Once again, I want to commend Terry Glaspey’s balanced and well-thought-out list of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (see my review here). The list covers practically all of history and various mediums of art and literature. It is in the latter centuries where I have some concerns and I want to suggest a couple of masterpieces I would have included instead.
Before I get started, there are some works that Glaspey addresses and that I would like to highlight. Jan Van Eck’s Adoration of the Lamb (1432) (75 Masterpieces, chapter 10) is truly a masterpiece. Installed in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent, the twenty paneled altarpiece expands to eighteen feet and has a height of twelve feet.
More than its size, it is Eck’s use of oil paint on wood that distinguishes it as a masterpiece. Such rich color has never before been reproduced, with the exception of illuminated manuscripts. In addition to the richness of the colors, the great attention to detail characterizes Eck and the Flemish school. Finally, hidden within the detail are symbolic elements expressing a distinct Christian message.
Having left the Renaissance (see 75 Masterpieces, chapter 13 for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling), Baroque attempts to address certain allegations of the Reformation. Answering charges that Roman Catholic extravagance excluded the common person and catered towards the aristocratic tastes of Renaissance fine art, Caravaggio and other Baroque artists painted works more welcoming to the middle class. As seen in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-1602) (75 Masterpieces, chapter 17), these dramatic scenes often juxtaposed darkness against light in a unique use of tenebrism, highlighting the subject. Accentuating emotion and 3D depth, Caravaggio masters the technique of chiaroscuro.
75 Masterpieces is filled with great introductions to such masterpieces. However, there are a couple that get overlooked. Rembrandt (The Return of the Prodigal Son, 75 Masterpieces, chapter 22) certainly belongs in such a list, but I would have added Johannes Vermeer. Woman Holding a Balance (1664) is a good example of Vermeer’s skill.
The subject matter is typical Vermeer, a snapshot of everyday life. Like many of Vermeer’s works, we see a solitary figure frozen in time.
The stillness of the piece is matched by a quiet intensity. We see a window at the top left, where light peaks through the curtain and bounces of the wall. Our eyes are drawn to the woman who looks as if she is about to conduct an important task. We can gather that she is about to handle some fine jewels and coins, as they sit on the table while she prepares a small balance.
What is the significance of this woman? By her dress, we can tell that she comes from an upper middle class. Perhaps she represents the new merchant class who were fast becoming a major factor in purchasing art.
Whoever she is, Vermeer places her in the middle of a series of juxtapositions. The woman splits the painting that adorns the wall behind her. At second glance, we see that the the painting is of the last judgment. God resides in the middle, with the saved on the left and the damned in the right. As the woman stands in the center, we do not know to which side she belongs.
Our eyes are drawn to the balance in her hand, where the various orthogonal lines meet. In front of her waits jewels, pearls, and coins. Is the woman a faithful steward of these treasures or is she consumed by this wealth? It seems that Vermeer has not decided, as the light from the window shines off of the frame of the painting and also the jewels on the table.
Finally, on the wall that the woman faces we notice a mirror. We are left wondering why Vermeer included the mirror. Though a mirror can represent vanity, it can also represent introspection and a conscious. It is as if Vermeer asks the audience to use the painting as a mirror.
Moving on to the nineteenth century, we come to a Romantic artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner (if you like, Wormtail from Harry Potter stars in Mr. Turner). Turner’s seascape demonstrates his dramatic use of color. Immediately we see the piercing reds and oranges of the sun. Unlike Vermeer, there is no quietness or stillness. Instead, we are thrust literally in the middle of a storm.
The intensity of the sun is matched by the violence of the waves. Though we are enamored by the beauty of the sun, we quickly realize that the sea is not at peace. Our hearts go out to the brave sailors who are being thrown around by the waves, and we desperately hope that they weather the storm.
Just as we assure ourselves that the ship will survive, horror strikes us as we recognize what can only be arms sticking out of the water. Not only are we looking at limbs, the helpless arms are shackled. We are sickened as we realize that the ship is but a slave ship and the arms are of slaves thrown overboard.
The full title of the piece is Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon Coming On (1840). The deplorable practice of slavery not only subjugated humans to a life of forced labor, as nothing but a purchased object, it also established a system to guard the profits of slave traders.
Since slaves were but traded objects, slave traders would take out insurance policies on their cargo. In cases of disease or natural disaster, the traders were protected against losses. In order to collect on this insurance, the slaves must perish, and throwing them overboard assured this necessity.
The horrors of a natural disaster is juxtaposed against the horrors of man-made sin. Slavery is inexcusable and the storm assures the slave traders’ death. Caught in the middle of this divine judgment are the unfortunate souls of the slaves.
Accompanying the work, Turner included a portion of his poem, as the inspiration for the painting. It reads,
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?