LOOK: The Passion of Mary by Katherine Kenny Bayly
This collage by Katherine Bayly is from the 2006 CIVA traveling exhibition Highly Favored: Contemporary Images of the Virgin Mary. In seven alternating vertical bands, it combines Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre, showing Christ’s birth and death as two sides of the Incarnation coin. One can hear echoes of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35)—a veiled reference to the Crucifixion.
Since the Middle Ages artists have often embedded symbolic or other visual references to Christ’s passion in Nativity paintings—a goldfinch, a coral rosary, a bunch of grapes, a cave that recalls the tomb, swaddling bands that look like burial wrappings, a manger that looks like a sarcophagus or altar, or, more explicitly, angels holding the arma Christi (instruments of the passion). Sometimes artists would use a diptych format to juxtapose images of Mary holding Jesus as a vibrant young infant with her holding him as a pale adult corpse deposed from the cross, a pairing that strikes an emotional tenor, as there’s perhaps no deeper grief than a mother’s loss of a child. Bayly draws on this tradition in The Passion of Mary, foreshadowing a future sorrow and reminding us that Christ came to earth not only to live but also to die.
LISTEN: “Baby Boy” by Rhiannon Giddens, on Freedom Highway (2017)
Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep You will be our savior But until then, go to sleep
Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you While you lead our people to the promised land I will shelter you
Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you When you leave this place to do what you must I will always love you
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Poignantly performed by Rhiannon Giddens [previously], Lalenja Harrington, and Leyla McCalla, “Baby Boy” is a lullaby written in the voice of a mother to her son, her salvation, whom she sings to sleep. She pledges to always watch over, shelter, and support him to the best of her ability.
The subject of the song could be Moses and the speaker his birth mother, Jochebed, as there’s mention of him leading his people to the promised land. This boy will grow up to shepherd a nation into its rest.
Or it could be Jesus, the New Moses, who liberated humanity at large, breaking their bondage to the powers of evil. Remembering the angel’s promise, Mary whispers her grand hopes to this cuddly little bundle she holds who will be their fulfillment, even as she shushes his cries.
Note, though, how there are three voices singing—a trio of women, a sisterhood united in their love of this child and their eager expectation of deliverance. Think of the women who, against all odds, ensured Moses’s protection as a young one and those who later walked alongside him in his difficult calling. Think, too, of all the women who supported Christ throughout his ministry, materially and spiritually, standing by him until the end, mourning his death, and spreading the news of his resurrection. One might imagine this song being sung by the three Marys, for example. They have a faint sense of the danger ahead and know the hero Jesus will become, but for now, they simply wish him sound slumber and sweet dreams. “Until then . . .”
Warning: This post contains distressing photographs, including one of an emaciated child and one of a wounded (but bandaged) infant.
Uğur Gallenkuş (Turkish, 1990–) is an Istanbul-based artist whose digital photomontages address the widening global divide between the privileged and the oppressed. By combining photojournalistic images and stock photos with similar compositional elements, he juxtaposes the relative safety, stability, comfort, and flourishing experienced by middle- and upper-class Westerners with the violence, terror, trauma, and hardship experienced by victims of poverty, war, and displacement. Because Gallenkuş lives in the Middle East, he focuses on that geographic region.
Releasing November 20 in honor of World Children’s Day, Parallel Universes of Children brings together fifty of Gallenkuş’s sobering mash-ups, integrating facts of children’s lived realities around the world. It is $60 plus shipping, available only through the artist’s website. (For US buyers, there’s stock warehoused in New Jersey, so you won’t be paying to ship it from Turkey.)
“I aim to create awareness and inspire action to remember and to ask ourselves every day what we have done to safeguard children’s rights, both near home and across the globe,” Gallenkuş says. He wants not only to alert the well-off to the suffering they often shield themselves from, shaking them out of their complacency, but also to remind those in underdeveloped countries that they deserve better government and education, the right to thrive.
I’ve linked each image to its source on Instagram, where you can find out more information about it—when and where the photograph was taken and by whom (Gallenkuş does not take the photos himself), context, stats, etc. Some of the links will take you to a revised (updated) form of the image; in those instances, the originals I found at Juxtapoze.
The stark contrast between the two component photos of each montage is jolting, intentionally so. Reflecting socioeconomic and political disparities, they tell drastically different stories about childhood. My existence must look like a fairy tale to those who have grown up in war zones or refugee camps.
One of Gallenkuş’s montages shows a lavish bathroom with a chandelier, pristine tiles, and freshly pressed towels next to the remnants of a bathroom whose walls were blown out by an Israeli airstrike, where a father bathes his daughter and niece.
Another one shows a line of American schoolchildren waiting to board a bus, which transforms into a line of Palestinian children waiting to fill jerrycans and bottles with drinking water from public taps at the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in central Gaza Strip. (Many fall sick from the water, whose source is polluted with human waste.)
Consider, too, the differences in play. A child at an IDP camp plays with a toy grenade launcher, while his counterpart plays doctor. A Syrian boy has fun balancing on the barrel of a tank in a pile of wreckage, while opposite him, in a green park, a boy rides a harmless seesaw. The imaginations of children are shaped by what surrounds them, whether that be violence or possibility.
I returned this week from a wonderful arts conference/retreat in the Colorado mountains, a much-needed time to unplug from work and engage with nature, to meet and worship with other Christians from around the country, and to reaffirm my sense of calling to online arts ministry. Eric came with me, so we took a few extra days there for scenic walks and drives, which included the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, the Flatirons, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods. So much beauty! Here’s a charming little stone church we spotted outside Estes Park, built in 1939.
We also visited the Cadet Chapel at the United States Air Force Academy, which I will share about in a separate post.
And as is my practice whenever I visit a new city, I spent time at a local art museum: the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College. The size and quality of its collection exceeded my expectations, with many fine works of Native American (Pueblo, Plains, Plateau, and Great Basin), Hispanic and Spanish colonial, and twentieth-century American art. I particularly loved the santos galleries, which feature religious folk art of the Southwest, including two monumental altarpieces. Below is a retablo (panel painting) and a bulto (sculpture) from the santos tradition.
Patrociño Barela I was not previously familiar with, and I found myself so captivated by his work. (If you are too, be sure to check out this online solo show of his.) I’m not sure whether to interpret his Anuncio de la Nacimiento de Jesus as an Annunciation image, with Gabriel announcing Christ’s conception to Mary, or a Nativity image, seeing as the babe appears to be ex utero—in which case the top figure could be either an angel or God the Father. I can’t identify the object Mary is holding. (A piece of fruit?)
Lastly, here’s a unique Pietà image by the modernist painter Marsden Hartley. Could that be God the Father supporting Christ deposed from the cross? Maybe it’s Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, but I rather like the thought that the Father held his Son in love during this time of his immense suffering and death.
EVENING DISCUSSION: “Idols and Taboos: Modern and Contemporary Art and Theology Today”: This free public event, consisting of two lectures and a panel discussion, will take place May 23, 2019, at 6 p.m. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The presenters are James Elkins, who will be discussing the distance between avowedly religious art and the disciplines of art history, art criticism, art theory, and studio pedagogy, and Thomas Crow, who will be discussing “the generally inverse relationship between grandiosity in a work of art and its intrinsic theological import,” as well as art’s susceptibility to idolatry. A panel discussion will follow, moderated by Professor Ben Quash, and all are invited to gather afterward in the Lobby Bar of the historic Palmer House (across the street) for further socializing and conversation.
SONG:“O Death”: This Easter, CCLI released a video of Kaden Slay, Melanie Tierce-Slay, and Ryan Kennedy of People & Songs performing Stephen Marti’s “O Death,” written in 2017. Those three-part a cappella harmonies are so sweet.
SONG: “How Great Thou Art / Whakaaria Mai”: On March 23, the Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter John Mayer began an extensive world tour at Spark Arena in Auckland, New Zealand. He opened the show quite unexpectedly with “How Great Thou Art,” a tribute to those killed and injured during a terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytimeby Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.
A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.
Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:
Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]
The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:
The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.
The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.
STATION 11.Erica Grimm’s Salt WaterSkin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.
Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.” Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”→
One of the joys of blogging at Art & Theology is being introduced to new artists by my readers. I was pleased to receive in the mail recently, as a gift from one such reader, a color booklet and a 2018 documentary on the art of Dom Gregory de Wit (1892–1978), a Dutch artist and Benedictine monk who between 1938 and 1955 lived in the United States painting murals for Catholic churches and monasteries. This was the first time I’ve encountered the artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him better through these materials.
All photos in this post are provided courtesy of Edward Begnaud or Stella Maris Films.
Gregory was born Jan Aloysius de Wit on June 9, 1892, in Hilversum, Netherlands. He entered the monastic life in 1913 at age twenty-one, joining Mont César Abbey in Leuven, Belgium, and there taking the name Gregory. (His interest in liturgy and ecumenism is what drew him to that particular abbey.) de Wit was passionate about art making since a young age, and his order encouraged him to further develop his talent as a painter. He therefore studied at the Brussels Academy of Art, the Munich Academy, and throughout Italy. In 1923 he exhibited at The Hague and ended up selling forty-five paintings in one month! He then went on to fulfill three sacred art commissions—one in Bavaria, two in Belgium—while continuing to live as a monk.
In 1938, Abbot Ignatius Esser of Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana met de Wit in Europe and invited him to design and execute paintings for the abbey’s church and chapter room—which he gladly accepted.
Here he started to develop his own style, which would come to be marked by brilliant (sometimes garish) colors, bold outlines, distortion or disfiguration (e.g., disproportionate hands), and “overlapping” perspective.
In Christus, Jesus is borne upward by a red-winged chariot. In his right hand he holds a victory wreath, and in his left, an open book that declares, EGO SUM VITA (“I am the Life”). The three small Greek letters in the rays of his halo, a traditional device in Orthodox iconography, mean “I am the Living One,” a New Testament echo of God’s “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14.
Shortly after de Wit arrived in the US, World War II broke out, and even after he completed his work at Saint Meinrad, he couldn’t return to Belgium. Luckily, another stateside commission came his way, from the newly builtSacred Heart Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The parish priest, Father Dominic Blasco, hired him to paint a series of murals, which resulted in de Wit’s most polarizing work: his Christ Pantocrator in the apse behind the altar. Many of the parishioners hated it (and I have to say, I’m not partial to it). A humorous anecdote in the documentary recalls Maria von Trapp, who had once visited the church, expressing her horror at the image to de Wit, not knowing he was its artist!
Not only did de Wit’s art garner dislike, but so did his temperamental personality and sometimes irreverent behavior. For example, while at Sacred Heart, he smoked while he painted, dropping cigarette butts onto the floor during services. Although he did have his supporters, he was eventually fired from Sacred Heart. The last painting he did for the church was of the Samaritan woman at the well—descried as “pornographic” by the sisters of the school because of the suggestive way her dress clings to her forwardly posed thigh.
The painting at Sacred Heart that I’m most intrigued by is the Pietà in the narthex, which shows Mary holding her dead son. Genesis 3 is invoked by the thorns that not only crown Christ’s brow but that rise up all around him, symbolic of the curse. What’s more, a half-bitten apple rolls from his limp hand; he, like his forefather, Adam, has tasted death. And this he did willingly out of love, signified by the fiery, thorn-enwrapped heart of his that he holds in his right hand, whose glow illuminates the darkness.
Because de Wit painted this image during the war, it is contextualized with a soldier on one side and the soldier’s wife and three children on the other, praying for his safe return. Why do they belong in this scene? Some wartime artists drew parallels between Christ and the soldiers’ sacrificial laying down of their lives (cf. John 15:13). I’m uneasy with this comparison for several reasons, not least of which is my Christian pacifism. But de Wit’s painting seems, rather, to use the soldier and his family as a representation of war and to suggest that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, is with us in our present suffering. He entered our world, after all, and died to redeem us from its evils—sin and death and all their extensions. The presence of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, must have been a comfort to the mothers at Sacred Heart whose sons were overseas fighting.
Moreover, even though its hieratic style may be off-putting to some, I also really like the crucifix de Wit created for Sacred Heart (but which is now at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, also in Baton Rouge). The corpus is painted on solid mahogany, with real nails driven through the hands. Continue reading “The Art of Dom Gregory de Wit”→
Typically when scholars interpret African American art, they do so through the primary lens of racial identity, often glossing over overt Christian themes, expressions of religious identity. Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art(Penn State University Press, 2017), edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, seeks to redress that dearth by examining the Christian content, including theological significance, of works by fourteen African American artists who came to maturity between the Civil War and the civil rights era: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., William H. Johnson, James Richmond Barthé, Allan Rohan Crite, Sister Gertrude Morgan, William Edmondson, Horace Pippin, James VanDerZee, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence. Many of these artists were themselves devout Christians, working out of internalized religious convictions and not merely outward tradition or market expectations.
The essayists certainly take race into account as a factor in the works discussed, but not the only factor; political, socioeconomic, and biographical circumstances are also considered. Christianity, however, as the title suggests, is given pride of place in the selection and examination of the fifty-five images reproduced in the book.
One of the hallmarks of Beholding Christ is the diversity of styles, media, and denominational affiliations represented. As the book shows, African American art is no monolith, and neither is African American Christianity. While there is so-called primitive art and visionary art created by self-taught individuals with crayons, cardboard, or salvaged limestone, there is also neo-classical sculpture, as well as other academically informed works that tend toward impressionism or expressionism. Among the pages are rough-hewn stone sculptures, abstract watercolors, naturalistic oil paintings, and portrait photographs. While there are many depictions of Christ as black, there are also, per tradition, white Christs, and even a Middle Eastern one. What was most surprising to me was to see examples of art by African Americans from high-church traditions, like Catholicism and Anglicanism, who distinguish themselves from low-church Baptists, Pentecostals, and Holiness Christians. The editors are to the applauded for resisting the urge to perpetuate a narrow vision of “Negro art” in line with what the artists’ contemporary critics and viewers principally sought.
Another hallmark of the book is the rigorous formal evaluation and content analysis of specific artworks that make up the bulk of almost every essay, encouraging readers to look deeply. Biographical information about the artists is well integrated and does not overwhelm the focus on the works themselves. Given this image-forward approach, I must say, I’m disappointed that a handful of works, for which color photographs should be available, are reproduced in black and white—for example, Motley’s Tongues (Holy Rollers), Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, and Lawrence’s Sermon II and Sermon VII. Luckily these can be found online, but seeing as the entire book is printed in full color with glossy pages, I wonder why color photographs of these were not obtained.
Lastly, I really appreciate the connections between artists made possible by the bringing together of these essays—some made explicitly by the authors, others implied. Douglas and Lawrence both dignified the art of black preaching by visualizing sermons. Crite and Johnson visualized the spirituals, but using very different approaches. Edmondson and Morgan were both motivated by a belief that they were divinely ordained to create by supernatural visions. Episcopal Crite and Catholic Motley intertwined class and religion in their works.
This book is essential reading for anyone in the fields of Christianity and the arts or African American studies. As one belonging to the former category, I see these artworks as part of not only art history but Christian history, and as worthy of being studied by Christians as any theological treatise, written scripture commentary, saint’s biography, or church trend. These artworks teach theology; they encapsulate hopes and fears; they comment on public issues; they expose sin; they lead us in celebration and in lament; they help us to re-member the works of Christ, and invite us into communion with him; they tell us who we are and from whence we’ve come; they cast a biblically grounded vision for the future.
What follows is a brief summary of each chapter.
In chapter 1, Kirsten Pai Buick traces the network of patronage that supported Catholic sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, as well as the multiple geographic moves she made to further her career: from Boston to Rome (1865), Rome to Paris (1893), and Paris to London (1901). Because many of Lewis’s religious works have been lost, little attention is given in this chapter to the art itself; the only art illustration is her conventional-looking Bust of Christ (1870), mentioned cursorily in the text.
In chapter 3, Caroline Goeser examines the seven gouaches Aaron Douglas made in response to James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. These images align biblical narrative with modern black experience to tell socially resonant stories. In its attention to the African Simon of Cyrene, for example, The Crucifixion (1927) promotes an “Ethiopianist” narrative, influenced by the late nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward W. Blyden. Simon looms large as the most prominent figure, heaving Christ’s heavy cross over his shoulders, heroized by his vigorous stride and his active gaze toward God’s light above. Bearing similarities to that of the trudging African American migrant in Douglas’s On de No’thern Road (1926), this pose subtly associates the Great Migration north with the burdensome road to Calvary.
Up Golgotha’s rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.
In chapter 4, Jacqueline Francis examines the dozen or so paintings Malvin Gray Johnson created between 1927 and 1934, the final years of his life, as visual interpretations of Negro spirituals. Modernist in style, these paintings, she says, united old and new and high and popular expressions, helping to revive and elevate this genre of black folk music that saw diminishing audiences during the Great Depression. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928), a night scene painted in thick, dark hues and mounted in a gold lunette frame reminiscent of medieval icons, received the most critical attention in Johnson’s time, eliciting comparisons to Albert Pinkham Ryder. The artist said,
I have tried to show the escape of emotion which the plantation slaves felt after being held down all day by the grind of labor and the consciousness of being bound out. Set free from their tasks by the end of the day and the darkness, they have gone from their cabin to the river’s edge and are calling upon their God for the freedom for which they long. (qtd. 56)
NEW BOOK:ESV Illuminated Bible (2017): In October Crossway released a new Bible illuminated by Seattle-based designer and lettering artist Dana Tanamachi. Printed in two-color (the illuminations are in gold ink), this volume contains one full-page illustration, custom icon, and illuminated drop cap for each book of the Bible, plus hundreds of hand-lettered Bible verses throughout the margins. There are no human figures in any of the illuminations; most consist of flora and fauna—olives, figs, pomegranates, peacocks, lions, lilies, deer, cedar, and so on—derived from the given book. Be sure to check out the book-opener illustration index, and the short video below, in which Tanamachi introduces herself, talks through her process, and explains some of her artistic choices:
“God loves beauty, so we wanted to honor him through this project with something that was beautiful,” says Josh Dennis, Crossway’s senior vice president of creative. “For this edition we really want people to engage with it, so there’s a lot of negative space and wide margins for people to write in it and to do their own Bible journaling.”
This publication comes six years after the release of Makoto Fujimura’s Four Holy Gospels, another illumination project. Fujimura’s is an oversize book with a $150 price point, containing original abstract paintings reproduced in full color alongside the first four books of the New Testament. By contrast, the ESV Illuminated Bible is more wieldy—it has a 6½ × 9 trim size—and less costly ($45), and it contains all sixty-six books. The aesthetic is also much different, as Tanamachi’s influences include art nouveau, the arts and crafts movement, and designers like William Morris and Koloman Moser. [HT: David Taylor]
CHRISTIAN HULA:“‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God): Though reduced to tourist entertainment in some places, Hawaiian hula dancing, in its traditional context, is a form of teaching and worship. Because of its associations with polytheism, the early missionaries denounced it as sinful. Over the last half-century or so, however, most missionaries have changed their stance toward this and other traditional forms of artistic expression—not only in Hawaii, but in whatever their host culture—seeing how such forms can offer more authentic ways for the people to connect to and worship the Christian God.
In the video below, Moani Sitch and ‘Anela Gueco perform a hula noho (“seated hula”) at the 2006 Urbana student missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. It’s to the Christian hymn “‘O ‘Oe ‘Io” (You Are God), originally written in Maori by Luke Kaa Morgan but translated into Hawaiian by Moses Kaho‘okele Crabbe. The sacred name for Creator God—‘Io—is the same in both languages. The lyrics are below. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e makuna lani (You are God, Heavenly Father) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io, ka waiola (You are God, the Living Water) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io, e kumu ola (You are God, the Source of Life) Ka mea hana i na mea apau (The one who has made all things) E ku‘u Haku (My Lord) Ka mauna ki‘eki‘e (Who is the Highest Mountain) ‘O ‘oe ‘Io (You are God)
For a fantastic religious history of Hawaii, see this PDF booklet published by Aloha Ke Akua (“God Is Love”) Ministries. Among the many things I learned is that Hawaiians regard the arrival of Christian missionaries as the fulfillment of their elders’ prophecies that the one true God would one day return to the islands.
“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”
The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.
Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.
Benediction, Version 1
Grace, Version 1
“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.
Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)
Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.
Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.
I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.
But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?
Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.
I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.
Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).
The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.
As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.
So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.
Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.
Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”
Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.
“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”
Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.
Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,”“Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,”“Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.