Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko

I spend a lot of time “art surfing” the Internet, following click-trails that start maybe with a Google image search of a subject I’m researching and then end up somewhere totally different. One of those trails this weekend led me to the work of Ukrainian New Wave artist Igor Paneyko.

Paneyko was born on March 2, 1957, in the city of Stryi in the Lviv Oblast region of western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. From 1975 to 1981 he studied at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art (now the Lviv National Academy of Arts), then spent a year working in Khiva, Uzbekistan. He currently lives and works in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border, in the region known as Transcarpathia.

Other than this general biographical information, I can find little else about the artist. An exhibition promo from 2012 suggests that he is a private person who’s “wary of publicity,” though he does exhibit his work. Using the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Игоря Панейка, yields more results than a search in English, but information is still sparse.

Many of Paneyko’s paintings are of visionary landscapes with floating, haloed figures. Candles, moons, and ladders (see Genesis 28:12) are often featured. Much of his work seems to me to carry on the legacy of Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century art movement that developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists sought to give form to the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and they emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity over realism, often addressing the themes of religious mysticism and death. Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon are two of Symbolism’s greatest artists.

(Related post: “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”)

Below is a compilation of some of Paneyko’s paintings that I find particularly appealing. I don’t know the specs for any of them, besides the year of those that have it painted large enough on the canvas, but I’ve linked each of them to its online source.

These first five are, to me, visually stunning. Ground and sky are not discernible from each other but rather interpenetrate, creating sacred space and evoking wonder.

igor-paneyko2

^ From 2005, we have a woman with a candle standing in contrapposto and covered in multicolored roses. The thin gold band around her head suggests a halo, and the purple burst behind her an aureola. It appears that she has come to pay devotion to Christ, as a wayside crucifix, whose patibulum supports the candles of previous pilgrims, is planted in the background. In the center of the woman’s chest, a little red kernel is encircled with light, representing the love that’s set aglow by her encounter; her loins, too, bear this mark—a possible allusion to the erotic language used by medieval mystics to describe their union with Christ.

igor-paneyko

^ Here a haloed woman—maybe an angel (are those wings behind her?)—carries a load of pears and apples. To the left is a rowboat with four other haloed figures, one of them a baby; to the right, a garden. Some associations that come to my mind are Eden, Flight to Egypt, ship of salvation, fruit of the Spirit.

igor-paneyko4

^ In this one, the focal point is the bottom left corner, where a yellow-green-blue crescent moon balances atop a patchwork mountain, and a row of nightcapped sheep saunters sleepily away. On the other side of the mountain a newspaper party hat floats over a cross-marked graveyard. Maybe it’s because we’ve just come out of Christmas, but I think of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth: the Judean hills alive and vibrant, having been touched by angel song; the shepherds’ charges seeking rest after the flurry of activity; and spreading a shadow over the celebration, the Massacre of the Innocents—Herod’s extermination of the town’s infant male population.   Continue reading “Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko”

Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.   Continue reading “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”

Yoruba Christmas carol and art (Nigeria)

A popular song in choir repertoires, “Betelehemu” is a Yoruba Christmas carol by the Grammy-nominated drummer Babatunde Olatunji, arranged for men’s choir by Wendell P. Whalum. It came into being while Olatunji was a student on scholarship at Morehouse College in the 1950s: he shared it with Whalum, director of the school’s glee club, and that spawned a collaboration.

There have been numerous recordings of “Betelehemu” over the years, and each one has its own distinct flavor, especially in the percussion sections. I really like the one by The Young People’s Choir of New York City from the 2003 album It Is Possible. But here’s a version from Brazil, arranged for SATB by Jonathan Crutchfield:

You might also be interested in performances by the Morehouse College Glee Club (from their one hundredth anniversary concert in 2012) and the African Children’s Choir.

Here are the Yoruba lyrics and English translation to follow along with, provided courtesy of my friends Ezekiel Olagoke and Temidayo Akinsanya. For a pronunciation guide, click here.

Betelehemu
Awa yio ri Baba gbojule
Awa yio ri Baba fehinti
Nibo labi Jesu
Nibo labe bi i
Betelehemu, ilu ara
Nibe labi Baba o daju
Iyin, iyin, iyin nifun o
Adupe fun o, adupe fun o, adupe fun ojo oni
Baba oloreo
Iyin, iyin, iyin fun o Baba anu
Baba toda wasi
Betelehemu

Bethlehem
We shall see that we have a Father to trust
We shall see that we have a Father to rely on
Where was Jesus born?
Where was he born?
Bethlehem, the city of wonder
That is where the Father was born for sure
Praise, praise, praise be to Him
We thank You, we thank You, we thank You for this day
Blessed Father
Praise, praise, praise be to You, merciful Father
Father who delivered us
Bethlehem

The lyrics are simple, rejoicing in the Father’s glory and grace in giving his Son over to be born in Bethlehem. I asked my Yoruba friends about the line “That is where the Father was born for sure,” which seems problematic from a Trinitarian perspective, because it was the Son, Jesus—not the Father—who was born in Bethlehem. The Yoruba word Baba has more nuance than the English “Father”; it is used to signify a biological relationship but also as an honorific for wise men or elders. But still I wondered whether it is theologically appropriate.

Ezekiel told me that Yoruba Christians understand the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and that Baba is not commonly used to refer to Jesus, but in defense of it, he pointed me to scripture passages like Daniel 7:9–14 (cf. the book of Revelation), which describes Jesus as “the Ancient of Days”; John 8:58, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “Before Abraham was, I am,” ascribing to himself a status greater than that of the greatest Jewish patriarch; and Colossians 1:15–17: “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” In Yoruba culture and other African cultures as well, says Ezekiel, Jesus is sometimes called “Chief” or “Ancestor,” a similar notion that emphasizes his being before all things, the eternal Source in whom all things consist.

Temi said that to avoid confusion, he would probably recommend a revision from Nibe labi Baba o daju to Nibe labi Jesu o daju (or else he’d drop the name so that the indefinite pronoun “he” is implied instead).

Both friends felt that the phrase Awa yio ri (“We shall see”) in the second and third lines is awkward in this context. All the other lyric translations I’ve found translate the phrase as “We are glad,” but that would be Awa ni, Ezekiel said—and that doesn’t quite fit the musical meter. It’s possible that the song is merging Advent with Christmas: it starts with looking forward to the birth, then it acknowledges the birth as having happened, eliciting appellations of praise.

Yoruba nativity by George Bandele
Wooden door detail by George Bandele, 1962, showing the Adoration of the Magi. Collection: SMA Fathers, Cadier en Keer, Netherlands. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 144

It seems that “Betelehemu” is more popular outside Nigeria than inside. Ezekiel and Temi and one other Yoruba friend (from different generations) said that despite growing up in Christian homes in Nigeria, they’ve never heard it before, but they’ve heard ones similar to it. So while some sources credit “Betelehemu” as a “Yoruba folk text” and “Yoruba folk tune,” leaving Olatunji out entirely, I think it’s more likely that Olatunji drew on the song traditions of his people to create a new composition. At the very least, Olatunji introduced the song to the United States—and our Christmas concerts are all the richer for it!   Continue reading “Yoruba Christmas carol and art (Nigeria)”

Roundup: Purpose of Advent, light installation, book list, interview, TheoArtistry

WHY CELEBRATE ADVENT? Some of my evangelical friends don’t understand why I observe Advent. Cheryl Bridges Johns’s recent Seedbed article “Advent and the Winter of Our Disenchantment” answers the question so well, opening like this: “Advent is the time to open the first pages of the Church’s story of salvation. It is an enchanted portal into a world of darkness, deep mystery and the Spirit’s hidden brooding. Advent asks us to sit a while in the darkness, waiting for the light of God.” It’s a counterweight to “the unbearable lightness of Christmas,” a space to groan alongside our spiritual forebears. See also the Desiring God articles “Christmas Is Too Big for One Day” and “Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent.” Christmas didn’t occur in a vacuum! Advent makes us mindful of the larger story of God’s promise to his people.

LIGHT MASONRY: Michael Wright tipped me off to this stunning light installation by Jason Bruges Studio in the main nave of York Minster. It was one of six works commissioned for Illuminating York, an annual nighttime festival supported by Arts Council England that encourages visitors to explore and discover the historic city through the imagination of artists who use the medium of light in all its forms. Designed to highlight the cathedral’s Gothic architecture, Light Masonry was constructed using a bespoke system of forty-eight computer-controlled, icon-beam moving-head luminaires (see the “making of” video) and was complemented by the live performance of Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo on organ. It ran October 26–29, 2016. The video below captures some of its magnificence.

Light Masonry by Jason Bruges
Light Masonry installation by Jason Bruges Studio, York Minster, York, England, October 26–29, 2016.

BOOK LIST: I recently compiled an annotated bibliography of books published in English between 2014 and 2016 on the subject of Christianity and art: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2204&action=show&lang=en. The thirty-seven entries, from a variety of authors and publishers, cover topics such as iconographic exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, the religious art of Pablo Picasso, contemporary church art commissions, visual culture in the Christian kingdom of Kongo, black public religious art in Chicago, a theology of human creativity, how to launch and manage a church gallery, and building a curriculum for the fine arts in Christian education. Let me know if I’m missing any!

INTERVIEW: Earlier this month I was interviewed by Joan Huyser-Honig for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship about my vocation as a Christian arts blogger, the two Advent art resources I developed, and my participation in the “Bodies of Christ” seminar at Calvin College this summer. (Read the interview: “Victoria Emily Jones on Gazing as a Spiritual Practice.”) Joan had some good questions, including

  • When you post to your Art & Theology blog, who do you hope will see it and what do you hope they’ll do with it?
  • Your blog’s tagline is “Revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more.” What might or does happen in Christians and congregations who are open to revitalizing imagination?
  • Picture a worship planner without your deep knowledge of art and theology. How might he or she start using resources from your blog in planning public worship?

THEOARTISTRY: TheoArtistry is a new initiative of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “Through new projects and research, TheoArtistry celebrates the practice, making, performance, curatorship, and reception of Christian art. It also seeks to inform the scholarly and public perception of the role of the arts in theology and church practice.” The first project they’ve launched is a collaboration between internationally selected composers and PhD candidates in the St. Andrews Divinity School to set to music “annunciation” texts from the Hebrew Bible. (Two of the participants talk process in the recent Transpositions article “Setting Fire to Music.”) TheoArtistry will also be launching a new database that links artists interested in working with Christian themes, theologians interested in creative collaborations with artists, and commissioners of Christian art. I am SO stoked about all this! For more information, see http://theoartistry.org.

“For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting

Shepherds, I sing you, this winter’s night
Our Hope new-planted, the womb’d, the buried Seed:
For a strange Star has fallen, to blossom from a tomb,
And infinite Godhead circumscribed, hangs helpless at the breast.

Now the cold airs are musical, and all the ways of the sky
Vivid with moving fires, above the hills where tread
The feet—how beautiful!—of them that publish peace.

The sacrifice, which is not made for them,
The angels comprehend, and bend to earth
Their worshipping way. Material kind Earth
Gives Him a Mother’s breast, and needful food.

A Love, shepherds, most poor,
And yet most royal, kings,
Begins this winter’s night;
But oh, cast forth, and with no proper place,
Out in the cold He lies!

This poem is published in Collected Poems 1943–1987 by John Heath-Stubbs (Carcanet Press, 1988) and is reprinted here by permission of David Higham Associates.

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John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) was an English poet, translator, critic, and anthologist whose lifelong fascination with world history and literature was borne out in his career. He translated poetry from Greek (Sappho, Anyte, Anacreon), Latin (Horace, Catullus), Persian (Hafiz, Omar Khayyam), Italian (Dante, Giacomo Leopardi), and French (Paul Verlaine) and wrote many verses of his own influenced by classical myths, including an Arthurian epic, Artorius.

Described by friends as a “devout” and “committed” Christian, Heath-Stubbs sometimes turned to the lives of Christ and the saints as subjects for his poetry, as in “‘Through the Dear Might of Him That Walk’d the Waves,’” “Dionysius the Areopagite” (on a pagan’s response to the eclipse during the Crucifixion), “Canticle of the Sun” (on the Resurrection), “Alexandria,” “Maria Aegyptiaca,” and “Virgin Martyrs,” to name a few. In his introduction to his Collected Poems, he wrote that he was interested in “the reaffirmation of orthodox religious themes in the poetry of TS Eliot and Charles Williams and others.”

Among other distinctions, Heath-Stubbs was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973 and in 1989 was appointed OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). At his death, publications celebrated his style and influence:

  • “His distinctive achievement was to forge a modern pastoral out of unlikely sources, a style which can encompass Yeatsian symbolism and dry irony.”—Poetry Archive
  • His diction was conservative, but his lyricism was always modern.—The Telegraph
  • “His finest work is to be found in his huge output of shorter poems. In their technical mastery, wry wisdom and gloriously deceptive lightness, these place him in the company of W.H. Auden and Robert Graves, a major English poet of the 20th century.”—The Independent

Heath-Stubbs was nearly blind from age three, his eyesight progressively worsening until he lost it completely at age fifty-nine. But rather than regard his blindness as a disability, he regarded it as a gift. “As a poet, I have found that blindness actually tends to stimulate the imagination,” he said.

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First published in 1965, “For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs is an ode to the infant Jesus—to he who is Hope, Seed, Star, and Love.

The first stanza is a loose paraphrase of the Annunciation to the Shepherds in Luke 2:10–13, in which an angel tells a group of Jewish night workers that Emmanuel, God-with-us, has been born. Heath-Stubbs uses horticultural imagery: Jesus was planted in Mary’s womb, and now he breaks through into air, blooming for all the world to see. Foreshadowing future events, the “tomb” refers not only to the cave he was born in but also to the cave he’d be buried in. He’d be seeded once again (in death), and again (in resurrection) he’d flower forth with new life. The fourth line embraces the paradox of the Incarnation: that infinite God became a finite human being; the omnipotent Creator, an impotent babe reliant on his mother’s milk.   Continue reading ““For the Nativity” by John Heath-Stubbs + choral setting”

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

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

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

75-masterpieces-every-christian-should-know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Through a Screen Darkly

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

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

The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”—Isaiah 11:6–9

This passage describing the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah was, according to biblical scholar John F. A. Sawyer, popularized by the Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1780. He painted it sixty-two times during his career: predators and prey lying down together in harmony, and a little rosy-cheeked child—the Christ child—leading them.

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1834. Oil on canvas, 29.6 × 35.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

When Edward was just eighteen months old, his mother died. His father was unable to support him financially, so he sent him to board with family friends David and Elizabeth Twining, who exposed him to Quakerism. From ages thirteen to twenty Edward lived with local coach maker William Tomlinson, for whom he worked as an apprentice, developing a talent for ornamental painting. When his apprenticeship ended in 1800, he went into business for himself, now painting with decorative motifs not only carriages but also signs, furniture, and household objects. Some of his signboard compositions would later prompt commissions for easel paintings.

During this time Edward was attending religious meetings with increasing regularity, becoming an official member of the Society of Friends in 1803. But he encountered criticism from many of his fellow Friends for his choice of vocation, which was at odds with the Quaker values of simplicity and utility. Painting is a worldly indulgence, they said. Taking their rebukes to heart, Edward gave up painting for a time and tried his hand at farming, but this venture was unsuccessful.

Edward struggled to reconcile his love of painting with his faith; he was passionate about both. In 1811, at age thirty-one, he set up a painting shop in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and also became a minister, which meant that he was often called away to other states to preach. Quaker ministers were not paid for their services, so it was necessary for Edward to maintain a source of income to support his wife and four (soon to be five) children.

“Of all the types of paintings Edward produced during his lifetime, none was repeated as often or with greater attention to change and refinement than the Kingdom pictures,” writes Carolyn J. Weekly in The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, the catalog for the major exhibition she organized in 1999 for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. Edward pursued this subject not for commercial reasons (records suggest that he gave the Kingdom paintings as gifts to friends and family) but to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends, the first in the denomination’s history. (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.) His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the “stump” of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up (Isaiah 11:1).

Only a few Peaceable Kingdom images before Hicks’s time have been documented worldwide, among them an early nineteenth-century engraving designed by Richard Westall. Hicks borrowed directly from Westall in his “Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” compositions, replacing the Christ child’s loincloth with a little jumper suit fashionable among Friends at the time.

westall-richard_the-peaceable-kingdom-of-the-branch
The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch illustration by Richard Westall, from the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia. Engraved by Charles Heath for The Holy Bible (London: White, Cochrane & Co., 1815).
Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1822–25. Oil on canvas, 30.3 × 36 in. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. The inscription on each of the corners reads, “INNOCENCE – MEEKNESS – LIBERTY.”

The Branch paintings are referred to as such because they show a child holding a grapevine, an allusion to both the fruit-bearing branch of the Tree of Jesse from Isaiah 11:1 and the blood of Christ that we partake of at the Lord’s Supper.   Continue reading “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks”

God breaking in on our world

This year for Advent, my church has built into its liturgy a time for guided reflection on an art image—one per week—corresponding to one or more of the season’s themes. Today I led the congregation in looking at a seventeenth-century German engraving based on John 1. Here’s what I said (adapted from the Advent devotional I published this month):

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Word by Christoph Weigel
Christoph Weigel (German, 1654–1725), Word, 1695. Engraving from Biblia ectypa: Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments. Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

This copperplate engraving is from a picture Bible by Christoph Weigel published in Augsburg in the late 1600s. The Bible consists entirely of engraved images—839 in all—with key scripture texts inscribed above and below, from Genesis to Revelation.

Looking at this one, you might think of the creation story—God speaking, “Let there be light.” You wouldn’t be wrong to make that association, but actually this engraving illustrates the first chapter of John’s Gospel: the eternal Word of God taking on flesh and entering human history, a doctrine we call the Incarnation. This is the big bang of the new creation. This is God once again hovering over the chaos and proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And there was Light. Because the Savior came, and is still coming.

The top inscription says in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1). And the German one below says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it” (v. 5).

In Weigel’s illustration, the name YHWH is surrounded by a blast of light that showers down to our dark earth in this magnificent glory-stream. Before this, Israel’s covenant God was mostly invisible and unapproachable, but now he reveals himself as man and Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. He’s still Yahweh, but now he’s Yahweh brought low, to be seen and touched and engaged face-to-face.

This image emphasizes the cosmic nature of the Incarnation and reinforces the meaning of the Greek word for Jesus that John uses in his prologue: Logos, which our English Bibles translate as “Word” with a capital W. This term is a loaded one, used in most schools of Greek philosophy to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that is rational, intelligent, and vivifying; other translations include “Mind,” “Power,” “Cause,” “Act,” “Ground,” “Reason,” “Structure,” or “Universal Bond.” Philosophers had been reinterpreting the concept of Logos for centuries, but John was the first to link it to the person of Christ.

Advent is a time for us to consider what it means for the Word of God, the Logos, to have a body and be among us.

This season, may we dwell in awe of the historic and continuing eruption of hope and light that is the Incarnation.   Continue reading “God breaking in on our world”

New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”   Continue reading “New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby