Volume > Issue > Briefly: July-August 1999

July-August 1999

Très Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece

By Lillian Schacherl

Publisher: Prestel-Verlag

Pages: 127

Price: $25

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

I have extravagant feelings about this beautiful volume, which contains reproductions from a Book of Hours created for Jean, Duke of Berry, by the now famous Limbourg brothers between 1410 and 1416. Of every reproduction in the book one must say what Schacherl says of the Adam and Eve painting: “This is a magnificent miniature: generously composed, succinctly formulated, so pure of form and so light of touch.”

Books of Hours developed from the breviaries used by clerics but were the personal prayerbooks of the laity, used both at home and church for daily devotions. They typically contained a calendar of the Church’s principal feast days, sequences from the Gospels, the highly popular canonical Hours of the Virgin, the penitential Psalms, and various Masses. Because these books were made for the glory of God, most were as ornate as the worshiper could afford. In due course, Books of Hours became status symbols for the lords and ladies who commissioned them, and bibliophiles like the Duke of Berry maintained staffs of artists who specialized in their production. The last of six different Books of Hours commissioned by that Duke, Très Riches Heures is considered the finest example of the genre. Schacherl presents and analyzes 30 of the lovely illustrations created to adorn its pages.

Here is how Schacherl describes the miniature that first attracted me to the book, The Exorcism, with its tiny black demon fleeing in fright from the blessing of Jesus. The illumination depicts the moment when Christ drives the devil out of a dumb man and restores his speech. Schacherl writes, “On one side the Pharisees watch, gesticulating in alarm and denial, while on the other side a crowd of onlookers observes the scene with astonished curiosity. The many curved forms create a sense of excitement and movement: rhythmic gestures, rounded turbans and the arches of the temple in which the scene unfolds are echoed by arabesques of golden foliage against the deep blue background of the sky.” Schacherl rightly describes the combination of blues and golds as “the harmonious ‘colour chord'” of Très Riches Heures. She points out “the astounding gradations of blue in the clothes, arches and tiles” of The Exorcism and quotes Millard Meiss’s remark about “the artists’ ‘extraordinary French feel for this color.'” I would buy this book for the beauty of its blues and golds alone, but all the colors are sparklingly reproduced.

A valuable complement to the pictures is the author’s chapters on the historical background of Très Riches Heures — on its patron, Jean, Duke of Berry (1340-1416), on the artists Paul, Herman, and Jean Limbourg and their workshop, and on the “wild, colourful, compassionate and callous, sensitive and savage” age in which they all lived, when “sanctity and iniquity, self-indulgence and spirituality went hand in hand.” The historical information is illustrated by miniatures that depict the 12 months of the year, such scenes of daily life having in themselves much to reveal about those hectic times.

Most rewarding of all are the deep spiritual insights found in the commentaries that accompany each illustration. The text tells one just what to look at and why each detail is there. Regarding the illumination called The Fall of the Rebel Angels, for example, where the color chord of blues and golds seems at its peak, Schacherl observes that “the sphere of the Heavens with their Lord is set against the globe of the Earth with its fallen anti-King: a breathtaking composition, intellectually and visually daring.” But she also reminds us that the color green symbolizes eternal life and notes that the falling angels who are cascading out of Heaven are shown losing Heaven’s green from their wings.

Some of the loveliest illustrations depict the mysteries of the Rosary. Among the Joyful Mysteries one finds an Annunciation, a Visitation, a Presentation in the Temple (“a slightly altered copy of a fresco by Taddeo Gaddi in Santa Croce in Florence”), and a lovely Nativity, complete with shepherds and regal magi. The Sorrowful Mysteries are represented by an Agony in the Garden, “striking in its nocturnal effect.” The artists have chosen to depict the moment when Jesus says, “I am He,” and the soldiers who have come to arrest Him fall to the ground, stricken. The Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion are also depicted. Schacherl notes that few representations of the crucifixion “convey as compellingly as this one the fact that this is not a tragedy but a miracle.” And as for the Glorious Mysteries, nothing could be more glorious than the “magnificently festive” Coronation of the Virgin.

The pictures are so enchanting and the book is so lucidly written that I would venture to say that one could catechize a child by calling his attention to the details of these splendid illuminations and Schacherl’s explanations. A child who has seen only the tiresome depictions of the Holy Family masquerading as religious art in our own time — sappily sentimental on the one hand or stylishly “primitive” on the other — could learn much from seeing the dignity of the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who grace the pages of the Limbourg brothers’ masterpiece. And any adult will be refreshed.

Joan of Arc

By Josephine Poole

Publisher: Knopf (children's book)

Pages: 32

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Richard Cowden Guido

Save for the Gospels themselves, portrayals of Christ in literature (as in cinema) always seem inadequate because they don’t quite live up to the idea the reader (or viewer) has of Him. There are related difficulties with portrayals of those who reflected Him in their lives. Poole’s tale of Joan of Arc for children has something of this problem, even as it provides a fair enough outline of what happened. Yet the book’s affection for Joan and its fidelity to the historical record — as opposed to a modern (or modernist) agenda — make it a fine introduction for any Catholic child, or for that matter any Protestant or unchurched child. (Barrett’s illustrations are magnificent.)

Some parents might, however, complain a little about what is left out or is treated too briefly. For example, the resistance to Joan by the French nobility and episcopacy, and her overcoming of it, are poorly dramatized. Neither do we learn of her collapse and recovery before she was burned. Nor does the writer acknowledge that Joan of Arc remains, to this day, the youngest commander of a national army in history. I wonder how well this book will enable children to grasp the remarkable, indeed unique, nature of Joan’s life, and why, even after her death, she inspired the French to reconquer their country. Still, it is not impossible that the book, which includes a chronology and an attractive map, could spark a deeper curiosity about Joan.

Further caveats about this rendition are: a somewhat clumsy presentation of how her furious patriotism mixed with her sorrow for the suffering she and her troops inflicted on the enemy English; occasional remarks about her fasting without any context; and a far too slight account of why she came to the aid of Compiegne, despite being warned by Heaven that this would lead to her capture. The book also omits the profound religious and theological insights this peasant girl regularly offered — and offered in very simple and accessible language. Joan’s faith is never really explained, so her whole adventure, including the voices from Heaven, seems too much like a fairy tale.

Still, as Chesterton might have said, fairy tales are much closer to reality than — well, closer than book reviews, for example. After telling of Joan’s death by burning, the book closes this way: “But that was not the end. A saint is like a star. A star and a saint shine forever.” An adult might quibble about the comparative durability of stars. A kid, on the other hand, is likely to get the poetic point.

Medieval Exegesis, Vol. 1: The Four Senses of Scripture

By Angela Barrett

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 466

Price: $45

Review Author: Robert F. Gotcher

At first blush Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis seems an intimidatingly scholarly book — it has 188 pages of endnotes. A nonscholar may set out gingerly into this wide-ranging investigation of the history of the spiritual interpretation of the Bible, and may pause often amid its sometimes bewildering series of tangents, anecdotes, and quotations. The persevering and careful reader, however, will be amply rewarded for his efforts by hearing a sustained, thorough, and passionate defense of the traditional biblical exegesis used consistently in the Catholic Church until the 20th century.

The heart of de Lubac’s argument is that the Old Testament cannot be understood in a Christian way unless one employs a spiritual exegesis and unless one reads from within the Church. Spiritual exegesis traditionally includes allegorical, moral, and anagogical (“heavenly”) interpretations. He says that a literal reading of the Old Testament — one employing the tools of the historical-critical method, with its supposed neutrality to faith — simply will not point to fulfillment in the New Testament. The coming of Jesus, though prepared for by the Old Testament, is not simply a result of the events in the Old Testament. Only God, the primary author of the Bible, knew about the coming of Jesus, and only His Spirit, present and active in the Church Jesus founded, can help us discern the real preparation that was going on in the Old Testament.

De Lubac does not reject the legitimate contributions of a historical-critical reading of the Bible: “Thus we need both the learned, in order to help us read Scripture historically, and the spiritual men (who ought to be ‘men of the Church’) in order to help us arrive at a deeper spiritual understanding of it. If the former deliver us from our ignorance, the latter ones have the gift of discernment which preserves us from interpretations that are dangerous to the faith.” The fruits of historical research will certainly increase our knowledge of sacred Scripture and help us avoid the worst exaggerations and excesses possible when allegorical exegesis runs amok. But in the end our reading will be barren unless we follow the example of the New Testament authors, the Church Fathers, and the great medieval exegetes such as St. Bernard and St. Thomas. Like them, we must interpret the Bible from the perspective provided by a life of prayer, liturgy, and charity. We must read it on our knees.

Medieval Exegesis, though written in the 1950s, is, if anything, even more timely and urgent today than it was four decades ago. Anyone interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of the Old Testament will benefit from a careful reading of this book.

Roses, Fountains, and Gold: The Virgin Mary in History, Art, and Apparition

By Henri de Lubac

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 265

Price: $14.95

Review Author: David Meconi

“Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” — as Wordsworth would praise Mary — deserves to be as marvelously treated as she is throughout these pages. Martin leaves no issue unraised, no question unanswered. For example, what is the earliest evidence we have showing Christians composing prayers asking for Mary’s protection and intercession? How did the scapular, in all its varied forms, come into popular use? Where did Mary appear and speak Nahuatl? What poet refers to the graces that flow through Mary as a “world-mothering air” and likens her cloak to a “wild web, wondrous robe” which “mantles the guilty globe”?

This work spends a good amount of time answering questions about Marian apparitions. Eleven of the 18 chapters chronicle various reported appearances of Mary. Martin treats Juan Diego’s visions at Tepeyac, Mary’s presence during the Battle of Lepanto, her sorrow at Siluva in Lithuania, the visions of Catherine Labouré, and, of course, La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima. Also taken up are the visions in Pontmain and Knock in Ireland, Beauraing and Banneux in Belgium, and the more recent in Akita (Japan), Kibeho in Rwanda, Garabandal (Spain), and Medjugorje.

Martin — like the Church — is careful not to credit all reports of Mary’s appearing, but he does at least describe some of the more recent apparitions lacking official approval. Of Ireland’s Christina Gallagher, who is said to receive the stigmata every week, he writes, “Unless she is secretly a charlatan to rank with Lola Montez, Lord Gordon-Gordon, and Count Cagliostro, it would seem this largely unlettered housewife from a tiny village in County Mayo has been living out an existence of remarkable spiritual depth and range.” He is more skeptical of New York’s Veronica Leuken: “Then there are those that seem to have come out of left field with all the fans in the bleachers following.” On the question of Medjugorje, Martin properly concludes that, “as with all other alleged apparitions that have not received official approval, it is wise to bear in mind that an apparition can be any one of four things: genuine, hallucinatory, deliberately invented, or satanic.” Martin’s treatment of Marian apparitions is thus judicious and sober.

Martin relies on Justin Martyr’s understanding of Mary as the New Eve to explain how in Mary’s answer to Gabriel, “Let it be done unto me,” we find the restoration of creation. Her obedience is an inspiration for the heights in human culture. Accordingly, Martin finds Mary to be the Queen of poets, since her Magnificat is the beginning of Christian poetry. She is likewise the Model of artists and the Inspiration of architects: the first tabernacle and the first cathedral to house the Divine. Thus the book’s title: Mary continues rejuvenating creation “as she comforts the earth with the beauty of roses, the mercy of fountains, and the permanence of gold.” Nowhere is the craftsmanship she inspired more apparent than in France, “the Church’s eldest daughter.” Martin points out how in the cathedrals of France Mary, inspires stone almost into life. Martin quotes the British essayist Cecil Headlam: “The cathedral is a Bible in stone, and the porches a gospel in relief, a sculptured catechism, a preface and résumé of the book. Each stone, thus understood, is seen to be a page of a great drama.”

Both devotional and apologetic, this is a perfect introduction to the role of the Mother of God in the life of Christianity. Martin’s work should be especially helpful to anyone new to the Faith and to those who misunderstand the Church’s Marian teachings. It includes, for example, an excellent explanation of the fittingness of the Immaculate Conception as well as how the Church understands Christ’s “brothers” referred to in the New Testament. Here one will also find a detailed history of the Rosary as well as the scriptural basis for the veneration of relics. Martin’s prose is very accessible — perhaps too accessible at times (e.g., “East Side, West Side, all around the Empire” or, in discussing a textual variant at Genesis 3:15, “to paraphrase Ira Gershwin, whether you say ipse and I say ipsa is of little consequence…”). The book’s reproductions of great Marian art strengthen Martin’s points throughout. Unfortunately, the book has neither bibliographical references nor an index. Despite this, Martin’s latest is highly recommended for anyone interested in growing closer to Christ through His Mother, our Mother, who is both guide and path.

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