January 1, 2013

This time last year, Studio Matters went on retreat. It withdrew in anticipation of a long, difficult year. The new one promises to be no easier.
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Still, retreats are meant as preludes to renewal, not abdication. I was reminded of this by a note that came from a lovely and thoughtful artist in Arkansas. She wondered if postings had been abandoned forever.

No, Lin, not forever.

New Year’s Day seems a good moment for Studio Matters to shake off sleep and open eyes to the new season. On the liturgical calendar, January 1st has traditionally marked the celebration of the circumcision of the infant Jesus.

So much marvelous painting owes itself to the commemoration of that act. Male circumcision is out of fashion these days, though; even under attack. An iconographic search relating to the ceremony, recalling as it does Mosaic law, is less productive than one that uses a less clinical term. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the title best suited to conjuring up glories from art history:

 The Presentation of Jesus in the TempleFrom the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, around 1500, came this:

circumcision of the infant Jesus.At the same time, Hans Holbein the Elder gave his world this:

Hans Holbein the ElderToday, what circulates in celebration of January 1st are variations on images like this:

Peanuts Happy New YearOr, if we moderns want to get fancy, this:

FireworksEither way, it is a telling comedown. The richness of the art of later Christian culture represents more than material or historic realities. It signifies moral intuitions—claims on conscience—that are in danger of receding along with the Christian story.
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Let me start this new year with a reflection by David Bentley Hart:

I cannot help but wonder what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes? How long can our gentler ethical prejudices [toward the vulnerable—the diseased, disabled, or derelict among us], many of which seem to be melting away with fair rapidity, persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away? Love endures all things perhaps, as the apostle says, and is eternal; but as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among virtues. And the mere habit of solicitude for others will not necessarily long survive when that reason is no longer found. If . . . the “human as we understand it is the positive intervention of Christianity, might it not be the case that a culture that has become truly post-Christian will also, ultimately, become posthuman?