Advent art slideshow and devotional

Advent is just around the corner, commencing Sunday, November 27. To support Christians in their seasonal journey toward Christmas, I’ve developed two companion resources: a slideshow of art images for congregational use, and a devotional booklet for individuals or small groups that offers written reflections on these images.

The structural backbone is a liturgical text written by Jonathan Evens, which has as its refrain the plea “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” It looks forward to Christ’s second advent but also, necessarily, back to his first, in all its various aspects. Along with themes of peace, love, and sacrifice, you are invited to consider

  • what it meant for Jesus to be born of woman—coming as seed and fetus and birthed son;
  • the poverty Jesus shared with children around the world;
  • culturally specific bodies of Christ, like a dancing body and a yogic body;
  • how we are called to bear God into the world today;
  • and more.

Art is a great way to open yourself up to the mysteries of God, to sit in the pocket of them as you gaze and ponder. “Blessed are your eyes because they see,” Jesus said. Theologians in their own right, artists are committed to helping us see what was and what is and what could be. Here I’ve taken special care to select images by artists from around the world, not just the West, and ones that go beyond the familiar fare. You’ll see, for example, the Holy Spirit depositing the divine seed into Mary’s womb; Mary with a baby bump, and then with midwives; an outback birth with kangaroos, emus, and lizards in attendance; Jesus as a Filipino slum dweller; and Quaker history married to Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.

My vision is for the two-minute slideshow to be shown in church on the first day of Advent during the main service. Two minutes is not nearly enough time to take in twenty-four images, so the slideshow is really just an invitation to deeper, one-on-one engagement with the images throughout the week, and that’s where the booklet comes in—as an aid to contemplation. To reinforce the practice and to make it more communal, pastors might consider drawing one image per week into his or her sermon, or discussion could be built into the Sunday school hour. There are twenty-eight days in Advent this year but only twenty-three reflections, so I’ll leave it up to you how to parse them out.

A humongous thanks to the artists and institutions who have granted permission for use of their work. Copyright of the images is retained by them, except where “Public Domain” is indicated, and reproduction outside the context of this slideshow and booklet is prohibited without their express permission. You of course are encouraged to show the slides publicly, and to distribute the booklet, but you must not charge a fee.

I hope these images fill you with wonder and holy desire—to know Christ more and to live into the kingdom he inaugurated two thousand-plus years ago from a Bethlehem manger.

Download the slideshow as a PowerPoint file.

Download the devotional booklet as a PDF. (Note: This version is slightly edited from the original.)

Want to have the booklet print and bound? Use this print-ready version. (I recommend a coil bind with a clear plastic front cover and a vinyl back cover. This will run you about $20 each at most commercial print centers, or less for larger quantities. Be sure to print double-sided, head-to-head.)

I realize that Sara Star’s The Crowning might be too graphic for some churches. Although I personally am compelled by it and obviously endorse it through its inclusion (what better complement to the line “Coming down the birth canal”?), I offer the following as alternative image suggestions for those who might want to substitute it with something more abstract or sanitized: Through the Needle’s Eye by Grace Carol Bomer; the Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) panel from La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) by Sophie Hacker; Motherhood by Matthew Gill; or Nativity by Paula Rego. Please note that I have NOT received copyright clearance for any of these alternates, which means that if you were to use one, you would be responsible for securing the proper permission.

If you have any questions about how to use these resources, or if you’d like to share any feedback with me—either on how the images or format were received in your congregation, or suggestions for future improvement—feel free to contact me at victoria.emily.jones@gmail.com, or use the comment field below. This is really my first attempt to bring the principles of this blog out into the local church, so I’m eager to see what kind of fruit it bears.

“When the heart is hard and parched up . . .”

Thy Kingdom Come by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Thy Kingdom Come. Oil on canvas.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.

This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.

Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.

Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.

In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:

(To follow along with the words or to purchase scores, go to http://www.joanszymko.com/works/ind/burst-song-3-mvts.)

Jesus as Ladder: Jyoti Sahi and Ralph Stanley in conversation with Genesis 28

Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village outside Bangalore in southern India. His paintings are infused with Christian spirituality, often depicting biblical narratives set on Indian soil.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Lord as Ladder of Perfection, 2014. Oil on canvas.

Lord as Ladder of Perfection references Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10–22, wherein Jacob witnesses angels descending and ascending a cosmic ladder. This vision resurfaces in the New Testament, when heaven opens and angels are seen pressing in on the Son of Man (John 1:51), ministering to him in his passion and then heralding his resurrection.

By entwining Jesus in this ladder from Genesis, Sahi suggests that Jesus himself is our ladder—the One who connects earth to heaven, heaven to earth. By him, we can access God.

We are meant to identify with the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. In this figure you might see Jacob, or, as one friend pointed out to me, perhaps you see Mary Magdalene, who is often shown in art weeping at the foot of the cross and is traditionally understood to be the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and tears in Luke 7:37–38. Either way, we are invited into the painting by this bent body, invited to worship Christ.

(Related post: “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”)

The cosmic implications of Jesus’s mediating role are suggested in a few ways. First, Jesus’s left leg is lifted in the pose of Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), an embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. Nataraja’s dance destroys all obstacles on the path to liberation and prepares the universe for renewal, and here Jesus is grafted into that iconography. He dances, and the world is transformed.

Moreover, the four elements are present: earth, wind, fire, water. Earth forms the base of the painting, where the ladder, treelike, is rooted. Wind sweeps down in the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit. Fire burns at the bottom right, a biblical symbol for cleansing and refining, and appears to be setting aflame a bush, a reminder for us to be attentive to God’s call, as Moses was. Straight down the center, water bursts forth from Christ’s side wound, a river of life that washes over the worshipper.

At the top, the ladder branches out and flowers.

Painted in 2014, Lord as Ladder of Perfection reminds me of the traditional hymn “Jacob’s Vision,” which likewise identifies the ladder of Jacob’s dream with the crucified Christ. I wrote about the hymn here—in particular, the beautiful cello-accompanied rendition sung by Ralph Stanley, who passed away on Thursday. I enjoy listening to it while I gaze at Sahi’s painting, as the two interpret each other.

Pentecost art from Asia

Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven (and fifty days after his resurrection), his Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, manifesting as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). This miraculous gift enabled the apostles to speak in languages foreign to them but native to the many Jews from abroad who were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (called “Pentecost” by Hellenized Jews), a festival of giving thanks for the harvest and for God’s provision of the Torah. For the first time the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a global audience. Three thousand people came to faith that day, and the Christian church was born.

The Spirit is still at work in the dissemination of the good news today, breathing life into cultures all over the world and thereby building up an incredibly diverse body of Christ.

The arts are one expression of this diversity.

In the introduction to his groundbreaking book Each with His Own Brush: Contemporary Christian Art in Asia and Africa (New York: Friendship Press, 1938), Daniel Johnson Fleming writes,

As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes and Elamites heard the message, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indians expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his own brush. For when the spirit of God descends upon any people, new forms of beauty appear, new artistic gifts are revealed, adding another testimony to the universality of the Christian faith.

Since the publication of this book almost seventy years ago, Christianity has grown exponentially in Asia, as have indigenous artistic expressions of the faith. In 1975 Japanese theologian and arts advocate Masao Takenaka published the heavily illustrated book Christian Art in Asia, highlighting the robust variety being produced on the continent. Three years later the Asian Christian Art Association was founded to encourage the exchange of ideas between Asian artists and theologians. Their magazine, Image (not to be confused with the Seattle-based quarterly), has showcased local talents even further. Dozens more books have been published in English on individual Asian artists, countries, and the Asian Christian art movement in general. For the latter, see the beautifully designed The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, plus The Bible Through Asian Eyes.

Below is a sampling of Asian art on the theme of Pentecost. Some works were made using traditional art forms or techniques—Chinese papercutting, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) or stencil printing (kappazuri), Indian cloth dyeing (batik)—while other artists have chosen to work in oils and acrylics, collage, or glass. Some depict native people and settings—for example, Thai dancers wrapped in sabai, or a group sitting under a thatched roof in Indonesia—while others prefer ethnic and geographic ambiguity. There’s no single style that epitomizes the art of any country.

Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1975. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper, 25.5 × 22.75 in. Source: Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao (Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 2003)
Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1965. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit by Soichi Watanabe
Soichi Watanabe (Japanese, 1949–), The Coming of the Holy Spirit, 1996. Oil on canvas, 18 × 13.25 in.
Pentecost by Tadao Tanaka
Tadao Tanaka (Japanese, 1903–1995), Pentecost, 1963. Oil on canvas. Source: Christian Art in Asia by Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1975)
Pentecost by Gako Ota
Gako Ota (Japanese, ?–1972), Pentecost. Belvedere, pampas grass, paper bush, lilies, and rib of fan. Source: Consider the Flowers: Meditations in Ikebana, ed. Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1990)
Pentecost by Keiko Miura
Keiko Miura (Japanese, 1935–), Pentecost, 2004. Stained glass window, All Pilgrims Christian Church, Seattle, Washington, USA.
Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Holy Spirit Coming, 1998. Oil on canvas.

Continue reading “Pentecost art from Asia”

Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi

The chocolate bunnies and plastic grass may have moved to the out-of-sight discount racks of stores, but Easter isn’t over! Because the Resurrection is a truth that’s not easily plumbed or quickly exhausted, the liturgical calendar designates fifty days for its celebration, a season known as Eastertide. In this period we are invited to linger over the gift of Jesus’s Resurrection—to spend time admiring it and becoming familiar with it and letting its power infuse our lives. So through May 14, the content at Art & Theology will focus on this bright season.

First up: three Resurrection paintings by Dr. Jyoti Sahi, who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village, Karnataka, in India, just outside Bangalore. Of all the painters of biblical themes active today, Sahi is definitely one of the most inventive. An artist since the late 1960s, he has been instrumental in developing a visual gospel language that’s contextualized to Indian culture and in fostering Hindu-Christian dialogue. Here are three different approaches he’s taken to depict that notoriously difficult-to-depict subject: the Resurrection of Christ.

Jesus as the Greater Jonah

This is an example of an image that rewards deep looking, being so chock-full of symbols. I encourage you, before reading on, to just gaze at the image for one full minute, and see what you see.

Resurrection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm.

First I notice the outstretched arms of Christ—a pose that deliberately references the Crucifixion. Here, though, those extremities are not pinned down to a cross. They are utterly open and free, embracing the world in risen glory. It’s common for artists to hint at the Crucifixion in Resurrection images. There’s a theological reason for that: the Crucifixion and Resurrection are two sides of the same coin, one great unified event, neither of which can be understood in isolation from the other. Sahi strengthens this link by including a human figure on each side of Christ. In Crucifixion images, these spots are traditionally occupied by the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, but here the abstracted figures double as two of the Marys at the tomb. They look down to where they had laid the body two days ago but find only an empty stone bench. They have yet to encounter the enormous presence behind them.   Continue reading “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”