In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene.
The tomb, the tomb, that
Was her core and care, her one sore.
The light had hardly scarleted the dark
Or the first bird sung when Mary came in sight
With eager feet. Grief, like last night’s frost,
Whitened her face and tightened all her tears.
It was there, then, there at the blinding turn
Of the bare future that she met her past.
She only heard his Angel tell her how
The holding stone broke open and gave birth
To her dear Lord, and how his shadow ran
To meet him like a dog.
And as the sun
Burns through the simmering muslins of the mist,
Slowly his darkened voice, that seemed like doubt,
Morninged into noon; the summering bees
Mounted and boiled over in the bell-flowers.
‘Come out of your jail, Mary,’ he said, ‘the doors are open
And joy has its ear cocked for your coming.
Earth now is no place to mope in. So throw away
Your doubt, cast every clout of care,
Hang all your hallelujahs out
This airy day.’
This is the last of fourteen untitled, epigraphed poems from “Resurrection: An Easter Sequence” by W. R. Rodgers, originally published in Europa and the Bull and Other Poems (Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952) and compiled posthumously in Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1971) and later Poems, ed. Michael Longley (The Gallery Press, 1993). Used with permission of The Gallery Press.
William Robert “Bertie” Rodgers (1909–1969) was an Irish poet, essayist, radio broadcaster and scriptwriter, lecturer, and (for eleven years) a pastor. Born, raised, and educated in Belfast, he studied literature as an undergraduate and then entered theological college, becoming ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1935 and taking a post at Loughgall parish in County Armagh. He began writing poetry three years later, after a friend lent him books by contemporary poets, of whom Auden made the biggest impact. In 1946 he left pastoral ministry to work for the BBC in London and later to freelance, creating radio portraits of Irish writers using a pioneering sound mosaic technique that is now a staple of radio documentaries. He joined a community of writer friends that included Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. During his lifetime he published two books of original verse, with themes including the landscape of Northern Ireland, war, myth, erotic love, and the life of Christ.
Based on Mark 16:1–4, this painting shows Mary Magdalene (leading the way), Mary the mother of James, and Salome approaching the tomb of their rabbi, Jesus, the Sunday after his crucifixion. They came bearing spices to anoint his body. They expected it to be a mournful day.
Imagine their response when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty! That’s the moment the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner shows us here. Not the Resurrection itself, but the emotional reaction to it, or rather to the evidence of it.
What do you read on the faces of these women? Surprise? Confusion? Fear? Curiosity? Caution? Wonder? Love? Some mix thereof?
They are illumined by the light of an angel who is out of frame and who will speak the news to them presently. Mary Magdalene lifts her hand to her face in a gesture of self-reassurance, while her companion raises her tensed arms at the elbow in a defensive posture, as I read it. Compelled but still somewhat guarded, they progress toward the mystery.
Born and raised the son of a minister in the AME Church in Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was an African American expat to Paris whose biblical paintings, inspired in part by his two trips to the Holy Land, garnered him international acclaim. In Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, art historian James Romaine identifies Tanner as “the most artistically gifted and theologically astute American painter of biblical subjects.” A master of conveying nuanced mystery, “Tanner paints personal experiences rather than public spectacles,” Romaine writes, communicating more through suggestion than depiction and urging the viewer to undergo, like the figures in his paintings, their own experience of spiritual sight.
Dum transisset Sabbatum, Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.
Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum orto iam sole.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. Alleluia.
And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
The third responsory at Matins on Easter Sunday, this text has been set to music by many composers. The motet by English Renaissance composer John Taverner is the most famous. The video above is just an excerpt. The full piece lasts about eight minutes and alternates between plainchant and polyphony.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
—Matthew 26:36–46 NIV, emphasis added
LOOK: Agony in the Garden by Fra Angelico [HT: John Skillen]
This fresco is from one of the forty-four cells in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence whose walls Fra Angelico and his assistants painted with religious scenes in the mid-fifteenth century. The friars who lived at San Marco—of which the artist, whose nickname means “Angelic Brother,” was one—used these paintings for private meditation.
Here we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane pleading with God the Father to let the cup of suffering, held out by an angel, pass him by. As he prays in agony, his disciples James, John, and Peter nod off just a stone’s throw away. Jesus had asked them to stay awake and pray with him, but their tiredness gets the better of them. In their friend’s hour of deepest need, they fail him.
By contrast—and this is unique!—Mary and Martha, two sisters from Bethany who are also followers of Jesus, are awake and alert under an open loggia, diligently praying and studying God’s word. Perhaps Mary points, in the book in her lap, to the passage of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, recognizing Christ in it, or to the book of Exodus, where the Israelites celebrate their first Passover by smearing the blood of a lamb over their doors. Perhaps Martha prays that the Father would grant Jesus discernment of his will and the strength to follow through with it—that he would sustain him all the way to the cross and beyond.
While the male disciples on the other side of the wall fall asleep, heads in hands, the women watch and wait through the night, exemplars of faithfulness. They trust the prophecies and keep vigil, supporting their Lord in his suffering.
LISTEN: “Stay with Me” by Jacques Berthier, 1984 | Performed by the Taizé Community Choir on Songs of Taizé: O Lord, Hear My Prayer & My Soul Is at Rest, 1999
Stay with me Remain here with me Watch and pray Watch and pray
The words from this Taizé chant come from Jesus’s words in Matthew 26:38, 41 (cf. Mark 14:34, 38). He and his disciples have just finished the Passover Seder, and with full bellies, three of them follow Jesus up to an olive grove, which was perhaps a favorite prayer spot. But they neglect his instruction to stay awake and pray with him.
How can we remain with Christ this Maundy Thursday?
To “keep vigil” this night is to be fully present to Christ’s suffering and spiritually awake to his will and way.
Mary, my dear, come over here Tell me, is it true what they say? Mary, my dear, let go of your fear And bring your gift to me, I pray Let your heart rest with mine I don’t have much time So break your fragrance free, my dear
Let your tears fall on me Brush your hair on my feet Let your alabaster tears fall on me Fall on me
Overflow, overflow And go where you go Let this fragrance fill the air with love divine Love divine
Fill the air, fill the air Let your heart beat with mine Let this fragrance fill the air with love divine Love divine
Mary, my dear, bring yourself near Let your heart beat with mine, my dear
ART CYCLE: The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson: July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples and the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection. American artist, writer, and minister Jan L. Richardson created a sequence of collages picturing events from her life, drawing on both the biblical narratives and medieval legends. The structure and presentation (decorative borders, Latin script) were inspired by medieval books of hours, used for the praying of the Divine Office. The text below each image reads, Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), the first verse of Psalm 70, which is prayed at the start of each of the canonical hours.
According to legend, after Jesus’s ascension Mary Magdalene moved to southern France, where she preached the gospel and performed miracles. The last thirty years of her life she lived as a hermit in a cave. Each time she prayed the hours, she was lifted up to heaven by angels, then brought back down at the end of her devotions.
Richardson put together a delightful little video showcasing the art cycle as well as the song “Mary Magdalena” by her late husband, Garrison Doles.
You can purchase these images as digital downloads from Richardson’s website:
>> “Locus iste” by Anton Bruckner, performed by VOCES8: The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 performs Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet “Locus iste” (This Place) at Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace in Guebwiller, France. Bruckner composed it in 1869 for the dedication of the Votivkapelle (votive chapel) at the New Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where he had been a cathedral organist. The text—a Latin gradual for church dedications and their anniversaries—is informed by Jacob’s saying, after his dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, that “surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16), and by the story of the burning bush where Moses is told to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).
Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum; irreprehensibilis est.
This place is made by God, a priceless sacrament; it is without reproach.
(Or, alternatively:) This dwelling is God’s handiwork; a mystery beyond all price, that cannot be spoken against.
Tabernacle is a musical triptych shaped by the drama of Psalm 19. While this word, tabernacle, is loaded with religious affection within both Jewish and Christian traditions, some modern readers may not be familiar with its implications. Merriam-Webster offers three related definitions: “a house of worship, a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, or a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus.” By extension, it has come to represent a “dwelling place” or a “temporary shelter.” In short, this is no ordinary space, rather it is a place that is set apart, made holy for a terrifying transformative encounter with the Divine.
Fragments of a prayerful hymn-like melody appear underneath this canopy of sounds. Shifting metric changes, polyrhythms, and percussive primal-sounding harmonies climax in a loud, noisy quote from the 16th-century Genevan Psalter.
More extensive program notes can be found in the YouTube video description.
For a much more extensive treatment of the topic, see Spira’s Foreshadowed: Malevich’s “Black Square” and Its Precursors, published this month. And for a faith-positive (non-nihilistic) reading of Malevich’s Black Square that honors the artist’s own views, see pages 209–25 of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, where they discuss the work in relation to the Russian icons tradition and “apophatic or ‘negative’ theology—a mode of theology that meditates on the absolute Fullness and Otherness of God by way of negating the verbal, visual and conceptual forms used to signify (and to ‘grasp’) God” (220).
indications of internal states of transformation or transfiguration are not confined to gold. . . . Recently Curneen has begun to use a deep blue to create a similar effect. Like ultramarine, which was reserved for only the most significant parts of medieval paintings, this blue glaze is used only sparingly, painted onto faces, hands, and other areas where it will have the maximum impact. The effect is dramatic, with faces dissolving into an incorporeal void. For unlike gold, which reflects light, this deep blue holds light, absorbing our gaze into its pellucid depths. Curneen exploited this difference in one of her most recent works, Empty Tomb (2018), where blue and gold ooze from a series of gaping wounds, like the unmingled blood and water that flowed from the side of the dead Christ. With the tip of one finger, this elegiac figure gently points out one of these openings, echoing Saint Thomas, who needed to touch Jesus’s wounded side before he could believe. This gesture is the only moment of animation in a work that is otherwise still, but it is not the focus. That is to be found in the wounds themselves, which stand out starkly against the limpid porcelain. These are the empty tomb of the title, apertures exuding blue and gold, dark and light. They draw us in so that we find our attention focused entirely on these small rings. For a moment, as we teeter on this visual precipice, with solidity melting around us and the figure dissolving into the background, time stands still.
Oh Mary, why have you come? Come drop your oils and run You’ll find no one Find no one
Oh Thomas, can’t you see? Where bone and sinew meet You’ll find a hole Find a whole
Oh Saul, look down at your hands All red and dripping in the sand It’s the wrong blood The wrong blood
Come find the blood of the Son
Jesus meets people where they’re at: Mary Magdalene in her grief (John 20:11–18), Thomas in his doubt (John 20:24–29), Saul in his murderous zealotry (Acts 9:1–19). And he transforms them. After their encounters with the risen Christ, Mary’s tears give way to joy; Thomas’s doubt transposes into belief; and Saul goes from persecutor of Christians to key apostle, with a ministry of preaching the gospel, planting churches, and writing letters of teaching and encouragement that have become sacred scripture.
The song “Empty” by The Sowing Season reflects Christ’s gentle invitation to behold his transfigured wounds and to move, with him, from death into life.
“The tomb is empty!” So declares the angel in the far-left panel of this Easter quadriptych by Tanja Butler, an artist from New England. The angel gestures toward Jesus’s bare and open coffin and his cast-aside graveclothes, telling the women (out of frame) that “he has been raised, as he said” (Matt. 28:6).
The second panel shows Jesus trampling down the gates of hell (the doors laid across each other in an X-shape references traditional iconography of Christ’s descent into Hades). He has defeated death, as indicated by the skull under his feet. A rainbow, symbol of God’s promise, arcs across the scene. Shaped in blessing and communicating doctrinal truths, the fingers on his right hand form the letters IC XC, the first and the last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, “Jesus Christ.” His five wounds—on wrists, feet, and side—are still present on his resurrected body, but they have been transfigured.
The third panel shows the resurrected Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden of his burial. With one hand he reaches out to reassure her, but with the other he reminds her that he will be ascending soon, and so not to cling to him (Noli me tangere, as this scene is traditionally named). I believe that the twisting object that seems to proceed from Mary’s mouth and exits the garden gate is a speech scroll, suggesting that she is proclaiming the gospel; “apostle to the apostles,” she is tasked with delivering the news of resurrection to the Eleven. But with its riverine shape, it also reminds me of Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
(Update, 4/20/22: Butler tells me she had in mind the release of the Holy Spirit, breaking through walls and barriers.)
In the far-right scene, the angel who had been guarding paradise with a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24) has put down his sword and now invites us to enter. The sentry has become a porter! He gestures toward the doorway that Christ’s death and resurrection has opened for us. The fall has been undone. We are welcomed home.
“Tanja Butler (b. 1955) was born in Germany and moved to the United States as a young girl. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Albany. Her artistic practice has focused on liturgical art, illustration, and community service projects. She is inspired by Byzantine icons, American and European folk art, Persian manuscripts and textile patterns, African art, Early Christian art, Russian Suprematist paintings, Cubism and Fauvist color. Informed by studies in art history and time working in Italy, she was particularly influenced by the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Her collection of 600 graphic images, Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, was published by Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Her work is included in the collections of the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art; the Billy Graham Center Museum at Wheaton; the Boston Public Library; the DeCordova Museum; and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, UCLA. In 2014 she retired from her position as an associate professor of art at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where she taught painting, drawing, liturgical art, and illustration and frequently integrated service opportunities in her courses.” [source]
1. Pourquoi, parmi les morts, chercher les vivants? Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la lumière du soleil levant, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
2. Que la terre entière sache la vérité Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la vie nouvelle qu’il nous a donnée, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
3. L’ennemi est vaincu, il est terrassé, Jésus est ressuscité! À lui la victoire, nous sommes libérés, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
4. Nous voyons sa gloire dans tout l’univers. Jésus est ressuscité! L’image parfaite du Dieu notre Père, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
5. Acclamons Jésus, il a vaincu la mort! Jésus est ressuscité! Dansons et chantons, car il est le plus fort, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
6. Pourquoi, parmi les morts, chercher les vivants? Jésus est ressuscité! Comme la lumière du soleil levant, Jésus est ressuscité, alléluia, Jésus est ressuscité.
1. Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is risen! Like the light of the rising sun, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
2. Let the whole earth know the truth: Jesus is risen! Like the new life he gave us, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
3. The enemy is defeated, he is struck down, Jesus is risen! To him the victory, we are freed, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
4. We see his glory throughout the universe. Jesus is risen! The perfect image of God our Father, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
5. Let us acclaim Jesus, he conquered death! Jesus is risen! Let’s dance and sing, because he is the strongest, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
6. Why seek the living among the dead? Jesus is risen! Like the light of the rising sun, Jesus is risen, hallelujah, Jesus is risen.
Born and raised in South Africa, singer-songwriter Pat Berning moved to southern France with his wife Linda in 1988, following a call they felt while working for the international ministry Youth for Christ. Though he didn’t know the language at the time, now he sings and records primarily in French, and occasionally in English or Zulu.
His live performance above of his original song “Jésus est ressuscité” is from the Christian arts festival Psalmodia Gagnières—sometime in the early to mid-2000s. The album version uses male and female singers and has call-and-response elements. “Jesus is risen!” the refrain goes. Such a fun and celebratory song.
The hip-hop dancer in the video is Sodapop. He and his wife, Christine Jeanville (a classical and contemporary dancer), founded Machol Danser la Vie in 2005, named after the man in 1 Kings 4:31 whose name means “dancing.” The ministry organizes workshops that promote healing, empowerment, and connection with others and God through dance. And in 2018 they opened the Ecole de Formation sur l’ Identité et la Louange par le Mouvement (Training School on Identity and Worship through Movement).
Today is the second day of Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’s life. One event that takes place during this period, on Wednesday, is a woman’s anointing Jesus with oil. All four Gospel writers include the story, with variations (and Luke places it earlier in Jesus’s ministry). Love, hospitality, sacrifice, and honor are key themes. The woman is unnamed in the Synoptic Gospels, but John identifies her as Mary Magdalene. Praising her initiative, Jesus clarifies to those gathered that she anoints him in preparation for his burial (Matt. 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7). It was a solemn act.
Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was politically a dangerous story. (xiv)
Sometimes it was a priest who anointed the new king, so the act could be read as not only prophetic but also sacramental. That is, Mary serving here as prophet and priest.
Someone, I forget who, once noted that Jesus would have gone to the cross with this aromatic fragrance still on him. The smell would have lingered with his sweat and blood and was perhaps a comfort to him in his hours of deepest distress, reminding him of the loving devotion of one of his disciples. It was also a proclamation to all the actors and bystanders, as he moved up Golgotha’s hill and was crucified, that he is indeed the Anointed One of God.
WEBINAR: “Formational Films Round-Up: Movies That Matter,” hosted by Renovaré: Recorded August 24, this is an excellent eighty-minute conversation with film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously], minister Catherine Barsotti, and theologian Chris Hall, led by Carolyn Arends [previously]. Each of the three guests identifies and discusses five films that have been spiritually formative to them—and what great selections! (Though there are four I have not yet seen.) Barsotti’s number one is one of my all-time favorites.
Because the movie ratings issue (that is, content like violence, sex, and/or language) is almost always raised by Christian audiences, Arends asks, “Are there some films that are bad for you to watch, and if so, why?” The question is wisely addressed from 34:52 to 49:40.
INTERVIEW: “We must become poetry,”Still Life: For the September 13, 2021, edition of his weekly Still Life letter, Michael Wright [previously] interviewed Christian author Paul J. Pastor, having been intrigued by a recent tweet of his, which asks, “Where are the bardic preachers, wild at the eye, speaking not just to mind or heart, but to gut?” Pastor talks about the connection between the seen and the unseen; the relationality of poetry and finding shelter in the words, images, and emotions of another; holistic knowing; the disservice of reducing the Bible’s poetry to moral lessons with tidy applications; the nearness of Walt Whitman’s poetic vision to the Christian vision of sanctification; and more.
“My passion is for Christians to reclaim our way’s remarkable resources for living virtuously, beautifully, and well,” he says. Mine too!
To subscribe to Still Life, distributed for free every Monday over email, click here.
Lecture by David Brinker for the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial, Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, PA, September 12, 2021: I mentioned the call for entries for this exhibition back in June. Of the 396 entries from artists from around the country, MOCRA director and guest juror David Brinker has selected 52. In this talk given the weekend after the exhibition’s opening (which starts at 14:47), he discusses the following three questions, pulling in artworks from the current exhibition and from his twenty-five-plus years as an art curator at a Catholic institution.
What identifies contemporary art as “Catholic”?
What contributions can Catholic art and artists offer to the broader contemporary art world?
What can Catholic art and artists receive from the broader art world?
(The three photos above are provided courtesy of the Verostko Center for the Arts.)
Saint Vincent’s 8th Catholic Arts Biennial exhibition is on view through October 29, 2021; off-campus visitors are asked to make an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. While you’re in the area, you might also want to visit the Fred Rogers Center at Saint Vincent College, which houses artifacts from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as part of a larger permanent exhibition on his life, work, and influence. (Latrobe was Fred Rogers’s hometown.) And Pittsburgh is just an hour away!
I’m fascinated by Mary Magdalene, and while I won’t get to see this exhibition, it appears that it does an excellent job of exploring the many facets of her life and identity (including both before meeting Jesus and after his ascension), as told through canonical and apocryphal texts, and her complicated reception history. It addresses her role as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection; the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Mary, which has Peter saying, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them”; the legacy of Pope Gregory the Great’s infamous Easter sermon of 591 CE, which, in its (many would say erroneous) conflation of the Magdalen with other New Testament women, identified her as a converted prostitute; the development of legends about her later life in southern France, as an evangelist, a miracle-worker, and a penitent, cave-dwelling ascetic; modern films and literature that cast her as a romantic lover, or even the wife, of Jesus; and Pope Francis’s elevation of her liturgical commemoration from an obligatory memorial to a feast day in 2016, in which she is to be celebrated not as a fallen woman doing penance but as the “apostle to the apostles,” a title of hers dating back to the High Middle Ages.
The poster above features Mary Magdalene Receives the Holy Spirit by American photographer David LaChapelle, Magdalena by contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas, The Magdalen from a sixteenth-century Flemish workshop, and Mary Magdalene by nineteenth-century Belgian artist Alfred Stevens.
ARTICLE: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art”: In honor of the seven hundredth anniversary of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s death on September 14, the Public Domain Review has collected art directly inspired by his Commedia from over the last seven centuries—on the nine circles of hell, the beatific vision, and much more. Under the tutelage of literature professor Stefano Gidari, I read and studied Dante’s groundbreaking afterlife-adventure trilogy—in Italian!—in 2009 while living in Florence, where it was written, which was such an invaluable experience.
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.
“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.”
Passover is a major Jewish holiday celebrated every spring, marking God’s deliverance of the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. Exodus 12 tells the story of how in Egypt God sent death as a means of judgment against oppressors but “passed over” the houses of the faithful who, following God’s instructions, smeared their doorposts with the blood of a lamb.
Christians interpret this event as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus, the lamb of God, whose blood saves from death those who choose to place themselves under it, liberating us from our slavery to sin. Driving home the connection, all four Gospel writers mention that Jesus was killed during the feast of Passover. His blood smeared the wooden posts of the cross.
Father Sieger Köder was born in Wasseralfingen in Swabia in southwestern Germany in 1925. From 1947 to 1951 he attended the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, where he trained as a silversmith and a painter. While establishing his art practice, he also worked as an art teacher at a secondary school in Aalen for just over a decade. Increasingly he felt a pull into Christian ministry, so from 1965 to 1970 he studied theology in Tübingen, becoming ordained in the Catholic Church a year later. He served as a parish priest in Hohenberg and Rosenberg from 1975 to 1995, combining that vocation with his work as an artist. He continued his art making well into retirement, dying in 2015 at age ninety. His religious paintings can be found all over Germany and in other parts of Europe.
The artwork above is the closed view of the high altarpiece Köder made for the parish church in his hometown, Saint Stephen’s (Sankt Stephanus).
The outer left panel shows the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18:1–21)—that is, Abraham’s entertaining three men who turn out to be a theophany, an appearance of God in a human body (or in this case, three human bodies). I’m guessing that the man on the left, who is veiled, represents God the Father; the man in the middle, who’s holding the cup, is God the Son; and the man on the right, who appears to have a broken arm and to be naked except for a blanket draped over him, is God the Spirit—though he is likely also meant to show how God often comes to us in the guise of the poor, the hungry, the unsheltered (Matthew 25:31–46). Above the heads of this trinity, glowing through the oak leaves, is a fiery orb reminiscent of the burning bush from which God would call Moses a few centuries later. At the bottom of the painting Abraham’s wife Sarah laughs from inside her tent, having eavesdropped on the visitors’ news that she, a nonagenarian, will conceive a child. The lineage of that child, Isaac, would produce Jesus.
The outer right panel, based on Sunday’s lectionary reading, shows the first Passover. Israelite families huddle around a meal of roast lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs as a cloaked, skeletal presence passes by overhead. One of the adults tries to steady the rattling table with his hand while a mother protects two of her children, hugging them tightly to herself. Though afraid, they are in no danger, as their doorway is covered in the blood of the lamb whose flesh they eat.
When opened, the triptych reveals three Resurrection-themed panels. The inner left panel shows one of my favorite biblical episodes, which I call “Breakfast on the Shore”: Jesus’s resurrection appearance to Peter at dawn on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). Following Jesus’s instruction in Jerusalem (Matthew 28:7, 10), Peter had returned home with some of the other disciples and, not knowing what to do, took back up his fishing nets. He and six others are on the lake when a man calls out from the shore, “Children, do you have any fish?” They don’t. The man tells them to cast in their nets once more, and when they do, up comes a humongous catch. After which Peter exclaims, “It is the Lord!” Ever the impulsive one, he throws himself into the sea and pushes his way through the water to greet Jesus. They chargrill some of the fish and sit down to eat.
The scene is one of reconciliation. Peter had denied he knew Jesus three times the night of Jesus’s arrest, abandoning him in his time of need, and now, after breakfast, Jesus gives Peter three chances to reaffirm his love for him, asking him thrice, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The foregrounding of the hot coals in Köder’s painting is perhaps a subtle nod to the recent failure of Peter’s, as earlier in his Gospel John mentions that, in the courtyard of the high priest where Jesus was being tried, Peter warmed himself at a charcoal fire alongside Jesus’s captors (John 18:18). There’s also a hand coming up out of the water that I’m guessing references the earlier episode of Peter’s walking on water and then, when doubt in Jesus’s power set in, sinking, only to be saved by Jesus’s outstretched hand (Matthew 14:22–33). But Jesus forgives Peter’s weaknesses and disloyalty, restoring him to fellowship. He invites Peter to come and feast. The sun at the top indicates that it’s the dawn of a new era.
The bright-red morning sun also appears on the inner right panel, which shows another very personal encounter between the risen Christ and a disciple: Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. In Köder’s visual retelling, Mary wades through a sea of poppies—a red flower symbolic of sacrifice—her hand shielding her eyes from the brilliance of Jesus’s resurrection body. He who she initially thought to be the cemetery gardener is in fact her dear friend and Lord.
Look closely at some of the grave markers, and you’ll notice that they carry the names and/or dates of wars: “1914–1918,” “1939–1945,” “Vietnam,” “Biafra” (a reference to the Nigerian Civil War). The latter two were still raging on when Köder painted this. The artist was actually a prisoner of war during World War II, and underneath the cross representing that war in the painting is a bullet-blasted soldier’s helmet. I take these graves to imply that Jesus’s resurrection put death to death.
I’m not sure what the Hebrew grave inscriptions say—anyone know?
Update, 9/30/21: Dr. Franz Posset, a former student of the artist’s, emailed me today with transcriptions and translations of the Hebrew tombstone inscriptions:
האדם – Adam, The Man (lower right corner, next to Mary’s elbow)
חוה – Eve, The Woman (in the shadows at the right, behind the “Vietnam” tombstone)
החכם – The Wise (to the right of Mary’s raised hand)
כסילה – The Fool (to the left of Mary’s raised hand)
The central panel of the altarpiece portrays the Supper at Emmaus as a sort of Transfiguration à la Mount Tabor, an unveiling of Christ’s glory. Luke tells us that after the resurrection Jesus appeared to Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, who were on their way home from Jerusalem; their hearts “burned within them” as he spoke about the scriptures, but their eyes weren’t opened to his true identity until he blessed and broke the bread at mealtime. In Köder’s painting, Jesus’s form is barely discernible through the red glow—he’s a pillar of light, really. Artists have always struggled to give an impression of what Jesus’s resurrection body might have looked like: it was a flesh-and-bone body, for sure, but a glorified one, not always immediately recognizable, and it seems as though he was able to walk through walls and disappear. Köder bathes him in the color of blood—of his passion, and of life. Köder’s nonrepresentational approach emphasizes the otherness aspect of the newly risen Christ and the marvel the two Emmaus disciples must have felt upon realizing who they were dining with.
Jesus appears between Moses, who holds a basket of manna (Exodus 16), and Elijah, who cradles a raven with a morsel of bread in its beak, a reference to his being fed miraculously by God in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:1–7). The figure to the right of Elijah may be Paul (Saul) fallen off his horse on the road to Damascus.
At Saint Stephen’s the Eucharist is celebrated regularly before this altarpiece. (The metalwork tabernacle below, decorated with stalks of grain and clusters of grapes, is where the eucharistic elements are stored.) Köder reminds partakers that they are covered (pardoned) by Jesus’s blood, that Christ is present in the meal, that he nourishes and sustains his people with his very self. Death has passed over us because it struck the firstborn of all creation, who bore the curse on our behalf. However, death could not keep him down, and on the third day he rose again, appearing to many, the firstborn of new creation. “Mary,” he called out to one of his closest followers outside his tomb, speaking her name in a familiar tone, sparking recognition and joy. “Come and have breakfast,” he called out to Peter. To the Emmaus disciples he illuminated the scriptures and finally revealed himself around a table. Christ invites us into fellowship with him, through his blood.