A View from the Sacristy: St. Luke’s Chapel Altarpiece

March 15, 2017 Comments Off on A View from the Sacristy: St. Luke’s Chapel Altarpiece

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

In many churches, the chapel behind the high (main) altar is often called “The Lady Chapel” and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  We do not have that tradition at St. Luke’s, but perhaps we should!

This week I want to explore the altarpiece in our chapel.

“An altarpiece is an artwork such as a painting, sculpture or relief representing a religious subject made for placing behind the altar of a Christian church. Though most commonly used for a single work of art such as a painting or sculpture, or a set of them, the word can also be used of the whole ensemble behind an altar, otherwise known as a reredos, including what is often an elaborate frame for the central image or images. Altarpieces were one of the most important products of Christian art especially from the late Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries) to the era of the Counter-Reformation (beginning with the Council of Trent in 1545 and ending with the close of the Thirty years’ War in 1648).” [wiki]

St. John of Damascus called an icon a “channel of divine grace,” the place where heaven and earth meet, so that we can have a glimpse of heaven. Iconographer John Walstead, late of Staten Island, created our altarpiece in the traditional style of the Eastern Orthodox church. The altarpiece is a series of five icons with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary as recorded in both the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. These five events are only found in Luke’s Gospel: (1) The central panel is a depiction of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40); (2) the scene on the upper left is a scene from the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38); (3) below this is the Visitation (Luke 1:39-57); (4) on the upper right is the scene of the Disputation (a.k.a., The Finding in the Temple, and also called “Christ among the Doctors”) (Luke 2:41-52); and (5) the lower right is a scene from the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). Let’s press in and take a closer look.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

(1) Traditionally, the Feast of the Presentation is kept on February 2nd. At St Luke’s we celebrate it on the first Sunday of February since that is also the date of our parish’s annual meeting. Luke weaves a story of Mary and Joseph as faithful parents who bring their infant son to the Temple in thanksgiving to God for the safe delivery of the child. The Holy Spirit has moved two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who spent their whole life in and around the temple in Jerusalem waiting for what Simeon called the consolation and redemption of Israel, to meet Mary and Joseph in the temple where the two aged prophets say amazing things about the baby to his parents. (I always try to figure out which moment from the Presentation is portrayed.) In our icon we see the moment when “[Simeon] took [Jesus] up in his arms and blessed God and said…” (Luke 2:28) and will soon praise God with the words of the Nunc Dimittis (“Now you dismiss…”), which is also called The Song or Canticle of Simeon:

 Lord, you now have set your servant free * to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, * whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, * and the glory of your people Israel.

 We pray the Nunc Dimittis, appropriately, at the end of Compline (bedtime prayer) every day, and also as a choice of one of the 19 canticles recited at Evening Prayer. One of these canticles is said or sung after each reading.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

(2) The next scene, the Annunciation, is the story of the Angel Gabriel coming to visit the Virgin Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to be the mother of Jesus. This Feast is kept on March 25th every year. It is appropriately nine months before Christmas and always falls during Lent. In Western Europe until the 15th Century, March 25th was New Year’s Day! We see the Virgin busy spinning yarn, being startled, and dropping her spindle in response to the words of the Angel Gabriel as he approaches from behind and says, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke1: 28). Many devotees of the Virgin Mary would argue that she was accustomed to visits by angels and it wasn’t the angel that startled her but the message the angel gave. In our icon, the response of Mary to the words of the angel is so human. I often think, does one hear an angel as he approaches? Or do angels just appear and that’s why their first words are always, “Fear not!”

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

(3) Our eye travels downward and we see the scene of the Visitation. As the story goes, after the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who herself is pregnant with her first child, even well after the time she should be able to conceive. (Elizabeth’s son will be John the Baptist.) Tradition tells us that the Virgin left right away, going “into the hill country…into a city of Judah”. The journey from Nazareth to Hebron is about 81 miles in a direct line, which is about 21 hours of easy walking. Elizabeth was in her sixth month before Mary came (Luke 1:36). The Feast of the Visitation is of medieval origin and was promoted by the Franciscans. It is now kept on May 31st, but for many years was held on July 2nd and in some places is still celebrated on that day. In most icons of this scene the two women are standing and greeting each other, but in our icon the Virgin is sitting and Elizabeth comes in to greet her. Perhaps our icon shows that moment in the story where Luke writes, “And Mary remained with her about three months” (Luke 1:56). Elizabeth does not hold a baby so we can assume that John the Baptist has not been born, and most scholars hold the Virgin stayed with Elizabeth through the birth of John. In this lovingly depicted scene, we have two very human mothers-to-be keeping each other company. Perhaps they are exchanging the miraculous stories of how each found her self to be a mother for the first time.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

(4) The Disputation, or the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple, has no appointed Feast day on the church calendar. It is, however, the Gospel lesson for the Feast of St. Joseph which occurs on March 19th, and one of the suggested Gospel lessons for the Second Sunday of Christmas (which, because of the calendar, happens rarely, so this is not a story we hear very often). Jesus is 12 years old and comes to Jerusalem with his family for Passover. As Jesus’ parents are on the way back home, they realize that Jesus is not with them. (This does not make them bad parents, it’s just that villagers often walked in packs, visiting here and there along the way, going from one group to another; we presume the kids would gambol and play, rushing ahead and lagging behind.) They return to Jerusalem and “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2: 46). This is the scene we see in our icon. The icon writer has used the traditional depiction of figures in the Byzantine style where the more important figures are larger, so the boy Jesus looms over the adult scribes. There is no confusion about the figure in the doorway since she has a halo and is identified as the Virgin above her head with the Greek letters “Mρ ΘY,” an abbreviation of Meter Theou (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ) – in Greek, the Mother of God. It is interesting that the icon writer uses perspective so that figures closer to the horizon appear smaller, as we see the Virgin coming through the doorway to find her son.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Brome

(5) The final scene, on the lower right, is an icon of the goings-on from the Day of Pentecost. This is one of the seven major Feasts of the Episcopal Church (see pp. 15 – 17 in The Book of Common Prayer) and occurs 50 days after Easter on a Sunday, so that generally falls in late April or May.  Pentecost is the day the Church remembers the arrival of the Comforter, God’s Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised to send to his followers to give them understanding, boldness, and strength to help them spread the Good News. According to the First Book of Acts, the twelve were together in the Upper Room after the Lord’s Ascension and, “devoted themselves to prayer together with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Our icon is from the Second Book of Acts: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-3). We can see the flames coming down from the circle of heaven to rest on the heads of the Virgin and the apostles. The Virgin sits in the center of the apostles with six on either side. She is also portrayed a bit lager in size in the Byzantine style, so the viewer knows that she is the most important figure in the scene. The crowned figure in the darkened arch represents the world that sits in darkness waiting to hear the good news.

Well, I hope you had an interesting walk about the alterpiece with me and look forward to seeing it in person when the veils come off after Easter (!) for Luke, actually, is all around.

Next week we will think about St Luke in his role as “the painter”.

– Sean Scheller

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