This was the image on my desk calendar yesterday morning:
It was painted in 1462 by the Belgian Petrus Christus and is titled Our Lady of the Dry Tree. I was struck by the name and when I ripped it off the calendar and peered closely, I wondered at the weird little things hanging from the thorns that look like letters and admired the jewel-like red and blue of the madonna's robes. As usual, the face of the baby Jesus is creepy (why is this always so?), but if you enlarge the painting on the computer, the beauty of Mary's face is astonishing. There's an interesting story behind Our Lady of the Dry Tree, which was the name of a confraternity, typical during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. These were groups of friends and members, often secret, that engaged in cultural and charitable activities, and Our Lady of the Dry Tree holds particular symbolism and mystery. It presented the message of the Redemption unique to any other painting in art history. Here's what a fascinating website, called The Secret History of Art says:
The iconography is inspired by the Book of Ezekiel, wherein the Prophet Ezekiel says, “I the Lord have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish.” Theologians interpret this as a reference to Original Sin, with Mary replacing Eve as the “mother of the world.” Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was once the “green tree,” flowering and flourishing. But God made her wither and instead granted favor to the dry tree (Mary as a childless woman), allowing her to bring forth fruit from her womb.
If you're interested, you can read more about it here. I'm not sure why I was so struck by this little painting (it's tiny -- only five inches or so) -- I think, though, that it made me wonder why we have to listen to so much warped and twisted ugliness when we talk about religion nowadays. I know that there was some serious warped and twisted ugliness surrounding religion in the Middle Ages, but the art and beauty and mystery that sprang from belief gives me solace, in a way. There is much relief, at least for me, in the contemplation of so much mystery and awe.
I think I must do more turning away from the obscene spokespersons of faith today and fall into art and free expression to really experience the divine.