Three poems about Vincent van Gogh

This spring I guest-wrote and narrated an episode of the Makers & Mystics podcast on the life, art, and spirituality of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh artist profile

The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Vincent was a lifelong seeker after God who sought through his work to convey the pervasion of the Divine in the everyday. Before he was an artist, he was a missionary to a destitute coal-mining village in Belgium. His ministry was so incarnational—he lived just like those he served—that the sending agency deemed him too undignified to be a minister of the gospel and cut off his support. Hurt by its hypocrisy, Vincent left the institutional church, but he never abandoned his faith. That faith did evolve, however. His so-called evangelical period gave way to a period of artistic discovery, which enabled him to revel even more deeply in the mystery of God and the ethics of Jesus—which he wrote about frequently in letters to his brother Theo.

Despite personal suffering and an acute awareness of the suffering of others, Vincent was very attuned to the beauty of this world and lived a life of wide embrace. He saw the image of God in people and in nature and honored that image through his paintings, of sunflowers, cypresses, olive groves, wheat fields, farmers and mothers and postmen, soldiers, doctors, café owners, and his own self. When he was institutionalized, he continued to paint, so long as his health allowed it, and some of his finest work comes from this period at Saint-Rémy, including The Starry Night. (“When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars,” Vincent wrote.) While some interpret the agitated brushstrokes of his later paintings as evidence of internal turmoil and instability, might they not instead express his view of the universe as vibrant, wild, pulsating with life and energy? It is a myth, after all, that Vincent painted in fevered states.

As I was doing research for the podcast episode, I encountered many poets who have responded in verse to specific paintings of Vincent’s, or more generally to Vincent’s oeuvre, vocation, and legacy. I’ve selected three such poems from the latter category, each of which serves as a wonderful introduction to the man and his work—a distillation of his essence, even. I’m struck by how all three poets use religious language to describe Vincent’s paintings: hymns, psalms, prayers.

I’ve compiled the images referred to in the poems, plus a few other representative ones, in the tiled gallery below. To enlarge a photo and to view more info, click on its caption, visible by hovering your cursor over the bottom.

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“Dear Lover of Light” by Abigail Carroll

Dear Lover of Light,

There lived a priest
so in love with light
it drove him mad.
Paint was his thing.
When he could no longer
preach, he hopped a train
south, took up a brush,
turned zinc and lead
and chrome
into gaudy, wild-
petaled ambassadors
of the dawn. He slapped
stars as big as brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed. Postmen
and prostitutes
were his friends—
so too were irises,
almond trees,
windmills,
clouds. Francis,
if you think of a painting
as a kind of song, he too
canticled the sun.

A Vincent enthusiast

This poem appears in A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Eerdmans, 2017) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“Dear Lover of Light” is from a collection of verse-style letters addressed to Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century friar who was in love with Christ and with creation—he called animals, the natural elements, and celestial bodies “brothers” and “sisters,” as in his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” and is said to have preached to birds and tamed a wolf.

Abigail Carroll sees Francis as a kindred spirit to Vincent, who, she says, also “canticled the sun.” Vincent’s paintings are like songs of praise. Instead of words he used color—and yellow was his favorite (yellow ocher, cadmium yellow, zinc yellow, chrome yellow), representing for him life, energy, happiness, hope, and friendship.

“When he could no longer / preach” refers to Vincent’s being let go from his village preaching post by a religious board that deemed him too ineloquent and too radical. He moved to The Hague, where he befriended a pregnant sex worker named Sien and her daughter Maria, giving them shelter in his apartment and supporting them as best he could with his own meager funds. From there he went to Nuenen, where his compassion for the working poor manifested in the many earth-toned paintings of this period, including his first major work, The Potato Eaters, showing a family gathered around the dinner table, enjoying the fruit of their labors. After two years in Paris, Vincent needed a respite from the city noise, which led him to Arles in southern France, where he really started finding himself as an artist. He was enraptured by the way sunlight flooded the Provençal landscapes, making them radiant.

Carroll’s poetic descriptions of Vincent’s paintings—dancing crows, jewel-like stars, bowing wheat—capture his sense of all of creation being alive unto God, infused with the sacred. Vincent found great joy in observing what flowered around him, from the irises that grew outside the asylum where he committed himself to the almond tree he painted as a gift for his newborn nephew Vincent, whom his brother named after him. And Vincent saw sacred beauty not only in the natural world but also in everyday articles and objects, be they a pair of well-worn boots in the mudroom or the empty chair of his friend Paul Gauguin.

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“What Happened When He Looked” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

His miners are made of earth, his sowers so close
to the colors of the fields, only the broad hat, the sack,
the outflung arm keeps them from fading into wheat.

But sometimes, he found, the earth itself turns
to water. Mountains tumble like rapids, waves
curling, blue, roiling and leaping like
the Psalmist’s mountains clapping their hands.

And water turns to air. As life turns to breath.
The sky grows heavy with sun and draws
everything into its fierce embrace, urging
matter upward and homeward to where
the energies of earth begin.

And then there is fire. When they are alive enough
(or we), bushes burn. If you see it, you go
reeling home along a roadway you suddenly know
is temporary and might evaporate or begin
to pinwheel around a star, taking you with it
beyond deeper and deeper blue, into yellow that melts
to a core of thick, transparent white where love
burns day and night to fuel the fallen seed.

This poem appears in The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh’s Late Paintings (Eerdmans, 2007) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

This poem is structured around the four classical elements, understood as the material basis of the physical world: earth, water, air, and fire. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes how in Vincent’s paintings, these elements take on characteristics of one another: for example, in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, the hills surge and flow like water, and in The Sower of 1888, the air burns like fire.

In this latter painting, Vincent said he wished to use the yellow sun as a symbol of Christ’s presence, a sort of halo that covers everything it touches. (See also Letter 673: “I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.”) The Sower shows the union between the temporal and eternal, two interpenetrating realms. “The sky . . . draws / everything into its deep embrace, urging / matter upward and homeward,” McEntyre writes.

Vincent saw, in the famous words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God.” A reference, of course, to the burning bush in Exodus 3:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (emphasis mine)

McEntyre titled this poem “What Happened When He Looked”—that is, what happened when Vincent, like Moses, looked with intent on the miraculous sights that go unnoticed by so many. What happened is, like Moses, he heard God speak. What happened is he experienced a mystical union with that “something on High—inconceivable, ‘awfully unnameable’— . . . which is higher than Nature.” Vincent’s artmaking was a reverent act of beholding and of bearing witness to that something.

The final line of McEntyre’s poem refers to Jesus’s parable of the fallen seed, which once it dies, springs forth life—a picture of the promise of resurrection. The sun, or white-hot love of God in Christ, is generative, the energy that raises us out of the dark and fuels our growth and flourishing. Vincent’s paintings radiate that love.

During his time as an assistant preacher under the Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones in Isleworth, England, in summer 1876, Vincent wrote to Theo,

I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. I want to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel these bonds. To be sorrowful yet alway rejoicing. To live in and for Christ, to be one of the poor in His kingdom, steeped in the leaven, filled with His spirit, impelled by His Love, reposing in the Father [. . .]. To become one who finds repose in Him alone, who desires nothing but Him on earth, and who abides in the Love of God and Christ, in whom we are fervently bound to one another.

Though Vincent would later renounce orthodox Christianity, he retained his love for Christ and his sense of awe in the face of the Infinite active in the here and now.

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“Van Gogh” by Jeanne Murray Walker

     All right, I love him for the way
                      he painted Vermilion! Orange! jagged as
        shouts, and when no one bought them,
                      no one even heard him,
he shouted louder,
                      Sunflowers! Self-portrait!
     and years later, not one sold,
                      he cut off his own ear.

     Then he had to bring it back on canvas
                      hundreds of times,
        in the brass swelling
                      of the bell
that called him to dinner,
        in the complicated iris
                      at the end of the asylum path.
                            Think how stooping
at a fork in the road
                      he might have seen a stone-shaped ear,
       how the human heart,
                      once it knows what it needs,
will find it everywhere, how
       in the curve of his delicately padded cell
                      one starry night, he must have murmured
                            everything he had ever wanted to say
straight into the ear of God.

This poem appears in A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press, 2004) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

If McEntyre’s poem is about looking and provoking others to look, Jeanne Murray Walker’s is about wanting to be heard, and takes the ear as its central image. Vincent is, of course, notorious for the psychotic episode that culminated in him cutting off his left ear. (His self-portraits show the bandages on his right ear because he painted them by looking in a mirror.) Walker imagines him thereafter seeing ear-shapes everywhere in nature—delicate curves and hollows—manifestations of his longing to be listened to.

Vincent’s paintings are prayers, Walker suggests, that went straight into the ear of the One who hears, who holds all our joys and sadness in love. Others didn’t hear Vincent, but God did.

I will mention that it is a myth that Vincent never sold a painting during his lifetime. True, he sold few—his most significant sale was The Red Vineyard, purchased in January 1890 by Anna Boch while Vincent was convalescing at a psychiatric hospital—“but still,” writes Rainer Metzger in Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, “the fact should not be overemphasized; after all, Vincent was so willing to give his paintings as presents that many would-be purchasers never needed to part with a penny” (566). And he sometimes made in-kind trades with his paintings.

It’s also false that Vincent died without ever having received recognition for his work. Actually, he was a rising star in the art world. The avant-garde circles in France and Belgium recognized his talent before his death. He was exhibited a few times and received a gushing review in January 1890. Several fellow artists spoke favorably of his work, and of course his brother Theo, an art dealer, was a tireless champion, even supporting him financially for years so that he could paint. It wasn’t easy getting established, and yes, there were many people along the way who didn’t see the value of what he was doing, but Vincent kept at it. He was still in his early career when he died on July 29, 1890, at age thirty-seven. After his death the audience for his work, and thus appreciation for it, grew exponentially, thanks in large part to his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who edited, translated, and published all 652 letters from Vincent that she had in her possession, lent his paintings to various exhibitions, and promoted his work in other ways.

But on a personal level, Vincent was often overlooked, known as something of an eccentric, a crazy person, for which he was often teased and tormented. In fact, one theory about his death, originating in the 1950s but popularized by the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life, is that he was shot by teenage bullies. (The Van Gogh Museum rejects this theory, declaring his death a definitive suicide.)

Vincent battled mental illness: during his lifetime he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy that causes seizures, hallucinations, and manic depression. While he made friends in each city he lived in, his illness tended to cause rifts, sometimes permanent ones. On occasion he wrote to Theo how lonely he was.

So even when Vincent was starting to attain professional recognition for his art toward the end of his life, he still felt at times unwanted and misunderstood. “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” He wrote this line in June 1880, but it’s a sentiment that would resurface in his letters over the next ten years—the idea that people aren’t interested in the gifts he has to offer, be they relational or artistic.

Walker’s poem captures that mixture of confidence and doubt, self-assuredness and vulnerability, hardness and softness, and above all the dogged persistence that characterized Vincent. He “shouted” his soul onto canvas and into a world that in many quarters was plugging its ears. And he “murmured” it to the heavens, where it was received openly, caringly.

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To learn more about Vincent van Gogh, here are some recommended resources:

  • The aforementioned “Vincent van Gogh” podcast episode (Makers & Mystics Artist Profile Series no. 28) breaks down Vincent’s art and faith in under twenty minutes.
  • The world’s largest collection of van Gogh’s work is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has an excellent website, which includes high-resolution photos of 200+ paintings and 500+ drawings, plus interactive “Stories” on such topics as “Nature and the Artist,” “Inspiration from Japan,” and “Brotherly Love: Vincent and Theo,” in which you click through bit by bit to view art, archival photos, and quotes connected together with short narration—very engaging! (Kudos to whomever designed the interface.)
  • The freely accessible website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters contains scans, transcriptions, and translations of all van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, and many others. They are heavily footnoted and include sketches and other enclosures, and the website enables universal searches! I can’t afford the official six-volume, complete illustrated and annotated print edition from Thames & Hudson, but I do own a Penguin Classics edition, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a generous selection introduced and editorialized by Ronald de Leeuw and translated by Arnold Pomerans, which is mostly what I quote from in this article. An abridged book like this one might be a good place to start if you’re not able or willing to invest a ton of time poring over the full correspondence, some of which is dull or rambling.
  • Van Gogh’s paintings have been victim to some truly poor-quality reproductions circulating online. The full-color Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (Taschen, 2012) was indispensable to me as I researched the artist, as it documents his full catalog of paintings (note: not drawings) with high-resolution photos that capture as accurately as possible the works’ colorative and textural richness. These are arranged by period and contextualized with essays.
  • The award-winning HENI Talks produced a seven-minute video titled “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees,” which is gorgeously shot and covers more than just the titular subject.
  • Movies? I really enjoyed the 1956 biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas—the characterization seems to me spot-on, and overall it does a great job with historical accuracy—and the oil-painted animated feature Loving Vincent from 2017 [previously]. I was not too keen on the recent At Eternity’s Gate starring Willem Dafoe.

Van Gogh books

There are many spiritual biographies on Vincent van Gogh, or books about the religious impulse behind his art:

At Eternity’s Gate, published by Eerdmans in 1998, was the first of its kind and is still probably my favorite; the author has advance degrees in both religion and art history and does an excellent job arguing that Vincent’s spiritual life was essential to the unfolding of his artistic vision. Carol Berry’s Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh, though, would probably be my top recommendation to those who just want to dip their toes in and engage Vincent’s story in a less academic, more personal, way, as Berry, an art educator with a background in Christian ministry, interweaves the lives of Vincent and Henri with personal memoir—an excellent gift book.

Roundup: Santo Spirito, Joan of Arc, “Halo My Path,” and more

VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”: Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.

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ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.

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NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)

Santo Spirito
Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence

The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.

My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:

Plus these two:

  • The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
  • The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.

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NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.

Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.

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NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!

“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”

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FILMS

May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.

Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.

While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.

The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.

Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.

Roundup: Jonah disgorged, Watching TV Religiously, “My Mother’s Body,” and more

VISUAL MEDITATIONS (ARTWAY.EU)

Jonah Swallowed and Jonah Cast Up, commentary by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay was published Sunday—it’s on two third-century Jonah sculptures from Asia Minor that likely decorated a family fountain. Early Christians read the story allegorically (at least on one level), as pointing forward to the death and resurrection of Christ. The “great fish” is portrayed as a ketos, a sea-monster of Greek myth.

Jonah Marbles
“Jonah Swallowed” and “Jonah Cast Up,” made in Asia Minor, probably Phrygia, 280–90 CE. Marble, 50.4 × 15.5 × 26.9 cm (left) and 41.5 × 36 × 18.5 cm (right). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Run by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, the faith-based website ArtWay has been publishing a new visual meditation every Sunday for years, as well as a lot of other content from a variety of contributors. To subscribe to the weekly email, click here. Here are just a few VMs published in the past year that I particularly enjoyed:

Manu-Kahu by Brett a’Court, commentary by Rod Pattenden: Pattenden begins, “This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigations into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Maori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite, is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.”

Manu-Kahu by Brett a'Court
Brett a’Court (New Zealand, 1968–), Manu-Kahu, 2007. Oil on canvas.

Knife Angel by Alfie Bradley, commentary by Rachel Wilkerson: This twenty-seven-foot-tall sculpture, welded from 100,000 knives collected in confiscations and amnesties around the UK, confronts the issue of knife violence. The artist cleaned and dulled the blade of each knife he received and engraved personal messages on all the wings’ “feathers,” messages sent by families affected by knife violence.

Bradley, Alfie_Knife Angel
Alfie Bradley (British, 1990–), Knife Angel, 2018. Mixed media sculpture, incl. 100,000 knives.

Cathedra by Barnett Newman, commentary by Grady van den Bosch: I saw this painting in Amsterdam last spring and was surprised by how it compelled me. (I don’t typically gravitate to abstract art.) After spending some time up close—I supposed this was a Newman, and Newman says his paintings need to be experienced up close—I looked at the label and saw that it has a religiously inflected title: Cathedra. The word is Latin for “seat,” and in Christianity it refers specifically to the bishop’s chair inside a church (churches that had a cathedra were called cathedrals). But Newman was of Jewish descent, and van den Bosch writes that Cathedra is meant to represent the throne of God. “And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone . . .” (Ezek. 1:26).

Newman, Barnett_Cathedra
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970), Cathedra, 1951. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 243 × 543 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

As someone who loves historical Christian art, including its many Christ Pantocrators, I must nevertheless admit that there is something so right about modern artists’ often apophatic approach to evoking the Divine. While I do believe God imaged Godself in the person of Jesus Christ and is therefore representable, I understand the argument some make that abstraction is a better visual language for spiritual subject matter or encounter. I accept both/and. Whether God is shown as a rich, blue expanse that invites and envelops, or a heroic nude emerging from the jaws of death, or a Man of Sorrows head with a harrier hawk’s body, I think we can learn a little something from the diversity of representations, which are not mutually exclusive. Not all representations need be embraced, but nor do unfamiliar, difficult, or even shocking ones need be automatically dismissed.

Click on the link for more on how to read Newman’s color field paintings, including his signature “zips.”

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FREE ONLINE COURSE: Watching TV Religiously: Through at least July 1, Fuller Theological Seminary is offering all its online Fuller Formation courses for free! I just finished taking Watching TV Religiously, taught by Kutter Callaway [previously], author of the book of the same title, and really enjoyed it. It’s a series of six self-paced lessons, which includes short video lectures by the professor, audio conversations with TV writer Dean Batali (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; That ’70s Show), TV watching assignments, reflection questions, and more.

The course aims to help Christians develop critical tools for watching television and a vocabulary that is as rich and thoughtful as the medium itself, so that we can engage it constructively. (It need not be mindless entertainment!) Callaway explores television as a technology, a narrative art form, a commodity, and a portal for our ritual lives. He’s interested in how stories are told in this episodic, audiovisual format, and what that means for the Story we tell. The course is not about what Christians should watch, but how Christians should watch, leaving ample room for individual viewers to set their own boundaries, ethical and otherwise. (Callaway acknowledges that TV can form as well as de-form us.) He discusses empathy building and access to other perspectives, knowing your sensibilities, how being offended can be useful, watching in community, seeing God in all places, being aware of how your desires and imagination are being shaped, Christians in Hollywood (and Christian characters on TV), and the culture shaping TV and TV shaping culture, among other things.

The course is fairly broad in its approach; it does not analyze particular shows or episodes, though some specific examples are mentioned in conversations, and students are encouraged to form discussion groups with friends or family members and apply what they’re learning to shows of their choice. I really appreciated the assigned PBS docuseries America in Primetime (somewhat outdated because made in 2011 but very good nonetheless), whose four episodes explore character types throughout the history of TV, from the fifties to today: “The Independent Woman,” “Man of the House,” “The Misfit,” and “The Crusader.” From taking this course I realized how many acclaimed TV shows I’ve never seen. I’ve got a lot of homework to do!

Other arts courses offered by Fuller Formation are

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POEM: “My Mother’s Body” by Marie Howe, read with commentary by Pádraig Ó Tuama: As Mother’s Day is Sunday, I thought I’d share this wonderful, sad-sweet, mother-themed episode of the new Poetry Unbound podcast from On Being Studios. Pádraig Ó Tuama introduces Marie Howe’s “My Mother’s Body,” in which a middle-age woman, caring for her dying mother, thinks back to the time when her mother was just a twenty-four-year-old girl giving birth to her. The speaker in the poem is Howe.

She imagines being in her mother’s womb, experiencing the rhythm of her mother’s heartbeat. (What an exercise, to imagine yourself as your mother’s baby!) Now decades later, her mother is dying—that heart is failing, and the kidneys too. The uterus has been removed. Toggling between the two time frames, the poem is both a celebration of the strength of women’s bodies and a lament for its vulnerabilities, especially in old age. Howe marvels at how her mother’s body was capable of such a wonder as giving and sustaining life, and now to see that once-vibrant form breaking down grieves her. In some sense their roles have switched as daughter mothers mother, combing her hair, changing her soiled bedsheets.

The poem opens with “Bless my mother’s body” and ends with “Bless this body she made . . .” In the progression of pronouns in the last two lines—my, her, our—is a recognition of how our mothers always remain a physical part of us. They are in our cells. “My Mother’s Body” is a thank-you and a letting go.

The poem is from Howe’s collection The Kingdom of the Ordinary—which I highly recommend.

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ARTICLE: “5 Contemporary Poets Christians Should Read” by Mischa Willett: There is so much good crop still being pulled from the fertile fields of theologically inflected verse,” writes poet Mischa Willett—so don’t stop short, content merely with Donne and Hopkins! This is an excellent short list of contemporary poets of faith, with summaries of key themes and recommendations for which volume(s) to start with. Willet was recently on The Ride Home with John and Kathy to discuss this topic, and he wrote a follow-up post on his blog.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”: One of the most poignant scenes in last year’s 1917 is when, after a harrowing journey across No Man’s Land, Lance Corporal William Schofield—exhausted, disoriented—reaches a wood and encounters a fellow British soldier singing the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger” [previously] to a battalion that sits in somber attention, for they’re about to go into battle. This official music video from Sony splices together clips from the movie with studio footage of the actor and singer Jos Slovick.

“The Waterfall” by Henry Vaughan

Senju, Hiroshi_Waterfall
Hiroshi Senju (Japanese, 1958–), Waterfall, 2016. Acrylic and fluorescent pigments on Japanese mulberry paper, 51 × 64 in. Photo courtesy of Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
                  Here flowing fall,
                  And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stayed
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid,
                  The common pass
                  Where, clear as glass,
                  All must descend
                  Not to an end,
But quick’ned by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

      Dear stream! dear bank! where often I
      Have sat, and pleased my pensive eye;
      Why, since each drop of thy quick store
      Runs thither, whence it flowed before,
      Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
      Who came, sure, from a sea of light?
      Or, since those drops are all sent back
      So sure to Thee, that none doth lack,
      Why should frail flesh doubt any more
      That what God takes He’ll not restore?

      O useful element and clear!
      My sacred wash and cleanser here;
      My first consigner unto those
      Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes!
      What sublime truths and wholesome themes
      Lodge in thy mystical, deep streams!
      Such as dull man can never find
      Unless that Spirit lead his mind,
      Which first upon thy face did move,
      And hatched all with his quick’ning love.
      As this loud brook’s incessant fall
      In streaming rings restagnates all,
      Which reach by course the bank, and then
      Are no more seen: just so pass men.
      O my invisible estate,
      My glorious liberty, still late!
      Thou art the channel my soul seeks,
      Not this with cataracts and creeks.

 

In “The Waterfall” by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), a stream’s sudden surge and plummet over a precipice followed by a calm, continued flow is a picture of the soul’s passage into eternity—the continuation of life after death.

The speaker addresses the stream and its retinue of waters, who “murmur” and “chide”—that is, make incessant noise (in the word’s archaic sense). The waters move with increasing momentum toward the brink and hesitate just before but then take the plunge. Briefly brought under, in their “deep and rocky grave” they are “quickened,” made alive once more, as they rise back up to the surface and course smoothly onward, no longer in a state of agitation. After a momentary crash, serenity.

Vaughan represents this action visually with an alternation of groups of long lines and short lines, which give the impression of water tumbling over ledges of rock. The lines then steady out into a uniform column, signifying the water’s becoming sedate.

“Why,” the speaker wonders, “since each drop of thy quick store / Runs thither, whence it flowed before, / Should poor souls fear a shade or night, / Who came, sure, from a sea of light?” Death is benevolent, merely a drop-off along the route and then reconstitution to the whole. Just as the stream that has fallen returns to the vast ocean from whence (via the cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation) it came, so, too, does the soul return to God, its origin.

In the final stanza the speaker muses on water as sacrament—baptism, he says, is our “first consigner unto those / Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes” (see Rev. 7:17; cf. Isa. 49:10). In other words, our baptism gives us over to God, to the New Eden. If baptism is our first consigner, then death is our final consigner, bringing us at last to the One to whom we belong.

The profound mystical truth hidden in something as natural as a waterfall is discerned only by those whom the Spirit reveals it to—that same Spirit who hovered over the waters at Creation (Gen. 1:2) “[a]nd hatched all with his quick’ning love.”

I write this in memory of my husband Eric’s grandfather, who died Sunday. I’m consoled by the image of him as a water droplet whose plunge does not mean a cessation of being but rather a flowing into God, into “glorious liberty.” When water plunges down, it sends ripples toward the bank, Vaughan writes, but then settles into stillness and is imperceptibly carried away to a destination out of view. So Grandpa Jones is now on “a longer course more bright and brave,” flowing toward “a sea of light.”

“Breath” by Yahia Lababidi

Komarechka, Don_Jewels of Summer

Beneath the intricate network of noise
there’s a still more persistent tapestry
woven of whispers, murmurs and chants

It’s the heaving breath of the very earth
carrying along the prayer of all things:
trees, ants, stones, creeks and mountains alike

All giving silent thanks and remembrance
each moment, as a tug on a rosary bead
while we hurry past, heedless of the mysteries

And, yet, every secret wants to be told
every shy creature to approach and trust us
if we patiently listen, with all our senses.

“Breath” by Yahia Lababidi appears in Barely There: Short Poems (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and is used by permission of the publisher. Photograph by Don Komarechka, used with permission.

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Lately I’ve been delving into the writings of the Egyptian American poet, aphorist, and essayist Yahia Lababidi. I love his Barely There collection of poems on such topics as poetry / the poet, spiritual longing, virtue and vice, hope, surrender, the quiet beauty of nature, attention and gratitude, and pain as a gift. It’s such a wise and tender collection. His latest book, released last month, is Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, and Spiritual.

“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb

Wesley, Frank_Mary at the Tomb
Frank Wesley (Indian, 1923–2002), Mary at the Tomb, before 1993. Watercolor, 25 × 20 cm. Published in “Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush” (Auckland: Pace, 1993).

She brake the box, and all the house was filled
With waftures from the fragrant store thereof,
While at His feet a costlier rose distilled
The bruisèd balm of penitential love.

And lo, as if in recompense of her,
Bewildered in the lingering shades of night,
He breaks anon the sealèd sepulcher,
And fills the world with rapture and with light.

“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb was originally published in Poems by John Banister Tabb (Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894) and is now in the public domain.

This short poem—just two quatrains with an ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme—draws on Luke 7:36–50. In this Gospel episode, Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee when an unnamed “sinful” woman enters with an alabaster jar of precious ointment, which she pours lavishly onto Jesus’s feet in an act of love and gratitude, and in recognition of his messiahship. So humbled is she by Jesus’s forgiveness of her sin that she is in tears. (Note: Tradition says this woman was Mary Magdalene—based in part on a conflation with the similar account in John 12:1–8, which names the woman Mary.)

Of even more value to Christ than the essential oils, Tabb suggests, is the woman’s “penitential love,” a balm before his wounds. Her beautiful, bruised soul, like a rose, releases such an aroma, though the Pharisees can’t smell it, and they try to shame her. Not long hence Jesus returns her tenderhearted gesture, opening another stone container (his tomb) and spilling forth life and light and bliss, priceless treasures, onto his beloved world. He meets Mary in her bewilderment on that first Easter morning, lavishing on her all his resurrection riches.

Roundup: Leon Bridges, Stations of the Cross, Hermitage Museum tour, and contemporary “religious” poetry

NEW SONG RELEASE: “Conversion” by Leon Bridges: A smoky, minor-key redemption ballad closes out Leon Bridges’s [previously] latest EP, Texas Sun, a collaboration with the three-piece psychedelic funk band Khruangbin. Bridges wrote the song in 2012 in response to his conversion to Christianity, he said, but this is the first time he’s recorded it. Halfway through, following a personal testimonial about being made alive by the Holy Spirit, the song breaks into a slow R&B rendition of Isaac Watts’s “At the Cross.” Lyrics here. See also the musical and lyrical analysis Aarik Danielsen wrote over at Think Christian.

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STATIONS OF THE CROSS:

Contemporary Artists Interpret Stations of the Cross, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, February 19–April 3, 2020: Thanks to one of my readers reaching out, I found out about this church-sponsored exhibition just south of where I live and was able to attend the opening reception, where many of the artists were present to talk about their work and answer questions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to its early closure, but photos of the artworks, which are for sale, can be viewed online: see this write-up by curator Maureen Doallas. Below are the works representing station 8 (“Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”) and station 14 (“Jesus is laid in the sepulcher”).

Peckarsky, Terry_Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa
Terry Peckarsky, Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa, 2020. Quilted commercial cotton fabrics, digitally altered photographs printed on fabric, tsukineko inks, and watercolor, 23 × 31 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Artist’s website: https://tpeckarsky.tumblr.com/
Lukitsch, Carol_Sophia Icon
Carol Lukitsch, Sophia Icon. Mixed media collage on paper (with laurel leaves), 30 × 22 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website: http://carollukitsch.com/

Passion and Compassion Oxford: This self-guided tour through Oxford, released this February with a new website and supported by the “Alight: Art and the Sacred” app [previously] for Android and iOS, stops at fourteen artworks or artifacts in multiple locations across the city. Designed around the Scriptural Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage of sorts, it comprises a mix of historical and contemporary pieces, including sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Antony Gormley, Old Master paintings by Anthony van Dyck and the studio of Andrea Mantegna, a medieval stained glass lily crucifix, Roger Wagner’s Elie Wiesel–inspired Menorah, a “celure” depicting the Pleiades in white gold, Thomas Cranmer’s prison band, and more. Each stop comes with audio commentary by a clergyperson, theologian, or artist. The tour starts at University Church Oxford, the institution that created this wonderful resource. (Note: Most of the sites on this tour are currently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.)

Caroe, Oliver_Celure
Oliver Caroe, Celure, 2012. University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford.
Agony in the Garden (alabaster)
Alabaster relief by the Master of Rimini or workshop, southern Netherlands or northern France, ca. 1430–40. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

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VIRTUAL TOUR: Single-shot walk-through of Russia’s Hermitage Museum: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest museum in the world (the Louvre is the largest), with over one million square feet of exhibition space extending across six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars. Thanks to a five-and-a-half-hour advertisement by Apple showing off the iPhone 11’s battery life, people can move seamlessly through 45 of the museum’s 309 galleries from their own homes. Shot in one continuous take, the video includes close-ups of individual artworks as well as wide shots of the lavish interiors. It doesn’t cover the entire museum, but there is much western Christian art to see, starting at 1:04:41 with Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi triptych. Among the most famous religious artworks in its collection, which you may know from Henri Nouwen’s book about it, is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (2:15:54). Here’s the trailer, followed by the full-length video:

It includes ballet sequences throughout and concludes with a live orchestral performance featuring Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter.

The Hermitage Museum offers virtual tours of its entire collection, in an interactive format that uses panoramic photos, at https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/. Unlike the Apple video, whose purpose is to showcase the capabilities of the new iPhone, the Hermitage-created tour inserts “info” buttons over each artwork so that you can click through to find out the artist, title, etc., if interested. But this format, in addition to requiring a brief load time for each step forward, lacks the grandiose scoring and camerawork of the new Apple video.

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POET FEATURE: Jeanne Murray Walker: A semirecent recent blog post by “online abbess” Christine Valters Paintner introduces the work of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Helping the Morning (2014), Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (2019), and eight other books. Reprinted in full are the poems “Staying Power,” about God’s pursuant nature (a modern-day “The Hound of Heaven,” if you will); “Attempt,” which opens with a quote by Traherne; and “Everywhere You Look You See Lilacs,” about being in the moment, taking cues from nature. There is also a video of Walker reading her poem “The Creation,” which muses on the beautiful quirkiness of giraffes, who “spring up like Wow . . . riff-raff of [God’s] imagination.”

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GOODLETTERS ESSAY: “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Religious’ Poet?” by Brian Volck: The contemporary English theologian Nicholas Lash wrote that sadly, “the relation of human beings to the Holy One” has, by many and certainly in the popular imagination, been “reduced to knowledge of an object known as ‘God’ . . . [,] faith’s attentive presence to the entertaining of particular beliefs.” Such reductionism has led many artists to resist being labeled “religious”—“a designation that typically serves to qualify, marginalize, or dismiss creative work.”

But good poetry, Brian Volck says, “and the human sensibilities we’re taught to call religious needn’t be strangers.” There are many poets today who tread the “vast borderlands where religion, spirituality, faith, art, and mystery overlap,” and Volck briefly reviews four such collections from 2019: Anaphora by Scott Cairns, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, This Far by Kathleen O’Toole, and Long after Lauds by Jeanine Hathaway.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” by LeighAnna Schesser

Bouguereau, William_The First Mourning
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825–1905), The First Mourning, 1888. Oil on canvas, 79 9/10 × 98 2/5 in. (203 × 250 cm). Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair”

So when they bury Abel, there is no veil
between her grief and her love. And there he stands,
so like his father, his cities yet unbuilt.

His father cuts open earth with bare hands,
leaving plough and shovel, the sharp edges
and the heavy handles, apart in furrowed field.
She calls each animal he resembles: mole, badger, fox.
He named them, once, and now she names him:
father unfathered, sonless, one son less. The sun hangs
round and clear, apple-red, above the dark tree line.

Once, when Cain was the only child in the world,
their fields withered and arrows flew fruitless.
Dull-eyed by the empty fire, beside the windless cedars,
he wailed at the dry breast. Much later,
after thunder dumbed the stars,
they faced the barren, muddied vale together. Adam said,
God made paradise, and we made this—
this is all we have to give him. He struck his staff
upon the seedless ground. Cain made two tiny fists.

Abel she cannot unsee as a splintered spear
of red lightning, reduced to kindling
on the perfumed grass, the churned earth
weeping red mud. Loss escapes her in a hiss
of distant fear: this time, the choice
for death has been made for her,
despite that it was life she’d sent into the world.
Her voiceless throat swells tight, dry as scales.

Her hair is short and stiff and gray. The world is young.
There will yet be other sons, and daughters more;
the seed of man must multiply. But this grief is older
than she knows, its gaze fixed far ahead
on what, someday, must be done. The wind’s voice
keens a long lament, a parent loss,
the form of sons’ deaths yet to come.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” by LeighAnna Schesser was originally published in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry 2018 and is used here by permission of the author. The poem will appear in Schesser’s first full-length poetry collection, Struck Dumb with Singing, to be published by Lambing Press in May 2020.

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LeighAnna Schesser’s poem “After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” explores parental grief following the death of a child—in particular, that of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, who mourn the loss of their second-born son, Abel. Genesis 4:1–16 recounts how Abel was murdered by his older brother, Cain, in a fit of jealousy. This is the first human death in the Bible, and it was the direct result of sin.

The poem starts with the title, which flows with unbroken syntax into the first line: “After the fig leaves, Eve cuts her hair so when they bury Abel, there is no veil between her grief and her love.” The cutting of hair in response to death in the immediate family is a ritual practiced by women in many Native American tribes and Aboriginal people groups, where the act of severing, and the subsequent absence of, a cherished part of your self serves as a stark physical reminder of your loss. Similarly, after 9/11, many non-Native women in the US cut their hair as a sign of shock and sadness at the immense loss of life; one woman said, “I felt so different internally, I wanted something to express it externally.” Schesser imagines Eve taking part in some form of this ancient mourning ritual, wanting to leave her crying face exposed.

This is “after the fig leaves,” euphemistic shorthand for that landmark event earlier in her life in which she stole fruit from an off-limits tree and then, feeling shame for the first time, went to cover her nakedness with the first available foliage. The title/opening line, between that prepositional phrase and the first clause, skips over quite a long period of time—from the Genesis account, it sounds like at least two decades passed between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the murder of Abel. But these two events are life-defining for Eve, so the chronology is collapsed.

“And there he stands / [. . .] his cities yet unbuilt.” The “he” here refers to Cain, who, after being confronted by God, went into exile “east of Eden,” to the land of Nod (Gen. 4:17). In his later life he built up the world’s first city, Enoch.

Like the burrowing species of animals he named, Adam digs into the earth with his bare hands—elemental. For this, the making of his son’s grave, he leaves aside plow and shovel as a sort of penance: he wants to feel directly the hard dirt, his body’s full labor and sweat, the effects of the curse he brought upon the world, which he feels implicates him in his son’s death. As he digs, the sun hangs above him “round and clear, apple-red,” a taunting reminder of his former trespass.

In the third stanza the speaker goes back to the time that’s elided in the poem’s opening, back to when Adam and Eve left God’s teeming garden and entered a dead world. They struggled to secure food for themselves. Eve gave birth to a baby boy, but soon her breast milk dried up. It was then that they resolved to get down to business and fight for a life in this inhospitable land. Even baby Cain expressed defiance against the odds with little fists as Adam broke new ground.

Snapping back to the present, Eve observes Abel’s limp body, bloody and broken and reddening the earth. “The churned earth / weep[s] red mud”—an arresting poetic image to match God’s in Genesis 4:11: “The ground . . . has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” he tells Cain. We are taken back again to the Fall through more figurative language, this time evoking the snake: fear “hiss[es]” in the distance; Eve’s throat is “dry as scales.” Eve, God’s child, chose death in the Garden, and now her child (the one to whom she gave life) has chosen death too. She now has a taste of the horror, disappointment, and sadness God must have felt.

“Though the world is young,” the poem continues, “this grief is older / than she knows.” Older, even, than God’s grief at the Fall. For another child of God, his “only begotten son” (John 3:16), was destined to die millennia later—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge God saw this death and mourned it immensely. His is the oldest grief.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning shows the lifeless body of Abel sprawled out over Adam’s lap, and he and Eve ridden with grief. Adam clutches his broken heart, and Eve buries her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. The only color in the bleak landscape is from the puddle of blood on the ground. In the background, smoke rises from an altar, mixing with the storm clouds in the sky; this is the remnant of Abel’s offering going up to God, the cause of Cain’s resentment that led him to commit murder.

By the time Bouguereau painted this scene in 1888, three of his five children had died of illness. (A fourth child of his would also die within his lifetime—twelve years later, at age thirty-two.) He knew the sorrow that accompanies such a traumatic event as seeing your kids leave this world before you do.

The iconography he uses is closely related to that of the Pietà, an image type that shows a grieving Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap following his crucifixion. The connection is intentional, as death—which Abel was the first person to experience—will ultimately be undone by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that “the sprinkled blood [of Jesus] speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24), because Christ’s blood is redemptive, bringing us back to the Garden that we lost through sin.

For an adaptation of Bouguereau’s The First Mourning by African American folk artist Ellis Ruley, see http://collection.folkartmuseum.org/objects/2474/pieta.

Call to artists: I’d love to see you interpret Schesser’s poem visually: Eve shorn inside and out (her hair “short and stiff and gray”), wearing her grief openly; Adam animalistic, digging a grave by hand; Cain looking on; and the wind bearing their lament forward to the cross. If you pursue this suggestion, do let me know!

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LeighAnna Schesser is a Catholic writer and a homeschooling mom of four from Kansas, whose forthcoming book of poetry, Struck Dumb with Singing (out in May), “meditates on family, devotion, divine mysteries, and their rootedness in place.” Visit Schesser at her website, https://acanticleforhomestead.com/, where you will find, among other things, links to some of her other published poems and articles.

Roundup: Lent devotionals, Joseph Shabalala, dancing with dust, kids’ songs and doodles

Lent begins next week, and as usual, I’ll be sharing visual art, music, poetry, and other media throughout the season that I hope will be a quiet support to your spiritual walk. If you are giving up social media for Lent but want to be kept aware of new Art & Theology posts, sign up to receive the posts by email by clicking the “Subscribe” button—on the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop, or at the bottom of this post if you’re on your phone. (Note that the sidebar/footer is not visible from the homepage; you have to click through into a post to see it.)

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Lent devotionals 2020

NEW LENT DEVOTIONALS: I’ve become aware of two new poetry devotionals for Lent published this year.

My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the Journey of the Soul by Mark Oakley: “George Herbert is one of the great 17th century poet-priests. His poems embrace every shade of the spiritual life, from love and closeness, to anger and despair, to reconciliation and hope. And his work is always rich with audacious playfulness: he seems to take God on, knowing God will win, as if he’s having an argument with a faithful friend he knows is not going to leave. In much of theology and spirituality, God is a critical spectator to human lives, but for Herbert, his sense of relationship with God is primarily of a friendship that can never be broken. These are some of the themes Mark Oakley explores in this book. He offers a poem for every day in Lent, with a two-page commentary on each of the forty included.”

Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent by SALT Project: “In this Lenten devotional, biblical texts and simple, accessible practices walk hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry’s poetic vision of sabbath and the natural world. All you’ll need is your favorite Bible and Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Week by week, we’ll walk through the woods together toward Easter morning, keeping sabbath as we go—with Wendell Berry as our guide.” Sold as a professionally designed, downloadable PDF with printing and folding instructions.
   I really enjoyed SALT Project’s Lent devotional from last year, built around the poetry of Mary Oliver, so I bought this new one and gave it a breeze-through so I could recommend it here prior to Lent; I look forward to spending more time with it throughout the season. Devotions are provided for Ash Wednesday; the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each one includes an instruction to read a Bible passage and a Wendell Berry poem, a short meditation that draws the two together, an additional reading of two more related Berry poems, a candle lighting and one-sentence prayer (on the themes of silence, trust, delight, care, insight, resurrection, joy, love, sorrow), a few recommended practices for the week, and personal questions to ponder and discuss with a friend, if desired.
   I especially appreciate the “Practices” section, which includes ideas like: make a list of your favorite little delights (“the sunlight’s slant in the late afternoon, your dog’s ears, the steam rising from your coffee—no delight is too slight!”) and read it aloud with family or friends over a meal; take a neighborhood walk and count how many shades of green you see; ignore a household chore for an entire day each week.

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DANCE VIDEO: “Seas of Crimson”: In this music video for one of the pieces on Bethel Music’s album Without Words: Synesthesia, Jessica Lind of the Oregon Ballet Theatre dances with dust that by the composition’s end turns to vibrant color. A metaphor for the Lenten journey, perhaps? [HT: A Sacramental Life]

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OBITUARY: Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Founder, Dies at 78: From the New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles:

Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on [February 11] in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78. . . . Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.

Joseph Shabalala

Shabalala was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy, having become a Christian in 1976. He said he hopes his music shows people “how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other . . .”

Below is a video of Shabalala with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing one of his songs, “King of Kings,” live in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2000. Written during apartheid, it is a prayer for peace in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was first released on the 1987 album Shaka Zulu. [Listen on Spotify]

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KIDS’ SONGS: I’m not a mom, but I often enjoy listening to “children’s music,” as there’s so much of quality out there these days. Here are two songs released this year in that too-restrictively-titled genre (because hey, there’s much for grown-ups to love here too!), along with animated music videos.

“Glad You’re Here” by Justin Roberts: This new single by “the Judy Blume of kiddie rock” (New York Times) is for a new- or soon-to-be-born baby. So fun, warm, and adorable! (Note: The video was produced by the same company that brought you the Wendell Berry devotional mentioned above.)

“Dinosaurs in Love” by Fenn Rosenthal, feat. Tom Rosenthal: This sad-sweet song about two dinosaurs eating cucumbers and having parties and then, well, you’ll have to listen . . . was written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal from London (with some help on the tune from her dad, Tom). At the end of January Tom Rosenthal, who is himself a singer-songwriter, posted a recording of Fenn singing this one-minute creation of hers on Twitter, and it went viral. Now the song is streaming on Spotify and is up on iTunes, Amazon, and other e-tailer websites, with all proceeds benefitting wildlife charities. It was also picked up by directorial team Hannah Jacobs, Katy Wang, and Anna Ginsburg, who created a music video using 2D frame-by-frame animation. [HT: Colossal]

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DRAWING CONTEST: “Doodle for Google,” for K–12 artists: Google Doodles are those special drawings, sometimes animated, that embellish Google’s logo on the website’s homepage from time to time. For the twelfth consecutive year, that highly visible space is up for grabs to one young artist in the US through the tech company’s “Doodle for Google” competition, open to ages K–12. This year the theme is “How do you show kindness?” In addition to having their work featured on Google’s landing page for an entire day, the winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and the winner’s school will be awarded a $50,000 technology package. The deadline for submissions is March 13, 2020, at 11 p.m. ET. [HT: Hyperallergic]