Roundup: Paradise-themed contemporary art, Rogationtide hymn, Gija Ascension painting, and more

EXHIBITION: Here After, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, May 7–July 30, 2022: This latest offering from the spirituality-forward art gallery Bridge Projects looks amazing! I appreciate their commitment to featuring religiously and ethnically diverse artists, as well as a range of styles and media.

Here After exhibition
Andrea Büttner, Dancing Nuns, 2007; Tuan Andrew Nguyen, video still from The Boat People, 2020; Belu-Simion Fainaru, Monument for Nothingness, 2012–22; Bonita Helmer, The Four Worlds (Tiferet), 2002–5; Afruz Amighi, Guardian, 2021; Mercedes Dorame, Orion’s Belt—Paahe’ Sheshiiyot—a map for moving between worlds, 2018

The group exhibition features thirty-seven artists who explore the idea of paradise—both how it has been pursued on earth across history, and how it is imagined after life. From Pure Land Buddhism’s chant “Namu Amida Butsu” (“I take refuge in Amida Buddha”) to Christianity’s prayer for the Kingdom to be “on earth as it is in heaven,” the concepts of paradise are as diverse as those who hope for it.

In Here After, works like William Kurelek’s Farm Boy’s Dream of Heaven (1963) envision an eschatological beyond in figurative form, while works by Bonita Helmer and Zarah Hussain do so in more abstract terms. Andrea Büttner and Claire Curneen’s works point to a vulnerable, sensual bodiliness, embedded in the surface of the world where all things come to pass. There is a land beyond the river by Gyun Hur and Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s The Boat People make space for remembrance of those who have passed, while Afruz Amighi, Mercedes Dorame, and Charwei Tsai position the viewer between worlds, feet firmly planted on the ground yet gazing at the glory and wonder of the beyond. In his installation Skywall, David Wallace Haskins plunges into the boundless sky and its immaterial light, letting all the expansive beauty grip the viewer. Kate Ingold intones the rhythmic mantras of what the divine is not with minute stitches, employing almost impossible patience to painstakingly outline absence. Kris Martin lodges small contradictions in the mind, which, in time, grow to be distracting puzzles—the candle in a sealed box, whose existence cannot be proven with the senses. And Tatsuo Miyajima uses digital counters to display the uncountable, unending dimension of existence.

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SONGS:

>> “O Jesus, Crowned with All Renown,” performed by Jon and Amanda McGill: The Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Day is known as Rogationtide, a short liturgical period (observed by most Anglicans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and others) in which we pray that God blesses the crops so that they yield a good harvest. It falls on May 23–25 this year. The hymn “O Jesus, Crowned with All Renown” is especially associated with the Rogation Days. It was written in 1860 by Edward White Benson, archbishop of Canterbury, and is typically paired with the tune KINGSFOLD.

O Jesus, crowned with all renown,
Since thou the earth hast trod,
Thou reignest, and by thee come down
Henceforth the gifts of God.
Thine is the health and thine the wealth
That in our halls abound,
And thine the beauty and the joy
With which the years are crowned.

Lord, in their change, let frost and heat
And winds and dews be giv’n;
All fostering power, all influence sweet,
Breathe from the bounteous heav’n.
Attemper fair with gentle air
The sunshine and the rain,
That kindly earth with timely birth
May yield her fruits again.

That we may feed the poor aright,
And gathering round thy throne,
Here, in the holy angels’ sight,
Repay thee of thine own:
That we may praise thee all our days,
And with the Father’s name,
And with the Holy Spirit’s gifts,
The Savior’s love proclaim.

Spiritual director and writer Tamara Hill Murphy explains the meaning of Rogationtide:

“Rogation” is derived from the Latin verb rogare, which means “to ask.” In the liturgies of Rogation Days, we ask the Lord to bless the fields, the crops, and the hands of farmers who produce our food. Worship on Rogation Days teaches us that we depend upon God’s favor over his land. We ask him for goodness over not just an abstract idea of our “land” but the very real earth beneath our feet in our backyards, our neighborhoods, and whatever part of the earth our feet hit the ground. As we’ve become a post-industrial society, the prayers for Rogation Days have expanded to include not only prayers for farmers and fishermen, but also for commerce and industry, and for all of us as stewards of creation.

>> “The Twelve: An Anthem for the Feast of Any Apostle,” words by W. H. Auden and music by William Walton: In 1965 the dean of the choir school at Christ Church, Oxford—Dr. Cuthbert Simpson—approached poet W. H. Auden and composer William Walton to write a choral anthem for use on apostolic feast days. “The Twelve” is the result. In this video filmed at Keble College, Oxford, in July 2021, it is performed by the vocal ensembles VOCES8 and Apollo5 (both directed by Barnaby Smith), with Peter Holder on organ. Learn more about the background and structure of the anthem here.

This performance appears on Renewal?, a concept album released February 25 that combines new works by Paul Smith (cofounder of VOCES8) and Donna McKevitt with works by three influential modern composers: William Walton, John Cage, and William Henry Harris. “Multifaceted texts by Lal Ded, Edmund Spenser, W. H. Auden, Lord Byron, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, and Edna St. Vincent Millay offer space to consider our world, past and present, and meditate on a response to build a better future.”

You can read the full text of “The Twelve” in the YouTube video description. It begins,

Without arms or charm of culture,
Persons of no importance
From an unimportant Province,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
Of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy.

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VISUAL MEDITATIONS:

Ascension Day occurs every year on the Thursday that falls forty days after Easter (see Acts 1:1–3). This year it is May 26. Here are two Ascension-themed visual meditations from ArtWay.eu.

>> On the Reidersche Tafel, by Nigel Halliday: This ivory bas-relief, which was probably originally embedded in a book cover, is the earliest known representation of the Ascension. It shows Jesus striding up a mountain, being pulled up into heaven by the hand of God the Father. (Mark and Luke use the passive voice to describe the Ascension: “he was taken up into heaven.”) He is dressed in a toga and holding a scroll. Learn more from Nigel Halliday at the above link, or visit this Instagram post I made two years ago.

Ascension (Reidersche Tafel)
The Women at Christ’s Tomb and the Ascension, Milan or Rome, ca. 400. Ivory plaque, 18.7 × 11.5 cm. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum (Bavarian National Museum), Munich, Germany.

>> On Ngambuny Ascends by Shirley Purdie, by Rod Pattenden: Ngambuny is the Gija name for Jesus. Aboriginal Australian artist Shirley Purdie sets his ascension within the indigenous landscape of the Bungle Bungle Range, using her characteristic style of dotted outlines. “Purdie draws on her cultural tradition to locate the presence of God within the skin of her land,” writes the Rev. Dr. Rod Pattenden. “Her work is literally painted with the earth, as she collects ochres from the land she is responsible for and mixes it with glue to attach to her warm hued canvases.” Pattenden offers a fascinating reading of Purdie’s Ngambuny Ascends, discussing the use of black ocher, God as Creator Spirit alive in the earth, and more.

Purdie, Shirley_Ngambuny Ascends
Shirley Purdie (Gija, 1948–), Ngambuny Ascends, 2013. Natural ocher on canvas, 60 × 80 cm. Private collection. The artist is represented by the Warmun Art Centre in Warmum, WA, Australia.

Roundup: Guite-Bell live event, Sister Corita Kent, and more

FREE LIVE EVENT: “Faith and the Imagination: Poetry, Song, and Inspiration with Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite,” June 4–7, 2022, Greater Seattle area: Join hundreds of Seattle artists and ministry leaders for four days of poetry, vocal performances, and conversation about the gift of the human imagination for the flourishing of our world, hosted by Cambridge’s distinguished poet Malcolm Guite and award-winning Canadian musician Steve Bell.

Sessions are free and open to the public and will not be livestreamed (and the conversations require advance registration):

  • June 4, 7–9pm: Live Concert (Seattle, WA)
  • June 5, 9:45–11am: Worship Service (Normandy Park, WA)
  • June 5, 7–9:30pm: A Conversation on: Faith and the Arts (Seattle, WA)
  • June 6, 6:30–8:30pm: A Conversation on: Faith and Technology (Bellevue, WA)
  • June 7, 7–9pm: A Conversation on: Faith and Work (Seattle, WA)

Guite and Bell have been collaborating for years. Below are two snippets of them performing together. In the first video Guite comedically performs (to rhythmic accompaniment!) a villanelle he wrote in response to something a woman who worked at the venue of one of his poetry talks exasperatedly said to him when his hurried photocopying caused a paper jam. The second video showcases a sonnet by Guite on the baptism of Christ, from his collection Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, and the song that Bell adapted it into, released on Keening for the Dawn.

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ESSAY: “The Listening Heart: Corita Kent’s Reforming Vision” by Michael Wright: Corita Kent (1918–1986) [previously] was an American pop artist who was also, for over three decades, a nun. Michael Wright writes about how “she became interested not just in depicting scenes from the Bible but answering this: what might happen if a Christian imagination engaged the world around us through the arts? That art might look less like an illustration from a children’s Bible and more like exploring seeing the stuff of life—even a bread bag—as dialogue partners with mysteries of faith.” wonderbread is one of four works he discusses—“a playful meditation on sacred time, wonder, and communion.”

Kent, Corita_wonderbread
Corita Kent (American, 1918–1986), wonderbread, 1962. Serigraph, 25 1/2 × 30 1/2 in.

While I do think even Kent’s biblical artworks push the genre of religious art forward, I appreciate how Wright challenges Christians to give a chance to her works that are less straightforwardly religious, as these are often the most imaginative and profound. And they, too, are “deeply Christian work.” Let’s not think so narrowly about what “Christian art” must look like!

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LIVING PRAYER PERIODICAL: Pentecost 2022: One of the organizations I work for is the Daily Prayer Project [previously], which publishes seven ecumenical Christian prayer periodicals a year, structured around the liturgical calendar. I do the curation for the Gallery section, which comprises three art images with written reflections, and the editing. Our latest edition covers June 5 (the feast of Pentecost) through August 6, and it includes prayers from India, Japan, Korea, Algeria, Italy, the Choctow Nation, and more. I’m excited to feature on the cover Corita Kent’s word picture: gift of tongues! As many of her screenprints do, it integrates image and text—in this case Acts 2:1–2a, which sprawls out through the sky and onto a billowing banner, like a sail, over a crowd of people aflame with the fire of the newly descended Spirit of God.

Pentecost LPP 2022

On the website there are options for one-time purchase or group subscription, and for digital only or print and digital.

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PRAYER: “The Lord’s Prayer, Extended Dance Mix” by Nadia Bolz-Weber: In March, actor Jennifer Garner asked Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber if she could offer a prayer and a benediction on her InstaLive. Bolz-Weber vamped on the traditional words of the Lord’s Prayer, the text of which you can read at the boldface link.

I haven’t always agreed with Bolz-Weber, but this prayer is beautiful. One of the things I appreciate about her spiritual teaching is her avoidance of clichés. She gives fresh language to the experiences of faith and life in general and to theology, which often reawakens me to the beauty of God and of Christ’s gospel. Describing why she regularly turns to prayer, she says in the Instagram video:

When I don’t have enough—like if I don’t have enough patience, if I don’t have enough compassion for myself or other people, when I don’t have enough resources—prayer is this way in which I can remind myself that there is enough. That I have a connection to my own divine source. I have a connection to God. And in the heart of God there’s enough forgiveness when I don’t have enough. In the heart of God there’s enough compassion when I don’t have enough. And so for me, it’s about reminding myself of that connection.

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SONG: “Dry Bones” by Gregory Porter: From Gregory Porter’s 2021 album Still Rising, this song was inspired by Ezekiel 37. The official music video features dancing skeletons in yellow cowboy boots(!), animated by L’Incroyable Studio. The song’s bridge quotes the African American spiritual “Dem Bones.”

The first verse goes,

I won’t die, won’t bury, won’t sink
’Cause love is the spirit I drink
I’ll be free in the morning light
’Cause your touch is the medicine of life
There’s a dance to this beat, let’s shake
Every move—feel my body awake
There’s a sound—you and me are one
And your hope is the rhythm I drum

“Christographia 31” by Gene Doty (poem)

Baxter, Cedric_Jesus Striped and Stripped
Cedric Baxter (Australian, 1930–), Jesus Striped and Stripped, 2011. Acrylic, collage, and pen on canvas, 91 × 91 cm. Collection of the Uniting Church in Australia. [learn more]

Christ came juggling from the tomb,
flipping and bouncing death’s stone pages,
tossing those narrow letters high
against the roots of dawn spread in cloud.
This Jesus, clown, came dancing
in the dust of Judea, each slapping step
a new blossom spiked with joy.

Hey! Listen—that chuckle in the dark,
that clean blast of laughter behind—
Christ comes juggling our tombs,
tossing them high and higher yet,
until they hit the sun and break open
and we fall out, dancing and juggling
our griefs like sizzling balls of light.

This poem is from Christographia by Eugene Warren (St. Louis, MO: The Cauldron Press, 1977), a chapbook of thirty-two numbered poems that “attempt to express personal views of, & perspectives on, Christ.” The book’s title comes from a series of sermons by the Puritan poet and preacher Edward Taylor.

Gene Warren Doty (1941–2015) was an American poet in the Anabaptist tradition who taught in the English department of Missouri S&T for forty-two years. Throughout his career he explored a variety of non-Western poetic forms, including haiku, renga, tanka, sijo, and ghazals. He is the author of seven books of poetry: Christographia, Rumors of Light, Geometries of Light, Fishing at Easter, Similitudes, Nose to Nose, and Zero: Thirty Ghazals. Until 1988 his books and poems were signed “Eugene Warren,” Warren being the surname of his adoptive father, George, who raised him; but from 1988 onward he used the surname of his biological father, Floyd Doty.

Roundup: Psalms and the arts, Ukrainian Easter Choir, and more

BLOG POST: “An open letter to pastors (A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day)” by Amy Young: There’s disagreement among church leaders on whether civic holidays, such as Mother’s Day, should be recognized during a worship service, and if so, how. Having mothers stand (while women who are not mothers in the conventional sense remain seated) can be very othering and bring up feelings of sadness or shame. It’s also a day when people are thinking about their own mothers, which can evoke a complex range of emotions.

Amy Young believes there is a way to honor mothers in church without alienating others, as well as to acknowledge the breadth of experiences associated with mothering. She has drafted a pastoral address that I find so wise and compassionate. Some women are estranged from their children. Some have experienced miscarriage or abortion. Some have had failed adoptions, or failed IVF treatments. Some gave up a child for adoption. Some have been surrogate mothers. Some are foster mothers, or are the primary guardian of a relative’s child. Some are spiritual moms. Some women want to be mothers but have no partner or have had trouble conceiving. Some were abused by their mothers. Some have lost mothers. Some never met their mother. Young puts her arms around all these people who are potentially in the pews on Mother’s Day, making room for the complexity of the day—which does include celebration!

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VIDEO: “United with Beauty: The Psalms, the Arts, and the Human Experience” by Mallory Johnson: Mallory Johnson graduated last weekend with a B.M. in Music and Worship (concentration: voice) from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. (In the fall she will be starting an MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School.) All the seniors in the Samford School of the Arts are required to complete a capstone project tailored to their individual interests and career goals. As Johnson’s interests center on theology, history, and the arts, she created a twenty-minute video rooted in the Psalms that integrates music, poetry, short excerpts of fiction, visual art, and quotes from van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Goethe, Luther, and others, resulting in a contemplative multimedia experience.

I resonate so much with Johnson’s approach of bringing together works from different artistic disciplines to interpret one another and to invite the viewer into worship. Her curation is stellar! To cite just one example, the contemporary choral work Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds plays as we see, among other images, an Aboriginal dot painting of the constellations Orion and Canis and a nighttime landscape by realist painter Józef Chełmoński. Another: John Adams’s double piano composition “Hallelujah Junction” is brought into conversation with Psalm 150 and a painting by Jewish artist Richard Bee of David dancing before the ark.

Józef Chełmoński (Polish, 1849–1914), Starry Night, 1888. Oil on canvas, 22 13/16 × 28 3/4 in. (58 × 73 cm). National Museum in Kraków, Poland.

The video opens with the theme of awe and wonder—expanses of sky and sea and field; the beauty and vastness of God mirrored in the natural world—and then moves to lament—of the prospering of the wicked; of exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of mental or spiritual anguish and their causes; of personal sin—and finally ends with an assurance of grace and with exultation. Johnson shows how the longings of modern people overlap with those of the biblical psalmists. Here’s her description:

In his famous work titled Confessions, St. Augustine writes this: “Yet to praise you, God, is the desire of every human.” Is this true? What does this look like?

During my time at Samford, I have felt my heart and mind overflow with love for the arts. As a Christian, they have played a devotional role in my life. I find such joy in seeing connections between music, art, and literature that may seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that all humans have a longing for the goodness of God and we find “echoes” of Him everywhere, and most beautifully in artistic expression.

I wanted to show others how I understand the world as a Christian artist. This project is a journey through the Psalms, using art to reinforce the idea that the Psalms capture the full universal human experience. Across time and space, we have all felt the same things and we have all had the same deep longing for “something higher.”

I hope you can allow this project to wash over you. Make time to watch it alone or with someone you love, distraction-free. Turn the lights out, light a candle, watch it on a big screen with the volume up loud. Be cozy under a blanket with a cup of coffee, or grab a journal and write down anything that sticks out to you! It is my earnest desire that you will be moved by the artistic expression of humanity, and that you may realize that God has always been the goodness you most deeply desire.

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SONGS:

>> “Broken Healers” by Elise Massa: Singer-songwriter Elise Massa is the assistant director of music and worship arts at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. A meditation on Christ as Wounded Healer, this song from her 2014 album of demos, We Are All Rough Drafts, was inspired by an Eastertide sermon.

Here’s the final stanza (the full lyrics are at the Bandcamp link):

Broken healers are we all
In a living world, decayed
With broken speech we stutter, “Glory”
As broken fingers mend what’s frayed
Holy Spirit, come, anoint us
As you anointed Christ the King
Who wore the crown of the oppressed
Who bears the scars of suffering

>> “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith, performed by the Ukrainian Easter Choir: This is one of the few CCM songs I listened to as a young teen (Third Day’s version from a WOW CD!) that I’m still really fond of. In this video that premiered April 17, an eighty-person choir conducted by Sergiy Yakobchuk was assembled from multiple churches in Ukraine to perform for an Easter service in Lviv organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei” is one of three songs they sang, in both English and Ukrainian. The name of the soloist is not given. Many of the vocalists in the choir have been displaced from their homes by the current war with Russia. One of them says, “With the war, celebrating the Resurrection means for us now life above death, good above evil.”

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PRAYER EXERCISE: “Visio Divina: A 20-Minute Guided Prayer Reflection for the Crisis in Ukraine”: Visio divina, Latin for “divine seeing,” is a spiritual practice of engaging prayerfully with an image, usually an artwork—allowing the visual to invite you into communion with God. On March 17 Vivianne David led a virtual visio divina exercise with Natalya Rusetska’s Crucifixion, hosted by Renovaré. I caught up with the video afterward and found it a very meaningful experience. As the painting is by a Ukrainian artist and represents Christ’s passion, the war in Ukraine is a natural connection point.

I appreciate David’s wise guidance, which includes these reminders:

  • Stay with the image, regardless of whether or not you ​“feel” something happening right away. There is something beautiful about faithfully waiting with that space, having dedicated it to God as a time of prayer.
  • Notice what draws your attention, what invites you into the image—let that become a space for conversation with Christ.
  • Notice what sort of emotions arise as you stay with the image. How does it awaken desire? Let these emotions lead you back to continued dialogue with God.

This kind of quiet, focused looking with an openness to encounter is something I encourage on the blog. Any of David’s three tips above I would also suggest for any art image I post—a corrective to hasty scrolling habits. Stick around for the last four minutes of the video to see dozens and dozens of impressions from participants, which may reveal new aspects of the painting to you.

“Done Is a Battle on the Dragon Black” by William Dunbar

Harrowing of Hell (French)
“The Harrowing of Hell” (HM 1180, fol. 39v), from a Book of Hours made in France, fourth quarter of 15th century. Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

This early sixteenth-century poem by William Dunbar of Scotland—who served as poet in the court of King James IV and was also an ordained Catholic priest—is an imaginative retelling of the extrabiblical episode known as the Harrowing of Hell, wherein Christ descends to the realm of the dead on the eve of his resurrection to free the souls being held captive there by Satan.

The original poem, in Middle Scots, is reproduced below, followed by my translation into modern English, with the assistance of the Dictionary of the Scots Language. I’ve provided hyperlinks to Scots words that don’t have an obvious English correlative. The Latin refrain translates to “The Lord is risen from the grave.”

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confountet hes his force;
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak,
The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go,
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang,
The auld kene tegir with his teith on char
Quhilk in a wait hes lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang:
The mercifull lord wald nocht that it wer so,
He maid him for to felye of that fang:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

He for our saik that sufferit to be slane
And lyk a lamb in sacrifice wes dicht,
Is lyk a lyone rissin up agane,
And as a gyane raxit him on hicht:
Sprungin is Aurora radius and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorius Appollo,
The blisfull day depairtit fro the nycht:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The grit victour agane is rissin on hicht 
That for our querrell to the deth wes woundit;
The sone that wox all paill now schynis bricht,
And, dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit:
The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit,
The Cristin ar deliverit of thair wo,
The Jowis and thair errour ar confoundit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceis,
The presone brokin, the jevellouris fleit and flemit,
The weir is gon, confermit is the peis,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit,
The ransoun maid, the presoneris redemit,
The feild is win, ourcummin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION:

Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our champion Christ has confounded his force;
The gates of hell are broken with a crack,
The sign triumphal raised (that is, the cross),
The devils tremble with hideous voice,
The souls are redeemed and to the bliss can go,
Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

Beaten is the deadly dragon Lucifer,
The cruel serpent with the mortal sting,
The old sharp tiger with his teeth bared,
Who in wait has lain for us so long,
Thinking to grip us in his claws strong:
The merciful Lord would not that it were so,
He made him for to fail of that prize:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

He who for our sake allowed himself to be slain,
And like a lamb in sacrifice was offered,
Is like a lion risen up again,
And like a giant raised himself on high:
Risen is Aurora radiant and bright,
Aloft is gone the glorious Apollo,
The blissful day departed from the night:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The great victor again is risen on high
Who on our behalf to the death was wounded;
The son that waxed all pale now shimmers bright,
And, darkness cleared, our faith is now refounded.
The knell of mercy from the heav’n is sounded,
The Christians are delivered from their woe,
The Jews and their error are confounded:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

The foe is chased, the battle is done,
The prison broken, the jailers fled and banished,
The war is gone, confirmèd is the peace,
The fetters loosed and the dungeon emptied,
The ransom made, the prisoners redeemed,
The field is won, overcome is the foe,
Despoiled of the treasure that he held:
Surrexit dominus de sepulchro.

“Done Is a Battle” consists of five stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCBC, DEDEECEC, and so on. (I wasn’t able to perfectly preserve this scheme in the translation.)

As was common in medieval European literature on the Resurrection, the poem portrays Christ as a heroic warrior who storms the gates of hell, freeing the souls imprisoned there by the Enemy—described here variously as a dragon, a serpent, and a tiger, who guards his stolen possession with ferocity. Carrying a cross as his battle standard and covered with his own blood, Jesus goes down into the beast’s lair to reclaim what is rightfully his.

The opening line is considered one of the finest of any poem: “Done is a battle on the dragon black.” Part of its power comes from the use of a literary device known as anastrophe—the inversion of the usual order of words in a sentence (usually subject-verb or adjective-noun). Dunbar uses it twice: “Done is the battle” instead of “The battle is done,” emphasizing finality rather than the conflict itself, and “dragon black” instead of “black dragon,” which gives more prominence to the creature than its color. “The battle is done on the black dragon” just doesn’t have the same ring. Anastrophe is used all throughout the poem (e.g., “sign triumphal,” “claws strong,” “confirmed is the peace”).

Cosmic and dramatic, the poem highlights the Christus Victor aspect of the atonement—that is, how Christ’s death and resurrection were a triumph over the powers of evil. Integrated into this model is the idea of ransom, redemption, emancipation.

While the Harrowing of Hell refers specifically to the salvation of those saints who died before Christ and were awaiting redemption in Sheol (aka Limbo, or Hades), it is representative of the act that Christ performs for all those who are in him—releasing us from Satan’s hold, bringing us out of the grave, letting us share eternally in the fruits of his victory in heaven. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the central icon of Easter is just such a scene: the risen Christ standing atop the broken-down doors of hell, pulling Adam and Eve and the other Old Testament faithful up from its pit. It’s called the Anastasis, Greek for “resurrection.”

Jesus conquered death by going through it. Stanza 3 describes the glory with which he rose from such a state. He died a sacrificial lamb, meek and lowly, but rose up like a lion—vigorous, strong. From the darkness of night, he rose like day—like Aurora, goddess of the dawn, or Apollo, god of the sun.

(Related post: “Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Transfiguration”)

In the fourth stanza Dunbar uses a play on words that was particularly beloved in Middle English and Scots religious lyrics (and which still works in modern English): sun/Son. The sun/Son went dark at the Crucifixion (Luke 23:45) but reemerged brighter than ever on Easter morning, the dawn of a new day. Mercy sounds like bells from on high, and the world enters its liberation.

I don’t want to ignore the problematic nature of the penultimate line of this stanza: “The Jews and their error are confounded.” Their error was failing to see who Christ truly was and, because of that, calling for his execution. Attributing Jesus’s death to, broad brush, “the Jews” led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and violence in Europe. While the religious establishment of Jesus’s day certainly did play a driving role in his death, it’s important to remember that the Roman authorities were also key players; it was a collusion between synagogue and state. Both perceived Jesus as a threat, for different reasons. (And of course there’s a sense in which we all bear culpability, regardless of religious affiliation or time period, because it was for humanity’s sin that Christ went to the cross.) But casting blame is fruitless. Jesus died willingly. When I read old texts that charge all Jews across time and place with the crime of deicide, I can’t help but protest that it was also “the Jews” who stood by Jesus in the end—his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (members of the Sanhedrin!), John the Evangelist, and others—and who were among his closest followers. Not to mention that most of those whom Jesus “harrowed” from hell were Jewish! Across generations they trusted the promise given to them.

I alert you to this line so that if you use the poem in a worship context, you might consider a revision there (or at least a clarification), as the shorthand can cause confusion and breed prejudice. Though it doesn’t exactly honor Dunbar’s intent, I might suggest the following: “The people are delivered from their woe, / Resisters all most truly are confounded.”

Despite the undesirable generalization in line 31, I still believe “Done Is a Battle” is a poem worthy of our attention and engagement. It’s an exciting and culturally contextualized celebration of Christ the Dragon-Slayer, who “descended into hell,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, to save his people.  

Try reading the Scots aloud! That way you can get a better sense of the musicality. I was surprised by how much of the language I was able to comprehend. Curious of its history, I discovered that most people claim, controversially, that Scots is not actually a separate language, but rather a dialect of English.

For further reading, see The Harrowing of Hell in Medieval England by Karl Tamburr (Boydell and Brewer, 2007).