Roundup: Christianity in Africa, Zwingli’s plague hymn, biblical art database, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.

Djanira_Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador
Djanira da Motta e Silva (Brazilian, 1914–1979), Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, or Cristo na coluna (Christ at the Column), 1955. Oil on canvas, 81 × 115 cm. Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Jaime Acioli.

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LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!

The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”

“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.

I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola by Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)

Bantu is the author of A Multitude of Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity from IVP Academic and the editor of Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity, both released this year.

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SONGS:

“Azim ast name To Isa”: Nora Kirkland from Iran performs this Christian praise song in Farsi, English, and Greek. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus

“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.

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BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.

Blake, William_Behemoth and Leviathan
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Behold Now Behemoth, Which I Made With Thee (The Book of Job) (Linnell set), 1821. Watercolor, black ink, and graphite on off-white antique laid paper, 27.5 × 20 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. [HT]

Mordecai Ardon (Israeli, 1896–1992), Sarah, 1947. Oil on canvas, 138 × 108 cm. Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem.

The Finding of Moses (Dura-Europos Synagogue)
“The Finding of Moses,” wall painting made in 244 CE, from Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria. Preserved at the National Museum of Syria, Damascus. [HT]

Crossing the Red Sea (Alba Bible)
“Crossing of the Red Sea,” Spain, 1430. Illumination from the Alba Bible (fol. 68v–69r), Liria Palace, Madrid.

Jonah (Islamic)
“Jonah,” Iran, 1577. Illumination from the Qisas al Anbiya (Diez A Fol. 3, fol. 142v), Staatsbibliothek, Berlin. [HT]

Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources

The global push to make art more accessible to the public has led to some impressive digital creations in the past year. The following are ones I’ve really enjoyed exploring, some released as recently as this month. They all focus on a particular artwork or era or (in the case of the Jewish art database) faith tradition. I will cover the more all-encompassing digital art initiatives/databases and commendable museum websites in a future series of posts, where I will give them more individualized attention. Some of the creations below represent single projects within those broader initiatives.

“The Audacity of Christian Art”: Written and presented by Dr. Chloë Reddaway, this series of seven short films looks at paintings from the (London) National Gallery’s Renaissance collection and explores some ingenious artistic responses to the challenge of painting Christ.

As curator of art and religion at the museum, Reddaway’s role is to understand more about the paintings’ religious content and context. (Her main academic background is theology.) She also lectures for the MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. I love how she defines her primary research interest: “visual theology, especially the recovery of historic works of art as a resource for contemporary theology.”

The trailer for “The Audacity of Christian Art” is below, followed by links to all seven episodes. All are shot in ultra-high resolution and feature stunning details.

Episode 1: “The Problem with Christ”
Episode 2: “Christ Is Not Like a Snail: Signs and Symbols”
Episode 3: “Putting God in His Place: Here, Everywhere, and Nowhere”
Episode 4: “Time and Eternity: Yesterday, Today, and Always”
Episode 5: “This World and the Next: Christ on Earth, Christ in Heaven”
Episode 6: “So Near and Yet So Far: Visions and Thresholds”
Episode 7: “Unspeakable Images: When Words Fail”

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The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel: “Online exhibitions” are something I’ve seen more and more of recently—that is, the presentation of artworks in a digital rather than physical space, using tools unique to that medium to enhance the viewing experience. Last year Google Arts and Culture launched one in conjunction with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, centered around Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem (1566), which sets Mary and Joseph’s census registration within the hustle and bustle of a Brabant village. The interface guides you through a sequence of bite-size commentaries, sometimes presented as text alongside an image detail, sometimes as a short video. What makes it an “exhibition” is that other works are shown alongside it to locate it within a larger tradition of Netherlandish painting. One frame, for example, shows how Bruegel furthered the innovative “alla prima” technique introduced by Hieronymus Bosch.

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

I studied this painting in college (through slides and textbook reproductions) but have never seen it in this much detail and am now all the more in awe of it. Bruegel’s paintings, which almost always depict a flurry of activity, lend themselves particularly well to this viewing format: it’s helpful to be guided through the various vignettes, each one a window into sixteenth-century Dutch life. Up close, you can see kids blowing up pig-bladder balloons and running across the ice pushing cow jaws they got from the butcher; you can see adults patronizing a tavern in the hollow of a tree, called “In De Swaen”; and much more.

Census at Bethlehem (detail)

Census at Bethlehem detail

Census at Bethlehem detail

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“Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights”: Created in 2016 by a thirty-four-person team, this “interactive documentary” provides an in-depth audiovisual tour though the Dutch artist’s most famous—and, arguably, most bizarre—painting. The interior of the triptych shows, in the central panel, life before the Flood—a depraved orgy in which humans cavort shamelessly with a whole host of beastly creatures conjured from the artist’s imagination.   Continue reading “Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources”