He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”
The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.
Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.
Benediction, Version 1
Grace, Version 1
“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.
Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)
Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.
Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.
I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.
But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?
Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.
I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.
Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).
The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.
“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
“On that day the Lord their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.”
“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
SONG: “Shine Like a Star in the Morning” | American folk song, adapted by Elizabeth Mitchell from a string trio arrangement by Ruth Crawford Seeger | Performed by Elizabeth Mitchell, Simi Stone, and friends on The Sounding Joy (2013)
Though passed off as a Christmas song on this Smithsonian Folkways album, “Shine Like a Star in the Morning” seems to me especially fitting for All Saints’ Day (November 1), as it draws on those biblical passages that equate righteousness with heavenly resplendence. “Shine, shine all around the throne of God,” the song goes.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
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.
Matthew 13:43 belongs to the Gospel lection for July 23, 2017 (Proper 11, cycle A). To read the passage in full, along with the week’s three other Revised Common Lectionary scripture passages, click here.
Image and song have long been used in Christian worship—the latter since the formation of the first church community, and the former since at least as far back as 200 AD. Supporting the liturgy, supporting personal spiritual growth, art (from all disciplines) has a way of helping us enter deeper into God’s truth. “Artists are the midrashic thinkers of our day,” says Nate Risdon, program director of the Brehm Center, referring to art’s ability to interpret the scriptures. By illuminating the word, art illuminates the Word.
I’m starting a new ongoing series of Tuesday blog posts, each of which will draw an art image and a piece of music into conversation with a short scripture text. I am not going to write any commentary, as I want to let the word and works speak for themselves and you to be free to make your own connections. (Not to mention that just curating, not researching and writing, will enable me to maintain a consistent weekly frequency.) In addition to the scripture–visual art–music triad, I may also occasionally provide a poem, recorded dance performance, film clip, or some other type of art to further illuminate the selected scripture passage.
Now, when I say illuminate, I do not mean illustrate. I mean, as per Merriam-Webster, enlighten, brighten with light; bring to the fore; make illustrious or resplendent; beautify. In some cases there will be a direct correspondence among the selected pieces, while at other times that correspondence will be more slant.
So this will be an online art devotional of sorts. My entire blog has a devotional focus (which I hope comes across); although some posts are more information-heavy than others, I always have the edification of believers in mind with everything I publish. But this new, concise format—which will be supplementing, not replacing, my usual medium- and longer-form posts—will hopefully be more accessible and is meant to be attended with quiet, focused contemplation.
I’m calling the series “Artful Devotion.” I realize that “art” and “devotion” in the same sentence is an uncomfortable pairing for some Protestants, but by devotion I simply mean cultivating a deeper love for Christ by meditating on his word, an act that I think can be enriched by the “commentary” of artists, be they songwriters, painters, or whatever. “Doing my devotions” is a common phrase in Protestant parlance, which refers to prayerfully reading the Bible. Many Protestants already incorporate singing or listening to music into this practice. I’m going one further and adding visual art—because we are a visual people, and what we see shapes our desires.
How will I choose the scripture passages? My intention, for now, is to follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of weekly scripture readings built around the church year. Every Sunday the RCL assigns four passages—one each from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels—so I will select an excerpt from one of these to anchor the Artful Devotion on the Tuesday prior. We’ll see how it goes.
Psallos: The Hebrews Album (Kickstarter): You have the opportunity to help finance a musical adaptation of the book of Hebrews for folk rock band and chamber orchestra. Cody Curtis, the composer behind Psallos, has already written the music; now he needs your help to pay for the recording and production. Curtis has already proven his skill at capturing the varied tones and trajectory of an epistle with his setting of Romans, released in 2012 (read my review here), and Thomas Griffith and Kelsie Edgren are returning to lend their beautiful vocal interpretations. I have full confidence that Psallos’s second epistle-based album will be nothing short of amazing! Besides a copy of the CD when it’s released, tiered reward options include the chance to sing on the CD as a choir member, the choice of any passage of scripture for Curtis to set to music, and a Psallos concert at your church. Also, the team is looking for a videographer and donated instruments, so get in touch with them if you’re able to help out in either of those areas.
Should Patriotism Have a Place in Church?I really appreciate John Piper’s response to this question in last week’s Ask Pastor John podcast episodes. (Listen to part 2 here.) “I have been in several churches,” he says, “where on the Fourth of July the focus”—on each of the military branches and patriotic songs and flags and marches and decorations in red, white, and blue—“seemed to me uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” He advises that American flags not be displayed in the sanctuary, and pledges of allegiance to the USA not be recited in a worship service, because church is where we acknowledge the absolute authority of Christ and no other.
As Christians, Piper says, we have “no unqualified allegiance to any political party, any nationality, any ethnicity, any tribal identity, or any branch of the armed service. It is all qualified. It is all secondary. It is all relative to the will of Christ. We should not say anything or do anything that looks as if that were not true. . . . The recitation of a pledge to a human authority”—and/or the display of a symbol of national identity—“in the setting of the worship of divine authority does not provide for the kind of Christian qualifications and nuances that are so necessary precisely in our day.”
Mary of Guelders prayer book now online: In the early fifteenth century, while the Limbourg Brothers were hard at work on the Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, Duchess Mary of Guelders (John of Berry’s niece) commissioned an extraordinary 900-plus-page book that would become the high point of the late medieval book industry in the Northern Low Countries. Due to its condition, it has been stored away for the last few decades at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, inaccessible even to most scholars. But a crowdfunded project led by Johan Oosterman is bringing the hidden treasure to light, allowing for extensive research, restoration, and (next October) public exhibition.
To keep the public informed of progress, a new website has been launched, with blog posts, videos, and tabs on “Mary’s World,” “The Prayers,” “The Decoration,” and more. And best of all, just last month a full digitization of the book was added to the site so that anyone with an Internet connection can browse through its hundreds of prayers and 106 miniatures. The miniature that stood out most to me is the one on verso page 132, illustrating the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It shows Dives on his golden throne being swallowed by a hell-mouth, while from heaven Abraham denies his request for a drink of water.
New arrangement of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Come, Thou Almighty King”: The music at last month’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, convened in Greensboro, North Carolina, was fantastic. With permission, I’m posting a video excerpt from the evening worship service held on June 14, 2017. The first hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1907 to a tune from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; this version was arranged by Joel Littlepage (the musical director and keyboardist with the bowtie; assistant pastor of worship at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston Salem) and Michael Anderson (the pianist; composer-in-residence at Redeemer) and was orchestrated by Joel Littlepage. The first verse is sung very traditionally—in strict time to a chorded piano accompaniment—but then at 1:05, it gets real lively! The orchestra kicks into full gear, expressing the brightness of the hymn text.
Then just when you think it couldn’t get any more joyful, the praise team launches into a second hymn at 3:36 to ululation (celebratory cheer sounds), this one Caribbean-flavored. Composed by Felice de Giardini in the eighteenth century, “Come, Thou Almighty King” is a Trinitarian invocation: “Come, Thou Almighty King” (verse 1), “Come, Thou Incarnate Word” (verse 2), “Come, Holy Comforter” (verse 3). This particular arrangement is by Joel Littlepage, with orchestration by Michael Anderson. The musicians are as follows.
Vocal section (left to right): Kyle Dickerson; David Gill; Mary Higgins; Melissa Littlepage; Nikki Ellis, choir director Rhythm section: Joel Littlepage, keyboard; Michael Anderson, piano; Daniel Faust, drums; Larry Carman, hand percussion; Kevin Beck, electric guitar Horn section: Christian Orr, trumpet; Tim Plemmons, saxophone; Ben Nelson, trombone String section: Heather Conine, violin; Violet Huang, viola; Adi Muralidharan, cello; Julie Money, harp Wind section: Suzanne Kline and Lydia Wu, flute