The Christian Year in Painting
John S. Dixon seems the perfect person to write The Christian Year in Painting as an art historian, professor, and the arts correspondent for a Catholic newspaper. His depth of knowledge of the Christian liturgy, his enthusiastic educator’s way of presenting, and his smart succinct writing style make this book fascinating.
But why would a book about medieval art and Renaissance Christianity have any relevance to a contemporary audience? Paintings and belief structures in effect over 500 years ago seem more aptly fictional than historically significant. Isn’t this a dying topic? Dixon himself recognizes that the, “gradual decline in importance of religious painting since the Renaissance is undeniable . . .”
This is the very reason why such a project is critical and essential. Many of these important pieces have been dismantled from their original settings, deconstructed into multiple segments, and distributed around the world to museums or private collects far from historical context. This scattered body of knowledge contained in Christian Art History must be consistently reevaluated against, and then reconnected to, current sensibilities and re-contextualized. Dixon has accomplished that in several ways.
First, he has a clearly defined two-fold mission: to help Christians gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of their faith, and to help non-Christians understand the context of the artwork. Second, the meaning of the term liturgy and a description of “altarpieces” sets the basis for all of the discussions that follow.
Thirdly, the Christian calendar is used as the organizational structure within which the 30-plus paintings are addressed. Chapters are based on the events surrounding Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time. The commentary is then contained to the ways in which the artwork fulfills the mission, illuminates the liturgy, or justifies its presence in the church setting.
This structure, while being a solid educational tool, provides immense flexibility in the selection of artworks. Relying on the confines of the cyclical calendar, Dixon was able to choose paintings that are not necessarily chronological. In doing so, he made use of a wider range to compare and contrast not only the artists’ styles, but also the differences in the way each Gospel details certain aspects of the different stories.
Leading off the Lent section, for instance, is William Dyce’s Man of Sorrows (c 1860). Dixon uses this selection to achieve a multi-faceted analysis: he relays the event of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness and explains how the account varies between Matthew, Mark, and Luke; he discusses the use of this event as subject matter for paintings; he delves into the psyche and spiritual intelligence of the church-going believer; he introduces the artist’s background; he touches on socio-cultural-political history.
Furthermore, Dixon handles the art historical significance of the painting, pointing out truly revolutionary creative liberties in composition, symbolism, setting, etc. He compares Dyce with (among others) Duccio di Buoninsegna The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (c1308) and Sandro Botticelli Temptations of Christ (c 1480) while articulating the broader artistic contexts of the images which span 500 years.
This type of delivery is the norm for every other painting Dixon touches, resulting in a rich, deeply satisfying read.
Finally, Dixon’s excitement and love for his material is clear and contagious. He has a profound respect for both Christianity and art history and it shows in every concluding comment he writes. Using exuberantly flattering, if ultimately unnecessary, adjectives in regard to the artwork, to him every painting is “magnificent,” “great,” “dramatic,” “explosive,” “miraculous,” “marvelous,” “powerful,” “beautiful,” and, yes, even “fascinating.”