The mention of Zurbarán in my last essay leads me to recall another Zurbarán masterpiece, The Crucifixion in the Art Institute of Chicago. When I went to see the Art Institue with my cousin, a true art maven, she was entranced by a Cèzanne study of apples, while I was particularly moved by this Zurbarán. It shows the Crucifixion on a black background, suspended in space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNzH4SwjCEY
Zurbarán is not the only one who has depicted the Crucifixion isolated by a black background. A few years after Zurbarán, Veláquez painted Christ Crucified, now in the Prado, using a similar technique to isolate the Crucifixion in eternity. For that matter, Dali’s foreshortened Crucifixion, viewed from above (Christ of St. John of the Cross, now in Glasgow) also uses a black background at least behind the Cross. Toward the foot of the Cross, the darkness becomes the sky down to the bay of Port Lligat, where Dali lived. Christ is shown without nails and thorns, and the boat and fisherman at the bottom have clear Christian connotations: the Church is often seen as an ark of salvation, and of course the association of fishermen with the Apostles hardly needs mention.
Dali develops this formula in his Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), with its cross as an unfolded tesseract. (I am woeful at maths; this means that the Cross is made as if each face of a cube had a cube projecting from it, resting on a bottom cube.) This time the unwounded Christ is not foreshortened but seen frontally; even so, the blackness towards the top seems to recall these earlier Crucifixions by Zurbarán and Veláquez. Dali was influenced by an antique sketch by St. John of the Cross, hence the painting’s name. Some critics think all this kitsch, but if so, it is memorable kitsch.
While I digress with the ease of a seal entering the water, I do have a point. The Zurbarán Crucifix reminds me of the ending of my favorite setting of the Ave Maria I know: the Ave Maria à 4 by Josquin des Prez, sometimes called Ave Maria . . . Virgo Serena. This is a troped, or expanded, version of the “Hail Mary.” While some Protestants find this prayer objectionable, we Catholic and Orthodox Christians know that “praying” to the Saints is not asking them to grant our wishes by themselves. We ask for their prayers to God on our behalf, expanding the Christian custom of asking other Christians for prayers, just as many Baptists do at Wednesday night Prayer Meeting. The difference is these “dead” Christians are alive in the presence of God. None of those in Heaven pray or act apart from God’s will. You may dispute that the dead can hear us; you can argue that they “sleep,” but please do not think those of us who ask the Saints to pray for us are trying a run around God. After all, the Josquin Ave Maria ends “O Mater Dei, memento mei” or “O Mother of God remember me” (that is, “pray for me”).
I have not forgot that Zurbarán began all this; I shall return to him after I do a small appreciation for Josquin’s motet. This piece is amazing! It begins in strict canon, each staggered entrance imitating the first entrance in turn, but then it branches out elaborately. For a while, the tenor lags one note after the other voices (I have sung this, and it is a little tricky), and at another the time goes from duple meter to triple meter – the three beats call to mind the Holy and Undivided Trinity and evoke eternity:
As “Anglophiliac” (great nom de plume!) notes in the comments, this motet is not for six voices as stated but for four. Chanticleer is a splendid all-male group using falsettists. (That is, countertenors or sopranistas for the upper voices; in British choral foundations, the upper voices would sung by boys, though countertenors are also standard practice. You probably know that, for centuries, women traditionally did not sing in liturgical church choirs, so this is a pretty good approximation of what Josquin heard. I am a great believer in original instruments of all sorts; believe me, the modern ones lose as much as they gain by the “progress” of change. But those remarks are for another time.)
Finally, the point of all this: where Zurbarán meets Josquin for me is in the last “O Mater Dei, memento mei. Amen.” This homophonic prayer is a surprising contrast with the countrapuntal splendor that precedes it. In a progression of chords sounding very like a modern hymn, the prayer that the Mother of God remember me strikes right to the heart of the prayer – and right to our own hearts as well. The final “Amen” is a pure open fifth. Aside from its possible symbolic use, that sound should be completely pure, without vibration, as only fifths or octaves can be. (Play an open fifth, such as Middle C to G, on the piano, and it is ever so slightly out of tune. There is a tiny bit of throbbing in the sound. This is because modern equal temperament narrows all the fifths on pianos to keep the octaves in tune. The discrepancy was discovered centuries before Church Music and is called the “Pythagorean comma.” Unlike instruments with set pitch, singers, whose temper may vary but whose pitch is more accurate, can sing the fifth as perfectly pure, unlike the piano.) The last sound of the motet is perfectly pure and sonorous; its openness reminds me of Zurbarán’s Crucifix hanging in black space. The Zurbarán is the visual analogue of what I hear at the end of the Josquin Ave Maria: Eternity. So with Josquin and Zurbarán, let my add my own prayer to the Virgin who is forever in the presence of God, her Maker and her Son: “O Mother of God, remember me. Amen.”