Advent, Day 5

LOOK: Christmas Tree by Shirazeh Houshiary

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Shirazeh Houshiary (Iranian British, 1955–), Christmas Tree, 2016/1993. Temporary installation at Tate Britain, London.

Every year from 1988 to 2012, and again in 2016 after the completion of a massive three-year renovation, Tate Britain commissioned a leading contemporary artist to create a Christmas tree installation inside the galleries. (In 2017 this tradition was replaced with the annual Winter Commission, where an artist is invited instead to decorate the museum’s Millbank facade with lights.)

The Tate awarded Shirazeh Houshiary the Christmas Commission in 1993, and she came up with a novel interpretation of the theme: a live pine tree suspended upside down, its exposed roots coated in gold leaf. She described the piece as “taking earth back to heaven,” and the Tate says it reflects the artist’s interest “in astronomy, mysticism and the interplay between light and dark.”

As Houshiary’s Christmas Tree was so memorable, Tate Britain asked her to reprise it in 2016 down the center of the museum’s new spiral staircase designed by the architecture firm Caruso St John. So in December of that year it could be seen under the glass dome of the rotunda of the museum’s Thames-facing entrance, viewable from three different levels.

Though I didn’t get to see the installation in person, the photos instantly reminded me of the inverted tree that appears in some of the woodcuts and batiks of Indian Christian artist Solomon Raj (see, e.g., here and here). For him this symbol represents the Christian’s being rooted in God and bearing fruit in the world.

Neither Raj nor Houshiary, however, were the first to develop this symbol. The Katha Upanishad, an ancient sacred Hindu text, references something similar: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it” (2.3.1). The inverted tree is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 15.1 and the Rig Veda 1.24.7. Furthermore, in his Timaeus Plato describes man as a “heavenly plant” with its branches on earth and its roots in heaven—and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the arbor inversa present in other religious and philosophical traditions as well.  

Houshiary was not working from an intentionally Christian framework (nor a Hindu or Platonic one), but her installation’s linkage with the season of Christmas welcomes, I’d say, a Christological reading. As already mentioned, she acknowledged in her 1993 statement an interplay between heaven and earth—heaven being evoked through the tree’s gilded root system that towers above the viewer, catching the natural light from above. Our realm, earth, is where the ever-green life enters and expands.

I think of how Jesus Christ, the New Adam, human being par excellence and yet Eternal One who is from the beginning, came down from on high, bringing lushness, grafting humanity into the Divine.

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Photo: Guy Bell

LISTEN: “Love Divine” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1747 | Music by Thomas Waller, first published 1869; arr. Wilder Adkins, 2015 | Performed by Justin Cross and Wilder Adkins on Hollow Square Hymnal, 2016; reissued as a single, 2018

Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down!
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion;
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit,
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be.
End of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is one of my absolute favorite hymns. It’s grand and passionate, tender and communal, and its many invocations have an Advent ring to them: Come down, Love! Make your home in us. Bring all your faithful mercies to a climax. Visit us with your salvation. Enter our trembling hearts. Breathe your spirit into us. Give us yourself. Lead us to ultimate rest. Be Alpha and Omega to us. Liberate. Deliver. Let us receive your life. “Suddenly return” . . . and never, never leave! Finish your new creation. Restore us in you.

Note that the second line appears in some hymnals without the comma following “joy of heav’n” and with a comma for the end punctuation, which, instead of acting as a petition, would indicate that the joy of heaven has already come down. The ambiguity, which different hymnal editors have resolved differently, is a perfectly comfortable one, as Jesus did come to earth once, and we beseech his return.

I know the hymn best from its pairing with the 1870 tune BEECHER by John Zundel, but Wilder Adkins uses a slightly earlier tune from the shape-note tradition that I quite like. It was composed by Thomas Waller (ca. 1832–1862) of Upson County, Georgia, who taught at Sacred Harp singing schools in the mid-nineteenth century.

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