A Cloud Took Him (Artful Devotion)

Houghton, Georgiana_The Risen Lord
Georgiana Houghton (British, 1814–1884), The Risen Lord, 1864. Watercolor and gouache on paper laid on board with pen and ink inscription on the reverse. Photo: Jessica Freeman-Attwood/Hyperallergic.

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

—Acts 1:1–9

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SONG: “Coelos ascendit hodie” (Ascended today into heaven) | Words: Anonymous, 12th century | Music by Charles Villiers Stanford, ca. 1892 | Performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, under the direction of Stephen M. Sano, 2007

Coelos ascendit hodie
Jesus Christus Rex gloriae
Sedet ad Patris dexteram
Gubernat coelum et terram

Jam finem habent omnia
Patris Davidis carmina
Jam Dominus cum Domino
Sedet in Dei solio

In hoc triumpho maximo
Benedicamus Domino
Laudatur Sancta Trinitas
Deo dicamus gratias

English translation:

Jesus Christ, the King of Glory,
has ascended today into the heavens.
He sits at the right hand of the Father
and rules heaven and earth.

Now all the psalms of David,
our father, are fulfilled.
Now the Lord sits with the
Lord on the seat of God.

In this greatest of triumphs
let us bless the Lord.
The Holy Trinity be glorified.
Let us give thanks to God.

Stanford’s “Coelos ascendit hodie,” op. 38, no. 2, is a double-choir motet setting of a medieval Ascension hymn, the second piece in his Three Latin Motets set [previously].

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Consisting of “frenetic spirals of color and swirling sinuous lines” (source), The Risen Lord by Georgiana Houghton was produced in Victorian England some eighty years before abstract expressionism came onto the scene. Houghton renounced authorship of her artworks, believing herself to be a medium who channeled saints, archangels, Renaissance painters, and dead relatives to produce what she called “spirit drawings.” She was a Spiritualist, which means she believed in the possibility of contact with a spirit realm and that such communication could bring one closer to God. Ink and watercolors were, for her, a way of unveiling an invisible reality, of conveying God’s “wondrous attributes,” she said.

“On the back of most of her works, Houghton included a handwritten explanation, with illustrated annotations of the abstract forms,” Jessica Freeman-Attwood said. “In The Risen Lord Houghton writes that the lower part corresponds to the virtues and sufferings of Christ’s life on earth, whereas the upper part, dominated by arabesque white threads, represents his ascension into heaven.”

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Ascension Day is May 21 this year. For previous years’ devotions for the occasion, see “God Ascended” (featuring a German Renaissance painting and a clever repurposing and retuning of an eighteenth-century verse) and “Carried Up” (featuring a balletic Christ image by the late Javanese artist, dancer, and choreographer Bagong Kussudiardja, and a Romantic piano composition).


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 Ascension of the Lord, cycle A, click here.

The Tabernacle of Cherves (Limoges enamel, 13th century)

The Met Cloisters in New York City—the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe—has some of the most beautiful Christian art objects I’ve seen. Here I’ll share just one of them: an elaborately decorated champlevé enamel tabernacle, that is, a cupboard where the vessels containing the “reserved Eucharist,” the already-blessed bread and wine, are kept. The primary scene represents the descent of Christ’s body from the cross, while the six medallion scenes on the interior doors (Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the Emmaus pilgrims; the holy women at the tomb; and the Harrowing of Hell) all have to do with the resurrection. To indicate his kingliness, Christ wears a crown. More on the iconography below.

Tabernacle of Cherves
Tabernacle of Cherves, Charente, France, ca. 1220–30. Champlevé enamel and copper, open: 33 × 37 3/4 × 10 3/4 in. (83.8 × 95.9 × 27.3 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The enameled metalworks produced in twelfth- through fourteenth-century Limoges in southwestern France are renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship, which contemporary makers still marvel at. Some 7,500 such objects still survive in a variety of forms, including altar frontals, book covers, candlesticks, censers (incense burners), chrismatories (containers for chrism oil), coffers, croziers (bishop’s staffs), reliquaries (containers for relics), gemellions (handwashing basins), pyxides (small receptacles for the consecrated host), and more. The large concentration of churches and monasteries in France’s Limousin region created a large demand for decorated liturgical objects, which led to the rise of enamel workshops in the city of Limoges, located at the intersection of major trade routes. The technical and artistic mastery of these workshops’ products meant that soon orders were being placed by buyers in other regions and countries, and for a more diversified range of objects, not just those for church use.

The champlevé method of enameling, the predominant decorative technique associated with Limoges, first requires the gouging out of a prepared metal substrate (almost always copper) to create cells. Enamel powder, made from shards of colored glass, is carefully laid into these recessed cells and the object is fired, then cooled, then polished. Champlevé enamels often have appliqué figures attached to them. These are created from copper sheet that is raised from the back and then finished from the front using various specialized tools. For a detailed description of the creation process, which I find fascinating, see the essay “Techniques and Materials in Limoges Enamels” by Isabelle Biron, Pete Dandridge, and Mark T. Wypyski, in the 1996 Met exhibition catalog Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350, available for free download from MetPublications.

The Cherves tabernacle, so named because it was discovered in the Cherves-Richemont commune near the site of a ruined priory, is one of only two enamel tabernacles that have survived from the Middle Ages. It consists of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and white champlevé enamel; gilded copper figures shaped by the twin metalworking techniques of repoussé (hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief) and chasing (hammering on the front side, sinking the metal); and, on the inside gables, engraved copper plaques covered in gold leaf. Its wood support was fabricated after the object was excavated at Château-Chesnel, near Plumejeau, in 1896.

The following text, written by Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Met Cloisters, is reproduced from pages 299–302 of the book Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350 by permission of the publisher. I’ve inserted one bracketed note, plus hyperlinks on references that may be unfamiliar to readers. All photos are courtesy of the museum and are linked to their source page.

Tabernacle of Cherves (closed)
Closed view (the Virgin’s head is missing)

Standing on short legs, the tabernacle is in the form of a gabled cupboard with hinged doors. Gilded repoussé figures are applied to copper plates decorated with enameled foliate ornament. On the outside of the proper left door is the figure of Christ in Majesty, enthroned in a mandorla and surrounded by symbols of the evangelists. Opposite him on the proper right door is the Virgin with the Infant Jesus on her lap. She is framed within a mandorla and surrounded by four angels. Above them on the roof are two full-length angels, each holding a censer. Across the front runs a band of gilt copper inscribed with a decorative pattern derived from Kufic script, apparently based on the Arabic word yemen.

Tabernacle of Cherves (fully open)
Overall, all wings completely open

At the center of the open tabernacle, against its back wall, are appliqué figures representing the Descent from the Cross. Joseph of Arimathea takes the torso of the dead Christ in the arms as Nicodemus uses pliers and a hammer to remove the nails that still hold Christ’s feet to the green-enameled cross. The Virgin takes her son’s hands in hers and gently pulls them to her cheek; Saint John looks on from the opposite side, his head resting in his hand. Above the arms of the cross, two half-length angels hold emblems of the sun and moon. The Hand of God appears at the top of the cross; another figure of an angel once stood over it.

Tabernacle of Cherves (Harrowing of Hell)
The Harrowing of Hell
Tabernacle of Cherves (Empty Tomb)
The Holy Women at the Tomb
Tabernacle of Cherves (Noli me tangere)
“Noli me tangere” (The risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene)
Tabernacle of Cherves (Road to Emmaus)
The Road to Emmaus
Tabernacle of Cherves (Supper at Emmaus)
The Supper at Emmaus
Tabernacle of Cherves (Incredulity of Thomas)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

On the insides of the doors are openwork medallions recounting the events that followed the Crucifixion, reading from lower left to upper right. The first is the Descent into Limbo, a nonscriptural image of Jesus leading souls by the hand out of the mouth of Hell, which is seen as the gaping mouth of a dragonlike beast. Set above it is the scene of the Holy Women arriving at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Following the account in the Gospel of Mark (16:1), they bear jars of unguent to anoint the body and are greeted by a man, seen here as winged, who informs them that Jesus has risen. In the almond-shaped medallion above, Mary Magdalen meets the risen Christ in the garden (Mark 16:9; John 20:14–18), where he backs away and advises her not to touch him yet. At the lower right, the apostles on the road outside the walls of Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) are greeted by Jesus, attired as a pilgrim; in the roundel above, they dine with him at Emmaus and realize who he is when he breaks bread with them. In the oval at the upper right, Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) touches the wound in Jesus’ side and is convinced of his Resurrection (John 20:24–29).

Tabernacle of Cherves (Entombment)
The Entombment
Tabernacle of Cherves (Resurrection)
The Resurrection
Tabernacle of Cherves (Ascension)
The Ascension

The interior side panels of the tabernacle have large lozenges with engraved figurative scenes framed at the corners by triangular enamel plaques, each depicting an angel in a roundel. At the lower left is the Entombment of Christ; at the upper left is the Ascension. At the lower right, Christ emerges from his tomb, with angels at either side. The base of the cupboard is covered with sheets of gilt copper depicting angels in roundels.

The tabernacle of Cherves is remarkable for its iconographic sophistication and for the dialogue established compositionally and visually between thematically related scenes. On the insides of the doors, Jesus guides souls out of the mouth of Hell at the lower left; at the lower right, he guides the apostles on the journey to Emmaus. On the center left roundel, the Holy Women seek Jesus’ body and find it gone; on the center right roundel, Jesus offers his body to the apostles in the sacrament of bread and wine. At the upper left, he tells the Magdalen it is too soon to touch him; at the upper right, he invites Thomas to touch his wound. In the inside lozenge at the left, Jesus is lowered into his tomb; at the right, he rises from it. At the upper left, he leaves his apostles and rises to heaven; at the upper right, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven on the apostles in a representation of Pentecost. [This latter scene is missing and has been replaced by a copy on paper or parchment of the Ascension image opposite it.]

Tabernacle of Cherves (Deposition)
The Descent from the Cross

The Descent from the Cross is both elegant and full of pathos, a masterpiece of Gothic relief sculpture. As such, it has rightly served as a point of comparison with works in other media, notably the ivory Descent from the Cross in the Louvre. A number of gilt-copper relief sculptures produced in the Limousin but now isolated from their original contexts can be compared with those on the Cherves tabernacle. Notable among these is the Descent from the Cross preserved in the Abegg-Stiftung, Bern, first recorded in 1870. Most of these reliefs are presumed to come from altar frontals.

The enameled ground of the Cherves tabernacle, with its strong concentric circles of reserved gilt copper enclosing full fleurons, seems to anticipate the enameled plate of the tomb effigy of John of France of after 1248.

The identification of this enameled cupboard as a tabernacle for the consecrated Host has not been confirmed: the Church of the Middle Ages had no universal custom for the reservation of the Eucharistic bread or regulations requiring a tabernacle. Nor is there a wealth of comparative medieval examples. Only one other Limoges tabernacle of this type is known; it was acquired by the cathedral of Chartes in the nineteenth century, and its earlier history is not known. The supposition that the enameled cupboard from Cherves is a Eucharistic tabernacle is based on its resemblance in form to later tabernacles, its subject matter, and even the gilt-copper base plate which would allow an enclosed pyx to slide easily in and out.

Soon after its discovery in 1896, the tabernacle was presented to the Société archéologique de la Charente by Maurice d’Hauteville, a curator at Angoulême and son-in-law of Ferdinand de Roffignac, on whose property it was unearthed. He suggested that the treasure could have come from the Benedictine monastery of Fontdouce, founded in 1117. More recently it has been supposed that the treasure at Cherves comes from the Grandmontain foundation at Gandory, of which, unfortunately, there are no remains.

Since its discovery, the tabernacle of Cherves has been recognized as a masterpiece of Limoges work in the Gothic period. Part of a larger treasure, . . . it was exhibited successively at Poitiers, Brive, and Limoges, and then at the Musée de Cluny before being sent to Great Britain.

You can explore other champlevé enamels at the Met using its website’s advanced search function. If you wish to study the topic in more depth, the book I’ve quoted from is an excellent resource, featuring essays as well as photographs and descriptions of 157 objects not only from the Met’s collection but also from the Louvre and various other European and American museums, ecclesiastical institutions, and private collections. Click on the cover image to go to the book page.

Enamels of Limoges

God Ascended (Artful Devotion)

Kulmbach, Hans von_Ascension of Christ
Hans Süss von Kulmbach (German, ca. 1480–1522), The Ascension of Christ, 1513. Oil on fir wood, 24 1/4 × 15 in. (61.5 × 38.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.

—Luke 24:44–53

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SONG: “God Ascended” | Words by Joseph Hart, 1759, add. Bruce Benedict and Sarah Majorins | Music by Sarah Majorins, 2012 | Performed on Ascension Songs, a Cardiphonia compilation album

 

In this short SATB choral work, Sarah Majorins extracts the final verse from Joseph Hart’s “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” setting it to a new tune. On the one hand, Christ’s ascension is something to celebrate, tied up, as it is, in his exaltation at the right hand of God on high, where he intercedes for us; Luke even tells us that the disciples ultimately responded “with great joy.” But on the other hand, there must have been a solemnity to the occasion, as the disciples were saying goodbye to the physical presence of their friend and teacher. (We know from John’s Gospel that Mary Magdalene, for example, had to resist her desire to not part with Jesus.)

Majorins bends the tune of this song toward the latter mood and, with Bruce Benedict, has added a second verse that expresses a feeling of longing for and complete reliance on Christ’s return. Its refrain is the cry of the church that’s voiced in the penultimate verse of the Bible: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (or, in Aramaic, Maranatha!). Download the full piano score, courtesy of Liturgy Letter and by permission of the artist.

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of his blood;
Venture on him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude:
None but Jesus,
None but Jesus,
None but Jesus
Can do helpless sinners good.

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended,
Enters now the heav’nly realms,
Angels singing alleluia
As they receive their Lord and King.
Maranatha,
Maranatha,
Maranatha,
Maranatha, we on earth still sing:
Come, O come, Lord Jesus, come.

See last year’s Artful Devotion for Ascension Day at https://artandtheology.org/2018/05/08/carried-up-artful-devotion/.


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 Ascension Day, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Anglo-Saxon Ascension poem; underwater dance; Andy Squyres album; contemporary icons; Catholicism meets high fashion

ANGLO-SAXON ASCENSION POEM: Excerpts from “Christ II” by Cynewulf, probably ninth century, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker: Dr. Eleanor Parker lectures on medieval literature at Oxford University and runs the excellent blog A Clerk at Oxford, where she often shares her translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with commentary. The poem she shares here reflects on Christ’s ascension—the disciples’ grief, the angels’ joy. To me the most remarkable section is the one that, indirectly referencing a sermon of Gregory the Great, describes Christ “leaping” up to heaven, taking an active bound toward his homeland, a movement read in light of Song of Solomon 2:8: “Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” This leap is one of six he took: from heaven (1) into Mary’s womb, (2) into a manger, (3) onto the cross, (4) into the tomb, (5) into hell, and finally, (6) back into heaven. “Prince’s play”! Parker pairs the poem with an exquisite, near-contemporary manuscript illumination, also from England; there’s also a lot of resonance between the poem and the Ascension image I published Tuesday by Bagong Kussudiardja, which shows a more balletic ascent.

Ascension (10th c)
The Ascension, from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold (BL Additional MS. 49598), f. 64v, England, 963–984 CE. British Library, London.

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UNDERWATER DANCE: “AMA,” a short film by Julie Gautier: This wonderfully expressive silent film shows French free diver and underwater artist Julie Gautier dancing in a single breath for several minutes inside the world’s deepest swimming pool, Y-40 Deep Joy in Montegrotto Terme, Padua, Italy, to a minimalist piano piece. The final shot shows Gautier slowly rising to the water’s surface while releasing a giant air bubble, her pose evocative of the crucified Christ (and her upward movement an Ascension of sorts!). Titled “Ama” (Japanese for “sea woman,” the name given to Japan’s pearl divers), the film is “dedicated to all the women of the world,” Gautier says. The choreography is by Ophélie Longuet.

Gautier and her husband, Guillaume Néry, a free-diving champion, own the underwater filmmaking company Les Films Engloutis. Their most well-known project has been a music video featuring Beyoncé, codirected by Gautier and starring Néry.

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KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Help Andy Squyres finance his next album: Andy Squyres is a super-talented singer-songwriter whose lyrics don’t stay in the shallows but, rather, dive into the depths of the faith experience. They are also supremely hope-filled. Below is a video of Squyres performing “Labor in Vain” at a house concert; the song is from his last album, Cherry Blossoms, which I reviewed here. Click on the boldface link above to hear Squyres discuss his new album project and to donate toward it.

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ICON PAINTING COMPETITION: The Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) is hosting an international icon painting competition on the subject of Christ’s Resurrection. “Our purpose is to explore and bring to the foreground the numerous stylistic trends in existence today, enabling the visualization of a creative dialogue with tradition and, at the same time, the personal artistic expressions of artists who reframe tradition without, however, digressing from the doctrinal framework of Christian icon painting set by the 7th Ecumenical Council.” The submission window is closed—there are sixty-three great entries!—and now it’s time to cast your vote. Five winners will be selected to receive cash prizes, the topmost being €3,000, and other honors. Popular votes will be taken into account by the twelve jury members, among whom are esteemed iconographers George Kordis from Greece and Todor Mitrovic from Serbia.

Resurrection by Dimosthenis Avramidis
Icon by Dimosthenis Avramidis

 

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ESSAY: “On the Border of East and West: Searching for Icons in Lviv” by John A. Kohan: The latest issue of Image journal features a wonderful essay on the Lviv school of iconography (represented in entries #4, #10, and #20 of the above contest), a movement by young Ukrainian Greek Catholic artists to contemporize the Byzantine visual tradition. Written by John A. Kohan, an avid religious art collector and former Time bureau chief in Moscow (1988–1996), it discusses the political history of the city; the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (r. 1901–1944) in preserving and supporting art for future generations; the opening of the Iconart gallery in 2010 to nurture and promote the new style; the broad training these icon makers receive at the Lviv National Academy of Arts; and the uneven reception by others in the denomination (especially official church bodies), who tend to prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. Kohan writes from his firsthand experiences meeting the artists and visiting their studios, churches, and exhibition spaces. The essay is available to subscribers only; click here to subscribe.

Crucifixion by Natalya Rusetska
Natalya Rusetska (Ukrainian, 1984–), Crucifixion, 2017. Egg tempera on gessoed wood, 11 3/4 × 8 1/4 in.
Pilate Condemns Jesus to Death by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Christ before Pilate, 2017. Mixed media on gessoed wood, 19 3/4 × 15 3/4 in.

I’m enthralled by the contemporary icons being produced in Lviv—I saw a bunch from Kohan’s collection last summer, and I featured some in a Baptism of Christ roundup earlier this year. The best way to keep abreast of the output from the Lviv school is to follow Iconart on Facebook, and for an even wider breadth of innovative eastern European icons, follow Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica, Poland).

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MET GALA + EXHIBITION: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” May 10–October 8, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The largest exhibition ever mounted by the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway fashions by famous designers inspired by Catholicism. A Fashionista reviewer who attended a preview reports on the integrated displays:

A reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun’s habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.

Each year since 1948, the opening of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition has been celebrated with a huge fundraising gala attended by celebrities who dress to the theme; this year’s took place May 7. There were lots of crosses and haloes, but also some more particularized outfits. Ariana Grande’s gown was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; Gigi Hadid’s, by stained glass. Selena Gomez carried a Coach handbag embroidered with Proverbs 31:30b: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised.” The most brazenly dressed was Rihanna, who wore a gem-encrusted bishop’s miter (not a papal tiara, as has been commonly reported). Another standout headpiece was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, which featured a Neapolitan Nativity scene set inside a mini baldachin. (The making of elaborate presepi, or Christmas crèches, is a longstanding tradition in Naples, reaching its height during the eighteenth century.)

Rihanna as pope
The white Margiela minidress, cape, and headpiece Rihanna wore to Monday’s Met gala were inspired by Catholic pontifical vestments. Photo: John Shearer/Getty.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker wore a regal gold, long-trained Dolce & Gabbana gown, but the pièce de résistance of her ensemble was the Nativity headpiece.

Lana Del Rey went as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing an immaculate-heart chest plate pierced through with seven daggers; it was comical to hear religiously illiterate reporters trying to interpret the symbolism, saying things like the daggers are a “reminder to repent your sins or suffer damnation!” (Wrong. The swords symbolize the Virgin’s seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy.)

Carried Up (Artful Devotion)

Ascension by Bagong Kussudiardja
Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Ascension, 1983.

This Thursday, May 10, the church commemorates Jesus’s ascension into heaven—an event Luke describes twice!

“While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51)

“. . . as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)

Read the full passages at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//texts.php?id=92.

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MUSIC: “Liebesträume No. 3” by Franz Liszt (1850) | Performed by Jenő Jandó, on The Essentials: Greatest Classics, vol. 1 (2016)

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The ascension is so central [to Christianity] because it assures us that the Incarnation continues. Christ didn’t just come among us for thirty-three years, slumming, as it were, and then when his work was done, say, “Phew! I’m glad that’s over! I’m going to unzip this skin suit and get back to heavenly living,” leaving us here on our own. He went into heaven with a pledge of all that we are going to become. Tertullian, I think, was the first one to put it that way. The Spirit, in scripture, is the pledge of Christ’s presence in us, but Christ’s continuing body is the pledge of what we’re going to have in heaven. So the ascension tells us that Christ has not let go of our humanity. He truly wants to take human beings where we’ve never gone before: into the very life of the triune God.

—Gerrit Scott Dawson, author of Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, from an Authors on the Line interview


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 Ascension Day, cycle B, click here.

A eulogy for Pop-Pop

The light he was returns
Unto the Light that is.
—Wendell Berry

My grandpa, Richard Joseph Hartz, passed away on May 22 at age ninety-two. A cradle-to-tomb resident of Mercer County, New Jersey, he was a simple man who loved his Lord, his family and friends, and his work. He was faithful, caring, contented, ingenuous, and conservative in every sense of the word. Clocks, cars, and Phillies baseball were among his hobbies. He got thrills from things like cereal box prizes (his favorite was a plastic spoon that lights up—he said, facetiously, that it helps him find his mouth), Dollar Tree purchases (“Can you believe this only cost a dollar?”), and fish sandwiches from Burger King (I don’t think I ever saw him so excited as when he unwrapped a BK gift card for his ninetieth birthday).

Rick Hartz

Pop-Pop’s Bible never gathered dust; he read it every morning, along with Our Daily Bread. His constancy in this regard is something my dad inherited. It is because of Pop-Pop’s (and Mom-Mom’s) religious faith, which they lived and breathed and passed on to their kids, that I am a Christian. It is the greatest treasure I have ever received.

The highlight of Pop-Pop’s week was always Saturday-morning breakfast with the ROMEOs (“Retired Old Men Eating Out”)—a moniker bestowed affectionately by his sister Theresa to describe him and his group of cronies. In flat cap and cardigan, he’d be dressed to go. Scrambled eggs and coffee was his custom, and a plate of sausage split with his brother-in-law Don.

Pop-Pop’s most distinctive, and most beloved, trait was his joke telling. His jokes were mainly of the Reader’s Digest variety—that is, clean and corny. After making sure he had our attention, he’d start in, wide eyed and serious, all the way up to the punchline, when he’d break down chuckling. His repertoire wasn’t too large, so during any one visit, we’d hear the same joke at least twice, and then again the next time we saw him. But we’d always laugh as if it were brand-new to our ears.

Some staples:

If a bear was chasing you and up ahead there was a tree on one side and a church on the other, would you run up the tree or into the church?

Response: I don’t know—into the church?

With a bear (bare) behind?

[When we’re eating corn] We’re having a chicken dinner!

I went to the doctor’s, and he gave me a prescription for smart pills. When I saw the bill, I couldn’t believe it. “$100!” I said. “These aren’t worth that much!”

The doctor replied, “See, you’re smarter already.”

If we were to shrink your head to the size of your brain, you could wear a peanut shell for a Panama hat.

One time he floored us all with a real grade A insult at my younger brother’s expense. We were posing for a photo, and Rob, clowning around, bent over and stuck his head between his legs. Pop-Pop, camera in hand, retorted, “You’ll have to smile, Robbie, so that I know which end’s your face.” Ooo, burn!   Continue reading “A eulogy for Pop-Pop”

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”

Christ ascending into Ezekiel’s vision

The sixth-century illuminated Syriac manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels (after the signed name of its scribe) contains one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s ascension into heaven. A full-page miniature, it illustrates the narrative from Acts 1:6–11—but not strictly.

Ascension (Rabbula Gospels)
Ascension, fol. 13v from the Rabbula Gospels (cod. Plut. I, 56), Syria, 586. Tempera on parchment, 33 × 25 cm. Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, Florence.

One embellishment to the story is the centralized presence of Mary on the bottom level. She is not mentioned in the biblical account of the event, but her attendance was likely. Here she stands in a frontal, orant pose and, unlike the other disciples, is nimbed. Whereas those around her are wracked with confusion, she understands the deep mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and she stands ready for his return.

Among the crowd is the apostle Paul—an anachronistic insertion, as his conversion occurred after the Ascension. The book he holds, signifying his contributions to the New Testament, is one of his identifying attributes.

The “two men . . . in white robes” mentioned in Acts 1:10 are interpreted as angels.

All these elements became standard in medieval iconography of the Ascension.   Continue reading “Christ ascending into Ezekiel’s vision”