Folly of the Cross (Artful Devotion)

Alexamenos graffito
Graffito with a parody of the Crucifixion, scratched in plaster on the wall of the Domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill, Rome, ca. 200. Collection of the Museo Palatino, Rome.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

—1 Corinthians 1:18–25

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SONG: “The Old Rugged Cross” | Words and music by George Bennard, 1913 | Performed by Angie Sutherland and Edgar Napier, 2019

In this recording from last year, Angie Sutherland sings “The Old Rugged Cross” with her father on their front porch in West Virginia, a favorite pastime. A few months later, on August 25, he died of cancer.

The classic hymn reflects on the paradox of the cross that Paul teases out in this week’s epistle reading: it’s both ugly and beautiful, both shameful and glorious. George Bennard, the songwriter, describes it as “the emblem of suffering and shame,” “so despised by the world,” “reproach[ful]” (disgraceful, discrediting). And yet for the Christian it “has a wondrous attraction,” “a wondrous beauty,” rough and blood-stained though it is, because the sacrifice of Christ that took place there brings about the world’s salvation. And so we love it, cherish it, cling to it, as the greatest gift and our only hope, though the world may laugh.

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The paradoxical nature of the Crucifixion makes it especially challenging for artists to represent visually. How do you show something that is utterly degrading and an apparent defeat but that is actually a cosmic victory, an act of self-giving worthy of praise? Artistic renderings are often accused of being either too sanitized or too gory.

The subject of Christ’s crucifixion is rare in early Christian art, entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome, and, despite its centrality in preaching and the textual theology of the church fathers, doesn’t become common until the Byzantine period—and even then it is the cross’s victory that is shown, at the expense of its shamefulness. This rejection of Crucifixion images wasn’t an issue of depicting God the Son, as he showed up in other scenes early on—feeding at his mother’s breast, talking to the woman at the well, healing the hemorrhaging woman, raising Lazarus from the dead, enthroned in heaven, and even during other stages of his passion. The rarity of the crucified Christ in art of the first several centuries of the Common Era has puzzled art historians and theologians alike, who can only speculate that the shame associated with crucifixion as a form of execution and the stigma thus attached to worshiping a crucified deity are behind it.

Alexamenos graffito tracing
Stone rubbing trace of the Alexamenos graffito, published in “Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries” by Rodolfo Lanciani (1898)

For the primary image of this Artful Devotion, I’ve taken a different tack and am featuring an anti-Christian image, a historical artifact from ca. 200 Rome that shows just how shameful crucifixion was. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . a stumbling block . . .” It’s a graffito that was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the ruins of a paedagogium, a boarding school for imperial page boys, on the Palatine Hill, within the emperors’ palace complex. (The school had been walled up sometime in the third century to support constructions above it.) Richard Viladesau describes the image in his book The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance:

In an unfrequented corner of the Palatine museum in Rome there is a collection of ancient graffiti. Most visitors give them no more than a glance before passing on to the more attractive statues and artifacts. Roughly etched on slabs of marble, these inscriptions once defaced the walls of the imperial palaces that stood on the spot. Among them is one from the residence of the imperial pages called the graffito of Alexamenos. It consists of a very roughly drawn image and a few words of Greek. In style and appearance it has nothing to distinguish it from the many other similar pieces of graffiti that abound in Roman museums; but for the Christian it has a particular significance. The rough incision shows a crucified man with the head of an ass. Next to him is a smaller figure with an arm extended in his direction. Nearby are the crudely carved words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” It is the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Christ and of his adoration as divine. In a city so full of the triumphant monuments of Christianity, there is something strangely moving in finding this first visual testimony to the Christian faith amidst the fragments of daily life of pagan Rome; and even more so in finding it in this rude sketch, probably drawn by a palace page with cruel schoolboy humor to mock the faith of a fellow slave.

The graffito reminds us of how Christianity must have appeared to the sophisticated ancient pagan world: a strange minority religion from a small backwater of the civilized world: a religion that was centered on a man punished as a criminal with the most humiliating form of execution, and a faith practiced mostly by slaves and people of the lower classes. It reflects the Roman belief that the Jews worshipped a god with the head of an ass—a notion that was apparently also carried over to Christians. It also shows graphically the scandal of the cross to which St. Paul refers. For sophisticated Hellenistic society, the notion of a suffering god was ridiculous: an obviously mythological conception. For the adherents of popular religion, Jewish or gentile, the notion of a savior who was himself defeated by the powers of evil was equally absurd.

How did the cross, the symbol of degradation, an occasion for mockery, become the primary symbol of Christian faith? (19–20)

(That concluding question is precisely what Viladesau explores in the rest of the book, one in a series!)

For further reading, see

See also “The Crucifixion of Christ in Art,” a lecture given by the Rt. Revd. Lord Richard Harries at Gresham College on January 12, 2011. (He discusses the Alexamenos graffito briefly, starting at 9:50.)

As a juxtaposition to that anonymous Roman bully’s scrawl, consider the splendidly jeweled, gold repoussé cover of a Carolingian Gospel book from the court school of Charles the Bald, known as the Lindau Gospels. (It came quite a bit later, in the ninth century.) It majors on the “glory” side of Paul’s equation, even though the peripheral figures are shown in mourning.

Crucifixion (Lindau Gospels)
Front cover of the Lindau Gospels, made in France, ca. 870–80. Gold repoussé, 35 × 27.5 cm. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

I wonder what part of the story we lose with this beautiful, shiny, strong, open-eyed Christ. And on the converse, with Crucifixion images that focus heavily on suffering, humiliation, showing a Christ who’s beaten, bloody, forsaken, and crying out in agony. Is it possible to convey both aspects of the Crucifixion—the shame and the glory, the pain and transcendence—simultaneously? Can you name any artists who have done so successfully? (I have some thoughts, but I want to hear yours!) Or do we need a plenitude of Crucifixion images to hold one another in check and to help us more fully abide in the multifaceted mystery that is the death of Christ? Or, whether the Crucifixion image is, at face value, repellent or attractive, is that irrelevant—does the Christian viewer simply bring his or her theology to the image, reading into an ugly Crucifixion the beautiful redemption wrought by such a sacrifice, or into a beautiful Crucifixion the ugliness of humanity’s depravity that led to such (implicit) suffering?


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 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Dawning Light (Artful Devotion)

Tutin, Judith_Breaking
Judith Tutin (Irish, 1979–), Breaking, 2011. Diptych, St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

—Isaiah 9:1–5

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

—Matthew 4:12–17

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SONG: “The Dawning Light” by James Ward, 1998 (CCLI 4200451)

 

This song was recorded live in 1998 at the Resurrection Youth Convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The MP3 can be downloaded for free, along with sheet music, at http://ncfmusic.com/resource/dawning-light/.

For a previously featured James Ward song, see the Artful Devotion “Death Is Ended.”

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The Jewish prophet Isaiah was active during the Assyrian captivity in the second half of the eighth century B.C. The Israelite lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, along with Gilead in Transjordan, the first to fall to Assyria; the people were deported, and their lands became Assyrian provinces. But these three areas, according to Isaiah 9:1, would also be the first to see the dawning of a glorious new era, where the people step out of darkness and desolation into the fruits of God’s victory, and all military equipment is cast once and for all into an enormous bonfire, for war is over, and oppression is no more.

In The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer emphasizes how Isaiah 9:2–5 is couched in past tenses, even though what it describes has not yet occurred:

The future is written as something which has already happened, for it belonged to the prophetic consciousness of men like Isaiah to cast themselves forward in time and then look back on the mighty acts of God, saying to us: ‘Look forward to it, it is certain, he has already done it!’ Because of this confidence, Isaiah can place the light of 9:1ff. in immediate proximity to the darkness of 8:22, not because it will immediately happen but because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith; those walking in the darkness can see the light ahead and are sustained by hope. . . .

Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth. (98–99)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

From the Mire (Artful Devotion)

Lo, Beth_Formed
“Formed” by Beth Lo (American, 1949–)

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.

—Psalm 40:1–3

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SONG: “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” | Early American folk hymn, performed by Lucy Simpson, with Rock Creek (Bill Destler, Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry), Mary Alice Amidon, Peter Amidon, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982, 2002)

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/6ptUvZJNH1KZnaFQNrqzp4

Lucy Picco Simpson (1940–2006) was a prodigious collector of old hymns, amassing four hundred hymnals, mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, over her lifetime. From their pages she would dig out old gems and help revive them—such as “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet.” After recording the song for Folk-Legacy Records in 1982, it was picked up by folk singers Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt in 1986, and thenceforth by others.

I’m not sure precisely where Simpson sourced the song from, but I do know both the text and tune were compiled, along with 249 others, by George Pullen Jackson in the book Spiritual Folk Songs of Early America (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1937), which you can download for free from Project Gutenberg.

Sharon Mountain Harmony, where Simpson’s simple rendition appears, is one of my favorite albums. In his 1983 review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote,

On “Sharon Mountain Harmony” the inspiration is the particularly rich motherlode of gospel song, both black and white traditions. Rock Creek [the vocal trio comprising Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry, and Bill Destler] shares the album with Lucy Simpson of Brooklyn, and Mary Alice and Peter Amidon of Vermont. Simpson and Rock Creek alternate leads while providing a constant, thick backing of informal and earthy harmonies with heavenly aspirations. The singing is comfortable, unhurried. No matter which voice leads – Simpson’s ethereal and soft soprano, Bill Destler’s gentle tenor or Wally McHenry’s persuasive baritone – it’s the richness of the ensemble, the entrancing vocal weaves, that make this album a quiet gem. Another plus is the choice of material. All 16 songs are deeply rooted in prayer meetings, crusty hymnals and songbooks, revival tents, amen corners, rural radio programs; they come from the land and they’ve been well-used. There’s the clipped bluegrass harmony of “Glory Bound,” the shape-note urgency of “There Are Angels Hovering Round,” the exuberant Baptist release of “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” and “Trouble So Hard,” the spiritual grace of “Blessed Quietness” and “Time Has Made a Change in Me,” the calming reassurance of “I Will Arise.” These are all wonderful songs, beautifully displayed. They reflect intensely personal convictions and a tremendous respect for the grace of unadorned voices singing from the heart.

Folk artist Sam Amidon, one of the sons of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon (who sing on Sharon Mountain Harmony), learned “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” from Lucy Simpson, a family friend. Music critic Ryan Foley calls Amidon a “clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist . . . disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes.”

https://open.spotify.com/track/0Qf1Tz7IFMh7g5mh2y71WS?si=1f8dpJZuRlym5kT3da4V1A

That’s what he does with this song on his 2013 album Bright Sunny South. “Brimming with unexpected shifts and subtleties,” Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” “begin[s] with a spare guitar and voice, [then is] slowly joined by hints of trumpet, understated fretless bass, and other elements until the song, very gradually, grows to a burning climax of dissonant guitars, synths, and explosive drums” (Fred Thomas). The sonic chaos at the end lasts almost a full two minutes and represents “the mire and the clay”—all that pulls us down, gets us stuck.

The melancholic tone that culminates in clashing is not what you’d expect from a psalm of testimony about the rock-solid stability God provides. But when the song is taken in context of the whole biblical psalm on which it is based, which vacillates between praise and lament, it makes perfect sense. Psalm 40 opens by celebrating the deliverance God has wrought in the past, but then it moves into the miry present, where the psalmist is in need of another deliverance:

For evils have encompassed me
beyond number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
. . .
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (vv. 12–13, 17b)

Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” captures the believer’s struggle through adverse circumstances to find firm footing once again on the “Rock of Ages.” From within the fray the speaker remembers God’s faithfulness, sings God’s faithfulness, and that weary song creates anticipation for yet another act of divine rescue.


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 Second Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed (Artful Devotion)

Arian Baptistery mosaic
The Baptism of Christ, early 6th century. Ceiling mosaic, Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Jim Forest.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

—Isaiah 42:1–9

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

—Matthew 3:13–17

You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. . . .

He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

—Acts 10:37–38, 42–43

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SONG: “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” | Words by James Montgomery, 1821 | Music by the Rev. Vito Aiuto, on Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, 2008 [previously]

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

He comes with succor speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.

He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before him on the mountains
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.

To him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
his kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.
The tide of time shall never
his covenant remove;
his name shall stand forever;
that name to us is love.

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Arian Baptistery
Arian Baptistery, Ravenna. Photo: Georges Jansoone.
Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery
Photo: Peter Milošević
Baptism of Christ, Arian Baptistery
Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP
Baptism of Christ (detail)
Photo: Jim Forest

The dome of the great sixth-century Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, shows, in glimmering mosaic, a young, beardless, fully nude Christ standing waist-deep in the waters of the Jordan as John the Baptist, dressed in leopard skin, anoints him—the archetypal event for the liturgy that used to be performed below. And actually, the anointing water in this representation comes from the beak of a dove, God the Holy Spirit.

The old man on the left is a personification of the Jordan River, whose attributes are derived from that of the Hellenistic river gods. He holds a reed in his hand and leans against a spilled jar, from whose mouth flows the river water, while from his head there sprouts a pair of red crab claws. He is clothed in the same moss that covers the rock John stands on.

Around this central scene, which is framed by a laurel wreath, is a procession of the twelve apostles, led by Peter (the gray-haired man with the key) and Paul (the dark-haired man with a scroll). The apostles carry jeweled crowns in their veiled hands—a sign of humility—as they make their way to the empty throne of Christ’s promised return, the hetoimasia, prepared with a plush purple cushion and jeweled cross.

Hetoimasia mosaic (Ravenna)
Photo: Jim Forest

The iconography here is very similar to that of the ceiling mosaic in the even older Baptistery of Neon, also in Ravenna.

I’ve featured baptistery dome art two other times on the blog: a painting of Paradise from the Padua Baptistery and a Last Judgment mosaic from the Florence Baptistery. Also related are the compilation of contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ that I published two years ago (the ones by Jerzy Nowosielski and Ivanka Demchuk are favorites of mine) and last year’s Artful Devotion for this calendar day, featuring a Baptism of Christ from the Hitda Codex and a virtuosic piano piece.


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 Baptism of the Lord, cycle A, click here.

Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music players in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Light and Gold (Artful Devotion)

Virgin of Humility
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1399–1482), The Virgin of Humility, ca. 1440. Tempera and gold on panel, 32.5 × 22.5 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

—John 1:3b–4, 9

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SONG: “Lux Aurumque” | Original English text (“Light and Gold”) by Edward Esch (born 1970), translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri, 2000 | Music by Eric Whitacre, 2000 | Performed by Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, 2010

A professional studio recording by the Eric Whitacre Singers was released on the 2010 album Light & Gold:

Lux,
Calida gravisque pura velut aurum
Et canunt angeli molliter
modo natum.

Light,
warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe.

“The Virtual Choir is a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world and their love of music in a new way through the use of technology. Singers record and upload their videos from locations all over the world. Each one of the videos is then synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” With 185 singers from twelve countries, “Lux Aurumque” was the Virtual Choir’s first project. Four other songs have since followed, the latest one featuring more than eight thousand singers, ages four to eighty-seven, from 120 countries.

To listen to another composition by Eric Whitacre that I’ve previously featured on the blog, see “i thank you God for most this amazing,” a choral setting of an E. E. Cummings poem.

Paolo, Giovanni di_Virgin of Humility (in framework)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

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 Second Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Cold Dark Night (Artful Devotion)

Flight to Egypt by Oscar Rabin
Oscar Rabin (Russian, 1928–2018), Flight into Egypt, 1977. Oil on canvas, 49 × 70 cm.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

—Matthew 2:13–18

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SONG: “Cold Dark Night” by Sam Phillips, originally released on her Cold Dark Night EP (2009) and re-released on the new full-length album Cold Dark Nights (2019)

 

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

The king said, “Kill every baby boy that you can find.
There’s been too much talk about a new king born,
And this throne is mine.”

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

He wasn’t born to be a king. He wasn’t born to fight.
He knew this world can get so dark that when you can
You’ve got to turn on the light.

When was he born? When was he born?
When was he born? On a cold dark night.

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A Russian painter and activist, Oscar Rabin was one of the founders of the Soviet Nonconformist Art movement. After being stripped of his citizenship in 1978 for political dissidence, he emigrated to Paris, where he lived until his death last year at age ninety. He is the subject of the feature-length documentaries Oscar (2018) and, with his wife and fellow artist Valentina Kropivnitskaya, In Search of a Lost Paradise (2015).


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 First Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Noel (Artful Devotion)

Mulamba-Mandangi, Joseph_Nativity
Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congolese, 1964–), Nativity, 1997. Peinture grattée. © missio Aachen.

. . . And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger . . .

—Luke 2:7

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved . . .”

—Psalm 96:10

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

—John 1:1, 14

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SONG: “Noel” by Todd Smith | Performed by Selah on the album Rose of Bethlehem (2002)

Noel, Noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto
Noel, noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto

Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama
Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama

English translation:

Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us
Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us

If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel
If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel

Kituba is the official language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where singer-songwriter Todd Smith grew up, from 1978 to 1986, as a missionary kid. (It was then known as Zaire.) Smith is one of three members of the award-winning band Selah, which helped initiate a hymn revival in Christian music that is still thriving today.

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See the Artful Devotions for the last two Christmases:

See also two of the most-visited posts from my former blog, The Jesus Question: “Nativity Paintings from around the World” (+ part 2).


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 Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

At Last (Artful Devotion)

Tkachuk, Yaroslava_Expectant
Yaroslava Tkachuk (Ukrainian, 1981–), Expectant, 2014. Linen, silk, seeds, copper, and acrylic, 100 × 40 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist. [Original for sale; click photo for more info]

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

—Isaiah 7:14

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SONG: “Maria” by David Maloney, on A Christmas Album by Reilly & Maloney (1984, reissued 2012)

Christmas Day, it’s coming fast
Bringing joy to the world at last
Joy to the world
Maria . . .


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 Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle A, click here.

Everlasting Joy Shall Be (Artful Devotion)

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Snow Hill, 1989. Tempera on hardboard panel, 48 × 72 in. (121.9 × 182.9 cm). Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones (at the Brandywine River Museum of Art 2017 retrospective).

. . .

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

—Isaiah 35:5–6a, 10

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SONG: “Therefore the Redeemed” by Ruth Lake, 1972 | Performed by Kim McLean, on Soul Solace, 2008

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Snow Hill by Andrew Wyeth [previously] is “a conscious summary of his artistic life that is both somber memoir and playful recalibration” (John Wilmerding). It shows six of his friends and neighbors, who modeled for him many times throughout his career, dancing around a beribboned Maypole in winter in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Their coats, earflaps, and braids fly in the wind, as does one untouched white ribbon, which, it has been posited, could represent Christina Olson (who had a degenerative muscle disorder and could not walk), the artist’s wife Betsy, or the artist himself.

This painting, one of Wyeth’s last, was the finale of a major retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in 2017, which has been one of the most memorable art exhibitions I’ve ever attended. The wall text there read,

Painted over a two-year period, Snow Hill is both fantasy and memorial, a visual summation of the iconic places and people of Chadds Ford that occupied [Wyeth] for the previous fifty years. Wyeth looks backward and inward, bringing together many of these subjects from his past, a number of them now deceased. Depicted are Karl Kuerner (dressed in his German uniform), holding the hand of Anna Kuerner, who is in turn linked to William Loper, whose prosthetic hook is held by Helga Testorf, rounding the circle to Allan Lynch (of Winter 1946) and Adam Johnson (partially obscured). They are surrounded by a landscape that shows, left to right: the railroad tracks where Wyeth’s father, N. C. Wyeth, was killed in 1945; the Kuerner farmhouse and barn; the remains of Mother Archie’s octagonal church; the Ring family home in the distance; and Adam Johnson’s shed and haystack.

Wyeth’s models are shown holding ribbons—although one white ribbon is symbolically floating free—and dancing atop Kuerner Hill—a site at once iconic for its recurrence in Wyeth’s work and for its proximity to the site of his father’s death. . . .

I love how the dead and the living join together in this Yuletide circle dance, in which suffering is taken up into joy. Wyeth had lived through Karl Kuerner, a World War I veteran, succumbing to cancer, Allan Lynch to suicide, and Bill Loper to mental illness, as well as the early death of his father and nephew in a car accident. And while such darkness is not fully dissipated in this gray-day scene, a mood of celebration and hope and friendship does take over.

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill (detail)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle A, click here.