Innovative Trinity paintings from the Rothschild Canticles

The Rothschild Canticles is the name of a lavishly illuminated manuscript of Franco-Flemish origin, produced at the turn of the fourteenth century. “A potpourri of biblical verses, liturgical praise, dogmatic formulas, exegesis, and theological aphorisms, . . . the manuscript leads its user step by step through meditations on paradise, the Song of Songs, and the Virgin Mary to mystical union and, finally, contemplation of the Trinity,” describes Barbara Newman in her excellent essay “Contemplating the Trinity: Text, Image, and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles.” It’s a diminutive little book, with a trim size of just four and a half inches by about three and a quarter.

Rothschild Canticles

The manuscript lacks any provenance before 1856, but Newman proposes that it was made at the Benedictine abbey of Bergues-Saint-Winnoc in Flanders, located at what is today the northern tip of France. The compiler of its texts, she suggests, was probably the same person who designed its remarkable images—most likely a monk of Saint-Winnoc, who probably employed a professional lay artist from Saint-Omer to execute the designs. The book’s patron was probably a canoness at the nearby abbey of Saint-Victor. It is now preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. All photographs in this post are courtesy of the Beinecke. Click here to page through the fully digitized manuscript.

The most extraordinary section of the book is a florilegium (collection of literary extracts) on the Trinity, which comprises folios 39v–44r and 74v–106r and draws especially on Augustine’s De Trinitas. Within these pages are nineteen full-page miniatures that exhibit “the most stunning iconographic creativity, . . . bearing witness to a distinctive Trinitarian theology.”

The representation of the Holy Trinity poses one of the most difficult iconographic problems in Christian art. How is one to portray three distinct, divine persons who share one essence? Historical attempts have included the following:

  • Three identical Christomorphic men (this one is relatively rare)
  • Three mystically conjoined faces, or three separate heads sharing one body (nicknamed the “monstrous Trinity” and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church)
  • The Gnadenstuhl (Throne of Mercy, or Throne of Grace), in which the Father is shown holding a crucifix or, in a later variation known as the Mystic Pietà, his slumped Son, while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers between them
  • Triangles, trefoils, triquetras, or other abstract geometric designs that suggest Three-in-Oneness
  • In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Holy Trinity is represented by three angels seated at a table. These are the three mysterious visitors of Abraham in Genesis 18, believed to be a theophany (visible manifestation of God).

The artist of the Rothschild Canticles relies on none of these conventions, inventing instead an almost wholly original visual language to express the rich yet daunting doctrine. In contrast to other depictions of the Trinity, in the Rothschild Canticles we find, says Newman,

a playful, intimate approach to the triune God, marked by spontaneity rather than solemnity, dynamism rather than hieratic stasis, wit rather than awe. There is no hint of narrative, but something more like an eternal dance. . . . The divine persons are caught up in an everlasting game of hide-and-seek with humans while they enact among themselves, in ever-changing ways, that mutual coinherence that the Greek fathers called perichoresis—literally “dancing around one another.” (135)

Jongleurs (itinerant medieval entertainers proficient in juggling, acrobatics, music, and recitation), angels, and various pointing figures play the role of implied viewers and manifest a joyous attitude. For example,

on fol. 79r a celestial percussionist attacks a row of bells with mallets; on fol. 84r, angels in the upper left and right play a game of ring toss; on fol. 88r, musicians . . . strum whimsically shaped zithers embellished with animal heads. . . . In the lower right corner of fol. 96r, an elfin figure bends over backward to play an instrument whose pinwheel shape mimics the great solar wheel behind which divine Wisdom hides. Four characters in the corners of fol. 98r stretch their arms as if to join hands in a cosmic dance, while on fol. 100r, three spectators raise their hands in wonder beneath a divine apparition, imitating the stunned postures of Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. . . . Collectively, they seem to proclaim that the reader need not be ashamed or afraid, even though all human attempts to comprehend the Trinity are comically inept. Nonetheless, she can merrily follow the Lord of the Dance. (135–36)

The quirkiness is so endearing!

Newman continues,

In the Rothschild Canticles, coinherence is the dimension of Trinitarian theology to which the artist seems most profoundly committed. The complex relationality of the three persons is conveyed through the delicate interplay of touch, gesture, and changing positions. Sometimes the Father and Son join hands; on fol. 104r they touch feet behind the wheel they hold. Sometimes they grasp the sides, wings, or talons of the dove, and sometimes they unite around a fourth figure representing the Divine Essence. (143–44)

Moreover,

the artist invented some simple devices to keep the paradox of triunity before the mind’s eye at all times. For example, a prime signifier of divinity—the golden sun with its waving, tentacle-like rays—is sometimes single (fols. 44r, 81r, 88r, 90r), sometimes triple (fols. 40r, 83r, 94r). Elsewhere the artist complicated this formula. On fol. 79r, three small suns for each person are superimposed on one large sun; fols. 92r and 100r insert a smaller sun inside a bigger one; and on fol. 96r, two suns interlock to form a double wheel with spokes radiating both inward and outward. (141)

I particularly like fol. 94r, where the three persons of the Godhead wear the sun like a collar. And fol. 100r, where we see just three feet and three hands, each belonging to a different person, peeping out from behind a giant sun disc!

Another recurring and versatile motif in the Trinity cycle is the veil, which signifies both God’s presence and God’s hiddenness. Sometimes it forms a hammock in which the Trinity rests, partially covered (fols. 75r, 88r); or is braided in an enclosing circle, dangling down for humans to touch (fol. 81r); or is looped about the Father, Son, and Spirit, nestling them snugly (fol. 84r); or is knotted and clutched (fol. 92r); or is draped over bands of cloud (fol. 106r). In this artistic program, veils both conceal and reveal, communicating the paradoxical nature of God who is ensconced in mystery—incomprehensible—and yet accessible, wanting to be known.

Notably, the profusion of Trinitarian imagery is supplemented in the manuscript with textual reminders of the limitations of images. In De Trinitate 8.4.7, for example, Augustine says that all manmade images of God are false, and yet, he says, they are useful insofar as they help the mind cling to the invisible reality to which they point.

Below is a complete compilation of Trinity miniatures from the Rothschild Canticles, reproduced in the order they appear in the manuscript. I have prefaced most with one or more of the quotations that appear on its facing page (thanks to Newman’s identifications) so that you can see how intricately text and image relate. If you wish to reproduce any of these images singly, I suggest the following credit:

Trinity miniature from the Rothschild Canticles (MS 404, fol. _), made in Flanders, ca. 1300. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

“Dominus in orisunte eternitatis et supra tempus” (The Lord is on the horizon of eternity and beyond time):

Rothschild Canticles 40r
Fol. 40r

Rothschild Canticles 42r
Fol. 42r

“Tu es vere Deus absconditus” (Truly you are a hidden God) (Isa. 45:15):

Rothschild Canticles 44r
Fol. 44r

“Bene ergo ipsa difficultas loquendi cor nostrum ad intelligentiam trahit, et per infirmitatem nostram coelestis doctrina nos adjuvat: ut quia in Deitate Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti nec singularitas est, nec diversitas cogitanda, vera unitas et vera Trinitas possit quidem simul mente aliquatenus sentiri, sed non possit simul ore proferri.”—Pope Leo I, Sermo 76.2

(“This difficulty in expressing clearly by speech draws our hearts to the power of discerning, and, through our weakness, the heavenly doctrine helps us, that, because of the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, neither singularity nor diversity is to be considered. The true unity and true Trinity can be apprehended ‘at the same time’ by the mind, but cannot be produced at the same time by the lips.” Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland, CSJB, and Agnes Josephine Conway, SSJ)

Rothschild Canticles 75r
Fol. 75r

“Pater complacet sibi in Filio et Filius in Patre, et Spiritus sanctus ab utroque” (The Father is well pleased in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and the Holy Spirit is from both):

Rothschild Canticles 77r
Fol. 77r

Rothschild Canticles 79r
Fol. 79r

“Dicebat enim intra se si tetigero tantum vestimentum eius salva ero” (She said within herself, if I touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed) (Matt. 9:21):

Rothschild Canticles 81r
81r

(Also illustrated on fol. 81r is the Holy Spirit as the person “qui facit ex utroque unum” [who makes both one; cf. Eph. 2:14], as cited on the facing page. Notice the shared halo.)

“Trinus personaliter et unus essentialiter” (Three in persons and one in essence):

Rothschild Canticles 83r
Fol. 83r

Rothschild Canticles 84r
Fol. 84r

“Dominus Deus noster Deus unus est” (The Lord our God is one God) (Mark 12:29):

Rothschild Canticles 88r
Fol. 88r

“Ita et singula sung in singulis, et omnia in singulis, et singula in omnibus, et omnia in omnibus, et unum omnia. Qui videt hec vel ex parte, vel per speculum et in enigmate, gaudeat cognoscens Deum.”—Augustine, De Trinitate 6.12

(“They are each in each and all in each, and each in all and all in all, and all are one. Whoever sees this even in part, or in a puzzling manner in a mirror [1 Cor. 13:12], should rejoice at knowing God.” Trans. M. Mellet, OP, and Th. Camelot)

Rothschild Canticles 90r
Fol. 90r

“Sapientia sua, que pertendit a fine usque ad finem fortiter et disponit omnia suaviter” (His wisdom, which reaches from end to end mightily and orders all things sweetly) (Wis. 8:1):

Rothschild Canticles 92r
Fol. 92r

“Tres vidit et unum adoravit” (He saw three and worshipped one), a liturgical verse referring to the Trinitarian epiphany in Genesis 18:1–3, in which Abraham saw three men, fell down in worship, and then addressed his divine visitors in the singular:

Rothschild Canticles 94r
Fol. 94r

“Gyrum caeli circuivi sola et in profundum abyssi penetravi et in fluctibus maris ambulavi” (I [Wisdom] have circled the vault of heaven alone) (Ecclus. 24:8):

Rothschild Canticles 96r
Fol. 96r

Rothschild Canticles 98r
Fol. 98r

“Abscondes eos in abdito faciei tuae” (Thou hidest them [the saints] in the covert of thy presence) (Psa. 30:21):

Rothschild Canticles 100r
Fol. 100r

“Optime et pulcrius loquitur qui de Deo tacet” (He speaks best and most beautifully who is silent about God):

Rothschild Canticles 102r
Fol. 102r

“Centrum meum ubique locorum, cirumferentia autem nusquam” (My center is in all places, my circumference nowhere). Also, “Quod Deus est, scimus. Quid sit, si scire velimus, / Contra nos imus. Qui cum sit summus et imus, / Ultimus et primus, satis est; plus scire nequimus.” (We know that God is; if we wish to know what he is, / We go against ourselves. That he is the highest and the lowest, / The last and the first, is enough; we can know no more.) And another: “Deus fuit semper et erit sine fine; ubi semper fuit, ibi nunc est. / Et ubi nunc est ibi fuit tunc.” (God always was and shall be without end; where he always was, there he is now. And where he is now, there he was then.)

Rothschild Canticles 104r
Fol. 104r

(I love this detail of the Father and Son touching feet behind the wheel to brace themselves up! And the implosion of the sun.)

And lastly, the final text page in the Trinity cycle, which faces a nonfigural miniature of concentric rings of fire and cloud, contains this unidentified apophatic dialogue:

—Domine, duc me in desertum tue deitatis et tenebrositatem tui luminis, et duc me ubi tu non es.
—Mea nox obscurum non habet, sed lux glorie mee omnia inlucessit.
—Bernardus oravit: Domine duc me ubi es.
—Dixit ei: Barnarde, non facio, quoniam si ducerem te ubi sum, annichilareris michi et tibi.

(—Lord, lead me into the desert of your divinity and the darkness of your light; and lead me where you are not.
—My night has no darkness, but the light of my glory illumines all things.
—Bernard prayed, Lord, lead me where you are.
—He said to him, Bernard, I will not, for if I led you where I am, you would be annihilated both to me and to yourself.)

Rothschild Canticles 106r
Fol. 106r

My hope is that pastors, theologians, seminarians, and Christians in general spend time studying, meditating on, and delighting in these artworks, which present profound theological content in a compact and sensory format. Visual theology at its best.

Though our efforts to visualize the Trinity will always be clumsy and imperfect, I do think the Rothschild Canticles artist has been more successful than anyone before or since. His miniatures convey, with whimsy and warmth, the eternal relationship of love at the heart of the universe.

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WORKS CITED

Newman, Barbara. “Contemplating the Trinity: Text, Image, and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles.” Gesta 52, no. 2 (Sept. 2013): 133–59.

Rev. Kenneth Tanner on the fire of God

Schmidt, Linda_Pentecost
Linda S. Schmidt, Pentecost, 1991. Quilt, 111 × 80 in.

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).

In the churches in which many of us were raised, we were taught to live in fear of this fire of God.

We are not going to repeat that lie. The ancient Christians show us a better way of perceiving this divine fire as we encounter it in the Scriptures and in our experiences.

I want the children listening to me today to know and trust they can welcome and embrace the fire of God, that there is no reason to live in terror about the fire that has come from God, is coming even now, and will come at the end of time.

We welcome the fire of God because we know the character of the God who meets us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.

This God comes among us not to destroy humanity but to burn everything out of us that is not of love, that does not have its origin in the divine life.

Like all healing, deliverance, and reconciliation, there is pain involved in being set free and made well. It is not easy. It is not a cake walk.

But here is the good news: we are free from anxiety and fear as we embrace the cleansing fire of God. “With its fire, love makes better whatever it touches” (Ambrose).

We became cold in our self-imposed exile from God, and like any object, the further it gets away from the fiery source of its life, the colder it becomes.

Remember that God makes his ministers flames of fire, that we shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven.

Remember that Cleopas, later in Luke, describes that their “hearts burned within them” as Jesus taught them from the Scriptures.

Remember at Pentecost that flames of fire come to rest on the heads of the gathered men and women.

As John promised, Christ baptizes us with fire and the Spirit.

For Cyril of Jerusalem, these words of Jesus about casting fire upon the earth find their fulfillment at Pentecost.

Remember that the flames of the fiery furnace do not consume the Hebrew children, but the angel—Christ himself—stands with them in scorching flames and they emerge from the fire unharmed.

Remember that the burning bush is aflame, is entirely engulfed, but never consumed by the fire of God.

So it is with us: the fire of the love that is the Spirit of God—Ambrose describes this fire of love as having wings—flies through us, consuming whatever is not of Love and trying whatever is good in us in order to purify the good and make it ready for the kingdom.

And we can trust this fire because it comes from the human who is God, who has journeyed through death and hell to bring us back alive with him.

We walk confidently into the fire that is God, knowing that his fire will keep us unto everlasting life.

Kenneth Tanner is the pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and a contributing writer for Mockingbird, Sojourners, Clarion Journal, and more. He frequently posts theological reflections and sermon excerpts on Facebook, such as the one above [source], which he preached August 18, 2019, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. I’ve reposted it here with his permission. The liturgical quilt is by fiber artist Linda S. Schmidt.

“Holy Spirit Fiyah” (song from Hawaii)

This call-and-response song is from the December 31, 2015, morning session of the Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s performed by the University of Hawaii’s Hui Poly student group, a ministry of InterVarsity Hawai‘i geared toward Pasifika Christians, along with some new conference friends. The song (and ministry) leader is Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch, who establishes the rhythm on the djembe and issues the calls. She is the pastor of Ka ‘Ohana o ke Aloha church in Kaneohe and is of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Ukrainian descent.

The first half of the song is in English (lyrics below), but starting at 3:51, the singers launch into seven different Polynesian or Native American languages: Yup’ik, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian), Fijan, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian Pidgin, and Lakota. Subtitles are included in the video. There’s also dancing!

Holy Spirit, come (Holy Spirit, come)
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Come like fiyah, come like flames
Come like thundah, come like rain
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Fill us up, fill our cup
Fill us up, fill our cup
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

We want more, we want more
We want more, we want more
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Till we overflow
Till we overflow
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

The Son of righteousness will rise
With healing in his wings
We will be free
And dance before our king
Let your kingdom come
And let your will be done
Here on earth as it is
In heaven (In heaven)
In heaven (In heaven)

We will walk in your love
As we advance your kingdom
Bringing your word
To every nation
Let your kingdom come
And let your will be done
Here on earth as it is
In heaven (In heaven)
In heaven (In heaven)

To view other video content from Urbana 15, including songs and sermons, see https://2100.intervarsity.org/resource-keyword/urbana-15. Urbana has been held triennially since 1946, and its worship always demonstrates a commitment to global multiculturalism.

Also, hear more from Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch:

“Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” by Bruce Beasley (excerpts)

Rossi, Filippo_Holy Spirit
Filippo Rossi (Italian, 1970–), Holy Spirit (triptych), 2011. Mixed media, acrylic, gold leaf, bitumen, and brown wax on extruded polystyrene, left and right panels 120 × 120 cm, central panel 190 × 120 cm. © 2021 Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality Collection, Barga (LU), Italy. www.magnifice.it

1.

Glossolalic and disincarnate, interfere
in me, interleave me
and leave me through my breathing: like some third

person conjugation I’ve rewhispered
in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue
made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.

5.

Because doves have no gall bladder
they have come
to stand for mildness. They stand

for You, warble, blue
underwing-flash and quaver, con-
and in-substantial

Squab of the Holy Ghost.
Some Ark’s scraping some
mud-ridged, just-dried Ararat now

inside me, some dove’s
dropped an olive sprig on its bow, meant to stand
once more for the passing of the gall.

7.

Through “spiration” and not “generation” You are said
to proceed, but the question of Who ex-pires You—
Father or Son, or both—has led to a thousand years of anathema and schism.

The Wikipedia on just that question goes twenty pages.
Ungenerative, ungenerated, You’re like me: recessive and proceeding nonetheless, like the wick’s
wax-wet and sizzle as it hardens into self-douse.

9. 

Fricative, constrictive, like a gush
of burnt scrapwood smoke from a neighbor’s yard,
its wintercleared thornbushes and rattlesticks in firepit,

greencrackle and sap-hiss, late March Lent-smoke
ash-smack in back of tongue and eyes, forehead-and-cheek stream of char.
Numinous, pneumatic, Who

bloweth where You listeth, Whom
the world will never know, list to blow
down me.

These are four of the nine sections in “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” by Bruce Beasley, from Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the publisher.

Roundup: “God is…” exhibition, new song cycle inspired by turn-of-the-century photographs, healing the imagination, and more

EXHIBITION: “God is . . . ,” May 14–23, gallery@oxo, London: The winning entry from the second Chaiya Art Awards competition, along with forty-nine shortlisted others, are being exhibited in London’s South Bank starting tomorrow. The exhibition also has a virtual option, which I received an advance preview of, along with the catalog. Read my review at ArtWay.eu. There is a diverse range of responses to the theme of “God is . . . ,” in a range of media!

Chaiya Art Awards 2021

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: “I Should Be Glad”: On May 2 the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale put on a virtual concert, performing songs of lament and hope. They sing of “hours that go on broken wings” and “the unchanging ache of things”; of “this long, hard climb, carr[ying] ancestral sorrow”; of violence and murder; of God’s seeming absence; of feeling like a “moanin’ dove.” But they also sing invitations to be glad, to lay down one’s burden, to see beauty, to soar. Click here for a copy of the program, which contains credits, texts, and translations. I really enjoyed the selection of pieces—most were new to me—and the execution (technical and artistic) is excellent. An hour very well spent. Note that in lieu of a ticket charge, a $10 donation is recommended.

Among the songs are contemporary choral settings of traditional prayers, a civil rights hymn, and the world premiere of the five-movement Where We Find Ourselves by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (she/her), inspired by the photographs of Hugh Magnum. Magnum, who was white, ran an integrated portrait studio in the Jim Crow South from 1897 until his death in 1922, photographing white and Black clients with equal dignity. The glass plate negatives and contact prints languished in his family’s moldering tobacco barn in Durham, North Carolina, until the 1970s, when they were discovered prior to the property’s slated demolition. They were transferred (many of them damaged) to the Duke University archives, where they again lay mostly dormant until being recently dug out by photographer-writers Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, who compiled and presented them as an exhibition and accompanying book. Bussewitz-Quarm’s composition is a moving meditation on these timeworn photographs, and the lyrics by Shantel Sellers are pure poetry.

Hugh Magnum photographs
Photographs by Hugh Magnum, courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, Durham, NC

Hugh Magnum photographs
Hugh Magnum photographs
In some of the negatives the panels have fused, causing the subjects to extend past their frames and thus giving the illusion that they were sitting together.

Hugh Magnum photograph
“The portraits are often accidentally double-exposed,” writes Sarah Blackwood for the New Yorker, “and many of the double exposures overlay images of white and black sitters, who suddenly seem to sit alongside or even atop one another. Such ghostly interactions produce from two Mangum portraits an entirely new image altogether, one in which the pride and pleasure of self-presentation is shadowed by the racial realities of the time.”

Set list:

  • “I Should Be Glad” by Susan LaBarr (composer) and Sara Teasdale (lyricist)
  • “Sometimes I Feel,” traditional African American spiritual, arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
  • “Meet Me Here” (from Considering Matthew Shepard) by Craig Hella Johnson
  • “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell
  • “Hymn for These Times” by Jay Rogers (composer) and Meggan Moorhead (lyricist)
  • “Ave Maria” by Robert Nathaniel Dett (composer)
  • “Our Father” by Paul D. Weber (composer)
  • “Where We Find Ourselves” by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (composer) and Shantel Sellers (lyricist)
  • “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson (composer) (arr. Paul W. Read) and Harriette Hamilton (lyrics)

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POEM COMMENTARY: “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, commentary by Dr. Grace Hamman (blog post | podcast episode): I’ve featured poems by Henry Vaughan several times on this blog but not the one that just might be his most famous: “The Night,” about the Pharisee Nicodemus’s midnight rendezvous with Jesus (see John 3). It contains the beautiful and much-lauded line “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness . . .” Medieval literature scholar Grace Hamman [previously], podcaster and blogger at Old Books with Grace, reads and unpacks the poem, first giving some historical and biographical context. Vaughan was an Anglican Welshman living during the English Civil War when the Puritans were in power, which means he was cut off from the forms of worship through which he was used to encountering Christ. This, Hamman says, influenced his writing of the poem and of the larger collection, Silex Scintillians, it’s a part of.

She has made the commentary available in both written and audio form.

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EDITORIALS by JAMES K.A. SMITH:

When I see a James K.A. Smith [previously] byline, I know what follows is going to be good. He’s a fantastic thinker, writer, and speaker—and he’s the editor in chief of my favorite arts journal, Image. Below is a link to the opening editorial he wrote for each of the last two issues. (The whole journal is full of rich content. Subscribe!)

>> “Healing the Imagination: Art Lessons from James Baldwin,” Image no. 107 (Winter 2020): Here Smith engages with James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” in which Baldwin discusses how we “project onto the Negro face, because it is so visible, all of our guilts and aggressions and desires”; white America invents stories and images of Black Americans that reflect our disfigured imaginations. “The imagination is a form of habit, a learned, bodily disposition to the world. . . . It’s the imagination—well- or malformed—that determines what I see before I look,” Smith writes.

He connects Baldwin’s essay to Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan, showing how the priest and the Levite had different habits of perception than the protagonist. “To see the person before me as an enemy or animal”—or, I would add, a burden—“is a failure of imagination; to see a neighbor instead is a feat of the imagination. Our society is grappling with a soul-sickness that is ultimately an infection of our imagination.” We reflexively imagine others as threats, competitors, adversaries.

The arts can play a huge role in reshaping our imaginations, in retraining us to see people rightly. “I dream of a third Great Awakening,” he says, “in which our imaginations would be reborn, a sanctification of sight baptized by stories and images such that even our first glance is holy. The tents for this revival would be galleries and cinemas; we’ll sing from poems and novels; the altar call will invite us to attend plays and contemplate sculpture.” He’s not saying art should replace church or religion but that art is a powerful agent of spiritual and perceptual formation; “the arts pluck the strings of our imagination uniquely.”

In their March 3 episode, “Healing the Imagination, with James K.A. Smith,” The Weight podcast had Smith on to expound on some of the points in the editorial, to unpack this musing: “Could it be that the arts are more likely to move the needle on our collective perception of one another?” He discusses definitions of “culture” and “art,” both creational goods (God has deputized human beings to unfurl the tacit possibilities he has folded into creation!); the influence of Augustine and Kuyper on his thought; the “transcending, opening, decentering” potential of artistic encounters; his experience of becoming an American citizen; and why he believes national healing will come not primarily through politics but through the arts. He mentions a few commendable recent examples of churches’ hospitality toward artists, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, written “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world,” and Redeemer Church of Knoxville, who converted the unused rooms of their building into artist studios for the larger community to use.

“Christian communities, if they actually really care about healing the soul of a nation, could do no better than to invest in the arts,” Smith says. “Not so we can go make Thomas Kinkade paintings or Kirk Cameron movies or whatever, but so that we have artists who are actually speaking to our neighbors in ways that meet them as human.”

>> “How to Visit a Museum: Disciplines of Availability,” Image no. 108 (Spring 2021): “Aesthetic experiences I didn’t go looking for that burrow their way most deeply into my psyche . . . are only possible if I am cultivating a way of life that puts me in front of artworks that don’t conform to my preferences. That might mean signing up for the disciplines of an aesthetic way of life in which I am puzzled or frustrated or decentered by the feeling of ‘not getting it.’ It means approaching paintings and poems without expecting immediate returns. In my experience, the way of surprise lies in listening to a community of friends bear witness to what has captivated them and letting my puzzlement be an impetus to explore new territory. When Shane McCrae gushes about a poet who has felt inaccessible to me, I assume I have something to learn. And so I taste and see. A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.” Read more at the link.

Reminds me of a creative prompt given last November by Corey Frey of The Well Collaborative in Frederick, Maryland: “Find a challenging poem or work of art or piece of music that doesn’t trigger your appreciative mechanism quite so easily. Sit with it. Let it confuse you. Allow its toe to creep in the crack of the door of your respect (re-spect: look a second time).”

Roundup: Visio divina with He Qi, MacDonald book club, and more

VISIO DIVINA SERIES: “During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, C4SO [Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others] celebrates artist He Qi, who reinterprets sacred art within an ancient Chinese art idiom. His work is a blend of Chinese folk art and traditional painting technique with the iconography of the Western Middle Ages and Modern Art. On each Sunday during May, we have licensed one of He’s paintings to illuminate one of the lectionary readings. We will provide prompts for you to do Visio Divina, or ‘sacred seeing,’ an ancient form of Christian prayer in which we allow our hearts and imaginations to enter into a sacred image to see what God might have to show us.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]

He Qi, "Calling the Disciples"
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Calling the Disciples, 1999. Oil on canvas.

May 2: “Jesus Calls His Disciples”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-jesus-calls-his-disciples/
May 9: “Mary and Martha”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-perfect-love/
May 16: “Look Toward Heaven”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-after-the-ascension/
May 23: “Pentecost”: https://c4so.org/visio-divina-pentecost/
May 30: “Abraham and the Angels” (Trinity Sunday): https://c4so.org/visio-divina-trinity-sunday/

For this past Lent the C4SO brought us the Stations of the Cross by Laura James, a self-taught painter of Antiguan heritage, combined with a liturgy by their scholar in residence, the Rev. Dr. W. David O. Taylor. I appreciate their recognition of the value of visual art to the individual and corporate lives of their people.

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NEW DPP EDITION: Pentecost 2021: Pentecost is May 23, kicking off a new season of the church year—which means a new periodical from The Daily Prayer Project is hot off the presses! This is one of the publications I work for. “We celebrate and join in prayer with a vastly diverse church in this edition of the DPP. The Indian artist Jyoti Sahi’s dynamic painting Receive the Holy Spirit adorns the cover and leads us to a powerful remembrance of and meditation on that great outpouring of Pentecost. The church of the Caribbean gifts us with their song of Pentecost: ‘Fire, fire, fire! Fire fall on me!’ The Christian Council of Nigeria leads us in prayer and asks God to ‘grant us a vision of our land that is as beautiful as it could be . . . [and the] grace to put this vision into practice.’ The Korean songwriter Geon-yong Lee offers up a lament for the fractures of the church and invites us to truly long and work for unity: ‘Come, hope of unity; make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus; reconcile all nations.’ . . .”

The two other featured artworks in this edition, which will be added to our online gallery May 23, are an abstract ink drawing by Takahiko Hayashi, evocative of the Spirit’s vitality, and a piece by Yuanming Cao that celebrates the steadfastness of the church in China using as its medium the everyday devotional materials of rural Christians in the Suzhou region.

[electronic (PDF) copy] [physical copy]

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VIDEO: “What happens to humans when we can’t touch?”: “Touch is how we first communicate as babies. And it’s fundamental to human wellbeing. So what happens when we can’t touch?” This recent BBC Radio 4 video by Daniel Nils Roberts discusses the importance of touch to human development, connection, and health. Roberts talks to scientists—and a cuddle therapist!—about why touch makes us feel good, and the skyrocketing of “touch hunger” since the onset of COVID-19. While I have been deprived of physical contact with friends for the past year and I sorely miss it (I hadn’t realized how much hugs, shoulder pats, etc., mean to me), I live with my husband and have been able to receive touch from him; I can’t imagine what it would be like for those who have been completely without touch during this time of restrictiveness. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

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NEW BOOK: Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures by Matthew Mullins: Released in January by Baker Academic. “Many Christians view the Bible as an instruction manual. While the Bible does provide instruction, it can also captivate, comfort, delight, shock, and inspire. In short, it elicits emotion—just like poetry. By learning to read and love poetry, says literature professor Matthew Mullins, readers can increase their understanding of the biblical text and learn to love God’s Word more.”

I found out about this book through the interview by Jessica Hooten Wilson in the current issue of Christianity Today, “Reading God’s Word like a Poem, Not an Instruction Manual” [HT: ImageUpdate]. In the interview Mullins says he hopes the book reaches those Christians who tend to privilege information and instruction in their scripture reading above enjoyment—people who go to the Bible only for facts about God or practical guidance, not an encounter. Mullins shows how the Bible wants to shape not only our intellectual understanding but also our desires and emotions, and that many scripture passages are not reducible to a simple message or takeaway. Those who read and enjoy poetry inherently grasp this about the Bible. Here’s a short lecture Mullins gave on the topic in 2018, “You Can’t Understand the Bible If You Don’t Love Poetry”:

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ONLINE POETRY RETREAT: Send My Roots Rain, Saturday May 15, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. UK time: Brought to you by the Church Times and Sarum College, this event will feature readings and/or presentations by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Helen Wilcox, Mark Oakley, and others. The cost is £15 (about USD$20). [HT: Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) weekly e-bulletin; email Chloë Reddaway to subscribe]

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SUMMER READING GROUP: Phantastes by George MacDonald, led by Kirstin Jeffery Johnson: The Rabbit Room is sponsoring an online book club this summer centered on Phantastes by George MacDonald, a fantasy novel whose young hero Anodos wakes up in Fairy Land one day and is forced to reassess his assumptions about himself and others. Fantasy is not a genre I naturally gravitate to, but I keep hearing about this novel from different sources—how perplexing yet alluring it is—so I’m going to give it a try! I’m especially thrilled that the discussions will be led by MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson. Oh, and fun fact: this is the book that C. S. Lewis said most shaped his vocational attitude and philosophy of life.

“The ‘live’ version of this book group, including the online forum, opens May 25 [with chapters 1–4] and will include Zoom chats every Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. CST for five weeks. However, you are welcome to join at any time, even after the live chats have ended. The discussions will be archived, and the forum will be open indefinitely for new registrants to continue reading and discussing the book.” You can purchase a copy of the book through the Rabbit Room Store, or there’s this annotated edition I bought, edited by John Pennington and Roderick McGillis. (It has a beautiful cover, but the annotations seem geared more toward middle-grade readers.)

Hughes, Arthur_Phantastes illustration
Illustration by Arthur Hughes, from chapter 23 of the third edition of Phantastes by George MacDonald, published by Arthur C. Fifield in 1905

As a bonus, listen to “Giving as the Angels Give,” a two-part session from Hutchmoot 2019 that explores “some of the ways in which, as an author, teacher, and community-builder, MacDonald intentionally manifested hospitality.” Part 1 is a personal on-ramp to the topic by Jennifer Trafton (“I can’t think of any other writer who makes me feel the intimacy of God’s welcome more than MacDonald does,” she says), and part 2, which focuses more on MacDonald’s biography, is by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson.


Note to reader: “HT” stands for “hat tip”; it’s an acknowledgment of where or from whom I first found mention of the content I link to—that is, if I did not discover it directly from the source itself. I include these tags, along with strategic hyperlinks on the names of people and institutions, because, other than simply being courteous, I want to aid you in building your own “Christianity and the arts” network. One of the primary questions I get from people is “Who should I follow?” or “Where did you find about . . . ?” Soon I will compile a list, on its own tab, of like-minded content curators/providers that inspire me, but regular readers of the blog will, I’m sure, have already picked up on who a lot of those are. And I’m learning of new ones all the time!

“May is Mary’s month”: Hopkins poem meets Glasgow Style

“The May Magnificat” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
    Her feasts follow reason,
    Dated due to season—
 
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
    Why fasten that upon her,
    With a feasting in her honour?
 
Is it only its being brighter	
Than the most are must delight her?
    Is it opportunest
    And flowers finds soonest?	

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
    Question: What is Spring?—
    Growth in every thing—
 
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
    Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
    Throstle above her nested
 
Cluster of bugle* blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
    And bird and blossom swell
    In sod or sheath or shell.
 
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
    With that world of good,
    Nature’s motherhood.
 
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
    How she did in her stored
    Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
    Much, had much to say
    To offering Mary May.
 
When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
    And thicket and thorp† are merry
    With silver-surfèd cherry
 
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes‡ wash wet like lakes
    And magic cuckoocall
    Caps, clears, and clinches all—
 
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
    To remember and exultation
    In God who was her salvation.

* Bugle, or bugleherb, is a blue-flowering plant in the mint family.
† A group of houses standing together in the country; a hamlet; a village.
‡ Bracken ferns.

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In the Roman Catholic Church, May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and daily devotions to her are encouraged throughout the month. In many parishes, statues of Mary are crowned with flower garlands at this time.   

Though I myself do not practice Marian devotion, I have an immense appreciation for her example of faith and for the role she played in salvation history, and I feel a kinship to her as a spiritual foremother. I also find myself drawn to poems and visual art that reflect on her pregnancy, on the Life growing inside her.

Written in 1878 by the Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The May Magnificat” muses on the fittingness of May as a designated period of celebration of Mary. In the yearly cycle of the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant (and Mary’s postpartum purification), is logically dated to February 2, forty days after Christmas, per Leviticus 12:1–4. Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation (the day on which Jesus was conceived), is celebrated March 25, nine months before Christmas. But why, Hopkins wonders, has the church set apart May in particular for Christians to honor Mary?

He determines it’s because in May, the natural world—at least in the northern hemisphere, where he, an Englishman, lived—is bursting into full bloom, reflecting Mary’s own fecundity, her body a superabundant source of life. In late spring there is a certain joyousness in the air, a “universal bliss,” an “ecstasy.” Mammals are gestating and/or giving birth, birds are incubating and hatching, groves and gardens are flowering, and earth seems to be swelling to a fullness. There is “[g]rowth in every thing.”

Hopkins delights in the wealth of spring, all its flora and fauna. He marvels how the azure of heaven is reflected on earth in the tangled nest of a song thrush, and how sunlight dapples the apple and cherry trees. Perhaps Mary learned gladness from such gladsome surroundings, he suggests. And not only that, but as mother, she shared an affinity with Nature, also a mother.

The month of May culminates, on the 31st, with the feast of the Visitation, which marks the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Upon their meeting Mary sang a praise song known as the Magnificat, Latin for “[My Soul] Magnifies [the Lord]” (see Luke 1:46–56). She makes large God’s name, celebrating his mercy, strength, and provision and the impending birth of her son, Israel’s Savior and the world’s.

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In October 2019 I had the privilege of seeing the internationally touring exhibition Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose highlight was a large-scale gesso frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’s artistic collaborator and wife. It was displayed in a narrow hallway behind a plastic screen, so I couldn’t get a shot of the full piece, but here’s a photo provided by the CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection:

Macdonald, Margaret_The May Queen
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (Scottish, 1864–1933), The May Queen, 1900. Gesso on burlap over wood frame, scrim, twine, glass beads, thread, tin leaf, papier-mâché, steel pins, 158.8 × 457 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

All other photos in this post are my own.

Emerging in the 1890s in the industrial heartland of Scotland, the “Glasgow Style” was the only Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. “When applied to two-dimensional objects, such as book covers, textiles, posters, and stained glass, the Glasgow Style blended elongated and organic lines, personal symbolic languages, and favored motifs to create otherworldly stylized plant and human forms,” writes Alison Brown, curator of Designing the New. It was developed by a small group of young adult friends known as The Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and James Herbert McNair. (Charles and Margaret married in 1900, and Margaret’s sister Frances married James in 1899.)

Margaret’s wide-ranging output included watercolors, graphics, metalwork, and textiles, but her specialization was gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. The May Queen was commissioned from her at the turn of the century by Miss Catherine Cranston for one of her famous Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow, where it hung above a window in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room until 1971. (It is now preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.) Gloriously textured, it consists of rough burlap stretched over a wooden frame and covered in gesso, glass beads, metallic leaf, and molded paper. “Some of the modeled plaster shapes bear fingerprints, pinched and pressed into the panel’s surface. The outlines of the figures, trees, and plant forms are ‘drawn’ with brown painted string held fast with long steel pins,” Brown writes.

The crowning of a “May Queen,” a girl chosen to personify May Day and preside over its festivities, is a traditional springtime ritual in western Europe. (If you need a visual, think Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar . . .) So the title of this artwork is most likely a reference to that. However, I get some serious Marian vibes from the central female figure, which are only reinforced when I view the work in light of the Catholic tradition of the “May crowning” of Mary.

And what a resonant pairing it makes with Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat”! It shows a woman in a strong frontal stance, dressed with flowers, haloed in green, supported by a throne-like backing, and enlarged, perhaps, with child. She’s attended by four maidservants or companions.

This could very well be read as Mary of Nazareth, crowned with beauty, blessed by God to bear his Son into the world.