When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy last 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.
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.
Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 slowly 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. AFashionista 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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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]
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.”
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.
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.)
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!
Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Hosanna in excelsis!
E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.
Hosanna in excelsis!
Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.
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.]
For a fun instrumental version in a more traditional mode, see the album Bright Day Star: Music for the Yuletide Season by the Baltimore Consort:
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.
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.
When wandering around the Duke Divinity School campus this summer, waiting for a conference talk to start, I inadvertently encountered a stunning seven-work cycle of metal panels depicting scenes from the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. They were designed and hand-carved from discarded steel oil drums by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre, who lives in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, ten miles outside Port-au-Prince.
Steel drum sculpting is an art form unique to Haiti, and Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of production, home to dozens of workshops. Once acquiring a drum, the artist first removes the round ends and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves, then sets the leaves on fire to burn off any paint or residue. When the drum cools, the artist makes a cut from top to bottom, then climbs inside and pushes with his legs and arms to open up the metal, which he then pounds into a flat sheet. Next he draws a design onto the metal using chalk, then uses a hammer, chisel, and ice picks to actualize it. To see photos of this process and learn more about it, visit www.haitimetalart.com.
In Sylvestre’s nativity cycle at Duke—a gift from Drs. Richard and Judith Hays—the characters are depicted as native Haitians. Each scene unfolds against a backdrop of curvilinear greenery that is typical of Haitian metalwork.
My favorite of the seven has got to be the Annunciation to the Shepherds; I love the angel’s wild hair and the one shepherd who jumps backward in fear and surprise. I’m also tickled by the smiling sun in the Nativity panel!
Duke Divinity School also owns a fourteen-piece Stations of the Cross cycle by Jean Sylvestre, which is often displayed in the nave of Duke University Chapel during Lent.
Rozhdestvo (The Nativity) (1996), written and directed by Mikhail Aldashin: I am blown away by this wordless animated short from Russia. Using a naive art style washed in sepia tones and set to a soundtrack of Bach and Beethoven, it tells the story of how angels, humans, and animals came together on the first Christmas to worship the newborn Christ. It opens with Gabriel peeking out from behind a tree at Mary hanging laundry, then chasing her down a footpath to tell her what God is up to. For every person and critter he encounters, Gabriel flashes open the book of God’s word, pointing them to the shalom it prophesies and inviting them to enter in. By the end, shepherds, fishermen, kings, rabbits, lambs, and lion are participating in a round dance outside the stable, while an angel orchestra (which includes violins and timpani!) plays from the rooftop.
An emphasis on the sweet humanity of the holy couple—scared, tired, joyful, loving—makes this film especially endearing, and the roles given to animals reminds us that under Christ, all creation will be redeemed. I’m adding this to my annual Christmas watchlist! [HT: ArtWay]
O Little Town of Bethlehem (2012), directed and edited by Tim Parsons: Commissioned by St. Paul’s Arts and Media (SPAM) in Auckland, New Zealand, this film tells the story of Christ’s Nativity through the voices of those who currently live in and around his birthplace of Bethlehem. A Palestinian shepherd, taxi driver, street vendor, midwife, peace activist, and antiquities dealer are among those interviewed, each reflecting on the significance of Christ’s story and providing a window into Middle Eastern culture. Some are Christian, others are Muslim (the Koran has its own account of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus—or Isa, as he is known in that tradition).
Though filmed five years ago, the living conditions captured in this video still exist. The West Bank’s 440-mile wall, built by Israel on seized land, plows through front yards, farms, and university campuses and restricts the movement of Palestinians—to water, work, prayer, and hospitals. Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians have been displaced from their homes and live in refugee camps. The director said he didn’t want to make the film political but that he couldn’t avoid filming these realities. The hopes and prayers expressed by the film’s subjects we should adopt as our own this Christmas as we reflect on the birth of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love two thousand years ago in this little Palestinian town.
“Glory in the Darkest Place” by Brittany Hope: Last December Brittany Hope Kauflin (whose professional name drops the “Kauflin”) wrote “a song for those in darkness this Christmas season,” video-recording it at home with her sister McKenzie and her dad Bob. The outpouring of appreciation she received made her recognize the demand for soft and somber Christmas songs that probe for the light—as for many people, the holidays are characterized more by sadness than by celebration. Now the song is available, along with seven others in the same vein, on the album Glory in the Darkest Place. To read an introduction to the song by Bob Kauflin and/or to download the chord chart, piano score, and lyrics, click here. [HT: Bruce Benedict]
“Hellige Natt” (O Holy Night), arr. Eirik Hegdal, feat. Kirsti Huke: This innovative Norwegian jazz arrangement of the Christmas classic “O Holy Night” is performed inside the medieval Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Jazz Ensemble and the NTNU Chamber Orchestra. An impressive space whose grandeur is matched by this rich, expressive performance. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Goldfinch” by Robert Macfarlane, illuminated by Jackie Morris: Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s critically acclaimed book The Lost Words: A Spell Book, illustrated by Jackie Morris and published this October, is a joyful celebration of the nature words that were dropped from the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Aiming to “enchant nearby nature again” for both kids and adults, it comprises a series of acrostic poems whose main letters are gilded in gold leaf.
I’m pleased to see that Macfarlane’s collaboration with Morris has continued with his latest “Goldfinch”—a “‘charm’ about hope, harm, gift & darkness.” Handwritten over a painting by Morris, the poem begins
God knows the world needs all the good it can get right now—and
out in the gardens, the woods, goldfinches are gilding the land for free,
leaving little gifts of light . . .
The piece is reproduced in the latest issue of Elementum Journal, and the original has sold. Hear Morris read the poem in the SoundCloud player above.
Click here to read an interview with Macfarlane and Morris on the making of The Lost Words, and here to read Macfarlane’s response to a 2002 study that found that four- to eleven-year-old Brits are better at identifying Pokémon characters than native species of plants and animals, like oak tree and badger. Also, check out his other books, like Landscape, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, The WildPlaces, and Mountains of the Mind.
Many of the artworks and resources I share on these roundup posts I discover through the individuals, organizations, or publications I follow on social media or via RSS. If I’m not introduced to the content directly by its maker, I will try to indicate an “HT” credit, shorthand for “hat tip,” meaning thank you, X, for bringing this to my attention! All descriptions and commentary, however, are my own, unless set in quote marks.
SONG: “O Children, Come”by Keith and Kristyn Getty: The Gettys are an Irish married couple who are major contributors to the modern Christian hymn-writing movement. I really enjoyed singing this song of theirs at church last week (CCLI 7036340); it was my first time hearing it. The acoustic performance below is from the Gettys’ 2015 Christmas concert. They’ve also recorded it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
PHOTO ESSAY: “Alternative Nativity”: Kezia M’Clelland works with children affected by conflict in the Middle East and raises public awareness through her blog, Kezia Here and There. In 2015 she compiled news photos that document the refugee crisis and set them to excerpts from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and the prologue to St. John’s Gospel—a very powerful pairing that gives impetus to our Advent cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is not a generic mashup; each photo was carefully selected to amplify a corresponding scripture text.
For each subsequent Advent, M’Clelland has released something in a similar vein: the video “Hope Is on the Way” in 2016, and this year, “Light in the Darkness,” with verses of scripture, mainly from the Old Testament prophets, emblazoned across photos from today’s Middle East. “This year again these Advent pictures and words will speak of a hope that is now and not yet,” she writes. “I am grateful that Advent gives us the freedom to weep and to hope, to rejoice and to grieve, to wait for and to recognise the Christ who is already here among us.”
Marrying the Christmas story with contemporary photojournalism can teach us to “pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” as the popular adage goes. As we see the world’s brokenness, it should intensify our fervor for Christ’s shalom and impel us to action.
UPCOMING MUSIC & ART EVENT: “Messiaen and the Incarnation,”December 20, 8 p.m., St. Mary’s Addington, London: Next Wednesday evening, Dr. Edward Forman will be performing three movements each from the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) and piano suite Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus). Messiaen was a committed Christian who sought to express theological truths in a fresh, modern idiom. Like much of his output, these two works reject the Western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution, so they can be difficult for first-time hearers. But this complexity, this sense of the unexpected, is appropriate for the mystical content they seek to convey.
Inspired by the unique palette of sounds, textures, and rhythms of Nativité, British artist Sophie Hacker translated these into visual form. After deeply studying the music, in 2007 she created nine mixed-media panels in response—one for each movement—using slats of wood, nails, lead, wire, tree bark, and other found objects; you can see some of her process in the video below. These premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2008. Then again in 2015 Hacker participated in another Messiaen-inspired artistic collaboration, under the direction of pianist Cordelia Williams, with poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams. This project is called “Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015.”
To guide us through the listening experience, St. Mary’s will be projecting Hacker’s artworks onto a screen during the playing, and interspersing it with poetic reflections on the theological themes—from the Bible, Messiaen, Roland Riem (Icons of the Incarnation), and other sources. “We think it is equally pointless to try to explain Messiaen’s music in words as to attempt a sensible account of what it means for God to become human,” writes Forman in the booklet that will be provided to attendees. “We hope that the visual effects, words and music will enhance each other in ways that are inspiring and provoking.”
Messiaen’s compositions are definitely more challenging than the standard Christmas music fare, so I am grateful that St. Mary’s has the boldness, vision, and talent to offer them to the public, and in the meaningful context (which you likely won’t get in the concert hall) of meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.
ARTIST PROFILE: Zaki Baboun: Zaki Baboun is a Palestinian Christian artist living in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He paints religious scenes in oils on olive wood, which you can browse and purchase here—either the originals or reproductions on Christmas cards.
The first video below contains a short, two-minute interview with Zaki and shows him painting TheJourney of the Magi; the second shows him painting The Good Shepherd.
ALBUM: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby by Waterdeep: I saw the world premiere of this nativity musical last summer in New York (read my review here), and it really helped shepherd my imagination into a deeper understanding of Mary and Joseph’s social and emotional realities. Now the album is out! The songs express the many ups and downs the Holy Couple likely underwent in their faith journeys to bring the Messiah into the world, with the theme of deliverance standing in highest relief. (Mary’s opening song, “I Want to Be Delivered,” is what spurs, much to her shock, the Annunciation, and the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” draws everyone into a joyful reminiscence of God’s mighty hand in ages past, manifest in the present through the birth of the Christ child.) Comedy is provided through invented characters like Joseph’s friend Benjamin, the innkeeper and his wife, and a shepherd named Naphtali.
The most poignant scene, for me—and hence probably my favorite song—is the “Magnificat.” The biblical account doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s state of mind at this point, so the writers imagine her coming to Elizabeth filled with fear, and Elizabeth building her up, preaching truth to her (and sharing her own story of shame), helping her move from doubt to confidence. Elizabeth’s song is what emboldens Mary to sing. Their “Magnificat” is later reprised by the full cast immediately following Christ’s birth, concluding part 1.
The new album is not an original cast recording; instead the songs were recorded by their writer, Don Chaffer, and his wife, Lori, and released under the Waterdeep moniker. Stream on Spotify; sample and purchase at Amazon or iTunes.