Christmas, Day 9: Begotten ere the worlds began

LOOK: The Word Made Flesh by Julius Shumpert

Shumpert, Julius_The Word Made Flesh
Julius Shumpert (American, 1997–), The Word Made Flesh, 2017. Digital artwork.

This digital artwork by Julius Shumpert shows a silhouette of Christ Pantocrator that’s filled in with stars and planets, emphasizing his eternal preexistence. This is the cosmic Christ. With his left hand he holds a Gospel-book, and with his right he gestures blessing. His halo bears the roman letters A and O for “Alpha” and “Omega” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), as well as the Greek letter X, chi, which is the first letter in ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) and thus ancient shorthand for Jesus the Messiah.

Shumpert writes,

This icon means a lot to me. During Christmas 2016, I dove into the true meaning of Christmas. Past all of the traditional “baby Jesus” storytelling to the bare symbolism of what happened. God, who created everything, and is bigger than infinity, the expanding universe, and all that there is to be, saw us struggling along and squeezed down into the form of precious ordinary baby just to be with us. . . . This icon presents who Jesus is: simply the Word made flesh.

Follow the artist on Instagram @saintjuliusart.

LISTEN: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” | Original Latin words by Aurelius C. Prudentius, late 4th century; trans. John M. Neale, 1851, and Henry W. Baker, 1861 | Plainchant melody, 13th century | Arranged and performed by Sam P. Bush and Kathryn Caine on A Very Love and Mercy Christmas by Christ Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2014

I’ve provided the full nine stanzas from the 1861 English version of the hymn by Henry Baker. Christ Episcopal Church sings his stanzas 1, 2, 5, and 9 (in boldface)—wise to omit 7 and 8, as these translations are icky (Roby Furley Davis’s are better), but I quite like the others!

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega;
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

At His word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heav’n and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children,
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven, adore Him,
Angel hosts, His praises sing,
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore!

This is He whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive,
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore!

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Lat. Corde natus ex parentis) is one of the oldest Christmas hymns, and it has gone through many translations, additions, revisions, fusions, arrangements, and abridgements to reach the form that’s in our hymnals today.

Its source is a thirty-eight-stanza Latin poem by Prudentius titled “Hymnus Omnis Horae” (Hymn for All Hours), published around 405 CE in his Liber Cathemerinon (Book of Daily Hymns) but written earlier. The poem traces Christ’s ministry from birth to death to resurrection and ascension, with a heavy focus on his miracles. It’s a remarkable poem, and worthy of study, especially as an example of early Christian theology. You can read the original Latin, presented beside a fine English translation by Roby Furley Davis from 1905, here.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (ca. 348–ca. 413) was a Roman Christian poet born in what is today northern Spain. After spending decades in law and government, he retired from public life to dedicate himself fully to God’s service, mainly through writing. He was the most significant hymn-writer of the early church.

Prudentius continued to be highly read throughout the Middle Ages, and “Hymnus Omnis Horae” circulated throughout Europe in multiple manuscripts. An eleventh-century manuscript added the refrain “saeculorum saeculi” (evermore and evermore) and a doxology, the Trinitarian final stanza.

The abbreviated form of the hymn (“Corde natus ex parentis,” etc.) entered English hymnody through the six-stanza translation by John Mason Neale, first published in the 1851 edition of Hymnal Noted; Neale renders the first line “Of the Father sole begotten.” Music editor Thomas Helmore presented Neale’s text with the thirteenth-century plainchant melody DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, which he sourced from the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones. The pairing has since proven inseparable. Here’s Helmore’s arrangement from the 1852 edition of Hymnal Noted:

An extensive revision of Neale’s translation by Henry W. Baker, which includes three additional, newly translated stanzas, was published in the best-selling Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 under the title “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” This is the version reproduced above, and that has had the most staying power.

The hymn is a praise-filled meditation on how Christ, the second person of the Godhead, who is before all things, entered human time in the person of Jesus. It’s a fairly difficult hymn to sing congregationally—the meter is a bear—but here’s a modern arrangement that I think works well: https://gracemusic.us/sheet_music/of-the-fathers-love-begotten/.

For more about the history, content, meter, transmission, and significance of “Hymnus Omnis Horae,” see the scholarly article by Chris Fenner from the Hymnology Archive: https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/hymnus-omnis-horae.

Advent, Day 17: When Morning Dawns

LOOK: Alpha and Omega by Larain Briggs

Briggs, Larain_Alpha and Omega
Larain Briggs (British, 1960–), Alpha and Omega, 2019. Oil over acrylic underpainting on stretched canvas, 100 × 100 cm.

“Behold, I am coming soon. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

—Revelation 22:12–13

This apocalyptic landscape painting by British artist Larain Briggs was on display at London’s gallery@oxo as part of the 2021 Chaiya Art Awards exhibition “God Is . . .” Briggs says it’s meant to evoke the book of Revelation.

“Although I perceived the painting to be a vision of the end, it is full of light and hope. The end can equally be viewed as a beginning,” she says. In the center of the composition a faint circular form rests on a heavily textured, curved platform of cloud and smoke (“Behold, he is coming with the clouds . . .” [Rev. 1:7]). At this focal point, turbulence resolves into tranquility and darkness gives way to light. This is the earth being transfigured by the arrival of her King.

The body of water at the bottom may be a reference to the “sea of glass mingled with fire” in Revelation 15:2.

LISTEN: “The King Shall Come” | Words by John Brownlie, based on miscellaneous Greek sources, 1907 | Music: American folk tune from Kentucky Harmony, 1816; arr. Minna Choi, 2020 | Performed by Tiffany Austin, 2020

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

O brighter than the rising morn,
When He victorious rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes;—

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our King, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And earth’s dark night is past;—
O haste the rising of that morn,
That day that aye shall last.

And let the endless bliss begin,
By weary saints foretold,
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings;—
Hail! Christ the Lord; Thy people pray
Come quickly, King of kings.

“The King Shall Come” expresses hopeful longing for the return of Christ, which will bring about a new and lasting morn and the final passing of “earth’s dark night.” Stanza 2 contrasts Jesus’s first coming in suffering and struggle and sacrifice, his glory mostly veiled, with his second, when his glory will be unmistakable, his rule uncontested. The victory of that day, the hymnist writes, will be even more exhilarating than that of Christ’s resurrection, because it is total.

This hymn was written in the early twentieth century by the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Brownlie (1859–1925), who cites inspiration from the hymns of the Greek Orthodox Church. It was originally published in 1907 in Hymns from the East. In the introduction Brownlie writes, “The hymns are less translations or renderings, and more centos and suggestions. . . . The Greek has been used as a basis, a theme, a motive.” He differentiates this approach from that used in his previous volumes, which contain “truthfully rendered translations from the originals.”

Though the hymn is often attributed to an anonymous ancient Greek writer, most scholars consider it an original text by Brownlie that reflects his wide knowledge of Greek hymnody, as no Greek original has ever been found. It’s possible that the lines are a composite and expansion of fragments found in the Greek, but really, it’s a pastiche that nods to the centrality of light in Orthodox theology. 

This wistful arrangement by City Church San Francisco worship arts assistant Minna Choi is performed by guest artist Tiffany Austin, a Bay Area jazz vocalist. The other musicians are Adam Shulman on piano, Jeff Marrs on drums, Jason Muscat on bass, and Wil Blades on organ. Their version omits stanzas 5–6, as do several hymnals.

For more Advent songs from City Church, see “Come, Oh Redeemer, Come,” “Come Light Our Hearts,” “I Wait,” and (from the kids in the congregation!) “O Come, Messiah, Come.” For Christmas music, see the church’s past Lessons and Carols services on YouTube; last year I did a write-up on the one from 2020.

Icons roundup

As a caveat, I am a Protestant, and while I do have a profound respect and appreciation for icons, my theology of images, including my definition of sacred art, is not the same as the Orthodox Church’s—even though elements of it are influenced by the Orthodox position. All the same, I believe it’s important for Christians of all denominations to understand the significance of icons and what differentiates them from noniconic religious images. Those lines are being blurred a bit by the new schools of iconography coming out of western Ukraine and Poland, which honor tradition even as they push it forward into the contemporary era. Here are a few icon-related videos, articles, and weblinks that I’ve gathered over the past several months.

LECTURES:

>> “The Meaning of Icons” by Fr. Maximos Constas, November 13, 2019, Notre Dame Seminary: Father Maximos Constas, professor of patristics and Orthodox spirituality at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, explains the significance of icons in the Orthodox Church, with special attention to their aesthetic features and theological meaning, which is informed by the church’s Christology and cosmology. He answers such questions as, Why do the figures in icons look bored and unnatural? And, Doesn’t the Second Commandment forbid representations of Christ? He does not address icon veneration or details of the making process.

Constas spends the first fifteen minutes juxtaposing Eastern and Western approaches to religious images, discussing how the Renaissance values of humanism and naturalism came to prevail in the West. The Orthodox, he says, see this as the “secularization” or “carnalization” of sacred art—in its commitment to depicting observable realities, Western art from the Renaissance onward typically lacks overt signs of transcendence.

Constas also discusses the dogmatization of sacred images in the East. Icons are never simply works of art or pedagogical tools, he says. “They were understood to be visual artistic expressions of the church’s theology. And in the same way that church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which the doctrines were embodied.”

Here are some notes I took on the talk, including some transcriptions:

  • An icon can be a panel painting, a fresco, a mosaic, a relief carving, an enameled plaque, a manuscript illumination, etc. “What ultimately defines an icon has nothing to do with artistic medium or style but rather depends on how the image is used and, most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such an encounter because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose likeness it bears.”
  • An icon is not a work of art but a work of witness that makes use of art.
  • “Icons are not simply portraits but manifestations of human persons in their new heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.”
  • “The icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face. It orients me toward my destiny in God. And this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.”
  • We not only can but must make images of Christ; “to deny the icon is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.”
  • “All created things are intrinsically good, and all, therefore, have spirit-bearing potentialities. And to this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the icon bears joyful witness. In the icon, we see matter restored to harmony and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As spirit-bearing matter, the icon has what we would call eschatological significance—it anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the last day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption, to quote St. Paul, and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
  • Icons as:
    • windows, doors, thresholds into heaven (spiritual places of passage)
    • mirrors, a reflection of their living source
    • tracks or traces
  • 32:40: Portrayal of figures in icons
    • Alteration of the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, including the features of the face (eyes and ears enlarged; nose elongated; mouth small and closed)
    • Full frontality—wholeness, completion, perfection; makes the icon dialogical and relational
    • Serene, controlled facial expression
  • No shadows cast; illumined from within

>> “Rajaton hengellinen kuva: Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat” (Boundless Spiritual Image: Images of Suffering and Resurrection) by Ari Luomajoki, March 26, 2021, Kuopio Cathedral, Kuopio, Finland: I don’t speak Finnish, but I share this seventy-minute video for the visuals (and of course for any Finnish speakers!) and to show how contemporary icons are spreading west. In August 2016 under the leadership of Pastor Ari Luomajoki, the Lutheran Monastic Community of Enonkoski in Ihamaniemi, Finland, organized its first international icon workshop (read more here, and follow @LutheranIcon on Facebook), which attracted iconographers from Poland and Ukraine, as well as a few domestic artists. It was reprised in 2017 (I mentioned this second workshop here). Icons that came out of these workshops have been exhibited several times in Finland, and have facilitated relationships that have led to new exhibitions—such as Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat (Images of Suffering and Resurrection) at Kuopio Cathedral, which ran March 26–April 11, 2021. Follow the boldface link to see a taping of the opening, which includes opening comments, a tour, and a lecture.  

Movchan, Danylo_Descent from the Cross
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Descent from the Cross, 2021. Watercolor on paper, 33 × 38 cm.

Mindewicz, Basia_Entombment of Christ
Basia Mindewicz (Polish, 1978–), Lamentation, 2016. Acrylic on wood, 26 × 20 cm.

In the first sixteen minutes of the video, Pastor Olli Viitaniemi, one of the main organizers of the exhibition (with Pastor Salla Tyrväinen), shows screen captures from the website he built connected to the exhibition, https://sielunkuvat.net/. At around 16:24 he gives a tour of the exhibition around the church sanctuary.

At 32:48 Luomajoki—who is a Lutheran pastor in Kouvola, Finland, and has a master’s degree in art history—starts his half-hour lecture. He introduces Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica) in Poland and Lviv National Academy of Arts and the Iconart gallery in Ukraine, two centers of contemporary Eastern iconography that inspired the icons project at the Enonkoski monastery in Finland. At 47:41 Luomajoki does side-by-side image comparisons to show similarities and differences across time. At 50:41 he discusses the use of images in early Lutheranism. He goes on to show some examples of religious art in Finland in the past century (including a really compelling Crucifixion painting by Helene Schjerfbeck and crucifix by Paavo Halonen!). He closes by spotlighting Hidden Life in Nazareth by Ivanka Demchuk and a Nativity by Arsen Bereza, participants in the workshop.

Luomajoki is a wonderful photographer of art. Follow him on Instagram @ari.luomajoki.

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INTERVIEW with contemporary iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, by Kevin Antlitz: OK, Patheos blog posts are painful to read because of all the obtrusive ads, which is why I rarely link to them. But I’m making an exception for this one, where American Anglican pastor Kevin Antlitz interviews Ukrainian Greek Catholic iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, who earned a master’s degree in sacral art in 2020. She discusses her process of painting icons, what makes an icon an icon, timelessness and transfiguration, the relationship between tradition and innovation, the idea of divine light as reflected in two of her icons, and more. I really love her work and was delighted to hear some of her own words about it.

Kvyk, Krystyna_I Am the Light of the World
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), I Am the Light of the World, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, diameter 35 cm.

Kvyk, Khrystyna_Pentecost
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), Pentecost, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, 45 × 45 cm.

This is the final installment of a three-part series by Antlitz. Part 1 answers, What Are Icons?, and part 2 is about “Praying Through Icons.”

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NEW CHURCH COMMISSION: Wall paintings at Iglesia de San Nicolás by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza: Ukrainian artists Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza—a married couple!—have completed a monumental painting on the east wall of the Catholic church of Saint Nicholas in Granada. It was deeply influenced by Byzantine iconography, in which they’ve both been trained, but also contains some modern abstract and geometric elements.

The church building is from the sixteenth century and recently underwent extensive renovations, finally reopening to the public in April, which is when Demchuk and Bereza’s mural was unveiled. It portrays the Anastasis, the Eastern Orthodox image of Christ’s resurrection, which shows him breaking down the doors of hell to release its captives. In the video (which is in Ukrainian with Spanish subtitles), Demchuk describes how they painted two mandorlas behind him: the almond-shaped one symbolizing his divine light, and a round one symbolizing the cosmos.

Appearing alongside this focal point is a portrait of the church’s namesake, Saint Nicholas, with eight scenes from his life—including my favorite, where he tosses three bags of gold through the window of an impoverished family’s home. (The legend of Santa Claus—Claus being a shortened form of “Nicholas”—evolved from this story of anonymous gift giving.)

Demchuk, Ivanka_Anastasis (in situ)
Iglesia de San Nicolás, Granada, Spain, 2022, with east end mural by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza

Demchuk, Ivanka_Resurrection
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Resurrection, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

Demchuk, Ivanka_St. Nicholas with Scenes from His Life
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Saint Nicholas with Scenes from His Life, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

See more photos of the project on Demchuk’s Facebook page.

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BLOG POST: “The Meaning of Melchizedek in Icons” by David Coomler: Though he’s not religious, David Coomler is an expert on Christian icons and often consults on them. On his blog he unpacks the iconography of standard types but also more unusual ones, like You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek, inspired by Hebrews 7. This rare type is meant to show that Jesus is both the offering and the offerer. The variation pictured below shows, I think, three representations of Christ: as crucified seraph (still quite puzzling to me, but Coomler points out that the Greek of Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Messenger of Great Counsel”), Holy Wisdom (aka Sophia), and high priest—hence the man in bishops’ garb in the back. Wild!

Icon with Jesus High Priest

Alpha and Omega (Artful Devotion)

Christ in Glory by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Christ in Glory, 2015. Mixed media on wood, 15 3/4 × 11 1/2 in. Collection of John A. Kohan. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

—Revelation 22:13

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SONG: “Alpha and Omega” by Erasmus Mutanbira, 2005 | Performed by Spirit & Truth, 2012

(Note: An earlier version of this post misattributed the song to Israel Houghton. Houghton popularized the song on his Alive in South Africa album, but the words and music are by Erasmus Mutanbira from Zimbabwe.)


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 Seventh Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.