Putting God in His place: Here, everywhere, and nowhere | The audacity of Christian art

by: The National Gallery

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Christians believe that God is eternal and omnipresent Christ who is God the Son came down from heaven lived on earth for a particular time and in specific places died was resurrected and ascended again to heaven in this episode I'll be looking at how artists use place to explore the relationship between God as God is everywhere and nowhere always and beyond time and the particularity of Christ's presence in the here-and-now of historical time we're going back to the conservation department to look at a wonderful example of this use of presence and place in a picture by the 15th century Florentine artist Lorenzo Dyck lady [Music] it appears to show a beautiful fashionable woman breastfeeding her baby this deliciously chubby baby with his dimpled flesh and his mother's golden hair and rosy cheeks is very very human it would be easy to forget that he isn't only human but I think there's something curious about the place in which they are set at first glance the architecture appears unremarkable but many people find that when they look again the pillars seem to jump out of alignment the one on the left suddenly seems to be set deeper into the distance and the one on the right to jump forwards the building becomes confusing we don't know whether Lorenzo de Clady meant to create a mystery quite probably not but the effect of these pillars is unsettling and the more we look at them the more mysterious it seems perhaps we can think of the building as a metaphor for the Virgin and Child these figures who look like a beautiful fashionable young woman and her baby are in fact the sinless mother of God and Christ incarnate creating a mysterious location for them encourages us to look and think more carefully it pushes us away from imagining that we have made sense of everything in the image as artists from the Renaissance onwards were able to depict an increasingly realistic impression of depth and space they encountered a problem the more that the space in a painting looks like real space with real figures in it the harder it is to show that this space is sacred the more challenging it is to show Christ's divinity one way of resolving this problem is to incorporate an element of the Unreal into the painting by creating an implausible building for instance the artist can draw our attention to the paradoxical nature of his greater tasks of painting Christ

of course the mystery of the Incarnation begins at least in an earthly sense with the Annunciation the moment when the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will conceive and give birth to the Son of God if painting Christ as human and divine is difficult how does an artist convey a sense of what is happening at the moment of Christ's conception when we can't see him at all one of the most powerful responses to this problem has been to respect the invisibility of the event to show us that we cannot see it in many Annunciations we see the angel on the left the Virgin on the right and a space between them in this version by Filippo Lippi we see the Virgin in an enclosed garden a metaphor for her purity she's protected from ordinary physical penetration separated even from the angel there's no physical contact the horizontal plane tells us that the Virgin is chaste and set apart and we can follow the angels message on this horizontal axis as it travels from the angel on the left across that central space to the Virgin on the right the vertical axis on the other hand tells us that the Virgin is connected to God light is descending from the hand of God at the top of the painting flowing with the Dove who symbolizes the Holy Spirit down to the Virgin on the right divine light is descending God is incarnated but as well as the horizontal and vertical axes which tell us the story we're also looking into the perspective of the picture on an axis which runs from our viewing point to the vanishing point in the infinite distance and as we look towards the infinite towards the divine our gaze intersects with the message of the angel Lippe can't show us the mystery of Christ's conception but he gives us a spatial metaphor for it he uses place and to make this mystery even clearer or even more mysterious the vanishing point that point of infinity is blocked we can't see that far there's a stone wall in the way at the point when we're looking most deeply into the image we return to the surface you can see this spatial device time and again in paintings of the Annunciation it's as if the very structure of the image its own architecture tells us that we can only understand so much of what is happening here and it brings us up short


More from this creator:
How do artists handle the challenge of attempting to depict a figure who lived a human life on earth – at a specific time and in specific places – but who was simultaneously divine, beyond place and time? In this episode Chloë Reddaway shows how artists have used ‘place’ in their paintings to point to the limitations of our vision and understanding when pondering this mystery, focusing on the mysterious location of Lorenzo di Credi’s ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1480–5) and the spatial metaphors at work in Filippo Lippi’s ‘The Annunciation’ (about 1450–3). ‘The audacity of Christian art: The problem of painting Christ’ is a seven-part series in which Dr Chloë Reddaway, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Curator in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, explores the theological and artistic challenges involved in painting Christ as fully human and fully divine, and reveals some of the ingenious and surprising ways in which Renaissance artists responded. Subscribe to be the first to know about new episodes: http://bit.ly/1HrNTFd

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