LOOK: The Passion of Mary by Katherine Kenny Bayly
This collage by Katherine Bayly is from the 2006 CIVA traveling exhibition Highly Favored: Contemporary Images of the Virgin Mary. In seven alternating vertical bands, it combines Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre, showing Christ’s birth and death as two sides of the Incarnation coin. One can hear echoes of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35)—a veiled reference to the Crucifixion.
Since the Middle Ages artists have often embedded symbolic or other visual references to Christ’s passion in Nativity paintings—a goldfinch, a coral rosary, a bunch of grapes, a cave that recalls the tomb, swaddling bands that look like burial wrappings, a manger that looks like a sarcophagus or altar, or, more explicitly, angels holding the arma Christi (instruments of the passion). Sometimes artists would use a diptych format to juxtapose images of Mary holding Jesus as a vibrant young infant with her holding him as a pale adult corpse deposed from the cross, a pairing that strikes an emotional tenor, as there’s perhaps no deeper grief than a mother’s loss of a child. Bayly draws on this tradition in The Passion of Mary, foreshadowing a future sorrow and reminding us that Christ came to earth not only to live but also to die.
LISTEN: “Baby Boy” by Rhiannon Giddens, on Freedom Highway (2017)
Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep You will be our savior But until then, go to sleep
Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you While you lead our people to the promised land I will shelter you
Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you When you leave this place to do what you must I will always love you
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Poignantly performed by Rhiannon Giddens [previously], Lalenja Harrington, and Leyla McCalla, “Baby Boy” is a lullaby written in the voice of a mother to her son, her salvation, whom she sings to sleep. She pledges to always watch over, shelter, and support him to the best of her ability.
The subject of the song could be Moses and the speaker his birth mother, Jochebed, as there’s mention of him leading his people to the promised land. This boy will grow up to shepherd a nation into its rest.
Or it could be Jesus, the New Moses, who liberated humanity at large, breaking their bondage to the powers of evil. Remembering the angel’s promise, Mary whispers her grand hopes to this cuddly little bundle she holds who will be their fulfillment, even as she shushes his cries.
Note, though, how there are three voices singing—a trio of women, a sisterhood united in their love of this child and their eager expectation of deliverance. Think of the women who, against all odds, ensured Moses’s protection as a young one and those who later walked alongside him in his difficult calling. Think, too, of all the women who supported Christ throughout his ministry, materially and spiritually, standing by him until the end, mourning his death, and spreading the news of his resurrection. One might imagine this song being sung by the three Marys, for example. They have a faint sense of the danger ahead and know the hero Jesus will become, but for now, they simply wish him sound slumber and sweet dreams. “Until then . . .”
Launched in April 2018, HENI Talks is a growing catalogue of short films on art, narrated by experts. The project was prompted by the 2016 announcement by the AQA exam board in England that they would be dropping art history A-levels, meaning that the subject would no longer be taught in high schools. Although the course was saved at the last minute, it rang alarm bells for the international art services business HENI, who decided they wanted to help bring art history more fully into the digital age, to make it accessible to a wider public. They assembled a dedicated team of producers, researchers, editors, and camera operators and shot twenty-five videos on location on a range of art history topics, interviewing leading artists, curators, and academics. For these efforts HENI Talks won Apollo Magazine’s 2018 Digital Innovation Award.
I first encountered them through their video “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees” and was super-impressed by the high production values. That close-up photography! Makes a huge difference in experiencing art online.
Since then they have been steadily adding new videos, which average about ten minutes each. These include breakdowns of movements/styles, like abstract expressionism, brutalism, and land art, as well as videos focused on single artists or artworks or even themes, such as “The Bed in Art: From Titian to Emin.”
The emphasis is on modern and contemporary art—Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Maurizio Cattelan, Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois, Glenn Ligon, and so on. And art in British collections. I, of course, am particularly drawn to the videos that feature biblical or liturgical art. My favorites are below.
“Pisa Pulpit: ‘Judge by the correct law!’,” presented by Jules Lubbock: This video examines the seven-hundred-year-old marble relief sculptures of the life of Christ carved by Italian Gothic artist Giovanni Pisano into the pulpit of Pisa Cathedral. (The piece Lubbock looks at is actually a plaster cast of the pulpit, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.)
“Emotional Enigma in the Sculpture of Michelangelo,” presented by Alison Cole: “Michelangelo’s most well-known works exist on a colossal scale, from his formidable statue of David to the High Renaissance frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, his art could also be tender and lyrical, dwelling upon the inherent tensions of the human condition. Art Historian Alison Cole examines one such example, the Taddei Tondo (c.1504-1505) – the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in a British collection. Cole provides a rich insight into the artist’s life, influences and unique approach to sculpture.” The tondo portrays the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist.
“Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel: Devotion and Destruction,” presented by Paul Binski: “Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel was one of the most splendid artistic and architectural achievements of medieval England. The Catholic chapel’s lavishly painted sculpture and stained glass, devoted to the Virgin Mary, moved pilgrims to a religious frenzy. But when Protestants began to call for a ‘purer’ vision of the Christian faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, this same quality triggered repulsion. During the hundred years of the English Reformation, the chapel was scraped, scrubbed and smashed of its extravagance.
“Art historian Paul Binski believes it is possible to recover the Lady Chapel’s former opulence in the imagination. His talk gives an insight into the psychology behind Ely’s splendour, and the idea that art can be so powerful as to provoke violence – something we still see in headlines today.”
“Art & Soul at St Paul’s Cathedral,” presented by Sandy Nairne: “How does art ‘wake up the soul’? There is perhaps no better place to explore this theme than St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Art historian Sandy Nairne walks through the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, pointing out how artists have responded to the sanctity of this historic space. He describes how early commissions by the Cathedral aimed to sustain belief in Christian worshippers, and how modern and contemporary artists including Henry Moore, Bill Viola and Mark Wallinger, have tried to express spirituality in a more secular age.”
There’s also a HENI Talk written and narrated by the art critic Julian Spalding, called “Faith and Doubt in Art” and released in May 2019, but I feel it doesn’t do justice to its title, and it advances an overly simplistic narrative that is misleading in places and confusing in others. I know it’s difficult to bring nuance to such a vast topic in just twelve minutes, and that under such constraints, generalizations are inevitable. The video is mainly about representational art versus abstract art, and in particular the effect of modernity on Western art. Spalding posits that the age of scientific discovery that we call “the Enlightenment” was actually a time of spiritual darkening, where people ceased believing that the world was beautiful or had meaning, and this in turn produced an art of doubt and worry—“a nightmare vision of the world” exemplified by Goya and culminating in Munch’s The Scream (“the very end of the Christian tradition,” Spalding says).
The Enlightenment did, of course, cause faith crises for many, and this shaken worldview was reflected in the work of some artists. But I want to note that doubt is not incompatible with Christian faith, nor is an awareness of the world’s horrors or a dedication to science. In fact, many Enlightenment scientists were devout Christians who were impelled further in their research by their very belief in God and that the universe is ordered and contains mysteries to be discovered. And artists, even within the Christian tradition, have always been attuned to the darker aspects of life and had fears and anxieties surrounding sickness, violence, and sex, for example, which in medieval Europe could be expressed through portrayals of particular biblical narratives and saints’ lives. Some of the most gruesome artistic imaginings of hell were inspired by real-life tortures that were taking place at the time. Distorted forms and the grotesque are not unique to modern art, and their use was and is not a sure indicator of a nihilistic attitude or a rejection of a good creator-God.
So while Spalding’s account of art history as relates to the Christian faith is widely accepted, it’s important to remember that things weren’t quite so linear or across-the-board. And art can be “dark,” hold tensions, or pose questions and still be faithful to Christianity.
Puzzlingly, Spalding uses Rembrandt as an early example of religious doubt, noting that the tonality of his works got darker and darker, as if that signified a dissolving faith. Spalding reads into Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, in which he portrays himself in a nonidealized manner, a questioning whether God really created him, imperfect as he is. I, on the other hand, see in these portraits a man owning his own brokenness and frailties, bringing them into the light.
Spalding also makes a few inaccurate statements in the video, like that all Islamic art is abstract (what about the magnificent traditions of Persian [Iranian], Ottoman [Turkish], and Mughal [Indian] miniature painting?) and that Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ represents “a man turning into a god” (no, Christians believe Jesus had always been both fully man and fully God; his anointing in the Jordan signified the start of his earthly ministry).
He ends by stating that in the modern period, as more and more people rejected the idea of a Creator, representation ceased to have meaning and Western art became abstract, much like that in the rest of the world. He compares, for example, an abstract expressionist painting with Islamic architecture, noting how they both express transcendence and mystery (he doesn’t have time to discuss their foundational differences, however). I would argue that while abstraction is a perfectly valid approach, representation in its own way can also express mystery. Take, for example, icons.
I would also add that there’s a huge difference between believing that life has no meaning and believing that that meaning cannot be represented. I think Spalding would agree—the video just doesn’t make that clear.
Spalding makes a very important point when he says that in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc., the “source of spirituality” (Truth) is invisible, and similarly, Judaism and Islam say you can’t visualize God, whereas Christianity says that the source and object of our faith, Jesus Christ, God the Son, did make himself visible and is therefore representable, and that belief very much influenced the trajectory of Western art.
My biggest concern with Spalding’s talk is that it doesn’t come full circle to acknowledge the “return of religion” in contemporary art—as Jonathan Anderson (see here), among other art historians and critics, have shown—nor does it address the comeback that representational art has been making in recent years, and in fact among Black artists by and large, it never really went away.
Warning: This post contains distressing photographs, including one of an emaciated child and one of a wounded (but bandaged) infant.
Uğur Gallenkuş (Turkish, 1990–) is an Istanbul-based artist whose digital photomontages address the widening global divide between the privileged and the oppressed. By combining photojournalistic images and stock photos with similar compositional elements, he juxtaposes the relative safety, stability, comfort, and flourishing experienced by middle- and upper-class Westerners with the violence, terror, trauma, and hardship experienced by victims of poverty, war, and displacement. Because Gallenkuş lives in the Middle East, he focuses on that geographic region.
Releasing November 20 in honor of World Children’s Day, Parallel Universes of Children brings together fifty of Gallenkuş’s sobering mash-ups, integrating facts of children’s lived realities around the world. It is $60 plus shipping, available only through the artist’s website. (For US buyers, there’s stock warehoused in New Jersey, so you won’t be paying to ship it from Turkey.)
“I aim to create awareness and inspire action to remember and to ask ourselves every day what we have done to safeguard children’s rights, both near home and across the globe,” Gallenkuş says. He wants not only to alert the well-off to the suffering they often shield themselves from, shaking them out of their complacency, but also to remind those in underdeveloped countries that they deserve better government and education, the right to thrive.
I’ve linked each image to its source on Instagram, where you can find out more information about it—when and where the photograph was taken and by whom (Gallenkuş does not take the photos himself), context, stats, etc. Some of the links will take you to a revised (updated) form of the image; in those instances, the originals I found at Juxtapoze.
The stark contrast between the two component photos of each montage is jolting, intentionally so. Reflecting socioeconomic and political disparities, they tell drastically different stories about childhood. My existence must look like a fairy tale to those who have grown up in war zones or refugee camps.
One of Gallenkuş’s montages shows a lavish bathroom with a chandelier, pristine tiles, and freshly pressed towels next to the remnants of a bathroom whose walls were blown out by an Israeli airstrike, where a father bathes his daughter and niece.
Another one shows a line of American schoolchildren waiting to board a bus, which transforms into a line of Palestinian children waiting to fill jerrycans and bottles with drinking water from public taps at the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in central Gaza Strip. (Many fall sick from the water, whose source is polluted with human waste.)
Consider, too, the differences in play. A child at an IDP camp plays with a toy grenade launcher, while his counterpart plays doctor. A Syrian boy has fun balancing on the barrel of a tank in a pile of wreckage, while opposite him, in a green park, a boy rides a harmless seesaw. The imaginations of children are shaped by what surrounds them, whether that be violence or possibility.
I love the curatorial approach of these two current exhibitions, which bring art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance into conversation with contemporary art. Rather than doing this to prove a disjunction sparked by modernity, the curators stress continuity between the artists of yesterday and today.
“Make It New: Conversations with Medieval Art,” Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France), Paris, November 5, 2018–February 10, 2019: Curated by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, “Make It New” explores the relationship between works of contemporary art and the medieval art of Raban Maur (Hrabanus Maurus), a ninth-century monk from Fulda, Germany, and a major figure of the Carolingian renaissance. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Raban Maur’s De laudibus sanctae crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), a Latin manuscript comprising twenty-eight highly sophisticated poems whose letters are arranged in simple grids over colorful, geometric cross patterns. At the BnF, these compositions are placed in dialogue with thirty-plus works by some of today’s minimalist, conceptual, and land artists, including Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Niele Toroni, and Franz E. Walther, stressing similarities in form, color, proportion, and perspective. [press release (English)] [compilation of Maur images]
The original figure poem cycle was produced around 810 at the scriptorium in Fulda, and Raban Maur had a hand in making at least five other copies during his lifetime (of which France’s National Library owns two: Lat. 2423 and Lat. 2422); seventy-four additional copies from the Middle Ages are extant. The Burgerbibliothek Bern in Switzerland has digitized its early eleventh-century copy (Cod. 9), and it’s really fascinating! Full-resolution downloads are enabled. According to the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny, “no work more precious to see, more pleasing to read, sweeter to remember, or more laborious to write can or could ever be found.” I don’t know Latin, but visually, I can really appreciate these fine pages. I was hoping to find more information about the work but could really only find a single French lecture given back in 2007 by Denis Hüe, a professor of medieval and Renaissance language and literature at the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne.
“Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth,”Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26–March 31, 2019: When pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006, he was astonished by the Renaissance master’s expressive use of the body to convey emotional and spiritual states. Here the two artists are exhibited side by side, showing their common grappling with life’s fundamental questions, albeit in vastly different mediums. “Both artists harness the symbolic power of sacred art, and both show us physical extremes and moments of transcendence.” Among the twelve major installations from Viola, spanning his career, is Tristan’s Ascension(The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), a sixteen-foot-high projection depicting the ascent of the soul after death.
For February 16, the Royal Academy has organized a full day of events keyed to the exhibition, including poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a panel discussion with cultural historian Marina Warner, theologian Ben Quash, and artist Mariko Mori, titled “Art as fulfilment: the use of religion and spirituality in contemporary art.” Questions for the day include: Does art connect us? Can art be transformative or transcendental? Can art influence society—that is, change opinions or human behavior? Other offerings in addition to this program are a curator’s introduction on February 1, a short course on figure drawing, and a talk on the limitations and opportunities of digital art. Plus, the London Art Salon is hosting a talk on the exhibition by art historian Marie-Anne Mancio.
NEW COMIC BOOK PUBLISHER: Cave Pictures Publishing, founded in fall 2018 by Mark Rodgers, is committed to the telling of “modern myths” that “speak to the soul” through comic books in the genres of action-adventure, sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. Pitched for the spiritually inclined, the stories they publish “seek to make sense of our world . . . draw us toward the source of goodness . . . uncover what we worship.” Says Rodgers in a Hollywood Reporter interview: “Just as cave paintings were humanity’s initial attempt to process through the tough ultimate questions of human existence, we look at our stories as ‘sherpas of the soul,’ to contribute to the individual and collective human journey towards meaning and a greater reality,” the One True Myth. Read more about the company’s influences and aspirations in this Convivium essay. See also the interview in Sojourners.
One of their five inaugural series is The Light Princess, an adaptation of one of George MacDonald’s best-loved fairy tales, about a princess who is cursed with weightlessness and is only brought down to earth by a true, sacrificial love. MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet (e.g., here, here, and here), and Christian minister who deeply influenced C. S. Lewis and J R. R. Tolkien. Speaking of Tolkien, I’m really digging this quote of his on Cave Pictures’ website, which affirms the value of story: “Legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode. . . . Long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”
FLASH MOB: On Easter 2011 at City Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, a flash mob broke out singing the Paschal troparion in Arabic: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! [HT: Global Christian Worship]
NEW PAINTING INSTALLED: James B. Janknegt is a Christian artist from Texas who is known for transposing biblical stories into contemporary American settings. He recently completed a large triptych for the new Unity Hall at Community First! Village in Austin, a planned community, developed by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless. (See the development and learn more about it in this short video, presented by MLF founder Alan Graham.) The painting shows Jesus in conversation with the “good thief” who, as he dies, acknowledges his crime and asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Behind him paradise flowers forth, indicating not only his new home but his inward regeneration. The other thief, by contrast, turns his head away in stubbornness. This episode demonstrates that repentance is always met by Christ with love, affirmation, and seeds of new life.
SHORT FILM: “Dance Dance” by French film director Thomas Blanchardevokes each of the four seasons through different elements acting on flowers, captured in either time lapse or slow motion. For fall, a rose is set on fire; for winter, foliage afloat in water becomes frozen in ice; for spring, lilies bloom; and for summer, colored inks hit the flowers and billow up in dusty clouds. Stunning images!
CHAIYA ART AWARD FINALIST: The inaugural Chaiya Art Award competition ended last month, with the winner taking home £10,000 and being exhibited, along with forty-one other juried selections, at London’s gallery@oxo March 29–April 9. The theme was “Where Is God in Our Twenty-First-Century World?”
One entry I really love is finalist Sheona Beaumont’s Natal, a photographic work that shows a nude pregnant woman standing against a dark wall in profile, her hair blown wildly by a gust of wind, opposite a corpse. These are two different spaces set in juxtaposition—two photos stitched together. The black-and-white photo of the dead body, on the left, is Fred Holland Day’s The Entombment from 1898, in which he himself posed as Christ, laid out on a bier before a doorway, his crown of thorns and titulus crucis on the ground beside him. Beaumont rotated this horizontal image 90 degrees clockwise so that the Christ figure is propped upright. She then posed her female model to form a sort of mirror image, but one full of vitality; the woman’s belly, the site of new life about to be born, is brightly lit. This combination photograph makes a powerful Holy Saturday image, one that hints toward resurrection as the stillness gives way to stirrings. The photo is also an allusion to the new life believers have in Christ, and in fact it forms the first in a new series titled Born Again. Visit Beaumont’s website to view the artwork and to read a bit about her process and the meaning the work holds for her.
EXHIBITION: “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle”: Last fall, Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons made its North American debut at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveling for the first time in centuries, and now the exhibition is at the Frick Collection in New York City—but only through the end of this week! Twelve of the thirteen paintings in the set are from Auckland Castle in County Durham, England, the residence of the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, who acquired them in 1756 and had them displayed in his dining room, where they have remained ever since. Trevor was outbid on the painting of Benjamin, however, which is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, reuniting the set for the first time since the paintings’ 1756 sale.
The iconography of the paintings is derived from the prophecies Jacob utters over each of his sons on his deathbed, as described in Genesis 49. For example, Judah, from whom “the scepter shall not depart,” holds said scepter and is regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon (Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles); Dan, on the other hand, holds up a serpent on a stick, alluding to his craftiness. To view all the paintings, click here.
3-D SHOW: As of last month and through the end of July, Artainment Worldwide Shows, in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, presents “Giudizio universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel”by Marco Balich, an immersive 3-D show that brings to life Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes inside the Rome Conciliation Auditorium. Half the room is covered, from the walls to the ceiling, with a 270-degree screen that projects extremely high-res photos of the paintings, dramatized through movement, music, lighting, sound effects, narration, live actors, and dance. Lasting sixty minutes, the show concludes with the thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), set to new music by Sting and arranged for chamber orchestra and choir by Rob Mathieson. Watch the trailer below, or click here to see some of the 3-D animation of the Last Judgment.