Fishers of Men (Artful Devotion)

Fishing for Souls by Bill Hemmerling
Bill Hemmerling (American, 1943–2009), Fishing for Souls. Oil on canvas, 60 × 10 in.

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

—Luke 5:1–11

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SONG: “Fishers of Men” by Becky Buller | Performed by Rhonda Vincent, on One Step Ahead (2003)

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage is the most awarded band in bluegrass history. This studio version of their “Fishers of Men” cover is great, but there is also a commercially available live recording on Vincent’s Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (2012), plus several live-performance videos on YouTube. I like this one from a 2007 bluegrass festival in Miamisburg, Ohio:

The other singers are, from left to right, Mickey Harris, Kenny Ingram, and Darrell Webb.


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 Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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Bankrupt (Artful Devotion)

Girl with the Heart by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944), Girl with the Heart, 1899. Color woodcut, 40.4 × 33.9 cm (15 7/8 × 13 3/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

—1 Corinthians 13:1–3

That’s the ESV. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s translation, from The Message:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

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SONG: “The Gift of Love (Though I May Speak)” | Words: Hal H. Hopson, 1972 | Music: Traditional English folk melody (adapt.) | Performed by Becky Craig (vocals) and John Michniewicz (piano) | CCLI #67327

Though I may speak with bravest fire
And have the gift to all inspire
And have not love, my words are vain
As sounding brass and hopeless gain

Though I may give all I possess
And, striving so, my love profess
But not be giv’n by love within
The profit soon turns strangely thin

Come, Spirit, come, our hearts control
Our spirits long to be made whole
Let inward love guide every deed
By this we worship and are freed


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 after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

Nunc dimittis (Artful Devotion)

presentation of christ in the temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, ca. 1650. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

—Luke 2:29–32

These words were sung two thousand-plus years ago by a Jewish man named Simeon upon seeing and holding the newborn Christ child at his presentation ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. Known as the “Nunc dimittis” (from the Latin for “Now you dismiss”), the song has been used year-round in Compline, Vespers, and Evensong worship services since the fourth century. Since the seventh century, it has served as the centerpiece of the annual feast day known as Candlemas, celebrated on February 2 in the West and February 15 in the East (the Western and Eastern churches count forward forty days from their celebration of Christmas Day, on December 25 and January 6, respectively).

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SONG: “Nunc dimittis” from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1915) | Arranged by Bob Chilcott (2016) | Performed by Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir, on In Winter (2016)

Rachmaninoff’s “Nunc dimittis,” the fifth movement of his All-Night Vigil, was one of his favorite compositions of his career, and he requested that it be performed at his funeral. Its melody is based on a Kievan chant from the Russian Orthodox Vespers service but employs a few rhythmic adjustments and, furthermore, is carried forward by a soloist. As Vladimir Morosan notes in his essay “The Sacred Choral Works of Sergei Rachmaninoff,” “The slow rocking motion of the accompanying voices on two-note descending figures, akin to a lullaby, imparts to the piece a static and peaceful quality.”

The performance above is by Katie Melua, a Georgian singer-songwriter from the UK, who in 2016 returned to her native Georgia to record a winter-themed album with one of the country’s all-women singing troupes. The choral arrangements on In Winter, including “Nunc dimittis,” were specially commissioned of Bob Chilcott.

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Icons are central to the devotional lives of Orthodox Christians. Here I’ve included three from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, which I had the pleasure of visiting about five years ago. Iconographers follow very specific guidelines in their writing of icons, which is why there has been little variation over the centuries. To learn how to read an icon of the Presentation of the Lord, see this “iconreader” blog post.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1600. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.
Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 16th century. Tempera on wood, 24 × 16 in. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

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 Presentation of the Lord, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Raban Maur, comic books, and more

SEMINAR: “The Language of Grace? The Action of God’s Love in Poetry and Art”: On February 6 at 6 p.m., as part of the Catholicism and the Arts York initiative, St. Wilfrid’s Church in Duncombe Place, York, will be hosting back-to-back talks: “Grace and the Poetics of David Jones” by Dr. Elizabeth Powell and “Full of Grace? The Desire of Art for God” by Katherine Hinzman.

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ALBUM FUNDRAISER: Love Secrets by John Mark Pantana: I really enjoyed Pantana’s 2017 debut album, Mighty Grace, so I jumped at the opportunity to support his next project on Indiegogo: Love Secrets. His voice is so soothing! So are his original lyrics, all about God’s love and grace. Visit him at https://www.johnmarkpantana.com/, and listen to one of the songs from his upcoming album, “Abba,” below. Fundraising campaign ends February 9.

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EXHIBITIONS

I love the curatorial approach of these two current exhibitions, which bring art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance into conversation with contemporary art. Rather than doing this to prove a disjunction sparked by modernity, the curators stress continuity between the artists of yesterday and today.

“Make It New: Conversations with Medieval Art,” Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France), Paris, November 5, 2018–February 10, 2019: Curated by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, “Make It New” explores the relationship between works of contemporary art and the medieval art of Raban Maur (Hrabanus Maurus), a ninth-century monk from Fulda, Germany, and a major figure of the Carolingian renaissance. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Raban Maur’s De laudibus sanctae crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), a Latin manuscript comprising twenty-eight highly sophisticated poems whose letters are arranged in simple grids over colorful, geometric cross patterns. At the BnF, these compositions are placed in dialogue with thirty-plus works by some of today’s minimalist, conceptual, and land artists, including Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Niele Toroni, and Franz E. Walther, stressing similarities in form, color, proportion, and perspective. [press release (English)] [compilation of Maur images]

The original figure poem cycle was produced around 810 at the scriptorium in Fulda, and Raban Maur had a hand in making at least five other copies during his lifetime (of which France’s National Library owns two: Lat. 2423 and Lat. 2422); seventy-four additional copies from the Middle Ages are extant. The Burgerbibliothek Bern in Switzerland has digitized its early eleventh-century copy (Cod. 9), and it’s really fascinating! Full-resolution downloads are enabled. According to the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny, “no work more precious to see, more pleasing to read, sweeter to remember, or more laborious to write can or could ever be found.” I don’t know Latin, but visually, I can really appreciate these fine pages. I was hoping to find more information about the work but could really only find a single French lecture given back in 2007 by Denis Hüe, a professor of medieval and Renaissance language and literature at the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne.

In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany, ca. 822–847. BnF Lat. 2422, fol. 10v.
In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany.
Untitled by Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007), Untitled, 1970. Ink on paper. © Adagp, Paris.
Work Drawing by Franz Erhard Walther
Franz Erhard Walther (German, 1939–), Werkzeichnungen (Work Drawing), 1967. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. © Adagp, Paris.

“Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth,” Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26–March 31, 2019: When pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006, he was astonished by the Renaissance master’s expressive use of the body to convey emotional and spiritual states. Here the two artists are exhibited side by side, showing their common grappling with life’s fundamental questions, albeit in vastly different mediums. “Both artists harness the symbolic power of sacred art, and both show us physical extremes and moments of transcendence.” Among the twelve major installations from Viola, spanning his career, is Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), a sixteen-foot-high projection depicting the ascent of the soul after death.

For February 16, the Royal Academy has organized a full day of events keyed to the exhibition, including poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a panel discussion with cultural historian Marina Warner, theologian Ben Quash, and artist Mariko Mori, titled “Art as fulfilment: the use of religion and spirituality in contemporary art.” Questions for the day include: Does art connect us? Can art be transformative or transcendental? Can art influence society—that is, change opinions or human behavior? Other offerings in addition to this program are a curator’s introduction on February 1, a short course on figure drawing, and a talk on the limitations and opportunities of digital art. Plus, the London Art Salon is hosting a talk on the exhibition by art historian Marie-Anne Mancio.

Tristan's Ascension by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Photo: Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.
The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), The Risen Christ,” ca. 1532–33. Black chalk on paper, 37.2 × 22.1 cm. Royal Collection Trust, UK.

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NEW COMIC BOOK PUBLISHER: Cave Pictures Publishing, founded in fall 2018 by Mark Rodgers, is committed to the telling of “modern myths” that “speak to the soul” through comic books in the genres of action-adventure, sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. Pitched for the spiritually inclined, the stories they publish “seek to make sense of our world . . . draw us toward the source of goodness . . . uncover what we worship.” Says Rodgers in a Hollywood Reporter interview: “Just as cave paintings were humanity’s initial attempt to process through the tough ultimate questions of human existence, we look at our stories as ‘sherpas of the soul,’ to contribute to the individual and collective human journey towards meaning and a greater reality,” the One True Myth. Read more about the company’s influences and aspirations in this Convivium essay. See also the interview in Sojourners.

The Light Princess (Cave Pictures Publishing)

One of their five inaugural series is The Light Princess, an adaptation of one of George MacDonald’s best-loved fairy tales, about a princess who is cursed with weightlessness and is only brought down to earth by a true, sacrificial love. MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet (e.g., here, here, and here), and Christian minister who deeply influenced C. S. Lewis and J R. R. Tolkien. Speaking of Tolkien, I’m really digging this quote of his on Cave Pictures’ website, which affirms the value of story: “Legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode. . . . Long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”

Jubilee (Artful Devotion)

Jubilee by Steve Prince
Steve A. Prince, Jubilee. Linocut, 36 × 24 in.
Click on image to purchase.

And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

—Luke 4:16–21

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In this passage from Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading, Jesus enters his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and gives what is essentially his inaugural address, having recently been installed to public office by God (at his baptism) and now informing the people of his intentions as their new leader. His agenda is taken straight from Isaiah 61:1–2, and boils down to this: FREEDOM. That is his rallying cry.

“The year of the Lord’s favor,” or “the acceptable year of the Lord,” in Luke 4:19 refers to the Jubilee legislation God gave Israel, mandating that every fiftieth year, slaves were to be set free, debts canceled, and land wealth redistributed (see Leviticus 25). This ushering in of economic justice was most definitely “good news to the poor.” In his reading from the Isaiah scroll and his statement that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” Jesus was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee. And as we know from what follows in the Gospels, this Jubilee would be far more expansive than the one prescribed in Levitical law. Release from bondage, forgiveness of debts, restoration of what had been lost—there is, of course, still a material significance to these provisions, but there’s also a spiritual significance, in that through Christ, we are liberated from sin and ultimately brought back to the Garden in which we originally dwelt.

In ancient Israel, the semicentennial Jubilee Year was announced by the blowing of a shofar (ram’s horn) on the Day of Atonement. The Hebrew word for jubilee, yovel, actually means “ram’s horn”; in the Septuagint, yovel is translated multiple times as apheseos semasia (“trumpet blast of liberty”). The Latin form, jubilaeus, is influenced by the Latin jubilare, “to shout for joy.”

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Typically I make one music selection for the week’s Artful Devotion, but I couldn’t decide between these two—so you’re getting a twofer! I’d encourage you also to revisit “Jubilee” by the McIntosh County Shouters (which pairs splendidly with the Steve Prince linocut), featured in a previous roundup.

JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL: “Jubilee Stomp” by Duke Ellington, 1928

This track was recorded at Okeh studios in New York City on January 19, 1928. It features Duke Ellington on piano, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalf on trumpet, Joe Nanton on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet and tenor sax, Harry Carney on alto sax and baritone sax, Fred Guy on banjo, Otto Hardwick on alto sax and bass sax, Wellman Braud on string bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.

GOSPEL-ROCK: “The Year of Jubilee” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1750 | Music by Kirk Ward, 2010

Blow ye the trumpet, blow! The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know, to earth’s remotest bound:
Jesus, our great high priest, has full atonement made;
You weary spirits, rest; you mournful souls, be glad.

Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
You ransomed sinners, return, return home.

Extol the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Lamb;
Redemption through his blood throughout the world proclaim:
You slaves of sin and hell, your liberty receive;
And safe in Jesus dwell, and blessed in Jesus live.

You who have sold for naught your heritage above,
Receive it back unbought, the gift of Jesus’ love:
The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace;
And, saved from earth, appear before your Savior’s face.

Hymnic poetry doesn’t get much better than that of Charles Wesley, and “Blow ye the trumpet, blow!” is no exception. I discovered this text through Kirk Ward, who wrote new music for it—a tune that is, in my opinion, far superior to the ca. 1782 tune by Lewis Edson that’s used in the hymnals of the United Methodist Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and others. Ward’s gospel-rock version of the hymn, which includes the addition of a chorus, is a congregational favorite at my little church in Maryland.

Describing his stylistic influences and aspirations, Ward writes:

I was thinking that the song would work well in a more 1960s style, civil rights era gospel-rock. I was thinking Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Aloe Blacc, but the over-driven guitar sounds and my white boy vocals push it more toward something like Neil Young. Maybe one day, I’ll record it with horns and soul-power guitar riffs to get the sound I heard in my head. Regardless of the groove, my main goal was to get everyone shouting “FREEDOM!” at the top of their range.

As with all the songs posted on the New City Fellowship Music website, congregations are encouraged to freely use “The Year of Jubilee” in worship; an MP3 demo, lead sheet, and lyrics are provided for that purpose. I’d love to hear some full-band performances of this song online—if any exist, please post them in the comment field below. If you’re interested in making a commercial recording, contact Kirk Ward for permission.

(Related post: “And the Walls Came a-Tumblin’ Down,” commentary on a Steve Prince linocut from my collection)


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 C, click here.

The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit

One of the joys of blogging at Art & Theology is being introduced to new artists by my readers. I was pleased to receive in the mail recently, as a gift from one such reader, a color booklet and a 2018 documentary on the art of Dom Gregory de Wit (1892–1978), a Dutch artist and Benedictine monk who between 1938 and 1955 lived in the United States painting murals for Catholic churches and monasteries. This was the first time I’ve encountered the artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him better through these materials.

All photos in this post are provided courtesy of Edward Begnaud or Stella Maris Films.

Gregory was born Jan Aloysius de Wit on June 9, 1892, in Hilversum, Netherlands. He entered the monastic life in 1913 at age twenty-one, joining Mont César Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, and there taking the name Gregory. (His interest in liturgy and ecumenism is what drew him to that particular abbey.) de Wit was passionate about art making since a young age, and his order encouraged him to further develop his talent as a painter. He therefore studied at the Brussels Academy of Art, the Munich Academy, and throughout Italy. In 1923 he exhibited at The Hague and ended up selling forty-five paintings in one month! He then went on to fulfill three sacred art commissions—one in Bavaria, two in Belgium—while continuing to live as a monk.

Jesus as servant
This mural, painted in 1930 and photographed here in black-and-white, shows Jesus serving wine at a monastic banquet. It’s one of nine murals Gregory de Wit painted in the refectory of St. Michael’s Abbey in Metten, Bavaria, Germany.

In 1938, Abbot Ignatius Esser of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana met de Wit in Europe and invited him to design and execute paintings for the abbey’s church and chapter room—which he gladly accepted.

Here he started to develop his own style, which would come to be marked by brilliant (sometimes garish) colors, bold outlines, distortion or disfiguration (e.g., disproportionate hands), and “overlapping” perspective.

In Christus, Jesus is borne upward by a red-winged chariot. In his right hand he holds a victory wreath, and in his left, an open book that declares, EGO SUM VITA (“I am the Life”). The three small Greek letters in the rays of his halo, a traditional device in Orthodox iconography, mean “I am the Living One,” a New Testament echo of God’s “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14.

Christus by Gregory de Wit
This figure of the risen Christ, painted by Gregory de Wit in the 1940s, is found high on the wall of the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana.

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Shortly after de Wit arrived in the US, World War II broke out, and even after he completed his work at Saint Meinrad, he couldn’t return to Belgium. Luckily, another stateside commission came his way, from the newly built Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The parish priest, Father Dominic Blasco, hired him to paint a series of murals, which resulted in de Wit’s most polarizing work: his Christ Pantocrator in the apse behind the altar. Many of the parishioners hated it (and I have to say, I’m not partial to it). A humorous anecdote in the documentary recalls Maria von Trapp, who had once visited the church, expressing her horror at the image to de Wit, not knowing he was its artist!

Not only did de Wit’s art garner dislike, but so did his temperamental personality and sometimes irreverent behavior. For example, while at Sacred Heart, he smoked while he painted, dropping cigarette butts onto the floor during services. Although he did have his supporters, he was eventually fired from Sacred Heart. The last painting he did for the church was of the Samaritan woman at the well—descried as “pornographic” by the sisters of the school because of the suggestive way her dress clings to her forwardly posed thigh.

The painting at Sacred Heart that I’m most intrigued by is the Pietà in the narthex, which shows Mary holding her dead son. Genesis 3 is invoked by the thorns that not only crown Christ’s brow but that rise up all around him, symbolic of the curse. What’s more, a half-bitten apple rolls from his limp hand; he, like his forefather, Adam, has tasted death. And this he did willingly out of love, signified by the fiery, thorn-enwrapped heart of his that he holds in his right hand, whose glow illuminates the darkness.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit
Dom Gregory de Wit, OSB, Pietà, 1940–42. Narthex, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit

Because de Wit painted this image during the war, it is contextualized with a soldier on one side and the soldier’s wife and three children on the other, praying for his safe return. Why do they belong in this scene? Some wartime artists drew parallels between Christ and the soldiers’ sacrificial laying down of their lives (cf. John 15:13). I’m uneasy with this comparison for several reasons, not least of which is my Christian pacifism. But de Wit’s painting seems, rather, to use the soldier and his family as a representation of war and to suggest that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, is with us in our present suffering. He entered our world, after all, and died to redeem us from its evils—sin and death and all their extensions. The presence of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, must have been a comfort to the mothers at Sacred Heart whose sons were overseas fighting.

Moreover, even though its hieratic style may be off-putting to some, I also really like de Wit’s crucifix for Sacred Heart. The corpus is painted on solid mahogany, with real nails driven through the hands.  Continue reading “The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit”

Upcoming conferences and symposia

It’s great to see how many gatherings are happening this spring around faith and the arts. I wish I could attend them all, but travel costs require me to be selective. I’m happy to say that I’ll be at the contemporary art symposium in Amsterdam in March (and taking a few side trips while I’m there) and the Anselm Society conference, “Your Imagination Redeemed,” in April, which convenes in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If you’ll be at either, let me know so that I can be sure to meet you!

(This post has been updated to reflect new information.)

Calvin Symposium on Worship                                                  
Date: January 24–26, 2019
Location: Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Cost: $270 (general; single-day options available); $30 (students)
Organizers: Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching
Presenters: A very long list!
Description: “The conference brings together a wide audience of artists, musicians, pastors, scholars, students, worship leaders and planners, and other interested worshipers. People come from around the world for a time of fellowship, worship, and learning together, seeking to develop their gifts, encourage each other and renew their commitment to the full ministry of the church.” There are tons of seminars and workshops to choose from, on topics such as congregational songwriting, multilingual singing for English-speaking congregations, skills and drills for the emerging worship leader, technology in worship, worship in times of crisis and trauma, engaging our bodies in worship, the visual arts in worship, using the Psalms in worship, music as exegetical art, the art and science of repetition in worship, and much more. One of the plenary sessions is on “The Many Streams of African American Congregational Song.”
   Note: Although online registration has closed, walk-up registration is available. Also, the worship services and plenary sessions will be live-streamed for free (see times).

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brehm conference

“Worship, Theology, and the Arts in a Divided World”
Date: February 9, 2019
Location: Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California
Cost: $75 (general); $25 (student) – or, live-stream for free! (registration still required) [update: videos: Morning Session; Afternoon Session]
Organizer: Brehm Center
Presenters: David M. Bailey, Makoto Fujimura, W. David O. Taylor, Kutter Callaway, Lauralee Farrer, Todd E. Johnson, Robert K. Johnston, Roberta R. King, Shannon Sigler, Edwin M. Wilmington
Description: “To say that we live in a divided world is to state the obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is to believe that worship might become a vehicle for reconciliation, or that theology might serve as an invaluable aid to mend our personal and social brokenness, or that the arts might forge unity across the divides—whether political or economic, racial or relational, linguistic or cultural, whether in the academy or in the public square, whether inside the church or outside of it. But that is exactly what this conference wishes to suggest.
   “A primary goal of this conference is to show how worship, theology, and the arts can become sources of good news to our divided world as well as resources to make tangible that good news by God’s grace. A secondary goal is to generate practical helps that extend beyond the immediate context of the conference in order to serve the broader community. This involves not just the presentations themselves, but online resource offerings: for instance, a one-page resource for small groups on art and racial reconciliation; a Spotify playlist for both pastors and worship leaders; a ‘top 10’ list of most common mistakes in multicultural worship; an annotated resource on global worship; a handout for church leaders on art in a post-Christian society; and more.”

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Ascension by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989), The Ascension of Christ, 1958. Oil on canvas, 115 × 123 cm (45¼ × 48⅜ in.). Pérez Simón Collection, Mexico.

“Modernist Prodigals: Aesthetic Aftermaths of Religious Conversion” (panel discussion)
Date: February 13, 2019
Location: New York Hilton Midtown, Manhattan
Cost: This is one of the 300+ sessions available to registrants of the College Art Association’s Annual Conference. (Registration starts at $185 and is restricted to CAA members.)
Organizer: Anne Greeley
Panelists: Linda Stratford, Emily Worjun Wing, Zoë Marie-Jones, Elliott H. King, Douglas R. Giebel
Description: “Over the past two decades, the long-presumed secularity of modern art has been called increasingly into question. Numerous scholars, from Sally Promey, to Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness, to Thomas Crow, have challenged the secularization theory promulgated by art historians during the latter half of the twentieth century. Though the academy no longer finds it ‘inadmissible,’ as Rosalind Krauss once did, to connect the spiritual with the avant-garde, and while many religious impulses can be discerned throughout the field of modern art, it is nevertheless the case that many modern artists rejected religion outright—though some only temporarily.
“This panel aims to build on the discussion initiated by Jeffrey Abt in his 2014 panel on ‘Religion and the Avant-Garde.’ It seeks to further clarify modern art’s relationship to religion by examining the lives and work of certain ‘modernist prodigals,’ who during a period of religious apathy or disbelief made significant contributions to modernism before turning, or returning, to organized religion. If art can be said to constitute a mode of thought, and if thought is radically altered through religious conversion, then what might a study of the works of such artists, ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’conversion, reveal about the perceived compatibility of modern art (or of certain iterations or aspects thereof) with a religious worldview? Alternatively, what might it reveal about an artist’s faith?”

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“Art Matters”
Date: February 16, 2019
Location: Leith School of Art, Edinburgh, Scotland
Cost: ₤25
Organizer: Morphē Arts
Description: “A day symposium on art, faith and social responsibility. We will discuss the importance of the creative arts in the formation and care of culture from the perspective of Christian belief. The morning will be a series of short talks from artists, musicians, writers, designers, theologians and art philosophers on why the arts matter at this time. An afternoon symposium will lead into a drawing workshop (TBC) followed by an evening music event.”

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“The Breath and the Clay”
Date: March 22–24, 2019
Location: Awake Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Cost: from $150
Organizer: The Breath and the Clay
Presenters: Stephen Roach, Josh Garrels, Emily P. Freeman, Amena Brown, CJ Casciotta, Marie Teilhard, Molly Kate Skaggs, Kelly Archer, and others
Description: “The Breath & the Clay is a creative arts gathering exploring the intersections of art, faith & culture. The weekend event features keynote speakers, performances, workshops and our curated Art Gallery juried by Ned Bustard of CIVA.” To learn more about the Breath and the Clay movement, check out its official podcast, Makers & Mystics.

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Stations by G. Roland Biermann
G. Roland Biermann (British, 1962–), Stations, 2018. 84 oil barrels on steel platform, 20 meters of guard rails. South churchyard, Trinity Wall Street, New York. Biermann participated in last year’s “Art Stations” and will be creating another site-specific installation for this year’s at Corvershof in Amsterdam.

“I Believe in Contemporary Art”
Date: March 23, 2019
Location: Doopsgezinde Singelkerk, Amsterdam
Cost: TBA
Organizer: ArtWay
Presenters: Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, Alastair Gordon, and others (TBA)
Description: This day-long symposium with workshops is tied to the Art Stations of the Cross exhibition in Amsterdam, which will run from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (March 6–April 20). As with previous iterations of this project in London, Washington, DC, and New York, the art—this time selected by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Aniko Ouweneel-Tóth—is dispersed in locations throughout the city, and a free digital audio guide will be provided. More details to come.

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“Sacrament & Story: Recasting Worship Through the Arts”
Date: April 5, 2019
Location: Resonance at SOMA Towers, Bellevue, Washington
Cost: $80
Organizer: Brehm Cascadia
Presenters: Tamisha Tyler, Stephen Newby, Jeffrey Overstreet, Shannon Sigler, and more
Description: “How do artists experience the world? How do creative hearts respond to the Story of God? . . . We believe that artists have a unique capacity to recast God’s Story in ways that are experiential, accessible, and enlivening. The arts can create spaces for worship that encompass a broader understanding of the nature of the Triune God—with room for joy, lament, fear, delight, and mystery. Will you join us as we explore how the arts can help us reimagine and more fully engage God’s Story in our worship and in the world?”

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“Majesty: An Art & Faith Incubator”
Date: April 18–21, 2019
Location: Nelson, New Zealand
Cost: $360 (includes all workshops and materials)
Organizer: ATELIER Studio|Gallery
Description: “A new resurgence of creativity in the kingdom of God is underway – a Renaissance, if you will, highlighting again the importance and significance of the arts in the body of Christ and to the world. Many artists with a living faith in Jesus Christ have existed only on the periphery, many are isolated, and many are underground. Still, yet, there are many in art schools and in the marketplace, and there are also many rising in their God-given identities returning to the purpose of creative expression.
“The definition of what it means to be creative and a follower of Jesus is far broader than what we might encounter during a Sunday service, it is far more powerful than what the term ‘Christian art’ could ever signify, and far more necessary than what many forms of Christian expression would give credence to. . . .
   “MAJESTY calls artists of faith together, to engage in a greater devotion to the One, to release a greater purpose through their making, and to reveal a greater promise – the heart of God. . . . [At this gathering,] visual art-making workshops, times of worship, new ideas and discussion, prophetic input, and plenty of ‘making time’ all flow together to release a new fire in the creative soul.”

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anselm society conference

“Your Imagination Redeemed”
Date: April 26–27, 2019
Location: The Pinery at the Hill, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Cost: $225
Organizer: Anselm Society
Presenters: Hans Boersma, John Skillen, Junius Johnson
Description: “For nearly two thousand years, the church held that the good, the true, and the beautiful were inseparable. But somewhere along the line, they got fragmented. And the result has been a disenchanted Christianity; a slew of inadequate books, music, and movies; and generations of Christians missing out on the redeemed imagination. The disenchanted, the lost, and the Church itself need a renaissance of the Christian imagination. . . . We will explore the redeemed imagination, meet the sacred on its own terms, and carry its light back into our lives, creative arts, and congregations.”

“As the bridegroom rejoices over his bride . . .” (Artful Devotion)

Les maries de la tour Eiffel by Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall (Russian French, 1887–1985), Les mariés de la tour Eiffel (The Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower), 1938–39. Oil on canvas, 150 × 136.5 cm. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photo: Jim Forest.

Regarding Zion, I can’t keep my mouth shut,
    regarding Jerusalem, I can’t hold my tongue,
Until her righteousness blazes down like the sun
    and her salvation flames up like a torch.
Foreign countries will see your righteousness,
    and world leaders your glory.
You’ll get a brand-new name
    straight from the mouth of GOD.
You’ll be a stunning crown in the palm of GOD’s hand,
    a jeweled gold cup held high in the hand of your GOD.
No more will anyone call you Rejected,
    and your country will no more be called Ruined.
You’ll be called Hephzibah (My Delight),
    and your land Beulah (Married),
Because GOD delights in you
    and your land will be like a wedding celebration.
For as a young man marries his virgin bride,
    so your builder marries you,
And as a bridegroom is happy in his bride,
    so your GOD is happy with you.

—Isaiah 62:1–5 (The Message)

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SONG: “Fairland” by The Hollands!, on ashes to beauty (2011)

 

The lyrics of “Fairland” are adapted from the poem “The Little Beach-Bird” by Richard Henry Dana (1787–1879), with the bridge referencing Jesus’s words to his disciples in John 14:1–3: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” These are the words of a bridegroom to his bride.

Thou little bird, thou dweller by the sea,
Why takest thou so melancholy,
And with that boding cry
Along the breaker fly?
O rather, bird, with me
Through the fair land rejoice!

Come and go with me
Back to my Father’s house
To my Father’s house
Come and go with me

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It is not difficult to see, . . . in his dreamlike images of adorned and beautiful Jewish brides, Chagall’s aspiration for the redeemed daughter of Zion.

—David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness, p. 347


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 C, click here.

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”

This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.