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Traditionally Christmas has been a reasonably fallow time for
journalists. News events of reasonable significance are usually few and
far between; in years past even politicians and terrorists seemed to
take a few days off around the holidays. That’s one reason Freedom
House’s annual survey of freedom in the world, released to the media
each year about this time, usually got reasonably good play.

The news was full of impeachment last year, and it does seem as if a
bit more than usual of real significance is happening this year. But I
plan to let world events take their course without much comment so I can
tell you about a new book I just found that’s guaranteed to take you
above and beyond the petty day-to-day concerns of modern life.

“Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings” just came
out from Yale University Press. At $25.00 it’s a bargain as art books go
these days. It is beautifully printed on fine-coated paper with more
than 160 plates, most of them in superbly reproduced color. Just leafing
through the paintings, ranging from anonymous medieval artists through
Duccio, della Francesco, Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens, Bellini, Vermeer,
Velasquez and others offers a feast for the eyes and the spirit.

It is the commentary that makes the book so fascinating, however.
John Drury, the author, is Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, a dual
institution that is both a college and a cathedral. He has taught
theology at Oxford and Cambridge and written several books on the New
Testament Gospels, Christian spirituality and English biblical
scholarship and criticism. He also attended art school, reportedly still
draws and obviously loves good painting and understands it at a very
deep level.

One of the keys to understanding these paintings, which however
beautiful contain elements that seem foreign to most moderns, is that
they were painted during a time, as Drury writes, “when western
civilization was Christian. During that time our own kind of western
European civilization — secular and pluralist — was coming to birth.”

Therefore, no matter how strong our own belief, because of the
different kind of world we live in today, Drury says, “we are visitors
to this Christian world.” Therefore, “the kind of Christianity that one
of these paintings holds and presents will not be exactly our own –
though we, Christian or not, may be able to make it our own by means of
informed and sympathetic imagination.”

As both an intellectually active Christian and a discerning observer
of art, Drury makes a good guide to this different world. He begins by
explaining why a Raphael painting of the crucifixion, for example,
evokes both wonder at its loveliness of color and line and horror at the
torture graphically depicted. It reminds, us, for example, “That pain
and pleasure are the constant reality of our lives. Horrible things
happen in lovely places and beauty dies in torment.” But art and
religion both “search for some inkling of a fundamental unity beyond or
within contradictions.”

The sheer “differentness” of the culture and world within which these
paintings were created is perhaps best illustrated in what is called the
Wilton Diptych, an elaborately (and anonymously) decorated small box
which, when opened, reveals two different but related miniatures — King
Richard II at prayer, surrounded by then-modern kings and saints on one
side, and Mary with baby Jesus surrounded by angels, as the objects of
worship on the other side. Drury explains the symbolic importance of the
colors used, the significance of lambs and stags, of painting imitating
jewelry.

Most fascinating, however, is the fact that such an elaborate
artifact was essentially an aid to private worship, with “a portrait of
its owner on one side and an image of the heavenly being to whom the
prayer is offered on the other. So its content was the relation between
the two, the infinite dialogue of prayer made visible in it sustained
tension.” Drury assures us that King Richard II took this diptych, this
little box with him everywhere and used it often.

Can you imagine any modern political leader using such a devotional
device regularly? I can’t conceive of a Bill Clinton or even a Gary
Bauer spending long periods of prayerful time contemplating the
spiritual significance of a flag or the beauty in the details of a halo
surrounding the serene Baby Jesus’ head. That doesn’t necessarily mean
that the Christianity of either of these men or other leaders isn’t
sincere — or that Richard II’s faith was or wasn’t sincerely held. It
simply illustrates that it was different from the way Christianity has
been conceived and expressed in different periods of human history.

Understanding in a sympathetic way how believers in the past have
chosen to express and explain their beliefs can enrich our own spiritual
and cultural lives, even if the images don’t “speak” to us at first as
strongly as does a more familiar expression of faith. The art in
“Painting the Word” provides a window into that different world and John
Drury combines art criticism and religious insight in a cogent
combination I haven’t encountered before.

If you want to give a gift that will be appreciated for years or
generations, or to spend some time with images that will transport you
to a more peaceful, contemplative place than your average mall this time
of year, I highly recommend “Painting the Word.”

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