Worthy Is the Lamb (Artful Devotion)

Agnus Dei mosaic
This 6th-century mosaic of the Lamb of God is on the chancel ceiling of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The lamb is encircled by a golden orb (enclosed with stars) and a fruited laurel wreath, supported by angels. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP. 

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

—Revelation 5:11–14

+++

SONG: “Worthy Is the Lamb / Amen” by George Frideric Handel, from Messiah (1742)

This video is a 2014 performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—and you can find many more besides on YouTube. I’m partial, though, to the Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra’s performance on Easter Joy (2009), which you can stream on Spotify:

Handel was German but spent the bulk of his career in London, settling there in 1712 and becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727. In the 1730s, he transitioned from composing Italian operas to composing English choral works, one of which is the world-famous oratorio Messiah. (Read Charles Jennens’s full libretto, a curation of scripture passages, here.)

People might assume that the so-oft-performed “Hallelujah” chorus is the finale of this majestic work, but no, that chorus concludes part two, capping off the narrative of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the early spreading of the gospel through the known world. The “Worthy Is the Lamb” chorus, rather, serves as the Messiah’s consummation, an acclamation of Christ’s full and final victory over sin and death that follows part three’s prophecies of the day of judgment and the general resurrection. The text is taken from Revelation 5.

San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Upward view of the east end of San Vitale, Ravenna. Left lunette: The Hospitality of Abraham and The Sacrifice of Isaac. Center (apse): Christ in Majesty. Right lunette: The Offerings of Abel and Melchizedek. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.
San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Photo: Jim Forest

The anonymous sixth-century mosaicists of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, gloriously visualized this passage in the cross-ribbed vault of the church’s chancel, just above the altar. Tens of thousands of tesserae (tiny pieces of colored glass, and clear glass sandwiching gold leaf) come together to image Christ high and lifted up as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Can you imagine worshipping in this space? It must have been so transporting for those early Christians of Ravenna: to enter and move toward their promised end in Christ. To be enfolded in this glimmering vision of paradise that they enacted below in the liturgy.

To learn more about San Vitale and its mosaics, see this Smarthistory video. (Unfortunately it focuses on the two political portraits at the expense of the biblical subject matter, but nonetheless, it gives a good sense of the architectural setting of the mosaics.)


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 Third Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

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