Roundup: Sacred poetry, “Shifting the Gaze,” the Birchwood Painters, new films, and more

TGC ARTICLE: “18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.

Caravaggio_Incredulity of Thomas
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601–2. Oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm (42 × 57 in.). Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.

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POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,

Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.

Drink rain, hatless, laughing.

Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.

[Read more]

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ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Urwin, Mark_Annunciation (after Martini)
Mark Urwin (British), Annunciation (after Martini and Memmi), 2013. Painting on canvas, 30 × 25 cm.
Urwin, Mark_Last Supper (after Leonardo)
Mark Urwin (British), Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013. Painting on canvas, 25 × 75 cm.

Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Exhibition to Examine Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance European Art”: “Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? . . .

“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”

Balthazar detail
Detail of The Adoration of the Magi from a French Book of Hours (Ms. 48, fol. 59) showing the magus Balthazar (right), ca. 1480–90, by Georges Trubert. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.

(Further reading: “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes)

I appreciate the Getty’s efforts to be more inclusive in the visual histories they highlight and to solicit input from the general public to assist them in this task. They did the same for their 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.

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TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.

Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscape by the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.

* “Were Those Black ‘Servants’ in Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?”

Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue
James Earle Fraser (American, 1876–1953), Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, 1939. Bronze, 300 × 218 × 450 cm (10 × 7 1/6 × 14 3/4 ft.). Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kaphar, Titus_Shifting the Gaze
Titus Kaphar (American, 1976–), Shifting the Gaze, 2017. Oil on canvas, 210.8 × 262.3 cm (83 × 103 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the eponymous writer of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.

Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”

It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).

Love That Holds On Tight (Artful Devotion)

Fakaukau by Filipe Tohi
Filipe Tohi (Tongan, resident in New Zealand, 1959–), Fakaukau, 1996. Stone carving. Photo: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, via Christ for All People, p. 87

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

—John 10:28–29

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SONG: “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” | Words by George Matheson, 1882 | Music by Albert L. Peace, 1884 | Performed by Madison Cunningham, on Monuments by Calvary Creative (2015)

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Fakaukau (“Thought”) is the title ascribed to this Tongan sculpture in the excellent book Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art, published in 2001, which also places it in a private collection. However, photographs of a very similar—if not the same—sculpture by the same artist can be found online under the name Anchor Stone (see photos here and here), and it’s publicly accessible. Its shape is based on the anchor stone through which Tongan fishermen tie the rope of their boats. You can see the hand of God holding the fisher tenderly yet securely as the fisher rests in that grasp.

Anchor Stone by Filipe Tohi
Anchor Stone by Filipe Tohi, located along the Coastal Walkway in New Plymouth, Taranaki, North Island, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of New Plymouth District Council.

Anchor Stone is located along the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway, an eight-mile path that forms an expansive sea-edge promenade stretching from Pioneer Park at Port Taranaki all the way to the eastern side of Bell Block Beach in the Taranaki region of North Island, New Zealand. More precisely, the sculpture sits at the eastern end of a bridge that crosses the Huatoki Stream, near the Wind Wand. The walkway features several other sculptures by Filipe Tohi, as well as artworks by other Pacific Islanders.

Filipe Tohi was born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in 1959 and moved to Taranaki, New Zealand, in 1979, where he trained as a carver with a Maori cooperative. His early sculptures were mainly in stone and wood, but more recently he has achieved recognition for large contemporary sculptures in aluminum and steel that are inspired by lalava, traditional Tongan coconut sennit lashing (used to build roofs and canoes). Tohi studied and learned this ancient art form during a return visit to his homeland in 1987 and has been responsible for revitalizing and popularizing it. See more of his work at http://www.lalava.net/index.php/ct-menu-item-17#6.

Christianity took root in Tonga in the first half of the nineteenth century when the country’s king, George Tupou I, converted and the people followed suit. It has been Tonga’s main religion ever since.

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I first encountered the hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” a few years ago through a Calvary Collective album—I was extremely moved by Madison Cunningham’s soft arrangement and vocal performance, which captures so well the weary tone of the old text and tune. Cunningham adds a four-line chorus: “You will not let me go, so I will trust in thee. You won’t let go, so I will rest. You won’t let go, so I will trust in thee. O I will rest in thee.” Here is the full original text:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red,
life that shall endless be.

Upon hearing this, I immediately set about looking for a piano score—come to find that the hymn is in the hymnal I grew up with! And yet I don’t recall my congregation ever singing it.

In my estimation, “O Love” is one of the most sublime hymns ever written. It taps deeply into that feeling of “I’m tired, burnt out, spent,” meeting us there with gentle hope and joy. The first verse opens with a reminder of the tenacious hold God has on us and with a soul-invitation into the “ocean depths” of God’s being. What a contrast the hymn builds between our weakness and God’s strength. We flicker; God blazes. We bow our heads in exhaustion and lie down to die; God lifts us up and brings us into his full-flowering life. I know some churches have revived “O Love” using new tunes, but those, I feel, don’t hold a candle to Albert Peace’s original. The hymn also crops up in funeral programs and works beautifully in that context, but its relevance is by no means restricted to those at the end of life or those observing a recent passing.

For a brighter, more vigorous version of the hymn that utilizes the original tune, see Chelsea Moon’s Hymn Project, Volume 2, a collaboration with the Franz Brothers:

And here’s a great a cappella quartet arrangement by the Gaither Vocal Band:


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 Fourth Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Colorado trip; Maori hymn; Dutch tulip fields by aerial video; the magic of childhood; and more

I returned this week from a wonderful arts conference/retreat in the Colorado mountains, a much-needed time to unplug from work and engage with nature, to meet and worship with other Christians from around the country, and to reaffirm my sense of calling to online arts ministry. Eric came with me, so we took a few extra days there for scenic walks and drives, which included the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, the Flatirons, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods. So much beauty! Here’s a charming little stone church we spotted outside Estes Park, built in 1939.

Chapel on the Rock (Colorado)
Chapel on the Rock (Saint Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Chapel), Saint Malo Retreat Center, Allenspark, Colorado. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

We also visited the Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy, which I will share about in a separate post.

And as is my practice whenever I visit a new city, I spent time at a local art museum: the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. The size and quality of its collection exceeded my expectations, with many fine works of Native American (Pueblo, Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin), Hispanic and Spanish colonial, and twentieth-century American art. I particularly loved the santos galleries, which feature religious folk art of the Southwest, including two monumental altarpieces. Below is a retablo (panel painting) and a bulto (sculpture) from the santos tradition.

Aragon, Jose Rafael_Cristo (Crucifixion)
José Rafael Aragón (New Mexican, ca. 1796–1867), Cristo (Crucifixion), ca. 1820–35. Tempera on gessoed pine, 19 × 11 in. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Barela, Patrocinio_Announcement of the Birth of Jesus
Patrociño Barela (New Mexican, 1902–1964), Anuncio de la Nacimiento de Jesus (Announcement of the Birth of Jesus), 1942. Cedar wood. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

José Rafael Aragón is the most highly regarded classic santero from early New Mexico, so I was already familiar with his work (note the visual influences on contemporary santero Vicente Telles, one of whose Crucifixion retablos I own). The chandeliers in Aragón’s painting are like those found in the chancels of New Mexico churches, and the vertical branches that fill the spaces between the figures are also standard elements of church decoration.

Patrociño Barela I was not previously familiar with, and I found myself so captivated by his work. (If you are too, be sure to check out this online solo show of his.) I’m not sure whether to interpret his Anuncio de la Nacimiento de Jesus as an Annunciation image, with Gabriel announcing Christ’s conception to Mary, or a Nativity image, seeing as the babe appears to be ex utero—in which case the top figure could be either an angel or God the Father. I can’t identify the object Mary is holding. (A piece of fruit?)

Lastly, here’s a unique Pietà image by the modernist painter Marsden Hartley. Could that be God the Father supporting Christ deposed from the cross? Maybe it’s Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, but I rather like the thought that the Father held his Son in love during this time of his immense suffering and death.

Hartley, Marsden_Christ Evicted
Marsden Hartley (American, 1877–1943), Christ Evicted, 1941–43. Oil on board, 47 × 20 in. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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EVENING DISCUSSION: “Idols and Taboos: Modern and Contemporary Art and Theology Today”: This free public event, consisting of two lectures and a panel discussion, will take place May 23, 2019, at 6 p.m. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The presenters are James Elkins, who will be discussing the distance between avowedly religious art and the disciplines of art history, art criticism, art theory, and studio pedagogy, and Thomas Crow, who will be discussing “the generally inverse relationship between grandiosity in a work of art and its intrinsic theological import,” as well as art’s susceptibility to idolatry. A panel discussion will follow, moderated by Professor Ben Quash, and all are invited to gather afterward in the Lobby Bar of the historic Palmer House (across the street) for further socializing and conversation.

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SONG: “Oh Death”: This Easter, CCLI released a video of Kaden Slay, Melanie Tierce-Slay, and Ryan Kennedy of People & Songs performing Stephen Marti’s “Oh Death,” written in 2017. Those three-part a cappella harmonies are so sweet.

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SONG: “How Great Thou Art / Whakaaria Mai”: On March 23, the Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter John Mayer began an extensive world tour at Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand. He opened the show quite unexpectedly with “How Great Thou Art,” a tribute to those killed and injured during a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Standing center stage for the opening was Te Wehi Haka, a Maori performing arts troupe who, to begin with, quivered their hands; known as wiri, this important Maori movement represents the world around us, from the shimmering of water on sunny days to heat waves rising from the ground to wind rustling the leaves of trees.  Continue reading “Roundup: Colorado trip; Maori hymn; Dutch tulip fields by aerial video; the magic of childhood; and more”

Worthy Is the Lamb (Artful Devotion)

Agnus Dei mosaic
This 6th-century mosaic of the Lamb of God is on the chancel ceiling of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The lamb is encircled by a golden orb (enclosed with stars) and a fruited laurel wreath, supported by angels. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP. 

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

—Revelation 5:11–14

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SONG: “Worthy Is the Lamb / Amen” by George Frideric Handel, from Messiah (1742)

This video is a 2014 performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—and you can find many more besides on YouTube. I’m partial, though, to the Oregon Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra’s performance on Easter Joy (2009), which you can stream on Spotify:

Handel was German but spent the bulk of his career in London, settling there in 1712 and becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1727. In the 1730s, he transitioned from composing Italian operas to composing English choral works, one of which is the world-famous oratorio Messiah. (Read Charles Jennens’s full libretto, a curation of scripture passages, here.)

People might assume that the so-oft-performed “Hallelujah” chorus is the finale of this majestic work, but no, that chorus concludes part two, capping off the narrative of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and the early spreading of the gospel through the known world. The “Worthy Is the Lamb” chorus, rather, serves as the Messiah’s consummation, an acclamation of Christ’s full and final victory over sin and death that follows part three’s prophecies of the day of judgment and the general resurrection. The text is taken from Revelation 5.

San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Upward view of the east end of San Vitale, Ravenna. Left lunette: The Hospitality of Abraham and The Sacrifice of Isaac. Center (apse): Christ in Majesty. Right lunette: The Offerings of Abel and Melchizedek. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.
San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Photo: Jim Forest

The anonymous sixth-century mosaicists of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, gloriously visualized this passage in the cross-ribbed vault of the church’s chancel, just above the altar. Tens of thousands of tesserae (tiny pieces of colored glass, and clear glass sandwiching gold leaf) come together to image Christ high and lifted up as the sacrificial Lamb of God. Can you imagine worshipping in this space? It must have been so transporting for those early Christians of Ravenna: to enter and move toward their promised end in Christ. To be enfolded in this glimmering vision of paradise that they enacted below in the liturgy.

To learn more about San Vitale and its mosaics, see this Smarthistory video. (Unfortunately it focuses on the two political portraits at the expense of the biblical subject matter, but nonetheless, it gives a good sense of the architectural setting of the mosaics.)


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 of Easter, cycle C, click here.

Calls for Art, Poetry

CHAIYA ART AWARDS: Now in its second year, this UK art competition explores spirituality through the visual arts. The theme for 2019/20 is “God is . . .” The finalist entries will be brought together for a public exhibition at gallery@oxo in London on April 10–19, 2020, with the winners announced on opening night. Any media are welcome, including painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, photography, and video. You are allowed up to three entries.

Top prize: ₤10,000
Deadline: October 18, 2019
Entry fee: ₤20 (or early-bird rate of ₤15 for submissions sent by July 18)
Restrictions: Must be a UK resident age sixteen or over
Judges: Marcus Lyon, Deborah Tompsett, Mark Oakley, Clive Davis, Katrina Moss
Sponsors: Bible Society, The Jerusalem Trust

Thousand Tear Bottles
Deborah Tompsett, A Thousand Bottles of Tears, 2007–15. Installation view (detail) from Chichester Cathedral, 2015. Winner of the 2018 Chaiya Art Award. [see video]
Left Out by Maxwell Rushton
Maxwell Rushton (British, 1989–), Left Out, 2016. Jesmonite cast encased in a bin liner, 60 × 60 × 60 cm. This sculpture won the public vote at the 2018 Chaiya Art Awards.

I featured a 2018 Chaiya Art Award finalist in a previous roundup—a beautiful Holy Saturday image that uses pregnancy as a metaphor; click here.

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JANET B. MCCABE POETRY PRIZE: There is no prescribed theme or topic for this annual poetry contest presented by Ruminate, a contemplative literary arts magazine with Christian roots. Fifteen finalists will be selected by a panel, and then the first- and second-place winners and honorable mentions will be chosen by poet Craig Santos Perez. Besides a cash prize of $1500, the winner will also have his or her poem published in Ruminate. (Note: If nothing happens when you click the Enter button on the submission webpage, be sure your ad blocker is turned off.)

Top prize: $1500
Deadline: May 15, 2019
Entry fee: $20 (includes submission of up to two poems and a free digital copy of Ruminate)
Judge: Craig Santos Perez
Presenter: Ruminate

You may also like to know that Ruminate runs contests for short fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art—though the entry periods for those are currently closed.

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ROSS AND DAVIS MITCHELL PRIZE: This biennial prize presented by Image journal “seeks to recognize Canadian poets whose work wrestles with the beauty and complexity of religious faith.

“The Mitchell Prize will be awarded to a poet who is hammering out new forms and new language to express the ineffable today. Our goal is to encourage writers whose poems provide access to spiritual experience, awakenings that cast light on the world and make it known. We want to hear from poets who are grappling with transcendence and the divine, those for whom poetry is—as Christian Wiman would describe it—a form of theology.

“Poets engaged with all faith traditions are encouraged to submit work, however this prize is not designed to erase distinctions or paper over conflict. There are meaningful differences between Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Orthodox Jews that cannot, and should not, be erased, suppressed, or ignored. Instead, this prize seeks to honor writing that explores the distinctive contours of belief and the shape it gives to modern life.”

Top prize: $20,000 CAD
Deadline: June 30, 2019
Entry fee: $25 CAD (includes a one-year digital subscription to Image)
Restrictions: Must be a Canadian citizen or resident
Judges: Scott Cairns, Lorna Goodison, Chelene Knight
Presenter: Image, with support from Cardus

“I Am the Man, Thomas” (Artful Devotion)

The Incredulity of Thomas (Avila Cathedral)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 15th century. Tempera on wood. Avila Cathedral Museum, Avila, Spain. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP. [view alt photo]

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

—John 20:24–29

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SONG: “I Am the Man, Thomas” by Ralph Stanley with Larry Sparks, on Stanley Gospel Tradition: Songs About Our Savior (1999) | Performed by The Devil Makes Three, on Redemption & Ruin (2016)

This song, about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to the apostle Thomas, is by the pioneering bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley (1927–2016). Hear him sing it with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 2012 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHQLoGpiY0o.

Bob Dylan has been a major popularizer of the song, having performed it at dozens of concerts. Here’s a performance from November 8, 1999, in Baltimore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5mTcL63ux4.

And lastly, here’s The Devil Makes Three, a California trio, performing the song right outside Paradiso concert hall in Amsterdam:

The band consists of guitarist/frontman Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino, and guitarist/tenor banjoist Cooper McBean. Here they’re joined by guest fiddler Spencer Swain. Their records and concerts fuse elements of blues, ragtime, country, folk, and rockabilly.

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The story of “doubting Thomas” has always captivated me. Here are a few posts from the blog in which the arts prompt re-engagement with the biblical narrative.

https://artandtheology.org/2018/04/03/by-the-mark-artful-devotion/
https://artandtheology.org/2018/04/06/doubting-thomas-combine-by-robert-rauschenberg/
https://artandtheology.org/2016/04/10/thomas-in-the-dark/


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 of Easter, cycle C, click here.

The Strife Is Over (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection by Otto Dix
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), The Resurrection, 1949. Oil on canvas, 213 × 163.5 cm. Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Germany.

He . . . has risen.

—Luke 24:6a

The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”

I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.

—Psalm 118:14–17

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SONG: “The Strife Is O’er” | Words: Anonymous Latin poem (first compiled 1695), translated by Francis Potts, 1861 | Music: Vito Aiuto, on Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by the Welcome Wagon (2012)

 

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The pow’rs of death have done their worst;
But Christ their legions hath dispersed;
Let shouts of holy joy outburst:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The three sad days are quickly sped;
He rises glorious from the dead;
All glory to our risen Head:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

He closed the yawning gates of hell;
The bars from heav’n’s high portals fell;
Let songs of praise his triumph tell:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Lord, by the stripes which wounded thee,
From death’s dread sting your servants free,
That we may live, and sing to thee:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

(I’ve noticed several slight variations in the English lyric translation attributed to Francis Potts. This is the version used by the Welcome Wagon.)


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 Easter Sunday, cycle C, click here.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

 

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”

He Went On Ahead (Artful Devotion)

Jesus Entering Jerusalem by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Jesus Entering Jerusalem, 1999. Oil on canvas.

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem . . .

—Luke 19:28

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SONG: “My Lord” by Hiram Ring, on Home (2013)

 

This Sunday marks the start of Passion Week, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he is greeted by palm branches and Hosannas. By Thursday, though, these shouts of praise will devolve into “Is it I?,” “I do not know him,” and “Crucify him!”

In a series of simple verses, Hiram Ring’s blues-inflected song “My Lord” moves from Jesus’s triumphal entry to his agony in the garden (where he drinks heavily the bitter draft of suffering) to his crucifixion. The final two verses shift then to his resurrection and his exaltation in heaven.

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Agony in the Garden by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Agony in the Garden, 1999. Oil on canvas.
Resurrection by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Large Resurrection, 1999. Oil on canvas.

I’m compelled by the Gospel narrative paintings of contemporary Australian artist Nathan Simpson. These are a few I saved from his website a while ago before it went under construction. In Simpson’s Agony in the Garden, Christ’s anguish is palpable. The image combines the Gethsemane narrative with all the suffering that lies ahead, culminating in death. A row of olive trees forms the horizontal beam of a cross, while a rooster (alluding to Peter’s betrayal) forms the vertical; Christ’s head, with swollen eyes and gaping mouth (“My God, my God . . .”), is the point of intersection.

Simpson’s Resurrection painting, by contrast, shows a Christ who’s victorious over death, his face serene. The artist plays with the popular “tree of life” motif, fusing Christ’s body into this flowering, bird-filled plant. An arborescent Christ! See how the nail wound in his left foot is also the tree’s hollow.

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In their latest blog post, SALT Project suggests a simple at-home Holy Week ritual for families that I really like: a Tenebrae Wreath (tenebrae means “shadows”).

Imagine . . . a sort of Advent Wreath in reverse: four candles in a circle with a Paschal candle in the middle, extinguished one by one. Sunday night: beginning with only the Paschal candle lit, read Luke’s story of Palm Sunday, and then light all four candles in joy, hope, and thanksgiving. Thursday night: read Luke’s story of the Last Supper, and extinguish one candle; then read Luke’s story of Gethsemane, and extinguish a second. Friday night: read Luke’s story of Peter’s denials and desertion, and extinguish a third candle; then read Luke’s story of Jesus’ suffering, and extinguish the fourth; and then finally, read Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, and extinguish the Paschal candle. Saturday, the wreath remains unlit and bare, perhaps shrouded with cloth. And Sunday morning, the shroud is gone and all candles are lit, with a few more candles added—along with some flowers and Easter sweets! Read Luke’s story of the empty tomb, and sing your favorite Easter hymn (or two).


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 Palm Sunday and the Liturgy of the Passion, cycle C, click here and here.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)

This is part two of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read part one.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

STATION 4. Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich
Lynn Aldrich (American, 1944–), Ocean Eden, 2008. Sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, rubber gloves, plungers, and wood, 234 × 168 × 61 cm.

Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.

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STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:

Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.

We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”

Orphanage relief sculpture
Relief sculpture by Joost Jansz Bilhamer (Dutch, 1541–1590), above the entrance to the courtyard of the former City Orphanage of Amsterdam. Address: Sint Luciensteeg 27. The inscription is by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. The paint colors, which are not original, seem to me a bit gaudy; to view the sculpture in its pre-restoration state, click here.

Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”

But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Iris Kensmil (Dutch, 1970–), Out of History, 2013. Triptych, oil on canvas, 105 × 465 cm.

An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.

The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Elisabeth Samson

The central panel of Out of History shows Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734–1836), about whom less is known. What we do know is that she was an enslaved woman from Surinam who purchased her own freedom and that of her son. I think that’s a moneybag she’s holding.  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)”