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Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche by Jan van Kessel
A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere by Unknown Flemish Artist
St Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini

Jan van Kessel

Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche, c.1670, Oil on copper, 70 x 105.5 cm, National Gallery Scotland; Purchased 2002, NG 2740, Antonia Reeve, National Gallery Scotland

Unknown Flemish artist

A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere, Early 16th century, Boxwood, Diameter: 5.1 cm, The Wallace Collection, London, S280, © The Wallace Collection

Giovanni Bellini

St Francis in the Desert, c.1476–78, Oil on panel, 124.6 x 142 cm, The Frick Collection, New York; Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1915.1.03, The Frick Collection, New York / Bridgeman Images

Real Presences

Comparative Commentary by

Philippians 4:1–9 marks the beginning of Paul’s ‘final exhortations’ to the Christians at Philippi.

After briefly addressing internal conflicts within the community (vv.2–3), the apostle gives two sets of instructions: the first, a short teaching on prayer (vv.4–7), and the second, a list of virtuous thoughts and actions (vv.8–9). And, intriguingly, while Paul makes it abundantly clear that prayer is to be addressed to Christ alone (v.6), the virtues he commends (v.8) are by no means unique to this New Testament author’s worldview. As scholars frequently note, many Hellenistic teachers commended these attributes as the most admirable moral qualities human beings can attain (Bockmuehl 1997: 221; Martin 1987: 175). In this way, Paul’s injunctions in verses 4–9 serve as a final reminder that the one who is rightly ordered by prayer will be able to interpret the signs of God’s virtue in all created things.

In distinct ways, each of these three artworks invites us to recognize the signs of divine virtue that surround us in our daily lives. For example, Jan van Kessel’s painting invites us to consider how all virtue is mediated through the sacramental sign of the Eucharist. In its simple presentation, the image bids us slow down and notice signs of God’s presence, both in worship and in nature. At the centre is the Blessed Sacrament, which has been consecrated as a sign of Christ’s presence during the Catholic liturgy. Set in a monstrance, this holy food is presented to us as an object worthy of our devoted attention. Surrounding the sacramental sign are material elements of the Eucharistic feast, carefully selected and presented to us as reminders that God’s gifts are endlessly available throughout creation. Viewed through the prism of the central object, each detail of flora and fauna becomes a sign of divine virtue—a vivid reminder to the viewer that Christ transforms creation and empowers us to live by the virtues Paul extols in Philippians 4:8.

Unlike Van Kessel’s tranquil image, Giovanni Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy is radiant with energy and light as divine presence breaks into the quiet solitude of the saint’s eremitic retreat. This painting is one of many depicting the moment when St Francis receives the stigmata; yet Bellini’s image deviates from iconographic tradition in striking ways. Earlier visual representations—for example, Giotto’s Stigmatization of St Francis (c.1295) and Sassetta’s San Sepolcro Altarpiece (c.1440)—typically depict Francis kneeling and gazing up at a seraph or angelic figure, who radiates beams of divine power onto his hands and feet. Here, there are neither angelic figures, nor beams of light: instead, Bellini invokes God’s presence by suffusing the entire scene with natural light, the source of which lies outside the painting’s frame. This light radiates onto a nearby tree (which bends its boughs in reverence) before falling, uninterrupted, onto the saint himself. It also spreads over creation, illuminating a landscape rich in flora and fauna. By depicting Francis facing this dazzling world, Bellini invites the viewer to encounter God’s transformative power, not by retreating from reality, but meditating on signs of Christ’s presence in creation.

Finally, the tiny, delicate boxwood prayer nut is a striking emblem of the tactile, embodied experience of prayer. Counting prayers on beads or knotted ropes is an ancient devotional custom employed across many religions, from antiquity to the present. It is unclear when this practice was introduced into Christianity, though many scholars trace its roots to the desert fathers and mothers (Winston-Allen 2010: 14). Among European Christians, customary use of devotional beads initially developed with the invention of medieval paternosters, portable sets of beads designed to help illiterate Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer (Winston-Allen 2010: 14). Later, users began incorporating petitions to Mary into this form of prayer, giving rise to one of the most enduring Christian devotions: the rosary (Mitchell 2012: 6). Fusing a short, memorable prayer with the tactile use of beads, the rosary facilitated a contemplative experience which strongly appealed to the pious medieval imagination. Thus, as this devotion proliferated across late-medieval Europe, so too did a rich material culture surrounding the manufacture and use of prayer beads. By the fourteenth century, rosaries had become extremely popular—even fashionable—objects of personal piety and adornment. For owners of such prayer beads, the tiny, portable object would have been a perpetual reminder to keep watch at all times for the signs of God’s virtue in the world around them.

 

References

Bockmuehl, Markus. 1997. The Epistle to the Philippians (London: A & C Black)

Martin, Ralph. 1987. Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Mitchell, Nathan D. 2012. The Mystery of the Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism (New York: NYU Press)

Winston-Allen, Anne. 2010. Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press)