Lent, Day 5

LOOK: Lessons of Hearing by Laura Makabresku

Makabresku, Laura_Lessons of Hearing
Laura Makabresku (Polish, 1987–), Lessons of Hearing, 2021, photograph

Laura Makabresku is the artist pseudonym of Kamila Kansy, whose photographs are inspired by dreams, fairy tales, and the Christian story. Surreal and spiritual, her body of work moves me immensely. It’s so poetic. Divine and human love and suffering are recurring themes, and animals—doves, crows, deer, lambs, foxes—often appear. Follow her on Instagram @lauramakabresku and on Facebook.

Lessons of Hearing shows a young woman alone in a shadowy domestic space, listening intently to the Spirit. A crucifix and an icon of the Virgin and Child hang above her on the wall. A limited edition of this photograph is available for sale—signed, numbered, printed on archival Hahnemühle Baryta paper, and framed. Contact the artist if interested.

LISTEN: “Bring Forth” | Words by John Ernest Bode, 1869, with adaptations and refrain by Ben Thomas, 2015 | Music by Ben Thomas, 2015 | Album: Bring Forth

O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end;
Open my eyes within
To see your everlasting hand.
I shall not fear the struggle
If thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway
If you will be my guide.

[Refrain] Bring forth the truth and beauty
Embedded deep inside.
Breathe life in every moment.
You will not leave my side.

O let me hear thee speaking
In accents clear and still,
Above the storms of trials,
The murmurs of self-will.
O speak to reassure me,
Strengthen and make me whole;
O speak, and let me listen,
Creator of my soul.

[Bridge] Bring forth the beauty (×8)

O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end.

Edicam pulchritudine (×8)

This song is about coming home to who we were created to be—good and beautiful, reflections of our Maker. Sadly, sin often leads us away from home, and God’s image that we bear becomes marred. But Christ walks alongside us, calling forth our truest selves, reminding us that we are God’s beloved. We have been redeemed, made alive by God’s Spirit, and are being sanctified. God is bringing forth the beauty he embedded in us at creation.

The speaker of the song seeks Christ’s guidance, illumination, strength, and wholeness. He prays for the ability to discern God’s voice above all the voices of this world that try to tell us we are less than, or that only such and such will satisfy us. And he prays for the will to obey. His desire is that he be animated moment by moment by the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8).

The last line, which I take to be in God’s voice, is Latin for “I will bring forth the beauty.”

This song appears on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist.

Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

Rev. Kenneth Tanner on the fire of God

Schmidt, Linda_Pentecost
Linda S. Schmidt, Pentecost, 1991. Quilt, 111 × 80 in.

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49).

In the churches in which many of us were raised, we were taught to live in fear of this fire of God.

We are not going to repeat that lie. The ancient Christians show us a better way of perceiving this divine fire as we encounter it in the Scriptures and in our experiences.

I want the children listening to me today to know and trust they can welcome and embrace the fire of God, that there is no reason to live in terror about the fire that has come from God, is coming even now, and will come at the end of time.

We welcome the fire of God because we know the character of the God who meets us in the flesh of Jesus Christ.

This God comes among us not to destroy humanity but to burn everything out of us that is not of love, that does not have its origin in the divine life.

Like all healing, deliverance, and reconciliation, there is pain involved in being set free and made well. It is not easy. It is not a cake walk.

But here is the good news: we are free from anxiety and fear as we embrace the cleansing fire of God. “With its fire, love makes better whatever it touches” (Ambrose).

We became cold in our self-imposed exile from God, and like any object, the further it gets away from the fiery source of its life, the colder it becomes.

Remember that God makes his ministers flames of fire, that we shine like the sun in the kingdom of heaven.

Remember that Cleopas, later in Luke, describes that their “hearts burned within them” as Jesus taught them from the Scriptures.

Remember at Pentecost that flames of fire come to rest on the heads of the gathered men and women.

As John promised, Christ baptizes us with fire and the Spirit.

For Cyril of Jerusalem, these words of Jesus about casting fire upon the earth find their fulfillment at Pentecost.

Remember that the flames of the fiery furnace do not consume the Hebrew children, but the angel—Christ himself—stands with them in scorching flames and they emerge from the fire unharmed.

Remember that the burning bush is aflame, is entirely engulfed, but never consumed by the fire of God.

So it is with us: the fire of the love that is the Spirit of God—Ambrose describes this fire of love as having wings—flies through us, consuming whatever is not of Love and trying whatever is good in us in order to purify the good and make it ready for the kingdom.

And we can trust this fire because it comes from the human who is God, who has journeyed through death and hell to bring us back alive with him.

We walk confidently into the fire that is God, knowing that his fire will keep us unto everlasting life.

Kenneth Tanner is the pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and a contributing writer for Mockingbird, Sojourners, Clarion Journal, and more. He frequently posts theological reflections and sermon excerpts on Facebook, such as the one above [source], which he preached August 18, 2019, the tenth Sunday after Pentecost. I’ve reposted it here with his permission. The liturgical quilt is by fiber artist Linda S. Schmidt.

“Holy Spirit Fiyah” (song from Hawaii)

This call-and-response song is from the December 31, 2015, morning session of the Urbana student missions conference in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s performed by the University of Hawaii’s Hui Poly student group, a ministry of InterVarsity Hawai‘i geared toward Pasifika Christians, along with some new conference friends. The song (and ministry) leader is Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch, who establishes the rhythm on the djembe and issues the calls. She is the pastor of Ka ‘Ohana o ke Aloha church in Kaneohe and is of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Ukrainian descent.

The first half of the song is in English (lyrics below), but starting at 3:51, the singers launch into seven different Polynesian or Native American languages: Yup’ik, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian), Fijan, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian Pidgin, and Lakota. Subtitles are included in the video. There’s also dancing!

Holy Spirit, come (Holy Spirit, come)
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Come like fiyah, come like flames
Come like thundah, come like rain
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Fill us up, fill our cup
Fill us up, fill our cup
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

We want more, we want more
We want more, we want more
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

Till we overflow
Till we overflow
Won’t you rain down (Rain down)
Rain down (Rain down)

The Son of righteousness will rise
With healing in his wings
We will be free
And dance before our king
Let your kingdom come
And let your will be done
Here on earth as it is
In heaven (In heaven)
In heaven (In heaven)

We will walk in your love
As we advance your kingdom
Bringing your word
To every nation
Let your kingdom come
And let your will be done
Here on earth as it is
In heaven (In heaven)
In heaven (In heaven)

To view other video content from Urbana 15, including songs and sermons, see https://2100.intervarsity.org/resource-keyword/urbana-15. Urbana has been held triennially since 1946, and its worship always demonstrates a commitment to global multiculturalism.

Also, hear more from Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch:

“Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” by Bruce Beasley (excerpts)

Rossi, Filippo_Holy Spirit
Filippo Rossi (Italian, 1970–), Holy Spirit (triptych), 2011. Mixed media, acrylic, gold leaf, bitumen, and brown wax on extruded polystyrene, left and right panels 120 × 120 cm, central panel 190 × 120 cm. © 2021 Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality Collection, Barga (LU), Italy. www.magnifice.it

1.

Glossolalic and disincarnate, interfere
in me, interleave me
and leave me through my breathing: like some third

person conjugation I’ve rewhispered
in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue
made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.

5.

Because doves have no gall bladder
they have come
to stand for mildness. They stand

for You, warble, blue
underwing-flash and quaver, con-
and in-substantial

Squab of the Holy Ghost.
Some Ark’s scraping some
mud-ridged, just-dried Ararat now

inside me, some dove’s
dropped an olive sprig on its bow, meant to stand
once more for the passing of the gall.

7.

Through “spiration” and not “generation” You are said
to proceed, but the question of Who ex-pires You—
Father or Son, or both—has led to a thousand years of anathema and schism.

The Wikipedia on just that question goes twenty pages.
Ungenerative, ungenerated, You’re like me: recessive and proceeding nonetheless, like the wick’s
wax-wet and sizzle as it hardens into self-douse.

9. 

Fricative, constrictive, like a gush
of burnt scrapwood smoke from a neighbor’s yard,
its wintercleared thornbushes and rattlesticks in firepit,

greencrackle and sap-hiss, late March Lent-smoke
ash-smack in back of tongue and eyes, forehead-and-cheek stream of char.
Numinous, pneumatic, Who

bloweth where You listeth, Whom
the world will never know, list to blow
down me.

These are four of the nine sections in “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia” by Bruce Beasley, from Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the publisher.

An Affirmation of Faith

Painting by Jyoti Sahi
Painting by Jyoti Sahi, based on John 20:22

We believe in Jesus Christ,
our savior and liberator,
the expression of God’s redeeming
and restoring love,
the mark of humanness,
source of courage, power, and love,
God of God,
light of light,
ground of our humanity.

We believe that God resides in slums,
lives in broken homes and hearts,
suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness.

But through death and resurrection
God gives life, pride, and dignity,
provides the content of our vision,
offers the context of our struggle,
promises liberation
to the oppressor and the oppressed,
hope to those in despair.

We believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit
who revives our decaying soul,
resurrects our defeated spirits,
renews our hope of wholeness,
and reminds us of our responsibility
in ushering in God’s new order here and now.

This affirmation of faith originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of iGi, a publication of the Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology. Used by permission.

Wind (Artful Devotion)

Sarazhin, Denis_Wind
Denis Sarazhin (Ukrainian, 1982–), Wind, 2014. Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 × 78 3/4 in. (200 × 200 cm).

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

—Acts 2:1–21

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SONG: “Wind” by Joseph, on Native Dreamer Kin (2014)

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of Pentecost, see:

  • “Like a Wildfire,” featuring a batik by the late Solomon Raj from India and a collaborative instrumental performance by Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi and Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda
  • “Come, Energy Divine,” featuring a cyanotype by contemporary Ukrainian icongrapher Roman Barabakh and a Sacred Harp hymn

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 Pentecost Sunday, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Santo Spirito, Joan of Arc, “Halo My Path,” and more

VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”: Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.

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ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.

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NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)

Santo Spirito
Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence

The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.

My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:

Plus these two:

  • The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
  • The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.

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NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.

Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.

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NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!

“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”

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FILMS

May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.

Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.

While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.

The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.

Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.

If You Love Me (Artful Devotion)

Laurencin, Marie_Girl with a Dove
Marie Laurencin (French, 1885–1956), Girl with a Dove, 1928. Oil on linen, 46.3 × 38.4 cm (18 1/4 × 15 1/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

—John 14:15–21

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SONG: “If Ye Love Me” | Text taken from John 14:15–17, trans. William Tyndale, 1539 | Music by Thomas Tallis, 1565 | Performed by the Cambridge Singers under the direction of John Rutter, on Treasures of English Church Music, 1995


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 the Sixth Sunday of Easter, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Andrew Wyeth’s Pentecost, moon in a cathedral, dandelion wishes, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: Pentecost by Andrew Wyeth, written by Victoria Emily Jones: In 2017 I took a day trip up to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to attend the major Andrew Wyeth retrospective organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Though some critics dismiss him as a “regional nostalgist” who, in sticking to realism, failed to keep with the times, I was enthralled by his hundred-plus paintings on display, not least of which was Pentecost. Created in 1989, it shows a pair of old fishing nets blowing in the wind on the Maine island his wife purchased and revitalized. Wyeth was not religious, but he was fascinated by the supernatural, and his paintings are often celebrated for their spiritual quality, for the sense of presence they evoke. Click on the link to read my reflection on this painting, named after the annual Christian feast that the church celebrates today (June 9) in honor of the Holy Spirit’s descent.

Pentecost by Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Pentecost, 1989. Tempera with pencil on panel, 20 3/4 × 30 5/8 in. Private collection. Photo © Artists Rights Society (ARS).

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SONG: “Come, Holy Ghost,” arranged and performed by Nichlas Schaal and friends: The ninth-century Latin invocation “Veni Creator Spiritus,” attributed to Rabanus Maurus, has been translated into English more than fifty times since the English Reformation, under such titles as “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” and “Creator Spirit, by whose aid.” Originally seven verses sung in Gregorian chant, the hymn is usually condensed to four verses in modern hymnals and paired with one of three tunes. This super-fun arrangement by the Schaals, so full of joy (and “la-da-da-das”!), uses a nineteenth-century translation by Edward Caswell and tune by Louis Lambillotte. I’ve been listening to it on repeat all week as I’ve been gearing up for Pentecost. [HT: Liturgy Letter]

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
And in our hearts take up thy rest;
Come with thy grace and heav’nly aid
To fill the hearts which thou hast made,
To fill the hearts which thou hast made.

O Comforter, to thee we cry,
Thou heav’nly gift of God most high,
Thou fount of life, and fire of love,
And sweet anointing from above,
And sweet anointing from above.

O Holy Ghost, through thee alone
Know we the Father and the Son;
Be this our firm unchanging creed,
That thou dost from them both proceed,
That thou dost from them both proceed.

Praise we the Lord, Father and Son,
And Holy Spirit with them one;
And may the Son on us bestow
All gifts that from the Spirit flow,
All gifts that from the Spirit flow.

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DANCE PERFORMANCES: Grounds That Shout!, curated by Reggie Wilson: It interests me to see how sacred spaces, especially Christian ones, inspire new artistic creations. Here’s one example from last month: “Curated by award-winning choreographer Reggie Wilson, Grounds that Shout! (and others merely shaking) is a series of performances that respond to the layered histories of Philadelphia’s religious spaces through contemporary dance, reflecting on the relationships and connections between practices of movement and worship. Over two weeks, eight choreographers and performance groups . . . perform[ed] in four historic Philadelphia churches, drawing from site and spirit to present original and re-situated works of dance.”

For “Souls a-Stirring” by Germaine Ingram, two female dancers shuffled around the large stone baptismal font at Church of the Advocate, sounding out rhythms as Ingram joined them and sang, “When temptation calls out to me / When dark clouds merge and follow me / I ask god to take my hand / Can he not / Can she not / Inspire a woman to teach God’s love?” Photo: Daniel Kontz/Hyperallergic.

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ART INSTALLATIONS

Museum of the Moon at Ely Cathedral: Today’s the last day to see Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon installation at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, a twenty-three-foot replica of the moon that utilizes high-resolution NASA satellite imagery and a sound composition by Dan Jones. The internally lit spherical sculpture hovers under the cathedral’s painted nave ceiling and is the main attraction of the cathedral’s science festival, “The Sky’s the Limit,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 16, 1969). Jerram has produced several moons, which are touring the world, hoisted up in churches and other spaces, indoor and outdoor. For some really stunning photos as well as a tour schedule, check out https://my-moon.org/.

Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram
Installation view of Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon at Ely Cathedral, May 2019. Photo: Joe Giddens/Press Association.

Jerram has also created replicas of Earth, scaled down by a factor of 1.8 million and titled Gaia. They are currently being displayed inside Salisbury and Liverpool cathedrals and will thereafter continue their world tours. (The bronze font by William Pye at Salisbury, designed to reflect and extend the surrounding architecture, makes for some truly amazing photographs of Gaia! Not to mention the significant meaning generated by the interaction of the two.)

Dandelions by The Art Department: From May 11 to 12, a decommissioned building at the Laguna Bell electrical substation in Commerce, California, was transformed into a “wish-processing facility,” where visitors submitted their wishes for questioning and analysis before taking a dandelion and blowing its seeds down a chute. Part installation, part performance, Dandelions was put together by the anonymous collective The Art Department. When asked to define wish, the collective replied, “For some, a wish is a prayer fulfilled by a higher power. For some, a wish is an aspiration imbued with rational optimism. For some, wishes represent unfulfilled longing.”

Art often gives us occasion to confront who we are and what we desire, and with this piece, that was done in a playful way, with a mock bureaucracy that included the Department of Small Things That Float and various logistical assessments. View more photos and read an interview with the creators at My Modern Met, and see also the Hyperallergic review.

Dandelions
Photo: Michèle M. Waite, courtesy of The Art Department

Dandelions installation
Photo: Michèle M. Waite, courtesy of The Art Department

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EXHIBITION: “Renewal: Icon Paintings by Lyuba Yatskiv”: Through June 30, the Iconart Contemporary Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine, is hosting a solo show of new work by Lyuba Yatskiv, one of the country’s several experimental iconographers. Among the subjects on display are the Creation of the World (he’s got the whole world in his hands!), Noah’s Ark, David the Psalmist, the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women at the Tomb.

Creation of the World by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), Creation of the World, 2019. Acrylic and gold on gessoed board.

John the Baptist triptych by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), St. John the Forerunner, Angel of the Desert, 2019. Acrylic and gold on gessoed boards.

I’ve featured Yatskiv’s work several times before on this website: in an Artful Devotion, a compilation of baptism icons, a roundup, and here by association.