Saturday, January 7, 2012

Fine Art 6: More Spacious than a Tea Party

This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets 

The January 4 class included a review of the Hail Mary prayer via the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. We had already treated the Annunciation and Visitation in the December 14 class, but without a couple of instructive artworks. [The class calendar is deliberately scheduled to finish the Old Testament in time to coordinate Mary Stuff with the Church feasts of Dec 8, Dec 25, and Jan 1.]

First I showed the kids this miniature of the Isenheim Altarpiece, explained how big it really is (about 9' x 16') how the panels work, etc. My sister got this for me as a Christmas gift when she was in Colmar, France last summer. Which was way before my wife told me a few weeks ago that the Annunciation I liked so much but couldn't name was the Isenheim Annunciation. More than coincidence?

We then focused on the Annuciation panel, which isn't visible in the photo above, using this color handout:

 Our discussion was very close to what I anticipated in an earlier post. The kids recalled Gabriel's greeting to Mary, and saw that it was directly quoted in the Hail Mary. The kids then recounted the Visitation, and recognized Elizabeth's greeting in next bit of the prayer.

I then asked the kids to guess the Catholic significance of January 1. None could, but that was OK. I told them it was the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. To add dimension to this feastday, we reviewed a handout of this ikon:

The common name for this ikon type is Platytera, Πλατυτέρα, meaning more ample, broader. That's short for "more ample than heaven." [Plat- is related to English flat, German platt, and French platte, as in the Platte (broad) River] It means that Mary, by containing the Creator of the Universe in her womb, was figuratively larger than infinity. Or as an old Greek hymn puts it, "He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos (God-birther).” It's a terrific teaching tool that illustrates an aspect of Jesus' humility, and that Mary was the mother of not only Jesus' human nature, but of his entire person, comprising both his human and divine natures. That is, Mary is the Mother of God- just as the Hail Mary says. That literal womb makes this a very unusual Platytera, which was completed in January 2011 by the ikonographer Tom Athanasios Clark in the apse of St. George's Orthodox Church in Shreveport, La.

Most Platyteras look like this one:

Which is fine as far as it goes...whose lap is Jesus sitting on- his babysitter's? Just kidding, but sitting on a lap isn't what I'd call compelling visual testimony to the intimate prenatal relationship between God the Son and his momma. By the way, the Greek is Πλατυτέρα των Ουρανών, Platytera ton Ouranon, Wider than Heaven.

Or they're like this one:

This Platytera's better because it's a bit more expressive (although in an abstract sense) of Jesus being physically inside Mary. But neither of these is as effective as that cutaway pink uterus in the first example. The kids get that one right away: Mary's tummy, her womb.

We may as well learn some more Greek while we're at it:  those letters in the above ikon are M-R and Th-U. The squiggies above the letters mean those are abbreviations. They're short for Μητηρ Θεού/ Mitir Theou/ Mother of God. I always wonder: if you're going to spend a couple thousand hours or so on a mosaic, why cut corners with abbreviations?

To finish our Marian train of thought, I bring out a chair that my kids sat on when they were practically toddlers- a chair like one of these...

...and demonstrate how Mary was more spacious than a tea party.