Art Review

Master of the Housebook
The Last Supper
Washing of the Apostles Feet

John Christman, SSS

Many years ago, an art professor of mine told a humorous story about a classmate of his in art school. Apparently, his classmate enjoyed signing paintings with a very elaborate and eye-catching signature. During a critique one day, the other students commented upon the fanciful signature, thinking it somewhat distracting. Instead of reducing the size of the signature or working to make the autograph subtler, the young artist increased its size! Much to the consternation of the other students, this repartee continued. They would comment negatively about the increasing prominence of the signature, and the student would enlarge it. Eventually, the signature took over the entire canvas and became the subject of the painting itself.

Although humorous this story is ― perhaps not surprising given the art trajectory of the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries ― from the beginning of Modernity to Contemporary Art, there has been a deliberate focus on the unique contribution of the individual artist. Originality of style and uniqueness of artistic vision became prerequisites for success.

This perhaps reached its post-modern pinnacle when the French artist Marcel Duchamp argued that a work of art was a valid work of art based solely on the artist proclaiming it to be so. He famously purchased everyday objects from hardware or furniture stores and placed them in an art gallery setting, proclaiming them to be his works of art. Duchamp called them “ready-mades.” This greatly challenged the audiences and critics of his day. However, his art and ideas eventually revolutionized the art-world and dramatically changed how we perceive art today.

Travel back in time to the late 1400s and the world was very different despite the Renaissance trend of placing greater emphasis upon individual artists. In fact, we don’t even know the name of the artist whose images grace the cover of this issue of Emmanuel. Art historians have developed a method of naming artists whose work is of tremendous quality but whose names are lost to history. Often they are named after a body of work, a particular cycle of paintings or etchings for example. The title “master” is given them along with their body of work. Thus, the artist who created these images is known as the “Master of the Housebook.”

Of course, we don’t know why this artist’s name was lost to history. Nor can we propose some virtuous humility that motivated the artist to not sign the work. It was likely simply not the convention of the time to do so. However, art such as this, so focused on the Eucharist, does give a contemporary religiously-minded person the opportunity to step back and question what all of the obsession with identity and individual recognition is worth. Can the joy of making something beautiful for others be rewarding in itself? Is the knowledge that your artwork is well received and meaningful to those who view it sufficiently fulfilling?

Saint Peter Julian Eymard, who spent a lifetime pondering the great mystery of Christ’s gift of self in the Eucharist, found himself frequently drawn to two scripture passages that spoke to him of how he should live a Eucharistic life: from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me,” and John 3:30: “He must increase, I must decrease.” For Father Eymard, both passages emphasize making Christ’s mission our own. Both emphasize God’s primary role in all good things. Moreover, they emphasize directing attention to Christ and not to self.

Gaze upon Jesus insisting upon washing Peter’s feet in this painting, and you see a similar message. The humility of Christ and his complete self-giving in the Eucharist portrayed in these paintings challenge the egocentric tendencies of our times. They also challenge the notion that fulfillment comes from recognition or prestige. It is an uncommon message in our world today, but one that history should not forget.