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


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.


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.


“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.


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”

Roundup: Alabaster Gospels, the lone cathedral-builder, Pacheco at Chichester, lamenting racial injustice

Alabaster page spread

^^ New Gospel-book set promotes aesthetic reading experience: Photographer Bryan Chung and designer Brian Chung, both campus ministers (and no relation), believe that beauty is fundamental to understanding who God is. So they’ve teamed up for project Alabaster: a brand-new design of the holy Gospels, in four volumes, integrated with contemplative photographs. They’ve already well exceeded their funding goal on Kickstarter, which means there’s already a lot of interest in having Bible reading be a visual experience—and at a 7½ × 9½ trim, the books are definitely wieldy, meant to be regularly handled and read! If you want a guaranteed copy, be sure to back the project on Kickstarter, as the number of names in the system will determine the size of the print order. You have until October 7; the publication month is April 2017. This project aligns so well with my mission here at Art & Theology, and I’m thrilled to see it in the works.

^^ 90-year-old man spends lifetime building a cathedral by hand: From Great Big Story: “For 53 years, Justo Gallego has been building a cathedral by hand on the outskirts of Madrid almost entirely by himself. Gallego has no formal architecture or construction training, but that hasn’t stopped him from toiling on this herculean task. At 90 years old, Gallego knows that he will not be able to finish the project in his lifetime. But he keeps at it anyway, day after day, driven by his faith.”

Shadows of the Wanderer by Ana Maria Pacheco
Ana Maria Pacheco (Brazilian, 1943–), Shadows of the Wanderer, 2008. Polychromed wood sculpture, 260 × 390 × 605 cm. Installation view at Norwich Cathedral, 2010, via Pratt Contemporary Art.

^^ Art installation at Chichester Cathedral speaks to the refugee experience: Shadows of the Wanderer by Brazilian-born artist Ana Maria Pacheco is on display in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral through November 14. A multipiece figurative sculpture in polychromed wood, it has as its centerpiece a young man carrying an elderly man on his back—a reference to the Aeneid’s Aeneas carrying his lame father out of the ruins of Troy. The cathedral has organized events around the installation, including a lecture by Christopher Wintle on the representation of suffering in Pacheco’s art (audio here, transcript here); a series of workshops for schools and colleges exploring the refugee experience, developed in partnership with Amnesty International; a debate titled “Refugees: Problem or Gift?”; an interview with the artist; and a woodcarving workshop. The photo above is an installation view from 2010 inside Norwich Cathedral; to see photos of the work in its current location at Chichester, click here.

Addressing racial injustice as a church: Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship has compiled an excellent list of resources for churches looking for ways to address racial tensions in America with an eye toward healing, including a prayer service of lament by Paul Burkhart; two litanies by Fran Pratt; a list of relevant hymns, curated by the Hymn Society; an article by Sandra Van Opstal, “Reconciling Witness And Worship: Six Ways To Begin”; and materials from the 2016 Reconciliation and Justice Network conference. I’d like to add to it the lecture series “Race and the Church,” especially Jemar Tisby’s “Understanding the Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter,” which I live-streamed with my church back in July. (It definitely sparked fruitful conversation.) For common objections to the movement, like “What about black-on-black crime?” and “Don’t #AllLivesMatter?,” he refers listeners to the video below, produced by MTV.

SONG: “Light a Candle”: Also on Neeley’s website I found a video performance of the song “Light a Candle” by Mary Louise Bringle (words) and Lori True (music). It’s sung here, to a ukulele accompaniment, by Becky Gaunt, director of music and liturgy at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic Church in Mahtomedi, Montana.

She posted it on her Facebook page in July along with this note:

We cannot continue to let language divide us. We cannot continue to let language distract us from loving one another. We cannot continue to let words like “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” cause us to keep missing the point!

I’m sad and tired. And you probably are too. But now is NOT the time to be neutral! The Sun may be shining outside, but we need to come together and light a candle in this oppressive darkness. This beautiful song by Lori True (amazing text by Mary Louise Bringle) is my prayer right now. I invite you to pray this with me.

Boy with a Candle by Gerard Sekoto
Gerard Sekoto (South African, 1913–1993), Boy with a Candle, 1943. Oil on canvas, 46.2 × 36 cm.

“When the heart is hard and parched up . . .”

Thy Kingdom Come by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Thy Kingdom Come. Oil on canvas.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.

This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.

Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.

Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.

In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:

(To follow along with the words or to purchase scores, go to http://www.joanszymko.com/works/ind/burst-song-3-mvts.)

Roundup: Bad-news blessing, the transfiguration of Marilyn Monroe, Christian speculative fiction anthology, European sacred art tour

BLESSING: “Blessing for Getting the News” by Jan L. Richardson: August brought two devastating pieces of news to me; I wasn’t in the line of direct impact, but I hurt for the two families who were. A blessing by artist-author Jan L. Richardson came at just the right time. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . when
the news comes,
may it be attended
by every grace,
including the ones
you will not be able
to see now.

When the news comes,
may there be hands
to enfold and bless,
even when
you cannot receive
their blessing now.

When the news comes,
may the humming
in your head
give way to song,
even if it will be
long and long
before you can
hear it,

before you can
comprehend the love
that latched onto you
in the rending—
the love that bound itself to you
even as it began its leaving
and has never
let you go.

Read more, and view original accompanying artwork, at http://paintedprayerbook.com.

ESSAY: “Transfiguring Gold: Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe” by James Romaine: In his latest visual meditation for ArtWay, art historian James Romaine writes on external versus essential beauty, and the Orthodox aesthetic, in one of Warhol’s most famous paintings. “A revelation of uncreated and transfiguring light” in the icon tradition, the use of gold, Romaine posits, was a theological choice on Warhol’s part, one influenced by his Byzantine Catholic faith. Warhol drew on celebrity imagery to encourage a transformation in viewers from material sight to metaphysical vision. This essay is adapted from a more extensive one titled “The Transfiguration of the Soup Can,” published in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture and linked to here with the author’s permission.

Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 211.4 × 144.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BOOK: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz: Last week the husband and wife team of Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz published an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that engage with Christianity. It features twenty of the 450-plus submissions they received, all but four of which are published here for the first time. Describing their criteria for selection, Crankshaw writes in the introduction, “We wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.” The result is a collection of diverse voices and approaches, exploring such topics as sin, forgiveness, the afterlife, the soul, mission, miracles, and supernatural agents. To read excerpts from the book, visit www.mysterionanthology.com.

Mysterion cover

TOUR: “Reformanda 2017: Sacred Arts Today, Catholic and Protestant”: The Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality, founded by the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, has organized a four-leg European tour for next May 10–30 that will explore the face of sacred art from the last five hundred years since the Reformation. With stops in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the itinerary includes visits to churches and contemporary art exhibitions, symposium lectures and discussions led by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, and Gloriae Dei Cantores choral concerts. Registration is now open.

Reformanda Tour Map

Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin shining. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. Notice how the eyes of Wiley’s dead Christ turn out toward the viewer rather than roll up and back.

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

John Berger on how to see

John Berger—essayist, novelist, poet, screenwriter, art critic—loves to help people see what is around them, teach them how to look at the world. His life’s work is dedicated to this endeavor.

One of his most celebrated achievements is the BAFTA Award–winning Ways of Seeing, a four-episode television program written and presented by Berger and originally airing in 1972 on the BBC. “A British arts broadcasting landmark” and “a key moment in the democratisation of art education,” The Guardian calls it. The script was adapted the same year into a book, a collaboration among Berger, Mike Dibb (BBC producer/director), Richard Hollis (graphic designer), Chris Fox (consultant), and Sven Blomberg (artist). It’s still in print!

Berger’s super-conversational style and his bucking against tradition no doubt contribute to his appeal. In the first episode, he establishes his aim: to get people to cut the mumbo-jumbo that always rises up around art and instead approach art directly, much like children.

Here it is:

The episode points out the ways in which photographic technology has changed the way we look at art—it has made it more accessible, but it can also manipulate. When a painting is reproduced in a textbook, for example, details may be cut out to force your focus somewhere, or arranged to form a narrative, or compared with other works, and words surround the painting that will influence your reading of it. If presented on film, camera movement and music also play a part. Berger gives examples using, among others, Pieter Bruegel’s The Procession to Calvary [14:03]; Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows [16:12]; and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 [18:28].

He says,

The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning. Have works of art gained anything by this? They have lost and gained.

Paintings (especially sacred ones) used to be an integral part of the buildings for which they were designed, says Berger, but now they are often experienced outside that context, rendering their meanings ambiguous. Of paintings in churches, he says, “Everything around the image is part of its meaning. Its uniqueness is part of the uniqueness of the single place where it is. Everything around it confirms and consolidates its meaning” [05:20]. He briefly addresses icons, which I know some Orthodox believers are averse to having displayed in museums, where they cannot even be touched and thus lose part of the function for which they were created.   Continue reading “John Berger on how to see”

ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852–1940) was a popular American literary figure during the first half of the twentieth century whose oeuvre fuses social justice concerns with religious faith. He gained international renown with his poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which, inspired by a Jean-François Millet painting of the same title, protests the plight of the exploited laborer. In addressing the issues of his day Markham looked to Jesus, who he considered an embodiment not only of peace, love, and other such virtues but of poetic genius as well. His essay “The Poetry of Jesus,” reprinted below, first appeared in the December 1905 issue of The Homiletic Review. Emphasis is mine.

Earth gives us hint and rumor of a divine beauty that broods above us, an ideal splendor that completes the real. To express that beauty is the perpetual aspiration of the poet. Poetry expresses this beauty in words; religion in deeds. So Jesus, as the supreme religious genius of the world, carried the vision of the poet—

The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

This light is the light of the ideal; this consecration is the consecration to the service of humanity; and this dream is the dream of the social federation of the world. Toward these glorious finalities all religion labors and all poesy aspire.

Jesus, like every great poet, was stung with the pain of genius, the passion for perfection, the yearning for the ideal. No wonder, then, that He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Out of the long collision between the is and the ought-to-be, between the world that exists and the world that awaits us in the future, springs that majestic sorrow, that noble reticence, that touches with its shadow all elevated and poetic natures.

Upon Greece came the passion for beauty, upon Palestine the passion for righteousness. Jesus carried both ideals in His heart, for He saw the glory of the lilies in the furrow and also the perfidy of the oppressors who walk over graves. He was moved not only by the beauty of holiness, but also by the holiness of beauty.

Jesus preached artistically as the true poet always preaches; He twined the truth with the beauty. For the most part He spoke in symbol, in parable, leaving His hearer to point the moral—leaving the truth to be inferred from the beauty. If His art-feeling seems meager and His insistence upon beauty scant, let us remember that He was forced to spend most of His priceless life in teaching a few of the primary principles of conduct. Still, in spite of all obstacles, the inborn poetry of His nature was continually breaking forth through the crevices of His conversation. His message was flung forth in telling metaphor, vivid simile, pointed parable—the chief machinery of the poet. He unsouled Himself in the poet’s way, because the poet’s way is the natural and spontaneous utterance of the heart.

Feeling ever the pity and terror of our existence—its sad perversity, its pathetic brevity, and its tremendous import—still His poet’s heart took loving note of the beauty and wonder never wholly lost from these gray roads of men. He did not fail to note the wayward wind that bloweth where it listeth, the red evening sky that means fair weather, the cloud out of the west that brings the shower, the tempest in the sea, and the calm that follows after the storm. Nor did He overlook the birds of the air that feed on the Father’s bounty in the open fields and lodge in the branches of the mustard-trees; nor the green grass that glories in the field to-day and to-morrow is cast into the oven.

He knew all these, and He knew also the homely aspects of the day’s work—the bottling of the new wine, the sifting of the wheat with fans, the digging of the fallen ox from the pit, the casting of the fish-nets into the sea. He saw the young virgins trimming the lamps, the bowed women grinding at the mill, the housewife hiding the leaven in the measure of meal, and the mother forgetting the pangs of labor in the joy over the new-born child.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “The Poetry of Jesus” by Edwin Markham”