Three poems on Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Annunciation” by Pimone Triplett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Take a World” by Terri Witek

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The world is about to turn.”

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van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation

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

At Last (Artful Devotion)

Tkachuk, Yaroslava_Expectant
Yaroslava Tkachuk (Ukrainian, 1981–), Expectant, 2014. Linen, silk, seeds, copper, and acrylic, 100 × 40 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist. [Original for sale; click photo for more info]

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

—Isaiah 7:14

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SONG: “Maria” by David Maloney, on A Christmas Album by Reilly & Maloney (1984, reissued 2012)

Christmas Day, it’s coming fast
Bringing joy to the world at last
Joy to the world
Maria . . .


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”

Everlasting Joy Shall Be (Artful Devotion)

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Snow Hill, 1989. Tempera on hardboard panel, 48 × 72 in. (121.9 × 182.9 cm). Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones (at the Brandywine River Museum of Art 2017 retrospective).

. . .

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

—Isaiah 35:5–6a, 10

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SONG: “Therefore the Redeemed” by Ruth Lake, 1972 | Performed by Kim McLean, on Soul Solace, 2008

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Snow Hill by Andrew Wyeth [previously] is “a conscious summary of his artistic life that is both somber memoir and playful recalibration” (John Wilmerding). It shows six of his friends and neighbors, who modeled for him many times throughout his career, dancing around a beribboned Maypole in winter in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Their coats, earflaps, and braids fly in the wind, as does one untouched white ribbon, which, it has been posited, could represent Christina Olson (who had a degenerative muscle disorder and could not walk), the artist’s wife Betsy, or the artist himself.

This painting, one of Wyeth’s last, was the finale of a major retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in 2017, which has been one of the most memorable art exhibitions I’ve ever attended. The wall text there read,

Painted over a two-year period, Snow Hill is both fantasy and memorial, a visual summation of the iconic places and people of Chadds Ford that occupied [Wyeth] for the previous fifty years. Wyeth looks backward and inward, bringing together many of these subjects from his past, a number of them now deceased. Depicted are Karl Kuerner (dressed in his German uniform), holding the hand of Anna Kuerner, who is in turn linked to William Loper, whose prosthetic hook is held by Helga Testorf, rounding the circle to Allan Lynch (of Winter 1946) and Adam Johnson (partially obscured). They are surrounded by a landscape that shows, left to right: the railroad tracks where Wyeth’s father, N. C. Wyeth, was killed in 1945; the Kuerner farmhouse and barn; the remains of Mother Archie’s octagonal church; the Ring family home in the distance; and Adam Johnson’s shed and haystack.

Wyeth’s models are shown holding ribbons—although one white ribbon is symbolically floating free—and dancing atop Kuerner Hill—a site at once iconic for its recurrence in Wyeth’s work and for its proximity to the site of his father’s death. . . .

I love how the dead and the living join together in this Yuletide circle dance, in which suffering is taken up into joy. Wyeth had lived through Karl Kuerner, a World War I veteran, succumbing to cancer, Allan Lynch to suicide, and Bill Loper to mental illness, as well as the early death of his father and nephew in a car accident. And while such darkness is not fully dissipated in this gray-day scene, a mood of celebration and hope and friendship does take over.

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill (detail)


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

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

“He comes, comes, ever comes”

As the liturgical calendar was turning over into a new year this week, my husband Eric and I were at the tail end of a visit to India, staying with new friends Jyoti and Jane Sahi. Jyoti’s an artist, and Jane is a children’s educator, and together they live in the Christian village of Silvepura, north of Bangalore, where for years they ran, respectively, an art ashram and a school. It was a lot of fun getting to know them and their work, and discussing art, culture, theology, politics.

Before our flight departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the first day of Advent, Jane had set an oil lamp on the dinner table, decorated with flowers from the garden, and selected two poems for us to read aloud: an excerpt from the Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore [previously], and “Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams. It was a meaningful welcoming in of the new season, and a beautiful blend of our hosts’ mixed cultural heritage: Indian and British.

Indian Advent lamp
All photos by Victoria Emily Jones

Gitanjali XLV by Rabindranath Tagore:

Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.

Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.

Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, “He comes, comes, ever comes.”

In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he comes, comes, ever comes.

In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of clouds he comes, comes, ever comes.

In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.

“Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams, published in After Silent Centuries (The Perpetua Press, 1994) and The Poems of Rowan Williams (The Perpetua Press, 2002; Carcanet Press, 2014):

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

While I was at Jyoti’s, I bought three paintings of his. One of them is an Annunciation image that shows Mary in a termite mound, which are considered sacred in India—microcosms of the temple, sources of fertility, and containers of treasure. I saw these tall, hard-clay, insect-built structures in many areas around Bangalore where I was traveling, including a few on Jyoti’s property. (Note that locals refer to termites misleadingly as “white ants,” so these are “anthills.”)

Sahi, Jyoti_Incarnation in the Anthill
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Incarnation within the Anthill, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 28 × 10 1/2 in. (71.1 × 26.7 cm). Collection of Victoria Emily Jones.
Sacred anthill
Anthill at Vishram in Silvepura with a Mary figure at the base, made of leaves and bark

According to Indian folklore, anthills are the ears of the earth, and Jyoti plays on that belief in his visualization of the moment of the Incarnation, of God’s becoming human in the person of Jesus. Mary’s womb is in the shape of an ear, which receives the Word of God. This Word is shown first at the top of the composition in the form of two hamsas (Sanskrit for “I am he,” or “I am that I am”), a mythical swan-like bird whose body resembles an AUM, the ancient threefold syllable, “the Sound that is believed to reverberate creatively through eternity,” Jyoti said. (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”)

Mary listens to the Word, becomes pregnant with the Word, which takes on flesh inside her. Christ, the primordial One, is implanted in the womb of the earth, of humanity—and a tree of life grows forth.

There’s a sixth-century hymn, known as the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God), that celebrates Mary’s role as container of the Divine: “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! greater than the holy of holies. Hail! ark gilded by the Spirit. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.” Mary as temple, as holy of holies, as ark of the covenant, contains the world’s greatest Treasure: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

You can hear Jyoti introduce the painting in the short video above, which is just a snippet of the footage Eric and I took while we were there. (More to come!)

Jyoti Sahi at work

As I traveled back home to the US with this rolled-up canvas last Sunday, I kept thinking about the words of the two poets I had just read—Tagore and Williams. I thought about how Christ came once “like child” but also how he “comes, comes, ever comes” even still today, “in sorrow after sorrow . . . press[ing] upon my heart . . . mak[ing] my joy to shine.”

Salvation Is Him (Artful Devotion)

Gagnon, Clarence_The Wayside Cross, Winter
Clarence Gagnon (French Canadian, 1881–1942), The Wayside Cross, Winter, ca. 1916–17. Oil on canvas, 28 × 37 in. (71.1 × 94 cm). Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada. Photo: Jim Forest.

You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.

—Romans 13:11–12

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SONG: “Awake” by Josh White, on Achor (2010)


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent, cycle A, click here.

An Advent Playlist

Advent Playlist (AndandTheology.org)

Advent, which begins December 1 this year, ushers in four weeks of holy longing for Christ’s coming into our dark and broken world to make all things new. With the Old Testament saints and the early Christians alike, we cry, “Come, Lord!” The anticipation that marks the season is both joyful and aching, as on the one hand, we have a sure hope that the Lord is coming, and that’s cause for celebration, but on the other hand, well, we’re tired and weak, and sometimes hope hurts.

Every Advent, my husband and I whip out the Spotify playlist that I’ve been building over the years, and we let the music shape our longings toward Christmas, toward new creation. Centuries worth of Christian song comes through our speakers to build up our hearts and minds with words and tunes that prepare us to welcome not just Christ’s birth but also the parousia. While I’m not a stickler for “no Christmas music before December 25!,” I have come to appreciate the distinctiveness of Advent and have found something sweet in the waiting rather than rushing headlong into the truth that “Christ is born!” Of course, Advent bleeds into Christmas, and both seasons contain both darkness and light, mourning and festivity—but setting aside a month to linger with the visions of the prophets and the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph can deepen one’s appreciation of the fullness of Christmas and how it fits into God’s bigger story.

People, I think, are generally unaware of the rich body of Advent-themed music that’s available to us. Apart from the classics “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and maybe a selection or two from Handel’s Messiah, I bet many Christians would be hard-pressed to name a single Advent song.

Well, here are ten hours’ worth! Art & Theology presents an Advent playlist.

There’s intention to the structure of the list, which moves from God’s promise to Abraham that “all shall be well” to ancient prophecies of a redemption-to-come to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat to Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids and other such warnings of / yearnings for his second coming, with glimmers and bursts of hope scattered throughout.

Sometimes the line between a “Christmas” song and an “Advent” song is blurry, but generally I characterize an Advent song as one that’s marked by a sense of longing or expectation. As I said before, this longing can be expressed joyously or with tears and groaning, and both these shades are present in the playlist.

The predominant musical style represented is indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, The Welcome Wagon, The Oh Hellos [previously], The Brilliance, Ordinary Time, etc.), but there’s also some choral, gospel, jazz, Taizé chant, sixties rock, show tunes, a Harry Potter-esque celesta interlude, and an Irish reel! Oh, and a smattering of virtuosic oud solos by Joseph Tawadros, with evocative titles like “Dream with Me” and “Where It All Began.” I hope the list is full of surprises for you.

I must note that there are plenty more traditional Advent hymns that exist but that I’ve excluded either because I could not find suitable recordings on Spotify, or because the tunes are dull or awkward. (And I’m sure there are also many songs that I’m simply not aware of.) I put a lot of stock in musical composition and vocal quality.

As you move down the first third of the list, let me draw your attention to some of the biblical texts the songs are drawn from—various foretastes of the coming kingdom that God vouchsafed to certain Hebrew poets and seers. May we capture their vision this Advent:

“Come, Lord” is the cry of Advent, and you will find it manifest in many of the songs here, from the bright, guitar-picked “Come Into My Heart” by Reilly & Maloney or Isaac Wardell’s “Messiah” waltz to St. Ambrose’s fourth-century “Veni, Redemptor gentium”—translated variously into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” each set to a different tune—to the African American spiritual “Kumbaya” (Gullah for “Come by Here”) [previously].

I’ve included only a few non-English songs, and where you encounter them, I encourage you to look up lyric translations, so as not to miss their full impact. The Swedish “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) by Edvard Evers and Gustaf Nordqvist, for example, prays, “Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings, / over the battlefield’s blood and cry . . .”

The “Come, Lord” song that makes me the most emotional, that taps deeply into my longing for the world, and my own heart, to be made new, is “Immanuel” by Jason Morant. “God with us, where are you now? . . . Be here somehow . . . in this desert of prosperity.” I’ve prayed through this song for years but have only just now discovered the music video Morant made for it, which attaches to it a story of desperation:


Perhaps my favorite Advent song is “The Trumpet Child,” written by husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine. The two are superb songwriters, here giving us some stunning imagery and a really unique take on Advent:

The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

The song intertwines Christ’s first and second advents, combining incarnation with apocalypse. The trumpet is a heralding instrument, announcing the arrival of a ruler or dignitary—but the aural image here is not of a ceremonial fanfare, formal and rigid, but of a fiery, improvisatory jazz solo, blaring soulfully into the night, and played by the comer himself. At his arrival, Christ will “blast the sky till it’s reborn,” rupturing the old world order. (I think of Isaiah 64:1–2: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood . . .”) A fearsome thought, that sudden splitting, that roar . . . and yet at the same time, the arrival is smooth and graceful. Strength and tenderness, hand in hand.

Christ’s mouthpiece, the part of the trumpet you blow on to make sound, is a burning coal, the song says; this picks up on imagery from Isaiah 6:6–7 and evokes notions of the sacred, sacrifice, purgation. The bell, or flare—the part of the trumpet where sound comes out—is “a burst of wild desire.” Christ’s song is full of passionate intensity. This smoky, smoldering, bursting quality is reflected in the playing of piano, double bass, and percussion throughout, and by the trumpet and sax that come in after the final verse. (Note: The live performance above has no trumpet or saxophone.) Appropriately for Advent, the song does not end on the tonic, the home chord, but rather remains unresolved, playing out the tension that we presently live in, between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the space between his first and second comings.

Major props to Rob and Amy Seiffert of Madhouse for the album’s brilliant cover illustration, by the way, which converts the flaring horn of a vintage record player into an open white lily. The result is a hybrid image of “power” and “grace,” which is how Christ comes to us. His gospel packs a punch, blaring into our lives, but it’s also full of delicate beauty. The choice of a lily to allude to the “trumpet child’s” advent has precedent in countless traditional paintings of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel holds such a flower out to Mary just before Jesus is conceived in her womb.

The Trumpet Child album cover

“The Trumpet Child” references legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo”) and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, as well as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy of Isaiah 11, where predation is no more, and the end-time Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Jesus’s final aim, Bergquist sings, is to fill the earth with joy. Joy to the world.

So lastly, that joy: Christy Nockels. Her hand-clapping, foot-stomping “Dance at Migdal Eder,” played on the Irish fiddle, never ceases to get me excited for Christmas! Although it uses the present progressive tense, not the future, I have it on my Advent list because it creates for me a sense of Love’s call revving up, coming closer, beckoning me to dance. And it amplifies my yearning for “home.” It’s from Nockels’s 2016 album The Thrill of Hope, and indeed, it captures that thrill.

Can you hear it calling
Mercy is falling down
Heaven rejoices
This Christmas
Love is calling
Love is calling you home

I had to look up the name in the title: Migdal Eder (literally “tower of the flock”) is an ancient geographic locale on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where shepherds tended their sheep. So Nockels likely had in mind the rejoicing of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–20) when she wrote this song.

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So there you go. I offer this lovingly crafted Advent playlist, with many thanks to all the contributing artists, as an invitation to slow down and reconnect with the amazing, ongoing salvation narrative that God’s authoring. Christ has come, Christ will come again. And in the Spirit, he is with us now, Emmanuel. Let’s reorient our desires and expectations toward him.

If 170-plus songs is too overwhelming a list for you to work through, use this abridged Advent playlist instead, which contains just an hour’s worth of highlights:

As you prepare room for Christ Jesus this season, may you come to experience more deeply and intimately all the hope, peace, joy, and love that are yours in him.

(Update, 1/6/20: Thank you for all the positive feedback! I’ve just added another batch of songs to the list, some of them at the end, others integrated higher up to maintain the narrative. New additions include “Will There Really Be a Morning” by Julie Lee, “Let There Be” by Gungor, “Advent Moon” by Cecilia McDowall, some selections from Drew Miller’s and Nathan Partain’s new Advent albums, some more Poor Bishop Hooper, Katy Wehr, Nina Simone, and the title track of the Duke of Norfolk album Attendre et Espérer, whose text comes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas:

Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: “Wait and hope.”)

Advent Playlist (ArtandTheology.org)

Playlist cover art: Jan Mankes (Dutch, 1889–1920), View from a Studio in Eerbeek (detail), 1917

God Who Saves (Artful Devotion)

Bearden, Romare_New Orleans, Ragging Home
Romare Bearden (American, 1912–1988), New Orleans: Ragging Home (from the Of the Blues series), 1974. Collage of plain, painted, and printed papers, with acrylic, lacquer, graphite, and marker, mounted on Masonite panel, 36 1/8 × 48 in. (91.8 × 121.9 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the LORD,
call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

—Isaiah 12:1–6

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SONG: “Surely, It Is God Who Saves” | Text: Adapted from Canticle 9, “The First Song of Isaiah,” in the Book of Common Prayer (based on Isaiah 12:2–6) | Music by Uptown Worship Band, performed on Songs from Earth, Our Island Home (2014)

For another Artful Devotion featuring the Uptown Worship Band, see “Exalted Trinity.”


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 Proper 28, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: “Say Yes!” Advent video, “Neighbor Songs,” poetry prescriptions, global art history, and more

ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).

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NEW ALBUM: Neighbor Songs by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project: Released October 25, an album themed on loving our neighbors across lines of difference. Contributing artists include Urban Doxology, Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Paul Zach, Casey J, Leslie Jordan, Zach Bolen (of Citizens), Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans (of Lowland Hum), and others. Below is a promo video, followed by two songs from the album, “Blessed Are the Merciful” and “The Earth Shall Know.”

“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”

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ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.

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POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,” The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”

I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.

One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,

Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.

For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.

I got a kick out of the poem Kay prescribed to a “patient” who is experiencing loathing for the first time and doesn’t know what to do with it: “Grief, Not Guilt” by Jeanann Verlee. Its first three lines are

I wish you a tongue scalded by tea.
A hangover. Burnt toast. Stubbed toes. A lost job.
I wish you weeping in the shower. Salt in the sugar bowl.

For the death of a loved one, Schwartz prescribes W. S. Merwin’s “Separation,” which reads in full,

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

If you’re feeling discouraged by the onslaught of terrible news reports, try “Self-Portrait with No Flag” by Safia Elhillo, which begins,

i pledge allegiance to my
homies      to my mother’s
small & cool palms     to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth      & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands       good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,

No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.

If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!

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TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.

As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:

From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.

So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from modern-day Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.

In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.

Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.

I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.

The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.

Born a Child and Yet a King (Artful Devotion)

The Infant Savior by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, ca. 1431–1506), The Infant Savior, ca. 1460. Tempera on canvas, 70.2 × 34.3 cm (27 5/8 × 13 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

—Micah 5:2–5

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SONG: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Joy to the World,” adapted and arranged by Folk Angel, on Live at Green Lux: Christmas Songs, vol. 6, 2014 | Words by Charles Wesley, 1744, with refrain and bridge by Isaac Watts, 1719 | Music by Rowland Hugh Prichard, 1830, and Folk Angel

The backbone of this Folk Angel song is the Advent classic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” but into this the band has integrated lines from “Joy to the World,” traditionally sung at Christmastime. While the verses plead, “Come!,” the chorus declares, “He has come,” holding together the cries of both seasons. He whom the nations desire is here, “born to reign in us forever.” May earth receive him.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.

The verse melody is, of course, that well-loved Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard. The chorus and bridge, however, employ an original tune by Folk Angel, resetting key excerpts from Isaac Watts’s carol that emphasize the kingly nature of the infant Christ. This crescendos into a triumphant repeat of the song’s first two lines, and a grateful acknowledgment of God’s fulfilled purposes: a people set free from their fears and sins, granted eternal rest under the loving rule of Christ. Even so, Lord, thy kingdom come.

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The Infant Savior by the great Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna brings me such delight—that little rosy, chubby-cheeked baby blessing me, blessing the world, this Christmas. You might call the painting a Christ Pantocrator, but it doesn’t fit the standard iconography, because instead of a half-length adult it shows a full-length child of about one year. Still, this is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”: he wears a velvet robe with a golden clasp and lining, but underneath, his humble swaddling cloths are revealed, and he’s barefoot. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, and in his left hand he holds, instead of a book (as is traditional in Pantocrator images), a cross-shaped scepter. A cross shape also comprises his “crown”—the three streams of light emitted from his bald little head.

Mantegna’s painting suggests that Christ’s kingship was established at his birth, and that it would be furthered by way of the cross.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.