Cloud of Witnesses (Artful Devotion)

Menabuoi, Giusto de'_Paradise
Giusto de’ Menabuoi (Italian, ca. 1320–1391), Paradise, ca. 1378. Dome fresco, Padua Baptistery, Italy.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

—Hebrews 12:1–2

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SONG: “A Cloud of Witnesses Around Us (A Thousand Alleluias)” | Words by Brian Wren, 1996 | Music by Gary Rand, 2015 | Performed by Gary Rand, Cindy Stacey, and Dorian Gehring

A cloud of witnesses around us,
a thousand echoes from the past,
proclaim the One who freed and found us,
and leads us on, from first to last.
For such a gift, let all uplift
a thousand alleluias.

A carnival of faiths and cultures
parading through our settled praise,
with jangled rhythms, songs and dances,
expresses Love’s expansive ways.
Christ is our song. To God belong
a thousand alleluias.

A crowd, that clamors pain and anger,
prevents us from nostalgic pride;
the cries of poverty and hunger
recall us to our Savior’s side.
There we entrust, to God most just,
a thousand alleluias.

A throng of future shapes and shadows,
a world that may, or may not be,
names us the servants and the stewards
of all the Spirit longs to see.
In awe we bend, and onward send
a thousand alleluias.

A rainbow-host of milling children,
God’s varied image, from all lands,
awakes again our founding vision,
that onward, urgently expands.
Give all, give more. Let love outpour
a thousand alleluias.

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Padua Cathedral and Baptistery
Padua Cathedral (left) and Baptistery (right). Photo: Peter Owen.
Padua Baptistery
Padua Baptistery, interior panorama. Photo: Nikola Sarnavka.

In de’ Menabuoi’s stunning fresco, we glimpse a rendering of the glory of Christ’s church. We see a myriad of saints surrounding Jesus in a circle, which itself, suggests fullness and unending eternity. This grand scene was painted on the ceiling of a baptistery, a chapel set aside for the purpose of uniting new believers to the Lord and His church. So when the newly illumined ones came up out of the waters of baptism, they would see a representation of what and who they were just joined to: Jesus Christ as the Lord of Hosts, arrayed in the midst of His mother and the various ranks of saints, an image of God’s kingdom.

Fr. Ignatius Valentine

The image of Christ in the center of the cupola is of the type known as Christ Pantocrator, meaning “Christ Almighty” or “Ruler of All.” The book he holds open reads, EGO SUM Α ω (“I am Alpha and Omega”).

Giusto de' Menabuoi_Christ Pantocrator
Photo: Peter Owen

To view more frescoes from the Padua Baptistery, visit https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/giusto/padua/index.html.


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 Proper 15, cycle C, click here.

Keys (Artful Devotion)

St. Peter with the keys to heaven
Ink drawing with color wash from the Liber Vitae of New Minster and Hyde, England, ca. 1031. Stowe MS 944, fol. 7r, British Library, London.

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

—Luke 12:32

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SONG: “Keys to the Kingdom” | Traditional gospel blues song, performed by Abigail Washburn (lead vocals), Kai Welch (trumpet, backing vocals), and friends (I can’t find the names of the upright bassist and percussionist—anyone know?)

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Go Gabriel, get the trumpet, move on down to the sea
Don’t you sound that trumpet, ’til you hear from me

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ John on the island, place him in a kettle of oil
Then the angels came from heaven down, told him that the oil wouldn’t boil

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Take ol’ Paul and Silas, place ’em in jail below
Then the angels came from heaven down and unlocked that prison-house door

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

When I get in trouble, I know I done no crime
Wake up central in Glory, and Jesus come to the phone

I’ve got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm
I got the keys to the kingdom, the world can’t do me no harm

Abigail Washburn is a Grammy Award–winning clawhammer banjo player and singer and one of my favorite musical artists. Here she sings a traditional song from the American South, which, as is typical of such songs, exists in many variations. Her version, she says, is based on a performance by Lillie Cogswell Knox, recorded a cappella on a porch in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, in the 1930s. You can listen to this historic recording on Deep River of Song: South Carolina—Got the Keys to the Kingdom, from the Alan Lomax Collection.

Washburn has performed “Keys to the Kingdom” at many concerts, each performance unique. You can find a handful of these on YouTube; I particularly like the smoky jazz version she did at the Berkeley Café in Raleigh, North Carolina, in January 2011, embedded above. She also recorded the song on the 2006 EP The Sparrow Quartet, the album title a reference to the cross-cultural folk music group consisting of herself, husband Béla Fleck (banjo), Ben Sollee (cello), and Casey Driessen (fiddle). The album version has a banjo accompaniment (by Fleck) and an overall brighter tone.

While Matthew 16:19, Jesus’s metaphoric handing over of the keys to Peter and the church, is the more direct inspiration for the refrain, I love reading the gentle saying of Jesus from Luke 12:32 in relation to this song.

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The drawing above is a detail from one of the pages of the eleventh-century Liber Vitae (“Book of Life”) from New Minster in Winchester, a medieval Benedictine monastery that moved to Hyde after the Norman Conquest. The book contains a list of names of the members of the community and its associates and benefactors, living and dead, along with pictures, grants, historical accounts, material for church services, prayers, and other devotional material.

This drawing is part of a spread toward the beginning of the manuscript that shows St. Peter unlocking the gates of heaven as he welcomes in a queue of the saved from the facing page. Inside the celestial city, Christ is adored. The page’s middle band shows Peter fighting a devil for a man’s soul. The man’s victory is secure, as his name is recorded in the Book of Life, which the angel flashes open, over against the devil’s faulty document. Amusingly, to cinch the victory, Peter delivers a mighty whack to the devil’s head with his oversize key!

We’ve got the keys to the kingdom—we’re heirs with full access, granted us by our loving Father. The world can’t do us no harm.


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 Proper 14, cycle C, click here.

Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 2

This is part two of a three-part series based on some of my art encounters at the Christians in the Visual Arts conference held June 13–16, 2019, at Bethel University. This post covers a handful of notable artworks I was introduced to through slides; part three will cover art I experienced in person through the conference’s exhibitions and auction. Read part one, about the Sacred Spaces tour of Minneapolis, here.

In his introductory remarks to the 2019 CIVA conference, Chris Larson cited Lauren Bon’s Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, the eponymous work of the Brooklyn Rail–curated exhibition running through November 24 at the church of Santa Maria delle Penitenti in Venice, a collateral event of the Venice Biennale. It’s a great rallying quote, one that I hadn’t heard before but that I can really get behind.

Bon, Lauren_Artists Need to Create
Lauren Bon (American, 1962–), Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, 2006. Neon, edition 1 of 12. Photo: Joshua White, courtesy of the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles.

The theme of the conference was “Are We There Yet,” a deliberately broad question which I took as referring to the conversation between serious art and serious faith, which CIVA has been heavily engaged in over its forty-year history. We talked about where “there” is and unpacked other aspects of the conference title, but I’m sidestepping those discussions to focus on the visual.

Wayne Roosa oriented our gathering by introducing us to two conceptual art projects by Simon Starling that offer opposing archetypes of the journey. The first, more aspirational one is Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), which involved the movement of a wooden shed from one Swiss riverside location to another. “This journey of 8 km downstream from Schweizerhalle to the centre of Basel was undertaken through the temporary mutation of the shed into a boat. This boat, a copy of a traditional Weidling, was made only with wood from the shed and was subsequently used as a transport system for the remaining parts of the structure. The shed already included an oar of the type used on Weidlings nailed to its facade as decoration. In its new location, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, the boat was then dismantled and once again re-configured into its original form, but for a few scars left over from its life as a boat, it stands just as it once did several kilometres up-stream” [source].

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2 (production still), 2005. Wooden shed, 390 × 600 × 340 cm.

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed

Starling, Simon_Shedboatshed
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), 2005. Wooden shed, 390 × 600 × 340 cm. Installation at Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, Switzerland.

“What I’m doing in a gallery situation,” says the artist, “is presenting a journey that I’ve been on, a process I’ve undertaken, and I’m asking for people to look at that in reverse. The circularity of many of the projects is a device to tell a story and it means that if you’re making a work about process, if you start and end in the same place, then somehow the journey becomes the important thing.” I think of lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from”—and further down, “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

The second Starling work we considered was Autoxylopyrocycloboros, “a four-hour entropic voyage made across Loch Long [in Scotland] on a small wooden steamboat fuelled by wood cut piece-by-piece from its own hull.” This theatre of destruction ends with the boat’s debris floating—or sinking, as it were—in the water, Starling and his crewmate bobbing in their life vests somewhere out of frame. (The journey is presented in gallery settings as a series of thirty-eight color transparencies.) The title is an extrapolation of “ouroboros,” the mythical serpent who eats his own tail.

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros
Simon Starling (British, 1967–), Autoxylopyrocycloboros, 2006. 38 color transparencies, 6 × 7 cm each.

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Starling, Simon_Autoxylopyrocycloboros

Roosa suggested that as we navigate the waters, we can either self-destruct, eating ourselves alive, or we can deconstruct and then reconstruct. As an organization, we ought to be committed to the latter—taking apart the structure we started with and putting it back together.

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Over two and a half days of conference, there were several artists’ panels that brought to the fore some truly exciting work. I especially enjoyed hearing artists Sedrick and Letitia Huckaby, a married couple, discuss their different artistic media, styles, content choices, and creative processes, and the way their work interacts with the other’s. Both explore themes of family, faith, and African American heritage.

Sedrick Huckaby is a painter, draftsman, printmaker, and sculptor known for his portraits. His earliest body of work is a series of impasto paintings of his maternal grandmother, Hallie Beatrice Welcome Carpenter (“Big Momma”), inside her old wood-framed house in Fort Worth, Texas. These are so tender—they show her resting, drinking coffee, reading her Bible, getting ready for church, talking with family. After Big Momma died, he continued making in absentia portraits of her by depicting accessories she wore or household spaces that bear her imprint—The Shoes She Wore, The Altar Dresser. Sedrick is now renovating Big Momma’s house to serve as a creative project space for the neighborhood.

Huckaby, Sedrick_Sitting in Her Room
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), Sitting in Her Room, 2008. Oil on canvas in rustic wood framework, 48 × 36 in.

Family has long been the primary subject of Sedrick’s art. I love the 2006 portrait he painted of his wife seated at the foot of their bed and holding their firstborn son, Rising Sun. Mother and child are surrounded by family quilts, made by aunts and grandmothers. The opening between the two wall-hanging quilts forms a square halo around Letitia’s head.

Huckaby, Sedrick_Letitia and Rising Sun
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), Letitia and Rising Sun, 2006. Oil on canvas, 54 × 36 in.
Huckaby, Sedrick_About Family
Sedrick Huckaby (American, 1975–), About Family, 2016. Charcoal and chalk on wood, 13 × 23 7/8 in.

Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 2”

Give Thanks (Artful Devotion)

Van Mourick, Kirsten_Eucharist
Kirsten Van Mourick, Eucharist, 2014. Oil on canvas, 72 × 72 in.

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble . . .
For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
. . .
they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
. . .
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!

—Excerpts from Psalm 107

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SONG: “Oh Give Thanks (Psalm 107)” by Wendell Kimbrough, on Psalms We Sing Together (2016) | CCLI #7064726

 

For a video tutorial by the songwriter on how to play “Oh Give Thanks” on the guitar, click here.


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 Proper 13, cycle C, click here.

Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1

Last month I attended the biennial conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Celebrating forty years, CIVA is a membership organization made up primarily of studio artists but also other arts professionals—curators, gallerists, administrators, educators, critics, art historians—as well as collectors, theologians, and church leaders. As a writer about the arts working independently out of my home in Maryland, sometimes I feel disconnected from artists themselves, so five years ago I joined CIVA to plug into and invest in this community of believer artists. The large conference that CIVA organizes every other year, each time in a different US city, is an opportunity to meet and talk with artists, to see what they’re working on, and to worship and pray with them. It’s also a weekend chock-full of amazing talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, exhibitions, and other activities.

In a series of blog posts, I’d like to share some of the art I encountered at the CIVA conference. All photos in this post are by me, Victoria Emily Jones.

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I arrived a day early to participate in a CIVA-sponsored Sacred Spaces tour of the Twin Cities with Kenneth Steinbach, a sculptor and a professor of art at Bethel. The first stop was Bigelow Chapel, designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson at the commission of United Theological Seminary in 2004. As Ken warned us in advance, the chapel was recently sold by the seminary to a charter school, who will not be using it as a worship space and will be removing its one overt Christian symbol (the inset cross) as well as renaming it. Because of the changeover, the chapel was in a bit of disarray when we visited, being used for the time being as an ad hoc storage space, but I was grateful for the chance to see this acclaimed work of contemporary religious architecture before it fully succumbs to its fate as a secular meeting room.

I first learned about Bigelow Chapel through the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (reviewed here, with annotated chapter list). Ken read us the vision statement of this ecumenical Protestant institution—“a generous and welcome seminary where all—trailblazers and traditionalists, questioners and yearning spirits—explore the boundless possibilities of a loving and beloved community”—and we discussed how the design reflects that vision. Symmetry and linearity, for example, can be associated with authority, rigidity, so this chapel is notable for its asymmetry, an uncommon feature in church design, as well as an open floor plan that accommodates different traditions and styles of worship. It’s also curvy, feminine, womblike; a series of translucent maple wood panels sweeps up the wall and over the ceiling, casting the sun’s warm glow inside the space. Some people on the tour expressed a sense of being enveloped in God’s love.

Bigelow Chapel
Bigelow Chapel, New Brighton, Minnesota

Bigelow Chapel

Another mentioned how the cross is far too subtle, almost unnoticeable, and seems to recede; it’s certainly not a focal point as it typically is in other Christian worship spaces. Ken pointed out that the cross was intentionally positioned next to a clear window that looks out into a central garden, suggesting the idea of deep incarnation; nature is itself part of the space, and Christ’s redemption is for all of creation. One person noted how the large green shrub outside, when illuminated by the sun, is reminiscent of the burning bush of Exodus and therefore calls us into an awareness of how God might be speaking to us.

Bigelow Chapel cross

Ken also told us that student worshippers used to stick written prayers between the chapel’s wall-stones, much like at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Several such pieces of paper were still there, wedged in the cavities of the masonry.

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

It was sad to me to see this building losing its original function as a Christian worship space. The impetus for the sale was the seminary’s relocation from New Brighton, a suburb, into the city of St. Paul, where it believes it can be of better service to the surrounding community. View more photos of Bigelow Chapel at https://www.kirkegaard.com/827.

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Next our tour group visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we spent time inside a James Turrell Skyspace titled Sky Pesher, 2005, a subterranean concrete chamber with a square aperture in the ceiling that frames the sky. (The word pesher is Hebrew for “interpretation.”) Turrell calls himself a sculptor of light; light, he says, is his medium. His work is influenced by his Quaker faith, especially the doctrine of the Inner Light. Quaker worship gatherings consist primarily of silence, a time of corporately waiting on the Light, which is God, who dwells within us as wisdom and guide. I did find the environment Turrell built especially conducive to stillness and listening. Quakers say that silence is not a void, it’s full, and I found that to be true as I opened myself to encountering God in that space.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005
James Turrell (American, 1943–), Sky Pesher, 2005 (detail), 2005. Pigmented cast concrete, concrete, paint, cold-cathode lighting, computerized dimming device. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005

I actually really cherished sitting there in silence with the group, ridding myself of distractions as together we simply turned our gaze to the wonderful gradients of blue stretched out above us. Out of interest in and respect for the artist’s Quaker spirituality, I took the opportunity to commune with God in “wordless thought”; instead of me talking to God or about God, I let God talk to me.

I expressed my particular enjoyment of the experience afterward to a colleague, who was surprised that, because of my fascination with biblical imagery and its possibilities in worship and devotion, I should be so moved by a sacred space that lacks any imagery at all, other than open, undefined sky. It surprised me somewhat too! Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1”

Record Erased (Artful Devotion)

Atonement by Li Kai Tong
Li Kai Tong, Atonement, ca. 1997. Ink wash painting.

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

—Colossians 2:13–14 NRSV

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SONG: “There Is a Fountain” | Words by William Cowper, 1772 | Music by Noah James, on Hymns (2013)

I love Noah James’s retuned performance of this classic hymn with mandolin and kick drum.

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This painting isn’t technically accomplished, but conceptually, as an illustration of a theological truth, it’s clever. Using the medium of ink wash painting, Hong Kong artist Li Kai Tong depicts the Chinese character sin being washed away by Christ’s blood. I found this image in the June 1997 issue of Image: Christ and Art in Asia, the newsletter of the Asian Christian Art Association, published quarterly from 1979 to 2011. The entire archive has been digitized and is a treasure trove.


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 Proper 12, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Round dance of praise; minimalist church architecture; Psalm 46 sung in Spanish; Armenian Christian heritage destroyed; and more

Image journal subscriptions are 50% off through the summertime—only $24 for four full-color issues! This is the magazine I most look forward to receiving in the mail. So much great poetry, art, essays, and more.

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NEW POEM: “They Too Go Round” by Paul Mariani: This poem from the current issue of Image journal (no. 101) brings together Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance with Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment at San Marco, gesturing toward a vision in which the terrestrial is taken up into the celestial. Bruegel’s Dutch peasant dancers “pound” and “rollick” with beer foam on their faces and general bawdiness; the saints from the Fra Angelico painting, by contrast, step lithely and with reverence in their round dance on the very grasses of paradise. Disparate though they are in tone, Mariani connects these two images, playing with the idea of circling. Just as the wedding guests dance round and round, so too does time; so too the spheres. And at the center of this cosmic round dance is praise: humanity linked hand in hand with the angels, not closed in on themselves but opening up into the glory of God.

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), The Wedding Dance, ca. 1566. Oil on panel, 119.3 × 157.4 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.
Fra Angelico_Last Judgment
Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455), The Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1431. Tempera on wood, 105 × 210 cm. Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

The last stanza quotes an excerpt from a famous medieval Catholic prayer: “Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me, for there is no redemption in Hell. Have mercy on me, O God, and save me.” The speaker’s anxiety has been building up as he reflects on the empty pleasures to which he has been so long devoted and the imminence of death. This anxiety, however, is swept away in one turn as he catches a glimpse of God’s abundant salvation and its final consummation—a “sea-changing moment, now and forever.” Christ, the fulfillment of all desire, sits on his throne at the center of this turning world, beckoning us into the dance of the redeemed.

(FYI, Paul Mariani will be one of the plenary speakers at the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola in September. Registration is still open!)

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CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Known for his work in concrete, Spanish architect Fernando Menis designed the new Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife, Spain, consecrated May 12. I’m digging the minimalism. Learn more and view more photos on the architect’s website. [HT: ArtWay]

Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.
Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Interior: Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.

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CHORAL ARRANGEMENT: “Dios es Nuestro Amparo” (God Is Our Refuge), arr. Alfredo Colman: I love this traditional setting of Psalm 46 in Spanish, recently arranged by Alfredo Colman and performed by the Coro del Seminario Internacional Teológico Bautista (Choir of the International Baptist Theological Seminary) in Buenos Ares, Argentina. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I was curious about the history of the song, so I wrote to Colman; he said he first encountered it in Paraguay, where he grew up, but doesn’t know its country of origin. The song, he told me, has been well known in Latin America since the 1970s. While this particular arrangement of Colman’s has not yet been published, you can find a simpler arrangement for congregational singing in the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God, released just this month. Edited by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) in partnership with GIA Publications, it contains over 700 songs in Spanish and English.

For a vision and resources for singing together in Spanish and English, see this recorded CICW workshop, led by Colman and five others, and also the article “Expand Your Church’s Bilingual Music Repertoire.” Introducing bilingual music to a church congregation is “like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers,” says María Eugenia Cornou, the CICW program manager for international and intercultural learning. “Some kids love it, but usually it takes time. It’s a new flavor.”

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CULTURAL DESTRUCTION: “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman: An investigative report published in February exposed Azerbaijan’s destruction of thousands of medieval Christian Armenian artworks and objects at the necropolis of Djulfa in Nakhichevan. The cemetery at Djulfa contained the world’s largest collection of khachkars, ornately carved memorial steles with crosses, characteristic of Armenian Christianity; 2,920 were documented clandestinely by native Argam Ayvazyan from 1964 to 1987, half of the 5,840 he documented in Nakhichevan as a whole. But, other than the dozen that were removed from the region during or before the Soviet era into church or museum collections, all these were demolished by Azerbaijani soldiers in 1997, 2002, and 2005–6, expunging the region’s last remaining traces of Christianity. (This was in addition to the demolition of 89 Armenian churches and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhichevan.)

Djulfa cross-stone
A 1915 photograph of researcher Aram Vruyr’s son with one of many thousand khachkars (cross-stones) at Djulfa, enhanced by Judith Crispin’s Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project. Courtesy Aram Vruyr Archives.
St. Thomas Cathedral (Armenia, now lost)
Surb Tovma (St. Thomas Cathedral) in Agulis, Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, which tradition states was founded as a chapel by Bartholomew the Apostle. Now destroyed. Photo © Argam Ayvazyan Archives, 1970–1981.

“Unlike the self-publicized cultural destruction of ISIS, independent Azerbaijan’s covert campaign to re-engineer Nakhichevan’s historical landscape between 1997 and 2006 is little known outside the region. . . . While some Azerbaijanis have embraced their government’s vandalism as either righteous revenge or a national security measure against potential Armenian territorial claims, other Azerbaijanis . . . have mourned the destruction.”

Here is a short video posted in December 2005 by Nshan Topouzian, the leader of north Iran’s Armenian church, who was tipped off to the destructive activity taking place at the Djulfa cemetery by an Iranian border patrol. (Djulfa is located at the border of Azerbaijan and Iran.)

Hyperallergic pointed out the “cruel irony” and “insult” of Azerbaijan hosting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee session earlier this month. UNESCO not only avoided a public condemnation of the destruction of Armenian Christian artifacts and churches in Nakhichevan but also praised Azerbaijan (one of its biggest donors) as a “land of tolerance.”

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ARTICLE: “6 Works of Classical Music Every Christian Should Know” by Jeremy Begbie: Theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie is a superstar in the field of theology and the arts. Most of his books, published for academic audiences, are pretty dense, but this article that he wrote for The Gospel Coalition is wonderfully accessible. It opens, “Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.”

He then recommends six works of classical music to spend time with, highlighting the best recordings and musical guides available. From the “bubbling, joyful abundance” of a Mozart piano concerto (“a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah”) to the “aching beauty” of Rachmaninov, there’s variety here. Find out what Begbie considers to be “the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era,” and which symphony contains, from its penultimate to final movement, one of the best transitions in Western music.

Begbie is the founder Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and the program is throwing a big symposium in September to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. I’ll be there! Join me? If you can’t swing the registration cost but live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, consider coming out on Saturday night to “Making All Things New: The Sound of New Creation,” a concert featuring a range of music, “from Bach to Bernstein, Rachmaninov to Latino, medieval to jazz, concert music to film music,” as well as a reflection by N. T. Wright. I attended a similar Begbie-led concert at Duke two years ago, and it was phenomenal.

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FILM: Ida (2013), dir. Pavel Pawlikowski: This Oscar Award–winning film about identity and faith is a great watch, especially for its stunning cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white in the classic 4:3 format, it is almost entirely made up of static frames, exquisitely composed. I really just can’t get over the visual storytelling. Watch the trailer and film clip below, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The movie is available on Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service provided for free by many public libraries.

Namaste Sate (Artful Devotion)

Puccio, Pietro di_God Holding the Universe
Pietro di Puccio da Orvieto (Italian, active 14th century), “Universe Supported by God with the Signs of the Planets,” 1389–91. Fresco, north gallery, Camposanto Monumentale, Pisa, Italy.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

—Colossians 1:15–20

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SONG: “Namasté Saté” by Aradhna, on Namasté Saté (2011)

Namasté saté sarvalok-ashrayaya
Namasté chité vishwarup-atmakaya
Namo adwait tatwaya muktipradaya
Namo brahmane vyapiné shashwataya

Ultimate Reality, we greet You
In you the whole Universe is held together
Your life fills every nucleus that has ever been created
You dwell in our flesh and bones
Your Great Liberation is to bring us into loving oneness with you,
so full, that we can no longer feel any separation between us
We greet you, O Supreme One, all-pervading, and eternal

Founded in 2000 by Chris Hale and Pete Hicks, Aradhna (Hindi for adoration) is a band that writes and performs Christ-centered bhajans, Indian devotional songs. (Bhajans, says Hale, have been welcomed by Indian Christians for centuries; every Indian hymnal has a section devoted to the genre.) Both men are American but have roots in South Asia—Hicks was born in India, and Hale was raised in Nepal, where his parents served as medical missionaries. He developed fluency in Hindi and Nepali and, while attending boarding school in India, began training in sitar. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in the US, he returned to Lucknow, India, for further training in sitar and voice. He now lives in Toronto’s Little India with his wife, Miranda Stone, with whom he leads a monthly gathering of Christ-followers called Yeshu Satsang Toronto.

Many of the lyrics of Aradhna’s songs are derived from the writings of Yeshu bhaktas, Hindu devotees of Jesus.

To learn more about Hale and his ministry through contextualized music, read this Comment interview or listen to his lecture from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—both from 2009.

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The Campo Santo, or Camposanto Monumentale (“monumental cemetery”), is an oblong Gothic cloister that, alongside Pisa’s cathedral, baptistry, and leaning tower, forms one of the finest architectural complexes in the world.

Camposanto Monumentale aerial view
Aerial view of the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) in Pisa. The Campo Santo is the rectangular edifice with the open courtyard at the bottom.

Camposanto Monumentale interior courtyard

Completed in 1464, it is filled with funerary monuments, many of which reuse ancient Roman sarcophagi, as well as a classical art collection. In addition, its long walls are covered with frescoes painted during the transitional period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These were badly damaged during World War II, but some have been restored.

Puccio, Pietro di_God Holding the Universe

The fresco that shows Christ holding the universe, sometimes referred to by the title Theological Cosmography, was painted by a minor artist named Pietro di Puccio. In the second volume of his History of Mediaeval Christianity and Sacred Art in Italy, published in 1872 (well before the Allied bombing), Charles Isidore Hemans writes that the fresco

mystically sets forth the origin of the universe and its dependence upon the Almighty Creator. A colossal figure of Deity, with the aspect proper to the Second Person, supports an immense disk containing numerous concentric circles, with figures, emblems, inscriptions: first in order, the nine Angelic Hierarchies; next, the three Heavens—the first (empyreal) without sign or symbol, the second (crystalline) with the signs of the Zodiac, the third (the firmament) with the starry host; internal to these, a succession of other circles enclosing at the centre a miniature view of the three known continents. At the angles below are the two illustrious Doctors, severally representatives of the theological mind of ages, S. Augustine and S. Thomas Aquinas.

This geocentric model of the universe, with several earthly and (further out) heavenly spheres circling around a motionless earth, was conceived by Ptolemy, who based it on Aristotle. It was the dominant model during the classical, medieval, and Renaissance eras and can be found in the work of other visual artists.

During an extensive restoration process, this and other frescoes were detached from the walls and placed on panels. This led to the discovery of sinopie, or preparatory drawings, underneath, which were also detached and are now kept on display in the Museo delle Sinopie, of special interest to art historians.

Theological Cosmography sinopia
Sinopia (red underdrawing in plaster) of the Theological Cosmography fresco from the Campo Santo, relocated to the Sinopia Museum, also in the cathedral square.

Puccio’s Theological Cosmography has since been returned to its original location in the north gallery of the Campo Santo—at the end of the left hallway in the panoramic shot below. The neoclassicist architect and painter Leon van Kleunze, on a visit to Italy in the mid-nineteenth century, painted a view of the Campo Santo’s north gallery in all its prewar glory.

Camposanto Monumentale

Camposanto, north gallery
Leo von Klenze (German, 1784–1864), The Camposanto in Pisa, 1858. Oil on canvas, 38 1/10 × 57 4/5 in. (97 × 147 cm). Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

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 Proper 11, cycle C, click here.

Rise Up (Artful Devotion)

Worn Out by Iyah Sabbah
Iyad Sabbah (Palestinian, 1973–), Worn Out, 2014. Fiberglass sculptures covered in clay.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” . . .

Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!

—Psalm 82:1–4, 8

Verses 2–4 are God speaking to his court, whereas the final verse is the psalmist Asaph speaking to God in prayer. The identity of “the gods” (elohim) in this psalm is much debated among scholars, with some thinking it refers to human rulers and others thinking it an assembly of spiritual beings to whom God delegates authority. Either way, God is upset that these judges have been neglecting justice in failing to uphold the cause of orphans, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and other marginalized groups.

Further reading:

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SONG: “Rise Up” | Words and music by Isaac Wardell, with the verse melody based on a melody by Evan Mazunik | Performed by Lauren Goans, on Lamentations by Bifrost Arts (2016)

For the lonely and forgotten,
for the weary and distressed;
for the refugee and orphan,
and for all who are oppressed;
for the stranger who is pleading
while insulted and despised:
Will You rise? Will You rise?

Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!

Hear how Rachel, she is weeping.
How she will not be consoled.
And the children in our keeping,
are their bodies bought and sold?
And the watchmen, he is sleeping.
Do You see them with Your eyes?
Will You rise? Will You rise?

Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!

As Your will is done in heaven,
Let it now be done below.
Let Your daily bread be given,
Let Your kingdom come and grow.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us, we cry.
Will You rise? Will You rise?

Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor
and bare Your holy arm
to keep them safe from harm.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!

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Several times throughout scripture, God’s people call on him to “Rise up!” (or, as some translations have it, “Arise!”) against oppression, against evildoers. In other words: Move; take action.

Arise, LORD, in your anger;
rise up against the rage of my enemies.
Awake, my God; decree justice. (Ps 7:6)

Rise up, LORD, confront them, bring them down;
with your sword rescue me from the wicked. (Ps 17:13)

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love. (Ps 44:23–26)

Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
may the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, and defend your cause . . . (Ps 74:21–22a)

The whole biblical story is about God rising up again and again in defense of the weak. On more than one occasion the prophet Isaiah uses the language of “rise up” to express God’s activism:

The LORD longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him! (Isa 30:18)

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Worn Out by Iyad Sabbah

Worn Out by Iyad Sabbah

In October 2014, Palestinian artist Iyad Sabbah installed the seven-piece clay sculpture group Worn Out on the beach of Shuja’iyya, a Gaza neighborhood that was decimated that summer by Israeli military forces. Commemorating the victims of the Gaza war, it depicts a family fleeing the rubble of what used to be home. The figures are all flecked with red pigment, signifying blood, and have an eroded appearance. They stagger on through the detritus left by three days of shelling, in desperate need of deliverance.

As I view photos of this installation set amid the ravages of war, by a man who is himself from Gaza, I feel helpless to redress the wrongs suffered. And so I lean on this ancient prayer of beseeching, echoed so beautifully in the above song by Isaac Wardell: Rise up, God. Do not turn away from our misery. In your love, rescue us. For those displaced by war, forced to become strangers in a strange land: rise up. For those who have lost loved ones, homes, limbs, livelihoods to violence: rise up. Put a stop to the unjust whose policies and actions deal in death rather than life.


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 Proper 10, cycle C, click here.

Wade Right In (Artful Devotion)

Naaman
Plaque from an altar retable showing the cleansing of Naaman, made in the Meuse Valley, ca. 1150–60. Gilt bronze and champlevé enamel, 10 × 10 cm. British Museum, London.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

—2 Kings 5:1–14

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SONG: “The River of Jordan” by Hazel Houser, ca. 1959 | Performed by the Louvin Brothers, on Satan Is Real (1959)

First recorded by the Louvin Brothers in 1959, “The River of Jordan” is now a country gospel standard that has been covered countless times, especially at bluegrass festivals. Just a note: the song’s second verse mistakenly identifies Namaan as a king (he was the commander of the king’s army, in fact), and Ira Louvin seems to mispronounce Elisha as Eliza—an error that I hear repeated in a lot of other recordings (either that, or Elijah).

Anyway, there are a few good covers of this song online that feature strong female vocals, like this one by The Tuttles with AJ Lee, from 2014:

And I love Colby Crehan’s voice, from the now dissolved Bluegrass Gospel Project:

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The inscriptions on the medieval plaque above are as follows:

FAMULI = servants
CURATIO NAMAN = The Curing of Namaan
IORDANEM = Jordan


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 Proper 9, cycle C, click here.