Lent, Day 17

LOOK: Head of Christ by Fernando Botero

Botero, Fernando_Head of Christ
Fernando Botero (Colombian, 1932–), Cabeza de Cristo (Head of Christ), 1976. Oil on canvas, 185 × 179 cm. Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia.

Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero is South America’s best-known artist. He is influenced by the Old Masters, which he studied in his twenties in Madrid, Paris, and Florence, and by the Mexican muralists. But his style—marked by plump, often childlike figures—is distinctively his own and has even been given the name “Boterismo.”

Throughout his career he has remained adamant that he does not paint “fat people” or “chubbies.” What he paints, he insists, is exaggerated volumes that highlight the body’s natural shape and the “sensuality of form.” In addition to religious subjects, he also paints Latin American street scenes, domestic life, nudes, and political portraits.

At age eighty-nine, Botero continues to be active as an artist, living and working between Paris, New York, and Tuscany.

LISTEN: “Legend (The Crown of Roses),” Op. 54, No. 5, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1883/89 | Based on a text by Richard Henry Stoddard, 1856 | Performed by the University of Pretoria Camerata, dir. Michael Barrett, on Written in the Stars, 2021

When Jesus Christ was yet a child
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein he cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.

Now once, as summer-time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they plucked them merrily.

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”

Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers pressed it down.
Till on his forehead fair and young
Red drops of blood like roses sprung.

In 1877 Tchaikovsky found a Russian poem by Aleksey Pleshcheyev published in a journal; it was a translation of the English-language poem “Roses and Thorns” (1856) by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard, an allegory of the Crucifixion. It’s about the boy Jesus who tends a rose garden and dreamily weaves together crowns from the branches’ yield. One day a bunch of rowdy children comes by and carelessly yanks the flowers off the trees, scoffing at Jesus for being soft, a flower lover. In a spirit of gentleness, he tells them they may have the flowers, but to leave the thorns. Continuing their derision, the children bend the bare, thorny stems into a crown and press it into Jesus’s head. From his flesh then bloom “roses” of blood.

Tchaikovsky first set the Russian poem to music in 1883, arranging it for solo voice and piano and publishing it as part of his Sixteen Songs for Children, Opus 54. In 1884 he arranged it for solo voice and orchestra, and in 1889 for unaccompanied choir.

When English-language choirs sing the song, instead of using Stoddard’s original text, they typically use a 1913 adaptation by British poet Geoffrey Dearmer—which I believe is the superior version. See a side-by-side presentation of the song’s textual history.

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