Saint Louis University

The premiere exhibition of an important cycle of paintings created expressly for MOCRA.

Frederick J. Brown - The Life of Christ Altarpiece (1994-95)

   Frederick J. Brown

   The Life of Christ Altarpiece

December 2, 1995  - March 3, 1996
     free public opening reception for the artist
     Saturday, December 2, 4:00 - 6:00 p.m.
exhibition extended through April 19, 1996

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Hours: Tues - Sun, 11 am - 4 pm
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Frederick J. Brown - Madonna and Child (1994-95)

Frederick J. Brown, Madonna and Child from
The Life of Christ Altarpiece,
Mixed media on canvas.
108 x 48 in.
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary
Religious Art, Saint Louis University

In 1992, prolific expressionist artist Frederick J. Brown offered to execute a large, multi-paneled altarpiece based on the life of Christ for the new Museum of Contemporary Religious Art. A generous gift of UMB Banks and the Crosby Kemper Foundations helped make that project a reality.

The resulting Life of Christ Altarpiece, dedicated to artist Max Beckmann, is comprised of a central triptych (depicting the Baptism, Descent From the Cross, and Resurrection of Christ), measuring over 15 feet wide; and two large side panels, depicting the Madonna and Child and the Descent into Hell, which in its orginal installation were placed at a 90° angle to the triptych. Through strong brushwork and brilliant coloration, Brown has created a moving visual theological reflection on the life of Christ.

The Madonna and Child is the hallmark piece of this polyptych. The strong, iconic Madonna with her striking face, embraces the child Jesus, the most naturalistic of the figures in the altarpiece. The child has a gentle, melancholic expression that indicates, even at this early age, an understanding of all that is to come. In Brown’s unusual and beautiful Baptism of Christ, the River Jordan assumes the epic proportions of a large lake with a quilt-like coastline and sailboats in the background. Jesus floats horizontally on the river in the middle ground, his head supported by the standing John the Baptist. This unusual position of Jesus offers a foreshadowing of his death and entombment.

The Descent From the Cross is a very narrow, tall canvas dominated by a cadaverous Christ. The crosses of the two thieves are in the background and immediately behind Christ is a golden halo. Yellow and gold in this altarpiece are signifiers of the Divine Presence. The Resurrection collapses the events of Holy Week into one canvas—the Crucifixion, the Entombment, and the Resurrection. The rolled-away stone, bearing a large cross on it, reveals the cold and bloodied slab of the tomb, now empty, while to the right of the tomb the resurrected Christ in profile looks out of the corner of his eye at us.

The final panel in the altarpiece is Brown’s reflection on a subject rarely seen in modern Western art—the Descent into Hell—and it is distinguished by Brown’s return to the style of abstract expressionism that he used in the 1970s, the style which won the attention of the artist Willem de Kooning, who became an important mentor and friend for Brown. This moment in Christ’s life is more often depicted in the Eastern Churches: just prior to his resurrection, the spirit of Christ descended into Limbo and released the spirits of the important figures of the Old Testament so they could participate in the Resurrection. Christ’s spirit then rejoined his body for his own Resurrection.

For Brown, the descent into hell has modern and even personal resonances, for in these descending spirits, there is a deeply felt understanding of what it is to look into the abyss and to be overwhelmed by the various struggles of life. Indeed, the removal of figural elements heightens the sense of vast, even limitless despair. Yet, there is also a sense of triumph over those difficulties, expressed through the spirits that are ascending. It is the culmination of a significant, modern treatment of the life of Christ.

About the artist
Frederick J. Brown is one of America's finest and most prolific expressionist artists. His paintings draw on many sources: His African-American and Choctaw ancestry, the muisc and lives of jazz musicians, his religious upbringing, the folklore of the South, and the art of the German Expressionists and the American Abstract-Expressionists, especially that of his mentor and friend, Willem de Kooning. He has exhibited widely throughout this country and abroad, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Instituion, Washington, D.C.; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City; and the White House, Washington, D.C. In 1988, Mr. Brown had the largest retrospective ever given a Western artist by the People's Republic of China, and he is the only Western artist ever to have had an exhibition at China's national museum in Tien An Men Square.

Frederick J. Brown - Descent into Hell (1994-95)

Frederick J. Brown, Descent into Hell from
The Life of Christ Altarpiece,
Mixed media on canvas.
108 x 48 in.
Collection of the Museum of Contemporary
Religious Art, Saint Louis University

MOCRA and Saint Louis University wish to express their deep gratitude to Frederick J. Brown and to UMB Banks and the Crsoby Kemper Foundations for making this important gift of art possible.

Additional links
more about Frederick J. Brown

more about Expressionist movements in art

Max Beckmann in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum

More about icons (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

"The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography," essay by Bishop Auxentios

Frederick J. Brown: The Life of Christ Altarpiece in the media