Roundup: Sister Wendy, Quaker Skyspace, Bach on the street, and more

OBITUARY: “Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88”: A nun since the age of sixteen, Sister Wendy spent most of her life living in silence in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery in East Anglia, England. She read voraciously about art but had never set foot in a museum or seen any great paintings in person—until in 1991, a BBC producer persuaded her to do a documentary about the paintings in London’s National Gallery. She agreed, thinking it would be a flash in the pan, but it was very successful, and so throughout the nineties she presented several other documentaries on the history of art, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. She quickly became the world’s best-loved art critic, as her unscripted commentaries, so full of wonder and enthusiasm, connected well with the general public, making high art accessible. She also authored some thirty-five books.

Sister Wendy

“One of the ways, for me, of looking at God is by looking at art,” she says in the intro to Odyssey. Not that art is God but that art can lead us to a deeper understanding of who, and Whose, we are.

Sister Wendy was a major influence on my path to becoming a writer on Christianity and the arts. I first encountered her in high school through her Story of Painting series, which a studio art teacher made our class watch excerpts from. This was my entrée into art history, a subject that captivated me then and that inspired me to pursue some such coursework in college, including a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Without this initial incitement of interest from Sister Wendy, I doubt I would be writing about art today.

What attracts me to her is what attracts most people: her utter joy and rapture as she discusses art. She is the first person who taught me how to look at a painting and read it. I appreciate her charitable stance toward modern and contemporary art (movements that large swaths of Christians reject), and her unabashed delight in the nude body. Over the years, people have tended to be either amused or shocked, or both, by her frankness in talking about sexuality in art, but she was always insistent on the goodness of the human body and of sex. When Bill Moyers asked her back in 2000 whether she’s scandalized by the carnality, the sensuality, of so much art, she really stumps him with her matter-of-fact response! (See 4:15 of the video below.)

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INTERVIEW: “Why You Should Read Devotional Poetry in 2019” by Leland Ryken: In this interview with Collin Huber, Ryken cites three reasons why Christians should read devotional poetry, elaborating on each one: (1) devotional poets express our spiritual experiences, (2) it sets our affections “in right tune,” and (3) it will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. He also discusses how poetry has shaped him; the obstacles that keep people from enjoying poetry, and how to overcome them; what makes poetry distinctive as a genre; and the prevalence of poetry in the Bible. “Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires,” he says. “If you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.”

Leland Ryken is an emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College and the author or editor of some fifty books, most recently the anthology The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems. Other titles of his include How to Read the Bible as Literature, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts, and several volumes in the Christian Guides to the Classics series.

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STREET PERFORMANCE: Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is probably the most famous organ work in existence. But last fall in Cologne, a group of four musicians, whose names I cannot find, performed it on two accordions, a violin, and a tuba! It’s uncanny how closely the collective timbre approximates that of an organ. The tuba grants sonority, and the other instruments contribute to the full-bodied sound.

This performance took place between Hohe Straße and Theo-Burauen-Platz in Cologne, Germany, but a few commenters on the video have reported witnessing near-identical performances in other parts of the country, so either this group travels, or the arrangement is circulating.

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SACRED ARCHITECTURE

I frequently encounter articles on or photos of contemporary religious architecture. Here are just two notable buildings I’ve come across recently—the first one, thanks to Michael Wright’s Still Life newsletter (to which you should subscribe!).

Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (2013): When the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in northwest Philadelphia was building a new meetinghouse, they invited contemporary light artist James Turrell, himself a Quaker, to design one of his famous “Skyspaces” for the meeting room—that is, an aperture in the ceiling that’s open to the sky. From the beginning, Turrell collaborated with architect James Bradberry to achieve this permanent art installation; for example, Turrell wanted the aperture to have no perceptible thickness, so Bradberry and his team developed a sophisticated steel roof structure and “knife’s edge” opening. The achieved effect of paper thinness is impressive: when I first saw photos, I assumed the “sky” on the ceiling was just a painted patch! (Visitors have reported similar surprise.) Turrell calls this Skyspace Greet the Light, a reference not only to the light of the sun but to the Quaker doctrine of the “Inner Light,” God within.

Greet the Light by James Turrell
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Room, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, featuring a permanent Skyspace installation, titled Greet the Light (2013), by James Turrell.

Greet the Light by James Turrell

The meeting room is open to the public, for free, on select days (more info here). Visitors are invited to bring a yoga mat, pillow, and blankets (when the retractable roof is open, the room is unheated) and to lie on their backs on the floor or benches. Silence is requested. Turrell’s installation also makes use of artificial light: over the course of fifty minutes or so, the vaulted ceiling is bathed in turn in four color variations—green, red, blue, and white—which augments the natural light projected by the opening.

View other Skyspaces by James Turrell at http://jamesturrell.com/work/type/skyspace/, and read Bradberry’s perspective on the project at Faith & Form.

San Bernardo Chapel (2015): Located in a wooded grove in Argentina’s Pampas lowlands, just east of Córdoba, Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel) was designed by Nicolás Campodonico. It was constructed using hundred-year-old bricks that had been dismantled from the rural home and courtyard that previously stood on the site. There is no electricity in the area, so natural light plays a huge role, especially in the chapel’s most unique feature: two perpendicular beams, independently suspended from a large exterior opening, cast shadows onto an interior wall, which glide progressively toward each other throughout the day, ultimately overlapping to form a cross (see time lapse). Campodonico said he had in mind Jesus’s journey to Golgotha with the transverse beam, which, upon arrival at the execution site, was attached to the vertical mount; it’s as if the passion is being reenacted daily through the shadows, he said. See more photos at designboom.

San Bernardo Chapel
Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel), La Playosa, Córdoba Province, Argentina. Photo: Nicolás Campodonico.

San Bernardo Chapel

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FREE ALBUM: Into the Light by Joel LeMaire: Fans of Josh Garrels, Iron and Wine, and John Mark Pantana will probably enjoy Joel LeMaire’s 2015 EP, which is about finding hope in the letting go and stepping into the unknown. Download your own copy from NoiseTrade, and read more about the meaning behind the songs on LeMaire’s blog.

 

Sheep May Safely Graze (Artful Devotion)

Landscape, Cornish, N.H. by John White Alexander
John White Alexander (American, 1856–1915), Landscape, Cornish, N.H., ca. 1890. Oil on canvas, 30 3/8 × 45 in. (77.2 × 114.2 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul . . .

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.

—Psalm 23:1–3a, 4

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MUSIC: “Sheep May Safely Graze,” from BWV 208 | Composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1713) | Performed by London Symphony Orchestra, on Night in Berlin (2001)

The aria “Schafe können sicher weiden” (Sheep May Safely Graze) comprises the ninth movement of Bach’s Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (The Lively Hunt Is All My Heart’s Desire)—known informally as the Hunting Cantata. Written for the thirty-first birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, the cantata was performed as a surprise at a banquet at the ducal hunting lodge, and it’s full of flattery. The text of “Sheep May Safely Graze,” written by Solomon Franck, praises Christian for his wise, protective leadership (in actuality, he was a lousy ruler):

Sheep may safely graze and pasture
In a watchful shepherd’s sight.

Those who rule, with wisdom guiding,
Bring to hearts a peace abiding,
Bless a land with joy made bright.

At 1:31 in the above recording, you can hear potential danger lurking nearby, but the attentive shepherd neutralizes the threat, keeping safe his flock.

Bach originally scored this piece for soprano with two recorders and continuo, but it has since been transcribed for orchestra and countless other combinations of instruments and is most popular without words. I enjoy playing Egon Petri’s transcription for solo piano, performed here by Alessio Bax:

Its pastoral mood, befitting Psalm 23, and its celebration of a good shepherd’s care have led it to be applied to the Good Shepherd and performed in church services. I’ve even come across some piano arrangements that interfuse it with “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (for an intermediate arrangement of such by Cindy Berry, see Classical Hymns).

(Related post: “The evolution of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring'”)


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 Proper 11, cycle B, click here.

The evolution of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”

You’ve probably heard this lovely lilting Baroque piece performed as an instrumental at weddings. But the composer who popularized it—the inimitable J. S. Bach—originally programmed it as the finale to a ten-movement liturgical work celebrating the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and God’s subversion of the world order through the birth of Christ. “The wondrous hand of the exalted Almighty / is active in the mysteries of the earth!” the work proclaims.

Under Bach’s design, those pastoral triplets (DUM-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da . . .) gird up a choir-song of praise to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, our joy and our strength. Even when the light, bright major chords give way to the minor in line five, signifying the turning of life’s circumstances, the Christian’s confession remains the same: Jesus is mine; what shall I fear?

Though Bach is often cited as the melody’s originator, that credit in fact goes to Johann Schop; it was first published in 1642 with Johann Rist’s hymn text “Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich” (“Wake, My Spirit, Rise”). In 1661 Martin Janus wrote a new text for the tune—of no less than nineteen stanzas!—titled “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (“Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss”). Bach took stanzas six and seventeen of this hymn, harmonized and orchestrated them, and placed them as the closings to part one and part two, respectively, of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) (BWV 147).

These two chorale movements, titled “Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe” (“Blest am I, that I have Jesus”) and “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesus shall remain my joy”), have identical musical settings, and their English translation is as follows:

Blest am I, that I have Jesus!
O how tightly I cling to Him,
so that He delights my heart
when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives Himself to me as my own;
ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus,
even if my heart is breaking.

Jesus shall remain my joy,
my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow.
He is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and wonder of my soul;
therefore I will not let Jesus go
out of my heart and sight. [Source]

Bach wrote Herz und Mund in 1723 during his first year as the director of church music in Leipzig, basing it on an earlier cantata he had written in Weimar in 1716 for the fourth Sunday of Advent. Because Leipzig observed tempus clausum (a “closed time” of penitence) during Advent, allowing cantata music only on the first Sunday, Bach could not perform the cantata for the same occasion in Leipzig, so he adapted it for the feast of the Visitation on July 2.

Scored by Bach for four vocal soloists, a four-part choir, and an instrumental ensemble of trumpet, two oboes, violin, viola, and continuo, the chorale music was first given the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in 1926 when Dame Myra Hess published a transcription for solo piano—which you can hear Benjamin Moser play in the video below.

(“Jesu” is a poetic derivation of the Latin name for “Jesus.” I most commonly hear it pronounced YAY-su, but see here.)   Continue reading “The evolution of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring””