Upcoming conferences and symposia

It’s great to see how many gatherings are happening this spring around faith and the arts. I wish I could attend them all, but travel costs require me to be selective. I’m happy to say that I’ll be at the contemporary art symposium in Amsterdam in March (and taking a few side trips while I’m there) and the Anselm Society conference, “Your Imagination Redeemed,” in April, which convenes in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If you’ll be at either, let me know so that I can be sure to meet you!

(This post has been updated to reflect new information.)

Calvin Symposium on Worship                                                  
Date: January 24–26, 2019
Location: Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Cost: $270 (general; single-day options available); $30 (students)
Organizers: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching
Presenters: A very long list!
Description: “The conference brings together a wide audience of artists, musicians, pastors, scholars, students, worship leaders and planners, and other interested worshipers. People come from around the world for a time of fellowship, worship, and learning together, seeking to develop their gifts, encourage each other and renew their commitment to the full ministry of the church.” There are tons of seminars and workshops to choose from, on topics such as congregational songwriting, multilingual singing for English-speaking congregations, skills and drills for the emerging worship leader, technology in worship, worship in times of crisis and trauma, engaging our bodies in worship, the visual arts in worship, using the Psalms in worship, music as exegetical art, the art and science of repetition in worship, and much more. One of the plenary sessions is on “The Many Streams of African American Congregational Song.”
   Note: Although online registration has closed, walk-up registration is available. Also, the worship services and plenary sessions will be live-streamed for free (see times).

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brehm conference

“Worship, Theology, and the Arts in a Divided World”
Date: February 9, 2019
Location: Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California
Cost: $75 (general); $25 (student) – or, live-stream for free! (registration still required)
Organizer: Brehm Center
Presenters: David M. Bailey, Makoto Fujimura, W. David O. Taylor, Kutter Callaway, Lauralee Farrer, Todd E. Johnson, Robert K. Johnston, Roberta R. King, Shannon Sigler, Edwin M. Wilmington
Description: “To say that we live in a divided world is to state the obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is to believe that worship might become a vehicle for reconciliation, or that theology might serve as an invaluable aid to mend our personal and social brokenness, or that the arts might forge unity across the divides—whether political or economic, racial or relational, linguistic or cultural, whether in the academy or in the public square, whether inside the church or outside of it. But that is exactly what this conference wishes to suggest.
   “A primary goal of this conference is to show how worship, theology, and the arts can become sources of good news to our divided world as well as resources to make tangible that good news by God’s grace. A secondary goal is to generate practical helps that extend beyond the immediate context of the conference in order to serve the broader community. This involves not just the presentations themselves, but online resource offerings: for instance, a one-page resource for small groups on art and racial reconciliation; a Spotify playlist for both pastors and worship leaders; a ‘top 10’ list of most common mistakes in multicultural worship; an annotated resource on global worship; a handout for church leaders on art in a post-Christian society; and more.”

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Ascension by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989), The Ascension of Christ, 1958. Oil on canvas, 115 × 123 cm (45¼ × 48⅜ in.). Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico.

“Modernist Prodigals: Aesthetic Aftermaths of Religious Conversion” (panel discussion)
Date: February 13, 2019
Location: New York Hilton Midtown, Manhattan
Cost: This is one of the 300+ sessions available to registrants of the College Art Association’s Annual Conference. (Registration starts at $185 and is restricted to CAA members.)
Organizer: Anne Greeley
Panelists: Linda Stratford, Emily Worjun Wing, Zoë Marie-Jones, Elliott H. King, Douglas R. Giebel
Description: “Over the past two decades, the long-presumed secularity of modern art has been called increasingly into question. Numerous scholars, from Sally Promey, to Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness, to Thomas Crow, have challenged the secularization theory promulgated by art historians during the latter half of the twentieth century. Though the academy no longer finds it ‘inadmissible,’ as Rosalind Krauss once did, to connect the spiritual with the avant-garde, and while many religious impulses can be discerned throughout the field of modern art, it is nevertheless the case that many modern artists rejected religion outright—though some only temporarily.
   “This panel aims to build on the discussion initiated by Jeffrey Abt in his 2014 panel on ‘Religion and the Avant-Garde.’ It seeks to further clarify modern art’s relationship to religion by examining the lives and work of certain ‘modernist prodigals,’ who during a period of religious apathy or disbelief made significant contributions to modernism before turning, or returning, to organized religion. If art can be said to constitute a mode of thought, and if thought is radically altered through religious conversion, then what might a study of the works of such artists, ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’conversion, reveal about the perceived compatibility of modern art (or of certain iterations or aspects thereof) with a religious worldview? Alternatively, what might it reveal about an artist’s faith?”

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“Art Matters”
Date: February 16, 2019
Location: Leith School of Art, Edinburgh, Scotland
Cost: ₤25
Organizer: Morphē Arts
Description: “A day symposium on art, faith and social responsibility. We will discuss the importance of the creative arts in the formation and care of culture from the perspective of Christian belief. The morning will be a series of short talks from artists, musicians, writers, designers, theologians and art philosophers on why the arts matter at this time. An afternoon symposium will lead into a drawing workshop (TBC) followed by an evening music event.”

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“The Breath and the Clay”
Date: March 22–24, 2019
Location: Awake Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Cost: from $150
Organizer: The Breath and the Clay
Presenters: Stephen Roach, Josh Garrels, Emily P. Freeman, Amena Brown, CJ Casciotta, Marie Teilhard, Molly Kate Skaggs, Kelly Archer, and others
Description: “The Breath & the Clay is a creative arts gathering exploring the intersections of art, faith & culture. The weekend event features keynote speakers, performances, workshops and our curated Art Gallery juried by Ned Bustard of CIVA.” To learn more about the Breath and the Clay movement, check out its official podcast, Makers & Mystics.

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Stations by G. Roland Biermann
G. Roland Biermann (British, 1962–), Stations, 2018. 84 oil barrels on steel platform, 20 meters of guard rails. South churchyard, Trinity Wall Street, New York. Biermann participated in last year’s “Art Stations” and will be creating another site-specific installation for this year’s at Corvershof in Amsterdam.

“I Believe in Contemporary Art”
Date: March 23, 2019
Location: Corvershof, Amsterdam
Cost: TBA
Organizer: ArtWay
Presenters: Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, Alastair Gordon, and others (TBA)
Description: This day-long symposium with workshops is tied to the Art Stations of the Cross exhibition in Amsterdam, which will run from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (March 6–April 20). As with previous iterations of this project in London, Washington, DC, and New York, the art—this time selected by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Aniko Ouweneel-Tóth—is dispersed in locations throughout the city, and a free digital audio guide will be provided. More details to come.

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“Majesty: An Art & Faith Incubator”
Date: April 18–21, 2019
Location: Nelson, New Zealand
Cost: $360 (includes all workshops and materials)
Organizer: ATELIER Studio|Gallery
Description: “A new resurgence of creativity in the kingdom of God is underway – a Renaissance, if you will, highlighting again the importance and significance of the arts in the body of Christ and to the world. Many artists with a living faith in Jesus Christ have existed only on the periphery, many are isolated, and many are underground. Still, yet, there are many in art schools and in the marketplace, and there are also many rising in their God-given identities returning to the purpose of creative expression.
   “The definition of what it means to be creative and a follower of Jesus is far broader than what we might encounter during a Sunday service, it is far more powerful than what the term ‘Christian art’ could ever signify, and far more necessary than what many forms of Christian expression would give credence to. . . .
   “MAJESTY calls artists of faith together, to engage in a greater devotion to the One, to release a greater purpose through their making, and to reveal a greater promise – the heart of God. . . . [At this gathering,] visual art-making workshops, times of worship, new ideas and discussion, prophetic input, and plenty of ‘making time’ all flow together to release a new fire in the creative soul.”

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anselm society conference

“Your Imagination Redeemed”
Date: April 26–27, 2019
Location: The Pinery at the Hill, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Cost: $225
Organizer: Anselm Society
Presenters: Hans Boersma, John Skillen, Junius Johnson
Description: “For nearly two thousand years, the church held that the good, the true, and the beautiful were inseparable. But somewhere along the line, they got fragmented. And the result has been a disenchanted Christianity; a slew of inadequate books, music, and movies; and generations of Christians missing out on the redeemed imagination. The disenchanted, the lost, and the Church itself need a renaissance of the Christian imagination. . . . We will explore the redeemed imagination, meet the sacred on its own terms, and carry its light back into our lives, creative arts, and congregations.”

“As the bridegroom rejoices over his bride . . .” (Artful Devotion)

Les maries de la tour Eiffel by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall (Russian French, 1887–1985), Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower), 1938–39. Oil on canvas, 150 × 136.5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photo: Jim Forest.

Regarding Zion, I can’t keep my mouth shut,
    regarding Jerusalem, I can’t hold my tongue,
Until her righteousness blazes down like the sun
    and her salvation flames up like a torch.
Foreign countries will see your righteousness,
    and world leaders your glory.
You’ll get a brand-new name
    straight from the mouth of GOD.
You’ll be a stunning crown in the palm of GOD’s hand,
    a jeweled gold cup held high in the hand of your GOD.
No more will anyone call you Rejected,
    and your country will no more be called Ruined.
You’ll be called Hephzibah (My Delight),
    and your land Beulah (Married),
Because GOD delights in you
    and your land will be like a wedding celebration.
For as a young man marries his virgin bride,
    so your builder marries you,
And as a bridegroom is happy in his bride,
    so your GOD is happy with you.

—Isaiah 62:1–5 (The Message)

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SONG: “Fairland” by The Hollands!, on ashes to beauty (2011)

 

The lyrics of “Fairland” are adapted from the poem “The Little Beach-Bird” by Richard Henry Dana (1787–1879), with the bridge referencing Jesus’s words to his disciples in John 14:1–3: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” These are the words of a bridegroom to his bride.

Thou little bird, thou dweller by the sea,
Why takest thou so melancholy,
And with that boding cry
Along the breaker fly?
O rather, bird, with me
Through the fair land rejoice!

Come and go with me
Back to my Father’s house
To my Father’s house
Come and go with me

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It is not difficult to see, . . . in his dreamlike images of adorned and beautiful Jewish brides, Chagall’s aspiration for the redeemed daughter of Zion.

—David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness, p. 347


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”

This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.

Roundup: Sister Wendy, Quaker Skyspace, Bach on the street, and more

OBITUARY: “Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88”: A nun since the age of sixteen, Sister Wendy spent most of her life living in silence in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery in East Anglia, England. She read voraciously about art but had never set foot in a museum or seen any great paintings in person—until in 1991, a BBC producer persuaded her to do a documentary about the paintings in London’s National Gallery. She agreed, thinking it would be a flash in the pan, but it was very successful, and so throughout the nineties she presented several other documentaries on the history of art, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. She quickly became the world’s best-loved art critic, as her unscripted commentaries, so full of wonder and enthusiasm, connected well with the general public, making high art accessible. She also authored some thirty-five books.

Sister Wendy

“One of the ways, for me, of looking at God is by looking at art,” she says in the intro to Odyssey. Not that art is God but that art can lead us to a deeper understanding of who, and Whose, we are.

Sister Wendy was a major influence on my path to becoming a writer on Christianity and the arts. I first encountered her in high school through her Story of Painting series, which a studio art teacher made our class watch excerpts from. This was my entrée into art history, a subject that captivated me then and that inspired me to pursue some such coursework in college, including a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Without this initial incitement of interest from Sister Wendy, I doubt I would be writing about art today.

What attracts me to her is what attracts most people: her utter joy and rapture as she discusses art. She is the first person who taught me how to look at a painting and read it. I appreciate her charitable stance toward modern and contemporary art (movements that large swaths of Christians reject), and her unabashed delight in the nude body. Over the years, people have tended to be either amused or shocked, or both, by her frankness in talking about sexuality in art, but she was always insistent on the goodness of the human body and of sex. When Bill Moyers asked her back in 2000 whether she’s scandalized by the carnality, the sensuality, of so much art, she really stumps him with her matter-of-fact response! (See 4:15 of the video below.)

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INTERVIEW: “Why You Should Read Devotional Poetry in 2019” by Leland Ryken: In this interview with Collin Huber, Ryken cites three reasons why Christians should read devotional poetry, elaborating on each one: (1) devotional poets express our spiritual experiences, (2) it sets our affections “in right tune,” and (3) it will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. He also discusses how poetry has shaped him; the obstacles that keep people from enjoying poetry, and how to overcome them; what makes poetry distinctive as a genre; and the prevalence of poetry in the Bible. “Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires,” he says. “If you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.”

Leland Ryken is an emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College and the author or editor of some fifty books, most recently the anthology The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems. Other titles of his include How to Read the Bible as Literature, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts, and several volumes in the Christian Guides to the Classics series.

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STREET PERFORMANCE: Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is probably the most famous organ work in existence. But last fall in Cologne, a group of four musicians, whose names I cannot find, performed it on two accordions, a violin, and a tuba! It’s uncanny how closely the collective timbre approximates that of an organ. The tuba grants sonority, and the other instruments contribute to the full-bodied sound.

This performance took place between Hohe Straße and Theo-Burauen-Platz in Cologne, Germany, but a few commenters on the video have reported witnessing near-identical performances in other parts of the country, so either this group travels, or the arrangement is circulating.

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SACRED ARCHITECTURE

I frequently encounter articles on or photos of contemporary religious architecture. Here are just two notable buildings I’ve come across recently—the first one, thanks to Michael Wright’s Still Life newsletter (to which you should subscribe!).

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (2013): When the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in northwest Philadelphia was building a new meetinghouse, they invited contemporary light artist James Turrell, himself a Quaker, to design one of his famous “Skyspaces” for the meeting room—that is, an aperture in the ceiling that’s open to the sky. From the beginning, Turrell collaborated with architect James Bradberry to achieve this permanent art installation; for example, Turrell wanted the aperture to have no perceptible thickness, so Bradberry and his team developed a sophisticated steel roof structure and “knife’s edge” opening. The achieved effect of paper thinness is impressive: when I first saw photos, I assumed the “sky” on the ceiling was just a painted patch! (Visitors have reported similar surprise.) Turrell calls this Skyspace Greet the Light, a reference not only to the light of the sun but to the Quaker doctrine of the “Inner Light,” God within.

Greet the Light by James Turrell
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Room, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, featuring a permanent Skyspace installation, titled Greet the Light (2013), by James Turrell.

Greet the Light by James Turrell

The meeting room is open to the public, for free, on select days (more info here). Visitors are invited to bring a yoga mat, pillow, and blankets (when the retractable roof is open, the room is unheated) and to lie on their backs on the floor or benches. Silence is requested. Turrell’s installation also makes use of artificial light: over the course of fifty minutes or so, the vaulted ceiling is bathed in turn in four color variations—green, red, blue, and white—which augments the natural light projected by the opening.

View other Skyspaces by James Turrell at http://jamesturrell.com/work/type/skyspace/, and read Bradberry’s perspective on the project at Faith & Form.

San Bernardo Chapel (2015): Located in a wooded grove in Argentina’s Pampas lowlands, just east of Córdoba, Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel) was designed by Nicolás Campodonico. It was constructed using hundred-year-old bricks that had been dismantled from the rural home and courtyard that previously stood on the site. There is no electricity in the area, so natural light plays a huge role, especially in the chapel’s most unique feature: two perpendicular beams, independently suspended from a large exterior opening, cast shadows onto an interior wall, which glide progressively toward each other throughout the day, ultimately overlapping to form a cross (see time lapse). Campodonico said he had in mind Jesus’s journey to Golgotha with the transverse beam, which, upon arrival at the execution site, was attached to the vertical mount; it’s as if the passion is being reenacted daily through the shadows, he said. See more photos at designboom.

San Bernardo Chapel
Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel), La Playosa, Córdoba Province, Argentina. Photo: Nicolás Campodonico.

San Bernardo Chapel

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FREE ALBUM: Into the Light by Joel LeMaire: Fans of Josh Garrels, Iron and Wine, and John Mark Pantana will probably enjoy Joel LeMaire’s 2015 EP, which is about finding hope in the letting go and stepping into the unknown. Download your own copy from NoiseTrade, and read more about the meaning behind the songs on LeMaire’s blog.

 

Baptism of Christ (Artful Devotion)

Baptism of Christ (Hitda Codex)
Baptism of Christ, from the evangeliary of the abbess Hitda von Meschede, first half of eleventh century. Hessische Landesbibliothek, Darmstadt, Germany.

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” . . .

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

—Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

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MUSIC: “Jeux d’eau” (“Play of Water” or “Fountains”) by Maurice Ravel, 1901 | Performed by Martha Argerich, 1977

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The Hitda Codex is an eleventh-century manuscript containing an evangeliary, a selection of passages from the Gospels, commissioned by Hitda, abbess of Meschede, in about 1020. Its illuminations are highlights of the Cologne school in the later phases of the Ottonian Renaissance. View more at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hitda-Codex.

In the Baptism of Christ painting, Jesus stands waist-deep in Jordan’s rushing waters, which spill forth from an overturned jar in the bottom right held by a personification of the Jordan River. Jesus’s hands are open to receive the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus), who jets forth from the starry heavens in the form of a dove. God the Father is, by intention, not visualized, but his presence is suggested by the half-circle at the top, which represents the divine realm where he resides.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, cycle C, click here.

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

Three Wise Men by Tamas Galambos
Painting by Tamas Galambos (Hungarian, 1939–)

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

When that our gentle Lord was born
And cradled in the hay,
There rode three wise men from the east—
Three rich wise men were they—
And in the starry night they came
Their homage gifts to pay.

They got them down from camel-back,
The cattle shed before,
And in the darkness vainly sought
A great latch on the door.
“Ho! this is strange,” quoth Balthazar,
“Aye, strange,” quoth Melchior.

Quoth Gaspar, “I can find no hasp;
Well hidden is the lock”;
“The door,” quoth Melchior, “is stout
And fast, our skill to mock”;
Quoth Balthazar, “The little King
Might wake, we dare not knock.”

The three wise men, they sat them down
To wait for morning dawn;
The cunning wards of that old door
They thought and marveled on;
Quoth they, “No gate in all the East
Hath bar-bolts tighter drawn.”

Anon there came a little lad
With lambskins for the King;
He had no key, he raised no latch,
He touched no hidden spring,
But gently pushed the silent door
And open it gan swing.

“A miracle! a miracle!”
Cried out the wise men three;
“A little child hath solved the locks
That could not opened be.”
In wonder spake the shepherd lad:
“It hath no locks,” quoth he.

This poem was originally published in Rune and Rann by George M. P. Baird (Pittsburgh, PA: Al­dine Press, 1916) and is now in the public domain.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain

When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy this August, we chanced upon a charming little fountain just off the town’s main street in Piazza dello Spirito Santo. Built during the eighteenth century in stone, with two marble faces that spout water, it is known, in local dialect, as the Fontana de Cape ’e Ciucci (Donkey’s Head Fountain), since the donkeys arriving from the nearby mountain village of Pogerola with heavy loads would stop here for water.

What makes the fountain unique, though, is the elaborate presepe (nativity scene) sited inside, an addition made in 1974 by Giuseppe Buonocore, Vincenzo Livano, and Nicola Pepe, who placed various small figurines on and around the rocky outcrop. Over the years, several of these figurines have become submerged by the flowing water. But a local family, the Infantes, takes care of maintaining the presepe, keeping it in decent condition.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Handmade presepi are a living tradition in and around Naples, and they are notable for their blending of the sacred and profane: biblical figures like the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the magi are set alongside vignettes of Neapolitan life in the eighteenth century (when the making of presepi was at its peak). Shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and pizzaioli (pizza makers), fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, bricklayers and fruit vendors and tailors—just ordinary people going about their everyday lives, with Jesus right in their midst (though in this case, it appears that he is missing from the manger!). And in addition to the traditional ox and ass, there are geese, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and other native animal life present.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.

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Three Kings by Juan Cartagena
Juan Cartagena, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, 19th century. Painted wooden bulto. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” . . .

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

—Matthew 2:1–2, 9–11

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SONG: “Décimas De Nacimiento” (Décimas of the Nativity) by Pedro Flores | Recorded by Los Jíbaros, 1935, with vocals by Vilar and Pedro Dávila (aka Davilita) | Reissued on Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, 2004

 

Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.

The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).

En un pesebre nacio
A eso de la medianoche
Un niño que sin reproche
Clamaron hijo de Dios
Una estrella iluminó
El sitio donde María
Tenía en brazos al Mesías
Que acaba de nacer
Al que empezaban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Los tres magos soberanos
De los reinos del Oriente
Vinieron muy diligentes
A ofrendar su Dios cristiano
Y todo el mundo pagano
Recuerda las profecías
Pues sabian que nacería
Pronto el hijo de Israel
Y que lo iban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Todas las aves cantaban
Olian todas las flores
Bonita luz y colores
Las astros del cielo daban
Los buenos sabios oraban
Los réprobos se escondian
En las pajas ya había
Nacido el niño sonriente
Se postró un mundo creyente
Al amanecer del día

Y a través de las edades
Recordando al soberano
El universo cristiano
Celebra las navidades
Dice así, felicidades
El humano se extasía
Y aún pedimos al Mesías
Hijo de María y José
Que algo de su gracia nos dé
Al amenecer del día

He was born in a manger
About midnight
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
At daybreak

The three wise men
From the Orient
Promptly came
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
At daybreak

All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
At daybreak

Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
At daybreak

This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.

“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.

Another vintage recording of the song, by Trio Armonico, can be found on The Music of Puerto Rico: Recordings 1929–1947, released in 2009 by Black Round Records. [Listen on Spotify]

(Related posts: “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”; “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

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Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.

(Listen to composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describe how he grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in New York City in this video from 2017.)

Three Kings bulto
Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, late 19th century. Painted wooden bulto by a member of the Rivera family. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.

The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)


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 Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

The Way of Love (Artful Devotion)

Absolution by Andrey Yanev
Andrey Yanev (Bulgarian, 1965–), Absolution, n.d. Oil on canvas, 130 × 100 cm (51.2 × 39.4 in.).

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

—Colossians 3:12–14

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MUSIC: “The Way of Love” by Béla Fleck | Performed by Béla Fleck, V. M. Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen, on Tabula Rasā (2011)

Tabula Rasā is a Grammy-nominated collaborative album by three virtuoso instrumentalists: American banjoist Béla Fleck, mohan veena (Indian slide guitar) player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and erhu (two-string Chinese fiddle) player Jie-Bing Chen.


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 First Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle C, click here.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”