Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

Living in the side-hole
Moravian devotional image by Marianne von Watteville, 18th century. Embroidery and watercolor on cardstock, 11 × 16 cm. Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And [the LORD] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

—Numbers 20:10–11

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

—1 Corinthians 10:1b–4

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

—John 19:34

Exodus 33:12–23 is assigned in Sunday’s lectionary; the other Bible passages I’ve added because I want to show how an intertextual reading yielded our song of the week.

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HYMN: “I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” (Ach! mein verwundter Fürste!) | Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, and Johann Nitschmann, 1735; English translation by John Wesley, 1740 | Music by Bethany Brooks, 1997 | Performed by Bethany Brooks on the Cardiphonia compilation album Songs for the Lord’s Supper, 2011 (also on Quarry Street Hymnal, vol. 1, 2012)

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
to wash me in thy cleansing blood,
to dwell within thy wounds; then pain is
sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart and let it be
forever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast and let me wear
that pledge of love forever there.

How blest are they who still abide
close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
who life and strength from thence derive,
and by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death
’til thou thy quick’ning Spirit breathe?
Thou giv’st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o’erflow,
our words are lost; nor will we know,
nor will we think of ought beside
my Lord, my Love, is crucified.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, one of the authors of this German hymn, was the leader, patron, and protector of the Moravian Church from 1727 to 1760 and its major theologian and liturgist. Anna Nitschmann was chief eldress in the church since age fourteen, serving as spiritual mentor to female congregants, and a missionary for a time to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York; she married Zinzendorf in 1757, but both of them died within a couple of years. Johann Nitschmann was Anna’s brother.

John Wesley, who translated “I Thirst” into English just a few years after it was written, was well acquainted with the Moravians. His journal, covering the years 1736–38, is full of comments and observations about them, starting with a transatlantic sea voyage he was on, during which a storm arose, and everyone panicked, except the Moravians, who sang hymns of praise and prayed with great calm. When he returned to London he attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, where he experienced an evangelical conversion. After that he joined the Moravian society in Fetter Lane and in August 1738 traveled to the denomination’s headquarters in Herrnhut, Germany, to study. He corresponded with Zinzendorf, and the two met face to face on more than one occasion. In late 1779 he broke with the Moravians and soon after founded Methodism, greatly influenced by Moravian pietism.

Eighteenth-century Moravians were fascinated with Jesus’s wounds, especially his “little side hole” (where a Roman soldier pierced him on the cross to confirm he was dead), which they described as “warm,” “hot,” “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “today still open.” They wrote hymns about the side wound and created side-wound art—indeed, centered much of their devotional practice on it. As one hymn goes, “Dearest Side-hole! I do covet thy warm Blood above all Things. O thou art the most beloved of all other Wound-hole-Springs. Side-hole’s Blood, bedew me! Cover and go thro’ me! Take thy Course thro’ all my Veins, Heart and Reins, so that nought unbath’d remains.” “I Thirst” is comparatively mild (though granted, I couldn’t find the German original).

Historically, much Christian hymnody and art have fixated on the blood and woundedness of Jesus, but Zinzendorf and his followers took it to another level. To them such graphic imagery was not morbid but comforting and affective. Even I, who have a low tolerance for blood and gore, find myself strangely compelled by this devotional language and visuality of the womblike side wound.

“I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” is one of many Moravian hymns that picture Jesus’s side wound as a shelter, a place of refuge where the blessed enter into and reside. “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” written some forty years later by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, is a more widely sung hymn that employs similar imagery—so, too, the less explicit and far less poetic “He Hideth My Soul” by Fanny Crosby.

Moses’s being hidden away in the cleft of a rock so that he can glimpse a glimmer of God’s glory is partly in view, in an implied way, in “I Thirst.” The Song of Songs also refers to “the cleft of a rock”—to a dove, a beloved, nesting there; a lot of Christian commentators read the rock as Christ and the dove as his church, sheltered in his torn flesh (his body was cleft by the spear). Added to the hermeneutical mix is the Numbers passage of water from the rock: during Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses strikes a rock and water streams forth to quench the people’s thirst. (Like Jesus, the rock was beaten, giving issue to a river of life.)

All these biblical stories and images come together to create a constellation of meaning.

(Related post: “Our Sweet, Travailing Mother Christ,” on a Bible moralisée illumination of the birth of Ecclesia)

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Living in the side-hole

The mixed-media needlework reproduced here, from the Unitätsarchiv in Herrnhut, is by an eighteenth-century Swiss German woman named Marianne von Watteville. In embroidery and watercolor, she shows a rocky hillock topped with grass and flowers, into which a little cave is carved, which is Christ’s side wound. She kneels inside the wound in prayer and is showered by the blood of Christ. The inscription on the lip of the wound reads, “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

For further reading:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 24, cycle A, click here.

I Am Covered (Artful Devotion)

Altarpiece by Sieger Koder
Altarpiece (closed) by Sieger Köder (German, 1925–2015), 1970, St. Stephen’s Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany. Photo: Zvonimir Atletić / Alamy Stock Photo (ref. no. 2BAA8HW).

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”

—Exodus 12:1–14

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SONG: “Passover Song” by IAMSON (Orlando Palmer), on Bread for the Journey by Urban Doxology (2016) and iAmSon (2017)

Passover is a major Jewish holiday celebrated every spring, marking God’s deliverance of the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Exodus 12 tells the story of how in Egypt God sent death as a means of judgment against oppressors but “passed over” the houses of the faithful who, following God’s instructions, smeared their doorposts with the blood of a lamb.

Christians interpret this event as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus, the lamb of God, whose blood saves from death those who choose to place themselves under it, liberating us from our slavery to sin. Driving home the connection, all four Gospel writers mention that Jesus was killed during the feast of Passover. His blood smeared the wooden posts of the cross.

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Father Sieger Köder was born in Wasseralfingen in Swabia in southwestern Germany in 1925. From 1947 to 1951 he attended the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, where he trained as a silversmith and a painter. While establishing his art practice, he also worked as an art teacher at a secondary school in Aalen for just over a decade. Increasingly he felt a pull into Christian ministry, so from 1965 to 1970 he studied theology in Tübingen, becoming ordained in the Catholic Church a year later. He served as a parish priest in Hohenberg and Rosenberg from 1975 to 1995, combining that vocation with his work as an artist. He continued his art making well into retirement, dying in 2015 at age ninety. His religious paintings can be found all over Germany and in other parts of Europe.

The artwork above is the closed view of the high altarpiece Köder made for the parish church in his hometown, Saint Stephen’s (Sankt Stephanus).

Koder, Sieger_Hospitality of Abraham

The outer left panel shows the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18:1–21)—that is, Abraham’s entertaining three men who turn out to be a theophany, an appearance of God in a human body (or in this case, three human bodies). I’m guessing that the man on the left, who is veiled, represents God the Father; the man in the middle, who’s holding the cup, is God the Son; and the man on the right, who appears to have a broken arm and to be naked except for a blanket draped over him, is God the Spirit—though he is likely also meant to show how God often comes to us in the guise of the poor, the hungry, the unsheltered (Matthew 25:31–46). Above the heads of this trinity, glowing through the oak leaves, is a fiery orb reminiscent of the burning bush from which God would call Moses a few centuries later. At the bottom of the painting Abraham’s wife Sarah laughs from inside her tent, having eavesdropped on the visitors’ news that she, a nonagenarian, will conceive a child. The lineage of that child, Isaac, would produce Jesus.

Koder, Sieger_Passover

The outer right panel, based on Sunday’s lectionary reading, shows the first Passover. Israelite families huddle around a meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs as a cloaked, skeletal presence passes by overhead. One of the adults tries to steady the rattling table with his hand while a mother protects two of her children, hugging them tightly to herself. Though afraid, they are in no danger, as their doorway is covered in the blood of the lamb whose flesh they eat.

Altarpiece by Sieger Koder
Altarpiece by Sieger Köder (German, 1925–2015), 1970, St. Stephen’s Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany. Photo: Zvonimir Atletić / Alamy Stock Photo (ref. no. 2BABBYY).

When opened, the triptych reveals three Resurrection-themed panels. The inner left panel shows one of my favorite biblical episodes, which I call “Breakfast on the Shore”: Jesus’s resurrection appearance to Peter at dawn on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). Following Jesus’s instruction in Jerusalem (Matthew 28:7, 10), Peter had returned home with some of the other disciples and, not knowing what to do, took back up his fishing nets. He and six others are on the lake when a man calls out from the shore, “Children, do you have any fish?” They don’t. The man tells them to cast in their nets once more, and when they do, up comes a humongous catch. After which Peter exclaims, “It is the Lord!” Ever the impulsive one, he throws himself into the sea and pushes his way through the water to greet Jesus. They chargrill some of the fish and sit down to eat.

Koder, Sieger_Breakfast on the Shore

The scene is one of reconciliation. Peter had denied he knew Jesus three times the night of Jesus’s arrest, abandoning him in his time of need, and now, after breakfast, Jesus gives Peter three chances to reaffirm his love for him, asking him thrice, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The foregrounding of the hot coals in Köder’s painting is perhaps a subtle nod to the recent failure of Peter’s, as earlier in his Gospel John mentions that, in the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus was being tried, Peter warmed himself at a charcoal fire alongside Jesus’s captors (John 18:18). There’s also a hand coming up out of the water that I’m guessing references the earlier episode of Peter’s walking on water and then, when doubt in Jesus’s power set in, sinking, only to be saved by Jesus’s outstretched hand (Matthew 14:22–33). But Jesus forgives Peter’s weaknesses and disloyalty, restoring him to fellowship. He invites Peter to come and feast. The sun at the top indicates that it’s the dawn of a new era.

The bright-red morning sun also appears on the inner right panel, which shows another very personal encounter between the risen Christ and a disciple: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. In Köder’s visual retelling, Mary wades through a sea of poppies—a red flower symbolic of sacrifice—her hand shielding her eyes from the brilliance of Jesus’s resurrection body. He who she initially thought to be the cemetery gardener is in fact her dear friend and Lord.

Koder, Sieger_Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

Look closely at some of the grave markers, and you’ll notice that they carry the names and/or dates of wars: “1914–1918,” “1939–1945,” “Vietnam,” “Biafra” (a reference to the Nigerian Civil War). The latter two were still raging on when Köder painted this. The artist was actually a prisoner of war during World War II, and underneath the cross representing that war in the painting is a bullet-blasted soldier’s helmet. I take these graves to imply that Jesus’s resurrection put death to death.

I’m not sure what the Hebrew grave inscriptions say—anyone know?

Supper at Emmaus by Sieger Koder

The central panel of the altarpiece portrays the Supper at Emmaus as a sort of Transfiguration à la Mount Tabor, an unveiling of Christ’s glory. Luke tells us that after the resurrection Jesus appeared to Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, who were on their way home from Jerusalem; their hearts “burned within them” as he spoke about the scriptures, but their eyes weren’t opened to his true identity until he blessed and broke the bread at mealtime. In Köder’s painting, Jesus’s form is barely discernible through the red glow—he’s a pillar of light, really. Artists have always struggled to give an impression of what Jesus’s resurrection body might have looked like: it was a flesh-and-bone body, for sure, but a glorified one, not always immediately recognizable, and it seems as though he was able to walk through walls and disappear. Köder bathes him in the color of blood—of his passion, and of life. Köder’s nonrepresentational approach emphasizes the otherness aspect of the newly risen Christ and the marvel the two Emmaus disciples must have felt upon realizing who they were dining with.

Jesus appears between Moses, who holds a basket of manna (Exodus 16), and Elijah, who cradles a raven with a morsel of bread in its beak, a reference to his being fed miraculously by God in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1–7). The figure to the right of Elijah may be Paul (Saul) fallen off his horse on the road to Damascus.

Koder, Sieger_Wasseralfingen Altarpiece (wide shot)
East end of Saint Stephen’s, Wasseralfingen. Altarpiece by Sieger Köder, stained glass windows by Rudolf Haegele. Photo © Stadt Aalen.

At Saint Stephen’s the Eucharist is celebrated regularly before this altarpiece. (The metalwork tabernacle below, decorated with stalks of grain and clusters of grapes, is where the eucharistic elements are stored.) Köder reminds partakers that they are covered (pardoned) by Jesus’s blood, that Christ is present in the meal, that he nourishes and sustains his people with his very self. Death has passed over us because it struck the firstborn of all creation, who bore the curse on our behalf. However, death could not keep him down, and on the third day he rose again, appearing to many, the firstborn of new creation. “Mary,” he called out to one of his closest followers outside his tomb, speaking her name in a familiar tone, sparking recognition and joy. “Come and have breakfast,” he called out to Peter. To the Emmaus disciples he illuminated the scriptures and finally revealed himself around a table. Christ invites us into fellowship with him, through his blood.

P.S. It appears there is yet a third configuration of the altarpiece, as indicated by this photo, which includes a Madonna and Child, the Tower of Babel, and I can’t make out the left two panels.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 18, cycle A, click here.

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

Roundup: Saar installation, Christian themes in Australian and New Zealand art, “heart of God” chant, jazz Communion song

VISUAL MEDITATION: On The Alpha & The Omega by Betye Saar: A few weeks ago my commentary on a Betye Saar installation was published on ArtWay.eu. The idiomatic Hebrew in the title is a reference not to Christ but to the beginning and the end of life, a theme Saar explored by arranging around a blue-painted room such found objects as an antique cradle, dried hydrangeas, a boat shell, a mammy figurine, a washboard, empty apothecary bottles, books, clocks, a moon-phase diagram, etc.

Saar, Betye_Alpha and Omega installation
Betye Saar, The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End, 2013. Installation at Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

With an educational background in design, Saar began her career as a printmaker and working in theater on costumes and sets. She then ventured into collage, which led to assemblage (for which she is most celebrated), sculpture, and installations. With installations, she likes how “the whole body has the experience”—how you are quite literally inside the work. Saar is one of today’s leading American contemporary artists, with two exhibitions currently running in the United States: one at MoMA, and the other at LACMA. I first encountered her in a college art history course, through her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Race, memory, and spirituality are recurring themes in her oeuvre.

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ESSAY: “‘A pretty decent sort of bloke’: Towards the quest for an Australian Jesus” by Jason A. Goroncy: “What happens to religious images and symbols when they get employed outside of their traditional contexts and charged with unapproved and heterodox interpretations?” asks Goroncy. “From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely anti-Jesus’. But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.” [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Dowling, Julie_Black Madonna, Omega
Julie Dowling (Badimaya/Yamatji/Widi, 1969–), Black Madonna: Omega, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint, red ocher, glitter, and metallic paint on canvas, 120 × 100 cm. Art Gallery of Western Australia. “I painted this in honour of First Nation mothers who have their children stolen from them by white governments in order to assimilate their children.”

Mombassa, Reg_Jesus Is Stripped Bare
Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) (Australian, 1951–), Australian Jesus Is Stripped Bare, station 10 from the Stations of the Cross cycle. Chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Barton, ACT, Australia. Photo: Katherine Spackman.

Goroncy quotes Wilson Yates, who says that Jesus has become “a part of the culture and life far beyond the final control of the church, . . . imaged in diverse ways by non-Christian as well as Christian artists, often contrary to the church’s dominant interpretation. . . . This should not be viewed as threatening,” however, but rather as “a means by which, paradoxically, the traditional symbols are kept vital – are kept alive in the midst of human life.”

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AUDIO INTERVIEW: Justin Paton on New Zealand artist Colin McCahon: In celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, art critic and curator Justin Paton has published McCahon Country, which examines nearly two hundred of the artist’s paintings and drawings. In this Saturday Morning (RNZ) interview, Paton says that McCahon is one of the great modern religious artists; an unabashed Christian, he grappled with how to make religious art in a post-religious age, often interweaving biblical themes and texts with New Zealand landscapes. His paintings, Paton says, are “an unequivocal statement of faith,” painted at times with “sophisticated unsophistication.” In 1948 one critic described them dismissively as “like graffiti in some celestial lavatory”—a comparison Paton affirms but sees as commendatory.

McCahon, Colin_The days and the nights in the wilderness
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), The days and the nights in the wilderness showing the constant flow of light passing into a dark landscape, 1971

McCahon, Colin_The Resurrection of Lazarus
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), Practical religion: The resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1969–70. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 207.5 × 807 cm. Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand), Wellington.

I was familiar with McCahon’s early works—Annunciations, Crucifixions—but not so much the later ones featured here. For example, The days and the nights, about which Paton says,

You could take a first look at this thing and you could think it’s not so exciting, in a way. It’s . . . smeary blacks and then there’s this . . . kind of clay color—muddy, you might say. . . . The form is this kind of ocher cross with black surrounding it. But give it some time, and you realize that the space above describes a horizon line. You can see the riffle of clouds along that horizon. If you know Muriwai on the West Coast, you can recognize it as a West Coast landscape, which is of course the spirit landscape up which souls travel in Maori mythology. And then you realize that this cross is also a kind of estuary, that it is descending through to areas or gates. So it is at once the Christian cross, it’s the Buddhist idea of light as grace which descends towards us . . .

About Lazarus:

McCahon said the Lazarus story was one of the great stories about seeing: all those people who were witnesses to this event saw as never before. What’s wonderful in the work is, as you read your way from left to right—and it really is this kind of epic telling of the story—when you’re about two-thirds of the way across, he almost makes you into Lazarus. He puts you into the position of this person who is emerging from the tomb, because there’s this sliver of light that opens up and bursts then fills the right-hand third of the painting. It’s like coming out of a dark space and suddenly being blinded by sunlight.

It’s a great example of what a great reader he was. He got into these texts with the avidity of a fan. You really felt he was there with these people in this ancient story and then tries to put us inside it as we stand and walk in front of this giant canvas. It has a terrific oscillation between something worldly and vernacular and then something exalted and sacred at the other end.

For more on McCahon, see “Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon” by Rex Butler (2012), The Spirit of Colin McCahon by Zoe Alderton (2015), and Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (2003).

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CHANT: “I Am Here in the Heart of God” by Erin McGaughan, adapt. & arr. Chandra Rule: At the Singing Beloved Community workshop held in September in Cincinnati, song leader Chanda Rule led participants in a chant that she adapted from Erin McGaughan. To McGaughan’s original, Rule added three new verses with a modulation between each, and she presented the whole of it in a call-and-response format. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I am here in the heart of God
God is here in the heart of me
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

I am here in the breath of God
God is here in the breath of me
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
I am here in the breath of God

I am here in the soul of God
God is here in the soul of me
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
I am here in the soul of God

I am here in the mind of God
God is here in the mind of me
Like the earth in my body and my body in the earth
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

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SONG: “I Hunger and I Thirst,” words by John S. B. Monsell (1866), with new music by Wally Brath: I was listening to the video recording of the Grace College Worship Arts jazz vespers service that took place November 8 at Warsaw First United Methodist Church in Indiana, when I heard this striking hymn. Written by a nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, it was set to music by Wally Brath, an assistant professor of worship arts at Grace College, who’s playing the piano in the video. The performance features Grammy Award–winning bassist John Patitucci, and vocalist Ethan Leininger. Click here to listen to the whole service and to see the full list of musicians. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I hunger and I thirst:
Jesu, my manna be;
ye living waters, burst
out of the rock for me.

Thou bruised and broken Bread,
my life-long wants supply;
as living souls are fed,
O feed me, or I die.

Thou true life-giving Vine,
let me thy sweetness prove;
renew my life with thine,
refresh my soul with love.

Rough paths my feet have trod
since first their course began:
feed me, thou Bread of God;
help me, thou Son of Man.

For still the desert lies
my thirsting soul before:
O living waters, rise
within me evermore.

Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1

Last month I attended the biennial conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Celebrating forty years, CIVA is a membership organization made up primarily of studio artists but also other arts professionals—curators, gallerists, administrators, educators, critics, art historians—as well as collectors, theologians, and church leaders. As a writer about the arts working independently out of my home in Maryland, sometimes I feel disconnected from artists themselves, so five years ago I joined CIVA to plug into and invest in this community of believer artists. The large conference that CIVA organizes every other year, each time in a different US city, is an opportunity to meet and talk with artists, to see what they’re working on, and to worship and pray with them. It’s also a weekend chock-full of amazing talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, exhibitions, and other activities.

In a series of blog posts, I’d like to share some of the art I encountered at the CIVA conference. All photos in this post are by me, Victoria Emily Jones.

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I arrived a day early to participate in a CIVA-sponsored Sacred Spaces tour of the Twin Cities with Kenneth Steinbach, a sculptor and a professor of art at Bethel. The first stop was Bigelow Chapel, designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson at the commission of United Theological Seminary in 2004. As Ken warned us in advance, the chapel was recently sold by the seminary to a charter school, who will not be using it as a worship space and will be removing its one overt Christian symbol (the inset cross) as well as renaming it. Because of the changeover, the chapel was in a bit of disarray when we visited, being used for the time being as an ad hoc storage space, but I was grateful for the chance to see this acclaimed work of contemporary religious architecture before it fully succumbs to its fate as a secular meeting room.

I first learned about Bigelow Chapel through the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (reviewed here, with annotated chapter list). Ken read us the vision statement of this ecumenical Protestant institution—“a generous and welcome seminary where all—trailblazers and traditionalists, questioners and yearning spirits—explore the boundless possibilities of a loving and beloved community”—and we discussed how the design reflects that vision. Symmetry and linearity, for example, can be associated with authority, rigidity, so this chapel is notable for its asymmetry, an uncommon feature in church design, as well as an open floor plan that accommodates different traditions and styles of worship. It’s also curvy, feminine, womblike; a series of translucent maple wood panels sweeps up the wall and over the ceiling, casting the sun’s warm glow inside the space. Some people on the tour expressed a sense of being enveloped in God’s love.

Bigelow Chapel
Bigelow Chapel, New Brighton, Minnesota

Bigelow Chapel

Another mentioned how the cross is far too subtle, almost unnoticeable, and seems to recede; it’s certainly not a focal point as it typically is in other Christian worship spaces. Ken pointed out that the cross was intentionally positioned next to a clear window that looks out into a central garden, suggesting the idea of deep incarnation; nature is itself part of the space, and Christ’s redemption is for all of creation. One person noted how the large green shrub outside, when illuminated by the sun, is reminiscent of the burning bush of Exodus and therefore calls us into an awareness of how God might be speaking to us.

Bigelow Chapel cross

Ken also told us that student worshippers used to stick written prayers between the chapel’s wall-stones, much like at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Several such pieces of paper were still there, wedged in the cavities of the masonry.

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

It was sad to me to see this building losing its original function as a Christian worship space. The impetus for the sale was the seminary’s relocation from New Brighton, a suburb, into the city of St. Paul, where it believes it can be of better service to the surrounding community. View more photos of Bigelow Chapel at https://www.kirkegaard.com/827.

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Next our tour group visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we spent time inside a James Turrell Skyspace titled Sky Pesher, 2005, a subterranean concrete chamber with a square aperture in the ceiling that frames the sky. (The word pesher is Hebrew for “interpretation.”) Turrell calls himself a sculptor of light; light, he says, is his medium. His work is influenced by his Quaker faith, especially the doctrine of the Inner Light. Quaker worship gatherings consist primarily of silence, a time of corporately waiting on the Light, which is God, who dwells within us as wisdom and guide. I did find the environment Turrell built especially conducive to stillness and listening. Quakers say that silence is not a void, it’s full, and I found that to be true as I opened myself to encountering God in that space.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005
James Turrell (American, 1943–), Sky Pesher, 2005 (detail), 2005. Pigmented cast concrete, concrete, paint, cold-cathode lighting, computerized dimming device. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005

I actually really cherished sitting there in silence with the group, ridding myself of distractions as together we simply turned our gaze to the wonderful gradients of blue stretched out above us. Out of interest in and respect for the artist’s Quaker spirituality, I took the opportunity to commune with God in “wordless thought”; instead of me talking to God or about God, I let God talk to me.

I expressed my particular enjoyment of the experience afterward to a colleague, who was surprised that, because of my fascination with biblical imagery and its possibilities in worship and devotion, I should be so moved by a sacred space that lacks any imagery at all, other than open, undefined sky. It surprised me somewhat too! Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1”

Roundup: Norman Rockwell updated; snow-crystal photography; Good Samaritan icon; and more

Freedom of Worship by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur
Hank Willis Thomas (American, 1976–) and Emily Shur (American), Freedom of Worship, 2018. While Norman Rockwell’s illustration of the same name contains specific representations of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, this reinterpretation goes even further to include Islam, Native American spirituality, and Sikhism.

NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES: “The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.

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IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8bRev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.

There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord

The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.

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NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.


Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,

I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.

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WORLD’S FIRST SNOWFLAKE PHOTOS: “The Man Who Revealed the Hidden Structure of Falling Snowflakes”: Maryland saw its first snow of the season this week, as did most of the East Coast, which means Twitter saw a flurry of snowflake images! The Smithsonian posted about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), whose perfection of innovative photomicrographic equipment and techniques (which included chilled velvet and a turkey feather) enabled him to photograph thousands of individual snowflakes without their melting, providing valuable scientific records of snow crystals and their many types.

The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

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BALKAN ICON: “Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (see bottom register), 14th century. Fresco in the narthex of the Patriarchal of Pech, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans) (detail)

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OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””

Eat What Is Good (Artful Devotion)

Wine and Bread by Alexander Antonyuk
Alexander Antonyuk (Ukrainian, 1971–), Wine and Bread, 2015. Oil on canvas.

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

—Isaiah 55:1–2

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SONG: “Christ My Treasure” by Castle Island Hymns, on Castle Island Hymns (2013)

 


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 13, cycle A, click here.

A sweeping vision of all things made new

This Sunday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Revelation 21:1–6, in which John describes the renewal of the entire created order:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation that starts with man. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But whereas Paul is talking about individual renewal, the renewal that John envisions is all-encompassing, touching everything—“an external order in full correspondence with the new nature,” in the words of Alexander Maclaren.

Theologians disagree on whether the “new” in this Revelation passage indicates that the present heaven and earth will one day be destroyed and then newly created, or rather that heaven and earth will one day be utterly transformed, made new in nature or quality. I hold the latter view, and it appears that American artist James B. Janknegt does as well.

Make All Things New by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Make All Things New, 2005. Oil on canvas, 48 × 96 in.

Janknegt’s painting Make All Things New shows the risen Christ standing triumphantly over the pit of death and under the blessing hand of God, sweeping up the things of earth into a whirlpool of color. Birds, balls, and bicycles; musical instruments and charcoal grills; plants and houses, pets and people, mowers and swing sets—all are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Beauty, work, and play.

Also present in the cosmic swirl are a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, symbols of God’s broken body and spilt blood, the activators of the new covenant. These two objects are evidence on multiple levels that God does indeed transform: he transformed the shame of the cross into glory, and at the Communion table again and again he transforms common, earthly elements into means of grace.

I appreciate Janknegt’s portrayal (through the upside-down skyscrapers at the top of the painting) of heaven coming down to meet earth as it did in the beginning, a biblical truth that has far too often been misrepresented in Christian art, music, and teaching. The restoration of the union between heaven and earth is pretty much the Bible’s main theme—one that’s beautifully explained in The Bible Project’s video on heaven and earth in terms of overlap between two spaces. We won’t eventually leave one space to fly over to the other; instead, heaven and earth will become the same space.

This is a vision that we are called to live into now! As new creations, we orient ourselves around the risen Christ, and we practice resurrection wherever we go. This can mean anything from turning vacant lots into gardens to beating guns into farm tools (literally!) to building wells in villages without access to clean drinking water to fostering or adopting an abused child to supporting a friend through rehabilitation. Where there is death, we bring life.

Make All Things New is a picture of what God has started to do in the world and will one day accomplish completely, at which point we can say along with him in praise and celebration, “It is done!” In the meantime, let’s join him in his work.

This painting is available for sale on the artist’s website and is also offered as a print.