Annunciation roundup: “The Parliament of Heaven” mystery play, reversioning the story through poetry, and more

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that the Annunciation is one of my favorite biblical stories. It’s beautiful and wild—and rife with artistic potential! The church celebrates Jesus’s conception in Mary’s womb yearly on March 25, but naturally, it also comes up in the songs, prayers, image cycles, dramas, and meditations of the Advent season. Here’s a roundup of Annunciation-themed art. (You can find more by searching the “Annunciation” tag in the blog archives.)

SONG: “Never Before” by Deanna Witkowski: Jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski [previously] wrote this three-part women’s a cappella piece in 1998 for a lessons and carols service at All Angels’ Church in New York City. In the song Mary marvels at the uncanny prospect that she will feel God growing inside her womb, will breastfeed him, will mend his boo-boos—and mourns that she will one day watch him die. “Never Before” appears on Witkowski’s 2009 album From This Place, sung by her, Laila Biali, and Kate McGarry, and was also featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (see “Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz”).

The angel said the Lord is with me:

The Lord is with me in a way he’s never been before;
his Spirit is my lover, his son shall fill my womb
with holiness and joy
and with life that I can feel kicking at my insides.

The Lord will stay with me in a way he’s never stayed before;
he will suckle at my breast and let me hold him in my arms.
He will run to me when he cuts his finger
or wonders aloud at his Father’s creation in a brightly colored butterfly.

Oh, who is this child, Lord, who comes from up above,
whose eyes will look beyond my own to a destiny I do not know?
Oh, who is this God-boy whose hands shall clasp mine
and whose tears I shall wipe away with trembling fingers of my own?

The Lord will leave me in a way he’s never left before;
as a king whose time has come, as a son his mother loved,
as a boy whose laughter has filled my heart,
and as a baby whose tears I have cried as if they were my own.

The angel said the Lord is with me.

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ESSAY: “Saying Yes to the Annunciation” by Peggy Rosenthal: Peggy Rosenthal, author of The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium, is an excellent guide through poetry. Here she meditates on lines from five poems on the Annunciation: by Hildegard of Bingen, John Donne, Rupert Brooke, Kathleen Wakefield, and Katharine Coles.

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CONVERSATION: “Aliens, angels & annunciations”: In this article, poets Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell dialogue about their 2020 book A Confusion of Marys, a collection of poems they’ve written inspired by the Annunciation. It’s a series of (sometimes irreverent or humorous) variations on a theme, and not what you’d call devotional poetry. Loydell quotes Gabriel Josipovici, who said stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over, and made new, and that’s what this book does. I definitely gravitated more to some poems than to others.

A Confusion of Mary book cover

“I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology,” Cave says. “I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions, etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all-pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.”

As for Loydell, he says he’s interested not in theological certainty but in “doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas”—the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. He comes at it from a less personal angle.

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MYSTERY PLAY + ART PRESENTATION: “Hope Ubiqui: The Gift of the Annunciation”: This online event hosted by Holy Family (Catholic) Church in South Pasadena, California, on March 16, 2021, combines art reflections by Dr. Leah Marie Buturain Schneider (who’s incredibly warm, wise, and engaging) with a performance of the medieval mystery play The Parliament of Heaven, Salutation, and Conception (from the N-town cycle), translated from the Middle English by Colleen E. Donnelly and directed here by Grete Gryzwana.

The video starts with artist Patty Wickman [previously] outlining the five emotional states Mary cycled through in response to the angel Gabriel, as famously identified by art historian Michael Baxandall. Schneider then discusses a handful of historical artworks depicting the Annunciation, including ones by Fra Angelico and Andrea della Robbia. The thirty-minute play follows, which enacts not only the Annunciation but also an imagined precursor: a heavenly debate among four of God’s virtues—Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness [previously; see also this Instagram post]—about how to answer humanity’s cries for salvation. (Keep in mind that this was Zoom-mediated, with each actor calling in from a different location, and some with spotty internet connections, so there are some technical glitches, but it’s still a stirring and enjoyable performance!) Schneider continues by highlighting additional artworks of significance, focusing on Dieric Bouts’s Getty Annunciation, particularly the detail of Mary’s hands. She reads from the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich on responding to Love’s call; they ask, What does it matter if Mary gives birth to Jesus if we ourselves do not give birth to him in our souls, in our lives?

2:51–7:41: Introduction by Patty Wickman
9:44–18:16: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
18:37–50:10: Mystery play
52:01–1:08:27: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
1:08:52–1:31:00: Q&A

The remaining video is just informal chatting among a few church members who linger behind on the call.

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CHILDREN’S VIDEO: “The Gospel According to Hamlet” by SALT Project: A whimsical retelling of the Annunciation story, narrated by kids—and by a small ceramic pig figurine! The characters are played by a reproduction of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, a Barbie with tinsel wings, and a matryoshka doll.

Roundup: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Hanukkah lamps, building walls, and more

NEW MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR ADVENT/CHRISTMAS

For cello and piano: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a multi-award-winning cellist from England who, since being named 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, has gone on to release, this January with Decca, his first full-length album (a chart topper), to perform as a soloist at the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and to serve, for the 2018–19 season, as a Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Time magazine recently listed him as one of 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. He’s nineteen years old.

Stream on Spotify | Purchase on iTunes

In a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios, Sheku performed one of his own arrangements with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, a pianist who, like him, is on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Sheku is the third of seven siblings, and all of them are musical. They competed together in 2015 on Britain’s Got Talent and regularly perform together. See the CBS Sunday Morning featurette “The family that plays together.”

This piece is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Gustav Holst’s melody, which the duo plays straightforwardly for the first verse, is already beautiful; Sheku’s creative coloring of each subsequent verse, utilizing different playing techniques, elevates the song’s beauty even more. I could listen to this on repeat all day long. Oh wait. I have.

For jazz trio and voice: “Love Came Down” and “Comfort Ye,” arr. Deanna Witkowski: This fall, jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski released recordings of two of her arrangements of Advent/Christmas classics: Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and, just last month, “Comfort Ye,” whose seventeenth-century text (based on Isaiah 40:1–8) is by Johann Olearius, with a later English translation by Catherine Winkworth. Witkowski is on piano, Daniel Foose is on bass, and Scott Latzky is on drums, making up the Deanna Witkowski Trio. Sarah Kervin is the vocalist.

“Love Came Down” (gospel/funk) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase piano/vocal score

“Comfort Ye” (gospel/R&B) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase choral (SAT) / piano score

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ART EXHIBITION: “Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps,” Jewish Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–February 9, 2020: This year’s Hanukkah celebrations have just passed (December 2–10), but the Jewish Museum in New York is still running, for quite a while, its exhibition of eighty-one Hanukkah lamps from its collection of nearly 1,050—the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. The lamps in the current show represent four continents, six centuries, and a range of materials. I’m most drawn to the modern ones, which rethink traditional ideas about the ritual object.

Hanukkah lamp (Belarus)
Hanukkah lamp from Stolin (Belarus), ca. 1885. Cast lead and tin, each 2 7/8 × 1 × 15/16 in. (7.3 × 2.5 × 2.4 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.

Kagan, Larry_Menorah Memories
Larry Kagan (American, 1946–), Menorah Memories, 1981–82. Welded steel scraps, 21 1/4 × 19 × 4 1/2 in. (54 × 48.3 × 11.4 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.

Erte_Tree of Life (menorah)
Erté (Romain De Tirtoff) (French, 1892–1990), Tree of Life, 1987. Polished bronze, 15 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 7 9/16 in. (39.4 × 31.8 × 19.2 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.

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ART ACQUISITION: Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys: On November 27 the J. Paul Getty Museum announced its acquisition of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys (alternatively spelled Massys), one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Antwerp, known for his delicate modeling and crisp details. For centuries, the painting has been in a private collection, previously unknown to art historians; the Getty purchased it in a private sale. Its discovery and attribution expands Metsys’s oeuvre and is already attracting much attention from scholars. After a short period of conservation and technical study, it will go on view in spring 2019, exhibited to the public for the first time in modern history. It is the first work by Metsys in the Getty’s collection.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys
Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, 1466–1530), Christ as the Man of Sorrows, ca. 1520–30. Oil on panel, 19 1/2 × 14 1/2 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. [pre-conservation]

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SONG: “Why We Build the Wall” by Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown is a 2016 stage-musical adaptation of a 2010 folk-opera concept album of the same name, both by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It invites audiences on an epic journey to the underworld and back, following two intertwining love stories—that of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone. I was struck by the current US political resonances of the song “Why We Build the Wall,” which Mitchell says she wrote in 2006. In this A Prairie Home Companion broadcast, Mitchell sings as Hades, king of the underworld, leading her minions in an anthem that celebrates the importance of a nonporous border. She is joined by Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals and by the First-Call Radio Players. The song starts at 1:07.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: Mother and Child by Gilly Szego: In a recent contribution to ArtWay, Anglican vicar Jonathan Evens reflects on a work by UK artist Gilly Szego, the wife of a Hungarian refugee. Szego painted Mother and Child in response to the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 following a wave of Indophobia. St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s most prominent churches, displayed the painting that year, helping to raise awareness of these refugees’ plight and that of others around the world. The figures could easily be read as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were themselves displaced from their homeland.

Mother and Child by Gilly Szego
Gilly Szego (British, 1932–), Mother and Child, 1972. Oil on canvas with wood frame and barbed wire, 52 × 48 in.

Evens shares some words from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, St. Martin’s current vicar:

Jesus is a displaced person in three senses. Fundamentally, he is the heavenly one who sojourned on earth. And it didn’t go well: as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Then he finds himself a refugee in Egypt, his parents fleeing Herod’s persecution. Third, he spends his ministry as an itinerant preacher and healer, with nowhere to lay his head.

Meanwhile the story of Israel is one of migration from beginning to end. Adam and Eve leave the Garden; Noah and family sail away from destruction; Abraham follows God’s call; Joseph and family head down to Egypt; Moses leads the people back; Judah is taken into exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return. None of these people were going on a package holiday: they were refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked persons. There is precisely one verse commanding the children of Israel, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; there are no less than 36 verses saying ‘love the stranger.’ Care of the alien is how Israel remembers its history with gratitude.

Roundup: Jazz hymns; stained glass symposium; diversifying medieval studies; Josefina de Vasconcellos; Playing for Change

NEW ALBUM: Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns: Last month award-winning composer Deanna Witkowski released an album of fourteen new jazz hymn arrangements for instrumental trio (piano, bass, drums). Injecting an element of surprise—such as changed harmonies and/or rhythms—into the church’s well-worn repertoire of hymn tunes helps people reengage with them in a fresh way, she says. It defamiliarizes. In addition to making the CD available for purchase, Witkowski is offering fully notated sheet music for piano, with the hope that church music directors will consider planning a jazz service for their congregation. (All arrangements are fit for congregational singing.) Hear more about the motivation behind the album, plus track samples, in the video below.

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SYMPOSIUM: “In Glass Thy Story,” September 8–9, Robinson College, Cambridge, UK: This weekend Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) is holding a two-day symposium that will cover over seventy years of innovation and iconography in the glass art of European churches and cathedrals. The event will seek to draw out the challenges, possibilities, and purpose of stained glass—that is, what it means theologically, and how it relates to the liturgy. Speakers include Martin Crampin, Frances Spalding, Jasmine Allen, Caroline Swash, Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Deborah Lewer, and Fanny Drugeon. Click here for the schedule and here to register (it costs £120, with discounted options).

Light of the World by John Piper
John Piper (British, 1903–1992), Light of the World, 1980. Stained glass. Robinson College Chapel, University of Cambridge.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Dialogue: Exposing the Rhetoric of Exclusion through Medieval Manuscripts”: Getty Museum curators are soliciting advance feedback for a January 2018 exhibition that will address the persistence of prejudice as seen through lingering stereotypes from the Middle Ages. (Input on wording and on points of view to consider, for example, is welcome and is already flowing in through comment threads.) As a museum, the Getty acknowledges and takes seriously its role as a repository of history and memory, knowing full well that its manuscripts collection, which consists primarily of medieval luxury art objects from western Europe, is full of caricature and erasure of “out groups,” such as Jews and Muslims, the poor, those perceived as sexual or gender deviants, and non-Europeans. This presents challenges when trying to connect with a multicultural and increasingly international audience. Click here to read a working description of the exhibition and, if desired, provide critique.

(Updates, 10/3/17, etc.: “More Details on Exhibition-in-Progress” (Getty blog); archived exhibition page, Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World; three specially commissioned essays on race, anti-semitism, and gender identity in the Middle Ages, available for free download)

Jewish caricature (12th c)
Anti-semitic representation from the Stammheim Missal, made in Germany, 1170s. Ms. 64 (97.MG.21), fol. 86 (details), J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

On a similar note, this Pacific Standard article appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday: “What to do when Nazis are obsessed with your field: How medieval historians can counter white supremacy.” History professor David M. Perry writes,

White supremacists explicitly celebrate Europe in the Middle Ages because they imagine that it was a pure, white, Christian place organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside, non-white, non-Christian forces. Marchers in Charlottesville held symbols of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and of the Knights Templar. . . . Someone sprayed “saracen go home” and “deus vult”—a Latin phrase meaning “God wills it” and associated with the history of the Crusades—on a Scottish mosque. . . .

Thankfully there have been robust efforts among medievalists as of late to show how the Middle Ages was actually a religiously, culturally, and ethnically diverse era (which our focus on western European Christian culture has partially disguised) and to learn from fields like critical race theory and ethnic studies how to better understand the ideologies and distributions of power that define the modern world.

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ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Josefina de Vasconcellos: One of the bloggers I follow is Jonathan Evens, an Anglican priest and art critic who serves as secretary to commission4mission, an organization that encourages the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities. He frequently undertakes “church art pilgrimages” throughout the UK, researching, photographing, and writing about his discoveries. His recent visit to Kendal Parish Church and Cartmel Priory has yielded a lovely piece on the twentieth-century British sculptor Josefina de Vasconcellos. Featured artworks include the Madonna and Child in a refugee camp, St. Michael the Archangel battling his way through the jaws of a dragon, a martyrs’ memorial, and a compositionally unique Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Click here to view additional photos and information about the artist.

The Family of Man by Josefina de Vasconcellos
Josefina de Vasconcellos (British, 1904–2005), The Family of Man. Fiberglass. South Aisle, Kendal Parish Church, Cumbria, England. Photo: Jonathan Evens

St. Michael the Archangel by Josefina de Vasconcellos
Josefina de Vasconcellos (British, 1904–2005), Saint Michael the Archangel. Cartmel Priory, Cumbria, England. Photo: Jonathan Evens

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PLAYING FOR CHANGE DAY (September 23, 2017): “One World, One Voice”: The mission of the Playing for Change Foundation (PFCF) is to create positive change through music education. To that end the organization develops, funds, and supports music schools and programs that are operated by their local communities and then works to connect those communities around the world. Every week 1200-plus young people in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, Mali, Nepal, Rwanda, South Africa, Thailand, Morocco, and Argentina attend free PFCF classes in dance, instruments, music theory, languages, and cultural heritage. PFCF’s community development and empowerment efforts also contribute to meeting essential needs like food, clean water, medicine, and more.

To raise funds to further its peace-building mission, PFCF has set an annual global day of music for September 23. Last year Playing for Change Day resulted in over two hundred events in forty-eight countries on six continents, and consequently more instruments and resources for all the schools. To host an event, attend an event, or donate to the cause, click here.

From 2004 to 2008 a small Playing for Change film crew traveled the world’s highways and byways, recording hundreds of musicians from dozens of countries independently playing a set list of songs; the performances, each with its own distinctive style and texture, were then intercut to create e pluribus unum (out of the many, one; or, unity in diversity)—one seamless video performance, an across-the-globe collaboration. All the videos are up on YouTube, but they’re so much fun to watch, I bought all three DVDs, Songs Around the World 1–3. My favorite track is probably “Down by the Riverside,” a celebration of heavenly harmony featuring Grandpa Elliott, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Congolese Choir of Grace, and over a dozen other musicians. Indigenous instruments include the bombo (large bass drum) from Portugal, the pandeiro (hand drum) from Brazil, the tambura kontra (long-necked lute) and begesh (double bass) from Serbia, and the washboard and cigar box banjo from the United States.

Visit http://playingforchange.com to peruse more videos, music, merchandise, and tour information.