MAVCORJournal is an open-access, peer-reviewed digital publication published by the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University. Its “Object Narrative” division is for explicating religious images, objects, monuments, buildings, spaces, performances, or sounds in 1500 words or less.
Visual culture encompasses not just “art” but also ephemera and what we might call “kitsch.” Because my field is art, I gravitate more to research in that vein, which is reflected in the five object narratives I’ve selected to highlight below. In addition to describing the object’s content, each writer also addresses, if applicable, its liturgical or devotional uses and includes relevant historical or cultural context. Click on the links to read more, and spend some time perusing the other offerings on MAVCOR’S website, https://mavcor.yale.edu.
“Christ Crucified in the Gellone Sacramentary” by Lawrence Nees: This eighth-century manuscript illumination from the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne is one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus on the cross, its viewership restricted to clergy. “He is . . . shown as if nailed to a cross, but this is no wooden cross and indeed no cross at all. It is colored deep blue, studded with white and red flower-like shapes suggesting stars, and indeed it actually is the letter T of the opening words of the Canon of the Mass, the consecration of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, in the Latin version here ‘Te igitur clementissime Pater . . . rogamus’ (‘Therefore we beseech Thee, most merciful Father’) . . .”
“Kongo Triple Crucifix” by Cécile Fromont: The west central African kingdom of Kongo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, declared Christianity its official religion in 1509. Kongo participated in the commercial, political, and religious networks of the early modern Atlantic world, and its artists reformulated Christian figures from Europe into objects that are distinctly African—including the many brass crucifixes produced from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. (Read more in Fromont’s 2014 book The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, which I reviewed here.)
“Death Cart (La Muerte en su Carreta)” by Miguel de Baca: “Death carts” were instruments of penance used by the Penitente brotherhood of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth; this is the earliest known one. They were built in the style of an old oxcart, and seated inside was Doña Sebastiana, an allegorical figure of Death, wielding her bow and arrow. Each Good Friday, “an elected brother attached the heavy chassis to his torso with a horsehair rope and dragged it from the morada (meetinghouse) along the path to the calvario (Calvary site), inflicting abrasions upon his body as a demonstration of his faith and desire for closer union with God.” I must say, this skeletal figure with the close-set eyes and large forehead (and is that human hair and teeth?) terrifies me!
“Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross with Stars and Blue”by Jeffrey Richmond-Moll: During a four-month stay in Taos, New Mexico, in the summer of 1929—her first visit to the Southwest—Georgia O’Keeffe painted four canvases of Penitente crosses with Taos Mountain visible in the distance. The Penitentes were a lay Catholic brotherhood whose rituals centered on the remembrance of Christ’s passion. They erected crosses all over the region, outside their moradas (meetinghouses) and along roadsides, which they picked up and carried on holy days.
“James Latimer Allen, Madonna and Child” by Camara Dia Holloway: “Allen operated a studio in Harlem between 1926 and 1943, producing artistic and commercial photographs. . . . By contributing to the development of a new racial iconography, Allen’s Madonna and Child and other black Madonnas offered positive visual and material rejoinders to widely reproduced images that represented black women’s failure to parent their own children. The Mammy stereotype, the legend of Margaret Garner (known as the Black Medea), and portraits of white children held by their black nannies belong to this latter and negative set of portrayals.” This is a religious icon by and for African Americans, Latimer writes—one that reflects and affirms their own self-image.
In September 2019 I visited Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the two art stops I made was the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, whose purpose is “to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit fine art works that document the role of African Americans in American history and culture.” When I got there I was bummed to see that the museum was closed in preparation for three exhibitions that were to open that Sunday. But graciously, even though the signage and lighting hadn’t been installed and some of the objects were still being moved around, the curator allowed me in for a little glimpse.
I was stopped in my tracks by a mixed media sculpture in the gallery of recent acquisitions: Float by Alfred Conteh.
It shows a Black female Christ figure rising up in a whirl of energy, her hat blown aloft. Wounds are visible on her hands and feet, but these are taken up into new, greening life. At the bottom is a broken chain, indicating that she has been set free. The piece expresses the exhilaration of emancipation, of being shackled no more.
I would classify Float as a resurrection image, which its staging reinforces. To its far left is a wooden crucifix by Dilmus Hall, followed by The Mourners by Frederick C. Flemister, from 1942. (Note that the two crucifix photos in this post are courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, who donated the pieces to the museum.)
Drawing on iconography of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Flemister’s The Mourners shows a mother holding the corpse of her grown son, who has just been deposed from a lynching tree. Behind her a woman in a pink dress throws up her arms in grief, and a preteen boy runs into his own mother’s arms for comfort. Like many artists before and after him, Flemister connects the killings of innocent Black men to the killing of Jesus—not because their deaths are salvific but because both they and Jesus were unjustly “crucified,” and because Black men bear God’s image, which the visual conflation reminds us of. As Jesus told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Death and resurrection, suffering and hope, are the theme of this temporary exhibition. A second wooden crucifix, by Thornton Dial Jr., adorns the opposite wall. It’s titled I’ll Be Back, which, as the sculpture was made a few years after The Terminator came out, may be a playful reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line, but it is first and foremost an affirmation that Jesus will return to earth, as promised, to fully set things right. (By the way, I wonder if Conteh, in making Float, was inspired by the hubcap component of another of Dial’s crucifixes . . .)
The last piece in the room is Ceres by John W. Arterbery. Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, and fertility, the equivalent of the Greek mother-goddess Demeter. In Arterbery’s painting she wears a crown of sprouting wheat stalks and holds a pitchfork in one hand and a leafless plant with buds and berries in the other. I think the flowers may be poppies, as Ceres is associated with those.
It appears as though Arterbery is depicting the imminence of spring, when Ceres will be reunited with her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) and life will grow and flourish. It shows Ceres looking toward the sun in anticipation of such a time. Read in conjunction with the other pieces in the room, Ceres could be interpreted as an Advent image—a waiting for the final fulfillment of God’s good purposes for his creation, which includes a definitive end to suffering and oppression and a universal thriving.
The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum is typically open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment, but you may want to email ahead of time (cauArtMuseum@gmail.com) to confirm. It’s definitely worth a visit, though I can’t guarantee that the works featured here will be on display. If you wish to browse photos of pieces from the museum’s collection, see In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection (2012).
Piers Plowman is a fourteenth-century allegorical narrative poem in Middle English by William Langland, considered one of the greatest works of medieval literature. Unfolding as a series of dream-visions, it follows the narrator Will’s quest for the true Christian life.
Lines 491–95 of Passus V (as counted in the Norton Critical Edition, which uses the B-text) are among the poem’s most striking:
The sonne for sorwe therof les syghte for a tyme, Aboute midday whan moste lighte is and meletyme of seintes; Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse. Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum. The lighte that lepe oute of the, Lucifer [it] blent, And blewe alle thi blissed into the blisse of Paradise.
The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time, About midday, when most light is, and mealtime of saints; Thou feddest with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness. Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum. The light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blinded, And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.
All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that from noon to three on Good Friday, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44–45). Medieval writers and artists sometimes imagined this in personified terms, as the sun veiling its face in mourning over the death of Christ. At what should be the brightest hour of day, the speaker remarks, the sky went black. And while people were eating their midday meal, Christ was preparing for his people a feast of his own flesh and blood.
This latter image is multifaceted, referring in context to the idea that Christ’s blood flowed into hell to rescue the patriarchs and prophets who died before his coming, but also to the legend of the pelican who wounded her breast to feed her children with her blood. The Eucharist is an obvious corollary.
Every line of Piers Plowman has three alliterative stresses, which in V.494–95 in particular create such a beautiful musicality: light, leapt, Lucifer, blinded, blew, blessed, bliss.
In the immense darkness of the Crucifixion, there shone, on a spiritual level, a glory so bright it blinded Lucifer and swept the Old Testament saints into God’s presence. Langland quotes, in Latin, the prophecy from Isaiah 9:2: “People that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” With the atonement accomplished, our foremothers and fathers could finally inherit the promise they had clung to in faith for so long. The conflation of light and breath as a propulsive force or a vehicle of transport is so unique and vivid—how the saints, expelled from their prison, ride a strong wind or a ray of light into paradise. I see them joyfully tumbling to their new home!
This passage anticipates the triumph of Passus XVIII, which centers on the harrowing of hell. Reiterating the unusual verb choice of “blew,” the poet says it is Christ’s breath that breaks down the hellgate. Here is Christ (“the light”) on Holy Saturday, addressing the fiends of hell:
Again the light bade them unlock, and Lucifer answered, “Who is that? What lord are you?” said Lucifer. The light at once replied, “The King of Glory. The Lord of might and of main and all manner of powers: The Lord of Powers. Dukes of this dim place, at once undo these gates That Christ may come in, the Heaven-King’s son.” And with that breath hell broke along with Belial’s bars; For any warrior or watchman the gates wide opened. Patriarchs and prophets, populus in tenebris, Sang Saint John’s song, Ecce agnus Dei. Lucifer could not look, the light so blinded him. And those that our Lord loved his light caught away.
(XVIII.316–26, modern English translation by E. Talbot Donaldson)
This multitiered icon by Greta Leśko is not a direct response to the Piers Plowman passages, but boy does it resonate! I love how she has rendered the paradoxical nature of the cross as a site of simultaneous darkness and light by integrating a scene of the Transfiguration beneath.
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus went up to Mount Tabor with his disciples Peter, James, and John, where he revealed to them, in dazzling light, his true glory. Pierced by these rays, they are literally knocked off their feet! As is traditional, Leśko shows the transfigured Christ holding a scroll in his left hand (signifying that he is the Word of God) and making a blessing gesture with the other.
The Transfiguration was a prefiguration of the Resurrection, and indeed in Leśko’s minimalist conception, this tableau could be read secondarily as Christ risen from the grave. The dark orb that encircles him is like the mouth of his tomb, and the three splayed men evoke the Roman guards who were sent reeling as their dead charge emerged from it alive and in full health.
The top half of Leśko’s icon portrays the Crucifixion. Christ spreads wide his arms across the orange beam, which seems to have no end but, rather, melds into the all-encompassing border of light. To his right is what appears to be an open window or doorway—a displacement, perhaps, of his side wound, which we are invited to enter and take shelter in. At the base of the cross, in a darkened recess, sits a skull, representing the death of Adam.
Adam also appears, with Eve, in the roundel at the cross’s upper terminal. This is a scene of the Anastasis (Greek for “Resurrection”), which is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter). It shows Christ descending into Hades, breaking down its doors (which lie in a heap at his feet) and liberating all the Old Testament saints. Known in the West as the harrowing of hell, this event is referenced in the ancient Apostles’ Creed, which states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and he descended into hell . . .” Medievals loved this part of the story, with all its drama and redeemer-heroism. (It’s the climax of Piers Plowman!) In the Orthodox Church it is a central doctrine.
It’s notable that Leśko has chosen to place the underworld action at the top of the composition and the mountaintop action at the bottom. From the depths of the universe to its heights, God’s radiance is ablaze, yes, but is there a significance to their being transposed? The old world order being overturned, perhaps? Maybe it’s simply to give the Transfiguration more prominence, making it an equal counterweight to the Crucifixion—with the Anastasis, small as it is, merely hinted at. In any case, visually and narratively, it means we read the icon from bottom to top.
By sandwiching the cross between two unambiguous manifestations of Christ’s glory, Leśko helps us see the fuller picture of the Crucifixion, where human evil and God’s goodness met and salvation was born. Or, as William Langland put it: where light leapt out and “blew all [God’s] blessed into the bliss of Paradise.”
South African photographer Justin Dingwall (born 1983) seeks to depict beauty in difference. For his Albus series—Latin for “white” or “bright”—he worked with South African models and activists Thando Hopa and Sanele Junior Xaba, who have albinism. Albinism is a hereditary condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little to no pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world, and people with the condition often face marginalization, discrimination, and even deadly violence.
In many ways Dingwall’s Albus series, which comprises several dozen photographs, is about metamorphosing perceptions about albinism, subverting the idea that it’s a curse; “by using butterflies my aim was to influence the viewer’s vision to be transformed, allowing them to view albinism in a new light—as something unique and beautiful,” he said. But the theme of transformation, of death and rebirth, as portrayed in some of the photos of Xaba, also connects with the narrative of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, the model’s poses evoking traditional Christian imagery. (Not to mention how some of the photos of Hopa intentionally reference Mother Mary.)
Rhapsody I, II, and III form a passion triptych of sorts, a sequence of three photos that show a male figure, clothed in a loincloth, falling into darkness—and yet, illuminated from above, he looks up toward the light.
I’m reminded of Jesus speaking to his Father in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion. Of all the art that shows him stumbling on his way to Calvary (“Jesus falls” makes up three of the fourteen stations of the cross). And especially of his slumped body being lowered from the cross. All the supporting characters, however, are absent, intensifying our focus on this lone Christ figure.
Consider some of the compositional similarities between Dingwall’s three Rhapsody photographs and the following explicitly Christological artworks. (To view the full caption, click on the bottom of the image.)
Suggestive of burial, Embrace by Dingwall shows a man wrapped, cocoon-like, in white linen, lying against a black ground. His face, again, catches the light, and he appears to be at peace. He is resting in this silent, in-between time that precedes the emergence of new life.
More explicitly inspired by Christian visual traditions is Dingwall’s Liberty triptych, which shows our Christ figure risen from death, glowing, and covered in butterflies, symbol of resurrection.
In Liberty II, the man extends his arms at a roughly forty-five-degree angle from his trunk, palms upward, in a beatific gesture. His eyes are closed as he bathes in light. Christ is often shown in this pose in art of the resurrection, emerging triumphant from his tomb and proudly revealing his transfigured wounds. Dingwall’s image, though, is quieter, more interior.
Liberty I is reminiscent of Jesus inviting Thomas to see and touch his wounds, and especially of Bramantino’s The Risen Christ (see tiled gallery below). People have long marveled at the incredible luminosity of Christ in the latter painting—how the light seems to come from within (the setting is nighttime, as the moon in the background indicates).
So in many ways these photographs by Dingwall are continuous with Christian art history, but they are also open enough to be read in a multitude of other ways or applied to different contexts. Though the nature of Jesus’s resurrection and what it accomplished are, Christians believe, unique in history, stories of death and rebirth are universal, traversing all cultures and religious traditions.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
—Matthew 27:45–50 (emphasis added; cf. Mark 15:33–37)
According to the ESV Study Bible, “Jesus’s call to God in Aramaic (’Eli, ’Eli) sounds similar to the Hebrew name for Elijah (’Eliyahu), which the bystanders misunderstand as a summons to the prophet.” A minority opinion among scholars is that, instead, the bystanders deliberately twist Jesus’s words to further mock him. It was a common expectation of Jews during Jesus’s time that Elijah would return as a precursor to the great day of the Lord (see Mal. 4:5).
What Jesus was in fact citing was Psalm 22, a lament of David, which opens with this searing cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A series of raw and wrenching poetic descriptions of suffering and pleas for deliverance, the psalm is nevertheless punctuated with reflections on God’s holiness, faithfulness, and care. Verse 22 (“I will tell of your name . . .”) marks a clear turn in which the speaker moves into a hope that is triumphant.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
Ever since the early church, Christians have interpreted this psalm messianically, as there are many clear parallels to Christ’s passion, which the Gospel writers were well aware of.
LOOK: Enrico Pinardi (American, 1934–2021), Crucifixion with Thorns, 2002. Oil on canvas.
I corresponded with the artist of this painting a few years ago after having found a black-and-white photo of it in the book The Crucifixion in American Art by Robert Henkes (2003). He granted me permission to reproduce the image on my blog, said he didn’t have a color photo. (“The image is kinda black, white, and blue,” he clarified.) I’ve never gotten around to posting it until now. I wish I had thought to ask about its location; I’m assuming it’s in a private collection somewhere, probably in the United States. After searching for Pinardi online the other week to see what he’s been up to, I found that he died January 30 due to complications from COVID-19.
Crucifixion with Thorns captures something of the horror of Christ’s felt abandonment on the cross. In the throes of death, he opens his mouth in a primal wail—the “loud voice” Matthew and Mark speak of, the “God, why?” He is becoming frayed, unraveled. A thicket of thorns tears through his body—or perhaps that is the cross-post (Pinardi’s expressionistic style deliberately makes it difficult to distinguish between the two). He is pierced.
He is also blindfolded. Luke 22:64 says that Jesus’s captors blindfolded him prior to his appearance before the Sanhedrin, striking him and asking him mockingly to identify, if he’s the Son of God, who it was who struck him. Though his eyes were not covered while he hung on the cross, the artist’s choice to cover them here amplifies the sense of his being in the dark, cut off, and also serves to identify him with other victims of political torture.
The following text was written by committee (with the input of nine Presbyterian denominations) and first published in Pittsburgh in The Psalter: With Responsive Readings (1912), paired with an older tune by Lowell Mason. It covers two-thirds of Psalm 22, omitting the last nine verses—or rather, if you want to look at it this way, compacting them into four lines, as they contain a lot of repetition. I’ve noted in a separate column which verses of the biblical psalm each line of the song corresponds to.
My God, my God, I cry to Thee;
O why hast Thou forsaken Me?
Afar from Me, Thou dost not heed,
Though day and night for help I plead.
But Thou art holy in Thy ways,
Enthroned upon Thy people’s praise;
Our fathers put their trust in Thee,
Believed, and Thou didst set them free.
They cried and, trusting in Thy Name,
Were saved, and were not put to shame;
But in the dust My honor lies,
While all reproach and all despise.
My words a cause for scorn they make,
The lip they curl, the head they shake,
And, mocking, bid Me trust the Lord
Till He salvation shall afford.
My trust on Thee I learned to rest
When I was on My mother’s breast;
From birth Thou art My God alone,
Thy care My life has ever known.
O let Thy strength and presence cheer,
For trouble and distress are near;
Be Thou not far away from Me,
I have no source of help but Thee.
Unnumbered foes would do Me wrong;
They press about Me, fierce and strong;
Like beasts of prey their rage they vent;
My courage fails, My strength is spent.
Down unto death Thou leadest Me,
Consumed by thirst and agony;
With cruel hate and anger fierce
My helpless hands and feet they pierce.
While on My wasted form they stare,
The garments torn from Me they share,
My shame and sorrow heeding not,
And for My robe they cast the lot.
O Lord, afar no longer stay;
O Thou My helper, haste, I pray;
From death and evil set Me free;
I live, for Thou didst answer Me.
I live and will declare Thy fame
Where brethren gather in Thy Name;
Where all Thy faithful people meet,
I will Thy worthy praise repeat.
One hundred years later, the Rev. Vito Aiuto wrote a new melody for this metrical translation, his only modifications to the text being to substitute out the archaic pronouns (e.g., Thee, Thou) and verb forms (e.g., hast, dost), unless needed to retain the rhyme scheme or meter. He and his wife, Monique, perform the song on their second full-length album along with a team of other musicians, listed here. Sufjan Stevens is among those in the seven-person choir that wails and sings echoes in the first half.
The song opens with a metallic screeching sound, harsh and grating. There are tensions and dissonances in the music, but at verse 5 (around 4:07) a tonal shift happens, as groping in the dark gives way to greater clarity and confidence. The pain is still there, but, like the psalm on which it’s based, it stretches toward hope.
A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Aiuto is one of the founders of Resurrection Brooklyn, a church network of five Presbyterian (EPC) congregations serving the borough. He has been the lead pastor of Resurrection Williamsburg since it began in May 2005. I had the pleasure of hearing him preach in person at CIVA’s 2019 conference.
There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).
[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]
The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.
The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.
Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
In allen Landen herrlich ist!
Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
Zu aller Zeit,
Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame
In every land is glorious!
Show us, through your passion,
That you, the true Son of God,
Through all time,
Even in the greatest humiliation,
Have become transfigured! [source]
Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)
Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:
>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”
Christus, der uns selig macht,
Kein Bös’ hat begangen,
Der ward für uns in der Nacht
Als ein Dieb gefangen,
Geführt für gottlose Leut
Und fälschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit,
Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed,
committed no evil deed,
for us he was taken in the night
like a thief,
led before godless people
and falsely accused,
scorned, shamed, and spat upon,
as the scripture says. [source]
>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”
Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet,
Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen;
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect,
denied his God,
who yet after a serious glance
Jesus, look upon me also,
when I will not repent;
when I have done evil,
stir my conscience! [source]
>> “O große Lieb”
O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße,
Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden,
Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure,
that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
I lived with the world in delight and joy,
and you had to suffer. [source]
>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”
Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs;
now I will no longer mourn you.
Rest well and bring me also to peace!
The grave that is allotted to you
and encloses no further suffering
opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]
For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.
>> “Kyrie / Oh Death,” performed by Susanne Rosenberg: March 11 marks one year since the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, and the tremendous number of lives lost is staggering. (A friend from Japan reminded me that it’s also the ten-year anniversary of the Great Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that killed some 16,000 people; 3/11, he says, is as important in Japan as 9/11 is in the United States.) This lament by Susanne Rosenberg, one of Sweden’s foremost folk singers, seems appropriate. It combines a twelfth-century Kyrie chant with the Appalachian folk song “Oh Death,” the latter made famous by Ralph Stanley. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Greek for “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy,” is a short, repeated invocation used in many Christian liturgies, and Rosenberg seamlessly integrates it with these few lines: “Oh Death, oh Death, won’t you spare me over till another year?” The video recording is from a February 2010 concert in Dublin, and a similar version of the medley, in a different key, appears on Rosenberg’s album of the same year, ReBoot/OmStart.
>> “Washed in the Blood,” performed by Pokey LaFarge and Harry Melling: The Devil All the Time (2020) isn’t a great movie, but it has a great soundtrack. Harry Melling—known for his roles as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series and, more recently, Harry Beltik in TheQueen’s Gambit—plays a spider-handling preacher named Roy, and singer-songwriter Pokey LaFarge (whose style pulls from ragtime, jazz, country, and blues) plays his guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore. The two actors sing as their characters in the film, this classic hymn by Elisha Hoffman. Love it!
SERMON: “Chagall at Tudeley” by the Rev. James Crockford, University Church, Oxford, April 7, 2019: This sermon, preached on Passion (Palm) Sunday two years ago, is an excellent example of how pastors can draw on visual art as a theological and homiletical resource—not to merely illustrate a point already made or to add some pretty dressing to a sermon, but taking it on its own terms and allowing it to generate insight and guide the congregation someplace new. Crockford uses the East Window in All Saints’ Church in Tudeley, Kent, England, designed by the Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall, to open up profound discussion on human loss, hope, renewal, and the cross. [HT: Jonathan Evens]
The window was commissioned by the parents of twenty-one-year-old Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who in 1963 drowned off the coast of Sussex in a boating accident. “What I see in that East Window,” Crockford says, “is a remarkable exercise in the nature of suffering, and the interaction of human tragedy with the reality of Christ’s death and victory on the cross. It is a carefully composed centrepiece that asks us to face the depths of an abiding experience of grief, and to be faced with that grief each time we remember the grief of God, in broken bread and wine outpoured. But the window also shows a bigger picture – one that does not shut out the pains of our past, and the wounds in our hearts – and you’ll notice, when we come to it, that the scene of Sarah’s death still takes up over half of the window – but the bigger picture asks us to frame our grief and suffering on the centrality and promise of a God who, in Christ, is both suffering and victorious, broken and yet glorious, wounded but risen and standing among us to breathe Peace.” You can read the full transcript, or listen to an audio recording, at the link above.
ART RESTORATION:“Hidden Gem: The Crucifixion by the Master of the Lindau Lamentation”: A Crucifixion painting from around 1425 by the Master of the Lindau Lamentation was recently restored by conservator Caroline van der Elst, and this short video documents part of that process. The Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands, acquired the painting in 1875, but since then it had lain mostly forgotten in storage until being rediscovered by a staff member a few years ago, who recognized it as a masterpiece worthy of restoration efforts and public display. After the surface dust and discolored varnish were removed, in addition to other treatments, it was unveiled last year as the centerpiece of the Body Languageexhibition (check out that link!), which ran from September 25, 2020, to January 17, 2021.
Curators Micha Leeflang and Annabel Dijkema discuss how the painting was made, how it was originally used, and its theological significance, and van der Elst explains some of the conundrums she faced while restoring the work—when it came to light, for example, that the azurite background was added in the sixteenth century. View the full painting here.
CALL FOR ARTISTS: Pass the Piece: A Collaborative Mail Art Project: A neat opportunity for artistic collaboration, organized by Sojourn Arts [previously] and open to US artists ages 13+. “Pass the Piece is a collaborative mail art project to be exhibited at Sojourn Arts in June 2021. Deadline for participating artists to sign up is March 31, 2021. Project is limited to 100 participants. We’re mailing out up to one hundred 8″ × 10″ panels, one to each participating artist. Each artist will start a panel that another artist will complete. Each artist will finish a panel that someone else started. Each artist will have their work exhibited and have a printed zine-style catalog of each piece from the exhibit. Artworks will be auctioned online with 50% going to the artists and 50% going towards Sojourn Arts interns’ travel expenses for the upcoming CIVA conference.”
NEW ALBUM: for / waters by Joshua Stamper:Joshua Stamper [previously] composed this four-movement instrumental piece about marriage for pianist Bethany Danel Brooks and violinist David Danel, who are themselves married and perform on the recordings. Its title and that of each movement is taken from Isaiah 35, which was read at the couple’s wedding.
Marriage, ideally, is about two people in a state of mutual belonging. But marriage is more than a state of belonging: it includes an ongoing journey toward and into belonging. It encompasses the trajectories and momentum of individuals towards each other, even before an initial connection takes place. People are therefore in relationship with each other before they are “in relationship” with each other. From this perspective, marriage might be understood as another mystical manifestation of the inscrutable and unknowable fault line between free will and providence. Two lives are always in reference to one another before the initial “hello,” because though individual trajectories have not yet crossed, they will. This interweaving begins early: each life is conditioned, shaped, sensitized to see, hear, feel the other. Home is created in each for each.
Stamper goes on to describe how he reflects these ideas through the structure, melodic and rhythmic motifs, harmonies, and other musical elements of for / waters. Read more and stream/purchase at Bandcamp.
“Joshua Stamper has been a restless composer and collaborator for over twenty-five years. His work reflects a deep interest in the intersection points between seemingly disparate musics, and a profound love for the intimacy, charm, and potency of chamber music. Equally at home in the jazz, classical, avant-garde, and indie/alternative worlds, his work ranges from large-scale choral and instrumental works to art-pop song cycles to chamber jazz suites. Joshua has worked as an orchestral arranger and session musician for Columbia / Sony BMG and Concord Records, and for independent labels Domino, Dead Oceans, Important Records, Sounds Familyre, Smalltown Supersound, and Mason Jar Music, collaborating with such luminaries as Todd Rundgren, Robyn Hitchcock, Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, and Emil Nikolaisen.” [source]
LOOK: Antonello da Messina (Italian, ca. 1430–1479), Christ Crucified, 1475. Oil on wood, 41.9 × 25.4 cm. National Gallery, London.
I’m struck by the strong verticality of this painting, which, by elevating Jesus so far above the ground, gives it a certain solitariness. Antonello composed the picture with a low viewpoint so that we, like John the apostle on the right, also have to look up to view the crucified Christ.
As they looked upon the staff That Moses wrapped the snake around So my eyes behold the cross That my Lord is placed upon
Bring me healing, bring me sight Bring me feeling, bring me light Bring anointing to my head Make alive what once was dead
This song is inspired by Jesus’s words in John 3:14–15: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is, of course, referring not only forward to his crucifixion but also back to the episode in Numbers 21:4–9, in which the people of Israel were healed from fatal snake bites by casting their gaze on a bronze serpent raised up on a pole.
Josh Compton is a singer-songwriter from Canton, Ohio, whose collaborative music projects have been recorded under the names The Brothers of Abriem Harp (I reviewed their Last Days album here) and A Ship at Sea [previously]. The latter’s Awake, Awake is one of my favorite albums.
Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981) was one of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s best known for his paintings of urban Black culture, especially the Chicago jazz scene and other nightlife, and he was also a wonderful portraitist.
His final painting, however, shows none of the carefree conviviality that was characteristic of much of his work. On the contrary, it’s nightmarish. Begun in 1963 and reworked over the course of a decade, The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do chronicles race relations in the United States from the Civil War to the civil rights era. It’s the most overtly political painting in Motley’s oeuvre, and once completed, he didn’t paint for the remaining nine years of his life.
The “one hundred years” in the title refers to the period since the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, changing the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans to “free.” The Civil War ended May 9, 1865, and slavery was officially abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18 of that year. But the legacy of that institution was still felt throughout the next century, in which Black people suffered disenfranchisement, segregation, lynchings, and a number of other injustices and terrors.
Motley visualizes the Black struggle for freedom and equality through symbols and vignettes.
At the top of the painting are the death masks of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, all of whom were assassinated as they sought to advance the rights of African Americans.
Below King’s visage is a Confederate flag, hanging from the front porch of a crumbling Southern manse. The red is replicated in the blood running out the house’s downspout, a horned devil (who surveys the domain he’s claimed), the blood-drop cross insignia of a Ku Klux Klansman, and the tongue of a snarling police dog.
At the bottom right a traditional African mask lies beside a human skull, alluding not only to physical death but also to the fragmentation or loss of cultural identity experienced by those who were abducted from their homeland and brought across the Atlantic to live in captivity, separated from their families and communities and ways of life and even given new names by their oppressors. This wound is also felt by the enslaved persons’ descendants, who are unable to trace their lineage.
Above this still life is a Black person on horseback, operating a plow right next to a coffin. Besides the obvious reference to plantation labor, the vignette also evokes the African American spiritual that goes, “Keep your hand on the plow, hold on”—a song of endurance through hardship.
In the center of the painting the Statue of Liberty stands in ironic contrast to a lynched man, the color of her freedom torch echoed in the burning cross of the KKK. Just behind this dead Black man who hangs from a tree is another dead man hanging from another tree: Jesus on the cross. (For more on how these two symbols mutually interpret each other, see theologian James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.) The hill of Calvary is the brightest part of the entire composition, which I imagine Motley, a practicing Catholic, intended to signify hope, enlightenment, and a call to repentance. The cross illuminates our sin and the love of God that compels us to love our neighbors. I will address this further, in relation to an MLK sermon, below.
In the shadow of the cross is a sea of protest and counterprotest signs. Alongside slogans like “We Want to Vote,” “Black Power,” and “We Shall Overcome” are swastikas, “America for Whites, Africa for Blacks,” and “Go home, niggers, and get your relief check.” To the left of this activity, a white police officer beats a Black man with a baton, and a fireman turns a high-pressure hose on Lady Justice. This vignette evokes the chilling news footage from May 1963, when Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful Black protesters, including children. The force of the jet streams ripped off boys’ shirts and pushed girls over the tops of cars. It was a physical assault on Black bodies and on justice itself.
Birmingham, Alabama, was, and still is, one of the most racially divided cities in the US, and in the 1960s it became a center of civil rights activism. From 1947 to 1965 it was the site of fifty racially motivated dynamite explosions, earning it the nickname “Bomingham.” The bombing that caught the most international attention was of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. The blast killed four girls who were leaving Sunday school: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. Motley alludes to this terrorist act with the stained glass window wherein the face of a white Jesus is blown out, as that’s actually what happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist. (“The absence of the face,” said James Baldwin, “is something of an achievement since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.”)
In the center foreground, emerging from the phantasmagoria, is another faceless figure, his form and features undefined. He’s a specter, really, walking toward us—or is it someone in a dream state? Motley mixes historical scenes of violence and terror with contemporary ones, showing how the ghosts of our nation’s past are still haunting us.
Scattered throughout the painting are animals that represent ill omens or evil: a bat, a vulture (who feeds on death), a black cat, a serpent, a scorpion (on the right, crawling across the door marked “1863”). The latter two call to mind Luke 10:19, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy . . .” A dove of peace, the only nonsinister animal presence, perches on the margins.
Church, listen up: we have the call and the power, in Christ(!), to tread on racism and every other evil that erects itself against the kingdom of God. Don’t let the Enemy have a stranglehold. Let us be active in confronting the evil of white supremacy and dismantling it—in our own hearts, our congregations, our government, and in all the other systems it operates in—so that the supremacy of Christ and his gospel of freedom and reconciliation can be made known.
Where Are We Today?
I encountered The First One Hundred Years through the 2015 retrospective Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist and have been sitting with the image ever since, thinking: What progress have we made? Do I recognize this scene? What will “The Next One Hundred Years” look like in America?
It’s been almost fifty years since Motley completed the painting, and blood still flows. Black people are still being lynched (Ahmaud Arbery, killed by white vigilantes while out on a jog, is one example). Some people and businesses are still flying their Confederate flags. And racist hate groups are as active as ever. Last October the Department of Homeland Security named white supremacist extremists the country’s number one domestic terrorism threat, a threat that came to fruition January 6 when a mob of radical Trump supporters, catalyzed by the president himself, stormed the Capitol equipped with climbing gear, riot helmets, shields, gas masks, bear spray, flex cuffs, lead pipes, and baseball bats, attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election results by force. The insurrectionists erected a functional gallows and noose on the lawn and shouted and graffitied death threats. A Confederate battle flag was marched through the halls of Congress, as were other neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and nationalist symbols, along with crosses, the Christian flag, a “Jesus 2020” banner, “Make America Godly Again,” etc. (Christian nationalism, on flagrant display at the Capitol, has been widely and publicly denounced by American Christians these past four years, so I won’t get into it here.) The mob was a mishmash of different groups and individuals united around Trump’s claims of election fraud and trying to hold on to (white) power.
Law enforcement’s completely deficient planning for the white-led protest (and thus inability to properly respond when the protest turned into a siege) stood in stark contrast to the way Black Lives Matter protests in DC were handled last summer, with militarized officers at the ready, low-flying helicopters, and eight-foot-tall fences. Peaceful Black protesters in the streets were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, whereas January 6’s white protesters were able to invade the Capitol with little resistance.
Why the woeful lapse in security, despite clear intelligence that right-wing extremists would be gathering there the day Congress was convening to ratify Biden’s democratically won victory? Because despite the DHS’s recent Homeland Threat Assessment, white people are, in general, not perceived as dangerous; Black (and brown) people are. And because white people know the system works for them, those who stormed the Capitol felt empowered to do so with impunity. They weren’t scared of the police. They didn’t even try masking their identities; on the contrary, several posted photos and videos of their crimes online. After trespassing, assaulting police officers (one of whom died), and vandalizing and looting while federal legislators ran and hid in fear for their lives, the insurrectionists were gently told by President Trump to “Go home. We love you.” Only a few were detained. Investigations have since been launched and more and more arrests are being made. But I bring this all up to show just one recent instance of racial disparities in policing as well as the rise of white nationalist fervor, which are just two of the many symptoms that prove that America does indeed still have a race problem.
The Trump presidency has really brought white supremacy to the fore, forcing us to confront a national sin that perhaps we thought was mostly behind us. “Reckoning” is a word I’ve been seeing a lot. Activist and author Ibram X. Kendi says that if we can be thankful to Trump for anything, it’s this: “He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality.”
The Need for Enlightenment
The two subtitles of Motley’s painting are both quotations of Jesus, which together indict sin and ask God for mercy. “He amongst you who is without sin shall cast the first stone” (John 8:7) was spoken to pierce the consciences of a mob of religious elites who sought to stone a woman for adultery; it exposed their two-facedness, their eagerness to punish another’s sin but not to examine their own. Motley is thus urging viewers to confront the ways in which they themselves have violated God’s law, how they have said, by their words or actions (or inaction), that Black lives do not matter. Admit. Admitting sin, admitting that there’s a problem, is the first step in rooting it out.
“Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) was spoken by Jesus on the cross. As he hung dying, he prayed to God on behalf of his killers, recognizing in them a spiritual blindness. Forgiveness is a nuanced concept whose complexities I won’t discuss here, but Jesus’s prayer expresses his goodwill toward his enemies, a spirit of wanting to see them reconciled to God. Jesus recognized that even as sinners hurt people, they themselves are also hurting. They don’t even realize how their sin binds them and blinds them.
In a ca. 1962 sermon on this text, Martin Luther King describes his oppressors (and Jesus’s) as suffering from an “intellectual and moral blindness . . . an ill which man inflicts upon himself by his tragic misuse of freedom and his failure to use his mind to its fullest capacity. There is plenty information available if we consider it as serious a moral obligation to be intelligent as to be sincere. One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong.” King describes how slaveholders sought to rationalize their beliefs, drawing from “science,” history, and biblical interpretation, and segregationists were doing the same, ignoring all evidence that contradicted what they sincerely believed to be true. These days we’ve seen how those who benefit from white privilege seek to explain away racial inequalities or even simply refuse to believe they exist, because who wants to give up power? And of course they find online communities or curate social media feeds that bolster their view that everyone is treated equally in America, that skin color does not grant any unfair advantages, and so when another unarmed Black person is killed by police, they interpret it through the white lens of “Well, he must have been doing something wrong . . .”
Maybe as you read this very article you’re tensing up and want to tell me X, Y, and Z regarding why white privilege is a fallacy or how I’ve been taken in by a “liberal agenda,” or how my narrative of the recent event at the Capitol is completely off—it wasn’t an insurrection, and it had nothing to do with white supremacy, and those weren’t really Trump supporters (yes, I’ve actually heard people say that). Maybe you think it’s me who’s blind.
King talks about the need for enlightenment.
Light has come into the world. There is a voice crying through the vista of time calling men to walk in the light. Man’s earthly life will be reduced to a tragic cosmic elegy if he fails to heed this call. “This is the condemnation,” says John, “that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.”
John’s saying, King says, is demonstrated vividly at the cross, which shows God at his best and humanity at its worst.
We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.
In what ways are we nailing Christ to the cross afresh, so to speak, unaware of what we’re doing? In what ways are we resisting the work of the Holy Spirit to expose sin, both personal and collective? In what ways are we closing our ears to the cries of our hurting Black brothers and sisters, and to the calls to action from those who are continuing King’s legacy of nonviolent resistance? I’m speaking to white American Christians in particular, here. We all want America to heal. But the sin of racism must be acknowledged and confessed, and repentance undertaken, before healing can proceed.
Repenting of sin is a foundational Christian practice; it’s in the church’s DNA. And yet with this particular issue, there’s been a lot of unwillingness among Christians to see and to act. These past four years have been for me a time of self-examination and also critical examination of the evangelical tradition I grew up in and which you might say I’m still a part of. In addition, I’ve spent a lot of time relearning history, locating my privilege, unlearning biases, rereading the Psalms and the Prophets, repenting, exploring more deeply the witness of the Black church and all-around diversifying the voices I listen to, and slowly (admittedly, hesitantly!) wading into the waters of civic engagement. I have a long way to go, to be sure, but I’m on the journey.
I see Motley’s painting as a lament for all the racial injustices perpetrated in the US but also a statement of hope, as the cross beckons us to persist in (or join) the freedom struggle. It’s a prayer that the scales would fall off the eyes of white America—that we would shed willful ignorance—and that people of all races would walk together not only in the light of “liberty and justice for all” but, as King preached, in the light and Spirit of Christ.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Waking Up from Apathy,” on Philip Evergood’s The New Lazarus: My latest visual meditation for ArtWay has just been published. It’s on a crowded, noisy, garish painting that, honestly, is distressing to look at. And it’s supposed to be. Because it exposes what Martin Luther King Jr. called the triple evils of society: racism, militarism (war), and economic exploitation (aka extreme materialism, a systematic cause of poverty). Though Philip Evergood was not a Christian, he draws on Christian narrative and iconography, with the figures of Lazarus and Christ, to protest the cycles of violence that we need to rise out of before we self-destruct.
The see-nothing, hear-nothing, say-nothing figures in the background remind me of people today who insist that racism does not exist and therefore tune out the cries of Black Lives Matter, for instance. I’m implicated too by these symbols of willful ignorance, because I admit that I do not often care to question where my food, clothes, coffee, chocolate, and other conveniences come from, or how the businesses I regularly support with my dollars treat their employees.
Evergood was politically engaged in both his art and his life, espousing egalitarian ideals. He participated in strikes and demonstrations for workers’ rights and was jailed more than once and beaten by police. He was greatly influenced by Mexican muralism, and he embraced the label of “propaganda” for his art, acknowledging that he was trying persuade the public to join the cause of social justice. “He was a figurative painter when much of the art world placed greater value on abstraction,” writes the University of Kentucky Art Museum, “and he was a moralist when moralizing was not considered an option for serious painters.” Nevertheless, he had a successful career, and his work is in many major museum collections, including the Tate Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In addition to providing individual commentaries, Quash also talks about reading art theologically instead of just aesthetically, art as developing physical sight toward spiritual insight (external and internal seeing), the persistence of Christian iconography in the art of today, and the ways in which art can implicate the viewer.
There’s so much that’s quotable in the conversation, but because it applies to the ArtWay meditation I linked to above, I’ll just highlight part of his discussion of nonreligious artists’ attraction to Crucifixion imagery in the twentieth century. The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515), he says, a visual reference point for many modern artists,
shows an agonized Christ whose tongue is swollen and protruding from his mouth, whose body is covered in sores, whose skin is tinged green, whose fingers are curled up in agony. There’s no idealization here of what a death like that might have been. Instead there’s a strong assertion that the extremes of human pain and suffering are not alien to the Christian message. And yet it’s a religious image—this is a Christian image painted for a Christian context.
When that work comes into contact with the new traumas of the twentieth century—we talked about [Stanley] Spencer and the Second World War, here [Francis Newton] Souza experiencing colonialism in India—when that painting comes into contact with those sorts of extremes of human experience, it activates, it speaks to them, and calls forth new artistic responses, because it feels as though Christianity can still speak, even in those extremes. And I think Souza, like [Graham] Sutherland and [Francis] Bacon, while they may not have felt comfortable with traditional Christianity, saw the power of that Christian tradition to in some way help them articulate the traumas and the horrors of their own time.
So that’s a very interesting work, and typical of several examples of the extraordinary way in which we might think we’re in a secular age, but Christian iconography is probably as lively as ever—although it’s doing new things—in the work of modern and contemporary artists.
from Family Company: Charles Jones, the lead singer on both of the above videos, is also a part of Family Company, an LA-based music collective celebrating the traditions of soul, blues, and R&B. You might enjoy these seventies covers of theirs: “Heaven Help Us All” (popularized by Stevie Wonder), featuring Charles Jones, and “Let Us Love” by Bill Withers, featuring Teddy Grossman. See more on their YouTube channel.
Known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1899 by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson. The hymn is sung here, just the first of its three verses, by Aisha Jackson, with Dante Hawkins on piano. It’s a song of historical remembrance and lament but also of hope, a rallying cry to move forward together, in unity, out of our “dark past,” into the truth of God, continuing to fight injustice wherever we find it so that everyone can live free. It acknowledges that God is the one who leads his people in love and who wills liberty, and it supplicates: “Keep us forever in the path [of Your light], we pray.” Learn more about the hymn in this NPR feature. See also this UMC Discipleship article, especially the part where Dr. James Abbington, a choir director and a scholar of African American sacred music, answers the question, “Is this a hymn just for African Americans or is it for all people?”
LITERARY ESSAY: “To Sit with an Onion” by Elizabeth Harwell: God “is tethered to this world in delight” and does not weary of it as we do, writes Elizabeth Harwell after having sat with a mussel shell for one hour, upon the advice of Robert Farrar Capon. (An exercise in wonder! Any inanimate object will do.) Harwell marvels at how the shell—blueberry-blue and milk-white, cold, curvaceous, smooth—was “an entire world to the mussel who called [it] home,” and now, since she picked it up off a Maine beach, it sits in a silver dish in her dining room, a reminder of the Creator’s quiet mirth. And there’s much more where that came from. “That shell represented one of thousands (millions?) of pearly homes that will never lay bare in front of human eyes—miles of ocean floor, covered in secret delights, that began as thoughts in my Father’s mind. We humans can be so self-important that we’ve never considered that God is enjoying parts of creation that none of us will ever see.” Read the whole essay at The Rabbit Room.
(Quash’s discussion of Stanley Spencer’s Wilderness series in the abovementioned podcast, in which Christ gets down on the ground like a curious child to observe wildflowers, scorpion, hen, dovetails nicely with this essay!)