Three poems about Vincent van Gogh

This spring I guest-wrote and narrated an episode of the Makers & Mystics podcast on the life, art, and spirituality of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh artist profile

The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Vincent was a lifelong seeker after God who sought through his work to convey the pervasion of the Divine in the everyday. Before he was an artist, he was a missionary to a destitute coal-mining village in Belgium. His ministry was so incarnational—he lived just like those he served—that the sending agency deemed him too undignified to be a minister of the gospel and cut off his support. Hurt by its hypocrisy, Vincent left the institutional church, but he never abandoned his faith. That faith did evolve, however. His so-called evangelical period gave way to a period of artistic discovery, which enabled him to revel even more deeply in the mystery of God and the ethics of Jesus—which he wrote about frequently in letters to his brother Theo.

Despite personal suffering and an acute awareness of the suffering of others, Vincent was very attuned to the beauty of this world and lived a life of wide embrace. He saw the image of God in people and in nature and honored that image through his paintings, of sunflowers, cypresses, olive groves, wheat fields, farmers and mothers and postmen, soldiers, doctors, café owners, and his own self. When he was institutionalized, he continued to paint, so long as his health allowed it, and some of his finest work comes from this period at Saint-Rémy, including The Starry Night. (“When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars,” Vincent wrote.) While some interpret the agitated brushstrokes of his later paintings as evidence of internal turmoil and instability, might they not instead express his view of the universe as vibrant, wild, pulsating with life and energy? It is a myth, after all, that Vincent painted in fevered states.

As I was doing research for the podcast episode, I encountered many poets who have responded in verse to specific paintings of Vincent’s, or more generally to Vincent’s oeuvre, vocation, and legacy. I’ve selected three such poems from the latter category, each of which serves as a wonderful introduction to the man and his work—a distillation of his essence, even. I’m struck by how all three poets use religious language to describe Vincent’s paintings: hymns, psalms, prayers.

I’ve compiled the images referred to in the poems, plus a few other representative ones, in the tiled gallery below. To enlarge a photo and to view more info, click on its caption, visible by hovering your cursor over the bottom.

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“Dear Lover of Light” by Abigail Carroll

Dear Lover of Light,

There lived a priest
so in love with light
it drove him mad.
Paint was his thing.
When he could no longer
preach, he hopped a train
south, took up a brush,
turned zinc and lead
and chrome
into gaudy, wild-
petaled ambassadors
of the dawn. He slapped
stars as big as brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed. Postmen
and prostitutes
were his friends—
so too were irises,
almond trees,
windmills,
clouds. Francis,
if you think of a painting
as a kind of song, he too
canticled the sun.

A Vincent enthusiast

This poem appears in A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Eerdmans, 2017) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“Dear Lover of Light” is from a collection of verse-style letters addressed to Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century friar who was in love with Christ and with creation—he called animals, the natural elements, and celestial bodies “brothers” and “sisters,” as in his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” and is said to have preached to birds and tamed a wolf.

Abigail Carroll sees Francis as a kindred spirit to Vincent, who, she says, also “canticled the sun.” Vincent’s paintings are like songs of praise. Instead of words he used color—and yellow was his favorite (yellow ocher, cadmium yellow, zinc yellow, chrome yellow), representing for him life, energy, happiness, hope, and friendship.

“When he could no longer / preach” refers to Vincent’s being let go from his village preaching post by a religious board that deemed him too ineloquent and too radical. He moved to The Hague, where he befriended a pregnant sex worker named Sien and her daughter Maria, giving them shelter in his apartment and supporting them as best he could with his own meager funds. From there he went to Nuenen, where his compassion for the working poor manifested in the many earth-toned paintings of this period, including his first major work, The Potato Eaters, showing a family gathered around the dinner table, enjoying the fruit of their labors. After two years in Paris, Vincent needed a respite from the city noise, which led him to Arles in southern France, where he really started finding himself as an artist. He was enraptured by the way sunlight flooded the Provençal landscapes, making them radiant.

Carroll’s poetic descriptions of Vincent’s paintings—dancing crows, jewel-like stars, bowing wheat—capture his sense of all of creation being alive unto God, infused with the sacred. Vincent found great joy in observing what flowered around him, from the irises that grew outside the asylum where he committed himself to the almond tree he painted as a gift for his newborn nephew Vincent, whom his brother named after him. And Vincent saw sacred beauty not only in the natural world but also in everyday articles and objects, be they a pair of well-worn boots in the mudroom or the empty chair of his friend Paul Gauguin.

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“What Happened When He Looked” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

His miners are made of earth, his sowers so close
to the colors of the fields, only the broad hat, the sack,
the outflung arm keeps them from fading into wheat.

But sometimes, he found, the earth itself turns
to water. Mountains tumble like rapids, waves
curling, blue, roiling and leaping like
the Psalmist’s mountains clapping their hands.

And water turns to air. As life turns to breath.
The sky grows heavy with sun and draws
everything into its fierce embrace, urging
matter upward and homeward to where
the energies of earth begin.

And then there is fire. When they are alive enough
(or we), bushes burn. If you see it, you go
reeling home along a roadway you suddenly know
is temporary and might evaporate or begin
to pinwheel around a star, taking you with it
beyond deeper and deeper blue, into yellow that melts
to a core of thick, transparent white where love
burns day and night to fuel the fallen seed.

This poem appears in The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh’s Late Paintings (Eerdmans, 2007) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

This poem is structured around the four classical elements, understood as the material basis of the physical world: earth, water, air, and fire. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes how in Vincent’s paintings, these elements take on characteristics of one another: for example, in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, the hills surge and flow like water, and in The Sower of 1888, the air burns like fire.

In this latter painting, Vincent said he wished to use the yellow sun as a symbol of Christ’s presence, a sort of halo that covers everything it touches. (See also Letter 673: “I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.”) The Sower shows the union between the temporal and eternal, two interpenetrating realms. “The sky . . . draws / everything into its deep embrace, urging / matter upward and homeward,” McEntyre writes.

Vincent saw, in the famous words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God.” A reference, of course, to the burning bush in Exodus 3:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (emphasis mine)

McEntyre titled this poem “What Happened When He Looked”—that is, what happened when Vincent, like Moses, looked with intent on the miraculous sights that go unnoticed by so many. What happened is, like Moses, he heard God speak. What happened is he experienced a mystical union with that “something on High—inconceivable, ‘awfully unnameable’— . . . which is higher than Nature.” Vincent’s artmaking was a reverent act of beholding and of bearing witness to that something.

The final line of McEntyre’s poem refers to Jesus’s parable of the fallen seed, which once it dies, springs forth life—a picture of the promise of resurrection. The sun, or white-hot love of God in Christ, is generative, the energy that raises us out of the dark and fuels our growth and flourishing. Vincent’s paintings radiate that love.

During his time as an assistant preacher under the Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones in Isleworth, England, in summer 1876, Vincent wrote to Theo,

I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. I want to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel these bonds. To be sorrowful yet alway rejoicing. To live in and for Christ, to be one of the poor in His kingdom, steeped in the leaven, filled with His spirit, impelled by His Love, reposing in the Father [. . .]. To become one who finds repose in Him alone, who desires nothing but Him on earth, and who abides in the Love of God and Christ, in whom we are fervently bound to one another.

Though Vincent would later renounce orthodox Christianity, he retained his love for Christ and his sense of awe in the face of the Infinite active in the here and now.

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“Van Gogh” by Jeanne Murray Walker

     All right, I love him for the way
                      he painted Vermilion! Orange! jagged as
        shouts, and when no one bought them,
                      no one even heard him,
he shouted louder,
                      Sunflowers! Self-portrait!
     and years later, not one sold,
                      he cut off his own ear.

     Then he had to bring it back on canvas
                      hundreds of times,
        in the brass swelling
                      of the bell
that called him to dinner,
        in the complicated iris
                      at the end of the asylum path.
                            Think how stooping
at a fork in the road
                      he might have seen a stone-shaped ear,
       how the human heart,
                      once it knows what it needs,
will find it everywhere, how
       in the curve of his delicately padded cell
                      one starry night, he must have murmured
                            everything he had ever wanted to say
straight into the ear of God.

This poem appears in A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press, 2004) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

If McEntyre’s poem is about looking and provoking others to look, Jeanne Murray Walker’s is about wanting to be heard, and takes the ear as its central image. Vincent is, of course, notorious for the psychotic episode that culminated in him cutting off his left ear. (His self-portraits show the bandages on his right ear because he painted them by looking in a mirror.) Walker imagines him thereafter seeing ear-shapes everywhere in nature—delicate curves and hollows—manifestations of his longing to be listened to.

Vincent’s paintings are prayers, Walker suggests, that went straight into the ear of the One who hears, who holds all our joys and sadness in love. Others didn’t hear Vincent, but God did.

I will mention that it is a myth that Vincent never sold a painting during his lifetime. True, he sold few—his most significant sale was The Red Vineyard, purchased in January 1890 by Anna Boch while Vincent was convalescing at a psychiatric hospital—“but still,” writes Rainer Metzger in Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, “the fact should not be overemphasized; after all, Vincent was so willing to give his paintings as presents that many would-be purchasers never needed to part with a penny” (566). And he sometimes made in-kind trades with his paintings.

It’s also false that Vincent died without ever having received recognition for his work. Actually, he was a rising star in the art world. The avant-garde circles in France and Belgium recognized his talent before his death. He was exhibited a few times and received a gushing review in January 1890. Several fellow artists spoke favorably of his work, and of course his brother Theo, an art dealer, was a tireless champion, even supporting him financially for years so that he could paint. It wasn’t easy getting established, and yes, there were many people along the way who didn’t see the value of what he was doing, but Vincent kept at it. He was still in his early career when he died on July 29, 1890, at age thirty-seven. After his death the audience for his work, and thus appreciation for it, grew exponentially, thanks in large part to his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who edited, translated, and published all 652 letters from Vincent that she had in her possession, lent his paintings to various exhibitions, and promoted his work in other ways.

But on a personal level, Vincent was often overlooked, known as something of an eccentric, a crazy person, for which he was often teased and tormented. In fact, one theory about his death, originating in the 1950s but popularized by the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life, is that he was shot by teenage bullies. (The Van Gogh Museum rejects this theory, declaring his death a definitive suicide.)

Vincent battled mental illness: during his lifetime he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy that causes seizures, hallucinations, and manic depression. While he made friends in each city he lived in, his illness tended to cause rifts, sometimes permanent ones. On occasion he wrote to Theo how lonely he was.

So even when Vincent was starting to attain professional recognition for his art toward the end of his life, he still felt at times unwanted and misunderstood. “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” He wrote this line in June 1880, but it’s a sentiment that would resurface in his letters over the next ten years—the idea that people aren’t interested in the gifts he has to offer, be they relational or artistic.

Walker’s poem captures that mixture of confidence and doubt, self-assuredness and vulnerability, hardness and softness, and above all the dogged persistence that characterized Vincent. He “shouted” his soul onto canvas and into a world that in many quarters was plugging its ears. And he “murmured” it to the heavens, where it was received openly, caringly.

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To learn more about Vincent van Gogh, here are some recommended resources:

  • The aforementioned “Vincent van Gogh” podcast episode (Makers & Mystics Artist Profile Series no. 28) breaks down Vincent’s art and faith in under twenty minutes.
  • The world’s largest collection of van Gogh’s work is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has an excellent website, which includes high-resolution photos of 200+ paintings and 500+ drawings, plus interactive “Stories” on such topics as “Nature and the Artist,” “Inspiration from Japan,” and “Brotherly Love: Vincent and Theo,” in which you click through bit by bit to view art, archival photos, and quotes connected together with short narration—very engaging! (Kudos to whomever designed the interface.) You can even take a seven-video virtual tour of the museum in 4K, seeing how all the galleries are laid out.
  • The freely accessible website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters contains scans, transcriptions, and translations of all van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, and many others. They are heavily footnoted and include sketches and other enclosures, and the website enables universal searches! I can’t afford the official six-volume, complete illustrated and annotated print edition from Thames & Hudson, but I do own a Penguin Classics edition, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a generous selection introduced and editorialized by Ronald de Leeuw and translated by Arnold Pomerans, which is mostly what I quote from in this article. An abridged book like this one might be a good place to start if you’re not able or willing to invest a ton of time poring over the full correspondence, some of which is dull or rambling.
  • Van Gogh’s paintings have been victim to some truly poor-quality reproductions circulating online. The full-color Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (Taschen, 2012) was indispensable to me as I researched the artist, as it documents his full catalog of paintings (note: not drawings) with high-resolution photos that capture as accurately as possible the works’ colorative and textural richness. These are arranged by period and contextualized with essays.
  • The award-winning HENI Talks produced a seven-minute video titled “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees,” which is gorgeously shot and covers more than just the titular subject.
  • Movies? I really enjoyed the 1956 biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas—the characterization seems to me spot-on, and overall it does a great job with historical accuracy—and the oil-painted animated feature Loving Vincent from 2017 [previously]. I was not too keen on the recent At Eternity’s Gate starring Willem Dafoe.

Van Gogh books

There are many spiritual biographies on Vincent van Gogh, or books about the religious impulse behind his art:

At Eternity’s Gate, published by Eerdmans in 1998, was the first of its kind and is still probably my favorite; the author has advance degrees in both religion and art history and does an excellent job arguing that Vincent’s spiritual life was essential to the unfolding of his artistic vision. Carol Berry’s Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh, though, would probably be my top recommendation to those who just want to dip their toes in and engage Vincent’s story in a less academic, more personal, way, as Berry, an art educator with a background in Christian ministry, interweaves the lives of Vincent and Henri with personal memoir—an excellent gift book.

Three poems on Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation

One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation
Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca. 1390–1441), The Annunciation, 1434/36. Oil on canvas transferred from panel, 35 1/2 × 13 7/16 in. (90.2 × 34.1 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.

Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.

He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.

There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.

(Related post: “Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford”; ekphrastic poems I’ve written about: “Ecce Homo” by Andrew Hudgins and “Nick Mynheer’s Simon and Jesus” by Jonathan Stockland)

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“The Annunciation” by Pimone Triplett

Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
      by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.

            Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
      eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take

the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
      to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.

            And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
      David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s

tearing down the temple—that history
            interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.

            His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
      Imagine the endless effort: a man

in the distance, deep in the could have been,
      who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,

            flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
      And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,

the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
      he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.

            For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
      her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—

her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
      to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered

            with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
      and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s

blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
      The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”

            So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
      carelessness of cracked roads leading away

from his town, beneath a matted pulp
      of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting

            to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
      Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese

receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
      sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,

            their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
      empty spaces where the wings once beat.

And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
      So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,

            he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
      beneath her brow, under the layers of

shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
      of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.

“The Annunciation” by Pimone Triplett appears in Ruining the Picture (Northwestern University Press, 1998) and is reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1998 by Pimone Triplett. All rights reserved.

Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?

The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”

There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
The two most visible floor designs depict Samson destroying the temple of Dagon, killing the Philistines inside, and David cutting off the head of Goliath. These and other Old Testament scenes are framed by stylized columbine and clover and roundels bearing signs of the zodiac.

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?

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“Take a World” by Terri Witek

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36

Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,

gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow

on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened

gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert

to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah

behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma

who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.

“Take a World” by Terri Witek appears in Fools and Crows (Orchises Press, 2003) and is reprinted here by permission of the poet. Copyright © 2003 by Terri Witek. All rights reserved.

Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.

(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
To the left of the stained glass window, the baby Moses is presented to Pharaoh’s daughter, while on the right, God presents Moses with a scroll bearing the words of Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”
van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)
Gabriel tells Mary that Jesus “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). The two roundels painted on the rear wall depict Isaac blessing Jacob (Gen. 27).

I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).

I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.

The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.

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“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele

If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
      not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
      of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
      his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
      a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.

This is not wasted on the woman who,
      her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
      darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
      van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
      whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.

Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
      away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
      Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
      an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
      ‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.

I have been in and out of the world worlds,
      amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
      speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
      beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
      with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit

that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
      I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
      upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
      the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
      clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.

“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).

Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.

Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.

van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation (detail)

He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.

Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace or Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.

Freedom (Capitol)
Thomas Crawford (American, 1814–1857), Statue of Freedom, 1863. Bronze, 19 1/2 ft. tall. Atop the dome of the US Capitol, Washington, DC.
What Is Past Is Prologue
Robert Aitken (American, 1878–1949), Future, 1935. Indiana limestone, 20 × 8 × 12 ft. (sculpture), plus 12 × 12 × 15 ft. (base). Outside the National Archives Building, Washington, DC. Photo: Rania Hassan.

The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.

In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!

One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”

I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:

“The world is about to turn.”

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van Eyck, Jan_Annunciation

For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.

Religious art roundup: Ekphrastic poem; artist interview; Biola chapel renovations; public Jesus sculpture; bestiaries

Here are some recently published articles on religious art that I enjoyed, and I hope you do too:

“Shouldering the ‘Yoke of Love’: The Shared Passion of Simon and Jesus in Stone and Verse” by Victoria Emily Jones, Literary Life: Like Jonathan Stockland, I remember visiting Nicholas Mynheer’s home and seeing his Simon and Jesus sculpture and being moved by it. Stockland wrote a poem in response to his encounter, one that fits nicely within the tradition of ekphrastic poetry (poems about a visual work of art). Jump on over to LiteraryLife.org to read my reflection on it, from Sunday. As I was writing this essay, lines like “borders of despair” and “tents of desperation” rang out especially loudly, reminding me of the cross being borne by Latin American immigrants seeking entry into the United States, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries.

Simon and Jesus by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Simon and Jesus, 2010. Limestone, 36 cm tall.

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“Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden” (+ Part 2), Transpositions: The British artist Penny Warden is best known for her fifteen Stations of the Cross paintings at Blackburn Cathedral. In this excellent two-part interview, she answers questions such as: What does “Christian art” mean in today’s culture? Is there a place for the didactic in religious art? What contemporary artists are making compelling art of theological relevance? Warden also discusses the challenges and advantages of making permanent art for a worship space, how theology informs her practice, the role of tradition versus innovation, and more.

Station 9 by Penny Warden
Penny Warden (British, 1956–), Station 9: Jesus Falls for the Third Time, 2005. Oil on canvas, 6 × 3 ft. Blackburn Cathedral, Lancashire, England.

For more on Warden’s Stations set in particular, see http://www.artway.eu/artway.php?id=896&action=show&lang=en.

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“Creating Sacred Space through Art and Light: The Vision of the Calvary Chapel Sacred Art Renovation”: Aesthetic renovations are underway at Biola University’s chapel in Southern California. Not only are significant changes in flooring, walls, seating, and lighting being made, but new permanent art installations have been commissioned by Danish artists Maja Lisa Engelhardt and Peter Brandes: Engelhardt is making an abstract, gilded Resurrection altarpiece for the west wall and a gilded bronze cross for the wooden entry doors, while Brandes is creating thirty-two hand-blown stained glass windows depicting biblical narratives. This is the first time the husband and wife have collaborated this closely on an art project.

Calvary Chapel (Biola University) renovations

The impetus for this revitalization was a concern that the sacred function and experience of the chapel and its interior architectural space had gradually become disassociated as a result of the increased multipurpose demands put upon the space. “The new artwork and proposed renovations seek to restore the chapel’s sacredness through creating a greater architectural and artistic balance between the interior space and the worship experience,” the Biola news article states. Click on the link to learn more or to contribute to the renovation fund.

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“A Model for All Humanity: Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo by Nigel Halliday, ArtWay: The marbleized plastic sculpture Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger is one of my favorite works of contemporary religious art, and Halliday introduces it beautifully. The artist created it in 1999 to top the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square—where the plinths in the three other corners display sculptures of British royals and military commanders. Though the sculpture has since been removed (and shown elsewhere) to allow for the rotation of other new public artworks, Halliday shows how its original location is key to interpreting its meaning, which has to do with worldly power and glory versus spiritual power and glory.

Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger
Mark Wallinger (British, 1959–), Ecce Homo, 1999. Polyester resin, life-size. Temporary installation, Trafalgar Square, London.

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Meet the animals of the medieval bestiary, a Christian compendium of real and imagined beasts, The Iris: The blog of the J. Paul Getty Trust recently ran a series of features interpreting the symbolism of various animals from medieval bestiaries. (“A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals—including land creatures, fish, birds, and serpents [some real, some fantastical]—whose properties and behaviors were interpreted as symbols for God’s divine order.”) The phoenix, for example, is a mythical bird who sets himself on fire but on the third day rises again from the ashes of his pyre—a symbol of Christ. Another common symbol of Christ cemented by bestiaries and found in much medieval Crucifixion art is the pelican, who was said to peck at her breast until it bleeds, and then the blood feeds (or, in another variation, revives from the dead) her young. To learn more about this medieval literature genre, visit http://bestiary.ca.

Pelican Feeding Her Young
A Pelican Feeding Her Young, from a Franco-Flemish bestiary (Ms. Ludwig XV 4, fol. 75), 13th century. Tempera, pen and ink, and gold leaf on parchment, 23.3 × 16.4 cm (9 3/16 × 6 7/16 in.) (full leaf). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Crucifixion by Masolino
Masolino da Panicale (Italian, ca. 1383–ca. 1447), Crucifixion, ca. 1424. Tempera on wood. Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome. The pinnacle of this altarpiece shows a “pelican in her piety,” a symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice.