Annunciation roundup: “The Parliament of Heaven” mystery play, reversioning the story through poetry, and more

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that the Annunciation is one of my favorite biblical stories. It’s beautiful and wild—and rife with artistic potential! The church celebrates Jesus’s conception in Mary’s womb yearly on March 25, but naturally, it also comes up in the songs, prayers, image cycles, dramas, and meditations of the Advent season. Here’s a roundup of Annunciation-themed art. (You can find more by searching the “Annunciation” tag in the blog archives.)

SONG: “Never Before” by Deanna Witkowski: Jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski [previously] wrote this three-part women’s a cappella piece in 1998 for a lessons and carols service at All Angels’ Church in New York City. In the song Mary marvels at the uncanny prospect that she will feel God growing inside her womb, will breastfeed him, will mend his boo-boos—and mourns that she will one day watch him die. “Never Before” appears on Witkowski’s 2009 album From This Place, sung by her, Laila Biali, and Kate McGarry, and was also featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (see “Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz”).

The angel said the Lord is with me:

The Lord is with me in a way he’s never been before;
his Spirit is my lover, his son shall fill my womb
with holiness and joy
and with life that I can feel kicking at my insides.

The Lord will stay with me in a way he’s never stayed before;
he will suckle at my breast and let me hold him in my arms.
He will run to me when he cuts his finger
or wonders aloud at his Father’s creation in a brightly colored butterfly.

Oh, who is this child, Lord, who comes from up above,
whose eyes will look beyond my own to a destiny I do not know?
Oh, who is this God-boy whose hands shall clasp mine
and whose tears I shall wipe away with trembling fingers of my own?

The Lord will leave me in a way he’s never left before;
as a king whose time has come, as a son his mother loved,
as a boy whose laughter has filled my heart,
and as a baby whose tears I have cried as if they were my own.

The angel said the Lord is with me.

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ESSAY: “Saying Yes to the Annunciation” by Peggy Rosenthal: Peggy Rosenthal, author of The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium, is an excellent guide through poetry. Here she meditates on lines from five poems on the Annunciation: by Hildegard of Bingen, John Donne, Rupert Brooke, Kathleen Wakefield, and Katharine Coles.

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CONVERSATION: “Aliens, angels & annunciations”: In this article, poets Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell dialogue about their 2020 book A Confusion of Marys, a collection of poems they’ve written inspired by the Annunciation. It’s a series of (sometimes irreverent or humorous) variations on a theme, and not what you’d call devotional poetry. Loydell quotes Gabriel Josipovici, who said stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over, and made new, and that’s what this book does. I definitely gravitated more to some poems than to others.

A Confusion of Mary book cover

“I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology,” Cave says. “I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions, etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all-pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.”

As for Loydell, he says he’s interested not in theological certainty but in “doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas”—the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. He comes at it from a less personal angle.

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MYSTERY PLAY + ART PRESENTATION: “Hope Ubiqui: The Gift of the Annunciation”: This online event hosted by Holy Family (Catholic) Church in South Pasadena, California, on March 16, 2021, combines art reflections by Dr. Leah Marie Buturain Schneider (who’s incredibly warm, wise, and engaging) with a performance of the medieval mystery play The Parliament of Heaven, Salutation, and Conception (from the N-town cycle), translated from the Middle English by Colleen E. Donnelly and directed here by Grete Gryzwana.

The video starts with artist Patty Wickman [previously] outlining the five emotional states Mary cycled through in response to the angel Gabriel, as famously identified by art historian Michael Baxandall. Schneider then discusses a handful of historical artworks depicting the Annunciation, including ones by Fra Angelico and Andrea della Robbia. The thirty-minute play follows, which enacts not only the Annunciation but also an imagined precursor: a heavenly debate among four of God’s virtues—Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness [previously; see also this Instagram post]—about how to answer humanity’s cries for salvation. (Keep in mind that this was Zoom-mediated, with each actor calling in from a different location, and some with spotty internet connections, so there are some technical glitches, but it’s still a stirring and enjoyable performance!) Schneider continues by highlighting additional artworks of significance, focusing on Dieric Bouts’s Getty Annunciation, particularly the detail of Mary’s hands. She reads from the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich on responding to Love’s call; they ask, What does it matter if Mary gives birth to Jesus if we ourselves do not give birth to him in our souls, in our lives?

2:51–7:41: Introduction by Patty Wickman
9:44–18:16: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
18:37–50:10: Mystery play
52:01–1:08:27: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
1:08:52–1:31:00: Q&A

The remaining video is just informal chatting among a few church members who linger behind on the call.

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CHILDREN’S VIDEO: “The Gospel According to Hamlet” by SALT Project: A whimsical retelling of the Annunciation story, narrated by kids—and by a small ceramic pig figurine! The characters are played by a reproduction of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, a Barbie with tinsel wings, and a matryoshka doll.

Advent, Day 10

LOOK: Tree of Life by Taddeo Gaddi

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Taddeo Gaddi (Italian, 1290–1366), Tree of Life, ca. 1350. Fresco painted for the refectory of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence (now a museum).

The Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life) by Bonaventure, an early Franciscan theologian from Bagnoregio, Italy, is a meditational treatise on the life of Christ. It asks readers to picture in their minds a tree bearing twelve fruits (cf. Rev. 22:2), its roots watered by an ever-flowing stream. Standing for specific attributes of Christ or events from the Gospels, “this fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat it, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste,” Bonaventure writes. “I call these fruits because they delight with their rich sweetness and strengthen with their nourishment the soul who meditates on them and diligently considers each one.” The chapter outline, organized by “fruit,” is as follows (translation by Ewert Cousins):

PART I. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS ORIGIN

First Fruit: His Distinguished Origin

Jesus Begotten of God
Jesus Prefigured
Jesus Sent from Heaven
Jesus Born of Mary

Second Fruit: The Humility of His Mode of Life

Jesus Conformed to His Forefathers
Jesus Shown to the Magi
Jesus Submissive to the Law
Jesus Exiled from His Kingdom

Third Fruit: The Loftiness of His Power

Jesus, Heavenly Baptist
Jesus Tempted by the Enemy
Jesus Wonderful in His Miracles
Jesus Transfigured

Fourth Fruit: The Plenitude of His Piety

Jesus, the Solicitous Shepherd
Jesus Bathed with Tears
Jesus Acclaimed King of the World
Jesus, Consecrated Bread

PART II. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS PASSION

Fifth Fruit: His Confidence in Trials

Jesus Sold through Guile
Jesus Prostrate in Prayer
Jesus Surrounded by the Mob
Jesus Bound with Chains

Sixth Fruit: His Patience in Maltreatment

Jesus Denied by His Own
Jesus Blindfolded
Jesus Handed Over to Pilate
Jesus Condemned to Death

Seventh Fruit: His Constancy Under Torture

Jesus Scorned by All
Jesus Nailed to the Cross
Jesus Linked with Thieves
Jesus Given Gall to Drink

Eighth Fruit: Victory in the Conflict of Death

Jesus, Sun Dimmed in Death
Jesus Pierced with a Lance
Jesus Dripping with Blood
Jesus Laid in the Tomb

PART III. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS GLORIFICATION

Ninth Fruit: The Novelty of His Resurrection

Jesus Triumphant in Death
Jesus Rising in Blessedness
Jesus, Extraordinary Beauty
Jesus Given Dominion over the Earth

Tenth Fruit: The Sublimity of His Ascension

Jesus, Leader of His Army
Jesus Lifted Up to Heaven
Jesus, Giver of the Spirit
Jesus Freeing from Guilt

Eleventh Fruit: The Equity of His Judgment

Jesus, Truthful Witness
Jesus, Wrathful Judge
Jesus, Glorious Conqueror
Jesus, Adorned Spouse

Twelfth Fruit: The Eternity of His Kingdom

Jesus, King, Son of the King
Jesus, Inscribed Book
Jesus, Fountain-Ray of Light
Jesus, Desired End

Written in Latin around 1260, the Tree of Life became an instant classic, giving rise to many visual representations—first in manuscript miniatures, then in panel paintings and large-scale frescoes, including one by the Florentine artist Taddeo Gaddi.

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (wide shot)

Painted in the mid-fourteenth century in the refectory (dining room) of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, the fresco depicts, in its central register, Christ crucified, with twelve scrolls unfurling from the vertical shaft like branches on a tree. On these scrolls, inscribed in Latin, are all the subheadings from Bonaventure’s treatise—IHS EX DEO GENITUS, IHS PREFIGURATUS, and so on, where “IHS” is an abbreviation for the name Jesus. Leafy roundels bear the names of the twelve “fruits,” and others feature busts of prophets.

At the bottom of the cross is the Virgin Mary supported by three other women; St. John the Evangelist; the fresco’s patron, probably Vaggia Manfredi, kneeling in prayer; St. Francis, hugging the cross; St. Bonaventure, writing, “O crux, frutex salvificus, / Vivo fonte rigatus, / Quem flos exornat fulgidus, / Fructus fecundat gratus”; St. Anthony of Padua; St. Dominic; and St. Louis of Toulouse.

LISTEN: “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” | Original Latin words by Bonaventure, 13th century; translated into English by James Monti | Music by Elizabeth Duffy | Performed by Sister Sinjin on Incarnation (2016; reissued 2019)

O Cross, salvific stem,
The watering, living fount,
Whose blossom is fragrant,
Whose fruit is longed for.

Jesus, begotten of God,
Jesus foreshadowed,
Jesus sent from heaven,
Jesus born of Mary.

Jesus with the patriarchs,
Jesus shown the magi,
Jesus subject to the law,
Jesus from your kingdom.

Jesus holy in the womb,
Jesus tempted by Satan,
Jesus wondrous in the signs,
Jesus transfigured.

Jesus the good shepherd,
Jesus sprinkled with tears,
Jesus King of the world,
Jesus Sacred Bread.

The Sister Sinjin song “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” layers the sixteen subheadings from part 1 of Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, “On the Mystery of His Origin,” with the first stanza of a poem that appears in different forms in the various manuscripts of Bonaventure’s works, including the Tree of Life. Another translation of this refrain’s source text, by José de Vinck, is “O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation / Refreshed by a living stream / Your blossom so sweetly scented / Your fruit so worthy of desire.”

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (Bonaventure detail)
Detail from Taddeo Gaddi’s Tree of Life. Contemplating the Crucifixion, Bonaventure pens one of his famous poetic lines, “O CRUX FRUTEX SALVIFICUS” (“O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation”).

The melody and stylings of the song are evocative of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Duffy, Kaitlyn Ferry, and Elise Erikson Barrett sing to their own gentle guitar, mandolin, and banjo accompaniment.

For another Advent devotion featuring Sister Sinjin and an even older Italian fresco, see here.

Advent, Day 9

LOOK: Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt

Holt, Nancy_Sun Tunnels
Nancy Holt (American, 1938–2014), Sun Tunnels, 1973–76. Concrete, steel, and earth, each cylinder 18 feet long and 9 feet in diameter. Great Basin Desert, Utah. Owned by the Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Will Thompson.

A large-scale outdoor installation in northwestern Utah, Sun Tunnels by land artist Nancy Holt

consists of four large concrete cylinders, arranged on the desert floor in a cruciform pattern that aligns with the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices. In addition to this perfect solar framing, each of the cylinders is pierced with smaller holes representing the stars of four constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. Holt’s design allows for an ever-changing play of celestial light and shadow upon the resolutely material surfaces of her work. Part timepiece and part compass, Sun Tunnels is also a “camera” of sorts, dependent on natural light, with the concrete tubes acting as viewfinders that frame precise images which, in Holt’s words, “bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale.” [source]

LISTEN: “Light Upon the Mountains” | Words by Henry Burton, 1910 | Music by Jackson T. Maust and Seth Thomas Crissman, 2015 | Performed by The Walking Roots Band on Hark! A Walking Roots Band Christmas, 2017

There’s a light upon the mountains and the day is at the spring,
When our eyes shall see the beauty and the glory of the king:
Weary was our heart with waiting, and the night-watch seemed so long,
But his triumph-day is breaking and we hail it with a song.

In the fading of the starlight we may see the coming morn;
And the lights of all are paling in the splendors of the dawn:
For the eastern skies are glowing as with light of hidden fire,
And the hearts of all are stirring with the throbs of deep desire.

He is breaking down the barriers, he is gathering up the way;
He is calling for his angels to build up the gates of day:
But his angels here are human, not the shining hosts above;
For the drumbeats of his army are the heartbeats of our love.

Hark! we hear a distant music, and it comes with fuller swell;
’Tis the triumph song of Jesus, of our king, Immanuel!
Go ye forth with joy to meet Him! And, my soul, be swift to bring
All thy sweetest and thy dearest for the glory of our king!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.

Holt, Nancy_Sun Tunnels
Photo © Lindsay Daniels / Tandem Stills + Motion

Advent, Day 8

LOOK: Prophet I by Charles White

White, Charles_Prophet I
Charles White (American, 1918–1979), Prophet I, 1975. Color lithograph on white wove paper, 68.7 × 94.2 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Isaiah is the definitive Old Testament prophet of Advent, as he anticipates more than any other the coming of the Messiah and the renewal he will usher in. In chapter 35 he foresees deserts flowing with water and vegetative abundance: “the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (v. 1).

Perhaps the modern Black artist Charles White had this scripture in mind when he created the lithograph Prophet I. It shows a robed man, who appears to be blind, gazing up at a pink rose suspended in the sky. (The blind prophet with keen inner sight is a common trope in ancient mythology.) On the cross-hatched wall he stands against are four eyes, which White said are there because the prophet sees more than the rest of us.

LISTEN: “Morning Dawn,” a Shaker hymn from New Lebanon, New York, 19th century | Performed by The Rose Ensemble on And Glory Shone Around: Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns, and Shaker Spiritual Songs (2014)

Zion shall arise and blossom like the rose
Her glorious light shine forth to the islands afar
As when the Star of Bethlehem arose

Hail, all hail the coming day!
Hail, all hail the coming day!

The wilderness shall bloom, hills and valleys rejoice
Woodlands sing for joy, and the barren desert smile
To hear the Savior’s voice

Hail, all hail the coming day!
Hail, all hail the coming day!

Thus saith the Lord, it shall yet come to pass
Many people and strong nations shall come to Jerusalem
To seek and to pray before the Lord

Hail, all hail the coming day!
Hail, all hail the coming day!

“What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen

Maybe it’s the ocean’s rhythmic tug
that helps me sleep, my body’s own
surge remembering its deepest pulse.

Think of those Celtic monks who
scaled the slippery rocks carrying
vellum and inks while the sea broke

and battered beneath them. High
in a crevice, a hidden stone hut
with cot and candle. The scribe

dips and swirls his quill to preserve
the story—Luke’s genealogy,
name after name, letters shaped

like birds in every color, a flight
of messengers released into history.
Each word unfurls the promise,

like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,

that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety.

The poem “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen is from her collection What the Body Knows (DreamSeeker Books / Cascadia Publishing House, 2015) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

The pages from the early ninth-century Book of Kells (IE TCD MS 58, fols. 200r, 200v, 201r, 201v, 202r) are sourced from the Digital Collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. They illuminate Luke 3:23–38 in the Latin Vulgate: Et ipse Iesus erat incipiens quasi annorum triginta ut putabatur filius Ioseph qui fuit Heli qui fuit Matthat qui fuit Levi . . . (“And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi . . .”) Click on the library link to zoom in and explore more, or on the individual images to view at full resolution.

Luke's genealogy (Book of Kells)

Advent, Day 7

LOOK: Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing by Cody F. Miller

Miller, Cody F._Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing
Cody F. Miller (American, 1972–), Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing, 2002. Original mixed media, 36 × 24 in.

American artist Cody F. Miller’s body of work deals with themes of journeying, grace, self-offering, and hope amidst suffering. Many of his mixed-media pieces are keyed to specific biblical texts or to lines of spiritual verse, offering imaginative interpretations. In the work pictured here, he shows the boy Jesus engaged in a ring dance with his cousin John and another playmate, while Mary and Elizabeth peek at them over a clothesline in adoring delight.

Describing his technique, Miller says, “I work with cut paper and paint because I enjoy the interplay of the known and unknown. For the known, I work out many variations of a sketch until the design I’m looking for is finally realized. The unknown comes from my files full of patterns and objects waiting to find a new home. I am repeatedly fascinated when I find that some odd cut-out works better than my original intention.”

I commend to you the set of Christmas cards he offers through his website, which includes three different designs: the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, and the Holy Family Asleep.

LISTEN: “A Child Will Lead Us All” by Drew Miller, 2017; on Consolation, 2019

The following video performance is by the Orchardists, with the song’s writer, Drew Miller, on guitar and lead vocals, Janie Townsend on background vocals, Lincoln Mick on mandolin, Kevin Gift Jr. on bass, and Camille Faulkner on violin. The recording on Spotify, released two years later, is from Miller’s solo album Consolation.

The kingdom’s coming as a seed
Smaller than the eye can see
From wanting eyes to set us free
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as the rain
To wash away our castles vain
And cleanse the burdened heart from stain
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a word
The wisest man has never heard
And foolish lips will speak the cure
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a song
Mournful dirge and anthem strong
To cheer the ones who sing it wrong
Kingdom come

A child will lead us all home

The kingdom comes from far away
The kingdom has no place to stay
To you who open up the door
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming to the poor
Sons and daughters of the Lord
And all that’s lost will be restored
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a feast
The finest wine for all the least
We’ll taste the broken bread of peace
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming slow and true
Till every inch has been made new
And it will ask your life of you
Kingdom come

A child will lead us all home

A brilliant piece of songwriting, “A Child Will Lead Us All” is full of poetic verve and biblical allusiveness, bringing several of Jesus’s parables into conversation with ancient Jewish prophecy and John’s Apocalypse. Christ’s kingdom is coming as seed, rain, a word, a song, a feast, from far away and to the poor. The refrain “A child will lead us all home” is derived from Isaiah 11:6, which describes the messianic kingdom, where heaven and earth join again as one. We are led into that reality by the One who came to us first as an infant, small and vulnerable.

Advent, Day 6

LOOK: Cathedral by Bryn Gillette

Gillette, Bryn_Beyond the Ruins (Cathedral)
Bryn Gillette (American, 1980–), Cathedral, 2010–11, from the Beyond the Ruins series. Oil and glass shards on wooden door, 80 × 32 in. (203.2 × 81.3 cm). [available as a giclée print]

In 2000 while on a ministry trip to Jamaica, artist Bryn Gillette met Daniel Jean from Haiti, who was finishing up his Bible degree there while caring for five orphaned children. After Jean graduated he returned to Haiti and became a pastor and, over the next several years, continued taking in a growing number of children—ten, twenty-one, sixty-five!—from off the streets, giving them, through the help of his church community, food, shelter, medical care, education, love, and a sense of home.

While a large number of Haiti’s estimated 1.2 million orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) have lost parents to natural disaster, disease, gang violence, or political turmoil, most are what are called “social orphans,” meaning they have one or more living parents but that parent is unable to provide for them, usually because of poverty or drug addiction, and they are forced to fend for themselves. Some of these children are abandoned out of painful necessity; others, out of neglect. Jean was himself orphaned by poverty as a child, so he has an enormous amount of empathy for those in the same situation.

Having kept up a regular correspondence with Jean ever since their initial meeting, Gillette took his first trip to Haiti in 2008, to visit Jean and to meet the very large family he had built! Later that year he and his father, Mark Gillette, founded the nonprofit TeamOne:27 to support Jean’s work. Since then Jean’s family has grown to include more than two hundred kids in three “homes of blessing”—two in Port-au-Prince and one in Les Cayes, near where the magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck this August. The Gillettes describe Daniel Jean as a modern-day George Müller

Bryn Gillette has since returned to Haiti seven more times and considers himself an “artistic ambassador” for the country. Cathedral is part of his twelve-piece Beyond the Ruins series of paintings, made in the aftermath of the catastrophic January 12, 2010, earthquake that struck just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, killing tens of thousands of Haitians. Each painting was executed on a standard-size door, metaphoric of the aspiration that Haiti will emerge stronger on the other side of this tragedy—that it will pass “beyond the ruins.”

Gillette began painting Cathedral in July 2010, when he was first able to visit the ruins of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de L’Assomption in Port-au-Prince. “At that time the property was gated and uncleared of the rubble and deceased,” he said.

Gillette, Bryn_Cathedral (detail)
Detail

He returned in summer 2011, at which point he was able to go inside the shell of the church.

I spent much of my time sorting through the small piles of remaining debris and collecting discarded “treasures” of the stained glass windows. It became a game to the local children, who sent me home with a pile of several pounds of glass. I vowed to myself to honor these sacred shards somehow in a work that would be a worthy tribute to these precious and grieving Haitians. I embedded shards and crushed fragments of the Cathedral’s glass into the painting itself, praying over Haiti with what I might describe as a weeping hope.

While he was there he saw a young girl lingering in the doorway, standing on the wreckage and staring out over the cityscape. In the painting, Gillette said, she represents on one level a personified Haiti, vulnerable and grieving and interceding for her people. Hear more from the artist on this painting in this 2019 video:

After eleven years, Notre-Dame Cathedral has still not been rebuilt, though donations have enabled the erection of a transitional 1,500-seat structure on the site, where Masses are celebrated. Its ruins, especially its shattered rose window, are now a distinguishing feature of the Port-au-Prince skyline.

Lament and hope are key elements of Gillette’s Beyond the Ruins series as a whole, as he elaborates:

During the years I worked on these images, the painting process distilled countless hours of conversation, travel, prayer, heartache, and hope into color and form. These door-size portals are our declarations of hope, our inner groaning for justice made visible, a plea for God’s Spirit to renew Haiti’s destiny. . . . It is my hope that this work be a catalyst for Kingdom scale conversations, dreams, prayers, relationships, and initiatives.

Cathedral speaks powerfully of one of the main themes of Advent: mourning the brokenness (of our bodies, spirits, families, cities, governments, earth, etc.) while awaiting the coming of a new day. And even as we wait, we work—we (re)build, we mend. We keep our hands to the plow. We sow weeping.

“I feel like I am often praying in imagery rather than words,” Gillette says. Though I am viewer, not maker, I often feel the same—that my consideration of a particular image is my prayer. I’m thankful to artists who are able to express these “prayers” so eloquently and who put them out into the world so that we, too, can lift them up to God.

LISTEN: “Jesucristo, esperanza del mundo” (Jesus Christ, Hope of the World) | Words by Silvio Meincke, 1982; trans. Pablo D. Sosa, 1988 | Music by João Carlos Gottinari and Edmundo Reinhardt, 1982; arr. Greg Scheer, 1994 | Performed by Calvin University’s Capella, 2021

This video features a Spanish-English version of a twentieth-century Portuguese-language hymn from Brazil, which is #248 in the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God. Here are the full lyrics in English:

A little beyond this our time
The future announces with gladness
No war, no disaster, no crime
No more desolation, no sadness

Lord, may your kingdom come
The joy of our world re-create
And all our hope and our longings
Transform in the fullness of life
Aié, eiá, aié, aié, aié

A bud of your hope is sprouting
The token of flowers in spring
A world to arrive, no doubting
With justice and joy that you bring

We hope to cast out all our hate
We long for a world of pure beauty
In which peace will never abate
And justice will be, then, our duty

The seeds of your kingdom we bear
Your future is drawing so near
The earth with your help we prepare
Until you, in fullness, appear

I’m aware that Spanish is not an official language of Haiti, but I’m always bringing art from different cultures into contact with one another, as I like to reveal points of connection across contexts. In addition to the obvious connections between today’s featured hymn and painting, consider the small but meaningful resonance between the line “A bud of your hope is sprouting” and artist Bryn Gillette’s description of the umbrellas on the Rue St Laurent opening like flowers.

Advent, Day 5

LOOK: Christmas Tree by Shirazeh Houshiary

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Shirazeh Houshiary (Iranian British, 1955–), Christmas Tree, 2016/1993. Temporary installation at Tate Britain, London.

Every year from 1988 to 2012, and again in 2016 after the completion of a massive three-year renovation, Tate Britain commissioned a leading contemporary artist to create a Christmas tree installation inside the galleries. (In 2017 this tradition was replaced with the annual Winter Commission, where an artist is invited instead to decorate the museum’s Millbank facade with lights.)

The Tate awarded Shirazeh Houshiary the Christmas Commission in 1993, and she came up with a novel interpretation of the theme: a live pine tree suspended upside down, its exposed roots coated in gold leaf. She described the piece as “taking earth back to heaven,” and the Tate says it reflects the artist’s interest “in astronomy, mysticism and the interplay between light and dark.”

As Houshiary’s Christmas Tree was so memorable, Tate Britain asked her to reprise it in 2016 down the center of the museum’s new spiral staircase designed by the architecture firm Caruso St John. So in December of that year it could be seen under the glass dome of the rotunda of the museum’s Thames-facing entrance, viewable from three different levels.

Though I didn’t get to see the installation in person, the photos instantly reminded me of the inverted tree that appears in some of the woodcuts and batiks of Indian Christian artist Solomon Raj (see, e.g., here and here). For him this symbol represents the Christian’s being rooted in God and bearing fruit in the world.

Neither Raj nor Houshiary, however, were the first to develop this symbol. The Katha Upanishad, an ancient sacred Hindu text, references something similar: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it” (2.3.1). The inverted tree is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 15.1 and the Rig Veda 1.24.7. Furthermore, in his Timaeus Plato describes man as a “heavenly plant” with its branches on earth and its roots in heaven—and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the arbor inversa present in other religious and philosophical traditions as well.  

Houshiary was not working from an intentionally Christian framework (nor a Hindu or Platonic one), but her installation’s linkage with the season of Christmas welcomes, I’d say, a Christological reading. As already mentioned, she acknowledged in her 1993 statement an interplay between heaven and earth—heaven being evoked through the tree’s gilded root system that towers above the viewer, catching the natural light from above. Our realm, earth, is where the ever-green life enters and expands.

I think of how Jesus Christ, the New Adam, human being par excellence and yet Eternal One who is from the beginning, came down from on high, bringing lushness, grafting humanity into the Divine.

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Photo: Guy Bell

LISTEN: “Love Divine” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1747 | Music by Thomas Waller, first published 1869; arr. Wilder Adkins, 2015 | Performed by Justin Cross and Wilder Adkins on Hollow Square Hymnal, 2016; reissued as a single, 2018

Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down!
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion;
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit,
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be.
End of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is one of my absolute favorite hymns. It’s grand and passionate, tender and communal, and its many invocations have an Advent ring to them: Come down, Love! Make your home in us. Bring all your faithful mercies to a climax. Visit us with your salvation. Enter our trembling hearts. Breathe your spirit into us. Give us yourself. Lead us to ultimate rest. Be Alpha and Omega to us. Liberate. Deliver. Let us receive your life. “Suddenly return” . . . and never, never leave! Finish your new creation. Restore us in you.

Note that the second line appears in some hymnals without the comma following “joy of heav’n” and with a comma for the end punctuation, which, instead of acting as a petition, would indicate that the joy of heaven has already come down. The ambiguity, which different hymnal editors have resolved differently, is a perfectly comfortable one, as Jesus did come to earth once, and we beseech his return.

I know the hymn best from its pairing with the 1870 tune BEECHER by John Zundel, but Wilder Adkins uses a slightly earlier tune from the shape-note tradition that I quite like. It was composed by Thomas Waller (ca. 1832–1862) of Upson County, Georgia, who taught at Sacred Harp singing schools in the mid-nineteenth century.

Roundup: Empty chair, how to read a Last Judgment icon, and more

ARTWAY VISUAL MEDITATIONS:

ArtWay.eu is an online hub of resources related to faith and the visual arts. Every Sunday a new “visual meditation” is released on a selected artwork, written by one of a diverse range of volunteers from across the globe. (I contributed last week’s, on Eduardo Kingman, and another of mine, on a Flight to Egypt painting by Pranas Domsaitis, will be forthcoming.) Sign up here to receive the free weekly meditation in your inbox. Here are two examples from the past year, with Advent vibes, that I’ve found particularly meaningful.

>> “The Empty Chair in a Season of Waiting” by Rachel Hostetter Smith: Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, art history professor Rachel Hostetter Smith wrote about a series of Chinese ink wash paintings by Daozi. They’re a tribute to his friend, the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiabo (1955–2017), who was unable to accept his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in person because he was in prison, so he was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair. Smith brings this image of an empty chair into conversation with all the uncertainty and absence in this current time of pandemic; the Jewish Passover Seder liturgy and its setting a place at the table for the prophet Elijah; Franciscan priest Richard Rohr on the liminal space between the old world and the world to come; and John the Revelator’s eschatological vision of a throne descending from heaven (Rev. 21).

Daozi_The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge
Daozi (aka Wang Min) (Chinese, 1956–), The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge, 2018. Ink and color on paper, 97 × 54 cm.

This and fifty-four other contemporary artworks are part of the international traveling exhibition Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition, which Smith curated (click the link to explore the art—it’s very compelling!). The exhibition is a product of a gathering of North American and Chinese art professors in June 2018 in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, sponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

>> “Waiting for the Lord” by Mary McCampbell: Mary McCampbell [previously] writes about a painting by Douglas Coupland, best known for his work as a novelist and for popularizing the term Generation X. “In I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear (2011), the artist has painted a colorful QR (Quick Response) code, defamiliarizing a familiar symbol of daily life. . . . Like most QR codes, if a viewer holds up her camera to the graphic image, a message is decoded via smart phone. A contrast to the hard geometric edges of the painting, the message that magically appears is soft and human: ‘I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear.’ . . . The painting reflects a longing for the real God to manifest himself, no longer merely an idea, a doctrine, a rhetorical position. Where is God in the intricate, detailed, yet seemingly random pattern of life? How can we discern WHO He is? . . . This atypical reminder to ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 27:14) discloses the curious, humble faith of a non-believer, one hoping and waiting for eyes to see the ‘appearance’ of the Lord.”

Coupland, Douglas_Waiting for the Lord
Douglas Coupland (German, 1961–), I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear, 2011. Acrylic and latex on canvas, 182.9 × 182.9 cm. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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LECTURE: “Understanding the Last Judgment” by Jonathan Pageau: “The traditional icon of the Last Judgment is a very complex image which is both the synthesis of Christian typology as well as an image of the eschatological finality of all things.” In this talk given at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Seattle, Jonathan Pageau breaks down Last Judgment iconography, explaining how to read it scene by scene.

Elements include:

  • The Deësis, a representation of Christ enthroned between Mary and John the Baptist
  • The hetoimasia, or prepared throne, which awaits the return of Christ
  • The psychostasis, or weighing of souls
  • The ladder of divine ascent, representing the struggle to reach illumination
  • Paradise, with the “good thief,” Abraham’s bosom, and the Mother of God
  • The last trump and the resurrection of the dead, with beasts regurgitating their human prey
  • The river of fire, per Daniel 7:10, with the damned being swallowed by the mouth of Hades

Why am I sharing this now? Because Advent is eschatological and future-oriented in nature, and, though it tends to be underemphasized in our era, judgment is a major theme—which Fleming Rutledge does a great job unpacking in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

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COVID MEMORIAL: From September 17 to October 3, 2021, the National Mall in Washington, DC, was blanketed with some 670,000 white flags, each one representing an American life lost to COVID-19. Titled In America: Remember, the installation was conceived by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg as a way to visualize the magnitude of loss the country has suffered over the past two years in relation to the pandemic, and to invite mourning. Visitors were invited to personalize flags for someone they lost.

Stephen Wilkes’s photos of the memorial undid me. The enormity of suffering represented is difficult to fathom. Every single flag is a devastation. And since the installation was put up this fall, there have been another 100,000-plus COVID deaths in the US, while the global death toll has surpassed 5.2 million.

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (photo by Stephen Wilkes)
In America: Remember, September 17–October 3, 2021, an installation of 670,000+ white flags on the National Mall, conceived by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic.

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ART COMPETITION: “Macierzyństwo Maryi” (The Motherhood of Mary): The results are in for Poland’s first annual Ogólnopolski Konkurs Sztuki Sakralnej (National Competition of Sacred Art, or OKSSa for short), organized by the Fundacji Maria i Marta (Mary and Martha Foundation). The theme was Mary’s motherhood.

First place, with a prize of 15,000 zł (about USD $3,600), went to Błażej Guza for Macierzyństwo Maryi, which shows Mary drawing a hopscotch board on the pavement, its shape portending her boy’s fate. Jesus is not visible in frame, save for his shadow, which reveals simply an innocent child ready to play.

This piece and thirty-four others from among the many entries were exhibited at Concordia Design Wrocław November 25–30, 2021, and this month a few of them will be shown at the National Museum in Wrocław. You can view the top three winners as well as four honorable mentions at the boldface link above, or on the foundation’s Facebook page. And here’s an exhibition view.

The Fundacji Maria i Marta aims to promote the development of contemporary Christian art in Poland by organizing competitions, exhibitions, and workshops and by providing artistic consultation for churches.

Guza, Blazej_The Motherhood of Mary
Błażej Guza, Macierzyństwo Maryi (The Motherhood of Mary), 2021. Acrylic and chalk, 90 × 60 cm.

Kowalewska-Tylka, Beata_Fullness of Spirit
Beata Kowalewska-Tylka, Pełnia ducha (Fullness of Spirit), 2021. Digital painting, 70 × 50 cm. The OKSSa jury commented on how this piece shows “the interpenetration of the spiritual and human dimensions of Mary’s motherhood,” the shape of the fiery red cloth evoking the Holy Spirit as dove, and the breast that gives milk signifying Mary’s physical nourishment of her son from her own body.

Advent, Day 4

Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,
    and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;
    I the LORD have created it.

—Isaiah 45:8

Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
    his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.

—Hosea 6:3

LOOK: Appalachian Rhapsody in Blues: or, He Will Come to Us Like the Spring Rains by Grace Carol Bomer

Bomer, Grace Carol_Appalachian Rhapsody in Blues
Grace Carol Bomer (Canadian American, 1948–), Appalachian Rhapsody in Blues: or, He Will Come to Us Like the Spring Rains, 2015. Oil and wax on panel, 48 × 48 in.

LISTEN: “Rorate caeli” by William Byrd, 1605 | Performed by The Gesualdo Six, directed by Owain Park, 2020

Rorate caeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum: aperiatur terra, et germinet salvatorem.

Benedixisti, Domine, terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

English translation:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open and bring forth a Savior.

Lord, thou hast blessed thy land: thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The text of “Rorate caeli” (Let the heavens) is taken from the Vulgate translation of Isaiah 45:8. It “is frequently sung to plainsong at Mass and in the Divine Office during Advent, where it gives expression to the longings of Patriarchs and Prophets, and symbolically of the Church, for the coming of the Messiah. Throughout Advent it occurs daily as the versicle and response after the hymn at Vespers” [source].

William Byrd’s five-voice motet adds an additional verse from Psalm 85:1 (84:1–2 in the Vulgate), followed by the Gloria Patri.

This video performance is part of the Gesualdo Six’s 2020 Advent Sessions YouTube series.