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.
The Met Cloisters in New York City—the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe—has some of the most beautiful Christian art objects I’ve seen. Here I’ll share just one of them: an elaborately decorated champlevé enamel tabernacle, that is, a cupboard where the vessels containing the “reserved Eucharist,” the already-blessed bread and wine, are kept. The primary scene represents the descent of Christ’s body from the cross, while the six medallion scenes on the interior doors (Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the Emmaus pilgrims; the holy women at the tomb; and the Harrowing of Hell) all have to do with the resurrection. To indicate his kingliness, Christ wears a crown. More on the iconography below.
The enameled metalworks produced in twelfth- through fourteenth-century Limoges in southwestern France are renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship, which contemporary makers still marvel at. Some 7,500 such objects still survive in a variety of forms, including altar frontals, book covers, candlesticks, censers (incense burners), chrismatories (containers for chrism oil), coffers, croziers (bishop’s staffs), reliquaries (containers for relics), gemellions (handwashing basins), pyxides (small receptacles for the consecrated host), and more. The large concentration of churches and monasteries in France’s Limousin region created a large demand for decorated liturgical objects, which led to the rise of enamel workshops in the city of Limoges, located at the intersection of major trade routes. The technical and artistic mastery of these workshops’ products meant that soon orders were being placed by buyers in other regions and countries, and for a more diversified range of objects, not just those for church use.
The champlevé method of enameling, the predominant decorative technique associated with Limoges, first requires the gouging out of a prepared metal substrate (almost always copper) to create cells. Enamel powder, made from shards of colored glass, is carefully laid into these recessed cells and the object is fired, then cooled, then polished. Champlevé enamels often have appliqué figures attached to them. These are created from copper sheet that is raised from the back and then finished from the front using various specialized tools. For a detailed description of the creation process, which I find fascinating, see the essay “Techniques and Materials in Limoges Enamels” by Isabelle Biron, Pete Dandridge, and Mark T. Wypyski, in the 1996 Met exhibition catalog Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350, available for free download from MetPublications.
The Cherves tabernacle, so named because it was discovered in the Cherves-Richemont commune near the site of a ruined priory, is one of only two enamel tabernacles that have survived from the Middle Ages. It consists of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and white champlevé enamel; gilded copper figures shaped by the twin metalworking techniques of repoussé (hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief) and chasing (hammering on the front side, sinking the metal); and, on the inside gables, engraved copper plaques covered in gold leaf. Its wood support was fabricated after the object was excavated at Château-Chesnel, near Plumejeau, in 1896.
The following text, written by Barbara Drake Boehm, senior curator at the Met Cloisters, is reproduced from pages 299–302 of the book Enamels of Limoges, 1100–1350 by permission of the publisher. I’ve inserted one bracketed note, plus hyperlinks on references that may be unfamiliar to readers. All photos are courtesy of the museum and are linked to their source page.
Standing on short legs, the tabernacle is in the form of a gabled cupboard with hinged doors. Gilded repoussé figures are applied to copper plates decorated with enameled foliate ornament. On the outside of the proper left door is the figure of Christ in Majesty, enthroned in a mandorla and surrounded by symbols of the evangelists. Opposite him on the proper right door is the Virgin with the Infant Jesus on her lap. She is framed within a mandorla and surrounded by four angels. Above them on the roof are two full-length angels, each holding a censer. Across the front runs a band of gilt copper inscribed with a decorative pattern derived from Kufic script, apparently based on the Arabic word yemen.
At the center of the open tabernacle, against its back wall, are appliqué figures representing the Descent from the Cross. Joseph of Arimathea takes the torso of the dead Christ in the arms as Nicodemus uses pliers and a hammer to remove the nails that still hold Christ’s feet to the green-enameled cross. The Virgin takes her son’s hands in hers and gently pulls them to her cheek; Saint John looks on from the opposite side, his head resting in his hand. Above the arms of the cross, two half-length angels hold emblems of the sun and moon. The Hand of God appears at the top of the cross; another figure of an angel once stood over it.
On the insides of the doors are openwork medallions recounting the events that followed the Crucifixion, reading from lower left to upper right. The first is the Descent into Limbo, a nonscriptural image of Jesus leading souls by the hand out of the mouth of Hell, which is seen as the gaping mouth of a dragonlike beast. Set above it is the scene of the Holy Women arriving at the tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Following the account in the Gospel of Mark (16:1), they bear jars of unguent to anoint the body and are greeted by a man, seen here as winged, who informs them that Jesus has risen. In the almond-shaped medallion above, Mary Magdalen meets the risen Christ in the garden (Mark 16:9; John 20:14–18), where he backs away and advises her not to touch him yet. At the lower right, the apostles on the road outside the walls of Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35) are greeted by Jesus, attired as a pilgrim; in the roundel above, they dine with him at Emmaus and realize who he is when he breaks bread with them. In the oval at the upper right, Saint Thomas (Doubting Thomas) touches the wound in Jesus’ side and is convinced of his Resurrection (John 20:24–29).
The interior side panels of the tabernacle have large lozenges with engraved figurative scenes framed at the corners by triangular enamel plaques, each depicting an angel in a roundel. At the lower left is the Entombment of Christ; at the upper left is the Ascension. At the lower right, Christ emerges from his tomb, with angels at either side. The base of the cupboard is covered with sheets of gilt copper depicting angels in roundels.
The tabernacle of Cherves is remarkable for its iconographic sophistication and for the dialogue established compositionally and visually between thematically related scenes. On the insides of the doors, Jesus guides souls out of the mouth of Hell at the lower left; at the lower right, he guides the apostles on the journey to Emmaus. On the center left roundel, the Holy Women seek Jesus’ body and find it gone; on the center right roundel, Jesus offers his body to the apostles in the sacrament of bread and wine. At the upper left, he tells the Magdalen it is too soon to touch him; at the upper right, he invites Thomas to touch his wound. In the inside lozenge at the left, Jesus is lowered into his tomb; at the right, he rises from it. At the upper left, he leaves his apostles and rises to heaven; at the upper right, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven on the apostles in a representation of Pentecost. [This latter scene is missing and has been replaced by a copy on paper or parchment of the Ascension image opposite it.]
The Descent from the Cross is both elegant and full of pathos, a masterpiece of Gothic relief sculpture. As such, it has rightly served as a point of comparison with works in other media, notably the ivory Descent from the Cross in the Louvre. A number of gilt-copper relief sculptures produced in the Limousin but now isolated from their original contexts can be compared with those on the Cherves tabernacle. Notable among these is the Descent from the Cross preserved in the Abegg-Stiftung, Bern, first recorded in 1870. Most of these reliefs are presumed to come from altar frontals.
The enameled ground of the Cherves tabernacle, with its strong concentric circles of reserved gilt copper enclosing full fleurons, seems to anticipate the enameled plate of the tomb effigy of John of France of after 1248.
The identification of this enameled cupboard as a tabernacle for the consecrated Host has not been confirmed: the Church of the Middle Ages had no universal custom for the reservation of the Eucharistic bread or regulations requiring a tabernacle. Nor is there a wealth of comparative medieval examples. Only one other Limoges tabernacle of this type is known; it was acquired by the cathedral of Chartes in the nineteenth century, and its earlier history is not known. The supposition that the enameled cupboard from Cherves is a Eucharistic tabernacle is based on its resemblance in form to later tabernacles, its subject matter, and even the gilt-copper base plate which would allow an enclosed pyx to slide easily in and out.
Soon after its discovery in 1896, the tabernacle was presented to the Société archéologique de la Charente by Maurice d’Hauteville, a curator at Angoulême and son-in-law of Ferdinand de Roffignac, on whose property it was unearthed. He suggested that the treasure could have come from the Benedictine monastery of Fontdouce, founded in 1117. More recently it has been supposed that the treasure at Cherves comes from the Grandmontain foundation at Gandory, of which, unfortunately, there are no remains.
Since its discovery, the tabernacle of Cherves has been recognized as a masterpiece of Limoges work in the Gothic period. Part of a larger treasure, . . . it was exhibited successively at Poitiers, Brive, and Limoges, and then at the Musée de Cluny before being sent to Great Britain.
You can explore other champlevé enamels at the Met using its website’s advanced search function. If you wish to study the topic in more depth, the book I’ve quoted from is an excellent resource, featuring essays as well as photographs and descriptions of 157 objects not only from the Met’s collection but also from the Louvre and various other European and American museums, ecclesiastical institutions, and private collections. Click on the cover image to go to the book page.
TGC ARTICLE:“18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.
Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.
POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,
Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.
Drink rain, hatless, laughing.
Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.
ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.
“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”
In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.
TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.
Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscapeby the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.
IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.
Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”
It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This song, about Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to the apostle Thomas, is by the pioneering bluegrass artist Ralph Stanley (1927–2016). Hear him sing it with the Clinch Mountain Boys in 2012 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHQLoGpiY0o.
And lastly, here’s The Devil Makes Three, a California trio, performing the song right outside Paradiso concert hall in Amsterdam:
The band consists of guitarist/frontman Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino, and guitarist/tenor banjoist Cooper McBean. Here they’re joined by guest fiddler Spencer Swain. Their records and concerts fuse elements of blues, ragtime, country, folk, and rockabilly.
The story of “doubting Thomas” has always captivated me. Here are a few posts from the blog in which the arts prompt re-engagement with the biblical narrative.
I’m super-excited to share with you all a major new project I’ve contributed to, which is the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), a free online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible through the skillful selection of works of art. Launched November 6, 2018, at a reception at the Tate Modern, the VCS is directed by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London and is funded in large part by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson.
As Quash explains in the introductory video, the VCS aims to demonstrate how visual art itself can serve as biblical commentary, and when placed in conversation with other “visual commentaries” on the same text, the meaning of said text potentially becomes all the more clear. This practice of compiling diverse theological perspectives on a biblical text for their dialogical potential has ancient roots. The Jewish Talmud, for example, gathers together the viewpoints of different rabbis, not because they all necessarily agree but often because they constructively disagree—and there’s value in that conversation. The equivalent in the Christian tradition is the Catenae.
Translating this tradition into a modern, visual format, the VCS comprises virtual “mini-exhibitions” of three works of art per biblical passage, along with a short textual commentary on each artwork and one comparative commentary. (Currently about one hundred passages have gone live, and the goal is to cover the entire Bible.) The commentaries are written for nonspecialists but are grounded in detailed theological and art-historical research. Care is taken to secure the highest-quality images, which you can zoom in on.
Let’s face it: new commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors make the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually . . . wait for it . . . free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.
YES. I would love to see pastors and seminary students using the VCS as a resource for their biblical and theological studies and sermon preparation.
The exhibitions are arranged by biblical text for easy searching—and there are so many fantastic ones. I especially enjoy the ones that include a contemporary art selection. For example, Ayla Lepine ingeniously chose Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls from the 2015 Venice Biennale to converse with Esther 8, in which Esther pleads for the deliverance of her people. Ursula Weekes curated an eclectic trio of portraits—of Florentine noblewoman Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, German Reformer Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife), and former US First Lady Michelle Obama—to interact with the famous “wife of noble character” passage from Proverbs 31. And Pablo Perez d’Ors places Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas, made of found objects and inviting viewer participation, side by side with Old Master paintings to probe the significance of that famous resurrection encounter.
“Physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight,” Quash says, affirming the eighth-century monk John of Damascus, who wrote that “just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation” (In Defense of Icons 3.12).
In addition to the Pauline metaphor of the seed, Bynum writes,
the resurrection of the body is also described by theologians as the flowering of a dry tree after winter, the donning of new clothes, the rebuilding of a temple, the hatching of an egg, the smelting out of ore from clay, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down, the growth of the fetus from a drop of semen, the return of the phoenix from its own ashes, the reassembling of broken potsherds, the vomiting up of bits of shipwrecked bodies by fishes that have consumed them . . . (6)
I realized that I had never really thought about the logistics of the doctrine of the general resurrection, and although, as with other doctrines, the mechanics are not what’s important, it was interesting to consider what my resurrected body might look like, and how (and from whence) it will be reconstituted once it decomposes, turns to dust. Some of the conjectures I found to be quite amusing—like Gregory of Nyssa’s claim that in heaven we will have neither genitals nor intestines, because there will be no procreation or digestion. Or Augustine’s suggestion that we will receive back all the bits of ourselves that we ever had, including nail and hair clippings, but the excess will not necessarily go to our fingers and heads but rather will become absorbed into our flesh (so that we don’t look freakish).
I spent a lot of time wrestling through the paradox, held consistently by the church throughout the ages, that the resurrection body will be both identical to the one we have now and new. This particular passage from Paul seems to emphasize the new aspect. He contrasts “physical”/“terrestrial” and “spiritual”/“celestial” bodies. What does he mean by the latter?
Choosing only three images to open up this rich theological doctrine was a real challenge, and I cycled through dozens before landing on the ones I did.
At the outset, I was cognizant that the resurrection Paul writes about, which will occur “at the last trumpet,” is distinct from the spectacular rising from the graves that occurred on the day Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:52)—so although there are many fine examples of that latter episode in art, I passed them over for this assignment. I also passed over images of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, since that narrative is rooted in a different passage (see the VCS exhibition), even though there is an obvious intertextual link between the two.
I was intrigued by the “second Adam” motif present in the Pauline text, and I considered several artworks that follow that vein, including ones depicting the “Harrowing of Hell,” or, as it’s called in the Orthodox tradition, the Anastasis, in which the resurrected Christ pulls up Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament saints from Sheol. This iconographic type would have made a particularly apt pairing with the passage’s triumphant ending: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” But strictly speaking, the harrowing has already taken place (according to church tradition, on Holy Saturday), and although it prefigures the future resurrection, I wanted to keep the focus on the yet-to-come event that Paul is talking about. Plus, I figured that the harrowing will almost surely make an appearance in some other VCS commentary.
A related image I found, a contemporary one, very unique in its approach and theologically loaded, is a life-size painting by Caleb Stoltzfus that shows the glorious nude Christ, his puncture wounds visible, pulling up a man from the dust. It’s titled Resurrection. I love this image, and there’s much that could be said about it—but ultimately, I felt that it fit better with the passage preceding mine, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Read the artist’s commentary at http://www.calebstoltzfus.com/blog/resurrection.
In my image search, I also examined a lot of symbolic bird imagery of the resurrection—that is, phoenixes and peacocks. The phoenix is a mythological bird that dies but then rises up from its own ashes, and the flesh of the peacock was thought to not decay, giving both birds a theological weight since the earliest era of Christian art, where they sometimes stand in for Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, our own. Thinking I’d draw this visual tradition into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15, I came close to selecting Hope, a Renaissance painting from Umbria, Italy, from a set of three allegorical paintings on the theological virtues; in it Hope is personified as a woman who squints her eyes toward the sun and catches a wind as she stands beside a phoenix on its pyre—suggesting the Christian hope of life after death. Although hope is implicit in the Corinthians passage, it’s not a keyword, so I ultimately decided not to include the Umbrian painting in my selection. Peacocks, however, did make the cut! (See below.)
Another shortlisted artwork was the Last Judgment triptych by Jean Bellegambe, a French-speaking Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century. I was particularly drawn in by a detail at the bottom of the central panel, which shows skeletons in the process of acquiring flesh, and an angel reassembling body parts. It is very common in historical works of art for the resurrection of the dead to be subsumed under a larger visual program of the Last Judgment—but Paul doesn’t discuss judgment in my given passage, so I decided to move away from that context.
Probably the most unusual thing I discovered in the course of my research was the “regurgitation motif,” which shows animals vomiting up human body parts (from the corpses they have eaten) for reassembly on the last day. Several early church fathers mentioned that this would happen in their theologies of the resurrection, but its visual origin is attributed to the posticonoclastic East and the Carolingian-Ottonian West; it continues down into modern times in Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian frescoes. One of the best-known examples (in the West) is from the monumental twelfth-century mosaic at Torcello near Venice.
Bynum cites a handful of other examples in her aforementioned book and discusses the motif in depth, contributing to one of her main theses: damnation is swallowing, salvation is regurgitation. An absolutely brilliant argument, drawing heavily on visual theology.
It’s likely that Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . .”) influenced the creation of this motif. Because Paul himself doesn’t mention the mouths of animals giving up their dead, I decided not to go with the extraordinary Torcello mosaic. But I was able to sneak in a reference to that tradition by way of a side detail in one of the paintings I chose. It’s almost comical to look on, how literal it is. But it’s also thought-provoking. If our dead bodies are eaten and digested by worms or carrion beasts—or, God forbid, we meet our end through the mouth of a wild animal—then what remains of us, if we are divided into parts, mere particles, even? Will we ever be made whole again? If we are both body and soul, as Christianity attests, then isn’t our material continuity essential?
Other runners-up that didn’t make the cut were Wassily Kandinsky’s eschatological paintings—for example, All Saints I and Composition V. I wanted to choose artworks from three different countries and eras, and for the modern period, I just had to go with Stanley Spencer, who is renowned for his many resurrection paintings, localized to his hometown of Cookham in the UK. (I also felt a little out of my depth writing about Kandinsky’s radical style and spiritual approach to painting.)
The inclusion of Spencer also influenced my choice, after some consideration, not to go with the Harrowing panel from Nicholas Mynheer’s Wilcote polyptych. (Two twentieth-century British paintings would have presented too limited a range.) It would have fit well with the Corinthians passage, which talks about us being sown in dust and reaped in glory—and its juxtaposition with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, on the opposite wing of the altarpiece, further underscores this theme. I wrote about the altarpiece as a whole a few years ago at Art & Theology.
So what did I end up choosing?
A fifth-century Christian sarcophagus from Italy, emphasizing Paul’s metaphor of the body as seed that, once buried, will flower forth in life
A thirteenth-century German psalter illumination that shows the dead casting off their grave-clothes and “putting on” immortality
A twentieth-century painting by the British master Sir Stanley Spencer, who set the resurrection in a local churchyard, using his friends and neighbors as subjects
Rauschenberg’s Untitled black painting with a funnel (c. 1955) is presented as a kind of figure: the open circular collar of a t-shirt positions a head relatively high in the field, and the fragment of a sleeve on the right-hand edge indicates a lifted hand. Nearly all of the collaged scraps of cloth and paper on the surface are painted over in flat black paint—one of the few portions that is not is a prayer card just to the right of the center of the painting that displays a reproduction of Carl Bloch’s Doubting Thomas (1881). Flurries of red, yellow, green and white paint have been slashed across the surface immediately below this image (the only place such color appears in the painting), which within the figure suggested by the cloth fragments correspond to the position of the wound in Christ’s side, as depicted in the prayer card. The painting’s surface subtly stands in for the wounded body of the resurrected Jesus, and as such the ball of twine placed in the funnel on the left side of the panel becomes doubly suggestive of incarnation (descending downward into the funnel) and ascension (being pulled upward out of the funnel). But if Rauschenberg is allegorizing the surface of the painting with the resurrected body of Christ, then he is also placing himself (and the viewer) in the position of the incredulous Thomas. It is a painting that powerfully articulates both a longing to touch and see (Lk 24:39; cf. Lk 6:19) and the persistence and seeming ineluctability of doubt in the age of modernity (including doubt that images, much less paintings, can any longer serve as vehicles for the kind of religious touching and seeing that we long for). Like much modern art, this is not a work of unbelief as much as it is of fragilized belief, one that is caught oscillating (or struggling) between doubt and belief.
“We do not know . . . how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
O doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things:
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after him and find him in the flesh.
Because he loved your awkward counter-point,
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
O place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
[Click here to listen to a short sermon Guite preached on St. Thomas back in 2012, which opens with his reading of this poem.]
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 Second Sunday of Easter, cycle B, click here.
John 20:24–26 tells us that Thomas wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them the day of his resurrection. It wasn’t until eight days later—the following Sunday—that Jesus came to Thomas. In that span of time, Thomas was left to wrestle with his doubt. “He is risen!” he heard from the other disciples. “We saw him!” But Thomas had not been granted any such encounter. Thinking it ridiculous that a dead man should rise from the grave, he chalked up the claims to mere gossip. Hallucinations, maybe. And he stewed uncomfortably in his disappointment and confusion. That is, until Jesus approached him and gave him the physical confirmation he needed.
Why did Jesus wait so long to seek out Thomas? Maybe to give him time to think over the events of the previous week—and even further back, to Jesus’s teachings about himself, his prophecies. Maybe Thomas needed to be kept in the dark a little longer than the others so that certain truths could settle in his heart and mind, so that he would be ready to receive the proof par excellence.
Imagining what these eight days of not knowing must have been like, Jess Strantz, lead vocalist for the folk soul duo Von Strantz, wrote a song called “Oh Tom.” Written from Thomas’s perspective, it takes us for a ride on his roller coaster of emotions following the death of Jesus—insecurity, hurt, fear—before pulling at last into the station of confident faith. Continue reading “Thomas in the dark”→