Christ figure in Justin Dingwall’s Albus series

South African photographer Justin Dingwall (born 1983) seeks to depict beauty in difference. For his Albus series—Latin for “white” or “bright”—he worked with South African models and activists Thando Hopa and Sanele Junior Xaba, who have albinism. Albinism is a hereditary condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little to no pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world, and people with the condition often face marginalization, discrimination, and even deadly violence.

In many ways Dingwall’s Albus series, which comprises several dozen photographs, is about metamorphosing perceptions about albinism, subverting the idea that it’s a curse; “by using butterflies my aim was to influence the viewer’s vision to be transformed, allowing them to view albinism in a new light—as something unique and beautiful,” he said. But the theme of transformation, of death and rebirth, as portrayed in some of the photos of Xaba, also connects with the narrative of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, the model’s poses evoking traditional Christian imagery. (Not to mention how some of the photos of Hopa intentionally reference Mother Mary.)

Rhapsody I, II, and III form a passion triptych of sorts, a sequence of three photos that show a male figure, clothed in a loincloth, falling into darkness—and yet, illuminated from above, he looks up toward the light.

Dingwall, Justin_Rhapshody triptych
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I, II, III, 2015

I’m reminded of Jesus speaking to his Father in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion. Of all the art that shows him stumbling on his way to Calvary (“Jesus falls” makes up three of the fourteen stations of the cross). And especially of his slumped body being lowered from the cross. All the supporting characters, however, are absent, intensifying our focus on this lone Christ figure.

Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody II
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody III

Consider some of the compositional similarities between Dingwall’s three Rhapsody photographs and the following explicitly Christological artworks. (To view the full caption, click on the bottom of the image.)

Suggestive of burial, Embrace by Dingwall shows a man wrapped, cocoon-like, in white linen, lying against a black ground. His face, again, catches the light, and he appears to be at peace. He is resting in this silent, in-between time that precedes the emergence of new life.

Justin Dingwall, Embrace
Justin Dingwall, Embrace, 2015

More explicitly inspired by Christian visual traditions is Dingwall’s Liberty triptych, which shows our Christ figure risen from death, glowing, and covered in butterflies, symbol of resurrection.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty (triptych)
Justin Dingwall, Liberty I, II, III, 2015

In Liberty II, the man extends his arms at a roughly forty-five-degree angle from his trunk, palms upward, in a beatific gesture. His eyes are closed as he bathes in light. Christ is often shown in this pose in art of the resurrection, emerging triumphant from his tomb and proudly revealing his transfigured wounds. Dingwall’s image, though, is quieter, more interior.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty II

Liberty I is reminiscent of Jesus inviting Thomas to see and touch his wounds, and especially of Bramantino’s The Risen Christ (see tiled gallery below). People have long marveled at the incredible luminosity of Christ in the latter painting—how the light seems to come from within (the setting is nighttime, as the moon in the background indicates).

Justin Dingwall, Liberty I

So in many ways these photographs by Dingwall are continuous with Christian art history, but they are also open enough to be read in a multitude of other ways or applied to different contexts. Though the nature of Jesus’s resurrection and what it accomplished are, Christians believe, unique in history, stories of death and rebirth are universal, traversing all cultures and religious traditions.

View additional photos from the Albus series at https://www.justindingwall.com/albus.

Holy Thursday: Mount of Olives

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

—Luke 22:39–46 (emphasis added)

LOOK: Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Martyr, 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 × 24 in. (81.3 × 61 cm). Private collection.

Rattner, Abraham_Martyr

Jewish artist Abraham Rattner did not specify the identity of the figure in his 1944 painting Martyr, but he painted many images of the passion of Christ during the forties, so it’s likely meant to be a part of that body of work. Because the man’s hands are clasped together, I’m assuming it represents the Agony in the Garden (as opposed to the dead Christ supported by angels).

Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention that in response to Jesus’s anguished pleas in Gethsemane, an angel came down to “strengthen” (enischýō) him. Renaissance artists almost always included an angel in the scene, but at a remove—usually hovering over the mount or peeping out of a cloud, presenting to Jesus the cup of suffering. Often Jesus is shown with a beatific glance upward.

What Rattner gives us, though, is a much more intimate interaction, made all the more so by its being tightly cropped. The angel firmly yet tenderly embraces Jesus’s slumped body, weak with exhaustion and dripping with blood and sweat; the pressure of his grip around arm and torso is palpable. Empathetic, the angel closes his eyes as if trying to absorb Jesus’s pain, to feel it along with him. The two faces appear to merge.

Physical contact between the divinely sent minister and his charge at Gethsemane is not unheard of in the Old Masters; see, for example, Veronese, Giacinto Brandi, Francesco Trevisani, Adriaen van de Velde. But I think Rattner paints it best, capturing a compassionate moment while avoiding mawkishness.

The angel’s simply being there, present to Jesus’s sorrow, doesn’t immediately soften the tension Jesus holds in his body or eliminate his fears. But it does reinvigorate his trust in the Father’s will and prepares him to accept the cup, to drink its bitterness to the dregs.

I wonder how long the angel stayed with Jesus that night. That week. Perhaps the angel strengthened him at other points during his passion too?

LISTEN: “’Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” | Words by William B. Tappan, 1822

’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
’Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff’ring Savior prays alone.

’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
The Savior wrestles lone with fears—
E’en that disciple whom he loved
Heeds not his Master’s grief and tears.

’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet he that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by his God.

’Tis midnight, and from ether plains
Is borne the song that angels know;
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.

In this hymn the Rev. William B. Tappan of Massachusetts does not indicate the physical presence of an angel with Jesus in Gethsemane but instead imagines a faint waft of angelic song, heard only by Jesus, servicing Jesus’s spirit in his moment of intense need. A fanciful touch, but sure! The repetition of “’tis midnight” at the beginning of each stanza emphasizes the deep darkness—physical, psychological, and spiritual—of that Thursday night when Jesus was forcibly seized from prayer to be put to death on a cross.

I’m not a fan of the traditional tune by William B. Bradbury that’s used in hymnals for this text, though the Green Carpet Players have a fine recording of it. The hymn first came alive to me through a modern retune by The Wilders, sung with a simple banjo accompaniment. Shortly after, I discovered another compelling retune by Hymn Factory, a moody jazz waltz.

>> Music by Eve Sheldon of The Wilders, on On the Wings of a Dove (2002, re-released 2007)

>> Music by Patty Chung of Hymn Factory, on Guide Me: Treasured Hymn Verses in Melodious Pop Songs (2006)

Both these songs appear on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Holy Week Playlist

There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

To add the playlist to your account, open the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Art & Theology Holy Week playlist (art by Odilon Redon)

[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]

The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.

The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.

Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
In allen Landen herrlich ist!
  Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
  Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
  Zu aller Zeit,
  Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
  Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame
In every land is glorious!
  Show us, through your passion,
  That you, the true Son of God,
  Through all time,
  Even in the greatest humiliation,
  Have become transfigured! [source]

Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)

Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:

>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”

Christus, der uns selig macht,
Kein Bös’ hat begangen,
Der ward für uns in der Nacht
Als ein Dieb gefangen,
Geführt für gottlose Leut
Und fälschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit,
Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed,
committed no evil deed,
for us he was taken in the night
like a thief,
led before godless people
and falsely accused,
scorned, shamed, and spat upon,
as the scripture says. [source]

>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet,
Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen;
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect,
denied his God,
who yet after a serious glance
wept bitterly.
Jesus, look upon me also,
when I will not repent;
when I have done evil,
stir my conscience! [source]

>> “O große Lieb”

O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße,
Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden,
Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure,
that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
I lived with the world in delight and joy,
and you had to suffer. [source]

>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs;
now I will no longer mourn you.
Rest well and bring me also to peace!
The grave that is allotted to you
and encloses no further suffering
opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]

For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.

Continue reading “Holy Week Playlist”

Roundup: Leon Bridges, Stations of the Cross, Hermitage Museum tour, and contemporary “religious” poetry

NEW SONG RELEASE: “Conversion” by Leon Bridges: A smoky, minor-key redemption ballad closes out Leon Bridges’s [previously] latest EP, Texas Sun, a collaboration with the three-piece psychedelic funk band Khruangbin. Bridges wrote the song in 2012 in response to his conversion to Christianity, he said, but this is the first time he’s recorded it. Halfway through, following a personal testimonial about being made alive by the Holy Spirit, the song breaks into a slow R&B rendition of Isaac Watts’s “At the Cross.” Lyrics here. See also the musical and lyrical analysis Aarik Danielsen wrote over at Think Christian.

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STATIONS OF THE CROSS:

Contemporary Artists Interpret Stations of the Cross, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, February 19–April 3, 2020: Thanks to one of my readers reaching out, I found out about this church-sponsored exhibition just south of where I live and was able to attend the opening reception, where many of the artists were present to talk about their work and answer questions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to its early closure, but photos of the artworks, which are for sale, can be viewed online: see this write-up by curator Maureen Doallas. Below are the works representing station 8 (“Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”) and station 14 (“Jesus is laid in the sepulcher”).

Peckarsky, Terry_Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa
Terry Peckarsky, Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa, 2020. Quilted commercial cotton fabrics, digitally altered photographs printed on fabric, tsukineko inks, and watercolor, 23 × 31 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Artist’s website: https://tpeckarsky.tumblr.com/

Lukitsch, Carol_Sophia Icon
Carol Lukitsch, Sophia Icon. Mixed media collage on paper (with laurel leaves), 30 × 22 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website: http://carollukitsch.com/

Passion and Compassion Oxford: This self-guided tour through Oxford, released this February with a new website and supported by the “Alight: Art and the Sacred” app [previously] for Android and iOS, stops at fourteen artworks or artifacts in multiple locations across the city. Designed around the Scriptural Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage of sorts, it comprises a mix of historical and contemporary pieces, including sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Antony Gormley, Old Master paintings by Anthony van Dyck and the studio of Andrea Mantegna, a medieval stained glass lily crucifix, Roger Wagner’s Elie Wiesel–inspired Menorah, a “celure” depicting the Pleiades in white gold, Thomas Cranmer’s prison band, and more. Each stop comes with audio commentary by a clergyperson, theologian, or artist. The tour starts at University Church Oxford, the institution that created this wonderful resource. (Note: Most of the sites on this tour are currently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.)

Caroe, Oliver_Celure
Oliver Caroe, Celure, 2012. University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford.

Agony in the Garden (alabaster)
Alabaster relief by the Master of Rimini or workshop, southern Netherlands or northern France, ca. 1430–40. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

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VIRTUAL TOUR: Single-shot walk-through of Russia’s Hermitage Museum: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest museum in the world (the Louvre is the largest), with over one million square feet of exhibition space extending across six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars. Thanks to a five-and-a-half-hour advertisement by Apple showing off the iPhone 11’s battery life, people can move seamlessly through 45 of the museum’s 309 galleries from their own homes. Shot in one continuous take, the video includes close-ups of individual artworks as well as wide shots of the lavish interiors. It doesn’t cover the entire museum, but there is much western Christian art to see, starting at 1:04:41 with Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi triptych. Among the most famous religious artworks in its collection, which you may know from Henri Nouwen’s book about it, is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (2:15:54). Here’s the trailer, followed by the full-length video:

It includes ballet sequences throughout and concludes with a live orchestral performance featuring Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter.

The Hermitage Museum offers virtual tours of its entire collection, in an interactive format that uses panoramic photos, at https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/. Unlike the Apple video, whose purpose is to showcase the capabilities of the new iPhone, the Hermitage-created tour inserts “info” buttons over each artwork so that you can click through to find out the artist, title, etc., if interested. But this format, in addition to requiring a brief load time for each step forward, lacks the grandiose scoring and camerawork of the new Apple video.

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POET FEATURE: Jeanne Murray Walker: A semirecent recent blog post by “online abbess” Christine Valters Paintner introduces the work of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Helping the Morning (2014), Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (2019), and eight other books. Reprinted in full are the poems “Staying Power,” about God’s pursuant nature (a modern-day “The Hound of Heaven,” if you will); “Attempt,” which opens with a quote by Traherne; and “Everywhere You Look You See Lilacs,” about being in the moment, taking cues from nature. There is also a video of Walker reading her poem “The Creation,” which muses on the beautiful quirkiness of giraffes, who “spring up like Wow . . . riff-raff of [God’s] imagination.”

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GOODLETTERS ESSAY: “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Religious’ Poet?” by Brian Volck: The contemporary English theologian Nicholas Lash wrote that sadly, “the relation of human beings to the Holy One” has, by many and certainly in the popular imagination, been “reduced to knowledge of an object known as ‘God’ . . . [,] faith’s attentive presence to the entertaining of particular beliefs.” Such reductionism has led many artists to resist being labeled “religious”—“a designation that typically serves to qualify, marginalize, or dismiss creative work.”

But good poetry, Brian Volck says, “and the human sensibilities we’re taught to call religious needn’t be strangers.” There are many poets today who tread the “vast borderlands where religion, spirituality, faith, art, and mystery overlap,” and Volck briefly reviews four such collections from 2019: Anaphora by Scott Cairns, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, This Far by Kathleen O’Toole, and Long after Lauds by Jeanine Hathaway.