Review: “Of Heaven and Earth” represents the Gospel, engages the imagination

By Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

Good religious art makes us see the Gospel in a new way, by re-introducing us to a familiar scene or glimpsing another aspect of Christ’s humanity.  The exhibit “Of Heaven and Earth,” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art until Nov. 17, does just that, with its paintings from the principal artistic centers of Italy through five centuries, beginning in the 1300s.

Titian’s “Christ and the Adulteress” depicts the familiar scene from John’s Gospel in which the Pharisees bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus, asking if they should stone her.  Jesus replies, “He who is without sin shall cast the first stone.”  In the painting, the young man who is dragging the adulteress to her judgment stands at the center, with Christ.  The young man’s expression looks as if he is personally challenged by Christ’s words, causing the viewer to wonder whether he has been betrayed by a woman and stands in need of extending forgiveness.  This leads the viewer to examine how Christ’s words extend to her, whom she might need to forgive.

Two expansive paintings by Salvator Rosa bring life to the early events of Christ’s ministry.  The first, “Saint John the Baptist Baptizing Christ in the Jordan,” which covers nearly 50 square feet of canvas, is eye-catching for the jutting rocks and shaggy trees that cover the majority of the painting, with the figures small in the foreground. “Saint John the Baptist Revealing Christ to the Disciples” is similarly impressive in its immense landscape, forcing us to look for the figures.  This time, underneath the projecting rocks and massive trees, we see three men facing a fourth, who stands and points into the distance.  It is only then that we see the fifth figure, Christ.  John the Baptist’s finger, like Christ’s gaze in Titian’s painting, connects the viewer to Christ’s promise of salvation.

Zuccarelli’s “John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness” illustrates the adult life of the last pre-Christian prophet.  The crowd surrounding John is diverse, and includes Roman soldiers.  The face of the soldiers is obscure, making it unclear whether they are interested in the truth of John’s words or his potential threat to the established order.

The collection includes numerous portrayals of Christ’s infancy.  One such painting by the unknown Master of the Glasgow Adoration, “Adoration of the Magi,” displays the Wise Men’s visit to the young Jesus.  Jesus sits peacefully on Mary’s knee, while the kings offer their gifts.  An elderly Joseph looks on almost sadly from the background.  What was it like for Christ’s earthly father: Was he irritated, tired, eager to be back on the road home, sorrowful that his age may prevent him from watching Christ’s life unfold?

Another highlight from Christ’s early life is Antiveduto Gramatica’s “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne,” which shows a peaceful, amused Mary alongside her mother, Anne, who is teasing the Christ-child with cherries.  Christ, around a year old, is reaching for them, much like any child would reach for sweets.  The strain of Christ’s body conveys his human delight in earthly pleasures.

Many more paintings in the collection, such as Signorelli’s “Lamentation Over Dead Christ,” engage the imagination with the Gospels, making the collection a must-see.

Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer and math tutor living in Oklahoma City.