Roundup: Crucifixion and Holocaust, Indonesian Christian art, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “Golgotha, Auschwitz, and the Problem of Evil” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last month for ArtWay I was asked to write about Emma Elliott’s Reconciliation, a sculpted marble arm that bears both a nail wound of Christ from his crucifixion and the number tattoo of Holocaust survivor Eliezer Goldwyn (1922–2017).

Elliott, Emma_Reconciliation
Emma Elliott (British, 1983–), Reconciliation, 2016. Carrara marble, 20 × 110 × 25 cm.

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ESSAY: “The church’s reception of Jewish crucifixion imagery after the Holocaust” by Andrew Williams, AGON 48 (Winter 2015): Can Jews create Christian art? “I seek to revisit this question by examining the ways in which Jewish artists have made reference to the central symbol of the Christian faith, the crucifixion, and consider the ethical and theological horizons they open up for the church. . . . Given its place as a symbol of oppression within Judaism, and in particular its integration with the swastika during the years of Nazi power, its widespread adoption within a Jewish artistic vocabulary is remarkable.” Williams discusses “how the resulting christological imagery has been freighted with meaning connected with collective suffering, personal grief and divine abandonment.”

Levy, Emmanuel_Crucifixion
Emmanuel Levy (British, 1900–1986), Crucifixion, 1942. Oil on canvas, 102 × 78 cm. Ben Uri Gallery, London.

Jacob Epstein, Marc Chagall, Emmanuel Levy, RB Kitaj, Mauricio Lassansky, Abraham Rattner, Samuel Bak, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adi Nes, and Seymour Lipton are among the artists engaged in this illustrated essay. The author provides an extensive bibliography if you’d like to learn more. I also want to remind you of the excellent exhibition catalog essay “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” that I shared back in 2017.

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UPCOMING VIRTUAL EVENT: Studio Talk with Indonesian Artist Wisnu Sasongko, April 28, 2022, 8:30 a.m. ET: Organized by the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Sasongko [previously] served as artist in residence in 2004–5. Cost: $15. Read the artist’s bio and see a sampling of his work at https://omsc.ptsem.edu/artist-sasongko/. There’s also a catalog of his paintings you can buy.

Sasongko, Wisnu_Gethsemane
Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian, 1975–), Last Night in Gethsemane, 2005. Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 34 in.

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ESSAY: “The Christian Art Scene in Yogyakarta” by Volker Küster: Published June 27, 2012, by Protestantse Theologische Universiteit (Protestant Theological University) in Kampen, Netherlands, this essay spotlights five Indonesian artists whose work culturally contextualizes the Christian story: Bagong Kussudiardja [previously], Hendarto, Hari Santosa, Dopo Yeihan, and Wisnu Sasongko. Küster provides biographical information on the artists, including their religious backgrounds (most are converts from Islam), and discusses three paintings by each, all of which are reproduced in full color.

Want to read more by Volker Küster? His chapter on “Visual Arts in World Christianity” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to World Christianity is excellent, and some of it is available in the Google Books preview. See also his book The Many Faces of Jesus Christ: Intercultural Christology (Orbis, 2001).

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ART VIDEO: “Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ (Great Art Explained): In 2020 art writer and gallerist James Payne launched the YouTube video series Great Art Explained, consisting of fifteen-minute videos that each explore a single historically significant artwork. Here’s one he did on an extraordinary painting of Caravaggio’s from the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, which shows Judas’s betrayal of Christ in Gethsemane.

Sarah and Hagar as kin

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf

Sarah, you massaged my sacrum
with a tennis ball when I was in labor.
Like a priestess of the body, you
wiped the newborn Ismail clean
of birthblood and whispered first
holy words into his ear. You are his mother
too. We are kin. No decrees
of man or God can make this truer
than it is, nor can it be cloven.

We did not begin with the husband we shared,
but in Egypt, with divine
intelligence arrowed from eye to eye
across a patio of pagan strangers,
when I was royalty and you were trembling
in the house. You knew exile and I
knew exile. You suffered and I suffered.

Like matter, kinship can be changed
but not destroyed. Cruelty tarnishes,
but cannot dissolve it. We are kin
from bread baked together,
salted, broken, eaten, sacred
as a challah braid at sunset on the Night of Power;
from the battering waters of the sea we crossed;
from the Tree of Life whose branches
we burned to stay alive. Kin
we are from knowledge of the Name;

you had the first letters, I had the last
and, putting them together, we
spelled out the Secret.

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf is from Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., acting on behalf of the publisher.

Mohja Kahf is a Syrian American poet, novelist, and scholar of Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, and Arab and Arab American feminism. Born in Damascus but moving to the Midwest as a child, she was raised in a devout Muslim household. In her creative work and scholarship, she both respects and interrogates her own faith tradition.

Her second poetry collection, Hagar Poems, gives voice to several female characters from the Qur’an and Islamic history, many of whom are also present in the biblical narrative. Part 1 focuses on Hajar (or Hagar, as she’s called in the Bible) and, to a lesser extent, Sarah, the ancient feuding matriarchs of Islam and Judaism, respectively. The remaining two parts spotlight Zuleikha (Potiphar’s wife); Asiya (Moses’s adoptive mother); Balqis (the queen of Sheba); Maryam (Mary); Khadija, Aisha, and Fatima (wives of Muhammad); Nusaiba (a disciple of Muhammad’s); and Hamamah (an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave known primarily as the mother of Bilal, a Muslim convert). The stories of these women are sometimes transposed into contemporary times. For example, Hajar goes to the moon, sees a therapist, participates in an AIDS march, and is visited by a caseworker responding to a report of domestic violence.

Like a few others in the volume, the poem I’ve selected here explores the relationship between Hagar and Sarah as a metonym for the relationships between modern-day adherents of the two religions they represent, on both personal and political scales (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict). But “Kin” is revisionist and aspirational, reimagining a more congenial, mutually supportive, compassionate sisterhood between the two matriarchs, and therefore also a brighter future for their descendants. It might be said that patriarchy made Hagar and Sarah rivals. Both suffered abuse within the system and at different points inflicted it as each gained privilege over the other and vulnerabilities and power dynamics shifted.

According to the biblical story (Gen. 12:10–20), a famine in Canaan drove Abraham and his wife Sarah to seek relief in Egypt. Fearful that his life would be endangered because of Sarah’s beauty (kings were, after all, known to go to extreme measures to get what they want), Abraham presents Sarah to the royal court as his sister, implying that she is sexually available. Pharaoh thus acquires her for his harem and, in gratitude for the giving over of his “sister,” lavishes Abraham with livestock and servants. But as judgment against Pharaoh’s act of (unwitting) adultery, God strikes him and his household with plagues, which is when Pharaoh realizes that he has been deceived. He orders Abraham and Sarah to leave Egypt.

It’s not until Genesis 16:1 that we meet Hagar, identified as “an Egyptian slave” (or, as some translations have it, a handmaid or servant) owned by Sarah. Presumably Sarah acquired—and yes, I use that disgusting term again, because women were treated as possessions in ancient Mesopotamia—Hagar during her time in Egypt.

When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she forces Hagar to have sex with Abraham to bear him an heir. But when Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah becomes jealous, and the abuse worsens to the point that Hagar runs away. But God visits Hagar in the wilderness with words of comfort and reassurance. She returns to Abraham’s household and gives birth to Ishmael. Sometime later, Sarah herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, after which she casts out Hagar and Ishmael, no longer having need of them. God again comes to Hagar and to her son, both of them weak from thirst and on the verge of death. He reveals to them a well and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation, just as he promised of Isaac. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar exults (Gen. 16:13).

According to Jewish midrash, before her enslavement to Sarah, Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess—that is, a daughter of Pharaoh’s. When Pharaoh witnessed the miracle that Sarah’s God performed for Sarah’s sake, he gave Hagar to her, saying, “Better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). In other retellings, Pharaoh gives her away reluctantly as penance, not wanting to incur any more of God’s wrath. And in yet another version, leaving Egypt with Sarah is Hagar’s idea, as she wishes to follow the one true God.

Islamic tradition also affirms Hagar’s royal birth, though according to the Qisas Al-Anbiya, she was the daughter of the king of Maghreb, whom Pharaoh killed, thus capturing her. Notably, neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an; they are only briefly alluded to in Surah Ibrahim 14:37, where Abraham says in prayer, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” Hagar is, however, mentioned amply in the hadith.

In “Kin,” Kahf is interested in what binds Sarah and Hagar—and Jews and Muslims—together. Both women were subjected to gendered oppression, including sexual abuse, and had no recourse against it. Both were, at different times, strangers in a strange land—first Sarah in Egypt, then Hagar in Canaan and later the wilderness of Paran. Both experienced miraculous interventions by God and even heard his voice. Both were mothers. They shared, at least initially, a husband and a home—they baked and broke bread together. Their family lines would diverge, but the two, Kahf writes, were as intertwined as the braids of a challah loaf. “Kin / we are from knowledge of the Name”—both knew and embraced the same God, as would their spiritual descendants.

The poem is written to Sarah from Hagar’s perspective. Hagar looks back with empathy to their first meeting, when “I was royalty” (as rabbinic tradition has it) “and you were trembling / in the house.” Kahf idealistically envisions an intimacy between the two, and a cooperative spirit—for example, Sarah giving Hagar a sacral massage while she’s in labor, afterward welcoming Ishmael into the world with love and devotion.

This picture is not what we get in the sacred texts, where Sarah regards Hagar with bitterness and hostility and mistreats her, and, if Sarah’s complaints can be trusted, Hagar lords it over Sarah when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s first son.

But what if the women had been friends? What if Ishmael and Isaac had been raised together as brothers? How might those strong familial ties and goodwill have impacted subsequent generations and influenced Jewish-Muslim relations in the present day?

(Related post: “Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter”)

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Like Kahf, Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin also explores gender and religious identity through her work, focusing especially on the biblical matriarchs. Also like Kahf, she is interested in the midrashic process by which exegetes, be they scholars or artists, approach the stories of scripture with a spirit of seeking and inquiry, responding with creative interpretations that read between the lines and ponder implications.

Benjamin, Siona_Beloved (Sarah and Hagar)
Siona Benjamin (Indian American, 1960–), Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), 2004. Gouache on paper, 20 × 16 in. From the Finding Home series.

In her painting Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), Sarah wears a kippah on her head and tefillin (small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside) on her arms, while Hagar wears a hijab and a misbaḥah (string of prayer beads). The two women are wound together in a tight embrace—“reflections of each other,” the artist says. They’re also wounded together, their bodies blown apart, blood dripping like tears from the rifts. To the side is a pair of amputee Israeli soldiers, whose surveillance camera has identified three Palestinian suicide bombers. Integrated into the foliate decoration around the border are guns and grenades.

Benjamin says this painting represents the eventual reuniting of Sarah and Hagar after Hagar’s banishment, an invented outcome but one that expresses hope for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. When we recognize the shared humanity of the “other,” and how they are just as beloved of God, it becomes impossible to view them as the enemy, to be occupied or killed.

Did Sarah and Hagar ever share the kind of closeness Benjamin envisions in Beloved? Probably not. But does that mean the two nations they founded must forever be at war? Let us pray for peace and pursue it.

Instead of finger-pointing or offering political solutions, these two artistic works—one by a Muslim, one by a Jew—serve as prayers of lament and hope. They probe beneath the surface of Sarah and Hagar’s story and imagine future possibilities.

Roundup: Christianity in Africa, Zwingli’s plague hymn, biblical art database, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.

Djanira_Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador
Djanira da Motta e Silva (Brazilian, 1914–1979), Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, or Cristo na coluna (Christ at the Column), 1955. Oil on canvas, 81 × 115 cm. Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Jaime Acioli.

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LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!

The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”

“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.

I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola by Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)

Bantu is the author of A Multitude of Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity from IVP Academic and the editor of Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity, both released this year.

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SONGS:

“Azim ast name To Isa”: Nora Kirkland from Iran performs this Christian praise song in Farsi, English, and Greek. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus

“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.

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BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.

Blake, William_Behemoth and Leviathan
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Behold Now Behemoth, Which I Made With Thee (The Book of Job) (Linnell set), 1821. Watercolor, black ink, and graphite on off-white antique laid paper, 27.5 × 20 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. [HT]

Mordecai Ardon (Israeli, 1896–1992), Sarah, 1947. Oil on canvas, 138 × 108 cm. Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem.

The Finding of Moses (Dura-Europos Synagogue)
“The Finding of Moses,” wall painting made in 244 CE, from Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria. Preserved at the National Museum of Syria, Damascus. [HT]

Crossing the Red Sea (Alba Bible)
“Crossing of the Red Sea,” Spain, 1430. Illumination from the Alba Bible (fol. 68v–69r), Liria Palace, Madrid.

Jonah (Islamic)
“Jonah,” Iran, 1577. Illumination from the Qisas al Anbiya (Diez A Fol. 3, fol. 142v), Staatsbibliothek, Berlin. [HT]

Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy

All photos by Victoria Emily Jones or Eric James Jones, © ArtandTheology.org

Soaring 150 feet into the air against a Rocky Mountain backdrop, the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs is a National Historic Landmark and one of Colorado’s most-visited manmade attractions. It was designed by Walter Netsch Jr. of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm responsible for the planning and design of the entire academy, and is a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five-Year Award. Construction of the Cadet Chapel began in 1959 and was completed in 1962. It was dedicated in 1963.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The Cadet Chapel was designed to house three distinct worship spaces—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—on two levels, with a large “All-Faiths Room” on a third (bottom) level available to members of other faiths. In 2007 a Buddhist Chapel (the Vast Refuge Dharma Hall) was added, and more recently a Muslim prayer room, and outside there is a Falcon Circle for the Earth-Centered Spirituality community (pagans, Druids, Wiccans, etc.), dedicated in 2011. Because of the building’s sound-proofing and separate entrances, different services can be held simultaneously without interfering with one another.

I visited the Cadet Chapel last year shortly before it closed in September for a major renovation and restoration project needed to address water damage. It is scheduled to reopen again in fall 2023.

The most striking feature of the exterior is its seventeen spires, made to resemble jet fighter wings. I must admit: though it is an impressive structure, and I’m fully aware it is a military chapel, the evocation of warplanes for a worship space is a little unsettling. But the design choice does give the building great height—it points to the heavens as do the great medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe, meant to turn the eye upward toward God.

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

The steel frame of the chapel comprises one hundred identical tetrahedrons, each weighing five tons and enclosed with aluminum panels. The surfaces of the outer panels are striated so that they reflect light differently throughout the day, depending on the sun’s position.

The chapel is situated on a terrace that overlooks part of the campus as well as beautiful mountain vistas.

View from USAFA Cadet Chapel

The front façade faces south—an atypical orientation for churches, which are traditionally built on a west–east axis, but a choice made, I’m assuming, to best utilize the sunlight for the interior decoration (see next section).

To reach the main entrance you have to ascend a wide granite stairway that leads up one story to an uncovered front porch. Walk inside, and you’re in the narthex (lobby) of the Protestant Chapel.

Protestant Chapel

The Protestant Chapel is by far the largest worship space within the Cadet Chapel, taking up the whole main floor—a choice made based on the religious demographics of enrolled cadets at the time of the building’s construction in the early sixties. (An article published shortly after the chapel’s dedication reported that 68% of cadets listed themselves as Protestant, 29% Catholic, and 2% Jewish, with a few listing other faiths or agnosticism.)

Though the exterior of the Cadet Chapel is, as I experienced it, somewhat cold, sterile, severe, the interior is incredibly warm and genial. Its vertical lift is spectacular. Stained glass strip windows provide ribbons of color between the tetrahedrons and progress from darker to lighter as they reach the altar, with some of the nearly 25,000 dalles (small, thick glass slabs) being deliberately chipped to produce jewel-like facets. The play of colored light across vault, floor, and pews was my favorite part of this space.

USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel)

Vault of USAFA Cadet Chapel (Protestant Chapel) Continue reading “Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy”

As the Deer (Artful Devotion)

Jacobson, Ruth Taylor_The Eternal
Ruth Taylor Jacobson (British, 1941–), The Eternal, 2005. Antique glass, acid-etched and painted, 170 × 80 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?

. . .

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

—Psalm 42:1–2, 5

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SONG: “Psalm 42” | Music by Mike Cosper and Rebecca Dennison, on These Things I Remember by Sojourn Music (2005) | CCLI #5165227

 

 

For a detailed description of the stained glass panel, click here (under the “More information” tab).


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 7, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Jewish mosaics; New Psalm Contest; revising hymns; tree-inspired chapel; and more

I will be going on vacation soon and will be mostly unplugged, so you will notice less frequent blog posts for a few weeks. I’ll cue up some Artful Devotions to be published automatically each Tuesday I’m gone but won’t be posting the links to the blog’s Twitter and Facebook pages as I usually do—so be sure to check the site instead! (Or subscribe by email by clicking the “Follow” link, located in the sidebar if viewing from your computer or at the bottom if viewing from your phone.) My regular publishing schedule will resume in September.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FIND: “Discovery of Jewish Mosaics in Israel Bring Color to Biblical Accounts” by Sarah E. Bond: “At the ancient site of Huqoq, near the Sea of Galilee in modern Israel, a number of stunning mosaics depicting biblical, astrological, and historical narratives have been uncovered in a Jewish village that flourished during the late Roman empire. The colorful and large number of mosaics found in a synagogue challenge traditional views about Jewish art of the period as symbolic rather than representational of biblical texts, bland, and in decline during the period.”

Fish swallowing Pharoah's soldier
A giant Red Sea fish swallows one of Pharaoh’s soldiers in this mosaic detail from the late Roman (ca. 5th century) synagogue at Huqoq, Israel. Photo: Jim Haberman, via UNC-Chapel Hill.

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SONGWRITING CONTEST: “In an effort to encourage Psalm-singing, Church of the Servant [in Grand Rapids, Michigan] invites congregational songwriters to submit a Psalm-based song to its 2018 COS New Psalm Contest. The winner will receive a $500 award. There is no entry fee and the contest is open to all. Submissions must be emailed or postmarked by October 1, 2018. The song will be premiered in worship on January 27, 2019. Church of the Servant is a Christian Reformed Church with a rich history of encouraging the arts in worship. Its worship is Reformed, liturgical, participatory, eclectic, and open to creative new worship expressions.”   Continue reading “Roundup: Jewish mosaics; New Psalm Contest; revising hymns; tree-inspired chapel; and more”

Roundup: New acquisitions; prison psalms; “Sacred Noise”; the spiritual in contemporary art

ACQUISITION: Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, National Gallery, London: This month the National Gallery in London announced its acquisition of a self-portrait by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi posed as the fourth-century Christian martyr Catherine of Alexandria. For centuries it has been in the private collection of a French family, hidden from public view; now it is undergoing restoration and framing before being permanently hung in 2019 alongside other Baroque masters like Caravaggio.

Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593–1653), Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1615–17. Oil on canvas, 71.1 × 71.1 cm (28 × 28 in.). National Gallery, London.

Gentileschi is best known for her dramatic paintings of strong female heroines, biblical and extrabiblical, and this painting is no exception. In her left hand she holds a spiked wheel, a torture device used on St. Catherine, and in the right she holds a palm branch, symbol of victory through martyrdom. The painting has biographical resonance, as just a few years earlier, when she was eighteen, Gentileschi was raped by one of her father’s artist colleagues, Agostino Tassi. During the highly publicized trial in 1612, she was subjected to a thumbscrew-like torture called the sibille to test the veracity of her testimony. Although Tassi was convicted, his sentence of five years of exile from Rome was not enforced, and he continued painting frescoes for Pope Paul V. To learn more about the challenges and successes Gentileschi faced as a female artist in the seventeenth century, see Jonathan Jones’s recent Guardian article.

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ACQUISITION: Rothschild Pentateuch, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: “This is the most spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript that’s come to market in over a century,” says Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts of the Rothschild Pentateuch, a thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript that the museum acquired last month—its first Jewish manuscript, consisting of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The extent and vibrancy of the illuminations, which feature fantastical beasts, humanoid figures, temple accoutrements, and foliate designs, set the manuscript apart from other Jewish Bibles, which are typically image-lite. Starting next month, the Rothschild Pentateuch will be featured in a small Getty exhibition, “Art of Three Faiths: A Torah, a Bible, and a Qur’an,” on view from August 7 through February 3, 2019.

Menorah of the Tabernacle
Menorah of the Tabernacle (Book of Leviticus) from the Rothschild Pentateuch, France and/or Germany, 1296. Leaf: 27.5 × 21 cm (10 7/8 × 8 1/4 in.). Ms. 116 (2018.43), fol. 226v. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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BLOG SERIES: “Monasticism in Lockdown America” by Chris Hoke, Good Letters: In this nine-part series, prison chaplain Chris Hoke, author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne, 2015), shares conversations and encounters he’s had with men whose lives are marked by gangs, addiction, violence, and mental illness. He encourages the newly sentenced to use prison as a spiritual retreat center, a monastery, reminding them that “some men choose to live out their days in all-male places wearing the same clothing, eating plain food, growing out their beards, leaving the ‘normal’ world behind, and spending much of their time in rooms called cells, walking deeper into the mystery of God’s heart.” And Hoke walks with them. I am impressed by his ability to reveal the depths of Christian theology in contextually appropriate ways, and to stoke enthusiasm for spiritual practice—praying, reading, fasting. Some of the teachings that have resonated with prisoners are on the darkened mind and the image of God. Revelations abound for both parties.

Christ the Prisoner by Nikolai Tsai
Icon by Nikolai Tsai

My favorite installments are the last two, on the Psalms, a book that Hoke describes as “the mess of our shared condition, in all its forms, being welcomed into God.” Like many contemporary rap lyrics, the Psalms express uncensored emotion, not, necessarily, good, clean theology. And yet they are part of the church’s sacred tradition. “What’s in you? What’s your psalm?” Hoke asks. One of the responses, by a juvenile detainee, made me cry.

Part 1: Cloister
Part 2: Prostration
Part 3: Exercises
Part 4: Asceticism
Part 5: Holy Elders
Part 6: Icons
Part 7: Holy Fool
Part 8: Psalms in the Beginning
Part 9: Psalms, in the End

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EXHIBITION: “Sacred Noise,” June 25–July 21, 2018, Christie’s London (8 King St., St. James’s): Curated by Cristian Albu, “Sacred Noise” aims to show the impact of the European legacy of Christian painting on postwar and contemporary artists. Each room is anchored by an Old Master painting. For example, a Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbarán is displayed alongside Marlene Dumas’s Magdalena (one of the biblical characters in the Crucifixion scene) and Gerhard Richter’s Candle (picturing what would have been the Crucifixion’s original illumination source). I love this staged conversation between works and periods! A beautifully designed, 183-page catalog is available for free viewing and download.

I will say that “Modern Art and the Death of God,” the subtitle of the catalog’s main essay and of the trailer, is misleading in that it seems to promote a one-sided narrative of modern art history. It appears that the exhibition does try to subvert the notion that God is absent from modern art (and this is just a case of poor titling), but I can’t say for sure, since I haven’t seen it; I have only the catalog and trailer to go on. Religious traditions were indeed “offset” in many ways by twentieth-century artists, some of whom were atheist but others of whom were devoutly Christian. One can still challenge tradition from a place of faith, and of course people of no faith can “open new interpretive horizons” that we would do well to consider. Jonathan Evens, who did see the show, says in some places it lacks nuanced readings of artists and their work; he also reminds us that a different selection of canonical artists would tell a different story, one of how Christianity can weather quite well (and has) the storms of the modern era.

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NEW BOOK + LECTURE: “Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art” by Leesa Fanning: Dr. Leesa Fanning is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and this week a new major book she edited, Encountering the Spiritual Contemporary Art, was released by Yale University Press. While books have been published before on the topic, this one

significantly broadens the scope of previous studies to include new media and non-Western and Indigenous art (in addition to that of the West), presents art from diverse cultures with equal status, promotes cultural specificity, and moves beyond notions of “center and periphery,” celebrating the plurality and global nature of contemporary art today.

On June 7 Fanning gave a fifty-minute talk introducing some of the themes and artworks covered in the book. I’m sometimes turned off by discourse about vague, amorphous “spirituality,” but I found myself grabbed the whole way through. Though doctrinal specificity is avoided, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various indigenous belief systems are represented, and as with the book, the reach is unprecedentedly global. Beneath the video is a breakdown of the artworks Fanning discusses.

I. SOURCES OF INSPIRATION
Johanna Bresnick and Michael Cloud Hirschfeld, From Mouth to Mouth
Bill Viola, Ascension
Anselm Kiefer, Maria
Thomas Struth, San Zaccaria
Y. Z. Kami, Daya’s Hands; White Dome IV; Konya
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Ordibebesht (Convertible Series)
Yelimane Fall, Ocean of Generosity
Jim Chuchu, Pagans XII
Mariko Mori, Tom Na H-iu
Abie Loy Kemarre, Bush Hen Dreaming A12933
Maringka Baker, Ngura Kamanti
Kathleen Petyarr, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming—Winter Storm
David Ruben Piqtoukun, Bear in shamanic transformation
Monty Claw, We Pray for Rain
Christi Belcourt, Water Song
Calvin Hunt, Thunderbird Mask and Regalia
Marianne Nicolson, The House of Ghosts
Aaron Taylor Kuffner, Gamelatron Empat Bunga (4 Flowers)

II. ARTIST’S BODY AS SIGNIFIER OF SPIRITUAL CONTENT
Kimsooja, A Needle Woman—Kitakyushu
Anselm Kiefer, Falling Stars
Ana Mendieta, Corazón de Roca con Sangre (Rock Heart with Blood)
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present
James Lee Byars, Autobiography alla veneziana; The Holy Ghost

III. MATERIALS/FORM/COLOR
James Lee Byars, Is; The Chair for the Philosophy of Question; The Rose Table of Perfect
Mierle Ukeles and Stephen Handel, I’m Talking to You: A Scent Garden
Sonam Dolma, My Father’s Death
Natvar Bhavsar, KETAK
Anish Kapoor, Shelter
Martin Puryear, A Distant Place
Anish Kapoor, Ascension

IV. ART MAKING AS SPIRITUAL PROCESS
Spinifex Women’s Collective, Minyma Tjuta
Meghann O’Brien, Sky Blanket
Lonnie Vigil, Jar
Shirazeh Houshiary, Echo
Wolfgang Laib, Pollen from Hazelnut; Milkstone; Ziggurat

Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources

The global push to make art more accessible to the public has led to some impressive digital creations in the past year. The following are ones I’ve really enjoyed exploring, some released as recently as this month. They all focus on a particular artwork or era or (in the case of the Jewish art database) faith tradition. I will cover the more all-encompassing digital art initiatives/databases and commendable museum websites in a future series of posts, where I will give them more individualized attention. Some of the creations below represent single projects within those broader initiatives.

“The Audacity of Christian Art”: Written and presented by Dr. Chloë Reddaway, this series of seven short films looks at paintings from the (London) National Gallery’s Renaissance collection and explores some ingenious artistic responses to the challenge of painting Christ.

As curator of art and religion at the museum, Reddaway’s role is to understand more about the paintings’ religious content and context. (Her main academic background is theology.) She also lectures for the MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. I love how she defines her primary research interest: “visual theology, especially the recovery of historic works of art as a resource for contemporary theology.”

The trailer for “The Audacity of Christian Art” is below, followed by links to all seven episodes. All are shot in ultra-high resolution and feature stunning details.

Episode 1: “The Problem with Christ”
Episode 2: “Christ Is Not Like a Snail: Signs and Symbols”
Episode 3: “Putting God in His Place: Here, Everywhere, and Nowhere”
Episode 4: “Time and Eternity: Yesterday, Today, and Always”
Episode 5: “This World and the Next: Christ on Earth, Christ in Heaven”
Episode 6: “So Near and Yet So Far: Visions and Thresholds”
Episode 7: “Unspeakable Images: When Words Fail”

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The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel: “Online exhibitions” are something I’ve seen more and more of recently—that is, the presentation of artworks in a digital rather than physical space, using tools unique to that medium to enhance the viewing experience. Last year Google Arts and Culture launched one in conjunction with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, centered around Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem (1566), which sets Mary and Joseph’s census registration within the hustle and bustle of a Brabant village. The interface guides you through a sequence of bite-size commentaries, sometimes presented as text alongside an image detail, sometimes as a short video. What makes it an “exhibition” is that other works are shown alongside it to locate it within a larger tradition of Netherlandish painting. One frame, for example, shows how Bruegel furthered the innovative “alla prima” technique introduced by Hieronymus Bosch.

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

I studied this painting in college (through slides and textbook reproductions) but have never seen it in this much detail and am now all the more in awe of it. Bruegel’s paintings, which almost always depict a flurry of activity, lend themselves particularly well to this viewing format: it’s helpful to be guided through the various vignettes, each one a window into sixteenth-century Dutch life. Up close, you can see kids blowing up pig-bladder balloons and running across the ice pushing cow jaws they got from the butcher; you can see adults patronizing a tavern in the hollow of a tree, called “In De Swaen”; and much more.

Census at Bethlehem (detail)

Census at Bethlehem detail

Census at Bethlehem detail

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“Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights”: Created in 2016 by a thirty-four-person team, this “interactive documentary” provides an in-depth audiovisual tour though the Dutch artist’s most famous—and, arguably, most bizarre—painting. The interior of the triptych shows, in the central panel, life before the Flood—a depraved orgy in which humans cavort shamelessly with a whole host of beastly creatures conjured from the artist’s imagination.   Continue reading “Interacting with artworks online: A few new(ish) resources”