Dawning Light (Artful Devotion)

Tutin, Judith_Breaking
Judith Tutin (Irish, 1979–), Breaking, 2011. Diptych, St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

—Isaiah 9:1–5

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

—Matthew 4:12–17

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SONG: “The Dawning Light” by James Ward, 1998 (CCLI 4200451)

 

This song was recorded live in 1998 at the Resurrection Youth Convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The MP3 can be downloaded for free, along with sheet music, at http://ncfmusic.com/resource/dawning-light/.

For a previously featured James Ward song, see the Artful Devotion “Death Is Ended.”

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The Jewish prophet Isaiah was active during the Assyrian captivity in the second half of the eighth century B.C. The Israelite lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, along with Gilead in Transjordan, the first to fall to Assyria; the people were deported, and their lands became Assyrian provinces. But these three areas, according to Isaiah 9:1, would also be the first to see the dawning of a glorious new era, where the people step out of darkness and desolation into the fruits of God’s victory, and all military equipment is cast once and for all into an enormous bonfire, for war is over, and oppression is no more.

In The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer emphasizes how Isaiah 9:2–5 is couched in past tenses, even though what it describes has not yet occurred:

The future is written as something which has already happened, for it belonged to the prophetic consciousness of men like Isaiah to cast themselves forward in time and then look back on the mighty acts of God, saying to us: ‘Look forward to it, it is certain, he has already done it!’ Because of this confidence, Isaiah can place the light of 9:1ff. in immediate proximity to the darkness of 8:22, not because it will immediately happen but because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith; those walking in the darkness can see the light ahead and are sustained by hope. . . .

Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth. (98–99)


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

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

Roundup: New weekly Psalm settings, Venezuelan immigrant portraits, liturgy for peace, Warhol and Scott Avett exhibitions, and Micah 6:8 song

EVERYPSALM: Over the next three years, indie-folk duo Poor Bishop Hooper (whom I blurbed here) will be writing and releasing one biblical psalm setting per week, sequentially from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. And they are very graciously making all these songs available to download for free! They’ve already released the first three, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. To sign up to receive a weekly download link in your inbox, visit https://www.everypsalm.com/. You may also want to consider giving to the project.

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PHOTO SERIES: Un-Daily Bread by Gregg Segal: For his latest project, US-based photographer Gregg Segal has been photographing Venezuelan immigrants with the entirety of their belongings lying around them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that Segal is collaborating with, the number of people in Venezuela forced to leave their homes due to violence, insecurity, threats, and/or lack of essential services keeps increasing, with more than 4.6 million refugees and migrants from the country living around the world, mostly in South America. In the photograph below, you can see a young mother and her two children surrounded by a few changes of clothes, a doll, a baby bottle, medicine, diapers, arepas, and a Bible. The three traveled over six hundred miles from Maracaibo to Bogotá, hitching rides and catching buses.

Segal, Gregg_Undaily Bread
Alesia, Arianny, and Lucas, Colombia, 2019. Photo by Gregg Segal, from his Un-Daily Bread series.

Un-Daily Bread it is an offshoot of Segal’s Daily Bread series, in which he photographed images of kids from around the world surrounded by what they eat each day.

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LITURGY: Impelled by heightening hostilities, Aaron Niequist has written and compiled a ten-page Liturgy for Peacemakers, which includes a call to worship, two songs, a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, scripture readings, and prayers, including one minute of holy space each to pray for a global enemy, a local enemy, and a personal enemy. The liturgy, which focuses on shaping us to be instruments of God’s peace in the world, is free for you to use in your living rooms and/or churches, and to adapt in any way you wish.

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EXHIBITION: Andy Warhol: Revelation, October 20, 2019–February 16, 2020, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh: Ever since reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s illuminating book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol (1998), I’ve been interested to explore more deeply the Byzantine Catholicism of Andy Warhol and how it influenced his art. (I was surprised to learn, for example, that although he had a complicated relationship with Christianity, Warhol regularly attended Mass, wore a cross around his neck, carried a pocket missal and rosary, and prayed daily with his mother in Old Slavonic over the forty years he lived with her.) A pioneer of the pop art movement best known for his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol also made giant cross paintings as well as screen prints of famous Renaissance religious paintings in full or in detail (by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci)—especially The Last Supper, his last and largest series. Jesus is surely a part of American pop culture, so Warhol’s use of such imagery is not all that unusual in light of his larger oeuvre. But is there anything more to this choice of subject?

Warhol, Andy_The Last Supper
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), The Last Supper, 1986. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 78 × 306 in. (198.1 × 777.2 cm). Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.
Warhol, Andy_Cross (Red)
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Cross (Red), 1982. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas, 90 × 70 in. (228.6 × 177.8 cm). Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh next weekend, where Warhol grew up, to see an exhibition of his religious works curated by José Carlos Diaz from the Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection. I’ll also be attending a lecture at the museum given by Jonathan A. Anderson, titled “Religion in an Age of Mass Media: Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” (It’s January 25 at 6 p.m.) In and around Pittsburgh is also where Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) spent most of his life, so I’ll be visiting a few key spots related to him as well!

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EXHIBITION: Scott Avett: INVISIBLE, October 12, 2019–February 2, 2020, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: “Internationally recognized as co-founder of the band The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett has been a working artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, since he earned a BFA in studio art from East Carolina University in 2000. But until now this art-making part of his life has been a secret and a more solitary creative pursuit in comparison to his life as a musician, singer, and songwriter. This solo exhibition features Avett’s large-scale oil paintings. These are psychologically charged and emotionally intense portraits focused on his family and himself—often intimate, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortably truthful portrayals. Like his songs, Avett’s paintings speak to universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”

As an Avett Brothers fan, I made it a point to see this exhibition in December when I was visiting family for Christmas, and actually, it exceeded my expectations. It was endearing to see portraits of Avett’s three children tumbling around, swinging, engaged in deep thought at the dinner table, playacting as monsters, wailing—and he and his wife in the middle of it all, experiencing both the joys and stresses of parenting. My favorite pieces were probably the companion paintings Motherhood and Fatherhood, which show the messiness of those callings.

Avett, Scott_Motherhood and Fatherhood
Scott Avett (American, 1976–): Motherhood (2012); Fatherhood (2013). Oil on canvas, 106 × 65 in. each. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Fatherhood is one of several self-portraits in the show. The one that’s most prominently displayed, right at the entrance, is Black Mouse, White Mouse, which references Leo Tolstoy’s personal essay “A Confession,” about an existential crisis. In it Tolstoy recounts a fable of a man who falls into a well with a dragon at the bottom. On his way down he grabs hold of a branch growing out of the wall, but it’s being nibbled by two mice, and his fall to death is imminent. This scenario is representative of where we all find ourselves: finite beings in an infinite world, dangling over the abyss. There are four possible ways to respond, says Tolstoy: ignorance, epicureanism, suicide, or hanging on to life. He thinks suicide the most logical but says he lacks the nerve to carry it out.

Tolstoy then launches into metaphysical musings, grappling with the question of God’s existence, when suddenly, he has an epiphany that “God is Life,” and that “I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him.” He continues, “I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me. I returned to the belief that the chief and only aim of my life is to be better, i.e. to live in accord with that Will. And I returned . . . to a belief in God . . .”

Avett, Scott_Black Mouse, White Mouse
Scott Avett (American, 1976–), Black Mouse, White Mouse, 2010. Oil on canvas, 106 × 65 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Avett’s spirituality isn’t overt in any of the paintings, but it’s been interesting to hear him open up more about that aspect of himself in artist talks and interviews. In an October talk, for example, he said, “I’m a true believer that every single one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. I know that for certain. And because of that, this [pointing to himself] isn’t the only bright shining person in this room. It’s insane how true that is. . . . I’ve just always lived like that—like someone was watching. It was God the whole time; he was right there with me and in me, the whole time. When I was younger it was so much easier to access that. And now growing older, it’s about opening up to access that again.”

Scott Avett: INVISIBLE is ticketed with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection—which was also great, though it definitely majors in archival photographs and cultural artifacts and re-creations, not paintings by the famous couple.

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SONG: “Offertory” by John Ness Beck, performed by Future:Past: Micah 6:8 has, for me, functioned as what some would call a “life verse”: a guiding principle that I return to again and again to reorient myself to the divine will. I long to be the kind of person the verse describes: one who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God. Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship, I’ve just been made aware of a beautiful musical setting of this passage, which happens to be one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 2 this year.

“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

—Micah 6:6–8

The music was composed in the second half of the twentieth century by John Ness Beck and was adapted for TTBB (tenor-tenor-bass-bass) by Craig Courtney—performed here a cappella by Josh Adams, Davis Gibson, Jon Kok, and Matthew Reiskytl of the Christian music and media ministry Future:Past. To purchase sheet music for “Offertory” (available in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings, with keyboard and optional string quartet), click here.

From the Mire (Artful Devotion)

Lo, Beth_Formed
“Formed” by Beth Lo (American, 1949–)

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.

—Psalm 40:1–3

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SONG: “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” | Early American folk hymn, performed by Lucy Simpson, with Rock Creek (Bill Destler, Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry), Mary Alice Amidon, Peter Amidon, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982, 2002)

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/6ptUvZJNH1KZnaFQNrqzp4

Lucy Picco Simpson (1940–2006) was a prodigious collector of old hymns, amassing four hundred hymnals, mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, over her lifetime. From their pages she would dig out old gems and help revive them—such as “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet.” After recording the song for Folk-Legacy Records in 1982, it was picked up by folk singers Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt in 1986, and thenceforth by others.

I’m not sure precisely where Simpson sourced the song from, but I do know both the text and tune were compiled, along with 249 others, by George Pullen Jackson in the book Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1937), which you can download for free from Project Gutenberg.

Sharon Mountain Harmony, where Simpson’s simple rendition appears, is one of my favorite albums. In his 1983 review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote,

On “Sharon Mountain Harmony” the inspiration is the particularly rich motherlode of gospel song, both black and white traditions. Rock Creek [the vocal trio comprising Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry, and Bill Destler] shares the album with Lucy Simpson of Brooklyn, and Mary Alice and Peter Amidon of Vermont. Simpson and Rock Creek alternate leads while providing a constant, thick backing of informal and earthy harmonies with heavenly aspirations. The singing is comfortable, unhurried. No matter which voice leads – Simpson’s ethereal and soft soprano, Bill Destler’s gentle tenor or Wally McHenry’s persuasive baritone – it’s the richness of the ensemble, the entrancing vocal weaves, that make this album a quiet gem. Another plus is the choice of material. All 16 songs are deeply rooted in prayer meetings, crusty hymnals and songbooks, revival tents, amen corners, rural radio programs; they come from the land and they’ve been well-used. There’s the clipped bluegrass harmony of “Glory Bound,” the shape-note urgency of “There Are Angels Hovering Round,” the exuberant Baptist release of “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” and “Trouble So Hard,” the spiritual grace of “Blessed Quietness” and “Time Has Made a Change in Me,” the calming reassurance of “I Will Arise.” These are all wonderful songs, beautifully displayed. They reflect intensely personal convictions and a tremendous respect for the grace of unadorned voices singing from the heart.

Folk artist Sam Amidon, one of the sons of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon (who sing on Sharon Mountain Harmony), learned “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” from Lucy Simpson, a family friend. Music critic Ryan Foley calls Amidon a “clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist . . . disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes.”

https://open.spotify.com/track/0Qf1Tz7IFMh7g5mh2y71WS?si=1f8dpJZuRlym5kT3da4V1A

That’s what he does with this song on his 2013 album Bright Sunny South. “Brimming with unexpected shifts and subtleties,” Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” “begin[s] with a spare guitar and voice, [then is] slowly joined by hints of trumpet, understated fretless bass, and other elements until the song, very gradually, grows to a burning climax of dissonant guitars, synths, and explosive drums” (Fred Thomas). The sonic chaos at the end lasts almost a full two minutes and represents “the mire and the clay”—all that pulls us down, gets us stuck.

The melancholic tone that culminates in clashing is not what you’d expect from a psalm of testimony about the rock-solid stability God provides. But when the song is taken in context of the whole biblical psalm on which it is based, which vacillates between praise and lament, it makes perfect sense. Psalm 40 opens by celebrating the deliverance God has wrought in the past, but then it moves into the miry present, where the psalmist is in need of another deliverance:

For evils have encompassed me
beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
. . .
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (vv. 12–13, 17b)

Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” captures the believer’s struggle through adverse circumstances to find firm footing once again on the “Rock of Ages.” From within the fray the speaker remembers God’s faithfulness, sings God’s faithfulness, and that weary song creates anticipation for yet another act of divine rescue.


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

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

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed (Artful Devotion)

Arian Baptistery mosaic
The Baptism of Christ, early 6th century. Ceiling mosaic, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Jim Forest.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

—Isaiah 42:1–9

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

—Matthew 3:13–17

You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. . . .

He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

—Acts 10:37–38, 42–43

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SONG: “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” | Words by James Montgomery, 1821 | Music by the Rev. Vito Aiuto, on Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, 2008 [previously]

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

He comes with succor speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.

He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before him on the mountains
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.

To him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
his kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.
The tide of time shall never
his covenant remove;
his name shall stand forever;
that name to us is love.

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Arian Baptistery
Arian Baptistery, Ravenna. Photo: Georges Jansoone.
Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery
Photo: Peter Milošević
Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery
Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP
Baptism of Christ (detail)
Photo: Jim Forest

The dome of the great sixth-century Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, shows, in glimmering mosaic, a young, beardless, fully nude Christ standing waist-deep in the waters of the Jordan as John the Baptist, dressed in leopard skin, anoints him—the archetypal event for the liturgy that used to be performed below. And actually, the anointing water in this representation comes from the beak of a dove, God the Holy Spirit.

The old man on the left is a personification of the Jordan River, whose attributes are derived from that of the Hellenistic river gods. He holds a reed in his hand and leans against a spilled jar, from whose mouth flows the river water, while from his head there sprouts a pair of red crab claws. He is clothed in the same moss that covers the rock John stands on.

Around this central scene, which is framed by a laurel wreath, is a procession of the twelve apostles, led by Peter (the gray-haired man with the key) and Paul (the dark-haired man with a scroll). The apostles carry jeweled crowns in their veiled hands—a sign of humility—as they make their way to the empty throne of Christ’s promised return, the hetoimasia, prepared with a plush purple cushion and jeweled cross.

Hetoimasia mosaic (Ravenna)
Photo: Jim Forest

The iconography here is very similar to that of the ceiling mosaic in the even older Baptistery of Neon, also in Ravenna.

I’ve featured baptistery dome art two other times on the blog: a painting of Paradise from the Padua Baptistery and a Last Judgment mosaic from the Florence Baptistery. Also related are the compilation of contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ that I published two years ago (the ones by Jerzy Nowosielski and Ivanka Demchuk are favorites of mine) and last year’s Artful Devotion for this calendar day, featuring a Baptism of Christ from the Hitda Codex and a virtuosic piano piece.


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

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

Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Light and Gold (Artful Devotion)

Virgin of Humility
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1399–1482), The Virgin of Humility, ca. 1440. Tempera and gold on panel, 32.5 × 22.5 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

—John 1:3b–4, 9

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SONG: “Lux Aurumque” | Original English text (“Light and Gold”) by Edward Esch (born 1970), translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri, 2000 | Music by Eric Whitacre, 2000 | Performed by Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, 2010

A professional studio recording by the Eric Whitacre Singers was released on the 2010 album Light & Gold:

Lux,
Calida gravisque pura velut aurum
Et canunt angeli molliter
modo natum.

Light,
warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe.

“The Virtual Choir is a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world and their love of music in a new way through the use of technology. Singers record and upload their videos from locations all over the world. Each one of the videos is then synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” With 185 singers from twelve countries, “Lux Aurumque” was the Virtual Choir’s first project. Four other songs have since followed, the latest one featuring more than eight thousand singers, ages four to eighty-seven, from 120 countries.

To listen to another composition by Eric Whitacre that I’ve previously featured on the blog, see “i thank you God for most this amazing,” a choral setting of an E. E. Cummings poem.

Paolo, Giovanni di_Virgin of Humility (in framework)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Cold Dark Night (Artful Devotion)

Flight to Egypt by Oscar Rabin
Oscar Rabin (Russian, 1928–2018), Flight into Egypt, 1977. Oil on canvas, 49 × 70 cm.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

—Matthew 2:13–18

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SONG: “Cold Dark Night” by Sam Phillips, originally released on her Cold Dark Night EP (2009) and re-released on the new full-length album Cold Dark Nights (2019)

 

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

The king said, “Kill every baby boy that you can find.
There’s been too much talk about a new king born,
And this throne is mine.”

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

He wasn’t born to be a king. He wasn’t born to fight.
He knew this world can get so dark that when you can
You’ve got to turn on the light.

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

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A Russian painter and activist, Oscar Rabin was one of the founders of the Soviet Nonconformist Art movement. After being stripped of his citizenship in 1978 for political dissidence, he emigrated to Paris, where he lived until his death last year at age ninety. He is the subject of the feature-length documentaries Oscar (2018) and, with his wife and fellow artist Valentina Kropivnitskaya, In Search of a Lost Paradise (2015).


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Noel (Artful Devotion)

Mulamba-Mandangi, Joseph_Nativity
Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congolese, 1964–), Nativity, 1997. Peinture grattée. © missio Aachen.

. . . And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger . . .

—Luke 2:7

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved . . .”

—Psalm 96:10

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

—John 1:1, 14

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SONG: “Noel” by Todd Smith | Performed by Selah on the album Rose of Bethlehem (2002)

Noel, Noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto
Noel, noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto

Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama
Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama

English translation:

Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us
Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us

If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel
If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel

Kituba is the official language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where singer-songwriter Todd Smith grew up, from 1978 to 1986, as a missionary kid. (It was then known as Zaire.) Smith is one of three members of the award-winning band Selah, which helped initiate a hymn revival in Christian music that is still thriving today.

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See the Artful Devotions for the last two Christmases:

See also two of the most-visited posts from my former blog, The Jesus Question: “Nativity Paintings from around the World” (+ part 2).


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

“Breath” by Luci Shaw

Murillo, Bartolome Esteban_The Infant Christ asleep on the cross
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617–1682), The infant Christ asleep on the cross, ca. 1660–65. Oil on canvas, 24 4/5 × 34 3/5 in. (63 × 88 cm). Prado Museum, Madrid.

When, in the cavern darkness, Jesus
opened his small, bleating mouth (even before
his eyes widened to the supple world his
lungs had sighed into being), did he intuit
how hungrily the lungs gasp? Did he begin, then,
to love the way air sighs as it brushes in and out
through the portals of tissue to sustain
the tiny heart’s iambic beating? And how,
fueled by air, the dazzling blood tramps
the crossroads of the brain like donkey tracks,
corpuscles skittering to the earlobes and toenails?

Bottle of the breath of God, speaking in stories,
shouting across wild, obedient water, his voice
was stoppered only by inquisition, unfaith
and anguish. Did he know that he would,
in the end, leak all his blood, heave a final
groan and throw his breath,
oxygen for the world, back to its Source
before the next dark cave?

“Breath” by Luci Shaw appears in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Eerdmans, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Three poems on Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation

One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation
Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca. 1390–1441), The Annunciation, 1434/36. Oil on canvas transferred from panel, 35 1/2 × 13 7/16 in. (90.2 × 34.1 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.

Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.

He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.

There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.

(Related post: “Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford”; ekphrastic poems I’ve written about: “Ecce Homo” by Andrew Hudgins and “Nick Mynheer’s Simon and Jesus” by Jonathan Stockland)

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“The Annunciation” by Pimone Triplett

Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
      by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.

            Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
      eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take

the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
      to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.

            And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
      David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s

tearing down the temple—that history
            interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.

            His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
      Imagine the endless effort: a man

in the distance, deep in the could have been,
      who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,

            flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
      And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,

the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
      he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.

            For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
      her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—

her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
      to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered

            with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
      and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s

blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
      The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”

            So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
      carelessness of cracked roads leading away

from his town, beneath a matted pulp
      of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting

            to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
      Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese

receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
      sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,

            their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
      empty spaces where the wings once beat.

And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
      So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,

            he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
      beneath her brow, under the layers of

shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
      of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.

“The Annunciation” by Pimone Triplett appears in Ruining the Picture (Northwestern University Press, 1998) and is reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1998 by Pimone Triplett. All rights reserved.

Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?

The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”

There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
The two most visible floor designs depict Samson destroying the temple of Dagon, killing the Philistines inside, and David cutting off the head of Goliath. These and other Old Testament scenes are framed by stylized columbine and clover and roundels bearing signs of the zodiac.

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?

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“Take a World” by Terri Witek

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36

Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,

gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow

on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened

gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert

to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah

behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma

who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.

“Take a World” by Terri Witek appears in Fools and Crows (Orchises Press, 2003) and is reprinted here by permission of the poet. Copyright © 2003 by Terri Witek. All rights reserved.

Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.

(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
To the left of the stained glass window, the baby Moses is presented to Pharaoh’s daughter, while on the right, God presents Moses with a scroll bearing the words of Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). The two roundels painted on the rear wall depict Isaac blessing Jacob (Gen. 27).

I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).

I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.

The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.

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“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele

If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
      not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
      of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
      his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
      a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.

This is not wasted on the woman who,
      her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
      darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
      van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
      whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.

Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
      away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
      Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
      an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
      ‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.

I have been in and out of the world worlds,
      amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
      speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
      beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
      with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit

that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
      I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
      upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
      the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
      clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.

“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).

Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.

Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)

He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.

Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace or Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.

Freedom (Capitol)
Thomas Crawford (American, 1814–1857), Statue of Freedom, 1863. Bronze, 19 1/2 ft. tall. Atop the dome of the US Capitol, Washington, DC.
What Is Past Is Prologue
Robert Aitken (American, 1878–1949), Future, 1935. Indiana limestone, 20 × 8 × 12 ft. (sculpture), plus 12 × 12 × 15 ft. (base). Outside the National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Photo: Rania Hassan.

The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.

In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!

One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”

I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:

“The world is about to turn.”

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van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation

For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.