A theological reading of Rodríguez Calero’s acrollages

Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.

Rodriguez Calero_Christ of the Christians
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Christ of the Christians, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey. All photos (except the two details that follow) courtesy of the artist.

Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.

This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.

The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.

Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.

Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.

The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”

Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.

The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.

Christ of the Christians (detail)

However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.

One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.

Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.

Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.

Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:

Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]

The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.

Rodriguez Calero_In His Image
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), In His Image, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.

But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.

Rodriguez Calero_El Hijo de Dios
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), El Hijo de Dios, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.

To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.

Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.

Rodriguez Calero_Cruz de Loisaida
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Cruz de Loisaida, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 64 × 42 in.

God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.

Rodriguez Calero_Crowned with Thorns
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Crowned with Thorns, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?

By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.

Rodriguez Calero_The Chosen
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), The Chosen, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 20 × 16 in.

One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.

Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).

Rodriguez Calero_Angel y Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Ángel y María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in.

It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.

Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.

Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.

“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”

In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!

Rodriguez Calero_La Madonna Negra
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), La Madonna Negra, 2007. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 24 in.

Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”

Rodriguez Calero_Virgen Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Virgen María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 34 in. Collection of María Domínguéz-Morales and Juan M. Morales.

There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.

“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”

Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.

Rodriguez Calero_Divine Prophet
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Divine Prophet, 2012. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 36 in.

This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.

In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.

The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.

Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.

Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.

“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”

(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)

Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.

To learn more about Calero’s art training, her oeuvre, and collage as an art form, see the catalog for her retrospective (written in English and Spanish). You can also visit her website, www.rodriguezcalero.com.

Lent, Day 21 (Feast of the Annunciation)

LOOK: The Annunciation by Steven Homestead

Homestead, Steven_The Annunciation
Steven Homestead (American, 1982–), The Annunciation, 2020. Digital collage.

Artist, composer, writer, curator, and speaker Steven Homestead of Orange County, California, created this collage by overlaying and manipulating three photographs from Unsplash. It depicts the moment when the angel Gabriel came to Mary of Nazareth to tell her that she had been chosen to bear God’s Son. Though Mary was initially taken aback by this announcement, she ultimately gave her full assent, leaning into the future God had for her. Through her fiat, her yes, God worked the salvation of the world.

Gabriel and Mary are represented here by two Brazilian models whose raised arms—his right, her left—form near symmetrical arcs. It’s as if he’s calling and she’s responding. She’s bending to God’s will, but not with the sort of demure posture so often assigned to her in art history; instead, her stance is one of freedom and power and becoming.

The curve of Gabriel’s hand matches the curve of the stained glass leading, which encircles his head and frames a representation of the Holy Spirit as dove, flying forth from a sunburst.

The setting is outdoors in a wooded area. Mary is dressed in white, like a bride. As she surrenders to the Divine, she becomes filled with light, the sun’s rays converging on her womb. A mystical veil falls around the two figures, suggesting sanctity and mystery. Her body has become the temple of the Lord.

March 25—exactly nine months before Christmas—is when the church celebrates the miraculous conception of Christ in Mary’s womb, the first stage of the Incarnation. It’s an event that fills me with awe and wonder—as it has thousands of artists over the centuries. I’m building a Pinterest board of Annunciation art that I find compelling, which you may be interested to browse: https://www.pinterest.com/art_and_theology/annunciation/. Homestead’s piece is my latest addition.

LISTEN: “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary” by Randy Lynn Scruggs and John W. Thompson, 1982 | Arranged and performed by the West Angeles COGIC Mass Choir and Congregation on No Limit, 2007

Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
And with thanksgiving
I’ll be a living
Sanctuary
For you

And whatever you tell me, my answer will be yes
Yes (yes)
Yes (yes to your will, Lord)
Yes (yes to your way)
Yes (Lord, I’ll go where you want me to go)
Yes (yes)
Yes, yes (yes)
Yes (whatever you tell me to do, Lord)
Yes
Yes (my will is your will for me, Lord)
Yes (come on, let’s take it higher, say yeah)

Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
And with thanksgiving
I’ll be a living
Sanctuary
For you

Hallelujah, hey!
Now I want the Lord to mold me
I want him to make me, I want him to shape me
I want him to direct me, I want him to purge me
I want him to wash me
Whatever he wants me to be
I’ll be just that, so I tell him:

Lord, mold me (mold me)
What you want me to be (what you want me to be)
Oh mold me (mold me)
What you want me to be (what you want me to be)
Oh and say mold me (mold me)
Say what you want me to be (what you want me to be)
Oh mold me (yes, what you want me to be) (mold me)
What you want me to be (what you want me to be)

Mold and we’ll say yes (yes)
Yes to your will say (yes to your will)
Say yeah, yeah (yeah)
Yes to your way, Lord (yes to your way)
Say yes everyday (yes everyday)
Yes to your way (yes to your way)
Say yes, I’ll obey (yes, I’ll obey)
Say yes to your way (yes to your way)

Lord, mold me
What you want me to be
Say what you want me to do
Where you want me to go
Say where you want me to go
When you want me to go
Say how you want me to go
What you want me to do

And you will say yeah (yeah)
Say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (yeah)
Say yes to your way (yes to your way)
Ooh ooh ooh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (yeah)
Say yes to your will (yes to your will)
Say, say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (yeah)
Say:

Lord, prepare me
To be a sanctuary
Pure and holy
Tried and true
And with thanksgiving
I’ll be a living
Sanctuary
For you

Hallelujah
Lord, I say yes
Lord, I say yes
Lord, I say yes
To your will and to your way
Not my time, but yours

If there’s one word I most associate with the Annunciation, it’s “yes.”

This song doesn’t directly reference the Annunciation, but it does capture the attitude of surrender to God that Mary modeled for us. “Lord, I say yes to your will and to your way.” We can assume that throughout her girlhood she cultivated a devotion that made her open and receptive to God’s call when it came. She was ready to offer herself as God’s sanctuary, a house for his incarnate presence. She literally became pregnant with God!

In a spiritual sense, we too are called to bear Christ within us (Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 4:6–7; 13:5; Gal. 1:15–16; 2:20). To be temples of his Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20). And to answer yes when God invites us into some new adventure.

Roundup: Giotto projections, global Christmas music playlist, Sakhnini Brothers concert, sacred lettering, deep incarnation

PROJECTION MAPPING INSTALLATION: Il Natale di Francesco (The Christmas of Francis): Last year the Sacro Convento in Assisi, a Franciscan friary, initiated an architectural lighting project called Il Natale di Francesco that featured projections of Christmas-themed frescoes by Giotto from the Lower Basilica of St. Francis onto several of the city’s landmark churches. Architect Mario Cucinella served as artistic director, and the company Enel X realized the installation, which ran throughout Advent and Christmastide, from December 8, 2020, to January 6, 2021 (and I hear it’s been reprised this year!). The pièce de résistance was the projection of Giotto’s Nativity onto the facade of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis. Other projections included the Annunciation on the Cathedral of San Rufino, the Visitation on the Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Adoration of the Magi on the abbey church of San Pietro in Valle—all images adapted using advanced technology to suit the spaces they illuminated.

Annunciation projection

Other components of the installation included frescoed stars from the main basilica’s vaults projected onto the streets; a re-creation of Giotto’s scenes with dozens of sculpted figures, including the addition of a masked nurse at the crèche in honor of all the frontline healthcare workers serving during the COVID-19 crisis; and every thirty minutes a video-mapping show that offered views of the basilica’s interior. I so love the creativity of bringing the sacred art treasures of the church out into the town squares when the pandemic necessitated church closures.

+++

VIRTUAL CONCERT: Christmas with the Sakhnini Brothers: The Sakhnini Brothers are Adeeb, Elia, and Yazeed, three Arabic-speaking brothers from Nazareth who are followers of Jesus. They play about twenty instruments collectively but specialize in piano, oud, and violin, respectively, and love to blend modern Western and ancient Middle Eastern musical styles.

In this half-hour living room concert that premiered December 13, they are joined by vocalist Nareen Farran, pianist Sireen Elias, and percussionist Firas Haddad. They perform an instrumental rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; “Amano Morio” (With Us the Lord), a traditional hymn from the Syriac Maronite liturgy, whose lyrics translate to “The Lord is with us day and night”; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in Arabic; “Sobhan Al Kalima” (Glory to the Word), another traditional hymn in Syriac (see YouTube video description for full English translation); “Mary, Did You Know”; and “Laylet Eid” (Christmas Eve), a song by Fairuz to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Their arrangements are fantastic! (You especially have to hear what they do with that closing number; I can’t stop smiling.)

You can support the Sakhnini Brothers on Patreon and follow them on Facebook.

+++

PLAYLIST: Global Christmas Music YouTube Playlist: At the request of Inspiro Arts Alliance, my friend Paul Neeley, an ethnodoxologist blogging at Global Christian Worship, has curated a playlist of twenty-eight Christmas songs from around the world. Languages include French, Yoruba, English, Arabic, Gaelic, Huron, Norwegian, Nepali, German, Hindi, Thai, Italian, Urdu, Spanish, Pangasinan (Philippines), Zulu, Korean, and Swahili. Here are just two videos from the list: “The Greatest Gift,” an original rock song by Sinn Patchai from Thailand, and “Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil” (That Night in Bethlehem), a traditional Irish carol performed by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Neeley also put together a listening guide so that you can follow along with the lyrics.

+++

VIRTUAL EXHIBITION: Visual Music: Calligraphy and Sacred Texts, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion: “‘Form,’ wrote Jewish-American artist Ben Shahn, ‘is the very shape of content.’ Shahn’s statement serves as the guiding principle for this exhibit. Each of these fifteen pieces, all by living artists, is a calligraphic interpretation of a text sacred to Jews, Christians, or both. Each artist has pondered their chosen text, explored it inside and outside, and provided their own rendition of it—their own ‘translation’ into visual form.”

Jonathan Homrighausen, a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University who writes and researches at the intersection of Hebrew Bible, calligraphic art, and scribal craft, has curated this wonderful online art exhibition for the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I spent hours viewing all the rich content on the website, including Homrighausen’s illuminating commentaries (which take us beyond a simplistic “ooh, pretty” response), and following links to learn more. From the exhibition homepage you can click on any of the images for a detailed description, detail photos, embedded videos and music, and suggested articles for further reading.

Also check out the video presentation Homrighausen gave on December 12 for the Jewish Art Salon in New York City in which he discusses five of the Hebrew Bible–based pieces on display, plus two that render rabbinic quotes. The Q&A that follows is moderated by Jewish calligrapher Judith Joseph.

Since many of my blog readers will have just read Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1 this past Sunday (it’s one of the assigned lections for Advent 4) and we’re just a few days away from the feast of Christmas, let me share these two timely images from the exhibition:

Wenham, Martin_Magnificat (front and back)
Martin Wenham (British, 1941–), Magnificat (front and back), 2008. Paint on found pinewood, 84 × 8 1/2 in.

Ling, Manny_In the beginning was the word
Manny Ling (Chinese, 1966–), ‘In the beginning was the word’ (John 1:1), 2018. Chinese ink on paper, 11 11/16 × 16 1/2 in.

+++

VISUAL MEDITATION: “An Icon of Deep Incarnation” by John A. Kohan: Art collector John A. Kohan reflects on the painting Madonna of the Woods by Cypriot artist Charalambos Epaminonda, a variation on the Virgin Hodegetria type. “God took on human flesh and entered creation not just to bring you and me personal salvation or rescue the human race from sin and death, but to restore and renew the entire earth and all that is therein. Contemporary theologians in our age of ecological awareness call this concept ‘deep incarnation’ . . .”

Epaminonda, Charalambos_Madonna of the Woods
Charalambos Epaminonda (Cypriot, 1962–), Madonna of the Woods, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 29 cm. Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.

Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

“After Annunciation” by Anna Wickham

Art by Aline Brant
Photograph and embroidery by Aline Brant, 2016

Rest, little guest,
Beneath my breast.
Feed, sweet seed,
At your need.
I took Love for my lord
And this is my reward—
My body is good earth,
That you, dear plant, have birth.

Anna Wickham is the pen name of British/Australian modernist poet Edith Alice Mary Harper (1883–1947). After Annunciation was originally published in the January 1917 issue of Poetry magazine and is in the public domain.

Advent, Day 13

LOOK: Mary by Gertrude H. Fiske

Fiske, Gertrude_Mary
Gertrude H. Fiske (American, 1878–1961), Mary, 1920. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 × 30 in. (100.3 × 76.2 cm). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

In the exhibition catalog Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts (2001), Rebecca Mongeon writes,

Fiske did not intend to present this Mary as the Virgin Mary, but because they share a name, the viewer begins to notice similarities. Images of the young Virgin Mary present her as innocent and demure, with her head lowered humbly, eyes downcast, and hands drawn to her chest. In Fiske’s portrait, the girl’s innocence is suggested by her youth. Though she may be a teenager, the braids in her hair and the pinafore she wears tie her to childhood. This Mary also slightly bows her head and modestly holds her hands close to her body. In addition, the Virgin’s traditional colors, royal blue and blood red, appear in the long dress worn by Fiske’s Mary. The Virgin’s head is usually framed by a halo; in Fiske’s portrait, a framed picture placed directly behind her Mary’s head creates a haloing effect. (248)

LISTEN: “Ave Maria (The Song for Mary)” by Jason Gray, on Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy (2012)

She picks the flowers in the morning
Tucks just a few in her hair
The joy of her mother and father
As she spins around unaware
She carries her song in the evening
And the dreams of all little girls
She carries the bread to the table
She carries the hope of the world

Ave Maria
Ave Maria

Angels can carry glad tidings
Or burdens to bear in the dark
Love can take both fear and wondering
And hold them inside the same heart
You carried hope and a promise
You carried shame and disgrace
Which was the heavier burden
That drew lines in a little girl’s face

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus
Et benedictus fructus ventris
Ventris tui, Jesus

Held by the love you were holding
Is this what it means to be blessed
To carry your hope through the darkness
As it carries you into your rest

Ave Maria
Ave Maria

Singer-songwriter Jason Gray describes the vision behind the song:

When Nichole Nordeman, Cason Cooley, and I were conceptualizing this song, the idea was that musically it would be something like Michael Bublé meets Elvis and that lyrically it would zoom in on very personal details of what it might have been like in Mary’s world and then zoom out to the broad historical view, going back and forth between personal/intimate/rooted in the story that belonged to Mary alone, and then timeless/big picture/rooted in the story that belongs to all of humanity.

As a kid growing up Protestant, I sometimes felt like I didn’t quite know what to do with Mary—it seemed to my young mind that maybe she belonged more to my Catholic friends, so I felt tentative around the idea of her. But she has since become very dear to my heart and an inspiration to me—the progenitor of all who are called to bear Christ to the world.

My hope was to write a song that would contain both a very earthy picture of Mary intermingled with an otherworldly reverence of the mother of Christ. I love getting to sing it every year.

Hear Gray discuss the song further in this two-minute video, especially the double-sided nature of being “chosen”:

The refrain is, of course, a traditional Roman Catholic prayer in Latin, set to the famous tune by Franz Schubert (who actually wrote the tune for a Walter Scott poem!). Taken from the words of the angel Gabriel and, later, Elizabeth to Mary, it translates to “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

I love how Gray’s adaptation of the Ave Maria captures Mary’s youthful innocence and the sense of her being forever changed by God’s call on her life.

Annunciation roundup: “The Parliament of Heaven” mystery play, reversioning the story through poetry, and more

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that the Annunciation is one of my favorite biblical stories. It’s beautiful and wild—and rife with artistic potential! The church celebrates Jesus’s conception in Mary’s womb yearly on March 25, but naturally, it also comes up in the songs, prayers, image cycles, dramas, and meditations of the Advent season. Here’s a roundup of Annunciation-themed art. (You can find more by searching the “Annunciation” tag in the blog archives.)

SONG: “Never Before” by Deanna Witkowski: Jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski [previously] wrote this three-part women’s a cappella piece in 1998 for a Lessons and Carols service at All Angels’ Church in New York City. In the song Mary marvels at the uncanny prospect that she will feel God growing inside her womb, will breastfeed him, will mend his boo-boos—and mourns that she will one day watch him die. “Never Before” appears on Witkowski’s 2009 album From This Place, sung by her, Laila Biali, and Kate McGarry, and was also featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (see “Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz”).

The angel said the Lord is with me:

The Lord is with me in a way he’s never been before;
his Spirit is my lover, his son shall fill my womb
with holiness and joy
and with life that I can feel kicking at my insides.

The Lord will stay with me in a way he’s never stayed before;
he will suckle at my breast and let me hold him in my arms.
He will run to me when he cuts his finger
or wonders aloud at his Father’s creation in a brightly colored butterfly.

Oh, who is this child, Lord, who comes from up above,
whose eyes will look beyond my own to a destiny I do not know?
Oh, who is this God-boy whose hands shall clasp mine
and whose tears I shall wipe away with trembling fingers of my own?

The Lord will leave me in a way he’s never left before;
as a king whose time has come, as a son his mother loved,
as a boy whose laughter has filled my heart,
and as a baby whose tears I have cried as if they were my own.

The angel said the Lord is with me.

+++

ESSAY: “Saying Yes to the Annunciation” by Peggy Rosenthal: Peggy Rosenthal, author of The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium, is an excellent guide through poetry. Here she meditates on lines from five poems on the Annunciation: by Hildegard of Bingen, John Donne, Rupert Brooke, Kathleen Wakefield, and Katharine Coles.

+++

CONVERSATION: “Aliens, angels & annunciations”: In this article, poets Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell dialogue about their 2020 book A Confusion of Marys, a collection of poems they’ve written inspired by the Annunciation. It’s a series of (sometimes irreverent or humorous) variations on a theme, and not what you’d call devotional poetry. Loydell quotes Gabriel Josipovici, who said stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over, and made new, and that’s what this book does. I definitely gravitated more to some poems than to others.

A Confusion of Mary book cover

“I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology,” Cave says. “I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions, etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all-pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.”

As for Loydell, he says he’s interested not in theological certainty but in “doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas”—the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. He comes at it from a less personal angle.

+++

MYSTERY PLAY + ART PRESENTATION: “Hope Ubiqui: The Gift of the Annunciation”: This online event hosted by Holy Family (Catholic) Church in South Pasadena, California, on March 16, 2021, combines art reflections by Dr. Leah Marie Buturain Schneider (who’s incredibly warm, wise, and engaging) with a performance of the medieval mystery play The Parliament of Heaven, Salutation, and Conception (from the N-town cycle), translated from the Middle English by Colleen E. Donnelly and directed here by Grete Gryzwana.

The video starts with artist Patty Wickman [previously] outlining the five emotional states Mary cycled through in response to the angel Gabriel, as famously identified by art historian Michael Baxandall. Schneider then discusses a handful of historical artworks depicting the Annunciation, including ones by Fra Angelico and Andrea della Robbia. The thirty-minute play follows, which enacts not only the Annunciation but also an imagined precursor: a heavenly debate among four of God’s virtues—Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness [previously; see also this Instagram post]—about how to answer humanity’s cries for salvation. (Keep in mind that this was Zoom-mediated, with each actor calling in from a different location, and some with spotty internet connections, so there are some technical glitches, but it’s still a stirring and enjoyable performance!) Schneider continues by highlighting additional artworks of significance, focusing on Dieric Bouts’s Getty Annunciation, particularly the detail of Mary’s hands. She reads from the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich on responding to Love’s call; they ask, What does it matter if Mary gives birth to Jesus if we ourselves do not give birth to him in our souls, in our lives?

2:51–7:41: Introduction by Patty Wickman
9:44–18:16: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
18:37–50:10: Mystery play
52:01–1:08:27: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
1:08:52–1:31:00: Q&A

The remaining video is just informal chatting among a few church members who linger behind on the call.

+++

CHILDREN’S VIDEO: “The Gospel According to Hamlet” by SALT Project: A whimsical retelling of the Annunciation story, narrated by kids—and by a small ceramic pig figurine! The characters are played by a reproduction of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, a Barbie with tinsel wings, and a matryoshka doll.

“What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen

Maybe it’s the ocean’s rhythmic tug
that helps me sleep, my body’s own
surge remembering its deepest pulse.

Think of those Celtic monks who
scaled the slippery rocks carrying
vellum and inks while the sea broke

and battered beneath them. High
in a crevice, a hidden stone hut
with cot and candle. The scribe

dips and swirls his quill to preserve
the story—Luke’s genealogy,
name after name, letters shaped

like birds in every color, a flight
of messengers released into history.
Each word unfurls the promise,

like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,

that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety.

The poem “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen is from her collection What the Body Knows (DreamSeeker Books / Cascadia Publishing House, 2015) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

The pages from the early ninth-century Book of Kells (IE TCD MS 58, fols. 200r, 200v, 201r, 201v, 202r) are sourced from the Digital Collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. They illuminate Luke 3:23–38 in the Latin Vulgate: Et ipse Iesus erat incipiens quasi annorum triginta ut putabatur filius Ioseph qui fuit Heli qui fuit Matthat qui fuit Levi . . . (“And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi . . .”) Click on the library link to zoom in and explore more, or on the individual images to view at full resolution.

Luke's genealogy (Book of Kells)

Advent roundup: Tsh Oxenreider, Lanecia Rouse Tinsley, and more

Advent is just around the corner, and here is some topical content for the season. (Much more to come!)

PODCAST EPISODES:

>> “On Journeying: Travel, Traditions, and Turning to the Psalms with Tsh Oxenreider,” Sacred Ordinary Days, December 22, 2020: Host Jenn Giles Kemper interviews author, travel guide, and fellow podcaster Tsh Oxenreider about her book Shadow and Light: A Journey into Advent. The liturgical calendar is a gift, not a burden, Oxenreider says; it provides scaffolding for our year and connects Christians to one another across time and place, in addition, of course, to promoting encounters with God and God’s story. Oxenreider provides book and music recommendations for the Advent season and shares one of her family’s favorite simple Advent traditions.

>> “The Annunciation and Art with Victoria Emily Jones,” Old Books with Grace, November 17, 2021: Old Books with Grace, hosted by Dr. Grace Hamman [previously], a specialist in medieval literature, is one of my favorite podcasts, so I was beyond excited to be invited on as a guest! In this conversation, Grace and I discuss four paintings and three poems that respond to the momentous event known as the Annunciation, where Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son. While the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, we thought it nonetheless appropriate at this time just before Advent to consider how Mary welcomes Jesus, since we are preparing to welcome him ourselves. Available on YouTube and on all podcast streaming platforms.

Grace just wrapped up a fascinating series on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and for the four weeks of Advent she will be taking a closer look at four familiar Christmas carols from different eras, examining their history, theology, and language and recommending an Advent practice inspired by each carol. Follow Old Books with Grace on Instagram or Twitter.

+++

SONG: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: This is the quintessential Advent hymn. Here are two renditions from last December by two of my favorite musical artists/groups. Wilder Adkins’s recording is on the Advent Sessions EP from Redeemer Community Church, and the Good Shepherd Collective recording, featuring Liz Vice and Charles Jones, is available as a single.

+++

NEW ALBUM: Advent Songs by the Porter’s Gate: The Porter’s Gate [previously] released a new album on November 12, a collection of ten original songs for Advent. The contributing songwriters are Nicholas Chambers, Paul Zach, Kate Bluett, Isaac Wardell, Liz Vice, Latifah Alattas (Page CXVI), and Tenielle Neda. Chambers, Zach, Vice, Alattas, and Neda are also featured as vocalists, as are Molly Parden, Jonathan Ogden, and Lauren Plank Goans. My favorites: “The Reign of Mercy,” “Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy),” “Simeon’s Song.”

+++

PAINTING + SHORT FILM: In 2017 Holy Family HTX, a church in Houston, commissioned artist-in-residence Lanecia Rouse Tinsley to create nine liturgical paintings, one for each major season of the church year. Called the Parament Collection, these six-by-six-foot pieces rotate throughout the year, signaling the change of season and inviting the congregation into a space of contemplation around seasonal themes.

The first painting in the cycle, Advent, is a minimalist composition predominantly in ultramarine, evoking Yves Klein’s blue monochromes; Tinsley says that, like Klein, she wants to “impregnate” the viewer with blue, which for her signifies hope. Blue (or alternatively, purple) is the primary color of Advent, but pink and white (for Gaudete Sunday and Christmas Eve, respectively) are also associated with it, which Tinsley makes reference to in her painting. At the white bar at the top, you can see a faint mark left by Hurricane Harvey; her studio flooded when the storm hit in August 2017, and this then-blank canvas suffered some water damage, but Tinsley made the conscious decision to use it to further press into the Advent theme of suffering. She lined the canvas in black, inspired by a line from Andy Warhol’s film Sunset: “Black means infinity.” All our longings, Tinsley says, are held within infinity.

The nine-minute film posted above is one of nine in a series by Chap Edmonson, titled Decoded, in which Tinsley discusses her Parament Collection piece by piece. View all nine films here.

+++

I also wanted to remind you about the Art & Theology Advent playlist I compiled on Spotify. Besides the ones mentioned above, here are the songs I’ve added to the mix since last Advent:

  • “Wonder” by MaMuse
  • “Better Days” by Chrisinti
  • “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens
  • “Peace” by Peter Bruun (a setting of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem)
  • “Magnificat primi toni” by Palestrina
  • “From This Wicked Fall” (Cum erubuerint) and “The Flower Gleams” (Hodie aperuit) by Hildegard of Bingen, arr. Richard Souther
  • “Mary” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
  • “Like Mary” by Jess Ray and Langdon
  • “Restoration Song (Hold On)” by Son of Cloud
  • Nine songs by Tom Wuest
  • “Lighten Our Darkness” by Joel Clarkson
  • “For the Long Night” by Dan + Claudia Zanes
  • “La Luz” by Brother Isaiah
  • “Sunrise Song” and “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins
  • “Break of Dawn” and “You Always” by Antoine Bradford
  • “Eternal Light” and “Joy Will Come” by Paul Zach

Roundup: My new YouTube channel, “Constructed Mysteries” exhibition, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Mary’s Fecund Yes” by Victoria Emily Jones, on Annunciation by Mats Rehnman: My latest ArtWay reflection was published Sunday. It’s on a whimsical Annunciation painting by touring storyteller, author, and visual artist Mats Rehnman, influenced in part by the Annunciation design woven into several nineteenth-century carriage cushions from Scania, Sweden.

Rehnman, Mats_Annunciation
Mats Rehnman (Swedish, 1954–), Annunciation, 2001. Aquarelle and acrylic.

Annunciation carriage cushion (Sweden)
Carriage cushion: The Annunciation, Scania (Skåne), Sweden, first half of 19th century. Tapestry weave, 52 × 96.5 cm.

+++

ART TALK: “Saying Yes: The Annunciation in Contemporary Art” by Victoria Emily Jones: Speaking of the Annunciation . . . my March 18 presentation from the Breath and the Clay creative arts gathering is now online! (The aforementioned Rehnman piece is one of six I discuss.) With permission from the conference organizers, I have uploaded it to my YouTube channel for public viewing.

It’s an act of vulnerability for me to share it with you, as I’m aware of the ways in which it is deficient (in terms of speech delivery and production values). I lack technical prowess and a charismatic personality and am self-conscious about being on camera—but hopefully with practice, I will improve. The main thing is, I want the work of these artists to be known and shared. I hope to demonstrate how art can pull us deeper into the biblical story, revealing new and sometimes surprising angles or simply helping us dwell there with love and intent, and also how it’s possible to do “theology through art,” relying not exclusively on academic writings or sermons (great as they both are) to do that important work.

While I have created a video for a scholar friend’s art history channel, this is the first on my own channel—which I invite you to subscribe to. (I need at least 100 subscribers to create a custom URL for the channel.) I don’t have imminent plans for more videos, but I am starting to brainstorm ideas and will probably send out a survey to my blog subscribers to get a better sense of what you all would want to see. Several of you have requested that I get into video making, but I’ve been slow to move on it, wanting to better figure out my niche and what I could uniquely bring to such a dense market. I realize that video is a content format that is overwhelmingly preferred to blog posts these days, so I want to make use of it. But videos are much more time-consuming and difficult to produce without having a budget or a team behind me, and also not having the direct access to artworks that museums and other entities have. Please pray for this upcoming venture!

+++

CROSS-CONTINENTAL MUSIC VIDEO: “Song of Hope” by Praveen Francis and friends: This Afro-pop music video is a collaboration between musicians, dancers, and technicians in India, Guatemala, the UK, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and the United States. The project was initiated by Praveen Francis, a music producer and sound engineer from Coimbatore in Tamilnadu, India, who wrote the original composition. The languages are English, French, and Lingala, but the hook is a series of nonlexical vocables: “Na na na . . .” [HT: Global Christian Worship]

The video was released April 10, 2021, shortly before the second COVID wave hit India. “This Pandemic has ravaged all our lives,” Francis says. “But we will not give up. We will fight back because there is still HOPE.”

+++

EXHIBITION: Constructed Mysteries: Spirituality and Creative Practice, February 8–April 18, 2021, Olson Gallery, Bethel University: Curated by Kenneth Steinbach and Michelle Westmark Wingard, Constructed Mysteries showcased the art of nine mid-career artists or artist teams whose work engages Christian spirituality: Heather Nameth Bren, Shin-hee Chin, Caroline Kent, Scott Kolbo, Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, Nery Gabriel Lemus, Marianne Lettieri, Cherith Lundin, and Justin Randolph Thompson and Bradly Dever Treadaway. The exhibition has come to a close, but there’s a wonderful twenty-minute video tour of it that’s archived on YouTube, with artist commentaries starting at 2:44:

In addition to the video, there’s an exhibition catalog available for online viewing. It features a series of artist interviews, which address topics such as silence, the importance of process, and the nature of parable. And of course it includes photos of all the works in the exhibition. Let me highlight just two.

Lettieri, Marianne_Fenetre de Reparateurs
Marianne Lettieri, Fenêtre de Réparateurs (Window of Repairers), 2020. Vintage pincushions, wood, paper, 33 × 18 × 3 1/2 in.

The first is by my friend Marianne Lettieri [previously], whose work is informed by her “increased awareness of the enchantment of everyday actions and moments—the sequences of ordinary human existence.

I would hate to think that life is just the important events. You get married, you get an award, have a baby. These are big things, and some are what we call sacraments in the church, but I’ve realized that peeling potatoes, fixing the faucet, and other common tasks make up most of our daily living. The big moments are a part of it, but it’s the string of these small moments that are present and sacred acts we need to pay attention to.

Much of her art illuminates the value of domestic labor, such as Fenêtre de Réparateurs, which sets forty-one used pincushions, still bearing the threads put there by their previous owners, into a wooden framework, evoking a stained glass window. “This work speaks about a culture of menders—people who choose to save, repair, and transform damaged things,” says Lettieri.

Baby Needs New Shoes (Thompson and Treadaway)
Justin Randolph Thompson and Bradly Dever Treadaway, Baby Needs New Shoes, 2021. Photographic transfer on wood with antenna and rag, 20 × 13 × 2 in.

Second, Traveling Shoes is a performative sound work by longtime collaborators Justin Randolph Thompson and Bradly Dever Treadaway, from 2013’s Flux Night in Atlanta. It involved a two-seat shoe-shine “chariot” being dragged through the crowds, stopping to gold-leaf the shoes of anyone who was interested. All the while, on the back of the chariot, a three-piece jazz band played the traditional African American song “Traveling Shoes,” which is about getting ready for Jesus’s return. The original performance, which lasted around three hours and has been re-created in several different contexts since then, is archived in a twelve-minute video, which is what was on display at Bethel. To go alongside, the curators asked the duo to submit a photograph from the performance series; they went the extra mile and used a photo as the basis of a new mixed-media work that incorporates objects used in the performance, such as a mechanic’s rag and an antenna, which is what I’ve posted here.

+++

RELIGIOUS POEMS SAMPLER: “Original and unorthodox poems about theology,” compiled by Mark Jarman: An excellent selection of ten poems, all but one available for reading from the Poetry Foundation. Jarman is a leading poet of the twenty-first century and a Christian. He was too humble to include one of his own poems on the list, but his poetry is much in this vein, so for number 11 I would add Jarman’s “Five Psalms,” from his collection To the Green Man (2004).