Teach Us to Number Our Days (Artful Devotion)

Jacques de Gheyn II (Netherlandish, 1565–1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603. Oil on wood, 32 1/2 × 21 1/4 in. (82.6 × 54 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

. . .

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

. . .

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

—Psalm 90:1–6, 10, 12

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MUSIC: Élégie in E-flat Minor, op. 3, no. 1, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1892 | Performed by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, with Isata Kanneh-Mason, 2017

I’ve mentioned these stellar sibling musicians on the blog before, when I shared Sheku’s arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In fact, all seven Kanneh-Mason siblings, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-four, are musical—and of an exceptionally high standard! Their debut album as a family, Carnival, dropped November 6; it is a collaboration with Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman and children’s author Michael Morpurgo.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason released Rachmaninoff’s Élégie, from Morceaux de fantaisie, as a single in 2017. He has two solo records: Elgar (2020) and Inspiration (2018).

Isata Kanneh-Mason has also recorded as a solo artist: see Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann (2019).

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Vanitas (from the Latin vanus, “empty”) is a subgenre of still life painting, especially common in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, that shows, through symbolism, the brevity of life and the transience of earthly pleasures.

Art historian Ingvar Bergström discusses Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Gheyn II (Jacob de Gheyn) at length in the 1970 journal article “De Gheyn as a ‘Vanitas’ Painter.” The commentary that follows is derived from that.

In de Gheyn’s painting, a skull sits inside a stone niche on a bed of dry grass, a reminder that “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth . . .” (Isaiah 40:6–7; cf. 1 Peter 1:24). Sitting on the left side of the ledge, the tulip and the wild rose with the fallen petal symbolize how man “cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14:2). The smoking urn on the other side references Psalm 102:3: “my days are consumed like smoke.” Between these two are a spill of Spanish coins and a Dutch military medal, and propped up against the ledge on each side is a gold ten-ducat coin showing, on the obverse, Joanna and Charles as sovereigns of Aragon. The message is that beauty, riches, and worldly power and honors all come to an end.

Lest this message somehow be missed, HUMANA VANA (“human vanity”) is carved into the top of the arch. The inscription is flanked by fictive sculptures of Heraclitus and Democritus, the weeping and laughing philosophers of Greek antiquity. Both figures point to a soap bubble (“Man is but a bubble” is a classical aphorism), which, if read in light of the traditional iconography of the two philosophers, doubles as a globe.

de Gheyn II, Jacques_Vanitas Still Life (bubble detail)

The bubble mirrors a number of disparate objects, which are difficult to make out. Bergström identifies a trophy group along the middle axis of the bubble: a crown in the center with various weapons converging upon it. At the top is an upturned moneybag with coins streaming out. Most discernible is the wheel of torture at the bottom right, and above that is a leper’s rattle, which lepers in some areas were required to shake to alert others to their proximity; these are symbols of human frailty. Also reflected “are a caduceus (probably signifying commerce) and a pair of bellows (signifying luxury?). Playing cards, backgammon with dice, and drinking vessels allude to vain pleasures and pastimes. The highlight of the sphere mirrors a burning heart, pierced by an arrow—an image of earthly love, of luxury” (153).

Though the painting doesn’t explicitly reference our lectionary reading from Psalm 90, it does complement the psalmist’s reflection on how short and precarious life is—it’s like a wilting flower, a burning candle, a fragile bubble. Here today, gone tomorrow. Which is why it’s so important to live wisely while we still can.

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To access another Artful Devotion for AProp28, on 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, click here.


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 28, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Four talks and an interview

Hi friends. I’m preparing for a trip to Bangalore, India, later this month, to meet an artist whose work I admire, Jyoti Sahi [previously]. I apologize for being slow to respond to emails lately, but I do appreciate each and every message I receive from my readers! I read them all and will try my best to respond just as soon as I get the chance. Please note: email is the best way to get in touch with me, as I’ve found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter messages tend to get buried under a slew of notifications and are harder for me to tag and track. Thank you again for your support of Art & Theology, and for all your questions, encouragements, personal introductions, invitations, and art recommendations.

In this roundup I want to share a few recorded lectures that I’ve listened to in the past month and have really enjoyed; I hope you will too. The first two are by art historians speaking to secular audiences at museums about the (Protestant) art of the Dutch Golden Age—which I saw a lot of this spring during my visit to the Netherlands! The second two are by Christian professors speaking at Christian academic institutions, from different angles, about prophetic art. And lastly, Biola University interviews Krista Tippett, one of my absolute favorite podcast hosts.

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“Dutch Art of the Golden Age, 1600–1675” by Dr. Eric Denker, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 14, 2019: In this hour-long lecture, Eric Denker discusses some of the highlights from the National Gallery of Art’s seventeenth-century Dutch art collection: paintings by Emanuel de Witte, Jan van der Heyden, Salomon van Ruysdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, Hendrick ter Brugghen (of the Utrecht Caravaggisti), Frans Hals, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Judith Leyster, Thomas de Keyser, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Willem Claesz Heda, Johannes Vermeer, Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Adriaen Coorte. These include scenes of everyday life (such as church and domestic interiors), landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte
Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, ca. 1616–1691/92), The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 31 11/16 × 39 3/8 in. (80.5 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I especially appreciated him pointing out details from de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, which brings together death (a burial plot has just been dug up under the stone floor, with a skull visible in the upturned dirt heap) and life (a woman nursing her infant on a bench at the right). Unlike the French and Italian painting of the time, Denker says, in Dutch painting “there is nothing too vulgar . . . to portray. They felt that they inhabited God’s world, and that everything that existed in that world was necessarily of God’s making.” Hence the dog relieving himself on a column!

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“Food for Thought: Pieter Claesz. and Dutch Still Life” by Dr. John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery, September 25, 2015: The Dutch coined the word “still life” (stilleven) to describe pictures of things that are incapable of movement or that lack a soul. In the Dutch conception, such paintings weren’t just for looking at but also for meditating on; the aim, in other words, was visual pleasure and moral edification. John Walsh outlines various categories: vanitas paintings, breakfast pieces, kitchen still lifes, pipe-smoking pieces, arrangements of food and wares on a table, fruit pieces, compositions of dead game and weapons, and flowers.

Walsh discusses many different paintings in detail, by many different artists (not just by the premier one in the lecture title), including a few examples of contemporaneous still lifes from Italy and Spain. He really made them come alive for me! The feasts of meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, for example, with all their subtle richness of texture and color, are a celebration of God’s goodness. In honor of Thanksgiving in a few weeks, here’s Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Turkey Pie:

Claesz, Pieter_Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98–1660), Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627. Oil on panel, 29 1/2 × 51 9/10 in. (75 × 132 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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“Practicing the Prophetic: Liturgy, Formation, and Discernment for Public Life” by Dr. James K.A. Smith, Seattle Pacific University, October 16, 2019: James K.A. Smith has made a name for himself writing about worship, worldview, and cultural formation, through such books as You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and his Cultural Liturgies series. The first half of this talk, which starts at 6:15, is a good introduction to his work in that arena, as he discusses the liturgical nature of public life—how “the rhythms and rituals of public life aren’t just something we do; they are also doing something to us.” Cultural forces can de-form us, he says, in often insidious ways, such that we don’t even realize the deformation. Smith is all about getting us to take stock of what we’ve been conscripted to want, to love, to hope for; to perform a “liturgical analysis” on the social imaginary that we’ve absorbed through our culture’s images, stories, myths, rituals, practices, etc. And for a toolkit, he offers St. Augustine.

The second half of the talk (starting at about 33:40) is devoted to “the art of prophetic hope,” which “requires both the renewal of the Christian imagination and an outward offering of a Christian imagination for the sake of the world.” He continues: “What’s at stake in our liturgical formation is really a restorying of the imagination. It’s a restoring of the imagination because it’s a restorying of the imagination. And if Christianity has something to offer our neighbors, I think that will be most powerfully and prophetically embodied in the arts, which meet people on the register of the imagination.” I am always so compelled by Smith’s words; they’re all so quotable. But particularly germane to the Art & Theology project I have going here, and also to the upcoming Advent season, is what he says about a truly “Christian” art being that which holds together hurt and hope:

There is nothing more scandalous than Christian eschatology, I realize. And yet nothing speaks more directly to a hurtful and fearful world. This eschatological orientation, which is at the heart of the prophets, fuels art that is suspended between the already and the not yet. The unique imaginative capacity of the arts speaks to this ineffaceable human hunger for restoration even while honoring the heartbreak of our present pilgrimage. A Christian eschatology nourishes a distinct imagination that refuses to be constrained by the catalog of the currently available and instead imagines a world to come breaking into the present. Art that is infused with this eschatological imagination at once laments and hopes. In its lament, it honors our experience of brokenness, the heartbreak of the now. And in its hope, it gives voice to our longings. It neither wallows in romanticized tragedy nor escapes to sentimental naivete. Such eschatological art is like an embodied form of the Lord’s Prayer. Each such work is its own requiem, such that what Jan Swafford says of Mozart’s Requiem could be true of all such eschatological art. He says, “It’s full of death and hope, lacerating sorrow and uncanny beauty.”

I like this “uncanniness” metaphor. Uncanniness is an apt descriptor of such art that paints beauty with ashes, that can walk the soul through the valley of the shadow of death on the way to a feast in the wilderness. Such art stops us short in its uncanny, even paradoxical, ability to embody both hurt and hope.

By way of example, he discusses the Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans (1723–1751), who died in childbirth, along with her baby, on Holy Saturday; the Memorial to Fallen Workers in Hamilton, Ontario; and Sugar and Spice by Letitia Huckaby [previously].

Nahl, Johann August_Tomb of Madame Langhans
Johann August Nahl (German, 1710–1781), Tomb of Mme. Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751–53. Sandstone. (This is an 18th-century replica; the original is in the village church of Hindelbank in Bern, Switzerland.)

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“Turn and Face the Strange: Thoughts on Ergonomics and Artistry” by Jeffrey Overstreet, Sacrament & Story conference, Brehm Cascadia, Bellevue, Washington, April 5, 2019: “This is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth,” says film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously here and here]. He teaches his students at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian institution) to ask, like Miles Morales, “What’s up, danger?” To go outside the walls, to the wild edges, and be still, and then to report on that encounter. Films he discusses, whose characters (or director) “go to the edge of the water,” so to speak, include Babette’s Feast, The Secret of Kells, The Fits, Moonrise Kingdom, and 24 Frames.

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An Interview with Krista Tippett by Jonathan A. Anderson, Biola University presidential luncheon, La Mirada, California, February 22, 2017: Journalist Krista Tippett is the most talented interviewer I know—time after time initiating open, hospitable, genuinely mutual conversations with a range of subjects. (It’s no wonder she’s won a Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal! The latter for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”) Here Jonathan A. Anderson, the director of Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts, interviews her, and it’s so rich!

After graduating from Brown in 1983, Tippett became a foreign correspondent in divided Berlin. After years of that, she earned an MDiv from Yale. In 2003 she created the NPR show Speaking of Faith, which, despite initial skepticism from many corners, became wildly popular and evolved into On Being. Her upbringing was Christian, but she interviews people from all different faith traditions—poets, clergy, scientists, doctors, historians, activists, etc.—always opening with the question “What is your spiritual background?” The show’s tagline is “Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.” Again and again, On Being brightens my outlook, builds my compassion, and gives me hope and inspiration, and I’m so grateful to Tippett for creating that space.

In her interview at Biola, Tippett describes what it was like to discover theology as “one of humanity’s great disciplines,” as “carrying questions and virtues and substantive riches that should be able to find a way in public life true to their depth and their wisdom.” She discusses her desire to be true to the intellectual and spiritual content of faith—the latter almost absent in public talk; how she responds to the criticism of being “soft” on religious voices; and she gives tips for conversing with those you disagree with. When Anderson opened up the Biola project to critique by asking her the problems and possibilities with their approach to Christian liberal arts education, she had this beautiful response: “Whatever our particularity is, that is our gift to the world.” To immerse oneself fully in a particular religious tradition is not a narrowing but a deepening, she said; being deeply who you are and having convictions and seeking truth is not incompatible with living lovingly and peaceably in a pluralistic world!

Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008) and Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016). Her radio show / podcast, On Being, has a vast archive, and I only just became a listener two years ago, but here are some episodes that I remember particularly enjoying: