ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)
“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26,8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.
SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.
Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.
I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.
Virgin! Daughter of mine
Where have you been
You’re all dirty
You smell of jasmine
Your skirt’s stained carmine
And your earrings are clinking
I’ve been in the garden
I went to look at the sky
And I fell asleep.
When I awoke
I smelled of jasmine
An angel was scattering petals
Over me . . .
Vinícius de Moraes (1913–1980) was a Brazilian poet, lyricist, essayist, playwright, and diplomat who contributed to the birth of bossa nova music. Natalie d’Arbeloff (b. 1929) is a London-based painter, printmaker, cartoonist, and maker of artist’s books, born in Paris of French and Russian parents; she has also lived in Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, and the United States.
“Annunciation” takes as its subject the teenage Mary’s mystical encounter with an angel (Luke 1:26–38), after which she becomes pregnant with the Son of God. Moraes sets the event in Montevideo, Uruguay, imagining a dialogue, after the fact, between Mary and her mother.
The central image of scattered jasmine petals is a lovely inversion of the “deflowering” euphemism for first-time sex. In the Holy Spirit’s coming upon her to conceive Jesus, Mary was flowered—her prime beauty bestowed, not (if we were to use the outdated, sexist metaphor) taken away.
While Christianity maintains that Mary remained a virgin at least until Jesus’s birth, her becoming pregnant marked her physically, indelibly. Moraes goes so far as to suggest there was a tearing of the hymen—hence her red-stained skirt, which I read as blood. However, his retelling is nonliteral, more in the mode of magic realism, so there’s no need to get all clinical or to try to “explain” the imagery. It’s dreamlike.
The Gospel-writer suggests that Mary interacted with the angel Gabriel in a vision (i.e., a waking dream), but in Moraes’s poem the primary interaction takes place during sleep. In her dream, Mary hears the divine call and consents to its demands, and when she awakes, like in the movies, a material manifestation of the spiritual experience is there to tell her it was real: she is covered in sweet-smelling jasmine.
What is your reaction to or interpretation of the poem?
Annunciation-themed posts from the Art & Theology archives include:
The Cadet Chapel was designed to house three distinct worship spaces—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—on two levels, with a large “All-Faiths Room” on a third (bottom) level available to members of other faiths. In 2007 a Buddhist Chapel (the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) was added, and more recently a Muslim prayer room, and outside there is a Falcon Circle for the Earth-Centered Spirituality community (pagans, Druids, Wiccans, etc.), dedicated in 2011. Because of the building’s sound-proofing and separate entrances, different services can be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.
I visited the Cadet Chapel last year shortly before it closed in September for a major renovation and restoration project needed to address water damage. It is scheduled to reopen again in fall 2023.
The most striking feature of the exterior is its seventeen spires, made to resemble jet fighter wings. I must admit: though it is an impressive structure, and I’m fully aware it is a military chapel, the evocation of warplanes for a worship space is a little unsettling. But the design choice does give the building great height—it points to the heavens as do the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe, meant to turn the eye upward toward God.
The steel frame of the chapel comprises one hundred identical tetrahedrons, each weighing five tons and enclosed with aluminum panels. The surfaces of the outer panels are striated so that they reflect light differently throughout the day, depending on the sun’s position.
The chapel is situated on a terrace that overlooks part of the campus as well as beautiful mountain vistas.
The front façade faces south—an atypical orientation for churches, which are traditionally built on a west–east axis, but a choice made, I’m assuming, to best utilize the sunlight for the interior decoration (see next section).
To reach the main entrance you have to ascend a wide granite stairway that leads up one story to an uncovered front porch. Walk inside, and you’re in the narthex (lobby) of the Protestant Chapel.
The Protestant Chapel is by far the largest worship space within the Cadet Chapel, taking up the whole main floor—a choice made based on the religious demographics of enrolled cadets at the time of the building’s construction in the early sixties. (An article published shortly after the chapel’s dedication reported that 68% of cadets listed themselves as Protestant, 29% Catholic, and 2% Jewish, with a few listing other faiths or agnosticism.)
Though the exterior of the Cadet Chapel is, as I experienced it, somewhat cold, sterile, severe, the interior is incredibly warm and genial. Its vertical lift is spectacular. Stained glass strip windows provide ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons and progress from darker to lighter as they reach the altar, with some of the nearly 25,000 dalles (small, thick glass slabs) being deliberately chipped to produce jewel-like facets. The play of colored light across vault, floor, and pews was my favorite part of this space.
March 25, nine months before Christmas, is when the church celebrates the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary. The narrative of this event is known as the “Annunciation” because Gabriel comes from heaven to announce the good news to Mary that she has been chosen to give birth to and to mother the Son of the Most High God.
Because Luke 1:26–38 is such a familiar Bible passage, it helps to read it in less familiar translations so that it can land fresh in our ears. So here is Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.
She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.
He will be great,
be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”
Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”
The angel answered,
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.
“And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”
And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
This traditional Eastern Orthodox acclamation in Church Slavonic, based on Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s words to Mary in Luke 1 (and better known by the closely related Latin Ave Maria from the West), has been set by various composers over the centuries, most famously by Sergei Rachmaninoff. His solemn interpretation is beautiful, but I’m partial to the celebratory setting by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, commissioned by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, for the festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1990. It is for SATB a cappella choir.
Богородице Дево, радуйся,
благодатная Марие, Господь с тобою.
Благословена ты в женах,
и благословен плод чрева твоего,
яко Спаса родила еси душ наших.
Bogoróditse Dyévo, ráduisya,
Blagodátnaya Maríye, Gospód s tobóyu.
Blagoslovyéna ty v zhenákh,
i blagoslovyén plod chryéva tvoyevó,
yáko Spása rodilá yesí dush náshikh.
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos,
Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb,
for Thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.
All but a small number of Pärt’s ninety-odd compositions since 1976 are settings of biblical texts or Christian prayers. For an excellent article on him, see “How Arvo Pärt speaks prayer into a secular world” by Peter C. Bouteneff, published in the Christian Century. “Why are people listening so avidly?” Bouteneff wonders. “The same audience that would instinctively tune out anything with a whiff of Christian sensibility, that would normally be repulsed by pious petitions to Jesus or Mary for the forgiveness of their wretched sins, is held rapt by these very prayers when Pärt speaks them through his compositions.” Beauty has a way of penetrating people’s defenses, it seems. And that’s one reason we so desperately need artists.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Annunciation, cycle A, click here.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.
This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.
Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.
He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.
There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.
Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.
Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take
the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.
And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s
tearing down the temple—that history
interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.
His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
Imagine the endless effort: a man
in the distance, deep in the could have been,
who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,
flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,
the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.
For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—
her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered
with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s
blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
carelessness of cracked roads leading away
from his town, beneath a matted pulp
of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting
to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese
receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,
their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
empty spaces where the wings once beat.
And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,
he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
beneath her brow, under the layers of
shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.
Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?
The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”
There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?
“Take a World”by Terri Witek
The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36
Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,
gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow
on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened
gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert
to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah
behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma
who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.
Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.
(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)
I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).
I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.
The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.
“Waiting for the Revolution”by Peter Steele
If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.
This is not wasted on the woman who,
her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.
Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.
I have been in and out of the world worlds,
amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit
that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.
“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).
Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.
Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.
He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.
Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peaceor Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.
The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.
In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!
One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”
I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:
“The world is about to turn.”
For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.
So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)
We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.
I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.
To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:
The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .
So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?
ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.
LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.
As the liturgical calendar was turning over into a new year this week, my husband Eric and I were at the tail end of a visit to India, staying with new friends Jyoti and Jane Sahi. Jyoti’s an artist, and Jane is a children’s educator, and together they live in the Christian village of Silvepura, north of Bangalore, where for years they ran, respectively, an art ashram and a school. It was a lot of fun getting to know them and their work, and discussing art, culture, theology, politics.
Before our flight departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the first day of Advent, Jane had set an oil lamp on the dinner table, decorated with flowers from the garden, and selected two poems for us to read aloud: an excerpt from the Gitanjali(Song Offerings) by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore [previously], and “Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams. It was a meaningful welcoming in of the new season, and a beautiful blend of our hosts’ mixed cultural heritage: Indian and British.
Gitanjali XLVby Rabindranath Tagore:
Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, “He comes, comes, ever comes.”
In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he comes, comes, ever comes.
In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of clouds he comes, comes, ever comes.
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
“Advent Calendar”by Rowan Williams, published in After Silent Centuries (The Perpetua Press, 1994) and The Poems of Rowan Williams (The Perpetua Press, 2002; Carcanet Press, 2014):
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
While I was at Jyoti’s, I bought three paintings of his. One of them is an Annunciation image that shows Mary in a termite mound, which are considered sacred in India—microcosms of the temple, sources of fertility, and containers of treasure. I saw these tall, hard, insect-built structures in many areas around Bangalore where I was traveling, including a few on Jyoti’s property. (Note that locals refer to termites misleadingly as “white ants,” so these are “anthills.”)
According to Indian folklore, anthills are the ears of the earth, and Jyoti plays on that belief in his visualization of the moment of the Incarnation, of God’s becoming human in the person of Jesus. Mary’s womb is in the shape of an ear, which receives the Word of God. This Word is shown first at the top of the composition in the form of two hamsas (Sanskrit for “I am he,” or “I am that I am”), a mythical swan-like bird whose body resembles an AUM, the ancient threefold syllable, “the Sound that is believed to reverberate creatively through eternity,” Jyoti said. (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”)
Mary listens to the Word, becomes pregnant with the Word, which takes on flesh inside her. Christ, the primordial One, is implanted in the womb of the earth, of humanity—and a tree of life grows forth.
There’s a sixth-century hymn, known as the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God), that celebrates Mary’s role as container of the Divine: “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! greater than the holy of holies. Hail! ark gilded by the Spirit. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.” Mary as temple, as holy of holies, as ark of the covenant, contains the world’s greatest Treasure: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You can hear Jyoti introduce the painting in the short video above, which is just a snippet of the footage Eric and I took while we were there. (More to come!)
As I traveled back home to the US with this rolled-up canvas last Sunday, I kept thinking about the words of the two poets I had just read—Tagore and Williams. I thought about how Christ came once “like child” but also how he “comes, comes, ever comes” even still today, “in sorrow after sorrow . . . press[ing] upon my heart . . . mak[ing] my joy to shine.”
Advent, which begins December 1 this year, ushers in four weeks of holy longing for Christ’s coming into our dark and broken world to make all things new. With the Old Testament saints and the early Christians alike, we cry, “Come, Lord!” The anticipation that marks the season is both joyful and aching, as on the one hand, we have a sure hope that the Lord is coming, and that’s cause for celebration, but on the other hand, well, we’re tired and weak, and sometimes hope hurts.
Every Advent, my husband and I whip out the Spotify playlist I’ve been building over the years, and we let the music shape our longings toward Christmas, toward new creation. Centuries’ worth of Christian song comes through our speakers to build up our hearts and minds with words and tunes that prepare us to welcome not just Christ’s birth but also the parousia. While I’m not a stickler for “no Christmas music before December 25!,” I have come to appreciate the distinctiveness of Advent and have found something sweet in the waiting. Of course, Advent bleeds into Christmas, and both seasons contain both darkness and light, mourning and gladness—but setting aside a month to linger with the visions of the prophets, the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus and Paul’s sobering warnings of impending judgment can deepen one’s appreciation of the fullness of Christmas and how it fits into God’s bigger story.
People, I think, are generally unaware of the rich body of Advent-themed music that’s available to us. Apart from the classics “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and maybe a selection or two from Handel’s Messiah, I bet many Christians would be hard-pressed to name a single Advent song.
There’s intention to the structure of the list, which moves from God’s promise to Abraham that “all shall be well” to ancient prophecies of a redemption-to-come to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat to Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids and other such warnings of / yearnings for his second coming, with glimmers and bursts of hope scattered throughout.
Sometimes the line between a “Christmas” song and an “Advent” song is blurry, but generally I characterize an Advent song as one that’s marked by a sense of longing or expectation. As I said before, this longing can be expressed joyously or with tears and groaning, and both these shades are present in the playlist.
The predominant musical style represented is indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, The Welcome Wagon, The Oh Hellos [previously], The Brilliance, Ordinary Time, etc.), but there’s also some choral, gospel, jazz, Taizé chant, sixties rock, show tunes, a Harry Potter-esque celesta interlude, and an Irish reel! Oh, and a smattering of virtuosic oud solos by Joseph Tawadros, with evocative titles like “Dream with Me” and “Where It All Began.” I hope the list is full of surprises for you.
I must note that there are plenty more traditional Advent hymns that exist but that I’ve excluded either because I could not find suitable recordings on Spotify, or because the tunes are dull or awkward. (And I’m sure there are also many songs that I’m simply not aware of.) I put a lot of stock in musical composition and vocal quality.
As you move down the first third of the list, let me draw your attention to some of the biblical texts the songs are drawn from—various foretastes of the coming kingdom that God vouchsafed to certain Hebrew poets and seers. May we capture their vision this Advent:
“Come, Lord” is the cry of Advent, and you will find it manifest in many of the songs here, from the bright, guitar-picked “Come Into My Heart” by Reilly & Maloney or Isaac Wardell’s “Messiah” waltz to St. Ambrose’s fourth-century “Veni, Redemptor gentium”—translated variously into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” each set to a different tune—to the African American spiritual “Kumbaya” (Gullah for “Come by Here”) [previously].
I’ve included only a few non-English songs, and where you encounter them, I encourage you to look up lyric translations, so as not to miss their full impact. The Swedish “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) by Edvard Evers and Gustaf Nordqvist, for example, prays, “Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings, / over the battlefield’s blood and cry . . .”
The “Come, Lord” song that makes me the most emotional, that taps deeply into my longing for the world, and my own heart, to be made new, is “Immanuel” by Jason Morant. “God with us, where are you now? . . . Be here somehow . . . in this desert of prosperity.” I’ve prayed through this song for years but have only just now discovered the music video Morant made for it, which attaches to it a story of desperation:
Perhaps my favorite Advent song is “The Trumpet Child,” written by husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine. The two are superb songwriters, here giving us some stunning imagery and a really unique take on Advent:
The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race
The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire
The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum
The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long
The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand
The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed
The song intertwines Christ’s first and second advents, combining incarnation with apocalypse. The trumpet is a heralding instrument, announcing the arrival of a ruler or dignitary—but the aural image here is not of a ceremonial fanfare, formal and rigid, but of a fiery, improvisatory jazz solo, blaring soulfully into the night, and played by the comer himself. At his arrival, Christ will “blast the sky till it’s reborn,” rupturing the old world order. (I think of Isaiah 64:1–2: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood . . .”) A fearsome thought, that sudden splitting, that roar . . . and yet at the same time, the arrival is smooth and graceful. Strength and tenderness, hand in hand.
Christ’s mouthpiece, the part of the trumpet you blow on to make sound, is a burning coal, the song says; this picks up on imagery from Isaiah 6:6–7 and evokes notions of the sacred, sacrifice, purgation. The bell, or flare—the part of the trumpet where sound comes out—is “a burst of wild desire.” Christ’s song is full of passionate intensity. This smoky, smoldering, bursting quality is reflected in the playing of piano, double bass, and percussion throughout, and by the trumpet and sax that come in after the final verse. (Note: The live performance above has no trumpet or saxophone.) Appropriately for Advent, the song does not end on the tonic, the home chord, but rather remains unresolved, playing out the tension that we presently live in, between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the space between his first and second comings.
Major props to Rob and Amy Seiffert of Madhouse for the album’s brilliant cover illustration, by the way, which converts the flaring horn of a vintage record player into an open white lily. The result is a hybrid image of “power” and “grace,” which is how Christ comes to us. His gospel packs a punch, blaring into our lives, but it’s also full of delicate beauty. The choice of a lily to allude to the “trumpet child’s” advent has precedent in countless traditional paintings of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel holds such a flower out to Mary just before Jesus is conceived in her womb.
“The Trumpet Child” references legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo”) and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, as well as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy of Isaiah 11, where predation is no more, and the end-time Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Jesus’s final aim, Bergquist sings, is to fill the earth with joy. Joy to the world.
So lastly, that joy: Christy Nockels. Her hand-clapping, foot-stomping “Dance at Migdal Eder,” played on the Irish fiddle, never ceases to get me excited for Christmas! Although it uses the present progressive tense, not the future, I have it on my Advent list because it creates for me a sense of Love’s call revving up, coming closer, beckoning me to dance. And it amplifies my yearning for “home.” It’s from Nockels’s 2016 album The Thrill of Hope, and indeed, it captures that thrill.
Can you hear it calling
Mercy is falling down
Love is calling
Love is calling you home
I had to look up the name in the title: Migdal Eder (literally “tower of the flock”) is an ancient geographic locale on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where shepherds tended their sheep. So Nockels likely had in mind the rejoicing of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–20) when she wrote this song.
So there you go. I offer this lovingly crafted Advent playlist, with many thanks to all the contributing artists, as an invitation to slow down and reconnect with the amazing, ongoing salvation narrative that God’s authoring. Christ has come, Christ will come again. And in the Spirit, he is with us now, Emmanuel. Let’s reorient our desires and expectations toward him.
If 170-plus songs is too overwhelming a list for you to work through, use this abridged Advent playlist instead, which contains just an hour’s worth of highlights:
As you prepare room for Christ Jesus this season, may you come to experience more deeply and intimately all the hope, peace, joy, and love that are yours in him.
(Update, 1/6/20: Thank you for all the positive feedback! I’ve just added another batch of songs to the list, some of them at the end, others integrated higher up to maintain the narrative. New additions include “Will There Really Be a Morning” by Julie Lee, “Let There Be” by Gungor, “Advent Moon” by Cecilia McDowall, some selections from Drew Miller’s, Nathan Partain’s, and Lo Sy Lo’s new Advent albums, some Katy Wehr and Nina Simone, and the title track of the Duke of Norfolk album Attendre et Espérer, whose text comes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas:
Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: “Wait and hope.”)
EXHIBITION REVIEW: “Overstating the religious?” by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times: Michael Wright brought to my attention an old review of the 2003 LACMA exhibition “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art,” in which art critic Christopher Knight harshly faults the curators for using religion as the organizing principle . . . of an exhibition of religious art. He says it’s “bizarre” and “inappropriate” that
traditional artistic concerns of art museum exhibitions – style, historical context, connoisseurship, artist biography, etc. – play no part in [the objects’] presentation. Instead, LACMA’s galleries unfold as the articulation and embodiment of a religious philosophy. . . . You will leave this exhibition having not a clue who these artists were . . . and how (or if) their imagery evolved. Instead, the reason for the art’s inclusion is to instruct us in various aspects of the embodiment of perfect compassion – that is, to provide experience with critical theological nuances of “the Middle Way.”
The review itself struck me as bizarre—that Knight decries the exhibition’s focus on the religious meaning of these Tantric paintings, which he considers secondary to their aesthetic qualities and altogether outside the purview of an art institution to comment on. I was glad to see that several readers responded in letters, such as Andy Serrano, who wrote that “up until recent centuries, people did not make art for art’s sake. People who made religious art made it in order to enhance the religious experience in one way or another. Separating religious art without the context of religion is like trying to swim without getting wet.” Phil Cooke chimed in, “The fact that Knight sees no legitimate connection between art and the religious faith that inspired it is at once outrageous and yet sadly typical of current critical assumptions.” [HT: Still Life]
A decade and a half after this exhibition closed, I’ve observed that curators, critics, and art historians oftentimes still struggle to discern or articulate (or else they simply neglect) the theological content and/or devotional purposes of religious art, as they preoccupy themselves instead with the “traditional artistic concerns” Knight mentions. But I do feel that the situation is improving overall, with wider-spread recognition that evaluating certain works of art through the primary lens of religion—if that’s the context in and for which they were created—is not only permissible but essential.
TED TALK: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The single story, says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is when one story (about a person, place, or ethnicity) becomes the only story, creating stereotypes, or a flattened perspective. Adichie admits to having had a single story of her household servant growing up (“poverty”), and later on, of Mexicans (“the abject immigrant”). Many Americans have a single story of Africa. But the problem is, we are all formed by many stories, no single one more definitive than another—and we need to talk about them all. [HT: Sarah Quezada]
ESSAY: “And God Said to Pastors: Use More Sermon Puns and Plan More Parties” by W. David O. Taylor, Christianity Today: Taylor gives three reasons to practice levity and humor in public worship, quoting Augustine, Chesterton, Lewis, Barth, Capon, Buechner, Ratzinger, and Eugene Peterson along the way. I especially like his first point about grace and hyper-abundance.
ESSAY: “In Defense of Owning Too Many Books” by Daniel Melvill Jones, The Curator: I relate to this author’s tottering stacks of books throughout his house—having exhausted my shelf space, I also have them in closets, hutches, and chests. I’m a bibliophile, what can I say. Probably about a third of the books in my personal library I haven’t read yet, which, I affirm with Daniel M. Jones, is both humbling and tantalizing, a “promise of ideas to explore.”
Potential is not in the books you’ve read but in those that remain unread. Therefore, you ought to expand the rows of what you do not know as much as your resources allow, and expect them to keep growing as you get older and accumulate more knowledge.
The books you surround yourself with “will feed [your] life and output in unseen ways.” So stock up!
FORE-EDGE PAINTINGS: The Boston Public Library has one of the world’s finest collections of fore-edge paintings, an art form originating around the tenth century but popularized in the eighteenth, utilizing as a surface the edge of a book opposite its spine. Over time, the content of these paintings evolved from decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes and narrative scenes, like these two from volumes 1 and 2 of a Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1803. [HT: Public Domain Review]
Great Big Story recently featured contemporary fore-edge painter Martin Frost, who specializes in the vanishing variety. Cool!
MUSIC DOCUMENTARY: “Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music,” presented by Lucy Worsley: Aired in October 2017 on BBC Four, this hourlong program presents a history of choral evensong, the Protestant church service of music and prayer born out of the English Reformation and still performed today. Worsley moves through the Tudor monarchs, discussing their relationship to sacred music—from Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church but didn’t want to abandon the Latin mass, and who thus hired Thomas Tallis to compose in a more austere style in which the words of the liturgy could be more easily understood; to his son Edward VI, who, in his dislike of elaborate music, ordered the disbanding of choirs and the destruction of organs, but also supported the creation of the first complete English prayer-book (Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) and John Marbeck’s musical guide to it; to Mary I, who returned England to Catholicism, with its high-church music, all in Latin; and finally Elizabeth I, a moderate Protestant whose compromising spirit led to the reinstatement of English evensong but with much leeway given as to how it is set, whether in monophony, homophony, or polyphony. Elizabeth’s patronage and legal protections of church music made possible the glorious compositions of, among others, William Byrd, and ensured the survival of choral evensong. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Choral evensong is a continuing tradition, and Worsley concludes by highlighting its new possibilities, such as the Oxford Blues Service by Roderick Williams. Listen to an excerpt on the SoundCloud player below.