The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul . . .
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
—Psalm 23:1–3a, 4
MUSIC: “Sheep May Safely Graze,” from BWV 208 | Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1713) | Performed by London Symphony Orchestra, on Night in Berlin (2001)
The aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (Sheep May Safely Graze) comprises the ninth movement of Bach’s Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (The Lively Hunt Is All My Heart’s Desire)—known informally as the Hunting Cantata. Written for the thirty-first birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, the cantata was performed as a surprise at a banquet at the ducal hunting lodge, and it’s full of flattery. The text of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” written by Solomon Franck, praises Christian for his wise, protective leadership (in actuality, he was a lousy ruler):
Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful shepherd’s sight.
Those who rule, with wisdom guiding,
Bring to hearts a peace abiding,
Bless a land with joy made bright.
At 1:31 in the above recording, you can hear potential danger lurking nearby, but the attentive shepherd neutralizes the threat, keeping safe his flock.
Bach originally scored this piece for soprano with two recorders and continuo, but it has since been transcribed for orchestra and countless other combinations of instruments and is most popular without words. I enjoy playing Egon Petri’s transcription for solo piano, performed here by Alessio Bax:
Its pastoral mood, befitting Psalm 23, and its celebration of a good shepherd’s care have led it to be applied to the Good Shepherd and performed in church services. I’ve even come across some piano arrangements that interfuse it with “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (for an intermediate arrangement of such by Cindy Berry, see Classical Hymns).
A masterpiece of French Gothic art, the Latin Psalter of Blanche of Castile was produced in Paris in the first third of the thirteenth century by an anonymous master using tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment. The book was most likely commissioned by or for Blanche of Castile (1188–1252), the mother of Louis IX, whom it passed to after her death (which is why it is sometimes referred to jointly as the Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castile—not to be confused with the even more lavish Paris Psalter of Saint Louis that followed it). Whoever the original owner was, she is depicted praying before an altar on page 122v.
Discussing the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art and the new structures surrounding it, an online Encyclopedia of Art History states,
It is no accident that this new style of Christian art was born in France. The University of Paris was the intellectual centre of Europe throughout the thirteenth century, and from the time of St Louis (1226-70) the French court became increasingly important. Students and scholars from all over the continent flocked to Paris to learn and to discuss scholarly matters. Knights returning from the Crusades introduced Eastern theory and science. [This partially explains the unusual frontispiece depicting three geometers in the Psalter of Blanche of Castile, below.] With the ascendancy of the university, the importance of monasteries as centres of book illustration and illumination declined. Commercial guilds were founded and books were produced for private ownership. Large ceremonial books, lavishly illuminated and ornamented with jewellery, became less common and we must follow the stylistic developments principally in Psalters, which the highborn laity made their own.
An alternate name for the manuscript is the Sainte-Chapelle Psalter, due to the fact that it was preserved in the Sainte-Chapelle treasury from 1335 to the end of the eighteenth century, when it was moved to the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, now part of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle (“Holy Chapel”) inside the royal palace complex between 1238 and 1248 to serve as a private devotional space and to house the thirty-plus relics of Christ he had bought, including what he believed to be the crown of thorns and a fragment of the cross.
Among the 192 pages of the Psalter of Blanche of Castile are twenty-seven full-page miniatures, twenty-two of which are divided into interlocking medallions containing distinct narrative episodes from the Old and New Testaments (mostly). All of them are reproduced below, sourced from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7100723j (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 1186 réserve). Folio numbers and subjects are provided as captions.
This is one of thousands of Christian illuminated manuscripts that have been digitized by libraries and museums around the world, enabling people like you and me to be nourished by their beauty. People often ask me how I incorporate visual art into my devotional practice, and one way is by simply paging (digitally) through painting cycles from old books, letting the medieval imagination be my guide through God’s story of redemption. My eyes do the reading, my soul rests. There’s no rigid program I follow, and no particular goal, but I find I am often led to respond in prayer. Try it!
Here are some recently published articles on religious art that I enjoyed, and I hope you do too:
“Shouldering the ‘Yoke of Love’: The Shared Passion of Simon and Jesus in Stone and Verse” by Victoria Emily Jones, Literary Life: Like Jonathan Stockland, I remember visiting Nicholas Mynheer’s home and seeing his Simon and Jesus sculpture and being moved by it. Stockland wrote a poem in response to his encounter, one that fits nicely within the tradition of ekphrastic poetry (poems about a visual work of art). Jump on over to LiteraryLife.org to read my reflection on it, from Sunday. As I was writing this essay, lines like “borders of despair” and “tents of desperation” rang out especially loudly, reminding me of the cross being borne by Latin American immigrants seeking entry into the United States, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries.
“Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden” (+ Part 2), Transpositions: The British artist Penny Warden is best known for her fifteen Stations of the Cross paintings at Blackburn Cathedral. In this excellent two-part interview, she answers questions such as: What does “Christian art” mean in today’s culture? Is there a place for the didactic in religious art? What contemporary artists are making compelling art of theological relevance? Warden also discusses the challenges and advantages of making permanent art for a worship space, how theology informs her practice, the role of tradition versus innovation, and more.
“Creating Sacred Space through Art and Light: The Vision of the Calvary Chapel Sacred Art Renovation”: Aesthetic renovations are underway at Biola University’s chapel in Southern California. Not only are significant changes in flooring, walls, seating, and lighting being made, but new permanent art installations have been commissioned by Danish artists Maja Lisa Engelhardt and Peter Brandes: Engelhardt is making an abstract, gilded Resurrection altarpiece for the west wall and a gilded bronze cross for the wooden entry doors, while Brandes is creating thirty-two hand-blown stained glass windows depicting biblical narratives. This is the first time the husband and wife have collaborated this closely on an art project.
The impetus for this revitalization was a concern that the sacred function and experience of the chapel and its interior architectural space had gradually become disassociated as a result of the increased multipurpose demands put upon the space. “The new artwork and proposed renovations seek to restore the chapel’s sacredness through creating a greater architectural and artistic balance between the interior space and the worship experience,” the Biola news article states. Click on the link to learn more or to contribute to the renovation fund.
“A Model for All Humanity: Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo” by Nigel Halliday, ArtWay: The marbleized plastic sculpture Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger is one of my favorite works of contemporary religious art, and Halliday introduces it beautifully. The artist created it in 1999 to top the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square—where the plinths in the three other corners display sculptures of British royals and military commanders. Though the sculpture has since been removed (and shown elsewhere) to allow for the rotation of other new public artworks, Halliday shows how its original location is key to interpreting its meaning, which has to do with worldly power and glory versus spiritual power and glory.
Meet the animals of the medieval bestiary, a Christian compendium of real and imagined beasts, The Iris: The blog of the J. Paul Getty Trust recently ran a series of features interpreting the symbolism of various animals from medieval bestiaries. (“A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals—including land creatures, fish, birds, and serpents [some real, some fantastical]—whose properties and behaviors were interpreted as symbols for God’s divine order.”) The phoenix, for example, is a mythical bird who sets himself on fire but on the third day rises again from the ashes of his pyre—a symbol of Christ. Another common symbol of Christ cemented by bestiaries and found in much medieval Crucifixion art is the pelican, who was said to peck at her breast until it bleeds, and then the blood feeds (or, in another variation, revives from the dead) her young. To learn more about this medieval literature genre, visit http://bestiary.ca.
. . . a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
—2 Corinthians 12:7b–10
For a collection of commentaries on this scripture passage, visit Textweek.com.
SONG: “Cold Is the Night” by the Oh Hellos, on The Oh Hellos (2011)
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, cycle B, click here.
Consenses is a global, multidisciplinary arts initiative developed by singer-songwriter Sally Taylor in which participants contribute to “interpretive chains,” responding to an assigned artwork in their own medium. The aim is to promote a more expansive view of the world through the engagement of all five senses and through exposure to diverse ways of seeing, as well as to foster connectedness across geographic divides. I found out about the project two years ago when proofreading herbalist Holly Bellebuono’s The Healing Kitchen: she said she was invited to interpret a photograph of a woman reclining in the sunshine as a tea blend—which was in turn brewed and enjoyed by another artist, who interpreted the blend as a short film.
Launched in 2012, the initial series of chains went like this: Taylor collected twenty-two photographs, each by a different photographer, and then commissioned twenty-two musicians to write a song based on one of those photos. Those songs were then given to dancers to interpret as movement, and then recordings of those dances were given to painters, whose painted responses were given to perfumers, who extracted the essence of the paintings and gave the resultant perfumes to poets, whose poems were given to chefs, whose culinary creations were given to sculptors. And no artist in this chain was allowed to see more than one link back. The final chains were then given to set designers, who created a physical space within which all the art could live. These twenty-two sets opened to the public in August 2014 and toured for four months, attracting more than seven thousand attendees.
Here’s a video excerpt of one of the chains:
Consenses continues, in part through a “Monthly Challenge” posted on the website—a catalytic work of art that invites creative responses. This month’s is a photograph titled Dreamhouse. The media in past months have been very diverse, including a woven basket, a graffitied wall, a comic strip, and a LEGO set.
Over the past few years, primary and secondary schools and colleges have approached Taylor, wanting to incorporate Consenses into their curricula, so she has been hard at work designing and overseeing those efforts. The fruits of one such partnership are about to go on display at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace in North Adams, Massachusetts, where “Come to Your Senses: Art to See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Touch” opens tomorrow (June 23) and runs through May 27, 2019. In this exhibition, paintings by fifth-grade students in North Adams and Northern Berkshire schools will be on display, which respond to the prompt of either “Joy” or “Fear.”
Taylor met with these kids last year and guided them through first steps, telling them to close their eyes with the blank piece of paper in front of them and ask themselves, “What would fear taste like if it were a flavor? What would it feel like as a texture? What would it be as a weather system? What would it look like if it were a painting?” She did the same with “joy.”
One child wrote, “Fear is sticky. It is large rocks. It is fire. It is the sound of thunder. It is the last petal falling. My pain of this is fear of darkness and large spiders. This is something trying to escape. Trying to escape from terror.” Another wrote of joy: “If joy were a flavor it would be cotton candy. It would be pink and light and smell like lemons on a sunny day. It would be confetti, balloons, night mist and starlight in the night sky. My painting is a starry night with confetti over it. It gives me joy because it reminds me of bright colors in the world.” (Read more about Taylor’s process with the kids here.)
After the kids finished their paintings, Taylor enlisted the talents of musicians, dancers, poets, photographers, painters, perfumers, a tea maker, a chef, sculptors, animators, and set designers to respond in Consenses-like fashion; among them were Taylor’s parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon, the latter of whom will be performing, along with others, at “An Evening with Sally Taylor and Friends” at MASS MoCA on opening night (Saturday, June 23).
To learn more about Taylor’s background and her vision for Consenses, listen to her TEDx talk from 2015:
Also be sure to check out https://consenses.org/, where you can browse past interpretive chains and participate in new ones.
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
—Psalm 107:23–31, describing one of four groups of exiled Judahites whom God rescued in their distress
On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to [his disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
SONG: “Stand by Me” | Words and music by Charles A. Tindley, 1905 | Performed by Seth Avett, 2013 | United Methodist Hymnal #512
Paulo Medina’s painting Navecilla (Ship) was inspired by a letter St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote to her older sister, Céline, on July 23, 1893, which references the narrative from next week’s Gospel lectionary reading and says in part,
Be assured, dear Céline, that even though your dinghy is far asea, it is perhaps already very close to your harbor. The wind of suffering that is propelling it is a wind of love, and that wind is faster than lightning. [translated by Victoria Hebert and Denis Sabourin]
I had every intention of completing an essay for publication yesterday on the fatherhood of Joseph as expressed in the visual arts, but as I got into the thick of research, the field of discovery proved much vaster than I had anticipated. So that I can do the topic justice (and so that I can continue trying to track down artist, dating, and location info for particular paintings), I will be postponing the essay until a later date. In the meantime, here’s a charming little neo-Coptic icon I found of Joseph holding the Christ child; the narrative scenes in the corners are the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph’s Dream, and the Flight to Egypt. For more on Coptic (Egyptian) iconography, read an interview with the artist from Orthodox Arts Journal.
OBITUARY: RIP Clarence Fountain, founder and lead singer of the Blind Boys of Alabama: Clarence Fountain of the five-time Grammy Award–winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama died June 3 at age eighty-eight. Fountain formed the group in the mid-1940s along with five friends from the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in Talladega, and the group, though it has gone through iterations in membership, has been touring continuously ever since. (Fountain retired from touring in 2007.) Ray Allen, a folklorist and music historian, said that over the years the Blind Boys’ sound evolved from the more staid style known as jubilee gospel into one that is distinguished by “a prominent lead singer shouting and preaching and backed by a rhythm-and-blues band.” Below you can hear Fountain sing “Look Where He Brought Me From” and the group’s signature song, “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”):
ART EXHIBITION: “The Morality Theatre Project: The Art of Barry Krammes,”Green Art Gallery, Biola University, La Mirada, California, April 25–June 29, 2018: Only two weeks left! For this exhibition, the culmination of seventeen years of studio work, Barry Krammes has assembled nineteen open-ended narrative scenes—reminiscent of miniature theater sets—using objects and figures gathered from flea markets and dumpsters, estate sales and antique shops. Although the exhibition title references a genre of medieval drama intended to inspire Christian virtue, the artworks do not preach or provide straightforward moral lessons; rather, they stand as little worlds of mystery that invite association and contemplation. If you’re not able to see the exhibition in person, stay tuned for the forthcoming catalog: I’ve been informed that one is in the works, to be published later this year.
The occasion of the exhibition is Krammes’s retirement in May after serving for thirty-five years as an art professor at Biola University (he now bears the title Professor Emeritus). He has been instrumental in making Biola’s art department one of the top ten among Christian colleges and universities, and moreover, he helped to foster art appreciation campus-wide, designing and directing “Arts in Worship” chapels and organizing a yearly Arts Emphasis Week, which developed into the Biola Arts Symposium. He has also been active beyond the walls of Biola, especially as a founding member of the national organization Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). To learn more about his art, see “Interceding in the Theatre of Struggle: A reflection on the assemblage work of Barry Krammes” by Betty Spackman, published Sunday at ArtWay, and, from about ten years ago, the Image journal essay “Barry Krammes: Shepherd of the Wasteland” by Christina Valentine.
VIDEO ART INSTALLATION: Three Women (2008) by Bill Viola, St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, May 1–September 1, 2018: Bill Viola, a pioneer of new media art, has said that his works “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”—which is one reason they are so well suited to display in churches. In Three Women, a work from his Transfiguration series on temporary view at a Victorian church in Scotland, a mother and her two daughters pass from black and white through a threshold of water, entering a realm of color and light. The work speaks to me of the experience of illumination, of being drawn into a new and glorious understanding of divine truth. Watch an excerpt of the video at the New York Times.
NEW IN THEATERS: First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader: I’ve been hearing great things about this movie, which follows Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed congregation in upstate New York, as he grapples with mounting despair. Schrader is the writer who brought us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the folks from Fuller Studio recently sat down with him to discuss his Christian upbringing and how the unique language of film—especially the transcendental style—helps him explore religious questions.
FICTION RECOMMENDATIONS: “Ten Novels Every Pastor Should Read”(+ part 2): Kolby Kerr of LeaderWorks is an exceptional literary guide, whose “ten poets” list I commended in a previous roundup. Here he switches gears to novels. But first he opens by addressing the utilitarian inclination of pastors to nonfiction, which they believe will give them a bigger return on their investment. When it comes to novels, Kerr says, instead of asking What will these books do for me?, we should be asking, What will these books do to me? We should read not only to be informed but to be formed. And once again, what a great list! It’s divided into the categories “saints who sin,” “lost and found” “the dark side,” and “let’s get (meta)physical,” and it concludes with practical advice on how to form and maintain good reading habits.
POEMS: “The Last Judgment” by Raymond Oliver is darkly humorous and a true account of how some medieval artists stuck it to the man. For a more reverent reflection on the topic, read “Judgment Day” by R. S. Thomas, in which a perpetrator of injustice against the sick and the poor on earth stands before God’s heavenly throne, contrite; the speaker could well be Dives from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus—or, to name a more recent literary example, Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. She could also be you or me, if we heed not the many commands of scripture to love and support the needy.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, cycle B, click here.