The Beatitudes (Artful Devotion)

Finished Haywood Street Fresco
Christopher Holt (American, 1977–), Haywood Street Beatitudes, 2018–19. Fresco, 9 1/2 × 27 ft. Haywood Street Congregation, Asheville, North Carolina. Photo: John Warner.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

—Matthew 5:3–11

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SONG: “Beatitudes” by Bernice Johnson Reagon | Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, live at Carnegie Hall, November 7, 1987

Bernice Johnson Reagon (born October 4, 1942) is a song leader, composer, scholar, and social activist who in the early 1960s was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in the Albany Movement in Georgia. In 1973 she founded the all-black female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, based in Washington, DC. Reagon, along with other members of the SNCC Freedom Singers, realized the power of collective singing to unify the disparate groups who began to work together in the 1964 Freedom Summer protests in the South. ‘After a song,’ Reagon recalled, ‘the differences between us were not so great. Somehow, making a song required an expression of that which was common to us all. . . . This music was like an instrument, like holding a tool in your hand.’” [source]

Reagon was the creator and host of the Peabody Award–winning NPR series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, which originally aired in 1994 in twenty-six parts. (All the episodes are freely accessible online!) Under Reagon’s guidance, the production team traveled all over the country to record baptismal and congregational services, concerts, and interviews with a range of performers, composers, and community members. A four-CD set was released as a companion to the series.

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The Haywood Street Beatitudes fresco was completed last year in the sanctuary of Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, part of whose mission is “breaking down barriers that divide the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ and reminding each person of their worth, their goodness.” The principal artist is Christopher Holt, and he worked with a team of four others. To learn more about the fresco, visit the interactive website https://visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org/, which includes many photos and sketches that document the making process in detail, information about the people pictured and an interpretive guide, and comments from participants in the project. All the quotes and photos in this section I’ve sourced from there.

The Rev. Brian Combs, who is shown emerging from behind the stone wall on the right, founded Haywood Street Congregation in 2009 to be a place of welcome for those struggling with addiction and/or homelessness. “The most painful part of holding a cardboard sign at the intersection,” he says, “is not the humiliating public declaration of helplessness or having trash thrown at you, or watching the automatic doors lock down. By far, from what I’ve heard after a decade of listening, is the refusal of so many drivers, idling just feet away at the red light, to even make eye contact.”

Commissioning this fresco—a permanent medium in which paint joins with plaster, making the image inseparable from the church architecture—is one way in which Haywood Street is “affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity, and sabotaging the shame of poverty.” Fresco painting reached its zenith in the Italian Renaissance, but “too often . . . religious art . . . was made over in the image of those in power who were paying for it. God was rendered European and male. Jesus was more prince than peasant. Salvation meant being upper class.” The Haywood Street Beatitudes contains a more racially and socioeconomically diverse set of individuals that is reflective of the makeup of the community. Its message is that “God continues to show up in everyday life among the unhoused and the housed, the poor and poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the hungry.” 

The skyline, with its Appalachian Mountain vista, offers an idealized portrait of Asheville. Some historical buildings are visible in the background, such as the racially segregated Stephens-Lee High School (on the top of the hill), which opened in 1923 and became a center for culture and arts and a source of pride for the Black community; it closed in 1965 as part of the county school board’s integration plan, and in 1975 most of it was bulldozed.

Haywood Street is most known for its Downtown Welcome Table ministry: family-style meals are served—with cloth napkins and on china plates!—on Wednesdays and Sundays in the church’s dining room, where people from all backgrounds are encouraged to come and eat together and enjoy fellowship. (Due to COVID-19 restrictions, meals are currently served to-go.) “We are a ministry that acknowledges each of us has gifts and each of us has needs. While some come with hunger from the body, others come with a hunger in their souls.” The website goes on to explain that visitors can “expect roles to be reversed. If you are coming to give, you might be asked to receive, to simply sit and have lunch. . . . If you are coming to receive, you might be called upon to serve.”

Haywood Street fresco
Haywood Street fresco (detail)

“Table is the defining metaphor at Haywood Street,” signifying relationship and togetherness. In the fresco, community members prepare the table and hold it up, led by Miss Mary (center); “keep the house open and be generous with your life,” she says. Holding her hand is Dave, a US Air Force veteran who grew up in Alabama in a culture where he was told never to touch a Black person. At Haywood he has overcome the prejudice he was formerly steeped in.

Other pictured individuals include Edward, the church organist; Robert, a gardener who arranges flowers for the altar and dining room tables each week; Soleil, a little girl who loves coming to Haywood Street for the desserts and who is whispering into Robert’s ear; Wayne (bottom right), who initially came to Haywood Street through its Respite ministry, which provides a safe place for homeless adults to rest, recover, and be cared for following a hospital discharge; and so on.

Haywood Street fresco (detail)

All are underneath the blessing hands of God and the rainbow of God’s promise.

Flanking the scene are two sentinel figures, each holding a light so that those in the darkness can find their way. The one on the left is modeled after Charles, a community member who died of cancer in May 2019, a few months before the fresco was completed. He was foundational to the church, as he lived on the streets and vouched for Haywood Street to all his friends when it was just getting started. His dog, Emma, sits in front of him, next to an open pouch of his woodworking tools. The other light-bearer, on the right, is Jeanette, a single mom who “came for lunch” one day between job interviews “and found love.” She is a care minister at Haywood Street and is on the board of directors. The two hold the Communion elements: Charles, a wine flask, and Jeanette, a sheaf of wheat.

Shout-out to Alexandra Davison, director of Culture Care RDU and a docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art, whose blog post “Lent, COVID-19 & the Beatitudes on Haywood Street” introduced me to this fresco.

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I’ve addressed the Beatitudes in previous Artful Devotions, which feature

For more Beatitudes-related art, see the Visual Commentary on Scripture exhibition “Blessed,” curated by Rebekah Eklund, a professor of New Testament, theology, and ethics at Loyola University Maryland. I appreciate how she addresses descriptive versus prescriptive interpretations of the Beatitudes. She examines (1) an illumination from a French medieval moral treatise that shows seven women in a “virtue garden,” each representing a different beatitude; (2) an Ethiopian-inspired canvas painting by contemporary American artist Laura James, which places the Beatitudes in the context of chattel slavery; and (3) the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece [previously], where seven groups of saints gather round a bleeding Lamb.

Blessed (VCS exhibition)

“All three artworks place a Christ-figure in the centre: the tallest tree in the middle of the garden tended by prayer, an African Jesus with open arms delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or the slaughtered Lamb standing triumphantly on the altar of his sacrifice and surrounded by angels. This centrality suggests Christ’s role not only as the speaker of the Beatitudes but also as their embodiment and fulfilment.”


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for All Saints’ Day, cycle A, click here.

Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy

All photos by Victoria Emily Jones or Eric James Jones, © ArtandTheology.org

Soaring 150 feet into the air against a Rocky Mountain backdrop, the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs is a National Historic Landmark and one of Colorado’s most-visited manmade attractions. It was designed by Walter Netsch Jr. of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm responsible for the planning and design of the entire academy, and is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five-Year Award. Construction of the Cadet Chapel began in 1959 and was completed in 1962. It was dedicated in 1963.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The Cadet Chapel was designed to house three distinct worship spaces—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—on two levels, with a large “All-Faiths Room” on a third (bottom) level available to members of other faiths. In 2007 a Buddhist Chapel (the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) was added, and more recently a Muslim prayer room, and outside there is a Falcon Circle for the Earth-Centered Spirituality community (pagans, Druids, Wiccans, etc.), dedicated in 2011. Because of the building’s sound-proofing and separate entrances, different services can be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.

I visited the Cadet Chapel last year shortly before it closed in September for a major renovation and restoration project needed to address water damage. It is scheduled to reopen again in fall 2023.

The most striking feature of the exterior is its seventeen spires, made to resemble jet fighter wings. I must admit: though it is an impressive structure, and I’m fully aware it is a military chapel, the evocation of warplanes for a worship space is a little unsettling. But the design choice does give the building great height—it points to the heavens as do the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe, meant to turn the eye upward toward God.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The steel frame of the chapel comprises one hundred identical tetrahedrons, each weighing five tons and enclosed with aluminum panels. The surfaces of the outer panels are striated so that they reflect light differently throughout the day, depending on the sun’s position.

The chapel is situated on a terrace that overlooks part of the campus as well as beautiful mountain vistas.

View from USAFA Cadet Chapel

The front façade faces south—an atypical orientation for churches, which are traditionally built on a west–east axis, but a choice made, I’m assuming, to best utilize the sunlight for the interior decoration (see next section).

To reach the main entrance you have to ascend a wide granite stairway that leads up one story to an uncovered front porch. Walk inside, and you’re in the narthex (lobby) of the Protestant Chapel.

Protestant Chapel

The Protestant Chapel is by far the largest worship space within the Cadet Chapel, taking up the whole main floor—a choice made based on the religious demographics of enrolled cadets at the time of the building’s construction in the early sixties. (An article published shortly after the chapel’s dedication reported that 68% of cadets listed themselves as Protestant, 29% Catholic, and 2% Jewish, with a few listing other faiths or agnosticism.)

Though the exterior of the Cadet Chapel is, as I experienced it, somewhat cold, sterile, severe, the interior is incredibly warm and genial. Its vertical lift is spectacular. Stained glass strip windows provide ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons and progress from darker to lighter as they reach the altar, with some of the nearly 25,000 dalles (small, thick glass slabs) being deliberately chipped to produce jewel-like facets. The play of colored light across vault, floor, and pews was my favorite part of this space.

USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel)

Vault of USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel) Continue reading “Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy”

Calls for Art, Poetry

CHAIYA ART AWARDS: Now in its second year, this UK art competition explores spirituality through the visual arts. The theme for 2019/20 is “God is . . .” The finalist entries will be brought together for a public exhibition at gallery@oxo in London on April 10–19, 2020, with the winners announced on opening night. Any media are welcome, including painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, photography, and video. You are allowed up to three entries.

Top prize: ₤10,000
Deadline: October 18, 2019
Entry fee: ₤20 (or early-bird rate of ₤15 for submissions sent by July 18)
Restrictions: Must be a UK resident age sixteen or over
Judges: Marcus Lyon, Deborah Tompsett, Mark Oakley, Clive Davis, Katrina Moss
Sponsors: Bible Society, The Jerusalem Trust

Thousand Tear Bottles
Deborah Tompsett, A Thousand Bottles of Tears, 2007–15. Installation view (detail) from Chichester Cathedral, 2015. Winner of the 2018 Chaiya Art Award. [see video]

Left Out by Maxwell Rushton
Maxwell Rushton (British, 1989–), Left Out, 2016. Jesmonite cast encased in a bin liner, 60 × 60 × 60 cm. This sculpture won the public vote at the 2018 Chaiya Art Awards.

I featured a 2018 Chaiya Art Award finalist in a previous roundup—a beautiful Holy Saturday image that uses pregnancy as a metaphor; click here.

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JANET B. MCCABE POETRY PRIZE: There is no prescribed theme or topic for this annual poetry contest presented by Ruminate, a contemplative literary arts magazine with Christian roots. Fifteen finalists will be selected by a panel, and then the first- and second-place winners and honorable mentions will be chosen by poet Craig Santos Perez. Besides a cash prize of $1500, the winner will also have his or her poem published in Ruminate. (Note: If nothing happens when you click the Enter button on the submission webpage, be sure your ad blocker is turned off.)

Top prize: $1500
Deadline: May 15, 2019
Entry fee: $20 (includes submission of up to two poems and a free digital copy of Ruminate)
Judge: Craig Santos Perez
Presenter: Ruminate

You may also like to know that Ruminate runs contests for short fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art—though the entry periods for those are currently closed.

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ROSS AND DAVIS MITCHELL PRIZE: This biennial prize presented by Image journal “seeks to recognize Canadian poets whose work wrestles with the beauty and complexity of religious faith.

“The Mitchell Prize will be awarded to a poet who is hammering out new forms and new language to express the ineffable today. Our goal is to encourage writers whose poems provide access to spiritual experience, awakenings that cast light on the world and make it known. We want to hear from poets who are grappling with transcendence and the divine, those for whom poetry is—as Christian Wiman would describe it—a form of theology.

“Poets engaged with all faith traditions are encouraged to submit work, however this prize is not designed to erase distinctions or paper over conflict. There are meaningful differences between Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Orthodox Jews that cannot, and should not, be erased, suppressed, or ignored. Instead, this prize seeks to honor writing that explores the distinctive contours of belief and the shape it gives to modern life.”

Top prize: $20,000 CAD
Deadline: June 30, 2019
Entry fee: $25 CAD (includes a one-year digital subscription to Image)
Restrictions: Must be a Canadian citizen or resident
Judges: Scott Cairns, Lorna Goodison, Chelene Knight
Presenter: Image, with support from Cardus

Stations of the Cross at the SAAM

Welcome to the Stations of the Cross audio tour at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), developed by Victoria Emily Jones at ArtandTheology.org.

SAAM Stations of the Cross 2018

Originating in the thirteenth century, the Stations of the Cross is a Christian devotional practice whereby participants immerse themselves in the story of Jesus Christ’s final sufferings by metaphorically journeying with him from his trial to his entombment. The road between is known as the Via Dolorosa (“Way of Sorrows”) or Via Crucis (“Way of the Cross”).

In this eighteen-stop tour we will walk this road with Jesus, recognizing along the way the many other paths of sorrow that were traveled in America’s history and that are still being traveled today. Migrant workers, soldiers, prisoners, victims of racial discrimination and violence, the poor and the homeless, the grieving, and the mentally ill are among the many people we will meet through these paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works that bear witness to human suffering.

The American novelist and social critic James Baldwin said of Beauford Delaney, one of the artists on our tour, “The reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.” That is my hope: that as we encounter these visual narratives of suffering from our nation’s past and present, we will begin to see. This tour obviously doesn’t cover all the oppressed groups in the US, but this is a starting point for further conversation, discovery, intercessory prayer, confession, and action.

My other hope is that we will be led to a deeper engagement with the biblical narrative—with Jesus’s way of sorrows and why he walked it, what it achieved.

Jesus began his public ministry by reading these words from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue at Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then, as Luke 4:20–21 tells us, “he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” This was a very bold move: here, he is claiming to be the messianic servant of the Lord prophesied about in Isaiah 61, who would bring spiritual and, ultimately, material salvation to the world. But the cost of this salvation, the Hebrew prophet tells us, is suffering; the messianic servant must suffer and die. “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Below you will find eighteen audio tracks of art commentary available for free streaming or download, as well as transcripts and artwork locations. If you are taking this tour virtually, you can click on any of the featured images to jump to that object’s museum page, where you can zoom in on details.

As you walk this Way of Sorrows, beholding the sufferings both of Christ and of those he came to redeem, may these artists’ seeing help you to see.   Continue reading “Stations of the Cross at the SAAM”