Born in 1911 in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Fred Jerome Carter spent the first few decades of his adulthood as a hardware merchant. In 1938 he married Eloise Davis, and in 1950 they adopted their first and only son, Ross.
In his late forties, Carter began to pursue art making, taking a beginner’s painting class, his only formal artistic training. But wood sculpting is the medium for which he became best known. Writer and documentary filmmaker Jack Wright classifies Carter’s art as “Appalachian art brut,”art brut (“raw art”) being a French term coined by modern artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art made outside the academic tradition.
In 1970 Carter was devastated when his son, having returned as a Marine from Vietnam, hanged himself. He and Eloise divorced shortly after, and Carter opened the Ross Carter Gallery, named in his son’s honor, where he started showing his own work. Below the gallery he established the Cumberland Museum to exhibit a large collection of pioneer tools and artifacts (having to do, for example, with farming, mining, spinning, and moonshining) that provided a window into Appalachian culture and history. It’s there that he met Vickie Hill, whom he later married. Vickie gave birth to Carter’s first biological child, Holly, in 1983, when Carter was seventy-two. Their daughter Mary was born two years later.
Carter created Behold My Miracle two years before Vickie’s first pregnancy, but he retroactively identified the figure with her. In a 1980 interview with Wright for Headwaters Television, he describes how the sculpture came about:
I was back, at Easter , in the mountains, and a fellow was sawing up firewood. Now this was part of a walnut log . . . cut down forty or fifty years ago. . . . There was a limb going up through here about ten feet long. I said, “Don’t cut that up for wood. . . . I see something in this that I want to make. . . . I see a pregnant woman.” . . . So I brought it home and began to look at it. . . . The wood began to talk to me and tell me what it is. . . .
So, I will probably call this Behold My Miracle. That’s what the mother is saying and I am trying to get her to say, in the position of her hand and the look on her face, that this is truly the great miracle. . . . As though she is saying, “Behold me, in my greatest moment of the miracle!”
LISTEN: “The Glory of Jah” by Sinead O’Connor and Ronald Tomlinson, on Theology (2007) – The acoustic version in the video below, which appears on disc 1 of the album, was recorded live at The Sugar Club in Dublin.
There is no Holy One like you You install kings and take them down Truly there is no one beside you You made all of creation with wisdom
Refrain: May the glory of Jah endure forever The boughs of the mighty are broken And the weak are clothed with strength
There is the sea, vast and wide With all its creatures beyond number There go the ships, they all look to you You lift up the poor into a place of honor [Refrain]
Jah makes poor or he makes rich The pillars of the earth belong to him And he has set his world upon them To raise us up from the dunghill [Refrain]
The eighth full-length album by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, Theology is a collection of mostly original spiritual songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s saturated with scripture. It contains:
The opening (and my favorite) “Something Beautiful,” which starts out in O’Connor’s own voice and ends with quotations of Jeremiah 6:14 and 2:32, where God expresses compassion and longing for his people
“Out of the Depths,” a lament for the ways in which organized religion binds God and makes him hard to access, bookended by verses from Psalm 130
O’Connor grew up Catholic and, until converting to Islam in 2018, identified as such, though she has always been unorthodox. Frustrated by the spiritual vapidness of the pop music industry in which she had found fame, in the early 2000s she studied theology at a college in Dublin, looking to connect more deeply with her religious heritage. Her favorite instructor, the Irish Dominican priest Wilfred Harrington, taught a course on the Prophets, reviving her interest in the biblical material that had so fascinated her as a youth. During this time, she was considering leaving her music career, but Fr. Harrington suggested that she set some scripture texts to music and see what happens. She took his advice, and the result is Theology, which she dedicated to Fr. Harrington. Listen to a ten-minute interview with O’Connor about the album, from the limited-edition Theology DVD released in 2008.
When I first heard “The Glory of Jah,” I thought it was a condensation of Mary’s Magnificat, which she voiced upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth following their mutual unexpected pregnancies—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary with the Christ:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his child Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55)
But as I listened more closely and flipped through my Bible to match phrases, I realized that O’Connor’s song is actually a pastiche of Old Testament verses from 1 Samuel, Daniel, and the Psalms, the primary source text being Hannah’s song of thanksgiving:
My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies because I rejoice in your victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly; let not arrogance come from your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low; he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked will perish in darkness, for not by might does one prevail. The LORD! His adversaries will be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:1–10)
Hannah, an ancient Jew, prayed these words at the tabernacle at Shiloh upon dedicating her firstborn son, Samuel, to God’s service, as he was conceived after many hard years of infertility and anguished prayer. Mary’s song, which came some ten centuries later, picks up themes from Hannah’s, so it’s no wonder I originally misidentified O’Connor’s source. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from having heard it read in synagogue, and, as Mary’s son would also be set apart for divine service, perhaps she found a special kinship with this ancestral sister. Mary was also spiritually formed by the Psalms, another influence on her Magnificat composition; their words were deep in her bones, naturally coming out in effusions of praise.
Both Hannah and Mary praise God’s kindness, authority, and eternal plan, emphasizing his mercy toward the poor and the humble. Both songs are thematically linked to Psalm 113:5–8:
Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.
Now returning to O’Connor’s song: Line 2 has a corollary in Daniel 2:21, “he . . . deposes kings and sets up kings.” And the second verse seems inspired by Psalm 104:24–26, 31:
O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, great and wide; creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works . . .
When referring to God, O’Connor uses the Rastafari name for him, “Jah,” a shortened form of “Jehovah.” She had recorded her previous album, Throw Down Your Arms, in Jamaica, a collection of roots reggae song covers, and her spirituality was impacted by her encounters with the Rastafari there. “They use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon,” she said.
So “The Glory of Jah” is a highly intertextual song, rooted in Hannah’s song but weaving in strands from other biblical books—and the result sounds an awful lot like something Mother Mary would sing!
Many Catholics and Orthodox decry that Protestants really only ever talk about Mary during Christmas. While she does get some extra attention here on the blog in December, I also try to talk about her throughout the year, from the feasts of the Annunciation (March 25) and the Visitation (May 31) to her witness during Holy Week and Pentecost and her being such an important figure in Jesus’s life and exemplary for our own. Here’s a new Marian roundup, plus at the bottom a Christmas gift idea involving a product I helped create. 🙂
>> “Wondrous” by Paul Simpson Duke, Seeing the Sacred: In 2019, the Rev. Drs. Paul and Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastors of First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, ran an Annunciation art series on their blog, meditating on one artwork on the subject per day for twenty-five days. I commend the whole series, but I was particularly compelled by Day 13, which centers on a terracotta sculpture made by the late Kenyan artist Rosemary Namuli Karuga when she was a student at Makerere College Art School in Uganda. Paul Duke considers especially the mixture of sorrow and awe expressed in the figure’s face.
>> “Pregnant with God” by Victoria Emily Jones, ArtWay: For the first Sunday of Advent, I wrote about the painting Blue Madonna by Scottish Catholic artist Michael Felix Gilfedder, which shows the Christ child developing inside Mary’s womb. Pregnancy has always been an image I’ve carried with me during Advent, as it embodies the expectancy characteristic of the season—the growth of new life, a hidden fullness, about to come forth.
PODCAST EPISODES: Both of the following come from For the Life of the World, the podcast of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Released back-to-back last December.
>> “Mary Theotokos: Her Bright Sorrow, Her Suffering Faith, and Her Compassion” with Frederica Mathewes-Green:Frederica Mathewes-Green is an American author and speaker, chiefly on topics related to Eastern Orthodox belief and practice. Here she discusses the Orthodox reverence for Mary; the scriptural account of her life; Mary as the mother of us all; the Protevangelium of James, which provides legendary material about Mary’s upbringing and betrothal; the ancient prayer “Sub tuum praesidium” (“Under Your Compassion”) from 250 CE, the earliest known appearance of the title “Theotokos”; and Mary’s role as intercessor. The latter point is something that Protestants like me are wary of—praying through saints who have passed on is not something I practice—but the way Mathewes-Green explains it is, just as we would ask fellow believers on earth to pray for us, why shouldn’t we also ask our friends in heaven to do the same, if we truly believe that they are alive and that we are in communion with them (as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed)?
Besides explicating several Marian doctrines, Mathewes-Green also speaks of Mary as an ordinary human being with an extraordinary call. With tenderness, she considers Mary’s experiences and emotions at different life stages: first as a perplexed young woman who is taken aback by Gabriel’s announcement but ultimately responds with humility and magnanimity, then as a parent who raises a child and later witnesses his violent death.
>> “A Womb More Spacious Than Stars: How Mary’s Beauty and Presence Upends the Patriarchy and Stabilizes Christian Spirituality” with Matthew J. Milliner: Matthew Milliner, an art history professor at Wheaton College and the author of Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon, is a Protestant who wants to see other Protestants embrace a more robust doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” and develop a keener sense of her ecclesial presence. In this hour-long conversation he discusses Mary as person and as symbol; the need for “hermeneutical adventurousness anchored in the revelation of God in Christ”; how icons work, and particularly how Marian icons are spiritually formative; how to read a Nativity icon; the feminist objection to Mary; how Mary upends the ancient pagan goddess culture; and how we all must be Marian if we are to be orthodox Christians.
VIDEO: “Magnificat” by SALT Project: This short film features a reading of the Magnificat in Spanish, its words fleshed out in contemporary images. For the same video but in English, see here.
ARTICLE: “The Political Is Personal: Mary as a Parent and Prophet of Righteousness” by Erin Dufault-Hunter, Fuller Magazine: What does the New Testament mean by “righteousness” (dikē)? Is it personal piety, or social justice? This article by Christian ethics professor Erin Dufault-Hunter examines how Mary upholds both connotations of the word. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Mary displays for us how saying yes to the kingdom, and its unlikely king, necessarily involves the personal but also reorients our social and political allegiances,” Dufault-Hunter writes. “Intimacy with God necessarily entails a political orientation, bringing or solidifying a way of seeing power and position.” Debunking the claim that Jesus’s coming was not political, Dufault-Hunter considers Mary’s Magnificat as well as other elements of the Christmas story—like the title “Son of God,” the word “gospel,” and the angels’ potentially treasonous news to the shepherds—showing how the good news of Christ is both personal and political.
The Daily Prayer Project is running a special Christmas gift offer that, for $50, includes a physical and digital copy of our hot-off-the-press Christmas–Epiphany prayer periodical (covering December 25 through February 21) and two hand-thrown, dishwasher-safe mugs with a raised medallion of our labyrinth-inspired logo and glazes that map onto our morning and evening prayer colors. Packages ship early next week, so get your order in soon! There are also yearly subscription options, individual or communal, on the website.
In addition to working as a copyeditor and proofreader for the DPP, I also curate the art for the Gallery section, which is expanded in this edition to eight pieces—in this case, Nativities from around the world, each accompanied by a short reflection. The cover image is Morning Star by the Japanese Christian artist Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014).
With the feast of the Visitation coming up on May 31, I’ve been thinking about the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46–55 upon meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea following their miraculous conceptions. It’s bold, exultant, and worshipful, oriented around the liberative power of God. As we continue to reel from the string of mass shootings in the US (Tuesday’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the 212th this year alone), I wonder how Mary’s song might speak to us in this moment—how we, too, might exclaim it with her same fervor and hope, truly believing that God is at work in the world, bringing about justice and healing, even though it is injustice and hurt that so often sound the loudest.
Here is a modern interpretation of the Magnificat by the Rev. M Barclay, cofounder and director of enfleshed, an organization that creates prayers, liturgies, art, meditations, teachings, and other spiritual resources for collective liberation. Written in 2019, it captures the verve of Mary’s words while also drawing out shades of sorrow and adding a petitionary element. Barclay uses the gender-neutral pronoun “They” to refer to the Triune God.
My soul is alive with thoughts of God. What a wonder, Their liberating works. Though the world has been harsh to me, God has shown me kindness, seen my worth, and called me to courage. Surely, those who come after me will call me blessed. Even when my heart weighs heavy with grief, still, so does hope abide with me. Holy is the One who makes it so. From generation to generation, Love’s Mercy is freely handed out; none are beyond the borders of God’s transforming compassion. The power of God is revealed among those who labor for justice. They humble the arrogant. They turn unjust thrones into dust. Their Wisdom is revealed in the lives and truths of those on the margins. God is a feast for the hungry. God is the great redistributor of wealth and resources. God is the ceasing of excessive and destructive production that all the earth might rest. Through exiles and enslavement, famines and wars, hurricanes and gun violence, God is a companion in loss, a deliverer from evil, a lover whose touch restores. This is the promise They made to my ancestors, to me, to all the creatures and creations, now and yet coming, and in this promise, I find my strength. Come, Great Healer, and be with us.
PROJECTION MAPPING INSTALLATION: Il Natale di Francesco (The Christmas of Francis): Last year the Sacro Convento in Assisi, a Franciscan friary, initiated an architectural lighting project called Il Natale di Francesco that featured projections of Christmas-themed frescoes by Giotto from the Lower Basilica of St. Francis onto several of the city’s landmark churches. Architect Mario Cucinella served as artistic director, and the company Enel X realized the installation, which ran throughout Advent and Christmastide, from December 8, 2020, to January 6, 2021 (and I hear it’s been reprised this year!). The pièce de résistance was the projection of Giotto’s Nativity onto the facade of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis. Other projections included the Annunciation on the Cathedral of San Rufino, the Visitation on the Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Adoration of the Magi on the abbey church of San Pietro in Valle—all images adapted using advanced technology to suit the spaces they illuminated.
Other components of the installation included frescoed stars from the main basilica’s vaults projected onto the streets; a re-creation of Giotto’s scenes with dozens of sculpted figures, including the addition of a masked nurse at the crèche in honor of all the frontline healthcare workers serving during the COVID-19 crisis; and every thirty minutes a video-mapping show that offered views of the basilica’s interior. I so love the creativity of bringing the sacred art treasures of the church out into the town squares when the pandemic necessitated church closures.
VIRTUAL CONCERT: Christmas with the Sakhnini Brothers: The Sakhnini Brothers are Adeeb, Elia, and Yazeed, three Arabic-speaking brothers from Nazareth who are followers of Jesus. They play about twenty instruments collectively but specialize in piano, oud, and violin, respectively, and love to blend modern Western and ancient Middle Eastern musical styles.
In this half-hour living room concert that premiered December 13, they are joined by vocalist Nareen Farran, pianist Sireen Elias, and percussionist Firas Haddad. They perform an instrumental rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; “Amano Morio” (With Us the Lord), a traditional hymn from the Syriac Maronite liturgy, whose lyrics translate to “The Lord is with us day and night”; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in Arabic; “Sobhan Al Kalima” (Glory to the Word), another traditional hymn in Syriac (see YouTube video description for full English translation); “Mary, Did You Know”; and “Laylet Eid” (Christmas Eve), a song by Fairuz to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Their arrangements are fantastic! (You especially have to hear what they do with that closing number; I can’t stop smiling.)
Neeley also put together a listening guide so that you can follow along with the lyrics.
VIRTUAL EXHIBITION: Visual Music: Calligraphy and Sacred Texts, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion: “‘Form,’ wrote Jewish-American artist Ben Shahn, ‘is the very shape of content.’ Shahn’s statement serves as the guiding principle for this exhibit. Each of these fifteen pieces, all by living artists, is a calligraphic interpretation of a text sacred to Jews, Christians, or both. Each artist has pondered their chosen text, explored it inside and outside, and provided their own rendition of it—their own ‘translation’ into visual form.”
Jonathan Homrighausen, a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University who writes and researches at the intersection of Hebrew Bible, calligraphic art, and scribal craft, has curated this wonderful online art exhibition for the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I spent hours viewing all the rich content on the website, including Homrighausen’s illuminating commentaries (which take us beyond a simplistic “ooh, pretty” response), and following links to learn more. From the exhibition homepage you can click on any of the images for a detailed description, detail photos, embedded videos and music, and suggested articles for further reading.
Also check out the video presentation Homrighausen gave on December 12 for the Jewish Art Salon in New York City in which he discusses five of the Hebrew Bible–based pieces on display, plus two that render rabbinic quotes. The Q&A that follows is moderated by Jewish calligrapher Judith Joseph.
Since many of my blog readers will have just read Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1 this past Sunday (it’s one of the assigned lections for Advent 4) and we’re just a few days away from the feast of Christmas, let me share these two timely images from the exhibition:
VISUAL MEDITATION: “An Icon of Deep Incarnation” by John A. Kohan: Art collector John A. Kohan reflects on the painting Madonna of the Woods by Cypriot artist Charalambos Epaminonda, a variation on the Virgin Hodegetria type. “God took on human flesh and entered creation not just to bring you and me personal salvation or rescue the human race from sin and death, but to restore and renew the entire earth and all that is therein. Contemporary theologians in our age of ecological awareness call this concept ‘deep incarnation’ . . .”
Rest, little guest,
Beneath my breast.
Feed, sweet seed,
At your need.
I took Love for my lord
And this is my reward—
My body is good earth,
That you, dear plant, have birth.
Anna Wickham is the pen name of British/Australian modernist poet Edith Alice Mary Harper (1883–1947). “After Annunciation”was originally published in the January 1917 issue of Poetry magazine and is in the public domain.
May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle* blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp† are merry
With silver-surfèd cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes‡ wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
* Bugle, or bugleherb, is a blue-flowering plant in the mint family. † A group of houses standing together in the country; a hamlet; a village. ‡ Bracken ferns.
In the Roman Catholic Church, May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and daily devotions to her are encouraged throughout the month. In many parishes, statues of Mary are crowned with flower garlands at this time.
Though I myself do not practice Marian devotion, I have an immense appreciation for her example of faith and for the role she played in salvation history, and I feel a kinship to her as a spiritual foremother. I also find myself drawn to poems and visual art that reflect on her pregnancy, on the Life growing inside her.
Written in 1878 by the Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The May Magnificat” muses on the fittingness of May as a designated period of celebration of Mary. In the yearly cycle of the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant (and Mary’s postpartum purification), is logically dated to February 2, forty days after Christmas, per Leviticus 12:1–4. Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation (the day on which Jesus was conceived), is celebrated March 25, nine months before Christmas. But why, Hopkins wonders, has the church set apart May in particular for Christians to honor Mary?
He determines it’s because in May, the natural world—at least in the northern hemisphere, where he, an Englishman, lived—is bursting into full bloom, reflecting Mary’s own fecundity, her body a superabundant source of life. In late spring there is a certain joyousness in the air, a “universal bliss,” an “ecstasy.” Mammals are gestating and/or giving birth, birds are incubating and hatching, groves and gardens are flowering, and earth seems to be swelling to a fullness. There is “[g]rowth in every thing.”
Hopkins delights in the wealth of spring, all its flora and fauna. He marvels how the azure of heaven is reflected on earth in the tangled nest of a song thrush, and how sunlight dapples the apple and cherry trees. Perhaps Mary learned gladness from such gladsome surroundings, he suggests. And not only that, but as mother, she shared an affinity with Nature, also a mother.
The month of May culminates, on the 31st, with the feast of the Visitation, which marks the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Upon their meeting Mary sang a praise song known as the Magnificat, Latin for “[My Soul] Magnifies [the Lord]” (see Luke 1:46–56). She makes large God’s name, celebrating his mercy, strength, and provision and the impending birth of her son, Israel’s Savior and the world’s.
In October 2019 I had the privilege of seeing the internationally touring exhibition Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose highlight was a large-scale gesso frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’s artistic collaborator and wife. It was displayed in a narrow hallway behind a plastic screen, so I couldn’t get a shot of the full piece, but here’s a photo provided by the CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection:
All other photos in this post are my own.
Emerging in the 1890s in the industrial heartland of Scotland, the “Glasgow Style” was the only Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. “When applied to two-dimensional objects, such as book covers, textiles, posters, and stained glass, the Glasgow Style blended elongated and organic lines, personal symbolic languages, and favored motifs to create otherworldly stylized plant and human forms,” writes Alison Brown, curator of Designing the New. It was developed by a small group of young adult friends known as The Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and James Herbert McNair. (Charles and Margaret married in 1900, and Margaret’s sister Frances married James in 1899.)
Margaret’s wide-ranging output included watercolors, graphics, metalwork, and textiles, but her specialization was gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. The May Queen was commissioned from her at the turn of the century by Miss Catherine Cranston for one of her famous Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow, where it hung above a window in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room until 1971. (It is now preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.) Gloriously textured, it consists of rough burlap stretched over a wooden frame and covered in gesso, glass beads, metallic leaf, and molded paper. “Some of the modeled plaster shapes bear fingerprints, pinched and pressed into the panel’s surface. The outlines of the figures, trees, and plant forms are ‘drawn’ with brown painted string held fast with long steel pins,” Brown writes.
The crowning of a “May Queen,” a girl chosen to personify May Day and preside over its festivities, is a traditional springtime ritual in western Europe. (If you need a visual, think Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar . . .) So the title of this artwork is most likely a reference to that. However, I get some serious Marian vibes from the central female figure, which are only reinforced when I view the work in light of the Catholic tradition of the “May crowning” of Mary.
And what a resonant pairing it makes with Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat”! It shows a woman in a strong frontal stance, dressed with flowers, haloed in green, supported by a throne-like backing, and enlarged, perhaps, with child. She’s attended by four maidservants or companions.
This could very well be read as Mary of Nazareth, crowned with beauty, blessed by God to bear his Son into the world.
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.
She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).
ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)
Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.
Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.
Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:
Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.
(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)
LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”
In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.
The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.
This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .
PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!
Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”
People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.
FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)
The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].
But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).
Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.
It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.
This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.
Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.
He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.
There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.
Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.
Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take
the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.
And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s
tearing down the temple—that history
interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.
His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
Imagine the endless effort: a man
in the distance, deep in the could have been,
who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,
flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,
the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.
For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—
her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered
with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s
blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
carelessness of cracked roads leading away
from his town, beneath a matted pulp
of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting
to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese
receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,
their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
empty spaces where the wings once beat.
And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,
he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
beneath her brow, under the layers of
shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.
Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?
The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”
There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?
“Take a World”by Terri Witek
The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36
Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,
gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow
on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened
gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert
to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah
behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma
who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.
Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.
(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)
I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).
I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.
The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.
“Waiting for the Revolution”by Peter Steele
If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.
This is not wasted on the woman who,
her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.
Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.
I have been in and out of the world worlds,
amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit
that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.
“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).
Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.
Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.
He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.
Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peaceor Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.
The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.
In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!
One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”
I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:
“The world is about to turn.”
For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.