“Gospel Subjects,” An Hermitage Museum CD-ROM

Reviewed by Nancy J. Arising.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

On viewing Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” in the Hermitage Museum, Catholic theologian Henri J.M. No-win observed, “The more I spoke of the Prodigal Son, the more I came to see it as, somehow, my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. The painting has become a mysterious window through which Icon step into the Kingdom of God” (The Return of the Prodigal Son [New York: Doubleday, 1992]). Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son is one of many masterpieces in the Hermitage’s European collections devoted to Christian themes. Nouwen’s moving account of his encounter with this great work is vivid testimony to the special power of visual images to penetrate the spiritual depths of an engaged and probing viewer.

A Collection of Religious Paintings

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” is included in the CD-ROM “Gospel Subjects,” on sale at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It’s a helpful learning tool which enables onto become acquainted with the major West European paintings relating to Jesus and Mary in the museum’s collection. By means of this-Rom, works executed between the 14th and 18th centuries, which are dispersed throughout the museum, are brought together in a fresh context. Rather than being seen beside works of the same artist or of the same period, 58 religious paintings can be closely scrutinized, compared, and contrasted in relationship to one another. This’CD-Rom is also available for visitors to view in the museum’s Education and Technology Center.(The museum suggests that a thorough study of this educational program takes about 40 hours.)

 The CD-Rom CD presents paintings in five sections: “The Main Characters of the New Testament,” introducing the theme of Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty One) and the Madonna and Child; the “Story of Mary;” the “Childhood of Christ;” the “Services [Ministry] of Christ; “and the “Passion of Christ.” Unfortunately, the English translation of the text is frequently awkward. Usually one can determine the intended meaning, but some mistakes are glaring, as in “Council of Efface,” for the historic Council of Ephesus in 431. Accompanying a set of images devoted to the theme of the Deposition from the Cross is a distasteful translation of a text from Chapter 15 in Mark’s Gospel; we read that Joseph of Arimathea “went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.” The errors in translation, particularly those of Scripture, are regrettable. On the other hand, although it is not clear whether the authors of the descriptions of the paintings themselves are believers or not, they are nonetheless very sympathetic in their presentation of the Gospel message. Since Christianity is a central theme in European painting, the Hermitage’s “Gospel Subjects “serves a useful purpose.

 New Approaches to Understanding Religious Paintings

On what bases, apart from artistic quality, do we make distinctions among works of religious art? Religious paintings, made to inspire or enhance faith, may be viewed as holy objects for veneration, such as the icon in the Orthodox tradition; they may have a primarily didactic function; or they may serve both functions. The museum setting, however, neutralizes images by presenting them in chronological sequence as the works of famous artists. In this case our focus is upon a narrative of human artistic achievement.

In addition, religious art needs to be understood in the context of history and theology, as, for example, in Hans Belting’s erudite study, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. We have become accustomed to viewing images up until postmodernism, including religious works, in the context of the museum and through a particular lens created by accepted notions of what art is. New approaches which bring history, theology, and art together in creative and thoughtful interaction can shed fresh light on old masterpieces.

 The “Gospel Subjects” CD-ROM is a step in the right direction. It may even serve as a means of evangelism for those with no knowledge of the Bible and/or for those not ready or disposed to appreciate the truth in the form of the written word. Such a format also offers a feast for the eyes for the weary Christian pilgrim visiting one of the great “sacred” sites of our time – the Hermitage in Russia. One regrets that this CD-ROM released by the Hermitage does not offer examples of Russian art, in particular icons, since, according to Orthodox theology, truth has priority over art in the making and veneration of icons. Ahistorical study of religious images should take into account the original functions of these images.

 This CD-ROM often provides eloquent formal descriptions of these works of art and much detailed information about Christian symbolism. Close-up shots of incidents in each painting accompanied by informative texts and a zooming function enable the viewer of the CD-ROM to take note of details in the paintings which would otherwise be missed. Sometimes, but not often enough, we are given information about who may have commissioned a particular work, and how it may have functioned in its own time. In some cases, as in Francois Boucher’s painting of “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” the religious depth and sincerity of a particular works called into question. Occasional references to disputes over the proper treatment of religious themes, as in the case of the Reformation and the

Counter-Reformation, are of great value. More information along these lines is needed so that viewer can appreciate differences among works of art on Christian themes regarding religious authenticity as well as artistic quality. ♦

Nancy J. Sairsingh lives in Moscow and teaches art history at the Russian State University of the Humanities