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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.”

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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 song “Dem Golden Slippers,” which uses clean, shiny shoes as a metaphor for living an unstained life in preparation 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.

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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).

“The Annunciation” by Theodosia Garrison

Casorati, Felice_Portrait study
Felice Casorati (Italian, 1883–1963), Study for Portrait, 1919. Oil on cardboard. Museo del Novecento, Florence.

God whispered, and a silence fell; the world
Poised one expectant moment, like a soul
Who sees at heaven’s threshold the unfurled
White wings of cherubim, the sea impearled,
And pauses, dazed, to comprehend the whole;
Only across all space God’s whisper came
And burned about her heart like some white flame.

Then suddenly a bird’s note thrilled the peace,
And earth again jarred noisily to life
With a great murmur as of many seas.
But Mary sat with hands clasped on her knees,
And lifted eyes with all amazement rife,
And in her heart the rapture of the spring
Upon its first sweet day of blossoming.

This sonnet by Theodosia Garrison (1874–1944) originally appeared in The Earth Cry: And Other Poems (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1910) and is in the public domain.

Roundup: (Virtual) Arts conference, Psalm 129 jazz-hip-hop-folk fusion, and more

This year’s The Breath and the Clay creative arts gathering, on the theme of “Reenchantment,” is taking place March 17–21, with both in-person (in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and virtual options. Registration for virtual attendees is pay-what-you-wish. Presenters include theologian Jeremy Begbie, poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, singer-songwriter Joy Ike, contemplative author Christine Valters Paintner, dancer Camille D.C. Sutton, and many more . . . including me! On the evening of March 18 I’ll be giving a twenty-minute talk titled “Saying Yes: The Annunciation in Contemporary Art,” which will be archived online afterward. (The global church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation the following week, on March 25.) Here’s the description:

The story of Jesus’s miraculous conception in the womb of Mary, a first-century Galilean peasant girl, told in Luke 1 has activated the imaginations of artists since the early Christian era. When an angelic messenger came and told Mary she had been chosen to bear God’s Son, she cycled through a range of emotions before ultimately accepting the call, stepping onto a path that, though scary, would be life-giving not only for her but also for her religious and ethnic community and for the whole world.

God invites us to participate in his work in the world and gives us the grace to do it. When his voice breaks through our safe, predictable routines, calling us to something big, do we respond with brave obedience? In this talk Victoria Emily Jones will share a handful of contemporary artworks that visualize that pivotal moment in salvation history when Mary said yes and set in motion the incarnation. These works show us the wild beauty of God’s plans and can help us tune our ears to the annunciations in our own lives.

(The title slide image is a detail of an Annunciation painting by Jyoti Sahi.)

I’m always impressed by the variety of artists, arts professionals, and art lovers that director Stephen Roach manages to bring together for The Breath and the Clay. Click here to learn more and to register.

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ONLINE LENT SERIES:

>> VCS Lent 2021: The Visual Commentary on Scripture is highlighting a different exhibition from its archives for each week of Lent, with new content including a video introduction to the week by Ben Quash and an audio reading of each of the three constituent commentaries.

The first week was on the theme of Covenant and covers Genesis 8:20–9:17. Stefania Gerevini curated three artworks from Italy that convey some aspect of the rainbow as divine promise: a thirteenth-century mosaic from the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, a colorful dome fresco (fifteenth century) from the Cappella Portinari in Milan, and a contemporary light installation by Dan Flavin at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, also in Milan.

Week 2, on Prophecy, explores the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Jonathan Koestlé-Cate comments on three modern artworks: Crucified Tree Form by Theyre Lee-Elliott, a crucifix by Germaine Richier (which sparked outrage when it was unveiled at Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Assy, in 1950), and an installation by postminimalist artist Anish Kapoor at the church of Saint Peter, Cologne.

>> “The Many Faces of Jesus”: I’ve been enjoying this Lenten series (on blog and podcast) by medievalist Dr. Grace Hamman, who makes medieval lit super accessible. “For Lent, Old Books With Grace will share and explore some medieval representations of Jesus in art and literature—the versions of Jesus that dominate the medieval church’s imagination. These medieval portrayals of Jesus may strike us as odd, threatening, charming, creative, stupid, or inspiring. In attending to these versions of Jesus, I hope for a few end goals: the first is that we may expand our Christian imagination. Perhaps a side of Jesus that has never occurred to you, or been sideswept by our contemporary culture, will suddenly illuminate an aspect of the Jesus of scripture. The second is that we may better identify the ways that we ourselves have culturally contained and portrayed Jesus, in positive and negative ways. Often the strangeness of the past helps us recognize the weird or damaging things we believe in order to make Jesus more palatable, understandable, or like us.”

Christ and his bride
Jean Bondol, “The bride (Ecclesia) and bridegroom (Christ),” from a Bible Historiale made in Paris, 1371–72. The Hague, MMW, 10 B 23, fol. 330v.

So far she has covered Jesus as judge, lover, and knight.

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RETUNED HYMNS:

>> “Up from My Youth (Psalm 129)” by Advent Birmingham, feat. CashBack and Terence June Gray: This is such a strange and compelling fusion! “An 1806 hymn by Isaac Watts meets hip-hop meets Johnny Cash meets folk meets New Orleans jazz meets industrial steel factory.”

Led by Zac Hicks, Advent Birmingham [previously] is a group of worship musicians from the Cathedral Church of the Advent in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Hicks wrote this new tune for Isaac Watts’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 129 and integrated a rap by guest artist Terence June Gray from Memphis. Singing lead (and playing drums) is Leif Bondarenko, the front man of the Johnny Cash tribute band CashBack. The video was filmed at Birmingham’s historic Sloss Furnaces. Available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

You can read the lyrics here, which include a slight revision of Watts’s verse 6.

>> “Thy Mercy, My God”: Words by John Stocker, 1776; music by Sandra McCracken, 2005; performed by Ellen Petersen Haygood (of The Petersens bluegrass band), 2018.

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POETRY READING: “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed, read, with commentary, by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Poetry Unbound: What do you find hard to forgive in yourself? What might help? In this poem, the poet makes a list of all the things she holds against herself: opening fridge doors, fantasies, wilted seedlings, unkempt plants, lost bags, feeling awkward, treating someone poorly. Dilruba Ahmed repeats the line ‘I forgive you’ over and over, like a litany, in a hope to deepen what it means to be in the world, and be a person of love.”