LECTURE: “Light in Sacred Space: Light from the Cave” by Matthew J. Milliner and Alexei Lidov, December 19, 2019, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles: This double lecture about the role of light in Christian spirituality and theology was organized to coincide with the premiere of 10 Columns, an immersive light installation by Phillip K. Smith III that Bridge Projects commissioned for their inaugural exhibition.
While the Light & Space movement was born in Southern California in the 1960s, in many ways it participates in a much longer history of artists in dialogue with the phenomena of light. This presentation by two art historians, Matthew Milliner and Alexei Lidov, will begin with Milliner exploring the unexpected resonance of Phillip K. Smith III’s work with Byzantine and Gothic traditions. Lidov will then expand on these ideas with his scholarship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and its long history of engaging light and mysticism. What kinds of insights might come when Light and Space artists, including Phillip K. Smith III, are put in conversation with ancient Orthodox Christian concepts of the nativity and uncreated light? [source]
Milliner speaks for the first forty minutes, discussing Nativity and Transfiguration icons and their correlatives in the West and making, as always, fascinating connections between art of the past and present. For example, he overlays Olafur Eliasson’s Ephemeral Afterimage Star (2008) on Rublev’s Transfiguration icon (19:19), and Ann Veronica Janssens’s Yellow Rose on an Adoration of the Magi illumination from a fifteenth-century book of hours at the Getty (26:32). He also introduced me to a fascinating medieval manuscript illumination from Germany (which he in turn learned about through Solrunn Nes) that combines the light of Bethlehem and Tabor—two Gospel scenes in one. Don’t miss the quote by Gregory of Nazianzus.
Combining art history and theology (he has advanced degrees in both), Milliner’s talk is organized as follows:
Thessaloniki | Gregory Palamas (d. 1337)
Constantinople | Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (d. ca. 500)
Paris | Abbot Suger (d. 1151)
Los Angeles | Phillip K. Smith III (b. 1972)
>> “A 60-second introduction to ‘The Nativity at Night’”: One of my favorite Nativity paintings! By fifteenth-century Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans, a lay brother in the religious order of St. John. In this video from the National Gallery in London, a camera scans over the painting as an atmospheric soundscape plays and captions guide us in looking at the details.
>> “Mother and Child Commission”: In this twelve-minute “making of” video, filmmaker Nick Clarke talks to artist Nicholas Mynheer over the first half of 2020, tracing his progress on the life-size Mother and Child sculpture that was commissioned by the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, an Anglican convent in Oxfordshire. I was struck by, from the looks of it, the physical demands of the sculpting process—the strength and endurance required to chip away daily at blocks of stone outside in winter, until they yield the shape you desire, then the logistics of attaching the blocks with steel, which weigh nearly a ton collectively, and disassembling, transporting, and reassembling them for installation. I was also interested to hear Mynheer discuss the expressive capabilities of English limestone—how you can convey emotional and sartorial subtleties, for example, through the precise angling of the chisel.
Mother and Child was installed in the outdoor reception area of St Mary’s on April 12, 2021; you can watch a video of the installation here. “In very, apparently, simplified form, there is so much tenderness, energy, and something new,” says Sister Stella, the sister in charge, about the sculpture. “Jesus isn’t going to be held back. Her son’s going to go places.”
>> “Corazón Pesebre” (Heart Manger) by Rescate: A follower of the blog introduced me to this Christmas song from Argentina, and I dig it! Released as a single in 2017, it’s about turning our hearts into a manger to receive Christ. Read the Spanish lyrics in the YouTube video description.
The song is by the highly popular Argentinian Christian rock band Rescate, active from 1987 to 2020. Their lead singer and main songwriter, Ulises Eyherabide, died of cancer in July.
LOOK: Dim Gold (Feast of Brides) by Mandy Cano Villalobos
Mandy Cano Villalobos is an interdisciplinary artist whose projects span installation, painting, drawing, performance, sculpture, and video. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Drawing on the archetype of the waiting bride, the found-object installation Dim Gold (Feast of Brides) was commissioned by Bridge Projects for Here After, an exhibition exploring humanity’s hope for paradise. The artist writes,
Dim Gold is an allegory of marital covenant, bodily death, and the hope of love’s consummation in afterlife. The throne heap consists of discarded clothing, broken appliances, old lamps, unwanted toys, bruised furniture, fake flowers, stained curtains, human and synthetic hair, scratched glasses, deflated soccer balls, faded photographs, worn shoes, chipped figurines, kitchen utensils, costume jewelry, yellowed wedding decorations, cracked dishes, Christmas ornaments, mildewed books, and bathtub plugs.
From baby bottles and children’s playthings to a cane and a pillbox, the pile contains a life. (In fact, Cano Villalobos said she acquired most of the items from an old woman’s estate sale.) It’s a full life, but one of brokenness and decay. There is no permanence in this world. The otherworld—the new heaven, the new earth (a transfigured thisworld)—is what endures.
The Dim Gold construction is throne-like, all its components leaning in toward a central chair topped by seven white, ribbed shafts that fan out and that are suggestive, with the flame-colored flowers at the terminals, of a menorah. Lace, silk, and draped strings of pearls form the throne’s backing. With its dressed but empty seat that calls forth a presence, the piece evokes the hetoimasia (prepared throne of the second coming) of Eastern Orthodox icons.
The scattered, lit bulbs on shadeless lampstands allude to the burning oil lamps in Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1–13), which signify readiness for the Bridegroom’s return.
Cano Villalobos combines earthly and heavenly imagery in Dim Gold, an Advent ensemble that pictures the church-as-bride’s waiting with lights on, amid the ephemera of this life, for her groom to come take her home, where an eternal feast is spread in bright, delicious glory, and the two of them will become one at last.
LISTEN: “When the Bridegroom Comes”| Words by David Omer Bearden, 1973 | Music by Judee Sill, 1973 | Performed by Judee Sill on Heart Food, 1973
See the bride and the Spirit are one. Then won’t you who are thirsty invite him to come? With your door open wide, Won’t you listen in the dark for the midnight cry? And see, when your light is on, that the Bridegroom comes.
Into cold outer darkness are gone Guests who would not their own wedding garment put on. Though the chosen are few, Won’t you tarry by your lamp till he calls for you? And pray that your love endure till the Bridegroom comes.
When the halt and the lame meet the Son, And he sees for the blind and he speaks for the dumb, Let their poor hearts’ complaint, Like the leper turned around who has kissed the saint, Lift like a trumpet shout, and the Bridegroom come.
See the builders despising the stone, See the pearl of great price and the dry desert bones. By the Pharisees cursed, Be exultant with the rose when the last are first, And see how his mercy shines as the Bridegroom comes.
Hear the bride and the Spirit say, “Come!” Then won’t you who are weary invite in the Son? When your heart’s love is high, Won’t you hasten to the place where the hour is nigh? And see that your light is on, for the Bridegroom comes. See that your light is on, for the Bridegroom comes.
Judee Sill (1944–1979) was an American singer-songwriter whose genre of music Rolling Stone refers to as “mystic Christian folk.” Themes of temptation, rapture, redemption, and the search for higher meaning permeate her work.
Sill survived ongoing physical and verbal abuse in childhood from her mother and stepfather. As a teenager, she committed a series of armed robberies that landed her in reform school, where she learned to play the organ for church and became interested in gospel music. Upon her release, after briefly attending a junior college and working in a piano bar, she got caught up in the California drug culture, developing a crippling heroin addiction and resorting to prostitution and check forgery to fund it.
While she was serving a prison sentence for narcotics and forgery offenses, her only sibling, Dennis, died of an illness, and she was devastated. But this seems to have given her the impetus to pursue a career in songwriting and performing. She gigged in clubs around Los Angeles while living in a Cadillac, and she was eventually signed by the new Asylum Records. Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) produced her first single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Her two albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973), received some acclaim but failed to chart. Discouraged, and suffering back pain from a car accident and later a fall, she returned to hard drugs. She died of a cocaine and codeine overdose at age thirty-five.
Why do I rehearse Sill’s turbulent biography? Because songs don’t come out of a vacuum. The longing in “When the Bridegroom Comes”—those piano chords, that voice—is real. Her thirst, her questing, her waiting and hoping. Though she herself didn’t write the lyrics (David Omer Bearden, her romantic partner at the time, did, though she likely gave input), she sings them with fervency, makes them her prayer.
The song melds together the parable of the ten bridesmaids from Matthew 25 with the bridal theology of Revelation. In one, which has more of an individual focus, we are put in the place of the bride’s attendants and warned to be prepared for the imminent wedding celebration, lest we get locked out in the dark; in the other, Christ’s church as a collective is likened to the bride herself, eagerly anticipating the arrival of her groom and the sweet union that will follow.
The song’s primary referent is Revelation 22:17, from the final chapter of the Bible:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
In this verse, the voice of the bride (the church) through whom the Spirit speaks calls out, “Come.” Because of the interchange of speakers and subjects in the broader passage, it’s unclear whether the addressee of this imperative is Christ or the masses. The church could be crying out for Jesus’s return, as they do in verse 20, or they could be inviting people far and wide to the gospel feast, bidding them come and eat. I think the latter, which would make it continuous with the third and fourth lines, but it could really go either way. Because as sure as there’s the final coming of Christ to the world, there’s also the coming of the world to Christ. He comes to us, and we come to him.
Sill’s whole song is full of biblical references—Jesus’s healing ministry, Jesus as the rejected cornerstone (Matt. 21:42), Jesus as the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45–46), the Spirit breathing life into dry bones (Ezek. 37:1–14), Jesus’s upside-down kingdom in which the last are first and the first are last (Matt. 19:30). It celebrates divine mercy and grace and encourages us to respond in the affirmative to Christ’s wedding invitation, and to persevere in love while he tarries.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
EXHIBITION: Here After, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, May 7–July 30, 2022: This latest offering from the spirituality-forward art gallery Bridge Projects looks amazing! I appreciate their commitment to featuring religiously and ethnically diverse artists, as well as a range of styles and media.
The group exhibition features thirty-seven artists who explore the idea of paradise—both how it has been pursued on earth across history, and how it is imagined after life. From Pure Land Buddhism’s chant “Namu Amida Butsu” (“I take refuge in Amida Buddha”) to Christianity’s prayer for the Kingdom to be “on earth as it is in heaven,” the concepts of paradise are as diverse as those who hope for it.
In Here After, works like William Kurelek’s Farm Boy’s Dream of Heaven (1963) envision an eschatological beyond in figurative form, while works by Bonita Helmer and Zarah Hussain do so in more abstract terms. Andrea Büttner and Claire Curneen’s works point to a vulnerable, sensual bodiliness, embedded in the surface of the world where all things come to pass. There is a land beyond the river by Gyun Hur and Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s The Boat People make space for remembrance of those who have passed, while Afruz Amighi, Mercedes Dorame, and Charwei Tsai position the viewer between worlds, feet firmly planted on the ground yet gazing at the glory and wonder of the beyond. In his installation Skywall, David Wallace Haskins plunges into the boundless sky and its immaterial light, letting all the expansive beauty grip the viewer. Kate Ingold intones the rhythmic mantras of what the divine is not with minute stitches, employing almost impossible patience to painstakingly outline absence. Kris Martin lodges small contradictions in the mind, which, in time, grow to be distracting puzzles—the candle in a sealed box, whose existence cannot be proven with the senses. And Tatsuo Miyajima uses digital counters to display the uncountable, unending dimension of existence.
>> “O Jesus, Crowned with All Renown,” performed by Jon and Amanda McGill: The Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Day is known as Rogationtide, a short liturgical period (observed by most Anglicans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and others) in which we pray that God blesses the crops so that they yield a good harvest. It falls on May 23–25 this year. The hymn “O Jesus, Crowned with All Renown” is especially associated with the Rogation Days. It was written in 1860 by Edward White Benson, archbishop of Canterbury, and is typically paired with the tune KINGSFOLD.
O Jesus, crowned with all renown, Since thou the earth hast trod, Thou reignest, and by thee come down Henceforth the gifts of God. Thine is the health and thine the wealth That in our halls abound, And thine the beauty and the joy With which the years are crowned.
Lord, in their change, let frost and heat And winds and dews be giv’n; All fostering power, all influence sweet, Breathe from the bounteous heav’n. Attemper fair with gentle air The sunshine and the rain, That kindly earth with timely birth May yield her fruits again.
That we may feed the poor aright, And gathering round thy throne, Here, in the holy angels’ sight, Repay thee of thine own: That we may praise thee all our days, And with the Father’s name, And with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, The Savior’s love proclaim.
“Rogation” is derived from the Latin verb rogare, which means “to ask.” In the liturgies of Rogation Days, we ask the Lord to bless the fields, the crops, and the hands of farmers who produce our food. Worship on Rogation Days teaches us that we depend upon God’s favor over his land. We ask him for goodness over not just an abstract idea of our “land” but the very real earth beneath our feet in our backyards, our neighborhoods, and whatever part of the earth our feet hit the ground. As we’ve become a post-industrial society, the prayers for Rogation Days have expanded to include not only prayers for farmers and fishermen, but also for commerce and industry, and for all of us as stewards of creation.
>> “The Twelve: An Anthem for the Feast of Any Apostle,” words by W. H. Auden and music by William Walton: In 1965 the dean of the choir school at Christ Church, Oxford—Dr. Cuthbert Simpson—approached poet W. H. Auden and composer William Walton to write a choral anthem for use on apostolic feast days. “The Twelve” is the result. In this video filmed at Keble College, Oxford, in July 2021, it is performed by the vocal ensembles VOCES8 and Apollo5 (both directed by Barnaby Smith), with Peter Holder on organ. Learn more about the background and structure of the anthem here.
This performance appears on Renewal?, a concept album released February 25 that combines new works by Paul Smith (cofounder of VOCES8) and Donna McKevitt with works by three influential modern composers: William Walton, John Cage, and William Henry Harris. “Multifaceted texts by Lal Ded, Edmund Spenser, W. H. Auden, Lord Byron, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, and Edna St. Vincent Millay offer space to consider our world, past and present, and meditate on a response to build a better future.”
You can read the full text of “The Twelve” in the YouTube video description. It begins,
Without arms or charm of culture, Persons of no importance From an unimportant Province, They did as the Spirit bid, Went forth into a joyless world Of swords and rhetoric To bring it joy.
Ascension Day occurs every year on the Thursday that falls forty days after Easter (see Acts 1:1–3). This year it is May 26. Here are two Ascension-themed visual meditations from ArtWay.eu.
>> On the Reidersche Tafel, by Nigel Halliday: This ivory bas-relief, which was probably originally embedded in a book cover, is the earliest known representation of the Ascension. It shows Jesus striding up a mountain, being pulled up into heaven by the hand of God the Father. (Mark and Luke use the passive voice to describe the Ascension: “he was taken up into heaven.”) He is dressed in a toga and holding a scroll. Learn more from Nigel Halliday at the above link, or visit this Instagram post I made two years ago.
>> On Ngambuny Ascends by Shirley Purdie, by Rod Pattenden: Ngambuny is the Gija name for Jesus. Aboriginal Australian artist Shirley Purdie sets his ascension within the indigenous landscape of the Bungle Bungle Range, using her characteristic style of dotted outlines. “Purdie draws on her cultural tradition to locate the presence of God within the skin of her land,” writes the Rev. Dr. Rod Pattenden. “Her work is literally painted with the earth, as she collects ochres from the land she is responsible for and mixes it with glue to attach to her warm hued canvases.” Pattenden offers a fascinating reading of Purdie’s Ngambuny Ascends, discussing the use of black ocher, God as Creator Spirit alive in the earth, and more.
EXHIBITION: Otherwise/Revival, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, April 9–June 26, 2021: Curated by Jasmine McNeal and Cara Megan Lewis, this group exhibition visualizes the impact of the historic Black church—specifically the Black Pentecostal movement—on contemporary artists. Included are several artists I’ve featured on the blog before—Lava Thomas [here], Kehinde Wiley [here], Clementine Hunter [here], Letitia and Sedrick Huckaby [here]—plus twenty-six others.
I regret that I won’t be able to see the exhibition in person, but there’s a wealth of relevant content available on the gallery’s website, including photos, artist bios and statements, and commentaries. I haven’t fully delved in yet, but some of the artist names are new to me, and I look forward to jumping over to their websites to learn more. There’s also a series of free events that have been scheduled. The premiere of the virtual music performance yes! lord by Ashton T. Crawley and a symposium on the Azusa Street Revival have already passed (both are archived online for on-demand viewing), but here are some upcoming opportunities you can reserve a spot for:
May 1: “Jazz and the Gospel” with Daniel E. Walker, Ashon T. Crawley, Dario Robleto, Norman Teague, Lava Thomas, and Folayemi (Fo) Wilson
ARTICLE: “5 Films About the Beauty of Resurrection” by Brett McCracken: “Resurrection’ tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.” One of his selections is Happy as Lazzaro, which I saw last year and enjoyed:
>> Hymns I by Lovkn: Steven Lufkin is a singer-songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, recording under the name Lovkn. His latest EP, a collection of eight acoustic hymn covers, was released April 2. (Also, he’s currently raising funds to record an album of original songs, to be released later this year: kickstarter.com/projects/lovkn/new-album-2021.)
>> Prayers for the Time of Trial by Joel Clarkson: Released April 7, this EP comprises five original SATB choral compositions by Joel Clarkson, which he recorded with his sister Joy Clarkson. My favorite is the first, “Lighten Our Darkness,” a setting of the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Aid Against Perils: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The other four are “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (Beneath Thy Protection), a third-century hymn to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos; “Hail King,” a poem by Joel’s other sister, Sarah Clarkson, that marvels how rocky cliffs and sea waves and herring gulls sing God’s praises in their own way; “Ubi Caritas,” an ancient hymn centered on the theme of Christian charity; and the simple benediction “May the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.”
ORTHODOX CHANT: Russian Kontakion of the Departed: At Prince Philip’s funeral service at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, a choir of four sang, among other pieces, the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, translated into English by William John Birkbeck and arranged by Sir Walter Parratt. “The Russian Kontakion of the Departed is an ancient Kiev chant with its origins in the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This moving chant expresses the sorrow of grief but reminds us of the Christian hope of everlasting life; in the face of sadness, we sing Hallelujahs.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting. Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man: and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth, and unto earth shall we return: for so thou didst ordain, when thou created me saying: Dust thou art und unto dust shalt thou return. All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
VISUAL LITURGY: “After Ezekiel” by Madeleine Jubilee Saito: Remember those flip books you probably encountered as a kid—the ones with a series of images that gradually change from one page to the next, giving the illusion of animation when viewed in quick succession? Well, this is a digital version of that. In 2019 cartoonist and illustrator Madeleine Jubilee Saito created an image sequence intended to be swiftly clicked through as part of the Easter Vigil at a church in Boston. It was inspired by the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). Very compelling!
ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)
“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26,8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.
SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.
Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.
I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”
Below you will find a mix of annotated links to songs, interviews, articles, and art showings of interest: “The Sound of Silence” on classical guitar; an acoustic ecologist whose job is to record nature’s music; giving up books for Lent; two interfaith art exhibitions (Faces of Prayer in Vienna and To Bough and ToBend in Los Angeles); and two new folk music albums (Old Wow by Sam Lee and Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters).
This is the title track of Karadaglić’s fifth album, Sound of Silence, released last fall. To watch him perform the piece in London’s Air Studios, as filmed by Classic FM in October for Live Music Month 2019, click here.
PODCAST EPISODE: “Silence and the Presence of Everything,”On Being interview with Gordon Hempton: “Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton collects sounds from around the world. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, thunder in the Kalahari Desert, and dawn breaking across six continents. An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence—not an absence of sound but an absence of noise.”
Such a unique vocation—listening to places, preserving natural soundscapes. “I hear music coming from the land,” Hempton says. “Some of the most sublime symphonies have been hidden away in something as simple as a driftwood log.” Among his other favorite “musics” are “grass wind” (“the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of . . . the blade of grass”) and sounds from “the most musical beach in the world,” Rialto Beach.
Earth is a solar-powered jukebox. . . . We can go to the equator, listen to the Amazon, where we have maximum sunlight, maximum solar energy. The solar panels, the leaves, are harvesting that and cycling it into the bioacoustic system. And, to my ears, that’s a little too intense. That’s a little bit too much action.
Then we can jump up into Central America, and we can still feel and hear the intense solar energy, but it’s beginning to wane.
And we notice a really big difference when we start getting into the temperate latitudes, of which I particularly enjoy recording in because it’s not just about the sound, but it’s about something that I call the “poetics” of space. . . .
“Silence is really wonderful, isn’t it?” he beams. “Even when we just let it exist, it feeds our soul.”
ESSAY: Last year Leah Slawson gave up books for Lent. When I first read that headline, I balked. Books are so life-giving to me! But as I read on, I came to understand Slawson’s reasoning (with which I can identify), and, while I’m not fasting from reading, I admire her choice. “I put a high value on reading, but I am keenly aware that I can use it as an escape from thinking my own thoughts or from noticing my feelings. . . . Reading, for me, is a distraction from the hard work of writing, and since it is so worthy of an activity, I feel justified and redeemed. I even read and study as a way to fool myself into thinking I am practicing faith; when really, I am just reading about someone else’s spiritual practice.” [HT: Rachel A. Dawson]
>> Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl,Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, December 5, 2019–March 24, 2020: A series of thirty-one intimate black-and-white photographs showing people of different faiths in prayer. To capture these shots, photographer Katharina Heigl visited churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship in Austria and Israel, but, important to the display, there are no labels to tell you who is praying to which god(s). That’s because Heigl wishes to emphasize the universality of the human impulse to communicate with the Divine. There are signs, however, that reproduce quotes from anonymous sources, printed in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic, such as “Prayer is like an oasis of calm inside me. Like a tree giving me shade.” [HT: ArtWay]
>> To Bough and To Bend,Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, March 11–April 25, 2020: Officially launched last October, Bridge Projects is an LA exhibition space with public programs connecting art history, spirituality, living religious traditions, and contemporary art practices. Their second exhibition, To Bough and To Bend, opens Wednesday, with thirty-two participating artists.
“The Tree of Life is found in both the beginning of the Jewish Tanakh and in the last book of the Christian Scriptures. The Bodhi Tree is said to be the site of Siddhārtha Gautama’s awakening as the Buddha. Ancient Chinook prayers address God as the ‘Maker of Trees.’ As the novelist Richard Powers said, trees are rightly called ‘architecture of imagination.’ Their shade and branches have been sites of contemplation, suffering, and imagining our renewal.
“Today, trees still speak: blunt stumps communicate deforestation and charred limbs speak of Los Angeles fires started by our own hands—or our negligence. New discoveries of communicating root systems speak to a tangled web of connections just below the surface of the visible world, just as LA’s iconic—and imported—palms evoke a colonial past. In To Bough and To Bend, artists explore these ecological issues and look to both religious and contemporary art practices that help us listen to these old friends, so that we might relearn to ‘walk slowly and bow often’ and find our way back into the living world we share.”
The opening celebration on March 14 will consist of a communal poetry reading followed by a Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) ritual presentation by community organizer Michal David. Other events are: “Called to Shine: Trees in Myth, Symbol, and Art”; a live interview with artist Lucas Reiner on his Trees as Stations of the Crossproject; a talk on indigenous trees of Southern California, given by a member of the Tongva tribe; a discussion of art’s role in nature preservation; a lecture by Dr. Kimberly Ball on Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology; “Paradise and Agony in the Garden: Sacred Trees in Italian Renaissance Art”; Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams on the intersections of Buddhism and ecology; a bonsai demonstration; and a poetry reading and song performance by Iranian-born writer Sholeh Wolpé.
NEW ALBUMS: Both these were released in January.
>>Old Wow by Sam Lee: An avid collector and reinterpreter of traditional songs, Britfolk artist Sam Lee is acclaimed for “breaking the boundaries between folk and contemporary music and the assumed place and way folksong is heard . . . not only inviting in a new listenership but also interrogating what the messages in these old songs hold for us today.” He studied under the Scottish storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) and, in addition to singing, plays the Jew’s harp and the Indian shruti box. Other instruments in his unique fusion include the klezmeresque cello, tabla, Japanese koto, ukulele, violins, and percussion.
Below are two music videos from his latest album, Old Wow. The first is “Lay This Body Down,” a song about death; in the choreographed video, Lee is tugged and caressed by a gaggle of deceased souls, who at the end enfold him in the ground. “The Moon Shines Bright,” on the other hand, which features Elizabeth Fraser, is about life: its call (fitting for Lent) is to “Rise, arise, wake thee, arise / Life, she is calling thee / For it might be the mothering of your sweet soul / If you open your eyes and see.” I’ve heard many different iterations of this song, which usually appears on Advent/Christmas albums with verses about the Nativity, Crucifixion, etc., but this adaptation was gifted to Lee by an elderly Gypsy woman named Freda Black and is absent of overt Christological references.
>> Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters: The Pharaoh Sisters is a folk outfit from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, whose debut album has arrived! Influenced by the mountain, old-time, and gospel traditions, the band consists of Austin Pfeiffer on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jared Meyer on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Kevin Beck on lap steel guitar, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass. “Their music blends the cowboy sensibilities of Western-native frontman and lyricist Austin Pfeiffer with the Appalachian traditions of dark imagery and poignant guitars from their current home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.”
The biblical narrative is deeply embedded in the album, with many sideways references to specific scriptures. Topography is used symbolically throughout—fissures, canyons, mountains—and helps establish the central metaphor of Jesus as a pioneer, opening up a new frontier for us, leading us through the wilderness into the land of promise.
The album’s title, Civil Dawn, is a scientific term referring to when the center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon in the morning—in other words, the moment before the sun rises. The first song, which muses on the paradoxical character of Jesus, ends with a yearning for “Healing wings / Righteous sun,” a subtle nod to Malachi 4:2. That leads into “Awake, my soul, to the sun,” a prayer that we would incline ourselves toward the Light that’s already shining. As the journey continues, there’s darkness, dryness, a feeling of lostness and thirst. But we are not abandoned by our co-traveler, who is our light, our rest and refreshment, our way-maker. The last song, “Homecoming,” celebrates the “pioneer man with sun-scorched hands” who “guides on a trail he’s blazed”—an evocative image, which makes me think of Christ’s glorious wounds (in many traditional religious paintings, the nail prints emit light), but also, in light of the whole record, Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”