After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)
DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.
FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.
“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”
ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!
EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”
Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.
MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean:Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.
Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]
NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES:“The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.
IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8b; Rev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.
There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord
There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord
There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord
The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.
NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.
Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,
I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.
The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.
BALKAN ICON:“Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.
OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.
James Webb: Prayer,Art Institute of Chicago, September 6–December 31, 2018: A sound installation that began, said the artist, with the question “What would it be like to listen to all the prayers of a city simultaneously?” “Prayer is an ongoing project, remade around the world since its first presentation in Webb’s home city of Cape Town in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America. The work consists of recordings of prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual affinities in the host city. Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet . . . or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers.”
In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson interviewed several listener-participants. One woman said she stumbled into the museum after missing her train stop on her way home from work; it was a fortuitous accident, she said, because she had been feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the city (addiction, gun violence, etc.), and hearing the praying, singing, chanting in the gallery helped give her hope.
Click here to see a short video feature of the Stockholm version of Prayer, which took place last year.
Encounters,St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, September 18–November 19, 2018: For the past decade, artist and visual social historian Nicola Green has been granted access to private meetings between religious leaders around the world from a variety of faith traditions. These meetings have gone largely unreported in the media, and there has been limited reflection on the encouraging trend they represent. To help remedy the situation, Green has produced thirty-one portraits depicting leaders like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and many more—each set against a unique patterned background inspired by liturgical vestments or objects, manuscript illuminations, or sacred architecture particular to the sitter. The faces are obscured to prompt reflection on the relationship between the individual and his office.
“Green makes a compelling case through her art and writings that we have entered a new era in interreligious relations. What is remarkable today is the depth of relationships being formed by faith leaders across historically deep divides. . . . At its heart, the Encounters project is an exploration of difference. It asks: How can people of different faiths, or none, communicate strongly held convictions, whilst respectfully allowing others to do the same? What can be gained from such encounters, and how can we identify common goals whilst working from different perspectives? And how can deep religious commitments become an asset rather than an impediment to understanding and appreciating diversity? Green invites viewers to think about our relationship to those we consider wholly ‘other’ to ourselves, and how this, in turn, shapes our own identity.”
Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 22, 2018–January 13, 2019: “This is the first major exhibition to explore the remarkable artistic and cultural achievements of the Armenian people in a global context over fourteen centuries—from the fourth century, when the Armenians converted to Christianity in their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat, to the seventeenth century, when Armenian control of global trade routes first brought books printed in Armenian into the region. Through some 140 objects—including opulent gilded reliquaries, richly illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, cross stones (khachkars), precious liturgical furnishings, church models, and printed books—the exhibition demonstrates how Armenians developed a unique Christian identity that linked their widespread communities over the years.”
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,British Library, London, October 19, 2018–February 19, 2019: This “largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest,” brings together art objects, manuscripts, and other artifacts from various European collections and from the British Library itself. Because Christianization of the kingdom began in the sixth century, much of its art reflects that. Two highlights are the Codex Amiatinus (a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716 as a gift to the pope and returning to England for the first time since) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (the earliest surviving example of the Gospel texts in English and an exemplary fusion of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Pictish, and Mediterranean art styles)—which will be the subject of a lecture on Monday.
Attending: Paintings and Prints by Julie Shelton Snyder, Gallery at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia, October 26–December 22, 2018: This exhibition features new work by the artist completed during her residency at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which she spent studying the mokuhanga traditional woodblock printmaking technique. “In my work,” says Snyder, “I explore movement and stillness, being in control and letting go. . . . My longing for stillness is a physical and spiritual quest, and this quest has led me to the practice of Centering Prayer. Through art making, I am given the means to express spiritual truths I cannot otherwise articulate. Expressing the ineffable and the invisible is the aim of my work, and I view abstraction as the best means for this expression.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a series of events, including workshops, prayer services, and, on December 2, “Attending to Advent: A Multisensory Advent Experience”—which I will be, ahem, attending.
The Renaissance Nude,J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, October 30, 2018–January 27, 2019: “Inspired by a renewed interest in classical sculpture and closer study of nature, Renaissance artists made the nude body ever more vibrant, lifelike, and central to their practice. Yet, pious European Renaissance society was troubled by the nude and its new sensuality—a conflicted response echoed in the world today, where images of nudity have become ubiquitous. This exhibition, with more than 100 objects by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer, and others, traces the nude’s controversial emergence and its transformative effect on European art and culture.”
It was interesting to hear from curator Thomas Kren that “artists’ and viewers’ attitudes toward the nude were as varied and complex centuries ago as they are today,” provoking conflicting feelings of shame, admiration, curiosity, desire, disgust, anger. Learn more in his fascinating Getty blog post “Deconstructing Myths about the Nude in Renaissance Art,” and in the catalog he edited. Also worth checking out is the blog post by art historian Jill Burke: “Sex, Power, and Violence in the Renaissance Nude.” The exhibition focuses on the period 1400–1530, but even within that narrow slice of history, the unclothed body, male and female, functioned in diverse ways in art.
A large number of biblical figures are represented in the exhibition’s list of artworks, including Adam and Eve, Job, Bathsheba, Mary and the infant Christ, Christ at his baptism and in his passion, and the saved and the damned on the last day, as well as extrabiblical martyrs (especially Saint Sebastian) and devout ascetics.
POETRY BOOKS: I just learned about some recently released poetry collections in the Christian Century’s Book Reviews section: Joy: 100 Poems, compiled by Christian Wiman (the review responds to the comment Adrianna Smith made in her otherwise positive review for the Atlantic, that the book’s one fault is its “slant toward a theological comprehension of joy, specifically, an over-representation of a Christian one”); Wade in the Water: Poems by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith; and Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul, a collection of verse-style renderings of the thirteenth-century German Christian mystic by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, like this one:
“You Are Not an Answer”
There is no Why in You
and so I must learn to trust
that You are not an answer
to my questions but rather
the source that is true before
every question I ever had
and the love beyond every
answer I will ever know.
SONG: “Heaven Help Us All”: This a cappella Stevie Wonder cover is by the vocal group Accent, featuring guest singer Vanessa Haynes. Comprising six male vocalists from five different countries, Accent creates music through Internet collaboration. This song is an intercession to God on behalf of the desperate poor, the homeless, the abused, the lonely, and the depressed. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Pathways to Paradise: Medieval India and Europe,” Getty Museum, Los Angeles, May 1–August 5, 2018: “The pages of medieval manuscripts reveal a dynamically interconnected world filled with real and imagined ideas about foreign peoples and places. Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians living across Europe and Asia conceived paradise as a place of perfect harmony, but the path for locating such a site or achieving this state of mind varied between these religions. By exploring the terrestrial and celestial realms, this exhibition highlights the spiritual motivations for creating and owning portable and devotional artworks.”
“Shared Sacred Sites,” Manhattan, March 27–June 30, 2018: Spread across three Manhattan cultural institutions, the multidisciplinary exhibition “Shared Sacred Sites” aims to raise awareness of the potential for cooperation among the three Abrahamic faiths. The tour begins at the New York Public Library with illuminated manuscripts and documents that highlight holy figures shared in common, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and (between Christianity and Islam) Mary and Jesus. The Muslim miniature below shows the Miracle of the Table recounted in the Qur’an (5:111–114), in which ’Isa (Jesus) causes a table set with food to descend from heaven, corroborating his status as a true prophet. This miracle story echoes the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes in the Gospels.
Then it moves to the Morgan Library and Museum, where the celebrated Morgan Picture Bible, produced in thirteenth-century Paris, is on display. This masterpiece of Gothic art offers exquisite visualizations of some three hundred Old Testament scenes (one of which I featured on the last “Artful Devotion”), and it’s also a testament to intercultural exchange: as the book circulated across civilizations, explanatory captions in Latin, Persian, Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Hebrew were added in the margins.
Lastly, the James Gallery at the CUNY Graduate Center presents artifacts, videos, contemporary art, and photographs that showcase examples of peaceful coexistence of people from different faiths throughout the Eastern Mediterranean as a counternarrative to the stories of conflict that saturate the news media. Several of the photos are of shared worship spaces, like the mosque-synagogue in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, West Bank, or Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, where Muslims can often be found praying alongside Jewish friends and neighbors or attending pilgrimage ceremonies. (For more on Djerba’s beautiful culture of religious tolerance, see “Jews and Muslims Celebrate Unusual Coexistence in Tunisia’s Djerba.”)
FREE ALBUM DOWNLOADS:
Weep + Rejoiceby Trenton Durham: This four-track EP was released in March as a series of soft-rock meditations on Christ’s death and resurrection.
Top of the Stairs by Scott Mulvahill: Mulvahill is a singer-songwriter and upright bass player from Nashville who toured for five years with Ricky Skaggs’s bluegrass band, Kentucky Thunder. “The Lord Is Coming,” which Mulvahill wrote with Alanna Boudreau and Gabi Wilson, is one of eight songs on his latest EP. See below for a live performance from 2017 with two backing vocalists, or click here for a more recent solo performance from the Tokens Show, uploaded yesterday.
Volume 2by Deeper Well Records: Five Deeper Well artists have contributed two songs each to this compilation of acoustic hymns, a mix of classics, like “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” and “This Is My Father’s World,” and originals. I can’t speak highly enough of this label—the quality of music they release is superb. You can stream all the full songs on Bandcamp.
Christian confessions, Jewish prayers, Islamic surahs, Buddhist sutras, and Vedic Sanskrit hymns are de- and re-constructed in contemporary artist Meg Hitchcock’s typographic collages—or “text drawings,” as she calls them. Seeking to highlight the beauty of the world’s various religions, she cuts individual letters from one religious text and then rearranges them on paper in an intricate pattern that spells out the beliefs of another tradition. The continuous, run-on line, which weaves in and out without spaces or punctuation, creates a “visual mantra of devotion,” Hitchcock says.
When asked how she responds to reactions of horror that she is cutting up and reauthoring the word of God, she said, “I’m very respectful of a person’s faith, and would never intentionally insult anyone. If my work is seen as an affront, it’s only because that person hasn’t heard the meaning behind the work. In short, I don’t see it as a desecration, but a celebration of the word of God.” (Read the full interview at StudioInternational.com.)
Hitchcock was raised Methodist. She had a “born-again experience” (her words) at age twelve and continued in that profession until age thirty, when she decided to step away from the faith. Now, she says, she’s not religious or even spiritual, but she’s definitely “not an atheist.” She says she follows a “pathless path.”
Despite the distance she keeps from organized religion, she is fascinated, she says, by its texts—not necessarily what they say, but what they mean to the people who deem them sacred. The words are so alive and true to communities of believers who recite them, sing them, chant them, pray them with all their heart and soul. People seek direction through these words. They seek comfort and healing. They seek meaning, and self-definition. And in the seeking, believers across all faith traditions are united. It’s this universal impulse—to connect with something larger than ourselves—that Hitchcock wants to explore.