Roundup: Psalms and the arts, Ukrainian Easter Choir, and more

BLOG POST: “An open letter to pastors (A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day)” by Amy Young: There’s disagreement among church leaders on whether Hallmark holidays, such as Mother’s Day, should be recognized during a worship service, and if so, how. Having mothers stand (while women who are not mothers in the conventional sense remain seated) can be very othering and bring up feelings of sadness or shame. It’s also a day when people are thinking about their own mothers, which can evoke a complex range of emotions.

Amy Young believes there is a way to honor mothers in church without alienating others, as well as to acknowledge the breadth of experiences associated with mothering. She has drafted a pastoral address that I find so wise and compassionate. Some women are estranged from their children. Some have experienced miscarriage or abortion. Some have had failed adoptions, or failed IVF treatments. Some gave up a child for adoption. Some have been surrogate mothers. Some are foster mothers, or are the primary guardian of a relative’s child. Some are spiritual moms. Some women want to be mothers but have no partner or have had trouble conceiving. Some were abused by their mothers. Some have lost mothers. Some never met their mother. Young puts her arms around all these people who are potentially in the pews on Mother’s Day, making room for the complexity of the day—which does include celebration!

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VIDEO: “United with Beauty: The Psalms, the Arts, and the Human Experience” by Mallory Johnson: Mallory Johnson graduated last weekend with a bachelor’s in music and worship (concentration: voice) from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. (In the fall she will be starting an MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School.) All the seniors in the Samford School of the Arts are required to complete a capstone project tailored to their individual interests and career goals. As Johnson’s interests center on theology, history, and the arts, she created a twenty-minute video rooted in the Psalms that integrates music, poetry, short excerpts of fiction, visual art, and quotes from van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Goethe, Luther, and others, resulting in a contemplative multimedia experience.

I resonate so much with Johnson’s approach of bringing together works from different artistic disciplines to interpret one another and to invite the viewer into worship. Her curation is stellar! To cite just one example, the contemporary choral work Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds plays as we see, among other images, an Aboriginal dot painting of the constellations Orion and Canis and a nighttime landscape by realist painter Józef Chełmoński. Another: John Adams’s double piano composition “Hallelujah Junction” is brought into conversation with Psalm 150 and a painting by Jewish artist Richard Bee of David dancing before the ark.

Józef Chełmoński (Polish, 1849–1914), Starry Night, 1888. Oil on canvas, 22 13/16 × 28 3/4 in. (58 × 73 cm). National Museum in Kraków, Poland.

The video opens with the theme of awe and wonder—expanses of sky and sea and field; the beauty and vastness of God mirrored in the natural world—and then moves to lament—of the prospering of the wicked; of exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of mental or spiritual anguish and their causes; of personal sin—and finally ends with an assurance of grace and with exultation. Johnson shows how the longings of modern people overlap with those of the biblical psalmists. Here’s her description:

In his famous work titled Confessions, St. Augustine writes this: “Yet to praise you, God, is the desire of every human.” Is this true? What does this look like?

During my time at Samford, I have felt my heart and mind overflow with love for the arts. As a Christian, they have played a devotional role in my life. I find such joy in seeing connections between music, art, and literature that may seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that all humans have a longing for the goodness of God and we find “echoes” of Him everywhere, and most beautifully in artistic expression.

I wanted to show others how I understand the world as a Christian artist. This project is a journey through the Psalms, using art to reinforce the idea that the Psalms capture the full universal human experience. Across time and space, we have all felt the same things and we have all had the same deep longing for “something higher.”

I hope you can allow this project to wash over you. Make time to watch it alone or with someone you love, distraction-free. Turn the lights out, light a candle, watch it on a big screen with the volume up loud. Be cozy under a blanket with a cup of coffee, or grab a journal and write down anything that sticks out to you! It is my earnest desire that you will be moved by the artistic expression of humanity, and that you may realize that God has always been the goodness you most deeply desire.

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SONGS:

>> “Broken Healers” by Elise Massa: Singer-songwriter Elise Massa is the assistant director of music and worship arts at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. A meditation on Christ as Wounded Healer, this song from her 2014 album of demos, We Are All Rough Drafts, was inspired by an Eastertide sermon.

Here’s the final stanza (the full lyrics are at the Bandcamp link):

Broken healers are we all
In a living world, decayed
With broken speech we stutter, “Glory”
As broken fingers mend what’s frayed
Holy Spirit, come, anoint us
As you anointed Christ the King
Who wore the crown of the oppressed
Who bears the scars of suffering

>> “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith, performed by the Ukrainian Easter Choir: This is one of the few CCM songs I listened to as a young teen (Third Day’s version from a WOW CD!) that I’m still really fond of. In this video that premiered April 17, an eighty-person choir conducted by Sergiy Yakobchuk was assembled from multiple churches in Ukraine to perform for an Easter service in Lviv organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei” is one of three songs they sang, in both English and Ukrainian. The name of the soloist is not given. Many of the vocalists in the choir have been displaced from their homes by the current war with Russia. One of them says, “With the war, celebrating the Resurrection means for us now life above death, good above evil.”

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PRAYER EXERCISE: “Visio Divina: A 20-Minute Guided Prayer Reflection for the Crisis in Ukraine”: Visio divina, Latin for “divine seeing,” is a spiritual practice of engaging prayerfully with an image, usually an artwork—allowing the visual to invite you into communion with God. On March 17 Vivianne David led a virtual visio divina exercise with Natalya Rusetska’s Crucifixion, hosted by Renovaré. I caught up with the video afterward and found it a very meaningful experience. As the painting is by a Ukrainian artist and represents Christ’s passion, the war in Ukraine is a natural connection point.

I appreciate David’s wise guidance, which includes these reminders:

  • Stay with the image, regardless of whether or not you ​“feel” something happening right away. There is something beautiful about faithfully waiting with that space, having dedicated it to God as a time of prayer.
  • Notice what draws your attention, what invites you into the image—let that become a space for conversation with Christ.
  • Notice what sort of emotions arise as you stay with the image. How does it awaken desire? Let these emotions lead you back to continued dialogue with God.

This kind of quiet, focused looking with an openness to encounter is something I encourage on the blog. Any of David’s three tips above I would also suggest for any art image I post—a corrective to hasty scrolling habits. Stick around for the last four minutes of the video to see dozens and dozens of impressions from participants, which may reveal new aspects of the painting to you.

Easter, Day 3

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

—Romans 6:8–10

LOOK: Egg mosaics by Oksana Mas

Mas, Oksana_Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance
Oksana Mas (Ukrainian, 1969–), Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance, 2011. Hand-painted wooden eggs, installed in the Chiesa di San Fantin, Ukrainian Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale, 2011.

Mas, Oksana_Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance
Mas, Oksana_Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance (detail)

Hand-painted wooden eggs are the primary material used by Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas in the past decade. She arranges them into colorful spheres or hemispheres or into monumental images, as she did for her Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance installation at the 54th Venice Biennale. This piece portrays segments of the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece [previously], whose two central scenes are (1) Christ (or God the Father, as some art historians argue) enthroned, and (2) the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, based on John’s vision in the book of Revelation.

The Biennale installation—inside the church of San Fantin—was only a portion of the full piece, which is a massive 92 by 134 meters in total, comprising 3,640,000 eggs. It featured panels of the enthroned deity, the slain but risen Lamb, and details of Adam and Eve.

Mas is inspired by the Ukrainian folk custom of Easter egg decoration called pysanky. Traditionally, pysansky are raw eggs that are dyed using a wax-resist method, the designs inscribed in beeswax. But for her art, Mas starts with wooden eggs, and color is applied with a paintbrush. For Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance, she distributed plain wooden eggs to people from all walks of life and across forty-two countries, asking them to paint them and return them to her. Having received hundreds of thousands of painted egg contributions, she assembled them like tesserae, affixing them to boards that are then placed into an architectural framework so that, when viewed from a distance, they form recognizable figures from the Ghent Altarpiece. When you get up close, you can see the diverse patterns and other designs painted onto the individual eggs.

View more photos at My Modern Met.

In May 2012, a different iteration of this piece was installed in Sofiyivska Square in Kyiv, which Mas called the Altarpiece of Nations.

Mas, Oksana_Altarpiece of Nations (Kyiv)
Oksana Mas, Altarpiece of Nations, Kyiv, 2012. Crowned in a papal tiara, Christ is flanked by his mother Mary and John the Baptist, a traditional composition known as the Deesis.

As a traditional symbol of new life or resurrection, eggs are often associated with Easter, and one could easily read Mas’s Ghent-inspired egg mosaics through that lens. In Venice, for example, you have Jesus in emblematic form as the sacrificial lamb, pouring out his blood at the altar, and then you have him exalted in majesty in his divine-human form, which together reference the death and resurrection narrative of the Gospels. Through that death and resurrection, we have been redeemed from the fall that’s alluded to in the wings—redeemed from sin and death, into life everlasting. It’s a very triumphal image, Mas’s. As is the liturgical artwork it’s based on, which shows all the redeemed in the new heavens and the new earth, gathered round “the Lamb at the center of the throne . . . [who] guide[s] them to springs of the water of life” (Rev. 7:17).

(Related post: “Egg Sketches by Autumn Brown”)

LISTEN: “Christus Resurgens,” Ireland, 12th century | Arr. Michael McGlynn, 2000 | Performed by Anúna on Cynara, 2000; compiled on The Best of Anúna, 2010

Christus resurgens ex mortuis, jam non moritur
Mors illi ultra non dominabitur
Quod enim vivit, vivit Deo

Alleluia (×4)

English translation:

Christ has arisen from the dead, and dies no more
Death will no longer have dominion over him
In that he lives, he lives unto God

Alleluia (×4)

“Christus resurgens” is an Easter chant in Latin that originated in medieval Ireland, its text taken from Romans 6:9–10. It is arranged here by Michael McGlynn and performed by the Irish vocal ensemble Anúna, which he founded in 1987. Much of Anúna’s repertoire comes from McGlynn’s arrangements, resettings, and reconstructions of early and medieval Irish music, as well as his original compositions.

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Mas, Oksana_Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance
Photo: Steven Varni

Easter, Day 2

LOOK: Adoration of the Lamb from the Escorial Beatus

Adoration of the Lamb (Escorial Beatus)
Adoration of the Lamb, from the Escorial Beatus, Spain, 10th century

This folio is from an illustrated copy of Beatus of Liébana’s (d. ca. 800) hugely influential Commentary on the Apocalypse. The Beatus manuscripts (take a look on Pinterest for some real wacky, Revelation-based imagery) are one of the most significant book genres of the Middle Ages in northern Spain, and the Escorial Beatus (named after its current location) is a preeminent example. It probably originated in the famous scriptorium of San Millán de la Cogolla in La Rioja, Spain. Today it is kept in the Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de El Escorial, part of a royal complex situated at the foot of Mount Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama.

[Related posts: “Worthy Is the Lamb (Artful Devotion)”; “Lamb for Sinners Slain (Artful Devotion)”]

LISTEN: “Glory Hallelujah to the Risen Lamb” by Victor C. Johnson, 2009 | Performed by De Angelis Cappella, 2019

Glory, glory, glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb! (×4)

Jesus hung on the cruel tree
(Glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb!)
He gave his life for the likes of me
(Glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb!)
Women came at the break of day
(Glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb!)
The angel rolled the stone away
(Glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb!)

Glory, glory, glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb! (×4)

Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory to the risen Lamb
Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory to the risen Lamb
Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory to the risen Lamb
Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory to the risen Lamb
Glory, glory hallelujah
Glory to the risen Lamb

Glory, glory, glory hallelujah to the risen Lamb! (×4)

Victor C. Johnson is a composer, arranger, conductor, and music educator from Dallas, as well as the minister of worship and arts at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. The Cameroonian Catholic choir De Angelis Cappella performed this Easter spiritual of his at Mvolyé Spiritual Centre in Yaoundé in October 2019; watch the full concert here. You can also purchase a score and can follow along with that score in this recording by the Lorenz Corporation.

For another similar Easter spiritual by Johnson, see “Shout Hallelujah to the Risen Lamb.”

Lent, Day 26

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

—John 1:29

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.

—1 Corinthians 5:7

You were ransomed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

—1 Peter 1:18–19

LOOK: Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán

Zurbaran, Francisco de_Agnus Dei
Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Agnus Dei, 1635–40. Oil on canvas, 37.3 × 62 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

LISTEN: “Agnus Dei” by Samuel Barber, 1967 | Performed by Vlaams Radiokoor (Flemish Radio Choir), dir. Marcus Creed, 2015

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

English translation:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is a choral composition in one movement by Samuel Barber, his own arrangement of his Adagio for Strings (1936). In 1967, he set the Latin words of the liturgical Agnus Dei, a part of the Mass, for mixed chorus with optional organ or piano accompaniment. The music, in B-flat minor, has a duration of about eight minutes” [source]. It’s slow and expressive and sublime—one of my top ten favorite pieces of classical music.

New Easter Music

As the church continues in this fifty-day season of Eastertide to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, here are some songs I’ve come across for the occasion and really enjoyed. A few are brand-new, while others are new performances.

Good Shepherd New York, a church in Manhattan, has a phenomenal team of in-house musicians and collaborators from coast to coast. They provide music for weekly digital worship services as well as release recordings under the name Good Shepherd Collective. Check out their Easter service from April 4! The songs are listed below.

  • MEDLEY: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley / “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver (1:35)
  • “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles (3:50)
  • “Morning Has Broken” by Eleanor Farjeon (6:59)
  • “Easter Dawn” by David Gungor (11:31)
  • “Because He Lives” by Bill Gaither (15:27)
  • “Waymaker” by Donald Vails (20:45)

The GSC has posted “Here Comes the Sun” as a standalone video on Instagram. It features Brennan Smiley on lead vocals and acoustic guitar; Liz Vice on harmonizing vocals; Charles Jones on Hammond organ; John Arndt on piano; Jesse Chandler on flute, clarinet, and saxophone; Joseph M on electric guitar; Tyler Chester on bass guitar; and McKenzie Smith on drums. The art and stop-motion animation are by Boston-based artist Soyoung L Kim.

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“Hallelujah” (Chorus) from the Messiah by George Frideric Handel, 1742 | Performed by the Orquesta Barroca Catalana (Catalan Baroque Orchestra), the Barcelona Ars Nova choir, and 352 other singers, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Last year the Fundación la Caixa in Barcelona launched project #YoCanto Aleluya, soliciting professional and amateur singers alike throughout Spain and Portugal to be part of a “virtual choir,” a phenomenon that has exploded since the pandemic has made live musical concerts a health risk. Participants were asked to submit a video of themselves singing Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus. Igor Cortadellas of Igor Studio then developed a concept for digitally merging all 352 submissions by projecting them on the interior architecture of Barcelona’s Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (or overlaying them in postproduction?), and he directed a small team to execute this vision. What a feat! The final video was released a few months ago at Christmastime.

“Hallelujah” concludes part 2 of 3 of the oratorio, which covers Christ’s passion and death, resurrection, ascension, and the first spreading of the gospel. The words of the chorus are taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16. For another blog post featuring an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, see the Artful Devotion “Worthy Is the Lamb.”

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“Easter Dawn” | Words by Malcolm Guite, 2012 | Music by Zebulon M. Highben, 2021: A conductor, composer, and scholar of sacred music, Dr. Zebulon M. Highben serves as director of chapel music at Duke University. This year he wrote a choral setting of Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Easter Dawn,” about Mary Magdalene’s encountering the risen Christ on Easter morning. Sung by the Duke Chapel Choir, it premiered last Sunday as part of the chapel’s Easter service and will be part of the online spring concert “Faith & Hope & Love Abide: Meditations on Resurrection,” which goes live tomorrow (April 11) at 4 p.m. EDT (view the program).

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“Keep the Feast (Pascha Nostrum)” by Ryan Flanigan: For this new song, Ryan Flanigan of Liturgical Folk adapted the words of the Pascha Nostrum (“Our Passover”), a traditional Christian hymn for Eastertide that, after the Reformation, was preserved in English in the Book of Common Prayer. It is based on 1 Corinthians 5:7–8, Romans 6:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20–22. Flanigan wrote a fun new melody for it, which he demos here.

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“Zinda Yeshua (Jesus Is Alive)” by Blesson Varghese and James Bovas: This Hindi-language Easter song is from Grace Ahmedabad, an Assemblies of God church in the Indian state of Gujarat. James Bovas sings lead, with Priscilla Mozhumannil on supporting vocals. See the YouTube description for a full list of credits. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“Judah’s Lion” | Words by Fulbert of Chartres, ca. 975–1028, and Rick Barnes, 2016 | Music by Rick Barnes, 2016 | Performed by Covenant Presbyterian Virtual Choir and Orchestra, Birmingham, Alabama, 2021

Lamb for Sinners Slain (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece)
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1426–32. Oil on panel, 54 1/5 × 95 3/10 in. (137.7 × 242.3 cm). Lower central interior panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

. . . you were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

—1 Peter 1:18–22

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SONG: “I Will Praise Him” by Margaret J. Harris, 1898 | Arranged and performed by The Isaacs, on The Isaacs Naturally: An Almost A Cappella Collection, 2009

When I saw the cleansing fountain
Open wide for all my sin,
I obeyed the Spirit’s wooing,
When He said, “Wilt thou be clean?”

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.

Then God’s fire upon the altar
Of my heart was set aflame;
I shall never cease to praise Him:
Glory, glory to His Name!

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.
Glory, glory to His Name!

[Related posts: “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Artful Devotion)”; “No Other Fount (Artful Devotion)”]

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Ghent Altarpiece (open)
Ghent Altarpiece (open view) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432. Oil on twelve panels, 11 × 15 ft. (3.4 × 4.6 m). St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The monumental Ghent Altarpiece by Northern Renaissance painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck [previously] is one of the world’s finest art treasures—every student who’s taken Art History 101 knows this piece, and it has been the subject of much scholarship.

Perhaps you know it from the detail photos of the recently restored Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel that went viral in January.

Ghent Altarpiece restoration
Before restoration (left) vs. after restoration (right)

Over the past three years, conservators under the leadership of Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage removed the overpaint that was added to the van Eyck brothers’ original in the mid-sixteenth century, revealing a strikingly humanoid face on the Agnus Dei that surprised everyone. (The rest of the painting is much more naturalistic.) Social media users made fun of the cartoonish appearance of the lamb, but Hélène Dubois, head of restoration, says this lamb has a more “intense interaction with the onlookers.”

The haloed lamb who stands on an altar and bleeds into a chalice is the focal point of the entire fifteen-foot polyptych. He is, of course, a symbol of the self-sacrificial Christ. Angels surround him holding instruments of the passion, and the Latin inscription on the antependium (altar hanging) translates to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Mystic Lamb (detail)

You can zoom in on all the altarpiece panels and take a look at the restoration process (ongoing since 2010, with the upper interior panels to be tackled in 2021) at the Closer to Van Eyck website, which I’ve mentioned before—though the site appears not to have been updated in a while.

If you’d like to learn more, the Google Arts & Culture online exhibition Inside the Ghent Altarpiece is a great place to start, as is the altarpiece’s Wikipedia page. If you prefer to learn audiovisually, you might enjoy these two Smarthistory videos:


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

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

Worthy Is the Lamb (Artful Devotion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Revelation 5:11–14

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

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

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

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

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

San Vitale mosaic ceiling
Photo: Jim Forest

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

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


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

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

Book of Revelation roundup

Over the past year or so, it seems I keep running into artistic responses to the book of Revelation. There was the “Apokalipsa” icons exhibition held in Nowica, Poland, in fall 2016, to which thirty-six artists contributed (see photos, plus this Artful Devotion); then last September there was the release of the book Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia, which I mentioned in an earlier roundup. What’s more, this April, Pillar Church in Holland, Michigan, was awarded a Vital Worship Grant by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship “to enrich worship by collaboratively creating artistic liturgical resources inspired by the book of Revelation in order to promote a rich engagement with Scripture.” I’ll be interested to see what they come up with!

The Angel Locks Satan in the Abyss by Joanna Zabaglo
Joanna Zabagło (Polish), The Angel Locks Satan in the Abyss [Rev. 20:1–3], 2016. Tempera on board, 18 × 10 cm.
Now I see that the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) is calling for papers on the topic of “Waiting for the End of the World: Eschatology and Art 1850–2000,” for a symposium to be held February 11–12, 2019. Proposals due by September 4.

After 1850, religious subjects became increasingly suspect among modernist artists determined to paint only what the eye can see. Gustave Courbet’s pronouncement, “show me an angel, and I’ll paint one,” exemplified a new, more skeptical orientation. Nevertheless, historical forces and personal motivations compelled many artists, working across a spectrum of materials and visual methods, to directly employ or obliquely reference themes of the Last Judgment and the Apocalypse. Over a century that saw two world wars, economic booms and devastating depressions, the rise and fall of ideologies of left and right, the collapse of colonial empires and the chaos of failed states, the threats of nuclear annihilation and ecological degradation, artists frequently turned to eschatological imagery to visualize the experience of modern life.

The Last Judgment described in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions threatens damnation and promises redemption for both the individual and society. This symposium will explore the way that apocalyptic beliefs and imagery—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—have informed the work of avant-garde artists from all regions of the globe. We invite proposals for 20-minute papers of original research that explore questions such as, but not limited to: What different visual languages have artists used to address the idea of the end of the world? What meanings have they found in the eschatological narrative? How are cultural differences and similarities manifested in their work? To what extent is the teleological narrative of modern art a disguised, secular version of a theological narrative?

Another recent release, from December 2017, is the poetry collection What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan, “an imaginative journey through the book of Revelation” that “offers a poet’s view of the prophetic, not in the sense of seeking out clues to the ‘end times,’ but a means of taking this strange, fantastic book of scripture and letting it read its way into personal lives.” I love Runyan’s poetry (all the poets published by Paraclete are great), so this volume is near the top of my to-read list. Check out “The Angel Over Patmos” and “The Great Throne,” and see the promo video below, with an excerpt from “Vision of the Son of Man.”

Also from 2017, a collage by Nicora Gangi inspired by medieval Last Judgment triptychs. Commissioned by Spark and Echo Arts, Kiss the Son calls on us to love Christ with sincere affection, adorning his feet with kisses like the woman in Luke 7. The left panel shows a heap of humanity’s various “golden calves,” those things we worship that only lead to death. This is contrasted on the right with the New Jerusalem, where the Lion and the Lamb sit atop a cascade of glory. At the bottom of the central panel is the city of destruction, the destination of those who give Christ the betrayer’s kiss; the snake-like forms recall the Evil One who deceived Adam and Eve and plummeted humanity into alienation from God. Above, though, the Son shines brightly, inviting all the reconciled into his loving presence.

Kiss the Son by Nicora Gangi
Nicora Gangi (American, 1952–), Kiss the Son, 2017. Collage, 21 × 33 in.

Lastly, though it was released in 2013, I just recently discovered The Lamb Wins by the Lesser Light Collective, an album of thirty-plus original songs by fifteen-plus artists based on John’s Apocalypse. My favorite song is “The River and the Tree of Life.”

Oh yes, and because I just finished reading the massive Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, here’s a short, thematically relevant excerpt, from “Figures for an Apocalypse: VIII. The Heavenly City” (page 148):

Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:
You are the new creation’s sun.
And standing on their twelve foundations,
Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:
And Oh! Begin to hear the thunder of the songs within the crystal Towers,
While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like light
And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets . . .

Update: On June 28 and 29, 2018, the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CenSAMM) in the UK hosted the conference “Apocalypse in Art: The Creative Unveiling.” All the talks, given by various scholars, have been added to the organization’s media archive. They address the theme in Hans Memling, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, James Hampton, Keith Haring, Michael Takeo Magruder, David Best, Bob Dylan, and more.

Whore of Babylon by William Blake
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Whore of Babylon, 1809. Pen and watercolor over pencil, 26.6 × 22.3 cm. British Museum, London.

De/coding the Apocalypse by Michael Takeo Magruder
Michael Takeo Magruder (British, 1974–), The Horse as Technology, modular installation (in view: SLS 3D print). Part of “De/coding the Apocalypse” v1.0 solo exhibition, 2014, Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London. Photo: Jana Chiellino.

Around the Throne (Artful Devotion)

Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece (Fiesole)
Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece at Fiesole, ca. 1424, probably by Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455). Tempera and gold leaf on panels, 32 × 244 cm. National Gallery, London.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary assigns an additional set of readings, on top of Sunday’s, for the special celebration of All Saints’ Day (Hallowmas) on November 1. Among them is John’s vision of a multitude of angels and faithful departed surrounding the enthroned Christ in heaven, sounding forth his praise.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

—Revelation 7:9–12

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O quam gloriosum est regnum (“O how glorious is the kingdom”) — A cappella motet for four voices composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria, 1572 | Performed by the University of Utah Chamber Choir

O quam gloriosum est regnum
in quo cum Christo gaudent omnes sancti!
Amicti stolis albis,
sequuntur Agnum quocumque ierit.

O how glorious is the kingdom
in which all the saints rejoice with Christ!
Clad in robes of white,
they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

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Explore the individual panels from Fra Angelico’s “court of heaven” predella in greater detail on the National Gallery of London’s website, and rejoice this All Saints’ Day in the Christian witness of those who have gone before us!

The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 32 × 64 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.

Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 31.7 × 73 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.

Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico)
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 31.9 × 63.5 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.


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 All Saints’ Day, cycle A, click here.