Lent, Day 27

LOOK: It Is Finished by Anthony Falbo

Falbo, Anthony_It Is Finished
Anthony Falbo (American, 1953–), It Is Finished, 2004. Oil and charcoal on paper, 24 × 18 in.

Exaggerated proportions and a sense of humor and play are characteristic of Anthony Falbo’s paintings, including the ones on religious subjects. In It Is Finished, the title is a pun that refers to one of the seven last words of Christ while also affirming that yes, despite half of the paper being unpainted, this artwork is complete as is.

The contrast of minimalist charcoal sketch marks with richly hued oil paints is the painting’s most striking feature. The boxed outline around the Crucifixion and the concentration of color there create the impression of a picture within a picture. But the scene cannot be contained; it spills out, the cross-tree taking root outside the frame, the blood pooling there too. Here is where the mourners—traditionally John and the three Marys—stand, one of them reaching up into the picture. Angels fly about in the margins; one gestures toward the dying Christ as if to tell the viewer, “This is for you.”

The color helps center our attention on Christ’s face and punctuates other details—namely, the three nails, and the blood at the base of the tree. Christ’s figure is painted in some places but line-drawn in others, evoking a sense of fading—but fading out, or in? That is, are we witnessing life giving way to death, or death giving way to life? Is the picture losing color or gaining it? Surely both.

Two rich color fields meet in the background: purple and blue. In addition to royalty, purple is traditionally associated with penitence and mourning and is the liturgical color for Lent. Blue represents heaven and/or truth.

Falbo cleverly uses trompe l’oeil effects to allude to other elements of the Crucifixion narrative. The peeling back of a paint layer references the tearing of the temple veil, a symbolic grant of access for all people to God through the eternal mediating priesthood of Christ. Across from that, an apparent puncture in the picture references the piercing of Christ’s side by a Roman soldier to confirm his death, which unleashed a discharge of water and blood—the symbolic birthing fluids of the church.

Falbo also draws on the traditional tree of life motif, which pictures the cross as a still-living tree, that of Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2. There is art historical precedent for the fusing of Christ’s body to the wood, seen here especially in the hands, suggesting that he himself is life. Uniquely, though, Falbo’s rendition shows hands dangling from the branches, grasping apples, harking back to the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden and thereby reminding us of the sin from which Christ’s death redeems us.

LISTEN: “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1751 and 1788, with additions by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Music by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Performed by Salem Presbyterian Church musicians at the PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 15, 2017 | CCLI #7192481 [Chord chart]

’Tis finished! The Messiah dies,
cut off for sins, but not his own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
the great redeeming work is done.
Done, done, done!

The veil is rent; in Christ alone
the living way to heav’n is seen;
the middle wall is broken down,
and all the world may enter in.
Enter in!

[Refrain] When the Messiah took on flesh
and he gave up throne and home to be with us,
the vict’ry we could never grasp
was captured when they cut and cast
his broken body on the altar of the Lord.

’Tis finished!—all my guilt and pain;
I want no sacrifice beside.
For me, for me the Lamb is slain;
’tis finished! I am justified.
Justified!

Refrain

The reign of sin and death is o’er,
and all may live from sin set free.
Satan hath lost his mortal power;
’tis swallowed up in victory.
Victory!

Refrain

The Rev. Austin Pfeiffer (ThM, Duke Divinity School) is an associate pastor at Salem Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of whose roles is to oversee music and liturgy. In summer 2017 he led a worship session at the annual business meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) that included a retuned version he wrote, with new refrain, of Charles Wesley’s “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies.” The music really draws out the celebratory aspect of the lyrics and the sense of finality and accomplishment, especially with the accented repetition of each stanza’s end word or two. And the refrain expounds on Wesley’s imagery of sacrifice, in addition to connecting the Crucifixion and the Incarnation.

I’ve embedded a video of the performance above, extracted from the General Assembly livestream footage, with Pfeiffer’s permission. He is joined onstage by fellow musicians from Salem Pres: Hannah Proulx and Elizabeth Ottenjohn on vocals, Jared Meyer on vocals and guitar, Margaret Raney on fiddle, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass.

Pfeiffer, Meyer, and Ray make up the modern folk band The Pharaoh Sisters, whose debut album, Civil Dawn, is excellent. (I mentioned it here.)

I’ve featured Charles Wesley many times on the blog, as he’s perhaps my favorite hymn-writer. This hymn text of his exists in several iterations, as he returned to it with a revisionary touch throughout his life. The earliest version, consisting of two eight-line stanzas, appears in a manuscript he completed in 1751 and was first published in 1762 in volume 2 of his Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures:

’Tis finished! The Messias dies,
Cut off for sins, but not his own!
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
The great redeeming work is done;
Finished the first transgression is,
And purged the guilt of actual sin,
And everlasting righteousness
Is now to all the world brought in.

’Tis finished, all my guilt and pain,
I want no sacrifice beside,
For me, for me, the Lamb is slain,
And I am more than justified;
Sin, death, and hell are now subdued,
All grace is now to sinners giv’n,
And lo, I plead th’ atoning blood,
For pardon, holiness, and heaven.

But the most commonly reproduced version in hymnals today uses lines 1–4 and 9–12 (slightly altered) of the original, plus two of the four additional stanzas Wesley wrote on his deathbed in 1788, which weren’t published until 1830. (See the final eight-stanza version by Wesley.)

The hymn is often paired with William Bradbury’s tune OLIVE BROW, from 1853. It’s an alright tune, but I much prefer Pfeiffer’s.

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