Painting landscapes in the classical academies was done indoors, to “improve upon nature” the way formal gardens arrange flowers according to geometry.
In the 19th century, the painters of the Barbizon and Hudson River schools began to paint outdoors (“en plein air”), trying to show nature as it is. The invention of portable easels and oil paint in tubes like toothpaste made it easier to move out from the studio. A painting by John Singer Sargent showing Monet at his easel in the woods of Giverny is a splendid picture within a picture, emphasizing the care taken to get the diffused light just right, so that nature looks really natural.
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
We would have no art, and no urge to paint — whether as cavemen painting antelope or Frans Hals painting men drinking beer — were it not for the fact that humans are in the image of God who made the whole universe his canvas. He chose the Holy Land as the scenery for history’s greatest event.
Israel is only about the size of New Jersey, and yet its topography moves from the snow-capped Mount Hermon down to the lowest spot on our planet: the Dead Sea. In between, at the trickle of a river between the two, John saw the Lord approaching and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
The baptism of Christ, which was an illustration of how the human race will be cleansed of corrupting pride, and which is celebrated after the Feast of the Epiphany on the liturgical calendar, anticipates the baptism the church offers: not a poetic symbol, but an actual change in the soul so that it becomes what the art of God wants it to be.
Baptism is not an option. It is the “the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). Positive proof of this effect is the holiness of saints, and the majesty of Christ himself. Negative proof is the viciousness of evil when it is allowed to act freely. Picture the carnage in Istanbul on the Feast of the Mother of God, when scores of people were killed and wounded by a man dressed as Santa Claus.
At the Council of Nicaea, three centuries before the rise of Islam with its denial of Christ as the Lamb of God, Saint Nicholas challenged Arius for having similarly rejected the truth. And denial of the truth has deadly consequences. “The man who denies that Jesus is the Christ — he is the liar, he is Antichrist; and he is denying the Father as well as the Son, because no one who has the Father can deny the Son, and to acknowledge the Son is to have the Father as well” (1 John 2:22-23). All this was painted by God on the canvas of history.
Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article originally appeared in his parish church bulletin and is used by permission.