Earlier today I visited the National Gallery of art. I took in a beautiful special exhibition, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy“.
Chiaroscuro is a printing technique utilizing wooden blocks, each of which carries the etching for part of a picture, and the colored ink that belongs to that portion of the picture. When the block prints are layered one over the other, you end up with a complete image. For the world of renaissance art this [then] new technique represented a huge leap in the ability to multiply images and sell them… or send them to far off markets. What strikes me, however, is this art form’s ability to convey such pathos.
Take for example this Deposition From the Cross, printed by Ugo Carpi, a father of the technique. The limp body of Christ, the strained bend of the figure over the Cross’ left arm… To convey such motion and emotion by carving in wood. And to represent such depth through the application of successive printing blocks… It blows me away.
What’s equally moving about these pieces is how many “moments” they convey; not just the principal subject matter but the ancillary stories. In the “Deposition,” you could spend an hour just meditating on the women ministering to Mary in her need (see detail below).
In a carving, no easy feat by itself, one can perhaps expect more motion… sculpture -after all- utilizes three dimensions. In fact, elsewhere in the gallery I found this piece… same subject matter:
In the “Healing of The Man at The Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3) you can see the surprise and excitement in the man as Peter and John restore him:
Likewise in the “Catching the Draught of Fish”(Lk 5)… the nets are heavy, the boats lie low in the water and you can almost hear Peter cry out, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (5:8)… It wouldn’t be the last time he needed to say it.
Just amazing… but back to the main theme: side themes…
Several other prints had important side stories. In the “Death of Ananias” (Acts 5) The Apostles stand in judgment over Ananias, who having lied to the Holy Spirit out his generosity (or lack thereof) was struck dead. Certainly a cautionary tale about administrative life in the Church… but look at what’s going on at the right.
While the Apostles govern, the other disciples are busy handing out charity to those in need. Both are happening at the same time.
In “Martyrdom of Two Saints,” by Parmigianino, the swirling motion of the swords and the soldier’s cloak focus us on the main them, framing out the martyrs-to-be, but check out the juxtaposition of the Angel vs. the Imperial Eagle at the top: angel totally wins! It’s a beautiful exercise to consider, “What are the side characters talking about among themselves?” Are there conversions about to happen among them because of the martyrs’ witness?
In life, there’s usually more going on than initially meets the eye. Taking a contemplative moment to see things through eyes of faith can reveal so much more! At the moment, the picture of the American Church would appear to be chaos, a horrific swirl of bad news and sadness. But look to the side stories, especially in your own parishes.
Today a young man in my community gave thanks to God for helping him in time of deep mourning. Another parishioner took a moment of pause in the midst of the midterms and had an epiphany about holy detachment. A woman took special time out to pray for her grandson. Three simple but beautiful actions of grace… and they’re just what I heard about on my day off! Is our central frame a mess… YES! But it’s hardly the whole story. Look to the sidelines!!