Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Year B, Lent 6: The Ointment of Nard by Arcabas

Year B, Lent 6 - Arcabas: L’onction de nard (The Ointment of Nard)
Transformative Reception
by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
Arcabas is a contemporary French visual artist who frequently engages with biblical story and text. His work invites further reflection upon Scripture, employing images and colours that enable new angles and refractions. Hints of traditions old and recent are embedded in his work – he is appreciative of and shaped by the history of artistic tradition – yet Arcabas also very consciously develops his own unique signs and symbols. Throughout his oeuvre there pervades a symbolic narrative that reminds viewers of the covenanting Spirit that unites the subjects of his work.
The painting above, ‘L’onction de nard’, is an image from the twenty-one piece polyptych Passion-Résurrection (2003). It repeats shapes and colours that are drawn throughout the larger work. Gold leaf embraces the woman, whose intense and vibrant blues embrace the man who is receiving from her: Christ. This is a striking element of this Lenten image: the quietly active acceptance of the Christ-who-receives.
Today is the third Sunday of Lent, a Sunday of repentance and thus a Sunday of acceptance, for the assurance is ours that if we offer repentance it will be accepted and received. The naming of the precious ointment in the title of this picture hails the passage in Mark, in which a woman comes to a house where Christ is one of the gathered guests. She bears an alabaster jar with perfume worth a year of salary. As she pours it upon the head of Christ, the observers are indignant: what a waste! What equated to a vast sum of money has disappeared before their eyes, dripping down the head of their celebrated guest. Yet with what words does Jesus respond? “She has done a beautiful thing.” What a phrase! Braving a potentially hostile environment, this woman has stepped before her Christ and anointed him with the earnings of a year of life – and he pronounces the act beautiful.
In the painting Arcabas garbs this woman in the dress of a nun: a woman who has turned from her former life that she might wed all that she is to her Lord. Her act is not only an outpouring of precious ointment, but a commitment of who she is to him who she now anoints. It is a personal act, but not a private one. And peacefully her Lord sits and willingly receives. The golden liquid in the painting does not drip. It is flowing with a living curvature replicated in the next panel of the polyptych, a picture that is made of 23k gold leaf and is entitled “La route messianique.” Paired with it is a passage from Isaiah: “See! I am doing a new thing…do you not perceive it?... streams in the wasteland…”
This new way of the Messiah is causing changes: before a group of feasting men a solitary woman performs a celebration of her redemptive Christ; she has learned how to “care and not to care.” And this celebration, her beautiful repentant thanksgiving, serves as an anointing for the Week of Passion that awaits the Messiah, as he explains aloud: “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” Although the words are not then comprehended, in a mere few days expensive burial perfume will again be brought to anoint his body, this time to a grave.
“Qui peut définir la grâce qui est pur cadeau?” (Who can define the grace that is pure gift?) asks Arcabas in a reflection upon the polyptych. Like the woman he paints, we are invited to allow the acceptance of the receptive Christ turn our repentance into celebration and to participate with him in his transformative ways.
The Passion-Résurrection polyptych concludes with an image that shows a similar type of jar as contained the nard. Three women bearing myrrh to the tomb are greeted with the golden proclamation: “He has risen!” As they peer into the grave that cannot contain Christ, there looms large before them the message-bearing angel with a prism of wings streaming out behind. This is the morning of Pure Gift: they must now allow their perfume of sorrow to be transformed into that of unexpected celebration.
Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson completed her doctorate on the mythopoeic art of George MacDonald at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is a free-lance writer and lives on a farm in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. Before moving back to Canada she and her husband lived in the Isère region of France, where they delighted in introducing the work of Arcabas to friends and colleagues.
Mark 14:3-9
Isaiah 43:19-20
1. Arcabas, L’onction de nard, oil on canvas; 0.81m x 0.65m, The polyptych Passion-Résurrection, 2003, Montaigu, Scherpenheuvel (Belgium), with the authorization of the artist.
2. Arcabas, La route messianique, 23 carat gold leaf on canvas; 0.81m x 0.65m, The polyptych Passion-Résurrection, 2003, Montaigu, Scherpenheuvel (Belgium), with the authorization of the artist.
3. Arcabas, Les Femmes myrrophores, oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1.62m x 1.35m, The polyptych Passion-Résurrection, 2003, Montaigu, Scherpenheuvel (Belgium), with the authorization of the artist.
Jean-Marie Pirot (1926- 2018) is better known as ‘Arcabas’ – a name given by his students at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble. Despite the frequently explicit theological nature of his work, the painter, sculptor, set-designer, tapestry, mosaic, and stained glass-artist Arcabas has long been well-loved and recognized throughout the Isère region of France. He is now an important figure for the contemporary sacred art of France. His international recognition has grown exponentially in recent years, as has awareness of his monumental achievement at the church of St. Hugues-de-Chartreuse, in the Chartreuse mountains. Beginning in 1953, and in several stages over almost forty years, Arcabas created all the artwork that now adorns the church’s interior: murals, canvas, stained glass, brass-work, sculpture. In 1970 he completed the panoramic stained glass in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, Alpe d'Huez. He has also worked in collaboration with his son, a sculptor known as Etienne, designing the liturgical furnishings of other churches and cathedrals. He writes: “J’aime rechercher l’harmonie et la beauté en modest imitateur de mon createur.”
Links (a short video of an installation of the polyptych with commentary by the artist)
1. From ‘Ash Wednesday’, The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.
2. Arcabas: Passion-Résurrection, Fabrice Hadjadj, 2004.
3. Arcabas: Passion-Résurrection, Fabrice Hadjadj, 2004.
ArtWay Visual Meditation March 27, 2011, Third Sunday of Lent
For more materials for Lent, click here


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