Friday, December 16, 2011


(Adoration of the Christ Child and Annunciation to the Shepherds, Bernardino Luini, 1520, New Orleans Museum of Art)

Bernardino Luini.

Now there's an Italian name for you.

Roll that one around on your tongue for a few seconds and see what you think.

I adore this Renaissance master's last name.

"Loo - e - nee."

The pronunciation of his name reminds me of a scrumptious pasta - one that is dripping in warm, silky butter and melted, gooey parmesan.

Luini's sacred paintings are as delicious to the eye as his name is to the tongue.

It is believed that Bernardino worked  directly with Leonardo da Vinci.

As a result of this master/student relationship, many of Bernardino's paintings were originally attributed to Leonardo.

Sydney J. Freedberg once stated:

"Bernardino Luini took as much from Leonardo as his native roots enabled him to comprehend."


I'm thinking that comment was not meant to be a compliment for Bernardino.

No matter.

Bernardino's "Adoration of the Christ Child and Annunciation to the Shepherds" is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful nativity portraits ever painted.

It's real.

It's honest.

It portrays timeless truths.

All pretension is absent from this masterpiece.

Please trust me - this is a refreshing change of pace in the world of art.

At first glance, we find Mary and Joseph gazing tenderly at their new born Son.

They are clearly in the act of providing comfort for their sleeping babe.

Mary's left hand carefully holds the Child's head in a near upright position - swaddling clothes and all.

What is Joseph's doing?

He seems to be sliding something under the holy infant.

A closer look tells us that the dark brown object appears to be woven.

Is it a basket?

Or simply a mat?

Perhaps it is neither of those things.

I don't think it really matters to us, the viewers.

What does matter is this:

The awe struck parents are doing all they can to provide simple comforts for their Child.

They are united in spirit as well as in task as they each do their part in the care of their precious babe.

I love that about this painting!

Is there a parent anywhere who can not relate to Luini's interpretation of this holy scene?

All parents stand in awe of the tiny life they have created together.

Every finger is counted.

Every toe is examined.

Every expectation of a glorious life together is deeply felt within the parents' hearts.

Bernardino masterfully portrays these sacred feelings.

What is happening through the window at the upper portion of the painting?

We glimpse the angel Gabriel announcing the holy birth to the shepherds who are guarding their flocks by night.

And what a night it is!

All  may not be calm in that very moment.

We feel the excitement of the shepherds as we study their outstretched arms and their raised, attentive heads.

But surely all is bright.

The cerulean blue of Luini's night sky adds intense color to the painting.

The gauzy white of Gabriel's ethereal glow acts as a holy halo.

Although the white and woolly sheep are not aware of the event unfolding before their eyes,  their caretakers are.

The shepherds are fully engaged as they listen to Gabriel's message.

Our hearts join with theirs as we experience joy in this sacred message.

Let's return to the foreground of the painting for a moment.

A shepherd appears at the far left side of the painting.

He is carrying a spotless lamb.

One without blemish.

The perfect lamb symbolizes the perfect Savior.

The very Savior who has come into this worn and weary world to redeem humankind.

This Savior will experience every facet of mortal life while He journeys here.

That is as it should be.

For He must fully understand human misery in order to fully save us from it.

He will model sacred behavior for every single one of us.

He will teach us the way back to Him.

He will be our divine Mentor.

The Savior will do all of these things because He loves each of us as only a perfect God can love.

This is love in its most mature form.

This is a love which we can not yet understand.

Still, our deepest hopes thrive in that holy love.


A final thought:

When I saw this painting in the art museum, I longed for Luini's babe to be wrapped snugly in His swaddling clothes.

Those bent, outstretched arms and tiny stiff fingers seemed to be begging for the warmth of a blanket!

"Surely, Mary and Joseph are about to enfold their fragile Child in His swaddling clothes," I thought to myself.

Then I glanced at the wall plate beside Bernardino's painting.

It read:

"The infant is warmed by the breath of the animals who represent the union Jesus would build between the Jews, representing the ox in the painting, and the Gentiles, who are symbolized by the donkey."

The master painter had spoken.

He had already taken care of the babe's need for bodily warmth.

And long before I appeared before his painting with my all-too-human worries.

The Savior of the world does that for us.

He anticipates our every need.

He stands ready to comfort us before we realize we are in need of His comfort!

I am grateful for that knowledge.

As I am grateful for that Holiest of Nights so very long ago.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


(St. Joseph and the Christ Child, Guido Reni, 1638, Houston Museum of Art)

It is true that some historical figures go in and out of favor over time.

Such was the case of the Biblical Joseph -  foster father of the Redeemer of the world.

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period,  Joseph was mostly a forgotten man.

When we examine the doctrinal truths surrounding Joseph's story, this is not difficult to understand.

After all, it was the Virgin Mary who was appointed by God to conceive and bear this holy Child.

It would be primarily Mary who would succor and nurture the infant Jesus and then guide His growth and development over the course of His childhood.

By the late 16th century, pictorial images of Joseph with the Christ Child became increasingly popular.

As did Roman Catholic accounts of Joseph's life written by Teresa of Avila and later, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Largely as a result of these written and visual images,  Joseph's role as foster father of Christ was given added prominence.

We have acclaimed Italian painter, Guido Reni, to thank - among others - for the visual rise of Joseph's standing in the Christian world.

In his day, the great Guido was called "divine."

This was an epithet shared only with Renaissance mega-masters Michelangelo and Raphael.

In one way, Guido's life closely paralleled Joseph's.

For a time, Guido became a forgotten figure thanks to influential English art critic, John Ruskin.

In 1847, Ruskin declared that Guido Reni and his contemporary colleagues  possessed "no single virtue, no colour, no drawing, no character, no history, no thought."


I have a thought.

And it's this:

The esteemed John Ruskin must have been using marbles for eyeballs!

What was he thinking if and when he viewed Guido's beautiful masterpiece, "Saint Joseph and the Christ Child"?

Let's take a closer look.

First of all,  I love Guido's tender treatment of the gaze between Joseph and the infant Christ.

To me, the emotional connection between these familial figures is more than apparent.

It speaks of the highest grace and beauty.

It speaks of warmth and devotion.

Although Ruskin stated that Reni's school of painters used "no colour" I see a canvas filled with rich, earthy hues.

Deep chocolate shades of brown and taupe anchor the background.

These hues are echoed in Joseph's robe which is highlighted with just the right touch of gray.

The baby's creamy skin and carrot hued curls add a soft, peachy glow to this masterpiece.

Joseph's white beard and the white swaddling blanket bring added light and life to the hallowed babe's countenance.

Though the father and son are the stars of this painting, it is Joseph's magnificent cloak that deserves our secondary attention.

That gorgeous sienna hued fabric - the brightest color in the painting - softly encircles Joseph and the infant Jesus.

The cloak serves to bond them together in a symbolic sense.

Scriptural accounts tell us that Joseph taught the child Jesus carpentry skills.

The Redeemer worked in that trade before His ministry began in earnest at the age of 30.

Did Joseph teach Jesus everyday life skills as well?

We can surely imagine that he did.

Would not this Child's Heavenly Father want His only begotten Son brought up in an earthly home where spiritual truths were modeled by an attentive, loving father figure?

Finally, we do not want to forget that gently offered apple.

Christ holds it up for Joseph's perusal.

Frequently present in Christian paintings, the apple represents the act of the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

Further, it symbolizes the need for a loving Savior who will unselfishly offer Himself as Redeemer for humankind.


Guido Reni felt inspired to lighten his palette around the year 1630.

Simply put, the artist decided to use a softer touch.

He eliminated or lightened the dark shadows that frequently appeared in his older works.

He cleaned up his compositions by simplifying their outlines.

His brushwork became loose and free flowing.

His lovely pale colors mingled more softly.

As a result of these innovations, Guido's art began to take on a more luminous quality.

"Saint Joseph and the Christ Child" was painted sometime between the years 1638 and 1640.

This masterpiece became the beneficiary of Guido's new thinking and new technique.

That is oh-so-very obvious, isn't it?

It wasn't until the 1950's and 1960's that Guido's reputation as a brilliant painter was rightfully restored.

He is currently considered one of the greatest artists of the Italian Baroque era.

Special appreciation is given to Guido for the ethereal beauty of his soft colors.

But it is the grace and nobility of Guido's human figures that delight the hearts of his viewers today.

His painterly vision ennobles humanity.

It speaks of the divine within us.

The subject of Joseph's affection for the infant Christ held a special place in Guido's heart.

At least two other versions of this subject were painted.

Guido understood that a father's love is necessary.

His Joseph stands as a sentinel bearing witness to the holiness of a father's love.

The babe's calm repose and steady gaze reinforce that sacred witness.