As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” . . .
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
—Luke 3:15–17, 21–22
MUSIC: “Jeux d’eau” (“Play of Water” or “Fountains”) by Maurice Ravel, 1901 | Performed by Martha Argerich, 1977
The Hitda Codex is an eleventh-century manuscript containing an evangeliary, a selection of passages from the Gospels, commissioned by Hitda, abbess of Meschede, in about 1020. Its illuminations are highlights of the Cologne school in the later phases of the Ottonian Renaissance. View more at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Hitda-Codex.
In the Baptism of Christ painting, Jesus stands waist-deep in Jordan’s rushing waters, which spill forth from an overturned jar in the bottom right held by a personification of the Jordan River. Jesus’s hands are open to receive the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus), who jets forth from the starry heavens in the form of a dove. God the Father is, by intention, not visualized, but his presence is suggested by the half-circle at the top, which represents the divine realm where he resides.
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 feast of the Baptism of the Lord, cycle C, click here.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.
He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke!
I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the LORD.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more!
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!
SONG: “Psalm 104” | Text: Psalm 104:1–5 (Hebrew) | Traditional Jewish Babylonian melody, arranged by Yonnie (Jonathan) Dror | Performed by Yamma Ensemble, 2012
An ancient setting of the first five verses of Psalm 104, composed by the Jewish diaspora community in Babylon and passed down aurally, is refreshed through this modern arrangement by Yamma Ensemble, whose instrumentation blends the old and the new. It opens with a virtuosic oud solo by Sefi Asfuri. At 1:13, the other instrumentalists come in, creating rhythmic complexity: Yonnie Dror (clarinet and flute), Aviad Ben Yehuda (darbuka), and Avri Borochov (double bass). The lead vocalist, Talya G.A Solan, enters at 2:00. At 3:48, all the instruments drop out, and male vocals are added.
While this particular performance is from 2012, an earlier one, from 2011, can be heard on the album Yamma* under the title “Bless the Lord, O My Soul.” The lyrics are on YouTube.
Yamma Ensemble presents original contemporary Hebrew music in which group members stay true to the character of the Middle East, the region where they were born and raised. The soulful, exotic music is accompanied by ancient musical instruments (kopuz, duduk, ney, oud, shofar, hand drums), which are typical of the Middle East. In addition to this unique art, Yamma also performs the traditional music and material of the various Jewish diasporas. We present songs of the Jewish communities from Yemen, Babylon, and Sefarad, as well as Hasidic music, with the fascinating forms and rhythms that have been preserved by generations of Jewish traditions. [source]
The manuscript illumination above is one of ten from Barbara Wolff’s unbound cycle Psalm 104:You Renew the Face of the Earth. The artist writes (in the third person),
The 104th Psalm is a song in celebration of all creation. The psalmist marvels at the infinite variety of life on earth. With words that reflect a deep awareness of our finitude and an implicit faith in the eternity of creation, we are reminded of the intricate web which connects all living creatures. In the ten illuminations which comprise Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, Barbara Wolff has attempted to reflect some of the light and brilliance of this word picture of the cosmos and illuminate its profound sense of reverence for all creation. In a number of the paintings she has portrayed flora and fauna which the ancient Psalmist would certainly have known, and which still may be found in the land of Israel today. She has included the flowers and grasses of its fields and forests, birds which pass through the land each spring and fall, and sea creatures of the Mediterranean, from a precious Murex snail to the great whales.
Prior to pursuing a career in fine art, Wolff spent many years illustrating natural science texts, honing her eye to see and her hands to reproduce the miniscule details of different plant, animal, and insect species. In the early 2000s, on a whim, she took a course in medieval manuscript illumination, learning, among other things, how to work with parchment, gesso, mineral pigments, and precious metal leaf (silver, gold, and platinum). “It just changed by life,” she said. She has since devoted the bulk of her time to illuminating Jewish texts, a focus made possible by individual and institutional patrons. Her Psalm 104 and RoseHaggadah were commissioned by philanthropists Daniel and Joanna S. Rose and subsequently donated to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Other patrons of hers include the Israel Museum and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Psalm 104 is about beauty. It is about other things as well, true, but it starts with beauty and returns to it as a touchstone. It describes the world with rapturous metaphor. God, who is “clothed with glory and majesty,” who covers himself with “light as with a garment, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” has made the world in his image.
When you [see Wolff’s illumination cycle], you are surrounded by the wild precise beauty of that creation, in rich, lush, exquisite, witty, masterfully detailed, controlled miniatures. To [view these paintings] is to be stunned by beauty.
To view all ten illuminations from Wolff’s Psalm 104 cycle and to purchase facsimiles, visit http://www.artofbarbarawolff.com/projects.php?psalm. To learn more about the materials Wolff uses and to read commentaries on individual folios, see the links below.
A masterpiece of French Gothic art, the Latin Psalter of Blanche of Castile was produced in Paris in the first third of the thirteenth century by an anonymous master using tempera, ink, and gold leaf on parchment. The book was most likely commissioned by or for Blanche of Castile (1188–1252), the mother of Louis IX, whom it passed to after her death (which is why it is sometimes referred to jointly as the Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castile—not to be confused with the even more lavish Paris Psalter of Saint Louis that followed it). Whoever the original owner was, she is depicted praying before an altar on page 122v.
Discussing the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art and the new structures surrounding it, an online Encyclopedia of Art History states,
It is no accident that this new style of Christian art was born in France. The University of Paris was the intellectual centre of Europe throughout the thirteenth century, and from the time of St Louis (1226-70) the French court became increasingly important. Students and scholars from all over the continent flocked to Paris to learn and to discuss scholarly matters. Knights returning from the Crusades introduced Eastern theory and science. [This partially explains the unusual frontispiece depicting three geometers in the Psalter of Blanche of Castile, below.] With the ascendancy of the university, the importance of monasteries as centres of book illustration and illumination declined. Commercial guilds were founded and books were produced for private ownership. Large ceremonial books, lavishly illuminated and ornamented with jewellery, became less common and we must follow the stylistic developments principally in Psalters, which the highborn laity made their own.
An alternate name for the manuscript is the Sainte-Chapelle Psalter, due to the fact that it was preserved in the Sainte-Chapelle treasury from 1335 to the end of the eighteenth century, when it was moved to the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, now part of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle (“Holy Chapel”) inside the royal palace complex between 1238 and 1248 to serve as a private devotional space and to house the thirty-plus relics of Christ he had bought, including what he believed to be the crown of thorns and a fragment of the cross.
Among the 192 pages of the Psalter of Blanche of Castile are twenty-seven full-page miniatures, twenty-two of which are divided into interlocking medallions containing distinct narrative episodes from the Old and New Testaments (mostly). All of them are reproduced below, sourced from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7100723j (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 1186 réserve). Folio numbers and subjects are provided as captions.
This is one of thousands of Christian illuminated manuscripts that have been digitized by libraries and museums around the world, enabling people like you and me to be nourished by their beauty. People often ask me how I incorporate visual art into my devotional practice, and one way is by simply paging (digitally) through painting cycles from old books, letting the medieval imagination be my guide through God’s story of redemption. My eyes do the reading, my soul rests. There’s no rigid program I follow, and no particular goal, but I find I am often led to respond in prayer. Try it!
NEW BOOK:ESV Illuminated Bible (2017): In October Crossway released a new Bible illuminated by Seattle-based designer and lettering artist Dana Tanamachi. Printed in two-color (the illuminations are in gold ink), this volume contains one full-page illustration, custom icon, and illuminated drop cap for each book of the Bible, plus hundreds of hand-lettered Bible verses throughout the margins. There are no human figures in any of the illuminations; most consist of flora and fauna—olives, figs, pomegranates, peacocks, lions, lilies, deer, cedar, and so on—derived from the given book. Be sure to check out the book-opener illustration index, and the short video below, in which Tanamachi introduces herself, talks through her process, and explains some of her artistic choices:
“God loves beauty, so we wanted to honor him through this project with something that was beautiful,” says Josh Dennis, Crossway’s senior vice president of creative. “For this edition we really want people to engage with it, so there’s a lot of negative space and wide margins for people to write in it and to do their own Bible journaling.”
This publication comes six years after the release of Makoto Fujimura’s Four Holy Gospels, another illumination project. Fujimura’s is an oversize book with a $150 price point, containing original abstract paintings reproduced in full color alongside the first four books of the New Testament. By contrast, the ESV Illuminated Bible is more wieldy—it has a 6½ × 9 trim size—and less costly ($45), and it contains all sixty-six books. The aesthetic is also much different, as Tanamachi’s influences include art nouveau, the arts and crafts movement, and designers like William Morris and Koloman Moser. [HT: David Taylor]
CHRISTIAN HULA:“‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God): Though reduced to tourist entertainment in some places, Hawaiian hula dancing, in its traditional context, is a form of teaching and worship. Because of its associations with polytheism, the early missionaries denounced it as sinful. Over the last half-century or so, however, most missionaries have changed their stance toward this and other traditional forms of artistic expression—not only in Hawaii, but in whatever their host culture—seeing how such forms can offer more authentic ways for the people to connect to and worship the Christian God.
In the video below, Moani Sitch and ‘Anela Gueco perform a hula noho (“seated hula”) at the 2006 Urbana student missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It’s to the Christian hymn “‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God), originally written in Maori by Luke Kaa Morgan but translated into Hawaiian by Moses Kaho‘okele Crabbe. The sacred name for Creator God—‘Io—is the same in both languages. The lyrics are below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e makuna lani (You are God, Heavenly Father) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io, ka waiola (You are God, the Living Water) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e kumu ola (You are God, the Source of Life) Ka mea hana i na mea apau (The one who has made all things) E ku‘u Haku (My Lord) Ka mauna ki‘eki‘e (Who is the Highest Mountain) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io (You are God)
For a fantastic religious history of Hawaii, see this PDF booklet published by Aloha Ke Akua (“God Is Love”) Ministries. Among the many things I learned is that Hawaiians regard the arrival of Christian missionaries as the fulfillment of their elders’ prophecies that the one true God would one day return to the islands.
“Mormon painting of a black Eve draws fire, but not for the reasons you might think” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune: Early this year a new painting of a seminude black Eve by Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards went on display at Writ & Vision gallery in Provo, Utah. While many Mormons have expressed how captivated and inspired they are by it, a few have insisted it’s wrong for a white man to depict a nude black woman because it conjures up collective memories of sexual brutality and enslavement. The article features some interesting perspectives by black Mormon feminists. In addition to the issue of racial representations (and I’ll just note, black figures are extremely rare in Mormon art), I’m intrigued by how Richards’s painting illustrates a distinctly Mormon view of the Fall, which differs from the orthodox Christian view—a fact he alludes to in his March 14 gallery talk.
“A Conversation about Creativity and the Liturgical Calendar,” panel discussion presented by Brehm Center and Fuller Studio: Moderator Edwin M. Willmington, composer-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, talks with an all-star trio of creatives and liturgists comprising David Gungor of The Brilliance [00:50], on authenticity in songwriting and introducing liturgical practices to the evangelical church he attended; Todd E. Johnson [10:40], on the history, purpose, and major observances of the church calendar; and Lauralee Farrer [26:18], on discovering the Canonical Hours in a New Mexico desert and later developing them into characters for a film project. Questions: [34:02] How has liturgy shaped you? [36:20] Advice for artists on how to bring the church year to bear in their art? [37:11] Have you found that lament is generally embraced or resisted? [39:41] Advice for worship leaders?
Ieshia considers herself a vessel of God, eager to be used by him to bring justice and peace. Here’s what she wrote on her Facebook wall the night of her release from jail:
“Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts”: Running through September 25 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, this exhibition “explores the visual challenges artists faced as they sought to render miraculous encounters with the divine, grand visions of the end of time, the intricacies of belief, and the intimate communications of prayer.” It includes a September 15 talk, “How Do We Depict Religious Experiences?”—that is, how do we convey metaphysical essence in physical form? I appreciated the Getty’s blog post this week featuring a newly acquired choir book leaf that’s part of the exhibition. Curator Bryan C. Keene writes about the difficulties of identifying the illuminator and about discovering, through an examination of the back and a search on the Cantus database, that the illumination depicts the wiping of tears from saints’ eyes, not, as previously assumed, the healing of the blind.
“Ya Hey” song cover by The Brilliance: Written by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey” is a modern-day psalm that expresses frustration with God’s seeming unresponsiveness—to being spurned and being sought, to brokenness and suffering, to sin and struggle. The title is a play on the word Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The chorus references the burning bush of Exodus 3: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am.’” The Brilliance’s acoustic cover of “Ya Hey” was released last month as a music video on YouTube featuring four New York City ballet dancers. It abandons the shrill vocoder and heavy percussion of the original song in favor of a softer, purer sound. Read the lyrics and an analysis at Sound: Interrupted.
Mavis!: The HBO documentary Mavis! profiles gospel and soul music legend Mavis Staples, from her rise to stardom as part of the Staples Singers, whose Uncloudy Day was the first gospel album to sell one million copies, and her involvement in the civil rights movement, to her still active career as a solo artist. “I’ll stop singin’ when I have nothin’ left to say,” she says. “And that ain’t gonna happen!” Watch the trailer below.
Luci Shaw on art and Christian spirituality: In this 1998 article from Direction journal, the oh-so-quotable poet Luci Shaw writes about imagination, mystery, receptivity, sacramentality, the similarities between art and faith, and her muse, the Holy Spirit. Concludes with her poem “Ghostly,” which explores the Spirit’s different manifestations.
Making medieval manuscripts: Through narrated demonstrations, this video by the Getty Museum shows how paper, pens, ink, paint, book covers, and bindings were made during the Middle Ages—laborious processes! It also shows how the illuminators (visual artists) worked with the scribes (calligrapher-copyists), jobs typically filled by two separate people.
Christianity on the Middle Nile: The two largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were actually in modern-day Sudan, writes curator Julie Anderson in a British Museum blog post from 2014: the Makuria and the Alwa kingdoms. Many wall paintings and other objects have been excavated from Faras Cathedral and its adjoining tombs, such as the pottery lamp (with the inscription “Great is the name of God”) and sandstone frieze fragment in the British Museum’s collection. (The paintings are divided between the Sudan National Museum and the National Museum of Warsaw, as it was a Polish team that rescued them from flooding by Lake Nasser.)
“The War Prayer” by Mark Twain: In his day Twain was radically opposed to American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines and frustrated by the so-called patriotism that made his fellow countrymen so uncritically supportive of it. The stranger’s speech in Twain’s short story “The War Prayer,” set during a church service, exposes the ridiculousness of some of the prayers that go up during wartime even today.
The sixth-century illuminated Syriac manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels (after the signed name of its scribe) contains one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s ascension into heaven. A full-page miniature, it illustrates the narrative from Acts 1:6–11—but not strictly.
One embellishment to the story is the centralized presence of Mary on the bottom level. She is not mentioned in the biblical account of the event, but her attendance was likely. Here she stands in a frontal, orant pose and, unlike the other disciples, is nimbed. Whereas those around her are wracked with confusion, she understands the deep mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and she stands ready for his return.
Among the crowd is the apostle Paul—an anachronistic insertion, as his conversion occurred after the Ascension. The book he holds, signifying his contributions to the New Testament, is one of his identifying attributes.
The “two men . . . in white robes” mentioned in Acts 1:10 are interpreted as angels.
The Art of Celebration (album):Rend Collective is a folksy worship band from the small coastal town of Bangor in Northern Ireland that is internationally known for its high-spirited, experimental songs of joy. The Art of Celebration is their fourth of five albums, the story of which is told in the video below. “This record is an attempt to reflect something of the irrepressible laughter in the heart of God,” says bandleader Gareth Gilkeson. “It’s a call to the cynical to once again choose celebration over condemnation and a reminder to the broken that ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength.’” You can preview songs from the album here and purchase it here, or catch the band on tour (they’re currently in the US). I’ve embedded one of my favorite songs from the album below: “My Lighthouse.”
“Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts” (exhibition): Through June 26, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is running an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts and painted book arts from the ninth through seventeenth centuries. From the website: “These highly prized objects allow us to glimpse, admire, and study a world gone by, as well as its peoples, different belief systems, and an interconnected global history of human thought and ideas about art.” Check out the Q&A with curator Bryan Keene—so fascinating. Also click the link above to find out about related events. Next up is a lecture on April 19 titled “A Medieval Picture Book and Its Judeo-Persian Lives: The Shah Abbas Bible in 17th-Century Safavid Iran.”
The Brilliant History of Color in Art(book): Victoria Finlay’s latest book from Getty Publications, full of fun facts about the origins and science of color. The trailer below tells how Prussian blue, Indian yellow, lead white, and Tyrian purple came to be. Lapham’s Quarterly has a nifty infographic on the same topic.
Mimesis (photomontage series): From 2012 to 2014 Paris-based artist Seb Janiak executed a series of twenty-two photographs that show insect wings pieced together in flower-like forms. Janiak says he believes that a spiritual reality undergirds the physical. “Using art to reveal what is behind the veil of matter is fascinating and full of discoveries,” he writes. See more Mimesis photos at the link above.