Roundup: Hope installation, new musical setting of Saint Ephrem’s Prayer, Global Stations of the Cross, and more

EXHIBITION: “I hope . . .” by Chiharu Shiota, January 12–March 21, 2021, König Galerie, Berlin: Grace Ebert of Colossal writes, “A towering expanse of red thread, a new installation by Chiharu Shiota suspends 10,000 letters within the nave of Berlin’s König Galerie, a Brutalist-style space located in the former St. Agnes church. The immersive construction runs floor to ceiling and is awash with notes from people around the world who share their dreams following a particularly devastating year. Aptly named ‘I hope…,’ the large-scale project hangs two wire boats that appear to float upward at its center, evoking travel into an unknown future.” On view for a few more days!  

Shiota, Chiharu_I hope
Chiharu Shiota (Japanese, 1972–), “I hope . . . ,” 2021. Rope, paper, steel, installation view at König Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Sunhi Mang, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

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SONGS:

>> “Saint Ephrem” by Prairie House Hymns: Sam(antha) Connour, whom you might know as Lo Sy Lo, has a new home for her church music: she will now be releasing it under the name Prairie House Hymns, which harkens to her roots in small-town churches and Midwestern culture. (“Seriously melodic theology from the Great Plains”!) Her first single since this rebrand is a prayer attributed to the fourth-century Syrian theologian Ephrem. “In the Byzantine tradition, this prayer is considered to be the most succinct summation of the spirit of Great Lent and is hence the Lenten prayer par excellence, prayed during all Lenten weekday services” (source). The video below is a demo that Connour recorded in November 2020, followed by the official recording released March 15, which includes backup vocals by Alec Watson. I’ve added the song to the Art & Theology Lent Playlist on Spotify.

O Lord and Master of my life
Keep me from indifference
Keep me from discouragement
Lust of power and idle chatter

Will you grant to me your servant
The spirit of wholeness of being
Humblemindedness
Patience and love

O Lord and King of my life
Grant me grace to be aware
Of my sins and not to judge
My brother and my sister

For you are blessed
Now and forever
For you are blessed
Now and forever

>> “Your Blood” by Matt Redman, arr. Sam JC Lee: This video recording is from the “Jazz Hymns and Liturgy” concert at The Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 16, 2020. Composer, bassist, and bandleader Sam JC Lee [previously] leads his group in an original jazz arrangement of this contemporary hymn. The musicians are Gabriela Martina on vocals, Gregory Groover Jr. on sax, Jiri Nedmoa on piano, Tyson D. Jackson on drums, and Lee himself on bass.

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VIRTUAL EXHIBITION/PILGRIMAGE: Global Stations of the Cross 2021: These fifteen contemporary artworks, organized around the Stations of the Cross but with a multifaith approach, were curated by Dr. Aaron Rosen, director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. In 2019 I participated, as pilgrim, in the Amsterdam iteration of the annual Stations of the Cross project that Rosen cofounded (which I chronicled in detail here), and his project inspired the Stations of the Cross experience I designed, independently, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—which, I know from people having reached out to me, has been utilized by several churches, families, and neighborhoods over the years.

McAfee, Antonio_Roger's Station (Ninth Station)
Antonio McAfee (American, 1983–), Roger’s Station (Ninth Station), 2021

Though “in previous years, the central experience of Stations of the Cross involved walking through host cities, inviting visitors to experience the incidental insights and revelations that come from navigating urban spaces in search of sacred experiences,” COVID has required adaptation. So Rosen took the opportunity to make this year’s exhibition multicity and global, and entirely online. Audio commentary is provided by the artists, as are photos of each work. The theme is “monuments and memorials,” and many of the artists have a personal connection to the topics they address, which include the execution of Catholics under the Joseon dynasty in nineteenth-century Korea, political imprisonment under Stalin, the bombing of Coventry during World War II, displacements caused by the British Partition of India in 1947, rising Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment) this past year, California wildfires, gun violence, police brutality, and the ongoing refugee crisis. Here is an excerpt from Rosen’s curatorial statement:

Each station in this journey responds to a monument or memorial, reflecting a tumultuous year in which fresh memorials sprung up to grieve the dead and historic monuments to prejudice were toppled and dismantled. We invited artists to keep these connotations in mind, but ultimately we left the terms ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’ open to interpretation, for artists to construct as they saw fit. Some, like Todd Forsgren, turned familiar images, like the Washington Monument, on their head—evoking the disorienting, disturbing politics of the past four years, and especially the recent insurrection at the nation’s capital. G. Roland Biermann photographed the Millennium Wheel in London, a tourist attraction that now sits sedentary as a stone, lit by an eerie blue light in honor of National Health Service workers. Others chose sites which are legible as memorials only to an intimate circle, who know the tragedy which transpired there. This is the case for Antonio McAfee’s work, which honors his cousin, murdered at a Baltimore metro stop. Another artist, S. Billie Mandle, reminds us that the natural world can, within moments, turn into a graveyard, as she reveals in a photograph taken in the aftermath of devastating wildfires in her home state of California.

There is no single memorial which can effectively capture the myriad traumas of the past year, from the staggering toll of the pandemic to bleak examples of systemic racism and climate crises of biblical proportion. While these challenges have intersected this past year, often with devasting effect, Stations of the Cross does not attempt to summarize them, or generalize the agonizing impact they have had on specific communities, families, and individuals. Instead, this project invites viewers to bear witness to this troubling season through the intimate reflections of individual artists, who find in the Passion a lens to interpret the present.

. . .

While the celebration of resurrection is unabashedly Christian, as it should be, the via dolorosa offers a path that can be instructive across multiple faiths, and none. Christians may travel its route in anticipation of salvation, but that is not the only possible destination. The Stations of the Cross invite an empathy that knows no theological copyright and requires no passport. It demands, quite simply, the capacity to behold—to truly see—the suffering of the Other in our midst. And, at least for the moment, that may be miracle enough.

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LECTURE: “Otto Dix and the Gospel of Matthew: An Exercise in Wirkungsgeschichte by Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington: In 1960 the German expressionist artist Otto Dix [previously] published Matthäus Evangelium, a cycle of thirty-three lithographs based on the Gospel of Matthew, recounting Jesus’s birth, healing ministry and other miracles, passion, and resurrection. Last year Sojourn Arts, a ministry of Sojourn Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted an exhibition of this body of work as well as a contextualizing talk by New Testament scholar and Sojourn East staff preacher Jonathan T. Pennington, given February 21, 2020. Pennington shows how Dix uses Matthew to say something about his own time and culture, and how Dix helps us see certain things about Matthew because of his own situatedness. Starting at 13:25, Pennington walks through the images one by one, interpreting them with a facility I don’t often see in preachers without an art specialization! (He says he spent several weeks studying and reflecting on the lithographs, which goes to show how an image’s meaning reveals itself to those who are willing to sit with it; a bit of biographical research helps too.)

The exhibition Otto Dix: Matthäus Evangelium is available for rental for just $250/month plus shipping—a killer deal! The loaner is Sandra Bowden, a collector of twentieth- and twenty-first-century biblical art who is also an artist herself. She’s such a generous person, and I had the pleasure of meeting her once at her home in Cape Cod, not far from the Community of Jesus, of which she is an oblate.

Dix, Otto_Flight to Egypt
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), Die Flucht nach Ägypten (The Flight to Egypt), lithograph from Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel according to Matthew), 1960

Dix, Otto_Christ Mocked
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), Die Verspottung (Christ Mocked), lithograph from Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel according to Matthew), 1960

Roundup: “Kyrie / Oh Death” medley, preaching Chagall, Isaiah 35-inspired chamber work, and more

SONGS: The following two songs appear on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist on Spotify. (Note: I’ve also integrated some Lovkn, Sarah Juers, and a few others into the list since originally publishing it.)

>> “Kyrie / Oh Death,” performed by Susanne Rosenberg: March 11 marks one year since the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, and the tremendous number of lives lost is staggering. (A friend from Japan reminded me that it’s also the ten-year anniversary of the Great Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that killed some 16,000 people; 3/11, he says, is as important in Japan as 9/11 is in the United States.) This lament by Susanne Rosenberg, one of Sweden’s foremost folk singers, seems appropriate. It combines a twelfth-century Kyrie chant with the Appalachian folk song “Oh Death,” the latter made famous by Ralph Stanley. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Greek for “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy,” is a short, repeated invocation used in many Christian liturgies, and Rosenberg seamlessly integrates it with these few lines: “Oh Death, oh Death, won’t you spare me over till another year?” The video recording is from a February 2010 concert in Dublin, and a similar version of the medley, in a different key, appears on Rosenberg’s album of the same year, ReBoot/OmStart.

>> “Washed in the Blood,” performed by Pokey LaFarge and Harry Melling: The Devil All the Time (2020) isn’t a great movie, but it has a great soundtrack. Harry Melling—known for his roles as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series and, more recently, Harry Beltik in The Queen’s Gambit—plays a spider-handling preacher named Roy, and singer-songwriter Pokey LaFarge (whose style pulls from ragtime, jazz, country, and blues) plays his guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore. The two actors sing as their characters in the film, this classic hymn by Elisha Hoffman. Love it!

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SERMON: “Chagall at Tudeley” by the Rev. James Crockford, University Church, Oxford, April 7, 2019: This sermon, preached on Passion (Palm) Sunday two years ago, is an excellent example of how pastors can draw on visual art as a theological and homiletical resource—not to merely illustrate a point already made or to add some pretty dressing to a sermon, but taking it on its own terms and allowing it to generate insight and guide the congregation someplace new. Crockford uses the East Window in All Saints’ Church in Tudeley, Kent, England, designed by the Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall, to open up profound discussion on human loss, hope, renewal, and the cross. [HT: Jonathan Evens]

The window was commissioned by the parents of twenty-one-year-old Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who in 1963 drowned off the coast of Sussex in a boating accident. “What I see in that East Window,” Crockford says, “is a remarkable exercise in the nature of suffering, and the interaction of human tragedy with the reality of Christ’s death and victory on the cross. It is a carefully composed centrepiece that asks us to face the depths of an abiding experience of grief, and to be faced with that grief each time we remember the grief of God, in broken bread and wine outpoured. But the window also shows a bigger picture – one that does not shut out the pains of our past, and the wounds in our hearts – and you’ll notice, when we come to it, that the scene of Sarah’s death still takes up over half of the window – but the bigger picture asks us to frame our grief and suffering on the centrality and promise of a God who, in Christ, is both suffering and victorious, broken and yet glorious, wounded but risen and standing among us to breathe Peace.” You can read the full transcript, or listen to an audio recording, at the link above.

East Window, Tudeley (Marc Chagall)
East Window, All Saints’ Church, Tudeley, Kent, designed by Marc Chagall and executed by Charles Marq. Installed 1967. Photo: George Rex.

Chagall, Marc_East Window, Tudeley (detail)
Detail photo by Jonathan Evens

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ART RESTORATION: “Hidden Gem: The Crucifixion by the Master of the Lindau Lamentation”: A Crucifixion painting from around 1425 by the Master of the Lindau Lamentation was recently restored by conservator Caroline van der Elst, and this short video documents part of that process. The Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands, acquired the painting in 1875, but since then it had lain mostly forgotten in storage until being rediscovered by a staff member a few years ago, who recognized it as a masterpiece worthy of restoration efforts and public display. After the surface dust and discolored varnish were removed, in addition to other treatments, it was unveiled last year as the centerpiece of the Body Language exhibition (check out that link!), which ran from September 25, 2020, to January 17, 2021.

Curators Micha Leeflang and Annabel Dijkema discuss how the painting was made, how it was originally used, and its theological significance, and van der Elst explains some of the conundrums she faced while restoring the work—when it came to light, for example, that the azurite background was added in the sixteenth century. View the full painting here.

Lindau Crucifixion detail
Master of the Lamentation of Christ in Lindau, Crucifixion (detail), ca. 1425. Tempera on panel, 125 × 89 cm. Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Photo: Marco Sweering.

Crucifixion detail (1425)
Crucifixion detail (1425)

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CALL FOR ARTISTS: Pass the Piece: A Collaborative Mail Art Project: A neat opportunity for artistic collaboration, organized by Sojourn Arts [previously] and open to US artists ages 13+. “Pass the Piece is a collaborative mail art project to be exhibited at Sojourn Arts in June 2021. Deadline for participating artists to sign up is March 31, 2021. Project is limited to 100 participants. We’re mailing out up to one hundred 8″ × 10″ panels, one to each participating artist. Each artist will start a panel that another artist will complete. Each artist will finish a panel that someone else started. Each artist will have their work exhibited and have a printed zine-style catalog of each piece from the exhibit. Artworks will be auctioned online with 50% going to the artists and 50% going towards Sojourn Arts interns’ travel expenses for the upcoming CIVA conference.”

Pass the Piece (Sojourn Arts)
Begun with an illustration by Stephen Crotts and finished with a painting by Kyra Hinton

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NEW ALBUM: for / waters by Joshua Stamper: Joshua Stamper [previously] composed this four-movement instrumental piece about marriage for pianist Bethany Danel Brooks and violinist David Danel, who are themselves married and perform on the recordings. Its title and that of each movement is taken from Isaiah 35, which was read at the couple’s wedding.

Stamper writes,

Marriage, ideally, is about two people in a state of mutual belonging. But marriage is more than a state of belonging: it includes an ongoing journey toward and into belonging. It encompasses the trajectories and momentum of individuals towards each other, even before an initial connection takes place. People are therefore in relationship with each other before they are “in relationship” with each other. From this perspective, marriage might be understood as another mystical manifestation of the inscrutable and unknowable fault line between free will and providence. Two lives are always in reference to one another before the initial “hello,” because though individual trajectories have not yet crossed, they will. This interweaving begins early: each life is conditioned, shaped, sensitized to see, hear, feel the other. Home is created in each for each.

Stamper goes on to describe how he reflects these ideas through the structure, melodic and rhythmic motifs, harmonies, and other musical elements of for / waters. Read more and stream/purchase at Bandcamp.

“Joshua Stamper has been a restless composer and collaborator for over twenty-five years. His work reflects a deep interest in the intersection points between seemingly disparate musics, and a profound love for the intimacy, charm, and potency of chamber music. Equally at home in the jazz, classical, avant-garde, and indie/alternative worlds, his work ranges from large-scale choral and instrumental works to art-pop song cycles to chamber jazz suites. Joshua has worked as an orchestral arranger and session musician for Columbia / Sony BMG and Concord Records, and for independent labels Domino, Dead Oceans, Important Records, Sounds Familyre, Smalltown Supersound, and Mason Jar Music, collaborating with such luminaries as Todd Rundgren, Robyn Hitchcock, Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, and Emil Nikolaisen.” [source]

Roundup: (Virtual) Arts conference, Psalm 129 jazz-hip-hop-folk fusion, and more

This year’s The Breath and the Clay creative arts gathering, on the theme of “Reenchantment,” is taking place March 17–21, with both in-person (in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and virtual options. Registration for virtual attendees is pay-what-you-wish. Presenters include theologian Jeremy Begbie, poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, singer-songwriter Joy Ike, contemplative author Christine Valters Paintner, dancer Camille D.C. Sutton, and many more . . . including me! On the evening of March 18 I’ll be giving a twenty-minute talk titled “Saying Yes: The Annunciation in Contemporary Art,” which will be archived online afterward. (The global church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation the following week, on March 25.) Here’s the description:

The story of Jesus’s miraculous conception in the womb of Mary, a first-century Galilean peasant girl, told in Luke 1 has activated the imaginations of artists since the early Christian era. When an angelic messenger came and told Mary she had been chosen to bear God’s Son, she cycled through a range of emotions before ultimately accepting the call, stepping onto a path that, though scary, would be life-giving not only for her but also for her religious and ethnic community and for the whole world.

God invites us to participate in his work in the world and gives us the grace to do it. When his voice breaks through our safe, predictable routines, calling us to something big, do we respond with brave obedience? In this talk Victoria Emily Jones will share a handful of contemporary artworks that visualize that pivotal moment in salvation history when Mary said yes and set in motion the incarnation. These works show us the wild beauty of God’s plans and can help us tune our ears to the annunciations in our own lives.

(The title slide image is a detail of an Annunciation painting by Jyoti Sahi.)

I’m always impressed by the variety of artists, arts professionals, and art lovers that director Stephen Roach manages to bring together for The Breath and the Clay. Click here to learn more and to register.

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ONLINE LENT SERIES:

>> VCS Lent 2021: The Visual Commentary on Scripture is highlighting a different exhibition from its archives for each week of Lent, with new content including a video introduction to the week by Ben Quash and an audio reading of each of the three constituent commentaries.

The first week was on the theme of Covenant and covers Genesis 8:20–9:17. Stefania Gerevini curated three artworks from Italy that convey some aspect of the rainbow as divine promise: a thirteenth-century mosaic from the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, a colorful dome fresco (fifteenth century) from the Cappella Portinari in Milan, and a contemporary light installation by Dan Flavin at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa, also in Milan.

Week 2, on Prophecy, explores the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Jonathan Koestlé-Cate comments on three modern artworks: Crucified Tree Form by Theyre Lee-Elliott, a crucifix by Germaine Richier (which sparked outrage when it was unveiled at Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Assy, in 1950), and an installation by postminimalist artist Anish Kapoor at the church of Saint Peter, Cologne.

>> “The Many Faces of Jesus”: I’ve been enjoying this Lenten series (on blog and podcast) by medievalist Dr. Grace Hamman, who makes medieval lit super accessible. “For Lent, Old Books With Grace will share and explore some medieval representations of Jesus in art and literature—the versions of Jesus that dominate the medieval church’s imagination. These medieval portrayals of Jesus may strike us as odd, threatening, charming, creative, stupid, or inspiring. In attending to these versions of Jesus, I hope for a few end goals: the first is that we may expand our Christian imagination. Perhaps a side of Jesus that has never occurred to you, or been sideswept by our contemporary culture, will suddenly illuminate an aspect of the Jesus of scripture. The second is that we may better identify the ways that we ourselves have culturally contained and portrayed Jesus, in positive and negative ways. Often the strangeness of the past helps us recognize the weird or damaging things we believe in order to make Jesus more palatable, understandable, or like us.”

Christ and his bride
Jean Bondol, “The bride (Ecclesia) and bridegroom (Christ),” from a Bible Historiale made in Paris, 1371–72. The Hague, MMW, 10 B 23, fol. 330v.

So far she has covered Jesus as judge, lover, and knight.

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RETUNED HYMNS:

>> “Up from My Youth (Psalm 129)” by Advent Birmingham, feat. CashBack and Terence June Gray: This is such a strange and compelling fusion! “An 1806 hymn by Isaac Watts meets hip-hop meets Johnny Cash meets folk meets New Orleans jazz meets industrial steel factory.”

Led by Zac Hicks, Advent Birmingham [previously] is a group of worship musicians from the Cathedral Church of the Advent in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Hicks wrote this new tune for Isaac Watts’s metrical paraphrase of Psalm 129 and integrated a rap by guest artist Terence June Gray from Memphis. Singing lead (and playing drums) is Leif Bondarenko, the front man of the Johnny Cash tribute band CashBack. The video was filmed at Birmingham’s historic Sloss Furnaces. Available on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.

You can read the lyrics here, which include a slight revision of Watts’s verse 6.

>> “Thy Mercy, My God”: Words by John Stocker, 1776; music by Sandra McCracken, 2005; performed by Ellen Petersen Haygood (of The Petersens bluegrass band), 2018.

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POETRY READING: “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed, read, with commentary, by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Poetry Unbound: What do you find hard to forgive in yourself? What might help? In this poem, the poet makes a list of all the things she holds against herself: opening fridge doors, fantasies, wilted seedlings, unkempt plants, lost bags, feeling awkward, treating someone poorly. Dilruba Ahmed repeats the line ‘I forgive you’ over and over, like a litany, in a hope to deepen what it means to be in the world, and be a person of love.”

Roundup: Black art and Black church documentaries, “Hymns” album, and more

DOCUMENTARIES:

>> Black Art: In the Absence of Light (HBO): Directed by Sam Pollard, this ninety-minute documentary is an excellent introduction to the work of some of the foremost Black visual artists working in the US today. It opens by discussing the landmark 1976 exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, the first comprehensive survey of such. Curated by art historian and artist David C. Driskell (the main voice of the documentary), the exhibition, which opened at LACMA, showed the public that there is a lineage and a history, starting with early Black American artists like Joshua Johnston, Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Bannister and extending forward to artists like Romare Bearden, Charles White, Alma Thomas, and others. The exhibition inspired a whole new generation of Black artists, many of whom were encountering the work of their artistic forebears in person for the first time.

A range of contemporary Black artists are interviewed: Kerry James Marshall, Sanford Biggers, Jordan Casteel, Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew, Radcliffe Bailey, Kehinde Wiley, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Betye Saar. So are several Black curators, art historians, and collectors, like Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, “the focal point of African American cultural and artistic production” since 1968 and “one of the most important institutions that we have,” as Weems says in the film. Another interviewee throughout is Maurice Berger, an art historian (who is white) and longtime voice against racism in the art world.

Both Driskell and Berger died of coronavirus while the film was in postproduction, and it is dedicated to their memory, as a postscript reads.

You can watch it for free, regardless of HBO subscription status, through March 17. HBO has also published a curriculum and art-making activities as supplements, which you can find at the link.

>> The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (PBS): Written, hosted, and co-produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr., this two-part docuseries premiered February 16. It’s impossible to separate Black religion, politics, and culture, so the documentary weaves them all together over the course of four hours, showing how for centuries the Black church was the epicenter of Black life and exploring its role in the twenty-first century. I think it does a great job overall of avoiding an overly simplistic narrative.

The Black Church “traces the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America, all the way down to its bedrock role as the site of African American survival and grace, organizing and resilience, thriving and testifying, autonomy and freedom, solidarity and speaking truth to power. The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.”

You can watch online for free; just download the PBS Video app, or visit YouTube: episode 1; episode 2.

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SONG: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed by Victory Boyd: WOW. Such a beautiful interpretation of this classic hymn. Victory writes, “I’m continually inspired by this song and how it was written in the 1800’s by 2 brothers both African Americans that saw and experienced great affliction in this Country… yet they still had hope. They still had a song of freedom on their lips and they encouraged EVERY voice to join in and sing alongside them this song of freedom. Recorded LIVE at The Secret Place.” [HT: SALT Project]

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ARTICLE: “Sacred faces: Father John Giuliani’s artwork honors Native American cultures and reminds us of how God comes into the world” by John Christman, SSS: Fr. John Giuliani, the Italian American artist-priest known for his many paintings depicting the Holy Family and other biblical figures as Indigenous peoples of the Americas, died in January. Paul Neeley of Global Christian Worship reminded me of the article U.S. Catholic magazine published on March 9, 2016, about his work.

Guatemalan Annunciation by Fr. John Giuliani

Giuliani, John_Jesus and His Disciples
Jesus and His Disciples (Navajo) by Fr. John Giuliani

“As a Catholic priest and son of Italian immigrants, I bear the religious and ethnic burden of ancestral crimes perpetrated on the first inhabitants of the Americas,” Giuliani once said. “Many have been converted to Christianity, but in doing so some find it difficult to retain their indigenous culture. My intent, therefore, in depicting Christian saints as Native Americans is to honor them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence on this land. It is this original Native American spirituality that I attempt to celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons.”

See also the 2012 Indigenous Jesus article “Father John Giuliani, Painter of Native American Icons.”

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ALBUM: Hymns by Paul Zach: Released February 5, this new album by Paul Zach comprises eight of his favorite hymns plus two originals, with vocal contributions by Liz Vice, Page CXVI, Leslie Jordan, Taylor Leonhardt, and The Sing Team. There has been a lot of experimentation in the hymns genre among recording artists, but what Zach gives us is something quiet and pared-down, which is exactly what I like. And as I’ve said before, Zach’s voice is so wonderfully expressive. He’s a joy to listen to and to sing along with. Below is the opening track, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” followed by Zach’s gorgeous setting of Psalm 23. The album is available on iTunes and Spotify.

Roundup: Pippy the Piano, “The Cobblestone Gospel,” and more

The Lent 2021 edition of the Daily Prayer Project prayerbook is now available, covering February 17–April 3. (I serve as curator.) The stunning cover image is Prayers of the People I by Meena Matocha, who works in charcoal, ashes, acrylic, and wax. You can purchase the booklet in either digital or physical format.

In the opening letter, Project Director Joel Littlepage writes, “Lent is a season that disturbs many people. Maybe that includes you. Among Protestant Christian communities that I have been a part of over the years, Lent can either be seen as a ‘graceless,’ ‘harsh,’ ‘legalistic’ part of the Christian year or, on the other hand, trivialized into a time to ‘pick something to give up,’ like a seasonal spiritual diet plan. Both these characterizations miss the mark.” He goes on to describe the bidirectionality of the Lenten journey: downward, as we are crucified with Christ, and upward, toward the victory of resurrection and new life. “It is a season to sense again the path of the Christian life.”

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NEW CHILDREN’S BOOK: Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave by Roger W. Lowther, illustrated by Sarah Dusek: My friend Roger Lowther [previously], director of Community Arts Tokyo and host of the Art Life Faith podcast, has written his first children’s book, which released in December. It’s inspired by the story of a church in Kamaishi, who after the 2011 tsunami found their beloved piano upside down and covered in mud and debris but, rather than discard it, decided to spend enormous amounts of time and money to restore it—a picture of God’s love for his precious creation, and the lengths he went to to demonstrate that love. Hollywood and Broadway actor Sean Davis reads the book in the video below. [Available on Amazon]

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EXHIBITION: The Cobblestone Gospel by Trygve Skogrand, Vår Frue Kirke (Our Lady Church), Trondheim, Norway, July 2020–April 2021: “An exhibition of collages of historic low-church art merged with photographs of our own contemporary surroundings. The essence of the works is the meeting. Between painting and photography, the mystical and the mundane, and how the meeting makes both worlds renewed and re-visibled.” The original advertising says the exhibition is open Mondays through Saturdays from 12 to 3 p.m., but I’m not sure whether COVID has changed that; you can contact the church here.

Skogrand, Trygve_Found
Trygve Skogrand (Norwegian, 1967–), Found, 2020. Collage / pigment print on paper.

Skogrand, Trygve_The Beloved
Trygve Skogrand (Norwegian, 1967–), The Beloved, 2020. Collage / pigment print on paper.

In October Skogrand described the impetus behind his work to Edge of Faith magazine:

When I was a child, I went to a Christmas party at our local church. At the end of the party, every child got a small bag of gifts to take home. In the bag: a pack of raisins, a small orange, some sweets – and a prayer card showing Jesus in paradise. Oh, how beautiful I thought the small prayer card was! Jesus and butterflies and a sunset and flowers AND a golden glittery border. A wonder of loveliness and holiness!

Move on twenty years. I was 30, had started working as an artist, and found the bible card again. I had changed, and the card too. Instead of seeing loveliness, I found the card rather sad. It looked to me as if Jesus was imprisoned in a dusty and suffocating make-believe paradise.

Then it struck me: What if I remove the paradise?

I have now been working with the merging of high and low historical Christian art with our contemporary surroundings for twenty years. For me, this process not only binds together what nowadays normally is shown as sundered but also re-actualizes the classical art and infuses the everyday, modern surroundings with holiness.

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MUSIC VIDEO: “Fear Thou Not” by Josh Garrels: This beautiful new setting of Isaiah 41:10 by Josh Garrels appears on Garrels’s 2020 album Peace to All Who Enter Here [previously]. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; [and] I will uphold [you] with the right hand of my righteousness” (KJV).

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SHORT FILM: A Colorized Snowball Fight from 1896 Shows Not Much Has Changed in the Art of Winter Warfare: This is pure joy! “A short clip, originally captured by Louis Lumière in 1896, documents a rowdy snowball fight [bataille de boules de neige] on the streets of Lyon, France. Thanks to Saint-Petersburg, Russia-based Dmitriy Badin, who used a combination of the open-source software DeOldify and his own specially designed algorithms to upscale and colorize the historic footage, the video of the winter pastime is incredibly clear, revealing facial features and details on garments.”

Roundup: “Art and Social Impact,” Auld Lang Syne in Birmingham, and more

ONLINE PANEL: “Art and Social Impact,” January 26, 2021, 14:30 GMT (9:30 a.m. EST): Next Tuesday the Rev. Jonathan Evens [previously], associate vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, will be talking with interdisciplinary photography and media artist André Daughtry [previously], sculptor Nicola Ravenscroft, portrait painter and humanitarian Hannah Rose Thomas, and graphic designer Micah Purnell about their personal journeys in addressing issues of social concern in their art practices. The session will also explore ways in which churches can engage with such art and use it for exploring issues with congregations and beyond. Register here for a Zoom invite. (Update: View the recording.)

Tears of Gold by Hannah Rose Thomas
Hannah Rose Thomas, paintings from the Tears of Gold series, 2017. Click image to learn more, and see the Google Arts & Culture exhibition.

Ravenscroft, Nicola_With the Heart of a Child
Nicola Ravenscroft, With the Heart of a Child, 2016. Sculpture installation comprising seven life-size bronze children. The artist calls the figures “eco-earthling-warrior-mudcubs.” Click image for artist interview, and here for a theological reflection.

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VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)

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NATIONAL MOURNING: Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.

The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.

Washington National Cathedral COVID memorial

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MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.

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ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Human Ants (street art)
Human Ants, Liverpool Street, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jason Goroncy.

“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”

Roundup: Ethiopian illuminations, convent cradles, Women’s Christmas, and more

“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.

Flight to Egypt (Ethiopian)
“Flight into Egypt,” from the Nagara Māryām (History and Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary), Ethiopia, ca. 1730–55. British Library Or. 607, fol. 17r.

You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!

If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.

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The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.

Journey and Adoration of the Magi (icon)
Journey of the Magi and Adoration of the Magi, 14th century. Fresco, Decani Monastery, Serbia. View a modern copy here.

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SONG MEDLEY: “Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”

Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.

Beguine cradle (The Met)
Crib of the Infant Jesus, 15th century, from the Grand Béguinage in Louvain (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Click to view details of the carved Nativity and Adoration of the Magi at the head and foot and, on the embroidered coverlet, Jesus’s family tree.

To learn more about how some medieval women mediated their relationship with Christ in part through dolls and cradles, see “Crib of the Infant Jesus” from Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index, “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux” by Annette LeZotte, “Popular Imagery in a Fifteenth-Century Burgundian Crèche” by William H. Forsyth, “Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents” by Ulinka Rublack, and “Encounter: Holy Beds” by Caroline Walker Bynum.

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The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . .  spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”

“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”

Wise Women Also Came by Jan Richardson
Wise Women Also Came © Jan L. Richardson [purchase]

The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”

Roundup: Chinese Christian art, minor-key “O Holy Night,” and more

ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)

“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.

Madonna and Child (Chinese)
Madonna and Child, China, 15th–17th century. Painting on silk, 8 feet high. Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Photo: John Weinstein.

“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.

Junlan, Feng_The Lord’s Handmaiden
Feng Junlan (Chinese, 1961–), The Lord’s Handmaiden, 2012

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SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.

Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.

I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”

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NEW ALBUM: Christmas at Southern, vol. 2: Student musicians from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released an album of ten Christmas songs this month. They include older favorites, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and newer ones. I particularly like the Boyce Worship Collective’s funkified arrangement of “Joy Has Dawned”—the 2004 song by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (Boyce College is the undergraduate school of the SBTS)—and Doxology Vocal Ensemble’s performance of “All Is Well,” a 1989 song by Michael W. Smith and Wayne Kirkpatrick, arranged by Jamey Ray, founder of Voctave.

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POEMS: Here are a few good Christmas/winter poems I’ve come across from some of the blogs and resources I follow.

Roundup: Christmas art Digitorial, Norwegian jazz, bluegrass “Carol of the Bells,” Chopin meets Hillsong, Armenian Gospel art

DIGITAL EXPERIENCE: “Holy Night: The Christmas Story and Its Imagery”: This “Digitorial”—a responsive, multimedia, educative webpage—was created as a supplement to a physical exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt that ran from October 12, 2016, to January 29, 2017, which brought together over one hundred paintings, sculptures, and other precious objects, mostly from medieval Germany, to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. Featured online are a magnificent Rhenish tapestry (seriously, click that link and zoom in!), an ivory relief carving, an altar, a wooden statuette of Mary with a removable flap on her belly that reveals the Christ child, a liturgical cradle and doll, a manuscript illumination, a woodcut, and more. Also included, for listening, are readings from the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden (a fourteenth-century mystic whose vision of the nativity had widespread influence) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (source of the legend of the miraculous palm tree on the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt), as well as a lullaby from a medieval mystery play at Leipzig and perhaps also sung as part of the custom of Kindleinwiegen. Curator Stefan Roller introduces the exhibition in this video:

Joseph's First Dream (Antwerp)
The Angel Appears to Joseph in His Dream, 1518, from the predella of the Antwerp Altarpiece in the Lady Chapel of Saint Mary’s Church, Lübeck, Germany. Mixed media on oak, 46 × 40.2 cm. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany.

The Virgin Mary's Confinement
The Virgin Mary’s Confinement, Meuse region, ca. 1380

The “Holy Night” Digitorial is written for a middle-grade reading level, I’d say; some of the narration seems geared toward kids. It doesn’t assume any knowledge of the Nativity story, and in addition to highlights from the biblical accounts, it mentions some apocryphal story elements, like Joseph’s backstory, the midwives at the birth, the palm tree and wheatfield miracles, and the identity of the “kings.” I appreciate how it covers the full story, including Jesus’s circumcision and the flight to Egypt. My only two wishes are that the images were provided in higher resolution and that full credits (especially the collection these objects are from) were given at the bottom. 

I really love the Digitorial format! It’s engaging. If I could afford it, I would endeavor to hire web designers to help me produce products like this. This one was designed and developed by Scholz & Volkmer with funding by the Aventis Foundation. More about Digitorials: “Digitorials are short, interactive, online editorials that combine text, images and animations into a meaningful whole and enable innovative storytelling. Digitorials are not intended to replicate or replace physical exhibitions. Rather, they are a useful way of adding breadth and depth, and are usually used before or after visiting an exhibition. The format was developed by the Städel Museum, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and is breaking new ground in art mediation, as it uses digital technology to offer an accessible and approachable way of engaging with art. It has already been awarded the Grimme-Preis.” See other examples: https://www.staedelmuseum.de/en/digitorial; https://www.liebieghaus.de/de/angebote/digitorial; https://www.schirn.de/en/program/offerings/digitorial/.

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SONGS:

“Jeg Synger Julekvad” (In dulci jubilo): This Christmas hymn of German origin often appears in English-language hymnals as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” or the gender-neutral “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!” This jazz arrangement by Heidi Skjerve, with Norwegian lyrics by Magnus Brostrup Landstad, is performed by Skjerve (she’s the vocalist on the left) and students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Music [previously]. The other two vocalists are Liv Ellen Rønning and Jakob Leirvik. See the full list of musicians in the YouTube description. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“Carol of the Bells,” arr. Al White, performed by the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble: Al White, who taught Appalachian instruments at Berea College in Kentucky until retiring in May, founded the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble in fall 1999 to give students with backgrounds or potential in bluegrass music an opportunity to play in a bluegrass band with weekly rehearsals, performances, and travel. This is one of the many arrangements he wrote—sometime around 2008. In this 2016 video, recorded inside Berea’s Danforth Chapel and outdoors, White plays mandolin and leads four other musicians: Brenna Macmillan on banjo and vocals and Theo Macmillan on fiddle (the two are siblings, now performing and recording as the Theo & Brenna Band), Matt Parsons on guitar, and Casey Papendieck on upright bass (he’s part of the Handshake Deals). As of this fall, the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble is under the direction of Sam Gleaves. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“Peace Upon the Earth” by Hillsong Worship: Since being introduced to Chopin by my piano teacher as a kid, he’s been one of my favorite composers to play—his etudes, nocturnes, waltzes, fantasias. In this 2017 song from Hillsong’s Christmas: The Peace Project, Marty Sampson wrote lyrics for Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major (op. 9, no. 2), which actually works really well! It’s a beautiful handling of the iconic melody. Starting at 3:44, Sampson talks about his songwriting process. He says he was inspired by “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which came about when William Hayman Cummings adapted the melody of “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen,” a song from Mendelssohn’s secular “Gutenberg Cantata,” to fit Charles Wesley’s hymn text.

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NEW ACQUISITIONS: “2 Armenian Manuscripts Join the Getty Collection”: This year the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired, among other art objects, (1) a detached leaf with a full-page Nativity illumination from a seventeenth-century Armenian Gospel-book, and (2) a sixteenth-century Armenian Gospel-book illuminated by a brother and sister team, Ghoukas and Eghisabet. (A female illuminator named in an early modern manuscript—woot woot!) “Little is known about the involvement of women in the trade of manuscript illumination, but we hope that highlighting figures like Eghisabet will spark further research and understanding about their role,” write Elizabeth Morrison and Nava Streiter in this Getty blog post.

Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605–1651), The Nativity with the Adoration of the Shepherds and Magi, from a Gospel-book made in Isfahan, Persia, 1615. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment, 23 × 16 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 118 (originally from Ms. Ludwig II 7).

The Way into Eternal Life
Eghisabet (Armenian), The Way into Eternal Life, from an Armenian Gospel-book, 1583. Tempera and ink on parchment, 24.8 × 17.9 cm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 119, fol. 6v.

Ms. 119 is now the third Armenian Gospel-book in the museum’s collection, and Morrison and Streiter compare one of the illumination subjects side-by-side across all three books—in addition to providing visual comparisons with Ethiopian and Byzantine Gospel-books.

Roundup: “Religious Art” panel, Advent songs, the Christmas tree’s praise, BBC Nativity film

PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.

Quash opens by proposing different categories of “religious art”: art for religion, art about religion, art with religion, and art instead of religion. The three unpack those a bit, discussing the intentions of the artist or patron versus how the artwork is perceived by the viewer. Quash mentions Haruspex by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (a fascinating installation commissioned by the Vatican for the 2015 Venice Biennale, a contemporary artist’s response to “In the beginning . . . the word became flesh”; read Quash’s essay and an artist interview), the East Window at St Martin-in-the-Fields by Shirazeh Houshiary, the Raphael Cartoons, and Aaron Rosen’s 2016 Stations of the Cross exhibition throughout the city of London, which shows the permeability of the boundaries between sacred and secular. (I participated, as viewer/pilgrim, in a 2019 iteration of the Stations project in Amsterdam.)

Hadzi-Vasileva, Elpida_Haruspex
Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva (Macedonian, 1971–), Haruspex, 2015. Organic materials. Installation at the Pavilion of the Holy See at the 56th Venice Biennale.

In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:

Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.

Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!

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ADVENT SONGS:

“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.

“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe: Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).

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ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”

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FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.

Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.

I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.

The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.