Roundup: Sacred poetry, “Shifting the Gaze,” the Birchwood Painters, new films, and more

TGC ARTICLE: “18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.

Caravaggio_Incredulity of Thomas
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601–2. Oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm (42 × 57 in.). Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.

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POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,

Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.

Drink rain, hatless, laughing.

Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.

[Read more]

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ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Urwin, Mark_Annunciation (after Martini)
Mark Urwin (British), Annunciation (after Martini and Memmi), 2013. Painting on canvas, 30 × 25 cm.
Urwin, Mark_Last Supper (after Leonardo)
Mark Urwin (British), Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013. Painting on canvas, 25 × 75 cm.

Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Exhibition to Examine Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance European Art”: “Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? . . .

“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”

Balthazar detail
Detail of The Adoration of the Magi from a French Book of Hours (Ms. 48, fol. 59) showing the magus Balthazar (right), ca. 1480–90, by Georges Trubert. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.

(Further reading: “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes)

I appreciate the Getty’s efforts to be more inclusive in the visual histories they highlight and to solicit input from the general public to assist them in this task. They did the same for their 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.

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TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.

Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscape by the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.

* “Were Those Black ‘Servants’ in Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?”

Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue
James Earle Fraser (American, 1876–1953), Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, 1939. Bronze, 300 × 218 × 450 cm (10 × 7 1/6 × 14 3/4 ft.). Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kaphar, Titus_Shifting the Gaze
Titus Kaphar (American, 1976–), Shifting the Gaze, 2017. Oil on canvas, 210.8 × 262.3 cm (83 × 103 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the eponymous writer of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.

Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”

It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).

Rejoice Greatly, Daughter! (Artful Devotion)

The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. Churches and families all over the world will be lighting the joy candle of their Advent wreath—traditionally rose-pink instead of purple like the other three—and worshipping with gusto in anticipation of the great joy to come at Christmas.

Eclat by Gill Sakakini
Gill Sakakini (British), Éclat, 2015. Acrylic on board, 120 × 90 cm.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.

—Zephaniah 3:14–20

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SONG: “Rejoice” | Adapted from the soprano air “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Handel’s Messiah | Performed by the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia, feat. Jenn Noth, Felicity Claire, Gerard Salvador, and Albert Guerzon, on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 15 (2013)

[Listen on Spotify] [Listen on YouTube]

(I was unable to find the name of the adapter/arranger of this song. If you know, please notify me.)

This song is a setting of Zechariah 9:9a:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he . . .

Though this verse is not an assigned lectionary reading for this week, its sentiments are echoed in the Zephaniah passage.

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The title of Gill Sakakini’s painting pictured above is Éclat, a French word meaning brilliance, glow, glory, or a burst. Sakakini discusses it in an interview with Mark Byford in the book The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (274). The painting captures a post-Annunciation moment, she says: Mary, alone in her room, responding to Gabriel’s news “through a bursting, embodied YES!” A bold, botanic wallpaper design forms the backcloth, emphasizing openness and fecundity; “the ‘garden,’ like creation itself, shares the immediacy of her joy through the shape of wide open, fully ripe petals which reinforce the openness of her limbs in this accepting gesture.” Sakakini says she’s aware that Mary almost surely cycled through other natural responses to the unexpected news of her pregnancy, like shock and fear, but that her ultimate posture was one of joyful acceptance, of celebration of what God was doing through her. “I’m not denying there were other stages, but this is the fruit of all those other interior conversations. . . . This is when she’s finally arrived.”

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Jucundare, filia Sion,
exsulta satis filia Jerusalem, alleluia.

Daughter Sion, be glad!
Dance, dance, daughter Jerusalem! Alleluia.

—from the monastic liturgy (Antiphonale Monasticum)


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 C, click here.

Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford

The Annunciation—Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear the Son of God—is one of the most depicted biblical subjects of all time. This narrative episode from Luke’s Gospel has long enthralled me, and I’ve been collecting artistic responses to it over the past several years, cogitating on how I might develop the materials into a book. Turns out, author Mark Byford has beaten me to the punch!

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest (book cover)

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (Winchester University Press, 2018) sets out to explore the history and spiritual meaning of the Annunciation through interviews with 150-plus clerics, theologians, church historians, artists, curators, art historians, and others, and through encounters with works of visual art, music, and poetry inspired by the story. It’s very cleverly structured as a pilgrimage, so the book’s organizing principle is roughly geographic, following Byford through England, France, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and the Holy Land as he encounters people, places, and artworks in those regions that shed light on the topic.

The scope and diversity of interviewees, from different denominations and even religions (Jews, Muslims, agnostics), is impressive, and the quotes he elicits and compiles here are a valuable trove. The roster includes big names like Rowan Williams and Archbishop Kallistos Ware, as well as others whose insights are just as rich. My fingers were very, very busy taking notes as I read!

Byford’s starting point is The Annunciation by François Lemoyne (pictured on the front cover), which he found himself unexpectedly captivated by upon seeing it at the National Gallery one day. It’s a relatively unknown work that pales in comparison to the other, world-renowned Annunciation paintings at the Gallery. When he saw that it was on loan from Winchester College, where it was installed in 1729, he grew all the more intrigued, as he is from Winchester. He wanted to find out why such a flamboyantly Catholic painting of Mary by a leading French artist came to reside in a public school in Protestant England in the eighteenth century, and why it has been removed from its original setting for display at the museum.

“I am not especially enchanted by its imagery or by its aesthetic value,” Byford admits (13)—but for whatever reason, it grasped him. I share Byford’s assessment of the painting as too cloying, florid, conventionally pious, and seeing it on the page does nothing for me. But I love how in this book, we get to see how differently different people see, because as Byford goes about his journey, he shows a reproduction of Lemoyne’s painting to each interviewee, recording their reactions. Whereas many people read the angel’s presence as domineering or oppressive, overpowering Mary’s will, and his finger as phallic, others read the encounter as a tender one, his finger illustrating his saying, “You will receive power from on high,” and indicating that it’s all about God, not her. Many expressed dislike toward the image because they say it shows Mary as weak and simpering instead of strong and courageous—“it’s disempowering” (82); “I want her to have the same force of character as the muscular angel” (85); she’s too insubstantial—“anemic,” even; “the blood and guts of the woman has been taken out of her” (173). Others were incredibly moved by the image, and commented on the “wonderful sense of movement” (100), the “spectacular light” (204), or Mary’s expression of joyful surrender. Theologian Ben Quash comments on the tattiness of the interior establishing a contrast between broken, worldly space and luminous, heavenly space—and the peeling plaster as a metaphor for revelation, a stripping back (208).

Besides bringing up the Lemoyne painting, Byford asked each interviewee some variation of the following:

  • Is the Annunciation literal (historical, factual) or metaphoric/symbolic?
  • How important is it for Christians to believe in the virgin conception?
  • Do you believe, as Bishop Philip Egan does, that the Annunciation is “the most important event in human history”?
  • Why is the feast of the Annunciation barely acknowledged today?
  • What is the spiritual meaning of the Annunciation?
  • Do you see a parallel between your story and Mary’s? (That is, have you ever felt a call from God that you would consider an “annunciation moment”?)
  • Is Mary a bridge or a barrier to interdenominational dialogue?
  • Do you venerate Mary?

One common point of discussion that results is the agency of Mary—or lack thereof—and on this point, the variant interpretations of feminists are interesting to note. Some feminists hate the story of the Annunciation because, in their reading, God forces Mary to bear a child against her will, enacting something akin to divine rape—and a few interviewees attempt to make this case. But other feminists find the story absolutely empowering for women, in that God comes into the world without the aid of a man, and with Mary’s full consent—a critical detail. Tina Beattie, for example, says, “It’s now a woman who has the voice of authority on behalf of creation” (157).

The word submission has negative connotations in today’s culture, and so can the idea of being an empty vessel, but this is so central to the Annunciation story, and I was glad to see the majority of Christians interviewed here uphold the virtuousness of submission and also recognize that it often connotes strength, and it is itself an act of the will. Like Mary, we can choose to say yes to what God calls us to. There are lots of ways of talking about submission to God, and I enjoyed hearing different wordings and perspectives on it.

Byford is the former deputy director general and head of BBC journalism, and his whole approach in this book is indeed journalistic. He marks his observances of the native environments, demeanors, and mannerisms of his interview subjects, and he presents their words unedited. He doesn’t editorialize, for the most part—that is, until the end, when, after interviewing his wife and (grown) children, he confronts his own views about the Annunciation, including how they have been influenced by the conversations he’s had over the course of the project.

[Below is a small sampling of the 205 images reproduced and discussed in the book.]

The majority of the book unfolds in England, but as previously mentioned, Byford also visits other countries, including places like Chartres Cathedral, which contains at least ten Annunciation scenes; Florence, with its many famous Annunciation paintings, including ones by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci; and the catacombs and churches of Rome. He even makes it as far as Nazareth, where there are two different churches—one Greek Orthodox, the other Catholic—that claim to be the original site of the Annunciation. He interacts with other pilgrims there, collecting their thoughts.

The artistic merit of the image selections is variable. Byford did not choose all the world’s best representations to highlight—though there are many of those; he’s most interested in images that have deep personal meaning for the people who created them or who have beheld them, which means, in the case of one of the women priests he interviewed, a painting gifted to her by an elderly church parishioner (138), or in the author’s own case, an illustration from a 1950s storybook (4). Not all the artworks are reverent, though. Some, such as the Annunciation sculpture by Chris Ofili, and a painting of the same name by Mati Klarwein, used for a Santana album cover, are controversial for their blatant sexuality. Others were made for devotional or liturgical contexts but are controversial for other reasons, like David Wynne’s The Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral in England, which many describe as hideous.

I appreciate the chapter on global (that is, non-European) depictions of the Annunciation, from the United States, Mexico, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan. New to me are the paintings by Tom Thompson, who sets the scene in the bush area of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, on the veranda of a dilapidated Federation-style house (606–7). The wood carving he purchased from a street vendor in Jakarta is also intriguing.

Besides speaking with professionals in the field of visual arts, Byford also interviews a filmmaker and, after sitting in on a performance of John Tavener’s Annunciation, a choral conductor and Tavener’s widow. Some of the conversations in this book resulted in the making of new art, such as fused glass (402), and a poem that beautifully imagines Mary’s internal process as she moves from fear to acceptance to delight (498). In addition, poems on the Annunciation, both traditional and contemporary, are scattered throughout, contributing to the drawing out of meaning of that long-ago encounter between Gabriel and Mary.

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest is chock-full of goodness, and it caused me to reflect back on my own views about the Annunciation while considering the views of others. Some, like John Shelby Spong’s (126–29), really grated me! Some made me raise an eyebrow or shake my head. But many opened me up to a deeper reading of Luke 1 and the wider narrative, and the inclusion of people from a wide range of theological persuasions and backgrounds was key in that. I join Byford in lamenting the loss of the status and significance of the Annunciation in the church’s celebration, and I hope this book can serve as a catalyst to reignite interest.

I do think its hefty page count, 674 pages, will deter a lot of would-be readers, unfortunately. It is amply illustrated—and in full color!—but most of the images are thumbnail-size, so the heft is mainly text. To trim it down, I think he could have done away with the Madonna and Child artworks, the standalone Gabriel statues, and St. Luke painting the Virgin, focusing more strictly on Annunciation artworks, of which there is an abundant supply. And occasionally I felt that too much context was given on the history of certain churches and the backgrounds of interviewees. But my interest was sustained. I found myself looking forward to each new chapter, to see what new artworks and facets of the Annunciation would be revealed. The integration of historical and practical theology, art commentary, and personal story (the author’s and that of all those who participated in his project) is a hallmark of the book.

From a functionality standpoint, I wish there was a list of figures, and an index—at the very least, of the names of interviewees. I also wish source citations were provided for the quotes not from interviews, as the author quotes church fathers, pastors, and others, giving only inexact references like “a professor quoted on a British Library blog” (317), or “Athanasius said . . .”; interviewees also make statements that I wish I could more easily follow up on, like “Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, said that if there was a virgin birth, it was a secondary miracle compared to the primary miracle of the birth of the Son of God” (484).

Roundup: Obits; breast cancer saint; exhibitions; gospel jam

ARTIST DEATHS:

This August saw the homegoing of two beloved Christian art-makers.

> “Making meaning out of suffering and loss is one of poetry’s most fundamental aims,” wrote poet Anya Silver, who passed away from inflammatory breast cancer on August 6 at age forty-nine. Since her diagnosis in 2004, she published four volumes of poetry that wrap up faith with deep, honest questioning of God. Many of her poems contain imagery related to cancer and its treatment and describe with unswerving candor what it’s like to live under the threat of imminent death. When she received a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, the foundation described her work as “engag[ing] with the trauma of chronic and terminal illness, and with religious faith and mystery, storytelling, memory, and the risks and rewards of being human.” One of her best-known poems is “Psalm 137 for Noah,” written for her only child, whom she gave birth to during her illness.

“I have a tremendous amount of joy in my life, and my joy exists with pain,” Silver said in an interview with Georgia Public Radio in January. “I don’t see those two things as completely separate. All of life is woven together, and separating the strands is impossible.” Read her obituary in the New York Times, and a sweet tribute by Elizabeth Palmer in the Christian Century.

Anya Silver

Anya Silver books

> A giant of contemporary French sacred art, Jean-Marie Pirot, known professionally as Arcabas, died August 23 at age ninety-one. He is best known for his paintings, which feature biblical characters and scenes, but he also worked in sculpture, engraving, tapestry, mosaic, and cabinetry, as well as in the theater making scenery and costumes. His magnum opus is the interior decoration of Saint-Hugues-de-Chartreuse in the Isère region of France, which comprises over a hundred works by the artist created over a span of thirty-five years.

There has been much published about Arcabas in French (e.g.) but unfortunately very little in English—though for starters, I recommend this ArtWay article. A YouTube search of his name yields several video interviews and feature news segments—again, in French. I’ve embedded a recent video homage below, which shows you inside Saint-Hugues as well as his designs for the stained-glass windows inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Grenoble, a project he was working on when he died. I’d love to help bring out some of these books, or even a brand-new catalogue raisonné, in English, so if any of you have connections to Arcabas’s French publishers or people close to him, or have experience translating from French to English, let me know!

Arcabas

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SAINT AGATHA’S GRIEF BY MELISSA WEINMAN: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time to get acquainted with Agatha of Sicily, patron saint of breast cancer patients. Agatha was a third-century Christian from a noble family whose martyrdom has been authenticated, although its details have not. According to legend, fifteen-year-old Agatha made a vow of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus. After consistently being spurned, Quintianus had her arrested for her faith (this was during the persecutions of Decius) and tortured. Among the tortures she underwent was the tearing off of her breasts with pincers. She died in prison, probably in the year 251.

St. Agatha's Grief by Melissa Weinman
Melissa Weinman (American), Saint Agatha’s Grief, 1996. Oil on canvas, 42 × 42 in.

In traditional portraiture, Agatha is shown holding her severed breasts on a platter (see, e.g., Francisco de Zurbarán). More recently, though, American artist Melissa Weinman painted a double portrait of Agatha as a modern-day woman in a white tank top enduring the tortuous experience of breast cancer. The two women stand back to back, the left figure having presumably just received the diagnosis, and the right figure bearing blood stains on the chest that indicate a mastectomy. There is an immediate sense of violation in the image, but also a sense that God’s glory is at work. While the one figure is cast in darkness, the other leans toward the light, suggesting hope and faith in the purposes of God, even in the groaning.

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RECENT EXHIBITION: “Creença”: This summer fifty artists from a variety of disciplines participated in a two-month residency at Konvent, a nineteenth-century convent (now an art center) in Cal Rosal, Catalonia, Spain. Organized by Void Projects, the residency culminated in a three-day pop-up exhibition from August 30 to September 2, titled “Creença” (Belief), which included not just visual art but live theater, talks, and music.

Jofre Oliveras and Stefan Krische installation
Site-specific installation by Jofre Oliveras and Stefan Krische, 2018, in Konvent, Cal Rosal, Catalonia, Spain.

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CURRENT EXHIBITION: “Wrestling the Angel: A Century of Artists Reckoning with Religion,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina: Through October 28, the Bechtler is showing 219 pieces of religious-themed art spread out across its large fourth floor, including works by Dalí, Rouault, Chagall, Warhol, Manessier, Bearden, and other modern greats. I visited last weekend, and while I feel that the theme was treated too loosely and therefore the exhibition lacked the full impact it could have had, I thoroughly enjoyed individual portions, and I appreciate the Bechtler, and in particular curator Jen Edwards, for bringing together these diverse works that speak in some way to religion, spirituality, or morality.

This was the first time I’ve seen Rouault’s entire Miserere (“Have Mercy”) series—all fifty-eight aquatints!—in one space, and it was stunning. Its display alongside Charlotte artist Gina Gilmour’s Break Your Guns and Stacy Lynn Waddell’s Untitled (Mike Brown’s Battle at Normandy) reinforces the theme of lament for violence and suffering inherent in all three. In the same room the set of small bronze crucifixes by Elizabeth Turk, which in their original gallery installation in 2002–03 contained lit candles in the hollows of the heads, invite further reflection on death, subtly connecting (through strategic placement) Christ’s crucifixion with the “crucifixions” of those slain in the past century through acts of war, gun violence, and police brutality.

Wrestling the Angel installation view
Installation view: “Wrestling the Angel,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2018. Left: Prints from Georges Rouault’s Miserere series, 1927. Right: Break Your Guns by Gina Gilmour, 1980. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Poppyfields (detail) by Elizabeth Turk
Elizabeth R. Turk (American, 1961–), untitled bronzes from Poppyfields, 2002–03. Installation view: “Wrestling the Angel,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2018. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
The Annunciation by Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), The Annunciation, ca. 1967. Collograph, 11 3/4 × 15 1/2 in. (29.6 × 39.4 cm). Courtesy of Jerald and Mary Melberg. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

For other reviews of this exhibition, see those by Andy Smith and Barbara Schreiber. And word to the wise: avoid the last day, because it’s a Carolina Panthers NFL home game, and the stadium is right across the street from the museum. (I wish I had thought to check the schedule before I made the cumbersome trek last Sunday!)

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JAM SESSION: I love this impromptu gospel music performance by Karen R. Harding (right), Steve Brock, and Sharon Walker. They sing “Give Up (And Let Jesus Take Over)” by Howard Goodman and “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus” by Andraé Crouch. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Infancy of Christ metalworks by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre

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

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

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

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

Annunciation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Annunciation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 1 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Visitation by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visitation, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 2 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Nativity by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Birth of Jesus, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 3 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Annunciation to the Shepherds by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Angel and Shepherds, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 4 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Presentation in the Temple by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Presentation in the Temple, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 5 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Adoration of the Magi by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Visit of the Magi, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 6 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Flight into Egypt by Jean Sylvestre
Jean Sylvestre (Haitian, 1957–), Flight into Egypt, 2013. Recycled steel. No. 7 from a cycle of seven in the Westbrook Building, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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

Three Advent video series

“Art for Advent 2017” (Dr. James Romaine): For the third year in a row, my friend James Romaine, an art historian, is releasing four videos in which he discusses historically significant artworks keyed to the season of Advent. Last year he looked at works from the Met Cloisters; this year he’s focusing on paintings by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). If you want to learn more about Tanner, see Romaine’s essay on him in the recently published book Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, which Romaine coedited; I own a copy and look forward to reviewing it on the blog in the new year! (Update: Here’s the book review.)

Annunciation (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Annunciation (detail), 1898. Oil on canvas, 57 × 71 1/4 in. (144.8 × 181 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Romaine’s first “Art for Advent 2017” video covers Tanner’s Annunciation, which has been the header image of this website for the last two months. I saw the painting in person for the first time this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it transfixed me. (Along with Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, it was my favorite piece on display.) It was the first major painting of a biblical subject that Tanner completed following his six-week trip to the Holy Land, undertaken as part of his search for historically authentic imagery.

First Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation:

Second Sunday of Advent: The Holy Family:

Third Sunday of Advent: Flight into Egypt:

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures:

To view “Art for Advent” videos from previous years, visit Romaine’s Seeing Art History YouTube channel.

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“The Joyous Mysteries” (The Liturgists): Meditating on the five “Joyous Mysteries” of Christ’s childhood—the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Finding of Christ in the Temple—is a Catholic devotional practice, part of “praying the rosary,” that some Protestants have found spiritually helpful and have adapted to their own quiet times with God.

To draw us into the movements of the Christmas story, The Liturgists invited four visual artists to create a work based on one of the first four Joyous Mysteries. They then shot two videos for each artwork—one an “Artist Narrative,” where the artist talks about his or her work and process, and the other an “imago divina” meditation led by Mike McHargue (“Science Mike”), which guides us through looking at and responding to the artwork. The videos are backed by original instrumental compositions by Tim Coons of Giants & Pilgrims and one by Jon Leverkuhn, which you can download for free on Bandcamp. You can also purchase signed, limited edition art prints for $35 each, or $95 for a full set.

Here is the list of videos; I’ve embedded my two favorites (I’m partial to figurative art):

1. The Annunciation, with art by Betony Coons: Meditation | Artist Narrative

2. The Visitation, with art by Wes Sam-Bruce: Meditation | Artist Narrative

3. The Nativity, with art by Katie Mai-Fusco: Meditation | Artist Narrative

4. The Presentation, with art by Tony Garza: Meditation | Artist Narrative

Thank you, Liturgists and friends, for this impressive Advent offering!   Continue reading “Three Advent video series”