New resource: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

I’m super-excited to share with you all a major new project I’ve contributed to, which is the Visual Commentary on Scripture (VCS), a free online publication that provides theological commentary on the Bible through the skillful selection of works of art. Launched November 6, 2018, at a reception at the Tate Modern, the VCS is directed by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London and is funded in large part by Roberta and Howard Ahmanson.

As Quash explains in the introductory video, the VCS aims to demonstrate how visual art itself can serve as biblical commentary, and when placed in conversation with other “visual commentaries” on the same text, the meaning of said text potentially becomes all the more clear. This practice of compiling diverse theological perspectives on a biblical text for their dialogical potential has ancient roots. The Jewish Talmud, for example, gathers together the viewpoints of different rabbis, not because they all necessarily agree but often because they constructively disagree—and there’s value in that conversation. The equivalent in the Christian tradition is the Catenae.

Translating this tradition into a modern, visual format, the VCS comprises virtual “mini-exhibitions” of three works of art per biblical passage, along with a short textual commentary on each artwork and one comparative commentary. (Currently about one hundred passages have gone live, and the goal is to cover the entire Bible.) The commentaries are written for nonspecialists but are grounded in detailed theological and art-historical research. Care is taken to secure the highest-quality images, which you can zoom in on.

Art historian Matthew Milliner calls the VCS “the Biblia pauperum of our time,” referring to the relatively accessible block-printed picture Bibles of the Middle Ages:

Let’s face it: new commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors make the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually . . . wait for it . . . free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.

YES. I would love to see pastors and seminary students using the VCS as a resource for their biblical and theological studies and sermon preparation.

(Related posts: “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”; “Two unlikely characters sharing the same space”)

The exhibitions are arranged by biblical text for easy searching—and there are so many fantastic ones. I especially enjoy the ones that include a contemporary art selection. For example, Ayla Lepine ingeniously chose Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls from the 2015 Venice Biennale to converse with Esther 8, in which Esther pleads for the deliverance of her people. Ursula Weekes curated an eclectic trio of portraits—of Florentine noblewoman Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, German Reformer Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife), and former US First Lady Michelle Obama—to interact with the famous “wife of noble character” passage from Proverbs 31. And Pablo Perez d’Ors places Michael Landy’s kinetic sculpture Doubting Thomas, made of found objects and inviting viewer participation, side by side with Old Master paintings to probe the significance of that famous resurrection encounter.

Esther 8 (VCS Commentary)

Proverbs 31 (VCS commentary)

Doubting Thomas (VCS commentary)

“Physical sight can be a pathway to spiritual insight,” Quash says, affirming the seventh-century monk John of Damascus, who wrote that “just as [through] words perceived by the senses we hear with bodily ears, and understand what is spiritual, so through bodily vision we arrive at spiritual contemplation” (In Defense of Icons 3.12).

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I curated the “Bodily Resurrection” exhibition for the VCS, which takes as its basis 1 Corinthians 15:35–58. After reading the passage many times, including in the context of the whole epistle, and meditating on it, I wanted to investigate how the church has interpreted it over the centuries, so I read Caroline Walker Bynum’s excellent book The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336, which quotes from and summarizes a wealth of patristic and medieval writings on the topic. That led me to Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh, an extensive treatise from the early second century. They were both fascinating reads.

In addition to the Pauline metaphor of the seed, Bynum writes,

the resurrection of the body is also described by theologians as the flowering of a dry tree after winter, the donning of new clothes, the rebuilding of a temple, the hatching of an egg, the smelting out of ore from clay, the reforging of a statue that has been melted down, the growth of the fetus from a drop of semen, the return of the phoenix from its own ashes, the reassembling of broken potsherds, the vomiting up of bits of shipwrecked bodies by fishes that have consumed them . . . (6)

I realized that I had never really thought about the logistics of the doctrine of the general resurrection, and although, as with other doctrines, the mechanics are not what’s important, it was interesting to consider what my resurrected body might look like, and how (and from whence) it will be reconstituted once it decomposes, turns to dust. Some of the conjectures I found to be quite amusing—like Gregory of Nyssa’s claim that in heaven we will have neither genitals nor intestines, because there will be no procreation or digestion(?). Or Augustine’s suggestion that we will receive back all the bits of ourselves that we ever had, including nail and hair clippings, but the excess will not necessarily go to our fingers and heads but rather will become absorbed into our flesh (so that we don’t look freakish).

I spent a lot of time wrestling through the paradox, held consistently by the church throughout the ages, that the resurrection body will be both identical to the one we have now and new. This particular passage from Paul seems to emphasize the new aspect. He contrasts “physical”/“terrestrial” and “spiritual”/“celestial” bodies. What does he mean by the latter?

Choosing only three images to open up this rich theological doctrine was a real challenge, and I cycled through dozens before landing on the ones I did.

At the outset, I was cognizant that the resurrection Paul writes about, which will occur “at the last trumpet,” is distinct from the spectacular rising from the graves that occurred on the day Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27:52)—so although there are many fine examples of that latter episode in art, I passed them over for this assignment. I also passed over images of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, since that narrative is rooted in a different passage (see the VCS exhibition), even though there is an obvious intertextual link between the two.

I was intrigued by the “second Adam” motif present in the Pauline text, and I considered several artworks that follow that vein, including ones depicting the “Harrowing of Hell,” or, as it’s called in the Orthodox tradition, the Anastasis, in which the resurrected Christ pulls up Adam, Eve, and other Old Testament saints from Sheol. This iconographic type would have made a particularly apt pairing with the passage’s triumphant ending: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” But strictly speaking, the harrowing has already taken place (according to church tradition, on Holy Saturday), and although it prefigures the future resurrection, I wanted to keep the focus on the yet-to-come event that Paul is talking about. Plus, I figured that the harrowing will almost surely make an appearance in some other VCS commentary.

Anastasis (Istanbul)
Anastasis fresco in the parecclesion of Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 1315.

A related image I found, a contemporary one, very unique in its approach and theologically loaded, is a life-size painting by Caleb Stoltzfus that shows the glorious nude Christ, his puncture wounds visible, pulling up a man from the dust. It’s titled Resurrection. I love this image, and there’s much that could be said about it—but ultimately, I felt that it fit better with the passage preceding mine, in particular 1 Corinthians 15:20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Read the artist’s commentary at http://www.calebstoltzfus.com/blog/resurrection.

Resurrection by Caleb Stoltzfus
Caleb Stoltzfus (American), Resurrection, 2016. Oil on linen, 6.5 × 5 ft.

In my image search, I also examined a lot of symbolic bird imagery of the resurrection—that is, phoenixes and peacocks. The phoenix is a mythological bird that dies but then rises up from its own ashes, and the flesh of the peacock was thought to not decay, giving both birds a theological weight since the earliest era of Christian art, where they sometimes stand in for Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, our own. Thinking I’d draw this visual tradition into conversation with 1 Corinthians 15, I came close to selecting Hope, a Renaissance painting from Umbria, Italy, from a set of three allegorical paintings on the theological virtues; in it Hope is personified as a woman who squints her eyes toward the sun and catches a wind as she stands beside a phoenix on its pyre—suggesting the Christian hope of life after death. Although hope is implicit in the Corinthians passage, it’s not a keyword, so I ultimately decided not to include the Umbrian painting in my selection. Peacocks, however, did make the cut! (See below.)

Theological Virtue Hope
Italian (Umbrian) painter, Hope, ca. 1500. Tempera and gold on wood, 29 1/8 × 17 7/8 in. (74 × 45.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another shortlisted artwork was the Last Judgment triptych by Jean Bellegambe, a French-speaking Flemish painter of the early sixteenth century. I was particularly drawn in by a detail at the bottom of the central panel, which shows skeletons in the process of acquiring flesh, and an angel reassembling body parts. It is very common in historical works of art for the resurrection of the dead to be subsumed under a larger visual program of the Last Judgment—but Paul doesn’t discuss judgment in my given passage, so I decided to move away from that context.

Last Judgment by Jean Bellegambe
Jean Bellegambe (French/Flemish, ca. 1470–1535/36), Triptych with the Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1525. Oil on oak panels. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Probably the most unusual thing I discovered in the course of my research was the “regurgitation motif,” which shows animals vomiting up human body parts (from the corpses they have eaten) for reassembly on the last day. Several early church fathers mentioned that this would happen in their theologies of the resurrection, but its visual origin is attributed to the posticonoclastic East and the Carolingian-Ottonian West; it continues down into modern times in Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian frescoes. One of the best-known examples (in the West) is from the monumental twelfth-century mosaic at Torcello near Venice.

Resurrection of the Dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.
Sea giving up its dead (Torcello)
Last Judgment (detail), 12th century. Mosaic, west wall, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, Italy.

Bynum cites a handful of other examples in her aforementioned book and discusses the motif in depth, contributing to one of her main theses: salvation is regurgitation, damnation is swallowing. An absolutely brilliant argument, drawing heavily on visual theology.

It’s likely that Revelation 20:13 (“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . .”) influenced the creation of this motif. Because Paul himself doesn’t mention the mouths of animals giving up their dead, I decided not to go with the extraordinary Torcello mosaic. But I was able to sneak in a reference to that tradition by way of a side detail in one of the paintings I chose. It’s almost comical to look on, how literal it is. But it’s also thought-provoking. If our dead bodies are eaten and digested by worms or carrion beasts—or, God forbid, we meet our end through the mouth of a wild animal—then what remains of us, if we are divided into parts, mere particles, even? Will we ever be made whole again? If we are both body and soul, as Christianity attests, then isn’t our material continuity essential?

Other runners-up that didn’t make the cut were Wassily Kandinsky’s eschatological paintings—for example, All Saints I and Composition V. I wanted to choose artworks from three different countries and eras, and for the modern period, I just had to go with Stanley Spencer, who is renowned for his many resurrection paintings, localized to his hometown of Cookham in the UK. (I also felt a little beyond my depth writing about Kandinsky’s radical style and spiritual approach to painting.)

All Saints Day by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), All Saints I [Allerheilgen], 1911. Reverse glass painting, 20 × 24 in. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany.
Composition V by Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 6 1/4 × 9 ft. (190 × 275 cm). Private collection.

The inclusion of Spencer also influenced my choice, after some consideration, not to go with the Harrowing panel from Nicholas Mynheer’s Wilcote polyptych. (Two twentieth-century British paintings would have presented too limited a range.) It would have fit well with the Corinthians passage, which talks about us being sown in the dust and reaped in glory—and its juxtaposition with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise, on the opposite wing of the altarpiece, further underscores this theme. I wrote about the altarpiece as a whole a few years ago at Art & Theology.

The Harrowing by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), The Harrowing, extreme right inner panel of a polyptych, 1999. Wilcote Chapel, St. Mary’s Church, North Leigh, Oxfordshire, England.

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So what did I end up choosing?

  • A fifth-century Christian sarcophagus from Italy, emphasizing Paul’s metaphor of the body as seed that, once buried, will flower forth in life
  • A thirteenth-century German psalter illumination that shows the dead casting off their grave-clothes and “putting on” immortality
  • A twentieth-century painting by the British master Sir Stanley Spencer, who set the resurrection in a local churchyard, using his friends and neighbors as subjects

Bodily Resurrection (VCS commentary)

I feel that these three artworks give sufficient variety and engage meaningfully with Paul’s text. Hop on over to the Visual Commentary on Scripture for high-resolution viewing and to learn more! I recommend that you start by reading the comparative commentary: https://thevcs.org/bodily-resurrection/last-trump.

And be sure to check in periodically at the VCS website, as new content is added regularly.

Roundup: Ecclesia, black gospel cover, Nat Turner, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “The Birth of Ecclesia”: On Sunday I wrote a piece for ArtWay on a thirteenth-century Bible moralisée illumination that pairs the creation of Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam with the birth of the church out of the side wound of the New Adam, Christ, our spouse, who “fell asleep” on the cross. The painting offers a great example of how art can do theology.

Birth of Ecclesia
Bible moralisèe: “The Creation of Eve” and “The Birth of Ecclesia,” fol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49.

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POETRY LECTURE: “Believing in Poetry for a Secular Age: Michael Symmons Roberts and Mark Oakley,” October 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m., 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ: “If we live in a secular age, you wouldn’t know it from our poetry. Not only are some of the greatest poets of recent years overtly Christian, such as Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray, but many who are not remain drawn to and fascinated by ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.’” To facilitate discussion on poetry’s spiritual power, the religion and society think tank Theos has organized an evening with the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts and arts writer and advocate Mark Oakley, who will draw on their most recent publications. General admission is £7.

Inspired by his hometown of Manchester, Roberts’s seventh poetry collection, Mancunia, released last month, has received critical acclaim. “Mancunian Miserere” is reprinted in full in the Guardian’s review, but here’s a taste: “As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God, / . . . / for the wide berth I gave that man-cocoon asleep on the steps / of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance.”

As canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Mark Oakley’s responsibilities is to advance the church’s engagement with the arts. Last year he wrote The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, a series of reflections on twenty-nine poems that speak into the life of faith. Earlier books of his include The Collage of God, A Good Year, and compilations of readings for weddings and funerals.

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ALBUM: Grace by Lizz Wright: Lizz Wright’s sixth album, Grace, dropped on September 15 to rave reviews. “A sophisticated straddler of down-home blues, jazz, gospel, folk, southern pop and confessional singer-songwriter traditions,” Wright, with the help of album producer Joe Henry, chose nine covers from an array of sources and eras and cowrote the tenth track with Maia Sharp. My favorite is “Singing in My Soul,” written by Thomas Dorsey and popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—about the steadfast joy that is ours in Christ.

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FILM: The Birth of a Nation (2016): My husband never learned about Nat Turner in school, he recently told me when the name came up at an exhibition opening. So when we got home we decided to watch Nate Parker’s biopic of Turner, an enslaved black preacher who in 1831 led a revolt against the slaveholding families of Southampton County, Virginia, killing about sixty white men, women, and children. It was a watershed moment in American history that spread fear throughout the South and resulted in the execution of fifty-six slaves and the lynching of over a hundred nonparticipants.

As do most cinematic retellings of history, The Birth of a Nation contains inaccuracies, and in its attempts to be a hero’s story, it lacks nuance. But it effectively shows how entrenched Turner was in scripture—he was literate—and how his growing understanding of God’s will for his people, combined with supernatural visions and other pressings of the Spirit, impelled him to act decisively on the side of justice. Because of my pacifist convictions, I cannot commend Turner’s violent methods . . . but I say this as a free white woman in the twenty-first century, whose privilege has protected me from the kind of desperation that was present on the antebellum plantations of the American South; were I in a state of constant oppression with no other way out, and forced to witness daily the abuse of my spouse, my children, my mother, and others I love, maybe my feelings would be different. I can still appreciate Turner’s ministry to his fellow slaves and his hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as his internal wrestling with what was an extremely difficult situation.

On a related note, Nat Turner’s Bible is one of the collection highlights at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Worth a visit!

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “This is what hope usually feels like”: In October 2015 I wrote an essay on George Frederic Watts’s allegorical painting Hope and how it pictures the posture that my family and I assumed after my Aunt Marjie’s cancer diagnosis. I am sad to report that Aunt Marjie passed away in July. We spent so many fun times together, traveling, eating, singing and dancing, our weeklong excursion through Italy, along with my mom, being a main highlight. Aunt Marjie’s boundless enthusiasm, positivity, selflessness, and sense of adventure will continue to inspire me. Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Montana for a party in her honor, where I’ll be telling 150-plus friends and family members what she meant to me—and then dancing it up, just like she wanted! Here are a few favorite photos from my albums.

Making cookies with Aunt Marjie
Me and Aunt Marjie making cookies at Grandmom and Poppies’ house in Pleasantville, New York, in March 1991. When I was older Aunt Marjie told me that she had actually been in mourning that month over the loss of a child through miscarriage, and that this was the first time she had smiled in weeks. “It was a healing moment I have never forgotten,” she said.
Marjie, Vic, and Orion
Aunt Marjie was endearingly goofy, and completely unselfconscious about it. She livened up every outing and taught me not to care what other people think. Here we are with her son Orion, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” on a boardwalk in 2002—deserted because it’s December!
Trevi Fountain
Mom, me, and Aunt Marjie throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This photo has been framed on my bedroom dresser since I got back to the States from that semester abroad in 2009.
Aunt Marjie at Villa Jovis
This is a genuine reaction to I-don’t-remember-what inside Villa Jovis on Capri. Aunt Marjie’s ultra-expressiveness was one of her much-beloved traits, and archaeological sites always brought it out. (She had a PhD in the field . . . in addition to master’s degrees in geology and geophysics, anthropology, and social science!)
Aunt Marjie dancing
Aunt Marjie was always the first one out on the dance floor at weddings. Here she is at my wedding in 2010 with my cousins Alex and Danny. To this day, whenever I reference her to friends, they say, “I remember her! The dancing lady in the red dress!”