Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbaran (c. 1635-40)

Sacrifice is clearly out of fashion.  The concept of spilling innocent blood offends our modern sensibilities.  We think of these practices as barbaric and push away any thought of human sacrifice as an ancient rite of uncivilized tribal culture.  What then do we do the cross?  The very center of Christianity is established on the sacrificial death of the Lamb, both in foreshadow and in ultimate fulfillment.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :

Although Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán is best known as a religious artist, one who produced numerous paintings of biblical figures and important saints, it could be argued that his work reached its highest perfection when he turned his brush to subject matter not apparently religious on its surface. One such work is Agnus Dei. There is more going on here than meets the eye, as the beautifully rendered lamb is a symbol for Jesus Christ. The other title sometimes given to this painting, The Lamb of God, hearkens to the words of John the Baptist, which have been incorporated into the liturgy in the traditional mass, where it is proclaimed: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Behold indeed. It is hard to look away from the combined beauty and horror of the scene before us. Zurbarán’s painting is of an ordinary lamb, laid out on a table or altar with its feet bound and trussed in preparation for slaughter. As was common for Zurbarán, he has left the background indistinct, dissipating into darkness, but has lit the main subject (the lamb) with bright illumination. He has painted the scene with such exquisite detail that you feel as though you could reach into the painting and touch the rough softness of the lamb’s woolly coat. The lamb does not appear to be struggling but has meekly submitted to its fate without resistance and is prepared to die. One cannot but feel pity for what awaits this helpless victim.

The lamb was, of course, a traditional sacrificial animal in ancient Judaism, offered up to atone for the sins of the people. Isaiah had prophesied that the coming Messiah would be “oppressed and afflicted,” and that he would go quietly to his fate “like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). So this painting offers us a reminder of the pain and suffering that Jesus took upon himself on our behalf, a willing sacrifice for the sins of us all.

Are you offended by the slaughter of innocence as a requirement of God?


John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


Agnus Dei

Francisco de Zurbarán

 

Francisco de Zurbarán

(baptized November 7, 1598, Fuente de Cantos, Spain—died August 27, 1664, Madrid) major painter of the Spanish Baroque who is especially noted for religious subjects. His work is characterized by Caravaggesque naturalism and tenebrism, the latter a style in which most forms are depicted in shadow but a few are dramatically lighted.

 

Zurbarán was apprenticed 1614–16 to Pedro Díaz de Villanueva in Sevilla (Seville), where he spent the greater part of his life. No works by his master have survived, but Zurbarán’s earliest known painting, an Immaculate Conception (1616), suggests that he was schooled in the same naturalistic style as his contemporary Diego Velázquez. From 1617 to 1628 he was living in Llerena, near his birthplace; then he returned to Sevilla, where he settled at the invitation of the city corporation. In 1634 he visited Madrid and was commissioned by Philip IV to paint a series of Labours of Hercules and two scenes of the Defense of Cádiz, which formed part of the decoration of the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro palace. The Adoration of the Kings, from a series painted for the Carthusian monastery at Jerez, is signed with the title “Painter to the King” and dated 1638, the year in which Zurbarán decorated a ceremonial ship presented to the king by the city of Sevilla. The paintings for the Buen Retiro are the only royal commissions and the only mythological or historical subjects by Zurbarán that are known. His contact with the court had little effect on his artistic evolution; he remained throughout his life a provincial artist and was par excellence a painter of religious life. In 1658 Zurbarán moved to Madrid.

Zurbarán’s personal style was already formed in Sevilla by 1629, and its development was probably stimulated by the early works of Velázquez and by the works of José de Ribera. It was a style that lent itself well to portraiture and still life, but it found its most characteristic expression in his religious subjects. Indeed Zurbarán uses naturalism more convincingly than other exponents for the expression of intense religious devotion. His apostles, saints, and monks are painted with almost sculptural modeling and with an emphasis on the minutiae of their dress that gives verisimilitude to their miracles, visions, and ecstasies. This distinctive combination of realism and religious sensibility conforms to the Counter-Reformation guidelines for artists outlined by the Council of Trent (1545–63). Zurbarán’s art was popular with monastic orders in Sevilla and the neighbouring provinces, and he received commissions for many large cycles. Of these, only the legends of St. Jerome and of the Hieronymite monks (1638–39) that decorate the chapel and sacristy of the Hieronymite monastery at Guadalupe have remained in situ. Little is known of his production in the 1640s apart from an altarpiece at Zafra (1643–44) and records of a large number of paintings destined for Lima, Peru (1647). By 1658 both the style and the content of Zurbarán’s paintings had undergone a change that can be attributed to the influence of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In his late devotional pictures, such as Holy Family and Immaculate Conception (1659 and 1661, respectively), the figures have become more idealized and less solid in form, and their expression of religious emotion is marred by sentimentality. Zurbarán had several followers whose works have been confused with his.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

 

The Baroque and Rococo

In Spain, which had retained its medieval spirituality, artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Diego Velázquez painted stark, realistic canvases of saints lost in devotion, commissioned by the powerful religious orders, while sculptors carved life-sized polychromed figures or elaborate retables whose intricacy mirrored the sculptural incrustation of church facades. In Catholic Flanders, which was under Spanish control, the huge religious canvases of Peter Paul Rubens, such as those for the Cathedral of Antwerp (early 17th cent.), pulse with life and color, as figures tumble over one another, although he preferred historical → allegories that could display his erudition. The younger Anthony van Dyck, working in Italy and England, settled into a more somber style in which religious themes were rendered with tenderness and deep feeling. Italian decorative painters of the later 17th and 18th centuries, such as Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, migrated into Catholic Bavaria and Austria and inspired the extraordinary rococo churches in which painting, sculpture, and architecture lose their separate identities and flow into a riotous, light-filled ensemble.

The other half of the Netherlands, Protestant Holland, rebelled and declared its separation from Spanish control in 1581. Although Dutch churches were stark and undecorated, religious themes were still acceptable to private patrons as a variant of the much-esteemed category of history painting. As the wealthy middle class grew (→ Bourgeois, Bourgeoisie), so did the demand for pictures for the home, resulting in “specialty” painting, primarily secular in content; there is evidence, however, that still lifes, landscapes, interiors, and genre scenes were intended to warn of worldly vanity and the evanescence of earthly delights. A few artists painted religious subjects, often stylistically and thematically influenced by Caravaggio’s work, transmitted to Holland through the artists of Catholic Utrecht. Rembrandt, whose religious themes were a matter of personal choice, went from a flashy, Rubensian style as a young man to the introspection and psychological insight of his late paintings and prints, such as the Return of the Prodigal Son (ca. 1665; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

France, a Catholic country many of whose artists and artisans were Protestants, produced an art unlike that of other cultures. An intellectual fascination with antiquity led many of its artists to present mythological and historical themes as a golden age of moral perfection (Nicolas Poussin) or idyllic beauty (Claude Lorrain). Poussin, painting Christian themes as well, developed strict principles for the suitability of compositional elements, resulting in canvases whose appeal is (and was meant to be) primarily cerebral and paving the way for the strict codification of the art academies of 18th-century Europe. As the aristocratic patrons of art became less interested in morality and intellectual pursuits, religious imagery was largely abandoned for themes of earthly love and frivolity in the enchanting works of François Boucher, Clodion, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau. The → Revolution, whose proponents perceived the church as part of the oppressive ruling class, fostered a virulent anticlericalism, and religious themes all but disappeared, to be replaced by an advocacy of secular morality in the depiction of ancient and contemporary history, as in the works of Jacques-Louis David.

Su0Susanna Bede Caroselli C.S.S.G., Peter Maser, and Karen L. Mulder, “Christian Art,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 429.

 

Christian Interpretations

Christianity occupied a unique space between the sacrificial practices of Rome and Judaism. Like rabbinic Judaism, Christianity relies heavily on remembrance—primarily through the sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. Gardiner notes that “Sacrifice [in the New Testament] is used frequently of acts of Christian devotion, sometimes in a plainly figurative sense, sometimes in that more general and broad sense which may be called literal, but which is founded on and derived from the figurative use” (Gardiner, “Use of Words,” 291). Christianity adopted this “figurative” approach to sacrifice in the first century even before the destruction of Jerusalem—an approach which utilized the Eucharist not just as a bloodless substitute for daily sacrifice, but as a memorial of Jesus Christ’s final sacrifice, which ended all sacrifices. This view distinguished Christianity from Judaism and Graeco-Roman religions, as Christ’s initiation of the sacrament was a symbol of His own sacrifice to God as well as a meal given to His disciples/the church, not from the church to God. The earliest mention of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23–26) contains echoes of “the blood of the covenant” from the exodus narrative, where “Moses’ actions represents God making a covenant with Israel and constituting a people of the covenant” (Exod 24:7–8; 34:6–10; Achtemeier et al., Introducing, 237). One can also see the exodus imagery in the Gospels’ “ransom for many” passages (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45), implying that Jesus will be a payment for a release, just as the original Passover lambs paid for the release of the Hebrews in Egypt (Achtemeier et al., Introducing, 237).

The book of Hebrews contains a complete apologetic, where Christ is compared to the leading figures of Judaism and argued to be superior (Heb 3:1–6; 4:1–11). This culminates in His superiority over the Jewish priesthood, with whom He shares an “acquaintance with human weakness that requires a mediator before God” (Heb 4:14–5:10; 7:1–28; Ehrman, The New Testament, 379). Unlike the priests, however, Jesus was sinless and unpolluted, an important concept to both Jews and Hellenists (deSilva, Honor, 249–53). He brought His sacrifice before God Himself inside the true temple of heaven, not an earthly temple. His death brought “complete forgiveness” of all sins because He was the perfect sacrifice. Thus, the temple sacrificial practice was no longer necessary (Ehrman, The New Testament, 378–79). An earlier image of Christ offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice occurs in Eph 5:2.

Christians’ refusal to engage in pagan civil sacrifices troubled Roman government officials, as they interpreted this disobedience as a sign of disloyalty to Rome. Also, since the ritual that most resembled a sacrifice—the Eucharist—contained no physical representation of a god, Romans accused Christians of atheism. Alternately, the Romans also charged Christians with cannibalism due to the symbolism of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of the Eucharist (Cohen, From the Maccabees, 48–49; Gonzalez, Christianity, 36, 50). Disagreements and misunderstandings between Judaism, Christianity, and the Roman state caused considerable damage to all three parties, and the theocratic demands of the civil sacrifice were too much for Judeo-Christian monotheists.

 

Christopher N. McCreary, “Sacrifice in the New Testament,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

see also

Alcolea, Santiago. Zurbarán. Barcelona: Editiones Poligrafa, 2008.
Kasel, Ronda, ed. Sacred Spain: Art and Belief in the Spanish World. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2009.
Wilson, William. “Zurbarán: The Pain of Spirituality.” Los Angeles Times. October 4, 1987.

 

Terry Glaspey

 

Terry Glaspey

I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.

Let’s explore together!

Terry

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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com

 

Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.

Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

Order it HERE today.