Printer Friendly

The space between image and word: the journey from Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the cross to Walter Verdin's Sliding Time.

Prolegomenon: the new space initiated in Leuven

In October 2009, I traveled to the Belgian city of Leuven, site of the renowned Catholic University and famed for its connections with the Flemish master, Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464), to see the special retrospective Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464): Master of Passions. Having been challenged by the visual pleasures and symbolic conundrums found in his presentations of Mary Magdalene, I encountered an astounding surprise in this presentation of his works that celebrated both his art and the opening of the new M, Museum Leuven.

As earlier art historians--including Erwin Panofsky, Moshe Barasch, and Leo Steinberg--have noted Rogier was a magisterial creator of archetypes. For me, his synchronization of the symbolism of the human body--gestures, postures, and figuration with biblical narrative created an expression of the best in Christian art that is visual exegesis combined with what I identify as "the space between." Surrounded by such beautiful and stimulating paintings, it was extraordinary that Rogier's theological complex and painterly intense works found a new "life" and perhaps a contemporary receptivity through the unexpected format of video art.

Walking into the semi-darkness of the large room, I was initially transfixed by the way in which the ten central figures of Rogier van der Weyden's masterpiece, The Descent from the Cross (1435: Museo del Prado, Madrid: Fig. 1), suddenly took on a new life and yet enveloped me with familiarity. (1) Unexpectedly, the reality of the interaction between the characters in this religious drama broke free from their places within the framed golden box into a new world order, and despite our many hours together, the painting and its familiar cast of characters suddenly came forth with new meanings.

While I tried to concentrate on the whole as the sum of its ten parts, and then vainly on the individual parts, the intellectual exercise failed as the abstracted elements, especially those of Mary Magdalene, overtook my sensibilities and I was transferred to another level of being-in-the-world: that level of consciousness in which the fundamental etymology of the aesthetic became a living reality with the emphasis on the senses as plural, compound, and complex. (2)

Sitting there entranced by the vivid colors and dramatic forms, I entered into the rhythm of the calming but continuous pace of slow movement as I was enveloped by what I perceived initially as a freedom from intellectual thinking, from the limitations of the mind, in order to experience the power of this moment, the power of art. When Walter Verdin's video installation, Sliding Time (3) had passed its course the seven minutes required for the images to move in a carefully orchestrated manner vertically and horizontally across each figure simultaneously--I found myself not ready to leave but rather I was entranced, almost to the level of being "rooted" physically and emotionally in "my" place (Fig. 2).

Watching Sliding Time pass from one seven-minute cycle into another, and over the next four days, often not even recognizing except for the sound of the bell that the cycle had been completed (or re-started), I found myself eager to re-enter the space which those plasma screens controlled, to get closer and closer with each viewing until I was almost within Sliding Time by the afternoon of my second day in Leuven. My emotions ran the gamut from quiet solitude to poignant encounter to moments close to tears or recoiling from physical pain to an internal and quiet serenity.

Further, there were those inevitable breakthrough moments when a fold in one of the Magdalene's garments, the muscles in her contorted arms, the luminescent tears dripping slowly from her eyes, or perhaps even the flow of the brilliant colors of her garments into and out of each other caused a pause in my tranquility. Often, there were those ruptures in the free-flowing exchange between my mind's eye, my spiritual eye, and my physical eye so that my seeing of these ten familiar individuals was now surprisingly of new figures both as a whole group or as segmented groupings, or, then again, solely the Magdalene and oftentimes singly the Virgin Mother. Walter Verdin's twenty-first-century re-visioning of Rogier's masterpiece expanded not simply my intellectual curiosity and my iconological analysis but embodied an aesthetic that elevated me beyond the tangible quotidian existential to the otherwise invisible spiritual realms in which this drama continues to be acted out in the hearts and minds of the Christian collective (Figs 3 and 4).

Whether I was standing, seated (on a nearby bench or the floor in front of the plasma screens), or laying down on the floor looking from all conceivable angles, the slow-paced motion of the figures led to another level of consciousness where sight and thought began to merge with emotion and sensibility. So I began to wonder what would it be like to have sound--not words as in the intoned voice of scriptural readings or sermonic drones but rather the sound of chords, single notes, and lingering laments?

During my next two days exploring this new way of seeing Rogier's masterpiece--a painting which has haunted my sleep, disturbed my dreams, and made me restless both day and night I brought my iPod on which were recorded selections from Verdi's Requiem., medieval chants, and twentieth-century cello concertos. Curiously, I learned that my surrender to Rogier's masterful colors, embodied forms, and emotive gesticulations could be heightened and occasionally altered by the music. Yet, I found myself too drained emotionally and intellectually to even organize a journal of my reflections when I left M, Museum Leuven, at its closing hour each evening. Now several months later, the experience remains vivid and clear.

The image and the word

Oftentimes during my training as a historian of religions, my professors would repeat "the adage" that a religion was fundamentally a tradition either of the word or of the image. The twain, they advised, did not meet. The choice was often accidental and, perhaps, unconscious; the decision as much cultural and societal as political and theological. Nonetheless, once defined, a religious tradition preserved its fundamental tenets with unmitigated energy as the power of the word and the power of the image defined their individual boundaries and limitations.

As my studies progressed into the interdisciplinary mode of religion and art, it became apparent to me that there were two ways of approaching the place of images in the study of religion, and later of theology. Art was either primary documentation or illustration. So one either began her analysis with the work of art, looking carefully at the internal correspondences between figures, symbols, and signs; searching out its history and its creator; and then considering the cultural (and religious) history of its reception. However, if art was "simply illustration," then all one had to do was to find the corresponding narrative which explained the reason for and meaning of the image, or alternatively an image taken out of context that supported the textual analysis.

Art, however, is a complex of colors, forms, composition, signs and symbols, and textures whose primary modality of reception and response is the visual, and that expands from the ocular to the other senses and the mind. In a dynamic interaction between the affective and the effective dimensions of the human person, art transcends the intellect while it simultaneously impresses meaning. Not confined to the rigid structures of the empirical sciences or philosophic thinking, the elements, characteristics, and meaning of art are not "fixed" but fluid. Paintings and sculptures communicate ideas in an intuitive--and in a more direct and wholistic--manner than written texts. However, the interpretive question becomes how do we come to know how art "communicates"? Are all members of a community socialized into or through a process of experiencing works of art?

Equitable in authority and cultural value to a written text, the visual arts are primary evidence in the evaluation of historical and/or theological claims. Both are open to interpretation, reception, censorship, editing, and misrepresentation. The ideal situation would find the image and the word as equal partners in the depiction and dissemination of information. However, reality impinges on this imaginative construct, so that we find that the text and image can illumine, contradict, or refine each other and that in the most likely scenarios, they were created for different audiences and classes.

While I thought I was advocating for art as a primary document in the study of religion and in the doing of theology, I have come to recognize in recent years that art and religion can cohabitate in what I refer to as "the space between"--a place in which one ends and the other continues the narrative thread. What for some may be a given, this concept became an overt part of my methodological process while I was writing extensively on the iconology of Mary Magdalene. (4) Perhaps the most significant scriptural narrative identifying this female saint is that of John 20:11-15 (5) which can be read as securing her position as "the apostle to the apostles" or as the flashpoint for the lowered position of women in the Early Church after the transformative fourth century.

However, another way to read this passage is to consider the relationship between the image and the word. For some readers, John 20:14 confirms the importance of the word for Mary is understood to see Jesus and not recognize him until he speaks her name (the word). For other readers, the same passage is read as highlighted by her relentless weeping from John 20:11 through to John 20:15 so that her tears are understood to have effectively clouded her vision.

Finding myself caught in an academic discussion of this passage with a biblical scholar, I suddenly realized the significant of the pause grammatically wrought by the comma in John 20:16. (6) "Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say Master)." For if the Magdalene was looking at him and didn't recognize him through her tears until he spoke her name, then why is she described as "turning" and why is the word "turning" followed by a pause? This is "the space between" which is filled in by the spiritual imagination of readers and by the creative imagination of artists. So, the visual tradition of this extraordinarily poignant, spiritual moment when Mary turns and sees the Risen Christ (7) offers an example of the power of art and of the place of visual exegesis in Christian theology. (8) Christian art, I would advocate, is not simply illustration but a visual exegesis of the text in coordination with an awareness of the meaning of gestures, posture, bodily figuration, and symbolism: and a cognizance of the significance of "the space between."

So while the human figure(s) does not fill "the space between," it highlights the intersection of the aesthetic with the spiritual. The artistic rendering of the human figure is the entree point for most viewers into a painting (or sculpture) as it references the horizon and thereby coordinates the viewer's participative response. In his classic study of sculpture, Sir Herbert Read advised that,

  It is perhaps significant that both these legends [sic. Narcissus and
  Pygmalion] have retained a powerful hold on the human imagination,
  even into our own time. They illustrate the deep-seated longing that
  man has to protect an icon, a material counterpart of the mental
  image of himself ... Only by conceiving an image of the body can we
  situate the idea of ourselves in the external world. (9)

If we substitute for these Classical legends the Christian topoi of the Mandylion of Edessa, the Veil of Veronica, and Saint Luke painting the Theotokos, we find scriptural and theological grounds for the significance of the human body and its symbolic possibilities. Without a doubt, a painter as attuned to body language and the kinesthetic sensibilities of the human body (of both painted subject and viewer) as Rogier van der Weyden, then, understood not merely their artistic value but their connotations within "the space between," that is, in the visual exegesis of the gaps, ambiguities, and repetitions of a biblical or apocryphal narrative.

Reflective prose combined with contemplative art can fill "the space between" in a meaningful manner. However, while the biblical texts remain fundamentally the same except for new (and updated) translations, images are transformed with each successive stylistic movement. Oftentimes as culturally conditioned as technically driven, the categories of art historical identifications are predicated on interpretations rising from changes in figuration, perspective, symbolism, color, materials, technique, subject matter, and geographic location. Further, especially in terms of Christian art, there is the often unspoken consideration of the ways in which the visual reflects its contemporary cultural and societal attitudes within a theological frame.

For example, one can make a case that the pictorial tradition was once the common vocabulary of Early Christianity. If this case is valid, then, was this vocabulary accessible to and employed by all classes? Was the knowledge transmitted by art received in the same or similar manner by all Christians regardless of class, race, or place of origin? Further, is the reception of an image, or a text for that matter, distinctively altered when there is an intermediary--theologian, priest, teacher, or reader--as opposed to a firsthand, individual experience?

Consider then how during the sweep of Christian history a particular biblical or theological episode such as that of Susanna and the Elders varies from the earliest renditions in the catacombs where the essence of the story is imaged by a lamb positioned between two wolves to the medieval interest in the juridical process to the baroque presentations of the female nude displayed as feminist theologians might argue as an object for the ubiquitous male gaze. (10) Does the text of the biblical narrative itself undergo textual transformations? No; but the interpretative emphasis of theological reflection probably did as it was influenced by differing spiritual and liturgical concerns. If so, then, the significant question becomes: Was one of the sources for these theological revisions the images which filled "the space between"?

As I have struggled with the concept of "the space between" and the dialectic of the image and the word, I confess to an even more difficult methodological issue, which is the correct term to use in discussing the interpretation of a painting or a sculpture. In my advocacy of the image as a primary document or piece of evidence for the doing of theology, what term do I use to refer to this process and the meaning I see in the figures and their gestures, postures, costumes, and emblematic symbols in coordination with the artistic setting, use of color and form, internal movement, and so forth without implying that I look at the image as I look at a book--that is by reading. While I have often resorted to a distinction between looking and seeing, this is not necessarily the proper terminology especially as we gravitate through the technology of the computer to more and more of a culture dominated by a visual vocabulary. While a term such as visual discernment might be adequate and appropriate to my concern, there is the ever-present reality in one or more of the hermeneutics of the varied disciplines that my research and writing circumambulates, that a word like discernment has preconceived connotations.

My methodological procedure for reading a painting or sculpture is similar to, but then again different from, the act of reading a book whether the reader is situated in the historical frame of the medieval world or whether it is my contemporary experience of reading. in the second decade of the twenty-first century, as my interpretation is colored by the cultural attitudes and practices of distinctive historical periods. This verbal conundrum regards also the whole of the arts that compose what we now refer to as visual culture (11) that is from the highest to lowest expressions of the traditional arts in painting, sculpture, textile, drawing, and prints to the newer media of photography, film, television, and video art; and that range from the works in museum collections to popular culture, material culture, and performance and display. What we need, I believe, is a new way of understanding the act of "reading" and a new terminology for the "reading" of a work of art. An expansion of our traditional concept of textuality could emend the logocentricity of Western culture and the theological conundrum of the image and the word.

Rogier's Descent from the Cross: a contextual fifteenth-century-and a twenty-first-century reading

Returning to Rogier's masterpiece painting and even with the publication of the splendid exhibition catalogue with its insightful essays, (12) for me, the most significant discussion relating the image and the word is Otto von Simson's magisterial interpretation of the theology of Rogier's symbolism of the body in his Descent from the Cross. (13) Coordinating the devotional, liturgical, spiritual, and theological perspectives that Rogier incorporated in his painting, Von Simson provides a reading of the overt and embedded religious symbolism through which the artist has led our eye in, through, around, across, and out of this framed golden box. However, his emphasis was on the relationship between the bodies of the Virgin Mary and her now dead son.

My own interest remains with the figure of the Magdalene--a female saint in whom Rogier expressed much interest and for whom he created innovative iconographic motifs including the first painted presentations of the Magdalene as reader and as weeper. (14) The spiritual effectivity and the visual affectivity of Mary Magdalene reverberate throughout Rogier's fifteenth-century renderings of the magna peccatrix as the primary vehicle of her agony as symbolic of female hapticity. A theologically complex and iconographically original artist, this Flemish master has been identified by such diverse twentieth-century scholars as Moshe Barasch, Ruth Mellinkoff, Erwin Panofsky, and Leo Steinberg, all of whom were intrigued by the iconography of the human body, as the "arch creator of archetypes." (15) Therefore, his presentation of the Magdalene's silent agony relates to the cultural and religious recognition of her identity in his own contemporary world as it continues to reverberate throughout our own epoch.

Rogier painted several images of Mary Magdalene and in each of those images he revised or expanded her iconography. In his Entombment of Christ (1460: Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze), he painted her as if frozen in a contorted posture of mute, helpless despair her body forming a series of empathetic parallels to the torso, arms, and head of the dead Jesus. While in his The Magdalene Reading (c.1445: National Gallery, London), for the first time, she is depicted in the silent solitude of an engaged female reader whose mind, body, and spirit were consumed by the book in her hands. Her inclusion on a wing of the Braque Family Triptych (1450: Louvre, Paris) recognizes her significance as the anointer (Sacraments of Chrism and Unction) and as the first witness of the Resurrection for here she is the "partner" to John the Baptist who symbolized the Sacrament of Baptism and who was the first witness of Jesus as the Christ.

However, it is his weeping Magdalene positioned in unobtrusive sorrow tempered by lyrical sentiment in his Descent from the Cross who garners my current attention. The magisterial scholar of iconography, Erwin Panofsky, noted that "Individual motifs, especially the Magdalene, were never forgotten and the impression made by the other figures could be eclipsed only by later inventions of Rogier himself." (16) Each new iconographic invention was carefully thought out by the artist and reflected his own spirituality as well as the social and cultural milieu in which he and his patrons lived.

The artist's biography reveals that he was a practicing and devout Catholic who was influenced by contemporary and devotional texts, and had personal connections to the Devotio Moderna and Carthusian monasticism. When he participated in a Holy Year pilgrimage to Rome, he came into contact with Italian artists and theologians. Art historians and biographers have noted his knowledge of St. Bridget's Revelations, Pseudo-Bonaventura's Meditations on the Life of Christ, Ludolph of Saxony's Vita Christi, and Thomas a Kempis' Imitatio Christi along with other devotional books. In these medieval devotional and mystical texts, and spiritual movements, Mary Magdalene's role was as the female penitential and contemplative saint who meditated upon her undeserved salvation. Rogier's foundation for his Magdalene motifs, then, was simultaneously cultural, personal, and religious.

Throughout the fifteenth-century Flemish artists, of whom Rogier was the master, emphasized the importance of individual Christian piety; thereby, they initiated a series of motifs or types premised on such pious devotions as the vesperbild or image of the Virgin Mother mourning her dead son, and the Magdalene weeping copious tears. Several of these motifs can be credited to Rogier whom the art historian Max J. Friedlander characterized as the creator of "the devotional picture." (17) Versed in the lay spirituality of the Devotio Moderna and the Brotherhood of the Common Life, and the spirituality of the Carthusians, Rogier sought to presence in his paintings the salvific experience of penance and an embodied harmony of the intellectual (read theological) and emotional connectors, and thus what better vehicle for this than the Magdalene? Oftentimes characterized as rational and static in comparison with the dynamism and passion of fifteenth-century Italian art, the Flemish paintings of Rogier and his contemporaries elevated emotion through careful innovations in gesture and pose of the human body in a style of painting that required the contemplation advocated by the Devotio Moderna.

Based on my readings of Rogier's Magdalene in the Descent from the Cross, including her costume, jewelry, tears, gestures, and posture, in coordination with the theological sources suggested by von Simson, my earlier research on the theology of tears in relation to the weeping Magdalene, and additional devotional texts including the recent English translation of Inclusa Ava's Das Leben Jesu, (18) I came to my understanding that if the Christ figure here represents passio, and the Virgin Mary compassio, then the Magdalene embodies empathos.

For example, the internal dynamics of The Descent from the Cross are extraordinary in both the rhythms of arcs and curves that unite and divide the individual figurations, and coordinate with then contemporary spirituality and theology. The Magdalene's positioning within the overarching ovoid form reinforced by the smaller intersecting circles, arcs, ovals, and triangles that correlate the three most significant personages: the swooning figure of the Virgin Mother, the collapsed body of the crucified Jesus, and the contorting form of the Magdalene. The dead body of Jesus is encased by the two weeping women whose arms and legs form a series of visual connectors resulting in intersecting triangular formations so that the Mother's com-passio is paralleled by the Magdalene's em-pathos. Their bodies and faces communicate more powerfully than words ever could the extraordinary emotions and embodiments of sorrow, lamentation, and grief that these two women experienced at this singular event.

To accentuate the Magdalene's role, she stands to our far right as the other "partner" to the bookend formed by St. John the Evangelist. The symbolic and theological implications of Rogier's composition of these two figures would have been clear to his contemporary audience: The Evangelist designated the people of the Church and the male gender, while the redeemed magna peccatrix signaled the mediation of the sacraments of the Church and the female gender.

Further, Rogier rendered her in mid-pose either falling down into her traditional cross-legged position at the foot of the cross as Lorne Campbell suggests or perhaps rising up from that pose. (19) Like Michelangelo, Rogier is a master of ambiguity--is the Magdalene about to fall or rising up to stand, is she performing a motif from a liturgical ceremony or perhaps from a liturgical dance--which adds to the participative nature of his paintings and thereby the response of the viewers. However, Mary Magdalene appears to stand in a contorted posture as her position may be a part of the assemblage of the final trio of figures--Nicodemus, his servant holding a jar of precious ointment and aloes, and herself--signifying the biblical narrative of the entombment of Christ according to John 19:39-42, 20:1. (20)

All the contrasting cambers and angles formed from the curvature of her form-fitting pale green silk bodice and red damasked sleeves are counterbalanced by the sharp-edged folds of her ruffle-edged white headpiece and the copious drapery of her dark green silk overskirt. These textured forms move the viewer's eye upward and inward toward the Magdalene's tear-stained face, while the flashpoint of her anguish emanates from her tightly interlaced fingers as her hands are clasped in a gesture, perhaps of prayer or of internal suffering, are highlighted by the path of her eye.

The apparent bifurcation of her sight-line moves from her right in a parallel line above her bent right hand toward what might be described as her white unguent jar, and then downward between her interlaced fingers through the path of her upper left hand and the extended open left hand of the neighboring male figure, ostensibly the servant of Nicodemus, who holds the jar of precious oils and aloes, toward the wounded feet of Jesus: those same feet that the Magdalene of popular devotion washed with her tears and anointed in anticipation of his death. The path of her silent tears then follows this same sight-line welling up from her eyes, dripping down her nose and cheeks, and then downward between her fingers onto Jesus' feet. All of her biblical and legendary narratives, then, are compressed within this singular vision of salvation history as Rogier initiates the motif of the Magdalene's tears.

Further, she stands in distinction to the Virgin Mary who has swooned from her grief, and these positions are supported by the text of Inclusa Ava,

Alas, Mary Magdalena,
how you stood there,
when you saw your good Lord
hanging and bleeding,
and you saw on his body
the stab wounds. (21)

She concluded this episode as follows,

Now I want to tell you
who want to hear it,
who they were
that went with her.
She herself was Mary
whom our savior
saved for you with his power
from evil spirits.
Her lamentations were the greatest. (22)

Through this text, as in this painting, Mary Magdalene's lachrymose eyes and her elegantly dripping tears have an identifiable theological context for she is the anointer, chief mourner, and female disciple; and she has a cultural context, namely her role in contemporary liturgical plays, devotional books, and lay spirituality. (23) So Rogier fills "the space between" the lines of the scriptural narrative with a new rendering of the Magdalene, one influenced by the then contemporary understanding of Mary Magdalene and by his own experiencing of devotional texts.

The space between in Wafter Verdin's Sliding Time

When the curator of M Museum Leuven, Veronique Vandekerchove, said to me "After you have seen the exhibition, go into the auditorium where we have placed this video installation of the Descent from the Cross," my initial (and internal) reaction was not optimistic, especially as the painting is of such importance to me. However, when I entered the room and began to watch the ten plasma screens upon which Verdin had positioned the ten figures he had extracted from Rogier's painting, my opinion changed.

So the question becomes what does this contemporary re-visioning of a classic masterpiece have to say about the relationship between art and theology in the twenty-first century? I dare say a great deal as this video artist has not brought to life a forgotten work but rather reinvigorated our reception of a theologically complex painting in a new artistic format, and increased its accessibility now that Sliding Time remains available on the internet. By stripping down the multifaceted activity within Rogier's golden box of religious intensity and human emotions to the fundamental nature of the ten characters, Verdin has reminded us of the essence of the original painting. While part hommage and part re-vision, Sliding Time offers us a new way of encountering these muted figures so imbued with embodied emotions and actions, and highlighted by the interplay of brilliantly jeweled tones of colors. He provides a new way of reading the narrative in which these ten figures participate not as one single moment but rather as several interrelated episodes in the scriptural and liturgical narratives of the Passion events from the mourners at the foot of the cross, to the removal of the body of Christ from the cross, to the lamentations over the dead body, and finally to the burial rituals and entombment.

By allowing us to encounter each individual figure in its own individual integrity, Verdin creates a new work of art that incorporates a potential serial panorama with his visual multiplicity of "the space between" as highlighted by the differing positions of the ten plasma screens. These allow for a new sense of the time and movement within the vista created from these individual figures--now separated from each other and then again connected both in new groupings and in familiar relationships. The alternation of pulsating and frozen moments encourages attention from twenty-first-century viewers who now live in a visual universe of computer technology, rapid-Ere imagery on television and film, and a desire for quickened response.

For we live in the twenty-first century with a visual vocabulary that is incessantly pulsating with an anxious dynamism as our media culture drives us incessantly toward continuous change which the art critic Robert Hughes labeled "the shock of the new." We might be persuaded that in such a world of inexorably morphing images we no longer need or require the experience of a classic work of art which more likely than not would be characterized as old-fashioned, static, and non-receptive for the contemporary viewer. The unremitting truism is, however, that by its very nature a classic is timeless and transcends the otherwise traditionally defined limitations of time and space. The classic "speaks" to every viewer in a meaningful and participative way regardless of the boundaries of class, race, sex, and geography. The visual vocabulary of religious emotions and values is dependent upon and expressive of human emotion and memory, particularly in the art of Rogier van der Weyden who fills the gaps, presences ambiguities, and repeats memorable figurations throughout the "space between."

Nonetheless, Verdin's re-vision creates additional new interest in a classic masterpiece and its sources including the original "space between" that Rogier sought so brilliantly to reflect upon and fill. While we are drawn back to the original, we are simultaneously drawn forward to the contemporary frame of aesthetic experience as these two artists living some 500 years apart have provided us with the opportunity to expand our definition of textuality and to transcend the logocentric tradition of the West.

I am grateful to the co-editors of this special issue of CrossCurrents for the inclusion of my work. Once again, I am pleased to acknowledge the technical support provided by my former student, Daniel G. Callahan, and for his careful reading and critique of my essay. Further, I wish to recognize that special form of collegial support which led me to live a life of the mind in the academy of scholars, and that I have continued to receive in my research on this particular painting, especially in terms of Rogier's iconology of the Magdalene, from a number of colleagues, first and foremost, Lorne Campbell, Erika Langmuir, Gabriele Finaldi, Moshe Barasch, Alfred Acres, Barbara Baert, Barbara von Barghahn, Veronique Vandekerchove, Arthur Hall Smith, Diana Scarisbrick, Margaret Scott, and Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., through conversations filled with passionate energy and insightful criticisms. A note on the spellings of Magdalene in this essay: The English translations of this female saint's name have several variants from Magdalene to Magdalen and Magdalena. My own preference is Magdalene; however, when variations appear in this text, it is to maintain accuracy of the original authors of the quoted or published resources


(1.) I traveled to Leuven in early October 2009 to see Rogier van der Weyden 1400-1464: Master of Passions, which celebrated the opening of M, Museum Leuven. I am grateful to both Lorne Campbell, Senior Research Curator, The National Gallery, London, who served as Chair of the Scientific Committee for this special exhibition, and Veronique Vandekerchove, Curator of M, Museum Leuven, who alerted me to the exhibition and its dates several years in advance. I happily acknowledge many conversations on Rogier and, especially, on his interpretations of the figure of Mary Magdalene with Dr. Campbell. Further, Dr. Vandekerchove generously guided me through M, Museum Leuven, on my initial visit on October 1, 2009.

(2.) That is the understanding that the English word aesthetic derives from the Greek, [alpha][iota][delta][theta][eta][omega] [tau][iota][kappa]-[sigma][xi] "to come to know through the senses ...."

(3.) As Rogier's Descent from the Cross is too fragile to travel, the Belgian video artist Walter Verdin was commissioned to create an installation piece focusing on this masterpiece for the exhibition. Sliding Time remains accessible to interested viewers on the following website:

(4.) For example, see Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions (New York: Gallery of the American Bible Society, 2002); Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. "On the Visual and the Vision: The Magdalene in Early Christian and Byzantine Art and Culture" in Deirdre Good, ed., Mariam, The Magdalen, and the Mother (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 123149; and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, "'Pray with tears and your request will find a hearing': On the iconology of the Magdalene's Tears" in Kimberley C. Patton and Jack S. Hawley, eds., Holy Tears: Weeping in the Religious Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 201-228.

(5.) Given both its prosaic narrative style and its publication history, I employ the Douay-Rheims edition of the Bible in my research. All biblical references herein are quoted from the 1899 English translation now available at http://drbo.orgi.

(6.) However, the biblical scholar continues to adhere to her position which I would define as one of the primacy of the word. Her point was that when Mary Magdalene looked at Jesus, she didn't recognize him and thought him the gardener. It was only when she heard him speak her name that she recognized him. Hence, the word trumped the image in her understanding of this biblical passage.

(7.) This iconographic motif which develops in Byzantine art as the chairete ([chi]x[iota][rho][epsilon][tau][omega]) evolved into the Noli Me Tangere motif of Western Christian art.

(8.) Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, "Mary Magdalene: First Witness," Sacred History Magazine 2.2 (2006):30-33.

(9.) Herbert Read, The Art of Sculpture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), 29.

(10.) See for example, Margaret R. Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female nakedness and religious meaning in the Christian West (Boston: Beacon Press. 1989), and Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 183-209.

(11.) For an overview of the definition and methodologies of visual culture, the reader is referred to David Morgan, "Visual Culture and Religion: An Overview" in Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., 15 vols. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference 2005), 14:9620-9624.

(12.) See for example, Lorne Campbell, "The New Pictorial Language of Rogier van der Weyden", Margaret Scott, "Dress and Reality in Rogier van der Weyden", Barbara Baert, "The Passion of the Magdalen: Gesture and Gaze in Rogier van der Weyden", and Frederica Veratelli, "Moved to Tears: Van der Weyden as Painter of Controlled Emotion" in Lorne Campbell and Jan van der Stock, eds., Rogier van der Weyden 1400-1464: Master of Passions (Leuven: M Leuven, 2009), 32-61, 130-144, 439440, and 502-503, respectively.

(13.) Otto von Simson, "Compassio and Co-redemptio in Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross," The Art Bulletin 35.1(1953):9-16.

(14.) See for example the discussions of Rogier's innovative Magdalenian motifs in Moshe Barasch, "The Crying Face," Artibus et Historiae 8.15 (1987):21-36; Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, "Picturing Devotion: Rogier's St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" in Carol Purtle, ed., Rogier van der Weyden's "Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin": Essays in Context (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997), 5-14; Apostolos-Cappadona, "Pray with tears"; and Baert, "The Passion of the Magdalen".

(15.) For example, Moshe Bausch, Imago Hominis (Vienna: Verlag IRSA, 1990); Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971 119531); and Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 (19841).

(16.) Panofslcy, Early Netherlandish Art, II:257.

(17.) Max J. Friedlander, Early Netherlandish Painting, Volume II: Rogier van der Weyden and the Master of Flernalle (New York: Praeger, 1967), 22.

(18.) James A. Rushing, Jr., ed. and trans., Ava's New Testament Narratives: "When the Old Law Passed Away" (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003).

(19.) Campbell, "The New Pictorial Language," 43. Professor Leigh Ann Craig of Virginia Commonwealth University has suggested that I consider that the Magdalene's pose, especially the dramatic contortion of her arms as a dance gesture which combined with the position of her legs, is leading, as Campbell suggests, to her descent into her familiar cross-legged position. If, in fact, this proves to be a potential consideration it could be seen as melding the medieval tradition of Mary Magdalene as a dancer (signifying particularly in Northern European art that she was a courtesan) and coordinating further with Scott's argument that the costume Rogier has created for her in this painting and in his Seven Sacraments Altarpiece signifies her previous sinful life and affirms the depth of her sorrowful lamentations. For an alternate interpretation of both the Magdalene's pose and the relationship of her hands to those of the servant posed between (and behind) her and Nicodemus, see Al Acres, "Posing Inventions in Renaissance Painting" in Julien Chapuis, ed., INVENTION: Northern Renaissance Studies in Honor of Molly Fades (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 3-19, see especially 5-7.

(20.) See also Matthew 27:59-61; Mark 15:46-47; and Luke 23:52-56.

(21.) Rushing, Ava's New Testament Narratives, Chapter 156, Lines 1-6.

(22.) Ibid., Chapter 168, Lines 1-10.

(23.) For example, consider the emphasis on the "weeping Magdalene" in Bonaventura's Meditationes where she weeps within the narratives of the Crucifixion, Lamentation, and Burial, see especially Chapters LXXVIII and LXXXII.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Previous Article:Sacral image--scripture--body--art: on a fundamental media theory of mono-theism.
Next Article:Contemplative recovery: the artwork of James Turrell.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |