Lent, Day 37 (Blood and Tears)

Anyone who cries at night, the stars and the constellations cry with him.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b

LOOK: Blood and Tears by Hélène Mugot

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Du sang et des larmes (Blood and Tears), 2004. Triptych of 300 crystal drops and 200 red glass drops, 350 × 900 cm. Exhibition view from Icare encore at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, October 22, 2011–January 22, 2012. (Foreground: Pour la gloire… [For the Glory…], 2011.)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears

When Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane to pray the night of his arrest, he pled with the Father to let the cup of suffering pass. Luke says he sweated drops of blood (22:44). He was in agony. He probably dreaded the physical torture he knew was coming, and maybe even more his disciples’ abandoning him. Perhaps he wept for the mother and friends he would leave behind in this next phase of ministry—or, with a mixture of grief and frustration, for the world’s failure to see who he truly was.

Hélène Mugot’s Du sang et des larmes, which translates to Blood and Tears, is an installation of glass pieces made to look like bodily fluids. They hang on the wall in the shape of a three-paneled altarpiece—blood in the center, tears on the wings. The globular forms catch the light from the room and shine.

When Du sang et des larmes was exhibited at the Mandet Museum in 2011, it was part of a larger show of Mugot’s work. On the floor in front of it was her Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), a menacingly large braided wreath of thick, knotted, blackened vines whose stumps are dotted with red wax of the type used to seal wine bottles—both bandage and wound here, Mugot says. The piece is meant to evoke Jesus’s crown of thorns.

Mugot, Helene_For the Glory
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), 2011. Old vines and red sealing wax, outside diameter 275 cm, height 50 cm. Exhibited at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, 2011. Photo: Patrick André.

In 2013 Du sang et des larmes joined the collection of the Musée du Hiéron in Paray-le-Monial, France, a museum of Christian art from the Middle Ages to today. There it is staged as the backsplash to a seventeenth-century Virgin and Child statuette carved in wood, thus prompting us to read Christ’s infancy in light of his passion, and vice versa—the Incarnation as a total event, spanning birth to death. (Cue Simeon’s “A sword will pierce your soul . . .”)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears (with Virgin and Child)
Virgin and Child, 17th century; Du sang et des larmes by Hélène Mugot. Collection of the Musée du Hiéron, Paray-le-Monial, France. Photo: Jean-Pierre Gobillot.

To fit the space, the number of droplets and overall size changed slightly from the piece’s first few installations: at the Hiéron there are 311 crystal drops and 267 red glass drops, and the dimensions are 420 × 650 cm.

LISTEN: “Flow, My Tears” by Toivo Tulev, 2007 | Text based on a 1600 air by John Dowland and the Improperia (aka, the Reproaches), a series of antiphons and responses expressing the remonstrance of Jesus Christ with his people | Performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, dir. Kaspars Putniņš, on Tulev: Magnificat, 2018

Flow, my tears,
fall from your springs,
flow my tears, fall from your . . .
Flow my tears,
fall from your springs,
fall, fall, fall,
flow, flow, my tears, flow.

Down, vain lights,
shine no more,
no nights are dark enough,
no lights,
shine no more,
flow no more,
no more.
Flow down, vain lights,
shine no more,
shine you no more.

I led you in a pillar of cloud
but you led me to . . .
I gave you saving water,
but you gave me gall
and you gave vinegar.
My people, what have I done to you?
What have I done to you? Answer me.
How have I offended you, you, you?
I opened the sea before you,
I opened the sea,
but you opened my side with a spear.

Flow, flow, flow down.
Rain, drop down,
cover the ground,
drop down, my blood,
flow, flow down,
drop down,
drop down, drop,
flow, flow, flow,
shine, flow, flow, shine!
Flow, my blood, flow,
flow, drop, flow down.

My blood spills from your wounds,
drop, drop, drop,
your wounds,
flow, flow, flow down,
flow, shine, drop, flow.
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
flow, my blood.
My blood, my blood spills from your wounds,
my wounds,
my blood,
flow, blood, flow, flow,
shine!
Spills from your wounds
my blood, shine!
My wounds, my wounds,
drop down, shine!
From your, from my wounds,
shine!
Flow, drop down,
shine!
Flow, shine!
My, your blood,
shine!

My blood,
flow, shine, flow,
shine! shine!
Fall, shine, fall, shine,
fall from your . . .
flow, fall . . .
Shine!
Shine! [source]

Toivo Tulev is an Estonian composer born in 1958. In this choral composition for twelve solo voices, he has combined words from a secular Renaissance lute song and the Christian Holy Week liturgy. It’s ponderous and grating, capturing well Jesus’s psychological affliction.

While in the first half the speaker, Jesus, wishes for light to “shine no more” so that he be left alone in darkness, that imperative eventually evolves into the affirmative: “Shine!” Blood: shine! Tears: shine! Tulev’s clever manipulation of his lyrical source material creates allusions to the glory, the illumination, that is to come. Paradoxically, when the sun is eclipsed from noon to three on the day of crucifixion, God’s love shines brighter than ever.

One line that stands out to me is “My blood spills from your wounds.” Who is the “your”? Earlier Jesus is talking to his people, but I interpret a shift here to God the Father as the addressee. Even though he sees through to the other side, he, too, is tremendously pained by what is unfolding—his only Son, killed. It’s as if Jesus’s wounds are his own (much like any parent would tell you, when their child is suffering). The unity of these two persons of the Godhead in the poetry of this song is really beautiful. Their heart is one.

Roundup: Crucifixion and Holocaust, Indonesian Christian art, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Golgotha, Auschwitz, and the Problem of Evil” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last month for ArtWay I was asked to write about Emma Elliott’s Reconciliation, a sculpted marble arm that bears both a nail wound of Christ from his crucifixion and the number tattoo of Holocaust survivor Eliezer Goldwyn (1922–2017).

Elliott, Emma_Reconciliation
Emma Elliott (British, 1983–), Reconciliation, 2016. Carrara marble, 20 × 110 × 25 cm.

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ESSAY: “The church’s reception of Jewish crucifixion imagery after the Holocaust” by Andrew Williams, AGON 48 (Winter 2015): Can Jews create Christian art? “I seek to revisit this question by examining the ways in which Jewish artists have made reference to the central symbol of the Christian faith, the crucifixion, and consider the ethical and theological horizons they open up for the church. . . . Given its place as a symbol of oppression within Judaism, and in particular its integration with the swastika during the years of Nazi power, its widespread adoption within a Jewish artistic vocabulary is remarkable.” Williams discusses “how the resulting christological imagery has been freighted with meaning connected with collective suffering, personal grief and divine abandonment.”

Levy, Emmanuel_Crucifixion
Emmanuel Levy (British, 1900–1986), Crucifixion, 1942. Oil on canvas, 102 × 78 cm. Ben Uri Gallery, London.

Jacob Epstein, Marc Chagall, Emmanuel Levy, RB Kitaj, Mauricio Lassansky, Abraham Rattner, Samuel Bak, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adi Nes, and Seymour Lipton are among the artists engaged in this illustrated essay. The author provides an extensive bibliography if you’d like to learn more. I also want to remind you of the excellent exhibition catalog essay “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” that I shared back in 2017.

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UPCOMING VIRTUAL EVENT: Studio Talk with Indonesian Artist Wisnu Sasongko, April 28, 2022, 8:30 a.m. ET: Organized by the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Sasongko [previously] served as artist in residence in 2004–5. Cost: $15. Read the artist’s bio and see a sampling of his work at https://omsc.ptsem.edu/artist-sasongko/. There’s also a catalog of his paintings you can buy.

Sasongko, Wisnu_Gethsemane
Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian, 1975–), Last Night in Gethsemane, 2005. Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 34 in.

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ESSAY: “The Christian Art Scene in Yogyakarta” by Volker Küster: Published June 27, 2012, by Protestantse Theologische Universiteit (Protestant Theological University) in Kampen, Netherlands, this essay spotlights five Indonesian artists whose work culturally contextualizes the Christian story: Bagong Kussudiardja [previously], Hendarto, Hari Santosa, Dopo Yeihan, and Wisnu Sasongko. Küster provides biographical information on the artists, including their religious backgrounds (most are converts from Islam), and discusses three paintings by each, all of which are reproduced in full color.

Want to read more by Volker Küster? His chapter on “Visual Arts in World Christianity” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to World Christianity is excellent, and some of it is available in the Google Books preview. See also his book The Many Faces of Jesus Christ: Intercultural Christology (Orbis, 2001).

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ART VIDEO: “Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ (Great Art Explained): In 2020 art writer and gallerist James Payne launched the YouTube video series Great Art Explained, consisting of fifteen-minute videos that each explore a single historically significant artwork. Here’s one he did on an extraordinary painting of Caravaggio’s from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, which shows Judas’s betrayal of Christ in Gethsemane.

“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” by Robert Southwell

Boeve, Edgar G._Phoenix, Death
Edgar G. Boevé (American, 1929–2019), Phoenix, Death, ca. 1980. Oil and acrylic on tea chest paper. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones, at the Center Art Gallery, Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

Note: I modernized the spellings of this poem for readability, but there is a beauty to the early modern English; see the original here.

Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) was an English Catholic priest and poet living during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Educated at Jesuit colleges in France and Italy, he returned to his native England as a missionary in 1586. But he suffered persecution under the country’s Protestant regime, and had to conduct his ministry in concealment. In his early thirties he was caught celebrating the Mass and was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and hanged for treason. None of his English poems was published in his lifetime, but many of them circulated as manuscripts. He probably wrote this one sometime during his three years in the Tower of London, awaiting execution.

“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” opens with a reflection on Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane the night before the Crucifixion, when “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). This bloody sweat may be a figure of speech Luke uses to convey the intensity of the moment, or it may be an actual condition called hematidrosis, in which capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood—something that can occur in rare cases when a person is under extreme physical or emotional stress.

In the first stanza of the poem, “Southwell introduces various fluids that represent the creative effusions of Christ’s love, with an extravagant reiteration of images that emphasises the extravagance of that love,” writes the Rev. Patrick Comerford in his commentary on the poem.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

Southwell describes Christ as rich, fertile soil that yields sweet fruit; a spring of living water; an olive from which consecrated oil is distilled (for the anointing of the newly baptized and newly ordained); and a grape that yields fine wine. It may help you to read each phrase vertically down the first four lines: “Fat soil that yields, untilled, dear fruit”; “full spring that streams, undrawn, clear brooks”; “sweet olive that pours, unstamped, fair oil”; “grape of bliss that doth distill, untouched of press, sweet wine at will!”

“Prevent” in this context means to go before. In other words, even before Jesus is captured by the Roman soldiers, tortured, and led to Calvary to be crucified, he sheds his blood in Gethsemane. Without any physical forces acting upon him. “Rood” is an archaic word for the cross.

Stanza 2 references two birds of lore that were popular symbols of Christ: the pelican and the phoenix.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

The pelican was said (by Epiphanius, Augustine, and other church fathers) to revive or feed her young with her own blood; she would peck at her breast until she died so that her little ones might have life. The phoenix is a fantastical bird from classical mythology that burns itself to ashes on a funeral pyre ignited by the sun but then rises up out of those ashes, renewed.

Southwell ponders how Christ can be both pelican and phoenix. Did he bleed to death (losing streams of blood), or did he die by burning? The image in line 10 is quite gruesome: Christ simultaneously is “bathe[d]” in blood and fries in flames. The fire is, of course, metaphoric. But it becomes here, along with the blood, an emblem of divine love. A love that bleeds and burns, and that is all-consuming.

The fire and blood imagery continues in stanza 3, where Southwell refers to the famous contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah (a prophet of Yahweh) and the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18).

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

To prove the supremacy of the God of Israel over Baal, Elijah issues a challenge. He and Baal’s prophets would each prepare a bull for sacrifice and lay it on a stone altar but light no fire. They would then pray each to their own god and see which god answers by sending fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice. The prophets of Baal accept the challenge, but no fire comes to light their altar, despite their most fervent entreaties. Elijah, to increase the stakes, even soaks his bull and the wood it lies on in water, three times over—and still fire comes from above, devouring, as Southwell writes, “blood and wood and water . . . [and] stones and dust beyond all nature’s course.”

God’s love is like that fire, Southwell says. The implication, I think, is that on the cross, the love of the Son (who gives himself as a sacrifice) and the love of the Father (who accepts the sacrifice) meet. (I know there are varying interpretations of the nature of the atonement and the role of the Father in the Crucifixion, but I’m simply trying to interpret Southwell here.)

In the poem’s final stanza, Southwell considers how he ought to respond to divine love as expressed in Christ’s passion.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

He calls on God to accept, in return, his sacrifice—of praise and thanksgiving and obedience (Heb. 13:15–16; Ps. 50:23) and of his very self (Rom. 12:1–2). He probably had his martyrdom in mind. He acknowledges that he is but a withered, soggy, stony-hearted “sack of dust” but prays that God would make him fit to receive and broadcast the fire of love from on high.

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.