The Beatitudes (Artful Devotion)

Finished Haywood Street Fresco
Christopher Holt (American, 1977–), Haywood Street Beatitudes, 2018–19. Fresco, 9 1/2 × 27 ft. Haywood Street Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina. Photo: John Warner.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

—Matthew 5:3–11

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SONG: “Beatitudes” by Bernice Johnson Reagon | Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, live at Carnegie Hall, November 7, 1987

Bernice Johnson Reagon (born October 4, 1942) is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist who in the early 1960s was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement in Georgia. In 1973 she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, DC. Reagon, along with other members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, realized the power of collective singing to unify the disparate groups who began to work together in the 1964 Freedom Summer protests in the South. ‘After a song,’ Reagon recalled, ‘the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all. . . . This music was like an instrument, like holding a tool in your hand.’” [source]

Reagon was the creator and host of the Peabody Award–winning NPR series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, which originally aired in 1994 in twenty-six parts. (All the episodes are freely accessible online!) Under Reagon’s guidance, the production team traveled all over the country to record baptismal and congregational services, concerts, and interviews with a range of performers, composers, and community members. A four-CD set was released as a companion to the series.

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The Haywood Street Beatitudes fresco was completed last year in the sanctuary of Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, part of whose mission is “breaking down barriers that divide the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ and reminding each person of their worth, their goodness.” The principal artist is Christopher Holt, and he worked with a team of four others. To learn more about the fresco, visit the interactive website https://visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org/, which includes many photos and sketches that document the making process in detail, information about the people pictured and an interpretive guide, and comments from participants in the project. All the quotes and photos in this section I’ve sourced from there.

The Rev. Brian Combs, who is shown emerging from behind the stone wall on the right, founded Haywood Street Congregation in 2009 to be a place of welcome for those struggling with addiction and/or homelessness. “The most painful part of holding a cardboard sign at the intersection,” he says, “is not the humiliating public declaration of helplessness or having trash thrown at you, or watching the automatic doors lock down. By far, from what I’ve heard after a decade of listening, is the refusal of so many drivers, idling just feet away at the red light, to even make eye contact.”

Commissioning this fresco—a permanent medium in which paint joins with plaster, making the image inseparable from the church architecture—is one way in which Haywood Street is “affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity, and sabotaging the shame of poverty.” Fresco painting reached its zenith in the Italian Renaissance, but “too often . . . religious art . . . was made over in the image of those in power who were paying for it. God was rendered European and male. Jesus was more prince than peasant. Salvation meant being upper class.” The Haywood Street Beatitudes contains a more racially and socioeconomically diverse set of individuals that is reflective of the makeup of the community. Its message is that “God continues to show up in everyday life among the unhoused and the housed, the poor and poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the hungry.” 

The skyline, with its Appalachian Mountain vista, offers an idealized portrait of Asheville. Some historical buildings are visible in the background, such as the racially segregated Stephens-Lee High School (on the top of the hill), which opened in 1923 and became a center for culture and arts and a source of pride for the Black community; it closed in 1965 as part of the county school board’s integration plan, and in 1975 most of it was bulldozed.

Haywood Street is most known for its Downtown Welcome Table ministry: family-style meals are served—with cloth napkins and on china plates!—on Wednesdays and Sundays in the church’s dining room, where people from all backgrounds are encouraged to come and eat together and enjoy fellowship. (Due to COVID-19 restrictions, meals are currently served to-go.) “We are a ministry that acknowledges each of us has gifts and each of us has needs. While some come with hunger from the body, others come with a hunger in their souls.” The website goes on to explain that visitors can “expect roles to be reversed. If you are coming to give, you might be asked to receive, to simply sit and have lunch. . . . If you are coming to receive, you might be called upon to serve.”

Haywood Street fresco
Haywood Street fresco (detail)

“Table is the defining metaphor at Haywood Street,” signifying relationship and togetherness. In the fresco, community members prepare the table and hold it up, led by Miss Mary (center); “keep the house open and be generous with your life,” she says. Holding her hand is Dave, a US Air Force veteran who grew up in Alabama in a culture where he was told never to touch a Black person. At Haywood he has overcome the prejudice he was formerly steeped in.

Other pictured individuals include Edward, the church organist; Robert, a gardener who arranges flowers for the altar and dining room tables each week; Soleil, a little girl who loves coming to Haywood Street for the desserts and who is whispering into Robert’s ear; Wayne (bottom right), who initially came to Haywood Street through its Respite ministry, which provides a safe place for homeless adults to rest, recover, and be cared for following a hospital discharge; and so on.

Haywood Street fresco (detail)

All are underneath the blessing hands of God and the rainbow of God’s promise.

Flanking the scene are two sentinel figures, each holding a light so that those in the darkness can find their way. The one on the left is modeled after Charles, a community member who died of cancer in May 2019, a few months before the fresco was completed. He was foundational to the church, as he lived on the streets and vouched for Haywood Street to all his friends when it was just getting started. His dog, Emma, sits in front of him, next to an open pouch of his woodworking tools. The other light-bearer, on the right, is Jeanette, a single mom who “came for lunch” one day between job interviews “and found love.” She is a care minister at Haywood Street and is on the board of directors. The two hold the Communion elements: Charles, a wine flask, and Jeanette, a sheaf of wheat.

Shout-out to Alexandra Davison, director of Culture Care RDU and a docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art, whose blog post “Lent, COVID-19 & the Beatitudes on Haywood Street” introduced me to this fresco.

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I’ve addressed the Beatitudes in previous Artful Devotions, which feature

For more Beatitudes-related art, see the Visual Commentary on Scripture exhibition “Blessed,” curated by Rebekah Eklund, a professor of New Testament, theology, and ethics at Loyola University Maryland. I appreciate how she addresses descriptive versus prescriptive interpretations of the Beatitudes. She examines (1) an illumination from a French medieval moral treatise that shows seven women in a “virtue garden,” each representing a different beatitude; (2) an Ethiopian-inspired canvas painting by contemporary American artist Laura James, which places the Beatitudes in the context of chattel slavery; and (3) the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece [previously], where seven groups of saints gather round a bleeding Lamb.

Blessed (VCS exhibition)

“All three artworks place a Christ-figure in the centre: the tallest tree in the middle of the garden tended by prayer, an African Jesus with open arms delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or the slaughtered Lamb standing triumphantly on the altar of his sacrifice and surrounded by angels. This centrality suggests Christ’s role not only as the speaker of the Beatitudes but also as their embodiment and fulfilment.”


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 All Saints’ Day, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Jesus as Dancer, The Daily Prayer Project, ethnoarts in Indonesia, and more

BLOG POST: “Jesus as Dancer: Jyoti Sahi’s ‘Lord of Creation’” by Victoria Emily Jones: I wrote a guest post for the Sojourn Arts blog about a gouache I own by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus leading the dance of new creation. On one side he pounds a drum, and on the other he emerges from a lotus. The painting brings together Jyoti’s interests in Christian and Hindu theologies and folk symbolism.

Sahi, Jyoti_Lord of Creation
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord of Creation, 1982. Gouache on paper, 14 3/4 × 20 in. Collection of Victoria Emily Jones.

Sojourn Arts is a ministry of Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, that seeks to support artists and build up the church through the arts. They have organized and/or hosted numerous exhibitions over the years and have commissioned temporary installations for their sanctuary, as well as coordinated community art projects. Visit www.sojourn-arts.com.

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THE DAILY PRAYER PROJECT: This fall I joined the team at the Daily Prayer Project as curator of visual art. The Daily Prayer Project is a periodical that covers every season of the Christian year with robust, rooted, and cross-cultural liturgies for use in congregations, households, workplaces, small groups, or other gatherings. Released in seven editions per year, it features daily morning and evening prayer guides for the week, which include Psalm, Old Testament, and New Testament readings; short prayers sourced from around the globe and from different eras; specific prayer prompts; and songs (including lead sheets). In addition to the cover image, there is a mini-gallery of two art images inside, reproduced in full color, to serve as visual prompts for further contemplation and prayer. There is also a section called “The Practices,” with two page-long seasonal reflections by staff members or guest contributors.

The Advent 2020 issue of the DPP, covering November 29 through December 24, was released last week. It features prayers by African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the tenth-century English saint Ethelwold, and others; a Hebrew folk song, a Taizé chant, and an Argentine hymn by Federico J. Pagura; a striking cover image by Hilary Siber, which shows heaven coming down to earth; Charles White’s Prophet I, which resonates with passages from Isaiah; and an apocalyptic paper collage by Nicora Gangi.

The periodical is available as a physical booklet or as a PDF download. Visit the website for more information. If you are an artist and are interested in being featured in a future prayerbook, email team@dailyprayerproject.com.

DPP Advent 2020 interior

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VIDEO: “Local Riches: Ethnoarts and Sumba”: A workshop for churches on the island of Sumba in Indonesia, led by Yayasan Suluh Insan Lestari in July 2019, reinforced that God is best honored, and the global body of Christ built up, when people worship God using their unique cultural and linguistic gifts, bringing their whole, authentic selves before him in praise. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

For centuries many Christian missionaries to other countries brought with them Western hymns and images, presenting them as definitive—as forms that alone are good and pleasing to God. (For example, a woman in the video mentions how she had previously thought that worship songs had to be based on Western scales and performed using certain instruments to be acceptable.) But in the last fifty or so years especially, at least from what I’ve noticed, many missionaries have recognized the falsity of this line of thinking and seek to undo negative conditioning by promoting the use of indigenous artistic expressions (sometimes called “ethnoarts”) in Christian worship, be it dance, drama, music, storytelling, carving, or what have you. I found it interesting that the interviewees seem to suggest that now it’s the forces of modernism that most threaten the survival of traditional cultures, whereas it used to be that the church was largely blamed (missionaries did undeniably play a large part, banning this and that, though in every era there were exceptions to the rule). Now the church is at the forefront of trying to preserve not only traditional languages but also traditional art forms.

“Everything we have was created by God, and we need to return to it with gratefulness because this is how God made us!” says Rev. Herlina of the Christian Church of Sumba. “With whatever we already have, we can be a blessing to our people.”

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NEW ART SERIES: “Organic, Sunrise Gradients Mask Front Pages of the New York Times by Artist Sho Shibuya”: Since the lockdown started in March, Brooklyn-based artist and graphic designer Sho Shibuya has been painting color gradients in acrylic over the front pages of the New York Times, inspired by each morning’s sunrise. He calls the series “Sunrises from a Small Window.” I love how he’s able to express gratitude for a beautiful new day and to access calm amid dire news cycles. Shibuya is still reading those headlines and articles; he’s just putting them in a larger perspective. (As for myself, call me escapist, but I’ve found that actually blocking out the news—turning down the noise—for certain periods can be a helpful spiritual practice.)

Sho Shibuya, Sunrises from a Small Window, June 22–28, 2020. Acrylic on newsprint.

“I started . . . contrasting the anxiety of the news with the serenity of the sky, creating a record of my new normal,” Shibuya says. “Their front page has always been a time capsule of a day in history, so it made sense to use history as the canvas because the paintings are meant to capture a moment in time. . . . The spirit of the project is that maybe, even after the pandemic subsides, people can continue some of the generosity and peace we discovered in ourselves and that the sky reminds us of every day with a sunrise through a small window. If one thing the news has made clear, we need generosity and peace for all people now more than ever.”

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TWO FILMS: “Death on Netflix: I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Dick Johnson Is Dead by Mitch Wiley: I really liked both these cinematic reflections on mortality, but they’re completely different, as this short Gospel Coalition article bears out. Dick Johnson Is Dead is the more “Christian” of the two because of its hopeful perspective—the human subject of the film is a Seventh-Day Adventist, so death for him is not a final end. After her father was diagnosed with dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asked her dad if he’d be interested in a collaborative film project where, to help them both face the inevitable, she would stage his death in inventive and comical ways. Relishing the opportunity to spend more time with his busy daughter, he enthusiastically agreed.

The documentary shows them preparing and carrying out these stunts but also interacting in other contexts—birthday parties, trick-or-treating, looking through old photo albums, cleaning out Dick’s office, Dick’s being asked to give up driving, and so on. It made me laugh and cry—films that can do both tend to rate highly on my favorites list. There’s so much love and warmth and heartache and whimsy in it as father and daughter confront death together, talking very openly about it, which I found, strange as it may seem, refreshing. Oh, and the heaven sequences just may be the best I’ve ever seen.

For a more cynical take on death, here’s the trailer to I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman isn’t for everyone, but I’m still thinking about this movie after watching it a month ago, which means it made an impression!):

Seeing and Believing, a Christ and Pop Culture podcast, covered Ending Things and Dick Johnson in episodes 264 and 266, respectively, as have most other film podcasts and reviewers, with Dick Johnson being uniformly lauded as one of the best movies of the year.

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SONG: “Hodu” (Give Thanks), performed by the Platt Brothers: The Platt Brothers [previously] singing scripture to me? Yes, please. The text of this song is Psalm 118:1–4, and the music is by Debbie Friedman (1951–2011), a Jewish singer-songwriter whose songs are used widely in Reform and Conservative Jewish liturgies in North America. Friedman’s “Hodu” was originally released on her 1981 album And the Youth Shall See Visions. (Find sheet music here.)

In this video from earlier this month, Henry, Jonah, and Ben Platt sing “Hodu” to a guitar accompaniment by Al Seller.

Hodu l’Adonai kitov
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’oam chasdo
Yomar na, yomar na, Yisraeil
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo
Yomru na, yomru na veit Aharon
Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo

Let all who revere G-d’s name now say
Ki l’olam chasdo
Give thanks to the Lord for G-d is good
Ki l’olam chasdo

The first time the Platt Brothers performed in public as a trio was this April, when they appeared in a virtual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the request of the Jewish Federations of North America, singing “Ahavat Olam.” Ben and Jonah are musical theater performers: Ben originated the title role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and won a Tony for it, and Jonah is best known for playing Fiyero in Wicked on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. Henry is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where’s he’s a member of the a cappella group Counterparts.

Loved (Artful Devotion)

Bonnard, Pierre_The Open Window
Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947), The Open Window, 1921. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 × 37 3/4 in. (118.1 × 95.9 cm). Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

—Psalm 90:14

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SONG: “Oh to Be Loved” by Thad Cockrell, on To Be Loved (2009)


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 Proper 25, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: CIVA art auction, lament album, Kaphar and “things unseen,” empathy

Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!

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CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!

The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”

Steve Prince, Faith Walk. Linocut, 12 × 9 in. “Shows a woman walking in faith while the ancestors encourage, uplift, and guide her along the way.”

Jehovah Is My Light (Panama)
Jehova es mi luz (Jehovah Is My Light), San Blas Islands, Panama, 1980s. Reverse embroidery, 14 × 17 1/2 in.

di Bella, Joseph_Tree Parables (Generations)
Joseph di Bella, Tree Parables (Generations), 2017. Gouache, dry pigment, and ashes on handmade paper, 38 1/2 × 30 1/2 × 1 1/2 in. (framed).

If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.

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ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).

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EXHIBITION: The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar, October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.

Kaphar, Titus_Untitled (Entombment)
Titus Kaphar, Untitled, 2020. Oil and tar on canvas. Photo courtesy Maruani Mercier.

The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .

“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.

“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”

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ANIMATED SHORT: “Brené Brown on Empathy”: In this 2013 video from the RSA (Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Katy Davis animates an excerpt from a talk by Professor Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The Webby Award-winning RSA Shorts animation series provides a snapshot of a big idea, blending voices from the RSA Public Events Programme and the creative talents of illustrators and animators from around the world. It responds to the ever-increasing need for new ideas and inspiration in our busy lives and acts as a jolt of ‘mental espresso’ that will awaken the curiosity in all of us. If you’re interested in the opportunity of animating one of our Shorts, please email your bio and links to your portfolio to shorts@rsa.org.uk.” Other RSA shorts include Jonathan Haidt on Why We’re Convinced We’re Right, David Brooks on Character in a Selfie Age, and David Graeber on the Value of Work.

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PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.

4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic
5:48: Films and empathy
9:34: Fiction and empathy
12:42: Moonlight (2016)
21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view
28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015)
30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools
31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy?
34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people?
39:05: Superhero comics and movies
41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit?
44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents
46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers?
46:56: How do we do better through the arts?

Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

Living in the side-hole
Moravian devotional image by Marianne von Watteville, 18th century. Embroidery and watercolor on cardstock, 11 × 16 cm. Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And [the LORD] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

—Numbers 20:10–11

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

—1 Corinthians 10:1b–4

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

—John 19:34

Exodus 33:12–23 is assigned in Sunday’s lectionary; the other Bible passages I’ve added because I want to show how an intertextual reading yielded our song of the week.

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HYMN: “I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” (Ach! mein verwundter Fürste!) | Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, and Johann Nitschmann, 1735; English translation by John Wesley, 1740 | Music by Bethany Brooks, 1997 | Performed by Bethany Brooks on the Cardiphonia compilation album Songs for the Lord’s Supper, 2011 (also on Quarry Street Hymnal, vol. 1, 2012)

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
to wash me in thy cleansing blood,
to dwell within thy wounds; then pain is
sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart and let it be
forever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast and let me wear
that pledge of love forever there.

How blest are they who still abide
close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
who life and strength from thence derive,
and by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death
’til thou thy quick’ning Spirit breathe?
Thou giv’st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o’erflow,
our words are lost; nor will we know,
nor will we think of ought beside
my Lord, my Love, is crucified.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, one of the authors of this German hymn, was the leader, patron, and protector of the Moravian Church from 1727 to 1760 and its major theologian and liturgist. Anna Nitschmann was chief eldress in the church since age fourteen, serving as spiritual mentor to female congregants, and a missionary for a time to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York; she married Zinzendorf in 1757, but both of them died within a couple of years. Johann Nitschmann was Anna’s brother.

John Wesley, who translated “I Thirst” into English just a few years after it was written, was well acquainted with the Moravians. His journal, covering the years 1736–38, is full of comments and observations about them, starting with a transatlantic sea voyage he was on, during which a storm arose, and everyone panicked, except the Moravians, who sang hymns of praise and prayed with great calm. When he returned to London he attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, where he experienced an evangelical conversion. After that he joined the Moravian society in Fetter Lane and in August 1738 traveled to the denomination’s headquarters in Herrnhut, Germany, to study. He corresponded with Zinzendorf, and the two met face to face on more than one occasion. In late 1779 he broke with the Moravians and soon after founded Methodism, greatly influenced by Moravian pietism.

Eighteenth-century Moravians were fascinated with Jesus’s wounds, especially his “little side hole” (where a Roman soldier pierced him on the cross to confirm he was dead), which they described as “warm,” “hot,” “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “today still open.” They wrote hymns about the side wound and created side-wound art—indeed, centered much of their devotional practice on it. As one hymn goes, “Dearest Side-hole! I do covet thy warm Blood above all Things. O thou art the most beloved of all other Wound-hole-Springs. Side-hole’s Blood, bedew me! Cover and go thro’ me! Take thy Course thro’ all my Veins, Heart and Reins, so that nought unbath’d remains.” “I Thirst” is comparatively mild (though granted, I couldn’t find the German original).

Historically, much Christian hymnody and art have fixated on the blood and woundedness of Jesus, but Zinzendorf and his followers took it to another level. To them such graphic imagery was not morbid but comforting and affective. Even I, who have a low tolerance for blood and gore, find myself strangely compelled by this devotional language and visuality of the womblike side wound.

“I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” is one of many Moravian hymns that picture Jesus’s side wound as a shelter, a place of refuge where the blessed enter into and reside. “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” written some forty years later by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, is a more widely sung hymn that employs similar imagery—so, too, the less explicit and far less poetic “He Hideth My Soul” by Fanny Crosby.

Moses’s being hidden away in the cleft of a rock so that he can glimpse a glimmer of God’s glory is partly in view, in an implied way, in “I Thirst.” The Song of Songs also refers to “the cleft of a rock”—to a dove, a beloved, nesting there; a lot of Christian commentators read the rock as Christ and the dove as his church, sheltered in his torn flesh (his body was cleft by the spear). Added to the hermeneutical mix is the Numbers passage of water from the rock: during Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses strikes a rock and water streams forth to quench the people’s thirst. (Like Jesus, the rock was beaten, giving issue to a river of life.)

All these biblical stories and images come together to create a constellation of meaning.

(Related post: “Our Sweet, Travailing Mother Christ,” on a Bible moralisée illumination of the birth of Ecclesia)

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Living in the side-hole

The mixed-media needlework reproduced here, from the Unitätsarchiv in Herrnhut, is by an eighteenth-century Swiss German woman named Marianne von Watteville. In embroidery and watercolor, she shows a rocky hillock topped with grass and flowers, into which a little cave is carved, which is Christ’s side wound. She kneels inside the wound in prayer and is showered by the blood of Christ. The inscription on the lip of the wound reads, “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

For further reading:


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 Proper 24, cycle A, click here.

An Affirmation of Faith

Painting by Jyoti Sahi
Painting by Jyoti Sahi, based on John 20:22

We believe in Jesus Christ,
our savior and liberator,
the expression of God’s redeeming
and restoring love,
the mark of humanness,
source of courage, power, and love,
God of God,
light of light,
ground of our humanity.

We believe that God resides in slums,
lives in broken homes and hearts,
suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness.

But through death and resurrection
God gives life, pride, and dignity,
provides the content of our vision,
offers the context of our struggle,
promises liberation
to the oppressor and the oppressed,
hope to those in despair.

We believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit
who revives our decaying soul,
resurrects our defeated spirits,
renews our hope of wholeness,
and reminds us of our responsibility
in ushering in God’s new order here and now.

This affirmation of faith originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of iGi, a publication of the Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology. Used by permission.

Remember Me (Artful Devotion)

Picasso, Pablo_The Old Guitarist
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), The Old Guitarist, 1904. Oil on panel, 48 3/8 × 32 1/2 in. (122.9 × 82.6 cm). Art Institute of Chicago.

Remember me, O LORD, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation.

—Psalm 106:4 (KJV)

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SONG: “Sing Your Song Over Me / Do Lord, Remember” by Tim Coons, on Potomac (2012)

In his Potomac album, Tim Coons combines American folk songs—mostly African American spirituals, blues, and gospel—with originals in the same track. Track 4 is based on “Do Lord,” Roud 11971. I actually learned this spiritual not in church but in Girl Scouts! Notable recordings include those by Mississippi John Hurt [previously] and Johnny Cash.

More recently Tim has been working on collaborations with his wife Betony, a visual artist, under the name Giants and Pilgrims [previously].

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The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, writes,

Pablo Picasso made The Old Guitarist while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette, flattened forms, and emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation related to the work of such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. The image reflects the twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s personal struggle and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.


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 Proper 23, cycle A, click here.

“Annunciation” by Vinícius de Moraes

Montevideo
Virgin! Daughter of mine
Where have you been
You’re all dirty
You smell of jasmine
Your skirt’s stained carmine
And your earrings are clinking
Tlintlintlin?
Mother dear
I’ve been in the garden
I went to look at the sky
And I fell asleep.
When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me . . .

Translated from the Portuguese by Natalie d’Arbeloff, from Annunciation: Sixteen Contemporary Poets Consider Mary, ed. Elizabeth Adams (Montreal: Phoenicia, 2015). Used by permission of the translator. (Read the poem in its original language.)

Jasmine tree (Photo: Raita Futo)

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Vinícius de Moraes (1913–1980) was a Brazilian poet, lyricist, essayist, playwright, and diplomat who contributed to the birth of bossa nova music. Natalie d’Arbeloff (b. 1929) is a London-based painter, printmaker, cartoonist, and maker of artist’s books, born in Paris of French and Russian parents; she has also lived in Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, and the United States.

“Annunciation” takes as its subject the teenage Mary’s mystical encounter with an angel (Luke 1:26–38), after which she becomes pregnant with the Son of God. Moraes sets the event in Montevideo, Uruguay, imagining a dialogue, after the fact, between Mary and her mother.

The central image of scattered jasmine petals is a lovely inversion of the “deflowering” euphemism for first-time sex. In the Holy Spirit’s coming upon her to conceive Jesus, Mary was flowered—her prime beauty bestowed, not (if we were to use the outdated, sexist metaphor) taken away.

While Christianity maintains that Mary remained a virgin at least until Jesus’s birth, her becoming pregnant marked her physically, indelibly. Moraes goes so far as to suggest there was a tearing of the hymen—hence her red-stained skirt, which I read as blood. However, his retelling is nonliteral, more in the mode of magic realism, so there’s no need to get all clinical or to try to “explain” the imagery. It’s dreamlike.

The Gospel-writer suggests that Mary interacted with the angel Gabriel in a vision (i.e., a waking dream), but in Moraes’s poem the primary interaction takes place during sleep. In her dream, Mary hears the divine call and consents to its demands, and when she awakes, like in the movies, a material manifestation of the spiritual experience is there to tell her it was real: she is covered in sweet-smelling jasmine.

What is your reaction to or interpretation of the poem?

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Annunciation-themed posts from the Art & Theology archives include:

Roundup: Jewish prayer song, stolen paintings, graphic novels by John Lewis, and new VCS videos

SONG: “Ahavat Olam”: Back in April the Platt Brothers—Jonah, Henry, and Ben—posted a home-recorded video of themselves singing this traditional Jewish prayer arranged by Gabriel Mann and Piper Rutman. (I know actor-singer Ben Platt from The Politician, which is probably how the video came to be recommended to me by YouTube!)

It stoked a lot of public enthusiasm, so on September 21 they released a studio recording, available for streaming and download from all major music platforms.

A translation of the Hebrew is as follows:

With an eternal love have You loved your people Israel, by teaching us the Torah and its commandments, laws, and precepts. Therefore, Adonai our God, we shall meditate on Your laws when we lie down and when we rise up, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever. For they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall reflect upon them day and night.

O may You never remove Your love from us. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves your people Israel. [source]

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PIANO CONCERTO: Tomás de Merlo by Xavier Beteta: In February 2014 six religious paintings by the early eighteenth-century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo were stolen from a church in Antigua. Although the thieves have been caught, the paintings have disappeared into the black market and have likely been smuggled out of the country. Wanting to preserve the essence of the paintings in music, Guatemalan composer Xavier Beteta wrote a piano concerto whose three movements, titled after the stolen paintings, are “La Oración en el Huerto” (The Prayer in the Garden), “La Piedad” (The Pietà), and “El Rey de Burlas” (The Mocking of Christ). Beteta said he may eventually compose three additional movements, one for each of the other three lost paintings.

Tomás de Merlo (Guatemalan, 1694–1739), El Rey de Burlas (aka La Coronación de Espinas), 1737

Last year the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California, premiered the concerto. Listen to excerpts, interspersed with interview clips of the composer by Josh Rodriguez, in the video below—which is itself excerpted from the Deus Ex Musica podcast episode “How Stolen Sacred Paintings Inspired a New Piano Concerto.”

See photos of the other paintings at https://www.soy502.com/articulo/capturan-dos-robo-valiosas-obras-iglesia-calvario.

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DOCUMENTARY: The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree: A story of crime and trauma, love and redemption, this documentary follows Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova as she confronts one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her most prized paintings. A mutual friendship develops, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

What I love about the film is how it captures the rehabilitation of both subjects—in a way that honors the complexity, the nonlinearity of that process—and the role art can play in healing. “Barbar” forgives “the Bertilizer” and helps him on his road to sobriety, and he helps her access deep parts of herself and come to grips with the history of abuse she’s suffered. They become, in a sense, each other’s muses. His stunned, tearful reaction when he sees the first portrait she paints of him melted me—someone sees him for the first time.

With documentaries I always wonder who’s the person making it and why. I had cynically assumed the project was instigated by the artist to try to vitalize her career, but no, the filmmaker, who has had an ongoing interest in art theft, contacted Kysilkova after reading about the gallery break-in in the news. As is true with most documentarians, he had no idea when he started filming that the story would evolve the way it did and shift genres, and even become feature-length. Streaming on Hulu.

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INTERVIEW: In 2016 Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service interviewed Rep. John Lewis about the National Book Award–winning graphic novel trilogy March, the role of music and religious faith in the civil rights movement, protest (and getting into “good trouble”) as a form of Christian ministry, the urgent need for the church to be a headlight, not a taillight, and more.

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VCS VIDEO EXHIBITION SERIES: The Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously] is an online, open-access resource for those looking to explore the biblical text through art. For every passage of scripture, an art historian, artist, theologian, media theorist, or other is solicited to select and comment on three art images that illuminate the text in some way. The site’s typical format is written commentaries, but by way of experimentation, the VCS has just released video commentaries instead for four new texts. Ben Quash comments on the story of Lot’s Wife through the lens of an early English stained glass panel, a Flemish Renaissance landscape, and a stunning photograph taken after the Allied bombing of Dresden. For Belshazzar’s Feast from the book of Daniel, Michelle Fletcher is guided by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the English Romantic period, which she juxtaposes with a contemporary room installation. But here I’ll highlight the videos for two New Testament passages.

The Burial of Christ, with commentary by Italian Renaissance art expert Jennifer Sliwka [previously], covers Andrea Mantegna’s innovatively foreshortened Christ on a marble slab; an altarpiece painting by Michelangelo, in which Christ’s dead body is held up for display, evoking the presentation of the eucharistic host; and a contemporary Pietà, of sorts, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which involves a skeleton and a fountain.

Michelle Fletcher, a feminist scholar and specialist on the book of Revelation, comments on the controversial apocalyptic figure known as The Whore of Babylon, which she discusses as a symbol of a city, as a satirization of the goddess Roma, and as bequeathing a legacy of vilification of prostitutes. Fletcher selected a didactic painting by street evangelist Robert Roberg, an ancient Roman coin, and William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

Determined (Artful Devotion)

Anderson, Akili Ron_Space Face
Space Face by Akili Ron Anderson (American, 1946–)

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

—Philippians 3:13b–14

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SONG: “I’m Determined to Run This Race” by Rev. James Cleveland, 1953 | Performed by the Meditation Singers, 1962


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 Proper 22, cycle A, click here.