Roundup: The Soil and The Seed Project, Transfiguration art, and more

For the first time, this year I plan on publishing short daily posts for the entirety of Lent and for the Octave of Easter, pairing a visual artwork with a piece of music along the seasons’ themes (for an example of this format, see here)—just an FYI of what to expect. I also have several poems lined up. And you might want to check out the Art & Theology Lent Playlist and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify (introduced here and here respectively), which I’ve expanded since last year. I’m very pleased with the Holy Week Playlist in particular.

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NEW RESOURCE FOR HOME LITURGIES: The Soil and The Seed Project: Directed by Seth Thomas Crissman of The Walking Roots Band [previously] and with the contributions of a team of artists, writers, and musicians, “The Soil and The Seed Project nurtures faith through music, art, and Little Liturgies for daily and weekly use in the home. These resources help establish new rhythms of faith as together we turn towards Jesus, believing and celebrating the Good News of God’s Love for the whole world.” The project launched in November 2021 with its Advent/Christmas/Epiphany collection. When the project is complete it will consist of four volumes of music (forty-plus songs total—all original, save for a couple of reimagined hymns) and four liturgical booklets that include responsive scripture-based readings, reflection prompts, suggested practices, and an original artwork.

The Lent/Easter/Pentecost collection releases February 25, but as a special treat, Crissman is allowing Art & Theology readers a “first listen” with this private link (it will turn public on Friday). Here’s one of the songs, “I Want to Know Christ,” a setting of Philippians 3:10–11 by Harrisonburg, Virginia–based songwriter and jail chaplain Jason Wagner, followed by a Little Liturgies sample:

Little Liturgies, Lent Week 1

Thanks to a community of generous donors, The Soil and The Seed Project gives away all its content for free, including shipping, to anyone who is interested (individuals, couples, families, churches, etc.); request a copy of the latest music collection and liturgies here. CDs and printed booklets are available only while supplies last (1500 copies have been pressed/printed for this collection), but digital copies of course remain available without limit.

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CONVERSATIONS AT CALVIN: Below are two videos (of many!) from the 2022 Calvin Symposium on Worship, which took place earlier this month.

>> “Modern-Day Prophets: How Artists and Activists Expand Public Worship” with Nikki Toyama-Szeto: A writer, speaker, and activist on issues of justice, leadership, race, and gender, Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the executive director of Christians for Social Action and a leading voice for Missio Alliance. Here she is interviewed by preacher and professor Noel Snyder. They discuss the generativity of imagination, and its invitation to displacement; the connection between corporate worship and public witness; the movement of the Holy Spirit outside church walls; “political” and “pastoral” as classifications that differ from group to group; embracing messiness; and what pastors can learn from artists and activists.

A few quotes from Toyama-Szeto that stood out to me:

  • “Part of what we’re trying to do at Christians for Social Action is stir the Christian imagination for what a fuller followership of Jesus looks like in a more just society. The word ‘imagination,’ and I would say specifically Christian imagination, I think of as the dream that God dreams for his people and his creation. What does it mean to be oriented toward the dream that God is dreaming? Another word for it is shalom—the full flourishing of all his creation and all his people. And if you look at the gap between where we are today and what that dream is, that gap is imagination. How is it that we get from here, the broken world we see . . . how do we press in and lean into the dreams that God dreams for his people and for his world?”
  • “For me, I have found artists and prophets—those who are agitating for justice—are ones who help dislodge me from everyday things I take for granted, and those assumptions, and they help me to dream new and bigger dreams.”
  • “The pursuit of justice is the declaration of God’s character in the public square.”

Here are links to a few of the names and books she references: Sadao Watanabe, A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Andre Henry [previously], The Many.

>> “Christians and Cultural Difference,” with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith: María Cornou interviews Calvin University professors Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith, authors of Christians and Cultural Difference (2016).

Smith shares his frustration that often the only Christians who endeavor to learn other languages and develop cultural intelligence and appreciation are those who are preparing to be missionaries in a foreign country, and they do it only for the purpose of missional effectiveness.

If you take one piece of theology [i.e., evangelism] and try and make that the bit that’s about cultural difference, that puts distortions into the conversation. . . . You might want to think about mission, but you might also want to think about what it means to be made in the image of God. Does that mean everyone’s the same, or does it mean everyone has responsibility for shaping culture and we might all do it in different ways, and you have to make space for that? We might need to think about the cross. We might need to think about God’s embrace of us and how we embrace each other. We might need to think about love of neighbor. We might need to think about the body of Christ and the makeup of the early church. . . . You might have to visit a whole bunch of different theological places to get a composite picture rather than saying this is the doctrine that somehow solves cultural difference for us.

I was also struck by Smith’s discussion of how cultural difference can help us read the scriptures in a new way (see 19:38ff.). He gives an example from In the Land of Blue Burqas, where Kate McCord, an American, describes her experience reading the Bible with Muslim women from Afghanistan, and particularly how they taught her a very different interpretation of John 4, the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Wow.

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VISUAL COMMENTARY ON SCRIPTURE: The Transfiguration: In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, is Transfiguration Sunday, giving us a vision with which to enter Lent. (Other traditions celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration on August 6.) In this video from the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash discuss this New Testament event through three visual artworks: a fifteenth-century icon by Theophanes the Greek, which shows the “uncreated light” revealed to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor; a fresco by Fra Angelico from the wall of a friar’s cell in Florence, where Jesus’s pose foreshadows his suffering on the cross; and a contemporary light installation by the seminary-educated American artist Dan Flavin, comprising fluorescent light tubes in the shape of a mandorla. Brilliant!

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CIVA TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Again + Again, curated by Ginger Henry Geyer with Asher Imtiaz: “A photography exhibition that invites recurring and fresh contemplation of the ordinary and extraordinary through the seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar,” sponsored by Christians in the Visual Arts. The show will be on view at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis from February 26 to March 26 and is available for rental in North America after that. I saw it at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin in November at the CIVA biennial and was impressed! It is accompanied by a beautifully designed catalog that pairs each photograph with a poem, several of which were written specifically for the exhibition and which respond directly to a given photo.

Winters, Michael_Mount Tabor, June 2017
Michael Winters, Mount Tabor, June 2017, 2017. Inkjet print with holes punched out in white wood frame, 19 × 13 in.

One of my favorite art selections is Mount Tabor, June 2017 by Michael Winters, the director of arts and culture at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. “Mount Tabor . . . is where the transfiguration of Christ is thought to have occurred,” Winters writes. “I stood viewing that scene in 2017. It looked so normal. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to punch holes in this photograph, but I think it’s because I wanted to be able to see through this ‘normal’ landscape to the glory of the transfigured Christ—which is to say, I wanted to see reality.”

Browse all the Again + Again photographs on the CIVA website. Longtime followers of the blog will recognize some of the photos from Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s Via Dolorosa series that I featured back in 2016.

Online events

Organized by Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality:

>> April 10, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. EDT: “The Victory of Life (Easter in Renaissance Art)”: “The most important event of New Testament belief, Christ’s Resurrection, is not described in the Scriptures. That has not prevented artists however from imagining it. As we celebrate Eastertide, we invite you to join Monsignor Timothy Verdon as he reflects on a number of works focused on this theme.”

View more events at https://mounttabor.it/mount-tabor-talks-topics/.

Organized by HeartEdge:

>> April 15, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “In the Shadow of Your Wings: Musical Bible Study on the Psalms”: Deus Ex Musica presents this interactive event in which participants watch prerecorded live performances of three brand-new vocal settings of Psalm 57, each set to music by a composer representing a different Christian tradition. After viewing the performances, participants will engage in moderated small-group discussions. No musical expertise is required.

Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical organization of musicians, educators, pastors, and scholars that promotes the use of sacred music as a resource for learning and spiritual growth.

>> April 26, 3–4 p.m. EDT: “Art and the Liturgical Year: Bringing the Church Calendar to Life”: Organized in partnership with the CEEP Network. “This workshop explores ways of engaging artists with churches/congregations using the church calendar. What might inspire artists in engaging with the patterns that underpin the life of many churches, and how might engaging with artists open up understandings of faith in new ways for congregations? Examples of the kind of projects we will explore include initiatives using the visual arts in dialogue with scripture or exhibitions/installations in particular seasons such as Advent or Lent. Fundamentally, though, this workshop seeks explore a range of ideas and approaches and to hear about the benefits both for artists and congregations.”

Panelists:

  • Janet Broderick, Beverly Hills, California: Rector, All Saints Beverly Hills
  • Paul-Gordon Chandler, Casper, Wyoming: Bishop, Diocese of Wyoming; and Founding President of CARAVAN Arts (moderator)
  • Catriona Laing, Brussels: Chaplain, St. Martha & St. Mary’s Anglican Church Leuven; Associate Chaplain, Holy Trinity Brussels
  • Ben Quash, London: Professor, Christianity and the Arts & Director, Center for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London; Director, Visual Commentary on Scripture Project
  • Aaron Rosen, Washington, DC: Professor, Religion and Visual Culture; Director, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary; Cofounder, Stations of the Cross Public Art Project

>> June 4, 11, 18, 25, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “Jesus Is Just Alright: What Pop Songs About Jesus Can Teach Christians Today”: Led by composer, musician, and educator Delvyn Case of Deus Ex Musica. “For over fifty years, pop musicians in all genres have explored the meaning and significance of Jesus in their music. The result is a rich collection of songs that consider important spiritual questions like faith, doubt, and prayer in unique and often provocative ways. Through a combination of listening and discussion, this four-part series invites participants to explore a different spiritual topic each week. Join us to listen to great music that asks tough questions about our faith and our lives as Christians.”

View more events at https://www.heartedge.org/.

Organized by Art + Christianity:

>> April 21, 1–2 p.m. EDT: “Exhibiting Faith in the Museum and Beyond”: World-leading experts Ittai Weinryb, Neil MacGregor, and Jennifer Sliwka will discuss the joys and difficulties of introducing to the general public art that builds on a faith tradition. “They will discuss what has become a major concern for teachers, lecturers and museum curators in many countries. How do you encourage a largely secular audience to step inside a work of art, in such a way that its religious meaning is felt and understood, and the artistic experience can become immersive? . . . Among the topics to be explored are:

  • The opening up of museums and galleries to enhanced audiences during the pandemic.
  • How certain objects are altered by their move from a sacred space into a museum, yet how they also ‘live on’ beyond the museum plinth or computer screen.
  • The need to understand secular inhibitions and the loss of interest in Christianity and to find ways in which works of art can readdress this situation.”

>> April 29, 2–3:30 p.m. EDT: “Coventry Cathedral: Icon and Inspiration”: “Join Alexandra Epps [an Accredited Lecturer for The Arts Society and Guide and Lecturer at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Guildhall Art Gallery] for the extraordinary story of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of peace and reconciliation and its inspiring commitment to the modern. Experience the artistic journey that is the Cathedral discovering the work of many of the world-class artists associated with its many treasures including Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and more.”

View more events at https://www.artandchristianity.org/upcoming-events.

Organized by Image journal:

>> May 5, 56 p.m. EDT: “The Art of Criticism: The People’s Madonna”: “Filmmaker Lucia Senesi grew up in Arezzo, Italy, within walking distance of several Old Master Madonnas. But it wasn’t until she was older—and viewing films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Valerio Zurlini, who were both captivated by the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi—that she saw these paintings with fresh eyes. Her essay in the spring issue of Image describes the fascinating history of a Madonna commissioned by peasants, executed by a Renaissance master, condemned by popes, and preserved through wars and social upheaval. She’ll talk with culture editor Nick Ripatrazone about film, the populism of sacred art, and the scandal of a woman pregnant with God.”

>> May 26, 56 p.m. EDT: “The Art of Imagery: You Are What You Contemplate”: “Artist Scott Erickson wanted to design a series of Stations of the Cross that people in his Portland neighborhood could encounter without the barrier of having to enter a church building—and he wanted to make them accessible to all. The result is a series of downloadable, printable images that have appeared all over the globe. His most recent book is Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now. He’ll speak with Image editor in chief James K.A. Smith about church, art, and ‘spiritual formation through image contemplation.’”

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.