Roundup: Leon Bridges, Stations of the Cross, Hermitage Museum tour, and contemporary “religious” poetry

NEW SONG RELEASE: “Conversion” by Leon Bridges: A smoky, minor-key redemption ballad closes out Leon Bridges’s [previously] latest EP, Texas Sun, a collaboration with the three-piece psychedelic funk band Khruangbin. Bridges wrote the song in 2012 in response to his conversion to Christianity, he said, but this is the first time he’s recorded it. Halfway through, following a personal testimonial about being made alive by the Holy Spirit, the song breaks into a slow R&B rendition of Isaac Watts’s “At the Cross.” Lyrics here. See also the musical and lyrical analysis Aarik Danielsen wrote over at Think Christian.

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STATIONS OF THE CROSS:

Contemporary Artists Interpret Stations of the Cross, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, February 19–April 3, 2020: Thanks to one of my readers reaching out, I found out about this church-sponsored exhibition just south of where I live and was able to attend the opening reception, where many of the artists were present to talk about their work and answer questions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to its early closure, but photos of the artworks, which are for sale, can be viewed online: see this write-up by curator Maureen Doallas. Below are the works representing station 8 (“Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”) and station 14 (“Jesus is laid in the sepulcher”).

Peckarsky, Terry_Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa
Terry Peckarsky, Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa, 2020. Quilted commercial cotton fabrics, digitally altered photographs printed on fabric, tsukineko inks, and watercolor, 23 × 31 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Artist’s website: https://tpeckarsky.tumblr.com/
Lukitsch, Carol_Sophia Icon
Carol Lukitsch, Sophia Icon. Mixed media collage on paper (with laurel leaves), 30 × 22 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website: http://carollukitsch.com/

Passion and Compassion Oxford: This self-guided tour through Oxford, released this February with a new website and supported by the “Alight: Art and the Sacred” app [previously] for Android and iOS, stops at fourteen artworks or artifacts in multiple locations across the city. Designed around the Scriptural Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage of sorts, it comprises a mix of historical and contemporary pieces, including sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Antony Gormley, Old Master paintings by Anthony van Dyck and the studio of Andrea Mantegna, a medieval stained glass lily crucifix, Roger Wagner’s Elie Wiesel–inspired Menorah, a “celure” depicting the Pleiades in white gold, Thomas Cranmer’s prison band, and more. Each stop comes with audio commentary by a clergyperson, theologian, or artist. The tour starts at University Church Oxford, the institution that created this wonderful resource. (Note: Most of the sites on this tour are currently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.)

Caroe, Oliver_Celure
Oliver Caroe, Celure, 2012. University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford.
Agony in the Garden (alabaster)
Alabaster relief by the Master of Rimini or workshop, southern Netherlands or northern France, ca. 1430–40. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

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VIRTUAL TOUR: Single-shot walk-through of Russia’s Hermitage Museum: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest museum in the world (the Louvre is the largest), with over one million square feet of exhibition space extending across six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars. Thanks to a five-and-a-half-hour advertisement by Apple showing off the iPhone 11’s battery life, people can move seamlessly through 45 of the museum’s 309 galleries from their own homes. Shot in one continuous take, the video includes close-ups of individual artworks as well as wide shots of the lavish interiors. It doesn’t cover the entire museum, but there is much western Christian art to see, starting at 1:04:41 with Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi triptych. Among the most famous religious artworks in its collection, which you may know from Henri Nouwen’s book about it, is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (2:15:54). Here’s the trailer, followed by the full-length video:

It includes ballet sequences throughout and concludes with a live orchestral performance featuring Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter.

The Hermitage Museum offers virtual tours of its entire collection, in an interactive format that uses panoramic photos, at https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/. Unlike the Apple video, whose purpose is to showcase the capabilities of the new iPhone, the Hermitage-created tour inserts “info” buttons over each artwork so that you can click through to find out the artist, title, etc., if interested. But this format, in addition to requiring a brief load time for each step forward, lacks the grandiose scoring and camerawork of the new Apple video.

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POET FEATURE: Jeanne Murray Walker: A semirecent recent blog post by “online abbess” Christine Valters Paintner introduces the work of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Helping the Morning (2014), Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (2019), and eight other books. Reprinted in full are the poems “Staying Power,” about God’s pursuant nature (a modern-day “The Hound of Heaven,” if you will); “Attempt,” which opens with a quote by Traherne; and “Everywhere You Look You See Lilacs,” about being in the moment, taking cues from nature. There is also a video of Walker reading her poem “The Creation,” which muses on the beautiful quirkiness of giraffes, who “spring up like Wow . . . riff-raff of [God’s] imagination.”

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GOODLETTERS ESSAY: “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Religious’ Poet?” by Brian Volck: The contemporary English theologian Nicholas Lash wrote that sadly, “the relation of human beings to the Holy One” has, by many and certainly in the popular imagination, been “reduced to knowledge of an object known as ‘God’ . . . [,] faith’s attentive presence to the entertaining of particular beliefs.” Such reductionism has led many artists to resist being labeled “religious”—“a designation that typically serves to qualify, marginalize, or dismiss creative work.”

But good poetry, Brian Volck says, “and the human sensibilities we’re taught to call religious needn’t be strangers.” There are many poets today who tread the “vast borderlands where religion, spirituality, faith, art, and mystery overlap,” and Volck briefly reviews four such collections from 2019: Anaphora by Scott Cairns, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, This Far by Kathleen O’Toole, and Long after Lauds by Jeanine Hathaway.

MUSIC VIDEO: “River” by Leon Bridges

A song of confession and cleansing, “River” is from the Grammy-nominated debut album Coming Home (2015) by retro-style soul singer Leon Bridges. The music video, set during the 2015 Baltimore race riots and filmed on location less than a year later, brings together three separate redemption narratives that culminate in a neighborhood baptism via rain and water hose.

The story lines are very allusive, giving a wide berth to viewer interpretations, but here’s what I see. Three different families: a father who has perpetrated some act of violence, fleeing the site of the crime to be with his infant son; a grieving mother and her preteen boy, who lost a family member to violence; and an overworked single mother struggling to make ends meet, whose daughter longs for a better life for them both. Outside these story lines are Bridges and Brittni Jessie, who meet in a motel room after a long car ride to lift up this plea on behalf of the hurting. Into all these situations, they trust, God will bring forgiveness, healing, and hope.

At the end of the video, Bridges too enters the shower of divine grace, lifting his head high in wonder, then bowing it in humility.

Been traveling these wide roads for so long
My heart’s been far from you
Ten thousand miles gone
Oh, I wanna come near and give you
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips are unclean
In my darkness I remember
Mama’s words reoccur to me:
“Surrender to the good Lord
And he’ll wipe your slate clean”

Take me to your river
I wanna go
. . .

“The river in my song is a metaphor for being born again,” Bridges told Uncut. He elaborates on his Facebook page:

A river has historically been used in gospel music as symbolism for change and redemption. My goal was to write a song about my personal spiritual experience. It was written during a time of real depression in my life, and I recall sitting in my garage trying to write a song which reflected this struggle. I felt stuck working multiple jobs to support myself and my mother. I had little hope and couldn’t see a road out of my reality. The only thing I could cling to in the midst of all that was my faith in God and my only path towards baptism was by way of the river.

When thinking about how to best visually represent this universal battle, I reflected on the depiction of black communities in our media and particular experiences within my own life. This video showcases the unique struggle many black men and women face across this country. However, unlike the captured images which tend to represent only part of the story, I wanted to showcase that through all the injustice, there’s real hope in the world.

I want this video to be a message of light. I believe it has the power to change and heal those that are hurting.

The speaker of the song acknowledges the personal guilt that separates him from God: “I wanna come near . . . but there’s blood on my hands” and, referencing Isaiah 6:5, “my lips are unclean.” But he also acknowledges the One who alone has the power to wash away sin, and to him he surrenders.

The actor with blood on his shirt in the video is Genard “Shadow” Barr (I recognized him from the recent HBO documentary Baltimore Rising) with his real-life son, Jaylin. He’s a former gang member, now community activist, whom Baltimore Police commissioner (at the time) Kevin Davis reached out to after the riots to better understand the needs and frustrations of the black community. “I got a bullet hole in my head, Chief, and that will not happen to my children,” Barr said in one of their meetings. “I will die doing this”—that is, advocating for the betterment of the city, which, as another on the film said, is underserved and overpoliced.

When asked how cops can help diffuse tensions and build the trust of the people, Barr and others suggested as a starting point a flag football game—cops versus the residents of Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester. Billed as the “Unity Bowl,” the game took place on November 29, 2015, the eve of the first trial for Freddie Gray’s death, and helped both sides get to know each other in a different light.

Besides facilitating conversations between police and Baltimore’s black community, Barr also works as a peer advocate and referral specialist for Penn North Recovery Center, which provides intensive outpatient treatment for substance abuse.

I’m not sure whether the other actors in “River” have personal connections to Baltimore—do you know?

(Related posts: “‘Stephen Towns: A Migration’ exhibit”; “From my private collection: ‘Wailing Wall: Song for Quin’ by Steve Prince”)

This music video has received over 17.5 million views on YouTube and lots of mainstream playtime—a rare feat for new gospel songs. “River” is essentially an invitation: Are you ready to be washed? Then come to the river. Experience the new birth offered through Jesus Christ.

For a live performance of “River,” see this excerpt from Saturday Night Live’s December 4, 2015, episode:

For another original gospel song from the same album, check out “Shine.” And consider catching Bridges somewhere on his world tour this year.

Coming Home album cover

Click on the album cover to preview and purchase. [Note: This is an Amazon affiliate link, meaning that a percentage of purchases made through it will go to support this blog.]