Roundup: Jewish prayer song, stolen paintings, graphic novels by John Lewis, and new VCS videos

SONG: “Ahavat Olam”: Back in April the Platt Brothers—Jonah, Henry, and Ben—posted a home-recorded video of themselves singing this traditional Jewish prayer arranged by Gabriel Mann and Piper Rutman. (I know actor-singer Ben Platt from The Politician, which is probably how the video came to be recommended to me by YouTube!)

It stoked a lot of public enthusiasm, so on September 21 they released a studio recording, available for streaming and download from all major music platforms.

A translation of the Hebrew is as follows:

With an eternal love have You loved your people Israel, by teaching us the Torah and its commandments, laws, and precepts. Therefore, Adonai our God, we shall meditate on Your laws when we lie down and when we rise up, and we shall rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever. For they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall reflect upon them day and night.

O may You never remove Your love from us. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves your people Israel. [source]

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PIANO CONCERTO: Tomás de Merlo by Xavier Beteta: In February 2014 six religious paintings by the early eighteenth-century Guatemalan painter Tomás de Merlo were stolen from a church in Antigua. Although the thieves have been caught, the paintings have disappeared into the black market and have likely been smuggled out of the country. Wanting to preserve the essence of the paintings in music, Guatemalan composer Xavier Beteta wrote a piano concerto whose three movements, titled after the stolen paintings, are “La Oración en el Huerto” (The Prayer in the Garden), “La Piedad” (The Pietà), and “El Rey de Burlas” (The Mocking of Christ). Beteta said he may eventually compose three additional movements, one for each of the other three lost paintings.

Tomás de Merlo (Guatemalan, 1694–1739), El Rey de Burlas (aka La Coronación de Espinas), 1737

Last year the Camellia Symphony Orchestra in Sacramento, California, premiered the concerto. Listen to excerpts, interspersed with interview clips of the composer by Josh Rodriguez, in the video below—which is itself excerpted from the Deus Ex Musica podcast episode “How Stolen Sacred Paintings Inspired a New Piano Concerto.”

See photos of the other paintings at https://www.soy502.com/articulo/capturan-dos-robo-valiosas-obras-iglesia-calvario.

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DOCUMENTARY: The Painter and the Thief (2020), dir. Benjamin Ree: A story of crime and trauma, love and redemption, this documentary follows Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova as she confronts one of the men, Karl-Bertil Nordland, who stole two of her most prized paintings. A mutual friendship develops, and it’s so beautiful to watch.

What I love about the film is how it captures the rehabilitation of both subjects—in a way that honors the complexity, the nonlinearity of that process—and the role art can play in healing. “Barbar” forgives “the Bertilizer” and helps him on his road to sobriety, and he helps her access deep parts of herself and come to grips with the history of abuse she’s suffered. They become, in a sense, each other’s muses. His stunned, tearful reaction when he sees the first portrait she paints of him melted me—someone sees him for the first time.

With documentaries I always wonder who’s the person making it and why. I had cynically assumed the project was instigated by the artist to try to vitalize her career, but no, the filmmaker, who has had an ongoing interest in art theft, contacted Kysilkova after reading about the gallery break-in in the news. As is true with most documentarians, he had no idea when he started filming that the story would evolve the way it did and shift genres, and even become feature-length. Streaming on Hulu.

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INTERVIEW: In 2016 Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service interviewed Rep. John Lewis about the National Book Award–winning graphic novel trilogy March, the role of music and religious faith in the civil rights movement, protest (and getting into “good trouble”) as a form of Christian ministry, the urgent need for the church to be a headlight, not a taillight, and more.

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VCS VIDEO EXHIBITION SERIES: The Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously] is an online, open-access resource for those looking to explore the biblical text through art. For every passage of scripture, an art historian, artist, theologian, media theorist, or other is solicited to select and comment on three art images that illuminate the text in some way. The site’s typical format is written commentaries, but by way of experimentation, the VCS has just released video commentaries instead for four new texts. Ben Quash comments on the story of Lot’s Wife through the lens of an early English stained glass panel, a Flemish Renaissance landscape, and a stunning photograph taken after the Allied bombing of Dresden. For Belshazzar’s Feast from the book of Daniel, Michelle Fletcher is guided by paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the English Romantic period, which she juxtaposes with a contemporary room installation. But here I’ll highlight the videos for two New Testament passages.

The Burial of Christ, with commentary by Italian Renaissance art expert Jennifer Sliwka [previously], covers Andrea Mantegna’s innovatively foreshortened Christ on a marble slab; an altarpiece painting by Michelangelo, in which Christ’s dead body is held up for display, evoking the presentation of the eucharistic host; and a contemporary Pietà, of sorts, by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, which involves a skeleton and a fountain.

Michelle Fletcher, a feminist scholar and specialist on the book of Revelation, comments on the controversial apocalyptic figure known as The Whore of Babylon, which she discusses as a symbol of a city, as a satirization of the goddess Roma, and as bequeathing a legacy of vilification of prostitutes. Fletcher selected a didactic painting by street evangelist Robert Roberg, an ancient Roman coin, and William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London

The feast day of John the Baptist’s birth is coming up on June 24, and London’s National Gallery has provided a great way to immerse yourself in his story—through art! The museum has produced a ten-video series called Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading, in which Professor Ben Quash, director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, joins Dr. Jennifer Sliwka, curator of art and religion at the National Gallery, for a stroll through the museum and some nearby sites to discuss various works of art in which John appears.

Quash and Sliwka teach a collaborative master’s program in Christianity and the Arts, which invites participants to

investigate how Christian scripture, beliefs and practices have found expression in art over 2,000 years; trace the idea of beauty in Western theological tradition; make use of examples in London. . . . The MA will enable students to work across disciplinary and specialism boundaries, and in particular to explore simultaneously the art-historical and theological dimensions of Christian art – approaches which are generally pursued in isolation from one another.

Their analysis of the paintings in this video series is superaccessible to those with no art background, and familiarity with Christianity isn’t assumed either.

The ten videos—about eight minutes each—are embedded below.

  1. Introduction

Artwork: Saint John the Baptist from Carlo Crivelli’s Demidoff Altarpiece

  1. Visitation

Artworks: a Visitation painting from the workshop of Goossen van der Weyden; Francesco Zaganelli’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Birth and Naming

Artworks: scenes from Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s Baptism Altarpiece; a predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo

  1. Infancy

Artworks: Garofolo’s The Holy Family with Saints; Bronzino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints; Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

  1. Wilderness

Artworks: Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert; Saint John the Baptist by an anonymous Italian artist from about 1640–60; Moretto da Brescia’s Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist

  1. Preaching

Artworks: Raphael’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching; Pier Francesco Mola’s Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness; Parmigianino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome

  1. Baptism

Artworks: the baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral, designed by William Pye; Adam Elsheimer’s The Baptism of Christ; and the most famous painting of this subject in any collection: Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Martyrdom

Artworks: Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta; Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

  1. The Baptist’s Head

Artworks: Caravaggio’s Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist; Ana Maria Pacheco’s Study of Head (John the Baptist III) at a private residence (includes an interview with the artist)

  1. Power and Judgment

Artworks: the anonymous English Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey (John the Baptist was his patron saint); a scene above the central panel of Giovanni dal Ponte’s Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece depicting John the Baptist preparing souls to enter into heaven; and The Wilton Diptych, depicting John the Baptist presenting King Richard to the heavenly retinue


To engage with more art from the National Gallery, consider buying one of the two books I reviewed here.