Roundup: Round dance of praise; minimalist church architecture; Psalm 46 sung in Spanish; Armenian Christian heritage destroyed; and more

Image journal subscriptions are 50% off through the summertime—only $24 for four full-color issues! This is the magazine I most look forward to receiving in the mail. So much great poetry, art, essays, and more.

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NEW POEM: “They Too Go Round” by Paul Mariani: This poem from the current issue of Image journal (no. 101) brings together Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance with Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment at San Marco, gesturing toward a vision in which the terrestrial is taken up into the celestial. Bruegel’s Dutch peasant dancers “pound” and “rollick” with beer foam on their faces and general bawdiness; the saints from the Fra Angelico painting, by contrast, step lithely and with reverence in their round dance on the very grasses of paradise. Disparate though they are in tone, Mariani connects these two images, playing with the idea of circling. Just as the wedding guests dance round and round, so too does time; so too the spheres. And at the center of this cosmic round dance is praise: humanity linked hand in hand with the angels, not closed in on themselves but opening up into the glory of God.

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), The Wedding Dance, ca. 1566. Oil on panel, 119.3 × 157.4 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.
Fra Angelico_Last Judgment
Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455), The Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1431. Tempera on wood, 105 × 210 cm. Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

The last stanza quotes an excerpt from a famous medieval Catholic prayer: “Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me, for there is no redemption in Hell. Have mercy on me, O God, and save me.” The speaker’s anxiety has been building up as he reflects on the empty pleasures to which he has been so long devoted and the imminence of death. This anxiety, however, is swept away in one turn as he catches a glimpse of God’s abundant salvation and its final consummation—a “sea-changing moment, now and forever.” Christ, the fulfillment of all desire, sits on his throne at the center of this turning world, beckoning us into the dance of the redeemed.

(FYI, Paul Mariani will be one of the plenary speakers at the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola in September. Registration is still open!)

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CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Known for his work in concrete, Spanish architect Fernando Menis designed the new Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife, Spain, consecrated May 12. I’m digging the minimalism. Learn more and view more photos on the architect’s website. [HT: ArtWay]

Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.
Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Interior: Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.

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CHORAL ARRANGEMENT: “Dios es Nuestro Amparo” (God Is Our Refuge), arr. Alfredo Colman: I love this traditional setting of Psalm 46 in Spanish, recently arranged by Alfredo Colman and performed by the Coro del Seminario Internacional Teológico Bautista (Choir of the International Baptist Theological Seminary) in Buenos Ares, Argentina. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I was curious about the history of the song, so I wrote to Colman; he said he first encountered it in Paraguay, where he grew up, but doesn’t know its country of origin. The song, he told me, has been well known in Latin America since the 1970s. While this particular arrangement of Colman’s has not yet been published, you can find a simpler arrangement for congregational singing in the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God, released just this month. Edited by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) in partnership with GIA Publications, it contains over 700 songs in Spanish and English.

For a vision and resources for singing together in Spanish and English, see this recorded CICW workshop, led by Colman and five others, and also the article “Expand Your Church’s Bilingual Music Repertoire.” Introducing bilingual music to a church congregation is “like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers,” says María Eugenia Cornou, the CICW program manager for international and intercultural learning. “Some kids love it, but usually it takes time. It’s a new flavor.”

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CULTURAL DESTRUCTION: “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman: An investigative report published in February exposed Azerbaijan’s destruction of thousands of medieval Christian Armenian artworks and objects at the necropolis of Djulfa in Nakhichevan. The cemetery at Djulfa contained the world’s largest collection of khachkars, ornately carved memorial steles with crosses, characteristic of Armenian Christianity; 2,920 were documented clandestinely by native Argam Ayvazyan from 1964 to 1987, half of the 5,840 he documented in Nakhichevan as a whole. But, other than the dozen that were removed from the region during or before the Soviet era into church or museum collections, all these were demolished by Azerbaijani soldiers in 1997, 2002, and 2005–6, expunging the region’s last remaining traces of Christianity. (This was in addition to the demolition of 89 Armenian churches and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhichevan.)

Djulfa cross-stone
A 1915 photograph of researcher Aram Vruyr’s son with one of many thousand khachkars (cross-stones) at Djulfa, enhanced by Judith Crispin’s Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project. Courtesy Aram Vruyr Archives.
St. Thomas Cathedral (Armenia, now lost)
Surb Tovma (St. Thomas Cathedral) in Agulis, Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, which tradition states was founded as a chapel by Bartholomew the Apostle. Now destroyed. Photo © Argam Ayvazyan Archives, 1970–1981.

“Unlike the self-publicized cultural destruction of ISIS, independent Azerbaijan’s covert campaign to re-engineer Nakhichevan’s historical landscape between 1997 and 2006 is little known outside the region. . . . While some Azerbaijanis have embraced their government’s vandalism as either righteous revenge or a national security measure against potential Armenian territorial claims, other Azerbaijanis . . . have mourned the destruction.”

Here is a short video posted in December 2005 by Nshan Topouzian, the leader of north Iran’s Armenian church, who was tipped off to the destructive activity taking place at the Djulfa cemetery by an Iranian border patrol. (Djulfa is located at the border of Azerbaijan and Iran.)

Hyperallergic pointed out the “cruel irony” and “insult” of Azerbaijan hosting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee session earlier this month. UNESCO not only avoided a public condemnation of the destruction of Armenian Christian artifacts and churches in Nakhichevan but also praised Azerbaijan (one of its biggest donors) as a “land of tolerance.”

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ARTICLE: “6 Works of Classical Music Every Christian Should Know” by Jeremy Begbie: Theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie is a superstar in the field of theology and the arts. Most of his books, published for academic audiences, are pretty dense, but this article that he wrote for The Gospel Coalition is wonderfully accessible. It opens, “Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.”

He then recommends six works of classical music to spend time with, highlighting the best recordings and musical guides available. From the “bubbling, joyful abundance” of a Mozart piano concerto (“a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah”) to the “aching beauty” of Rachmaninov, there’s variety here. Find out what Begbie considers to be “the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era,” and which symphony contains, from its penultimate to final movement, one of the best transitions in Western music.

Begbie is the founder Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and the program is throwing a big symposium in September to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. I’ll be there! Join me? If you can’t swing the registration cost but live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, consider coming out on Saturday night to “Making All Things New: The Sound of New Creation,” a concert featuring a range of music, “from Bach to Bernstein, Rachmaninov to Latino, medieval to jazz, concert music to film music,” as well as a reflection by N. T. Wright. I attended a similar Begbie-led concert at Duke two years ago, and it was phenomenal.

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FILM: Ida (2013), dir. Pavel Pawlikowski: This Oscar Award–winning film about identity and faith is a great watch, especially for its stunning cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white in the classic 4:3 format, it is almost entirely made up of static frames, exquisitely composed. I really just can’t get over the visual storytelling. Watch the trailer and film clip below, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The movie is available on Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service provided for free by many public libraries.

Sowing the stigmata: A reading of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere by Georges Didi-Huberman

During Easter 2016 I published an article on Jesus as the gardener of our souls, featuring a roundup of Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”) paintings that portray the risen Christ as a literal gardener, including a fresco by Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco in Florence.

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college living in Florence and, while there, fell in love with Renaissance art, and in particular the paintings of Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455). Born Guido di Pietro, he took vows as a Dominican friar and, together with his assistants, painted two corridors and the forty-four cells in the newly built San Marco, where he lived. The convent is now a state museum and is one of my favorite sites in the city.

In 1990 art historian Georges Didi-Huberman published a monograph on Fra Angelico, spending considerable time on his Noli me tangere, especially its red flowers, which he reads as a figural displacement of Christ’s stigmata (nail wounds). (More on this below.) In the painting, he writes, Christ’s blood “soaks the earth and makes a new humanity grow there, a humanity in the imitation of Christ, a humanity redeemed from sin” (161). He notes how the floral imagery is echoed in the Annunciation in the hallway outside the cell, serving to visually connect these two stages of redemption: Christ’s “flowering,” or conception, in the womb of Mary and his flowering forth from the womb of the earth on Easter.

(Related: “Rosing from the Dead” by Paul J. Willis)

The figure of the Christ-flower was already a common one in the medieval West. For example, the great thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus writes,

The Christ-flower [flos Christus] blossomed in the Nativity, as we read in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse.” It withered in the Passion, when there was no longer aspect or beauty. . . . It blossomed again at the Resurrection according to human nature, in the very place where it had withered. Thus it is said: “And my flesh blossomed anew” (Psalm 27:7). [De laudibus 12.4.2]

Fra Angelico furthered the development of this metaphor in visual form, picturing Christ’s blood (according to Didi-Huberman) as a fertilizing material, the agent of regeneration.

The following excerpt is taken from Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration* by Georges Didi-Huberman, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pages 19–22. I find some of the semiotics discourse to be abstruse, but I’ve highlighted a few standout ideas in boldface—ideas that have helped me to see Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere (and the Resurrection!) with new eyes.

Noli me tangere (detail) by Fra Angelico

Angelico sprinkled little spots, deposited little splotches all over this “field” [of green]: more or less regular blotches, made of Saint John White [bianco di San Giovanni]—that is, the very material that constitutes the intonaco of the pigment—and, on top of that, red. It is a bright color, a terra rossa, and it forms a slight relief from the wall; the rhythmic effect, the pattern effect, is only that much stronger.

But what about this “field” in the economy of representation? And in particular, what exactly do these little spots of red pigment spread across the surface like stars represent? To what category of signs do they belong? A response suggests itself at first glance, a response relating to the obviousness of the storia and, consequently, to the overall mimetic, “realist” nature of the fresco: these little red blotches without a doubt represent flowers in the meadow. In [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s semiotic typology, these little red blotches would therefore be icons of flowers in a meadow. Peirce noted quite rightly, concerning this concept of the icon, the extent to which we have a tendency when contemplating a painting to forget the distinction between the present sign (in this case, the red blotches) and the absent reality (the flowers). We therefore need to go a bit further in our contemplation of the little blotches themselves.

We notice at this point that the colored patterns are absolutely not painted like flowers. They do not describe anything, do not suggest any distinguishing features: in these flowers, there are no calyxes, no corollas, no pistils, no stamens. They are colored blotches, no more and no less. And it would be completely absurd to invoke at this point some incompetence on Fra Angelico’s part in representing a flower with its pistil and stamens: he carried out the task perfectly well elsewhere, and moreover, he proved himself competent in the face of much greater mimetic difficulties. It would be just as pointless to imagine the painter “not having the time,” or the coat of paint drying too quickly. If Angelico had wanted to paint a flower like a flower, he would have done so; he would have applied himself. But that is precisely the point: he did not decide to do so. He was satisfied with laying on little circular “heaps” of terra rossa. Why? The response is not in absentia, in a meadow or a text, for example; it is in praesentia, on the fresco itself. For if we persist in wondering what the red blotches are painted like, we can give as our response only what we see: in all rigor, these red blotches are painted like—that is, exactly in the same manner as—Christ’s stigmata.

These red blotches are even painted the way Fra Angelico painted stigmata in general, Christ’s or Saint Francis’s, everywhere in San Marco: they are small circular inflections of the brush that deposits its thick pigment of terra rossa. And the evidence of such a relation is accentuated, specified, virtually demonstrated by the constellation effect Angelico actually bestowed on his little blotches: these flowers scattered across a green ground follow a trajectory that ends with a repetition of the same pictorial sign on Christ’s hand and foot.

Noli me tangere details sketch
Detail sketches of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere, showing Christ’s dispersal of his stigmata. Source: Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, p. 20

Confronted with what amounts to a real displacement of the iconic sign, I can no longer affirm anything that has the minimal stability required for the notion of a motif: speaking in absolute terms, I can no longer say “it is” or “it is not” in a decisive way. There is a displacement of the iconic value and hence an equivocal representation. For example, I can very well affirm that Christ’s stigmata are, according to Fra Angelico, the flowers of his body. And I will have no difficulty, by the way, in finding a Thomist text to support an affirmation of this kind: for instance, the article in his Summa theologica that Aquinas devotes to the question of whether Christ’s risen body had or did not have scars. To the objector who maintained that stigmata are wounds, and hence a “corruption” and a “defect,” Aquinas responds yes, but those wounds, on Christ, possess a “special beauty” (specialis decor) which is Beauty itself, the (bleeding, of course) Beauty of the Virtue of Humility [Summa theologica 3a.54.4].

But I could just as easily affirm, confronted with Angelico’s fresco, that Christ is here represented in the emblematic act of “sowing” his stigmata in the garden of the earthly world, just before going to rejoin the right hand of his Father in heaven. The idea finds support, by the way, if we pay attention to the fact that, seven times in the fresco and especially next to the stigmata stricto sensu, the red “flowers” appear in groups of five, the symbolically very pregnant number of Christ’s wounds.

In short, in considering these little red blotches in terms of the how of their presence in the fresco, we are led to equivocate on the question of what they represent mimetically. The iconic character of these red signs moves to the background, submits to a logical aporia, while their nature as indexes, as blotches, as pure physical, colored traces, takes center stage. And their way of signifying—between the flower and the stigmata, creating the notion of a relation above all—no longer has anything to do with the way the story delivers its very recognizable meaning.

Finally, as if to definitively convince his meditative fellow friar that he was not merely recounting a too well-known anecdote from the Gospels, Fra Angelico placed a third type of sign at the level of the gaze, something that does not look like anything recognizable in a meadow or even in the story of the Noli me tangere: it is a symbol, three little bleeding crosses, placed between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. Here is something that does not “resemble” anything in the order of meadow reality, but nonetheless possesses an obvious memorative function, pointing toward a meditation on Christ’s Passion and the Trinity.

It is particularly important to note that Angelico’s fresco signifies a great deal beyond the conventional iconographical attributes of its story. The example of the little patterns of red in itself raises the possibility of a painter’s using pictorial signs that constitute, strictly speaking, signa translata, a term I will translate as “transit signs,” signs or operators of conversion. And these signs of conversion are not simply metaphors, because their material existence sets up a labile movement between signs of very different semiotic status—icons, indexes, and symbols. That is why such pictorial signs immediately prohibit any univocal relation of attribution—a word to be understood in its two senses, logical and iconological. Such signs have the value of displacement, movement, and association rather than definition, identification, or predication.

But that does not mean they have a lesser value. On the contrary: if there is a type of thinking characteristic of images, it is associative—translata—thinking, a thinking that structures itself by shifting. To represent flowers in a field, Fra Angelico chose to produce only stigmata, simple marks, red colored traces; but these traces, arranged in series, in some sense bridge the gap between two completely heterogeneous (but theologically articulable) orders of thought: a field in springtime on the one hand, and Christ’s body “decorated” with wounds, his stigmata, on the other. That is what, in all rigor, is called a practice of figurability. The image, incapable of—or rather oblivious to—strict logical thinking, draws from this obliviousness all its signifying force. It is only a matter of seeing in Angelico’s fresco how a single material element—that famous terra rossa color—can function on the whole surface of the work as the privileged operator of displacements and structurers of meaning: this red speaks to us of sin in Mary Magdalene’s robe, but it is also, across from her, the very place of Christ’s suffering, the stigmata; it returns to Mary Magdalene in the converted form of compassion; it is disseminated as spring flowers, as an emblem of the Passion, but also of the Resurrection; it continually shifts between the flesh of man—since it is in general a stroke of that same red that outlines bodies in Angelico’s frescoes—and the glory of Christ’s risen flesh, the incarnate of his lips, the red cross of his halo. . . .


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Around the Throne (Artful Devotion)

Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece (Fiesole)
Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece at Fiesole, ca. 1424, probably by Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455). Tempera and gold leaf on panels, 32 × 244 cm. National Gallery, London.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary assigns an additional set of readings, on top of Sunday’s, for the special celebration of All Saints’ Day (Hallowmas) on November 1. Among them is John’s vision of a multitude of angels and faithful departed surrounding the enthroned Christ in heaven, sounding forth his praise.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

—Revelation 7:9–12

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O quam gloriosum est regnum (“O how glorious is the kingdom”) — A cappella motet for four voices composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria, 1572 | Performed by the University of Utah Chamber Choir

O quam gloriosum est regnum
in quo cum Christo gaudent omnes sancti!
Amicti stolis albis,
sequuntur Agnum quocumque ierit.

O how glorious is the kingdom
in which all the saints rejoice with Christ!
Clad in robes of white,
they follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

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Explore the individual panels from Fra Angelico’s “court of heaven” predella in greater detail on the National Gallery of London’s website, and rejoice this All Saints’ Day in the Christian witness of those who have gone before us!

The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 32 × 64 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.
Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 31.7 × 73 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.
Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico)
Probably Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, ca. 1424. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 31.9 × 63.5 cm. From the San Domenico Altarpiece predella, National Gallery, London.

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 All Saints’ Day, cycle A, click here.