Sunday, October 18, 2009

St. Luke

Tomorrow is St. Luke's day, and my parish celebrated the patronal feast today. The liturgy is full of references to his profession as a physician.
But, according to ancient pious legends that probably don't have a scrap of truth in them, St. Luke was also an artist. The legends say that he painted the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child from life. They appeared to him miraculously, and he painted them, a number of times. There are lots of icons around Europe that claim St. Luke as the artist. Among them are:

Our Lady of Cambrai

The Black Madonna of Czestachowa

For a long time, St. Luke was not only the patron saint of physicians, but also of artists. Here are some homages to the patron saint from a couple of artists. I'm fond of both, though they are very different.

Here is St. Luke by the great Bolognese painter Guercino. This is the official blog icon of this website. I love the angel admiring the work of the anything-but-humble divine maestro.

Here is Rogier Van Der Weyden's version of St. Luke making a silver point drawing of the Virgin and Child. Silver point drawing was the technique of choice in the 15th century for drawing from life, an interesting detail that Rogier's colleagues would certainly have noticed.

The idea that St. Luke was an artist is almost certainly pious malarkey. So, let's do auditions for the role of Patron Saint of Artists since scholarship has declared it vacant. There aren't many candidates who qualify. Artists are not, and never were, a particularly saintly group of professionals. They can be a very selfish and jealous lot whose work "is in better taste than their lives" to quote Auden. They could be ferociously competitive, especially in Baroque Italy. The Neapolitan painters murdered that Bolognese interloper Domenichino when he got the most important job in town, frescoing the chapel of St. Januarius. Fortunately, Domenichino had mostly finished the project by the time the Neapolitan artists slipped poison into his wine. Modern artists aren't much better. We all know about Picasso and the way he treated women.

So, here is a very small selection of dubious candidates for the role of patron saint of the profession.

There's always Andrei Rublev, who is already a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. The only problem with Rublev is that not a whole lot is known about him. The accounts are scant, leaving enough room for the great film director Vladimir Tarkovsky to portray him as a doubting and self-doubting modern artist determined to pursue a personal vision in the face of convention and officialdom. There's not much left of Rublev's work either. He is recorded as having painted scores of icons and vast fresco cycles in numerous churches. But, only a handful of works survive, only one of which (illustrated above) is universally accepted by scholars as authentic.

There is Albrecht Durer, as conscientious a man as ever went into the art trade. He was renowned for his piety and scrupulous honesty. During his 2 trips to Venice, the local artists treated this earnest German with suspicion and contempt. The only exception was the elderly Giovanni Bellini who treated him with great kindness. Durer was the first artist to reach a mass audience by turning printmaking, the inexpensive poor relation to painting, into fine art.
Durer had a lot of problems during the Protestant Reformation, something he supported. The new Protestant authorities in Nuremberg regarded Durer and all his fellow artists with great suspicion; idolatrous breakers of the Second Commandment with hidden Catholic sympathies. He probably died just in time to avoid prosecution before a religious court.

There is that all around good Catholic boy, Raphael, so beloved by everyone from Pope Leo X to Prince Albert. He was a boy wonder dying glamorously and incorruptibly young at 37. To the great relief of bishops everywhere, Raphael liked girls; no affairs or infatuations with pretty boys that were common to so many Italian artists of the day, including Michelangelo and Leonardo. However, Raphael kept at least one mistress. He also comes off as being something of an ambitious glad-hander. Some scholars speculate that he was trying to paint and glad-hand his way into some kind of clerical sinecure (maybe even a cardinal's hat) at the time of his death.

There is that ultimate fall and redemption story in art, Rembrandt. He certainly took his religious faith very seriously with an imagination steeped in the Bible. His most unsparing examinations of human sinfulness were always done on himself. Rembrandt was almost certainly an insufferably arrogant young hot-shot. Who could blame him? He was the most successful artist in Amsterdam and one of the most famous in Europe by his mid twenties. I'm sure there was more than a little embittered self-pity after he went bankrupt and lost everything.
Rembrandt might also offend the "orthodox" Calvinist crowd. Though born and raised in the Gomarist stronghold of Leiden the son of a Protestant father, his mother was Roman Catholic and remained so all her life. He left Leiden for the vanity fair of Arminian Amsterdam. Most scholars speculate that he embraced the Mennonite Christianity of his in-laws. He may have had some universalist sympathies. He was neighbors and good friends with Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel who had a universalist streak in his own religious thinking.

Why not a woman in the role of patron saint of artists? There is Artemisia Gentileschi who certainly suffered much more than all of the above artists. Her art and her success are testimony to the courage and durability of creative genius. But, so much of her best work is about revenge. Do we want that in a Christian saint?

But for that little technicality that candidates for Christian sainthood must be Christians, I'd put Felix Nussbaum on this list. He was an artist who continued painting courageously in the face of enormous forces determined to annihilate him. Those forces finally overwhelmed him, killing him and his entire family in the Holocaust. His witness survived the evil that destroyed him and so many others.

So, not much in the way of saintly candidates. Maybe we should just stick with Luke. There's no evidence that St. Cecilia could even whistle a tune, let alone play an organ and sing, but she's still the patron saint of musicians.

Still, what gloomy ascetic saint or cynical homicidal despot ever left so happy a legacy as any artist?


rick allen said...

Let's not forget Fra Angelico, formally beatified and added to the Roman Calendar in 1982.

Counterlight said...

Indeed, how could I forget Beato Angelico? a much better artist than the Christmas cards would lead us to believe.

June Butler said...

I was coming to say Fra Angelico, but Rick beat me to it - a holy man in the midst of much violence and evil.