I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
During Easter 2016 I published an article on Jesus as the gardener of our souls, featuring a roundup of Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”) paintings that portray the risen Christ as a literal gardener, including a fresco by Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco in Florence.
I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college living in Florence and, while there, fell in love with Renaissance art, and in particular the paintings of Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455). Born Guido di Pietro, he took vows as a Dominican friar and, together with his assistants, painted two corridors and the forty-four cells in the newly built San Marco, where he lived. The convent is now a state museum and is one of my favorite sites in the city.
In 1990 art historian Georges Didi-Huberman published a monograph on Fra Angelico, spending considerable time on his Noli me tangere, especially its red flowers, which he reads as a figural displacement of Christ’s stigmata (nail wounds). (More on this below.) In the painting, he writes, Christ’s blood “soaks the earth and makes a new humanity grow there, a humanity in the imitation of Christ, a humanity redeemed from sin” (161). He notes how the floral imagery is echoed in the Annunciation in the hallway outside the cell, serving to visually connect these two stages of redemption: Christ’s “flowering,” or conception, in the womb of Mary and his flowering forth from the womb of the earth on Easter.
The figure of the Christ-flower was already a common one in the medieval West. For example, the great thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus writes,
The Christ-flower [flos Christus] blossomed in the Nativity, as we read in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse.” It withered in the Passion, when there was no longer aspect or beauty. . . . It blossomed again at the Resurrection according to human nature, in the very place where it had withered. Thus it is said: “And my flesh blossomed anew” (Psalm 27:7). [De laudibus 12.4.2]
Fra Angelico furthered the development of this metaphor in visual form, picturing Christ’s blood (according to Didi-Huberman) as a fertilizing material, the agent of regeneration.
The following excerpt is taken from Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration* by Georges Didi-Huberman, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pages 19–22. I find some of the semiotics discourse to be abstruse, but I’ve highlighted a few standout ideas in boldface—ideas that have helped me to see Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere (and the Resurrection!) with new eyes.
Angelico sprinkled little spots, deposited little splotches all over this “field” [of green]: more or less regular blotches, made of Saint John White [bianco di San Giovanni]—that is, the very material that constitutes the intonaco of the pigment—and, on top of that, red. It is a bright color, a terra rossa, and it forms a slight relief from the wall; the rhythmic effect, the pattern effect, is only that much stronger.
But what about this “field” in the economy of representation? And in particular, what exactly do these little spots of red pigment spread across the surface like stars represent? To what category of signs do they belong? A response suggests itself at first glance, a response relating to the obviousness of the storia and, consequently, to the overall mimetic, “realist” nature of the fresco: these little red blotches without a doubt represent flowers in the meadow. In [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s semiotic typology, these little red blotches would therefore be icons of flowers in a meadow. Peirce noted quite rightly, concerning this concept of the icon, the extent to which we have a tendency when contemplating a painting to forget the distinction between the present sign (in this case, the red blotches) and the absent reality (the flowers). We therefore need to go a bit further in our contemplation of the little blotches themselves.
We notice at this point that the colored patterns are absolutely not painted like flowers. They do not describe anything, do not suggest any distinguishing features: in these flowers, there are no calyxes, no corollas, no pistils, no stamens. They are colored blotches, no more and no less. And it would be completely absurd to invoke at this point some incompetence on Fra Angelico’s part in representing a flower with its pistil and stamens: he carried out the task perfectly well elsewhere, and moreover, he proved himself competent in the face of much greater mimetic difficulties. It would be just as pointless to imagine the painter “not having the time,” or the coat of paint drying too quickly. If Angelico had wanted to paint a flower like a flower, he would have done so; he would have applied himself. But that is precisely the point: he did not decide to do so. He was satisfied with laying on little circular “heaps” of terra rossa. Why? The response is not in absentia, in a meadow or a text, for example; it is in praesentia, on the fresco itself. For if we persist in wondering what the red blotches are painted like, we can give as our response only what we see: in all rigor, these red blotches are painted like—that is, exactly in the same manner as—Christ’s stigmata.
These red blotches are even painted the way Fra Angelico painted stigmata in general, Christ’s or Saint Francis’s, everywhere in San Marco: they are small circular inflections of the brush that deposits its thick pigment of terra rossa. And the evidence of such a relation is accentuated, specified, virtually demonstrated by the constellation effect Angelico actually bestowed on his little blotches: these flowers scattered across a green ground follow a trajectory that ends with a repetition of the same pictorial sign on Christ’s hand and foot.
Confronted with what amounts to a real displacement of the iconic sign, I can no longer affirm anything that has the minimal stability required for the notion of a motif: speaking in absolute terms, I can no longer say “it is” or “it is not” in a decisive way. There is a displacement of the iconic value and hence an equivocal representation. For example, I can very well affirm that Christ’s stigmata are, according to Fra Angelico, the flowers of his body. And I will have no difficulty, by the way, in finding a Thomist text to support an affirmation of this kind: for instance, the article in his Summa theologica that Aquinas devotes to the question of whether Christ’s risen body had or did not have scars. To the objector who maintained that stigmata are wounds, and hence a “corruption” and a “defect,” Aquinas responds yes, but those wounds, on Christ, possess a “special beauty” (specialis decor) which is Beauty itself, the (bleeding, of course) Beauty of the Virtue of Humility [Summa theologica 3a.54.4].
But I could just as easily affirm, confronted with Angelico’s fresco, that Christ is here represented in the emblematic act of “sowing” his stigmata in the garden of the earthly world, just before going to rejoin the right hand of his Father in heaven. The idea finds support, by the way, if we pay attention to the fact that, seven times in the fresco and especially next to the stigmata stricto sensu, the red “flowers” appear in groups of five, the symbolically very pregnant number of Christ’s wounds.
In short, in considering these little red blotches in terms of the how of their presence in the fresco, we are led to equivocate on the question of what they represent mimetically. The iconic character of these red signs moves to the background, submits to a logical aporia, while their nature as indexes, as blotches, as pure physical, colored traces, takes center stage. And their way of signifying—between the flower and the stigmata, creating the notion of a relation above all—no longer has anything to do with the way the story delivers its very recognizable meaning.
Finally, as if to definitively convince his meditative fellow friar that he was not merely recounting a too well-known anecdote from the Gospels, Fra Angelico placed a third type of sign at the level of the gaze, something that does not look like anything recognizable in a meadow or even in the story of the Noli me tangere: it is a symbol, three little bleeding crosses, placed between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. Here is something that does not “resemble” anything in the order of meadow reality, but nonetheless possesses an obvious memorative function, pointing toward a meditation on Christ’s Passion and the Trinity.
It is particularly important to note that Angelico’s fresco signifies a great deal beyond the conventional iconographical attributes of its story. The example of the little patterns of red in itself raises the possibility of a painter’s using pictorial signs that constitute, strictly speaking, signa translata, a term I will translate as “transit signs,” signs or operators of conversion. And these signs of conversion are not simply metaphors, because their material existence sets up a labile movement between signs of very different semiotic status—icons, indexes, and symbols. That is why such pictorial signs immediately prohibit any univocal relation of attribution—a word to be understood in its two senses, logical and iconological. Such signs have the value of displacement, movement, and association rather than definition, identification, or predication.
But that does not mean they have a lesser value. On the contrary: if there is a type of thinking characteristic of images, it is associative—translata—thinking, a thinking that structures itself by shifting. To represent flowers in a field, Fra Angelico chose to produce only stigmata, simple marks, red colored traces; but these traces, arranged in series, in some sense bridge the gap between two completely heterogeneous (but theologically articulable) orders of thought: a field in springtime on the one hand, and Christ’s body “decorated” with wounds, his stigmata, on the other. That is what, in all rigor, is called a practice of figurability. The image, incapable of—or rather oblivious to—strict logical thinking, draws from this obliviousness all its signifying force. It is only a matter of seeing in Angelico’s fresco how a single material element—that famous terra rossa color—can function on the whole surface of the work as the privileged operator of displacements and structurers of meaning: this red speaks to us of sin in Mary Magdalene’s robe, but it is also, across from her, the very place of Christ’s suffering, the stigmata; it returns to Mary Magdalene in the converted form of compassion; it is disseminated as spring flowers, as an emblem of the Passion, but also of the Resurrection; it continually shifts between the flesh of man—since it is in general a stroke of that same red that outlines bodies in Angelico’s frescoes—and the glory of Christ’s risen flesh, the incarnate of his lips, the red cross of his halo. . . .
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How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
—1 John 3:17–18
For this week’s installment, instead of presenting for contemplation a song and a visual artwork, I want to share a contemporary dance number, in which the aural and the visual—music and bodily movement—are intertwined. Click on the image below to watch the performance on YouTube (will open in new tab; ends at 2:11).
This routine was choreographed by Travis Wall to Will Young’s cover of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” It aired August 22, 2016, on season 13, episode 10 of So You Think You Can Dance on Fox. For this “Next Generation” season, contestants were between the ages of 8 and 13 and were paired with older dancers from previous seasons (“All-Stars”). The young dancers are Tahani Anderson, Leon “Kida” Burns, Ruby Castro, J. T. Church, Emma Hellenkamp, and Tate McRae. The All-Stars are Gaby Diaz, Comfort Fedoke, Marko Germark, Jenna Johnson, Paul Karmiryan, Sasha Mallory, Kathryn McCormick, Jonathan Platero, Robert Roldan, and Du-Shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall.
Liberate us, we pray you, Lord, from the getting and grasping to which we are prone. Teach us the royal way of the law of the gift, that in giving not only things but ourselves we may know even now the life abundant you promise to bring to perfection in eternal life with you. Increase in us gratitude for your gift of yourself, and let that gift of gratitude inspire us to the greatness of living our lives as love in response to love.
—Richard John Neuhaus
God of all—
come now and transform my life
into becoming an instrument and embodiment of your peace.
May I bring, be, and sustain love over hate.
May I bring, be, and sustain pardon in the midst of harm.
May I bring, be, and sustain hope where there is none.
May I bring, be, and sustain light in the terror of the dark.
May I bring, be, and sustain rejoicing upon sadness.
Grant me the gift
to choose the consolation of others over my own;
to seek to understand over my need to be understood;
to seek in all things, to love well beyond myself.
Because in such ways,
I will receive much more if I give without reserve,
and I will know true reconciliation and restoration
when I forgive and restore others;
I will know the joy of life to the fullest
when I truly die to myself.
FLASH MOB: On Easter 2011 at City Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, a flash mob broke out singing the Paschal troparion in Arabic: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! [HT: Global Christian Worship]
NEW PAINTING INSTALLED: James B. Janknegt is a Christian artist from Texas who is known for transposing biblical stories into contemporary American settings. He recently completed a large triptych for the new Unity Hall at Community First! Village in Austin, a planned community, developed by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless. (See the development and learn more about it in this short video, presented by MLF founder Alan Graham.) The painting shows Jesus in conversation with the “good thief” who, as he dies, acknowledges his crime and asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Behind him paradise flowers forth, indicating not only his new home but his inward regeneration. The other thief, by contrast, turns his head away in stubbornness. This episode demonstrates that repentance is always met by Christ with love, affirmation, and seeds of new life.
SHORT FILM: “Dance Dance” by French film director Thomas Blanchardevokes each of the four seasons through different elements acting on flowers, captured in either time lapse or slow motion. For fall, a rose is set on fire; for winter, foliage afloat in water becomes frozen in ice; for spring, lilies bloom; and for summer, colored inks hit the flowers and billow up in dusty clouds. Stunning images!
CHAIYA ART AWARD FINALIST: The inaugural Chaiya Art Award competition ended last month, with the winner taking home £10,000 and being exhibited, along with forty-one other juried selections, at London’s gallery@oxo March 29–April 9. The theme was “Where Is God in Our Twenty-First-Century World?”
One entry I really love is finalist Sheona Beaumont’s Natal, a photographic work that shows a nude pregnant woman standing against a dark wall in profile, her hair blown wildly by a gust of wind, opposite a corpse. These are two different spaces set in juxtaposition—two photos stitched together. The black-and-white photo of the dead body, on the left, is Fred Holland Day’s The Entombment from 1898, in which he himself posed as Christ, laid out on a bier before a doorway, his crown of thorns and titulus crucis on the ground beside him. Beaumont rotated this horizontal image 90 degrees clockwise so that the Christ figure is propped upright. She then posed her female model to form a sort of mirror image, but one full of vitality; the woman’s belly, the site of new life about to be born, is brightly lit. This combination photograph makes a powerful Holy Saturday image, one that hints toward resurrection as the stillness gives way to stirrings. The photo is also an allusion to the new life we believers have in Christ, and in fact it forms the first in a new series titled Born Again. Visit Beaumont’s website to view the artwork and to read a bit about her process and the meaning the work holds for her.
EXHIBITION: “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle”: Last fall, Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons made its North American debut at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveling for the first time in centuries, and now the exhibition is at the Frick Collection in New York City—but only through the end of this week! Twelve of the thirteen paintings in the set are from Auckland Castle in County Durham, England, the residence of the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, who acquired them in 1756 and had them displayed in his dining room, where they have remained ever since. Trevor was outbid on the painting of Benjamin, however, which is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, reuniting the set for the first time since the paintings’ 1756 sale.
The iconography of the paintings is derived from the prophecies Jacob utters over each of his sons on his deathbed, as described in Genesis 49. For example, Judah, from whom “the scepter shall not depart,” holds said scepter and is regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon (Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles); Dan, on the other hand, holds up a serpent on a stick, alluding to his craftiness. To view all the paintings, click here.
3-D SHOW: As of last month and through the end of July, Artainment Worldwide Shows, in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, presents “Giudizio universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel”by Marco Balich, an immersive 3-D show that brings to life Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes inside the Rome Conciliation Auditorium. Half the room is covered, from the walls to the ceiling, with a 270-degree screen that projects extremely high-res photos of the paintings, dramatized through movement, music, lighting, sound effects, narration, live actors, and dance. Lasting sixty minutes, the show concludes with the thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), set to new music by Sting and arranged for chamber orchestra and choir by Rob Mathieson. Watch the trailer below, or click here to see some of the 3-D animation of the Last Judgment.
Embedded in my heart is a melody.
I hear it now and again, faintly.
It disturbs my quest for power with hints of grace.
It haunts my dreams of control with intimations of selflessness.
It stays my hand lifted in anger
And softens my chest tight with rage.
It whispers to me of justice,
And sings to me of compassion.
It is the song of God and I shall sing it yet.
But not alone.
We each bear the song
And someday we will sing it together in harmony.
On that day the mountains of discord will melt before us;
Idols of ego, tribe, and boundary will shatter,
And together we will sing the world awake.
Rauschenberg’s Untitled black painting with a funnel (c. 1955) is presented as a kind of figure: the open circular collar of a t-shirt positions a head relatively high in the field, and the fragment of a sleeve on the right-hand edge indicates a lifted hand. Nearly all of the collaged scraps of cloth and paper on the surface are painted over in flat black paint—one of the few portions that is not is a prayer card just to the right of the center of the painting that displays a reproduction of Carl Bloch’s Doubting Thomas (1881). Flurries of red, yellow, green and white paint have been slashed across the surface immediately below this image (the only place such color appears in the painting), which within the figure suggested by the cloth fragments correspond to the position of the wound in Christ’s side, as depicted in the prayer card. The painting’s surface subtly stands in for the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus, and as such the ball of twine placed in the funnel on the left side of the panel becomes doubly suggestive of incarnation (descending downward into the funnel) and ascension (being pulled upward out of the funnel). But if Rauschenberg is allegorizing the surface of the painting with the resurrected body of Christ, then he is also placing himself (and the viewer) in the position of the incredulous Thomas. It is a painting that powerfully articulates both a longing to touch and see (Lk 24:39; cf. Lk 6:19) and the persistence and seeming ineluctability of doubt in the age of modernity (including doubt that images, much less paintings, can any longer serve as vehicles for the kind of religious touching and seeing that we long for). Like much modern art, this is not a work of unbelief as much as it is of fragilized belief, one that is caught oscillating (or struggling) between doubt and belief.
“We do not know . . . how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
O doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things:
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after him and find him in the flesh.
Because he loved your awkward counter-point,
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
O place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
[Click here to listen to a short sermon Guite preached on St. Thomas back in 2012, which opens with his reading of this poem.]
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, cycle B, click here.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. . . . This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
—Isaiah 25:7, 9b
Kristus je vstal! Zares je vstal! (Slovenian) | Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
My church is a part of the New City Network; we have several favorite James Ward songs, and this is one of them. I can’t wait to sing it together as a congregation this morning!
Let no one fear death,
for the death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed hell when he descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of his flesh. . . .
Hell grasped a corpse, and met God.
It seized earth, and encountered heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen and you are cast down! . . .
Christ is risen and life is set free!
A type of “Man of Sorrows” image, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels is a devotional trope originating in the late Middle Ages. It typically shows a naked, half-length Christ standing up in a sarcophagus, his wounds prominently displayed so as to invite meditation on his suffering. One or more angels tend to him—they may embrace him, mourn his passing, unwrap his burial shroud (to give viewers a better look), display instruments of the passion, keep him propped up in the tomb, or, as we will see below, prepare to welcome him back to life.
One of the earliest examples of this imagery is the marble relief at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Originally a lectern adornment for the pulpit in Pisa’s cathedral, it shows two angels unveiling Christ’s body, presenting it to us like a eucharistic host. Their raised arms and slanted legs form a mandorla-like frame around him.
The fifteenth-century alabaster sculpture shown below was formerly partially painted, and the angels formerly wore diadems on their foreheads (one survives). “This is an immensely virtuoso carving for such a small scale,” writes art historian Kim W. Woods—notice the texture of the angels’ wings and hair, the lining of Christ’s ecclesiastical robe, and the plants at Christ’s feet. Notice, too, the intricately carved emblem on Christ’s brooch: a pelican pecking at her breast. Reputed to have fed her young with own blood, the pelican was a common medieval symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love.
In the Leipzig Man of Sorrows by Master Francke, Christ and three angels stand in a shallow space in front of the cross. It’s unclear whether Christ is on the edge of death or has already crossed over. In his left hand he holds the scourge—or tries to (his hand is either weak and cramped with pain, if alive, or if dead, afflicted rigor mortis). His other hand gestures to his side wound, still wet with blood, as if, like Thomas, he’s about to probe it. Peeking up over Christ’s shoulder is a full-size angel, who tenderly drapes him with a diaphanous veil. At the bottom of the painting two smaller angels kneel on either side, the one holding the birch, the lance, and the sponge-topped reed, the other holding the pillar of flagellation; they both struggle to support the dead weight of Christ’s arms.
The angels at Christ’s waist in Master Francke’s Hamburg Man of Sorrows, instead of holding instruments of torture, hold a lily and a sword, symbols of the Last Judgment. (In visualizations of that event, Christ is often shown with a lily coming out of his right ear, signifying an “innocent” verdict for the faithful, and a sword coming out of his left ear, declaring guilty those who did not know him.) Three angels at the top remove the cheap, mock kingly garment the Romans had thrown on him to replace it with his due: a finely embroidered robe befitting a true king.