Roundup: Religion and Contemporary Art

WEBSITE LAUNCH: The Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts: From a September 20 press release: “The Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts is pleased to announce the debut of our new website, fsa.art. Complementing in-person programming in Charleston and New York City, fsa.art functions as FSA’s online curatorial wing. It hosts both commissioned and curated content as well as a selection of features spotlighting significant artists, scholars, exhibitions, and publications from recent decades. We hope this site will be a valuable and inspiring resource that fosters dialogue, community, and innovation in the field of spirituality and the arts.”

FSA is “devoted to nurturing connections between spirituality and contemporary art. . . . By encouraging a mutual flow of creativity and faith from both artists and scholars, we hope to initiate fresh channels of spiritual enrichment from new depths of artistic expression. Nurturing innovative and experimental collaborations between a wide range of communities, we aspire to integrate estranged voices together in a spirit of harmony, openness, and inquisitiveness.”

At the heart of their programming is their annual series of residencies, open to visual artists, performers, composers, choreographers, curators, writers, and theologians. Visit their website to find out more, and follow them on Instagram @foundation.spirituality.arts. Below are four artworks I’ve encountered through their social media postings.

Kristen, Tom_Gemeinsam
Tom Kristen (German, 1968–), Gemeinsam (Together), 2019. Jewish Synagogue and Community Center, Regensburg, Bavaria. Photo: Marcus Eben. Floating above the center’s atrium, this gilded bronze spiral text is taken from Rose Ausländer’s poem “Gemeinsam”: “Vergesst nicht, Freunde, wir reisen gemeinsam. . . . Es ist unsre gemeinsame Welt.” (“Don’t forget, friends: we travel together. . . . It is our common world.”)

Viola, Bill_Catherine's Room (still)
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Still from Catherine’s Room, 2001. Color video polyptych on five flat panel displays, 18:39 minutes, performer: Weba Garretson. Photo: Kira Perov, courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

Agha, Anila Quayyum_Intersections
Anila Quayyum Agha (Pakistani American, 1965–), Intersections, 2013. Lacquered wood and halogen bulb, 78 × 78 × 78 in. (cast shadows: 43.5 × 43.5 × 16 ft.). Installation view at Rice Gallery, Houston, Texas, 2015.

Mingwei, Lee_Our Labyrinth
Lee Mingwei (Taiwanese American, 1964–), Our Labyrinth, 2015–present. Photo: Stephanie Berger. In this performance work, single dancers, dressed in floor-length sarongs and wearing ankle bells, take turns sweeping a mound of rice in patterns on the floor in a designated gallery space. This iteration from 2020 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones, and the performer in the photo is I-Ling Liu. [Watch on YouTube]

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LECTURE: “The New Visibility of Religion in Contemporary Art” by Jonathan A. Anderson: Religion is becoming more visible in contemporary art and more discussable, says artist, art critic, and theologian Jonathan Anderson in his September 17 talk sponsored by Bridge Projects in Los Angeles. Danh Vo, Kris Martin, Andrea Büttner, Deana Lawson, Arthur Jafa, Genesis Tramaine, Hossein Valamanesh, Theaster Gates, Zarah Hussain, Francis Alÿs, Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, Sean Kelly, Gerhard Richter, James Turrell—these are just some of the many contemporary artists who have engaged substantively with religion in their work, either through form or content or through the ways in which they frame the work’s central questions. Curators and art historians are recognizing this more and more, and it’s being reflected in exhibitions and scholarship. Anderson highlights several such instances from the past two decades, celebrating religion’s increased visibility but also pointing out where there’s room for improvement. The talk starts at 6:36:

At 28:58, Anderson outlines four interpretive horizons, or fundamental hermeneutics, within which religion is becoming visible, intelligible, and meaningful in contemporary art: anthropological (31:00), political (37:43), spiritual (42:51), and theological (48:42). He discusses the problems and possibilities of each—ways in which it has been productive or insightful, and ways in which it’s limiting. The fourth horizon, the theological, is the least developed in the art world and the most contested, he says.

He concludes,

A more concentrated and well-developed mode of theological inquiry has much to contribute to the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art without being reductive, but instead opening much of what’s going on in contemporary art. And so going forward, I do envision a mode of study that keeps all these horizons in view, and a mode of discourse that keeps all these horizons in view, while especially developing the potential for the modes of critical writing capable of addressing theological conceptualities, genealogies, and implications that are in play in so much of the art being made today. And that involves thinking better from both directions, developing concepts and capacities—skills, really—where art criticism might operate with a more agile, historically sensitive understanding of religion and theology (a richer theological intelligence), and theology might operate with a more agile, historically sensitive understanding of art and criticism (a richer art historical intelligence, or visual intelligence).

The last half hour is Q&A. What he says at 1:03:59 is fascinating! If you enjoyed this talk, check out, too, the one he gave ten years ago, “The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism,” which I published detailed notes on and which became a chapter in the book Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils, edited by Thomas M. Crisp, Steve L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof.

As a side note, Anderson teaches two courses at Duke Divinity School, where he is a postdoctoral associate in the DITA program: “Contemporary Art and Theology” and “Visual Art as Theology.” The latter looks at the history of primarily Christian art as a domain of primary theological reasoning and biblical commentary, done in visual-spatial terms rather than in verbal-written terms. His hope is that divinity students—future biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, etc.—will become more literate in the visual-spatial forms of theology. I mention this because it’s what I’m about too!

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Jacquiline Creswell: Curating in Sacred Spaces,” Exhibiting Faith: Hosted by critic and art historian David Trigg, this is the first episode of a brand-new podcast about the intersection of art and faith, featuring a range of guests for whom those two elements have played a significant role. First up is Jacquiline Creswell, a visual arts adviser and curator who has, since 2009, organized more than forty-five exhibitions in sacred spaces. She has been central to the development of the visual arts programs at Salisbury, Ely, and Chichester Cathedrals. She discusses some of the projects she has worked on and how they’ve been received by the congregation and the wider public, how the setting of an artwork can alter its meaning and the way people engage with it, the logistical challenges of placing art in historic churches, and more.

I was interested to learn that she is from a Jewish background, even though most of her jobs have been with Christian institutions. Check out the eight objectives she lists on her website, which have guided her curatorial work and which I find exciting; the first is “To present artwork which is engaging, that encourages a spiritual response and may at times challenge conventional perceptions.”

Pope, Nicholas_Apostles Speaking in Tongues
Nicholas Pope (British, 1949–), The Apostles Speaking in Tongues Lit By Their Own Lamps, 1996, installed 2014. Thirty-three figures in terracotta, metal, wick, paraffin, and flame. Trinity Chapel, Salisbury Cathedral. Photo: FXP, London.

Haebich, Jayson_Star of Bethlehem
Jayson Haebich (born in Australia, living in Hong Kong and London), Star of Bethlehem, 2016. Interactive laser installation at Salisbury Cathedral, England.

New episodes of Exhibiting Faith are released once a month. The second (and latest) episode is an interview with Dubai-born, Birmingham-based textile artist Farwa Moledina, whose Women of Paradise (2022) scrutinizes the portrayal of Muslim women in the canon of Western art. Moledina also discusses her experience of Ramadan during lockdown and how it resulted in By Your Coming We Are Healed (2020), two sufras (floor mats for communal dining) made up of photographs of plated dishes submitted to her by participants in the virtual iftars she hosted, arranged according to Islamic design principles of symmetry, abstraction, and recurrence.

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SHORT FILM SERIES: At the Threshold: Theology on Film, dir. Sean Dimond: At the Threshold is the latest project from UNTAMED, a documentary film studio in Seattle that “pursue[s] stories of spiritual and narrative depth, with a bias for hope, risk, and redemption.” Filmed in Belgium, Germany, and the UK, it profiles six Christian theologians from Europe, each one humble, open-hearted, and reflective.

  1. “The Open Narrative of Love” with Lieven Boeve, Leuven, Belgium: Boeve reflects on how God interrupts people’s self-enclosed stories. Christianity, he says, is itself an open narrative, not a closed one, and it leads us not away from the world but right into it. One of the filming locations in this short is a rural landscape in Borgloon where Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout van Vaerenbergh built Reading between the Lines, an open-air chapel created to imagine a church inseparable from the world around it.
  2. “The Greater Part” with David Brown, St Andrews, Scotland: Brown talks about prayer, the Bible as part of a living tradition, the church’s call to be creatively other, and the only time he ever saw his father cry. He also cites some of the poets, novelists, and composers/singer-songwriters he admires.
  3. “The Radiance” with Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Muenster, Germany: “The fractcal structure of religious diversity” is of deep interest to Schmidt-Leukel, a Christian who draws insights from Buddhism and who was criticized by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for doing so.
  4. “Danseuse” with Ann Loades, Durham, England: A feminist theologian, Loades is one of only two people ever to be awarded a CBE for services to theology. The Christian tradition is responsible for the devaluation of women, she says, but that tradition also contains resources for its own transformation. She also discusses dance as prefiguring the resurrection body.
  5. “To Imagine That” with Garrick Allen, Glasgow, Scotland: Allen sees the book of Revelation as being about how to live in a system that is unjust. “This is John’s response to an oppressive system, and it gives us space to rethink what a just system would look like in our world—to begin to imagine that.”
  6. “Begin with the End” with Judith Wolfe, St Andrews, Scotland: “We have to take seriously the claim that we do not yet live in the world as it will be, and as we will be, and that we have to live towards an eschaton, a presence of God in the world, which is not only not yet apparent, but is not even comprehensible to us. So how do we live authentically in this life?”

From the studio: “Theology offers a home for the vast and the intimate. No question is foreclosed. Visually immersive, poetic, and global in scale, these narrative and theological short films invite viewers into a conversation about life and its limits which is as vibrant as it is challenging. This series isn’t about promoting theological ideas we necessarily agree with, but rather we are exploring the connections between vulnerable life, big questions, and the diversity of theological work being done today. It’s not that we are on the threshold of discovering God, but that perhaps God is already on the threshold of our lives, knocking to enter through our wounds, deepest desires, and questions.”

HENI Talks (short art history videos)

Launched in April 2018, HENI Talks is a growing catalogue of short films on art, narrated by experts. The project was prompted by the 2016 announcement by the AQA exam board in England that they would be dropping art history A-levels, meaning that the subject would no longer be taught in high schools. Although the course was saved at the last minute, it rang alarm bells for the international art services business HENI, who decided they wanted to help bring art history more fully into the digital age, to make it accessible to a wider public. They assembled a dedicated team of producers, researchers, editors, and camera operators and shot twenty-five videos on location on a range of art history topics, interviewing leading artists, curators, and academics. For these efforts HENI Talks won Apollo Magazine’s 2018 Digital Innovation Award.

I first encountered them through their video “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees” and was super-impressed by the high production values. That close-up photography! Makes a huge difference in experiencing art online.

Since then they have been steadily adding new videos, which average about ten minutes each. These include breakdowns of movements/styles, like abstract expressionism, brutalism, and land art, as well as videos focused on single artists or artworks or even themes, such as “The Bed in Art: From Titian to Emin.”

The emphasis is on modern and contemporary art—Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Maurizio Cattelan, Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois, Glenn Ligon, and so on. And art in British collections. I, of course, am particularly drawn to the videos that feature biblical or liturgical art. My favorites are below.

“Pisa Pulpit: ‘Judge by the correct law!’,” presented by Jules Lubbock: This video examines the seven-hundred-year-old marble relief sculptures of the life of Christ carved by Italian Gothic artist Giovanni Pisano into the pulpit of Pisa Cathedral. (The piece Lubbock looks at is actually a plaster cast of the pulpit, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

“Emotional Enigma in the Sculpture of Michelangelo,” presented by Alison Cole: “Michelangelo’s most well-known works exist on a colossal scale, from his formidable statue of David to the High Renaissance frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, his art could also be tender and lyrical, dwelling upon the inherent tensions of the human condition. Art Historian Alison Cole examines one such example, the Taddei Tondo (c.1504-1505) – the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in a British collection. Cole provides a rich insight into the artist’s life, influences and unique approach to sculpture.” The tondo portrays the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist.

“Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel: Devotion and Destruction,” presented by Paul Binski: “Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel was one of the most splendid artistic and architectural achievements of medieval England. The Catholic chapel’s lavishly painted sculpture and stained glass, devoted to the Virgin Mary, moved pilgrims to a religious frenzy. But when Protestants began to call for a ‘purer’ vision of the Christian faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, this same quality triggered repulsion. During the hundred years of the English Reformation, the chapel was scraped, scrubbed and smashed of its extravagance.

“Art historian Paul Binski believes it is possible to recover the Lady Chapel’s former opulence in the imagination. His talk gives an insight into the psychology behind Ely’s splendour, and the idea that art can be so powerful as to provoke violence – something we still see in headlines today.”

“Art & Soul at St Paul’s Cathedral,” presented by Sandy Nairne: “How does art ‘wake up the soul’? There is perhaps no better place to explore this theme than St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Art historian Sandy Nairne walks through the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, pointing out how artists have responded to the sanctity of this historic space. He describes how early commissions by the Cathedral aimed to sustain belief in Christian worshippers, and how modern and contemporary artists including Henry Moore, Bill Viola and Mark Wallinger, have tried to express spirituality in a more secular age.”

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There’s also a HENI Talk written and narrated by the art critic Julian Spalding, called “Faith and Doubt in Art” and released in May 2019, but I feel it doesn’t do justice to its title, and it advances an overly simplistic narrative that is misleading in places and confusing in others. I know it’s difficult to bring nuance to such a vast topic in just twelve minutes, and that under such constraints, generalizations are inevitable. The video is mainly about representational art versus abstract art, and in particular the effect of modernity on Western art. Spalding posits that the age of scientific discovery that we call “the Enlightenment” was actually a time of spiritual darkening, where people ceased believing that the world was beautiful or had meaning, and this in turn produced an art of doubt and worry—“a nightmare vision of the world” exemplified by Goya and culminating in Munch’s The Scream (“the very end of the Christian tradition,” Spalding says).

The Enlightenment did, of course, cause faith crises for many, and this shaken worldview was reflected in the work of some artists. But I want to note that doubt is not incompatible with Christian faith, nor is an awareness of the world’s horrors or a dedication to science. In fact, many Enlightenment scientists were devout Christians who were impelled further in their research by their very belief in God and that the universe is ordered and contains mysteries to be discovered. And artists, even within the Christian tradition, have always been attuned to the darker aspects of life and had fears and anxieties surrounding sickness, violence, and sex, for example, which in medieval Europe could be expressed through portrayals of particular biblical narratives and saints’ lives. Some of the most gruesome artistic imaginings of hell were inspired by real-life tortures that were taking place at the time. Distorted forms and the grotesque are not unique to modern art, and their use was and is not a sure indicator of a nihilistic attitude or a rejection of a good creator-God.

So while Spalding’s account of art history as relates to the Christian faith is widely accepted, it’s important to remember that things weren’t quite so linear or across-the-board. And art can be “dark,” hold tensions, or pose questions and still be faithful to Christianity.

Puzzlingly, Spalding uses Rembrandt as an early example of religious doubt, noting that the tonality of his works got darker and darker, as if that signified a dissolving faith. Spalding reads into Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, in which he portrays himself in a nonidealized manner, a questioning whether God really created him, imperfect as he is. I, on the other hand, see in these portraits a man owning his own brokenness and frailties, bringing them into the light.

Spalding also makes a few inaccurate statements in the video, like that all Islamic art is abstract (what about the magnificent traditions of Persian [Iranian], Ottoman [Turkish], and Mughal [Indian] miniature painting?) and that Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ represents “a man turning into a god” (no, Christians believe Jesus had always been both fully man and fully God; his anointing in the Jordan signified the start of his earthly ministry).

He ends by stating that in the modern period, as more and more people rejected the idea of a Creator, representation ceased to have meaning and Western art became abstract, much like that in the rest of the world. He compares, for example, an abstract expressionist painting with Islamic architecture, noting how they both express transcendence and mystery (he doesn’t have time to discuss their foundational differences, however). I would argue that while abstraction is a perfectly valid approach, representation in its own way can also express mystery. Take, for example, icons.

I would also add that there’s a huge difference between believing that life has no meaning and believing that that meaning cannot be represented. I think Spalding would agree—the video just doesn’t make that clear.

Spalding makes a very important point when he says that in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc., the “source of spirituality” (Truth) is invisible, and similarly, Judaism and Islam say you can’t visualize God, whereas Christianity says that the source and object of our faith, Jesus Christ, God the Son, did make himself visible and is therefore representable, and that belief very much influenced the trajectory of Western art.

My biggest concern with Spalding’s talk is that it doesn’t come full circle to acknowledge the “return of religion” in contemporary art—as Jonathan Anderson (see here), among other art historians and critics, have shown—nor does it address the comeback that representational art has been making in recent years, and in fact among Black artists by and large, it never really went away.

Roundup: Raban Maur, comic books, and more

SEMINAR: “The Language of Grace? The Action of God’s Love in Poetry and Art”: On February 6 at 6 p.m., as part of the Catholicism and the Arts York initiative, St. Wilfrid’s Church in Duncombe Place, York, will be hosting back-to-back talks: “Grace and the Poetics of David Jones” by Dr. Elizabeth Powell and “Full of Grace? The Desire of Art for God” by Katherine Hinzman.

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ALBUM FUNDRAISER: Love Secrets by John Mark Pantana: I really enjoyed Pantana’s 2017 debut album, Mighty Grace, so I jumped at the opportunity to support his next project on Indiegogo: Love Secrets. His voice is so soothing! So are his original lyrics, all about God’s love and grace. Visit him at https://www.johnmarkpantana.com/, and listen to one of the songs from his upcoming album, “Abba,” below. Fundraising campaign ends February 9.

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EXHIBITIONS

I love the curatorial approach of these two current exhibitions, which bring art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance into conversation with contemporary art. Rather than doing this to prove a disjunction sparked by modernity, the curators stress continuity between the artists of yesterday and today.

“Make It New: Conversations with Medieval Art,” Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France), Paris, November 5, 2018–February 10, 2019: Curated by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, “Make It New” explores the relationship between works of contemporary art and the medieval art of Raban Maur (Hrabanus Maurus), a ninth-century monk from Fulda, Germany, and a major figure of the Carolingian renaissance. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Raban Maur’s De laudibus sanctae crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), a Latin manuscript comprising twenty-eight highly sophisticated poems whose letters are arranged in simple grids over colorful, geometric cross patterns. At the BnF, these compositions are placed in dialogue with thirty-plus works by some of today’s minimalist, conceptual, and land artists, including Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Niele Toroni, and Franz E. Walther, stressing similarities in form, color, proportion, and perspective. [press release (English)] [compilation of Maur images]

The original figure poem cycle was produced around 810 at the scriptorium in Fulda, and Raban Maur had a hand in making at least five other copies during his lifetime (of which France’s National Library owns two: Lat. 2423 and Lat. 2422); seventy-four additional copies from the Middle Ages are extant. The Burgerbibliothek Bern in Switzerland has digitized its early eleventh-century copy (Cod. 9), and it’s really fascinating! Full-resolution downloads are enabled. According to the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny, “no work more precious to see, more pleasing to read, sweeter to remember, or more laborious to write can or could ever be found.” I don’t know Latin, but visually, I can really appreciate these fine pages. I was hoping to find more information about the work but could really only find a single French lecture given back in 2007 by Denis Hüe, a professor of medieval and Renaissance language and literature at the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne.

In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany, ca. 822–847. BnF Lat. 2422, fol. 10v.

In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany.

Untitled by Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007), Untitled, 1970. Ink on paper. © Adagp, Paris.

Work Drawing by Franz Erhard Walther
Franz Erhard Walther (German, 1939–), Werkzeichnungen (Work Drawing), 1967. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. © Adagp, Paris.

“Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth,” Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26–March 31, 2019: When pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006, he was astonished by the Renaissance master’s expressive use of the body to convey emotional and spiritual states. Here the two artists are exhibited side by side, showing their common grappling with life’s fundamental questions, albeit in vastly different mediums. “Both artists harness the symbolic power of sacred art, and both show us physical extremes and moments of transcendence.” Among the twelve major installations from Viola, spanning his career, is Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), a sixteen-foot-high projection depicting the ascent of the soul after death.

For February 16, the Royal Academy has organized a full day of events keyed to the exhibition, including poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a panel discussion with cultural historian Marina Warner, theologian Ben Quash, and artist Mariko Mori, titled “Art as fulfilment: the use of religion and spirituality in contemporary art.” Questions for the day include: Does art connect us? Can art be transformative or transcendental? Can art influence society—that is, change opinions or human behavior? Other offerings in addition to this program are a curator’s introduction on February 1, a short course on figure drawing, and a talk on the limitations and opportunities of digital art. Plus, the London Art Salon is hosting a talk on the exhibition by art historian Marie-Anne Mancio.

Tristan's Ascension by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Photo: Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), The Risen Christ,” ca. 1532–33. Black chalk on paper, 37.2 × 22.1 cm. Royal Collection Trust, UK.

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NEW COMIC BOOK PUBLISHER: Cave Pictures Publishing, founded in fall 2018 by Mark Rodgers, is committed to the telling of “modern myths” that “speak to the soul” through comic books in the genres of action-adventure, sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. Pitched for the spiritually inclined, the stories they publish “seek to make sense of our world . . . draw us toward the source of goodness . . . uncover what we worship.” Says Rodgers in a Hollywood Reporter interview: “Just as cave paintings were humanity’s initial attempt to process through the tough ultimate questions of human existence, we look at our stories as ‘sherpas of the soul,’ to contribute to the individual and collective human journey towards meaning and a greater reality,” the One True Myth. Read more about the company’s influences and aspirations in this Convivium essay. See also the interview in Sojourners.

The Light Princess (Cave Pictures Publishing)

One of their five inaugural series is The Light Princess, an adaptation of one of George MacDonald’s best-loved fairy tales, about a princess who is cursed with weightlessness and is only brought down to earth by a true, sacrificial love. MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet (e.g., here, here, and here), and Christian minister who deeply influenced C. S. Lewis and J R. R. Tolkien. Speaking of Tolkien, I’m really digging this quote of his on Cave Pictures’ website, which affirms the value of story: “Legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode. . . . Long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”

Roundup: Aretha Franklin, Berenice Rarig, and more

Last week I returned from a two-week trip to western Europe, where my husband and I spent time in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, and Porto Cristo), southern France (Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles), and Italy (Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Amalfi). We had only a little time in each city, but wow, what beauty! I’ll be going through our photos soon and sharing some on the blog. In the meantime, here’s one Eric took outside Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, a basilica built atop a 489-foot-high limestone outcropping that overlooks the Old Port.

Veronica and Christ (Marseilles)
Veronica and Christ, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseilles, France. Photo: Eric James Jones.

The stone sculpture, from the twentieth century, shows Veronica (an apocryphal saint) wiping Christ’s brow on his way to Calvary. Her gesture of compassion is meant to symbolize the action of missionaries, to whom the sculpture is dedicated.

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While I was gone, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away. Like many soul singers, she got her start singing gospel, and her 1972 album Amazing Grace, recorded live from New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. Below you can watch her perform the title track, a hymn classic, in 2014.

Many famous singers and musicians paid tribute to Franklin at her eight-hour-long funeral on August 31. One of my favorite performances was Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” on harmonica.

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NEW ON ARTWAY: ArtWay is a web publication I contribute to that seeks to connect Christians to the rich history and contemporary practice of visual art. Last Sunday I wrote a visual meditation for the site on Bill Viola’s video piece Emergence, which references a Man of Sorrows painting by Masolino.

Emergence by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Emergence (still frame), 2002, from The Passions series. High-definition video master tape. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Along with the other editors, I also curate items for ArtWay’s Poetry section. Most recently I selected a poem by Abigail Carroll titled “Dear Wounded Saint,” based on a Caravaggio painting of St. Francis of Assisi. Carroll is a brilliant poet, and I heartily recommend her two collections, Habitation of Wonder (2018) and A Gathering of Larks (2017).

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Caravaggio
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, ca. 1595. Oil on canvas, 92.5 × 127.8 cm (36.4 × 50.3 in.). Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

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ARTIST INTRO: A chain of connections brought me into contact with Berenice Rarig, an Australian artist whose work comprises installation, performance, sculpture, and photography. In addition, she is the founder of MAKE Collective, an initiative of the Presbyterian Church in America’s missionary arm that helps creatives become part of international church-planting movements through cultural engagement, creative thinking, and artistic excellence. As she was visiting the Baltimore area last week, we got lunch together and shared our visions for our respective ministries.

I loved learning about Berenice’s unique approach to art as mission. “My role as an artist is to point to what’s already pointing,” she says. “I join St. Augustine who said, ‘Everything in creation points to the Creator.’”

> Read an interview with Berenice Rarig from 2006, published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts.

Here is a video-recorded lecture she gave at the Mumbai Arts Conference in 2015; it’s titled “Imaging Grace.” In it she explains the three works of hers pictured below, and others. Wishbones, quail eggs, and coffee filters—that gives you a sense of the kinds of materials she likes to work with. She had a load of donated clock parts in her trunk when I was riding with her, which she is excited to tinker with for her next art project.

Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful, 2012. 50,000+ wishbones, wire frame, and lights, 9 ft. high.

A Tiny Hum by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), A Tiny Hum (Humanity) 3, 2012. Quail eggs and wire.

Whispered Prayers by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Whispered Prayers, 2001. Folded coffee filters.

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PATRONAGE OPP: Monthly worship services by Liturgy Fellowship: I just became a patron of Liturgy Fellowship and am excited to see what they turn out! “We are starting a new project. Every month we are going to invite a guest liturgical artist to write a worship service for us. The themes will vary from biblical themes, to the church calendar, to under-served topics. If things go well we will also try to invite others to write original songs and create art to go along with the service theme. This will (hopefully) grow into a fantastic resource for the church!”

Roundup: Joseph and Child icon; Clarence Fountain; “First Reformed”; novels for pastors; and more

I had every intention of completing an essay for publication yesterday on the fatherhood of Joseph as expressed in the visual arts, but as I got into the thick of research, the field of discovery proved much vaster than I had anticipated. So that I can do the topic justice (and so that I can continue trying to track down artist, dating, and location info for particular paintings), I will be postponing the essay until a later date. In the meantime, here’s a charming little neo-Coptic icon I found of Joseph holding the Christ child; the narrative scenes in the corners are the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph’s Dream, and the Flight to Egypt. For more on Coptic (Egyptian) iconography, read an interview with the artist from Orthodox Arts Journal.

Joseph of the House of David by Stephane Rene
Stéphane René, Saint Joseph of the House of David. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Bunhill Row, London.

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OBITUARY: RIP Clarence Fountain, founder and lead singer of the Blind Boys of Alabama: Clarence Fountain of the five-time Grammy Award–winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama died June 3 at age eighty-eight. Fountain formed the group in the mid-1940s along with five friends from the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in Talladega, and the group, though it has gone through iterations in membership, has been touring continuously ever since. (Fountain retired from touring in 2007.) Ray Allen, a folklorist and music historian, said that over the years the Blind Boys’ sound evolved from the more staid style known as jubilee gospel into one that is distinguished by “a prominent lead singer shouting and preaching and backed by a rhythm-and-blues band.” Below you can hear Fountain sing “Look Where He Brought Me From” and the group’s signature song, “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”):

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ART EXHIBITION: “The Morality Theatre Project: The Art of Barry Krammes,” Green Art Gallery, Biola University, La Mirada, California, April 25–June 29, 2018: Only two weeks left! For this exhibition, the culmination of seventeen years of studio work, Barry Krammes has assembled nineteen open-ended narrative scenes—reminiscent of miniature theater sets—using objects and figures gathered from flea markets and dumpsters, estate sales and antique shops. Although the exhibition title references a genre of medieval drama intended to inspire Christian virtue, the artworks do not preach or provide straightforward moral lessons; rather, they stand as little worlds of mystery that invite association and contemplation. If you’re not able to see the exhibition in person, stay tuned for the forthcoming catalog: I’ve been informed that one is in the works, to be published later this year.

Krammes, Barry_Of Mystery (alt photo)
Barry Krammes (American, 1950–), Of Mystery, 2018. Mixed media assemblage. From “The Morality Theatre Project,” Green Art Gallery, Biola University, La Mirada, California. Photo: Johnny Choura.

Of Lamentations by Barry Krammes
Barry Krammes (American, 1950–), Of Lamentations (detail), 2018. Mixed media assemblage. From “The Morality Theatre Project.” Photo courtesy of the Green Art Gallery at Biola University, La Mirada, California.

The occasion of the exhibition is Krammes’s retirement in May after serving for thirty-five years as an art professor at Biola University (he now bears the title Professor Emeritus). He has been instrumental in making Biola’s art department one of the top ten among Christian colleges and universities, and moreover, he helped to foster art appreciation campus-wide, designing and directing “Arts in Worship” chapels and organizing a yearly Arts Emphasis Week, which developed into the Biola Arts Symposium. He has also been active beyond the walls of Biola, especially as a founding member of the national organization Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). To learn more about his art, see “Interceding in the Theatre of Struggle: A reflection on the assemblage work of Barry Krammes” by Betty Spackman, published Sunday at ArtWay, and, from about ten years ago, the Image journal essay “Barry Krammes: Shepherd of the Wasteland” by Christina Valentine.

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VIDEO ART INSTALLATION: Three Women (2008) by Bill Viola, St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, May 1–September 20, 2018: Bill Viola, a pioneer of new media art, has said that his works “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”—which is one reason they are so well suited to display in churches. In Three Women, a work from his Transfiguration series on temporary view at a Victorian church in Scotland, a mother and her two daughters pass from black and white through a threshold of water, entering a realm of color and light. The work speaks to me of the experience of illumination, of being drawn into a new and glorious understanding of divine truth. Watch an excerpt of the video at the New York Times.

Three Women by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Still from Three Women, 2008.

(Update: Sign up for the free HeartEdge church and culture seminar “Bill Viola and the Art of Contemplation,” September 20, 2–5:30 p.m. Various individuals will speak on Viola’s church-located installations, approaches to curating exhibitions in churches, and art as contemplative practice.)

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NEW IN THEATERS: First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader: I’ve been hearing great things about this movie, which follows Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed congregation in upstate New York, as he grapples with mounting despair. Schrader is the writer who brought us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the folks from Fuller Studio recently sat down with him to discuss his Christian upbringing and how the unique language of film—especially the transcendental style—helps him explore religious questions.

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FICTION RECOMMENDATIONS: “Ten Novels Every Pastor Should Read” (+ part 2): Kolby Kerr of LeaderWorks is an exceptional literary guide, whose “ten poets” list I commended in a previous roundup. Here he switches gears to novels. But first he opens by addressing the utilitarian inclination of pastors to nonfiction, which they believe will give them a bigger return on their investment. When it comes to novels, Kerr says, instead of asking What will these books do for me?, we should be asking, What will these books do to me? We should read not only to be informed but to be formed. And once again, what a great list! It’s divided into the categories “saints who sin,” “lost and found” “the dark side,” and “let’s get (meta)physical,” and it concludes with practical advice on how to form and maintain good reading habits.

Advent 2017 online arts devotional by Biola University

The Advent Project published yearly by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts (CCCA) is an online devotional that brings together daily scripture readings, visual art, music, poetry, and written reflections for the seasons of Advent and Christmas (which this year is December 3–January 6). Introduced in 2013, it is the only recurrently published art-forward Advent/Christmas devotional I know of, and I recommend it highly. It is in large part what inspired my year-round “Artful Devotion” series and the Advent art booklet I e-published last year.

Click here to view and/or subscribe to Biola’s Advent Project 2017.

With so many different elements, design matters a lot, and I’m super-impressed by what Biola has come up with. The homepage is laid out as a gridded calendar with thumbnail images; click on a date, and you’re brought to a new viewing mode in which a large image and a music player are set in a fixed position on the left while the right sidebar contains scrollable text, separated into two tabs—the main content, and biographical information about the artists. This design enables the image to remain before your eyes so that you can continue to reference it as you read on (something that, frustratingly, I cannot achieve with Art & Theology’s long-scrolling format), and it also relegates the bios to “back matter.” It’s all very organized and easily navigable.

This initiative is an outworking of the CCCA’s mission to explore the rich interrelationships between contemporary art making, theology, and religious tradition. Be sure to check out the other sections of their website; they offer plenty of free resources, including an archive of past Advent (and Lent!) devotionals, and a calendar of events, such as lectures, workshops, symposia, art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and more.

Below is one of my favorite Advent Project entries from last year, reproduced by kind permission of the CCCA. Centered on Mary’s Magnificat, it brings together the work of an Italian Renaissance painter, a contemporary British video artist (who I’ve written about before), a modern Bohemian Austrian poet, and a minimalist composer working with Spanish, Latin, and English texts. Adjunct professor of philosophy Evan Rosa (who is a superb writer!) reflects on how scandalous Mary’s humility is for power-hungry Western Christians—just as it would have been for the Greco-Roman world in which she lived. He concludes with a prayer that invites us to move from self-magnification to the magnification of God.

Due to this blog’s design limitations, I had to adapt the following content from its original format. To view the devotion on the Biola website, click here. I have excluded biographical information for the song performers and poet.

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ARTWORKS: The Visitation by Pontormo; The Greeting by Bill Viola

The Greeting by Bill Viola
LEFT: Jacopo da Pontormo, The Visitation, 1528. Oil on canvas. Church of San Francesco de Michele, Carmignano, Italy. RIGHT: Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995. Still image from a large-screen video installation.

About the Artist and Artwork #1:

Jacopo Carucci (1494–1557), usually known as Pontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity. Pontormo’s painting The Visitation, completed in 1528, now adorns the altar of a side chapel in a small church called the Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano, a town west of Florence, Italy. The setting for this painting is the visitation of the Virgin Mary on her older pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace each other as they exchange glances of mutual affection and share in the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They dominate the canvas as they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house.

About the Artist and Artwork #2:

Bill Viola (b. 1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions.

Bill Viola’s large-screen video installation The Greeting was inspired by The Visitation, painted by Italian Mannerist artist Jacopo Pontormo. Viola’s video sequence echoes the drama of Pontormo’s Visitation, but transforms the moment into an enigmatic contemporary narrative. In this still frame, three women are dressed in long, flowing garments and stand in an Italianate architectural setting similar to that in Pontormo’s painting. The woman in the orange dress, her stomach visibly swollen, has just entered the scene from the left, interrupting a conversation and perhaps whispering to the older woman the news of her pregnancy. This encounter was filmed in less than a minute, but Viola has slowed the video down to ten minutes. The use of extreme slow motion draws attention to the nuances of the women’s gestures and glances, and intensifies the psychological dynamic of the exchange.   Continue reading “Advent 2017 online arts devotional by Biola University”