Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi

The chocolate bunnies and plastic grass may have moved to the out-of-sight discount racks of stores, but Easter isn’t over! Because the Resurrection is a truth that’s not easily plumbed or quickly exhausted, the liturgical calendar designates fifty days for its celebration, a season known as Eastertide. In this period we are invited to linger over the gift of Jesus’s Resurrection—to spend time admiring it and becoming familiar with it and letting its power infuse our lives. So through May 14, the content at Art & Theology will focus on this bright season.

First up: three Resurrection paintings by Dr. Jyoti Sahi, who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village, Karnataka, in India, just outside Bangalore. Of all the painters of biblical themes active today, Sahi is definitely one of the most inventive. An artist since the late 1960s, he has been instrumental in developing a visual gospel language that’s contextualized to Indian culture and in fostering Hindu-Christian dialogue. Here are three different approaches he’s taken to depict that notoriously difficult-to-depict subject: the Resurrection of Christ.

Jesus as the Greater Jonah

This is an example of an image that rewards deep looking, being so chock-full of symbols. I encourage you, before reading on, to just gaze at the image for one full minute, and see what you see.

Resurrection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm.

First I notice the outstretched arms of Christ—a pose that deliberately references the Crucifixion. Here, though, those extremities are not pinned down to a cross. They are utterly open and free, embracing the world in risen glory. It’s common for artists to hint at the Crucifixion in Resurrection images. There’s a theological reason for that: the Crucifixion and Resurrection are two sides of the same coin, one great unified event, neither of which can be understood in isolation from the other. Sahi strengthens this link by including a human figure on each side of Christ. In Crucifixion images, these spots are traditionally occupied by the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, but here the abstracted figures double as two of the Marys at the tomb. They look down to where they had laid the body two days ago but find only an empty stone bench. They have yet to encounter the enormous presence behind them.   Continue reading “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”

A string octet for Easter Sunday

Hallelujah, Christ is risen!

I first heard Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, when a shortened form of its first movement was performed several years ago at an Easter Sunday church service by the talented musicians at Citylife Presbyterian in Boston. Ever since then, I have associated it with Easter.

Having scoured the web, I’ve determined that the following recording, brought to you by Avrotros Klassiek, is the best of all those available for free listening:

The performance took place at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, the Netherlands, during the International Chamber Music Festival on June 25, 2014. It features Boris Brovtsyn, Julian Rachlin, Julia-Maria Kretz, and Vilde Frang on violin; Amihai Grosz and Lawrence Power on viola; Jens Peter Maintz on cello; and Rick Stotijn on double bass (replacing the second cello in Mendelssohn’s original score).

Mendelssohn composed his Octet in E-flat Major in 1825 when he was just sixteen and with it opened up brand-new possibilities for the eight-piece string ensemble. Whereas his contemporary Louis (born Ludwig) Spohr, who also composed string octets, simply had two quartets operate as independent units, Mendelssohn took a much more integrated approach, using all eight instruments in multiple interactive permutations throughout the entire work.

Music critic Conrad Wilson notes of the piece that “its youthful verve, brilliance and perfection make it one of the miracles of nineteenth-century music”—its first movement especially, which is one of four but lasts twice as long as any other, through 13:54 of the video above. Played Allegro moderato ma con fuoco (“moderately fast but with fire”), it evokes for me Resurrection joy and vitality.

Resurrection by Stephen A. Wilson
Stephen A. Wilson (American, 1952–), Resurrection, 2008. Stained glass clerestory window, 10 × 40 ft. St. Agnes Catholic Church, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Click on the image to read the artist’s description.

Christ is risen indeed!

The Queen of Gospel sings a Good Friday lament

Mahalia Jackson’s bluesy rendition of the traditional song “Calvary” provides a perfect space in which to dwell with the sorrow of the cross. The performance below was recorded live from the concert she gave on March 26, 1967, in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall in New York City and is available on the CD Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns. According to the liner notes, the names of the piano, organ, and guitar accompanists are unknown.

The lyrics are simple:

Calvary, Calvary, Lord! 
Calvary, Calvary, Lord!
Calvary, Calvary, Lord!
Surely he died on Calvary.

Can’t you hear him callin’ his Father?
Can’t you hear him callin’ his Father?
Can’t you hear him callin’ his Father?
Surely, oh surely,
Surely, oh surely,
He died on Calvary. 

But when Jackson sings them, her mournful passion gives them depth, delivers their sting.

“Calvary” invites us to sit in the silence that is the death of God the Son.

Good Friday by Maggi Hambling
Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Good Friday, 2002. Oil on canvas, 55.5 × 45.5 cm.

“Ecce Homo” by Andrew Hudgins

Ecce Homo by Hieronymus Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch (Dutch, ca. 1450–1516), Ecce Homo, ca. 1500. Tempera and oil on oak panel, 71 × 61 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.

Christ bends, protects his groin. Thorns gouge
his forehead, and his legs
are stippled with dried blood. The part of us
that’s Pilate says, Behold the man.
We glare at that bound, lashed,
and bloody part of us that’s Christ. We laugh, we howl,
we shout. Give us Barabbas,
not knowing who Barabbas is, not caring.
A thief? We’ll take him anyway. A drunk?
A murderer? Who cares? It’s better him
Than this pale ravaged thing, this god. Bosch knows.
His humans waver, laugh, then change to demons
as if they’re seized by epilepsy. It spreads
from eye to eye, from laugh to laugh until,
incited by the ease of going mad,
they go. How easy evil is! Dark voices sing,
You can be evil or you can be good,
but good is dull, my darling, good is dull.
And we’re convinced: How lovely evil is!
How lovely hell must be! Give us Barabbas!

Lord Pilate clears his throat and tries again:
I find no fault in this just man.
It’s more than we can bear. In gothic script
our answer floats above our upturned eyes.
O crucify, we sing. O crucify him!

This poem was originally published in The Never-Ending (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and is reprinted here with the permission of the poet.   Continue reading ““Ecce Homo” by Andrew Hudgins”

Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon

 

French painter, printmaker, and draftsman Odilon Redon (1840–1916) belonged to the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. A reaction against Realism, Symbolism emphasizes the spiritual reality that underlies the physical world and therefore favors dreamlike imagery and mysterious figures. The Gothic stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe were a major influence.

Redon is perhaps best known for his noirs: visionary works of charcoal or lithography done in shades of black, which include subjects like smiling spiders, eyeball balloons, and disembodied heads. But in addition to these, he also worked with vivid pastels and oil paints.

Although he wasn’t a Christian, Redon was attracted to the figure of Christ, especially because of the dual essence ascribed to him: both human and divine. Several of his works dwell on this mystery, among them his noir drawing Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns—one of my favorite all-time images of Jesus.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns, 1895. Charcoal, black pastel, and black crayon heightened with white on buff paper, 52.2 × 37.9 cm. British Museum, London.

Here Jesus’s pathos-filled gaze confronts the viewer directly from underneath a thicket of thorns. Whereas traditionally the crown his mockers gave him is depicted as a thinly woven band of evenly spaced prickles, here the crown is vast, unwieldy, chaotic—anything but dainty. In her excellent article “Tears, Veils, Thickets: Odilon Redon’s Representations of Christ,” Sedona Heidinger describes the thorns in this drawing as “gratuitous, unnecessarily vicious. . . . [The crown is] threatening and animate, snaking down to cover [Christ’s] chest with its barbs.”

Redon’s multiple treatments of this classic subject—Christ Crowned with Thorns—are haunting and mystical in a way that was unprecedented. In his interpretations, the thorns maintain an active presence. They are not a passive ornament.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Christ, 1887. Lithograph, 33 × 27 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Take, for example, his Christ lithograph of 1887. The thorns—“glinting like so many blades,” in Heidinger’s words—attack Christ from various angles. The most dynamic element of the portrait, Heidinger notes, is the diagonal that seems to spear the left side of Christ’s forehead and exit underneath his right ear, giving the impression that he is being skewered. As in the previously discussed Head of Christ, the eyes are extraordinarily expressive, deep wells of emotion. Here, though, they gaze upward, not outward. This could indicate a silent plea to the Father to make it stop, or else an anticipation of being reunited with him.  Continue reading “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”

Betrayal danced out

The following dance, choreographed by Travis Wall, premiered August 4, 2010, on So You Think You Can Dance. It is performed by season 7 runner-up Kent Boyd and season 3’s Neil Haskell to DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends.”

I’ve never personally experienced a betrayal of this magnitude, so when I watch the dance, I think of that supremely infamous act of disloyalty recorded in scripture: Judas’s handing over his friend Jesus to the religious authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.

The two men in Wall’s piece start out as buddies—they provide support for each other, and catch the other when he’s on his way down. But then one of them stabs the other in the back. Confusion, hurt, and anger ensue; pleas for restoration are made, and the two briefly rehearse their nostalgia for what used to be. But the betrayer will not relent: he proceeds to crush his former friend underfoot. In one last effort to repair the broken friendship, the betrayed one chases down and clutches his friend but ultimately realizes he has to release him, for he has chosen his path. The end of the dance shows the betrayer remorseful in the shadows as his victim moves on toward his own separate destiny.   Continue reading “Betrayal danced out”

Don’t let the rocks cry out

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem the week of his death—a day that the church commemorates each year as Palm Sunday—he entered to a throng of people shouting “Hosanna!” (“Hooray for salvation!”) and carpeting his path with their cloaks and with palm branches. The Pharisees, still not seeing Jesus for who he was, told him to rebuke the crowds for their blasphemy. To give high praise to anyone other than God, they insisted, is a grievous sin. That’s true enough, but the disciples’ praises were not misplaced. Jesus defends their hosannas and their postures of worship, retorting that “if these [my disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). This is one of several times throughout his ministry in which he equates himself with God.

Even the Stones Will Cry Out
Roberta Karstetter (American, 1953–), Even the Stones Will Cry Out, 2010. Assemblage.

The Westbound Rangers, a bluegrass band from Nashville, has a song inspired by this episode: “Rocks Cry Out,” from their 2013 album Gone for Way Too Long. It was written by Graham Sherrill, an old high school friend of mine, who also does vocals and banjo for it. Fellow bandmates—Mike Walker on mandolin, Read Davis on guitar, and Wes Burkhart on bass—helped write the instrumental bridge. I’ve embedded the song here with the band’s permission.   Continue reading “Don’t let the rocks cry out”

Celtic manuscript illumination of Christ in Gethsemane

I wrote today’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on one of the full-page miniatures in the ninth-century Book of Kells from Ireland: http://www.artway.eu/artway.php?id=696&lang=en&action=show&type=imagemeditations.

Christ on the Mount of Olives (Book of Kells)
Christ on the Mount of Olives, from the Book of Kells (fol. 114v), early 9th century.

The framed lunette above Christ’s head contains a Latin inscription of Matthew 26:30: Et hymo dicto exierunt in montem Oliveti (“After a hymn had been said they left for Mount Olivet”). But the artist gives us a very atypical depiction of that scene, one that cross-references the Old Testament story of Israel’s battle against the Amalekites—in particular, the figures Aaron, Moses, and Hur. Click on the link above to learn more.

As I prepared commentary on the painting, meditating on its significance, I thought of Wayne Forte’s Community of Prayer—a beautiful image that, like the one from Kells, invokes an ancient battle story as a metaphor for bearing one another up in prayer.

Community of Prayer by Wayne Forte
Wayne Forte (American, 1950–), Community of Prayer, 2009. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 × 30 in.

(This is a subject Forte has turned to often. See on his website, for example, And the Battle Was Won; Arms of Prayer; Exodus 17:12 MedallionMoses [Sun Radiating]; Moses on a Rock; Moses with Staff; Moses, Aaron, and Hur; Succour; and Until the Sun Set.)

“The Burden” by Philip Rosenbaum

Triumphal Entry by Gustave Dore
Gustave Doré (French, 1832–1883), The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, 1876. Oil on canvas, 38-1/4 × 51 in.

Unaccustomed to her burden, she knows not
That never beast bore such a Man as this,
Who meekly rides to His appointed lot,
A crown of thorns and a betrayer’s kiss.
And never man will carry such a weight
As He bears now in this, His day of power,
Ascending toward a strait and narrow gate,
His agonizing last and finest hour.
She bravely struggles on, despite her fear
Of cheering men, whom He as gravely views
As an admiral watching distant storms draw near
To lash bright waves to dark and deadly hues;
He knows the death decreed in ancient psalms,
The Tree that looms beyond these scattered palms.

“The Burden” © 2004 by Philip Rosenbaum. Reprinted with permission. Published privately as one of twenty-four poems in the volume Holy Week Sonnets. To purchase a copy of the book, contact the author through his website, ChristianPoet.org. (Take it from me: both the physical book and its content are of high quality. It’s a lovely, professionally designed and printed hardcover edition with textured paper and a ribbon marker and a foreword by Joni Eareckson Tada, containing skillfully written poems from various points along the Christ narrative, and various perspectives. The latter half contains correlative scripture passages.)

Roundup: Church engagement with the arts

“Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story,” St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, London: This program comprises a series of weekly noontime gatherings that use famous local paintings as a springboard into discussion of the biblical narrative and its implications for us today. I’ve enjoyed reading the few presentations given by associate vicar Jonathan Evens, posted on his blog: first, on J. M. W. Turner’s two paintings of Noah’s flood, and more recently, on El Greco’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.

El Greco_Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple
El Greco (Greek, active Spain, 1541–1614), Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1600. Oil on canvas, 106 × 130 cm (42 × 51 in.). National Gallery, London.

 

VIBRANT music and arts festival, Cahaba Park Church, Birmingham, Alabama: On November 1, 2015, Cahaba Park Church held a Psalms-inspired music and arts festival. Eight visual artists from the church were selected to display their paintings, which were auctioned off to raise money for four nonprofits. The Corner Room performed songs from their new album, Psalm Songs, Volume 1; “Psalm 23” (music by Adam Wright) is the soundtrack for the recap video above. This next VIBRANT festival will be held on July 22.

 

“Art and Spirit” exhibition, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles: Through April 24, the works of over fifty artists will be on display in the Neo-Gothic Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Most of the works are by emerging LA artists from Art Division, an organization that provides art training to young adults who lack the resources to attend university but who want to pursue a career in the visual arts; they were asked to respond to the theme “art and spirit.” A few of the works in the exhibition are by well-known artists such as Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Corita Kent, and Ed Ruscha.

 

Portraits of Resurrection, 2015 Easter initiative, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California: Ex Creatis, the arts ministry at Saddleback, is always coming up with unique ways to incorporate art into the life of its church. Last Easter twenty-three volunteer artists sketched portraits of church attendees onto one of three floral prints (of the sitter’s choosing) made by three different artists in the church. These personalized works of art were meant to remind those who took them home of the new life they have in Christ.