Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen

I love movies. My husband shares this love, and it’s one of our primary forms of bonding. I’m thankful that he bucks the stereotype of men who like only shoot-’em-up action flicks. We do have a few of those in our collection . . . but Eric is game for any genre. He can enjoy an Italian drama, a Wes Anderson comedy, a children’s adventure, a twisted crime thriller, and a Golden Age Hollywood musical just as much as the latest blockbuster, and “I don’t want to have to think” or “It has to have a happy ending” are never among his criteria.

Many Christians I know forgo TV and movie watching, and demand the same abstinence from their kids, so as to not “waste time” with “mindless entertainment” or foster a screen addiction. A more extreme, but no less common, motive I’ve encountered is to avoid subjecting oneself to immoral filth and supporting Hollywood’s “liberal agenda.” While I agree that indoor-outdoor balance and a variety of play is important, especially for developing young brains, and that you should never violate your conscience (e.g., if it forbids you from seeing or hearing certain things), I want to push against the notion that movies are of limited to no value unless they educate or support a Christian worldview.

Fortunately, film critic Josh Larsen, editor of Think Christian and cohost of Filmspotting, offers a redeeming perspective on film in his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings (InterVarsity Press, 2017). Many movies are expressions of the burdens and desires of the soul, he says, that can take the shape of praise/wonder, petition, confession, lament—in a word, prayer. Prayers are “instinctive recognitions of good (of things worthy of praise) and evil (of things inexplicably bent and broken)” (6), and they need not be restricted to liturgical formats.

This human instinct to reach out in praise or lament or supplication or confession to the divine does not take place only in church, guided by liturgy and pastors. It isn’t limited to early morning devotions, in that serene space before silence gives way to the day. It isn’t strictly the domain of dinner tables, where families gather to recite familiar words (“God is great, God is good . . .”). and it isn’t an instinct shared only by Christians. Prayer can be expressed by anyone and can take place everywhere. Even in movie theaters. (7)

Movies Are Prayers

Through picture and sound, blocking and set, filmmakers offer up prayers and invite us not only to listen in, but to pray along—to respond in kind, with whatever words or medium or action we feel prompted to use. Therefore, rather than regarding movies as time spent apart from God or a distraction from more important things, we would do well, Larsen suggests, to let them enrich our awareness of the world’s beauty and suffering and, consequently, guide us into prayer.

Larsen covers diverse genres and styles spanning from the silent era through today, including a mix of popular classics and lesser known gems. Below are just three I’ve added to my watch list since reading Movies Are Prayers.

Freaks (1932) is a revenge drama set against a circus backdrop, starring professional sideshow performers. At a time when people paid money to see and gawk at those with biological anomalies, director Tod Browning intended to show their humanity, that they have the same emotional needs as everyone else. He never filmed his actors’ “acts” (so as not to exploit them) but instead depicts them backstage, living their everyday lives. Although the film features an able-bodied romantic pairing of trapeze artist and strongman, Browning isn’t that interested in it; it is the interior life of Hans, a little person who’s used by Cleopatra for his money, that constitutes the main focus.   Continue reading “Book Review: Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen”

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina and Vasily performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

Roundup: Nuns onscreen; Jesus in pop music; El Greco knits

Nuns in pop culture: Anna Silman writes on the current “Nunnassaince” in movies and television, the biggest since the late 1950s and ’60s. She quotes Rebecca Sullivan, author of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, on the first wave as a reaction against the sexual revolution. For a list of flicks both new and old, see “Ten Essential Movies About Nuns.”

I’ve seen two movies from 2016 that center on a nun, or nuns. The first is Little Sister, a dramedy directed by Zach Clark. It’s about twenty-something Colleen Lunsford, a novice (prospective nun) who’s temporarily called away from the convent when her brother returns from the Iraq War, suffering from depression after a bomb left his face disfigured. In the town she grew up in Colleen is known as the Goth girl, so former high school friends are shocked to learn about her new religious vocation.

I wish the faith dimension was explored a bit more—the only insight we get into Colleen’s decision to become a Christian and pursue the monastic life is a line she mutters about structure and stability. (Was that her only motivation?) The film is more about reconnecting with family and recognizing that even though you grow up and your interests and bearing and goals may change, your past self, or selves, always remain a little bit a part of you. It’s empathetic and dark but also funny, and it shows how there’s no one mold that makes a nun; nuns come from different places in life, and oftentimes sustain (complicated) relationships outside the cloister. (Watch on Netflix)

The second one I’ve seen and commend is The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine. Set in a convent in late-1945 Poland and based on a true story, it documents the crisis of faith the nuns of that community are forced to undergo when many of them are raped by invading Russian troops and some pregnancies result. The nuns respond in diverse ways to the horror, struggling to regain their spiritual equilibrium. In desperation, they employ an atheistic French female doctor from the Red Cross, stationed nearby, to help them deliver their babies and to bear their secret. (Watch on Amazon Video)

“If I Believe You: Agnostic Songs to Jesus” by Joy Clarkson: This article analyzes the song “If I Believe You” by the 1975—which opens with “I’ve got a God-shaped hole that’s infected . . .”—in light of the wider trend of self-proclaimed unreligious artists writing songs addressed to Jesus. Clarkson observes that (1) even within the profoundly secular industry of popular music, there is an openness to spirituality, religion, and Jesus; (2) songs written not only about Jesus, but to Him, create a unique discursive space; and (3) an invocation of negative transcendence may create an openness to a true spiritual experience. I’m intrigued by the titles of the books she references, including The Bible in/and Popular Culture: A Creative Encounter (2010); Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention (2011); and Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls (2013).

Knits by Petros Vrellis: Designed using an algorithm, Vrellis’s re-creations of figures from famous El Greco paintings are formed by knitting a single thread across anchor pegs on a circumference loom. Watch a time-lapse video of Vrellis putting together a knit based on El Greco’s Christ Blessing, below, and read more about his process here. (Another Jesus portrait Vrellis has done is based on El Greco’s Christ in Prayer, visible at 2:27 at the bottom right.) Vrellis has a master’s degree in art sciences; he enjoys exploring the potential of new media through digital art and interactive installations and considers himself more of a “toy inventor” than an artist. Thank you to Tobias M. from Vienna for informing me of this impressive work.

Christ by Petros Vrellis
Knit by Petros Vrellis (Greek, 1974–), based on the painting Christ Blessing by El Greco.

Some of Vrellis’s knits are for sale via Saatchi Art.

Roundup: “. . . circle through New York,” New Zealand chapel, animating the Beast, phantasmagoric Head of Christ, biblical cities song cycle

Gonzalez-Torres at St. Philip's Church, Harlem
In March 2017, the “. . . circle through New York” project brought Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 work Untitled (Public Opinion)—a large pile of individually wrapped licorice candies, available for viewers to take and eat—from the Guggenheim to St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. St. Philip’s, in turn, lent out its call to social justice, which will rotate among the project’s five other participating venues.

“. . . circle through New York” project: What a clever way to foster relationships and spread cultural wealth! “In their new project A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a Punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation’s call to action circle through New York, artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin create a complex system of social and material exchange that brings together city communities often separated by cultural, economic, geographic, or circumstantial boundaries. The artists have drawn an imaginary circle through Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side and invited six public venues along the circle’s path to participate in a system of social and material exchange. These spaces, which include a pet store, a high school, a TV network, an academic research institute, the Guggenheim, and a church, serve as the project’s cocreators and hosts. The artists worked with the venues to select aspects of their identities—referenced in the project’s full title—that will rotate among the six locations over a period of six months.” Commissioned as part of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, the project is now in its second month and will wrap up in August.

“The Shimmering Glory of a Modern Indigenous New Zealand Chapel”: Completed in 1961, the Futuna Chapel in Wellington is, according to architect Nick Bevin, “New Zealand’s most significant building of the twentieth century.” Influenced by elements of wharenui (Maori meetinghouses), it was designed by John Scott, the country’s first university-trained Maori architect, as part of a retreat center for the Catholic Marist Brothers, and was built by volunteers from the order. Auckland artist Jim Allen was hired to design the acrylic glass windows, a Stations of the Cross frieze, and several mosaics, and to sculpt a crucifix for the main altar. The Society of Mary had to sell the retreat center in 2000 for financial reasons; the Futuna Trust has been formed to protect the chapel from demolition, but not before the surrounding land was turned into a townhouse development. The chapel is now deconsecrated, serving as host to lectures, concerts, and other events. Many great photos of its interior and exterior can be viewed at the link above, or, for further study, check out the recent book Futuna: Life of a Building.

Futuna Chapel
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, designed by John Scott. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand
Main altar of Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, showing a mahogany crucifix and rough-hewn granite slab altar by Jim Allen. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic

Disney animator Glen Keane on spiritual transformation: Last month’s theatrical release of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast has sparked renewed interest in the 1991 animated classic. On one of the special features of the DVD/Blu-ray release of the animated version, I was fascinated to hear that Glen Keane—who animated the original Beast along with Ariel, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Rapunzel, and many other beloved Disney characters—is a Christian whose own story of spiritual transformation was the driving inspiration, for him, behind the Beast’s transformation sequence at the end of the movie. (Visual influences included Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and Michelangelo’s slave sculptures.) In an interview, Keane described his approach to animating this climactic moment:

For me, it’s really an expression of my spiritual life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” I wrote that on my exposure sheet there as I’m drawing this, because it’s really about an inner spiritual transformation that’s taking place with the Beast. And I saw it as a parable of my own life—that I got to express that. It was sincere, it was real for me. It was very real for the prince. I don’t know that there’s ever an illustration more clear as to what really can take place in a person’s life spiritually than this animated character transforming from an animal to the prince.

(Update, 6/6: Thank you to Chris S. at Green Egg Media for alerting me to a series of biblically inspired children’s books by Glen Keane, Adam Raccoon. Also check out the Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast interview with Keane on faith and art or, for a shorter segment on the same topic, his First Person interview. Both were recorded this spring.)

“The Dark of Doubt Dispelled: Odilon Redon’s Day appears at last . . .: On March 26 I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on one of Odilon Redon’s lithographs. Showing the head of Christ haloed by the sun, his crown of thorns disentangling, it’s the last in a suite of twenty-four prints inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel/drama The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Day appears at last . . . and in the very disk of the sun shines face of Jesus Christ (detail), 1896. Lithograph on chine appliqué, from Redon’s third Temptation of Saint Anthony portfolio, published by Ambroise Vollard, Paris.

Cities, a five-song cycle by Jonathon Roberts: “I have a personal goal of setting the whole Bible to music,” writes Jonathon Roberts. “The Bible is the starting point for most of my projects, regardless of the style. I connect best with a passage of Scripture when I explore it artistically. The challenge has led me down some interesting roads musically and lyrically, since the subject matter doesn’t always fit in a nice box.” Cities is Roberts’s most recent work; it’s a chamber-pop song cycle personifying the biblical cities of Bethlehem, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the “New City” described in Revelation. Listen to “Bethlehem,” inspired by Micah 5:2, below, and the rest here. The whole piece is a lot of fun!

 

Roberts’s interest in deepening his and others’ engagement with the Bible led him to found, with Emily Clare Zempel, the organization Spark and Echo Arts, which commissions works of visual art, music, theater, poetry, fiction, dance, and film that respond directly to scripture. Its aim is to “illuminate” the entire Bible, using various art forms, by 2020, creating a platform and framework for artists to explore this ancient sacred text, as well as a rich resource for the church. Look out for a major web redesign, to launch in the next few months.

Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences

There are many people and organizations committed to integrating faith and the arts, and they often organize opportunities for public participation. Here are some such opportunities being offered this spring and summer, organized by date. The last one, a weeklong course taught by David Taylor, looks especially appealing to me and my context, and I’m considering registering.

A few early-bird registration/application deadlines are coming up very soon, on March 31, so give these a gander sooner than later. Click on the links for information on schedules/syllabi, speakers, accommodations, and fee breakdowns. Room and board are not included in the cost quotes I’ve listed unless specifically noted.

If you’re reading this post sometime after spring 2017, or the application deadlines are too tight for you, you’ll be pleased to know that some of these events occur yearly, and if not, you’re sure to find similar ones. Check out the websites of the organizing bodies to see what they have going on.

Title: “Art and Theology” (course)
Dates: March 26–29, 2017
Location: Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford, England
Organizer: Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE)
Cost: £225 (~ $280 US) (includes room and board)
Instructors: Christopher Irvine; Alison Milbank; Sophie Hacker; Stephen Stavrou; Laura Moffatt
Description: “This short course is designed to give participants the opportunity to both engage with Christian art and to reflect through class presentations and discussion how art is perceived. Each day will balance theoretical input with visits to see art in churches, galleries, and chapels in Oxford. We will examine the contexts in which Christian art is viewed, suggest ways of how we may reflect theologically on contemporary art, and look at the place of art in churches within its architectural and liturgical context.” (I’m intrigued by the lecture title “Museums and Galleries as a Theological Resource”!)

Title: “Lux Ecclesiae: The Light of the Church” (lecture series)
Dates: April 25–29, 2017
Location: Paraclete Retreat House, Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, USA
Organizer: Community of Jesus
Speakers: Msgr. Timothy Verdon; Filippo Rossi
Cost: $1,000 (includes room and board; single-lecture options available)
Description: “Practically from the beginning of its history, the Church has used architecture and the visual arts to express its life, investing thought, creative energies and resources. The reasons for this choice are theological and pastoral, but also anthropological: human beings want to ‘see’, are frustrated if they cannot see, define ‘seeing’ as understanding (as when, grasping a point, we say, ‘I see’), and desire above all things to see the God who, invisible in himself, became visible in Jesus Christ.” Monsignor Timothy Verdon, academic director of the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality in Barga, Italy, will develop these themes in a series of seven lectures, and sacred artist Filippo Rossi will give a talk as well.

Title: Movies and Meaning Festival
Dates: April 27–30, 2017
Location: KiMo Theatre, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Organizer: The Porch
Cost: $189
Speakers: Alice Walker; Mona Haydar; Gareth Higgins; Brian McLaren; Malidoma Somé
Description: The third annual Movies and Meaning Festival, an interfaith initiative, is centered on the theme “Hope in the Dark.” Over one weekend, participants will be inspired and challenged on this theme by artists and activists who work at the intersection of creativity, peace, spirituality, and social change. Films will serve as touchstones throughout the event; screenings include Pete’s Dragon; The Red Balloon; Mary and Max; Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth; Embrace of the Serpent; Reds; I Am Belfast; The Color Purple; and more. Participants will walk away with a renewed spirit for social justice and tools for community healing.   Continue reading “Upcoming courses, workshops, conferences”

Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources

I first learned about fumi-e (“stepping-on pictures”) while reading about the history of Christian art in Japan. These objects are bronze likenesses of Jesus, sometimes shown together with his mother, Mary, that the religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan required suspected Christians to step on in order to prove that they were not members of that outlawed religion. If the apprehended persons refused, they were tortured and, if that didn’t break them, killed—most notoriously, by being boiled to death in the volcanic springs of Mount Unzen.

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e-fumi ceremony
This painting by Keiga Kawahara, ca. 1826, shows an e-fumi (“picture stepping”) ceremony in Edo Japan, in which a man proves his aversion to Christianity by trampling an image of Christ. Location: National Library of the Netherlands.

This period of persecution lasted from 1629 to 1858.

Fumi-e factor heavily into Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 historical novel Chinmoku (Silence), which tells the story of two Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their missing mentor—rumored to have apostatized—and to continue the work he started there with the underground church. Written by Endō partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic, the novel is about the struggle for faith in a world marked by God’s seeming absence. It received the highly esteemed Tanizaki Prize the year of its release and instantly became a best seller; it was translated into English in 1969.

Silence book covers
Two cover designs. Left: Christ is crucified on the Japanese kanji for “silence.” Right (illustration by Yuko Shimizu): Father Rodrigues prays desperately on a cliff’s edge, foregrounded by a blood-drenched moon.

Since then it has been the basis of several artistic adaptations: a stage play, also by Endō; a Japanese film by Masahiro Shinoda; a Portuguese film by João Mário Grilo; an opera by Teizo Matsumura; a symphony by James MacMillan—and now an American film by Martin Scorsese, the same director who brought us Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. He dedicates it “to Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

Twenty-eight years in the making, Scorsese’s “passion project,” Silence, has been lauded as “one of the best films ever made about Christian faith.” The Telegraph calls it a “plangent, scalding work of religious art . . . soul-pricklingly attuned to matters transcendent and eternal.” Time Out says it “ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.” “An anguished masterwork of spiritual inquiry,” the Los Angeles Times declares, that “ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that . . . has few recent equivalents in world cinema. . . . A work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.” Eric Metaxas says, “This may be the most Christian film I have ever seen—and that includes The Passion.”

Released in theaters December 23, 2016, Silence stars Andrew Garfield as lead character Father Sebastião Rodrigues, and Adam Driver as his compatriot, Father Francisco Garrpe. Liam Neeson plays the apostate Cristóvão Ferreira. See the trailer below.

Before I found out Scorsese was adapting Endō’s Silence, I learned of the novel from visual artist Makoto Fujimura, whose own work and theology have been very much influenced by it. Last May he published the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, about his journey with Endō through art, trauma, and cultural heritage.   Continue reading “Scorsese’s “Silence”: Critical praise, interviews, resources”

Roundup: Free arts conference, new book series, Liturgical Folk, Jesus in Israeli art, Hacksaw Ridge

SYMPOSIUM:

“Art in a Postsecular Age,” hosted by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts: The twelfth annual Biola Arts Symposium is taking place Saturday, March 4, in La Mirada, California, covering “What is Postsecularity?,” “Seeing in a Postsecular Age,” “Making in a Postsecular Age,” and “Art in a Postsecular Age.” The all-star speaker lineup includes Sally Promey (The Visual Culture of American Religions), James Elkins (On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art), Jeffrey Kosky (Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity), and more. I’m super-excited to be going. I hope to see you there! It’s free, and no registration is required.

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CALL FOR BOOK PROPOSALS:

Arts and the Sacred (ASAC) series: Brepols Publishers has launched a new academic series of richly illustrated books on theology and the arts, with a focus on visual art—historical and contemporary—and they’re looking for proposals. The series editors are Chloë Reddaway (Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, London) and Aaron Rosen (author of, among other titles, Art and Religion in the 21st Century). First-time authors are welcome.

DOUBLE ALBUM RELEASE:

Table Settings and Edenland by Liturgical Folk: This month Ryan Flanigan, worship director at All Saints Dallas, released the first two albums of his Liturgical Folk project, the aim of which is to root historical church language in the inherently joyful sounds of the American folk tradition. I love how Flanigan describes it: “a vision of something refreshingly old for churches that have grown tired of the same new thing.” The first volume, Table Settings, offers twelve traditional prayers and creeds—among them the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and the Trisagion—for churches and families, set to singable tunes; accompanying Flanigan on vocals are his wife, Melissa, and his three kids. The second volume, Edenland, is a collaboration with retired priest and contemplative poet Nelson Koscheski, who wrote all the lyrics; it features a wider range of vocalists. The intergenerational partnership is one element that drew producer Isaac Wardell to the project and that is highlighted in last month’s Dallas News feature story, in addition to the project’s contributions to the liturgical renewal movement in North America.

 

ART EXHIBITION:

“Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” December 22, 2016–April 16, 2017, Israel Museum, Jerusalem: “From the 19th century until today, Jewish and Israeli artists have engaged with the figure of Jesus, addressing complex questions of collective and individual identity. This exhibition, the result of extensive scholarly research, presents multivalent, unexpected, and at times subversive artistic responses: European artists reclaimed Jesus as a Jew and portrayed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering, and Zionist artists used the resurrection as a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland; some Israeli artists related to Jesus as a social rebel or misunderstood prophet, while others identified with his personal torment or his sacrifice for the sake of humanity, which they connected to more recent victims of intolerance and warfare.” Click here to listen to audio commentary on fourteen of the works from the exhibition. See also this essay from the IMJ on the figure of Jesus in the work of Reuven Rubin.

Via Dolorosa by Motti Mizrachi
Motti Mizrachi (Israeli, 1946–), Via Dolorosa, 1973. Lambda print. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Lamb by Menashe Kadishman
Menashe Kadishman (Israeli, 1932–2015), Untitled (Lamb), 1999. Acrylic on canvas. Rachel and Dov Gottesman Collection, Tel Aviv.

MOVIE TRAILER:

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson: The hero of one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture is a Christian whose beliefs impel him to enlist in the US Army only on the condition that he not be made to carry a weapon—and this during World War II, when pacifism was far less acceptable than it is today. “While everybody else is takin’ life, I’m gonna be savin’ it,” says Desmond T. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in the trailer below. “That’s gonna be my way to serve.” Based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa and became the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey

Whenever I meet new people and they ask what I do, I always tell them I’m a Christian arts blogger (even though my income source is freelance copyediting and proofreading). The follow-up question is often, “Oh, are you an artist?,” to which I respond with something like “No, but I love to study art, and I want to make Christians aware of the church’s rich artistic heritage.”

When I read the introduction to Terry Glaspey’s latest book—75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books, 2015)—I couldn’t believe how much like me it sounds! Not because Glaspey has lifted anything I’ve written or vice versa but because we share the same desire to see Christians more educated about art, especially art that’s rooted in the Christian tradition.

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In this full-color survey, Glaspey—curator and tour guide—invites us to be “inspired, entertained, and challenged” as we encounter artists’ material witness to their faith through the ages. An Orthodox icon, a Renaissance altarpiece, a metaphysical poetry collection, a jazz suite, a rock album, children’s fantasy stories, an Italian neorealist film, a radio drama, and contemporary nihonga are just some of the many creative works featured. Organized chronologically from the Roman catacomb paintings to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the book encompasses almost all the major artistic disciplines (dance is conspicuously absent) and a variety of styles and eras, with a focus on Western art. (Sadao Watanabe’s Last Supper stencil print and Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura’s illuminated Gospels project are the only two Eastern/Eastern-influenced works.) I’m impressed by how fluent Glaspey is in each area. He can speak just as easily about silent film as he can about Gothic architecture and contemporary folk art!

The author says his selection process was guided by these criteria:

  1. works that are universally esteemed for their craftsmanship and creativity, not only admired by Christians but also by those outside the faith
  2. works that stand up well to repeated exposure, the kind of art that can be visited again and again, because there is always something new to discover
  3. works that speak to people across time, cultures, national boundaries, and denominational divides

Preempting readers’ tendencies to object to certain omissions, Glaspey adds,

This is most emphatically not a list of the absolute best or greatest works, nor does it imply any ranking system. Instead, it attempts to represent the breadth and depth of what Christians have accomplished in the arts, and is an intentionally quirky mix of the widely known and the mostly unknown.

Each of the seventy-five entries contains not only discussion of the content, formal qualities, and historical context of the highlighted work but also an overview of the artist’s oeuvre and a mini spiritual biography. These are not generic glosses or impassive info dumps. On the contrary, Glaspey devotes individualized care to each one in the space of about four pages, giving us both concision and substance. He likens his offerings to movie trailers: they are meant to give you a sense of the artwork’s flavor and entice you to explore it more fully on your own.

La Sagrada Familia ceiling
Ceiling detail of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, begun 1882.

Continue reading “Book Review: 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know by Terry Glaspey”

Roundup: Advent as a season of pregnancy, an Oh Hellos Christmas, jumbo cathedral tapestry, new film column, music education ministry

“ART OF ADVENT” SERMON: In his chapel address last December at Wheaton College, assistant professor of art history Matthew Milliner opened with a marriage analogy: If you love your spouse, you’ve got to love their parents. Do we love Mary and Joseph? Have we even met them? “Before the swaddled baby comes the swollen belly,” Milliner reminds us. He helps us dwell in those nine months before Christ’s birth, showing examples of the Virgin of the Sign icon (“ultrasound Jesus”) and Marc Chagall’s modern interpretation of it; these images are good for “target practice,” he says: for focusing our primary affections on Christ. He also shares how Mariko Mori’s video piece Miko No Inori (The Shaman-Girl’s Prayer) reminds him of a Visitation sculpture group by a fourteenth-century German artist, who inset Mary and Elizabeth’s bellies with a gem. Advent is a season of pregnancy, in which we are called to bear Christ within us. Not only that, it’s about “the pregnancy of a groaning planet,” waiting for deliverance from suffering. This address was given a few weeks after the death of Wheaton English professor Brett Foster, and Milliner notes how putting Brett’s body in the ground was an Advent act, in that we wait for it to rise. To watch the full twenty-five minutes, see the video below or click here.

The Pregnant Woman by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall (Russian/French, 1887–1985), The Pregnant Woman, 1913. Oil on canvas. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

CHRISTMAS EXTRAVAGANZA TOUR + MUSIC DOWNLOAD: The Oh Hellos—folk rock sibling duo Maggie and Tyler Heath (and my husband Eric’s favorite band)—are hitting up eight US cities on their Christmas Extravaganza Tour this month, each show “an evening of Christmas music, carols, originals, bad jokes, sing-alongs, dancing, revelry, and all the holiday cheer you can squeeze into one room!” Sure to be featured are the four “movements” from their Family Christmas Album, which blend carol excerpts: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “The Coventry Carol”; “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” with “O Come, All Ye Faithful”; “Silent Night”; and “Joy to the World” with “I Saw Three Ships.” I’ve embedded the first one in the player below. They’re offering this Christmas album for free download at NoiseTrade (tips appreciated), or if you want a physical disc, you can purchase it from Bandcamp.

 

VISUAL MEDITATION: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay is on the gigantic Christ in Glory tapestry by Graham Sutherland that hangs behind the altar of Coventry Cathedral—one of many modern church art commissions in England necessitated by World War II bomb damage. Visiting the cathedral in 2013 was one of the most spiritually rich experiences I’ve ever had, and I plan to share it on this blog sometime in the future. Such a variety of artists were involved in the interior decoration program, and somehow it all comes together, collectively testifying to the power of resurrection. Sutherland wrote of his aspirations for the Christ figure: “The figure must look real—in the sense that it is not a rehash of the past. It must look vital; non sentimental, non-ecclesiastical; of the moment: yet for all time.” I’m taken by the final result, but an elderly gentleman who observed me staring at it for a while approached me and told me how much he hates it, how he thinks the eyes look unkind. (The man has lived in Coventry his whole life and remembers worshiping in the original cathedral before the war.) What do you think?

Christ in Glory by Graham Sutherland
Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph. Tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland (British, 1903–1980) and woven by Pinton Frères in France, 1962. Dimensions: 75 × 38 ft. Location: Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, UK.

FILM COLUMN: This fall I’ve really been enjoying film critic Jeffrey Overstreet’s new Christianity Today column, “Viewer Discussion Advised,” designed to help Christians discuss and explore a broad range of films. His kickoff article on the foreign drama Timbuktu, which is about the city’s occupation by Muslim extremists, highlights how it “bears artistic witness to the sufferings of our neighbors.” (Quoting Frederick Buechner: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors.”) “Christians can choose to dwell on—and invest in—movies that show us what we already like, tell us what we already know, assure us of our own salvation, and make us feel happily entertained. That isn’t wrong. But might we make better use of our time? Might we exercise courage and conscience, step outside of our comfort zones, attend to our neighbors, and learn from their experiences?”

Through a Screen Darkly

In addition to Timbuktu, Overstreet has covered the comedy The Station Agent; the US criminal justice system documentary 13th; the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo; the biographical drama A Man for All Seasons; the Marvel superhero flick Doctor Strange; the Coen brothers’ comedies; and the sci-fi feature Arrival, ending each article with group discussion questions. Overstreet has been writing about art, film, and faith for more than a decade at LookingCloser.org and is the author of Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies. He is currently teaching an online film course for Houston Baptist University and creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. To receive weekly installments of “Viewer Discussion Advised” to your e-mail inbox, sign up for the CT Entertainment Newsletter.

MUSIC VIDEO: My friend Nabil Ince is a third-year music major at Covenant College who writes and produces music under the rap name Seaux Chill. After an internship this summer he became assistant program director for the New City Fellowship–based nonprofit East Lake Expression Engine in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose mission is to provide children in the East Lake neighborhood with a free music education in a gospel-centered environment. Inspired by the El Sistema movement, the organization believes that music is an effective avenue for developing children’s creativity and problem-solving skills and for building up a strong community. They provide year-round classes on music history, theory, composition, and performance, including choir, bucket band, and orchestra. Below is the music video for “It Always Rains on Tuesdays,” a song Nabil wrote for the kids. The refrain is “Feed the plants / Clean all the cars / Fill the potholes / Tears from the stars.”