Roundup: Empty chair, how to read a Last Judgment icon, and more

ARTWAY VISUAL MEDITATIONS:

ArtWay.eu is an online hub of resources related to faith and the visual arts. Every Sunday a new “visual meditation” is released on a selected artwork, written by one of a diverse range of volunteers from across the globe. (I contributed last week’s, on Eduardo Kingman, and another of mine, on a Flight to Egypt painting by Pranas Domsaitis, will be forthcoming.) Sign up here to receive the free weekly meditation in your inbox. Here are two examples from the past year, with Advent vibes, that I’ve found particularly meaningful.

>> “The Empty Chair in a Season of Waiting” by Rachel Hostetter Smith: Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, art history professor Rachel Hostetter Smith wrote about a series of Chinese ink wash paintings by Daozi. They’re a tribute to his friend, the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiabo (1955–2017), who was unable to accept his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in person because he was in prison, so he was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair. Smith brings this image of an empty chair into conversation with all the uncertainty and absence in this current time of pandemic; the Jewish Passover Seder liturgy and its setting a place at the table for the prophet Elijah; Franciscan priest Richard Rohr on the liminal space between the old world and the world to come; and John the Revelator’s eschatological vision of a throne descending from heaven (Rev. 21).

Daozi_The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge
Daozi (aka Wang Min) (Chinese, 1956–), The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge, 2018. Ink and color on paper, 97 × 54 cm.

This and fifty-four other contemporary artworks are part of the international traveling exhibition Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition, which Smith curated (click the link to explore the art—it’s very compelling!). The exhibition is a product of a gathering of North American and Chinese art professors in June 2018 in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, sponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

>> “Waiting for the Lord” by Mary McCampbell: Mary McCampbell [previously] writes about a painting by Douglas Coupland, best known for his work as a novelist and for popularizing the term Generation X. “In I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear (2011), the artist has painted a colorful QR (Quick Response) code, defamiliarizing a familiar symbol of daily life. . . . Like most QR codes, if a viewer holds up her camera to the graphic image, a message is decoded via smart phone. A contrast to the hard geometric edges of the painting, the message that magically appears is soft and human: ‘I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear.’ . . . The painting reflects a longing for the real God to manifest himself, no longer merely an idea, a doctrine, a rhetorical position. Where is God in the intricate, detailed, yet seemingly random pattern of life? How can we discern WHO He is? . . . This atypical reminder to ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 27:14) discloses the curious, humble faith of a non-believer, one hoping and waiting for eyes to see the ‘appearance’ of the Lord.”

Coupland, Douglas_Waiting for the Lord
Douglas Coupland (German, 1961–), I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear, 2011. Acrylic and latex on canvas, 182.9 × 182.9 cm. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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LECTURE: “Understanding the Last Judgment” by Jonathan Pageau: “The traditional icon of the Last Judgment is a very complex image which is both the synthesis of Christian typology as well as an image of the eschatological finality of all things.” In this talk given at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Seattle, Jonathan Pageau breaks down Last Judgment iconography, explaining how to read it scene by scene.

Elements include:

  • The Deësis, a representation of Christ enthroned between Mary and John the Baptist
  • The hetoimasia, or prepared throne, which awaits the return of Christ
  • The psychostasis, or weighing of souls
  • The ladder of divine ascent, representing the struggle to reach illumination
  • Paradise, with the “good thief,” Abraham’s bosom, and the Mother of God
  • The last trump and the resurrection of the dead, with beasts regurgitating their human prey
  • The river of fire, per Daniel 7:10, with the damned being swallowed by the mouth of Hades

Why am I sharing this now? Because Advent is eschatological and future-oriented in nature, and, though it tends to be underemphasized in our era, judgment is a major theme—which Fleming Rutledge does a great job unpacking in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

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COVID MEMORIAL: From September 17 to October 3, 2021, the National Mall in Washington, DC, was blanketed with some 670,000 white flags, each one representing an American life lost to COVID-19. Titled In America: Remember, the installation was conceived by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg as a way to visualize the magnitude of loss the country has suffered over the past two years in relation to the pandemic, and to invite mourning. Visitors were invited to personalize flags for someone they lost.

Stephen Wilkes’s photos of the memorial undid me. The enormity of suffering represented is difficult to fathom. Every single flag is a devastation. And since the installation was put up this fall, there have been another 100,000-plus COVID deaths in the US, while the global death toll has surpassed 5.2 million.

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (photo by Stephen Wilkes)
In America: Remember, September 17–October 3, 2021, an installation of 670,000+ white flags on the National Mall, conceived by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic.

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ART COMPETITION: “Macierzyństwo Maryi” (The Motherhood of Mary): The results are in for Poland’s first annual Ogólnopolski Konkurs Sztuki Sakralnej (National Competition of Sacred Art, or OKSSa for short), organized by the Fundacji Maria i Marta (Mary and Martha Foundation). The theme was Mary’s motherhood.

First place, with a prize of 15,000 zł (about USD $3,600), went to Błażej Guza for Macierzyństwo Maryi, which shows Mary drawing a hopscotch board on the pavement, its shape portending her boy’s fate. Jesus is not visible in frame, save for his shadow, which reveals simply an innocent child ready to play.

This piece and thirty-four others from among the many entries were exhibited at Concordia Design Wrocław November 25–30, 2021, and this month a few of them will be shown at the National Museum in Wrocław. You can view the top three winners as well as four honorable mentions at the boldface link above, or on the foundation’s Facebook page. And here’s an exhibition view.

The Fundacji Maria i Marta aims to promote the development of contemporary Christian art in Poland by organizing competitions, exhibitions, and workshops and by providing artistic consultation for churches.

Guza, Blazej_The Motherhood of Mary
Błażej Guza, Macierzyństwo Maryi (The Motherhood of Mary), 2021. Acrylic and chalk, 90 × 60 cm.

Kowalewska-Tylka, Beata_Fullness of Spirit
Beata Kowalewska-Tylka, Pełnia ducha (Fullness of Spirit), 2021. Digital painting, 70 × 50 cm. The OKSSa jury commented on how this piece shows “the interpenetration of the spiritual and human dimensions of Mary’s motherhood,” the shape of the fiery red cloth evoking the Holy Spirit as dove, and the breast that gives milk signifying Mary’s physical nourishment of her son from her own body.

Resurrection with a red balloon

ArtWay is a Netherlands-based online resource hub for Christians interested in the visual arts. Every Sunday they e-mail out a “visual meditation”: a short commentary, devotional in tone, on a piece of artwork. Click here to subscribe (it’s free).

I wrote today’s meditation—on Polly Morgan’s Still Small Birth, a taxidermied quail chick tied to a balloon string. http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2044&lang=en&action=show

Still Small Birth by Polly Morgan
Polly Morgan (British, 1980–), Small Still Birth, 2010. Taxidermy quail chick, resin-cast balloon, wire, glass, and wood, 25 × 12 cm.

My other contributions to ArtWay include

There’s lots to explore on that website; I encourage you to check it out!