Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

Roundup: Ethiopian illuminations, convent cradles, Women’s Christmas, and more

“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.

Flight to Egypt (Ethiopian)
“Flight into Egypt,” from the Nagara Māryām (History and Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Ethiopia, ca. 1730–55. British Library Or. 607, fol. 17r.

You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!

If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.

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The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.

Journey and Adoration of the Magi (icon)
Journey of the Magi and Adoration of the Magi, 14th century. Fresco, Decani Monastery, Serbia. View a modern copy here.

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SONG MEDLEY: “Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”

Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.

Beguine cradle (The Met)
Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, from the Grand Béguinage in Louvain (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Click to view details of the carved Nativity and Adoration of the Magi at the head and foot and, on the embroidered coverlet, Jesus’s family tree.

To learn more about how some medieval women mediated their relationship with Christ in part through dolls and cradles, see “Crib of the Infant Jesus” from Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index, “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux” by Annette LeZotte, “Popular Imagery in a Fifteenth-Century Burgundian Crèche” by William H. Forsyth, “Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents” by Ulinka Rublack, and “Encounter: Holy Beds” by Caroline Walker Bynum.

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The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . .  spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”

“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”

Wise Women Also Came by Jan Richardson
Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson [purchase]

The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”

Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy

All photos by Victoria Emily Jones or Eric James Jones, © ArtandTheology.org

Soaring 150 feet into the air against a Rocky Mountain backdrop, the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs is a National Historic Landmark and one of Colorado’s most-visited manmade attractions. It was designed by Walter Netsch Jr. of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm responsible for the planning and design of the entire academy, and is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five-Year Award. Construction of the Cadet Chapel began in 1959 and was completed in 1962. It was dedicated in 1963.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The Cadet Chapel was designed to house three distinct worship spaces—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—on two levels, with a large “All-Faiths Room” on a third (bottom) level available to members of other faiths. In 2007 a Buddhist Chapel (the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) was added, and more recently a Muslim prayer room, and outside there is a Falcon Circle for the Earth-Centered Spirituality community (pagans, Druids, Wiccans, etc.), dedicated in 2011. Because of the building’s sound-proofing and separate entrances, different services can be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.

I visited the Cadet Chapel last year shortly before it closed in September for a major renovation and restoration project needed to address water damage. It is scheduled to reopen again in fall 2023.

The most striking feature of the exterior is its seventeen spires, made to resemble jet fighter wings. I must admit: though it is an impressive structure, and I’m fully aware it is a military chapel, the evocation of warplanes for a worship space is a little unsettling. But the design choice does give the building great height—it points to the heavens as do the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe, meant to turn the eye upward toward God.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The steel frame of the chapel comprises one hundred identical tetrahedrons, each weighing five tons and enclosed with aluminum panels. The surfaces of the outer panels are striated so that they reflect light differently throughout the day, depending on the sun’s position.

The chapel is situated on a terrace that overlooks part of the campus as well as beautiful mountain vistas.

View from USAFA Cadet Chapel

The front façade faces south—an atypical orientation for churches, which are traditionally built on a west–east axis, but a choice made, I’m assuming, to best utilize the sunlight for the interior decoration (see next section).

To reach the main entrance you have to ascend a wide granite stairway that leads up one story to an uncovered front porch. Walk inside, and you’re in the narthex (lobby) of the Protestant Chapel.

Protestant Chapel

The Protestant Chapel is by far the largest worship space within the Cadet Chapel, taking up the whole main floor—a choice made based on the religious demographics of enrolled cadets at the time of the building’s construction in the early sixties. (An article published shortly after the chapel’s dedication reported that 68% of cadets listed themselves as Protestant, 29% Catholic, and 2% Jewish, with a few listing other faiths or agnosticism.)

Though the exterior of the Cadet Chapel is, as I experienced it, somewhat cold, sterile, severe, the interior is incredibly warm and genial. Its vertical lift is spectacular. Stained glass strip windows provide ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons and progress from darker to lighter as they reach the altar, with some of the nearly 25,000 dalles (small, thick glass slabs) being deliberately chipped to produce jewel-like facets. The play of colored light across vault, floor, and pews was my favorite part of this space.

USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel)

Vault of USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel) Continue reading “Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy”

“And nations shall come to your light . . .” (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Christ Child (India, 17th c)
Adoration of the Christ Child, Mughal India, ca. 1630. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 15.6 × 11 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

This Saturday, January 6, marks Epiphany, a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of God incarnate to the peoples of the world, encapsulated in the visit of the Magi to the newborn Christ. In the first lectionary reading I’ve excerpted, Isaiah speaks to Israel, rejoicing that God will one day cause his light of revelation to shine upon them, drawing the nations—a prophecy fulfilled at Christmas; in the second, Paul writes to the church at Ephesus about the glorious expansion of God’s family made possible through Christ, and the unity experienced therein across barriers of race, culture, geography, and so on:

And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising. . . .

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and exult,
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
the wealth of nations shall come to you. . . .
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.

—Isaiah 60:3, 5–6

The mystery of Christ . . . was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed. . . . This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

—Ephesians 3:4–5

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SONG: “Miladuka” (“Thy Nativity”) | Arabic Christmas hymn arranged by David Düsing | Performed by the Robert DeCormier Singers & Ensemble, feat. Sandra Arida, on Children Go Where I Send Thee: A Christmas Celebration Around the World (1996)

“Miladuka” is a Christmas troparion, or liturgical hymn, from the Byzantine church. Its English translation, from the CD liner notes, is as follows:

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world.
For they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship thee,
O son of justice,
And to know from the east of the highest
Thou didst come.
O Lord, glory to thee.


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 Epiphany, cycle B, click here.

Infancy of Christ metalworks by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre

When wandering around the Duke Divinity School campus this summer, waiting for a conference talk to start, I inadvertently encountered a stunning seven-work cycle of metal panels depicting scenes from the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. They were designed and hand-carved from discarded steel oil drums by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre, who lives in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, ten miles outside Port-au-Prince.

Steel drum sculpting is an art form unique to Haiti, and Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of production, home to dozens of workshops. Once acquiring a drum, the artist first removes the round ends and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves, then sets the leaves on fire to burn off any paint or residue. When the drum cools, the artist makes a cut from top to bottom, then climbs inside and pushes with his legs and arms to open up the metal, which he then pounds into a flat sheet. Next he draws a design onto the metal using chalk, then uses a hammer, chisel, and ice picks to actualize it. To see photos of this process and learn more about it, visit www.haitimetalart.com.

In Sylvestre’s nativity cycle at Duke—a gift from Drs. Richard and Judith Hays—the characters are depicted as native Haitians. Each scene unfolds against a backdrop of curvilinear greenery that is typical of Haitian metalwork.

My favorite of the seven has got to be the Annunciation to the Shepherds; I love the angel’s wild hair and the one shepherd who jumps backward in fear and surprise. I’m also tickled by the smiling sun in the Nativity panel!

Annunciation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Annunciation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 1 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Visitation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visitation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 2 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Nativity by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Birth of Jesus, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 3 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Angel and Shepherds, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 4 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Presentation in the Temple by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Presentation in the Temple, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 5 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Adoration of the Magi by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visit of the Magi, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 6 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Flight into Egypt by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Flight into Egypt, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 7 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Duke Divinity School also owns a fourteen-piece Stations of the Cross cycle by Jean Sylvestre, which is often displayed in the nave of Duke University Chapel during Lent.

Roundup: Cracked lanterns; Incarnation songs; Christmas gallery talks; pregnancy poem

COMMUNITY ART PROJECT + INSTALLATION: Light the Well by Anna Sikorska: Last month artist Anna Sikorska led the congregation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in creating a constellation of cracked, translucent porcelain globes, lit from within like lanterns and linked together—a visualization of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:6–12, about our hearts being clay jars whose fragility and brokenness enable the light of Christ to shine through all the more. Light the Well was installed at St. Martin’s on November 11, and since November 19 the individual lanterns have been selling for £10 a piece to benefit New Art Studio and Art Refuge UK, charities working with art therapy in the context of migration and displacement. Associate vicar Jonathan Evens delivered a beautiful reflection on this artwork and the scripture that inspired it, as well as a prayer and benediction, which you can read in full here.

Light the Well installation

I love it when churches use art not merely to decorate or prettify the building but to further the congregation’s engagement with scripture and to foster shared doing and seeing.

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SONGS:

“City of David” by the Gray Havens: The Gray Havens, a “narrative pop folk duo” from Nashville made up of married couple David and Licia Radford, released a new Christmas single on November 17—recorded on an iPhone! Listen to the song and watch some of their “making of” process in the video below. God the Father often gets overlooked during this season, so I like that the refrain reminds us that “the Father sent him [the Son] down.” [Purchase here]

“Human for Me” by Katy Kinard: Released last year on the album God of Fireflies, this song praises God for assuming full humanity—for not circumventing any frustrating or painful aspect of it. [Purchase here]

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GALLERY TALKS:

“The Christmas Story in Art” at the National Gallery, Washington, DC: Gallery lecturer David Gariff will lead a 75-minute discussion about paintings in the collection that depict the birth of Jesus, including one of my favorites, Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (Click on the link to see a full list of works.) The event is free and geared to an adult audience. To participate, meet in the West Building Rotunda at 1 p.m. on December 9 or 10, or 2 p.m. on December 14, 18, 20, 21, or 22.

Nativity with Isaiah and Ezekiel by Duccio
Duccio (Italian, ca. 1255–60–ca. 1318/19), The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311. Tempera on single poplar panel, 48 × 86.8 × 7.9 cm (18 7/8 × 34 3/16 × 3 1/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“Adoration of the Kings” Facebook Live tour at the National Gallery, London: Friday, December 15 at 9 a.m. GMT, director Gabriele Finaldi will be exploring Jan Gossaert and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. This “tour,” offered exclusively online, will be broadcast live on the Gallery’s Facebook page, and a replay version will be available on the channel afterward.

Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert
Jan Gossaert (Flemish, d. 1532), The Adoration of the Kings, 1510–15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. National Gallery, London.

Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, d. 1569), The Adoration of the Kings, 1564. Oil on oak, 112.1 × 83.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

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POEM: “Scale” by Chelsea Wagenaar: Chelsea and I went to the same small North Carolina church as kids, back when she was a Henderson and I a Hartz, so we share a heritage of learning Bible lessons from Butch the Dragon and competing annually in the Bean Bag Relay at the AWANA Olympics. Now she is an award-winning poet, a Lilly Fellow, a lecturer in Valparaiso University’s English department, and a mom!

Inspired by her pregnancy, the poem “Scale” is full of metaphors that revel in the wonders of prenatal life—the womb is a “winterplum sky,” the cluster of baby cells “untufted cotton,” the belly a “Lenten moon.” The central theme, which Chelsea cleverly plays around, is Psalm 139:16, a praise verse by King David: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Chelsea’s poem is especially appropriate for Advent, a season of pregnancy in which we position ourselves retrospectively with Mary, letting our hearts expand as we wait expectantly for that marvelous deliverance, the coming of the Christ child.

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)”