 1000 paintings and created his own recognizable style. The artist lived his whole life in Bologna, Italy, where the Morandi Museum contains a major collection of his work. The Casa Morandi, where he lived with his sisters and where he had his workshop can be seen in its original form, including the cupboards with the simple pots, bottles and vases he used for his many still lifes.
Joan Miró painted Still Life with Old Shoe in 1937, being exiled to Paris in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Over a few months he created Still Life with Old Shoe, which was his first painting with recognisable objects after a decade of abstract work. Miró said: “The composition is realistic because I was paralysed by the feeling of terror and almost unable to paint at all… We are living through a terrible drama, everything happening in Spain is terrifying in a way you could never imagine.” Miró painted in his words “something very serious”, a “tragedy of things, a miserable piece of bread, an old shoe, an apple pierced by a cruel fork and a bottle, like a flaming house that spread the fire over the whole surface”. The whole painting seems to be set against the backdrop of a burning, hellish landscape. The apple is brownish-yellow, which suggests rotting. Miró himself stated “The fork attacks the apple as if it were a bayonet. The apple is Spain.” This painting is Miró’s traumatised reaction to the Spanish Civil War.
The “things” on the Kitchen Table by Cézanne are assembled by the painter’s mind, not by putting the objects on a table and copying that image on a canvas. For Cézanne, it’s not about showing reality. The ginger-pot, which appears in 12 of Cézanne’s paintings, has no surface to sit on, and neither has the large basket at the back. None of the table, cupboard and chair are holding any probable perspective. And yet, Cézanne creates a harmonious and lively ensemble. It’s not a static still life or “nature morte”; it’s a kitchen table that comes to life. Cézanne’s painting represents more truth than ever can be made visible on a real-life kitchen table. Cézanne creates the predecessor of VR, Virtual Reality. In his lifetime, Cézanne was ridiculed for lack of conventional artistic skill; he did not paint like the others. But Cézanne said: “I shall astonish Paris with an apple”, what he does in this painting with apples, pears and melons.
Le Citron by Manet, painted three years before his death, is in its seemingly simplicity one of the painter’s most powerful still lifes. Manet isolates this yellow fruit on a sober black ceramic saucer, making the fruit an important “thing”, with such bright colour and touching structure of the skin. Manet proves that less is more. Le Citron is a main character in the big world of Impressionist and Modern Art Painting.
Luis Egidio Meléndez put his Watermelons against the backdrop of a stormy sky. Majestic, they dominate their environment. This still life was painted for the natural history cabinet of Charles de Bourbon, the Prince of Asturias and heir to the throne of Spain. The melons show such attractive freshness and a perfectionist realism that extends to even the smallest details like the fallen seeds, drops of juice and tiny bits of watermelon flesh. This painting is used for the poster of the Louvre exhibition “Things, a history of still life”. But is this a still life, is this nature morte? I dare to answer “no” and declare this painting a portrait, a portrait of two real life watermelons.
Sébastien Stoskopff painted Basket with Glasses and Pâté, as if it’s the end of a meal when, according to German custom, the dishes are collected in a basket. The simplicity of the composition, the dark and empty background, accentuate the presence of all the things: glasses, the crust of the pâté, and the letter. The painting encourages reflection on the relationship between reality and appearance, on what art can do and how painters of everyday life made the materiality of things tangible.
Stoskopff was an painter from the Alsace, where German and French influences blend. He is one of the most important German still life painters, specializing in portraying goblets, cups and especially glasses. His works were only rediscovered after 1930 and can now be seen in some of the world’s most important art museums (MET, Louvre, KHM, Gemäldegalerie). His chief works hang in his hometown of Strasbourg.
Louise Moillon, one of the most talented female painters of the 17th century, affirms her virtuoso here with this Bowl with Cherries, Plums and Melon. It’s perhaps Moillon’s most famous painting. The intense red of the cherries bursts against the dark green of the leaves, the blue touches of the plums and the orange-yellow of the melon. In this orderly and balanced composition, the painting invites us to calmly meditate on the simple beauty of things. We know of around twenty paintings by Moillon, three of which are kept in the Louvre. Louise married when she was 30, and basically did not paint anymore after her marriage. She became 86 years old.
This panel, a Trompe l’Oeil with Books and Bottles, is divided into two parts: a niche, where various objects are placed, and an upper part with two doors, one locked, the other ajar. The niche with bottles and books is like a rebus. The things represent clues about the owner of this work, and it all refers to the medical world: the books and the small ink bottle hanging above the red book refer to reading and writing, a bottle whose label reads “fur zanwe” (“for toothache”) shows that it contains medicine for toothache, a pot with ointments, a glass urinal, the medicine box, all indicate that the owner was a doctor or a barber. He commissioned this work to embed it as a panel in a piece of furniture in his interior in northern Germany. This “trompe-l’oeil”, a highly realistic optical illusion of three-dimensional space and objects on a two-dimensional surface, makes the things look real. The owner of this panel was most likely very pleased to use these “things” to trick the eye of his visitors.
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)
This is a story of ambition, pride and downfall. It’s about Icarus (Ἴκαρος) and his father Daedalus (Δαίδαλος) and how they escaped imprisonment, flying out of the infamous Labyrinth on the isle of Crete. But with a tragic ending. Icarus flies too high and too close to sun; he loses his wings, falls out of the sky, plunges into the water, and drowns in what’s now called the Icarian Sea. A story from Greek mythology and written down in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
According to the classical Greek legend, Daedalus was a master architect most famously responsible for building the Labyrinth on the island on Crete, as prison for the Minotaur monster, a half-man, half-bull. Because of his knowledge of the Labyrinth, King Minos of Crete shut Daedalus and his son Icarus, up in his own created Labyrinth, to simply keep the mysteries of the labyrinth a secret. Daedalus decided that for him and his son the only way to escape was up through the air.
Daedalus constructed for himself and Icarus sets of wings made from feathers held together by beeswax. He then cautioned his son to fly a middle course: neither so low that the sea would wet the feathers and make them heavy, nor so high that the heat of the sun would damage them.
“Daedalus said: Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way between earth and heaven, if you fly too low the moisture from the sea weighs down your wings, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. Take me as your guide and follow the course I show you!” (From Ovid’s Metamorphoses book VIII. Verse 183-235)
Overcome by a feeling of pride and confidence, Icarus disobeyed his father and soared high into the sky trying to quench his thirst. But he came too close to the sun. And without warning, the heat from the sun melted the wax holding his feathers together. One by one, Icarus’s feathers fell like snowflakes. Icarus kept flapping his “wings”, but he had no feathers left and was only flapping his bare arms. Then he fell into the sea and drowned.
“Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?”, screamed Daedalus. Finally, Daedalus found the body of his son floating amidst feathers. Cursing his inventions, he took the body to the nearest island and buried it there. The island where Icarus was buried is named Icaria.
What do we learn from this story? Icarus is instructed to fly between the extremes; not too high but also not too low. This is a warning to avoid being too ambitious while also not becoming completely unambitious. One need to find a golden ratio. In the story are significant changes of fortune. When Daedalus and Icarus start their flight, it marks a change from prison to freedom, from bad to good fortune but then comes the moment that Icarus gets overconfident and flies too high, he wants to reach the sun! With as result that his wings disintegrate, and his fortune changes from good to bad. Pride goes before the fall! The story of Icarus is the perfect example of hubris!
The European and Asian continent are both named after female characters from Greek mythology. Let’s have a closer look at “Europa” and her representation in art. It’s all about a beautiful princess who is abducted by a divine bull and gives her name to a whole continent.
The story about Europa (Εὐρώπη in Greek) is simple. She was a beautiful princess from the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, located on the southern coast of Lebanon. One day, Europa and her friends were picking flowers and playing on the beach. Zeus – or Jupiter, the Roman version – sees her and immediately falls in love. As King of the Gods and having a reputation for endless affairs, Zeus decides to take what he wants. He transforms himself into a marvelous bull with a snow-white body and walks towards the girls. Charmed by the bull’s docile behavior, the girls start petting him and decorate him with garlands of flowers. The bull Zeus lays down at Europa’s feet and pretends to be the most kind and gentle animal ever. Encouraged by her friends, Europa thinks she might ride such gentle beast and climbs on the animal’s back. Of course, this is exactly what Zeus had planned. Now he can abduct Europa!
Zeus gets up and slowly starts walking around. Soon however, the bull Zeus accelerates his pace and eventually breaks into a gallop, with Europa clinging on for her life. The King of the Gods and the frightened princess reach the seaside and dive into the sea, leaving Europa’s bewildered friends behind. Europa could do nothing but hold on in fear.
The bull swam with her on his back, all the way from the coast of Lebanon to the isle of Crete. Here the Greek god regained his human form and, under a cypress tree, made love with Europa. She became pregnant and gave birth to three sons of Zeus, all becoming kings and famous heroes. Europa married the King of Crete, became Queen and she lived happily ever after. The story about Europa is a classic Greek tragedy, but this time with a happy ending.
Europa riding the bull of Zeus was a popular subject in art. The earliest Greek reference is in Homer’s Iliad from the 8thcentury BC. The Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC) describes the story in his Metamorphoses. Hereunder a fresco from the Casa di Giasone in Pompeii, dated before 79 AD as that’s the year when Pompeii was buried under 5m of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The abduction of Europa has long been a great source of inspiration for artists. Many of those produced superb works of art, but only a few have made serious attempts to tell this story faithfully to the myth. With two actors: Europa, a fair maiden, and a white bull, which the viewer must recognise as Zeus (or Jupiter) in disguise, and a setting full of suspense and male dominance. Most artists skipped the suspense part and turned the story into a fairytale image of beauty and romance.
The story of Europa and Zeus is indeed an excellent subject for a light, pastoral and joyful scene with semi-nudeness, garlands of flowers, and stress-free pastime, like the Meissen figurine above or the painting by Jean-Baptiste Pierre hereunder. It’s in strong contrast to the paintings by Titian and Rembrandt which follow the myth more precisely. They depict a bewildered Europa raising the alarm to her companions on the shore, who watch helplessly and stare at the departing princess in horror. Europa holds on to the bull, not because she wants to, but because she would otherwise fall and drown. She was tricked by a friendly bull, one who coaxed her into taking a ride, one she even crowned with flowers before she realized who he was: a bullyish God!
Jean-Baptiste Pierre was First Painter to King Louis XV of France. His painting is a typical rococo confection, here is no serious drama anymore; it’s a lighthearted, elegant and frivolous composition. Few painters felt it necessary to include the eagle in their paintings of Europa. The eagle is the symbol of Zeus and Jean-Baptiste Pierre does this favour to the viewer, to be sure we will not miss the plot. Although he seems to have ignored the fact that the bull was white.
The ancient Greeks first applied the word Europa to the geographical area of central Greece and then the whole of Greece. By 500 BC, Europa signified the entire continent of Europe (although the Greeks were only really familiar with the areas around the Mediterranean) with Greece at its eastern extremity. The story of Princess Europa starts with her abduction from the shores of Lebanon, becoming Queen of Crete, giving her name to – and thus being godmother of – the European continent, and indirectly being the name-giver for the Euro! And on top of that, the story of the abduction of Europa is depicted on the modern Greek two Euro coin!
It’s August, the month of “Pride” in many cities around the world and in Amsterdam today! What started as Gay Pride is now a celebration of LGBTQ+. I take this as an opportunity to speak about the beautiful boy Ganymedes, a hero from Greek mythology and a major symbol of homosexual love in the visual and literal arts.
Homer, who wrote in the 8th Century BC the legendary “Odyssey”, already describes Ganymedes as the most beautiful of mortals. Ganymedes was abducted from earth to become Zeus’s lover on Mount Olympus, serving wine to the Gods and blessed with eternal youth and immortality.
Ganymedes (Γανυμήδης) was a young man from Troy and the most stunning guy walking around. Even Zeus, the King of the Gods, couldn’t resist his beauty. Zeus first tried to seduce him in a traditional way as shown on the Greek vase hereunder (from around 480 BC). Zeus pursues Ganymede on one side while the youth runs away on the other side, rolling along a hoop and holding aloft a crowing cock. A cock (the bird, that is!) was a common gift presented by an older man to a younger to indicate romantic interest. This custom took place in ancient Athens where such relationships were widely accepted and depicted many times on the visuals from those days, which was painted pottery as paintings did not exist yet. Considering the connotation of “cock” with penis, the bird nowadays mostly called “rooster”!
This “krater” is an ancient Greek vessel used for diluting wine with water. It’s made in Athens, most likely for the export market as this krater was found in Italy like so many other Greek vases. “Berlin Painter” is the name given to a Greek vase-painter who is widely regarded as one of the most talented vase painters of the early 5th century BC and he got his name after a large vase in the Antikensammlung Berlin.
Ganymedes was a beautiful and young shepherd boy from the city of Troy. His beauty was so great and “godlike” that Zeus decided that Ganymede was too perfect to walk the earth. One day, when Ganymedes was tending the family flock of sheep, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle and abducted the unsuspected Ganymede, who was then taken to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus made him his cupbearer; it was Ganymedes’ duty to serve cups of wine and the divine drink nectar to Zeus and the other Gods.
On Correggio’s painting above, Ganymedes looks rather younger and less flagrantly showing the sensual male body. The boy seems happy to be abducted by an eagle, as if he knows that it’s Zeus who takes him into heaven. Rembrandt hereunder makes it more realistic. No toddler would like to be picked up by such ferocious bird, so Rembrandt has his Ganymedes bawling and urinating in fright.
Nicolaes Maes, famous for his children portraits, is portraying a child from the Bredehoff de Vicq family as Ganymedes. Guess the boy’s parents thought their son was the most beautiful one ever!
Not everyone was pleased with Ganymedes presence at Mount Olympus. Hera, Zeus’ wife and Queen of the Gods, was pretty jealous, certainly when it turned out that Zeus did not only abduct Ganymedes to serve the Gods wine, water and nectar, but also to become his lover. For the sake of family peace, Zeus promoted Ganymedes to an outside post and made him the stars in the sky that are the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. And in post-Medieval times, Ganymedes’ name was given to the largest moon of the planet Jupiter.
Ganymede’s myth was popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans, the Greek version is with Zeus and the Roman version with Jupiter, both being the same King of the Gods. The first recorded mention of Ganymede is found in Homer’s Iliad dating back to the 8th century BC. The Greek vases shown are from around 500 BC and the Thorvaldsen sculpture is from around 1823. Ganymedes intrigues and inspires art and artists already more than 2500 years!
Ganymede’s myth is yet another piece in the history of sexuality, with particular importance for queer history. If the King of the Gods was allowed to have a male lover, then this certainly adds to the joy of all LGBTQ+ people attending Pride festivals this August.
Today July 29 is the official celebration day of two sisters and a brother: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They are from Bethany, a city on the West Bank close to Jerusalem. And it’s the place where Lazarus miraculously resurrected from death, through the hand of Jesus, four days after his entombment. This has been a popular story throughout history and depicted for over 1000 years. Now we have Netflix and “The Walking Dead” series, but in those days there were only paintings to support imagination. The miracle of returning to life gave hope over the fear of death. And from a religious point of view this is a true “Act of God”.
The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament part of the Bible. Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from death, four days after his entombment. It went as follows. Lazarus became ill and his sisters Marta and Mary (note: this is Mary of Bethany and not Mary, the Mother of Christ) contacted Jesus to help curing their brother. He visited the sisters only after Lazarus already passed away. But no worries, they went to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus said, “Take away the stone”. Martha then said, “it will stink, he has been in that tomb for four days”. That’s depicted by members of the crowd cover their noses with cloth. They took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped in his grave cloths, but alive and kicking and lived for another 30 years. Jesus also said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
On the pictures are usually Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, whose gestures and expressions record successive states of awareness and awe, and a crowd of astounded witnesses and some of Jesus’ followers. And the two main characters of course: Jesus making signs to resurrect Lazarus, and Lazarus himself getting up out of his grave. The story goes on, as Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hell.
The event is said to have taken place at Bethany. This is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection, linking Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection, and through faith as a sign of hope for all Jesus’ followers. John Calvin summarized it nicely when he said, “not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his Divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection.” The Lazarus story also appeared in Islamic tradition. Although the Quran mentions no specific figure named Lazarus, among the miracles with which he Quran credits Jesus, the raising of people from death is included.
The reputed tomb of Lazarus is in Bethany (now called: Al-Eizariya, which means “Place of Lazarus”) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.
In medical science “Lazarus syndrome” refers to an event in which a person spontaneously returns to life (the heart starts beating again) after resuscitation has been given up. The “Lazarus sign” is a reflex which can occur in a brain-dead person, thus giving the appearance that they have returned to life. The difference between revival immediately after death, and resurrection after four days, is so great as to raise doubts about the historicity of the Lazarus story. The hand of God is needed!
I cannot resist to share an image of a more modern “Lazarus”, an artist impression of Béla Lugosi as Dracula from the famous 1931 film. At night, Dracula awakes from death and steps out of his coffin. Béla Lugosi made this Dracula image as iconic as Giotto did with his Lazarus fresco around 1305. Death and resurrection are eternal themes, based on a mixture of fear and hope. It’s with much wonder how we look at death and at the possibility to come back from the underworld. Are we identifying ourselves with Lazarus? And how about the nowadays series on Netflix, like “The Walking Dead”? I dare to see a similarity between a 13th century visitor to the Scrovegni Chapel, looking amazed at Giotto’s Lazarus, and ourselves watching an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s all a mixture of fear and hope. May we conquer death and may we come back to life, not like a zombie but in true divine Lazarus style!
Today July 25 is the day of Saint Christopher, since the dark Middle Ages the patron saint of travellers and nowadays also the protector of motorists. He is a popular saint, but there is no certainty that he really existed. In 1969 his name was dropped from the official calendar of the Catholic Church. The calendar was getting crowded with many secondary saints and some clean-up was needed to make space for the more important ones. There are hardly any historical data about Christopher, but he became super popular over the centuries. And on top of that, images of Christopher arose, bigger in size than Christ’s, and belief in Saint Christopher became close to superstition. Although Christopher’s day is no longer official and obligatory, he is still recognised as saint. Villages and cities that carry his name celebrate the feast of their saint. And there are many places with his name (Spanish: San Cristobál, Italian: San Cristoforo, Dutch: Sint Christoffel, French: Saint Christofe), even up to the island country of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, officially the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis.
Images of Saint Christopher depict him as a giant man standing in water, holding a staff in his hand and with a child on shoulder who sometimes holds a terrestrial globe in his hand. This image tells the story of Christopher carrying a child across a raging river, and the child revealed himself as Christ.
According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a man of significant physical stature: 7.5 feet (2.3 m) tall, full of muscle and with a fearsome face. He took it into his head to serve the mightiest king on earth. He went to the king who was reputed to be so, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, Christopher decided that the devil was even mightier and departed to look for him. He came across a gang of robbers, whose leader referred to himself as “The Devil”. But when this leader avoided a wayside cross out of fear of Christ, Christopher learned there was someone even more powerful than the devil. He left the gang of thieves and asked around where to find Christ. He met a hermit (often also depicted with Christopher, see hereunder the Joachim Patinir painting) who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Christ. The hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where many people with less strength had drowned.
After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”
It is because of this experience that Christopher got his name, for Christopher in Greek is Χριστό-φορος (Christó-foros), which literally translate as “Christ-bearer.”
So, the child revealed himself to be the Christ Child, and that the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the entire world he was carrying on his shoulders. Then the Christ Child told Christopher to fix his staff in the bank of the river and come back tomorrow to see what had occurred. This would be the sign to Christopher that the child was truly Christ. The child then vanished. When Christopher returned the next day, the staff had become a palm tree, bearing fruit. On some paintings we may see the staff already replaced by a palm branch or even an entire palm tree. On the Garofalo painting above and the Ghirlandaio one hereunder, the staff is growing into a palm tree.
Saint Christopher is still today valued by travellers. Small devotional medals with Saint Christopher’s name and image are commonly carried in a pocket or placed in vehicles by more religious (or superstitious?) travellers. Pilgrims who looked upon an image of St. Christopher were believed to gain a special blessing. Many medieval and later churches put up huge images that no pilgrim could miss, either on a prominent interior wall or on the outside of the building. Although condemned as superstitious, it appears this belief has endured. See the Ghirlandaio fresco, it measures almost 3 x 1.5 meters. Not to miss by any traveller or pilgrim.
Joseph de Ribera stripped the story of all the side elements, and kept it to the giant Christopher carrying the child and a terrestrial globe, juxtaposing the colossal size of the saint with the delicacy of the child, creating an image of great expressive power. Like a new Atlas, Saint Christopher crosses the river carrying a child, who is in fact Christ bearing the world. It’s a devotional image of a Christian story, but comparable to the Greek mythological story of Atlas carrying the celestial globe on his shoulders.
In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by the Olympian god Zeus to hold upon his shoulders the heavens or sky, for eternity and while standing at the western edge of the earth which in those ancient days was northwest Africa. Zeus ultimately felt sorry for Atlas carrying the celestial globe and turned him into an entire mountain range, reaching up to the sky. That’s how Atlas became commonly identified with the “Atlas Mountains”. Also, “Atlantic Ocean” is derived from “Sea of Atlas”.
The term Atlas has been used to describe a collection of maps since the 16th century when Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published his work in honour of the mythological figure of Atlas.
What to learn from the giants Christopher and Atlas? Apparently it will give eternal fame when you carry the world or the sky on your shoulders. But that’s not what we want, when dealing with our nowadays problems. Look at Christopher, he could carry a child so light, but once he started to overthink this burden, it became heavier and heavier. Stick to your sorrows as they are and do not make it heavier than it is. The weight on your shoulders is heavy enough, but you are able to carry it and deal with it. As long as no phantasy takes it over and adds all those kilos of worrying. Now to Atlas…, once your feet are in solid ground and stuck to earth like a rock, you will be able to carry even the heaviest on your shoulders. Make yourself standing up with both feet on the ground. First thing to arrange is your own stability. And then you can carry all that weight and deal with any burden, for yourself and for others.
This is a 101 crash course in Greek and Roman gods. In ancient Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods and goddesses ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace on Mount Olympus. Besides this canon of major deities, many other gods, half-gods, human offspring and heroes visited the Olympus, and these twelve Olympians descended frequently to earth to have their wars, love affairs, parties and weddings, with other gods and humans. With 2,917 meters, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, about 80 km southwest from Thessaloniki.
Roman mythology draws directly on Greek mythology and the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks. Greek and Roman mythologies are therefore often classified together as Classical mythology. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” and therefore the twelve Olympians are often known under their Roman or Latin names.
There is a certain hierarchy, with Zeus being the King of the Gods and Hera their Queen. Almost all of these twelve have family relationships, Zeus often is the father although his kids have different mothers. The Olympian Gods and Goddesses have their own field of reign, covering all aspects of antique mankind. They can be recognised by their posture and physics, and by their attributes. Hereunder the Twelve Olympians, also with their Roman names and of course with their attributes. After some practising it becomes an easy and fun task to recognise them. Here is the 101 crash course!
King of the Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter. He is associated with a bundle of thunderbolts and the eagle. Zeus is married to Hera.
Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior god, ruling over the other deities who are living on their divine Mount Olympus. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controls the weather, specifically with thunder and lightning. He married Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women and occasionally a man or boy. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals and demi-gods. His wife Hera doesn’t like this at all of course. Zeus’ amorous adventures and Hera’s counterattacks and revenge provide an endless source of fun and many of these stories are inspiration for generations of artists. On the painting Zeus (Jupiter) enthroned, with the eagle at his feet and in his hand a bundle of thunderbolts.
Queen of the Gods, Goddess of marriage and family. The Roman equivalent is Juno. Her attribute is the peacock. Hera is the wife of Zeus.
Hera (Greek Ἥρᾱ, Latin Juno) rules as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse, Zeus. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. This has been depicted multiple times throughout history of art and is an endless source of stories and inspiration for painters. Acting as a matronly Queen of the deities of Olympus, she is normally associated with women, marriage and childbirth. Hera’s most usual attribute is her favourite bird, the peacock, as can be seen in-extremis on Glotzius’ drawing from the Rijksmuseum.
The God of the Sea. The Roman equivalent is Neptune. He can be recognised by his trident, horses and dolphins. Poseidon (God of the Sea) is a brother of Zeus (God of the Sky) and Demeter (God of the Land).
When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers of which Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν, Latin Neptune) received dominion over the seas and waters of the world, its storm and earthquakes. He was the protector of seamen and the god of horses. Poseidon lived with his wife in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was a frequent visitor on Mount Olympus. On the painting, as usual, Neptune is depicted as an old man with long flowing white hair and beard, riding over the waves of the sea in a coach made of a shell and drawn by his horses. His head crowned as king of the seas, trident in one hand and a big pearl in his other hand.
Goddess of the Harvest and Agriculture. The Roman equivalent is Ceres. Her attributes are wheat and the cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty. Demeter is the sister of Zeus and Poseidon.
Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter (Greek Δημήτηρ, Latin Ceres) is the goddess of the harvest, who oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. On the paining by Watteau she represents summer. Ceres wields a sickle and sits on clouds among sheaves of wheat. The figures surrounding Ceres — the crayfish, the lion, and the nude blond woman — represent the zodiacal symbols of summer (Cancer, Leo, and Virgo). The name of Ceres comes back in the word “cereal”.
Goddess of War and Wisdom. The Roman equivalent is Minerva. Her symbols are the owl and the body armour including a helmet. Athena is born out of Zeus’ head.
Athena (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ, Latin Minerva), was the daughter of Zeus, born out of his head and already at birth dressed in full armour. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. In the Rembrandt painting, Minerva can be seen in her study, looking up from her large folio. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the laurel wreath crowning her head. In the background are more books and parts of her body armour, a golden helmet, a spear and a large shield.
Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. The Roman equivalent is Diana. Symbols are the moon, bow and arrow. She is a daughter of Zeus and Apollo is her twin brother.
Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις, Latin Diana) and her twin brother Apollo were children of Zeus. The twins became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. On the painting she is easily recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara, the bow and arrow on her back and a hunting dog at her feet.
God of the Sun, Light and Music. His attributes are the lyre, sun and laurel wreath. Apollo is a son of Zeus and Artemis is his twin sister.
Artemis’s twin brother Apollo (Greek Ἀπόλλων and the same name in Latin) was the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge, and thus the exact opposite of Demeter. Zeus may have been the senior of the deities, but among the most important and popular with the Greeks and Romans, and later with artists, is Apollo. He is a beardless young man, and the epitome of male beauty. His most common attribute is the lyre, his constant companion for both music and poetry. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women and from time to time a boy. On the painting Apollo is depicted as a male beauty, with his lyre and a laurel wreath on his head.
God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.
The attributes of Ares (Greek Ἄρης, Latin Mars) are any part of arms and armour of a warrior, like a helmet and shield. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares revealed in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. Often depicted asleep, as on our painting here, which makes him more sympathetic. The God of War asleep becomes the Good of Peace. His name is still used in “martial arts”.
God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.
Hephaestus (Greek Ἥφαιστος, Latin Vulcan) learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire and metallurgy. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes. Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses – but he managed to marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love. His attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer and anvil as used in the working of metals. These tools can be seen on this painting, with fire in the background. The word “volcano” refers to the Roman name of Hephaestus, Vulcan.
Goddess of Love, Beaty and Sexuality. The Roman equivalent is Venus. She can be recognised a dove and beauty aspects like jeweller and flowers. Aphrodite married Hephaestos.
Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη, Latin Venus) as the most beautiful woman, was married to the most ugly of the gods, Hephaestus. She enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, including an affair with the beautiful young guy Adonis. Aphrodite (mostly as Venus) has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical female nude and in the case of her affair with Adonis, also with a beautiful man. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times, already on some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Boucher painting, formally called “The Toilette of Venus” was executed for the bathroom of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. Boucher devised a summary of the key features: Venus as female beauty, and an unfurling of luxurious furniture, fabric, flowers, and pearls. The name of the goddess still lives on in the words “aphrodisiac” and “venereal”.
God of travel, commerce and communication, Messenger of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Mercury. Attributes are winged sandals, hat with wings, and the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents. His father is Zeus.
Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς, Latin Mercury) is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals, a distinctive staff with a pair of serpents around it, known as a caduceus, and a hat or helmet which bears wings too. The pair of entwined serpents along the caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger. This is where the word “mercurial” comes from. There’s also a touch of mischief about Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators. On the Prado painting we can see the wings around his feet and on his head, and the two snakes around the rod; and of course the male beauty of Hermes himself.
God of Wine. The Roman equivalent is Bacchus. As God of Wine he can of course be recognised by the grapevine and a cup. Dionysus is the youngest son of Zeus.
As the god of grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, Dionysus (Greek Διόνυσος, Latin Bacchus) was an easy favourite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, traveling widely and gifting them with wine. Like on the Caravaggio painting here, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attributes are grapes, wine leaves and of course a glass of wine. His name lives on in the word “bacchanal”.
Today March 19th is the day dedicated to Saint Joseph. Who is he? Joseph is one of the three members of the Holy Family, together with the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus.He is a carpenter from Nazareth and a widower, who married the Virgin Marry at that time already pregnant with Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus is the Christian doctrine that Jesus was conceived and born by his mother Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse. Joseph is therefore Jesus’s foster-father. In most paintings with the Holy Family, Joseph has a minor role and just in the background. Only from the 15th century artists gave more attention to Joseph and made him visible as head of the Holy Family. When the bible speaks about Jesus’s brothers and sisters, those are children of Joseph from a previous marriage.Saint Joseph is the patron saint of family life, fathers, unborn children and carpenters and in Western Christianity his celebration day is March 19th. And in Italy, this special day of Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) is also Father’s Day. Joseph might be a lesser celebrity in the biblical world, but as “father” he is a figure that means so much in everyone’s life. Even when he is a foster-father.
This is the right-hand panel of a triptych. The old man Joseph, who is engaged to the Virgin Mary, works in his carpenter shop. The mousetraps he made, on the bench and in the shopwindow opening onto the street, are symbols of the crucifixion of Jesus which will only happen 33 years later. Jesus on the cross is considered the devil’s mousetrap.
Looking at the triptych as a whole, the middle panel shows the moment when the Virgen Mary gets the message from the angel Gabriel that she will be pregnant with Jesus. It’s even the moment of the divine impregnation itself. On the right panel Joseph in his workshop, busy making the mousetraps and no idea what is happening to Mary at this very moment. On the left the donors of this triptych.
When Joseph was engaged to Mary he found out she became pregnant, and certainly not by him! Joseph was very much doubting if he should indeed marry her. As he considered splitting up, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” As is written in the bible, see Matthew 1: 18-20. On the picture above you can see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph as an old man doubting about what happened. This is not a very common image to see in paintings and it’s obviously a mysterious element in the whole story and even a bit embarrassing for Joseph. The message from the angel to Joseph is then solving this element to everyone’s satisfaction, including Joseph’s. From the 15th century the Holy Family (Maria, Jesus and Joseph) as a subject became way more popular and that helped to raise Joseph in public esteem. Joseph is from then on represented more sympathetically and more prominently.
This painting by George de la Tour (1642, from the Louvre) cannot be missed in any story about Joseph. As patron saint of carpenters, Joseph is working on a beam, helped by his foster son Jesus. The arrangement of pieces of wood on the floor evokes a cross and prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. The young Jesus with the candlelight shining on his face makes already a reference to becoming the “Light of the World”. George de la Tour shows that even Jesus lived a simple and innocent earthly life, but he included divinity’s presence by way of the light of the candle.
Here we see the Holy family with a playing Jesus and two caring parents in a domestic scene. It shows home life but also work, symbolized by Saint Joseph’s carpenter tools on the right. The almost leading role of Joseph, the foster father, corresponds to the increased worship of Joseph as a father figure within the Holy Family. Over the centuries the image of Joseph developed from a grumpy old man to a caring – and younger – father.
This is a painting from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, showing a scene from the boyhood of Jesus and placed in Joseph’s carpenter workshop. It’s full of symbolic messages. Jesus, as a boy, has wounded himself at a nail and is being comforted by his parents Mary and Joseph. Blood is dripping from his hand on his foot. Both spots of blood are foreshadowing the crucifixion. On the right we see the young Saint John the Baptist with a bowl of water, as reference to the baptizing of Jesus Christ. At the back on the wall is a carpenter’s triangle, referring to the Holy Trinity of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus son of God. And the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is sitting on the ladder.
The pre-Raphaelites wanted to strip-away all traditions of painting since Raphael. Millais removed all beauty and placed the scene in an ordinary carpenter workshop, with common people as the Holy Family. The picture prompted many negative reviews. The Times described it as ‘revolting’ and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter’s shop. Charles Dickens was one of the most vehement critics, describing the young Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’. The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery, London, where it’s now considered one of their masterpieces.
This painting illustrates the belief that Jesus was both human and divine, by placing him in the middle of the two “Trinities”. The vertical line is the Holy Trinity, with God the Father, the Holy Ghost (the dove), and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus looks up towards heaven, but affectionately holds hands with his human parents, Mary and Joseph. The three together, as the horizontal line, make up the Earthly Trinity. Mary’s loving gaze and gracefully upturned palm are directed towards her young son. Joseph looks out of the picture towards us, inviting us to adore Jesus. Murillo transforms a complex theological principle into a very human and accessible image. With Jospeh as the connecting figure between us humans and the divine world of God.
March is the month named after Mars, in Roman mythology the God of War. He is also an agricultural guardian. The month March, opening the year of farming, is considered the start of the year for the Roman calendar, which had only ten months. With March being the first, September is number seven, October number eight and November and December nineth and tenth. But who is Mars? Although being the god of war, he is also a god of peace (when sleeping!), an epitome of male beauty, and the secret beau of Venus, Goddess of Love. Let’s look at a few paintings with Mars and also some together with Venus. The last painting is revealing the real scandal!
This is not a common soldier. This is Mars, God of War, in a 17th Century human form. The harness on the painting is a very rich and precious piece of work made in Italy. It was owned by Hendrick ter Brugghen and kept in his studio. Exactly the same harness and helmet ended up on other paintings by Ter Brugghen and by his colleagues from Utrecht. Around 1648, the end of the Eighty Years’ War and a final end to Spain’s rule over the Netherlands, the painting was placed in its current frame. The weapons and tools of war on the frame are chained together and cannot be used any longer. Mars fell asleep; he now represents peace. In the true Dutch tradition when Mars, God of War, falls asleep, Mercury, God of Trade, will get active again. A political painting in its time.
Here is Velázquez majestic painting of Mars. Mars is lazily seating on a soft, unmade bed. The bedclothes belong to a luxurious bed much more suited to amorous struggle than to battles and war. Mars is only wearing his helmet; his shield and armour lie at the ground. This picture is a defeat of arms by love which conquers all. The painting was made for the Spanish royal hunting pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid, in a century when Spain was in continuous wars. An amorous Mars seems certainly more sympathetic than a war-god in full armour.
This Italian Renaissance painting by Botticelli shows Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, surrounded by playful and naughty satyrs. Venus watches Mars asleep – and snoring – and she contemplates her victory: love has conquered war. Although it’s unfaithful love, as Venus was in fact married to Vulcan, god of fire and an unattractive blacksmith. The little satyr guys are playing with Mars’s armour: one put the too big helmet on his head and another crawled inside his breastplate. Even one blows a conch shell in his ear to wake Mars, but of course unsuccessfully. The couple have been making love, and Mars obeyed to the male habit of falling asleep after sex. Most likely the painting was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of a wealthy Florentine couple, and was meant to decorate the bedroom with that witty representation of sensual pleasure. There is another thought about Mars’s state of undress. It was thought that looking at an image of a beautiful man would help to conceive a boy – the most desirable heir in those days.
The French rococo painter Louis Jean François Lagrenée shows us Mars, throwing back the curtains to reveal a sleeping Venus. Mars is captivated by her beauty; his shield and sword lie on the ground. A pair of white doves are building a nest in Mars’s helmet. A 18th Century example of “make love not war”. Mars gives peace a chance.
This painting depicts the adultery of Venus and Mars. Venus’ husband Vulcan – god of fire and standing with his back to us on the left – has caught the couple in the act. When Vulcan heard that Venus and Mars had an affair, he – as a skilled blacksmith – made an invisible bronze net to catch them in their love bed. The metal net was so delicate that the two beautiful gods did not know that they had been captured until it was too late. Vulcan invited all the gods from Mount Olympus to come and laugh at the trapped lovers. A detail: Mercury, god of trade, is getting jealous and said he is willing to replace Mars. He can be seen above the bed and Cupido is already sending an arrow in Mercury’s direction. The still-life in the foreground is Mars’s armour, Vulcan’s hammer and Venus her red slippers, an old-fashioned symbol of adultery.
Because of the erotic subject matter, the painting’s early owners will have concealed the painting behind a curtain. For a longtime this painting was kept in depot by The Mauritshuis “to protect an immature public against itself”. Only from 1987 this small painting is shown to the public in its full splendor; painted on copper, which is excellent for expressing fine details. It’s an erotic picture, very attractive for the viewers. But it’s certainly also a showcase for the skills of the Joachim Wtewael. And above all an embarrassment for Venus and Mars!
Today December 8th is the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s one of the major Christian feast days and it’s a holiday in many Catholic countries. But what is it about; what is the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First of all: do not confuse it with Mary’s virginal conception of her son Jesus! That’s only happening on March 25th, when it’s announced to Mary that she will be pregnant, being 9 months before the birth of her son Jesus, which happens on December 25th and that’s Christmas day. December 8th is about the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself, and it’s exactly 9 months before another feast day in the Catholic church, the Nativity or Birth of Mary, and that’s on September 8th. It’s all easy to remember when you count with those 9 months pregnancy.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is nothing more than that she was born immaculate, pure, spotless and without any sin. That’s in contrary to any other human being. Everyone is born with the Original Sin, which is the inherited sin of Adam and Eve, who were eating the forbidden fruit while being in Paradis. That was the first sin of mankind ever, and it became an inheritable sin. It means that every baby is born with this Original Sin, to be washed away by baptizing, as soon as possible after birth. Mary on the contrary was born without this Original Sin, she was born Immaculate. That also makes her the one and only human being ever been without any sin. And Mary being so immaculate and the purest of all, is celebrated on December 8th.
The parents of Mary are Anna and Joachim, and these two are in that sense the grandparents of Jesus. Many believe that Anna, Mary’s mother, stayed a virgin herself while becoming pregnant of Mary. That’s not correct and officially considered an error by the Catholic doctrine. It’s also not so that Mary, after being born without the Original Sin, by default stayed without any personal sin. In general however, it’s believed that Mary was born without sin and stayed without sin.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a doctrine, being established as a faith by Popes and widely accepted within the Church. Already celebrated since the 5th century, the doctrine was only dogmatically defined in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared so with “papal infallibility”. So, since then it’s a “true” story.
It’s for artists not so easy to depict the concept of Immaculate Conception. Painters were struggling with the concept for long time, and only from the 17th Century onwards a standard image developed, based on paintings from the circle of the Spanish painter Murillo. It’s mostly an image of Mary in a heavenly realm with clouds and a golden light, surrounded by symbols of purity like white lilies and roses, with sometimes an image of God above Mary. On some painting symbols of the Original Sin, like snake and apple, can be seen at Her feet. Mary is standing on a crescent moon, symbol of virginity and chastity. It’s always an image of Mary herself and certainly without the baby Jesus, as that happened only later in the life of the Virgin Mary.