The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”—Isaiah 11:6–9

This passage describing the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah was, according to biblical scholar John F. A. Sawyer, popularized by the Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1780. He painted it sixty-two times during his career: predators and prey lying down together in harmony, and a little rosy-cheeked child—the Christ child—leading them.

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1834. Oil on canvas, 29.6 × 35.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

When Edward was just eighteen months old, his mother died. His father was unable to support him financially, so he sent him to board with family friends David and Elizabeth Twining, who exposed him to Quakerism. From ages thirteen to twenty Edward lived with local coach maker William Tomlinson, for whom he worked as an apprentice, developing a talent for ornamental painting. When his apprenticeship ended in 1800, he went into business for himself, now painting with decorative motifs not only carriages but also signs, furniture, and household objects. Some of his signboard compositions would later prompt commissions for easel paintings.

During this time Edward was attending religious meetings with increasing regularity, becoming an official member of the Society of Friends in 1803. But he encountered criticism from many of his fellow Friends for his choice of vocation, which was at odds with the Quaker values of simplicity and utility. Painting is a worldly indulgence, they said. Taking their rebukes to heart, Edward gave up painting for a time and tried his hand at farming, but this venture was unsuccessful.

Edward struggled to reconcile his love of painting with his faith; he was passionate about both. In 1811, at age thirty-one, he set up a painting shop in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and also became a minister, which meant that he was often called away to other states to preach. Quaker ministers were not paid for their services, so it was necessary for Edward to maintain a source of income to support his wife and four (soon to be five) children.

“Of all the types of paintings Edward produced during his lifetime, none was repeated as often or with greater attention to change and refinement than the Kingdom pictures,” writes Carolyn J. Weekly in The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, the catalog for the major exhibition she organized in 1999 for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. Edward pursued this subject not for commercial reasons (records suggest that he gave the Kingdom paintings as gifts to friends and family) but to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends, the first in the denomination’s history. (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.) His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the “stump” of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up (Isaiah 11:1).

Only a few Peaceable Kingdom images before Hicks’s time have been documented worldwide, among them an early nineteenth-century engraving designed by Richard Westall. Hicks borrowed directly from Westall in his “Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” compositions, replacing the Christ child’s loincloth with a little jumper suit fashionable among Friends at the time.

westall-richard_the-peaceable-kingdom-of-the-branch
The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch illustration by Richard Westall, from the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia. Engraved by Charles Heath for The Holy Bible (London: White, Cochrane & Co., 1815).
Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1822–25. Oil on canvas, 30.3 × 36 in. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. The inscription on each of the corners reads, “INNOCENCE – MEEKNESS – LIBERTY.”

The Branch paintings are referred to as such because they show a child holding a grapevine, an allusion to both the fruit-bearing branch of the Tree of Jesse from Isaiah 11:1 and the blood of Christ that we partake of at the Lord’s Supper.   Continue reading “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks”

God breaking in on our world

This year for Advent, my church has built into its liturgy a time for guided reflection on an art image—one per week—corresponding to one or more of the season’s themes. Today I led the congregation in looking at a seventeenth-century German engraving based on John 1. Here’s what I said (adapted from the Advent devotional I published this month):

***

Word by Christoph Weigel
Christoph Weigel (German, 1654–1725), Word, 1695. Engraving from Biblia ectypa: Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments. Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

This copperplate engraving is from a picture Bible by Christoph Weigel published in Augsburg in the late 1600s. The Bible consists entirely of engraved images—839 in all—with key scripture texts inscribed above and below, from Genesis to Revelation.

Looking at this one, you might think of the creation story—God speaking, “Let there be light.” You wouldn’t be wrong to make that association, but actually this engraving illustrates the first chapter of John’s Gospel: the eternal Word of God taking on flesh and entering human history, a doctrine we call the Incarnation. This is the big bang of the new creation. This is God once again hovering over the chaos and proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And there was Light. Because the Savior came, and is still coming.

The top inscription says in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1). And the German one below says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it” (v. 5).

In Weigel’s illustration, the name YHWH is surrounded by a blast of light that showers down to our dark earth in this magnificent glory-stream. Before this, Israel’s covenant God was mostly invisible and unapproachable, but now he reveals himself as man and Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. He’s still Yahweh, but now he’s Yahweh brought low, to be seen and touched and engaged face-to-face.

This image emphasizes the cosmic nature of the Incarnation and reinforces the meaning of the Greek word for Jesus that John uses in his prologue: Logos, which our English Bibles translate as “Word” with a capital W. This term is a loaded one, used in most schools of Greek philosophy to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that is rational, intelligent, and vivifying; other translations include “Mind,” “Power,” “Cause,” “Act,” “Ground,” “Reason,” “Structure,” or “Universal Bond.” Philosophers had been reinterpreting the concept of Logos for centuries, but John was the first to link it to the person of Christ.

Advent is a time for us to consider what it means for the Word of God, the Logos, to have a body and be among us.

This season, may we dwell in awe of the historic and continuing eruption of hope and light that is the Incarnation.   Continue reading “God breaking in on our world”

New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”   Continue reading “New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

A prayer of thanksgiving

Feast of Creation by Pablo Sanaguano Sanchez
Pablo Sanaguano Sanchez (Ecuadorian, 1966–), Feast of Creation.

“O my God,
. . . . . . . . . .
I bless You for the soul You have created,
For adorning it, for sanctifying it,
Though it is fixed in barren soil;
For the body You have given me,
For preserving its strength and vigor,
For providing senses to enjoy delights,
For the ease and freedom of limbs,
For hands, eyes, ears that do Your bidding;
For Your royal bounty providing my daily support,
For a full table and overflowing cup,
For appetite, taste, sweetness,
For social joys of relatives and friends,
For ability to serve others,
For a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
For a mind to care for my fellow-men,
For opportunities of spreading happiness around,
For loved ones in the joys of heaven,
For my own expectation of seeing You clearly.
I love You above the powers of language to express,
For what You are to Your creatures.
Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.”

—Puritan prayer, published in The Valley of Vision (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Trust, 1975)

Advent art slideshow and devotional

Advent is just around the corner, commencing Sunday, November 27. To support Christians in their seasonal journey toward Christmas, I’ve developed two companion resources: a slideshow of art images for congregational use, and a devotional booklet for individuals or small groups that offers written reflections on these images.

The structural backbone is a liturgical text written by Jonathan Evens, which has as its refrain the plea “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” It looks forward to Christ’s second advent but also, necessarily, back to his first, in all its various aspects. Along with themes of peace, love, and sacrifice, you are invited to consider

  • what it meant for Jesus to be born of woman—coming as seed and fetus and birthed son;
  • the poverty Jesus shared with children around the world;
  • culturally specific bodies of Christ, like a dancing body and a yogic body;
  • how we are called to bear God into the world today;
  • and more.

Art is a great way to open yourself up to the mysteries of God, to sit in the pocket of them as you gaze and ponder. “Blessed are your eyes because they see,” Jesus said. Theologians in their own right, artists are committed to helping us see what was and what is and what could be. Here I’ve taken special care to select images by artists from around the world, not just the West, and ones that go beyond the familiar fare. You’ll see, for example, the Holy Spirit depositing the divine seed into Mary’s womb; Mary with a baby bump, and then with midwives; an outback birth with kangaroos, emus, and lizards in attendance; Jesus as a Filipino slum dweller; and Quaker history married to Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.

My vision is for the two-minute slideshow to be shown in church on the first day of Advent during the main service. Two minutes is not nearly enough time to take in twenty-four images, so the slideshow is really just an invitation to deeper, one-on-one engagement with the images throughout the week, and that’s where the booklet comes in—as an aid to contemplation. To reinforce the practice and to make it more communal, pastors might consider drawing one image per week into his or her sermon, or discussion could be built into the Sunday school hour. There are twenty-eight days in Advent this year but only twenty-three reflections, so I’ll leave it up to you how to parse them out.

A humongous thanks to the artists and institutions who have granted permission for use of their work. Copyright of the images is retained by them, except where “Public Domain” is indicated, and reproduction outside the context of this slideshow and booklet is prohibited without their express permission. You of course are encouraged to show the slides publicly, and to distribute the booklet, but you must not charge a fee.

I hope these images fill you with wonder and holy desire—to know Christ more and to live into the kingdom he inaugurated two thousand-plus years ago from a Bethlehem manger.

Download the slideshow as a PowerPoint file.

Download the devotional booklet as a PDF. (Note: This version is slightly edited from the original.)

Want to have the booklet print and bound? Use this print-ready version. (I recommend a coil bind with a clear plastic front cover and a vinyl back cover. This will run you about $20 each at most commercial print centers, or less for larger quantities. Be sure to print double-sided, head-to-head.)

I realize that Sara Star’s The Crowning might be too graphic for some churches. Although I personally am compelled by it and obviously endorse it through its inclusion (what better complement to the line “Coming down the birth canal”?), I offer the following as alternative image suggestions for those who might want to substitute it out for something more abstract or sanitized: Through the Needle’s Eye by Grace Carol Bomer; the Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) panel from La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) by Sophie Hacker; Motherhood by Matthew Gill; or Nativity by Paula Rego. Please note that I have NOT received copyright clearance for any of these alternates, which means that if you were to use one, you would be responsible for securing the proper permission.

If you have any questions about how to use these resources, or if you’d like to share any feedback with me—either on how the images or format were received in your congregation, or suggestions for future improvement—feel free to contact me at victoria.emily.jones@gmail.com, or use the comment field below. This is really my first attempt to bring the principles of this blog out into the local church, so I’m eager to see what kind of fruit it bears.

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”

Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres (album review)

andy-squyres

In a recent interview, Bono issued a call to Christians for more authentic songwriting, for the “brutal honesty” before God that characterizes the book of Psalms. We need more realism in art and in life, he said; we need to be “porous.”

Andy Squyres delivers all this in his 2015 album Cherry Blossoms, which chronicles his journey through pain and loss after his friend was murdered by a home intruder. Tragedy destabilizes; it prompts questions regarding the nature of God and the viability of faith in the face of reality. But it also throws into high relief God’s promises—to love, to strengthen, to walk with, to bring through. Not immediately, but with time.

A necessary step to regaining stability after receiving a blow like the death of a loved one is to spend time sitting in the darkness of the why, and that’s exactly what many of the tracks on Cherry Blossoms allow us to do: grieve, question, wrestle hard for a blessing until daybreak.

My favorite song is “What Nobody Should Know”:

While all the others focus on personal pain, this one shows what it looks like to suffer in community. (The murder victim was a fellow church member.) Here’s an excerpt:

We were in a church but we were shouting
Mourning our loss but not our doubting
Wondering why love is allowing
All of us to hit the floor
Down here is one of the strangest places
Nothing but hearts and dirty faces
Maybe this is where amazing grace is
God knows we need some more

Squyres’s lyrics are very evocative, sensory.

In “The Pestle and the Mortar,” he writes that his sweet illusions were crushed like spice pods—turned to dust—by the pestle of affliction. The implication is that suffering, by virtue of its pounding, releases in us an aroma and preps us to be used in delicious ways.

In “Labor in Vain,” he references John Henry, the steel driver of African American folklore, and considers the field as a metaphor for life, in that we often have to cut through hard ground. It’s laborious work, and it requires perseverance. But the yield is grain and grapes—that is, fuller communion with the body and blood of Christ (his people, his suffering).

Cherry Blossoms gives voice to other frustrations as well, like economic injustice. In “The Hawk and the Crow,” Squyres grapples with feelings of hatred toward the inconsiderate wealthy whose lack of care oppresses. I’m really intrigued by the line “mercy is the burden of the poor.” When I asked Squyres if he could unpack it a little for me, this is what he said:

It is the idea that those who are marginalized (the poor, the rejected, the outcast, etc.) are the most likely to be recipients of injustice and therefore have the most opportunity to forgive the oppressor, to heap mercy upon the one who has probably done great harm. Jesus doesn’t let the poor off the hook just because they’re poor. We have to show mercy too.

“Only love can give what vengeance cannot cure.”

There’s only one song on the album that’s not autobiographical, and that’s “Don’t Forget About Me When I’m Gone.” Squyres said he approached it as an exercise in songwriting and empathy: he wanted to tap into that feeling of separation we sometimes feel from our loved ones.

The album concludes with the titular “Cherry Blossoms,” a redemption song full of springtime imagery. Previously “bur[ied] . . . in a blanket of evening snow,” Squyres is now thawed out, warmed by a reassurance of God’s love. Here he is singing the song with his daughter Savannah McAffrey:

Stating his resolve to not give in to the forces of frustration and death, Squyres clings to hope and issues forth praise that is anything but cheap—it cost him blood and bone. It’s not that he’s arrived spiritually; rather, he has cycled through a season of life with God and has landed at a gracious new beginning. “Orientation-disorientation-reorientation” is how Walter Brueggemann schematizes this constant flow along which God’s children are always in transit.

Both bitter and sweet, Cherry Blossoms is for those whose equilibrium has ever been disrupted by a life event—and more than that, it’s for the church at large, because we are in desperate need of a language of suffering. Such a language is part of our heritage—i.e., the Psalms—and Squyres helps us reclaim it, letting us walk, and sing, with him through his own valley. Squyres shows that pain and praise are companions in the life of faith (the one need not be suppressed), and that Love is always there to be our breakthrough.

cherry-blossoms-album-cover

I really admire Squyres’s artistic sensibility, not only in regard to lyrics and composition but also extending to things like disc packaging. The album cover photo is striking. I asked him about its origin, and he had this to say about it:

I had seen a photo at an art exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte of some kids in the 1930s standing on a street corner in Harlem. They were smoking cigarettes and looked like they had already seen their fair share of life and most of them were probably only young teenagers. When I saw that photo I just knew I wanted it for my album cover. We couldn’t get permission to use that one but we found the shoeshine boy. I love him because he looks world-weary yet determined. He’s probably got dreams, but he’s probably just gonna have to figure out a way to survive. That is the story of most of us.

He brings this sensibility to his job as worship pastor at Queen City Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with his life experience and heart of faith.

In a blog post dated October 15, 2012, Squyres wrote,

The season of your existence between the day you are born and the day you die is the only moment in the entire span of eternity from which you can love God in the midst of trouble, from the altar of pain. When you are finally out of the realm of time, loving God will be altogether glorious but equally obvious. You won’t be asking “why” this trouble. You won’t be reaching with hands of faith anymore. Faith will pass and you will be in the ecstasy of His presence. That’s why you must see this life, any affliction, any sorrow, any struggle as the most incredible gift that it is; this is your chance to love God from this place and in this moment. It will never again be. Every tear will be wiped away. So if now, you have a tear, then give it to God with all the imperfect love in your heart.

Cherry Blossoms is Squyres’s tear-offering—to God and to the church.


Cherry Blossoms is available for free download from NoiseTrade (in exchange for your e-mail address). You can purchase the physical disc here.

Here’s a bonus song, not part of the album but of the same spirit: “Why, Oh Why”:

Roundup of religious art exhibitions

Religion is heavily present in every medieval and Renaissance art museum collection, and curators are constantly organizing exhibitions that highlight this fact. To a smaller extent, religion is also present in contemporary art, and my appreciation goes out to those institutions that have picked up on this and have chosen to mount shows with religion up front and center. Here’s a list of just some such exhibitions currently running that have crossed my radar. (Follow the links to view more images.)

“Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Embroidery,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 1, 2016–February 5, 2017: In medieval Europe, embroidered textiles were indispensable symbols of wealth and power. Owing to their quality, complexity, and magnificence, English embroideries (referred to as opus Anglicanum, “English work”) enjoyed international demand among kings, queens, popes, and cardinals, and here one hundred of them are brought together. Treasures include the Butler-Bowdon Cope, the Syon Cope, and the Tree of Jesse Cope—ceremonial cloaks made for use in church services and processions, featuring images from the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. (I love the interactive zoom function on these! To help you navigate the densely packed imagery, details of interest are tagged and can be clicked on to magnify and to reveal a textbox of information.) Hear contemporary embroiderer James Merry discuss some of the aspects of their technique and design that blow him away:

Syon Cope
The Syon Cope, 1310–20, England. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

“Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017: “This landmark exhibition demonstrates the key role that the Holy City played in shaping the art of the period from 1000 to 1400. In these centuries, Jerusalem was home to more cultures, religions, and languages than ever before. Through times of peace as well as war, Jerusalem remained a constant source of inspiration that resulted in art of great beauty and fascinating complexity. This exhibition is the first to unravel the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city. It features some 200 works of art from 60 lenders worldwide.” I especially love the four Gospels in Arabic borrowed from the British Library, whose geometric illuminations bear an obvious Islamic influence.

Arabic Gospels
Folio from an Arabic Gospel-book, 1335, Jerusalem. Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 10 5/8 × 7 7/8 in. (27 × 20 cm). Collection of the British Library (Add. MS 11856).

“The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena,” Getty Center, Los Angeles, October 11, 2016–January 8, 2017: “Manuscript illuminator and panel painter Giovanni di Paolo was one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Siena, Italy, during the Renaissance. This exhibition reunites several panels from one of his most important commissions—an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena—for the first time since its dispersal, and presents illuminated manuscripts and paintings by Giovanni and his close collaborators and contemporaries. Through recent technical findings, the exhibition reveals his creative use of gold and paint to achieve remarkable luminous effects in both media.”

Adoration of the Magi by Giovanni di Paolo
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1403–1482), The Adoration of the Magi, 1427. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.

“The Key” (organized by Caravan), Riverside Church, New York City, September 21–November 6, 2016: Founded by US Episcopal priest Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan develops initiatives that use art as a bridge for intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The organization’s 2016 exhibition is in the last leg of its Cairo-London-New York journey. It showcases the work of forty Middle Eastern and Western artists from different monotheistic faith backgrounds, each of whom was given a four-foot-tall fiberglass ankh to develop into a work of art. Known as the “Key of Life,” the ankh is an ancient hieroglyph originating in Egypt but spreading throughout Asia Minor; today it is used as a symbol of pluralism, tolerance, and harmony. I especially like the ones by Sergio Gomez, Arabella Dorman, Fatma Abdel Rahman, and Isaac Daniel.

The Key exhibition (Caravan)

“Incarnation, Mary & Women from the Bible,” Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, England, October 12–November 6, 2016: Having already stopped at Guildford, Norwich, Chichester, Durham, and Hereford Cathedrals, Chris Gollon’s latest series of paintings on women of the Bible is now at Romsey Abbey. It includes the standards, like Eve, Rachel, Hannah, Delilah, Bathsheba, the two Marys (the Virgin, and Magdalene), and Salome, as well as some unnamed and even implied women, like Judas’s wife. It also includes some extrabiblical female saints, like Lucy, Cecilia, Julian of Norwich, and Ethelflaeda. I’m really attracted to the sad quality of many of Gollon’s women, and to the emphasis on hands (much like Eduardo Kingman!).

Contemplation of Eve by Chris Gollon
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–), The Contemplation of Eve, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18 in. (61 × 46 cm).

“Medium: Religion,” Gallery of Art and Design, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri, September 22–October 28, 2016: This exhibition—“meant to inspire, contemplate, and strengthen faith”—features seven contemporary artists whose work engages religion: Tobi Kahn, who creates Jewish ceremonial art like etrog containers, shalom bat chairs, and omer counters; Chris Clack, whose work explores the relationship between Christianity and science; Kysa Johnson, whose Immaculate Conception series links images of the Virgin with asexually reproducing yeast and bacteria; Justine Kuran, known for her quilled hamsas (palm-shaped amulets); Scott Freeman, whose The Wall Remaining laments the long-suffered disunity between Jews and Christians; Tashi Norbu, trained in the art of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting; and Raudel Arteaga, who deconstructs famous religious paintings into their geometric basics.

medium-religion-exhibition

“Illuminations: Works by Vanessa German, Peter Oresick, and Christopher Ruane,” Carlow University Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 8–December 9, 2016: “‘Illuminations’ features the work of three local artists who evoke the traditions of icon painting or biblical parables to bring out focus on the overlooked and to cast light into the shadows of our present day,” says gallery director Sylvia Rhor. Works include responses to last year’s Charleston church shootings, literary figures painted in the style of Russian icons, and sacred stories updated through the use of photography and digital technology.

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Religious art highlights from New Mexico

I spent last week in New Mexico with my husband, Eric, and my in-laws, visiting relatives in the south, then driving up north to spend some time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was my first time to the Southwest, to the state where Eric was born; his grandparents came over from Mexico as teenagers and settled in Hobbs, a small oil town, and his mom grew up there, learning English in school. I enjoyed all the tastes: spicy green chiles in or on just about everything (eggs, tacos, burgers, soup, corn, French fries); piñons (pine nuts) galore sprinkled alongside dusty footpaths, ready to crack open and eat; and sopapillas (pillow-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey) after every meal.

On the five-hour upstate drive, the blue sky spread wide open across the desert and clouds hung low, casting shadows that, from the car, looked like bodies of water. The way was flat, flat, flat—until we reached Santa Fe, where mountains rose up and aspens flickered their glorious gold.

In Albuquerque we went to the International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot-air balloonists come out once a year to fly. Unfortunately, high winds prevented the “mass ascension” from happening the day we were there, but we saw static displays—inflated balloons in all shapes and colors. (My father-in-law was partial to the Darth Vader balloon; I liked the lovebirds.) And I got to visit to the artisan tent, where I bought my first nativity set! It’s seven pieces in clay by New Mexico native Barbara Boyd. I set it up in our living room when I got home, but Eric says I need to put it away until Advent . . .

Nativity by Barbara Boyd

We spent an afternoon in Old Town Albuquerque, strolling past historic adobe buildings and into galleries, while street musicians—Native American flautists and mariachi bands, mostly—provided a culturally immersive soundtrack. Our first stop happened to be one of my favorites: John Isaac Antiques and Folk Art. Isaac has a beautiful collection of santos (Hispano Catholic religious images)—a whole roomful—both contemporary and from the last few centuries. I was close to buying a Saint Francis bulto by Ben Ortega (Francis was his hallmark) but decided against it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Nonbuyer’s remorse—ugh.

Just before we left Old Town, my mother-in-law suggested one last gallery: Santisima, owned by Johnny Salas. I immediately recognized the work of Albuquerque native Brandon Maldonado, which is heavily influenced by the tradition of Día de los Muertos. I’m really attracted to Day of the Dead imagery, with all its macabre whimsy—the kind that makes most Protestants feel uncomfortable. I think the draw, for me, is that it embraces death instead of shrinking away from it; it says, “Death, we do not fear you.” As Maldonado says, Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightful but rather mocking, in a way:

The masses may prefer to think of the deceased as haloed angels floating on fluffy white clouds, but I like the idea of dancing skeletons in hats!

At Santisima I was introduced to the work of the young santero Vicente Telles, also a native of Albuquerque. I really liked his Adam and Eve and Saint Pelagia retablos but most especially his Crucifixion one, which I ended up buying.

Crucifixion by Vicente Telles
Vicente Telles (American, 1983–), Cristo crucificado (Christ Crucified), 2015. Natural and watercolor pigments on pinewood, 7.5 × 6.5 in. (framed).

It shows a curtain opening up, and two chandeliers dangling, to present Christ on the cross, given for us. As is traditional in New Mexican art, his shoulders and knees are bloodied; in Telles’s interpretation, the blood marks Christ in patterns, almost like tattoos. The animas solas (lonely souls) in the flames of purgatory is also a common motif in New Mexican art. I do not personally subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I read the souls, rather, as Adam and Eve awaiting redemption. According to church tradition, Golgotha was the site not only of Christ’s execution but also of Adam’s burial, which is why, since the Middle Ages, a skull is often painted at the cross’s base, emphasizing Christ’s role as the Second Adam. Telles shows Eve reaching out to touch this death-symbol, lamenting her and Adam’s primordial rebellion and pleading in faith, with her eyes, for deliverance from its consequences. This is the precursor to the Anastasis (Resurrection) icon of Eastern Orthodoxy, which shows Jesus breaking down the doors of Sheol and pulling Adam and Eve up out of their graves to be with him in heaven. We are dead in our sins until Christ raises us. His spilled blood has “loosed the pains of death” once and for all.

To give the retablo a glistening appearance, Telles applied a micaceous clay slip to the pinewood before applying the paint.

If you’re not able to see Telles’s art in person at Santisima (he’s sold exclusively there), visit his Facebook page.   Continue reading “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”

Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism

Jonathan A. Anderson is an associate professor of art at Biola University, an interdenominational Christian university in southern California. In addition to being a practicing artist, he researches and writes on modern and contemporary art criticism, especially its relationship to theology. Along with William Dyrness, he has written the first book in InterVarsity Press’s new Studies in Theology and the Arts series: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism.

Below is a video of Anderson presenting a paper titled “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism” at the 2012 conference Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils, sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought. In it he examines the problematic absence of theologically informed criticism from contemporary art discourse and posits what is (and is not) needed to redress the problem. He very clearly articulates some of my frustrations with the contemporary art world, giving lots of examples and helpful breakdowns as well as advice for Christians writing about art.

On this blog I write primarily for nonscholars, as well as for the church, not the art world (though I’m thrilled if the art world wants to listen in!). So while I do very much approach art theologically, I know I’m not exactly the voice Anderson is looking for; furthermore, I cover a limited range of art here, restricting myself, for the most part, to Anderson’s first category of “religious” art, below.

Still, I share Anderson’s desire to see a new method of criticism develop, one that takes religious belief seriously instead of sweeping it under the rug. And I try, from my own little corner, to model said method—to “work productively in the rift.”

Here’s the presentation, followed by some highlights.

His starting point is October founder Rosalind Krauss’s pronouncement, in 1979, of an “absolute rift” between art and religion. He elaborates:

The textbooks of twentieth-century art history, theory, and criticism, as well as major museum collections, readily testify to the fact that the institutional art world regards Christianity as having made negligible contributions to the fine arts during the twentieth century, and unfortunately that’s a judgment I largely agree with. But the reverse is also true: for the most part, the church has little regard for the canon of twentieth-century art as having made contributions to the development and deepening of Christian thought. For most of the last century, the worlds of contemporary art theory and Christian theology developed into distinct cultural configurations that have been remarkably disengaged from each other, often to the point of mutual unintelligibility.

The twenty-first century has seen a return of religion to art, Anderson says, but it has been a return riddled with problems. His agenda here is to (1) articulate where the primary problem in the rift lies, (2) offer an argument for how we might think of the return of religion to the art discourse, and (3) suggest ways in which Christians can work productively in the rift.

[03:13] Where does the rift between art and religion lie?

[04:28] In his landmark book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, James Elkins says the rift exists not in the art itself but in the academic writing about art.

[05:43] Art Since 1900 identifies and articulates the four primary critical methods that have framed the modern and contemporary art discourse: psychoanalysis, social art history, formalism and structuralism, and poststructuralism and deconstruction. (“Theology” is not one of them.)

[18:48] Summarizing Elkins: “Religious content is unable to survive the suspicious interpretative operations of avant-garde theory and criticism, which relentlessly reads behind and beneath the subject matter and pictorial composition of an artwork.”   Continue reading “Jonathan Anderson on the (in)visibility of theology in contemporary art criticism”