Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art(Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.
The essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.
One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.
Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not obtained.
Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.
This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.
What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.
In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.
In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.
Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.
In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,
I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)
All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Artist John Ndevasia Muafangejo was born around 1943 in southern Angola, a member of the Kwanyama tribe of the Owambo people. He moved to Namibia as a teenager and was educated at an Anglican mission school, then spent 1967–69 in training at the Evangelical Lutheran Church Art and Craft Centre in Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, an art school that scholars credit as integral to the development of modern African printmaking. Muafangejo is one of the most famous alumni of the school, gaining international recognition for his linocuts, which have been exhibited throughout Europe and America. But his career was cut short in 1987 when he died suddenly of a heart attack, just three years before Namibia gained its independence.
The artwork pictured above is somewhat uncharacteristic of Muafangejo, being an etching (he was much more prolific with and is better known for his linocuts) and excluding the political and autobiographical content that mark much of his other work. Church life and biblical narratives, however, did regularly find expression in his prints. He thought highly of the church, whose local leaders fought against apartheid, supported his art, and (through Father C. S. Mallory) cared for him during bouts of mental illness.
How God loves his People all over the World shows God the Father embracing all his children, who tenderly place their hands over their hearts. A family portrait! What Muafangejo visualizes in anthropomorphic terms, Mike Crawford, in his music video for “You Are the Lover of Our Souls,” suggests through images of sun, sea, sky, and breeze, which feel like a hug from on high. “God, you are so good / You are beautiful / So mysterious / How you’re calling us into your family / You’ve invited us into your family / We’re your sons and daughters now. / . . . / Yes, you have adopted me.”
I grew up in North Carolina, so bluegrass music feels like home to me. Its acoustic strings (strummed, picked, and bowed), its stacked vocal harmonies—this “mountain music” from the southern US sounds sweet to my ears.
Lately I’ve been enjoying some video-archived bluegrass performances by the Franz Family from Berryville, Arkansas, a family of seven—Mom, Dad, three sons,* and two daughters—who toured together as a bluegrass gospel band continuously from 1991 to 2011, performing at churches, camps, prisons, and parties. (*The second oldest son, Hadley, left the group in 2004 when he got married and moved to Kansas.) Click here to watch a short documentary on the Franz Family, produced in 2010.
Everyone in the group sings and plays multiple instruments, but here are the instruments you’ll most commonly see them on:
Randy Franz: Guitar Ruth Ann Franz: Guitar, double bass Caleb Franz: Guitar, mandolin, banjo Audra (Franz) Mohnkern: Double bass Emmett Franz: Dobro Olivia (Franz) Jahnke: Fiddle
So many songs from the traditional bluegrass repertoire were written as Christian testimony. Most celebrate the personal redemption from sin wrought through Christ and eagerly anticipate heaven, inviting others onto that glory train. They also proclaim the loving aid God provides through the storms of life, which the family experienced when Ruth Ann passed away from cancer in 2016. Her death renders even truer the lyrics she sang again and again:
I’m just a pilgrim here
Soon I’ll be gone
Nothing can hold me here
I’m headed home
Somewhere in glory you’ll find me
Singing and shouting in eternity
You can hear this song—and twelve others—on “Anonymous 4: The Sacred Harp,” a Saint Paul Sunday radio broadcast that aired on American Public Media in September 2006. The entire concert-interview is worth a listen, or you can skip to 7:49.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.
SONG: “I Shall Not Be Moved” | Negro spiritual, performed by Mississippi John Hurt (ca. 1892–1966), on The Best of Mississippi John Hurt | For a congregational hymn arrangement, see the African American Heritage Hymnal #479
Instead of the rough extroverted singing style and aggressive guitar playing that typified the other Delta legends, Hurt sang in a gentle, quiet voice and played intricate and often delicate guitar patterns. With a particular fondness for songsters that had blues leanings in their repertoires, like Leadbelly and Josh White, Hurt developed into an extraordinarily lyrical guitarist with a refined finger-picking style. His tender singing exuded a warmth unique to the blues genre, and the gospel influence so prominent in his music gave his songs a depth and reflective quality . . . [excerpted from a Paste magazine feature by Alan Bershaw]
For an even earlier recording of this song, from 1926, listen to the Taskiana Four.
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 the Seventh Sunday of Easter, cycle B, click here.
ANGLO-SAXON ASCENSION POEM: Excerpts from “Christ II” by Cynewulf, probably ninth century, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker: Dr. Eleanor Parker lectures on medieval literature at Oxford University and runs the excellent blog A Clerk at Oxford, where she often shares her translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with commentary. The poem she shares here reflects on Christ’s ascension—the disciples’ grief, the angels’ joy. To me the most remarkable section is the one that, indirectly referencing a sermon of Gregory the Great, describes Christ “leaping” up to heaven, taking an active bound toward his homeland, a movement read in light of Song of Solomon 2:8: “Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” This leap is one of six he took: from heaven (1) into Mary’s womb, (2) into a manger, (3) onto the cross, (4) into the tomb, (5) into hell, and finally, (6) back into heaven. “Prince’s play”! Parker pairs the poem with an exquisite, near-contemporary manuscript illumination, also from England; there’s also a lot of resonance between the poem and the Ascension image I published Tuesday by Bagong Kussudiardja, which shows a more balletic ascent.
UNDERWATER DANCE:“AMA,” a short film by Julie Gautier: This wonderfully expressive silent film shows French free diver and underwater artist Julie Gautier dancing in a single breath for several minutes inside the world’s deepest swimming pool, Y-40 Deep Joy in Montegrotto Terme, Padua, Italy, to a minimalist piano piece. The final shot shows Gautier slowly rising to the water’s surface while releasing a giant air bubble, her pose evocative of the crucified Christ (and her upward movement an Ascension of sorts!). Titled “Ama” (Japanese for “sea woman,” the name given to Japan’s pearl divers), the film is “dedicated to all the women of the world,” Gautier says. The choreography is by Ophélie Longuet.
Gautier and her husband, Guillaume Néry, a free-diving champion, own the underwater filmmaking company Les Films Engloutis. Their most well-known project has been a music video featuring Beyoncé, codirected by Gautier and starring Néry.
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN:Help Andy Squyres finance his next album: Andy Squyres is a super-talented singer-songwriter whose lyrics don’t stay in the shallows but, rather, dive into the depths of the faith experience. They are also supremely hope-filled. Below is a video of Squyres performing “Labor in Vain” at a house concert; the song is from his last album, Cherry Blossoms, which I reviewed here. Click on the boldface link above to hear Squyres discuss his new album project and to donate toward it.
ICON PAINTING COMPETITION: The Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) is hosting an international icon painting competition on the subject of Christ’s Resurrection. “Our purpose is to explore and bring to the foreground the numerous stylistic trends in existence today, enabling the visualization of a creative dialogue with tradition and, at the same time, the personal artistic expressions of artists who reframe tradition without, however, digressing from the doctrinal framework of Christian icon painting set by the 7th Ecumenical Council.” The submission window is closed—there are sixty-three great entries!—and now it’s time to cast your vote. Five winners will be selected to receive cash prizes, the topmost being €3,000, and other honors. Popular votes will be taken into account by the twelve jury members, among whom are esteemed iconographers George Kordis from Greece and Todor Mitrovic from Serbia.
ESSAY: “On the Border of East and West: Searching for Icons in Lviv” by John A. Kohan: The latest issue of Image journal features a wonderful essay on the Lviv school of iconography (represented in entries #4, #10, and #20 of the above contest), a movement by young Ukrainian Greek Catholic artists to contemporize the Byzantine visual tradition. Written by John A. Kohan, an avid religious art collector and former Time bureau chief in Moscow (1988–1996), it discusses the political history of the city; the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (r. 1901–1944) in preserving and supporting art for future generations; the opening of the Iconart gallery in 2010 to nurture and promote the new style; the broad training these icon makers receive at the Lviv National Academy of Arts; and the uneven reception by others in the denomination (especially official church bodies), who tend to prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. Kohan writes from his firsthand experiences meeting the artists and visiting their studios, churches, and exhibition spaces. The essay is available to subscribers only; click here to subscribe.
MET GALA + EXHIBITION: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” May 10–October 8, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The largest exhibition ever mounted by the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway fashions by famous designers inspired by Catholicism. AFashionista reviewer who attended a preview reports on the integrated displays:
A reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun’s habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.
Each year since 1948, the opening of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition has been celebrated with a huge fundraising gala attended by celebrities who dress to the theme; this year’s took place May 7. There were lots of crosses and haloes, but also some more particularized outfits. Ariana Grande’s gown was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; Gigi Hadid’s, by stained glass. Selena Gomez carried a Coach handbag embroidered with Proverbs 31:30b: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised.” The most brazenly dressed was Rihanna, who wore a gem-encrusted bishop’s miter (not a papal tiara, as has been commonly reported). Another standout headpiece was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, which featured a Neapolitan Nativity scene set inside a mini baldachin. (The making of elaborate presepi, or Christmas crèches, is a longstanding tradition in Naples, reaching its height during the eighteenth century.)
Lana Del Rey went as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing an immaculate-heart chest plate pierced through with seven daggers; it was comical to hear religiously illiterate reporters trying to interpret the symbolism, saying things like the daggers are a “reminder to repent your sins or suffer damnation!” (Wrong. The swords symbolize the Virgin’s seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy.)
The ascension is so central [to Christianity] because it assures us that the Incarnation continues. Christ didn’t just come among us for thirty-three years, slumming, as it were, and then when his work was done, say, “Phew! I’m glad that’s over! I’m going to unzip this skin suit and get back to heavenly living,” leaving us here on our own. He went into heaven with a pledge of all that we are going to become. Tertullian, I think, was the first one to put it that way. The Spirit, in scripture, is the pledge of Christ’s presence in us, but Christ’s continuing body is the pledge of what we’re going to have in heaven. So the ascension tells us that Christ has not let go of our humanity. He truly wants to take human beings where we’ve never gone before: into the very life of the triune God.
Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.
In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.
Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America. Continue reading “Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama””→
How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!
Come, cast your burdens on the Lord
And trust his constant care.
Beneath his watchful eye,
His saints securely dwell;
That hand which bears all nature up
Shall guard his children well.
Why should this anxious load
Press down your weary mind?
Haste to your heav’nly Father’s throne
And sweet refreshment find.
His goodness stands approved,
Unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.
I cannot see, my God, a reason why
From morn to night I go not gladsome, free;
For, if thou art what my soul thinketh thee,
There is no burden but should lightly lie,
No duty but a joy at heart must be:
Love’s perfect will can be nor sore nor small,
For God is light—in him no darkness is at all.