Roundup: Formational films, Mary Magdalene exhibition, and more

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.

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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.

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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?
8th Catholic Arts Biennial
Exhibition view, 8th Catholic Arts Biennial. From left to right are three retablos by Vicente Telles, Maternidad by Piki Mendizabal, Iesu in Utero by Rebecca Spilecki, and The Living Temple by Jesse Klassen.

8th Catholic Arts Biennial
The Heart of Man by Kristen van Diggelen Sloan; St. Laud Reliquary by James Malenda; Untitled, #33, Jersey City, NJ by Jon Henry

8th Catholic Arts Biennial
Foreground: Saintly Selfies by Annie Dixon

(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 verostkocenter@stvincent.edu. 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!

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EXHIBITION: Maria Magdalena (Mary Magdalene), Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands, June 25, 2021–January 9, 2022: Curated by Lieke Wijnia. “Mary Magdalene is one of the most enigmatic women from the New Testament. Through a trans-historical display of artistic representations from the eleventh century to the present day, this exhibition explores the enduring fascination for this mysterious saint.” The catalog, Mary Magdalene: Chief Witness, Sinner, Feminist, is available in Dutch or English from the publisher Waanders. In addition to the exhibition page on the museum’s website, which hosts select images and a series of videos, resources in Dutch include an audio tour (with images), a podcast episode and accompanying article, and a video preview with commentary by Karin Haanappel.

Maria Magdalena art exhibition

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.

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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.

Galle I, Cornelis_Lucifer
Cornelis Galle I (Flemish, 1576–1650), Lucifer, after Stradanus, ca. 1595. Engraving, 27.5 × 20 cm.

Eagle of Justice
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1403–1482), Dante and Beatrice before the Eagle of Justice, ca. 1450. From Yates Thompson 36, fol. 162, British Library, London.

I Am Covered (Artful Devotion)

Altarpiece by Sieger Koder
Altarpiece (closed) by Sieger Köder (German, 1925–2015), 1970, St. Stephen’s Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany. Photo: Zvonimir Atletić / Alamy Stock Photo (ref. no. 2BAA8HW).

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.”

—Exodus 12:1–14

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SONG: “Passover Song” by IAMSON (Orlando Palmer), on Bread for the Journey by Urban Doxology (2016) and iAmSon (2017)

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.

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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).

Koder, Sieger_Hospitality of Abraham

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.

Koder, Sieger_Passover

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.

Altarpiece by Sieger Koder
Altarpiece by Sieger Köder (German, 1925–2015), 1970, St. Stephen’s Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany. Photo: Zvonimir Atletić / Alamy Stock Photo (ref. no. 2BABBYY).

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.

Koder, Sieger_Breakfast on the Shore

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.

Koder, Sieger_Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

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)

Supper at Emmaus by Sieger Koder

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.

Koder, Sieger_Wasseralfingen Altarpiece (wide shot)
East end of Saint Stephen’s, Wasseralfingen. Altarpiece by Sieger Köder, stained glass windows by Rudolf Haegele. Photo © Stadt Aalen.

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.

P.S. It appears there is yet a third configuration of the altarpiece, as indicated by this photo, which includes a Madonna and Child, the Tower of Babel, and I can’t make out the left two panels.


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To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 18, cycle A, click here.

“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb

Wesley, Frank_Mary at the Tomb
Frank Wesley (Indian, 1923–2002), Mary at the Tomb, before 1993. Watercolor, 25 × 20 cm. Published in “Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush” (Auckland: Pace, 1993).

She brake the box, and all the house was filled
With waftures from the fragrant store thereof,
While at His feet a costlier rose distilled
The bruisèd balm of penitential love.

And lo, as if in recompense of her,
Bewildered in the lingering shades of night,
He breaks anon the sealèd sepulcher,
And fills the world with rapture and with light.

“The Recompense” by John Banister Tabb was originally published in Poems by John Banister Tabb (Boston: Copeland and Day, 1894) and is now in the public domain.

This short poem—just two quatrains with an ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme—draws on Luke 7:36–50. In this Gospel episode, Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee when an unnamed “sinful” woman enters with an alabaster jar of precious ointment, which she pours lavishly onto Jesus’s feet in an act of love and gratitude, and in recognition of his messiahship. So humbled is she by Jesus’s forgiveness of her sin that she is in tears. (Note: Tradition says this woman was Mary Magdalene—based in part on a conflation with the similar account in John 12:1–8, which names the woman Mary.)

Of even more value to Christ than the essential oils, Tabb suggests, is the woman’s “penitential love,” a balm before his wounds. Her beautiful, bruised soul, like a rose, releases such an aroma, though the Pharisees can’t smell it, and they try to shame her. Not long hence Jesus returns her tenderhearted gesture, opening another stone container (his tomb) and spilling forth life and light and bliss, priceless treasures, onto his beloved world. He meets Mary in her bewilderment on that first Easter morning, lavishing on her all his resurrection riches.

Holy Monday (Artful Devotion)

Supper at Bethany (Vaux Passional)
Illumination from the Vaux Passional, England, ca. 1503–4. Peniarth MS 482D, fol. 15v, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. [see full page]

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone; she intended to keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

—John 12:1–11

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SONG: “Said Judas to Mary” by Sydney Carter, 1964 | Performed by ValLimar Jansen and the choir of Christ the King Church, Kingston, Rhode Island, 2015

View the lyrics and sheet music at www.hopepublishing.com.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Monday of Holy Week, cycle A, click here.

More Love (Artful Devotion)

Mary Magdalene at Foot of Cross
Right: Mary Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross, Netherlands, ca. 1420–30. Alabaster, 8 7/16 × 3 11/16 × 4 1/16 in. (21.5 × 9.3 × 10.3 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. This fragment served as the base of a now-lost crucifix.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” (Matthew 22:37–38)

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SONG: “More Love to Thee” | Words by Elizabeth Prentiss, 1869 | Music by William H. Doane, 1868 | Arranged and performed by One Eighty (Amy J. Kim, Joon Park)

(Listen in Korean.)

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“O Lord, from now on let me love You as intensely as I have loved sin.”

—John Chrysostom

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“To Thee alone my spirit cries;
In Thee my whole ambition lies,
And still Thy Wealth is far above
The poverty of my small love.”

—Dhul-Nun al-Misri, 9th-century Egyptian Sufi mystic (trans. A. J. Arberry)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 25, cycle A, click here.

Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin radiant. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. That’s their prerogative, but in the direct gaze and parted lips of Wiley’s dead Christ I hear not “Come hither” but “Look, white America, at what you have done, at what you are doing.”

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus

Moses and the Sea by Zak Benjamin
Zak Benjamin (South African, 1951–), Moses and the Sea, 1982. Hand-colored etching.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.

In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.

In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:

Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep

One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.

As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:

  1. as Jewish history;
  2. as spiritual metaphor; and
  3. as an expression of present circumstances and/or anticipations.

Continue reading ““Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”

She mistook him for the gardener

In his Gospel John records that on the Sunday morning following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and, finding it empty, started to weep, for she thought someone had taken the body. In her worry and frustration, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus . . . supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14–15). It isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes him.

Artists—mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus carrying gardening tools, like a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes sporting a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Rembrandt, and the illuminators of the book of hours and passional shown below, have even shown Jesus in full-out gardener’s getup. (In her commentary on John, Dr. Jo-Ann A. Brant mentions that the fact that Jesus left his burial clothes in the tomb, coupled with Mary’s confusion, might provoke the “fanciful speculation” that Jesus actually borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Nevertheless, a different understanding is more likely behind the artistic representations; read on.)

Noli me tangere by Jacopo di Cione
Attributed to Jacopo di Cione (Italian, 1365–1398/1400), Noli me tangere, ca. 1368–70. Pinnacle panel from a Florentine altarpiece, now in the collection of the National Gallery, London.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, from a Biblia Pauperum (typological picture book), ca. 1405, Netherlands. British Library, London.

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. [commentary by Georges Didi-Huberman]

Noli me tangere by Israhel van Meckenem
Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503), Noli me tangere, 1460–1500. Engraving. British Museum, London.

Noli me tangere by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445–1510), Noli me tangere, ca. 1484–91. Predella panel from an altarpiece from the convent of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, Italy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jesus as Gardener (Book of Hours)
Master of the Dark Eyes, “Christ Appears to St. Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” from The Hours of the Eternal Wisdom: Lauds (KB, 76 G 9), fol. 88r, ca. 1490. Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), The Hague.

Jesus as Gardener (cca. 1503)
“Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener” (detail), ca. 1503–1504, England. Fol. 134v, Vaux Passional (Peniarth 482D), National Library of Wales.

Continue reading “She mistook him for the gardener”