Take Delight (Artful Devotion)

Untitled (4 Dancing Figures) by Sara Kathryn Arledge
Sara Kathryn Arledge (American, 1911–1998), Untitled (4 Dancing Figures), 1958. Watercolor on paper, 15 3/4 × 29 3/4 in.

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

—Psalm 37:4

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SONG: “O Lord, I Will Delight in Thee” | Words by John Ryland, 1777 | Music by Luke Morton, 2010, on Beggar (2013)

 


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 Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

New resource: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

I’m super-excited to share with you all a major new project I’ve contributed to, which is the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), a free online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible through the skillful selection of works of art. Launched November 6, 2018, at a reception at the Tate Modern, the VCS is directed by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London and is funded in large part by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson.

As Quash explains in the introductory video, the VCS aims to demonstrate how visual art itself can serve as biblical commentary, and when placed in conversation with other “visual commentaries” on the same text, the meaning of said text potentially becomes all the more clear. This practice of compiling diverse theological perspectives on a biblical text for their dialogical potential has ancient roots. The Jewish Talmud, for example, gathers together the viewpoints of different rabbis, not because they all necessarily agree but often because they constructively disagree—and there’s value in that conversation. The equivalent in the Christian tradition is the Catenae.

Translating this tradition into a modern, visual format, the VCS comprises virtual “mini-exhibitions” of three works of art per biblical passage, along with a short textual commentary on each artwork and one comparative commentary. (Currently about one hundred passages have gone live, and the goal is to cover the entire Bible.) The commentaries are written for nonspecialists but are grounded in detailed theological and art-historical research. Care is taken to secure the highest-quality images, which you can zoom in on.

Art historian Matthew Milliner calls the VCS “the Biblia pauperum of our time,” referring to the relatively accessible block-printed picture Bibles of the Middle Ages:

Let’s face it: new commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors make the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually . . . wait for it . . . free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

YES. I would love to see pastors and seminary students using the VCS as a resource for their biblical and theological studies and sermon preparation.

(Related posts: “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”; “Two unlikely characters sharing the same space”)

The exhibitions are arranged by biblical text for easy searching—and there are so many fantastic ones. I especially enjoy the ones that include a contemporary art selection. For example, Ayla Lepine ingeniously chose Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls from the 2015 Venice Biennale to converse with Esther 8, in which Esther pleads for the deliverance of her people. Ursula Weekes curated an eclectic trio of portraits—of Florentine noblewoman Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, German Reformer Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife), and former US First Lady Michelle Obama—to interact with the famous “wife of noble character” passage from Proverbs 31. And Pablo Perez d’Ors places Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas, made of found objects and inviting viewer participation, side by side with Old Master paintings to probe the significance of that famous resurrection encounter.

Esther 8 (VCS Commentary)

Proverbs 31 (VCS commentary)

Doubting Thomas (VCS commentary)

“Physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight,” Quash says, affirming the seventh-century monk John of Damascus, who wrote that “just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation” (In Defense of Icons 3.12).

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I curated the “Bodily Resurrection” exhibition for the VCS, which takes as its basis 1 Corinthians 15:35–58. After reading the passage many times, including in the context of the whole epistle, and meditating on it, I wanted to investigate how the church has interpreted it over the centuries, so I read Caroline Walker Bynum’s excellent book The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, which quotes from and summarizes a wealth of patristic and medieval writings on the topic. That led me to Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh, an extensive treatise from the early second century. They were both fascinating reads.

In addition to the Pauline metaphor of the seed, Bynum writes,

the resurrection of the body is also described by theologians as the flowering of a dry tree after winter, the donning of new clothes, the rebuilding of a temple, the hatching of an egg, the smelting out of ore from clay, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down, the growth of the fetus from a drop of semen, the return of the phoenix from its own ashes, the reassembling of broken potsherds, the vomiting up of bits of shipwrecked bodies by fishes that have consumed them . . . (6)

I realized that I had never really thought about the logistics of the doctrine of the general resurrection, and although, as with other doctrines, the mechanics are not what’s important, it was interesting to consider what my resurrected body might look like, and how (and from whence) it will be reconstituted once it decomposes, turns to dust. Some of the conjectures I found to be quite amusing—like Gregory of Nyssa’s claim that in heaven we will have neither genitals nor intestines, because there will be no procreation or digestion(?). Or Augustine’s suggestion that we will receive back all the bits of ourselves that we ever had, including nail and hair clippings, but the excess will not necessarily go to our fingers and heads but rather will become absorbed into our flesh (so that we don’t look freakish).

I spent a lot of time wrestling through the paradox, held consistently by the church throughout the ages, that the resurrection body will be both identical to the one we have now and new. This particular passage from Paul seems to emphasize the new aspect. He contrasts “physical”/“terrestrial” and “spiritual”/“celestial” bodies. What does he mean by the latter?

Choosing only three images to open up this rich theological doctrine was a real challenge, and I cycled through dozens before landing on the ones I did.

At the outset, I was cognizant that the resurrection Paul writes about, which will occur “at the last trumpet,” is distinct from the spectacular rising from the graves that occurred on the day Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:52)—so although there are many fine examples of that latter episode in art, I passed them over for this assignment. I also passed over images of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, since that narrative is rooted in a different passage (see the VCS exhibition), even though there is an obvious intertextual link between the two.

I was intrigued by the “second Adam” motif present in the Pauline text, and I considered several artworks that follow that vein, including ones depicting the “Harrowing of Hell,” or, as it’s called in the Orthodox tradition, the Anastasis, in which the resurrected Christ pulls up Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament saints from Sheol. This iconographic type would have made a particularly apt pairing with the passage’s triumphant ending: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” But strictly speaking, the harrowing has already taken place (according to church tradition, on Holy Saturday), and although it prefigures the future resurrection, I wanted to keep the focus on the yet-to-come event that Paul is talking about. Plus, I figured that the harrowing will almost surely make an appearance in some other VCS commentary.

Anastasis (Istanbul)
Anastasis fresco in the parecclesion of Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 1315.

A related image I found, a contemporary one, very unique in its approach and theologically loaded, is a life-size painting by Caleb Stoltzfus that shows the glorious nude Christ, his puncture wounds visible, pulling up a man from the dust. It’s titled Resurrection. I love this image, and there’s much that could be said about it—but ultimately, I felt that it fit better with the passage preceding mine, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Read the artist’s commentary at http://www.calebstoltzfus.com/blog/resurrection.

Resurrection by Caleb Stoltzfus
Caleb Stoltzfus (American), Resurrection, 2016. Oil on linen, 6.5 × 5 ft.

In my image search, I also examined a lot of symbolic bird imagery of the resurrection—that is, phoenixes and peacocks. The phoenix is a mythological bird that dies but then rises up from its own ashes, and the flesh of the peacock was thought to not decay, giving both birds a theological weight since the earliest era of Christian art, where they sometimes stand in for Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, our own. Thinking I’d draw this visual tradition into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15, I came close to selecting Hope, a Renaissance painting from Umbria, Italy, from a set of three allegorical paintings on the theological virtues; in it Hope is personified as a woman who squints her eyes toward the sun and catches a wind as she stands beside a phoenix on its pyre—suggesting the Christian hope of life after death. Although hope is implicit in the Corinthians passage, it’s not a keyword, so I ultimately decided not to include the Umbrian painting in my selection. Peacocks, however, did make the cut! (See below.)

Theological Virtue Hope
Italian (Umbrian) painter, Hope, ca. 1500. Tempera and gold on wood, 29 1/8 × 17 7/8 in. (74 × 45.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another shortlisted artwork was the Last Judgment triptych by Jean Bellegambe, a French-speaking Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century. I was particularly drawn in by a detail at the bottom of the central panel, which shows skeletons in the process of acquiring flesh, and an angel reassembling body parts. It is very common in historical works of art for the resurrection of the dead to be subsumed under a larger visual program of the Last Judgment—but Paul doesn’t discuss judgment in my given passage, so I decided to move away from that context.

Last Judgment by Jean Bellegambe
Jean Bellegambe (French/Flemish, ca. 1470–1535/36), Triptych with the Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1525. Oil on oak panels. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Probably the most unusual thing I discovered in the course of my research was the “regurgitation motif,” which shows animals vomiting up human body parts (from the corpses they have eaten) for reassembly on the last day. Several early church fathers mentioned that this would happen in their theologies of the resurrection, but its visual origin is attributed to the posticonoclastic East and the Carolingian-Ottonian West; it continues down into modern times in Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian frescoes. One of the best-known examples (in the West) is from the monumental twelfth-century mosaic at Torcello near Venice.

Resurrection of the Dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.
Sea giving up its dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.

Bynum cites a handful of other examples in her aforementioned book and discusses the motif in depth, contributing to one of her main theses: salvation is regurgitation, damnation is swallowing. An absolutely brilliant argument, drawing heavily on visual theology.

It’s likely that Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . .”) influenced the creation of this motif. Because Paul himself doesn’t mention the mouths of animals giving up their dead, I decided not to go with the extraordinary Torcello mosaic. But I was able to sneak in a reference to that tradition by way of a side detail in one of the paintings I chose. It’s almost comical to look on, how literal it is. But it’s also thought-provoking. If our dead bodies are eaten and digested by worms or carrion beasts—or, God forbid, we meet our end through the mouth of a wild animal—then what remains of us, if we are divided into parts, mere particles, even? Will we ever be made whole again? If we are both body and soul, as Christianity attests, then isn’t our material continuity essential?

Other runners-up that didn’t make the cut were Wassily Kandinsky’s eschatological paintings—for example, All Saints I and Composition V. I wanted to choose artworks from three different countries and eras, and for the modern period, I just had to go with Stanley Spencer, who is renowned for his many resurrection paintings, localized to his hometown of Cookham in the UK. (I also felt a little beyond my depth writing about Kandinsky’s radical style and spiritual approach to painting.)

All Saints Day by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), All Saints I [Allerheilgen], 1911. Reverse glass painting, 20 × 24 in. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany.
Composition V by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 6 1/4 × 9 ft. (190 × 275 cm). Private collection.

The inclusion of Spencer also influenced my choice, after some consideration, not to go with the Harrowing panel from Nicholas Mynheer’s Wilcote polyptych. (Two twentieth-century British paintings would have presented too limited a range.) It would have fit well with the Corinthians passage, which talks about us being sown in the dust and reaped in glory—and its juxtaposition with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, on the opposite wing of the altarpiece, further underscores this theme. I wrote about the altarpiece as a whole a few years ago at Art & Theology.

The Harrowing by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), The Harrowing, extreme right inner panel of a polyptych, 1999. Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

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So what did I end up choosing?

  • A fifth-century Christian sarcophagus from Italy, emphasizing Paul’s metaphor of the body as seed that, once buried, will flower forth in life
  • A thirteenth-century German psalter illumination that shows the dead casting off their grave-clothes and “putting on” immortality
  • A twentieth-century painting by the British master Sir Stanley Spencer, who set the resurrection in a local churchyard, using his friends and neighbors as subjects

Bodily Resurrection (VCS commentary)

I feel that these three artworks give sufficient variety and engage meaningfully with Paul’s text. Hop on over to the Visual Commentary on Scripture for high-resolution viewing and to learn more! I recommend that you start by reading the comparative commentary: https://thevcs.org/bodily-resurrection/last-trump.

And be sure to check in periodically at the VCS website, as new content is added regularly.

Blessed Are (Artful Devotion)

Come ye blessed by Nathaniel Mokgosi
Nathaniel Mokgosi (South African, 1946–), “Come, ye blessed . . . ,” 1980. This linocut is one of ten in a series on the Beatitudes. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 274

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

—Luke 6:20b–23

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SONG: “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit” | Traditional, performed by Mitchell’s Christian Singers, on Mitchell’s Christian Singers, vol. 2 (1936–1938)

The Great Depression had a devastating effect on America’s recording industry, but a gradual recovery started in 1934, and that’s when the gospel quartet climbed to ascendancy within the broader genre of African American religious music. One of the most celebrated groups of this period was Mitchell’s Christian Singers from Kinston, North Carolina, originally called the New Four but then renamed for manager Willie Mitchell.

Each of the members had a different day job—tobacco warehouse laborer, truck driver, stonemason, coal salesman—but they formed a habit of singing together in the evenings and were discovered by a local talent scout. They went on to record more than eighty sides from 1934 to 1940, and in 1938 they even appeared onstage at Carnegie Hall alongside other greats, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Count Basie, for a landmark program titled “From Spirituals to Swing.” (One review of the concert noted how Mitchell’s Christian Singers sang “with touching solemnity . . . intensity and abandon . . .”) But despite their extensive output and relative popularity, none of the members opted for full-time professional musicianship. They traveled out of state to make records from time to time but generally stayed close to home, performing at churches and community functions.

The recording above, from an August 11, 1937, studio session, features Louis “Panella” Davis, Julius Davis, William Brown, and Sam Bryant. It was reissued in 1996 by Document as part of a four-volume CD set of the group’s complete works.


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 Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Fishers of Men (Artful Devotion)

Fishing for Souls by Bill Hemmerling
Bill Hemmerling (American, 1943–2009), Fishing for Souls. Oil on canvas, 60 × 10 in.

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

—Luke 5:1–11

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SONG: “Fishers of Men” by Becky Buller | Performed by Rhonda Vincent, on One Step Ahead (2003)

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage is the most awarded band in bluegrass history. This studio version of their “Fishers of Men” cover is great, but there is also a commercially available live recording on Vincent’s Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (2012), plus several live-performance videos on YouTube. I like this one from a 2007 bluegrass festival in Miamisburg, Ohio:

The other singers are, from left to right, Mickey Harris, Kenny Ingram, and Darrell Webb.


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 Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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Bankrupt (Artful Devotion)

Girl with the Heart by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944), Girl with the Heart, 1899. Color woodcut, 40.4 × 33.9 cm (15 7/8 × 13 3/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

—1 Corinthians 13:1–3

That’s the ESV. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s translation, from The Message:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

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SONG: “The Gift of Love (Though I May Speak)” | Words: Hal H. Hopson, 1972 | Music: Traditional English folk melody (adapt.) | Performed by Becky Craig (vocals) and John Michniewicz (piano) | CCLI #67327

Though I may speak with bravest fire
And have the gift to all inspire
And have not love, my words are vain
As sounding brass and hopeless gain

Though I may give all I possess
And, striving so, my love profess
But not be giv’n by love within
The profit soon turns strangely thin

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control
Our spirits long to be made whole
Let inward love guide every deed
By this we worship and are freed


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 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Nunc dimittis (Artful Devotion)

presentation of christ in the temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, ca. 1650. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

—Luke 2:29–32

These words were sung two thousand-plus years ago by a Jewish man named Simeon upon seeing and holding the newborn Christ child at his presentation ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. Known as the “Nunc dimittis” (from the Latin for “Now you dismiss”), the song has been used year-round in Compline, Vespers, and Evensong worship services since the fourth century. Since the seventh century, it has served as the centerpiece of the annual feast day known as Candlemas, celebrated on February 2 in the West and February 15 in the East (the Western and Eastern churches count forward forty days from their celebration of Christmas Day, on December 25 and January 6, respectively).

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SONG: “Nunc dimittis” from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1915) | Arranged by Bob Chilcott (2016) | Performed by Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir, on In Winter (2016)

Rachmaninoff’s “Nunc dimittis,” the fifth movement of his All-Night Vigil, was one of his favorite compositions of his career, and he requested that it be performed at his funeral. Its melody is based on a Kievan chant from the Russian Orthodox Vespers service but employs a few rhythmic adjustments and, furthermore, is carried forward by a soloist. As Vladimir Morosan notes in his essay “The Sacred Choral Works of Sergei Rachmaninoff,” “The slow rocking motion of the accompanying voices on two-note descending figures, akin to a lullaby, imparts to the piece a static and peaceful quality.”

The performance above is by Katie Melua, a Georgian singer-songwriter from the UK, who in 2016 returned to her native Georgia to record a winter-themed album with one of the country’s all-women singing troupes. The choral arrangements on In Winter, including “Nunc dimittis,” were specially commissioned of Bob Chilcott.

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Icons are central to the devotional lives of Orthodox Christians. Here I’ve included three from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, which I had the pleasure of visiting about five years ago. Iconographers follow very specific guidelines in their writing of icons, which is why there has been little variation over the centuries. To learn how to read an icon of the Presentation of the Lord, see this “iconreader” blog post.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1600. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 16th century. Tempera on wood, 24 × 16 in. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

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 feast of the Presentation of the Lord, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Raban Maur, comic books, and more

SEMINAR: “The Language of Grace? The Action of God’s Love in Poetry and Art”: On February 6 at 6 p.m., as part of the Catholicism and the Arts York initiative, St. Wilfrid’s Church in Duncombe Place, York, will be hosting back-to-back talks: “Grace and the Poetics of David Jones” by Dr. Elizabeth Powell and “Full of Grace? The Desire of Art for God” by Katherine Hinzman.

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ALBUM FUNDRAISER: Love Secrets by John Mark Pantana: I really enjoyed Pantana’s 2017 debut album, Mighty Grace, so I jumped at the opportunity to support his next project on Indiegogo: Love Secrets. His voice is so soothing! So are his original lyrics, all about God’s love and grace. Visit him at https://www.johnmarkpantana.com/, and listen to one of the songs from his upcoming album, “Abba,” below. Fundraising campaign ends February 9.

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EXHIBITIONS

I love the curatorial approach of these two current exhibitions, which bring art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance into conversation with contemporary art. Rather than doing this to prove a disjunction sparked by modernity, the curators stress continuity between the artists of yesterday and today.

“Make It New: Conversations with Medieval Art,” Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France), Paris, November 5, 2018–February 10, 2019: Curated by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, “Make It New” explores the relationship between works of contemporary art and the medieval art of Raban Maur (Hrabanus Maurus), a ninth-century monk from Fulda, Germany, and a major figure of the Carolingian renaissance. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Raban Maur’s De laudibus sanctae crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), a Latin manuscript comprising twenty-eight highly sophisticated poems whose letters are arranged in simple grids over colorful, geometric cross patterns. At the BnF, these compositions are placed in dialogue with thirty-plus works by some of today’s minimalist, conceptual, and land artists, including Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Niele Toroni, and Franz E. Walther, stressing similarities in form, color, proportion, and perspective. [press release (English)] [compilation of Maur images]

The original figure poem cycle was produced around 810 at the scriptorium in Fulda, and Raban Maur had a hand in making at least five other copies during his lifetime (of which France’s National Library owns two: Lat. 2423 and Lat. 2422); seventy-four additional copies from the Middle Ages are extant. The Burgerbibliothek Bern in Switzerland has digitized its early eleventh-century copy (Cod. 9), and it’s really fascinating! Full-resolution downloads are enabled. According to the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny, “no work more precious to see, more pleasing to read, sweeter to remember, or more laborious to write can or could ever be found.” I don’t know Latin, but visually, I can really appreciate these fine pages. I was hoping to find more information about the work but could really only find a single French lecture given back in 2007 by Denis Hüe, a professor of medieval and Renaissance language and literature at the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne.

In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany, ca. 822–847. BnF Lat. 2422, fol. 10v.
In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany.
Untitled by Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007), Untitled, 1970. Ink on paper. © Adagp, Paris.
Work Drawing by Franz Erhard Walther
Franz Erhard Walther (German, 1939–), Werkzeichnungen (Work Drawing), 1967. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. © Adagp, Paris.

“Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth,” Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26–March 31, 2019: When pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006, he was astonished by the Renaissance master’s expressive use of the body to convey emotional and spiritual states. Here the two artists are exhibited side by side, showing their common grappling with life’s fundamental questions, albeit in vastly different mediums. “Both artists harness the symbolic power of sacred art, and both show us physical extremes and moments of transcendence.” Among the twelve major installations from Viola, spanning his career, is Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), a sixteen-foot-high projection depicting the ascent of the soul after death.

For February 16, the Royal Academy has organized a full day of events keyed to the exhibition, including poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a panel discussion with cultural historian Marina Warner, theologian Ben Quash, and artist Mariko Mori, titled “Art as fulfilment: the use of religion and spirituality in contemporary art.” Questions for the day include: Does art connect us? Can art be transformative or transcendental? Can art influence society—that is, change opinions or human behavior? Other offerings in addition to this program are a curator’s introduction on February 1, a short course on figure drawing, and a talk on the limitations and opportunities of digital art. Plus, the London Art Salon is hosting a talk on the exhibition by art historian Marie-Anne Mancio.

Tristan's Ascension by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Photo: Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.
The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), The Risen Christ,” ca. 1532–33. Black chalk on paper, 37.2 × 22.1 cm. Royal Collection Trust, UK.

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NEW COMIC BOOK PUBLISHER: Cave Pictures Publishing, founded in fall 2018 by Mark Rodgers, is committed to the telling of “modern myths” that “speak to the soul” through comic books in the genres of action-adventure, sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. Pitched for the spiritually inclined, the stories they publish “seek to make sense of our world . . . draw us toward the source of goodness . . . uncover what we worship.” Says Rodgers in a Hollywood Reporter interview: “Just as cave paintings were humanity’s initial attempt to process through the tough ultimate questions of human existence, we look at our stories as ‘sherpas of the soul,’ to contribute to the individual and collective human journey towards meaning and a greater reality,” the One True Myth. Read more about the company’s influences and aspirations in this Convivium essay. See also the interview in Sojourners.

The Light Princess (Cave Pictures Publishing)

One of their five inaugural series is The Light Princess, an adaptation of one of George MacDonald’s best-loved fairy tales, about a princess who is cursed with weightlessness and is only brought down to earth by a true, sacrificial love. MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet (e.g., here, here, and here), and Christian minister who deeply influenced C. S. Lewis and J R. R. Tolkien. Speaking of Tolkien, I’m really digging this quote of his on Cave Pictures’ website, which affirms the value of story: “Legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode. . . . Long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”

Jubilee (Artful Devotion)

Jubilee by Steve Prince
Steve A. Prince, Jubilee. Linocut, 36 × 24 in.
Click on image to purchase.

And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

—Luke 4:16–21

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In this passage from Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading, Jesus enters his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and gives what is essentially his inaugural address, having recently been installed to public office by God (at his baptism) and now informing the people of his intentions as their new leader. His agenda is taken straight from Isaiah 61:1–2, and boils down to this: FREEDOM. That is his rallying cry.

“The year of the Lord’s favor,” or “the acceptable year of the Lord,” in Luke 4:19 refers to the Jubilee legislation God gave Israel, mandating that every fiftieth year, slaves were to be set free, debts canceled, and land wealth redistributed (see Leviticus 25). This ushering in of economic justice was most definitely “good news to the poor.” In his reading from the Isaiah scroll and his statement that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” Jesus was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee. And as we know from what follows in the Gospels, this Jubilee would be far more expansive than the one prescribed in Levitical law. Release from bondage, forgiveness of debts, restoration of what had been lost—there is, of course, still a material significance to these provisions, but there’s also a spiritual significance, in that through Christ, we are liberated from sin and ultimately brought back to the Garden in which we originally dwelt.

In ancient Israel, the semicentennial Jubilee Year was announced by the blowing of a shofar (ram’s horn) on the Day of Atonement. The Hebrew word for jubilee, yovel, actually means “ram’s horn”; in the Septuagint, yovel is translated multiple times as apheseos semasia (“trumpet blast of liberty”). The Latin form, jubilaeus, is influenced by the Latin jubilare, “to shout for joy.”

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Typically I make one music selection for the week’s Artful Devotion, but I couldn’t decide between these two—so you’re getting a twofer! I’d encourage you also to revisit “Jubilee” by the McIntosh County Shouters (which pairs splendidly with the Steve Prince linocut), featured in a previous roundup.

JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL: “Jubilee Stomp” by Duke Ellington, 1928

This track was recorded at Okeh studios in New York City on January 19, 1928. It features Duke Ellington on piano, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalf on trumpet, Joe Nanton on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet and tenor sax, Harry Carney on alto sax and baritone sax, Fred Guy on banjo, Otto Hardwick on alto sax and bass sax, Wellman Braud on string bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.

GOSPEL-ROCK SONG: “The Year of Jubilee” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1750 | Music by Kirk Ward, 2010

Blow ye the trumpet, blow! The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know, to earth’s remotest bound:
Jesus, our great high priest, has full atonement made;
You weary spirits, rest; you mournful souls, be glad.

Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
You ransomed sinners, return, return home.

Extol the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Lamb;
Redemption through his blood throughout the world proclaim:
You slaves of sin and hell, your liberty receive;
And safe in Jesus dwell, and blessed in Jesus live.

You who have sold for naught your heritage above,
Receive it back unbought, the gift of Jesus’ love:
The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace;
And, saved from earth, appear before your Savior’s face.

Hymnic poetry doesn’t get much better than that of Charles Wesley, and “Blow ye the trumpet, blow!” is no exception. I discovered this text through Kirk Ward, who wrote new music for it—a tune that is, in my opinion, far superior to the ca. 1782 tune by Lewis Edson that’s used in the hymnals of the United Methodist Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and others. Ward’s gospel-rock version of the hymn, which includes the addition of a chorus, is a congregational favorite at my little church in Maryland.

Describing his stylistic influences and aspirations, Ward writes:

I was thinking that the song would work well in a more 1960s style, civil rights era gospel-rock. I was thinking Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Aloe Blacc, but the over-driven guitar sounds and my white boy vocals push it more toward something like Neil Young. Maybe one day, I’ll record it with horns and soul-power guitar riffs to get the sound I heard in my head. Regardless of the groove, my main goal was to get everyone shouting “FREEDOM!” at the top of their range.

As with all the songs posted on the New City Fellowship Music website, congregations are encouraged to freely use “The Year of Jubilee” in worship; an MP3 demo, lead sheet, and lyrics are provided for that purpose. I’d love to hear some full-band performances of this song online—if any exist, please post them in the comment field below. If you’re interested in making a commercial recording, contact Kirk Ward for permission.

(Related post: “And the Walls Came a-Tumblin’ Down,” commentary on a Steve Prince linocut from my collection)


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 Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit

One of the joys of blogging at Art & Theology is being introduced to new artists by my readers. I was pleased to receive in the mail recently, as a gift from one such reader, a color booklet and a 2018 documentary on the art of Dom Gregory de Wit (1892–1978), a Dutch artist and Benedictine monk who between 1938 and 1955 lived in the United States painting murals for Catholic churches and monasteries. This was the first time I’ve encountered the artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him better through these materials.

All photos in this post are provided courtesy of Edward Begnaud or Stella Maris Films.

Gregory was born Jan Aloysius de Wit on June 9, 1892, in Hilversum, Netherlands. He entered the monastic life in 1913 at age twenty-one, joining Mont César Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, and there taking the name Gregory. (His interest in liturgy and ecumenism is what drew him to that particular abbey.) de Wit was passionate about art making since a young age, and his order encouraged him to further develop his talent as a painter. He therefore studied at the Brussels Academy of Art, the Munich Academy, and throughout Italy. In 1923 he exhibited at The Hague and ended up selling forty-five paintings in one month! He then went on to fulfill three sacred art commissions—one in Bavaria, two in Belgium—while continuing to live as a monk.

Jesus as servant
This mural, painted in 1930 and photographed here in black-and-white, shows Jesus serving wine at a monastic banquet. It’s one of nine murals Gregory de Wit painted in the refectory of St. Michael’s Abbey in Metten, Bavaria, Germany.

In 1938, Abbot Ignatius Esser of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana met de Wit in Europe and invited him to design and execute paintings for the abbey’s church and chapter room—which he gladly accepted.

Here he started to develop his own style, which would come to be marked by brilliant (sometimes garish) colors, bold outlines, distortion or disfiguration (e.g., disproportionate hands), and “overlapping” perspective.

In Christus, Jesus is borne upward by a red-winged chariot. In his right hand he holds a victory wreath, and in his left, an open book that declares, EGO SUM VITA (“I am the Life”). The three small Greek letters in the rays of his halo, a traditional device in Orthodox iconography, mean “I am the Living One,” a New Testament echo of God’s “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14.

Christus by Gregory de Wit
This figure of the risen Christ, painted by Gregory de Wit in the 1940s, is found high on the wall of the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana.

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Shortly after de Wit arrived in the US, World War II broke out, and even after he completed his work at Saint Meinrad, he couldn’t return to Belgium. Luckily, another stateside commission came his way, from the newly built Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The parish priest, Father Dominic Blasco, hired him to paint a series of murals, which resulted in de Wit’s most polarizing work: his Christ Pantocrator in the apse behind the altar. Many of the parishioners hated it (and I have to say, I’m not partial to it). A humorous anecdote in the documentary recalls Maria von Trapp, who had once visited the church, expressing her horror at the image to de Wit, not knowing he was its artist!

Not only did de Wit’s art garner dislike, but so did his temperamental personality and sometimes irreverent behavior. For example, while at Sacred Heart, he smoked while he painted, dropping cigarette butts onto the floor during services. Although he did have his supporters, he was eventually fired from Sacred Heart. The last painting he did for the church was of the Samaritan woman at the well—descried as “pornographic” by the sisters of the school because of the suggestive way her dress clings to her forwardly posed thigh.

The painting at Sacred Heart that I’m most intrigued by is the Pietà in the narthex, which shows Mary holding her dead son. Genesis 3 is invoked by the thorns that not only crown Christ’s brow but that rise up all around him, symbolic of the curse. What’s more, a half-bitten apple rolls from his limp hand; he, like his forefather, Adam, has tasted death. And this he did willingly out of love, signified by the fiery, thorn-enwrapped heart of his that he holds in his right hand, whose glow illuminates the darkness.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit
Dom Gregory de Wit, OSB, Pietà, 1940–42. Narthex, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit

Because de Wit painted this image during the war, it is contextualized with a soldier on one side and the soldier’s wife and three children on the other, praying for his safe return. Why do they belong in this scene? Some wartime artists drew parallels between Christ and the soldiers’ sacrificial laying down of their lives (cf. John 15:13). I’m uneasy with this comparison for several reasons, not least of which is my Christian pacifism. But de Wit’s painting seems, rather, to use the soldier and his family as a representation of war and to suggest that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, is with us in our present suffering. He entered our world, after all, and died to redeem us from its evils—sin and death and all their extensions. The presence of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, must have been a comfort to the mothers at Sacred Heart whose sons were overseas fighting.

Moreover, even though its hieratic style may be off-putting to some, I also really like de Wit’s crucifix for Sacred Heart. The corpus is painted on solid mahogany, with real nails driven through the hands.  Continue reading “The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit”