Friday, March 18, 2011


This past year marked the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), not to be confused with the person whom Caravaggio sought to surpass in artistic greatness, namely, the more well-known Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). While I had learned of Caravaggio from my college art instructor, Larry Gross, I did not really become "attached" to the Italian artist until the day of my ordination into the pastoral ministry. On that date, July 16, 1989, my childhood pastor, Rev. Dr. L. Dean Hempelmann, preached a sermon on the call of Matthew (Matthew 9). The connection between that scriptural text and my ordination was obvious, but what wasn't obvious to me at the time was the connection Dean would make between my ordination and Caravaggio's painting of the Matthean text, "The Calling of St. Matthew." That painting, which hangs in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi Dei Francesi in Rome, was the basis for a special banner that Dr. Hempelmann's wife, Cathy, made for the occasion. Prominent on the banner is the hand of Jesus that creatively summons Matthew the tax collector to leave his shady business and follow the light beckoning him.

The Calling of St. Matthew
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

A few years ago my wife and I spent an enjoyable week in the eternal city on the occasion of our 15th wedding anniversary. I was especially eager to view the Caravaggio piece in the side altar that is the Contarelli Chapel. I was so moved by that work of art that I bought a print of it that now hangs above the harmonium in our living room. Each day as I leave for my "calling" at Valparaiso University I pass "the Calling of St. Matthew." Such a passing allows me to remember both my baptism (the call to faith, hope, and love) and my ordination into the holy ministry (the divine call into ministry).

Michelangelo Buonarroti's The Creation
 Dean's sermon title was actually "the Creative Call." Commenting on Caravaggio's painting, he emphasized how the artist "of dark and light" had formed the hand of Christ to be identical to the hand of Adam at the center of Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel. Just as God creatively called the first Adam to life, so Jesus, the second Adam, calls Matthew out of the old life and into the new one. He will now leave his ill-gotten gain and luxurious life behind in order to become a poor follower of the poor Christ. Clearly, Caravaggio wants us to understand Matthew's call as a kind of second creation, a creative call.

What brings all this to mind of late has been the wonderful biography of Caravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon that appeared last year, just in time for the quadricentennial anniversary of its subject's death: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (London: Penguin, 2010). It has been on my stack of "must reads" since last fall, and I finally was able to finish it last night. What a wonderful tale of woe and grandeur, of sorrow, pain, suffering, and death, but also of artistic genius, theological profundity, and cultural expanse. Graham-Dixon does a marvelous job of bringing the reader up-to-speed on the latest Caravaggio scholarship while not overwhelming one with too much extraneous detail.

More than a decade in the making, the book moves from Caravaggio's modest beginnings in Milan, where his family had some connections to the nobility, to examine his experiences in Rome, where he would be recognized as a truly great artist but also would be held in contempt for his tempestuous and prideful personality that frequently led him to argue and fight. Eventually it would cause him to kill a man in a duel. Fleeing Rome because of the capital charge of murder against him, Caravaggio made his way to Naples, where he did not stay for very long, and then to Malta, where he hoped to become a Knight of St. John. Through his few favorable connections he was able to secure such a knighthood, but once again his argumentative nature got the better of him, he wounded an important fellow knight, was thrown into prison, escaped from the prison, fled to Sicily, and finally back to Naples, where he was involved in yet another brawl, probably a vendetta attack, in which he was severely wounded. He would later die from these wounds.

So his life was unusually colorful, sinful, dark, and yet also full of grace, light, artistic genius, and divine mercy (at least in his art). Friend of prostitutes, amorous homosexuals, young boys, and fellow artistic sinners, Caravaggio lived on the wild side. He depicted a realism in his paintings that was scandalous to many, captivating to his benefactors, and essentially ignored for centuries after his death. Eventually, in the twentieth century, his work would be prized for both its realism and its technique. There is no question that his paintings are among the most theologically astute and thought-provoking in the western tradition.

Graham-Dixon's narrative is engaging and informative. His analysis of the principal paintings is insightful and frequently provocative. Helpful maps situate the main events of the painter's life and travels. Color plates give us the most important works. Not only does one gain a better understanding of late-16th-Century Italy, its social customs, and artistic developments, but one receives an especially enjoyable introduction to the life and work of this troubled, galant'huomo.  

I did catch a few minor errors.

On page 66 one reads, "More than half a century had passed since the Lutheran troops of Emperor Charles V sacked the city [of Rome] in 1527." Contrary to this assertion, only some of the 15,000 German soldiers who took part in that event would have had Lutheran sympathies, such as the drunken soldiers who shouted one night on the streets of Rome that they would now make Luther the pope. Most German mercenaries in the Imperial army at that time were not necessarily sympathetic to Luther's reforms. They served under Georg von Frundsberg, a Habsburg loyalist, who remained loyal to Charles V over against the Lutheran heretics (despite Frundsberg kind words to Luther at Worms in 1521). A good portion of the sacking of Rome was done by some 5,000 (Roman Catholic) unpaid (and thus rebellious) troops of Charles de Bourbon, ex-Connetable of France and an ally of Charles V, and by several thousand Spanish mercenaries who were also unruly (and for the same reason). Lutherans are not to blame for the sack of Rome that year.

On page 89, where Graham-Dixon is correctly relating Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket to the Old Testament book, Song of Songs, he notes that "By [this time]…in the late sixteenth century, Christian Church fathers had spent considerably more than a millennium teasing out what they had come to see as the redemptive symbolism of the poem's tale of love." So far, so good. But then Graham-Dixon mistakenly continues, "The Groom's passion for the Bride was held to express Jesus Christ's boundless love for his holy mother, Mary. The metaphor of the Bride as an 'inclosed garden' was easily transformed into a symbol of Mary's virginity." Actually, the dominant reading of the Song of Songs from the second century through the sixteenth (and later) was that the Bridegroom is Christ and the Bride is the Church. The Church has taken the place of Israel as bride (in ancient allegorical interpretations of this book by Jewish scholars the Bride was Israel and the Groom was the Lord). Following Hippolytus (2d c.), Origen (3rd c.) provided this traditional medieval allegorical interpretation of Christ and the Church (later, Christ and the individual soul). Only in the twelfth century did a few western Christian interpreters (and only one eastern Christian interpreter) suggest that the Bride should be allegorically understood as referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This minority interpretation of the Song of Songs, which lasted only into the early sixteenth century, set forth the innovative view that Mary is the real meaning of the Bride of Christ. Already in the sixteenth century, however, this Marian interpretation was on the way out and by the seventeenth century had come to be largely criticized in Roman Catholic circles. Of course in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant circles, such allegorical interpretation had always been suspect. (Interestingly, Luther seems not to have ever rejected out of hand the traditional allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs: that is, the Bride is the Church and the Groom is Christ.)

Finally, I think Graham-Dixon totally misses Caravaggio's allusion to the serpent of Genesis 3 in the serpentine ropes on the margins of Caravaggio's greatest work, the Beheading of John the Baptist. Those can't be mere ropes! The one "rope" that slithers from beneath John's leg (and from under the sacrificed animal) surely is a reference to the great symbol of evil that one encounters in the first book of the Bible. Could it be that the light that falls on John's foot is an allusion to Romans 10:15?

These are minor points. I very much enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to those interested in a down-to-earth approach to Christian themes from one of the great, troubled Christian artists of all time.

For a further, very enjoyable experience, I encourage you to visit the main website devoted to Caravaggio's work:

Friday, March 4, 2011

The AV at 400

This year marks the quadricentennial anniversary of the Authorized Version of the English Bible, otherwise commonly called the King James Version (KJV). Already last year several essays, books, editorials, and conference presentations were devoted to this important milestone. The celebration continues. Valparaiso University, for example, has invited the renowned historian, Mark Noll (professor of American religious history at Notre Dame), to give two lectures this fall on the cultural significance of the KJV in its American context. When Prof. Noll was here a few weeks ago to give another public lecture, I was able to talk with him and my colleague, George Heider, about the fall lectures. Based on that conversation, Prof. Noll's lectures should be very fascinating. The committee that selected him, on which I am also serving, is working closely with our library staff to develop an exhibit on the KJV in our library. For my own part, I plan to talk up the KJV more than I normally do in my intro-to-theology course. Throughout the year many of us will be thinking about the KJV, its history, its cultural influence, and its abiding use as a sacred text for many. Last fall, Martin Marty offered commentary ("Sightings," Nov. 29, 2010) on the then-upcoming celebration. He rightly stressed that this event "merits observance far beyond the circles of librarians, antiquarians and classicists."

To commemorate the anniversary, Oxford University Press, one of the three printers that was originally authorized to print the KJV, published last year an excellent history of this Bible. This study is by Gordon Campbell, professor of renaissance studies at the University of Leicester, and is titled, Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). I highly recommend the book, not merely as a great introduction to the history of the KJV and the key individuals behind its origin, printing, and transmission, but as a perceptive account of the debates and controversies surrounding it, as a marvelous summary of its historic, cultural importance, and as an encomium (but not eulogy!) for its on-going importance in the English-speaking world of Christianity.

While there are indeed English translations that are more faithful to the most approximate of original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts (our theology department recommends that students use the New Revised Standard Version), no other English translation of the Bible has proved to be "the most enduring embodiment of Scripture in the English language" (p. 275). Indeed, as Campbell also notes, the KJV is "the fountainhead of Bible translation into English," and even the most recent edition of the NRSV stands in continuity with it.

While I haven't used the KJV much in my university teaching or pastoral ministry over the past two decades--I spent too many years learning Hebrew and Greek not to take advantage of the best scholarly editions of the Bible in these languages, and I mostly use the NRSV whenever quoting the Bible in English translation--nevertheless, I have decided to work more with the KJV this year in honor of its anniversary.

In my library is the edition of the KVJ that my Grandfather used during his pastoral ministry, at least between 1934 and his death in 1980. While he was educated in German and Latin (and learned Hebrew and Greek), and while preached regularly in German between 1924 and 1980, the main English Bible that he used was the third edition of Thompson's New Chain-Reference Bible, an edition of the KJV that Campbell neglected to examine. I suspect that in the wake of the First World War, many German Lutheran pastors, like my Grandfather, utilized the KJV in their ministry because it was the Bible that was used by most mainstream Protestant clergy in America at that time. While he had other English translations in his library, none is as marked and weathered as that edition of the KJV. Could it be that this was one way in which this German Lutheran in America could demonstrate his American cultural Protestantism to a society that was often suspicious of its German-speaking citizens?

Many U. S. Presidents have used the KJV at occasions of public import, most recently at President Obama's inauguration when he took the oath of office on the same KJV Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used in 1861. One hundred and fifty years after that Lincoln inauguration the KJV is still the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world. How will you commemorate its anniversary this year?