A theological reading of Rodríguez Calero’s acrollages

Last month when I was driving home to Maryland from Connecticut, I decided to stop for an hour or two at the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. I wanted to see a monumental Nativity painting in their collection by Joseph Stella. It didn’t end up being on display, but I did find many other compelling works. Chief among them was the acrollage painting Christ of the Christians by Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist Rodríguez Calero, a variation on the Crucifixion that portrays the violence of the cross in the abstract.

Rodriguez Calero_Christ of the Christians
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Christ of the Christians, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey. All photos (except the two details that follow) courtesy of the artist.

Made with acrylic paint, rice paper, imaged paper, colored glazes, and gold leaf, the work is heavily layered. Its focal point is the direct gaze of a young Black man, his head framed by a shaded gray box and haloed in gold. His face is cut off just above the mouth. The Word is muted.

This figure fragment is at the top terminal of a rough-edged cruciform that is rendered in a harsh tar-black embedded with deep splotches of red. Body merges with cross—blood, wood, and flesh.

The whole background is covered in pinks and reds. The color pools and splatters and permeates, representing the pouring out of life.

Standing upright alongside the cross are three stenciled palm branches, alluding to Christ’s entry into Jerusalem just five days earlier. Palm branches were a symbol of triumph in ancient Judaism, hence their being waved to greet the Christ, the “Anointed One,” at the city gate. (Jesus’s followers anticipated a political victory over Rome, little knowing that God had other plans.) In Christian iconography palm branches are associated with martyrdom; in portraits and heavenscapes they are held by saints who met an early end because of their spiritual convictions, just like their Lord.

Their presence in this scene can be read on the one hand as an indictment of human fickleness (lauding Jesus as savior one day, crucifying him the next) and on the other as an assertion of triumph through the unlikely means of death on a cross.

The work can also be read through the lens of Black suffering and liberation. The late Christian theologian James Cone writes about such themes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark book published in 2013, anticipating the Black Lives Matter movement. Cone explains how powerful a symbol the cross has historically been to Black American communities who face racial terror, violence, and oppression. They see in the Crucifixion, in addition to its spiritual implications, a demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and hope on the other side. “I’m with you in your suffering,” says the God who hangs on a tree at the behest of a mob, “and death will not have the final word.”

Cone describes the thousands of lynchings of Black men, women, and children in the US as “recrucifixions”—the killing of sons and daughters of God. Two decades earlier, Jamaican American artist Renee Cox made the same connection in her photographic collage It Shall Be Named, just one in a line of artistic works to do so, going as far back as the Harlem Renaissance. Calero’s Christ of the Christians contributes to this tradition.

The gaze of the Christ in her piece is arresting. It confronts. It asserts the sacred humanity of its wearer, despite attempts to blot it out.

Christ of the Christians (detail)

However, the artist tells me that for her, Christ of the Christians is about sacrifice, not violence, racial or otherwise. The man in the painting is the “people’s Messiah,” she says, “the anointed Savior to humankind who was sent to save all from the pain, darkness, and injustices that we see on a regular basis.” The cross is “willful humility, the culmination of prophecy, and the fulfillment of promises,” and the crown is heavenly reward. The trinity of branches represents hope.

One of the features that most struck me about this piece is its raised and varied textures, a hallmark all across the artist’s larger body of work. Calero coined the term “acrollage” to describe her mixed-media technique in which she uses an acrylic emulsifier to transfer collaged images (from found elements or her own photographs) onto painted canvas, adding further embellishments with gold leaf, stenciled patterns, and rice paper. This technique of layering materials, producing veils, suggests a theme of hiddenness and revelation.

Rodríguez Calero, or RoCa for short, was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn when she was a year old. She returned to Puerto Rico after high school to study at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, under master artist Lorenzo Homar, who specialized in printmaking. Then she returned to New York for additional training in painting and collage under artist Leo Manso. She currently resides in New York and New Jersey.

Calero’s work merges Catholic iconography and hip-hop culture, drawing her personal community into the visual lexicon of the sacred. Raised Catholic, she was influenced from an early age by religious imagery at church and school. She brings this influence to bear in her artistic work while also integrating and reflecting the multiracial, multiethnic, urban environment she grew up in. “My inspiration really comes from just being in the neighborhood . . . the people walking the streets,” she says.

Alejandro Anreus, art historian and curator of the major 2015 exhibition Rodríguez Calero: Urban Martyrs and Latter-Day Santos at El Museo del Barrio in New York, describes the Nuyorican art aesthetic that was just getting off the ground while Calero studied at the Art Students League of New York from 1976 to 1982:

Starting before 1970—crystalizing possibly with the foundation of the Taller Boricua in New York City—and emerging and developing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, a specific aesthetic that can be defined as Nuyorican came into being. The aesthetic of New York Puerto Rican art was a diverse fusion of abstract expressionism and geometric abstraction, surrealism and social realism, as well as assemblage and constructions incorporating cultural and ethnic icons. The ethnic and cultural icons reflected several thematic preoccupations, which included Taino and Afro-Hispano imagery, depictions of barrio life, a popular, even populist Catholicism, and the belief that everyone, particularly the poor and marginalized of the neighborhoods, has dignity and inner worth regardless of social status. [exhibition catalog, p. 23]

The Christian doctrine of the imago Dei—that all human beings bear God’s image—is a central theme in Calero’s work. In His Image even adopts this theological language from the book of Genesis in its title, reminding us that God created each and every person with intrinsic and objective value, a reflection of his own divine self.

Rodriguez Calero_In His Image
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), In His Image, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The piece shows a Black man dressed in a coat and beanie looking pensive and forlorn, his eyes downcast. Rectilinear pieces of teal-blue handmade paper form a cross behind him, and the outline of a manhole cover labeled “PUBLIC SERVICE” is superimposed over his face, doubling as a halo. In Christian art the halo signifies the light of Christ shining around and through a person, and Calero often adopts that device to underscore the sacred humanity of her subjects.

But the cross-hatching of this round form across the man’s face gives the impression of prison bars. Is he headed to prison, or is that destination merely what others, those with shallow or skewed vision, see when they look at him? Maybe he feels imprisoned by his circumstances. Or perhaps he is experiencing some kind of mental captivity. Whatever the nature of the confinement, those bars need to be broken. God wants every human being to be free and flourishing.

Rodriguez Calero_El Hijo de Dios
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), El Hijo de Dios, 1995. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

The youth in El Hijo de Dios also shines forth God’s image. He looks straight out at the viewer from under his red Karl Kani sweatshirt hood, with a softness and a self-awareness that evoke empathy. A gilded pattern of crosses in diamonds cuts across the middle third of the acrollage, and a dot-rimmed semicircle, a halo fragment, seems to embrace the boy. The delicacy of this intervention over the thick, heavy folds of the cotton sportswear creates an intriguing mix.

To the boy’s right is a collaged face of a male in profile that looks like it could have been taken out of a Picasso painting. He could be an extension of the primary figure, his face set on a path. Or he could be someone who is at cross-purposes with him, as they are oriented at a ninety-degree angle from each other.

Translated “The Son of God,” the title of this acrollage could refer to Jesus Christ, who bears this title in a special sense, as the only begotten of God the Father. The man does seem to embody the vulnerability and determination that characterize Christ in his passion. Alternatively, it could refer to a child of God more generally, as the Spanish hijo is not necessarily male-specific. The particular and the universal are both at play here. We are all God’s children (Acts 17:28–29), equally and eternally beloved.

Rodriguez Calero_Cruz de Loisaida
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Cruz de Loisaida, 1994. Acrollage on canvas, 64 × 42 in.

God’s love reaches especially into places of darkness, even though we don’t always feel it. In Cruz de Loisaida, our eyes are drawn to a monochrome found image of a hand injecting heroin into an arm. This fragment forms part of an abstracted cross, that archetypal symbol of deep suffering. The title, which translates to “Cross of Loisaida,” references a Lower East Side neighborhood with a strong Puerto Rican heritage. The piece laments the pain and anguish of drug addiction and, the artist says, the burdens forced on the Puerto Rican community by the government (“we are the sacrificial lambs”). Red pigment spills forth from the arm, evoking blood.

Rodriguez Calero_Crowned with Thorns
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Crowned with Thorns, 1999. Acrollage on canvas, 36 × 24 in.

Another acrollage that alludes to Christ’s passion is Crowned with Thorns, which is dominated by a large orange halo filled with linear and organic designs and cut out narrowly to reveal the face of a Black man. This headpiece is not obviously a crown of suffering; instead, it seems to convey an unironic air of royalty. It contains palm branches and irradiating gold lines that branch out like the veins of a leaf. And it smolders like fire. Could this be I AM speaking from the burning bush? The lush floral patterns, the Voice abloom?

By virtue of its historical associations, the title connects the man to Christ. With his hands he touches his Sacred Heart.

Rodriguez Calero_The Chosen
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), The Chosen, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 20 × 16 in.

One piece that appropriates unmistakable imagery of Christ is The Chosen: it contains a fragment of a Dutch Renaissance painting in the National Gallery of Christ crowned with thorns. Calero has cropped a detail of the gnarly crown piercing (a Caucasian) Christ’s forehead and collaged it with the face of a Latino man and the locs of a third (presumably a Black man). Her multiracial Jesus is nimbed twice over and emerges as if from a behind gold curtain, his brown eyes holding our gaze. He is surrounded by black-ink prints of flowers and crosses and flanked, as in Christ of the Christians, by golden palm branches. Droplets of red paint are splattered about his face and torso, one resting prominently on his upper right cheek like a tear.

Like Jesus, the Virgin Mary, his mother, is a major religious figure in Puerto Rican culture, and Calero references her in several of her artworks. Ángel y Maria depicts the moment of Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son (Luke 1:26–38).

Rodriguez Calero_Angel y Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Ángel y María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 36 in.

It’s a stunning image, bringing new life to a subject that has been painted hundreds of thousands of times over the course of history, starting with the ancient Roman catacombs. In Calero’s take, Mary is portrayed as a beautiful young woman of African descent who sits in profile, contemplating the gravity of what has just been asked of her. She holds a bouquet of flowers to her chest—perhaps she was in the midst of picking or arranging them when Gabriel arrived.

Gabriel stands in formality, cognizant of the weight of his message, patiently awaiting a response. His body is rendered in a wash of colors that blend into one another, producing an ethereal look.

Mary’s lips are parted, speaking her yes.

“The theme is love,” Calero told me. “The flowers are a representation of the blessing already inside.”

In the gospel story, this supernatural encounter results in a miraculous pregnancy, pictured in Calero’s La Madonna Negra (The Black Madonna). The image is of the Madonna del Parto (Our Lady of Parturition) type—that is, the pregnant Mary. We don’t often see Mary’s bare belly in all its pregnant glory, but here we are given a glimpse and reminded of the bodiliness of the Incarnation. We can even see the linea nigra extending across her bellybutton!

Rodriguez Calero_La Madonna Negra
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), La Madonna Negra, 2007. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 24 in.

Calero’s Afro-Latina Madonna has two sets of arms. With one, she cradles her third-trimester baby bump and clenches the veil near her face, and the other she extends outward in a gesture of giving, offering the fruit of her womb for the life of the world (notice the printed impression of a fetus in her upper left hand). I love how these multiple gestures capture the conflicting instincts she must have felt—on the one hand, to keep the child to herself, to protect him from harm, and on the other, knowing her ministry is to support his, to share him with everyone. I see both Mary’s fear and her surrender in this image; her very human “What if I’m not ready for this?” and her “Welcome; come, receive.”

Rodriguez Calero_Virgen Maria
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Virgen María, 2000. Acrollage on canvas, 52 × 34 in. Collection of María Domínguéz-Morales and Juan M. Morales.

There’s also a hybridity in Virgen María, which shows a woman whose face is an amalgam of “every woman,” says the artist. Strong and confident, this Mary takes up space. Streaks of red paint cut across her torso like cords—but she spreads her arms, breaking what binds her. The bottom half of the canvas consists of blues and reds, Mary’s traditional colors, while the top half is gold, signifying the light of God.

“Mary, for me, has always been pictured as passive, and dressed in blue,” Calero told me. “Think about God in heaven, searching the world for the perfect woman to bear his Son. Now, in that state of mind, I thought Mary was chosen for her beauty, strength, compassion, intellect, and sexiness, and must represent all women, hence my Virgen María.”

Just as Calero often composites people of different races and ethnicities, she also occasionally mixes genders, as in Divine Prophet.

Rodriguez Calero_Divine Prophet
Rodríguez Calero (Puerto Rican, 1959–), Divine Prophet, 2012. Acrollage on canvas, 54 × 36 in.

This prophet’s face is made up of three collaged elements. A male with long hair and closely cropped facial hair forms the base, but the two eyes, underlined in blue shadow, are clearly a woman’s. And a mystical third eye is patched onto the forehead.

In Eastern spirituality, the third eye, also called the inner eye, provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The prophet, for example, sees visions of a reality that is presently invisible but that will one day be made manifest. The third eye symbolizes a state of enlightenment.

The prophet in this piece could be Jesus, or an Old Testament seer, or a prophet from another faith tradition. If the former, it’s interesting to consider how male and female are both contained in the Godhead, per Genesis 1:27. Although the second person of the Trinity incarnated as a male, there’s a long tradition of ascribing feminine attributes to Christ, from Clement to Ephrem to Anselm to Marguerite d’Oingt to Julian of Norwich. Christ is our Mother, they say, who labors to bring us to birth and feeds us at his breast. Moreover, the biblical book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman, and that woman is associated with Christ.

Centuries of European religious art and its mass-produced derivatives have harnessed the popular imagination to a narrow view of what the sacred looks like. Because of this conditioning through images, most people all over the world, not just in the West, conceive of Jesus, Mary, and the saints—those due honor—as white. Calero challenges that conception, not erasing whites but broadening the tent of sacred imagery to encompass people of color as well.

Most of her “saints” are not historical. They’re ordinary folks from New York’s barrios, or from other US cities—and from today. With their strong frontal poses, direct gazes, and haloes, they reflect the dignified, divine image–bearing status of those whom traditional Christian iconography has tended to exclude.

“Her saints—santos—are latter day and among us, her martyrs are our contemporaries,” says Alejandro Anreus. “They all live and struggle in an urban world filled with tension, even violence, as well as humor, yet open to epiphanies, where miracles can happen.” And, he continues, “her representations of Jesus Christ become all of us, as if reflecting the variety of humanity redeemed by Christ.”

(Regarding Anreus’s crucial last point: I articulated some of my thoughts on the matter a few years ago in this Instagram post.)

Black and brown bodies are beautiful and good, bearing the imprint of God their Creator. Rodríguez Calero helps us see and celebrate that. Bringing her cultural heritage to the fore, she cuts and combines, mixes and matches, contemplates, plays, and intuits, constructing affirming figure-based images of flesh and spirit that, while borrowing Christian visual tropes, are not tethered to Christianity but rather can live and move beyond an orthodox framework.

To learn more about Calero’s art training, her oeuvre, and collage as an art form, see the catalog for her retrospective (written in English and Spanish). You can also visit her website, www.rodriguezcalero.com.

Roundup: Afro-Atlantic Histories, upcoming events, and more

EXHIBITION: Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, April 10–July 17, 2022: There are still two more weeks to catch this excellent exhibition in the US capital, which I saw in June, before it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (December 11, 2022–April 30, 2023) and the Dallas Museum of Art (dates TBA). “For centuries, artists have told and retold the complex histories of the African Diaspora. Explore this enduring legacy in the exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which takes an in-depth look at the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black and African people since the 17th century. More than 130 powerful works of art, including paintings, sculpture, photographs, and time-based media by artists from Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, bring these narratives to life.”

I wish I had more time to devote to it here before it wraps, as there are so many compelling artworks, but instead let me just share a two-minute video tour, followed by a lecture from April 10, which both provide a good overview:

The exhibition is divided into six sections: Maps and Margins, Enslavements and Emancipations, Everyday Lives, Rites and Rhythms, Portraits, and Resistances and Activisms. Kanitra Fletcher, associate curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic art at the National Gallery of Art, says in her talk,

The word histories in the title indicates the plurality of the narratives represented in the exhibition. They are fictional and nonfictional, mythical and factual. As a framework to coalesce narratives that have been left aside at the margins and forgotten, Afro-Atlantic Histories is open, plural, diverse, and inclusive, refusing the canon of traditional art history. This show resists the idea of a definitive history or a “grand narrative” of the Diaspora and presents diverse accounts of the past that challenge long-established hierarchies and forges new questions and connections that show how complex and intertwined are all of our histories.

Here’s an artwork that isn’t included in either of the above videos and that was new to me:

Araujo, Octavio_Slum Christ
Octávio Araújo (Brazilian, 1926–2015), Cristo favelado (Slum Christ), 1950. Oil on canvas, 64 × 53 cm. Collection of the Instituto de Pesquisas e Estudos Afro-Brasileiros (IPEAFRO), Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones, at Afro-Atlantic Histories at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 2022.

Artist Octávio Araújo entered this painting in the Black Christ contest held in 1955 by the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) in Rio de Janeiro (I mentioned this contest previously in relation to another submission, a painting by Djanira da Motta e Silva). It shows Christ crucified in a Brazilian favela, his Roman tormentors replaced with military police officers, perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence against the nation’s Black people.

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ONLINE COURSE: “Theology and the Arts,” with Jason Goroncy, Rod Pattenden, and guest artists, September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 and October 21, 2022: Whitley College, a teaching college of the University of Divinity outside Melbourne, is offering a seven-day intensive online course on theology and the arts this fall (description below), taught by the coeditors of the new book Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology. Registration is open to anyone, but participants will need to be available to engage live online from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (Melbourne time) on each of the scheduled days, for lectures, discussions, and other online activities, such as “meet the artist,” gallery visits, interviews, and student presentations. The cost to audit the course is AUD $500 (~ USD $343). There’s also an option to receive academic credit. Professor Goroncy writes,

When, in 1741, George Frideric Handel completed writing the Hallelujah Chorus for his oratorio Messiah, he reportedly told his servant: ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself [sic] seated on His throne, with His Company of Angels’. More recently, the Australian musician Nick Cave described how the gods are closely associated with the flight of the imagination. Both musicians had a sense, each in their own way, of how closely related are the arts and theological work.

Theology and art are often considered separate expressions of human activity, but are they? How might they relate? What influence do they have on one another, and how might such inform our understanding of faith, of the human condition, of the creature’s vocation, and maybe even of God?

Whitley College is offering a unit of study to explore such questions. ‘Theology and the Arts’ expands traditional views of theology into the world of the arts in a way that both delights and challenges. It will be delivered online by Jason Goroncy and Rod Pattenden, together with a host of guest artists, including Emmanuel GaribayJulie PerrinDoug PurnellTrish WattsPaul MitchellRebekah Pryor, and Libby Byrne.

The registration deadline is July 15—but if there are still open spots available, it’s possible you could get in after that date. Email Dorothy Morgan at registrar@whitley.edu.au for an application form and more information.

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SYMPOSIUM: “Humanity Redeemed: The Theological Vision of Georges Rouault,” September 23–24, 2022, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC: I’m considering attending! The early-bird rate, good through July 23, is $80 for the general public and includes a Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. “Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was unique among French modernist artists due to his Christian commitment and its influence on his work. The theological vision unveiled through his art is honest and complex, one that reflects the changing climate and tumultuous events of the early twentieth century. In doing so, Rouault showed the possibility of salvation and hope within the inexplicable suffering and mundane realities of human life. His close friend Jacques Maritain identified this as ‘the art of humanity redeemed.’

“This symposium will gather teachers, pastors, artists, ministry leaders, and others to reflect on the theological vision of Georges Rouault and his ongoing impact. Prominent scholars and practitioners with expertise in theology, art history, philosophy, therapy, and community leadership will be offering papers and leading the discussion. One of the speakers, Philippe Rouault, is the great grandson of Georges Rouault and will be providing a personal introduction to his life, work, and family. In addition, several artists will present new work inspired by Rouault, which will both enrich our experience together and show the ongoing generativity of Rouault’s vision and style.”

Rouault, Georges_Lord, it is you, I know you
Georges Rouault (French, 1871–1958), Seigneur, c’est vous, je vous reconnais [Lord, it is you, I know you], plate 32 from the Miserere et Guerre series, 1948. Aquatint, roulette, drypoint over heliogravure on paper, 57.4 × 44.9 cm (plate). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

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SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: July 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Includes a thirteenth-century antiphon for the Holy Spirit by Hildegard of Bingen (“Love abounds in all . . .”); a Luganda praise song for children’s choir; an excerpt from an Orthodox Vespers service in the Yup’ik language from Kodiak, Alaska; a gospel-style setting of Psalm 23; and more. Below are live recordings on YouTube of a few songs from the list: a cover by Amir Darzi and Lital Regev of “Long, Long, Long” from the Beatles’ White Album, which songwriter George Harrison said addresses God; “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” by gospel-blues husband-wife duo The War and Treaty; and “Here in the Vineyard of My Lord,” a Primitive Baptist hymn compiled in The Good Old Songs (1913) and performed by Americana/folk music duo Anna & Elizabeth.

Book Review: Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just by Claude Atcho

“One of the best ways to listen to Black voices is to attend to Black stories, specifically the enduring ones captured in classic African American literature,” writes pastor-theologian and former English professor Claude Atcho in the opening paragraph of Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just.

Such great cover art and design by Octavia Ink!

Published last month by Brazos Press, the book consists of ten chapters, each one built around a theologically charged word or concept (such as “sin,” “image of God,” or “lament”) and a twentieth-century novel or poem(s) by a Black author that is then engaged through that lens. A potential danger with this approach is that the interpretations in either direction could be forced to fit into a box, but this turned out not to be the case at all. Reading Black Books is a two-way, mutually enriching exchange between theology and literature, one that is expansive rather than limiting and that takes each discipline seriously on its own terms.

Combining literary analysis and theological reflection, Atcho shows how “God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living” (1). We are invited to inhabit the experiences of various characters and poetic voices and to be transformed as a result. As a middle-class white woman living in a Maryland suburb, I acknowledge that I move about the world with a very different set of experiences than those of people of color. With pastoral sensitivity but also directness, Atcho helps me enter into America’s racial narrative—and the narrative of the gospel!—from a different vantage point. This book is for Christians of any race who desire to be enlarged by story and to live more fully into the liberative arc of scripture.

Atcho provides enough context for each book—introducing us to characters, rehearsing relevant plot points, and highlighting specific scenes, often including quoted excerpts—that you don’t have to have read the work previously to benefit from his commentary. The book does contain spoilers, as all serious literary criticism almost inevitably will. But literature is way more than plot, and readers are encouraged to then engage with the primary texts in full on their own, equipped with frames for thinking about them and open to surprises.


I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom.

Claude Atcho, p. 7

Chapter 1 examines the question “What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?” The protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H. G. Wells’s sci-fi novel The Invisible Man) is not physically invisible; rather, he is rendered invisible by others’ refusal to see him. Atcho discusses the need for white sight—our warped “inner eyes”—to be redeemed.

Chapter 2 explores how systemic sin exacerbates personal sin through the controversial character of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a Black man from 1930s Chicago who commits two murders (the first one accidental). Is Bigger a victim or a perpetrator? The question is too simplistic. Bigger is both trapped by Sin and an agent of Sin, Atcho says. Atcho’s explication of Sin with a capital S and sin, little s, is sophisticated and illuminates for me broader discussions going on in contemporary culture. Sin is not just personally experienced and personally enacted; it is also a dominating force that’s been set loose in our world and that has become embedded in systems.

The focus of chapter 3 is James Baldwin’s semiautobiographical debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, “a critical generational portrait of the toxic Christian practice that emerges from belief in a loveless God” (40). Baldwin gestures toward true religion through negation—by presenting the character of Gabriel, the protagonist’s minister stepfather, as a promiscuous and abusive binge drinker with a lust for power.  

Chapter 4 visits “Christ Recrucified” and the nine-hundred-line “The Black Christ” (read the first stanza here) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, unpacking the picture they paint of a Jesus who suffers for, like, and with us. Published in the 1920s, both poems compare the crucified Christ to a lynched Black man.

In chapter 5 Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain, a folkloric retelling of the book of Exodus, opens up a quest into the doctrine of salvation. Atcho discusses salvation from and to, which story and script forms us most (the old empire or the coming kingdom?), the significance of the promised land, and Christian social concern as a biblical imperative.

The deliverance of the exodus elides the false dichotomy of a truncated salvation. Hurston’s Moses points in the same direction—toward imagining a fully orbed salvation, as did our enslaved ancestors: revelation and liberation.

Is it our attention, then, to be fixed on the sin of slavery or our slavery to sin? Personal piety in the power of the Spirit or social change in Jesus’s name? Liberation or revelation? In the exodus, the Lord frees his people so that they might exist in freedom for him. It is liberation through revelation and atonement. God’s revelation (Exod. 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4), the necessity of atonement (13:13, 15), the urgency of liberation (2:23–25), and the subsequent call to holiness (31:13; Lev. 20:8) cannot be isolated. In the exodus, each motif exists in relation, forming the full melody of salvation. The song of salvation is not played in only one key. The contextual pressures of human experience can force us, understandably at times, to prize piety or liberation when truly salvation expands and contains both—and more. (84–85)

Nella Larsen’s Passing—which was adapted into an acclaimed film last year—is the subject of chapter 6, on racism. The novella delves into the psyches of two light-skinned Black women in 1920s Harlem, one of whom passes for white in all settings as a means of survival, and the other of whom does so only when convenient. Atcho talks about the need to combat colorism with affirmation (e.g., “Black is beautiful”), with denial, and through the flesh of Christ.

Chapter 7 spotlights Beloved, a gothic novel by Toni Morrison that combines the historical and the supernatural to tell the story of a devoted mother named Sethe who is seeking freedom from enslavement. At one point she escapes with her children, but when the authorities find them she kills her two-year-old daughter (who is unnamed in the novel and referred to as “Beloved,” the sole word on her tombstone) rather than relinquish her to a life of slavery. Sethe is ultimately able to get away to an Ohio farmhouse, which becomes haunted by Beloved’s ghost.

Atcho discusses the traumas of enslavement that continue to compound and haunt the body, mind, and soul even after one becomes “free”; the need for righteous rage; enfleshment and bodily liturgy; chattel slavery’s theft of the mother-child relationship; memory as a muscle that needs to be exercised transparently, communally, and redemptively; new creation and anticreation; and exorcism, rescue.

One of the most compelling characters in the novel is Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. A shepherdess of bodies and souls, she creates a new space in the woods near the farmhouse where she enacts weekly liturgies of healing. She directs her people, in Atcho’s words, “to move and be in the sacred humanity that they are and that has so viciously been attacked by those who enslaved and debased them” (117). A key passage in Beloved describes this communal gathering:

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. . . .

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh . . .”

Baby Suggs then goes on to list various parts of the body—eyes, skin, hands, mouth, neck, liver, heart—contrasting what “yonder” men do to those parts (gouge, flay, chop, beat, hang, expose and feed to hogs) with each part’s innate belovedness. Atcho’s comments on this passage—a passage that has stuck with me ever since I first read the novel some fifteen years ago—are among the best in the book.

Chapter 8 is on the theme of lament, and it considers that biblical practice in relation to the poem “A Litany of Atlanta” by W. E. B. Du Bois while also looking at the Psalms and the cross. “There is . . . power in lament that names injustice for what it is,” Atcho writes. “By naming it as such and placing it before God as counter to his moral will, lament teaches us to make no peace with injustice or oppression” (137). Bearing true witness against evil, the poem was written in response to the three-day reign of racial terror that white men unleashed on a Black community in Atlanta in September 1906, killing, maiming, and destroying homes and businesses. It opens, “O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days— / Hear us, good Lord!

Chapter 9 takes a look at another novel by Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground, published for the first time last year, sixty-one years after the author’s death. (Publishers rejected it during Wright’s lifetime.) It follows Fred Daniels, a Black man who, after being picked up by police and relentlessly tortured, confesses to a double murder that he did not commit, then flees into the city’s sewer system. “The underground” confers on him a new knowledge of the world’s foundations of falsehood and injustice. At the end, he meets his demise.


To imagine a more just world, one must reckon with the world that is.

Claude Atcho, p. 145

Even though the novel promotes a worldview that is bleak and fatalistic, reading it can still be constructive, Atcho says; as Christians, we carry our hope to bleak texts. What would it look like to see this senseless world reconfigured into wholeness and justice? Atcho calls us to action, away from discrimination, violence, and power abuse and toward the pursuit of justice for all people on earth as it is in heaven.  

It’s fitting that the last chapter centers on hope, particularly as expressed through Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” Atcho describes the poem as “a living history, an ode, an exhortation, a lament, a prayer” that “embodies the fiery passion of a communal hope, a bond of persons and destiny” (160, 166). While the majority of the poem addresses Walker’s Black kin, at the end she expands “my people” to embrace all of humanity, “all the adams and eves.”

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Throughout Atcho’s book we see the legacies of racial oppression in America—how it manifests today. Though the most recent of the featured literary works is from 1989, they all speak into our current moment. I appreciate how Atcho defines terms that show up a lot in public discourse, such as liberation and justice, comparing cultural definitions with biblical ones. But he leads with story. While in the public square our tendency is often to arm ourselves with arguments to bolster our views and defend against attacks, story has a way of disarming us. Abstract concepts become incarnate in the lives of characters. Literature can teach us the discipline of listening and can develop our empathy and understanding. It may prompt us to assess our own prejudices or complicities and impel us to repentance and real change.

Reading Black Books demonstrates the power of great literature to form us spiritually, regardless of the faith commitments of its author. Atcho presumes no theological agenda on the part of the writers, but rather chooses to read these works theologically—which can unlock more nuanced interpretations or deepened meaning. Applying a theological framework, Atcho draws out themes from the works that cannot be addressed quite as well, I’d say, without theological language. He connects our collective human story to God’s story.

The back matter includes discussion questions for each chapter.

Though I had previously read and studied all four poems Atcho discusses, I’ve read only one of the seven novels—and this despite my being an English major in college! This book makes me want to read more for sure. I’ve already stocked up my library accordingly. I’m grateful to Atcho for reactivating my interest in fiction and for extending it in the direction of these seminal African American novels.

You can buy Reading Black Books on Amazon (at the time of writing, Amazon is offering three for the price of two!), from Baker Publishing, or from your retailer of choice.

Roundup: Psalms and the arts, Ukrainian Easter Choir, and more

BLOG POST: “An open letter to pastors (A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day)” by Amy Young: There’s disagreement among church leaders on whether Hallmark holidays, such as Mother’s Day, should be recognized during a worship service, and if so, how. Having mothers stand (while women who are not mothers in the conventional sense remain seated) can be very othering and bring up feelings of sadness or shame. It’s also a day when people are thinking about their own mothers, which can evoke a complex range of emotions.

Amy Young believes there is a way to honor mothers in church without alienating others, as well as to acknowledge the breadth of experiences associated with mothering. She has drafted a pastoral address that I find so wise and compassionate. Some women are estranged from their children. Some have experienced miscarriage or abortion. Some have had failed adoptions, or failed IVF treatments. Some placed a child for adoption. Some have been surrogate mothers. Some are foster mothers, or are the primary guardian of a relative’s child. Some are spiritual moms. Some women want to be mothers but have no partner or have had trouble conceiving. Some were abused by their mothers. Some have lost mothers. Some never met their mother. Young puts her arms around all these people who are potentially in the pews on Mother’s Day, making room for the complexity of the day—which does include celebration!

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VIDEO: “United with Beauty: The Psalms, the Arts, and the Human Experience” by Mallory Johnson: Mallory Johnson graduated last weekend with a bachelor’s in music and worship (concentration: voice) from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. (In the fall she will be starting an MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School.) All the seniors in the Samford School of the Arts are required to complete a capstone project tailored to their individual interests and career goals. As Johnson’s interests center on theology, history, and the arts, she created a twenty-minute video rooted in the Psalms that integrates music, poetry, short excerpts of fiction, visual art, and quotes from van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Goethe, Luther, and others, resulting in a contemplative multimedia experience.

I resonate so much with Johnson’s approach of bringing together works from different artistic disciplines to interpret one another and to invite the viewer into worship. Her curation is stellar! To cite just one example, the contemporary choral work Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds plays as we see, among other images, an Aboriginal dot painting of the constellations Orion and Canis and a nighttime landscape by realist painter Józef Chełmoński. Another: John Adams’s double piano composition “Hallelujah Junction” is brought into conversation with Psalm 150 and a painting by Jewish artist Richard Bee of David dancing before the ark.

Józef Chełmoński (Polish, 1849–1914), Starry Night, 1888. Oil on canvas, 22 13/16 × 28 3/4 in. (58 × 73 cm). National Museum in Kraków, Poland.

The video opens with the theme of awe and wonder—expanses of sky and sea and field; the beauty and vastness of God mirrored in the natural world—and then moves to lament—of the prospering of the wicked; of exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of mental or spiritual anguish and their causes; of personal sin—and finally ends with an assurance of grace and with exultation. Johnson shows how the longings of modern people overlap with those of the biblical psalmists. Here’s her description:

In his famous work titled Confessions, St. Augustine writes this: “Yet to praise you, God, is the desire of every human.” Is this true? What does this look like?

During my time at Samford, I have felt my heart and mind overflow with love for the arts. As a Christian, they have played a devotional role in my life. I find such joy in seeing connections between music, art, and literature that may seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that all humans have a longing for the goodness of God and we find “echoes” of Him everywhere, and most beautifully in artistic expression.

I wanted to show others how I understand the world as a Christian artist. This project is a journey through the Psalms, using art to reinforce the idea that the Psalms capture the full universal human experience. Across time and space, we have all felt the same things and we have all had the same deep longing for “something higher.”

I hope you can allow this project to wash over you. Make time to watch it alone or with someone you love, distraction-free. Turn the lights out, light a candle, watch it on a big screen with the volume up loud. Be cozy under a blanket with a cup of coffee, or grab a journal and write down anything that sticks out to you! It is my earnest desire that you will be moved by the artistic expression of humanity, and that you may realize that God has always been the goodness you most deeply desire.

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SONGS:

>> “Broken Healers” by Elise Massa: Singer-songwriter Elise Massa is the assistant director of music and worship arts at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. A meditation on Christ as Wounded Healer, this song from her 2014 album of demos, We Are All Rough Drafts, was inspired by an Eastertide sermon.

Here’s the final stanza (the full lyrics are at the Bandcamp link):

Broken healers are we all
In a living world, decayed
With broken speech we stutter, “Glory”
As broken fingers mend what’s frayed
Holy Spirit, come, anoint us
As you anointed Christ the King
Who wore the crown of the oppressed
Who bears the scars of suffering

>> “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith, performed by the Ukrainian Easter Choir: This is one of the few CCM songs I listened to as a young teen (Third Day’s version from a WOW CD!) that I’m still really fond of. In this video that premiered April 17, an eighty-person choir conducted by Sergiy Yakobchuk was assembled from multiple churches in Ukraine to perform for an Easter service in Lviv organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei” is one of three songs they sang, in both English and Ukrainian. The name of the soloist is not given. Many of the vocalists in the choir have been displaced from their homes by the current war with Russia. One of them says, “With the war, celebrating the Resurrection means for us now life above death, good above evil.”

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PRAYER EXERCISE: “Visio Divina: A 20-Minute Guided Prayer Reflection for the Crisis in Ukraine”: Visio divina, Latin for “divine seeing,” is a spiritual practice of engaging prayerfully with an image, usually an artwork—allowing the visual to invite you into communion with God. On March 17 Vivianne David led a virtual visio divina exercise with Natalya Rusetska’s Crucifixion, hosted by Renovaré. I caught up with the video afterward and found it a very meaningful experience. As the painting is by a Ukrainian artist and represents Christ’s passion, the war in Ukraine is a natural connection point.

I appreciate David’s wise guidance, which includes these reminders:

  • Stay with the image, regardless of whether or not you ​“feel” something happening right away. There is something beautiful about faithfully waiting with that space, having dedicated it to God as a time of prayer.
  • Notice what draws your attention, what invites you into the image—let that become a space for conversation with Christ.
  • Notice what sort of emotions arise as you stay with the image. How does it awaken desire? Let these emotions lead you back to continued dialogue with God.

This kind of quiet, focused looking with an openness to encounter is something I encourage on the blog. Any of David’s three tips above I would also suggest for any art image I post—a corrective to hasty scrolling habits. Stick around for the last four minutes of the video to see dozens and dozens of impressions from participants, which may reveal new aspects of the painting to you.

Lent, Day 39 (“Simeron Kremate”)

LOOK: Crucifixion by Natalya Rusetska

Rusetska, Natalya_Crucifixion
Natalya Rusetska (Ukrainian, 1984–), Crucifixion, 2013. Egg tempera on gessoed board, 20 × 13.5 cm.

LISTEN: “Σήμερον Κρεμάται” (Simeron Kremate), an antiphon for Great and Holy Friday, in plagal second mode, from the Greek Orthodox Church

>> Chanted in English by Vassilis Hadjinicolaou:

[Greek]
Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου, ὁ ἐν ὕδασι τὴν γῆν κρεμάσας.
Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται, ὁ τῶν Ἀγγέλων Βασιλεύς.
Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται, ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις.
Ῥάπισμα κατεδέξατο, ὁ ἐν Ἰορδάνῃ ἐλευθερώσας τὸν Ἀδάμ.
Ἥλοις προσηλώθη, ὁ Νυμφίος τῆς Ἐκκλησίας.
Λόγχῃ ἐκεντήθη, ὁ Υἱὸς τῆς Παρθένου.
Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ.
Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ.
Προσκυνοῦμέν σου τὰ Πάθη Χριστέ.
Δεῖξον ἡμῖν, καὶ τὴν ἔνδοξόν σου Ἀνάστασιν.

[Transliterated Greek]
Símeron kremátai epí xýlou, o en ýdasi tín gín kremásas.
Stéfanon ex akanthón peritíthetai, o tón Angélon Vasiléfs.
Psevdí porfýran periválletai, o perivállon tón ouranón en nefélais.
Rápisma katedéxato, o en Iordáni eleftherósas tón Adám.
Ílois prosilóthi, o Nymfíos tís Ekklisías.
Lónchi ekentíthi, o Yiós tís Parthénou.
Proskynoúmén sou tá Páthi Christé.
Proskynoúmén sou tá Páthi Christé.
Proskynoúmén sou tá Páthi Christé.
Deíxon imín, kaí tín éndoxón sou Anástasin.

[English translation]
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree.
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the church is affixed to the cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship thy passion, O Christ.

We worship thy passion, O Christ.
We worship thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also thy glorious resurrection.

This is the fifteenth antiphon (short hymn) from the Matins service of Great and Holy Friday (as the day is called in the Orthodox tradition), celebrated on Thursday evening.

>> Arranged by Fr. Seraphim Dedes, chanted by Paul Barnes, 2019:

(An abbreviated version appears as “Byzantine Chant II: Simeron Kremate” on Barnes’s 2021 album Illumination; see my Holy Week Playlist.)

Paul Barnes is both a pianist and a Greek Orthodox chanter. Here he chants the “Simeron Kremate,” starting out in Greek and then using the following English translation:

Today he who suspended the earth on the waters is suspended on a cross. (×3)
The King of the angels wears a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the sky in clouds is wrapped in a fake purple robe.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan accepts to be slapped.
The Bridegroom of the church is fixed with nails to the cross.
The Son of the virgin is pierced with a spear.
We worship your passion, O Christ. (×3)
Show us also your glorious resurrection.

Seven of his piano majors from the Glenn Korff School of Music provide the ison (drone note).

>> Simeron Kremate, a solo keyboard work by Victoria Bond based on the Greek Orthodox chant, performed by Paul Barnes, 2019:

Paul Barnes and composer Victoria Bond are longtime collaborators. He introduced her to the “Simeron Kremate” chant, and she built a piano composition around its five-note melody. Struck by its similar melodic contour, she incorporated the Jewish Passover chant “Tal” (Dew), a prayer that life-sustaining dew would water the land. This prayer is traditionally chanted on the first morning of Passover (which is tomorrow; the festival begins this evening). Bond, who is Jewish, notes the thematic resonance between the two chants as well: (in my own words) the one a request for fruitfulness and refreshment, the other a lament for the death of the One whose death bears fruit and brings life. She describes the musical elements of the composition as follows:

The work opens with the traditional apichima of the plagal of the second mode which aurally establishes the musical atmosphere of the mode. Victoria follows this with a Jewish style cantillation (based on the cantillation of the great cantor Yosele Rosenblatt) which leads to the first statement of the “Simeron” chant. These opening notes are then developed in multiple ways before the intimate entry of the “Tal” melody. The work concludes with a ‘tranquillo’ passage of rare beauty ingeniously combining both themes. The work ends tentatively and unresolved as the opening notes of the chant dissipate into eternity.

Lent, Day 29

LOOK: Allegorical Representation of the Crucifixion with Saints Andrew and Paul by Francesco Traini

Traini, Francesco_Crucifixion
Francesco Traini (Italian, active 1321–1363), Allegorical Representation of the Crucifixion with Saints Andrew and Paul, ca. 1350–60. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 41 1/4 × 16 5/8 in. (104.8 × 42.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. [object record]

In this panel painting from late medieval Italy, two of Christ’s apostles—Andrew and Paul—embrace the cross where Christ hangs crucified, his blood running down from his hands and side. The Latin inscriptions unfurl as speech from each. Paul, on the right, says, MICHI AUTEM ABSIT GLORIARI NISI IN CRUCE DOMINI NOSTRI JESU CHRISTU PER QUEM MICHI MUNDUS CRUCIXUS EST ET EGO MUNDO (“But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” [Gal. 6:14]).

And Andrew exclaims, SALVE CRUS SPETIOSA SUSCIPE DISCIPLULUM EIUS QUI PENEDIT IN TE MAGISTER MEUS CHRISTUS (“Hail lovely cross, receive the disciple of him who hung on you, my master Jesus Christ”). This is one of the antiphons from the Feast of Saint Andrew, spoken by Andrew in response to being presented with the instrument of his martyrdom.

Traini, Francesco_Crucifixion (detail)
Traini, Francesco_Crucifixion (detail2)

Francesco Traini is one of the few artists of the period to use raised gesso (plaster) and gold leaf texts on the surfaces of his paintings. He also often used punches, as here, to create elaborate borders.

I’m really compelled by the portrayal of the cross as a forked tree. (Note the similarity to Friday’s featured painting!) Granted, that artistic choice was probably dictated mainly by the narrow dimensions of the panel.

LISTEN: “येशूलाई क्रूसमाथि सब हेर” (Yeshulai Krusmaathi Sab Hera) (Down at the Cross) | Original English words by Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878 | Music by John H. Stockton, 1878 | Performed in Nepali by Psalms Unplugged, 2019 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

१. येशूलाई क्रूसमाथि सब हेर, हाम्रो दुःख उनैले बोकेर, डाक्दैछन् सबलाई प्रेम गरेर, येशूलाई हेर ।

कोः येशूलाई हेर हेर त जिउँनेछौ
येशूलाई क्रूसमाथि सब हेर, येशूलाई हेर ।

२. पापको बोझालाई उतार्नेछन् अमर जीवन पाउने पार्नेछन् मृत्यु नदीदेखि तार्नेछन् येशूलाई हेर ।

३. चिहान देखि प्रभु बौरेछन् बढाऔं सबै जब बेला उनको शक्तिले शोक दूर गर्छन् येशूलाई हेर ।

४. येशू स्वर्गलोकमा बस्दछन् पापीको सब दुःखलाई जान्दछन् साँची नै प्रभुले डाक्दैछन् येशूलाई हेर । [source]

Original English lyrics:

Down at the cross where my Savior died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied;
Glory to his name!

Glory to his name,
Glory to his name;
There to my heart was the blood applied;
Glory to his name!

I am so wondrously saved from sin,
Jesus so sweetly abides within;
There at the cross where he took me in;
Glory to his name!

Oh, precious fountain that saves from sin,
I am so glad I have entered in;
There Jesus saves me and keeps me clean;
Glory to his name!

Come to this fountain so rich and sweet,
Cast thy poor soul at the Savior’s feet;
Plunge in today, and be made complete;
Glory to his name!

Vocals: Jeena Lama
Keys: Sujit Lama
Violin: Prabhat Lamichhane
Bansuri: John Rashin Singh

I love the coming together of all the instruments on the final chorus!

Roundup: Crucifixion and Holocaust, Indonesian Christian art, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Golgotha, Auschwitz, and the Problem of Evil” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last month for ArtWay I was asked to write about Emma Elliott’s Reconciliation, a sculpted marble arm that bears both a nail wound of Christ from his crucifixion and the number tattoo of Holocaust survivor Eliezer Goldwyn (1922–2017).

Elliott, Emma_Reconciliation
Emma Elliott (British, 1983–), Reconciliation, 2016. Carrara marble, 20 × 110 × 25 cm.

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ESSAY: “The church’s reception of Jewish crucifixion imagery after the Holocaust” by Andrew Williams, AGON 48 (Winter 2015): Can Jews create Christian art? “I seek to revisit this question by examining the ways in which Jewish artists have made reference to the central symbol of the Christian faith, the crucifixion, and consider the ethical and theological horizons they open up for the church. . . . Given its place as a symbol of oppression within Judaism, and in particular its integration with the swastika during the years of Nazi power, its widespread adoption within a Jewish artistic vocabulary is remarkable.” Williams discusses “how the resulting christological imagery has been freighted with meaning connected with collective suffering, personal grief and divine abandonment.”

Levy, Emmanuel_Crucifixion
Emmanuel Levy (British, 1900–1986), Crucifixion, 1942. Oil on canvas, 102 × 78 cm. Ben Uri Gallery, London.

Jacob Epstein, Marc Chagall, Emmanuel Levy, RB Kitaj, Mauricio Lassansky, Abraham Rattner, Samuel Bak, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adi Nes, and Seymour Lipton are among the artists engaged in this illustrated essay. The author provides an extensive bibliography if you’d like to learn more. I also want to remind you of the excellent exhibition catalog essay “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” that I shared back in 2017.

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UPCOMING VIRTUAL EVENT: Studio Talk with Indonesian Artist Wisnu Sasongko, April 28, 2022, 8:30 a.m. ET: Organized by the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Sasongko [previously] served as artist in residence in 2004–5. Cost: $15. Read the artist’s bio and see a sampling of his work at https://omsc.ptsem.edu/artist-sasongko/. There’s also a catalog of his paintings you can buy.

Sasongko, Wisnu_Gethsemane
Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian, 1975–), Last Night in Gethsemane, 2005. Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 34 in.

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ESSAY: “The Christian Art Scene in Yogyakarta” by Volker Küster: Published June 27, 2012, by Protestantse Theologische Universiteit (Protestant Theological University) in Kampen, Netherlands, this essay spotlights five Indonesian artists whose work culturally contextualizes the Christian story: Bagong Kussudiardja [previously], Hendarto, Hari Santosa, Dopo Yeihan, and Wisnu Sasongko. Küster provides biographical information on the artists, including their religious backgrounds (most are converts from Islam), and discusses three paintings by each, all of which are reproduced in full color.

Want to read more by Volker Küster? His chapter on “Visual Arts in World Christianity” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to World Christianity is excellent, and some of it is available in the Google Books preview. See also his book The Many Faces of Jesus Christ: Intercultural Christology (Orbis, 2001).

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ART VIDEO: “Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ (Great Art Explained): In 2020 art writer and gallerist James Payne launched the YouTube video series Great Art Explained, consisting of fifteen-minute videos that each explore a single historically significant artwork. Here’s one he did on an extraordinary painting of Caravaggio’s from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, which shows Judas’s betrayal of Christ in Gethsemane.

Lent, Day 27

LOOK: It Is Finished by Anthony Falbo

Falbo, Anthony_It Is Finished
Anthony Falbo (American, 1953–), It Is Finished, 2004. Oil and charcoal on paper, 24 × 18 in.

Exaggerated proportions and a sense of humor and play are characteristic of Anthony Falbo’s paintings, including the ones on religious subjects. In It Is Finished, the title is a pun that refers to one of the seven last words of Christ while also affirming that yes, despite half of the paper being unpainted, this artwork is complete as is.

The contrast of minimalist charcoal sketch marks with richly hued oil paints is the painting’s most striking feature. The boxed outline around the Crucifixion and the concentration of color there create the impression of a picture within a picture. But the scene cannot be contained; it spills out, the cross-tree taking root outside the frame, the blood pooling there too. Here is where the mourners—traditionally John and the three Marys—stand, one of them reaching up into the picture. Angels fly about in the margins; one gestures toward the dying Christ as if to tell the viewer, “This is for you.”

The color helps center our attention on Christ’s face and punctuates other details—namely, the three nails, and the blood at the base of the tree. Christ’s figure is painted in some places but line-drawn in others, evoking a sense of fading—but fading out, or in? That is, are we witnessing life giving way to death, or death giving way to life? Is the picture losing color or gaining it? Surely both.

Two rich color fields meet in the background: purple and blue. In addition to royalty, purple is traditionally associated with penitence and mourning and is the liturgical color for Lent. Blue represents heaven and/or truth.

Falbo cleverly uses trompe l’oeil effects to allude to other elements of the Crucifixion narrative. The peeling back of a paint layer references the tearing of the temple veil, a symbolic grant of access for all people to God through the eternal mediating priesthood of Christ. Across from that, an apparent puncture in the picture references the piercing of Christ’s side by a Roman soldier to confirm his death, which unleashed a discharge of water and blood—the symbolic birthing fluids of the church.

Falbo also draws on the traditional tree of life motif, which pictures the cross as a still-living tree, that of Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2. There is art historical precedent for the fusing of Christ’s body to the wood, seen here especially in the hands, suggesting that he himself is life. Uniquely, though, Falbo’s rendition shows hands dangling from the branches, grasping apples, harking back to the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden and thereby reminding us of the sin from which Christ’s death redeems us.

LISTEN: “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1751 and 1788, with additions by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Music by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Performed by Salem Presbyterian Church musicians at the PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 15, 2017 | CCLI #7192481 [Chord chart]

’Tis finished! The Messiah dies,
cut off for sins, but not his own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
the great redeeming work is done.
Done, done, done!

The veil is rent; in Christ alone
the living way to heav’n is seen;
the middle wall is broken down,
and all the world may enter in.
Enter in!

[Refrain] When the Messiah took on flesh
and he gave up throne and home to be with us,
the vict’ry we could never grasp
was captured when they cut and cast
his broken body on the altar of the Lord.

’Tis finished!—all my guilt and pain;
I want no sacrifice beside.
For me, for me the Lamb is slain;
’tis finished! I am justified.
Justified!

Refrain

The reign of sin and death is o’er,
and all may live from sin set free.
Satan hath lost his mortal power;
’tis swallowed up in victory.
Victory!

Refrain

The Rev. Austin Pfeiffer (ThM, Duke Divinity School) is an associate pastor at Salem Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of whose roles is to oversee music and liturgy. In summer 2017 he led a worship session at the annual business meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) that included a retuned version he wrote, with new refrain, of Charles Wesley’s “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies.” The music really draws out the celebratory aspect of the lyrics and the sense of finality and accomplishment, especially with the accented repetition of each stanza’s end word or two. And the refrain expounds on Wesley’s imagery of sacrifice, in addition to connecting the Crucifixion and the Incarnation.

I’ve embedded a video of the performance above, extracted from the General Assembly livestream footage, with Pfeiffer’s permission. He is joined onstage by fellow musicians from Salem Pres: Hannah Proulx and Elizabeth Ottenjohn on vocals, Jared Meyer on vocals and guitar, Margaret Raney on fiddle, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass.

Pfeiffer, Meyer, and Ray make up the modern folk band The Pharaoh Sisters, whose debut album, Civil Dawn, is excellent. (I mentioned it here.)

I’ve featured Charles Wesley many times on the blog, as he’s perhaps my favorite hymn-writer. This hymn text of his exists in several iterations, as he returned to it with a revisionary touch throughout his life. The earliest version, consisting of two eight-line stanzas, appears in a manuscript he completed in 1751 and was first published in 1762 in volume 2 of his Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures:

’Tis finished! The Messias dies,
Cut off for sins, but not his own!
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
The great redeeming work is done;
Finished the first transgression is,
And purged the guilt of actual sin,
And everlasting righteousness
Is now to all the world brought in.

’Tis finished, all my guilt and pain,
I want no sacrifice beside,
For me, for me, the Lamb is slain,
And I am more than justified;
Sin, death, and hell are now subdued,
All grace is now to sinners giv’n,
And lo, I plead th’ atoning blood,
For pardon, holiness, and heaven.

But the most commonly reproduced version in hymnals today uses lines 1–4 and 9–12 (slightly altered) of the original, plus two of the four additional stanzas Wesley wrote on his deathbed in 1788, which weren’t published until 1830. (See the final eight-stanza version by Wesley.)

The hymn is often paired with William Bradbury’s tune OLIVE BROW, from 1853. It’s an alright tune, but I much prefer Pfeiffer’s.

Lent, Day 25

LOOK: Crucifix No. 9 by William Congdon

Congdon, William_Crucifix No. 9
William Congdon (American, 1912–1998), Crocefisso No. 9 (Crucifix No. 9), 1961. Oil on Masonite, 19 11/16 × 23 5/8 in. (50 × 60 cm). Private collection, Milan. Photo © The William G. Congdon Foundation.

William Grosvenor Congdon (1912–1998) was a modern American artist, often classified as an abstract expressionist, who spent much of his life in Italy after World War II. He converted to Catholicism in 1959 and for the next two decades painted dozens of Crucifixions, which became more and more abstract as he went on. The one above is one of his earliest, and the subject is still easily recognizable.

Christopher Reardon explains how Congdon achieved the thick surface textures of his paintings:

Typically Congdon applied paint with a palette knife, then incised the encrustations of oil with a jackknife or awl. The technique suited him to the end. “With a brush, it’s a kiss,” he said after painting one of his final landscapes last winter [1997]. “You have to fight with a knife.”

This technique contributes to the agitated feel of many of his Crucifixion paintings.

LISTEN: String Quartet No. 1 “Calvary” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, 1956 | Performed by the Catalyst Quartet, 2021

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932–2004) was a prodigious American composer whose work spans many genres, including classical, jazz, pop, film, television, and dance. After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, he cofounded the Symphony of the New World in New York in 1965 and later became its music director. He was also music director of Jerome Robbins’s American Theater Lab and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Perkinson composed his first string quartet when he was twenty-three, basing it on the melody of the African American spiritual “Calvary.” It’s in three movements, which together capture the light and shade of the Crucifixion event:

I. Allegro
II. Quarter note = 54 (video time stamp: 5:40)
III. Rondo: Allegro vivace (video time stamp: 10:36)

The performance above is by the Grammy-winning Catalyst Quartet. It was part of the “Uncovered” series they played last year at The Greene Space at WNYC & WQXR, comprising three free concerts of work by five historically important Black composers: Florence B. Price, Jessie Montgomery, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Walker, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Perkinson’s namesake!). View the full concert series here.

I wanted to show a performance caught on video so that you can better see how the instruments interact with one another, but for an album recording, see Perkinson: A Celebration (2000), where the piece is performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble Quartet. I include two of the movements, in addition to the Calvary Ostinato from Perkinson’s Black Folk Song Suite, on my Holy Week Playlist.

Lent, Day 24

LOOK: Sheep in the Moonlight by Craigie Aitchison

Aitchison, Craigie_Sheep in the Moonlight
Craigie Aitchison (Scottish, 1926–2009), Sheep in the Moonlight, 1999. Screenprint in colors, edition of 75 in white ink, on black wove paper, 17 7/8 × 15 in. (45.5 × 38 cm) (full sheet, framed).

LISTEN: “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” | Words by Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848

There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
What pains he had to bear,
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.

Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.

>> Version 1: Music by William Horsley, 1844 | Performed by The Gesualdo Six, dir. Owain Park, 2021:

>> Version 2: Music by John H. Gower, 1890 | Performed by The Lower Lights on A Hymn Revival, 2010: