A Little East of Jordan (Artful Devotion)

Redon, Odilon_Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, ca. 1905–10. Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 × 24 1/2 in. (143.5 × 61.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

—Genesis 32:22–31 (KJV)

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SONG: “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob” | Text by Emily Dickinson, ca. 1859 | Music by Dominic de Grande, 2017 | Performed by St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir, under the direction of Tom Wilkinson, on Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, 2018 [listen on SoundCloud]

This choral composition was commissioned in 2016 as part of the TheoArtistry project [previously] of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the aim of which is to reinvigorate dialogues between theologians and practicing artists. Emerging theologians from St. Andrews’ divinity school were paired with composers under the guidance of Sir James Macmillan to create six new choral settings of Hebrew Bible “annunciations,” communications of God to humankind. The collaborations are mutually beneficial: composers who may have no Christian background or no formal theological training but who want to contribute to the landscape of modern sacred music or seek out new lyrical content in the Bible are provided with textual exegesis and consultation by those who are learned in the fields of theology and biblical studies, and on the other hand theologians have Bible passages opened up to them in new ways through music, helping them to engage the texts on a more experiential level. Creative inspiration on both sides! Dr. George Corbett, director of TheoArtistry and an ITIA lecturer, says the St. Andrews divinity school wants composers and other artists to use them as a resource.

Dominic de Grande was one of six composers selected from an applicant pool of about a hundred to write a choral piece approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir. He was assigned Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match and was partnered with theologian Marian Kelsey, who oriented him to the ambiguity of the Genesis 32 narrative, the Hebrew wordplay, and the narrative’s appropriations in liturgy, literature, and visual art. De Grande chose to set Emily Dickinson’s poem on the subject, “A little East of Jordan”:

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Because the tone of the poem is light and playful, de Grande scored it in the context of a grandmother telling the story to her grandchild at bedtime; he titled the composition “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob,” the word Savta being Hebrew for “grandmother.” It starts off gently, lilting, with a harmonic underpinning consisting of three chords. But, as Kelsey pointed out, the biblical text evokes a sense of danger and intensity, so after Dickinson’s third stanza, de Grande inserted a fragment from Genesis—“LET ME GO, FOR DAY IS BREAKING”—spoken by Jacob’s mysterious opponent. It’s sung as a burst of voices and organ, the latter six syllables introducing six new chords, evoking a sense of otherness. This demand forms a juxtaposition with the sweet, innocuous language of Dickinson’s angel, who politely asks permission to break for mealtime. After the interjection the piece returns to its gentler tone, as dawn dispels the “silver fleeces” of cloud and Jacob sits in the aftermath of the encounter. The human whistling throughout suggests something of the numinous.

Annunciations (ITIA book)

To learn more about the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, check out Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century (2019), an open-source book available for free download as a PDF or for purchase in other formats. The book includes reflections on the collaboration process and other aspects of the project by all twelve participating theologians and composers (plus full scores! and links to audio) as well as chapters by various contributors on sacred music in worship settings versus secular settings, the theology of music, the vocation of the composer, moments of divine encounter in the ancient Near East, Mary as a model for creative people, the Gospel canticles in church liturgies, and more.

You can also watch this twenty-minute behind-the-scenes documentary:

The other “annunciations” in the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme are God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Elijah and the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), and the Song of Songs 3:6–11.

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For an Artful Devotion from last year on this same biblical text, see “Wrestling Jacob”; it features a contemporary woodcut illustration from a German Bible and one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, with music from the shape-note tradition.

For theologically informed commentary by Natalie Carnes [previously] on three modern artworks of Jacob wrestling the angel, see The Visual Commentary on Scripture.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 13, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: “. . . circle through New York,” New Zealand chapel, animating the Beast, phantasmagoric Head of Christ, biblical cities song cycle

Gonzalez-Torres at St. Philip's Church, Harlem
In March 2017, the “. . . circle through New York” project brought Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1991 work Untitled (Public Opinion)—a large pile of individually wrapped licorice candies, available for viewers to take and eat—from the Guggenheim to St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. St. Philip’s, in turn, lent out its call to social justice, which will rotate among the project’s five other participating venues.

“. . . circle through New York” project: What a clever way to foster relationships and spread cultural wealth! “In their new project A talking parrot, a high school drama class, a Punjabi TV show, the oldest song in the world, a museum artwork, and a congregation’s call to action circle through New York, artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin create a complex system of social and material exchange that brings together city communities often separated by cultural, economic, geographic, or circumstantial boundaries. The artists have drawn an imaginary circle through Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side and invited six public venues along the circle’s path to participate in a system of social and material exchange. These spaces, which include a pet store, a high school, a TV network, an academic research institute, the Guggenheim, and a church, serve as the project’s cocreators and hosts. The artists worked with the venues to select aspects of their identities—referenced in the project’s full title—that will rotate among the six locations over a period of six months.” Commissioned as part of the Guggenheim Social Practice initiative, the project is now in its second month and will wrap up in August.

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“The Shimmering Glory of a Modern Indigenous New Zealand Chapel”: Completed in 1961, the Futuna Chapel in Wellington is, according to architect Nick Bevin, “New Zealand’s most significant building of the twentieth century.” Influenced by elements of wharenui (Maori meetinghouses), it was designed by John Scott, the country’s first university-trained Maori architect, as part of a retreat center for the Catholic Marist Brothers, and was built by volunteers from the order. Auckland artist Jim Allen was hired to design the acrylic glass windows, a Stations of the Cross frieze, and several mosaics, and to sculpt a crucifix for the main altar. The Society of Mary had to sell the retreat center in 2000 for financial reasons; the Futuna Trust has been formed to protect the chapel from demolition, but not before the surrounding land was turned into a townhouse development. The chapel is now deconsecrated, serving as host to lectures, concerts, and other events. Many great photos of its interior and exterior can be viewed at the link above, or, for further study, check out the recent book Futuna: Life of a Building.

Futuna Chapel
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, designed by John Scott. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic
Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand
Main altar of Futuna Chapel, Wellington, New Zealand, showing a mahogany crucifix and rough-hewn granite slab altar by Jim Allen. Photo: Claire Voon/Hyperallergic

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Disney animator Glen Keane on spiritual transformation: Last month’s theatrical release of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast has sparked renewed interest in the 1991 animated classic. On one of the special features of the DVD/Blu-ray release of the animated version, I was fascinated to hear that Glen Keane—who animated the original Beast along with Ariel, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Rapunzel, and many other beloved Disney characters—is a Christian whose own story of spiritual transformation was the driving inspiration, for him, behind the Beast’s transformation sequence at the end of the movie. (Visual influences included Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and Michelangelo’s slave sculptures.) In an interview, Keane described his approach to animating this climactic moment:

For me, it’s really an expression of my spiritual life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” I wrote that on my exposure sheet there as I’m drawing this, because it’s really about an inner spiritual transformation that’s taking place with the Beast. And I saw it as a parable of my own life—that I got to express that. It was sincere, it was real for me. It was very real for the prince. I don’t know that there’s ever an illustration more clear as to what really can take place in a person’s life spiritually than this animated character transforming from an animal to the prince.

(Update, 6/6: Thank you to Chris S. at Green Egg Media for alerting me to a series of biblically inspired children’s books by Glen Keane, Adam Raccoon. Also check out the Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast interview with Keane on faith and art or, for a shorter segment on the same topic, his First Person interview. Both were recorded this spring.)

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“The Dark of Doubt Dispelled: Odilon Redon’s Day appears at last . . .: On March 26 I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on one of Odilon Redon’s lithographs. Showing the head of Christ haloed by the sun, his crown of thorns disentangling, it’s the last in a suite of twenty-four prints inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s novel/drama The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Day appears at last . . . and in the very disk of the sun shines face of Jesus Christ (detail), 1896. Lithograph on chine appliqué, from Redon’s third Temptation of Saint Anthony portfolio, published by Ambroise Vollard, Paris.

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Cities, a five-song cycle by Jonathon Roberts: “I have a personal goal of setting the whole Bible to music,” writes Jonathon Roberts. “The Bible is the starting point for most of my projects, regardless of the style. I connect best with a passage of Scripture when I explore it artistically. The challenge has led me down some interesting roads musically and lyrically, since the subject matter doesn’t always fit in a nice box.” Cities is Roberts’s most recent work; it’s a chamber-pop song cycle personifying the biblical cities of Bethlehem, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the “New City” described in Revelation. Listen to “Bethlehem,” inspired by Micah 5:2, below, and the rest here. The whole piece is a lot of fun!

 

Roberts’s interest in deepening his and others’ engagement with the Bible led him to found, with Emily Clare Zempel, the organization Spark and Echo Arts, which commissions works of visual art, music, theater, poetry, fiction, dance, and film that respond directly to scripture. Its aim is to “illuminate” the entire Bible, using various art forms, by 2020, creating a platform and framework for artists to explore this ancient sacred text, as well as a rich resource for the church. Look out for a major web redesign, to launch in the next few months.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon

 

French painter, printmaker, and draftsman Odilon Redon (1840–1916) belonged to the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. A reaction against Realism, Symbolism emphasizes the spiritual reality that underlies the physical world and therefore favors dreamlike imagery and mysterious figures. The Gothic stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe were a major influence.

Redon is perhaps best known for his noirs: visionary works of charcoal or lithography done in shades of black, which include subjects like smiling spiders, eyeball balloons, and disembodied heads. But in addition to these, he also worked with vivid pastels and oil paints.

Although he wasn’t a Christian, Redon was attracted to the figure of Christ, especially because of the dual essence ascribed to him: both human and divine. Several of his works dwell on this mystery, among them his noir drawing Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns—one of my favorite all-time images of Jesus.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns, 1895. Charcoal, black pastel, and black crayon heightened with white on buff paper, 52.2 × 37.9 cm. British Museum, London.

Here Jesus’s pathos-filled gaze confronts the viewer directly from underneath a thicket of thorns. Whereas traditionally the crown his mockers gave him is depicted as a thinly woven band of evenly spaced prickles, here the crown is vast, unwieldy, chaotic—anything but dainty. In her excellent article “Tears, Veils, Thickets: Odilon Redon’s Representations of Christ,” Sedona Heidinger describes the thorns in this drawing as “gratuitous, unnecessarily vicious. . . . [The crown is] threatening and animate, snaking down to cover [Christ’s] chest with its barbs.”

Redon’s multiple treatments of this classic subject—Christ Crowned with Thorns—are haunting and mystical in a way that was unprecedented. In his interpretations, the thorns maintain an active presence. They are not a passive ornament.

Head of Christ by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Christ, 1887. Lithograph, 33 × 27 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Take, for example, his Christ lithograph of 1887. The thorns—“glinting like so many blades,” in Heidinger’s words—attack Christ from various angles. The most dynamic element of the portrait, Heidinger notes, is the diagonal that seems to spear the left side of Christ’s forehead and exit underneath his right ear, giving the impression that he is being skewered. As in the previously discussed Head of Christ, the eyes are extraordinarily expressive, deep wells of emotion. Here, though, they gaze upward, not outward. This could indicate a silent plea to the Father to make it stop, or else an anticipation of being reunited with him.  Continue reading “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”