Alpha and Omega (Artful Devotion)

Christ in Glory by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Christ in Glory, 2015. Mixed media on wood, 15 3/4 × 11 1/2 in. Collection of John A. Kohan. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

—Revelation 22:13

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SONG: “Alpha and Omega” by Erasmus Mutanbira, 2005 | Performed by Spirit & Truth, 2012

(Note: An earlier version of this post misattributed the song to Israel Houghton. Houghton popularized the song on his Alive in South Africa album, but the words and music are by Erasmus Mutanbira from Zimbabwe.)


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 Seventh Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: New books and conferences; refugee memorial removed; icon against animal cruelty

PUBLIC ART CONTROVERSY: Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees, commissioned for last year’s major quinquennial art exhibition Documenta, was removed on October 3 by order of the Kassel City Council after, it is presumed, mounting pressure from Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Designed as a site-specific work for Königsplatz (King’s Square), a pedestrian zone in the city center, where it had stood since June 2017, the fifty-three-foot concrete obelisk prominently features an excerpt of Jesus’s words from Matthew 25:35—“I was a stranger and you took me in”—inscribed in gold letters in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish. This quote reflects Jesus’s revolutionary ethic of love at the expense of personal comfort, of disadvantaging the self for others, so it’s no surprise that even today, it still offends. (Later in the passage, Jesus issues a sobering warning for those who fail to heed his command to welcome strangers.)

Monument to Strangers and Refugees by Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe (Nigerian American, 1964–), Monument to Strangers and Refugees, 2017. Concrete, about 53 ft. tall (3 × 3 × 16.3 m). Installation in King’s Square, Kassel, Germany.
Immigrant memorial removed
Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees was dismantled early on October 3 following orders by the city of Kassel. Photo: Regina Oesterling.

Germany has become increasingly polarized since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated an open-door immigration policy, leading to an influx of over one million refugees and asylum seekers at the height of the European refugee crisis. The city council had raised funds to purchase Oguibe’s monument for permanent display, and negotiations with the artist were in motion, but on September 24 they changed course, voting to remove the monument instead. According to Councilman Thomas Materner, a member of the AfD party, the obelisk is “ideologically polarizing, disfigured art.”

[Update, 10/12/18: The city and the artist have agreed on a new public location for the monument: Treppenstrasse, a nearby pedestrian area (via). 4/18/19: The monument was installed today at its new location (via).]

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CONFERENCES

“The Saddleback Visual Arts / CreativeChurch Arts Conference is a unique, full three-day conference and retreat October 18–20, 2018 at the beautiful Saddleback Rancho Capistrano Retreat Center. Creative leaders, arts ministry practitioners, and renowned artists will share visionary ideas and practical applications during sessions, workshops, creative and interactive performances and experiences. Attendees will explore applications for the arts and creativity in the local church, discover creative inspiration, experience refreshing and empowering ministry, connect with their creative tribe, and have the opportunity for personal or team retreat time in a beautiful setting. . . . For more information, and to register, please visit the CreativeChurch Arts website, here.”

[Update, 10/26/18: Below is a short video debrief of the conference.]

Another conference taking place that same weekend, October 19–20, 2018, is “Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850–Now).” The inaugural conference of the Visual Theology Symposia, it’s being held in Chichester, England, and it may sound familiar to you, since I publicized the call for papers back in April. One of my favorite writers and thinkers in the field, Jonathan A. Anderson, will be speaking there, along with others. The focus will be scholarly, whereas Saddleback’s conference will be more practical, hands-on, and ministry-focused.

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LECTURE: “Cathedrals from the Outside: Questions of Art, Engagement, Commemoration and Celebration” by Sandy Nairne: At the National Cathedrals Conference in Manchester last month, Nairne, who served as director of London’s National Portrait Gallery from 2002 to 2015, spoke on the spiritual in art—in public spaces, galleries, and cathedrals. His starting questions: “How does contemporary art function in museums in ways that are of interest to cathedrals? And are there new ways in which art is playing a part in cathedrals that is important to the cultural world as a whole?” Click on the link to read the transcript.

The White Doves by Michael Pendry
Michael Pendry (German, 1974–), Les Colombes – The White Doves, 2017. 2,000 white paper doves, 49 ft. (15 m). Pentecost installation at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. (Shirazeh Houshiary’s East Window is in the background.) Photo: Marc Gascoigne.

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NEW ICON: Christ Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering: Iconographer Aidan Hart writes, “Sometimes I am commissioned to paint an icon of a saint for whom nothing yet exists, or at least no satisfactory icon. This is usually a pre-schism Western saint. But more rarely, the subject is a new theme, a new emphasis or combination. This was the case when Dr Christine Nellist approached me to create an icon that embodied some of the Orthodox Church’s teaching about our relationship with animals. The icon was to be used as flagship for her newly founded organisation Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals and to illustrate her pending book on the subject. This article tells the story of its genesis and explains its design.” Fascinating!

Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering by Aidan Hart
Aidan Hart (British, 1957–), Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering, 2018. Tempera on wood.

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Hymnal: A Reading History by Christopher N. Phillips, reviewed by Leland Ryken: Who knew hymnals didn’t take the form of a songbook until the 1870s! Before then, says Phillips, they were essentially volumes of poetry, used in family and private devotions. “The focus [of this book] . . . is an exploration of the hymnbooks that preceded our familiar hymnal. These were books containing the texts of the hymns without accompanying music. . . . [The author] doesn’t deal with the history of hymn-singing in church services but with the private reading of hymns as poems. I can’t imagine a more original approach to hymns for our generation.” Definitely adding this one to my to-read list.

The Hymnal: A Reading History

Everything Tells Us about God by Katherine Bolger Hyde, with illustrations by Livia Coloji, reviewed by Amanda McGill: This children’s book from Ancient Faith Publishing begins, “The world is like a giant puzzle God made to tell us about Himself—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every piece whispers one of His secrets—all we need to do is listen.” “I love the message of the book,” writes McGill: “finding God in the ordinary elements of creation. I think it affirms what children already suspect: that the world is meaningful, personal and infused with specialness. One of the first things I was thankful for was the inclusion of baptism and the Eucharist at the beginning of the book. It situates the sacraments within the normal experiences of life.”

Everything Tells Us about God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Resurrection icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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