Light and Gold (Artful Devotion)

Virgin of Humility
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1399–1482), The Virgin of Humility, ca. 1440. Tempera and gold on panel, 32.5 × 22.5 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

—John 1:3b–4, 9

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SONG: “Lux Aurumque” | Original English text (“Light and Gold”) by Edward Esch (born 1970), translated into Latin by Charles Anthony Silvestri, 2000 | Music by Eric Whitacre, 2000 | Performed by Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, 2010

A professional studio recording by the Eric Whitacre Singers was released on the 2010 album Light & Gold:

Lux,
Calida gravisque pura velut aurum
Et canunt angeli molliter
modo natum.

Light,
warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe.

“The Virtual Choir is a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world and their love of music in a new way through the use of technology. Singers record and upload their videos from locations all over the world. Each one of the videos is then synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” With 185 singers from twelve countries, “Lux Aurumque” was the Virtual Choir’s first project. Four other songs have since followed, the latest one featuring more than eight thousand singers, ages four to eighty-seven, from 120 countries.

To listen to another composition by Eric Whitacre that I’ve previously featured on the blog, see “i thank you God for most this amazing,” a choral setting of an E. E. Cummings poem.

Paolo, Giovanni di_Virgin of Humility (in framework)
Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

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 the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Noel (Artful Devotion)

Mulamba-Mandangi, Joseph_Nativity
Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congolese, 1964–), Nativity, 1997. Peinture grattée. © missio Aachen.

. . . And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger . . .

—Luke 2:7

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved . . .”

—Psalm 96:10

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

—John 1:1, 14

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SONG: “Noel” by Todd Smith | Performed by Selah on the album Rose of Bethlehem (2002)

Noel, Noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto
Noel, noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto

Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama
Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama

English translation:

Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us
Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us

If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel
If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel

Kituba is the official language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where singer-songwriter Todd Smith grew up, from 1978 to 1986, as a missionary kid. (It was then known as Zaire.) Smith is one of three members of the award-winning band Selah, which helped initiate a hymn revival in Christian music that is still thriving today.

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See the Artful Devotions for the last two Christmases:

See also two of the most-visited posts from my former blog, The Jesus Question: “Nativity Paintings from around the World” (+ part 2).


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 Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”

Amalfi Nativity Fountain

When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy this August, we chanced upon a charming little fountain just off the town’s main street in Piazza dello Spirito Santo. Built during the eighteenth century in stone, with two marble faces that spout water, it is known, in local dialect, as the Fontana de Cape ’e Ciucci (Donkey’s Head Fountain), since the donkeys arriving from the nearby mountain village of Pogerola with heavy loads would stop here for water.

What makes the fountain unique, though, is the elaborate presepe (nativity scene) sited inside, an addition made in 1974 by Giuseppe Buonocore, Vincenzo Livano, and Nicola Pepe, who placed various small figurines on and around the rocky outcrop. Over the years, several of these figurines have become submerged by the flowing water. But a local family, the Infantes, takes care of maintaining the presepe, keeping it in decent condition.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Handmade presepi are a living tradition in and around Naples, and they are notable for their blending of the sacred and profane: biblical figures like the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the magi are set alongside vignettes of Neapolitan life in the eighteenth century (when the making of presepi was at its peak). Shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and pizzaioli (pizza makers), fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, bricklayers and fruit vendors and tailors—just ordinary people going about their everyday lives, with Jesus right in their midst (though in this case, it appears that he is missing from the manger!). And in addition to the traditional ox and ass, there are geese, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and other native animal life present.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

Salvation Is Created (Artful Devotion)

Nativity by Wisnu Sasongko
Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian, 1975–), Nativity, 2005. Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 34 in.

The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

—Isaiah 52:10

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

—Titus 2:11

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

—Luke 2:11

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SONG: “Salvation Is Created” (Op. 25, no. 5) by Pavel Tchesnokov, 1912 | Performed by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles, on What Child Is This? The St. Olaf Christmas Festival (2010)

Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia!

A Russian composer, choral conductor, and teacher, Pavel Tchesnokov (1877–1944) wrote over four hundred sacred choral works up until 1912, when he was forced by the Soviets to focus exclusively on secular compositions; “Salvation Is Created” was his last one. It’s a communion hymn based on a synodal Kievan chant melody and Psalm 74:12: “For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”

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Wisnu Sasongko is an artist from the Indonesian island of Java. In 2004–05 he served as artist in residence at the Overseas Ministries Studies Center in New Haven, Connecticut, out of which came a monograph on Sasongko, Think on These Things: Harmony and Diversity, published in 2007. He was also one of five artists featured in the 2007 exhibition The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.


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 Christmas Day, cycle C, click here.

Exhibitions

James Webb: Prayer, Art Institute of Chicago, September 6–December 31, 2018: A sound installation that began, said the artist, with the question “What would it be like to listen to all the prayers of a city simultaneously?” “Prayer is an ongoing project, remade around the world since its first presentation in Webb’s home city of Cape Town in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America. The work consists of recordings of prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual affinities in the host city. Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet . . . or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers.”

Prayer by James Webb
Photo: Anthea Pokroy
Prayer by James Webb
Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Johnson interviewed several listener-participants. One woman said she stumbled into the museum after missing her train stop on her way home from work; it was a fortuitous accident, she said, because she had been feeling overwhelmed by the suffering in the city (addiction, gun violence, etc.), and hearing the praying, singing, chanting in the gallery helped give her hope.

Click here to see a short video feature of the Stockholm version of Prayer, which took place last year.

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Encounters, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, September 18–November 19, 2018: For the past decade, artist and visual social historian Nicola Green has been granted access to private meetings between religious leaders around the world from a variety of faith traditions. These meetings have gone largely unreported in the media, and there has been limited reflection on the encouraging trend they represent. To help remedy the situation, Green has produced thirty-one portraits depicting leaders like Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa, Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and many more—each set against a unique patterned background inspired by liturgical vestments or objects, manuscript illuminations, or sacred architecture particular to the sitter. The faces are obscured to prompt reflection on the relationship between the individual and his office.

“Green makes a compelling case through her art and writings that we have entered a new era in interreligious relations. What is remarkable today is the depth of relationships being formed by faith leaders across historically deep divides. . . . At its heart, the Encounters project is an exploration of difference. It asks: How can people of different faiths, or none, communicate strongly held convictions, whilst respectfully allowing others to do the same? What can be gained from such encounters, and how can we identify common goals whilst working from different perspectives? And how can deep religious commitments become an asset rather than an impediment to understanding and appreciating diversity? Green invites viewers to think about our relationship to those we consider wholly ‘other’ to ourselves, and how this, in turn, shapes our own identity.”

Encounters by Nicola Green

The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of a new multiauthor book, Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue, as well as a series of lectures, the most recent of which will be taking place Monday.

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Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 22, 2018–January 13, 2019: “This is the first major exhibition to explore the remarkable artistic and cultural achievements of the Armenian people in a global context over fourteen centuries—from the fourth century, when the Armenians converted to Christianity in their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat, to the seventeenth century, when Armenian control of global trade routes first brought books printed in Armenian into the region. Through some 140 objects—including opulent gilded reliquaries, richly illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, cross stones (khachkars), precious liturgical furnishings, church models, and printed books—the exhibition demonstrates how Armenians developed a unique Christian identity that linked their widespread communities over the years.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (Armenian)
Astuatsatur Shahamir, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1691. Repoussé silver book cover with jewels and enamel, made in present-day Kayseri, Turkey. Inside is an illuminated Gospel from the 13th century.

Read the Washington Post review by Philip Kennicott, and see the exhibition catalog put together by Helen C. Evans.

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, British Library, London, October 19, 2018–February 19, 2019: This “largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest,” brings together art objects, manuscripts, and other artifacts from various European collections and from the British Library itself. Because Christianization of the kingdom began in the sixth century, much of its art reflects that. Two highlights are the Codex Amiatinus (a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716 as a gift to the pope and returning to England for the first time since) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (the earliest surviving example of the Gospel texts in English and an exemplary fusion of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Pictish, and Mediterranean art styles)—which will be the subject of a lecture on Monday.

Other illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition include the St. Augustine Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the Utrecht and Eadwine Psalters, the Junius manuscript (a volume of religious poetry), and, from the British Library’s collection, Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, and the Vespasian, Harley, and Tiberius Psalters. And manuscripts represent only a portion of the vast number of objects on display! To learn more, see the new webpage launched by the library and the catalog edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story.

Cross (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, ca. 698. British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV, fol. 26v.
King David and his musicians
King David and his musicians, from the Vespasian Psalter, 8th century. British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. I, fol. 30v.
Eadwine Psalter
From the Eadwine Psalter, ca. 1150. Trinity College, Cambridge (MS R.17.1, fol. 108v). Illuminates Psalm 64:1-3: “Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy. Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked, from the plots of evildoers. They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.”
Harrowing of Hell (Tiberius Psalter)
“The Harrowing of Hell,” from the Tiberius Psalter, ca. 1050. British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C.vi, fol. 14r.

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Attending: Paintings and Prints by Julie Shelton Snyder, Gallery at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia, October 26–December 22, 2018: This exhibition features new work by the artist completed during her residency at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, which she spent studying the mokuhanga traditional woodblock printmaking technique. “In my work,” says Snyder, “I explore movement and stillness, being in control and letting go. . . . My longing for stillness is a physical and spiritual quest, and this quest has led me to the practice of Centering Prayer. Through art making, I am given the means to express spiritual truths I cannot otherwise articulate. Expressing the ineffable and the invisible is the aim of my work, and I view abstraction as the best means for this expression.”

Attending exhibition (Julie Shelton Snyder)

Accompanying the exhibition is a series of events, including workshops, prayer services, and, on December 2, “Attending to Advent: A Multisensory Advent Experience”—which I will be, ahem, attending.

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The Renaissance Nude, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, October 30, 2018–January 27, 2019: “Inspired by a renewed interest in classical sculpture and closer study of nature, Renaissance artists made the nude body ever more vibrant, lifelike, and central to their practice. Yet, pious European Renaissance society was troubled by the nude and its new sensuality—a conflicted response echoed in the world today, where images of nudity have become ubiquitous. This exhibition, with more than 100 objects by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Dürer, and others, traces the nude’s controversial emergence and its transformative effect on European art and culture.”

Madonna and Child (detail) by Jean Fouquet
Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child, which forms the right wing of the Melun diptych, shows Mary baring her breast in what most read as an erotically charged manner. (click to see full image)

It was interesting to hear from curator Thomas Kren that “artists’ and viewers’ attitudes toward the nude were as varied and complex centuries ago as they are today,” provoking conflicting feelings of shame, admiration, curiosity, desire, disgust, anger. Learn more in his fascinating Getty blog post “Deconstructing Myths about the Nude in Renaissance Art,” and in the catalog he edited. Also worth checking out is the blog post by art historian Jill Burke: “Sex, Power, and Violence in the Renaissance Nude.” The exhibition focuses on the period 1400–1530, but even within that narrow slice of history, the unclothed body, male and female, functioned in diverse ways in art.

A large number of biblical figures are represented in the exhibition’s list of artworks, including Adam and Eve, Job, Bathsheba, Mary and the infant Christ, Christ at his baptism and in his passion, and the saved and the damned on the last day, as well as extrabiblical martyrs (especially Saint Sebastian) and devout ascetics.

Man of Sorrows by Michele Giambono
Michele Giambono (Italian, active 1420–1462), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1430. Tempera and gold on wood, 54.9 × 38.7 cm (21 5/8 × 15 1/4 in.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Way to Paradise by Dieric Bouts
Dieric Bouts (Netherlandish, ca. 1415–1475), The Way to Paradise, 1469. Oil on panel, 115 × 69.5 cm (45 1/4 × 27 3/8 in.). Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France.

Roundup: Anglo-Saxon Ascension poem; underwater dance; Andy Squyres album; contemporary icons; Catholicism meets high fashion

ANGLO-SAXON ASCENSION POEM: Excerpts from “Christ II” by Cynewulf, probably ninth century, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker: Dr. Eleanor Parker lectures on medieval literature at Oxford University and runs the excellent blog A Clerk at Oxford, where she often shares her translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with commentary. The poem she shares here reflects on Christ’s ascension—the disciples’ grief, the angels’ joy. To me the most remarkable section is the one that, indirectly referencing a sermon of Gregory the Great, describes Christ “leaping” up to heaven, taking an active bound toward his homeland, a movement read in light of Song of Solomon 2:8: “Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” This leap is one of six he took: from heaven (1) into Mary’s womb, (2) into a manger, (3) onto the cross, (4) into the tomb, (5) into hell, and finally, (6) back into heaven. “Prince’s play”! Parker pairs the poem with an exquisite, near-contemporary manuscript illumination, also from England; there’s also a lot of resonance between the poem and the Ascension image I published Tuesday by Bagong Kussudiardja, which shows a more balletic ascent.

Ascension (10th c)
The Ascension, from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold (BL Additional MS. 49598), f. 64v, England, 963–984 CE. British Library, London.

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UNDERWATER DANCE: “AMA,” a short film by Julie Gautier: This wonderfully expressive silent film shows French free diver and underwater artist Julie Gautier dancing in a single breath for several minutes inside the world’s deepest swimming pool, Y-40 Deep Joy in Montegrotto Terme, Padua, Italy, to a minimalist piano piece. The final shot shows Gautier slowing rising to the water’s surface while releasing a giant air bubble, her pose evocative of the crucified Christ (and her upward movement an Ascension of sorts!). Titled “Ama” (Japanese for “sea woman,” the name given to Japan’s pearl divers), the film is “dedicated to all the women of the world,” Gautier says. The choreography is by Ophélie Longuet.

Gautier and her husband, Guillaume Néry, a free-diving champion, own the underwater filmmaking company Les Films Engloutis. Their most well-known project has been a music video featuring Beyoncé, codirected by Gautier and starring Néry.

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KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Help Andy Squyres finance his next album: Andy Squyres is a super-talented singer-songwriter whose lyrics don’t stay in the shallows but, rather, dive into the depths of the faith experience. They are also supremely hope-filled. Below is a video of Squyres performing “Labor in Vain” at a house concert; the song is from his last album, Cherry Blossoms, which I reviewed here. Click on the boldface link above to hear Squyres discuss his new album project and to donate toward it.

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ICON PAINTING COMPETITION: The Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) is hosting an international icon painting competition on the subject of Christ’s Resurrection. “Our purpose is to explore and bring to the foreground the numerous stylistic trends in existence today, enabling the visualization of a creative dialogue with tradition and, at the same time, the personal artistic expressions of artists who reframe tradition without, however, digressing from the doctrinal framework of Christian icon painting set by the 7th Ecumenical Council.” The submission window is closed—there are sixty-three great entries!—and now it’s time to cast your vote. Five winners will be selected to receive cash prizes, the topmost being €3,000, and other honors. Popular votes will be taken into account by the twelve jury members, among whom are esteemed iconographers George Kordis from Greece and Todor Mitrovic from Serbia.

Contemporary Resurrection icon

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ESSAY: “On the Border of East and West: Searching for Icons in Lviv” by John A. Kohan: The latest issue of Image journal features a wonderful essay on the Lviv school of iconography (represented in entries #4, #10, and #20 of the above contest), a movement by young Ukrainian Greek Catholic artists to contemporize the Byzantine visual tradition. Written by John A. Kohan, an avid religious art collector and former Time bureau chief in Moscow (1988–1996), it discusses the political history of the city; the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (r. 1901–1944) in preserving and supporting art for future generations; the opening of the Iconart gallery in 2010 to nurture and promote the new style; the broad training these icon makers receive at the Lviv National Academy of Arts; and the uneven reception by others in the denomination (especially official church bodies), who tend to prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. Kohan writes from his firsthand experiences meeting the artists and visiting their studios, churches, and exhibition spaces. The essay is available to subscribers only; click here to subscribe.

Crucifixion by Natalya Rusetska
Natalya Rusetska (Ukrainian, 1984–), Crucifixion, 2017. Egg tempera on gessoed wood, 11 3/4 × 8 1/4 in.
Pilate Condemns Jesus to Death by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Christ before Pilate, 2017. Mixed media on gessoed wood, 19 3/4 × 15 3/4 in.

I’m enthralled by the contemporary icons being produced in Lviv—I saw a bunch from Kohan’s collection last summer, and I featured some in a Baptism of Christ roundup earlier this year. The best way to keep abreast of the output from the Lviv school is to follow Iconart on Facebook, and for an even wider breadth of innovative eastern European icons, follow Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica, Poland).

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MET GALA + EXHIBITION: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” May 10–October 8, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The largest exhibition ever mounted by the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway fashions by famous designers inspired by Catholicism. A Fashionista reviewer who attended a preview reports on the integrated displays:

A reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun’s habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.

Each year since 1948, the opening of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition has been celebrated with a huge fundraising gala attended by celebrities who dress to the theme; this year’s took place May 7. There were lots of crosses and haloes, but also some more particularized outfits. Ariana Grande’s gown was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; Gigi Hadid’s, by stained glass. Selena Gomez carried a Coach handbag embroidered with Proverbs 31:30b: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised.” The most brazenly dressed was Rihanna, who wore a gem-encrusted bishop’s miter (not a papal tiara, as has been commonly reported). Another standout headpiece was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, which featured a Neapolitan Nativity scene set inside a mini baldachin. (The making of elaborate presepi, or Christmas crèches, is a longstanding tradition in Naples, reaching its height during the eighteenth century.)

Rihanna as pope
The white Margiela minidress, cape, and headpiece Rihanna wore to Monday’s Met gala were inspired by Catholic pontifical vestments. Photo: John Shearer/Getty.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker wore a regal gold, long-trained Dolce & Gabbana gown, but the pièce de résistance of her ensemble was the Nativity headpiece.

Lana Del Rey went as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing an immaculate-heart chest plate pierced through with seven daggers; it was comical to hear religiously illiterate reporters trying to interpret the symbolism, saying things like the daggers are a “reminder to repent your sins or suffer damnation!” (Wrong. The swords symbolize the Virgin’s seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy.)

Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting

Renaissance artists often employed foreshadowing as a theological device in their paintings of Christ’s infancy to remind viewers that Jesus came not just to live a perfect life but to die an atoning death on behalf of sinners. Over all the joy and celebration of the Nativity looms the dark cloud of Crucifixion.

Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis by Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)—one of the first professional female artists to achieve international fame—is one such work that’s embedded with signs of future death: a sarcophagus-like crib resting on an altar-like slab; Mary’s elevation of the body of Christ in a manner that recalls the priest’s raising of the host during the Eucharist; Francis’s cradling of a crucifix in his left elbow pit; and a curtain opening into darkness.

A year earlier, Fontana’s firstborn child died, so her bereavement may have partially inspired the painting.

Holy Family with Saints by Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614), Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis, 1578. Oil on canvas, 127 × 104.1 cm (50 × 41 in.). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

[ZOOM IN]

The following commentary by Margaret A. Samu is taken from the 2001 exhibition catalog Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts (pp. 197–98):

In her Holy Family with Saints, Lavinia Fontana presents the Madonna in an intimate domestic scene. Mary tenderly places the infant Christ in a cradle as Joseph stands behind her; opposite them, Saints Margaret and Francis bow their heads in worship. At first glance, the painting appears to celebrate both Christ’s divine birth and the human joy of motherhood, yet its iconographical elements speak also of Christ’s death.

Fontana is widely considered to be the first professional woman artist, as she received numerous commissions for portraits and large-scale religious paintings and actually supported her family by her work. She painted the Holy Family just as her career was beginning to flourish. As an assertion of her arrival as an artist, the painting prominently bears her signature and the date: LAVINIA FONTANA DE ZAPPIS FACIEBAT MDLXXVIII. This signature not only allows us to date the painting with ease but also reveals something of the confidence of this artist, who signs her work like a master so early in her career. Unknown to Italian scholars before the 1990s, this painting has gained prominence in two recent exhibitions.

Like other artists of her period, Fontana responds to the artistic decrees of the Counter-Reformation by turning away from the excesses of the Mannerist style in which she had been trained. Instead, she uses linear perspective and foreshortening to create a realistic sense of spatial recession that clearly defines the setting. In addition, she gives her figures the modest dress and pious decorum that are appropriate to the painting’s religious subject matter. By creating a balanced, nearly symmetrical composition with strong upward diagonals, she emphasizes the centrality of Christ to the devotional image. The linking of her figures by gazes and graceful gestures shows that, like other Bolognese artists, she was influenced by the work of the High Renaissance artist Correggio. In order to succeed as a woman artist in a male-dominated art world, Fontana had to adhere scrupulously to the newly defined doctrines of the Church that arose out of the 1545–1562 Ecumenical Council of Trent.

The artistic verisimilitude of the painting would have made its iconography all the easier for contemporary viewers to read. Saint Margaret is recognizable by her attribute, the dragon that accompanies her. According to legend, she became the patron saint of women in childbirth after using her cross to deliver herself unharmed from the belly of the dragon that had swallowed her as a test of her Christian faith; she then asked women to call upon her for the safe delivery of their children. Bathed in a beatific light, Mary and Saint Margaret are fully absorbed in the present moment, worshipping and caring for the child who raises his plump hand in a babyish sign of blessing. Standing in shadowy gloom, the male saints appear unaware of the scene of maternal bliss before them. Somberly contemplating the crucifix, they are occupied not with the present, the infant Christ, but with his coming death on the cross. To emphasize the point, Saint Francis reveals the stigmata on his hands, miraculous signs of his communion with Christ’s suffering.

Yet the light and dark areas of the painting do not create an absolute division between present and future concerns. Saint Francis is also associated with Christ’s birth: credited with creating the first Nativity scene in an Italian grotto in the thirteenth century, he cradles the tiny crucifix in his arm like a mother holding a child. Mary, on the other hand, does not cradle the child near her but places him in a sarcophagus-like crib on a sacrificial altar table. She lifts his body like a priest raising the Host—the transubstantiated body of Christ—in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Fontana’s inextricable merging of these signs of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ may reflect her contemplation of the recent birth and subsequent death of her own first-born child in the year before she painted the Holy Family. As she depicts this theme of great personal significance, Fontana also establishes a connection between the divine and earthly planes: a holy subject takes on the real, everyday quality of a domestic scene, while an everyday scene of motherhood is lifted to a sacred level.

Roundup: Book list, Piano Guys, Mongolian Jingle Bells, call for papers, sacred landscapes, art installation in cave

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: “Art and theology” books published in 2017: I had fun compiling this book list for ArtWay, which spans the disciplines of art history, theological aesthetics, visual theology, philosophy, museum studies, liturgical studies, and Christian ministry. Let me know if I’m missing any titles. (For books published on art and theology between 2014 and 2016, click here.)

Art and theology books 2017

Among those geared toward popular audiences are In the Beauty of Holiness, a lavishly illustrated hardcover survey of eighteen hundred years of Christian fine art; Imaging the Story, structured as a small-group study with a “make” component; and a how-to manual for church leaders written by the director of Sojourn Arts, a flourishing church ministry in Louisville, Kentucky. There are books centered on biblical art from non-Western countries, like New Zealand, Tonga, and Australia, and on art by racial minorities, as in Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, as well as books that focus on a single biblical symbol (e.g., the cross) or group of narratives (such as those unique to John’s Gospel).

But there are also books that focus on the contemporary art world, encouraging Christians to engage works beyond just those with explicitly Christian content or just those made by Christians.

Several books published this year engage with the ideas of leading early Protestant theologians, like Luther, Calvin, and (later) Kuyper, as they relate to visual art, and one even examines Reformational influences on Michelangelo’s late work. A smorgasbord indeed!

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SONGS:

Today is the seventh day of Christmas—the celebration continues! Here are two fun songs for your listening pleasure.

^^ “Angels We Have Heard on High,” arranged and performed by the Piano Guys: In this unique piano arrangement for eight hands, Jon Schmidt, Al van der Beek, Steven Sharp Nelson, and Paul Anderson strike, pluck, bow, and percuss the instrument, creating a more complex texture than you would expect. All the sounds you hear (except for the voices) are produced by the piano.

^^ “Mongolian Jingle Bells” by Altai Kai: This video shows a Mongolian musical ensemble performing their own rendition of “Jingle Bells” using local instruments—including a yatga (plucked zither), shanz (plucked lute), and morin khuur (bowed horsehead fiddle)—and overtone singing. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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CALL FOR PAPERS: “Art as a Voice for the Church,” Princeton Theological Review: I regret not finding out about this opportunity earlier, as the due date is just a week away, but I’m posting it so that you can be sure to look out for this art and theology–themed issue in the spring!

Graduate students and early-career scholars are invited to submit papers to the spring 2018 edition of the Princeton Theological Review. We welcome papers from various disciplinary perspectives (theology, philosophy, church history, biblical studies, social sciences, etc.) as they relate to the theme of art and the church. How does theology manifest in all different forms of art (painting, poetry, photography, sculpture, music, theater, film, literature, dance, or any other creative endeavors)? How does artistic expression give voice to piety, critique, worship, or spiritual struggle? How has art influenced and been influenced by biblical interpretations, theological movements, historical context, or cultural conditions? Why is art such a powerful medium for Christian expression? All submissions are due January 8, 2018.

The current issue of PTR, released this fall, is on the same topic and is available for free download. Subtitled “A Festschrift for Gordon Graham,” it includes reflections by three leading thinkers on Professor Graham’s latest book, Philosophy, Art, and Religion: Understanding Faith and Creativity, as well as three essays: “Visual Images and Reformed Anxieties: Some Scottish Reflections” by David Ferguson; “The Scandal of the Evangelical Eye” by Matthew J. Milliner; and “God, One and Three—Artistic Struggles with the Trinity” by Gesa E. Thiessen. [HT: millinerd.com]

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COMPANION EXHIBITIONS
October 10, 2017–January 14, 2018
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts”: “In Renaissance Europe, many people looked to nature for spiritual inspiration and to guide their contemplation of the divine. In manuscripts created for personal or communal devotion, elements of nature—such as rocks, trees, flowers, waterways, mountains, and even the atmosphere—add layers of meaning to the illuminations, which were painted with careful observation of every minute detail. These landscapes remind readers to appreciate, and respect, the wonder of creation.” Read more at The Iris, the blog maintained by Getty curators, educators, conservators, and other staff.

“Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice”: “Giovanni Bellini’s evocative landscapes are as much the protagonists of his paintings as are the religious subjects that dominated 15th-century Italian art. One of the most influential painters of the Renaissance, he worked in and around Venice, and while his landscapes are highly metaphorical, they also accurately reflect the region’s topography and natural light. Created for sophisticated patrons, Bellini’s works present characters and symbols from familiar sacred stories, set in a dimension of reality and lived experience to a degree unprecedented in the history of Italian painting.”

Crucifixion (detail) by Giovanni Bellini
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1430–1516), Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist (detail), ca. 1459. Oil and tempera on wood panel. Museo Correr, Venice.

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TEMPORARY INSTALLATION: Yesterday was the last day to see “Nativity Scenes of the World” by Ejti Štih, an installation of thirty culturally diverse, life-size cut-out figures inside the concert hall of Slovenia’s famous Postojna Cave. What a location! Click here for a quick video tour of all the figures.

Nativity by Ejti Stih

Nativity by Ejti Stih

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I’m excited to dig into the new books I got for Christmas! Thanks, family—you’re the best. (And no, Mom, the book-length bibliography of ekphrastic poetry was not a mistake on my wishlist. Yes, really.)

Christmas books

Io, io, io! (Artful Devotion)

Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Mystic Nativity, 1500. Oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

Messenger: Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough. . . .

Heavenly Choir: To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God! And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God! . . .

Shepherds: Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!

—Luke 2:10–12, 14, 16 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Ding Dong Merrily on High” | Music: French dance tune, 16th century | Words: George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1924 | Adapted and performed by Rend Collective, from Campfire Christmas, 2014

Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

[The third verse above, by Rend Collective, replaces the original:
Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your evetime song, ye singers.]

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At the birth of God’s Son, heaven and earth danced. For heaven and earth embrace. All things are filled with divine music, and we too are invited to move our lives with grace, in harmony with divine love.

—Richard Harries, from A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ—Devotional reflections on the Christmas story in art

Do you blame me that I sit hours before this picture?
But if I walked all over the world in the time
I should hardly see anything worth seeing that is not in this picture.

—G. K. Chesterton on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, from his notebooks (mid-1890s)

The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. . . . The real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at.

—Robert Farrar Capon, from The Mystery of Christ . . . And Why We Don’t Get It


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 the Nativity of the Lord, cycle B, click here.