The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
—2 Corinthians 13:14
SONG: “Om Bhagwan” | Song from the Saccidananda Ashram songbook, composer unknown | Arranged by Chris Hale and Miranda Stone | Performed by Yeshu Satsang Toronto, on Bhakti Geet, vol. 4 (2019)
This Trinitarian song in Hindi comes from a Benedictine monastery in Tamil Nadu. It is performed here by married couple Chris Hale (who grew up in Nepal and India) and Miranda Stone and others from Yeshu Satsang Toronto, a community whose expression of Yeshu Bhakti (Jesus devotion) is “distinctly urban and Canadian, yet informed by the simplicity of the village, honouring what is handmade, humble, and real . . . , navigating . . . between what is traditional and what is progressive.” A transliteration, with English translation, follows. The sacred syllable Om, or Aum, isn’t really translatable.
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Pita Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Father God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Putra Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Son God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Aatma Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Spirit God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Yeshu Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Jesus God
Painted by the Jesuit artist-priest Father A. J. Thamburaj, The Holy Trinity expresses a complex theological doctrine through mudras (Indian hand gestures) and color. I scanned the image from the excellent book Christian Art in India by Herbert E. Hoefer (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982), which features art by thirty-five artists and essay contributions by Jyoti Sahi. Hoefer describes the painting:
Green is the colour of creativity and fertility. Red is the colour of activity. Blue is the colour of the sea and sky, symbols of mystery and eternity. Yellow [saffron] is an auspicious and joyful colour in Indian custom.
The upraised hand [abaya mudra] is a symbol of protection in Indian art and dance. It represents the Father. Its message is ‘Fear not’. The fish denotes the ever-watching eye of God, for the eyelids of the fish never close.
The downward hand [varada mudra] represents Christ. This gesture is common in Indian sculpture and dance. God is said to point his devotees to hide under the arch of his foot for refuge. The red wound reminds us that the risen Lord bears the redemptive marks of the crucifixion.
The red hand symbolizes the purifying fire, the Holy Spirit. The spiral line indicates the wind, connecting all three Persons in unity. Fire and wind are power.
Our life is in the ever-present protecting, redeeming, purifying and empowering hands of the Triune God.
In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word “god” might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying “we don’t know” as of saying “we do know.” To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted. The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.
On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: “Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.” Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: “Come, and I will make you children of light.” The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”:Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.
ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.
NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)
The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.
My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:
The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria
Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.
NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.
Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.
NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!
“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”
May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.
Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.
While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.
The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.
Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
—1 Peter 5:7
Whatever form our anxiety takes, it’s a burden that Sunday’s lectionary reading calls us to relinquish at the feet of God. (Note: To the assigned reading from 1 Peter, I’ve added a similar verse from Psalm 55.)
SONG: “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” by Charles A. Tindley, 1916 | Recorded by Washington Phillips on December 2, 1927, and released January 1928; reissued by Dust-to-Digital on Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, 2017
One of the founding fathers of American gospel music, Charles A. Tindley [previously] wrote “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” in 1916. It started making the rounds in black churches, and gospel-blues artists and guitar evangelists began recording it for big-city record labels, who would send representatives around the country to collect and record “race music” to then press into 78s to market to African Americans.
One of the earliest recordings of “Burden” is by Washington Phillips (1880–1954), a singing farmer-preacher from Simsboro, East Texas; it’s one of eighteen sides he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1929. He sings it to his own “novelty accompaniment,” as Columbia credited it—a custom instrument he built by reconfiguring two fretless zithers, restringing them and giving them a unique tuning pattern. He played it with both hands and called it a Manzarene, according to a recently discovered Teague Chronicle article from 1907. Musicologists have marveled at the flowing, harp-like sounds his invention enabled and have been unable to reproduce it with any kind of exactness.
Phillips’ “Burden” has since been reissued by several labels, but the best-quality reissue is Dust-to-Digital’s from 2016. The sixteen-track CD comes with a small seventy-six-page hardcover containing photographs, news clippings, ads, recording contracts and other documents, lyrics, and biographical and instrumentation information by the world’s premier Phillips researcher, Michael Corcoran. The extensive liner notes open thus:
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. Where did this strange and moving music come from?
Having interviewed former neighbors and living relatives in Freestone County and combed through archives, Corcoran corrects a lot of misinformation about Wash Phillips, some based on his being confused with his cousin of the same name, who died in a mental institution in 1938, and one persistent myth—that his instrument was a dolceola (a keyboard-activated board zither)—stemming from a misidentification in the liner notes of the Dutch label Agram’s 1984 compilation. I’m constantly impressed by what Dust-to-Digital puts out, and I can’t recommend this product enough.
Because May is Mary’s month, I thought I’d share some photos I took of various artworks of the Virgin that were on display during my last visit to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate, fifty-four acres, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, the former residence and gardens of Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1940 the Blisses bequeathed the estate, and their extensive collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, who runs it as a museum, research institute, and library. In addition to housing a stellar permanent collection, the museum also hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, including by contemporary artists. (When I was there I saw the wonderful Outside/IN by Martha Jackson Jarvis.)
The six Marian artworks featured below include paintings, sculptures, and a tapestry, and each originated in a different geographic region: present-day Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. All but the first are from the House Collection, on display in the beautifully designed Renaissance-style Music Room.
Stone carving is an uncommon medium for Byzantine icons. While sculpture in the round was typically avoided by the church in the East, at least for devotional use, relief carving, with its closeness to two-dimensionality, was more acceptable, though still much rarer than painted wooden panels.
In this carved icon Mary raises her hands in prayer on behalf of humanity, a type known as the Virgin Hagiosoritissa (Gk. “Intercessor”). Made before the development of the iconostasis, it was probably originally placed inside a church on the left pillar of the bema, or sanctuary, while an image of John the Baptist occupied the right pillar, with Christ at the top center, forming a group known as the Deesis (“Supplication”). These two individuals are traditionally shown as primary intercessors, flanking an enthroned Christ like courtiers, because they were the first to recognize Jesus’s saving role: Mary in her “yes” to Gabriel, John in his in utero jump for joy.
The Greek inscription at the top of the icon, ΜΡ ΘΥ, is shorthand for “Mother of God.”
Bernardo Daddi was the preeminent Florentine painter after Giotto, who had pioneered a new naturalism and may have been Daddi’s teacher. Daddi operated a large and busy workshop, specializing in small-scale paintings and altarpieces commissioned by the well-to-do for their private devotions. While in this panel he uses the traditional Byzantine gold ground, representing the radiance of heaven, he moves toward the Renaissance with individualized facial expressions and depth in space. I love the tenderness of Mary who cuddles her son’s foot as he looks up at her admiringly, climbing over her lap and clutching at her collar.
“This panel was originally the central unit of a triptych, the wings of which are now missing,” writes James N. Carder. “The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child sits in the center on a high-backed throne. To the left stand Saint Peter, grasping two keys, and Saint Dominic, who wears a Dominican habit and holds a lily. To the right stand Saint James the Great, holding a staff from which hangs a small red purse, and Saint Paul, holding a knife. Behind each group of saints are two angels, and in the gable is a roundel with the bust of Christ making a blessing gesture.”
This similarly tender Madonna and Child image was made two centuries later by the German Late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider, who ran the largest sculpture workshop in Würzburg, producing an enormous number of religious images for churches. Jesus reaches his hand up to cradle his mother’s chin, his shirt swept back in a breeze, and she holds him with great fondness while also confronting the viewer with a contemplative air. She stands on a crescent moon, probably meant to associate her with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12, who gives birth to a male ruler whom the dragon seeks to devour.
Riemenschneider was “highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity.” He was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, emphasizing the simple beauty of the sculpted material, which in his case was usually lindenwood (aka limewood), alabaster, or sandstone. A wealthy, respected, landowning member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council. His high status and artistic career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he refused to obey an order to fight the revolting peasants and was imprisoned as a result.
From the French Late Gothic, the Music Room has this beautiful little broken Pietà. A Pietà (Ital. “pity, compassion”) is a representation of the dead Christ on the lap of his mourning mother, but here the figure of Christ is no longer intact. At first I assumed this was Mary in prayer or contemplation, but upon looking up the object on the printed key and finding it to be a Passion image, I can now see that the expression she bears is an elegiac one.
Many Christian images throughout history are contextualized to the time and place in which they were made, and this one is no exception. “The Virgin is clothed in a manner contemporary to the portraiture of fifteenth-century noblewomen, with a simple gown tightly fitted above the waist,” writes Kristen Gonzalez. “A mantle is drawn up over her head, underneath which a veil and barbeile partially obscure her head and lower neck. . . . The Virgin’s gown and mantle appear to have been painted blue and edged with gilding,” as the polychrome traces suggest.
“Small-scale tapestries with devotional subject matter were produced during the early modern period and were prized for this purpose throughout Europe, particularly among the elite circle of monarchs, princes, dukes, and the highest ecclesiastic echelons,” writes Elizabeth Cleland. “Part of the appeal of the scale of these devotional tapestries must have been their portability. They could easily be rolled up or folded and transported with other court paraphernalia from one location to another, thereby accompanying their often itinerant royal owners.”
Furthermore, unlike the monumental tapestries that were often part of a cycle and that were more decorative in nature, these smaller ones were intended to function individually, as single works, and in more intimate ways, for personal prayer and reflection. Dumbarton Oaks’ Christ and the Virgin, three feet square, may have hung in a private oratory (prayer room).
James N. Carder describes the image: “Side-by-side are seen the bust-length figures of Christ as Savior (Salvator Mundi), holding a cruciform orb and making a blessing gesture, and the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven and with her hands together in prayer before an open book on the ledge. The lower field of the foreground is profusely ornamented with floral (millefleurs) motifs, and above the arches are a row of Gothic ornaments and a cloisonné-like geometric band that are reminiscent of the tops of French enamel reliquaries.”
Lastly, a painting by one of my favorite artists, the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. The Visitation is a common subject in art that refers to the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary (shown at the right by El Greco) and her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. El Greco’s Visitation was intended for the Chapel of Isabel de Oballe inside the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, but it’s uncertain whether it was ever installed. Originally the canvas had a circular outline, but at some unknown date it was cut down on all sides.
El Greco’s initial art training was in Byzantine icon painting on the island of what today is Crete, where he was born and which was then under Venetian rule. At age twenty-six he moved to Venice and learned the Italian Mannerist style, and ten years later he left for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Characterized by a spiritual fervor and a sort of proto-expressionism, his works were new and unusual and much sought after. The Visitation demonstrates his preference for boldly attenuated figures caught in strong highlighting, abstractions that “emphasize the ethereal and timeless nature of the biblical world,” says Carder.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Coelos ascendit hodie Jesus Christus Rex gloriae Sedet ad Patris dexteram Gubernat coelum et terram
Jam finem habent omnia Patris Davidis carmina Jam Dominus cum Domino Sedet in Dei solio
In hoc triumpho maximo Benedicamus Domino Laudatur Sancta Trinitas Deo dicamus gratias
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory,
has ascended today into the heavens.
He sits at the right hand of the Father
and rules heaven and earth.
Now all the psalms of David,
our father, are fulfilled.
Now the Lord sits with the
Lord on the seat of God.
In this greatest of triumphs
let us bless the Lord.
The Holy Trinity be glorified.
Let us give thanks to God.
Stanford’s “Coelos ascendit hodie,” op. 38, no. 2, is a double-choir motet setting of a medieval Ascension hymn, the second piece in his Three Latin Motets set [previously].
Consisting of “frenetic spirals of color and swirling sinuous lines” (source), The Risen Lord by Georgiana Houghton was produced in Victorian England some eighty years before abstract expressionism came onto the scene. Houghton renounced authorship of her artworks, believing herself to be a medium who channeled saints, archangels, Renaissance painters, and dead relatives to produce what she called “spirit drawings.” She was a Spiritualist, which means she believed in the possibility of contact with a spirit realm and that such communication could bring one closer to God. Ink and watercolors were, for her, a way of unveiling an invisible reality, of conveying God’s “wondrous attributes,” she said.
“On the back of most of her works, Houghton included a handwritten explanation, with illustrated annotations of the abstract forms,” Jessica Freeman-Attwood said. “In The Risen Lord Houghton writes that the lower part corresponds to the virtues and sufferings of Christ’s life on earth, whereas the upper part, dominated by arabesque white threads, represents his ascension into heaven.”
Ascension Day is May 21 this year. For previous years’ devotions for the occasion, see “God Ascended” (featuring a German Renaissance painting and a clever repurposing and retuning of an eighteenth-century verse) and “Carried Up” (featuring a balletic Christ image by the late Javanese artist, dancer, and choreographer Bagong Kussudiardja, and a Romantic piano composition).
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 Ascension of the Lord, cycle A, click here.
The Met Cloisters in New York City—the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe—has some of the most beautiful Christian art objects I’ve seen. Here I’ll share just one of them: an elaborately decorated champlevé enamel tabernacle, that is, a cupboard where the vessels containing the “reserved Eucharist,” the already-blessed bread and wine, are kept. The primary scene represents the descent of Christ’s body from the cross, while the six medallion scenes on the interior doors (Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the Emmaus pilgrims; the holy women at the tomb; and the Harrowing of Hell) all have to do with the resurrection. To indicate his kingliness, Christ wears a crown. More on the iconography below.
The enameled metalworks produced in twelfth- through fourteenth-century Limoges in southwestern France are renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship, which contemporary makers still marvel at. Some 7,500 such objects still survive in a variety of forms, including altar frontals, book covers, candlesticks, censers (incense burners), chrismatories (containers for chrism oil), coffers, croziers (bishop’s staffs), reliquaries (containers for relics), gemellions (handwashing basins), pyxides (small receptacles for the consecrated host), and more. The large concentration of churches and monasteries in France’s Limousin region created a large demand for decorated liturgical objects, which led to the rise of enamel workshops in the city of Limoges, located at the intersection of major trade routes. The technical and artistic mastery of these workshops’ products meant that soon orders were being placed by buyers in other regions and countries, and for a more diversified range of objects, not just those for church use.
The champlevé method of enameling, the predominant decorative technique associated with Limoges, first requires the gouging out of a prepared metal substrate (almost always copper) to create cells. Enamel powder, made from shards of colored glass, is carefully laid into these recessed cells and the object is fired, then cooled, then polished. Champlevé enamels often have appliqué figures attached to them. These are created from copper sheet that is raised from the back and then finished from the front using various specialized tools. For a detailed description of the creation process, which I find fascinating, see the essay “Techniques and Materials in Limoges Enamels” by Isabelle Biron, Pete Dandridge, and Mark T. Wypyski, in the 1996 Met exhibition catalog Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350, available for free download from MetPublications.
The Cherves tabernacle, so named because it was discovered in the Cherves-Richemont commune near the site of a ruined priory, is one of only two enamel tabernacles that have survived from the Middle Ages. It consists of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and white champlevé enamel; gilded copper figures shaped by the twin metalworking techniques of repoussé (hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief) and chasing (hammering on the front side, sinking the metal); and, on the inside gables, engraved copper plaques covered in gold leaf. Its wood support was fabricated after the object was excavated at Château-Chesnel, near Plumejeau, in 1896.
The following text, written by Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Met Cloisters, is reproduced from pages 299–302 of the book Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350 by permission of the publisher. I’ve inserted one bracketed note, plus hyperlinks on references that may be unfamiliar to readers. All photos are courtesy of the museum and are linked to their source page.
Standing on short legs, the tabernacle is in the form of a gabled cupboard with hinged doors. Gilded repoussé figures are applied to copper plates decorated with enameled foliate ornament. On the outside of the proper left door is the figure of Christ in Majesty, enthroned in a mandorla and surrounded by symbols of the evangelists. Opposite him on the proper right door is the Virgin with the Infant Jesus on her lap. She is framed within a mandorla and surrounded by four angels. Above them on the roof are two full-length angels, each holding a censer. Across the front runs a band of gilt copper inscribed with a decorative pattern derived from Kufic script, apparently based on the Arabic word yemen.
At the center of the open tabernacle, against its back wall, are appliqué figures representing the Descent from the Cross. Joseph of Arimathea takes the torso of the dead Christ in the arms as Nicodemus uses pliers and a hammer to remove the nails that still hold Christ’s feet to the green-enameled cross. The Virgin takes her son’s hands in hers and gently pulls them to her cheek; Saint John looks on from the opposite side, his head resting in his hand. Above the arms of the cross, two half-length angels hold emblems of the sun and moon. The Hand of God appears at the top of the cross; another figure of an angel once stood over it.
On the insides of the doors are openwork medallions recounting the events that followed the Crucifixion, reading from lower left to upper right. The first is the Descent into Limbo, a nonscriptural image of Jesus leading souls by the hand out of the mouth of Hell, which is seen as the gaping mouth of a dragonlike beast. Set above it is the scene of the Holy Women arriving at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Following the account in the Gospel of Mark (16:1), they bear jars of unguent to anoint the body and are greeted by a man, seen here as winged, who informs them that Jesus has risen. In the almond-shaped medallion above, Mary Magdalen meets the risen Christ in the garden (Mark 16:9; John 20:14–18), where he backs away and advises her not to touch him yet. At the lower right, the apostles on the road outside the walls of Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) are greeted by Jesus, attired as a pilgrim; in the roundel above, they dine with him at Emmaus and realize who he is when he breaks bread with them. In the oval at the upper right, Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) touches the wound in Jesus’ side and is convinced of his Resurrection (John 20:24–29).
The interior side panels of the tabernacle have large lozenges with engraved figurative scenes framed at the corners by triangular enamel plaques, each depicting an angel in a roundel. At the lower left is the Entombment of Christ; at the upper left is the Ascension. At the lower right, Christ emerges from his tomb, with angels at either side. The base of the cupboard is covered with sheets of gilt copper depicting angels in roundels.
The tabernacle of Cherves is remarkable for its iconographic sophistication and for the dialogue established compositionally and visually between thematically related scenes. On the insides of the doors, Jesus guides souls out of the mouth of Hell at the lower left; at the lower right, he guides the apostles on the journey to Emmaus. On the center left roundel, the Holy Women seek Jesus’ body and find it gone; on the center right roundel, Jesus offers his body to the apostles in the sacrament of bread and wine. At the upper left, he tells the Magdalen it is too soon to touch him; at the upper right, he invites Thomas to touch his wound. In the inside lozenge at the left, Jesus is lowered into his tomb; at the right, he rises from it. At the upper left, he leaves his apostles and rises to heaven; at the upper right, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven on the apostles in a representation of Pentecost. [This latter scene is missing and has been replaced by a copy on paper or parchment of the Ascension image opposite it.]
The Descent from the Cross is both elegant and full of pathos, a masterpiece of Gothic relief sculpture. As such, it has rightly served as a point of comparison with works in other media, notably the ivory Descent from the Cross in the Louvre. A number of gilt-copper relief sculptures produced in the Limousin but now isolated from their original contexts can be compared with those on the Cherves tabernacle. Notable among these is the Descent from the Cross preserved in the Abegg-Stiftung, Bern, first recorded in 1870. Most of these reliefs are presumed to come from altar frontals.
The enameled ground of the Cherves tabernacle, with its strong concentric circles of reserved gilt copper enclosing full fleurons, seems to anticipate the enameled plate of the tomb effigy of John of France of after 1248.
The identification of this enameled cupboard as a tabernacle for the consecrated Host has not been confirmed: the Church of the Middle Ages had no universal custom for the reservation of the Eucharistic bread or regulations requiring a tabernacle. Nor is there a wealth of comparative medieval examples. Only one other Limoges tabernacle of this type is known; it was acquired by the cathedral of Chartes in the nineteenth century, and its earlier history is not known. The supposition that the enameled cupboard from Cherves is a Eucharistic tabernacle is based on its resemblance in form to later tabernacles, its subject matter, and even the gilt-copper base plate which would allow an enclosed pyx to slide easily in and out.
Soon after its discovery in 1896, the tabernacle was presented to the Société archéologique de la Charente by Maurice d’Hauteville, a curator at Angoulême and son-in-law of Ferdinand de Roffignac, on whose property it was unearthed. He suggested that the treasure could have come from the Benedictine monastery of Fontdouce, founded in 1117. More recently it has been supposed that the treasure at Cherves comes from the Grandmontain foundation at Gandory, of which, unfortunately, there are no remains.
Since its discovery, the tabernacle of Cherves has been recognized as a masterpiece of Limoges work in the Gothic period. Part of a larger treasure, . . . it was exhibited successively at Poitiers, Brive, and Limoges, and then at the Musée de Cluny before being sent to Great Britain.
You can explore other champlevé enamels at the Met using its website’s advanced search function. If you wish to study the topic in more depth, the book I’ve quoted from is an excellent resource, featuring essays as well as photographs and descriptions of 157 objects not only from the Met’s collection but also from the Louvre and various other European and American museums, ecclesiastical institutions, and private collections. Click on the cover image to go to the book page.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
Jonah Swallowed and Jonah Cast Up, commentary by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay was published Sunday—it’s on two third-century Jonah sculptures from Asia Minor that likely decorated a family fountain. Early Christians read the story allegorically (at least on one level), as pointing forward to the death and resurrection of Christ. The “great fish” is portrayed as a ketos, a sea-monster of Greek myth.
Run by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, the faith-based website ArtWay has been publishing a new visual meditation every Sunday for years, as well as a lot of other content from a variety of contributors. To subscribe to the weekly email, click here. Here are just a few VMs published in the past year that I particularly enjoyed:
Manu-Kahu by Brett a’Court, commentary by Rod Pattenden: Pattenden begins, “This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigations into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Maori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite, is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.”
Knife Angel by Alfie Bradley, commentary by Rachel Wilkerson: This twenty-seven-foot-tall sculpture, welded from 100,000 knives collected in confiscations and amnesties around the UK, confronts the issue of knife violence. The artist cleaned and dulled the blade of each knife he received and engraved personal messages on all the wings’ “feathers,” messages sent by families affected by knife violence.
Cathedra by Barnett Newman, commentary by Grady van den Bosch: I saw this painting in Amsterdam last spring and was surprised by how it compelled me. (I don’t typically gravitate to abstract art.) After spending some time up close—I supposed this was a Newman, and Newman says his paintings need to be experienced up close—I looked at the label and saw that it has a religiously inflected title: Cathedra. The word is Latin for “seat,” and in Christianity it refers specifically to the bishop’s chair inside a church (churches that had a cathedra were called cathedrals). But Newman was of Jewish descent, and van den Bosch writes that Cathedra is meant to represent the throne of God. “And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone . . .” (Ezek. 1:26).
As someone who loves historical Christian art, including its many Christ Pantocrators, I must nevertheless admit that there is something so right about modern artists’ often apophatic approach to evoking the Divine. While I do believe God imaged Godself in the person of Jesus Christ and is therefore representable, I understand the argument some make that abstraction is a better visual language for spiritual subject matter or encounter. I accept both/and. Whether God is shown as a rich, blue expanse that invites and envelops, or a heroic nude emerging from the jaws of death, or a Man of Sorrows head with a harrier hawk’s body, I think we can learn a little something from the diversity of representations, which are not mutually exclusive. Not all representations need be embraced, but nor do unfamiliar, difficult, or even shocking ones need be automatically dismissed.
Click on the link for more on how to read Newman’s color field paintings, including his signature “zips.”
The course aims to help Christians develop critical tools for watching television and a vocabulary that is as rich and thoughtful as the medium itself, so that we can engage it constructively. (It need not be mindless entertainment!) Callaway explores television as a technology, a narrative art form, a commodity, and a portal for our ritual lives. He’s interested in how stories are told in this episodic, audiovisual format, and what that means for the Story we tell. The course is not about what Christians should watch, but how Christians should watch, leaving ample room for individual viewers to set their own boundaries, ethical and otherwise. (Callaway acknowledges that TV can form as well as de-form us.) He discusses empathy building and access to other perspectives, knowing your sensibilities, how being offended can be useful, watching in community, seeing God in all places, being aware of how your desires and imagination are being shaped, Christians in Hollywood (and Christian characters on TV), and the culture shaping TV and TV shaping culture, among other things.
The course is fairly broad in its approach; it does not analyze particular shows or episodes, though some specific examples are mentioned in conversations, and students are encouraged to form discussion groups with friends or family members and apply what they’re learning to shows of their choice. I really appreciated the assigned PBS docuseries America in Primetime (somewhat outdated because made in 2011 but very good nonetheless), whose four episodes explore character types throughout the history of TV, from the fifties to today: “The Independent Woman,” “Man of the House,” “The Misfit,” and “The Crusader.” From taking this course I realized how many acclaimed TV shows I’ve never seen. I’ve got a lot of homework to do!
Other arts courses offered by Fuller Formation are
POEM: “My Mother’s Body” by Marie Howe, read with commentary by Pádraig Ó Tuama: As Mother’s Day is Sunday, I thought I’d share this wonderful, sad-sweet, mother-themed episode of the new Poetry Unbound podcast from On Being Studios. Pádraig Ó Tuama introduces Marie Howe’s “My Mother’s Body,” in which a middle-age woman, caring for her dying mother, thinks back to the time when her mother was just a twenty-four-year-old girl giving birth to her. The speaker in the poem is Howe.
She imagines being in her mother’s womb, experiencing the rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. (What an exercise, to imagine yourself as your mother’s baby!) Now decades later, her mother is dying—that heart is failing, and the kidneys too. The uterus has been removed. Toggling between the two time frames, the poem is both a celebration of the strength of women’s bodies and a lament for its vulnerabilities, especially in old age. Howe marvels at how her mother’s body was capable of such a wonder as giving and sustaining life, and now to see that once-vibrant form breaking down grieves her. In some sense their roles have switched as daughter mothers mother, combing her hair, changing her soiled bedsheets.
The poem opens with “Bless my mother’s body” and ends with “Bless this body she made . . .” In the progression of pronouns in the last two lines—my, her, our—is a recognition of how our mothers always remain a physical part of us. They are in our cells. “My Mother’s Body” is a thank-you and a letting go.
MUSIC VIDEO: “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”: One of the most poignant scenes in last year’s 1917 is when, after a harrowing journey across No Man’s Land, Lance Corporal William Schofield—exhausted, disoriented—reaches a wood and encounters a fellow British soldier singing the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” [previously] to a battalion that sits in somber attention, for they’re about to go into battle. This official music video from Sony splices together clips from the movie with studio footage of the actor and singer Jos Slovick.