Roundup: Frederick Buechner on the arts, contemporary art as spiritual discipline, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: September 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-song lineup includes a tango, a Pentecostal praise song, a playful setting of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A number one, an Americana lament for hard times, a Negro spiritual on sax, Christina Rossetti, guitar evangelist Mother McCollum with a unique Jesus metaphor (!), a 9/11-inspired interfaith prayer that I will write about in a separate post, and songs in Turkish (“Kutsal, Kutsal, Kutsal Allah” = Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God) and Sepedi (“Modimo re boka wena” = God, we praise you).

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LECTURE (AUDIO): “God’s Thumbprint” by Frederick Buechner: Ordained minister and Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–nominated author Frederick Buechner died August 15 at age ninety-six. He was a wonderful writer (of both fiction and spiritual nonfiction) and preacher, and I hear him quoted all the time. He once summed up the theme of all his work as “Listen to your life.”

In 1992 Buechner spoke for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about how “art and religion are twin expressions of the human spirit.” Discussing poetry, painting, and music, he shows how the arts help us to pay attention. Listen to the talk, “God’s Thumbprint,” on FFW’s Rewrite Radio podcast. It is an expansion of the “Art” entry Buechner wrote in his book Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (1988); read the full excerpt here.

Rembrandt_Old Woman Praying
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Old Woman Praying, 1629–30. Oil on gilded copper, 15.5 × 12.2 cm. Residenzgalerie Salzburg, Austria. This is one of the many careworn, lived-in elderly faces Rembrandt painted.

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LECTURE (VIDEO): “Difficult Beauty: Contemporary Art as Spiritual Discipline” by James K. A. Smith: In its content selection and development, the arts quarterly Image, says editor in chief James K. A. Smith, resists both nostalgia (old is better) and progressivism (new is better), charting a third way that he calls “archaic avant-garde.” The journal’s focus is on contemporary art, but contemporary art funded by tradition. Most of the writers and artists they feature see the tradition of religious art as a gift and a launchpad.

In this lunchtime Zoom talk from May 19, 2021, Smith considers why contemporary art so often feels alienating. He focuses on painting, giving a brief history of the onset of modernism in that medium, starting with the impact of photography, which pushed painters beyond the representation of objective reality. He shares compelling quotes by art critic Peter Schjeldahl and philosopher John Carvalho, about how we look and when thinking happens. Smith discusses the need for humility—to be comfortable with the not-knowing, to surrender our desire for mastery and control (i.e., demanding that paintings explain themselves).

What if the art that first alienates us is the art that might also stretch us? Or what if the literature that’s intimidating might also be the literature that has the possibility to kind of break us open in new ways, open us up to others, and even open us up to God? What if the difficulty of contemporary art is a virtue? And what if experiencing that difficulty is actually what we need? (12:42)

Daniel Domig (Canadian/Austrian, 1983–), Prayer Invites Chaos, 2019. Oil on mixed fibers, 75 × 59 in. [artist’s website]

The last twenty minutes consists of Q&A and addresses icons, art as propaganda, whether and how to engage art that comes out of a place of despair, and more.

I admit that I find much of contemporary art difficult, often unpleasantly so. A few readers have requested that I feature more abstract art, but I struggle to know how to talk about it. But I do want to learn. Image helps me do that.

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ESSAY: “Venice Undone” by Matthew J. Milliner: A core publication of Cardus, Comment magazine is committed to “the difficult work of being faithfully present in culture.” This summer they published an essay by art historian Matthew Milliner reflecting on the Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer exhibitions at the 59th Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s largest and most significant recurring events.

Milliner discusses one of Kapoor’s convex sculptures in Vantablack—a nanotech coating so dark that it absorbs 99.8 percent of visible light—which, in its staging at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, dialogues with three Marian icons and a ceiling painting of God the Father; Sky Mirror in the Accademia courtyard (see also Jonathan A. Anderson’s Instagram post on this piece); Shooting into the Corner; and The Healing of St. Thomas.

Photo by Matthew Milliner
At the 59th Venice Biennale, the Infant Christ from Paolo Veneziano’s Madonna and Child Enthroned (1320s) seems to bless one of Anish Kapoor’s “voids,” a black-painted work that appears flat when viewed head-on but whose convexity becomes apparent when viewed from the side. Photo: Matthew J. Milliner.

In part 2 of the essay, Milliner considers how the Kiefer show at the Doge’s Palace critiques Venice’s history of military conquest, replacing Titian’s The Conquest of Zara (1584) with an image of an empty tomb that evokes Jesus’s conquest over death. Apocalyptic themes have long been noted in Kiefer’s work; Milliner sees in particular traces of St. Paul and an interrogation of historic Venice’s bombastic displays of wealth and splendor, which are not lasting. And of course there’s the Jacob’s ladder motif. For a silent video tour of the exhibition, see here.

Kiefer, Anselm_Venice Biennale 2022
Anselm Kiefer (German, 1945–), These writings, when burned, will finally give some light, site-specific exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Sala dello Scrutinio, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Prompted in part by their use of darkness, Kapoor and Kiefer have been read by some scholars through a lens of despair, but Milliner looks with eyes of hope and sees plenitude and light.

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SONG: “Jordan” by Jana Horn: One of Art & Theology’s subscribers sent this to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I definitely find it intriguing, if a bit unsettling. A song from Jana Horn’s debut solo album, Optimism (2022), which Pitchfork calls “cryptic, bewildering, and daringly simple.” “Jordan” is full of veiled biblical allusions and touches on themes of pilgrimage, belief, destruction, incarnation, and burden bearing. I share it here in the spirit of Jamie Smith’s talk above, about not needing to nail down meaning in an artwork—even though I can’t help but ask, “Just who are the two dialogue partners?!” (God the Son and God the Father?)

Horn is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and a fiction-writing graduate student at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville.

HENI Talks (short art history videos)

Launched in April 2018, HENI Talks is a growing catalogue of short films on art, narrated by experts. The project was prompted by the 2016 announcement by the AQA exam board in England that they would be dropping art history A-levels, meaning that the subject would no longer be taught in high schools. Although the course was saved at the last minute, it rang alarm bells for the international art services business HENI, who decided they wanted to help bring art history more fully into the digital age, to make it accessible to a wider public. They assembled a dedicated team of producers, researchers, editors, and camera operators and shot twenty-five videos on location on a range of art history topics, interviewing leading artists, curators, and academics. For these efforts HENI Talks won Apollo Magazine’s 2018 Digital Innovation Award.

I first encountered them through their video “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees” and was super-impressed by the high production values. That close-up photography! Makes a huge difference in experiencing art online.

Since then they have been steadily adding new videos, which average about ten minutes each. These include breakdowns of movements/styles, like abstract expressionism, brutalism, and land art, as well as videos focused on single artists or artworks or even themes, such as “The Bed in Art: From Titian to Emin.”

The emphasis is on modern and contemporary art—Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Maurizio Cattelan, Paula Rego, Louise Bourgeois, Glenn Ligon, and so on. And art in British collections. I, of course, am particularly drawn to the videos that feature biblical or liturgical art. My favorites are below.

“Pisa Pulpit: ‘Judge by the correct law!’,” presented by Jules Lubbock: This video examines the seven-hundred-year-old marble relief sculptures of the life of Christ carved by Italian Gothic artist Giovanni Pisano into the pulpit of Pisa Cathedral. (The piece Lubbock looks at is actually a plaster cast of the pulpit, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.)

“Emotional Enigma in the Sculpture of Michelangelo,” presented by Alison Cole: “Michelangelo’s most well-known works exist on a colossal scale, from his formidable statue of David to the High Renaissance frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, his art could also be tender and lyrical, dwelling upon the inherent tensions of the human condition. Art Historian Alison Cole examines one such example, the Taddei Tondo (c.1504-1505) – the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in a British collection. Cole provides a rich insight into the artist’s life, influences and unique approach to sculpture.” The tondo portrays the Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist.

“Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel: Devotion and Destruction,” presented by Paul Binski: “Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel was one of the most splendid artistic and architectural achievements of medieval England. The Catholic chapel’s lavishly painted sculpture and stained glass, devoted to the Virgin Mary, moved pilgrims to a religious frenzy. But when Protestants began to call for a ‘purer’ vision of the Christian faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, this same quality triggered repulsion. During the hundred years of the English Reformation, the chapel was scraped, scrubbed and smashed of its extravagance.

“Art historian Paul Binski believes it is possible to recover the Lady Chapel’s former opulence in the imagination. His talk gives an insight into the psychology behind Ely’s splendour, and the idea that art can be so powerful as to provoke violence – something we still see in headlines today.”

“Art & Soul at St Paul’s Cathedral,” presented by Sandy Nairne: “How does art ‘wake up the soul’? There is perhaps no better place to explore this theme than St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. Art historian Sandy Nairne walks through the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, pointing out how artists have responded to the sanctity of this historic space. He describes how early commissions by the Cathedral aimed to sustain belief in Christian worshippers, and how modern and contemporary artists including Henry Moore, Bill Viola and Mark Wallinger, have tried to express spirituality in a more secular age.”

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There’s also a HENI Talk written and narrated by the art critic Julian Spalding, called “Faith and Doubt in Art” and released in May 2019, but I feel it doesn’t do justice to its title, and it advances an overly simplistic narrative that is misleading in places and confusing in others. I know it’s difficult to bring nuance to such a vast topic in just twelve minutes, and that under such constraints, generalizations are inevitable. The video is mainly about representational art versus abstract art, and in particular the effect of modernity on Western art. Spalding posits that the age of scientific discovery that we call “the Enlightenment” was actually a time of spiritual darkening, where people ceased believing that the world was beautiful or had meaning, and this in turn produced an art of doubt and worry—“a nightmare vision of the world” exemplified by Goya and culminating in Munch’s The Scream (“the very end of the Christian tradition,” Spalding says).

The Enlightenment did, of course, cause faith crises for many, and this shaken worldview was reflected in the work of some artists. But I want to note that doubt is not incompatible with Christian faith, nor is an awareness of the world’s horrors or a dedication to science. In fact, many Enlightenment scientists were devout Christians who were impelled further in their research by their very belief in God and that the universe is ordered and contains mysteries to be discovered. And artists, even within the Christian tradition, have always been attuned to the darker aspects of life and had fears and anxieties surrounding sickness, violence, and sex, for example, which in medieval Europe could be expressed through portrayals of particular biblical narratives and saints’ lives. Some of the most gruesome artistic imaginings of hell were inspired by real-life tortures that were taking place at the time. Distorted forms and the grotesque are not unique to modern art, and their use was and is not a sure indicator of a nihilistic attitude or a rejection of a good creator-God.

So while Spalding’s account of art history as relates to the Christian faith is widely accepted, it’s important to remember that things weren’t quite so linear or across-the-board. And art can be “dark,” hold tensions, or pose questions and still be faithful to Christianity.

Puzzlingly, Spalding uses Rembrandt as an early example of religious doubt, noting that the tonality of his works got darker and darker, as if that signified a dissolving faith. Spalding reads into Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, in which he portrays himself in a nonidealized manner, a questioning whether God really created him, imperfect as he is. I, on the other hand, see in these portraits a man owning his own brokenness and frailties, bringing them into the light.

Spalding also makes a few inaccurate statements in the video, like that all Islamic art is abstract (what about the magnificent traditions of Persian [Iranian], Ottoman [Turkish], and Mughal [Indian] miniature painting?) and that Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ represents “a man turning into a god” (no, Christians believe Jesus had always been both fully man and fully God; his anointing in the Jordan signified the start of his earthly ministry).

He ends by stating that in the modern period, as more and more people rejected the idea of a Creator, representation ceased to have meaning and Western art became abstract, much like that in the rest of the world. He compares, for example, an abstract expressionist painting with Islamic architecture, noting how they both express transcendence and mystery (he doesn’t have time to discuss their foundational differences, however). I would argue that while abstraction is a perfectly valid approach, representation in its own way can also express mystery. Take, for example, icons.

I would also add that there’s a huge difference between believing that life has no meaning and believing that that meaning cannot be represented. I think Spalding would agree—the video just doesn’t make that clear.

Spalding makes a very important point when he says that in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc., the “source of spirituality” (Truth) is invisible, and similarly, Judaism and Islam say you can’t visualize God, whereas Christianity says that the source and object of our faith, Jesus Christ, God the Son, did make himself visible and is therefore representable, and that belief very much influenced the trajectory of Western art.

My biggest concern with Spalding’s talk is that it doesn’t come full circle to acknowledge the “return of religion” in contemporary art—as Jonathan Anderson (see here), among other art historians and critics, have shown—nor does it address the comeback that representational art has been making in recent years, and in fact among Black artists by and large, it never really went away.

Now I’ve Seen It All (Artful Devotion)

Simeon in the Temple by Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Simeon in the Temple, 1669. Oil on canvas, 98.5 × 79.5 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Candlemas, celebrated every year on February 2, commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the temple forty days after his birth, according to Jewish custom (Luke 2:22–40). While there, the Holy Family encountered Simeon, an elderly man, “righteous and devout,” who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Though weak and tired with age, he was told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before laying eyes on the messiah of his people, and he banked on that promise. When the Spirit led him to the temple that day, he beheld the baby Jesus and knew instantly that this was the One he had been waiting for—and not only him, but the whole world. He took the child in his arms and sang this canticle, known in church tradition as the “Nunc dimittis” (“Now you dismiss . . .”):

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel. (vv. 28–32)

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SONG: “Until My Dying Day Has Come” by Carl-Eric Tangen, from Incarnation Hymns (2008)

 

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Probably Rembrandt’s last painting, Simeon in the Temple was found unfinished on an easel in his studio when he died. It depicts this enlightening moment from Luke 2, in which Simeon recognizes the Christ and exults—quietly, gratefully—in his salvation. The woman in the shadows, thought to be a later addition by another’s hand, is probably the prophetess Anna, though some suppose her to be Mary.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, cycle B, click here.

ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker

Last summer when participating in a two-week Calvin College seminar, I was providentially assigned to room with Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker, a sculptor and printmaker who lives, as it so happens, just an hour south of me! Peggy’s enthusiasm—for God, for life, for art—is infectious. She possesses such deep joy, and yet she feels so deeply the hurts of the world. She is attentive, as all good artists must be. “I feel called as an artist to bear witness to the world I see around me and also to the ways I understand that world,” Peggy wrote in an ArtWay feature. “This yields not only images of beauty and tenderness, but also images of suffering and terror.” She regards her art as a means of prayer.

The recipient of numerous church and seminary commissions, Peggy majors on religious and social justice themes. Her sculpture Mary as Prophet won a 2016 honor award from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture. In addition to maintaining a studio practice and doing shows, Peggy serves as an adjunct instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary, teaching such courses as “Encountering Scripture through the Visual Arts” and “The Artist as Theologian.” She also writes for various publications, including ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies and the Anglican Theological Review, and collaborated on the book project Who Are You, My Daughter? Reading Ruth through Image and Text. She is currently working on a Saint Andrew sculpture group. To learn more about Peggy and view more of her work, visit her website, www.margaretadamsparker.com.

By way of further introduction, here is an essay Peggy wrote ten years ago for the book Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 158–66. It is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

“Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More”

by Margaret Adams Parker

To be honest, I’ve never thought much about heaven, at least in any systematic fashion. I was interested enough to pick up, at some point, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis’s allegory of heaven and hell. And I’ve been known to joke about my expectations that heaven had better have a comprehensively stocked art studio, as well as a fabulous bookstore.

But in looking back though many years of making art and also teaching about art at a Christian seminary, I’ve unearthed a great deal about heaven, although not in the expected places. I haven’t glimpsed heaven among the many imagined depictions, ranging from medieval woodcuts to the visual speculations of twentieth-century outsider artists. I’m simply not drawn to “visionary” images. These are not the kinds of images I make. Instead, my image of heaven is distinctly negative (theologians would call it apophatic). I have no vision of what heaven is like. But I have seen, and I have also made, pictures of what heaven is not.

I am a concrete thinker, and so my art is earthbound, far from visionary. I’ve always understood the incarnational nature of Christianity as a charge to take seriously life in this world. What’s more, my two great artistic mentors—Rembrandt and Käthe Kollwitz—were rarely given to visions. Rather, their work was grounded in the physical, spiritual, and social realities of life. Such symbols as they used (most notably Kollwitz’s use of the skeleton to represent death) served to underscore their understanding of human existence as it is. They recorded moments as small as a child learning to walk and as momentous as war or revolution. Even when picturing the incarnation, that most heavenly of earthly events, both artists showed the miracle taking place in a tangible human setting.

Consider some of these two artists’ characteristic images. Rembrandt’s drawings testify powerfully to his all-encompassing interest in the life around him. He depicted everyone he saw—beggars and merchants, rabbis and serving girls—with the same probing yet sympathetic scrutiny. His drawings of his wife Saskia constitute a particularly poignant record: we watch as she endures four pregnancies, suffers the deaths of three infants, and finally dies at thirty, a short nine years after their betrothal. We glimpse her first in a silverpoint drawing (1633), made the week of their engagement. In this love poem in line, Rembrandt shows us a winsome young woman, resting her cheek lightly against her hand, dangling in her other hand one of the flowers that also adorn her straw hat. In a pen and ink drawing made four years later (1637), Saskia lies in bed, supporting her head heavily on her hand, staring out with a weary and resigned expression. And in the image that Rembrandt sketched on a tiny etching plate the year Saskia died (1642), she has become an old woman, worn, gaunt, and desperately ill.

Portrait of Saskia as a Bride
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Portrait of Saskia as a Bride, 1633. Silverpoint on parchment, 18.5 × 10.7 cm (7 3/10 × 4 1/5 in.). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. Inscription (trans.): “This was portrayed after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were married. June 8, 1633.”

Saskia in Bed
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Saskia in Bed, ca. 1637. Pen and brown ink, 8.4 × 10.4 cm (8 3/10 × 10 1/10). British Museum, London.

Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress by Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress (Saskia), ca. 1642. Etching with touches of drypoint, 6 × 5.1 cm (2 3/8 × 2 in.).

Käthe Kollwitz’s imagery is more politically engaged. The daughter of a trained lawyer who chose to work as a builder rather than practice within the Prussian legal system, she spent her life depicting the plight of the poor and protesting the ravages of war. In her first great print series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1897–98), she chronicled the causes, progression, and bloody aftermath of the 1844 revolt of Silesian home weavers against their employers. The series begins with Poverty (1894), where a family of weavers gathers around the deathbed of an infant, and concludes with The End (1897), where the bodies of slain revolutionaries are being laid out on the floor of a weaver’s cabin. In both of these dimly lit interiors, the looms and other apparatus of the weavers’ trade stand as ominous reminders of the weavers’ plight.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker”

She mistook him for the gardener

In his Gospel John records that on the Sunday morning following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and, finding it empty, started to weep, for she thought someone had taken the body. In her worry and frustration, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus . . . supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14–15). It isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes him.

Artists—mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus carrying gardening tools, like a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes sporting a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Rembrandt, and the illuminators of the book of hours and passional shown below, have even shown Jesus in full-out gardener’s getup. (In her commentary on John, Dr. Jo-Ann A. Brant mentions that the fact that Jesus left his burial clothes in the tomb, coupled with Mary’s confusion, might provoke the “fanciful speculation” that Jesus actually borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Nevertheless, a different understanding is more likely behind the artistic representations; read on.)

Noli me tangere by Jacopo di Cione
Attributed to Jacopo di Cione (Italian, 1365–1398/1400), Noli me tangere, ca. 1368–70. Pinnacle panel from a Florentine altarpiece, now in the collection of the National Gallery, London.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene, from a Biblia Pauperum (typological picture book), ca. 1405, Netherlands. British Library, London.

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. [commentary by Georges Didi-Huberman]

Noli me tangere by Israhel van Meckenem
Israhel van Meckenem (German, ca. 1445–1503), Noli me tangere, 1460–1500. Engraving. British Museum, London.

Noli me tangere by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445–1510), Noli me tangere, ca. 1484–91. Predella panel from an altarpiece from the convent of Sant’Elisabetta delle Convertite, Florence, Italy, in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Jesus as Gardener (Book of Hours)
Master of the Dark Eyes, “Christ Appears to St. Mary Magdalene as a Gardener,” from The Hours of the Eternal Wisdom: Lauds (KB, 76 G 9), fol. 88r, ca. 1490. Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), The Hague.

Jesus as Gardener (cca. 1503)
“Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener” (detail), ca. 1503–1504, England. Fol. 134v, Vaux Passional (Peniarth 482D), National Library of Wales.

Continue reading “She mistook him for the gardener”