“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”: From the streets to symphony hall

In 1971 Gavin Bryars was working as a mixer and editor for a film documenting street life in and around the Elephant and Castle area of South London. Sifting through all the material that filmmaker Alan Power had recorded for the project, Bryars was struck by a twenty-six-second audio fragment of an elderly homeless man singing a simple song of Christian faith:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet
That’s one thing I know
For he loves me so

The clip didn’t make it into the film, but Power gave Bryars permission to keep it. Unfortunately the singer’s name and likeness were never recorded, and Bryars’s attempts to find him were unsuccessful. And despite scouring various hymnals and archives, neither Bryars nor anyone else has been able to find any other record of the song, which means it very likely could have been written by the man himself.

Inspired by the beauty and sincerity of the man’s song, Bryars ended up using the unwanted audio as the basis of a major orchestral composition. He made a loop of its thirteen bars (which the man sings perfectly in tune) and wrote a simple chordal arrangement, which he then developed into a rich ensemble piece with strings and brass, lasting about thirty minutes. The first three and half minutes feature a playback of the man’s bare vocals, the clip gradually increasing in volume until the strings enter in layers, then the brass, building to a swell that supports (but crucially, does not overwhelm) the voice for the entire duration.

“In a loose narrative sense, the frail, forsaken man is given a dignity and a sense of comradeship from the supporting musicians,” writes British journalist Oliver Keens, who also says that this “work of experimental classical music .  .  . as accessible as any pop song .  .  . is the closest we have in [England] to an underground national hymn.”

Music writer and sound artist Marc Weidenbaum says the piece “takes the melody inherent in a creaky recording of a homeless man singing a hymn in a painfully sweet and wavering rendition and renders it in a gentle, sensitive setting that suggests a heavenly chorus if not outright beatification.”

It is meditative; trancelike, even. And it has such emotional power. I cried when I first heard it.

The orchestration honors the anonymous man’s faith and the object of his faith, Jesus Christ—particularly the efficacy of Jesus’s blood, shed for the life of the world. An expression of divine love, that blood flows into every dark corner, bringing hope, forgiveness, and healing. The man on the tape clung to its promise. Even though his circumstances might suggest that the blood did fail him, he testifies otherwise: Jesus’s blood has never failed me.

“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was originally released on LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in 1975 (a few minutes had to be shaved off for it to fit on vinyl) and was re-released in 2015. A shortened version was recorded in 2002 on Gavin Bryars: A Portrait, featuring Tom Waits, with the Gavin Bryars Ensemble.

Widely performed, the piece exists in many iterations, with different lengths (from four minutes to twelve hours) and instrumentation. Bryars said he reinvents it every time he conducts it, usually writing parts for the musicians he has available.

Last year, in celebration of the work’s fiftieth anniversary, The Song Company and friends recorded a new choral a cappella version by Bryars.

The song has also been covered by popular Christian artists such as Jars of Clay (2003) and Audrey Assad (2016). Sandra Stephens sings it with a new melody and Latin rhythm on the collaborative album Shades of Blue (1994), interspersed with a monologue by Lanny Cordola that references the song’s source in that unnamed Londoner who graced the world with it.

The video above captures a performance by Psappha, conducted by Clark Rundell, which took place October 12, 2016, at the RNCM Theatre in Manchester.

In a Luminous podcast interview with Bryars last year, host Peter Bouteneff, reflecting on how Bryars recovered the old singer’s brief improvised performance from the cutting-room floor, said something that has stayed with me: “It makes you wonder how at any given moment, there’s something passing being said or sung, that if we cared enough to isolate it and love it, it could become exactly as beautiful.”

Recognizing the sublimity of the man’s song, Bryars shone a light on it, developing it into a full-fledged concert piece that doesn’t compete with the original homespun quality, but rather elevates it, broadens it. “Jesus’ Blood” is a merging of “fine” and “folk” cultures that exhibits the unique strengths of both.

It’s a pity that the man has never received named authorship credit—although, as mentioned, due diligence was taken to identify him prior to the song’s going public, and no new leads have emerged since, now surely decades after the man has passed. We don’t know whether the song is one he heard long ago in some church or mission hall, or from a friend, or something he composed himself. Either way, his heartfelt presentation of the song is a gift, and Bryars’s stewardship of that gift and creative engagement with it has extended its reach all over the globe.

Easter, Day 6

LOOK: Empty Tomb (detail) by Claire Curneen

Curneen, Claire_Empty Tomb (detail)
Claire Curneen (Irish, 1968–), Empty Tomb (detail), 2018. Porcelain, h. 31 inches.

I encountered this striking image on the cover of Image no. 97 (Summer 2018). I’ve not been able to find a photograph of the full piece, but Curneen created a variation on it last year.

In the article “Beauty in Brokenness: The Sculpture of Claire Curneen,” Richard Davey writes that in Curneen’s body of work,

indications of internal states of transformation or transfiguration are not confined to gold. . . . Recently Curneen has begun to use a deep blue to create a similar effect. Like ultramarine, which was reserved for only the most significant parts of medieval paintings, this blue glaze is used only sparingly, painted onto faces, hands, and other areas where it will have the maximum impact. The effect is dramatic, with faces dissolving into an incorporeal void. For unlike gold, which reflects light, this deep blue holds light, absorbing our gaze into its pellucid depths. Curneen exploited this difference in one of her most recent works, Empty Tomb (2018), where blue and gold ooze from a series of gaping wounds, like the unmingled blood and water that flowed from the side of the dead Christ. With the tip of one finger, this elegiac figure gently points out one of these openings, echoing Saint Thomas, who needed to touch Jesus’s wounded side before he could believe. This gesture is the only moment of animation in a work that is otherwise still, but it is not the focus. That is to be found in the wounds themselves, which stand out starkly against the limpid porcelain. These are the empty tomb of the title, apertures exuding blue and gold, dark and light. They draw us in so that we find our attention focused entirely on these small rings. For a moment, as we teeter on this visual precipice, with solidity melting around us and the figure dissolving into the background, time stands still.

LISTEN: “Empty” by The Sowing Season, on The Fox & the Sparrow (2017)

Oh Mary, why have you come?
Come drop your oils and run
You’ll find no one
Find no one

Oh Thomas, can’t you see?
Where bone and sinew meet
You’ll find a hole
Find a whole

Oh Saul, look down at your hands
All red and dripping in the sand
It’s the wrong blood
The wrong blood

Come find the blood of the Son

Jesus meets people where they’re at: Mary Magdalene in her grief (John 20:11–18), Thomas in his doubt (John 20:24–29), Saul in his murderous zealotry (Acts 9:1–19). And he transforms them. After their encounters with the risen Christ, Mary’s tears give way to joy; Thomas’s doubt transposes into belief; and Saul goes from persecutor of Christians to key apostle, with a ministry of preaching the gospel, planting churches, and writing letters of teaching and encouragement that have become sacred scripture.

The song “Empty” by The Sowing Season reflects Christ’s gentle invitation to behold his transfigured wounds and to move, with him, from death into life.

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Lent, Day 37 (Blood and Tears)

Anyone who cries at night, the stars and the constellations cry with him.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b

LOOK: Blood and Tears by Hélène Mugot

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Du sang et des larmes (Blood and Tears), 2004. Triptych of 300 crystal drops and 200 red glass drops, 350 × 900 cm. Exhibition view from Icare encore at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, October 22, 2011–January 22, 2012. (Foreground: Pour la gloire… [For the Glory…], 2011.)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears

When Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane to pray the night of his arrest, he pled with the Father to let the cup of suffering pass. Luke says he sweated drops of blood (22:44). He was in agony. He probably dreaded the physical torture he knew was coming, and maybe even more his disciples’ abandoning him. Perhaps he wept for the mother and friends he would leave behind in this next phase of ministry—or, with a mixture of grief and frustration, for the world’s failure to see who he truly was.

Hélène Mugot’s Du sang et des larmes, which translates to Blood and Tears, is an installation of glass pieces made to look like bodily fluids. They hang on the wall in the shape of a three-paneled altarpiece—blood in the center, tears on the wings. The globular forms catch the light from the room and shine.

When Du sang et des larmes was exhibited at the Mandet Museum in 2011, it was part of a larger show of Mugot’s work. On the floor in front of it was her Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), a menacingly large braided wreath of thick, knotted, blackened vines whose stumps are dotted with red wax of the type used to seal wine bottles—both bandage and wound here, Mugot says. The piece is meant to evoke Jesus’s crown of thorns.

Mugot, Helene_For the Glory
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), 2011. Old vines and red sealing wax, outside diameter 275 cm, height 50 cm. Exhibited at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, 2011. Photo: Patrick André.

In 2013 Du sang et des larmes joined the collection of the Musée du Hiéron in Paray-le-Monial, France, a museum of Christian art from the Middle Ages to today. There it is staged as the backsplash to a seventeenth-century Virgin and Child statuette carved in wood, thus prompting us to read Christ’s infancy in light of his passion, and vice versa—the Incarnation as a total event, spanning birth to death. (Cue Simeon’s “A sword will pierce your soul . . .”)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears (with Virgin and Child)
Virgin and Child, 17th century; Du sang et des larmes by Hélène Mugot. Collection of the Musée du Hiéron, Paray-le-Monial, France. Photo: Jean-Pierre Gobillot.

To fit the space, the number of droplets and overall size changed slightly from the piece’s first few installations: at the Hiéron there are 311 crystal drops and 267 red glass drops, and the dimensions are 420 × 650 cm.

LISTEN: “Flow, My Tears” by Toivo Tulev, 2007 | Text based on a 1600 air by John Dowland and the Improperia (aka, the Reproaches), a series of antiphons and responses expressing the remonstrance of Jesus Christ with his people | Performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, dir. Kaspars Putniņš, on Tulev: Magnificat, 2018

Flow, my tears,
fall from your springs,
flow my tears, fall from your . . .
Flow my tears,
fall from your springs,
fall, fall, fall,
flow, flow, my tears, flow.

Down, vain lights,
shine no more,
no nights are dark enough,
no lights,
shine no more,
flow no more,
no more.
Flow down, vain lights,
shine no more,
shine you no more.

I led you in a pillar of cloud
but you led me to . . .
I gave you saving water,
but you gave me gall
and you gave vinegar.
My people, what have I done to you?
What have I done to you? Answer me.
How have I offended you, you, you?
I opened the sea before you,
I opened the sea,
but you opened my side with a spear.

Flow, flow, flow down.
Rain, drop down,
cover the ground,
drop down, my blood,
flow, flow down,
drop down,
drop down, drop,
flow, flow, flow,
shine, flow, flow, shine!
Flow, my blood, flow,
flow, drop, flow down.

My blood spills from your wounds,
drop, drop, drop,
your wounds,
flow, flow, flow down,
flow, shine, drop, flow.
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
flow, my blood.
My blood, my blood spills from your wounds,
my wounds,
my blood,
flow, blood, flow, flow,
shine!
Spills from your wounds
my blood, shine!
My wounds, my wounds,
drop down, shine!
From your, from my wounds,
shine!
Flow, drop down,
shine!
Flow, shine!
My, your blood,
shine!

My blood,
flow, shine, flow,
shine! shine!
Fall, shine, fall, shine,
fall from your . . .
flow, fall . . .
Shine!
Shine! [source]

Toivo Tulev is an Estonian composer born in 1958. In this choral composition for twelve solo voices, he has combined words from a secular Renaissance lute song and the Christian Holy Week liturgy. It’s ponderous and grating, capturing well Jesus’s psychological affliction.

While in the first half the speaker, Jesus, wishes for light to “shine no more” so that he be left alone in darkness, that imperative eventually evolves into the affirmative: “Shine!” Blood: shine! Tears: shine! Tulev’s clever manipulation of his lyrical source material creates allusions to the glory, the illumination, that is to come. Paradoxically, when the sun is eclipsed from noon to three on the day of crucifixion, God’s love shines brighter than ever.

One line that stands out to me is “My blood spills from your wounds.” Who is the “your”? Earlier Jesus is talking to his people, but I interpret a shift here to God the Father as the addressee. Even though he sees through to the other side, he, too, is tremendously pained by what is unfolding—his only Son, killed. It’s as if Jesus’s wounds are his own (much like any parent would tell you, when their child is suffering). The unity of these two persons of the Godhead in the poetry of this song is really beautiful. Their heart is one.

Lent, Day 15

LOOK: Life of Christ by Tony Nwachukwu

Nwachukwu, Tony_Untitled
Carved and painted wood by Tony Nwachukwu (Nigerian, 1959–)

I retrieved this image years ago from https://anthonynwachukwu.com/, but the domain has since expired. Nwachukwu didn’t give a title or a date there, and I couldn’t find his contact information to ask. The scene on the far left appears to me to be a Nativity—Christ in the manger, his mother and father standing behind. Then there’s what I’m guessing is Jesus’s anointing with the Spirit at his baptism; hands outspread, he receives his commission. The wineglass and flatbread refer, of course, to the Last Supper, and to Jesus’s declaration that he is the bread of life and that he is initiating a new covenant in his blood. The overturned cup may be a reference to the cup of wrath poured out on Christ at his passion. The open palm with nail wound and adjacent blood-stained cross are shorthand for the Crucifixion. Next to that is the dark cavern of Christ’s tomb. But in the final segment the mouth of the tomb is open and bright, and Christ bursts forth in resurrection.

Tony Nwachukwu studied art at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Since 1987 he has lived in Owerri in Imo State, where he runs an art gallery. In addition to painting and carving, he also makes batiks (dyed cloth artworks) [previously] and liturgical vestments. In 2009 the German Catholic organization Misereor commissioned him to design that year’s Hungertuch, a liturgical veil hung in churches during Lent [previously], which was reproduced throughout Europe; his theme was climate change.

LISTEN: “Life of Jesus” by David Childers and Bill Noonan, on Serpents of Reformation (2014)

I been washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus

Well, I’m gonna tell you about the life of Jesus
I’m gonna tell you about the life of Jesus
He lived a long time ago
He still lives today
He came down from his Father in heaven
To show us a better way

And I been washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus
Washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus

He was born in a lowly place
Smack-dab in the middle of the human race
He grew up to spread the word of God
Living and loving and sweating as a man
Working and hurting and all that you can
Living and dying, he knew that too

Washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus

He went through the land
Preaching the gospel and the truth to man
Healing the sick and saving the lost
Driving the demons back to hell
Then he came to Jerusalem
Where trials and tribulations waited for him
He wound up nailed on Calvary’s tree

And that’s where I was washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus
Washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus

He was laid in the tomb
He descended into hell
He arose on the third day
To angel horns and heavenly bells
And when his disciples came looking for him
He was not to be found
Angels had rolled the stone away
And Jesus was heaven-bound

Now I am washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus
Washed in the blood of the Holy Lamb
Washed in the blood of Jesus

This song is from a gospel album by North Carolina singer-songwriter, roots musician, and bandleader David Childers (b. 1952). (Read an album review here.) I learned about him through Bob Crawford, bassist for the Avett Brothers and a close friend and sometime collaborator of Childers’s.

“Life of Jesus” originated in the 1990s with Bill Noonan, one of Childers’s bandmates in the Gospel Playboys at the time. Noonan was just playing around, but Childers “took it seriously and wound up writing out some words and finding a song structure,” Childers told me. His son Robert Childers and Neal Harper produced the version of the song on Serpents of Reformation, released in 2014 on Ramseur Records. “The song . . . has continued to evolve with each performance,” Childers said in an email. “It usually gets the room moving and grooving, which might freak out some Baptists; but it makes me happy. I also think Jesus liked to see people happy, and maybe did not frown on dancing or demonstrable rejoicing.”

There are a handful of live performances of the song on YouTube, including this one from a house concert in Charlotte shortly after the album release:

In addition to writing and recording music, Childers practiced law for thirty-five years, serving as an attorney for those on social security and/or disability. Those two careers ran parallel for a while, but in 2016 Childers decided to quit the legal profession to focus on his music. He is also a poet and a painter.

Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

Ay! victory,
Which from Thine eye
Breaks as the day doth from the East;
When the spilt dew
Like tears doth shew
The sad world wept to be released.

Spring up, O wine,
And springing shine
With some glad message from His heart,
Who did, when slain,
These means ordain
For me to have in Him a part.

Such a sure part
In His blest heart,
The Well where living waters spring,
That with it fed,
Poor dust, though dead,
Shall rise again, and live, and sing.

O drink and bread,
Which strikes Death dead,
The food of man’s immortal being!
Under veils here
Thou art my cheer,
Present and sure without my seeing.

How dost thou fly
And search and pry
Through all my parts, and, like a quick
And knowing lamp,
Hunt out each damp,
Whose shadow makes me sad or sick!

O what high joys!
The turtle’s voice
And songs I hear! O quick’ning showers
Of my Lord’s blood,
You make rocks bud,
And crown dry hills with wells and flowers!

For this true ease,
This healing peace,
For this taste of living glory,
My soul and all
Kneel down and fall,
And sing His sad victorious story!

O thorny crown,
More soft than down!
O painful cross, my bed of rest!
O spear, the key
Opening the way!
O Thy worst state, my only best!

Oh! all Thy griefs
Are my reliefs,
And all my sins Thy sorrows were!
And what can I
To this reply?
What—O God!—but a silent tear?

Some toil and sow
That wealth may flow,
And dress this Earth for next year’s meat:
But let me heed
Why Thou didst bleed
And what in the next world to eat.

Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) [previously] was a Welsh metaphysical poet, translator, and physician, known chiefly for his religious poetry in English. For info on his life and times, as well as his literary importance, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/henry-vaughan.

Vaughan’s “The Feast” was originally published in 1655 in the expanded edition of his celebrated collection Silex Scintillans (1650). (The book’s title is Latin for “The Fiery Flint,” referring to the stony hardness of man’s heart, from which divine steel strikes fire.) The poem consists of thirteen sestets (six-line stanzas), each following the syllable pattern 4-4-8-4-4-8, with a few cheats. More specifically: the first two lines of each stanza are in iambic dimeter, and the third is in iambic tetrameter, repeat. Which is simply the technical way of saying that the rhythm sounds like da-DUM, da-DUM—unstressed syllable, stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is AABCCB. I mention these details because it’s important to see the structure of a poem.

Now let’s walk through it piece by piece.

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

The speaker starts out by beseeching Christ’s return. He’s saying that he, who is mere dust, has put the affairs of his heart in order and is ready for the next life. He has come to realize that earthly pleasures are but “short sips,” quick delights, and he wants a long, slow drink, one that infinitely satisfies. Like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13–14, to whom Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this [physical] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Those who truly seek for more than what this world has to offer will find it.

[Related post: “Lent, Day 3”]

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

“Come then, True Bread,” the speaker exclaims, addressing Christ in biblical metaphor. John 6 is a major reference point for Vaughan throughout this poem, which is where Jesus addresses the crowds whom he had just fed the day before with miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . .

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is the bread of life, whose flesh we eat at the Communion table, taking his self into our selves. Those who feed on Christ are strengthened in their union with him in both his crucifixion and resurrection. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

“Come,” the poem’s speaker continues, “antedate / On me that state / Which brings poor dust the victory.” He, as one who has already lost battle after battle against sin, asks that Christ grant him the victory post-factum, rendering his past losses of no account. In other words: “Christ, have mercy.”

Continue reading “Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)”

“What Love Is This” by Edward Taylor

Adams, Susan_Waiting for Something
Susan Adams (British, 1966–), Waiting for Something, 2002. Oil on panel, 36 × 58 cm. Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery, Bangor, Wales.

What love is this of thine, that cannot be
In thine infinity, O Lord, confined,
Unless it in thy very person see
Infinity and finity conjoin’d?
What! hath thy Godhead, as not satisfied,
Married our manhood, making it its bride?

Oh matchless love! filling heaven to the brim!
O’errunning it: all running o’er beside
This world! Nay, overflowing hell, wherein,
For thine elect, there rose a mighty tide!
That there our veins might through thy person bleed,
To quench those flames that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy love might overflow my heart!
To fire the same with love: for love I would.
But oh! my straight’ned breast! my lifeless spark!
My fireless flame! What chilly love, and cold?
In measure small! In manner chilly! See.
Lord, blow the coal: thy love enflame in me.

Edward Taylor (1642–1729) was an American Puritan poet and minister of the Congregational church in Westfield, Massachusetts, for over fifty years. This is Meditation 1 in his Preparatory Meditations, a collection of over two hundred poems divided into two series. A private spiritual diary written from 1682 to 1725, the collection was unpublished until the twentieth century.

Lamb for Sinners Slain (Artful Devotion)

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece)
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1426–32. Oil on panel, 54 1/5 × 95 3/10 in. (137.7 × 242.3 cm). Lower central interior panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

. . . you were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

—1 Peter 1:18–22

+++

SONG: “I Will Praise Him” by Margaret J. Harris, 1898 | Arranged and performed by The Isaacs, on The Isaacs Naturally: An Almost A Cappella Collection, 2009

When I saw the cleansing fountain
Open wide for all my sin,
I obeyed the Spirit’s wooing,
When He said, “Wilt thou be clean?”

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.

Then God’s fire upon the altar
Of my heart was set aflame;
I shall never cease to praise Him:
Glory, glory to His Name!

I will praise Him! I will praise Him!
Praise the Lamb for sinners slain;
Give Him glory, all ye people,
For His blood can wash away each stain.
Glory, glory to His Name!

[Related posts: “Worthy Is the Lamb” (Artful Devotion)”; “No Other Fount (Artful Devotion)”]

+++

Ghent Altarpiece (open)
Ghent Altarpiece (open view) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432. Oil on twelve panels, 11 × 15 ft. (3.4 × 4.6 m). St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

The monumental Ghent Altarpiece by Northern Renaissance painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck [previously] is one of the world’s finest art treasures—every student who’s taken Art History 101 knows this piece, and it has been the subject of much scholarship.

Perhaps you know it from the detail photos of the recently restored Adoration of the Mystic Lamb panel that went viral in January.

Ghent Altarpiece restoration
Before restoration (left) vs. after restoration (right)

Over the past three years, conservators under the leadership of Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage removed the overpaint that was added to the van Eyck brothers’ original in the mid-sixteenth century, revealing a strikingly humanoid face on the Agnus Dei that surprised everyone. (The rest of the painting is much more naturalistic.) Social media users made fun of the cartoonish appearance of the lamb, but Hélène Dubois, head of restoration, says this lamb has a more “intense interaction with the onlookers.”

The haloed lamb who stands on an altar and bleeds into a chalice is the focal point of the entire fifteen-foot polyptych. He is, of course, a symbol of the self-sacrificial Christ. Angels surround him holding instruments of the passion, and the Latin inscription on the antependium (altar hanging) translates to “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).

Mystic Lamb (detail)

You can zoom in on all the altarpiece panels and take a look at the restoration process (ongoing since 2010, with the upper interior panels to be tackled in 2021) at the Closer to Van Eyck website, which I’ve mentioned before—though the site appears not to have been updated in a while.

If you’d like to learn more, the Google Arts & Culture online exhibition Inside the Ghent Altarpiece is a great place to start, as is the altarpiece’s Wikipedia page. If you prefer to learn audiovisually, you might enjoy these two Smarthistory videos:


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

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

No Other Fount (Artful Devotion)

Precious Blood of Christ (retablo)
La Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (The Precious Blood of Christ), Mexico, ca. 1875. Oil on tin, 10 × 7 in.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us . . .

—Ephesians 1:7–8a

+++

SONG: “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” by Robert Lowry (1876), with “Power in the Blood” by Lewis E. Jones (1899) | Medley performed by the musicians of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, on Good News, Vol. 1 (2007)

+++

Blood that bled into a cry!
The elements
felt its touch and trembled,
heaven heard their woe.
O life-blood of the maker,
scarlet music, salve our wounds.

—“Antiphon for the Redeemer” by Hildegard of Bingen, translated from the Latin by Barbara Newman


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 10, cycle B, click here.

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””