Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting

Renaissance artists often employed foreshadowing as a theological device in their paintings of Christ’s infancy to remind viewers that Jesus came not just to live a perfect life but to die an atoning death on behalf of sinners. Over all the joy and celebration of the Nativity looms the dark cloud of Crucifixion.

Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis by Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)—one of the first professional female artists to achieve international fame—is one such work that’s embedded with signs of future death: a sarcophagus-like crib resting on an altar-like slab; Mary’s elevation of the body of Christ in a manner that recalls the priest’s raising of the host during the Eucharist; Francis’s cradling of a crucifix in his left elbow pit; and a curtain opening into darkness.

A year earlier, Fontana’s firstborn child died, so her bereavement may have partially inspired the painting.

Holy Family with Saints by Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614), Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis, 1578. Oil on canvas, 127 × 104.1 cm (50 × 41 in.). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

[ZOOM IN]

The following commentary by Margaret A. Samu is taken from the 2001 exhibition catalog Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts (pp. 197–98):

In her Holy Family with Saints, Lavinia Fontana presents the Madonna in an intimate domestic scene. Mary tenderly places the infant Christ in a cradle as Joseph stands behind her; opposite them, Saints Margaret and Francis bow their heads in worship. At first glance, the painting appears to celebrate both Christ’s divine birth and the human joy of motherhood, yet its iconographical elements speak also of Christ’s death.

Fontana is widely considered to be the first professional woman artist, as she received numerous commissions for portraits and large-scale religious paintings and actually supported her family by her work. She painted the Holy Family just as her career was beginning to flourish. As an assertion of her arrival as an artist, the painting prominently bears her signature and the date: LAVINIA FONTANA DE ZAPPIS FACIEBAT MDLXXVIII. This signature not only allows us to date the painting with ease but also reveals something of the confidence of this artist, who signs her work like a master so early in her career. Unknown to Italian scholars before the 1990s, this painting has gained prominence in two recent exhibitions.

Like other artists of her period, Fontana responds to the artistic decrees of the Counter-Reformation by turning away from the excesses of the Mannerist style in which she had been trained. Instead, she uses linear perspective and foreshortening to create a realistic sense of spatial recession that clearly defines the setting. In addition, she gives her figures the modest dress and pious decorum that are appropriate to the painting’s religious subject matter. By creating a balanced, nearly symmetrical composition with strong upward diagonals, she emphasizes the centrality of Christ to the devotional image. The linking of her figures by gazes and graceful gestures shows that, like other Bolognese artists, she was influenced by the work of the High Renaissance artist Correggio. In order to succeed as a woman artist in a male-dominated art world, Fontana had to adhere scrupulously to the newly defined doctrines of the Church that arose out of the 1545–1562 Ecumenical Council of Trent.

The artistic verisimilitude of the painting would have made its iconography all the easier for contemporary viewers to read. Saint Margaret is recognizable by her attribute, the dragon that accompanies her. According to legend, she became the patron saint of women in childbirth after using her cross to deliver herself unharmed from the belly of the dragon that had swallowed her as a test of her Christian faith; she then asked women to call upon her for the safe delivery of their children. Bathed in a beatific light, Mary and Saint Margaret are fully absorbed in the present moment, worshipping and caring for the child who raises his plump hand in a babyish sign of blessing. Standing in shadowy gloom, the male saints appear unaware of the scene of maternal bliss before them. Somberly contemplating the crucifix, they are occupied not with the present, the infant Christ, but with his coming death on the cross. To emphasize the point, Saint Francis reveals the stigmata on his hands, miraculous signs of his communion with Christ’s suffering.

Yet the light and dark areas of the painting do not create an absolute division between present and future concerns. Saint Francis is also associated with Christ’s birth: credited with creating the first Nativity scene in an Italian grotto in the thirteenth century, he cradles the tiny crucifix in his arm like a mother holding a child. Mary, on the other hand, does not cradle the child near her but places him in a sarcophagus-like crib on a sacrificial altar table. She lifts his body like a priest raising the Host—the transubstantiated body of Christ—in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Fontana’s inextricable merging of these signs of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ may reflect her contemplation of the recent birth and subsequent death of her own first-born child in the year before she painted the Holy Family. As she depicts this theme of great personal significance, Fontana also establishes a connection between the divine and earthly planes: a holy subject takes on the real, everyday quality of a domestic scene, while an everyday scene of motherhood is lifted to a sacred level.

Let Jesus Lead You (Artful Devotion)

Promised Land by Maximino Cerezo Barredo
Mural by Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–)

“Follow me.” (Mark 1:17)

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SONG: “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” (Let Jesus Lead You) | Traditional, performed by Skip James, 1931

“Let Jesus Lead You” was recorded by numerous gospel quartets and bluesmen in the late 1920s and 1930s, the most influential rendition being Nehemiah “Skip” James’s, a pioneering slide guitarist and sometime preacher from Mississippi. Other versions I like, from later, include the Detroiters (1951), Marion William & the Stars of Faith (1962), the Morning Star Gospel Singers (1963), and Josh Harmony (2011).

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“There” by Robert B. Shaw

There where the lion dines on straw
and walks at ease with dogs and men,
and a boy’s idling fingers draw
the unfanged adder out of his den;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
there is our home. Then lead us there.

(Read the full poem at poetryfoundation.org.)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Modern Bible illumination; hula; First Nations baptism design; father-daughter waltz; Tamayo and Parker

ESV Illuminated Bible spread

NEW BOOK: ESV Illuminated Bible (2017): In October Crossway released a new Bible illuminated by Seattle-based designer and lettering artist Dana Tanamachi. Printed in two-color (the illuminations are in gold ink), this volume contains one full-page illustration, custom icon, and illuminated drop cap for each book of the Bible, plus hundreds of hand-lettered Bible verses throughout the margins. There are no human figures in any of the illuminations; most consist of flora and fauna—olives, figs, pomegranates, peacocks, lions, lilies, deer, cedar, and so on—derived from the given book. Be sure to check out the book-opener illustration index, and the short video below, in which Tanamachi introduces herself, talks through her process, and explains some of her artistic choices:

“God loves beauty, so we wanted to honor him through this project with something that was beautiful,” says Josh Dennis, Crossway’s senior vice president of creative. “For this edition we really want people to engage with it, so there’s a lot of negative space and wide margins for people to write in it and to do their own Bible journaling.”

This publication comes six years after the release of Makoto Fujimura’s Four Holy Gospels, another illumination project. Fujimura’s is an oversize book with a $150 price point, containing original abstract paintings reproduced in full color alongside the first four books of the New Testament. By contrast, the ESV Illuminated Bible is more wieldy—it has a 6½ × 9 trim size—and less costly ($45), and it contains all sixty-six books. The aesthetic is also much different, as Tanamachi’s influences include art nouveau, the arts and crafts movement, and designers like William Morris and Koloman Moser. [HT: David Taylor]

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CHRISTIAN HULA: “‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God): Though reduced to tourist entertainment in some places, Hawaiian hula dancing, in its traditional context, is a form of teaching and worship. Because of its associations with polytheism, the early missionaries denounced it as sinful. Over the last half-century or so, however, most missionaries have changed their stance toward this and other traditional forms of artistic expression—not only in Hawaii, but in whatever their host culture—seeing how such forms can offer more authentic ways for the people to connect to and worship the Christian God.

In the video below, Moani Sitch and ‘Anela Gueco perform a hula noho (“seated hula”) at the 2006 Urbana student missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It’s to the Christian hymn “‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God), originally written in Maori by Luke Kaa Morgan but translated into Hawaiian by Moses Kaho‘okele Crabbe. The sacred name for Creator God—‘Io—is the same in both languages. The lyrics are below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e makuna lani (You are God, Heavenly Father)
‘O ‘oe ‘Io, ka waiola (You are God, the Living Water)
‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e kumu ola (You are God, the Source of Life)
Ka mea hana i na mea apau (The one who has made all things)
E ku‘u Haku (My Lord)
Ka mauna ki‘eki‘e (Who is the Highest Mountain)
‘O ‘oe ‘Io (You are God)

For a fantastic religious history of Hawaii, see this PDF booklet published by Aloha Ke Akua (“God Is Love”) Ministries. Among the many things I learned is that Hawaiians regard the arrival of Christian missionaries as the fulfillment of their elders’ prophecies that the one true God would one day return to the islands.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “Jesus as Chief: ‘Baptism Mural’ by Tony Hunt”: First Nations artist Tony Hunt Sr. died last month, just two months after his son Tony Hunt Jr., also a renowned carver. Read about Hunt Sr.’s inculturated serigraph of Christ’s baptism at my old blog, The Jesus Question—part of a seven-part series I did on Christian art of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Based on a carved and painted design he made for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, it shows John the Baptist as a Kwakwaka’wakw shaman in Native dress and with ceremonial rattle, installing Jesus as chief. The Father is manifest as Sun and the Spirit as Thunderbird.   Continue reading “Roundup: Modern Bible illumination; hula; First Nations baptism design; father-daughter waltz; Tamayo and Parker”

Listening (Artful Devotion)

I'm Listening by Ginger Slonaker
Ginger Slonaker (American), I’m Listening, 2009. Mixed media on paper, 7 × 6 in.

. . . if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” . . .

—1 Samuel 3:9

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SONG: “Reverently, Quietly” | Words and music by Clara W. McMaster, 1959 | Arranged for solo piano and performed by Paul Cardall, on Primary Worship, 2005

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Lord, teach me to listen. The times are noisy and my ears are weary with the thousand raucous sounds which continuously assault them. Give me the spirit of the boy Samuel when he said to Thee, “Speak, for thy servant heareth.” Let me hear Thee speaking in my heart. Let me get used to the sound of Thy voice, that its tones may be familiar when the sounds of earth die away and the only sound will be the music of Thy speaking voice. Amen.

—A. W. Tozer, from The Pursuit of God


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, cycle B, click here.

Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ

Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.

On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)

In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).

In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.

Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

. . .

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.

Baptism of Christ by Jerzy Nowosielski
Jerzy Nowosielski (Polish, 1923–2011), The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, 1964. Oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Leśko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ. Oil on board, 40 × 30 cm. Private collection.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ, 2014. Oil on board, 40 × 40 cm.
Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Two-sided processional cross and ripidions by Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), 2011. Mixed media on wood. Cross: 90 cm tall (without shaft); ripidions: 13 cm diameter. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Górowo Iławeckie, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland. (See reverse)
Baptism of Christ by Lyuba Yatskiv
Icon by Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–)
Baptism of Christ by Ulyana Tomkeyvch
Icon by Ulyana Tomkevych (Ukrainian, 1981–)
Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

Continue reading “Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ”

“And nations shall come to your light . . .” (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Christ Child (India, 17th c)
Adoration of the Christ Child, Mughal India, ca. 1630. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 15.6 × 11 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

This Saturday, January 6, marks Epiphany, a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of God incarnate to the peoples of the world, encapsulated in the visit of the Magi to the newborn Christ. In the first lectionary reading I’ve excerpted, Isaiah speaks to Israel, rejoicing that God will one day cause his light of revelation to shine upon them, drawing the nations—a prophecy fulfilled at Christmas; in the second, Paul writes to the church at Ephesus about the glorious expansion of God’s family made possible through Christ, and the unity experienced therein across barriers of race, culture, geography, and so on:

And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising. . . .

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you. . . .
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

—Isaiah 60:3, 5–6

The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed. . . . This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

—Ephesians 3:4–5

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SONG: “Miladuka” (“Thy Nativity”) | Arabic Christmas hymn arranged by David Düsing | Performed by the Robert DeCormier Singers & Ensemble, feat. Sandra Arida, on Children Go Where I Send Thee: A Christmas Celebration Around the World (1996)

“Miladuka” is a Christmas troparion, or liturgical hymn, from the Byzantine church. Its English translation, from the CD liner notes, is as follows:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world.
For they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship thee,
O son of justice,
And to know from the east of the highest
Thou didst come.
O Lord, glory to thee.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Book list, Piano Guys, Mongolian Jingle Bells, call for papers, sacred landscapes, art installation in cave

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: “Art and theology” books published in 2017: I had fun compiling this book list for ArtWay, which spans the disciplines of art history, theological aesthetics, visual theology, philosophy, museum studies, liturgical studies, and Christian ministry. Let me know if I’m missing any titles. (For books published on art and theology between 2014 and 2016, click here.)

Art and theology books 2017

Among those geared toward popular audiences are In the Beauty of Holiness, a lavishly illustrated hardcover survey of eighteen hundred years of Christian fine art; Imaging the Story, structured as a small-group study with a “make” component; and a how-to manual for church leaders written by the director of Sojourn Arts, a flourishing church ministry in Louisville, Kentucky. There are books centered on biblical art from non-Western countries, like New Zealand, Tonga, and Australia, and on art by racial minorities, as in Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, as well as books that focus on a single biblical symbol (e.g., the cross) or group of narratives (such as those unique to John’s Gospel).

But there are also books that focus on the contemporary art world, encouraging Christians to engage works beyond just those with explicitly Christian content or just those made by Christians.

Several books published this year engage with the ideas of leading early Protestant theologians, like Luther, Calvin, and (later) Kuyper, as they relate to visual art, and one even examines Reformational influences on Michelangelo’s late work. A smorgasbord indeed!

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SONGS:

Today is the seventh day of Christmas—the celebration continues! Here are two fun songs for your listening pleasure.

^^ “Angels We Have Heard on High,” arranged and performed by the Piano Guys: In this unique piano arrangement for eight hands, Jon Schmidt, Al van der Beek, Steven Sharp Nelson, and Paul Anderson strike, pluck, bow, and percuss the instrument, creating a more complex texture than you would expect. All the sounds you hear (except for the voices) are produced by the piano.

^^ “Mongolian Jingle Bells” by Altai Kai: This video shows a Mongolian musical ensemble performing their own rendition of “Jingle Bells” using local instruments—including a yatga (plucked zither), shanz (plucked lute), and morin khuur (bowed horsehead fiddle)—and overtone singing. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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CALL FOR PAPERS: “Art as a Voice for the Church,” Princeton Theological Review: I regret not finding out about this opportunity earlier, as the due date is just a week away, but I’m posting it so that you can be sure to look out for this art and theology–themed issue in the spring!

Graduate students and early-career scholars are invited to submit papers to the spring 2018 edition of the Princeton Theological Review. We welcome papers from various disciplinary perspectives (theology, philosophy, church history, biblical studies, social sciences, etc.) as they relate to the theme of art and the church. How does theology manifest in all different forms of art (painting, poetry, photography, sculpture, music, theater, film, literature, dance, or any other creative endeavors)? How does artistic expression give voice to piety, critique, worship, or spiritual struggle? How has art influenced and been influenced by biblical interpretations, theological movements, historical context, or cultural conditions? Why is art such a powerful medium for Christian expression? All submissions are due January 8, 2018.

The current issue of PTR, released this fall, is on the same topic and is available for free download. Subtitled “A Festschrift for Gordon Graham,” it includes reflections by three leading thinkers on Professor Graham’s latest book, Philosophy, Art, and Religion: Understanding Faith and Creativity, as well as three essays: “Visual Images and Reformed Anxieties: Some Scottish Reflections” by David Ferguson; “The Scandal of the Evangelical Eye” by Matthew J. Milliner; and “God, One and Three—Artistic Struggles with the Trinity” by Gesa E. Thiessen. [HT: millinerd.com]

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COMPANION EXHIBITIONS
October 10, 2017–January 14, 2018
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts”: “In Renaissance Europe, many people looked to nature for spiritual inspiration and to guide their contemplation of the divine. In manuscripts created for personal or communal devotion, elements of nature—such as rocks, trees, flowers, waterways, mountains, and even the atmosphere—add layers of meaning to the illuminations, which were painted with careful observation of every minute detail. These landscapes remind readers to appreciate, and respect, the wonder of creation.” Read more at The Iris, the blog maintained by Getty curators, educators, conservators, and other staff.

“Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice”: “Giovanni Bellini’s evocative landscapes are as much the protagonists of his paintings as are the religious subjects that dominated 15th-century Italian art. One of the most influential painters of the Renaissance, he worked in and around Venice, and while his landscapes are highly metaphorical, they also accurately reflect the region’s topography and natural light. Created for sophisticated patrons, Bellini’s works present characters and symbols from familiar sacred stories, set in a dimension of reality and lived experience to a degree unprecedented in the history of Italian painting.”

Crucifixion (detail) by Giovanni Bellini
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1430–1516), Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist (detail), ca. 1459. Oil and tempera on wood panel. Museo Correr, Venice.

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TEMPORARY INSTALLATION: Yesterday was the last day to see “Nativity Scenes of the World” by Ejti Štih, an installation of thirty culturally diverse, life-size cut-out figures inside the concert hall of Slovenia’s famous Postojna Cave. What a location! Click here for a quick video tour of all the figures.

Nativity by Ejti Stih

Nativity by Ejti Stih

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I’m excited to dig into the new books I got for Christmas! Thanks, family—you’re the best. (And no, Mom, the book-length bibliography of ekphrastic poetry was not a mistake on my wishlist. Yes, really.)

Christmas books

The year is going, let him go

What Alfred Lord Tennyson instructs the church bells in canto CVI of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” I am begging the Holy Spirit to do in my own heart and mind, my communities, and across the world for the new year:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

This passage, from one of the greatest (and longest!) poems of the nineteenth century, is the source of the popular expression “ring out the old, ring in the new.” Ringing church bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve was already a deep-set tradition in England, and people understood the ringing as ushering in both life (the new year ahead) and death (saying good-bye to the past). But Tennyson’s poeticization of this symbolic practice has made its symbolism all the more enduring, and his list of specific qualities to let go of and others to welcome in provides a helpful template for new-year prayer and resolution making.

Roof, Winter by Arkhip Kuindzhi
Arkhip Kuindzhi (Russian, ca. 1842–1910), Roof. Winter, 1876. Oil on canvas on cardboard, 40 × 25 cm.

Tennyson apostrophizes his city’s church bells, telling them to ring out all of last year’s sins and griefs, falsehoods, feuds, strife, greed, bad-mouthing, economic disparities, political posturing, spite, war, and disease—all the year’s coldness and darkness, be gone. And ring in, sweet bells, truth, redress, purity, peace, joy, righteousness, love of the good, large hearts and kind hands, courage, freedom. And most important, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Extending the cry of Advent, this final line acknowledges that although Christ was born into our world at Christmas, he is still yet to come in all his power and glory. That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”—or, “ring in the Christ that is to be.” Savior, come, uprooting all wrongs, setting all to right.

In 1948 Mormon composer Crawford Gates set Tennyson’s text to music; the hymn sheet can be downloaded for free from the LDS website, and authorization is given for live church performances, no license required.

Then in 2014 singer-songwriter Callie Crofts wrote an absolutely beautiful three-part a cappella arrangement of Gates’s hymn, which she performed with her sisters, Colette Butler and Devri Esplin, on their family Christmas album, Sparrow in the Birch. (The entire album is a treasure; the title track—wow!)

Crofts’s version, which omits Tennyson’s fourth and sixth stanzas, captures a dual sense of lament (this is what we’ve done to each other; this is the darkness we’ve created) and expectation (God’s light will shine into this; this is what we want him to do). A modulation from the minor mode to the major occurs on the word “peace” in the penultimate verse, a sudden flash of hopefulness. The rich voice blending continues, the key melting gently back into A minor, until that final chord sounds—a Picardy third—surprising, again, with its brightness.

A form of resolution, a Picardy third is a major chord of the tonic that occurs at the end of a minor-key musical section or piece, achieved by raising the third of the expected minor triad by one half-step. So while we would expect the middle note of the final A chord to be C, Crofts raises it up by one semitone to C♯, creating a “happier triad.” Originating during the Renaissance, this harmonic device was especially used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to end solemn organ preludes and toccatas.

In The Language of Music, Deryck Cooke writes,

Western composers, expressing the “rightness” of happiness by means of a major third, expressed the “wrongness” of grief by means of the minor third, and for centuries, pieces in a minor key had to have a “happy ending”—a final major chord.

There was so much wrong committed this past year, so much closing down of possibilities, it would be easy to dwell in that minor mode. But we need to lean into the major. We need to confidently claim the promise of a bright and happy future, through the Christ who was and is and is to be, to whom belong all power, honor, and glory.

Below is a list of other musical settings of “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” It’s fun to hear the various interpretations, but of all of them, I still prefer Gates/Crofts:

  • Charles Gounod, 1880 [Listen]
  • Percy Fletcher, 1914 [Listen]
  • George Harrison, excerpted in “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” 1974 [Listen]
  • Ron Nelson, 1990 [Listen]
  • Andrew Downes, from Ballads for Christmas song cycle (No. 8, “New Year Bells”), 1992 [Listen]
  • Karl Jenkins, from the finale (“Better Is Peace”) to The Armed Man (A Mass for Peace), 1999 [Listen]
  • Jonathan Dove, from The Passing of the Year song cycle (No. 7), 2000 [Listen]
  • Godfrey Birtill, 2010 [Listen]
  • James Q. Mulholland, 2011 [Listen]
  • Stuart Brown, from Idylls song cycle (No. 1), 2015 [Listen]
  • [Update, 12/29/17—This song was just released today!] Alana Levandoski, 2017 [Listen]

Springing Up (Artful Devotion)

Wild Flowers of the British Isles by Su Blackwell
Su Blackwell (British, 1975–), Wild Flowers of the British Isles, 2013. Cut paper from a 1907 book written and illustrated by botanist Harriet Isabel Adams.

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my whole being shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:10–11

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SONG: “Amen” | Negro spiritual, arr. Jester Hairston | Performed by Harry Belafonte on Streets I Have Walked, 1963; re-released on Belafonte’s 2001 compilation album, Christmas

The word “Amen” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “surely,” “indeed,” or “truly.” Here’s Hairston introducing and leading his arrangement at a concert in Odense, Denmark, in April 1981:

For a fantastic overview of the song’s recording history, including audio, click here. I was excited to find it included in The Presbyterian Hymnal I recently bought, #299, arranged by Nelsie T. Johnson. My church always sings the Danish Amen at the conclusion of our worship service, but I think this African American call-and-response “Amen” would be a fun twist for high holy days like Christmas or Easter.

Wild Flowers of the British Isles (detail) by Su Blackwell

For Further Reading:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle B, click here.

Io, io, io! (Artful Devotion)

Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Mystic Nativity, 1500. Oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

Messenger: Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough. . . .

Heavenly Choir: To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God! And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God! . . .

Shepherds: Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!

—Luke 2:10–12, 14, 16 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Ding Dong Merrily on High” | Music: French dance tune, 16th century | Words: George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1924 | Adapted and performed by Rend Collective, from Campfire Christmas, 2014

Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

[The third verse above, by Rend Collective, replaces the original:
Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your evetime song, ye singers.]

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At the birth of God’s Son, heaven and earth danced. For heaven and earth embrace. All things are filled with divine music, and we too are invited to move our lives with grace, in harmony with divine love.

—Richard Harries, from A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ—Devotional reflections on the Christmas story in art

Do you blame me that I sit hours before this picture?
But if I walked all over the world in the time
I should hardly see anything worth seeing that is not in this picture.

—G. K. Chesterton on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, from his notebooks (mid-1890s)

The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. . . . The real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at.

—Robert Farrar Capon, from The Mystery of Christ . . . And Why We Don’t Get It


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Nativity of the Lord, cycle B, click here.