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 glimmering 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.