Christian art at the Ashmolean Museum

I’m still sorting through, labeling, and editing all the photos I took in England last month. I can’t wait to share them with you!

In the meantime, here are a few pieces art that I really liked from the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. I’ve arranged them from the oldest date of creation to the most recent.

The Resurrection of Christ

Resurrection of Christ

Ceramic wall tile with scene of the Resurrection, ca. 1450. From Great Malvern, Worcestershire. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: AN1967.672. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Jesus emerges from his coffin, his hands raised in a gesture of blessing and proclamation. “Look at my wounds, where the nails used to be,” he seems to say. “See how I’ve conquered death.” His crown of glory lies just overhead, waiting to be assumed. He is the only one worthy of it, this King of Kings, who is sovereign over all, even over the physical laws of life and death.

The Dragon and the Lamb

Lamb of God

Ivory and metal crosier head, measuring 15 cm in diameter, thought to date to the twelfth or thirteenth century. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: AN1685A.600. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

This crosier head features Christ as the Paschal Lamb, standing opposite the Mouth of Hell. (Hell, death, evil, and Satan are all conflated in the symbolism of the dragon.) On the cross, Jesus stared death in the face—looked straight into its jaws, and never recoiled. Here in the firm gaze of the Lamb you can see his sense of purpose and resolve. Even though it looks as if he’s about to be swallowed up by Death, as we all know, Jesus pulled a reversal and ended up doing the ultimate swallowing. 

The quatrefoil mount above the Dragon’s head reads “IHS,” the monogram of the Jesuit order, which stands for “Iesus Hominum Salvator” (“Jesus, Savior of man”). According to the museum, this along with the crucifix are later additions to the piece.

The figure of Saint Paul, however, is an original. He stands at the base, recognizable by the sword he wields, which represents the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17) as well as references his death by sword. In the other hand he holds a book, which represents the epistles he contributed to the canon of Christian scripture.

For more information, visit the page for this item on the Ashmolean website.

The Annunciation and The Adoration of the Magi

(Note: These two are not my photos—I was unable to snap any without large glares on the glass. See credit in captions and click through to the photographer’s Flickr page to see additional photos from the Ashmolean.)

Annunciation panel

Carved alabaster panel showing the Annunciation, with gilding and paint, fifteenth century. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: L1978.1. Photo: Kotomi Yamamura.

In this alabaster panel, an angel visits Mary at her reading stand to announce that she will conceive a son who will become the savior of all mankind. He holds a triad of lilies, the lily being a symbol of Mary’s virginity, and the number signifying the Triunity of God—bound together with a ribbon into a single unit. In this moment, God the Father speaks the Christ child into the womb of Mary, his breath taking on the form of a dove. I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s description of the Trinity as the Utterer (Father), Uttered (Son), and Uttering (Spirit)—for it is the Father who speaks the Word, and it is the Spirit’s ministry to carry and resound that Word in the hearts of women and men. Mary’s hands are open in a gesture of acceptance. She has agreed to be the vessel that will bear the Messiah into the world.

Adoration of the Magi

Carved alabaster panel showing the Adoration of the Magi, with gilding and paint, fifteenth century. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: L1978.2. Photo: Kotomi Yamamura.

In this companion panel is depicted the nativity of Christ, with the three kings come to present their gifts. Two of the kings are in conversation with each other; they point upward, as if to acknowledge the heavenly origin of the Christ child. The other king seems to be initiating contact with Joseph (of what kind is unclear, because his arm is no longer intact), who rests against the wall, exhausted from the day’s events. In the foreground, Mary, a donkey, and an ox cast pious gazes downward toward Christ, who gestures back with a sign of blessing.




Return of the Dove to the Ark

Noah's Ark

Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), The Return of the Dove to the Ark, 1851. Oil on canvas, 88.2 x 54.9 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: WA1894.8. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

After months of weathering the floodwaters from inside the ark, Noah sent out a dove to determine whether the waters had yet receded. The dove could find nowhere to roost and thus returned to the ark—the waters were still too high. Seven days later, Noah sent the dove out again. This time it returned with a sprig from a low-lying olive tree, which indicated that the waters had substantially cleared out. This Pre-Raphaelite painting by Sir John Everett Millais shows two of Noah’s daughters-in-law welcoming the dove back into the ark after its second flight. The one kisses the bird’s breast as the other stares pensively at the olive sprig, twisting it in her fingers. Their expressions seem to connote not joy, but rather nervousness. Why? Because they know that very soon they will be alighting into a brand new world, having to face the massive destruction left in the flood’s wake. There would be losses to mourn, and much to rebuild. The young blonde woman on the right senses her companion’s fear and gives her a reassuring touch.

I was attracted to this painting because it made me think of the bittersweetness that’s felt when a disaster—whether natural or manmade—is done passing through. It’s an olive branch in hand—peace, for now—but what a challenge lies ahead. This painting suggests that strength can be found in community, in helping one another.

Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus's feet

Eric Gill (1882-1940), Mary Magdalene, 1926. Caen stone. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. Accession no.: LI275.1. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

This sculpture by Eric Gill shows Mary Magdalene with her characteristic jar of ointment. This association comes from Luke 7:36-50, which tells the story of a “sinful woman” who, against the protests of the Pharisees, anointed Jesus’s feet with an expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair. Although the woman is unnamed in the passage, many Christians assume that it is Mary Magdalene. This has been a common belief ever since 591, when Pope Gregory I stated in a sermon that it was so.

The only color Gill used in this work was the blue of Mary’s iris and the red of her lips, drawing attention to these two sensuous facial features. While in her former profession she would have used these features to flirt and seduce, in this scene they are used with all purity: her eyes cry tears of confession, and her lips give kisses of gratitude and genuine affection. This is a woman with a sordid past, and yet whose act of worship Jesus not only accepts but commends before an audience of conservatives as an example of truer faith and greater love than any of them had yet to show. He grants her forgiveness and sends her off with a blessing of peace.

Elijah’s Meat

A 1938 bronze sculpture by Leon Underwood, this Elijah figure is housed in the one Ashmolean gallery in which photographs are not allowed—which is a shame, because I found this to be one of the most moving pieces, and would have loved to capture it from various angles. It’s about trusting in God’s day-to-day provision, and just waiting on him, as Elijah waited on the ravens that God promised would bring him food each day during the drought (1 Kings 17:2-6). It shows Elijah reaching out to receive one such provision. You can find a cropped shot of the sculpture on the front cover of the catalog Continuity and Change: Twentieth Century Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum. Underwood is quoted in the catalog as saying that there was a period in his life when he was really struggling to make ends meet, and during that time he was “fed by ravens”—that is, miraculously looked after, sustained, by God.

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2 Responses to Christian art at the Ashmolean Museum

  1. Pingback: The Bell Altar and Madonna and Child in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford | The Jesus Question

  2. Pingback: JANUARY 22 2021 – THE BELL ALTAR AND CROSS – CHRIST CHURCH OXFORD | The Bell Society

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