Haitian “hungertuch” by Jacques-Richard Chery

I wrote this week’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on a painting on cloth that Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery realized as part of Misereor’s hunger veil project: http://www.artway.eu/artway.php?id=714&lang=en&action=show&type=imagemeditations.

Tree of Life by Jacques-Richard Chery
Jacques-Richard Chery (Haitian, 1928–), The Tree of Life, 1982. Acrylic on cloth. Misereor Lenten veil © MVG Medienproduktion.

Click through to find out what a hunger veil is (sometimes also called a “fasting sheet” or “languishing rag”) and to be guided through the nine scenes.

Misereor has been carrying out this tradition for the last forty years, commissioning artists from all over the world. You can view nineteen of the twenty veils in their collection at https://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/publikationen/publikation-die-misereor-hungertuecher-begleitheft-ausstellung.pdf, along with German commentary, and last year’s veil can be found at https://www.misereor.de/mitmachen/fastenaktion/hungertuch/. Some of these are available for sale as large-scale prints on cloth at the organization’s online shop.

Here are a few examples of hunger veils that were in use during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The liturgical purpose for all but the last one has been recovered.

Millstatt hunger veil
Lenten veil by Oswald Kreuselius, 1593, Millstatt Abbey, Carinthia, Austria.
Freiburg hunger veil
Lenten veil, 15th century, Freiburg Cathedral, Baden-Württemburg, Germany.
Gurk hunger veil
Lenten veil by Konrad von Friesach, 1458, Gurk Cathedral, Carinthia, Austria. Photo © Pressestelle/Eggenberger.
Zittau hunger veil
Lenten veil, 1472, Church of the Holy Cross (museum), Zittau, Saxony, Germany.

In Antwerp Cathedral’s latest art acquisition, a skeptic weighs the truth of Christianity

The sixteenth-century Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, home to Peter Paul Rubens’s famous Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross, is now also home to a bronze sculpture by contemporary artist Jan Fabre, called The Man Who Bears the Cross. It is a self-portrait of the artist surveying a large cross that he balances in the palm of his hand.

The Man Who Bears the Cross by Jan Fabre
Jan Fabre (Belgian, 1958–), The Man Who Bears the Cross, 2015. Bronze, 394 × 200 × 100 cm. Permanently installed in the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium, on November 18, 2015. Photo by Attilio Maranzano © Angelos bvba.
The Man Who Bears the Cross by Jan Fabre
Photo by Attilio Maranzano © Angelos bvba.

Open ended rather than declamatory, The Man Who Bears the Cross was originally shown in wax in the 2014 exhibition “The Spiritual Skeptic” at Antwerp’s At The Gallery. There it was spotted by parish priest Bart Paepen, who had been “looking for a way of making a connection between the world of the church and that of contemporary art” for some time, and thought this piece would be a perfect fit for Our Lady. The last time the cathedral acquired a new piece of art was in 1924.

This six-minute film by Wannes Peremans shows the sculpture being installed and includes interviews with Paepen and local art historian Joanna De Vos.   Continue reading “In Antwerp Cathedral’s latest art acquisition, a skeptic weighs the truth of Christianity”

Roundup: Mavis Staples documentary, baptizing the imagination, how medieval manuscripts were made, Nubian Christian art, and Twain’s war prayer

Mavis!: The HBO documentary Mavis! profiles gospel and soul music legend Mavis Staples, from her rise to stardom as part of the Staples Singers, whose Uncloudy Day was the first gospel album to sell one million copies, and her involvement in the civil rights movement, to her still active career as a solo artist. “I’ll stop singin’ when I have nothin’ left to say,” she says. “And that ain’t gonna happen!” Watch the trailer below.

Luci Shaw on art and Christian spirituality: In this 1998 article from Direction journal, the oh-so-quotable poet Luci Shaw writes about imagination, mystery, receptivity, sacramentality, the similarities between art and faith, and her muse, the Holy Spirit. Concludes with her poem “Ghostly,” which explores the Spirit’s different manifestations.

Making medieval manuscripts: Through narrated demonstrations, this video by the Getty Museum shows how paper, pens, ink, paint, book covers, and bindings were made during the Middle Ages—laborious processes! It also shows how the illuminators (visual artists) worked with the scribes (calligrapher-copyists), jobs typically filled by two separate people.

Christianity on the Middle Nile: The two largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were actually in modern-day Sudan, writes curator Julie Anderson in a British Museum blog post from 2014: the Makuria and the Alwa kingdoms. Many wall paintings and other objects have been excavated from Faras Cathedral and its adjoining tombs, such as the pottery lamp (with the inscription “Great is the name of God”) and sandstone frieze fragment in the British Museum’s collection. (The paintings are divided between the Sudan National Museum and the National Museum of Warsaw, as it was a Polish team that rescued them from flooding by Lake Nasser.)

Faras Cathedral frieze fragment
Seventh-century sandstone frieze fragment from the former Faras Cathedral in Nubia. Collection of the British Museum.
Fiery Furnace fresco from Faras Cathedral
Fresco from the former Faras Cathedral in Nubia depicting the three youths in the fiery furnace. Collection of the National Museum of Sudan.

“The War Prayer” by Mark Twain: In his day Twain was radically opposed to American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines and frustrated by the so-called patriotism that made his fellow countrymen so uncritically supportive of it. The stranger’s speech in Twain’s short story “The War Prayer,” set during a church service, exposes the ridiculousness of some of the prayers that go up during wartime even today.

Pentecost art from Asia

Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven (and fifty days after his resurrection), his Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, manifesting as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). This miraculous gift enabled the apostles to speak in languages foreign to them but native to the many Jews from abroad who were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (called “Pentecost” by Hellenized Jews), a festival of giving thanks for the harvest and for God’s provision of the Torah. For the first time the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a global audience. Three thousand people came to faith that day, and the Christian church was born.

The Spirit is still at work in the dissemination of the good news today, breathing life into cultures all over the world and thereby building up an incredibly diverse body of Christ.

The arts are one expression of this diversity.

In the introduction to his groundbreaking book Each with His Own Brush: Contemporary Christian Art in Asia and Africa (New York: Friendship Press, 1938), Daniel Johnson Fleming writes,

As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes and Elamites heard the message, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indians expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his own brush. For when the spirit of God descends upon any people, new forms of beauty appear, new artistic gifts are revealed, adding another testimony to the universality of the Christian faith.

Since the publication of this book almost seventy years ago, Christianity has grown exponentially in Asia, as have indigenous artistic expressions of the faith. In 1975 Japanese theologian and arts advocate Masao Takenaka published the heavily illustrated book Christian Art in Asia, highlighting the robust variety being produced on the continent. Three years later the Asian Christian Art Association was founded to encourage the exchange of ideas between Asian artists and theologians. Their magazine, Image (not to be confused with the Seattle-based quarterly), has showcased local talents even further. Dozens more books have been published in English on individual Asian artists, countries, and the Asian Christian art movement in general. For the latter, see the beautifully designed The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, plus The Bible Through Asian Eyes.

Below is a sampling of Asian art on the theme of Pentecost. Some works were made using traditional art forms or techniques—Chinese papercutting, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) or stencil printing (kappazuri), Indian cloth dyeing (batik)—while other artists have chosen to work in oils and acrylics, collage, or glass. Some depict native people and settings—for example, Thai dancers wrapped in sabai, or a group sitting under a thatched roof in Indonesia—while others prefer ethnic and geographic ambiguity. There’s no single style that epitomizes the art of any country.

Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1975. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper, 25.5 × 22.75 in. Source: Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao (Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 2003)
Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1965. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit by Soichi Watanabe
Soichi Watanabe (Japanese, 1949–), The Coming of the Holy Spirit, 1996. Oil on canvas, 18 × 13.25 in.
Pentecost by Tadao Tanaka
Tadao Tanaka (Japanese, 1903–1995), Pentecost, 1963. Oil on canvas. Source: Christian Art in Asia by Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1975)
Pentecost by Gako Ota
Gako Ota (Japanese, ?–1972), Pentecost. Belvedere, pampas grass, paper bush, lilies, and rib of fan. Source: Consider the Flowers: Meditations in Ikebana, ed. Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1990)
Pentecost by Keiko Miura
Keiko Miura (Japanese, 1935–), Pentecost, 2004. Stained glass window, All Pilgrims Christian Church, Seattle, Washington, USA.
Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Holy Spirit Coming, 1998. Oil on canvas.

Continue reading “Pentecost art from Asia”

“Dry Bones” by Rebekah Osborn

Valley of Dried Bones by Abraham Rattner
Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Valley of Dried Bones. Lithograph, 23.5 × 35.2 in.

The macabre vision that God gives Ezekiel in 37:1–14 is to me one of the most compelling in all of scripture. In it God brings Ezekiel to a valley filled with dried-up human bones (the aftermath of a battle) and commands him to prophesy life to the bones. As he does, they start to reassemble into human shapes, then they grow tissue, then flesh. But they have no breath. So Ezekiel invokes the Spirit of God to come fill the corpses, and when the Spirit does, the corpses transform into live beings.

The dry bones in the vision represent the hopelessness of divided, dispersed Israel. She was “dead” as a nation, deprived of her land, her king, and her temple. But God promises to restore Israel physically and spiritually. The reanimation of the dry bones is a sign of that promise.

Christian theologians interpret this vision as being fulfilled by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, to permanently indwell believers and so give them new life. Jesus Christ came as both king and temple for Israel, and founder of the New Jerusalem, and when he ascended to heaven he left his Spirit (pneuma, breath) on earth to continue his resurrection work.

Rebekah Osborn, singer, songwriter, and worship assistant at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, wrote a song in 2012 inspired by Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. I’ve embedded it here with her permission. (For more information see https://rebekahkayosborn.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/dry-bones/; access the chords here.)

I am standing in a valley filled with dead, dry bones
I don’t know if they could ever live again
He says, “I am calling you from your grave.
You will know I am Lord when I bring you from the dead.”

Rise up, dry bones
Breathe the air, live again
Rise up, dry bones
Death shall be master over you no more

I am standing in the valley when the Lord God says,
“Prophesy, son of man, over the dead,
For their bones dried up, and their hope is lost,
But they will know I am God when I bring them from their graves.”

(Chorus)

Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live
Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live

(Chorus)

All God’s people have their own personal resurrection narratives, and Osborn’s “Dry Bones” speaks to those. Before Christ, we were dead in sin, unwhole. But Christ breathed life into us, just like God did at Creation (Genesis 2:7), bringing us up out of the valley of death. In this mighty act of re-creation, Christ’s power is made known.

Still, even after receiving the gift of Christ’s Spirit, we sometimes experience periods of deadness. Things happen that obscure for us the reality of love and life that is at the center of the universe. This song can be used to sing through those valleys. We can ask God to bring us back to life, to revive us just as he did all those skeleton heaps before Ezekiel’s wonder-filled eyes.

Christ ascending into Ezekiel’s vision

The sixth-century illuminated Syriac manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels (after the signed name of its scribe) contains one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s ascension into heaven. A full-page miniature, it illustrates the narrative from Acts 1:6–11—but not strictly.

Ascension (Rabbula Gospels)
Ascension, fol. 13v from the Rabbula Gospels (cod. Plut. I, 56), Syria, 586. Tempera on parchment, 33 × 25 cm. Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Florence.

One embellishment to the story is the centralized presence of Mary on the bottom level. She is not mentioned in the biblical account of the event, but her attendance was likely. Here she stands in a frontal, orant pose and, unlike the other disciples, is nimbed. Whereas those around her are wracked with confusion, she understands the deep mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and she stands ready for his return.

Among the crowd is the apostle Paul—an anachronistic insertion, as his conversion occurred after the Ascension. The book he holds, signifying his contributions to the New Testament, is one of his identifying attributes.

The “two men . . . in white robes” mentioned in Acts 1:10 are interpreted as angels.

All these elements became standard in medieval iconography of the Ascension.   Continue reading “Christ ascending into Ezekiel’s vision”

Bomb-shattered glass transformed into Resurrection Window

From 1968 to 1998 Northern Ireland was embroiled in a period of conflict known as the Troubles, during which violence in the streets was commonplace. On one side of the conflict was the unionist, loyalist, and overwhelmingly Protestant majority, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. On the other side was the nationalist, republican, almost exclusively Catholic minority, who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland. A nationalist Catholic protest against institutionalized discrimination on October 5, 1968, that was countered with violence is what sparked the thirty-year guerrilla war, resulting in the deaths of over 3,500 people, mostly civilians. Killings were perpetrated on both sides, each of which had its own paramilitary organizations launching armed campaigns.

First Lisburn Presbyterian Church in County Antrim is one of many churches that suffered damage during the conflict when on August 5, 1981, a car bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army exploded in Market Street. The explosion left the church’s roof, plasterwork, balcony, organ, and windows in need of serious repair. (Thankfully, though, there were no fatalities.)

Church member Norah Boyle describes the congregation’s reaction:

Arriving on the scene early, as I thought, I had already been preceded by a small army of workers from the congregation who, without prior organising, had heard of the damage and raced to the church, many complete with buckets, brooms, mops and other cleaning materials. Some just stood in a state of shocked disbelief at the sight before them; some wept; others reacted to the shock in a burst of physical activity, first to clear the rubble away and search for any stained glass pieces, yes, even those pieces embedded in the pews and other woodwork. Totally impervious to the danger of further falling plaster, woodwork or masonry they worked on, clearing, cleaning, dusting, polishing. . . .

I could not possibly have witnessed the scenes that I did and the reaction to them by the congregation without having my faith in God and my love for First Lisburn deepened.

As a witness to its hope for peace in Northern Ireland, First Lisburn decided to remain in its location and rebuild. One of the major questions it faced in this process was what to do with the seventeen windows that had been blasted—whether to restore their former pictorial designs or to create new ones. The property committee decided to honor the church’s heritage by having artists recreate the previous designs, except for one of the clear-glass windows on the balcony, which they commissioned the famous studio James Watson & Son to reinvent in stained glass on the theme of resurrection.

Resurrection Window by James Watson
Resurrection Window, 1987, designed and executed by James Watson. First Lisburn Presbyterian Church, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Resurrection window2-002
Detail. Photo courtesy of Rev. John Brackenridge, First Lisburn Presbyterian Church.

Called the Resurrection Window, it’s made almost entirely of shards that were blown out of the original windows. The plaque at its base reads,

This window is a memorial of the bomb-blast of 5th August 1981 and the subsequent restoration of our church and halls. It is a tribute to our neighbours in shops and offices and their will to overcome disaster. It is an echo of the motto of this town: “EX IGNE RESURGAM” (I will arise from the fire). It is a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Continue reading “Bomb-shattered glass transformed into Resurrection Window”