Roundup: Ethiopian illuminations, convent cradles, Women’s Christmas, and more

“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.

Flight to Egypt (Ethiopian)
“Flight into Egypt,” from the Nagara Māryām (History and Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Ethiopia, ca. 1730–55. British Library Or. 607, fol. 17r.

You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!

If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.

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The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.

Journey and Adoration of the Magi (icon)
Journey of the Magi and Adoration of the Magi, 14th century. Fresco, Decani Monastery, Serbia. View a modern copy here.

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SONG MEDLEY: “Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”

Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.

Beguine cradle (The Met)
Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, from the Grand Béguinage in Louvain (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Click to view details of the carved Nativity and Adoration of the Magi at the head and foot and, on the embroidered coverlet, Jesus’s family tree.

To learn more about how some medieval women mediated their relationship with Christ in part through dolls and cradles, see “Crib of the Infant Jesus” from Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index, “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux” by Annette LeZotte, “Popular Imagery in a Fifteenth-Century Burgundian Crèche” by William H. Forsyth, “Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents” by Ulinka Rublack, and “Encounter: Holy Beds” by Caroline Walker Bynum.

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The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . .  spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”

“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”

Wise Women Also Came by Jan Richardson
Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson [purchase]

The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”

Whole World in His Hands (Artful Devotion)

Christ in Glory (Gospel-book of Bamberg Cathedral)
“Christ in Mandorla with evangelists,” Reichenau, Germany, early 11th century. BSB Clm 4454, fol. 20v, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
    let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.

—Psalm 95:1–7

This is the Psalm reading for the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. I’ve paired it with an Ottonian miniature from around 1015, which shows Christ, framed by a mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole), standing in a branched tree of life. The gold-leaf outline of this glory cloud encompasses heaven (Caelus, the top figure) and earth (Terra, aka Terrus, at bottom), two realms connected by Christ himself. (Earth is his footstool! That is, part of his throne.) He holds a globe in his right hand and is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists (the tetramorph)—each supported by a water nymph representing one of the four rivers of paradise—and Sol (sun) and Luna (moon). I love how this image emphasizes the life-giving nature of Christ’s rule, and how it extends over all of creation.

From our limited human perspective, it can be hard to see the divine reality that this artist is pointing to. It sometimes doesn’t feel like Jesus is on the throne, holding together everyone and everything in love. But I look at that little orb, and I think of all the sin and suffering and love and grace and stress and beauty swirling around in that one small part of the cosmos, and I see that it’s rendered in precious gold, and is gripped firmly by the hand of God, who—zoom out—is “a great King above all,” who made the heights and the depths and who gives us his word and indeed his very self, a tree of life for the healing of the nations. As we head into Advent, may we not lose this vision of the Christ who reigns.

More about the art: In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Benedictine abbey on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance in southern Germany was the site of one of Europe’s largest and most influential schools of manuscript illumination, known as the Reichenau school. The painting above is from a Gospel-book produced there, commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (r. 1002–24) for the cathedral he founded in Bamberg. The book is now housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich, along with two other similar illuminated manuscripts from Bamberg Cathedral: the Gospel-book of Otto III (Clm 4453) and the evangeliary of Henry II (Clm 4452). Find out more about this particular manuscript at the World Digital Library. You can also browse the images here by selecting the links in the “Content” sidebar at the left.

For other artworks from Art & Theology that show, in a literal manner, “the whole world in [God’s] hands,” see this medieval Pisan fresco with signs of the zodiac; How God loves his People all over the World by John Muafangejo; Creation of the World by Lyuba Yatskiv; Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, a common image type; and a Florentine panel painting of God the Father.

Do you know of any good nonliteral images that say to you, “The world is in God’s hands”? That is, a visual artwork that helps you sense God’s sovereignty? I often fall back on traditional visual conceptualizations of theological teachings like this, but I’d like to expand my repertoire!

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SONG: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual

There are hundreds of professional recordings and live performance videos of this traditional song. It was first published in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Triumphant, Old and New in 1927 and became an international pop hit in 1957 when it was recorded by thirteen-year-old English singer Laurie London.

First off, I want to feature a fairly recent two-part video compilation released by TrueExclusives. Back in March, as the first wave of the coronavirus hit the US, Tyler Perry posted a video of himself singing one verse of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to provide a word of assurance in the face of rising death tolls and social isolation. He called on his fellow musicians and other friends to likewise video-record a verse or two, in whatever key or style they wished—just a simple, unpolished phone recording—tagging it #tylerperrychallenge. These were then collected into two videos, a string of contributions from people like Mariah Carey, Usher, Patti Labelle, Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Caesar, LeAnn Rimes, Aubrey Logan, Israel Houghton, and many more. For a list of all the singers with time stamps, see the comment by YouTube user benzmusiczone for the first video and the comment by The Cherie Amour Show for the second.

Some participants sing in other languages—for example, Nicole Bus in Dutch, Jencarlos Canela in Spanish. Others adapt the lyrics to more specifically address the context of our global pandemic. Kelly Rowland, for example, sings, “He’s got the doctors and the nurses in his hands.” Stevie Mackey names specific countries and virus hot spots. And not only does God have the itty bitty babies in his hands, Ptosha Storey reminds us; he also has the elderly. BeBe Winans spans the cosmic to the small in his verse, emphasizing that God’s sovereign care is both expansive and intimate: “He’s got the moon and the stars in his hands / He’s got Pluto and Mars in his hands / And as I’m sitting in this car, I’m in his hands / He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

I love me some harmonies, so I particularly enjoyed hearing sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey (2:32) and The Walls Group (16:54).

What follows are a handful of other renditions I want to highlight.

Jeanne Lee [previously], 1961:

Ruth Brown, 1962 (classic gospel):

A live 2006 performance in Johannesburg—with hand motions!—by the African Children’s Choir:

A lush choral and orchestral arrangement by Mack Wilberg, featuring Alex Boyé [previously] and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, from 2010:

Similarly lush, a duet performed by operatic sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The performance was conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and is included on the album Spirituals in Concert (1991). The arrangement is by Robert de Cormier:


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 Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle A, click here.

Jonah’s Pout (Artful Devotion)

Jonah (Menologion of Basil II)
Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II (Vat. Gr. 1613, page 59), made in Constantinople, 976–1025. Vatican Library, Rome.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

—Jonah 3:10–4:11

After Jonah, at God’s behest, reluctantly went to preach to the pagan city of Ninevah, its people repented and were spared destruction. (Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, Israel’s enemy.) This is where Sunday’s lectionary reading, the final chapter of the book of Jonah, picks up.

When God extended his mercy to Jonah earlier in the story, it filled Jonah with thanksgiving (Jonah 2:9), but when God is merciful to Ninevah, it fills Jonah with anger. Jonah believed that the Ninevites should be punished for their sin, that they are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. He wanted them to be crushed, not saved! Thus accusing God of injustice, he stalks over to a spot east of Ninevah, plops himself down, and pouts.

The book of Jonah condemns the title character’s bigotry and ethnocentrism, portraying him as a rather ridiculous figure. The idea that God loves only “us,” not “them,” is one that has persisted down through the ages and that’s satirized in this quatrain:

We are God’s chosen few,
All others will be damned;
There is no place in heaven for you,
We can’t have heaven crammed.

(This is sometimes attributed to Jonathan Swift, but it’s not in his collected works; if you know the original source, let me know!)

Jonah wants God’s love to have boundaries that hem him in and others out. To expose the faultiness of Jonah’s thinking, God “appoints a plant” to provide shade for Jonah, relief from the heat, but only for a day. The next day God destroys the plant, and Jonah is so upset that he wants to die. God then questions why he grieves the destruction of a mere plant but not the prospect of an entire city being destroyed.

The narrative ends without telling us whether Jonah receives the lesson well and repents of the hatred he harbors.

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SONG: “Jonah Blues, Ch. 4” by Branches Band, on Grow in the Vine (2019)


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 Proper 20, cycle A, click here.

Holy Monday (Artful Devotion)

Supper at Bethany (Vaux Passional)
Illumination from the Vaux Passional, England, ca. 1503–4. Peniarth MS 482D, fol. 15v, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. [see full page]

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone; she intended to keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

—John 12:1–11

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SONG: “Said Judas to Mary” by Sydney Carter, 1964 | Performed by ValLimar Jansen and the choir of Christ the King Church, Kingston, Rhode Island, 2015

View the lyrics and sheet music at www.hopepublishing.com.


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 Monday of Holy Week, cycle A, click here.

Savior-King (Artful Devotion)

Tree of Jesse (Armenian)
Toros Taronatsi (Armenian, 1276–ca. 1346), Tree of Jesse, 1318. Ink, pigments, and gold on parchment, 10 1/4 × 7 1/16 in. (26 × 18 cm). “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots‘ Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia (MS 206, fol. 258v).

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’”

—Jeremiah 23:5–6

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SONG: “Jesus, Name Above All Names” | Words and music by Naida Hearn, 1974 | Arranged and performed by Nick Smith, feat. Liz Vice, 2015

The song’s original lyrics are:

Jesus, name above all names
Beautiful Savior, glorious Lord
Emmanuel, God is with us
Blessed Redeemer, living Word

Jesus, loving Shepherd
Vine of the branches, Son of God
Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor
Lord of the universe
Light of the world

Praise him, Lord above all lords
King above all kings, God’s only Son
The Prince of Peace, who by his Spirit
Comes to live in us, Master and Friend

Smith’s arrangement uses the first verse, plus adds this bridge:

Oh holy Lord
Praise be to your name
Oh risen Son
Hear us as we sing

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In 1318 Esayi Nch‘ets‘i (1260/65–1338), abbot of the Monastery of Gladzor in Armenia, commissioned three scribes to copy a Bible for the monastery, and T‘oros of Taron to illuminate it. The sumptuous illumination above, showing a genealogical tree sprouting from Jesse’s reclining body, serves as the frontispiece to the book of Psalms. Jesse was the father of King David and hence an ancestor of Jesus, who is enthroned at the end of the tree’s central branch, at the top of the composition. Various prophets with their scrolls are perched on the side branches. (We’ll revisit this iconography in the second week of Advent.)

In Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Sylvie L. Merian writes of this image,

According to Sirarpie Der Nersessian, this is the first example of a Tree of Jesse found in Armenian art; the inspiration for this image is derived from Western European manuscripts, where it was portrayed as early as the mid-twelfth century. However, T‘oros has modified the traditional Western European iconography: the top of the tree normally depicts the Virgin and Child, but in this example he has placed a youthful Christ in a mandorla holding a book in his left hand and blessing with his right. In the center of the trunk is the head of David, whereas in Western European traditions he is usually represented by a bust. In addition, T‘oros added an image of Samuel anointing the young David in the lower right, a scene not usually included with the Tree of Jesse. He also depicted the prophets and other figures seated cross-legged, a posture not commonly depicted in Western European manuscripts. (119)


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 Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle C, click here.

Dives and Lazarus (Artful Devotion)

Lazarus and the Rich Man (11th cent.)
“Lazarus and Dives,” fol. 78r from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, ca. 1035–40. German National Museum, Nuremberg, Germany.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

—Luke 16:19–31

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SONG: “Dives and Lazarus” | Traditional English ballad | Performed by Cooper, Nelson & Early, on Love & War (2004)

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The illuminated manuscript page above tells visually, in three sequential strips, the parable of the rich man (“Dives”) and Lazarus. (The personal name Dives is not given in the scripture text but is traditionally used as shorthand for the rich man, as dives is Latin for “rich.”) The top register shows Lazarus, a sick homeless man, dying at Dives’s door; the middle, Lazarus’s soul being carried off to paradise by two angels and seated in Abraham’s bosom; and the bottom, Dives’s soul being carried off to hell by two devils and tortured.

This is one of four full-page miniatures that preface the Gospel of Luke in the Codex Aureus (“Golden Book”) of Echternach, a Vulgate edition of the four Gospels produced at the Benedictine Abbey of Echternach in Luxembourg in the eleventh century shortly after the Ottonian dynasty came to an end. It is a preeminent example of the Ottonian style.


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 Proper 21, cycle C, click here.

Baptism of Christ (Artful Devotion)

Baptism of Christ (Hitda Codex)
Baptism of Christ, from the evangeliary of the abbess Hitda von Meschede, first half of eleventh century. Hessische Landesbibliothek, Darmstadt, Germany.

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

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MUSIC: “Jeux d’eau” (“Play of Water” or “Fountains”) by Maurice Ravel, 1901 | Performed by Martha Argerich, 1977

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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.

Creation Psalm (Artful Devotion)

And the Mountains Rose by Barbara Wolff
Barbara Wolff (American), “And the Mountains Rose” (vv. 5–8), from Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, 2006–10. Contemporary pigments and precious metals on goatskin. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York. MS M.1190, fol. 2.

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!

—Psalm 104

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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]

To hear more from Yamma Ensemble, visit their Facebook page and YouTube channel. If you like their music, consider supporting them on Patreon.

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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.

Among the Branches They Sing by Barbara Wolff
Barbara Wolff (American), “Among the Branches They Sing” (v. 12), from Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, 2006–10. Contemporary pigments and precious metals on goatskin. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York. MS M.1190, fol. 3.

To Bring Forth Bread by Barbara Wolff
Barbara Wolff (American), “To Bring Forth Bread” (v. 14), from Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, 2006–10. Contemporary pigments and precious metals on goatskin. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York. MS M.1190, fol. 4.

Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Formed by Barbara Wolff
Barbara Wolff (American), “Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Formed” (vv. 25–26), from Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, 2006–10. Contemporary pigments and precious metals on goatskin. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York. MS M.1190, fol. 8.

You Renew the Face of the Earth by Barbara Wolff
Barbara Wolff (American), “You Renew the Face of the Earth” (v. 30), from Psalm 104: You Renew the Face of the Earth, 2006–10. Contemporary pigments and precious metals on goatskin. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York. MS M.1190, fol. 9.

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 Rose Haggadah 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.

Joanne Palmer, reviewing Wolff’s work for the Jewish Standard, writes,

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.

Further Reading:

“Hebrew Illumination for Our Time: The Art of Barbara Wolff,” Morgan Library and Museum press release, January 5, 2015.

Holly Cohen, “A conversation with Barbara Wolff,” Letter Arts Review 26:1 (Winter 2012): 47–58.

Mark Michael Epstein, ed., Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts* (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015). Wolff contributed a chapter to this book, and folio 9 from her Psalm 104 graces the front cover.

[* These are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Art & Theology will earn a small commission on any Amazon purchase that originates here.]


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 Proper 24, cycle B, click here.

The Psalter of Blanche of Castile

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.

[What is a psalter?]

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!

Astronomers (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 1v: An astronomer with a looking tube takes the bearings of a star with the alidade of an astrolabe. One assistant holds open a book with Arabic ciphers (a star chart?) while the other records the results in Latin.

Fall of the Rebel Angels (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 9v: The Fall of the Rebel Angels

Creation of Eve (Sainte-Chapelle Psalter)
Fol. 10r: The Creation of Eve

Continue reading “The Psalter of Blanche of Castile”

Roundup: Modern Bible illumination; hula; First Nations baptism design; father-daughter waltz; Tamayo and Parker

ESV Illuminated Bible spread

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]

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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.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “Jesus as Chief: ‘Baptism Mural’ by Tony Hunt”: First Nations artist Tony Hunt Sr. died last month, just two months after his son Tony Hunt Jr., also a renowned carver. Read about Hunt Sr.’s inculturated serigraph of Christ’s baptism at my old blog, The Jesus Question—part of a seven-part series I did on Christian art of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Based on a carved and painted design he made for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, it shows John the Baptist as a Kwakwaka’wakw shaman in Native dress and with ceremonial rattle, installing Jesus as chief. The Father is manifest as Sun and the Spirit as Thunderbird.   Continue reading “Roundup: Modern Bible illumination; hula; First Nations baptism design; father-daughter waltz; Tamayo and Parker”