Lent, Day 11

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

—Matthew 7:13–14

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

—Matthew 16:24–26

These teachings of Jesus give me pause. How do we square them with Jesus’s saying that his yoke is light, and that in him the heavy laden find rest (Matt. 11:28–30)? Crosses are hefty! They weigh down. To follow Christ, do we trade one burden (sin) for another (self-denial)? And is there not a wideness and a freedom to Christ’s way? Narrowness implies constriction. His embrace is certainly wide. But his gate is narrow?

I’ve seen this passage abused by Christians who insist that their own narrow parameters of belief and practice (and I’m talking apart from the historical creeds) constitute the one true path; without accounting for differences of conscience, culture, or biblical interpretation, they label this view or that behavior a “slippery slope” that will lead to destruction.

I have thoughts on some of these questions, but they’re not fully formed. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comment field.

Rather than ignoring Bible passages that I find confusing or uncomfortable, I prefer to wrestle with them. Below I’ll look at how two artists engage these texts, setting them within a larger framework: German painter Laurentius de Neter and hymn writer Isaac Watts. Both works are old-fashioned, and I don’t give my full endorsement to either one, but I believe they are worth visiting.

LOOK: The Broad and Narrow Road by Laurentius de Neter (aka Laurence Neter)

de Neter, Laurentius_The Wide and Narrow Road
Laurentius de Neter (German, 1600–1649), De brede en de smalle weg (The Broad and Narrow Road), ca. 1635. Oil on canvas, 59 × 78 cm. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands.

The artist painted this image, popular among Protestants, during his three-year sojourn in the Netherlands from 1635 to 1638. I saw it when I was there in 2019, in one of the galleries of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. There was a Dutch title given but no description. I spent a while looking at all the details.

In the center is a large tree—green and lush on the left, and dead and barren on the right. A man stands under it, being pulled in two directions.

de Neter, Laurentius_The Wide and Narrow Road-004

To our right is a skeleton with a bow and arrow, standing in the shadows and representing death, and a finely dressed woman holding an apple, representing temptation. She tries to persuade the man toward a life of earthly pleasures, signified by a pile of cards and dice, a theatrical mask, musical instruments and sheet music, bags of coins, fancy vases, and armor. On this “worldly” side a regent sits on a dais under a canopy before a literal wall of gold—her head ensconced in a glass globe! She is living in a bubble, consumed with self and power. Nearby a lutist and a harpist play at an extravagant outdoor banquet, while in the background a contemporary “Lazarus,” hungry and barely clothed, sits outside the host’s house as two dogs lick his sores.

de Neter, Laurentius_The Wide and Narrow Road-002

In the right background a crowd of people shuffle through a wide archway marked V[olu]pta[t]es, Latin for “pleasures.” (I’m not sure who the sculpted figures on top are supposed to represent.) They are heading toward destruction, as is clear from the blazing fire in the distance. This is one of the paths that is open to the indecisive man at the center.

His other option, though, is the way of Christ. He is beckoned there by a simply dressed woman with an infant, representing Christian love, and by an angel who points to the Ten Commandments with his sword.

This “narrow way” is marked by humble prayer and service. At the left, those who have chosen this way enact the seven works of mercy, derived mainly from Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the stranger, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick, and burying the dead. They have taken up their cross, and they head for a narrow footpath that stretches over a body of water and winds up and around a mountain. Those who fall off the path are in danger of landing in the fiery pit at the base.

de Neter, Laurentius_The Wide and Narrow Road (detail)

Even though it’s a popular metaphor and has been for ages, I’m not so keen on envisioning the Christian life as an uphill climb. It’s meant to connote something of the struggle to press on as well as a sense of progression toward a goal—the mountaintop, which stands for heaven. But it seems this picture could falsely suggest that heaven is gained through self-exertion, through laborious effort, and that the journey of faith is one of continual progress or ascent, and that it looks the same for everyone. In reality, sometimes we start out high but regress. Sometimes we travel a different path for a while, but it meets back up with the main, bringing us to a point we couldn’t have gotten to any other way.

While I realize there are scriptures to support the view of faith as a feat of endurance (e.g., Phil. 3:12–14; 1 Cor. 9:24–27; Gal. 6:9), and I’m certainly not suggesting idleness, there are also numerous passages about relying on God’s strength rather than our own; on Christ’s merits, not our own.

I think that as long as we recognize the limitations of the mountain metaphor, bringing a more nuanced understanding to it, it’s fine to retain.

But another problematic idea that this painting could be read as insinuating is that all pleasures, such as good food, the theater, music, and games, ought to be repudiated as distractions at best, idolatries at worst. (No one on the narrow path is seen enjoying such things.) Enjoyment of the arts and of God’s good gifts is not sinful. However, if you come to live only for such pleasures, if you become so consumed with them that they cause you to ignore the needs of those around you and neglect your other Christian duties, then they can become destructive. One might discern this subtle distinction in de Neter’s portrayal of the bombastic displays of wealth and the diners’ apparent exclusion of the poor and disabled from their feast.  

I do appreciate that the artist’s characterization of the “narrow path” includes not just personal pieties but also a social aspect—faith worked out in the public square in material ways, in interactions with neighbors.

LISTEN: “Windham” (Roud 15045) | Words by Isaac Watts, 1707–9 | Music by Daniel Read, 1785 | Performed by the Watersons on Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy, 1977

Broad is the road that leads to death
And thousands walk together there
But wisdom shows a narrow path
With here and there a traveler

“Deny thyself and take thy cross”
Is the Redeemer’s great command
Nature must count it all but dross
If she would gain this heavenly land

The fearful soul that tires and faints
And walks the ways of God no more
Is but esteemed almost a saint
And makes his own destruction sure

Lord, let not all my hopes be vain
Create my heart entirely new
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain
Which false apostates never knew

Isaac Watts titled this hymn—quite unattractively!—“Few saved: or, The almost Christian, the Hypocrite, and Apostate.” The tune, which is in the Sacred Harp (aka shape-note) tradition, is by New England composer Daniel Read (1757–1836); it’s named WINDHAM, I’m assuming after the town of Windham, Connecticut, Read’s state of residence. The famous British folk group The Watersons recorded the hymn under that title in the seventies. The text and tune complement each other very well.

I will say, though: I don’t like the third stanza. There’s no grace or compassion in it, no sense of God’s faithfulness to carry his own, his strength applied to our weakness, or his calling back the wayward wanderers. It may be influenced at least in part by Revelation 21:7–8 (KJV): “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful [i.e., cowardly], and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” But Watts’s image of tiredness and fainting suggests someone who has picked up their cross and has buckled under its weight, as opposed to someone who outright rejects Christ’s call to cross taking. So in that case, Watts may have more in mind the passages of scripture that mention a believer’s “falling away,” or apostatizing, from the faith (Heb. 3:12; 6:4–12; 10:26–39; Rom. 11:22; 1 Cor. 9:25–27; etc.). Only those who persevere to the end will be saved.

I’m not sure how the “hypocrite” of the title fits into all this.

I don’t wish to get bogged down here with Calvinist versus Arminian debates about whether salvation can be lost, as that would detract from the main point, which is following Christ, staying committed.

I would not program this hymn into a worship service—it’s stark and severe and lacks, as I said, a perspective of divine grace, even if it does honor certain isolated scripture passages—but I wanted to introduce it here nonetheless. Being by the father of English hymnody, it circulated quite widely; the website Hymnary identifies its appearance in 441 hymnals. And it directly ties in to my two selected scripture texts, which are stark and severe, and I know of few other songs that address them. Not all hymns have to have a feel-good quality. Sometimes hymn writers give us something with bite, and that can be OK, even necessary. This one is an admonishment to stay on the straight and narrow. If you’ve veered off course, now is the time to come back!

“On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason

His body doubled
    under the pack
    that sprawls untidily
    on his old back,
    the cold wet dead-beat
    plods up the track.

The cook peers out:
    oh, curse that old lag—
    here again
    with his clumsy swag
    made of a dirty old

Bring him in, cook,
    from the cold level sleet:
    put silk on his body,
    slippers on his feet;
    give him fire
    and bread and meat.

Let the fruit be plucked
    and the cake be iced,
    the bed be snug
    and the wine be spiced
    for the old cove’s night-cap—
    for this is Christ.
Schmalz, Timothy_When I Was a Stranger
Timothy P. Schmalz (Canadian, 1969–), When I Was a Stranger, 2016. Bronze, 42 × 23 × 39 in. Basilica of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), Lucina, Rome.

R. A. K. Mason (1905–1971) was one of New Zealand’s preeminent poets. Written around 1932, his poem “On the Swag” was inspired by Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus says that our treatment of the poor redounds to him. That is, if we ignore the cries of the poor or even directly reject them, we are effectually ignoring or rejecting Christ—but if we welcome the poor into our homes and lives and endeavor to meet their needs, it is as if we welcome Christ himself.

In New Zealand and Australia, “swag” refers to a pack of personal belongings, and to “go on the swag” is an informal expression meaning to become a wandering foot-traveler, lacking a permanent residence and steady work. So in the poem a homeless man, hunched over in exhaustion and with his meager bag of possessions in tow, is passing down a neighborhood lane. A house cook sees him through the window and in vexation complains about what an eyesore he is, stinking up the streets and making the city look bad. She has seen him in these quarters before and wishes him good riddance.

(Related posts: “The Seven Works of Mercy”; “Advent, Day 19”)

But in the next two stanzas a more compassionate voice intervenes—probably the master or mistress of the house, or otherwise an intrusive narrator. This voice orders the cook to bring the man inside and to lavish him with the finest foods and dress, and then to make up a warm bed for the “old cove.” (“Cove” is an old-fashioned British word meaning “fellow.”) The last line tells us what impels this loving and urgent hospitality: “this is Christ.”

Whenever you encounter an outstretched hand or a dejected face, how might seeing it as the hand or face of Christ impact your response?

Copyright credit: “On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason was originally published in 1932 in Kiwi: The Magazine of the Auckland University College and more recently has appeared in R. A. K. Mason: Collected Poems (Victoria University Press, 2014). It is reproduced here by permission of Hocken Library Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin, the holder of Mason’s papers.

Roundup: Works of mercy, #GettyMuseumChallenge, new gospel songs, and poems

RADIX ARTICLE: “The Seven Works of Mercy: How two Dutch artworks—one Renaissance, one contemporary—can help us recover an ethic of neighborly care” by Victoria Emily Jones: When I was in the Netherlands last year, I saw lots of artistic representations of what are called the seven works of mercy, derived from Matthew 25. (Even after the Protestant Reformation, the subject remained popular among Dutch artists, who delighted in representations of everyday life.) In this article, published last week, I share just two. One is a multipaneled painting, now at the Rijksmuseum, commissioned in 1504 by the Holy Ghost Confraternity in Alkmaar, which ran an almshouse that provided medical care for the sick and housing for the poor (social welfare programs were carried out by the church in those days); notably, in each contemporary townscape, Jesus stands among the afflicted—a theologically loaded artistic choice. The other artwork is a set of photographs by Thijs Wolzak on display inside Rotterdam Cathedral, which feature community service organizations in action, caring for drug users, undocumented immigrants, and others. (Note: The chapel was in a bit of disarray when I was there, with light fixtures disassembled all over the floor and a ramp blocking my entrance, hence the messy staging of my photo! See a professional photograph in the article link, including photos of individual panels.)

Feeding the Hungry by the Alkmaar Master
Master of Alkmaar, Feeding the Hungry, leftmost panel from the Seven Works of Mercy polyptych, 1504. Oil on panel, 103.5 × 55 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The inscription on the original frame underneath (not pictured) is a rhyming Dutch couplet: “Deelt mildelick den armen / God zal u weder ontfarmen” (Share generously [with] the poor, [and] God shall have mercy on you).
Wolzak, Thijs_Works of Mercy
Thijs Wolzak (Dutch, 1965–), in collaboration with Kathelijne Eisses, Werken van Barmhartigheid (Works of Mercy), 2010. Duratrans prints in light boxes. Chapel of Works of Mercy, Sint-Laurenskerk (Church of St. Lawrence), Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

It’s interesting to consider the overlap of Christian and civic duty the images present and the way in which they function(ed) in their disparate spaces. The more explicitly theological Alkmaar polyptych was originally owned by a lay brotherhood and sited in a church beside the collection box, and its primary purpose was “to stir up . . . to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), and to financial giving—but it is now in a large, government-run art museum, where it’s viewed mainly as an art historical object. The Wolzak piece, on the other hand, was commissioned as a permanent installation inside an active church that is also a heritage museum and something like a community center, with the purpose of highlighting the charitable work being done in the city. I like how Wolzak helps us to see where some of the needs lie in contemporary society and examples of tangible ways they might be met, through such services as safe-injection sites (for those suffering from heroin addiction) or the Lonely Funeral Foundation (for the anonymous dead).

The summer 2020 issue of Radix magazine also includes an interview with Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, on his book The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus; an interview with D. L. Mayfield on her book The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power; Martin Buber on genuine dialogue; Simone Weil and the “kinship of affliction”; a review of the film Just Mercy; and more.


NEW BOOK: Off the Walls: Inspired Re-Creations of Iconic Artworks: This March on social media, the Getty Museum issued the #GettyMuseumChallenge, inviting art lovers to channel the stir-crazy energy of COVID-19 quarantine into crafting themselves, their families, and their pets into masterpieces of world art and posting the photos online. By May there were at least 100,000 re-creations uploaded to the Internet—246 of which are featured in the new book Off the Walls, released this month by Getty Publications. All profits from the book will go to the charity Artist Relief to support artists facing financial emergencies to the coronavirus pandemic. This is such a fun way to get people to engage with art!



“Hallelujah (Come Bless the Lord)” by September Penn: September Penn is a singer, songwriter, performance artist, worship leader, and cofounder of The Power of Song Inc., an organization that educates about social justice issues through song, theater, and art. She wrote “Hallelujah” while directing the Kaleo Choir at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she earned an MDiv this year with a focus on Worship, Theology, and the Arts. The song was released September 3 as a single on all music-streaming platforms.

“Nara Ekele Mo” by Tim Godfrey, performed by Resonance: Last month the Global Resonance Multicultural Worship Collective, under the organization Arts Release, posted on YouTube a multicontinent, multilingual cover of the Nigerian Igbo song “Nara Ekelo Mo” by Tim Godfrey. It features thirty-seven singers from Brazil, England, France, Indonesia, Singapore, and Spain, with lyrics in Igbo, Yoruba, Tamil, Bahasa Indonesia, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, and English. (See the original version of the song here.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]



“Field Guide” by Tony Hoagland: A few weeks ago SALT Project reprinted this poem that celebrates the ordinary in nature—along with brief commentary and a stunning macrophoto of a dragonfly. An excerpt from the opening chapter of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” is referenced: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” (The poem is from Hoagland’s 2010 collection Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, published by Graywolf Press.)

from the current issue of Image: Image journal is the one piece of mail I most look forward to receiving every quarter—full of poetry, visual art, literary essays, and short stories with a spiritual sensibility. In its current issue, no. 105, some of the poems I particularly enjoyed were “Trench Coat” by Cameron Alexander Lawrence, on the accumulation of things; “Pastoral with Wheat” by John Hart, on fatherhood as beatitude, and as a continual lesson in dying to self; “Duet” by Chelsea Wagenaar [previously], about the “music” of the ordinary moments of motherhood, like tending to your child’s bee sting; and “The Eighth Sacrament” by Peter Cooley, on grief, written after the death of his wife, Jacqueline.

Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)

Last month I undertook a contemporary art pilgrimage through Amsterdam, curated by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth under the aegis of Art Stations of the Cross, a project founded in 2016 by Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing. (Previous city-specific editions have been in London; Washington, DC; and New York.)

Inspired by the traditional Stations of the Cross, the pilgrimage comprises fifteen stops at thirteen locations across the city, where participants are invited to spend time before a specially chosen contemporary artwork that addresses some form of human or environmental suffering. The route starts at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas (Amsterdam’s patron saint) just across from the train station and weaves through, among other places, a park, the old Jewish quarter, a former orphanage, a church-cum–rock concert hall, a hidden house church where persecuted Catholics used to worship, and the red-light district, ending inside the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the city’s oldest extant building, located right in the heart. Not only the art but also the sites themselves were selected with intention, each one a part of the journey down this via dolorosa, “way of sorrows.”

This was my first time to Amsterdam, and it was such a good way to see the city, learn about the city, and pray for the city—all through the agent of art, which functions in this experience as a series of visual laments. When I encounter suffering or read about it in the news, I am often at a loss for how to bring it before God in prayer. I feel its heaviness but lack the words to express that feeling or to intercede in any concrete way. That’s why I’m so appreciative of artists, whose work so often becomes, for me, a nonverbal prayer addressed to my Maker, as I behold and internalize what the artist has first beheld and internalized and has then shared with me through whatever their medium. This is a gift that artists offer the church: vision, long and deep, that’s sensitive to the glories but also the woes of the world and that invites others in, through the skillful crafting of materials, to see right along with them. That act of seeing—of noticing, of giving attention to—can itself be prayer.

Troubled Waters

Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village at the end of the twelfth century with the building of a dam on the Amstel River. (The name Amstelledamme later evolved into Amsterdam.) Its sixty-plus miles of interconnected canals have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North” and make it the most watery city in the world. These navigable waterways led to Amsterdam becoming, in the seventeenth century, the foremost maritime and economic power in the world, and the wealth that came through international trade also enabled the arts and sciences to flourish throughout the country; that’s why the seventeenth century is known as the Dutch Golden Age. (Think Rembrandt and Vermeer.)

Amsterdam canal

The exhibition’s subtitle, Troubled Waters, alludes to the fraught nature of Amsterdam’s identity as a historic port city into which both goods and people travel. The pioneering Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of trading companies that is now defunct, is important in global business history as the forerunner of modern corporations, but it also cannot be separated from its involvement in the slave trade. Although slavery was formally abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, it continues in Amsterdam’s sex industry, in which a percentage of workers are victims of human trafficking; girls and women sometimes arrive in shipping containers, enslaved by pimps and even further by ignorant customers.

Other residents of Amsterdam arrive as refugees, and for many of them, water is a formidable danger that must be traversed on the way to safety.

“Troubled waters” also references the acidification, pollution, and rising temperatures of the world’s oceans, which endanger the many marine species that live there. So even the water itself bears wounds.

Although the overall tone of the pilgrimage is one of sorrow, pockets of hope are dispersed throughout, as in the empowered Surinamese painted by Iris Kensmil (station 5), Paul van Dongen’s Rising drawing that counterbalances his Judgment (station 7), Janpeter Muilwijk’s afterlife vision of his dead daughter victoriously bounding over the earth (station 9), the soothing “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that provide an auditory accompaniment to Anjet van Linge’s chiseled “Kyrie eleison” (station 12), and, of course, the inclusion of a resurrection station (station 15).

(Related posts: “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum”“Remembering Charleston”)

Though modeled loosely after a medieval devotional practice, Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters is thoroughly modern, incorporating audio and video components, 3-D technologies, and the distinctively contemporary genre of installation art. Figurative art is still present and in some cases interacts with the traditional religious images in its environs, but it often does so transgressively—for example, the photorealistic Madonna and Child wrapped in emergency blankets in station 1 and the decapitated corpus of Christ in station 13.

For more information about Art Stations, which runs through April 22, visit http://www.artstations.org/. There you can find a map, opening times, descriptions, tie-in events, and information on where you can purchase a catalog (available in Dutch or English). Most stops along the route host a stack of brochures that condense this info and that contain a stamp card on the back, where you can mark off the stations you’ve visited. All the exhibition sites are freely accessible. (Oude Kerk waives its admission fee if you present your Art Stations brochure at the entrance desk.)

Below and in two subsequent posts, I will share some of my photos and impressions of each station. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are by my husband, Eric James Jones, and are the property of ArtandTheology.org. Feel free to use them noncommercially, with credit to the artists and a link back to this webpage.


Madonna del Mare Nostrum by Hansa
Hansa (Hans Versteeg) (Dutch, 1941–), Madonna del Mare Nostrum, 2017. Oil on canvas, 125 × 125 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

STATION 1. The route starts at the neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, which temporarily houses one of my favorite and arguably the most confrontational of all the works on the tour: Hans Versteeg’s Madonna del Mare Nostrum: Of, Mantel der Liefde (Our Lady of the Mediterranean Sea: Or, Cloak of Love). A young dark-skinned mother holds her toddler son, both of them wrapped in a thermal blanket like the ones given to refugees to prevent hypothermia. Replacing Mary’s traditional ultramarine robe with a “robe” of metallized polyethylene terephthalate, whose gold surface glints in the sun, emphasizes how she and her boy are clothed not only in holiness but also in need. Because of how the artist chose to frame the composition, we don’t know if the figures are standing in a boat that’s still at sea or on the shore. Regardless, their strongly frontal positioning and their direct stares seem to ask the viewer, “Will you receive us?”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)”

Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.


EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.

Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)


FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.