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Issue Date:  September 1, 2006

Art draws on gospels the church rejects

Christian artists have long mined apocryphal texts


Taken together, the bestselling book and the recently launched film of The Da Vinci Code add up to a Category Five hurricane on the popular culture scene. With it, a tidal wave of opposition has arisen from people who demand that art touching religion be orthodox. Yet artists’ renderings of noncanonical stories about New Testament figures are as old as the early centuries of Christianity when such tales were first told. Assorted texts deemed apocryphal by the church served up variations on and additions to the stories told by the four evangelists, and inspired a distinctive vein of artwork spanning centuries.

These representations occur across the spectrum of media and objects: from stained glass windows to illuminated manuscripts; from altarpieces to sculpture. Despite official censure of the source material, some noncanonical artworks remain ensconced in churches. In such cases the integrity of ecclesial architecture trumped the absent imprimatur.

One story, from the text known as the Protevangelium of James, places a midwife, a commonplace figure on the contemporary Jewish scene, at the birth of Jesus. Actually, several nativity stories are recorded with variations on the midwife tale. Sometimes there are two midwives, one of them named Salome, as in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The crux of the story: The midwife denies the possibility of a virgin birth and moves to verify the fact physically. As she engages in the test, her impertinent hand is consumed by fire. Chastened, believing, and prompted by an angel, she reaches out for the healing touch of the newborn Christ child.

Robert Campina’s oil painting “The Nativity” (c. 1425) shows two midwives, one displaying her restored hand; overhead banners record the texts of the angel-midwife exchange. Midwives are also seen in one panel of a gold and cloisonné reliquary from the Vatican’s Sancta Sanctorum. Aspects of nearly all of the seven scenes on the cross-shaped reliquary can be traced to apocryphal writings.

Another representation of the Nativity in a large-scale Byzantine fresco (c. 1175) in the Church of Karanlik Kilise in Turkey is interesting not only for its two midwives, but for locating the birth of Jesus in a cave and including an ox and a donkey. The nativity site, not pinpointed by the evangelists, is most often a stable in Western art, but in Eastern art, it is usually a cave. Nor are the familiar animal crèche figures, so ubiquitous today, found in the canonical gospels. The earliest written source we have for the ox and the donkey is the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which scholars date to about the year 800, yet these animals were carved in stone on a fourth-century Roman sarcophagus lid, now part of the pulpit of the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan.

Tales of Jesus’ childhood

Following the birth of Jesus comes the family’s flight into Egypt. Among the synoptic Gospels, only Matthew records it, and without elaboration. The fifth century Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, on the other hand, provides an embroidered version of the trip. One scholar has called this source “the Christian equivalent of the ‘Thousand and One Nights.’ ” With King Herod’s troops on the trail of his threatened rival, the infant miraculously brings to ripening a freshly sown wheat field. The pursuing military, learning the family passed by when workers were planting the field, conclude that the trio is long gone and abandon the chase. In the background of “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” by Joachim Patinir (c. 1480-1524), harvesters can be seen gathering the crop.

A compendium of tales from the childhood of Jesus presents him as a precocious, mischievous tyro and worse. Joseph warns Mary to keep him from going out because “all that provoke him die.” This second-century apocryphal source, the Infancy Story of Thomas, traces Jesus from age 5 to the time, at 12, when he astounds the elders in the temple with his knowledge. In the late 12th-century St. Martin Church, in Zillis, Switzerland, a ceiling painting illustrates one incident recounted in the Thomas text, picturing Jesus as a child at streamside in the company of two playmates. According to the story, Jesus demonstrates his powers, first fashioning 12 sparrows out of clay from the streambed, next bringing his avian sculptures to life. In the painting, each playmate in the foreground holds a clay bird. Behind them, a bird takes flight from the hand of Jesus. Other scenes among the 153 ceiling panels include apocryphal details.

When the church formulated the New Testament canon in the fourth century, notable among texts rejected were stories that featured talking animals. Another excluded story, from the second-century Acts of Paul, emphasizes the closeness of humans and animals, even to the extent of placing both classes of creatures on the same plane. This tale, reminiscent of Daniel in the lion’s den, recounts Paul’s confrontation in the arena at Ephesus with a formidable lion. At close range, he recognizes the lion as one he had baptized in Palestine.

Indeed, some legends have a striking resonance with canonical writings. While Paul and his lion mirror the Old Testament story, a different tale of doubting Thomas can be found in artwork. Iconic as the missing member of the 12 apostles unwilling to accept without physical proof the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus, Thomas figures as a doubter still later in his life in “The Assumption of the Virgin and Saints” by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452). When Thomas remains unconvinced that the body of the Virgin Mary has been taken up to heaven, she reaches down to put into his hand the belt that girdled her waist as proof of the Assumption. This anecdote of Thomas is based on The Golden Legend of medieval times, which cites Christ’s contemporary, Joseph of Arimathea, as the teller of the tale.

The apocryphal work, the Gospel of Philip, originally composed in the second or third century, singles out Mary Magdalene as the disciple Jesus loved more than any other. But no text, even among the apocrypha, calls her the wife of Jesus, as the novel The Da Vinci Code would have it. Still, that idea was apparently not unknown. Witness a painting in the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, France, which presents a classic saintly figure with gilded halo. As the viewer moves in front of the painting, a semi-obscure figure of a haloed child emerges, as if perched on the woman’s arm. The painting is identified remarkably as “St. Mary Magdalene.”

This “Magdalene” is part of a collection of religious art spanning the 14th to the 16th centuries and located in the former archbishop’s palace in Avignon. The building stands at the north end of the large square in front of the Palais des Papes, home in the 14th century to six of the seven original Avignon popes and afterward to the antipopes of the Western Schism. The museum’s collection belonged to Gian Pietro Campana, a 19th-century Roman aristocrat and bank director whose avid taste for art led him to embezzlement. His collection was seized by the Vatican to cover his debts, later dispersed, and eventually reunited in the Avignon museum. Today, the tourist brochure for the Petit Palais is decorated with five artworks from its collection, none of them identified. Featured on one fold of the brochure: the “Magdalene” with faintly rendered, haloed child.

At Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, gallery goers can encounter examples of the influence of apocrypha in two Albrecht Dürer woodcuts. These early 16th-century works draw on legends of Mary as well as the Arabic Infancy Gospel. As part of his “Life of the Virgin” cycle, Dürer created “The Sojourn in Egypt,” in which Joseph the carpenter is a prominent figure engaged in his trade. An earlier episode in the Dürer cycle is “The Presentation of the Virgin for Temple Service.” Created a century before the Dürer, a magnificent Titian in the Venice Accademia depicts Mary as a 3-year-old ascending the steps of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Marian presentation scene interpreted by Dürer, Titian, and still earlier by Giotto in a fresco in Padua’s Arena Chapel, derives from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (c. 150).

In June 1997 the journal Bible Review published a cover story by David R. Cartlidge on non-canonical artworks. A large-format book that treats these works and their off-center origins, presenting more than 100 full-color illustrations, is The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed by R.J. Porter, published by the University of Chicago Press. Published the same year, Art and the Christian Apocrypha by Cartlidge and J. Keith Elliott (Routledge) has an equal number of black-and-white reproductions drawing on the same vast realm. Both books couple the foundation text with each illustration. Cartlidge puts the number of extant images derived from apocryphal writings at 2,000.

With The Da Vinci Code now reaching an even wider audience, readers and moviegoers should be aware of just how long and broadly the creative impulse has drawn on stories the church eschewed as errant variations of biblical texts. Understanding the history of such art and its sources, the audience can see newer works in terms of the creative expressions they are. As the continuation of a longstanding artistic tradition, such works need not be feared or reviled. Rather, they can be looked at matter of factly as part of the history of ideas, whether authentic or inauthentic, and valued based on their artistic merit within the chosen genre.

Susanne Washburn, a freelance writer in Vermont, is a former TIME magazine senior reporter.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2006

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