Roundup: The Crucifixion in modern art, “Lift Every Voice” ballet solo, and more

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.

Evergood, Philip_The New Lazarus
Philip Evergood (American, 1901–1973), The New Lazarus, 1927–54. Oil and enamel on canvas mounted on wood, 148 × 237.2 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “How a ‘biblically illiterate’ generation can discover Christian art,” Holy Smoke, July 28, 2020: I love hearing Ben Quash [previously] discuss specific artworks in detail! He brings such reverence, inquiry, wonder, curiosity, and openness to his looking and interpreting. For this interview with Carmel Thompson he has selected six Christ images spanning the early Renaissance through contemporary eras: the side-by-side Byzantine-inspired Healing of the Man Born Blind and Transfiguration panels of the Maestà Altarpiece by Duccio, the classically beautiful Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden at the Prado (“probably the painting that put realistic tears on the map of Western art”), Albrecht Dürer’s daring self-portrait as Christ, a homely Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies by Stanley Spencer, a grotesque Crucifixion by F. N. Souza (with reference to crucifixions by Grünewald, Picasso, Sutherland, and Bacon), and Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas.

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.

Weyden, Rogier van der_Descent from the Cross
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399–1464), Descent from the Cross, before 1443. Oil on panel, 204.5 × 261.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Crucifixion by F. N. Souza
F. N. Souza (Indian, 1924–2002), Crucifixion, 1959. Oil on board, 183.1 × 122 cm. Tate Modern, London.

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.

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SONGS . . .

from the GOOD SHEPHERD COLLECTIVE: Spearheaded by David Gungor and Tyler Chester, the Good Shepherd Collective [previously] “creates liturgical art to inspire the Christian imagination, that we may embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors.” They’ve just released an album of ten hymns. One of them is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” queued up in the liturgical service video below, and though it didn’t make the final album cut, I also really like their version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

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.

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BALLET SOLO: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”: Premiering at the Lincoln Center in 2019, Ounce of Faith is a contemporary ballet choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie, the score a mix of jazz standards, original music, and spoken word. This excerpt is performed by Khalia Campbell of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with movements suggestive of both struggle and pride.

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?”

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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!)

Roundup: Ecotheology, “Kadosh,” black church music, and more

I didn’t post an Artful Devotion this week, as I struggled to satisfactorily put together image and song for any of the readings, but I’ve now cycled through all three lectionary years on the blog, which are stored in the archives. For content on Sunday’s lectionary reading from the psalms, Psalm 133, see “When Brothers Dwell in Unity (Artful Devotion)” (featuring a Chicago mural by William Walker and a joyful new psalm setting from the Psalter Project); see also the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.

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NEW ALBUM: Quarantine Sessions by Eric Marshall: Eric Marshall is the frontman of and songwriter for the meditative art rock band Young Oceans. During the COVID-19 quarantine he recorded eleven of the band’s old songs acoustically in his home studio—just his voice and guitar—and has released them digitally on Bandcamp. Several music artists have been making lo-fi records during this season, and I’m digging it!

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ART COMMENTARIES from ART/S AND THEOLOGY AUSTRALIA

Art/s and Theology Australia is an online publication that aims to provoke public reflection and promote research on conversations between the arts and theology, predominantly in Australian contexts. Here are a few articles from the recent past that I particularly enjoyed.

Galovic, Michael_Creation of Light in the Heavens
Michael Galovic (Serbian Australian, 1949–), Creation of Lights in the Heavens, n.d.

^^ “Jesus Dreaming: A Theological Reaction to Michael Galovic’s Creation of Lights in the Heavens by Merv Duffy: Creation of Lights in the Heavens by contemporary artist and iconographer Michael Galovic is an authentically Australian reading and rewriting of one of the Byzantine creation mosaics at Monreale Cathedral. Like its visual referent, it shows the Logos-Christ seated on the cosmos, hanging the sun in place (medieval artists tended to show God the Son, who is depictable, as Creator), but the gold background, used in icons to represent the eternal uncreated light of God, is replaced with dots, curves, and circles that represent the Dreamtime of Aboriginal theology, the origin of time and eternity.

Dunstan, Penny_Sixteen Earth Bowls
Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Merriwa, for the Festival of the Fleeces.

^^ “Sixteen Earth Bowls” by Penny Dunstan: Soil scientist and visual artist Penny Dunstan has crafted bowls out of topsoil from rehabilitated coal mines in the Hunter Valley in Warkworth, New South Wales, which she exhibits in churches, among other places. “Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape,” she writes. “It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. . . .

“These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet.” (Note: See also Rod Pattenden’s ArtWay visual meditation on Dunstan’s work.)

Finnie, Andrew_The Body of Christ, the Tree of Life
Andrew Finnie (Australian, 1957–), The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life, 2014. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 78 × 182 cm.

^^ “The Cross and the Tree of Life” by Rod Pattenden: “One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline,” writes art historian Rod Pattenden [previously]. “Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? . . .

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life”—a large-scale ecotheological digital collage—“is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.”

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SONG: “Kadosh” by Wally Brath, sung by Nikki Lerner: The Kedushah is part of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Its first verse is taken from the song of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Kadosh means “holy.”) In this original composition for voice, piano, and string quartet, Wally Brath [previously] has combined this Hebrew exclamation from the book of the prophets with an English excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [HT: Multicultural Worship Leaders Network]

The performance captured in this video, featuring Nikki Lerner, took place at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church in Winona Lake, Indiana, on July 11, 2020. A full list of performers is given in the YouTube description.

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CONCERT FILM: Amen! Music of the Black Church: Recorded before a live audience at the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and airing April 26, this PBS special explores the rich traditions, historical significance, and meaning of black church music. Dr. Raymond Wise leads the Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble in twenty-one spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs, showing how black church music is not monolithic. He demonstrates the stylistic spectrum you can find among black church communities using a song text derived from Psalm 24:7–10 (“Lift up your heads . . .”): one performed with the European aesthetic preferred in more affluent congregations, one a classical-gospel hybrid, and one pure gospel. One thing I learned from the program is that there is a tradition of shape-note singing in the black church! (See, e.g., The Colored Sacred Harp.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Music of the Black Church

Here’s the set list:

  • “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” by Albert Goodson
  • “Kumbaya”
  • “Run, Mary, Run”
  • “Oh Freedom”
  • “What a Happy Time” by J. M. Henson and J. T. Cook
  • “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
  • “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson
  • “I’ve Been ’Buked”
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Emma Louise Ashford, arr. Lani Smith
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Clinton Hubert Utterbach
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, All Ye Gates” by Raymond Wise
  • “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”
  • “Jesus on the Mainline”
  • “I Need Thee Every Hour” by Annie S. Hawks and Robert Lowry
  • “You Can’t Beat God Giving” by Doris Akers
  • “Come to Jesus” by E. R. Latta and J. H. Tenney
  • “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Tindley
  • “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” by Eddie Williams
  • “Lord, Do It for Me” by James Cleveland
  • “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins
  • “I’ve Got a Robe” by Raymond Wise
  • “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, Amen” by Raymond Wise

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INTERVIEW: Last September The Cultivating Project interviewed Malcolm Guite [previously] on his latest poetry collection After Prayer, the poet-priest George Herbert, the life of a writer, art as faithful service, doubt and despair, his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford, his friendship with Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia), the blessing of seasons (both earthly and liturgical), and making room for joy. The interview includes three of Guite’s poems: “Christ’s side-piercing spear,” “A Portrait of the Artist,” and “St. Augustine and the Reapers.”

Herman, Bruce_Malcolm Guite
Bruce Herman (American, 1953–), Malcolm Guite, 2016. Oil on panel with gold leaf, 30 × 30 in.

Good Friday (Artful Devotion)

Gil, Kim Young_Crucifixion
Kim Young Gil (Korean, 1940–2008), Crucifixion, before 1991. India ink and coloring on rice paper. Sourced from “The Bible Through Asian Eyes” (p. 175) and posted with permission of the artist’s estate.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

—Isaiah 53:1–12

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SONG: “He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions” | Words by Thomas O. Chisholm, 1941 | Music by Merrill Dunlop, 1941 | Performed by Shane Clark, on Deep Blue Hymns, 2017 | CCLI #7068347

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In Kim Young Gil’s Crucifixion, the torso, arms, and legs are eliminated, focusing attention on Christ’s face and his four nailed extremities. Kim’s use of light and shade creates a compelling contrast: Christ is both illuminated, as if by a divine spotlight, and in darkness, such that even those light rays from above bear tinges of black. The bright-red color of the Passion, of blood, dominates the image.

I scanned this image from the wonderful book The Bible Through Asian Eyes, edited by Masao Takenaka and Ron O’Grady of the Asian Christian Art Association (AACA) and published by Pace in Auckland in 1991. A short write-up on the facing page describes how the painted print, made in the seventies or eighties, came to be: One day Kim, who was working as a schoolteacher in Korea, invited a self-isolating, troublemaking student to his studio. He asked him to remove his shoes and then proceeded to cover them with black ink, and had him step onto a clean sheet of paper. He did the same with the boy’s hands. Those foot- and handprints form the basis of this Crucifixion image, which, when Kim showed it to the class, led the other students to see this former bully of theirs in a new light and start warming to him, and vice versa. The student later spoke of that surprising art collaboration as a turning point in his life and the beginning of his Christian experience.

I noticed a strong similarity between this and the terracotta cross sculpture of Hyo-sook Kim that appeared on the cover of the June 1988 issue of the AACA’s Image journal. The man who manages Kim Young Gil’s website, James Yun, told me, after asking Kim’s widow, that Kim did not know this other artist, so the two either arrived at this concept independently or one was inspired by having seen an image by the other.

Kim, Hyo-sook_Cross
Hyo-sook Kim, Cross, ca. 1988. Terracotta, 50 × 45 cm.

Hyo-sook Kim wrote that she intended for the hands to look like wings, alluding to the resurrection. The lotus, which bursts upward from the wrists, can also be read as a resurrection symbol, as the plant takes root in the mud, but its stem grows up through murky waters and its flower blooms on the surface, having risen above the mire. In Buddhist iconography the lotus symbolizes purity or spiritual perfection.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Good Friday, cycle A, click here.

Folly of the Cross (Artful Devotion)

Alexamenos graffito
Graffito with a parody of the Crucifixion, scratched in plaster on the wall of the Domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill, Rome, ca. 200. Collection of the Museo Palatino, Rome.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

—1 Corinthians 1:18–25

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SONG: “The Old Rugged Cross” | Words and music by George Bennard, 1913 | Performed by Angie Sutherland and Edgar Napier, 2019

In this recording from last year, Angie Sutherland sings “The Old Rugged Cross” with her father on their front porch in West Virginia, a favorite pastime. A few months later, on August 25, he died of cancer.

The classic hymn reflects on the paradox of the cross that Paul teases out in this week’s epistle reading: it’s both ugly and beautiful, both shameful and glorious. George Bennard, the songwriter, describes it as “the emblem of suffering and shame,” “so despised by the world,” “reproach[ful]” (disgraceful, discrediting). And yet for the Christian it “has a wondrous attraction,” “a wondrous beauty,” rough and blood-stained though it is, because the sacrifice of Christ that took place there brings about the world’s salvation. And so we love it, cherish it, cling to it, as the greatest gift and our only hope, though the world may laugh.

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The paradoxical nature of the Crucifixion makes it especially challenging for artists to represent visually. How do you show something that is utterly degrading and an apparent defeat but that is actually a cosmic victory, an act of self-giving worthy of praise? Artistic renderings are often accused of being either too sanitized or too gory.

The subject of Christ’s crucifixion is rare in early Christian art, entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome, and, despite its centrality in preaching and the textual theology of the church fathers, doesn’t become common until the Byzantine period—and even then it is the cross’s victory that is shown, at the expense of its shamefulness. This rejection of Crucifixion images wasn’t an issue of depicting God the Son, as he showed up in other scenes early on—feeding at his mother’s breast, talking to the woman at the well, healing the hemorrhaging woman, raising Lazarus from the dead, enthroned in heaven, and even during other stages of his passion. The rarity of the crucified Christ in art of the first several centuries of the Common Era has puzzled art historians and theologians alike, who can only speculate that the shame associated with crucifixion as a form of execution and the stigma thus attached to worshiping a crucified deity are behind it.

Alexamenos graffito tracing
Stone rubbing trace of the Alexamenos graffito, published in “Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries” by Rodolfo Lanciani (1898)

For the primary image of this Artful Devotion, I’ve taken a different tack and am featuring an anti-Christian image, a historical artifact from ca. 200 Rome that shows just how shameful crucifixion was. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . a stumbling block . . .” It’s a graffito that was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the ruins of a paedagogium, a boarding school for imperial page boys, on the Palatine Hill, within the emperors’ palace complex. (The school had been walled up sometime in the third century to support constructions above it.) Richard Viladesau describes the image in his book The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance:

In an unfrequented corner of the Palatine museum in Rome there is a collection of ancient graffiti. Most visitors give them no more than a glance before passing on to the more attractive statues and artifacts. Roughly etched on slabs of marble, these inscriptions once defaced the walls of the imperial palaces that stood on the spot. Among them is one from the residence of the imperial pages called the graffito of Alexamenos. It consists of a very roughly drawn image and a few words of Greek. In style and appearance it has nothing to distinguish it from the many other similar pieces of graffiti that abound in Roman museums; but for the Christian it has a particular significance. The rough incision shows a crucified man with the head of an ass. Next to him is a smaller figure with an arm extended in his direction. Nearby are the crudely carved words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” It is the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Christ and of his adoration as divine. In a city so full of the triumphant monuments of Christianity, there is something strangely moving in finding this first visual testimony to the Christian faith amidst the fragments of daily life of pagan Rome; and even more so in finding it in this rude sketch, probably drawn by a palace page with cruel schoolboy humor to mock the faith of a fellow slave.

The graffito reminds us of how Christianity must have appeared to the sophisticated ancient pagan world: a strange minority religion from a small backwater of the civilized world: a religion that was centered on a man punished as a criminal with the most humiliating form of execution, and a faith practiced mostly by slaves and people of the lower classes. It reflects the Roman belief that the Jews worshipped a god with the head of an ass—a notion that was apparently also carried over to Christians. It also shows graphically the scandal of the cross to which St. Paul refers. For sophisticated Hellenistic society, the notion of a suffering god was ridiculous: an obviously mythological conception. For the adherents of popular religion, Jewish or gentile, the notion of a savior who was himself defeated by the powers of evil was equally absurd.

How did the cross, the symbol of degradation, an occasion for mockery, become the primary symbol of Christian faith? (19–20)

(That concluding question is precisely what Viladesau explores in the rest of the book, one in a series!)

For further reading, see

See also “The Crucifixion of Christ in Art,” a lecture given by the Rt. Revd. Lord Richard Harries at Gresham College on January 12, 2011. (He discusses the Alexamenos graffito briefly, starting at 9:50.)

As a juxtaposition to that anonymous Roman bully’s scrawl, consider the splendidly jeweled, gold repoussé cover of a Carolingian Gospel book from the court school of Charles the Bald, known as the Lindau Gospels. (It came quite a bit later, in the ninth century.) It majors on the “glory” side of Paul’s equation, even though the peripheral figures are shown in mourning.

Crucifixion (Lindau Gospels)
Front cover of the Lindau Gospels, made in France, ca. 870–80. Gold repoussé, 35 × 27.5 cm. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

I wonder what part of the story we lose with this beautiful, gleaming, physically strong Christ erect on his cross. And on the converse, with Crucifixion images that focus heavily on suffering, humiliation, showing a Christ who’s beaten, bloody, forsaken, and crying out in agony. Is it possible to convey both aspects of the Crucifixion—the shame and the glory, the pain and transcendence—simultaneously? Can you name any artists who have done so successfully? (I have some thoughts, but I want to hear yours!) Or do we need a plenitude of Crucifixion images to hold one another in check and to help us more fully abide in the multifaceted mystery that is the death of Christ? Or, whether the Crucifixion image is, at face value, repellent or attractive, is that irrelevant—does the Christian viewer simply bring his or her theology to the image, reading into an ugly Crucifixion the beautiful redemption wrought by such a sacrifice, or into a beautiful Crucifixion the ugliness of humanity’s depravity that led to such (implicit) suffering?


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Record Erased (Artful Devotion)

Atonement by Li Kai Tong
Li Kai Tong, Atonement, ca. 1997. Ink wash painting.

And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

—Colossians 2:13–14 NRSV

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SONG: “There Is a Fountain” | Words by William Cowper, 1772 | Music by Noah James, on Hymns (2013)

I love Noah James’s retuned performance of this classic hymn with mandolin and kick drum.

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This painting isn’t technically accomplished, but conceptually, as an illustration of a theological truth, it’s clever. Using the medium of ink wash painting, Hong Kong artist Li Kai Tong depicts the Chinese character for sin being washed away by Christ’s blood. I found this image in the June 1997 issue of Image: Christ and Art in Asia, the newsletter of the Asian Christian Art Association, published quarterly from 1979 to 2011. The entire archive has been digitized and is a treasure trove.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 12, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Colorado trip; Maori hymn; Dutch tulip fields by aerial video; the magic of childhood; and more

I returned this week from a wonderful arts conference/retreat in the Colorado mountains, a much-needed time to unplug from work and engage with nature, to meet and worship with other Christians from around the country, and to reaffirm my sense of calling to online arts ministry. Eric came with me, so we took a few extra days there for scenic walks and drives, which included the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, the Flatirons, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods. So much beauty! Here’s a charming little stone church we spotted outside Estes Park, built in 1939.

Chapel on the Rock (Colorado)
Chapel on the Rock (Saint Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Chapel), Saint Malo Retreat Center, Allenspark, Colorado. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

We also visited the Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy, which I will share about in a separate post.

And as is my practice whenever I visit a new city, I spent time at a local art museum: the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. The size and quality of its collection exceeded my expectations, with many fine works of Native American (Pueblo, Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin), Hispanic and Spanish colonial, and twentieth-century American art. I particularly loved the santos galleries, which feature religious folk art of the Southwest, including two monumental altarpieces. Below is a retablo (panel painting) and a bulto (sculpture) from the santos tradition.

Aragon, Jose Rafael_Cristo (Crucifixion)
José Rafael Aragón (New Mexican, ca. 1796–1867), Cristo (Crucifixion), ca. 1820–35. Tempera on gessoed pine, 19 × 11 in. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Barela, Patrocinio_Announcement of the Birth of Jesus
Patrociño Barela (New Mexican, 1902–1964), Anuncio de la Nacimiento de Jesus (Announcement of the Birth of Jesus), 1942. Cedar wood. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

José Rafael Aragón is the most highly regarded classic santero from early New Mexico, so I was already familiar with his work (note the visual influences on contemporary santero Vicente Telles, one of whose Crucifixion retablos I own). The chandeliers in Aragón’s painting are like those found in the chancels of New Mexico churches, and the vertical branches that fill the spaces between the figures are also standard elements of church decoration.

Patrociño Barela I was not previously familiar with, and I found myself so captivated by his work. (If you are too, be sure to check out this online solo show of his.) I’m not sure whether to interpret his Anuncio de la Nacimiento de Jesus as an Annunciation image, with Gabriel announcing Christ’s conception to Mary, or a Nativity image, seeing as the babe appears to be ex utero—in which case the top figure could be either an angel or God the Father. I can’t identify the object Mary is holding. (A piece of fruit?)

Lastly, here’s a unique Pietà image by the modernist painter Marsden Hartley. Could that be God the Father supporting Christ deposed from the cross? Maybe it’s Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, but I rather like the thought that the Father held his Son in love during this time of his immense suffering and death.

Hartley, Marsden_Christ Evicted
Marsden Hartley (American, 1877–1943), Christ Evicted, 1941–43. Oil on board, 47 × 20 in. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

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EVENING DISCUSSION: “Idols and Taboos: Modern and Contemporary Art and Theology Today”: This free public event, consisting of two lectures and a panel discussion, will take place May 23, 2019, at 6 p.m. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The presenters are James Elkins, who will be discussing the distance between avowedly religious art and the disciplines of art history, art criticism, art theory, and studio pedagogy, and Thomas Crow, who will be discussing “the generally inverse relationship between grandiosity in a work of art and its intrinsic theological import,” as well as art’s susceptibility to idolatry. A panel discussion will follow, moderated by Professor Ben Quash, and all are invited to gather afterward in the Lobby Bar of the historic Palmer House (across the street) for further socializing and conversation.

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SONG: “Oh Death”: This Easter, CCLI released a video of Kaden Slay, Melanie Tierce-Slay, and Ryan Kennedy of People & Songs performing Stephen Marti’s “Oh Death,” written in 2017. Those three-part a cappella harmonies are so sweet.

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SONG: “How Great Thou Art / Whakaaria Mai”: On March 23, the Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter John Mayer began an extensive world tour at Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand. He opened the show quite unexpectedly with “How Great Thou Art,” a tribute to those killed and injured during a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Standing center stage for the opening was Te Wehi Haka, a Maori performing arts troupe who, to begin with, quivered their hands; known as wiri, this important Maori movement represents the world around us, from the shimmering of water on sunny days to heat waves rising from the ground to wind rustling the leaves of trees.  Continue reading “Roundup: Colorado trip; Maori hymn; Dutch tulip fields by aerial video; the magic of childhood; and more”

The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit

One of the joys of blogging at Art & Theology is being introduced to new artists by my readers. I was pleased to receive in the mail recently, as a gift from one such reader, a color booklet and a 2018 documentary on the art of Dom Gregory de Wit (1892–1978), a Dutch artist and Benedictine monk who between 1938 and 1955 lived in the United States painting murals for Catholic churches and monasteries. This was the first time I’ve encountered the artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him better through these materials.

All photos in this post are provided courtesy of Edward Begnaud or Stella Maris Films.

Gregory was born Jan Aloysius de Wit on June 9, 1892, in Hilversum, Netherlands. He entered the monastic life in 1913 at age twenty-one, joining Mont César Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, and there taking the name Gregory. (His interest in liturgy and ecumenism is what drew him to that particular abbey.) de Wit was passionate about art making since a young age, and his order encouraged him to further develop his talent as a painter. He therefore studied at the Brussels Academy of Art, the Munich Academy, and throughout Italy. In 1923 he exhibited at The Hague and ended up selling forty-five paintings in one month! He then went on to fulfill three sacred art commissions—one in Bavaria, two in Belgium—while continuing to live as a monk.

Jesus as servant
This mural, painted in 1930 and photographed here in black-and-white, shows Jesus serving wine at a monastic banquet. It’s one of nine murals Gregory de Wit painted in the refectory of St. Michael’s Abbey in Metten, Bavaria, Germany.

In 1938, Abbot Ignatius Esser of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana met de Wit in Europe and invited him to design and execute paintings for the abbey’s church and chapter room—which he gladly accepted.

Here he started to develop his own style, which would come to be marked by brilliant (sometimes garish) colors, bold outlines, distortion or disfiguration (e.g., disproportionate hands), and “overlapping” perspective.

In Christus, Jesus is borne upward by a red-winged chariot. In his right hand he holds a victory wreath, and in his left, an open book that declares, EGO SUM VITA (“I am the Life”). The three small Greek letters in the rays of his halo, a traditional device in Orthodox iconography, mean “I am the Living One,” a New Testament echo of God’s “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14.

Christus by Gregory de Wit
This figure of the risen Christ, painted by Gregory de Wit in the 1940s, is found high on the wall of the church of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, Indiana.

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Shortly after de Wit arrived in the US, World War II broke out, and even after he completed his work at Saint Meinrad, he couldn’t return to Belgium. Luckily, another stateside commission came his way, from the newly built Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The parish priest, Father Dominic Blasco, hired him to paint a series of murals, which resulted in de Wit’s most polarizing work: his Christ Pantocrator in the apse behind the altar. Many of the parishioners hated it (and I have to say, I’m not partial to it). A humorous anecdote in the documentary recalls Maria von Trapp, who had once visited the church, expressing her horror at the image to de Wit, not knowing he was its artist!

Not only did de Wit’s art garner dislike, but so did his temperamental personality and sometimes irreverent behavior. For example, while at Sacred Heart, he smoked while he painted, dropping cigarette butts onto the floor during services. Although he did have his supporters, he was eventually fired from Sacred Heart. The last painting he did for the church was of the Samaritan woman at the well—descried as “pornographic” by the sisters of the school because of the suggestive way her dress clings to her forwardly posed thigh.

The painting at Sacred Heart that I’m most intrigued by is the Pietà in the narthex, which shows Mary holding her dead son. Genesis 3 is invoked by the thorns that not only crown Christ’s brow but that rise up all around him, symbolic of the curse. What’s more, a half-bitten apple rolls from his limp hand; he, like his forefather, Adam, has tasted death. And this he did willingly out of love, signified by the fiery, thorn-enwrapped heart of his that he holds in his right hand, whose glow illuminates the darkness.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit
Dom Gregory de Wit, OSB, Pietà, 1940–42. Narthex, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Pieta by Gregory de Wit

Because de Wit painted this image during the war, it is contextualized with a soldier on one side and the soldier’s wife and three children on the other, praying for his safe return. Why do they belong in this scene? Some wartime artists drew parallels between Christ and the soldiers’ sacrificial laying down of their lives (cf. John 15:13). I’m uneasy with this comparison for several reasons, not least of which is my Christian pacifism. But de Wit’s painting seems, rather, to use the soldier and his family as a representation of war and to suggest that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, is with us in our present suffering. He entered our world, after all, and died to redeem us from its evils—sin and death and all their extensions. The presence of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, must have been a comfort to the mothers at Sacred Heart whose sons were overseas fighting.

Moreover, even though its hieratic style may be off-putting to some, I also really like the crucifix de Wit created for Sacred Heart (but which is now at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, also in Baton Rouge). The corpus is painted on solid mahogany, with real nails driven through the hands.  Continue reading “The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit”

Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill

Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.

Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American ArtThe essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.

One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.

Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not sought or obtained.

Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.

This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.

What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.

In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.

In chapter 2, James Romaine demonstrates the shift in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings from the visual clarity favored by nineteenth-century academic art to a mood of personalized spiritual mystery favored by the twentieth-century symbolists. He examines four paintings as representative of this move—The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), Nicodemus (1899), The Two Disciples at the Tomb (ca. 1906), and The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (ca. 1907)—revealing how each explores the complex exchange between vision and belief.

Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), Nicodemus, 1899. Oil on canvas, 85.5 × 100.3 cm (33.7 × 39.5 in.). Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.

Crucifixion by Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas (American, 1899–1979), The Crucifixion, 1927. Oil on Masonite, 121.9 × 91.4 cm (48 × 36 in.) Private collection.

Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.

In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,

I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by Malvin Gray Johnson
Malvin Gray Johnson (American, 1896–1934), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1928. Oil on canvas, 124.5 × 73.5 cm (49 × 29 in.). Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.

Continue reading “Book Review: Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection by Dimosthenis Avramidis
Dimosthenis Avramidis (Greek, 1965–), Christ’s Descent into Hades, 2017. Egg tempera on wood, 91.5 × 61.5 cm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundup: Easter flash mob; Good Thief; Resurrection photo; Sistine Chapel frescoes in 3-D; etc.

FLASH MOB: On Easter 2011 at City Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, a flash mob broke out singing the Paschal troparion in Arabic: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW PAINTING INSTALLED: James B. Janknegt is a Christian artist from Texas who is known for transposing biblical stories into contemporary American settings. He recently completed a large triptych for the new Unity Hall at Community First! Village in Austin, a planned community, developed by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless. (See the development and learn more about it in this short video, presented by MLF founder Alan Graham.) The painting shows Jesus in conversation with the “good thief” who, as he dies, acknowledges his crime and asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Behind him paradise flowers forth, indicating not only his new home but his inward regeneration. The other thief, by contrast, turns his head away in stubbornness. This episode demonstrates that repentance is always met by Christ with love, affirmation, and seeds of new life.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Good Thief, 2018. Oil on three panels, 8 × 12 ft. Unity Hall, Community First! Village, Austin, Texas.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt

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SHORT FILM: “Dance Dance” by French film director Thomas Blanchard evokes each of the four seasons through different elements acting on flowers, captured in either time lapse or slow motion. For fall, a rose is set on fire; for winter, foliage afloat in water becomes frozen in ice; for spring, lilies bloom; and for summer, colored inks hit the flowers and billow up in dusty clouds. Stunning images!

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CHAIYA ART AWARD FINALIST: The inaugural Chaiya Art Award competition ended last month, with the winner taking home £10,000 and being exhibited, along with forty-one other juried selections, at London’s gallery@oxo March 29–April 9. The theme was “Where Is God in Our Twenty-First-Century World?”

One entry I really love is finalist Sheona Beaumont’s Natal, a photographic work that shows a nude pregnant woman standing against a dark wall in profile, her hair blown wildly by a gust of wind, opposite a corpse. These are two different spaces set in juxtaposition—two photos stitched together. The black-and-white photo of the dead body, on the left, is Fred Holland Day’s The Entombment from 1898, in which he himself posed as Christ, laid out on a bier before a doorway, his crown of thorns and titulus crucis on the ground beside him. Beaumont rotated this horizontal image 90 degrees clockwise so that the Christ figure is propped upright. She then posed her female model to form a sort of mirror image, but one full of vitality; the woman’s belly, the site of new life about to be born, is brightly lit. This combination photograph makes a powerful Holy Saturday image, one that hints toward resurrection as the stillness gives way to stirrings. The photo is also an allusion to the new life believers have in Christ, and in fact it forms the first in a new series titled Born Again. Visit Beaumont’s website to view the artwork and to read a bit about her process and the meaning the work holds for her.

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EXHIBITION: “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle”: Last fall, Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons made its North American debut at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveling for the first time in centuries, and now the exhibition is at the Frick Collection in New York City—but only through the end of this week! Twelve of the thirteen paintings in the set are from Auckland Castle in County Durham, England, the residence of the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, who acquired them in 1756 and had them displayed in his dining room, where they have remained ever since. Trevor was outbid on the painting of Benjamin, however, which is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, reuniting the set for the first time since the paintings’ 1756 sale.

Judah and Dan by Francisco de Zurbarán
Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Judah; Dan, 1640–44. Oil on canvas, 79 1/4 × 40 3/4 in. each. Photos: Robert LaPrelle.

The iconography of the paintings is derived from the prophecies Jacob utters over each of his sons on his deathbed, as described in Genesis 49. For example, Judah, from whom “the scepter shall not depart,” holds said scepter and is regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon (Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles); Dan, on the other hand, holds up a serpent on a stick, alluding to his craftiness. To view all the paintings, click here.

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3-D SHOW: As of last month and through the end of July, Artainment Worldwide Shows, in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, presents “Giudizio universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel” by Marco Balich, an immersive 3-D show that brings to life Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes inside the Rome Conciliation Auditorium. Half the room is covered, from the walls to the ceiling, with a 270-degree screen that projects extremely high-res photos of the paintings, dramatized through movement, music, lighting, sound effects, narration, live actors, and dance. Lasting sixty minutes, the show concludes with the thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), set to new music by Sting and arranged for chamber orchestra and choir by Rob Mathieson. Watch the trailer below, or click here to see some of the 3-D animation of the Last Judgment.