Saturday, January 14, 2012

January-Term Seminar: Religious Sacrifice



Along with my faculty colleague Tim Sedgwick, I am teaching an intensive 2-week seminar at the moment (RCL 820) on "Sacrifice: History, Meaning, and Christian Faith." One of our faculty guest-presenters, A. Katherine Grieb, shared this painting at the start of her 3-hour discussion. It is Francisco de Zurbarán, "Agnus Dei (The Lamb of God)," 1635-1640. The image depicts Christ symbolically as the ultimate sacrifice, the lamb of God who sacrificed himself to take away the sins of the world and save humanity. The museum that has acquired it, the Museo Nacional del Prado, summarizes the painting as follows: "The straightforward composition consists exclusively of an image of the young animal with its legs bound, lying on a windowsill [or, is it an altar?] and brightly lit by a single light source." It's beauty, to me, lies in its simplicity, realism, and emotional power. There is a breathtaking naturalism to the image--is the wool really painted, or is it real?! The calm silence and meekness of the animal are striking, and its facial expression, which seems almost human, exudes an inner peace and tranquility in the face of death. The painting fits a 17th-century Spanish contemplative emphasis on finding God in all things, including seemingly insignificant created life-forms. An art-form known as the "divine still-life" developed, which celebrated the simple joy of God's creation and the power of the spiritual message discoverable there. Your comments and interpretations are welcome! For a nice, brief audio-guide to the painting, click here and scroll down (download the mp3--give it time to load).

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