O Master, my desires to work, to know,
To be aware that I do live and grow—
All restless wish for anything not thee
I yield, and on thy altar offer me.
Let me no more from out thy presence go,
But keep me waiting watchful for thy will—
Even while I do it, waiting watchful still.
Ever been phubbed? It’s annoying, and it can hurt.
To phub someone is to snub them in favor of your smartphone. I’ve never owned a smartphone, so I can’t say I’ve been a perp of this particular act, but I have been a victim on many occasions. Thankfully, my husband is rarely guilty; he has above-average self-control when it comes to phone use. I love that he loves me enough to be present to me when we’ve intentionally set aside time to be together. When we disconnect from our devices, we connect more meaningfully with each other.
I’ve made dates before with friends or family, only to be subjected to regular disruptions as nonurgent text threads or Facebook pop-ups are attended to or, even worse, they feel the need to Internet-surf or scroll through social media feeds. This interferes with the sense of connection I feel with that person and immediately dampens the quality of our conversation. It’s no surprise that multiplestudies have shown that phubbing can be detrimental to relationships. It’s something I think we all know and yet we’re unwilling to break our excessive attachment to our phones.
I’m not a technophobe. I really appreciate technology, and smartphones are useful tools. But when they start controlling you rather than the other way around, something must be done. For a book-length treatment of this topic from a Christian perspective, see 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke; I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.
But sometimes art can give us a bigger kick in the pants than discursive prose, circumventing our defenses to show, not tell, what is (exposing our faults) and what could be (directing us toward a better alternative). And thus I present two excellent artworks, a dance and a poem, each one exploring what an undisciplined use of one’s cell phone looks like.
Keone and Mari Madrid are creative visionaries specializing in hip-hop dance and choreography. They are also a Christian married couple. Last summer they competed on NBC’s World of Dance with, among other numbers, “Like Real People Do.”
The first half of the dance expresses how routine it has become to reject face-to-face interaction in favor of screen time. Each partner glances sideways to assess the other’s desire, but at different times, so their gazes don’t meet, and they return to their devices. Though they move in step with each other, they lack any kind of interpersonal connection. It’s not until they lower their phones simultaneously that their eyes lock and intimacy becomes possible. They can play and converse and kiss and grow together “like real people do.”
For an uncut version of the dance filmed outdoors, click here. Also check out their audition, which is one of the most adorable, most joyous performances I’ve ever seen! (Dare you not to smile.) And there’s plenty more where that came from on their YouTube channel, covering a wide emotional range. You might also be interested in their recently released Ruth, an enhanced ebook that combines story, illustration, music, and dance—available on iTunes and Google Play.
Next I want to highlight the poem “The Phone Is Too Much with Us” by Benjamin Chase, originally published April 10, 2017, in Second Nature, an online journal of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. It’s a very clever adaptation of the early nineteenth-century sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,” in which the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth criticizes the rampant materialism of his contemporaries that led them to break their communion with nature and the spiritual. “We have given our hearts away,” “we are out of tune,” Wordsworth laments.
In his riff on Wordsworth, Chase retains the form of the original and much of its end rhyme while transposing the speaker’s frustrations with thing-obsessed humanity into the present era, where phones are what tend to draw us away from breadth and depth of life. God grants us the power and the blessing to “live in moments that are ours,” but “we’ve given here away”; we’d rather be there, in a virtual world, disseminating our every moment to faceless followers.
Lines 5 and 6 make use of wordplay: The photo “eclipses” the actual moon—it obscures it, reduces its grandeur. Video “lapses” the blooming flower—captures the phenomenon at a low frame rate, making for a nifty playback, but at the same time mediates it through a screen and thus lets slip away, cease, go out of existence the actual eye-to-petal (not eye-to-pixel) miracle. The speaker of this poem would rather be a firsthand witness to life’s beauty than a secondhand, to “see that which is the very thing I see.”
That goes with human encounters just as much as with nature encounters. Being present and open to whatever unfolds, not trying to manipulate it for optimal social media presentation, is a better posture to have. And experiencing emotions truly and bodily is essential if we are to be “a man [or woman] alive”—to “feel joy as joy” rather than merely through emojis or GIFs, and to genuinely sorrow over the devastating headlines we impulsively retweet or share.
None of this is to say that photos, videos, text messages, and social media are bad. They can be helpful in connecting us to people who cannot be physically present for special moments in our lives, and in documenting events we’d especially like to remember. It’s only when these activities hamper our ability to appreciate the people and events in front of us, and especially when they bear no relevance to our immediate context, that they become harmful. It’s worth asking yourself: Is my phone too much with me?
“The Phone Is Too Much with Us” by Benjamin Chase
After William Wordsworth
The phone is too much with us, now and soon.
Searching and scrolling, we bypass our powers.
Little we live in moments that are ours—
we’ve given here away, forgotten boon.
The photo eclipses the actual moon.
Video lapses the blooming flower.
It all uploads like a captured hour—
what we have missed will be our ruin.
Well, as for me, I’d rather be
a man alive, in body outworn.
So might I, standing in truly me,
feel joy as joy, sorrowing forlorn.
See that which is the very thing I see,
until it ends or ending comes to me.
Here are some recently published articles on religious art that I enjoyed, and I hope you do too:
“Shouldering the ‘Yoke of Love’: The Shared Passion of Simon and Jesus in Stone and Verse” by Victoria Emily Jones, Literary Life: Like Jonathan Stockland, I remember visiting Nicholas Mynheer’s home and seeing his Simon and Jesus sculpture and being moved by it. Stockland wrote a poem in response to his encounter, one that fits nicely within the tradition of ekphrastic poetry (poems about a visual work of art). Jump on over to LiteraryLife.org to read my reflection on it, from Sunday. As I was writing this essay, lines like “borders of despair” and “tents of desperation” rang out especially loudly, reminding me of the cross being borne by Latin American immigrants seeking entry into the United States, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries.
“Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden” (+ Part 2), Transpositions: The British artist Penny Warden is best known for her fifteen Stations of the Cross paintings at Blackburn Cathedral. In this excellent two-part interview, she answers questions such as: What does “Christian art” mean in today’s culture? Is there a place for the didactic in religious art? What contemporary artists are making compelling art of theological relevance? Warden also discusses the challenges and advantages of making permanent art for a worship space, how theology informs her practice, the role of tradition versus innovation, and more.
“Creating Sacred Space through Art and Light: The Vision of the Calvary Chapel Sacred Art Renovation”: Aesthetic renovations are underway at Biola University’s chapel in Southern California. Not only are significant changes in flooring, walls, seating, and lighting being made, but new permanent art installations have been commissioned by Danish artists Maja Lisa Engelhardt and Peter Brandes: Engelhardt is making an abstract, gilded Resurrection altarpiece for the west wall and a gilded bronze cross for the wooden entry doors, while Brandes is creating thirty-two hand-blown stained glass windows depicting biblical narratives. This is the first time the husband and wife have collaborated this closely on an art project.
The impetus for this revitalization was a concern that the sacred function and experience of the chapel and its interior architectural space had gradually become disassociated as a result of the increased multipurpose demands put upon the space. “The new artwork and proposed renovations seek to restore the chapel’s sacredness through creating a greater architectural and artistic balance between the interior space and the worship experience,” the Biola news article states. Click on the link to learn more or to contribute to the renovation fund.
“A Model for All Humanity: Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo” by Nigel Halliday, ArtWay: The marbleized plastic sculpture Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger is one of my favorite works of contemporary religious art, and Halliday introduces it beautifully. The artist created it in 1999 to top the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square—where the plinths in the three other corners display sculptures of British royals and military commanders. Though the sculpture has since been removed (and shown elsewhere) to allow for the rotation of other new public artworks, Halliday shows how its original location is key to interpreting its meaning, which has to do with worldly power and glory versus spiritual power and glory.
Meet the animals of the medieval bestiary, a Christian compendium of real and imagined beasts, The Iris: The blog of the J. Paul Getty Trust recently ran a series of features interpreting the symbolism of various animals from medieval bestiaries. (“A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals—including land creatures, fish, birds, and serpents [some real, some fantastical]—whose properties and behaviors were interpreted as symbols for God’s divine order.”) The phoenix, for example, is a mythical bird who sets himself on fire but on the third day rises again from the ashes of his pyre—a symbol of Christ. Another common symbol of Christ cemented by bestiaries and found in much medieval Crucifixion art is the pelican, who was said to peck at her breast until it bleeds, and then the blood feeds (or, in another variation, revives from the dead) her young. To learn more about this medieval literature genre, visit http://bestiary.ca.
Consenses is a global, multidisciplinary arts initiative developed by singer-songwriter Sally Taylor in which participants contribute to “interpretive chains,” responding to an assigned artwork in their own medium. The aim is to promote a more expansive view of the world through the engagement of all five senses and through exposure to diverse ways of seeing, as well as to foster connectedness across geographic divides. I found out about the project two years ago when proofreading herbalist Holly Bellebuono’s The Healing Kitchen: she said she was invited to interpret a photograph of a woman reclining in the sunshine as a tea blend—which was in turn brewed and enjoyed by another artist, who interpreted the blend as a short film.
Launched in 2012, the initial series of chains went like this: Taylor collected twenty-two photographs, each by a different photographer, and then commissioned twenty-two musicians to write a song based on one of those photos. Those songs were then given to dancers to interpret as movement, and then recordings of those dances were given to painters, whose painted responses were given to perfumers, who extracted the essence of the paintings and gave the resultant perfumes to poets, whose poems were given to chefs, whose culinary creations were given to sculptors. And no artist in this chain was allowed to see more than one link back. The final chains were then given to set designers, who created a physical space within which all the art could live. These twenty-two sets opened to the public in August 2014 and toured for four months, attracting more than seven thousand attendees.
Here’s a video excerpt of one of the chains:
Consenses continues, in part through a “Monthly Challenge” posted on the website—a catalytic work of art that invites creative responses. This month’s is a photograph titled Dreamhouse. The media in past months have been very diverse, including a woven basket, a graffitied wall, a comic strip, and a LEGO set.
Over the past few years, primary and secondary schools and colleges have approached Taylor, wanting to incorporate Consenses into their curricula, so she has been hard at work designing and overseeing those efforts. The fruits of one such partnership are about to go on display at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace in North Adams, Massachusetts, where “Come to Your Senses: Art to See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Touch” opens tomorrow (June 23) and runs through May 27, 2019. In this exhibition, paintings by fifth-grade students in North Adams and Northern Berkshire schools will be on display, which respond to the prompt of either “Joy” or “Fear.”
Taylor met with these kids last year and guided them through first steps, telling them to close their eyes with the blank piece of paper in front of them and ask themselves, “What would fear taste like if it were a flavor? What would it feel like as a texture? What would it be as a weather system? What would it look like if it were a painting?” She did the same with “joy.”
One child wrote, “Fear is sticky. It is large rocks. It is fire. It is the sound of thunder. It is the last petal falling. My pain of this is fear of darkness and large spiders. This is something trying to escape. Trying to escape from terror.” Another wrote of joy: “If joy were a flavor it would be cotton candy. It would be pink and light and smell like lemons on a sunny day. It would be confetti, balloons, night mist and starlight in the night sky. My painting is a starry night with confetti over it. It gives me joy because it reminds me of bright colors in the world.” (Read more about Taylor’s process with the kids here.)
After the kids finished their paintings, Taylor enlisted the talents of musicians, dancers, poets, photographers, painters, perfumers, a tea maker, a chef, sculptors, animators, and set designers to respond in Consenses-like fashion; among them were Taylor’s parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon, the latter of whom will be performing, along with others, at “An Evening with Sally Taylor and Friends” at MASS MoCA on opening night (Saturday, June 23).
To learn more about Taylor’s background and her vision for Consenses, listen to her TEDx talk from 2015:
Also be sure to check out https://consenses.org/, where you can browse past interpretive chains and participate in new ones.
After 1850, religious subjects became increasingly suspect among modernist artists determined to paint only what the eye can see. Gustave Courbet’s pronouncement, “show me an angel, and I’ll paint one,” exemplified a new, more skeptical orientation. Nevertheless, historical forces and personal motivations compelled many artists, working across a spectrum of materials and visual methods, to directly employ or obliquely reference themes of the Last Judgment and the Apocalypse. Over a century that saw two world wars, economic booms and devastating depressions, the rise and fall of ideologies of left and right, the collapse of colonial empires and the chaos of failed states, the threats of nuclear annihilation and ecological degradation, artists frequently turned to eschatological imagery to visualize the experience of modern life.
The Last Judgment described in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions threatens damnation and promises redemption for both the individual and society. This symposium will explore the way that apocalyptic beliefs and imagery—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—have informed the work of avant-garde artists from all regions of the globe. We invite proposals for 20-minute papers of original research that explore questions such as, but not limited to: What different visual languages have artists used to address the idea of the end of the world? What meanings have they found in the eschatological narrative? How are cultural differences and similarities manifested in their work? To what extent is the teleological narrative of modern art a disguised, secular version of a theological narrative?
Another recent release, from December 2017, is the poetry collection What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan, “an imaginative journey through the book of Revelation” that “offers a poet’s view of the prophetic, not in the sense of seeking out clues to the ‘end times,’ but a means of taking this strange, fantastic book of scripture and letting it read its way into personal lives.” I love Runyan’s poetry (all the poets published by Paraclete are great), so this volume is near the top of my to-read list. Check out “The Angel Over Patmos” and “The Great Throne,” and see the promo video below, with an excerpt from “Vision of the Son of Man.”
Also from 2017, a collage by Nicora Gangi inspired by medieval Last Judgment triptychs. Commissioned by Spark and Echo Arts, Kiss the Son calls on us to love Christ with sincere affection, adorning his feet with kisses like the woman in Luke 7. The left panel shows a heap of humanity’s various “golden calves,” those things we worship that only lead to death. This is contrasted on the right with the New Jerusalem, where the Lion and the Lamb sit atop a cascade of glory. At the bottom of the central panel is the city of destruction, the destination of those who give Christ the betrayer’s kiss; the snake-like forms recall the Evil One who deceived Adam and Eve and plummeted humanity into alienation from God. Above, though, the Son shines brightly, inviting all the reconciled into his loving presence.
Lastly, though it was released in 2013, I just recently discovered The Lamb Wins by the Lesser Light Collective, an album of thirty-plus original songs by fifteen-plus artists based on John’s Apocalypse. My favorite song is “The River and the Tree of Life.”
Oh yes, and because I just finished reading the massive Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, here’s a short, thematically relevant excerpt, from “Figures for an Apocalypse: VIII. The Heavenly City” (page 148):
Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:
You are the new creation’s sun.
And standing on their twelve foundations,
Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:
And Oh! Begin to hear the thunder of the songs within the crystal Towers,
While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like light
And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets . . .
POETRY BOOKS: I just learned about some recently released poetry collections in the Christian Century’s Book Reviews section: Joy: 100 Poems, compiled by Christian Wiman (the review responds to the comment Adrianna Smith made in her otherwise positive review for the Atlantic, that the book’s one fault is its “slant toward a theological comprehension of joy, specifically, an over-representation of a Christian one”); Wade in the Water: Poems by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith; and Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul, a collection of verse-style renderings of the thirteenth-century German Christian mystic by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, like this one:
“You Are Not an Answer”
There is no Why in You
and so I must learn to trust
that You are not an answer
to my questions but rather
the source that is true before
every question I ever had
and the love beyond every
answer I will ever know.
SONG: “Heaven Help Us All”: This a cappella Stevie Wonder cover is by the vocal group Accent, featuring guest singer Vanessa Haynes. Comprising six male vocalists from five different countries, Accent creates music through Internet collaboration. This song is an intercession to God on behalf of the desperate poor, the homeless, the abused, the lonely, and the depressed. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Pathways to Paradise: Medieval India and Europe,” Getty Museum, Los Angeles, May 1–August 5, 2018: “The pages of medieval manuscripts reveal a dynamically interconnected world filled with real and imagined ideas about foreign peoples and places. Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians living across Europe and Asia conceived paradise as a place of perfect harmony, but the path for locating such a site or achieving this state of mind varied between these religions. By exploring the terrestrial and celestial realms, this exhibition highlights the spiritual motivations for creating and owning portable and devotional artworks.”
“Shared Sacred Sites,” Manhattan, March 27–June 30, 2018: Spread across three Manhattan cultural institutions, the multidisciplinary exhibition “Shared Sacred Sites” aims to raise awareness of the potential for cooperation among the three Abrahamic faiths. The tour begins at the New York Public Library with illuminated manuscripts and documents that highlight holy figures shared in common, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and (between Christianity and Islam) Mary and Jesus. The Muslim miniature below shows the Miracle of the Table recounted in the Qur’an (5:111–114), in which ’Isa (Jesus) causes a table set with food to descend from heaven, corroborating his status as a true prophet. This miracle story echoes the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in the Gospels.
Then it moves to the Morgan Library and Museum, where the celebrated Morgan Picture Bible, produced in thirteenth-century Paris, is on display. This masterpiece of Gothic art offers exquisite visualizations of some three hundred Old Testament scenes (one of which I featured on the last “Artful Devotion”), and it’s also a testament to intercultural exchange: as the book circulated across civilizations, explanatory captions in Latin, Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Hebrew were added in the margins.
Lastly, the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center presents artifacts, videos, contemporary art, and photographs that showcase examples of peaceful coexistence of people from different faiths throughout the Eastern Mediterranean as a counternarrative to the stories of conflict that saturate the news media. Several of the photos are of shared worship spaces, like the mosque-synagogue in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, West Bank, or Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, where Muslims can often be found praying alongside Jewish friends and neighbors or attending pilgrimage ceremonies. (For more on Djerba’s beautiful culture of religious tolerance, see “Jews and Muslims Celebrate Unusual Coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba.”)
FREE ALBUM DOWNLOADS:
Weep + Rejoiceby Trenton Durham: This four-track EP was released in March as a series of soft-rock meditations on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Top of the Stairs by Scott Mulvahill: Mulvahill is a singer-songwriter and upright bass player from Nashville who toured for five years with Ricky Skaggs’s bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder. “The Lord Is Coming,” which Mulvahill wrote with Alanna Boudreau and Gabi Wilson, is one of eight songs on his latest EP. See below for a live performance from 2017 with two backing vocalists, or click here for a more recent solo performance from the Tokens Show, uploaded yesterday.
Volume 2by Deeper Well Records: Five Deeper Well artists have contributed two songs each to this compilation of acoustic hymns, a mix of classics, like “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” and “This Is My Father’s World,” and originals. I can’t speak highly enough of this label—the quality of music they release is superb. You can stream all the full songs on Bandcamp.
ANGLO-SAXON ASCENSION POEM: Excerpts from “Christ II” by Cynewulf, probably ninth century, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker: Dr. Eleanor Parker lectures on medieval literature at Oxford University and runs the excellent blog A Clerk at Oxford, where she often shares her translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with commentary. The poem she shares here reflects on Christ’s ascension—the disciples’ grief, the angels’ joy. To me the most remarkable section is the one that, indirectly referencing a sermon of Gregory the Great, describes Christ “leaping” up to heaven, taking an active bound toward his homeland, a movement read in light of Song of Solomon 2:8: “Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” This leap is one of six he took: from heaven (1) into Mary’s womb, (2) into a manger, (3) onto the cross, (4) into the tomb, (5) into hell, and finally, (6) back into heaven. “Prince’s play”! Parker pairs the poem with an exquisite, near-contemporary manuscript illumination, also from England; there’s also a lot of resonance between the poem and the Ascension image I published Tuesday by Bagong Kussudiardja, which shows a more balletic ascent.
UNDERWATER DANCE: “AMA,” a short film by Julie Gautier: This wonderfully expressive silent film shows French free diver and underwater artist Julie Gautier dancing in a single breath for several minutes inside the world’s deepest swimming pool, Y-40 Deep Joy in Montegrotto Terme, Padua, Italy, to a minimalist piano piece. The final shot shows Gautier slowing rising to the water’s surface while releasing a giant air bubble, her pose evocative of the crucified Christ (and her upward movement an Ascension of sorts!). Titled “Ama” (Japanese for “sea woman,” the name given to Japan’s pearl divers), the film is “dedicated to all the women of the world,” Gautier says. The choreography is by Ophélie Longuet.
Gautier and her husband, Guillaume Néry, a free-diving champion, own the underwater filmmaking company Les Films Engloutis. Their most well-known project has been a music video featuring Beyoncé, codirected by Gautier and starring Néry.
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Help Andy Squyres finance his next album: Andy Squyres is a super-talented singer-songwriter whose lyrics don’t stay in the shallows but, rather, dive into the depths of the faith experience. They are also supremely hope-filled. Below is a video of Squyres performing “Labor in Vain” at a house concert; the song is from his last album, Cherry Blossoms, which I reviewed here. Click on the boldface link above to hear Squyres discuss his new album project and to donate toward it.
ICON PAINTING COMPETITION: The Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) is hosting an international icon painting competition on the subject of Christ’s Resurrection. “Our purpose is to explore and bring to the foreground the numerous stylistic trends in existence today, enabling the visualization of a creative dialogue with tradition and, at the same time, the personal artistic expressions of artists who reframe tradition without, however, digressing from the doctrinal framework of Christian icon painting set by the 7th Ecumenical Council.” The submission window is closed—there are sixty-three great entries!—and now it’s time to cast your vote. Five winners will be selected to receive cash prizes, the topmost being €3,000, and other honors. Popular votes will be taken into account by the twelve jury members, among whom are esteemed iconographers George Kordis from Greece and Todor Mitrovic from Serbia.
ESSAY: “On the Border of East and West: Searching for Icons in Lviv” by John A. Kohan: The latest issue of Image journal features a wonderful essay on the Lviv school of iconography (represented in entries #4, #10, and #20 of the above contest), a movement by young Ukrainian Greek Catholic artists to contemporize the Byzantine visual tradition. Written by John A. Kohan, an avid religious art collector and former Time bureau chief in Moscow (1988–1996), it discusses the political history of the city; the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (r. 1901–1944) in preserving and supporting art for future generations; the opening of the Iconart gallery in 2010 to nurture and promote the new style; the broad training these icon makers receive at the Lviv National Academy of Arts; and the uneven reception by others in the denomination (especially official church bodies), who tend to prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. Kohan writes from his firsthand experiences meeting the artists and visiting their studios, churches, and exhibition spaces. The essay is available to subscribers only; click here to subscribe.
MET GALA + EXHIBITION: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” May 10–October 8, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The largest exhibition ever mounted by the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway fashions by famous designers inspired by Catholicism. AFashionista reviewer who attended a preview reports on the integrated displays:
A reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun’s habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.
Each year since 1948, the opening of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition has been celebrated with a huge fundraising gala attended by celebrities who dress to the theme; this year’s took place May 7. There were lots of crosses and haloes, but also some more particularized outfits. Ariana Grande’s gown was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; Gigi Hadid’s, by stained glass. Selena Gomez carried a Coach handbag embroidered with Proverbs 31:30b: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised.” The most brazenly dressed was Rihanna, who wore a gem-encrusted bishop’s miter (not a papal tiara, as has been commonly reported). Another standout headpiece was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, which featured a Neapolitan Nativity scene set inside a mini baldachin. (The making of elaborate presepi, or Christmas crèches, is a longstanding tradition in Naples, reaching its height during the eighteenth century.)
Lana Del Rey went as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing an immaculate-heart chest plate pierced through with seven daggers; it was comical to hear religiously illiterate reporters trying to interpret the symbolism, saying things like the daggers are a “reminder to repent your sins or suffer damnation!” (Wrong. The swords symbolize the Virgin’s seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy.)
Last month Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), one of the few female guitar evangelists of the ’30s and ’40s and the first gospel superstar, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was named an “Early Influence” for her electric sound and original guitar picking, which influenced the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Johnny Cash, among many others. (“Tharpe’s unique guitar style blended melody-driven urban blues with traditional folk arrangements and incorporated a pulsating swing sound that is one of the first clear precursors of rock and roll.”) Performing (controversially) both sacred and secular music, in churches and nightclubs, Tharpe collaborated with heavy-hitting artists of the time, including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the Dixie Hummingbirds, and she even hired a white group, the Jordanaires, to sing backup during one of her tours.
In 2011 BBC Four premiered Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll, a documentary written and directed by UK filmmaker Mick Csaky. Its US television premiere was in 2013, part of PBS’s American Masters series. Watch the trailer below, or watch the full documentary online.
Another April Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, who’s more of a household name, is Nina Simone (1933–2003). One of her most famous songs (certainly her most sampled) is “Sinnerman,” a Negro spiritual inspired by Revelation 6:12–17:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
When Simone (then Eunice Waymon) was a young girl, her mother, a Methodist minister, had her play the song on the piano at revival and prayer meetings as a means of compelling sinners to the altar. (Before pursuing her career as a singer and recording artist, she wanted to be a classical concert pianist. She plays the piano on “Sinnerman” and many other tracks.) Because she recorded her version of “Sinnerman” at the height of her civil rights activism, in 1965, some have speculated that the song is a veiled condemnation of the sins of white America. Continue reading “Roundup: Rock Hall inductions; James Cone; lynching memorial; “Christ in Alabama””→
How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!
Come, cast your burdens on the Lord
And trust his constant care.
Beneath his watchful eye,
His saints securely dwell;
That hand which bears all nature up
Shall guard his children well.
Why should this anxious load
Press down your weary mind?
Haste to your heav’nly Father’s throne
And sweet refreshment find.
His goodness stands approved,
Unchanged from day to day;
I’ll drop my burden at his feet
And bear a song away.
I cannot see, my God, a reason why
From morn to night I go not gladsome, free;
For, if thou art what my soul thinketh thee,
There is no burden but should lightly lie,
No duty but a joy at heart must be:
Love’s perfect will can be nor sore nor small,
For God is light—in him no darkness is at all.
UPCOMING CONFERENCE / CALL FOR PAPERS: “Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850–Now),” October 19–20, 2018, The Palace, Chichester, Sussex, England: The inaugural conference of the Visual Theology Symposium will take place this fall, and paper proposals are now being accepted (deadline June 15). “The divide between confessional and critical positions has long impoverished and polarised the academic analysis of the arts,” and this conference seeks to help bridge that divide. Click on the link to learn more, including eight possible paper approaches. Not only are scholars of art history, visual culture, and theology encouraged to submit but also clergy and artists. Jonathan A. Anderson and Ayla Lepine are among the several confirmed speakers so far.
ALBUM: the rain is a handsome animal by Tin Hat (2012): I’ve really been enjoying these seventeen “classical gypsy jazz” settings of the poetry of E. E. Cummings. They’re so dreamsome. Tin Hat consists of violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt, guitarist Mark Orton, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and accordionist and pianist Rob Reich, and all four are involved in composing. Below is Kihlstedt’s “sweet spring.” For a PDF of the album lyrics, click here. To further engage with Cummings, check out my analysis of his poem “i thank You God for most this amazing,” which also features a musical setting and happens to be the most visited post on this blog.
PLAY: Babette’s Feast, Theatre at St. Clement’s, New York City: I’ve heard Babette’s Feast cited many times in Christian literature and addresses, and now it’s been adapted into a stage play, currently running off-Broadway and starring Michelle Hurst (Orange Is the New Black) in the titular role. “Based on Isak Dinesen’s short story made famous by the 1987 Academy Award-winning [Danish] film, this new stage adaptation of Babette’s Feast premiered in January 2018 in Portland, Maine to rave reviews. The play tells the story of Babette, a French refugee, who finds asylum in a pious Norwegian village. With boundless generosity, she throws a lavish feast that becomes an agent of transformative grace, healing a fractured community.” (Update 5/1: Just after I published this post, Image journal published a great interview with director Karin Coonrod.)
ARTICLE: “Can Art Lending Libraries Empower a New Generation of Collectors?” by Kealey Boyd: “For centuries, those who lacked the space or resources to collect artworks really only had one option—experiencing whatever fine art they could find in public spaces like museums. But in many cities, it’s now possible to borrow art for free. All you need is a local ‘art lending library’—an innovation in art sharing that could, just maybe, help democratize an activity that was once considered inaccessible.”
INSTALLATION: “Nobodaddy” by Mark Leckey, Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland, April 20–July 1, 2018: The wounds of Job speak in this solo exhibition by Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, part of the Glasgow International contemporary art festival. “Nobodaddy”—the title a reference to a William Blake poem about God’s seeming absence—features a spotlit, oversize Job figure that’s based on an eighteenth-century wooden statuette from Germany; he is covered in boils and excrescences and sitting in melancholy contemplation. The open wounds of the figure are embedded with speakers, and they broadcast a monologue of grief, voiced by Leckey and accompanied by horrible gurglings and rumblings. A video screen opposite Job projects a CGI apparition of the same figure and images of his hollowed-out insides. [HT: Jonathan Evens]
PERFORMANCE ART: An Occupation of Loss by Taryn Simon, Corner of Islington Green, Essex Road, London, April 17–28, 2018, co-commissioned by Park Avenue Armory and Artangel: I’m late on this one, unfortunately. For this work, reprised from its 2016 premiere in New York City, artist Taryn Simon brought together professional mourners from around the world (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, Ghana, Greece, India, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Russia, and Venezuela) to simultaneously enact their rituals of grief over the course of a half hour. The result is a cacophony of culturally diverse lamentations that reach a sustained climax and then fall away to a single voice and, eventually, a deep silence. Performed inside an underground concrete auditorium in Central London, balconied and three levels deep, the work is concerned not with the mourning of any one event or person in particular, but the phenomenon of loss itself.
traditionally, professional mourners are hired by families of the deceased to mark the occasion and to guide the dead to the place where they will lead their afterlife. Mourners are [also] called upon to mark larger losses within their communities, like displacement or exile, in a cultural role that is part witness, part historian and part poet. . . . Their laments, wails and cries are also testament to their own bereavements. They can be political testimony, too.
Simon describes the purpose of professional mourners this way: “The bereaved solicit the authority of professional mourners to occupy, negotiate, and shape their loss. The mourners control a psychological experience by directing and embodying the emotion of others.” An Occupation of Loss is the culmination of her seven years of research into professional mourning, which relied heavily on interviews with anthropologists, historians, linguists, musicologists, and other experts. Finding these performers, and then securing visas for them, was itself a herculean task. Listen to the artist discuss the project at more length in this Channel 4 news segment. [HT: Jonathan Evens]