Icons roundup

As a caveat, I am a Protestant, and while I do have a profound respect and appreciation for icons, my theology of images, including my definition of sacred art, is not the same as the Orthodox Church’s—even though elements of it are influenced by the Orthodox position. All the same, I believe it’s important for Christians of all denominations to understand the significance of icons and what differentiates them from noniconic religious images. Those lines are being blurred a bit by the new schools of iconography coming out of western Ukraine and Poland, which honor tradition even as they push it forward into the contemporary era. Here are a few icon-related videos, articles, and weblinks that I’ve gathered over the past several months.

LECTURES:

>> “The Meaning of Icons” by Fr. Maximos Constas, November 13, 2019, Notre Dame Seminary: Father Maximos Constas, professor of patristics and Orthodox spirituality at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, explains the significance of icons in the Orthodox Church, with special attention to their aesthetic features and theological meaning, which is informed by the church’s Christology and cosmology. He answers such questions as, Why do the figures in icons look bored and unnatural? And, Doesn’t the Second Commandment forbid representations of Christ? He does not address icon veneration or details of the making process.

Constas spends the first fifteen minutes juxtaposing Eastern and Western approaches to religious images, discussing how the Renaissance values of humanism and naturalism came to prevail in the West. The Orthodox, he says, see this as the “secularization” or “carnalization” of sacred art—in its commitment to depicting observable realities, Western art from the Renaissance onward typically lacks overt signs of transcendence.

Constas also discusses the dogmatization of sacred images in the East. Icons are never simply works of art or pedagogical tools, he says. “They were understood to be visual artistic expressions of the church’s theology. And in the same way that church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which the doctrines were embodied.”

Here are some notes I took on the talk, including some transcriptions:

  • An icon can be a panel painting, a fresco, a mosaic, a relief carving, an enameled plaque, a manuscript illumination, etc. “What ultimately defines an icon has nothing to do with artistic medium or style but rather depends on how the image is used and, most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such an encounter because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose likeness it bears.”
  • An icon is not a work of art but a work of witness that makes use of art.
  • “Icons are not simply portraits but manifestations of human persons in their new heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.”
  • “The icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face. It orients me toward my destiny in God. And this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.”
  • We not only can but must make images of Christ; “to deny the icon is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.”
  • “All created things are intrinsically good, and all, therefore, have spirit-bearing potentialities. And to this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the icon bears joyful witness. In the icon, we see matter restored to harmony and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As spirit-bearing matter, the icon has what we would call eschatological significance—it anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the last day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption, to quote St. Paul, and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
  • Icons as:
    • windows, doors, thresholds into heaven (spiritual places of passage)
    • mirrors, a reflection of their living source
    • tracks or traces
  • 32:40: Portrayal of figures in icons
    • Alteration of the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, including the features of the face (eyes and ears enlarged; nose elongated; mouth small and closed)
    • Full frontality—wholeness, completion, perfection; makes the icon dialogical and relational
    • Serene, controlled facial expression
  • No shadows cast; illumined from within

>> “Rajaton hengellinen kuva: Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat” (Boundless Spiritual Image: Images of Suffering and Resurrection) by Ari Luomajoki, March 26, 2021, Kuopio Cathedral, Kuopio, Finland: I don’t speak Finnish, but I share this seventy-minute video for the visuals (and of course for any Finnish speakers!) and to show how contemporary icons are spreading west. In August 2016 under the leadership of Pastor Ari Luomajoki, the Lutheran Monastic Community of Enonkoski in Ihamaniemi, Finland, organized its first international icon workshop (read more here, and follow @LutheranIcon on Facebook), which attracted iconographers from Poland and Ukraine, as well as a few domestic artists. It was reprised in 2017 (I mentioned this second workshop here). Icons that came out of these workshops have been exhibited several times in Finland, and have facilitated relationships that have led to new exhibitions—such as Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat (Images of Suffering and Resurrection) at Kuopio Cathedral, which ran March 26–April 11, 2021. Follow the boldface link to see a taping of the opening, which includes opening comments, a tour, and a lecture.  

Movchan, Danylo_Descent from the Cross
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Descent from the Cross, 2021. Watercolor on paper, 33 × 38 cm.

Mindewicz, Basia_Entombment of Christ
Basia Mindewicz (Polish, 1978–), Lamentation, 2016. Acrylic on wood, 26 × 20 cm.

In the first sixteen minutes of the video, Pastor Olli Viitaniemi, one of the main organizers of the exhibition (with Pastor Salla Tyrväinen), shows screen captures from the website he built connected to the exhibition, https://sielunkuvat.net/. At around 16:24 he gives a tour of the exhibition around the church sanctuary.

At 32:48 Luomajoki—who is a Lutheran pastor in Kouvola, Finland, and has a master’s degree in art history—starts his half-hour lecture. He introduces Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica) in Poland and Lviv National Academy of Arts and the Iconart gallery in Ukraine, two centers of contemporary Eastern iconography that inspired the icons project at the Enonkoski monastery in Finland. At 47:41 Luomajoki does side-by-side image comparisons to show similarities and differences across time. At 50:41 he discusses the use of images in early Lutheranism. He goes on to show some examples of religious art in Finland in the past century (including a really compelling Crucifixion painting by Helene Schjerfbeck and crucifix by Paavo Halonen!). He closes by spotlighting Hidden Life in Nazareth by Ivanka Demchuk and a Nativity by Arsen Bereza, participants in the workshop.

Luomajoki is a wonderful photographer of art. Follow him on Instagram @ari.luomajoki.

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INTERVIEW with contemporary iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, by Kevin Antlitz: OK, Patheos blog posts are painful to read because of all the obtrusive ads, which is why I rarely link to them. But I’m making an exception for this one, where American Anglican pastor Kevin Antlitz interviews Ukrainian Greek Catholic iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, who earned a master’s degree in sacral art in 2020. She discusses her process of painting icons, what makes an icon an icon, timelessness and transfiguration, the relationship between tradition and innovation, the idea of divine light as reflected in two of her icons, and more. I really love her work and was delighted to hear some of her own words about it.

Kvyk, Krystyna_I Am the Light of the World
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), I Am the Light of the World, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, diameter 35 cm.

Kvyk, Khrystyna_Pentecost
Khrystyna Kvyk (Ukrainian, 1994–), Pentecost, 2021. Acrylic on gessoed wood, 45 × 45 cm.

This is the final installment of a three-part series by Antlitz. Part 1 answers, What Are Icons?, and part 2 is about “Praying Through Icons.”

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NEW CHURCH COMMISSION: Wall paintings at Iglesia de San Nicolás by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza: Ukrainian artists Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza—a married couple!—have completed a monumental painting on the east wall of the Catholic church of Saint Nicholas in Granada. It was deeply influenced by Byzantine iconography, in which they’ve both been trained, but also contains some modern abstract and geometric elements.

The church building is from the sixteenth century and recently underwent extensive renovations, finally reopening to the public in April, which is when Demchuk and Bereza’s mural was unveiled. It portrays the Anastasis, the Eastern Orthodox image of Christ’s resurrection, which shows him breaking down the doors of hell to release its captives. In the video (which is in Ukrainian with Spanish subtitles), Demchuk describes how they painted two mandorlas behind him: the almond-shaped one symbolizing his divine light, and a round one symbolizing the cosmos.

Appearing alongside this focal point is a portrait of the church’s namesake, Saint Nicholas, with eight scenes from his life—including my favorite, where he tosses three bags of gold through the window of an impoverished family’s home. (The legend of Santa Claus—Claus being a shortened form of “Nicholas”—evolved from this story of anonymous gift giving.)

Demchuk, Ivanka_Anastasis (in situ)
Iglesia de San Nicolás, Granada, Spain, 2022, with east end mural by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza

Demchuk, Ivanka_Resurrection
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Resurrection, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

Demchuk, Ivanka_St. Nicholas with Scenes from His Life
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Saint Nicholas with Scenes from His Life, 2018. Mixed media on wood. Design for the Church of St. Nicholas, Granada, Spain.

See more photos of the project on Demchuk’s Facebook page.

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BLOG POST: “The Meaning of Melchizedek in Icons” by David Coomler: Though he’s not religious, David Coomler is an expert on Christian icons and often consults on them. On his blog he unpacks the iconography of standard types but also more unusual ones, like You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek, inspired by Hebrews 7. This rare type is meant to show that Jesus is both the offering and the offerer. The variation pictured below shows, I think, three representations of Christ: as crucified seraph (still quite puzzling to me, but Coomler points out that the Greek of Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Messenger of Great Counsel”), Holy Wisdom (aka Sophia), and high priest—hence the man in bishops’ garb in the back. Wild!

Icon with Jesus High Priest

Beauty and joy in the paintings of Alma Thomas

I’ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life. . . . No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. [1]

What is more far reaching than beauty? [2]

Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas. Photo © 1976 Michael Fischer, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Last October I saw the wonderful retrospective exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Taking its title from the 1970 hit song by Ray Stevens (which was on the mixtape Thomas listened to while she painted), the exhibition shows that Thomas’s creativity extended beyond the studio to encompass interior design, costume design, fashion, puppetry, teaching, service, gardening, and more.

Alma Thomas (1891–1978) was an African American artist best known for her exuberant abstract paintings inspired by the hues, patterns, and movement of trees and flowers in and around her neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Seeking relief from the racial violence in her native Georgia and better educational opportunities, she moved to Washington with her family at age fifteen and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1924 she became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate, and after that taught art for thirty-five years at Shaw Junior High School, leaving behind a celebrated legacy as an educator and a champion for Black youth. She was also an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, through which she founded the Sunday Afternoon Beauty Club, organizing field trips, lectures, and other activities to promote arts appreciation.

Though Thomas had been painting for decades, she didn’t develop her signature style—consisting of vibrant paint pats arranged in columns or concentric circles—until about 1965, after retiring from teaching; she called these irregular free blocks “Alma’s Stripes.” Her exploration of the power of simplified color and form in luminous, contemplative, nonobjective paintings means she is often classified as a Color Field painter, and she is particularly associated with the Washington Color School. At age eighty she had her first major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972. She was the first Black woman to receive a solo show at this prestigious museum, and the show won her instant acclaim.

Thomas, Alma_A Joyful Scene of Spring
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), A Joyful Scene of Spring, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/4 × 36 1/4 in. Collection of the Love, Luck & Faith Foundation. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. “Spring delivers her dynamic sermons to the world each year, drenching one’s soul with its extravaganza,” Thomas said (catalog, p. 167).

The natural world was an enduring source of inspiration for Thomas. She kept a flower garden in her backyard and frequented the green spaces of the nation’s capital. She described the holly tree visible through the bay window of her living room with great relish:

That tree, I love it. It’s the one who inspired me to do this sort of thing. The composition in the bay window reached me each morning—the colors, the wind who is their creative designer, the sunshine filtering through the leaves to add joy. The white comes through those leaves and gives me the white of the canvas. I’m fascinated by the way the white canvas dots around, and above, and through the color format. My strokes are free and irregular, some close together, others far apart, thus creating interesting patterns of canvas peeking around the strokes. [3]

Thomas saw nature as having a musicality, an idea underscored by many of the titles she gave her paintings, which pair terms from classical music especially—such as “symphony,” “sonata,” “concerto,” “rhapsody,” “étude”—with the names of trees or flowers. Nature sounds forth an array of notes, all in resplendent harmony with one another. And its compositions are new every morning!

(Related post: “Nature as extravagant gift from God”)

Thomas’s rhythmic dabs of prismatic color express joy, celebration, and wonder at God’s creation and are reminiscent of those biblical psalms in which nature is said to praise God (e.g., Psalm 19:1–3; Psalm 65:12–13; Psalm 96:11–12; Psalm 98:4–8). Not only is nature animate; it sings and dances and claps its hands.

Many of Thomas’s paintings, whether of outwardly radiating rings or parallel rows, are meant to suggest an aerial view of flower beds or nurseries. “I began to think about what I would see if I were in an air-plane,” she said. “You streak through the clouds so fast you don’t know whether the flower below is a violet or what. You see only streaks of color.” [4]

Thomas, Alma_Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 57 7/8 × 50 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 50 3/16 × 48 1/16 in. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Red Roses Sonata
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Roses Sonata, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 54 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Cumulus
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Cumulus, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 71 × 53 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Eventually, Thomas’s vocabulary of vertically or circularly organized paint pats expanded to include “wedges, commas, and other glyphic shapes formed entirely by her brush and arranged in tessellated patterns” [5], which have the same vibratile quality. Grassy Melodic Chant visually references the path to her garden, which featured dark flagstones with off-white mortar borders.

Thomas, Alma_Grassy Melodic Chant
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 36 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 52 in. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Thomas recalled in reference to this painting, “I would wade in the brook [near my childhood home] and when it rained you could hear music. I would fall on the grass and look at the poplar trees and the lovely yellow leaves would whistle” (catalog, p. 33).

Thomas, Alma_Fiery Sunset
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Fiery Sunset, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 41 1/4 × 41 1/4 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 × 27 1/2 in. Private collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

At over thirteen feet long, the monumental three-paneled Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976) is Thomas’s most ambitious painting and the touchstone of the exhibition. She painted it two years before her death, when she was suffering from painful arthritis, deteriorating vision, and the lasting repercussions of a broken hip. Though she had to adapt her technique to accommodate these ailments, her aesthetic vision is masterfully executed, and most people regard this as her magnum opus.

Thomas, Alma_Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976. Acrylic on three canvases, 73 3/4 × 158 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In addition to her enthusiasm for local, seasonal flora, Thomas was also really interested in space exploration. Like many Americans, she followed NASA’s lunar and Mars missions on the radio and television. She painted Mars Dust in 1971 as Mariner 9 circled the Red Planet, attempting to map its surface but being held up by a massive dust storm.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Mars Dust, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 69 1/4 × 57 1/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust (detail)
Mars Dust, detail

She also painted several works inspired by images taken of Earth during the Apollo 10 and 11 spaceflights, such as Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (not pictured)—Snoopy being the name of the lunar module. Starry Night with Astronauts is the final work in her Space series.

Thomas, Alma_Starry Night and the Astronauts
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 53 in. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas’s choice to paint apolitical abstractions rather than taking the Black human figure as her subject was somewhat controversial. Members of the Black Arts Movement rigidly insisted that “Black artists should be making work that furthered the goals of Black liberation by speaking directly to their own communities rather than trying to fit into white aesthetic frameworks or addressing non-Black audiences. . . . In the process, they largely rejected visual abstraction because it was rooted in a European modernist tradition, one that had very little to do, they believed, with the lives and urgencies of Black folks.” [6]

Thomas disliked being pigeonholed as a “Black artist” and resisted the idea that responsible art must be oriented toward social activism. “We artists are put on God’s good earth to create,” she said. “Some of us may be black, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is for us to create, to give form to what we have inside us. We can’t accept any barriers, any limitations of any kind, on what we create or how we do it.” [7] And elsewhere: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” [8] In finding success as an abstractionist focused on beauty in nature and in technological innovation, she broke down barriers of what were considered (by both whites and Blacks) acceptable styles and subject matter for African American art.

This doesn’t mean Thomas was indifferent to Black progress. On the contrary, she was deeply involved in advancing racial uplift in her own community.

Thomas, far from retreating from the world, had always flung herself headlong into it. She devoted her life to advancing the lives of her Black students, peers, and neighbors—from her commitment to education (“Education is the strongest weapon we [African Americans] have,” she insisted); to her work to establish an art gallery that would collect the creations of Black people so as to begin to build an art historical archive; to her collaborations with civil rights organizations and publications; to her backyard garden, which she treated as a small offering of beauty in the midst of her gritty surroundings. [9]

Her one political painting, for which she painted two preparatory sketches, is on the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which she participated in.

Thomas, Alma_March on Washington (sketch)
Alma Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Sketch for March on Washington, ca. 1963. Acrylic on canvasboard, 20 × 24 in. The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

She also painted a few explicitly religious subjects, among them the Journey of the Magi and the Entombment of Christ.

Thomas, Alma_Three Wise Men
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Three Wise Men, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/2 × 23 1/2 in. Collection of the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_They Laid Him in the Tomb
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), They Laid Him in the Tomb, ca. 1958. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. Collection of Paola Luptak. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful has left the Phillips but will be at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville from February 25 to June 5, 2022. From there it will visit the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia (Thomas’s birthplace), from July 1 to September 25, 2022.

At the archived Phillips exhibition page, you can find video lectures and conversations and audio commentaries, plus you can take a 360-degree virtual tour of the exhibition. Washington-area readers: if you missed Everything Is Beautiful and want the chance to see Thomas’s work in person, mark your calendars for October 2023, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be exhibiting the more than two dozen Thomas paintings in its collection; the show is called Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas.

There is plenty of material out there about Alma Thomas. A few other resources I’ll point you to are the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful catalog, of which the following video gives you a look inside:

The National Women’s History Museum also curated an interactive online exhibition about Thomas through Google Arts & Culture.

NOTES

1. Alma Thomas, quoted in Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 194.

2. This rhetorical question of Thomas’s is printed beneath her 1924 senior class photograph in The Bison, Howard University’s annual. Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz, eds., Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021), 78 (fig. 3).

3. Quoted in Andrea O. Cohen, “Alma Thomas,” DC Gazette, October 26–November 8, 1970.

4. Alma Thomas Papers, untitled statement, Biographical Accounts and Notes, c. 1950s–c . 1970s, box 1, folder 2, page 10.

5. Sydney Nikolaus, et al., “Composing Color: The Materials and Techniques of Alma Woodsey Thomas,” in Feman and Walz, 105.

6. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through the Spaces Between,” in Feman and Walz, 61.

7. Quoted in Adolphus Ealey, “Remembering Alma,” in Merry A. Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891–1978 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1981), 12.

8. Quoted in David L. Shirey, “At 77, She’s Made It to the Whitney,” New York Times, May 4, 1972, 52.

9. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through,” 69.

Holy Saturday: Keening

All four canonical Gospel accounts of the retrieval of Jesus’s body from the cross and its entombment are very matter-of-fact. There is no mention of grieving. The focus is on the roles of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, though Matthew and Mark mention two Marys being present (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47), and Luke refers generically to “the women who had come with him from Galilee” (Luke 23:55). Mark and Luke also mention the women preparing and, after the Sabbath, returning with burial spices (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56–24:1).

Leave it to the artists, poets, and composers to inject some emotion into these undeniably wrenching moments! Of carrying the corpse of a loved one, cleaning it, dressing it, and saying goodbye as it’s put into the earth. There is an enormous number of paintings, sculptures, music, and literary texts composed over the centuries to aid Christians in meditating on the dead Christ and vicariously lamenting with those present, especially the Virgin Mary.

After Mary and the others laid Jesus to rest on Friday, their mourning continued, I’m sure, into Saturday. They were utterly bereft.

LOOK: Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), The Entombment, ca. 1612. Oil on canvas, 51 5/8 × 51 1/4 in. (131.1 × 130.2 cm). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens painted scenes of the lamentation of Christ many times. I saw this one in person at the Getty a few years ago, and it really drew me in. It shows Saint John and the Virgin Mary supporting Jesus’s body as they lay him down onto a stone slab. Mary Magdalene weeps from behind, and another, older Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40), gingerly lifts his wounded hand, fixing her sorrow there.

Rubens does not shy away from the ugliness of death, showing Jesus’s eyes rolled back in his head, his lips blue, and blood caked in his hair and dried up around the gaping laceration in his side. His whole body is pale with death, his skin green-tinged, in contrast to John’s ruddy complexion; his mother wears the same deathly pallor. Her eyes are red and puffy, and she looks up to the heavens as if to question why, or to petition God for strength.

The wheat that Jesus lies on alludes to the straw he was bedded in as a newborn and to the bread of the Eucharist on the altar. Christ’s body is given as a holy offering for the sins of the world.

LISTEN: “Song of Keening” by Áine Minogue, on Celtic Lamentations: Healing Music for Twelve Months and a Day (2005)

Áine Minogue is an award-winning Irish harpist, singer, arranger, and composer, now living in the Boston area. She plays and sings a mix of traditional tunes and original songs, most with Gaelic lyrics. “Song of Keening” wasn’t written explicitly for Holy Week, but it is a funeral lament that uses non-word utterances to express grief. Minogue writes,

In old Ireland, the practice of keening provided a physical and emotional release for those who grieved. Sometimes, keening was a direct emotional response to loss, practiced by both men and women, though particularly by women who had lost young children—a common occurrence in the past, when child mortality rates were significantly higher.

However, often a professional keener was hired by a family as a way of honoring the dead. These professional mourners were always women, and their keening was more stylized, taking the form of an improvisation based on particular structures and handed-down phrases. Though practiced in diverse cultures from Ireland to Greece, keening was generally frowned upon by church authorities, and treated with disdain by those who embraced the trappings of modernity. The practice now has virtually died out.

This piece is improvised in the old style, using old structures and vocables.

Professional mourners (moirologists) were used in ancient Israel too, at least by those wealthy enough to afford them. There’s no indication that any were present at the death of Jesus. In art history the chief mourners at Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are his mother, Mary; John, to whose care Mary was entrusted; Mary Magdalene; and Jesus’s other female followers.

This song appears on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

The Tabernacle of Cherves (Limoges enamel, 13th century)

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.

Tabernacle of Cherves
Tabernacle of Cherves, Charente, France, ca. 1220–30. Champlevé enamel and copper, open: 33 × 37 3/4 × 10 3/4 in. (83.8 × 95.9 × 27.3 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

Tabernacle of Cherves (closed)
Closed view (the Virgin’s head is missing)

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.

Tabernacle of Cherves (fully open)
Overall, all wings completely open

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.

Tabernacle of Cherves (Harrowing of Hell)
The Harrowing of Hell

Tabernacle of Cherves (Empty Tomb)
The Holy Women at the Tomb

Tabernacle of Cherves (Noli me tangere)
“Noli me tangere” (The risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene)

Tabernacle of Cherves (Road to Emmaus)
The Road to Emmaus

Tabernacle of Cherves (Supper at Emmaus)
The Supper at Emmaus

Tabernacle of Cherves (Incredulity of Thomas)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

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).

Tabernacle of Cherves (Entombment)
The Entombment

Tabernacle of Cherves (Resurrection)
The Resurrection

Tabernacle of Cherves (Ascension)
The Ascension

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.]

Tabernacle of Cherves (Deposition)
The Descent from the Cross

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.

Enamels of Limoges

Holy Saturday (Artful Devotion)

Entombment of Christ (Armenia)
“The Entombment of Christ,” from an Armenian Gospel-book, 1437. MS Or. 2668, fol. 5v, British Library, London.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

—Matthew 27:57–61

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

—John 19:38–42

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MUSIC: “Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” by Tigran Mansurian, 1998–2004 | Performed by Kim Kashkashian (viola) and Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion), on Neharo’t, 2009

The tagh is an ancient genre of Armenian monodic music—that is, lamentation over another’s death. “The characteristics of the tagh are its expansiveness of form and volume, its free melodic style, the existence of instrumental passages and richness of rhythm” [source].

“Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” is the second piece in contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s suite “Three Medieval Taghs for Viola and Percussion” (the other two are for the Crucifixion and for the Resurrection). On YouTube you can find a January 27, 2019, performance by violist Kim Kashkashian and (different from the earlier album recording) percussionist Jonathan Hepfer as part of the Lark Musical Society’s Dilijan Chamber Music Series is Los Angeles. The funeral tagh starts at 4:23:

Note: Sometimes this piece is called Tagh “to” or “of” the Funeral of the Lord.

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The Entombment painting above is from a fifteenth-century Gospel-book copied and illuminated at the Monastery of St. George in Armenia by the priest Awetik. At the center, Christ’s body lies with his head tilted toward the viewer but wrapped, like the rest of him, in a white shroud. Joseph of Arimathea cradles Christ’s head and Nicodemus straightens his legs as the two situate his body in the grave. Two of the Marys stand by, grieving.

The vast swatch of dark blue across the top half of the painting indicates the deep darkness of the cave and accentuates the feeling of emptiness and loss. The figures form a middle band, below which are two more large color fields: brown and green, the colors of the earth.

The inertness is striking, as is the complete hiddenness of God the Son under his burial clothes.


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 Holy Saturday, cycle A, click here.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)

This is the final part of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read parts one and two.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

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STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytime by Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.

Columbarium by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova (Russian, 1962–), Anywhere, Anytime, 2019. Temporary installation at the Moses and Aaron Church, Amsterdam, consisting of an eight-paneled “columbarium” with paintings on newsprint, each panel 60 × 290 cm, and “How to spend it,” six painted-over magazines. Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.

Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:

Columbarium (detail) by Masha Trebukova
Masha Trebukova, Anywhere, Anytime (detail). Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]

 

The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:

The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.

The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.

Trebukova, Masha_Columbarium (detail3)
Masha Trebukova, page spread from “How to spend it.” Photo courtesy of Sant’Egidio Nederland.

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STATION 11. Erica Grimm’s Salt Water Skin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.

Salt Water Skin Boats by Erica Grimm
Erica L. Grimm (Canadian, 1959–), Salt Water Skin Boats, 2018. Willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; cheesecloth; animal skin and gut; bathymetric ocean maps; layers of wax; earbuds; LED lights. Installation view at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, in March 2019, part of Art Stations of the Cross.

Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”