The biblical imagination of folk sculptor Annie Hooper

Earlier this month I visited the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and was struck by a large ensemble of painted driftwood sculptures by “outsider” artist Annie Hooper (1897–1986). Arranged on a broad platform in the main gallery, the figures are a mixture of apostles, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, pilgrims, pray-ers, angels, dancers, and mourners. They are but a small fraction of the thousands such figures that filled Annie’s remote coastal North Carolina home, where they beckoned friends and strangers alike to come in, take a look around, and hear God’s good word. Annie loved to tell stories through these her “symbols,” as she called them, interweaving her own life experiences with the narrative of scripture to communicate the hope of the gospel.

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM)
Annie Hooper (American, 1897–1986), Art environment (works from the northwest bedroom and dining room), Buxton, North Carolina, 1950s–1986. Driftwood, cement, paint, and shells, dimensions variable (average figure height 17 in.). American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2018.6.1–170. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Annie (Miller) Hooper was born in 1897 in Buxton, North Carolina, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. She was raised in a devout Methodist household that included her twelve siblings—one of them her twin sister, Mamie—and fourteen foster children.

After taking a few courses at Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia, she married John Hooper and moved across Pamlico Sound to Stumpy Point, North Carolina, where John was a commercial fisherman. Their son, Edgar, was born a year later, when Annie was nineteen.[1]

Annie was very involved in her church community—playing the organ for services, preaching sermons when called upon, teaching Sunday school for children and adults, writing poems for the church newsletter, composing songs.

During World War II, when Edgar was deployed to the South Pacific and John left to work in the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Annie experienced her first bout of depression, which was accompanied by blackouts. Her second bout came when Edgar, after returning safely home from overseas, developed lung problems that required him to convalesce for a year in the mountains. Overcome with the fear of losing him, she suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to seek treatment in Raleigh (likely electroconvulsive therapy).

Shortly before her four months of psychiatric care, Annie and John had moved back to her hometown of Buxton and opened a motel. She returned to Buxton in need of recuperation, and she turned often to a large illustrated Bible for diversion and comfort, filling her mind with images of the Divine at work.

Annie Hooper
Annie Hooper with her Sermon on the Mount, Buxton, NC, ca. 1983. Photo: Roger Manley.

Then one day in her fifties, Annie “heard voices and angels guiding her to create figures” that “were to reveal the more pleasant, life-affirming aspects of Christian storytelling,” as she later reported to folklorist Roger Manley.[2] She went out to the beach, picked up a suggestive piece of driftwood, fashioned a face on it with English putty, and colored it with leftover house paint. It was Moses on Mount Nebo, at the end of his life, looking over the river Jordan into the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52; 34:1–5).

Hooper, Annie_Moses
Moses on Mount Nebo

Hooper, Annie_Moses (detail)

Pleased with the result, she crafted more biblical figures using those same simple materials. She would often add seashells for eyes and cement limbs.

This art practice seemed to have a healing effect on her.

As her number of sculptures grew, Annie arranged them into tableaux around her house, starting in the dining room and a bedroom and expanding over a thirty-five-year period into every square inch of empty space—hallways, stairs, closets, tables, piano tops, stove burners, etc. “She had a kind of Cecil B. DeMille vision of the sweep of multitudes with casts of thousands,” Manley told me, “while her house was all but uninhabitable from the sheer volume of work packed into it. She used yardsticks to reach the light switches, and could barely get to the kitchen sink. The overall effect was dazzling, if a bit claustrophobically breathtaking.”[3]

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Annie made use of preexisting furniture to raise elements of certain scenes, creating a spatial dynamic. “In Annie’s house,” Manley said, “angels gazed down on the shepherds with their flocks from atop dressers and chairs, the golden calf was elevated on a stool, the ‘mount’ in the Sermon on the Mount was the dining room table, and so on.” She separated the scenes with garlands of tinsel and bouquets of plastic flowers and strung Christmas lights through them. “Changing colored light played over the groupings to impart movement and dazzle.”[4]

View photos of the original art environment here.

By the time Annie died in 1986 she had made about 2,500 figurative sculptures[5] inspired by the Old and New Testaments, on subjects like Jacob’s Ladder, the Exodus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Belshazzar’s Feast, the Visitation, the Flight to Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, the Holy Women at the Tomb, Paul and Silas in Jail, and many more. Notably, there’s no Crucifixion scene; Annie said she couldn’t bear to put nails in the hands and feet of Christ.[6] And so we get empty crosses instead.

The final group she worked on, left unfinished when she died, was forty-seven grieving Hebrew mothers who had lost their sons to Pharaoh’s death edict (Exod. 1:22). This story of infant male genocide, along with its correlative in Matthew 2:16–18, is one she returned to frequently throughout her four decades of art making, as it held strong resonances for her. She likened her son’s being sent away to war to his being thrown to crocodiles.

Hooper, Annie_Mourning woman
Mourning women

Mournful moms are everywhere in Annie’s work, Manley said—“surrounding Lazarus, overlooking scores of dead babies, at the foot of the cross(es). She identified with all women experiencing loss. In WWII dead sailors (mostly American and British) occasionally washed up on the beaches near her house after their ships had been sunk by U-boats, and she pitied their mothers as well. It was a major thread running through the whole display.”[7]

Not all the figures correspond to characters in the Bible. Some are simply “bringing the message,” Annie said.[8] They may illustrate a hymn, such as “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Hooper, Annie_Cross

Wanting to share these visual stories, Annie frequently welcomed visitors into her home, giving performative tours that involved narration and interactivity. For example, she would lean the Jesus figure over the prone Lazarus figure and bid him rise, or she would roll the stone away from Christ’s tomb while saying, “This is what God wants each of us to do—to roll away the stone of unbelief from our hearts.”[9]

Lazarus

Hooper, Annie_Lazarus (detail)

In 1978 Annie’s husband became paralyzed from a stroke, and she stopped creating until John’s death in 1982 so that she could take care of him. She was devastated by the gradual loss of her best friend to whom she had been married for sixty-plus years and who had always supported her (some would say eccentric) calling. But even as John lay ill and as she grieved, she still welcomed people in to experience the mixed-media spectacle she had built in their living quarters, as she wanted it to continue fulfilling its main purpose of edification.

She set up hundreds of signs with messages—handwritten in marker on pieces of paper and foam meat trays—to accompany the figures so that people could take their own self-guided tours. Some of these consist of Bible quotations or hymn lyrics, but most are distillations of her own spiritual wisdom, in her own words, or else personal prayers. Examples include:

  • “God’s intent is that man should come to Him and enjoy Him forever.”
  • “Through the ages, heaven will never cease to resound with the glad hallelujahs from the grateful hearts of the redeemed.”
  • “The cry of the heart for God is the cry that brings down blessings from that high source.”
  • “There is a place where the tears of the forgiver and the forgiven mingle together (at the foot of the cross).”
  • “God’s work on the cross brought a world estranged by sin back to its Creator.”
  • “Whatever honors God, help me to take delight in.”
  • “Lord, bring me to the place where mine eye seeth Thee.”
  • (And the occasionally humorous) “Keep out of the manger, Santa Clause [sic]. That belongs to the Baby Jesus.”
Hooper, Annie_Jesus
Jesus (with donkey in foreground, from another scene)

Reflecting back on her life’s work, Annie said,

I feel like I’ve been dedicated and set apart for God’s work. I believe that, but I haven’t gotten to the point that I’m perfect. I’m not an angel, I’m an aged imp. I can only live in hope, fully believing that God will bless me by making me a blessing to others, and I think I have been. When people come, they come seeking something of the supernatural, and they get it when they get God’s word. Here they get not only God’s word but they get a symbol resembling the thought that they have.

My work is all the work of love, working out the biblical scenes that will last through the ages long after I’m gone. That is my motive, that is my purpose, making figures with some spiritual thought to go along. When I look back over the work I’ve done it amazes me—but still it is not something to be worshipped. It is something that will tell a story.[10]

In a different interview, at age eighty-seven, Annie described how she works in collaboration with God, in a sense, who has uniquely equipped her for the work:

I feel like I’ve had help. I feel like the Lord’s given me the desire to do, and the talent to do, and the material to work with, and the time to do. So I really feel like I’ve been a coworker, not only in making the material that I have, but also explaining it to those who come.[11]

Hooper, Annie_Angels
Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Brimming with faith and battling emotional and mental distress, Annie created a world, channeling her pain and anxieties as well as her hopes and joys into the making of hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures inspired by sacred scripture. Some of the figures look lost or forlorn, whereas others look peaceful, even beatific; still others appear playful. She felt she could identify with many of the people represented—e.g., Job in his affliction, the Virgin Mary in her surrender.

Annie saw in these biblical stories a reflection of the human experience and assurances of how God meets us in our brokenness (in our doubts, fears, failures, sickness, grief, or what have you), bringing salvation. Lament and praise are joined together in her oeuvre.

Unfortunately, the AFAM exhibition does not preserve the narrative groupings of the figures, instead arranging them roughly by size and placing them all on the same level facing forward, rather than having them interact with one another. There are no visual dividers or spotlights to help viewers navigate the bunches. As such, and lacking much of Annie’s interpretive signage, it’s nearly impossible to precisely identify any of the characters or to discern a plot—though Manley was able to confirm a few of my hunches (labeled in my captions) and to guide me in identifying a few other figures.

I was puzzled by the presence of what I thought might be a bear.

Hooper, Annie_Animal

Manley suggested that it is probably a Gadarene swine from the story of Jesus healing a demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) but that it could also be from Annie’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” scene, which featured a large human figure lying down on a piece of green shag carpet (a green pasture) surrounded by scary black and purple creatures.

Even in her lifetime, Manley informed me, Annie’s scenes were unfixed, constantly shifting and evolving. “Many of Annie’s figures played multiple roles,” he said. “If she had to move a scene to a different part of the house to make way for more, and the new location was too small to accommodate the entire scene, she would repurpose the ‘extras’ and make them part of some other scene. Her environment was not static—every time I went (perhaps 20 times?) a majority of the scenes would have been relocated and rearranged. Only a few ‘stayed put.’”[12]

Roger Manley, whose friendship with and research on Annie I’ve relied on extensively for this article, became the caretaker of Annie’s work after her death. He first encountered it in 1970 when, on Christmas break after his first semester at Davidson College, he was hitchhiking and happened to be picked up by one of Annie’s grandsons. Thinking Manley would be amused by his grandma’s sculptures, he brought him to the house. Manley was enthralled by what he saw. He took photos and returned many times since, each time developing a keener sense of responsibility to preserve the work for posterity.

At Manley’s behest, Catherine Peck, a graduate student in the folklore program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent August 1984 at Annie’s house in Buxton, labeling and photographing her work and interviewing her. When Annie died in 1986, she bequeathed all her sculptures to the Jargon Society in Highlands, North Carolina, which Manley helped arrange.

Annie Hooper installation (detail)

Ownership was transferred to North Carolina State University around 1988, when Manley curated the first solo exhibition of Annie’s work, A Blessing from the Source, at the university’s Visual Arts Center (now the Gregg Museum of Art & Design), showcasing six of her scenes and twenty-five photographs. The exhibition opened with an international symposium, the United States’ very first on visionary/self-taught/outsider art, which included participants from the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne (Geneviéve Roulin), the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection (Monika Kinley), the Adolf Wölfli Foundation (Elka Spoerri), the Prinzhorn Collection (Inge Jádi), Rebecca Puharich (later to become Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore), Roger Cardinal (author of Outsider Art, which named the “field”), John MacGregor (author of The Discovery of the Art of the Insane), Sam Farber (one of AFAM’s great champions, who largely funded their previous building next to MoMA), and others.

In 1995 Manley organized a much larger exhibition at NC State, A Multitude of Memory: The Life Work of Annie Hooper, that displayed the whole lot they had inherited.

In 2017 the Gregg Museum (of which Manley is the director) transferred the Annie Hooper Bequest to the Kohler Foundation for conservation treatment and stewardship. While many of the sculptures remain in the permanent collection of the Gregg and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center kept 233, the rest have been donated to nine other museums across the country—including the American Folk Art Museum, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Annie’s work!

If you’d like to find out more about Annie Hooper, check out the freely accessible Digital Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, which houses four audio interviews and three on-site video tours with Annie, and the nineteen-page exhibition catalog from 1988, A Blessing from the Source.

All photos in this article, except the one of Annie Hooper, were taken by me (Victoria Emily Jones) at the multi-artist Multitudes exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan in August 2022. The exhibition runs through September 5.

NOTES:

1. ^ “The Life Summary of Edgar Ormond,” FamilySearch. Cf. Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1, Catherine Peck Collection, 1981–1988, in the Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.

2. ^ “Timeline of Annie Hooper’s Life,” compiled by Cynthia Pansing, researcher for SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), May 6, 1988. Quoted on the wall text for the Multitudes exhibition, January 21–September 5, 2022, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

3. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

4. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

5. ^ “As for numbers of objects, there are about 2500 human and angel figures, dead babies, birds, crocodiles, sheep, lions, etc., and some 500 more ‘accessories’: bases for inserting artificial flowers, driftwood stumps that provided landscaping, gold-painted miniature furniture (all crudely made by Annie), textiles (shrouds, swaddling cloths, etc.), concrete food items (for various suppers and feasts, loaves and fishes). The original inventory included everything—bunches of plastic flowers, rotating color-wheel lights, garlands of tinsel—hence the 5000 number. The materials these were made of did not survive long-term storage, however; over time, low-grade plastics begin to turn gooey or brittle, tinsel sheds, etc., so the object count shrank.” Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

6. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 6: Side 1.

7. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022. For more on military warfare waged off the east coast of the US during World War II, see Kevin P. Duffus, “U-Boats Off the Outer Banks: When World War II Was Fought Off North Carolina’s Beaches,” Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2008.

8. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 5: Side 1.

9. ^ A Blessing from the Source: The Annie Hooper Bequest (exhibition catalog) (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1988), 13.

10. ^ Qtd. A Blessing from the Source, 19.

11. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1.

12. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”: From the streets to symphony hall

In 1971 Gavin Bryars was working as a mixer and editor for a film documenting street life in and around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Sifting through all the material that filmmaker Alan Power had recorded for the project, Bryars was struck by a twenty-six-second audio fragment of an elderly homeless man singing a simple song of Christian faith:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
That’s one thing I know
For he loves me so

The clip didn’t make it into the film, but Power gave Bryars permission to keep it. Unfortunately the singer’s name and likeness were never recorded, and Bryars’s attempts to find him were unsuccessful. And despite scouring various hymnals and archives, neither Bryars nor anyone else has been able to find any other record of the song, which means it very likely could have been written by the man himself.

Inspired by the beauty and sincerity of the man’s song, Bryars ended up using the unwanted audio as the basis of a major orchestral composition. He made a loop of its thirteen bars (which the man sings perfectly in tune) and wrote a simple chordal arrangement, which he then developed into a rich ensemble piece with strings and brass, lasting about thirty minutes. The first three and half minutes feature a playback of the man’s bare vocals, the clip gradually increasing in volume until the strings enter in layers, then the brass, building to a swell that supports (but crucially, does not overwhelm) the voice for the entire duration.

“In a loose narrative sense, the frail, forsaken man is given a dignity and a sense of comradeship from the supporting musicians,” writes British journalist Oliver Keens, who also says that this “work of experimental classical music .  .  . as accessible as any pop song .  .  . is the closest we have in [England] to an underground national hymn.”

Music writer and sound artist Marc Weidenbaum says the piece “takes the melody inherent in a creaky recording of a homeless man singing a hymn in a painfully sweet and wavering rendition and renders it in a gentle, sensitive setting that suggests a heavenly chorus if not outright beatification.”

It is meditative; trancelike, even. And it has such emotional power. I cried when I first heard it.

The orchestration honors the anonymous man’s faith and the object of his faith, Jesus Christ—particularly the efficacy of Jesus’s blood, shed for the life of the world. An expression of divine love, that blood flows into every dark corner, bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. The man on the tape clung to its promise. Even though his circumstances might suggest that the blood did fail him, he testifies otherwise: Jesus’s blood has never failed me.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was originally released on LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975 (a few minutes had to be shaved off for it to fit on vinyl) and was re-released in 2015. A shortened version was recorded in 2002 on Gavin Bryars: A Portrait, featuring Tom Waits, with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.

Widely performed, the piece exists in many iterations, with different lengths (from four minutes to twelve hours) and instrumentation. Bryars said he reinvents it every time he conducts it, usually writing parts for the musicians he has available.

Last year, in celebration of the work’s fiftieth anniversary, The Song Company and friends recorded a new choral a cappella version by Bryars.

The song has also been covered by popular Christian artists such as Jars of Clay (2003) and Audrey Assad (2016). Sandra Stephens sings it with a new melody and Latin rhythm on the collaborative album Shades of Blue (1994), interspersed with a monologue by Lanny Cordola that references the song’s source in that unnamed Londoner who graced the world with it.

The video above captures a performance by Psappha, conducted by Clark Rundell, which took place October 12, 2016, at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.

In a Luminous podcast interview with Bryars last year, host Peter Bouteneff, reflecting on how Bryars recovered the old singer’s brief improvised performance from the cutting-room floor, said something that has stayed with me: “It makes you wonder how at any given moment, there’s something passing being said or sung, that if we cared enough to isolate it and love it, it could become exactly as beautiful.”

Recognizing the sublimity of the man’s song, Bryars shone a light on it, developing it into a full-fledged concert piece that doesn’t compete with the original homespun quality, but rather elevates it, broadens it. “Jesus’ Blood” is a merging of “fine” and “folk” cultures that exhibits the unique strengths of both.

It’s a pity that the man has never received named authorship credit—although, as mentioned, due diligence was taken to identify him prior to the song’s going public, and no new leads have emerged since, now surely decades after the man has passed. We don’t know whether the song is one he heard long ago in some church or mission hall, or from a friend, or something he composed himself. Either way, his heartfelt presentation of the song is a gift, and Bryars’s stewardship of that gift and creative engagement with it has extended its reach all over the globe.

Roundup: “Incarnation and Imagination” lecture, Planet Drum, and more

PODCAST EPISODE: “Incarnation and Imagination (with Malcolm Guite),” Imagination Redeemed: On March 28, 2015, the Anglican poet-priest Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, England, gave a talk in Colorado Springs for the Anselm Society, an ecumenical Christian organization whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. They have just released it on their podcast.

Guite discusses how the job of the arts is to link earth and heaven, heaven and earth; where a poem or other work of art stays on only one of those planes, it typically fails. He unpacks Theseus’s monologue from Act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, focusing on these six lines: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Shakespeare, Guite says, is riffing on the prologue to John’s Gospel.

The Logos . . . is bodied forth perfectly and beautifully in the living, walking poem of Jesus Christ, in whom everything eternal is made particular, and who invites everybody to come towards him . . . because he is a habitation with open doors. So of course in John’s Gospel he says, ‘I am the door’! . . . Open up, walk in! (48:51)

And one more quote from Guite!

The church . . . is founded by one who is himself artistically embodied meaning—meaning made visible, meaning made beautiful, meaning made habitable and hospitable and welcoming in the touch of the body and in the physical event, which is then transfigured, because it is also a meaningful event, because earth and heaven meet. (55:34)

It’s a brilliant and inspiring talk, and it integrates other poetic verse besides Shakespeare’s.

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MUSIC:

>> “More Love, More Power” by Paul Livingstone and Benny Prasad: This sitar-guitar duet is performed by Paul Livingstone (a multi-instrumentalist and composer of “ragajazz chamber music” who was one of the few American disciples of the late Ravi Shankar) and gospel musician Benny Prasad [previously]. The performance took place June 11 at Chai 3:16, a four-hundred-seat café and community space that Prasad founded in Bengaluru to reach out to college students. (Chai is Hebrew for “life,” and “3:16” refers to the famous verse in the Gospel of John about God’s love.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

>> “King Clave” by Planet Drum: In 1991 Mickey Hart (best known as a drummer of the Grateful Dead) and Zakir Hussain (a classical tabla virtuoso from Mumbai) formed the Grammy-winning global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, bringing together the world’s greatest rhythm masters into a one-of-a-kind improvisational supergroup. Prompted by ongoing international strife, Planet Drum reconvened over the past two years to record their third album, In the Groove, which released August 5. It features six unique compositions led by Hart, Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju of Nigeria, and Giovanni Hidalgo of Puerto Rico.  

The centerpiece of the album is “King Clave” (the clave is a rhythmic pattern), created in partnership with Playing for Change and with funding from the United Nations Population Fund. The four core musicians mentioned above are joined by other percussionists and dancers from around the world. The music video uses the “Alternate Version” of the performance, released separately as a single.

Learn more about the Planet Drum project in this six-minute video:

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STILL LIFE EDITION: “The History of the Peace Symbol” by Michael Wright: Did you know that the peace symbol that spread worldwide during the 1960s was designed by a Christian from the UK? (Christian pacifism was one of the underappreciated drivers of the nuclear disarmament and antiwar movements.) Learn more about the symbol’s history and art historical and nautical influences in the August 15, 2022, edition of Michael Wright’s weekly letter on art and spirit, Still Life. Also included is the poem “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai, and four weblinks of interest, such as an article on how the patristic tradition agrees with cognitive neuroscience, and a video of FKA Twigs performing in a church!

Holtam, Gerald_Peace
Sketch of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom, created for the first Aldermaston March in 1958. © Commonweal Collection, University of Bradford, England.

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VIDEO LECTURE: “Symbolism and Sacramentality in Art: Medieval and Postmodern Representations of the Little Garden of Paradise” (Religion and Art Talks) by Tina Beattie: Dr. Tina Beattie is a professor emerita of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton whose research is at the intersections of art, gender, and theology. In this talk she explores the sacramental imagination of the medieval world through a Late Gothic painting from the Rhineland known as The Little Garden of Paradise. (You can zoom in in tremendous detail on the Städel Museum’s website.) It shows Mary reading in an enclosed garden in the company of saints, her little boy Jesus playing a psaltery at her feet. “Christ retunes the cosmos,” Beattie says. “The harmonies of creation were disrupted by sin. But all of creation is brought back into harmony through the Incarnation.”

Symbolism and allegory abound in medieval religious paintings, encoding profound meanings that can be discerned if we would but take the time to look and to meditate and to understand the world from which these images arose. “The visual image can say things that the theological text can’t,” Beattie asserts. “It can play with the doctrinal truth in ways that allow other meanings to emerge discreetly.”

Though many interpretations of hortus conclusus imagery focus on Mary’s virginity, and indeed that was a primary aspect motivating the creatives who developed such imagery, Beattie draws out themes of new creation and discusses the garden as the human soul.

The Little Garden of Paradise
The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhine, ca. 1410–20. Mixed media on oak, 26.3 × 33.4 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The Little Garden of Paradise (detail, dragon)
A small, slain dragon lies belly-up beside a man in greaves and chain mail, probably Saint George.

The other artworks she glosses are:

The last half hour of the video features audience engagement.

“A Blessing for Back to School” by Sarah Bessey

Hsu Tung Han_The Trend of Autumn
Han Hsu-Tung (韓旭東) (Taiwanese, 1962–), The Trend of Autumn (秋天の潮), 2013. Walnut wood, 155 × 98 × 50 cm. [artist’s website]
As we head back into our classrooms, may you go forth fully convinced of our love and your capacity. May you be the head and not the tail, leading others—and yourself—on a path of flourishing. 

May your roots go down deep into God’s soil so you will bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

May you remember your people, where you come from, and find your place of belonging. 

May you become even more fully who you were always meant to be this year. We delight in you, darling.

We pray that you would sow seeds of life and hope wherever you find yourself, cultivating a harvest of shalom.

May you be prepared for every good work that lies ahead of you. 

May your mind be clear and engaged, your memory sharp, your wisdom beyond your years. May you ask for what you need without fear or shame.

May you be safe, beloved child, protected from anything that seeks to steal, kill, or destroy in any measure. When you are afraid, may you feel our love wrapped around you and take heart.

When disappointments or disasters come—and they will—may you find the depths of the resilience we already see in you and rise, rise, rise again. 

May you do what is right and good and kind and just, no matter what everyone else might do. Don’t submerge your true self into the dreams, plans, behaviors, or agendas of others. Bring your full beloved self to these days, knowing you are created in the image of God.

We pray that you would be a blessing to your teachers and the school staff, and we pray that they, in turn, would see and affirm you in the fullness God has created. 

We pray for good friendships that will sharpen and delight you. 

We pray you would have eyes to see the lonely ones. May you have many opportunities to practice being both brave and kind. 

Beloved child of God, we send you out in the power and peace of Love itself, prepared and anointed, knowing you walk upon steady ground.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, one God and Mother of us all.

Amen.

This adaptable parental benediction for a child’s return to school is from the August 8, 2022, edition of Sarah Bessey’s Field Notes and is reproduced here with Bessey’s permission.

Pádraig Ó Tuama on using power well

Gollon, Chris_Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–2017), Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery (Jesus Draws in the Dust) (triptych), 2015. Acrylic on canvas, each panel 48 × 36 in. (122 × 91 cm).

Jesus of Nazareth was not a powerless man. . . . Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and he just used a different kind of power. When, in John’s Gospel [8:1–11], I read about a woman being stoned, I see Jesus using power. He bent down and scribbled in the ground, writing words that we do not know. He did that, knowing—I am guessing—that many of those who were about to throw stones couldn’t read the words even if they could have strained their necks to see them. He used his privilege to deflect attention, and in so doing he undid the story that held the slew of stoners together. This was not powerlessness. It was power and it is deep in us.

The woman was about to be stoned because of the addictions of the stoners. They were addicted to a violent kind of belonging, a kind of community that forges its borders through selective exclusion. She was about to be stoned with their bone-breaking morals that would prefer to kill a woman rather than examine their own complicity. We all need to be rescued from this kind of power—from both its appeal and its effect. An undoing of this power is seen when power is used for love. Power, used well, should be empowering, contagious, and protective. It should be self-critical, curious, and brave. It should know its own limits and be prepared to risk its own reputation. This kind of power asks questions to which it does not know the answers and listens because in listening is learning, and in learning is life.

Hello to the power of learning.

—Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2021), 240–41

“O Christ, Thou Art Within Me Like a Sea” by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (poem)

Parlar, May_Salt IV
May Parlar (Turkish, 1981–), Salt IV, 2018. From the photograph series Once I Fell in Time.

O Christ, thou art within me like a sea,
Filling me as a slowly rising tide.
No rock or stone or sandbar may abide
Safe from thy coming and undrowned in thee.

Thou dost not break me by the might of storm,
But with a calm upsurging from the deep
Thou shuttest me in thy eternal keep
Where is no ebb, for fullness is thy norm.

And never is thy flood of life withdrawn;
Thou holdest me till I am all thy own.
This gradual overcoming is foreknown.
Thou art within me like a sea at dawn.

This poem appears in Therefore Choose Life by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (Harper and Brothers, 1947).

Edith Lovejoy Pierce (1904–1983) was a Christian poet and pacifist. Born in Oxford, England, she married an American in 1929 and moved to the US the same year, settling in Evanston, Illinois. In her writing she drew inspiration from the Bible, Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, music, history, and mysticism, among other sources.

Roundup: West African praise medley, reading poetry and fiction, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: August 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Most months I compile thirty songs and other musical selections into a nonthematic playlist as a way to share good music, mostly from the Christian tradition but otherwise Christian-adjacent. This month’s list includes a traditional Black gospel song performed by Chris Rodrigues and professional spoon player Abby Roach (featured here); a Zulu song from South Africa about holding on to Jesus (bambelela = “hold on”); a song in the voice of Christ Our Mother by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, from her album Gospel Oak; a portion of Barbados-born Judy Bailey’s Caribbean-style setting of the Anglican liturgy; a brass arrangement of a Golden Gate Quartet classic; Palestrina’s beautiful multivoiced setting of a Latin hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux; a future-looking song of celebration by country artist Naomi Judd, who passed away in April; a condensation of “In Christ Alone” by Texas soul artist Micah Edwards; and more.

The two videos below are from the list: a medley of the Twi praise chorus “Ayeyi Wura” (King of Our Praise) from Ghana and “Most High God” from Nigeria, led by Eric Lige at the 2018 Urbana missions conference, and a new arrangement by Marcus & Marketo of “I’ve Got a River of Life,” a song that I have fond memories of singing in children’s church as a kid (with hand motions!) (you can hear a more standard rendition here). The first line is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 7:38 (“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and the refrain “Spring up, O well!” comes from Numbers 21:17, where the Israelites praise God for providing them water in the desert.

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Reading books is a key way that I grow intellectually and spiritually, and books are often where I find content to highlight on the blog, be it poems, visual art, people, or ideas. Because I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have easy access to a lot of the books I need for my research, and I rely heavily on my personal library (as well as the Marina interlibrary loan system). If you’d like to support the work of Art & Theology, buying me a book from my wish list is a great way to do that! I’ll consider it a birthday gift, as my birthday is Saturday. 😊

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ESSAYS:

>> “Poetry’s Mad Instead” by Abram Van Engen, Reformed Journal: “I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to ‘sing a new song,’” says Abram Van Engen, chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and cohost of the podcast Poetry for All. “And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.” He adds, “Poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.”

In this essay, Van Engen walks readers through the sonnet “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur, which is what he begins with whenever he teaches poetry at church. He teaches you some of the poet’s tools so that you can feel more confident in approaching poems on your own.

>> “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature” by Leland Ryken: An excellent article, by a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and more. “With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.”

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VISUAL MEDITATION: On Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Jacek Malczewski, by William Collen: William Collen introduced me to this unusual painting on the subject of Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well from John 4—a subject the artist painted several times (e.g., here, here, and here). Whereas Christ is traditionally shown pontificating to the woman with an air of formality, here there is an appealing casualness to their interaction, and the woman dominates the composition.

Malczewski, Jacek_Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Jacek Malczewski (Polish, 1854–1929), Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1912. Oil on plywood, 92 × 72.5 cm. Borys Voznytskyi Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine.

Collen is an art writer and researcher from Omaha, Nebraska, who is a Christian and who blogs at Ruins. I’ve enjoyed following his posts, which include “The proper response to an art of sorrow”; “Dikla Laor’s photographs of the women of the Bible”; how household chores are approached differently by Koons, Picasso, Degas, and Vermeer; “Good art / bad art / non-art”; and “Artists and agency: assumptions and limits.” He writes in a conversational manner that’s really refreshing.