The salty, twisted treats that we call pretzels have their origin, it is thought, in a seventh-century European monastery—according to lore, either in southern France, northern Italy, or Germany. Allegedly a monk invented them by shaping scraps of leftover bread dough to resemble arms crossed in prayer over the chest. (Think upside-down pretzel.)
During the Middle Ages the church’s fasting requirements for Lent were stricter than they are today, forbidding the intake of all nonaquatic animal by-products, including eggs, lard, milk, and butter. Because pretzels could be made with a simple recipe that avoided these banned ingredients, they soon became associated with the season.
The pretzel’s Lenten link, not to mention its popularity as a year-round snack both inside and outside monastic communities, led artists to sometimes paint pretzels into Last Supper images.
Alena Antonova was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. From 1949 to 1955 she studied graphic arts at the College of Applied Arts in Prague under the acclaimed Cubist painter Emil Filla. Since then she has specialized in printmaking. The primary technique she uses is drypoint, which involves incising a picture with a needle onto a metal plate, then inking it and pressing it onto paper, but she has also done etchings, woodcuts, and linocuts. The female figure is a common theme in her work.
In 1997 Antonova created a series of very small drypoints based on New Testament episodes. Here is a selection of Passion-themed ones from the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.
First, a Madonna and Child. This subject—Mary holding the baby Jesus—is obviously not set during Holy Week, but in her interpretation Antonova alludes to the Crucifixion by giving the infant Christ nail prints in his hands and feet. While it’s not uncommon for artists to foreshadow Jesus’s early death in Madonna and Child images by making him appear corpse-like, the overt display of wounds is something I’ve never seen before. I’ve also never seen Mary kissing baby Jesus on the lips—such a tender expression of mother love; she closes her eyes, as if to shut out the formidable omen Simeon had spoken to her at the temple. I’m not sure whether the cat playing with a ball of yarn in the background has a symbolic significance or serves only to domesticate the scene. I guess you could see it as an allusion to Jesus’s future unraveling in Gethsemane, his coming undone.
Fast-forward to that day, and we’re at the Last Supper. In traditional fashion, Antonova’s print shows Jesus at the head of the table, with John leaning on his shoulder. Judas is on the other end with his head in hand, stressing out about whether to go through with the betrayal; a moneybag is tied to his waist. I’m not sure where the twelfth disciple is in the picture. Maybe he’s getting drink refills. Continue reading “Passion prints by Alena Antonova”→
Who are you? Why do you not let me live
As I please? And how could your caress, so rough,
Be kinder than my smooth alternative?
Your steel-brush strokes are forcing me to slough,
Daily, my fleshy growths of appetite,
But still they come; I cannot have enough.
I would forever scratch my itches, light
At first, then harder at the thickened sore;
But you would give me radical delight,
Gouging my itches till I have no more.
“The Pleasure Principle” is published here with the permission of Southern Humanities Review, where the poem first appeared in Spring 1974.
In this poem, sinful desires are characterized as skin sores whose itchiness is temporarily relieved when scratched—but the scratching also makes the sores become irritated and enlarged and even more vile-looking, and the itch comes back not too long after.
The speaker addresses God, first in a posture of defensiveness. God has presumably broken into his conscience, convicting him of sin, and he responds with a string of accusatory questions to the effect of, “Who do you think you are, coming into my life, telling me what I can and can’t do? How could dealing with a constant itch be more satisfying than giving in and scratching?” Continue reading ““The Pleasure Principle” by Raymond Oliver”→
> Writing for the New Yorker, Ken Kalfus reviews the new novel Laurus by Russian medievalist Eugene Vodolazkin: “Medieval Russia was a land trembling with religious fervor. Mystics, pilgrims, prophets, and holy fools wandered the countryside. . . . [Laurus] recreates this fervent landscape and suggests why the era, its holy men, and the forests and fields of Muscovy retain such a grip on the Russian imagination.”
> This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Dutch artist Hieronymos Bosch, known for his grotesque depictions of human depravity. To commemorate his life and work, the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the city of Bosch’s birth, has brought together his panels and drawings from all over the world in what is the largest Bosch exhibition of all time. Bosch invented an entirely new religious iconography: landscapes filled with bizarre, nightmarish creatures doing freakish things to or with humans—meant not as a prediction of what will one day happen to the damned but as a lament for what is already happening. Jonathan Jones, reviewer for The Guardian, gives the retrospective five stars.
> “Lumen Christi: In the Light of the Risen Christ—Easter Encounters with Art”: The monastic ecumenical Community of Jesus on Cape Cod will be hosting a five-day art retreat from April 5 to 9, led by art historian Timothy Verdon and artist Gabriele Wilpers. Focused on the theme of resurrection, the retreat will feature lectures and discussion, group workshops, studio mentoring, and daily worship services. For more information, follow the link above.
When Jesus’s disciples asked him how to pray, he recited a sample that has come to be known as the “Lord’s Prayer,” or the Pater Noster (Our Father). In it the pray-er addresses God as Father and asks him to bring his kingdom down to earth, to accomplish his will far and wide. The pray-er asks, too, for the daily provision of food, forgiveness, and freedom from temptation and evil. Then he concludes with an attribution of power and glory to God. Amen.
If Jesus told us to request these things of God, surely the implication is that God loves to give them, do them. But why, then, is his kingdom so obviously not breaking in? Why does temptation continue to trip us up? Why does evil still run rampant, both inside us and outside?
Singer-songwriter Corey Kilgannon finds the Lord’s Prayer hard to pray sometimes—so in the tradition of the Jewish psalms, he wrote his own “Doubter’s Prayer,” which engages Jesus’s prayer rubric with sincere questioning and seeking. To the line “Our Father, who art in heaven,” he responds, “Why are you so far away?” In response to “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” he insists that God clarify what it means for earth to manifest heaven—what would that even look like? Is it really possible? Regarding God’s promise to lead us out of temptation, he wonders, “Were you being honest when you said” it?
While working at a rehabilitation center for torture survivors in Chicago, Greg Halvorsen Schreck was struck by the profound physical and emotional traumas these individuals had experienced. He thought of Christ, who suffers in solidarity with those who suffer. And he thought that as a fine-art photographer, maybe he could tell the story of this via dolorosa (“way of sorrow”) they were traveling, by linking it to the medieval Christian devotional practice of the fourteen stations of the cross.
The stations of the cross originated in the thirteenth century as a way for Christians to enter more fully into Jesus’s last hours by praying visually, verbally, and bodily with fourteen images that highlight various points along his journey to the cross, from his trial to his entombment. Derived from the scriptural accounts (save for the legendary addition of Veronica’s veil, plus the embellishment of Christ’s three falls), the stations offered a stay-at-home alternative for Christians who couldn’t afford a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: instead of literally walking the road between Antonia fortress and Golgotha, they could walk it metaphorically, in their imaginations, with fourteen way stations to provide particular foci.
The models Schreck used in his multipiece Via Dolorosa—which can be viewed in full here, and in the video below—are not themselves torture survivors. (That would have posed a safety risk.) But “the stories and the general ethos of those in our midst wounded by war, political upheaval, and unspoken violence shaped my approach,” he said.
It was important to him to portray a range of ethnicities—which is why his stations include people not only of European descent but of Latin American, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, East Asian, and African descent, including a few of mixed race. The falling Christ is portrayed by a Mexican American veteran of the Iraq War. Simone of Cyrene is portrayed by an Ethiopian woman. Mary Magdalene, with her jar of incense, is portrayed by a woman who is half-Syrian.
Schreck also included his two children, adopted from Guatemala, in the project. His daughter, Magdalena, is cast alongside three of her friends as a daughter of Jerusalem in station 8 (top left). His son, Teo, is featured in stations 2 and 13; in the latter, Schreck himself stands in for Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, a reference to Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Florence Deposition sculpture, Schreck says.
The feast day of Saint Valentine on February 14 is associated in popular culture with romantic love because of the legendary account of Valentine’s subversive performance of wedding ceremonies in Rome during a national ban in the third century. Wanting to build a strong army, Emperor Claudias II had issued an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people; unmarried soldiers, he thought—who are less concerned with the risks of war—fought better than married ones. Not wanting to deny couples the privilege of marriage, Valentine, a priest, secretly wed them. He was eventually caught, imprisoned, and executed, for this as well as other offenses of a Christian nature.
In honor of our brother’s witness, here are three works of love-themed art—a musical short film, a Latin ballroom dance, and a collection of comics—for you to enjoy with your significant other this Valentine’s Day weekend. Romantic love, of course, has many shades; this is a look at its sweet shade.
Lava by Pixar:
This 2014 computer-animated musical short written and directed by James Ford Murphy tells the story of two Pacific Ocean volcanoes who, after millions of years of waiting, find love. It features the voices of Kuana Torres Kahele as Uku and Napua Greig as Lele: “I lava you,” they sing to a ukelele accompaniment. I’m a sucker for word puns, so this video lights me up.
Samba from Dancing with the Stars:
Choreographed and performed by Maksim Chmerkovskiy with his season 18 celebrity partner, Olympic athlete Meryl Davis, this samba—a dance of Afro-Brazilian origin—is here given a subtle Indian flair, as its soundtrack is “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Illustrations from Soppy:
In 2014 Philippa Rice published Soppy: A Love Story, a collection of comics inspired by real-life moments she’s shared with her boyfriend, Luke Pearson. Its premise is that love can be found in simple, everyday intimacies, like impromptu cuddling on the couch, brushing your teeth side-by-side, or lending sympathy for a cup of tea gone cold. When I think about the times I treasure most with my husband, they are the sum total of all these understated forms of bonding Rice has highlighted. View a sampling of illustrations from the book at BoredPanda.com.
Songs for Lent is a collaborative album by various Brooklyn-based musicians, released in 2013, that reflects on themes of temptation, suffering, sin, death, grace, and longing.
Except for two originals, all the hymn texts were written between the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries; Bruce Benedict, the chaplain of worship arts at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, curated them for this project, based on their theological richness and their fittingness for Lenten meditation. I applaud his selections, most of which have heretofore been little known and little sung in the church.
The one that’s most familiar is probably “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”—this is the only song on the album whose traditional melody is retained. All the others feature brand-new musical settings by twelve different songwriters; in a few cases, two interpretations of the same text are included. Though I enjoyed every contribution, I especially like the ones by Jason Pipkin: “Remember, Lord, Our Mortal State” and “Away, My Unbelieving Fear,” which he performs with his wife, Kanene Donehey Pipkin.
The collective—they call themselves “New York Hymns”—is graciously providing Songs for Lent for free streaming and download on Bandcamp. (Donations are welcome.) Lead sheets and chord charts can be accessed at www.newyorkhymns.com.
Below is the track list. Because most of the lyrics on the album are excerpts from longer hymns, I’ve included a link to the full set of original lyrics for each one in a parenthetical note.
Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the first day of Lent, a season of concentrated prayer, repentance, and simple living during which the church as a collective prepares herself to experience the resurrection joy that is Easter. Most people associate it with fasting—from food or other distractions; this is not an end in and of itself but is for the purpose of cultivating a greater dependence on God and an openness to his will. As Wendy M. Wright writes in her book The Rising, “The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is a season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well” (17).
The designation of a forty-day season leading up to the feast of the resurrection is at least as old as the fourth century, as the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”). The calculation of days, however, is not that straightforward, and varies by denomination: Roman Catholics count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (44 days), whereas most Protestants count through Holy Saturday (46 days; excluding Sundays, which are non-fast days, makes 40), and the Orthodox Church uses a different calendar entirely.
Lent is like getting your yearly physical. It’s not that we aren’t to maintain our health throughout the year but that having an “appointment” forces us to come face-to-face with the state of our souls and to really hear the Doctor’s orders. We self-examine, and then we attend to those parts of ourselves that need improvement.
Even though Lent involves pointed reflection on human neediness and the confrontation of sin, it is not meant to be all dark and glum, nor characterized only by emptying. The word “Lent” actually means “springtime”; it’s a time of renewal, growth, filling. Inspired by Jesus’s retreat into the desert to overcome idols and more fully inhabit his baptismal identity, we too retreat into a proverbial desert, saying no to one or more things so that we can say yes to something else. Continue reading “The season of Lent”→
ArtWay is a Netherlands-based online resource hub for Christians interested in the visual arts. Every Sunday they e-mail out a “visual meditation”: a short commentary, devotional in tone, on a piece of artwork. Click here to subscribe (it’s free).