Kenaan-Kedar, Nurith: The Madonna of the Prickly Pear Cactus -Tradition and Innovation in 19th and 20th century Christian Art in the Holy Land. 191pp., 50 ill., 87 Pl., 26/22 cm, ISBN 978-965-217-317-1
(Yad Ben-Zvi Press, Jerusalem 2010)
Compte rendu par Einat Segal, Open University of Israel

Nombre de mots : 1705 mots
Publié en ligne le 2011-05-30
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).

          Christian visual art and culture of the 19th and 20th centuries in the Holy Land have received little scholarly attention. This book studies, analyzes, and presents the major artistic creations of diverse Christian communities during this period. It demonstrates an extensive corpus of visual images never photographed or published previously.


          The book, by the medieval art-historian Prof. Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, is dedicated to a study of the extensive architectural and artistic oeuvre of the Latin Church in the Holy Land of the 19th and 20th centuries, in two major churches:  the Church of the Visitation at Ain Karim (1938-1955) and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (1958-1965). This pioneering study details the architecture and decorative cycles and seeks to investigate the Latin Church’s artistic activity, and to trace its sources and complex visual languages.


          Part One of the book engages with two major issues: a) a short survey and introduction of several examples from the very rich pictorial works of the Greek-Orthodox and the Armenian Churches in the Holy Land in the 19th and 20th centuries. These have never been photographed or discussed previously; and b) an overview of the pictorial languages of the Latin churches of the Visitation and the Annunciation, and their relationships to the perception of the arts of the Council of the Vatican II.


          Discussing the Greek-Orthodox and Armenian art, Kenaan-Kedar introduces a rare group of icons depicting the 40 martyrs in the Greek-Orthodox Chapel of the 40 Martyrs in St. James Church, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; and in St. George Church in Lydda (Lod); revealing probably allegorical identities and problematic issues of the Christian communities under the Ottoman Empire.  Kenaan-Kedar dedicates a meticulous stylistic analysis to one icon, exceptional in both size and pictorial programme, signed and dated of 1849 and depicting only the miracles of Galilee, in the Greek-Orthodox church at Kafr Kanna. Several prominent painted panels from the same period, in the Armenian Cathedral of Saint James, represent the unique Armenian pictorial traditions.  


          The final section of this part is dedicated to an overview of the history and role of the Latin Church, and of the Franciscan Order as guardian of the holy places. Special attention is given to the diverse pictorial languages of the two Latin churches: the Church of the Visitation at Ain Karim, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.


          In this context, Kenaan-Kedar considers the Second Vatican Council including the numerous decrees relating to the pictorial arts and discusses the art of both churches in relation to the decrees concerning the role and meanings of the visual arts as declared at that Council. The introduction of the Council’s perceptions is exceptional in art history research on this period.


          Part Two of the book is devoted to the Church of the Visitation at Ain Karim (1938-1955).  


          The church, believed to be the site of the house of Zacharias and Elisabeth visited by the Virgin, has been a place of pilgrimage since early Christianity. Byzantine, Crusader, and two later churches were built on the site. In 1938, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land decided to build a new church there. Archeological excavations preceding all constructions were a sine qua non of archaeologia sacra in the Holy Land and elsewhere, aiming at demonstrating scientifically the site’s antiquity as a holy place and linking it thereby to its veneration in modern times. Father Bellarmino Bagatti’s excavations revealed parts of both a Byzantine church and a Crusader double church.  The architect Antonio Barluzzi constructed a modern double church on the Crusader model, including a Byzantine wall in the lower church and parts of the Crusader apse in the upper one. The author dedicates a detailed study both to the writings and initiatives of Father Bellarmino Bagatti (1905-1990, archaeologist, theologian and scholar, whose book and articles on the Church of the Visitation explain its symbolism, and who also determined its iconographic programmes); and to the writings and work of the architect, Antonio Barluzzi (1884-1960).  Thus, studying Bagatti’s and Barluzzi’s texts alongside the images enlightens their leading and prominent roles in the creation of the overall work of the Church of the Visitation.


          Each of the three painters of the church’s fresco cycles – Angelo della Torre, Fernando Manetti, and Cesare Vagarini – as well as the mosaic’s designer, Biagio Biagetti (all prominent artists in the service of the church), reflects a different historical style as a source of inspiration, while also revealing a deliberate intention to depict an individual perception of the present-day local landscape and flora as well as of twentieth-century art.


          The ground floor at the front of the lower church features a system of round arches leading to the open narthex. The upper storey is rectangular in front, ending in a triangular gable.


The Mosaic by Biaggio Biagetti (1877–1948)


          Biagetti’s monumental mosaic on the facade of the Church of the Visitation at Ain Karim depicts the journey of the Virgin Mary from Nazareth to Ain Karim. She is attired in a white mantle covering her head and body. Her face is young and beautiful; angels dressed in white robes and shod in sandals march alongside her donkey, leading and following it. Other angels, dressed in pink robes, are shown guarding the journey from the deep blue sky above.


          Kenaan-Kedar points to the rarity of this scene in the history of Christian art. Biagetti created a totally new iconography, depicting the Madonna riding in the company of her guardian angels, and representing through image and word the local link between Nazareth and Ain Karim.

          From the narthex one enters the lower church, which according to tradition was built on the site of the house of Zachariah and Elisabeth. The space here branches into three sections, each of which has a niche in its lower part and a semicircular lunette with a painted mural in the upper part. The ceiling is decorated with vine trellises and grapes symbolizing the blood and sacrifice of Christ. On either side of the vines are depicted allegorical images of the two main Virtues – Faith and Hope.


          The cycle of paintings in the lower church is spread over the three lunettes on the upper part of the wall and below the vault. Facing the visitor upon entrance, the centre lunette depicts the encounter between Mary and Elisabeth next to Elisabeth’s house; to its right is the story of the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem; and to its left is the story of Elisabeth’s flight with John and their hiding in the cave. At the top of the left wall the lunette painting depicts the story of Zachariah the High Priest (Luke 1:25, 57–66). 


          The paintings were created by the artist Angelo della Torre, about whom, as Kenaan-Kedar shows, neither Bagatti nor Barluzzi have provided a single word regarding his personality, education, or other activities. The author however introduces a short pictorial history of the Visitation scene mainly in Medieval European Art which enhances the new creation of Angello della Torre.


Upper church

The Madonna of the Magnificat


          In the upper church, Kenaan-Kedar emphasizes the innovations of the painters, focusing on the apse, a major work by Fernando Manetti (1899- 1964). At the centre of the apse is an image of the Madonna attired in a red robe and blue mantle. Her head is covered with a white kerchief. She is set within a desert landscape of the Holy Land, and at either side is depicted a large prickly-pear cactus bush with its red blooms. A new image was born here – the Madonna of the Prickly-Pear Cactus. This image is unique in Christian art history, and Kenaan-Kedar again notes that Bagatti ignores it in his writings on the church. Kenaan-Kedar interprets the artistic creation as a bold innovation, and compares it to Bunuel’s image of the Madonna in his "Milky-Way"


          Part Three of the book is devoted to the Church of the Visitation in Nazareth, reconstructed in the 1960s.  This building, planned by the Milanese architect Giovanni Mutzio, presents a two-fold concept: that of the façade, which holds a dialogue with the Italian Romanesque, apparently mainly, as contended by the author, with the cathedral at Pisa; and that of the internal structure, built in the style of Brutalism. The author interprets the edifice as presenting an encounter between the traditional symbolic perception of the building as featuring two storeys with their various parts, and the Brutalist style. Thus, for example, in the centre of the ceiling of the lower storey is a wide octagonal opening, providing a panoramic view of the upper storey and the dome. From this opening bare concrete beams spread out across the ceiling, resembling the rays of a star. Kenaan-Kedar notes that the octagon symbolizes eternal life, with numerous Baptisteries in medieval Europe having been constructed as octagons; while the star symbolizes the birth of Christ and the Annunciation that preceded it, and serves to unify the entire structure. The observer is thus required to read the symbolic shapes in order to orient in the space.


          Furthermore, the book discusses the mosaic on the apse in the upper story, created according to the cartoons of the Milanese artist Salvatore Fiume. It presents a broad panoramic view, with the large images of Christ, Mary and St. Peter in the centre, surrounded by the heavenly host of martyrs, bishops and Fathers of the Church, as well as images of the faithful. At the top of the creation appears the inscription “The One Church, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.  Kenaan-Kedar notes how Fiume has presented here a new artistic concept associated with his work as opera stage designer at La Scala in Milano, creating an image of the Virgin in almost geometric form, as two huge triangles, conferring upon her cosmic proportions.


          Alongside the canonical and official visual images, Kenaan-Kedar dedicates a chapter to the large mosaic panels installed in the covered gallery of the church courtyard and inside the church, presenting popular images of the Madonna. Donated to the church by pilgrims from Catholic Christian communities throughout the world, the author regards this collection as an expression of the Church’s self-perception, following the Second Vatican Council, as a Pilgrimage church. For example, the image of the Madonna from Copacabana in Bolivia was created as a copy of the image of the original Bolivian Madonna, as dark-skinned and attired in a white embroidered robe, fingers adorned with colourful rings; and holding a sceptre from which hangs a pink ribbon tied to a straw basket.


          I believe that this precise analysis of the diverse visual languages of high and popular Christian religious images, and the discussion of the work of the artists, offers for the first time an encompassing study that has established a solid foundation for future scholars in this field.