The Kuna (also spelled Guna or Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas archipelago off the east coast of Panama, a cluster of some 378 islands in the Caribbean Sea. They are politically autonomous, and much of their traditional culture is intact.
Since the late nineteenth century, Kuna women have been making what are called molas, reverse appliqué panels made in pairs for the front and back of women’s blouses. As mola collector Jane Gruver describes, “several layers of cloth are stacked together and the design is made by cutting through the different layers of fabric to expose the desired color. Once the specific shape is achieved, the area is stitched around. Sometimes embroidery and applique are also used to add detail.” This colorful, wearable textile art is an integral part of Kuna culture.
The earliest molas featured geometric designs, which the Kunas translated from their customary body painting designs, but now a vast variety of representational subjects are common, including animals, plants, domestic scenes, political satire, dragons, mermaids, superheroes, spacecraft—and biblical stories!
The first Christian missionary to the San Blas Islands was Annie Coope, a single woman from the United States who arrived in the first decade of the 1900s and established a school on the island of Nirgana in 1913. A significant number of the Kuna embraced Christianity, such that there are now churches on thirty of the islands, as well as eighteen Kuna churches in and around Panama City, according to Wycliffe. A Kuna translation of the New Testament was published in 1995, at the behest of Kuna pastor Lino Smith Arango, and a Kuna Old Testament was completed in 2014.
The mola above shows two men hammering nails into Christ’s palms as two mourning figures—presumably John and Mary—stand behind. This piece is from the collection of Sandra and Bob Bowden in Chatham, Massachusetts, who are among today’s major collectors of modern biblical art. It is one of forty molas in the traveling exhibition Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands, available for rental for a nominal fee.
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!
>> “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
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.
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.
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.)
A collaboration between an artist and a preacher, Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Landby Margaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger (Eerdmans, 2019) is an ecumenical on-ramp to the ancient Lenten practice named in the title. A substantial introductory section provides a history of the Stations of the Cross, which are rooted in Holy Land pilgrimages, and selections from centuries’ worth of passion art, song, and other texts, showing the range of ways this old, old story has been engaged in various eras and locales. The core of the book is a service of scripture, prayer, image, and meditation, featuring original woodcuts by Parker alongside theological reflections by Sonderegger, who writes in a pastoral voice; together they draw us into the biblical narrative and its present-day implications, emphasizing how Christ’s mercy goes out and embraces all the sins and sorrows of the world. The final section provides resources for further study as well as an afterword by each of the authors, discussing their respective vocational callings and their approaches to this book project.
Having grown up in a Baptist church, I don’t think I ever heard of the Stations of the Cross until college, and even then, it was just a vague head knowledge. My real entry point into the Stations—into a more experiential knowing of them—was through art, which I began studying more deeply about a decade ago and incorporating, in a loose way, into my spiritual practice. I came to realize that traditional images like the Ecce Homo and the Holy Face of Jesus and the Crucifixion and the Pietà, though often made to stand alone, are sometimes made as part of a fourteen-piece sequence that takes you all the way down the road to Calvary, from the praetorium to the tomb. And since the Middle Ages this sequence of images has had liturgies to go along with it.
The Stations of the Cross are about bearing witness, Parker writes, to the suffering death of Jesus Christ. They’re a way of being with a friend in his last moments (“How dreadful is the death that takes place alone, unwatched, unwept!”), and we do so in participation with fellow witnesses across time and place:
Countless pilgrims have walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross. We imagine that great cloud of witnesses, moving across centuries and cultures. We glimpse them in the winding streets of Jerusalem, in magnificent cathedrals of Europe, in dusty villages in South America. They are rich and poor, young and elderly, vigorous and dying, joyous and heartsick. They pray beside images resplendent in gold and rich color, in front of stark depictions in wood and unbaked clay, with Stations marked by numbers only. They speak and chant and pray in a myriad of languages. They weep. They stand silent. It is remarkable and moving to think of all of these worshipers—in ways so many and so varied—bearing witness to Jesus’s atoning work.
Today the practice of the Stations, for centuries primarily a devotion for Roman Catholics, has spread into the other liturgical denominations and even beyond. It takes many forms, visually and liturgically, from the sparest set of recitations to the most ornate combination of images, texts, and hymns. But to some Christians the practice can seem strange, bizarre, or even offensive, a kind of lugubrious piety with the puzzling addition of nonbiblical scenes. Why would the Stations dwell on this suffering, offering prayers that often seem to focus on Christ’s wounds? What is the spiritual and theological merit of the Stations? And how can a valid spiritual discipline include six (out of fourteen) scenes that are absent from the New Testament account of Christ’s passion? (7–8)
The authors go on to answer these questions, demystifying the Stations—drawing out their theological meaning, scriptural significance, and pastoral dimensions. They clarify the common misconception that the Stations are only about suffering, doubt, and darkness; actually, they are just as much about hope and redemption and resurrection. They are consolatory by nature.
Though centered on the person of Jesus and his journey to the cross, the Stations can also be a way of bearing witness to the suffering of those around us. Historically, they have sometimes taken this form, emphasizing that Christ stands beside all those who suffer. The prayers in Praying the Stations, written by Sonderegger, reflect this concern, interceding for those who bear heavy burdens; who are stricken by shame, guilt, or fear; who live in places of famine or disaster; and so on.
One of the most powerful reflections in the book is on Station XIII, “Jesus Is Placed in the Arms of His Mother.” While acknowledging the uniqueness of Mary, Sonderegger also identifies her as every woman who is vulnerable through the suffering of those she loves. The image of Mary holding her dead son, therefore, can speak to the women of Ramah or Hiroshima, Auschwitz or the Jim Crow South, or any number of other mothers, wives, daughters, sisters who have lost loved ones to violence.
Praying the Stations isn’t merely a theoretical introduction to the Stations of the Cross; it’s practical, hands-on. The new worship service of the Stations that it offers gives readers the opportunity to see for themselves the powerful impact such a practice can have. The book would be suitable for individual or group use—I can envision it being used in small-group settings or corporate worship, or in private devotions.
As one who has never participated in a formal “Praying the Stations” liturgy—being from a denomination that does not readily avail itself of this rich devotional resource from the church’s past—I found the book incredibly helpful in understanding the purpose of the Stations and how a church community of any type could make use of them. The book is perfect for beginners (I’d especially recommend it to pastors and liturgists), while also being of value to those already familiar with the Stations, as it provides a fresh encounter, through word and image, with Jesus’s “Way of Sorrows.” The dual perspective of artist and preacher-theologian is a real asset. Clear, wise, and compassionate.
NEW SONG RELEASE: “Conversion” by Leon Bridges: A smoky, minor-key redemption ballad closes out Leon Bridges’s [previously] latest EP, Texas Sun, a collaboration with the three-piece psychedelic funk band Khruangbin. Bridges wrote the song in 2012 in response to his conversion to Christianity, he said, but this is the first time he’s recorded it. Halfway through, following a personal testimonial about being made alive by the Holy Spirit, the song breaks into a slow R&B rendition of Isaac Watts’s “At the Cross.” Lyrics here. See also the musical and lyrical analysis Aarik Danielsen wrote over at Think Christian.
STATIONS OF THE CROSS:
Contemporary Artists Interpret Stations of the Cross, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, February 19–April 3, 2020: Thanks to one of my readers reaching out, I found out about this church-sponsored exhibition just south of where I live and was able to attend the opening reception, where many of the artists were present to talk about their work and answer questions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to its early closure, but photos of the artworks, which are for sale, can be viewed online: see this write-up by curator Maureen Doallas. Below are the works representing station 8 (“Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”) and station 14 (“Jesus is laid in the sepulcher”).
Passion and Compassion Oxford: This self-guided tour through Oxford, released this February with a new website and supported by the “Alight: Art and the Sacred” app [previously] for Android and iOS, stops at fourteen artworks or artifacts in multiple locations across the city. Designed around the Scriptural Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage of sorts, it comprises a mix of historical and contemporary pieces, including sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Antony Gormley, Old Master paintings by Anthony van Dyck and the studio of Andrea Mantegna, a medieval stained glass lily crucifix, Roger Wagner’s Elie Wiesel–inspired Menorah, a “celure” depicting the Pleiades in white gold, Thomas Cranmer’s prison band, and more. Each stop comes with audio commentary by a clergyperson, theologian, or artist. The tour starts at University Church Oxford, the institution that created this wonderful resource. (Note: Most of the sites on this tour are currently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.)
VIRTUAL TOUR: Single-shot walk-through of Russia’s Hermitage Museum: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest museum in the world (the Louvre is the largest), with over one million square feet of exhibition space extending across six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars. Thanks to a five-and-a-half-hour advertisement by Apple showing off the iPhone 11’s battery life, people can move seamlessly through 45 of the museum’s 309 galleries from their own homes. Shot in one continuous take, the video includes close-ups of individual artworks as well as wide shots of the lavish interiors. It doesn’t cover the entire museum, but there is much western Christian art to see, starting at 1:04:41 with Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi triptych. Among the most famous religious artworks in its collection, which you may know from Henri Nouwen’s book about it, is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (2:15:54). Here’s the trailer, followed by the full-length video:
It includes ballet sequences throughout and concludes with a live orchestral performance featuring Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter.
The Hermitage Museum offers virtual tours of its entire collection, in an interactive format that uses panoramic photos, at https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/. Unlike the Apple video, whose purpose is to showcase the capabilities of the new iPhone, the Hermitage-created tour inserts “info” buttons over each artwork so that you can click through to find out the artist, title, etc., if interested. But this format, in addition to requiring a brief load time for each step forward, lacks the grandiose scoring and camerawork of the new Apple video.
POET FEATURE: Jeanne Murray Walker: A semirecent recent blog post by “online abbess” Christine Valters Paintner introduces the work of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Helping the Morning (2014), Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (2019), and eight other books. Reprinted in full are the poems “Staying Power,” about God’s pursuant nature (a modern-day “The Hound of Heaven,” if you will); “Attempt,” which opens with a quote by Traherne; and “Everywhere You Look You See Lilacs,” about being in the moment, taking cues from nature. There is also a video of Walker reading her poem “The Creation,” which muses on the beautiful quirkiness of giraffes, who “spring up like Wow . . . riff-raff of [God’s] imagination.”
GOODLETTERS ESSAY: “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Religious’ Poet?” by Brian Volck: The contemporary English theologian Nicholas Lash wrote that sadly, “the relation of human beings to the Holy One” has, by many and certainly in the popular imagination, been “reduced to knowledge of an object known as ‘God’ . . . [,] faith’s attentive presence to the entertaining of particular beliefs.” Such reductionism has led many artists to resist being labeled “religious”—“a designation that typically serves to qualify, marginalize, or dismiss creative work.”
But good poetry, Brian Volck says, “and the human sensibilities we’re taught to call religious needn’t be strangers.” There are many poets today who tread the “vast borderlands where religion, spirituality, faith, art, and mystery overlap,” and Volck briefly reviews four such collections from 2019: Anaphora by Scott Cairns, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, This Far by Kathleen O’Toole, and Long after Laudsby Jeanine Hathaway.
VISUAL MEDITATION: On The Alpha & The Omega by Betye Saar: A few weeks ago my commentary on a Betye Saar installation was published on ArtWay.eu. The idiomatic Hebrew in the title is a reference not to Christ but to the beginning and the end of life, a theme Saar explored by arranging around a blue-painted room such found objects as an antique cradle, dried hydrangeas, a boat shell, a mammy figurine, a washboard, empty apothecary bottles, books, clocks, a moon-phase diagram, etc.
With an educational background in design, Saar began her career as a printmaker and working in theater on costumes and sets. She then ventured into collage, which led to assemblage (for which she is most celebrated), sculpture, and installations. With installations, she likes how “the whole body has the experience”—how you are quite literally inside the work. Saar is one of today’s leading American contemporary artists, with twoexhibitions currently running in the United States: one at MoMA, and the other at LACMA. I first encountered her in a college art history course, through her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Race, memory, and spirituality are recurring themes in her oeuvre.
ESSAY: “‘A pretty decent sort of bloke’: Towards the quest for an Australian Jesus” by Jason A. Goroncy: “What happens to religious images and symbols when they get employed outside of their traditional contexts and charged with unapproved and heterodox interpretations?” asks Goroncy. “From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely anti-Jesus’. But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.” [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
Goroncy quotes Wilson Yates, who says that Jesus has become “a part of the culture and life far beyond the final control of the church, . . . imaged in diverse ways by non-Christian as well as Christian artists, often contrary to the church’s dominant interpretation. . . . This should not be viewed as threatening,” however, but rather as “a means by which, paradoxically, the traditional symbols are kept vital – are kept alive in the midst of human life.”
AUDIO INTERVIEW: Justin Paton on New Zealand artist Colin McCahon: In celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, art critic and curator Justin Paton has published McCahon Country, which examines nearly two hundred of the artist’s paintings and drawings. In this Saturday Morning (RNZ) interview, Paton says that McCahon is one of the great modern religious artists; an unabashed Christian, he grappled with how to make religious art in a post-religious age, often interweaving biblical themes and texts with New Zealand landscapes. His paintings, Paton says, are “an unequivocal statement of faith,” painted at times with “sophisticated unsophistication.” In 1948 one critic described them dismissively as “like graffiti in some celestial lavatory”—a comparison Paton affirms but sees as commendatory.
I was familiar with McCahon’s early works—Annunciations, Crucifixions—but not so much the later ones featured here. For example, The days and the nights, about which Paton says,
You could take a first look at this thing and you could think it’s not so exciting, in a way. It’s . . . smeary blacks and then there’s this . . . kind of clay color—muddy, you might say. . . . The form is this kind of ocher cross with black surrounding it. But give it some time, and you realize that the space above describes a horizon line. You can see the riffle of clouds along that horizon. If you know Muriwai on the West Coast, you can recognize it as a West Coast landscape, which is of course the spirit landscape up which souls travel in Maori mythology. And then you realize that this cross is also a kind of estuary, that it is descending through to areas or gates. So it is at once the Christian cross, it’s the Buddhist idea of light as grace which descends towards us . . .
McCahon said the Lazarus story was one of the great stories about seeing: all those people who were witnesses to this event saw as never before. What’s wonderful in the work is, as you read your way from left to right—and it really is this kind of epic telling of the story—when you’re about two-thirds of the way across, he almost makes you into Lazarus. He puts you into the position of this person who is emerging from the tomb, because there’s this sliver of light that opens up and bursts then fills the right-hand third of the painting. It’s like coming out of a dark space and suddenly being blinded by sunlight.
It’s a great example of what a great reader he was. He got into these texts with the avidity of a fan. You really felt he was there with these people in this ancient story and then tries to put us inside it as we stand and walk in front of this giant canvas. It has a terrific oscillation between something worldly and vernacular and then something exalted and sacred at the other end.
CHANT: “I Am Here in the Heart of God” by Erin McGaughan, adapt. & arr. Chandra Rule: At the Singing Beloved Community workshop held in September in Cincinnati, song leader Chanda Rule led participants in a chant that she adapted from Erin McGaughan. To McGaughan’s original, Rule added three new verses with a modulation between each, and she presented the whole of it in a call-and-response format. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
I am here in the heart of God
God is here in the heart of me
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God
I am here in the breath of God
God is here in the breath of me
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
I am here in the breath of God
I am here in the soul of God
God is here in the soul of me
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
I am here in the soul of God
I am here in the mind of God
God is here in the mind of me
Like the earth in my body and my body in the earth
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God
STATION 10. This is the one station I did not get a chance to see, due to its more limited opening hours. Anywhere, Anytimeby Masha Trebukova is a temporary installation in the Mozes en Aäronkerk (Church of Moses and Aaron) in Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein neighborhood. It consists of a nine-foot-tall octagonal structure (a “columbarium”) covered with paintings on newspaper, as well as six large-format “books” of paintings on glossy magazine pages.
A columbarium is a room, building, or freestanding structure with niches for the public storage of funerary urns (which hold the ashes of the deceased). Ancient Romans decorated theirs with frescoes, often of peaceful scenes of the hereafter. Trebukova, on the other hand, has painted this columbarium with images of war and violence, exposing the savagery that causes death. This is not a celebration of paradise gained; it’s a lament for paradise lost.
Hear the artist briefly introduce the piece:
Trebukova used as her painting surface pages from newspapers and magazines, the headlines often creating consonance with the images while the ads create dissonance. The sleek photos selling vacations and luxury goods, enticing you to treat yourself, contrast starkly with Trebukova’s slashes and smears of color that depict masked gunmen terrorizing families, mass executions, refugees on the run, and individuals huddled over the corpses of loved ones. This contrast urges viewers to consider how our own self-absorption might be restricting our view of what’s going on in the larger world. What incinerations are being carried out as we casually engage in our leisure reading and other entertainments? The vaults in Anywhere, Anytime are fictive, but they prompt us to imagine the many bodies and places being turned to ash as armed conflict and acts of terrorism persist globally. [Images below sourced from the artist’s website]
The books are too fragile to be handled by visitors, so they are displayed open in glass cases, laid flat on a black-clothed table, and a video screen nearby loops through all the images in succession. Here is an excerpt from the video, a showcase of book five:
The book appears to have originally been a dance magazine, but Trebukova subverts the elegance associated with controlled bodily movement by recontextualizing these found images of dancers. A woman walking down a rustic road in pointe shoes is given a heavy burden on her back—a child—and a head scarf, recasting her as one of the many mothers fleeing violence in the Middle East. On the following page spread, another dancer’s graceful backbend is re-envisioned as an involuntary response to his having been shot; unlike on stage, this movement will end with a fall.
The Moses and Aaron Church is home to the Amsterdam chapter of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay association committed to prayer, the poor, and peace. Existing in over seventy countries, Sant’Egidio seeks especially to serve the sick, the homeless (including displaced persons), the elderly, and the imprisoned. “War is the mother of every poverty,” they say, and they have been key players in peace initiatives in Mozambique, Algeria, the Balkans, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other areas.
STATION 11.Erica Grimm’s Salt WaterSkin Boats, a collaboration with artist and arborist Tracie Stewart and soundscape specialist Sheinagh Anderson, is an installation of five sculptural coracles made of interwoven willow, dogwood, fig, and cedar branches; animal skin and gut; cheesecloth; and bathymetric ocean maps imprinted with scientific measurements of things like glacial melt, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification. These are suspended from the ceiling along the nave of the Waalse Kerk and are lit from inside, and they are accompanied by an ambient soundscape that viewers activate by scanning a QR code.
Small lightweight boats without rudder, anchor, or keel, coracles are unstable watercraft, easily carried by currents and wind. Back in the day, Celtic Christian pilgrims would set sail in them, not having any destination in mind but rather trusting that God would steer their little boats to wherever he saw fit. In a sense, we are all “skin boats” afloat on a vast ocean, not knowing where we’ll end up. But Grimm’s incorporation of numerical data that highlight the dangerous warming, acidifying, and expanding of the world’s oceans pushes this metaphor in a new direction; the work “proposes an analogy,” writes curator Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker, “between our bodies and the vast ecology of the global ocean: between the life-sustaining, precariously balanced ocean chemistry and the chemistry of our own salt-water-filled bodies.” Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 3)”→
STATION 4.Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.
Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.
Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.
STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:
Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.
We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”
Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”
But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)
An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.
The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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)”→
It’s great to see how many gatherings are happening this spring around faith and the arts. I wish I could attend them all, but travel costs require me to be selective. I’m happy to say that I’ll be at the contemporary art symposium in Amsterdam in March (and taking a few side trips while I’m there) and the Anselm Society conference, “Your Imagination Redeemed,” in April, which convenes in the beautiful foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If you’ll be at either, let me know so that I can be sure to meet you!
(This post has been updated to reflect new information.)
Calvin Symposium on Worship Date: January 24–26, 2019 Location: Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan Cost: $270 (general; single-day options available); $30 (students) Organizers:Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Center for Excellence in Preaching Presenters:A very long list! Description: “The conference brings together a wide audience of artists, musicians, pastors, scholars, students, worship leaders and planners, and other interested worshipers. People come from around the world for a time of fellowship, worship, and learning together, seeking to develop their gifts, encourage each other and renew their commitment to the full ministry of the church.” There are tons of seminars and workshops to choose from, on topics such as congregational songwriting, multilingual singing for English-speaking congregations, skills and drills for the emerging worship leader, technology in worship, worship in times of crisis and trauma, engaging our bodies in worship, the visual arts in worship, using the Psalms in worship, music as exegetical art, the art and science of repetition in worship, and much more. One of the plenary sessions is on “The Many Streams of African American Congregational Song.”
Note: Although online registration has closed, walk-up registration is available. Also, the worship services and plenary sessions will be live-streamed for free (see times).
“Worship, Theology, and the Arts in a Divided World” Date: February 9, 2019 Location: Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California Cost: $75 (general); $25 (student) – or, live-stream for free! (registration still required) [update: videos: Morning Session; Afternoon Session] Organizer:Brehm Center Presenters: David M. Bailey, Makoto Fujimura, W. David O. Taylor, Kutter Callaway, Lauralee Farrer, Todd E. Johnson, Robert K. Johnston, Roberta R. King, Shannon Sigler, Edwin M. Wilmington Description: “To say that we live in a divided world is to state the obvious. Less obvious, perhaps, is to believe that worship might become a vehicle for reconciliation, or that theology might serve as an invaluable aid to mend our personal and social brokenness, or that the arts might forge unity across the divides—whether political or economic, racial or relational, linguistic or cultural, whether in the academy or in the public square, whether inside the church or outside of it. But that is exactly what this conference wishes to suggest.
“A primary goal of this conference is to show how worship, theology, and the arts can become sources of good news to our divided world as well as resources to make tangible that good news by God’s grace. A secondary goal is to generate practical helps that extend beyond the immediate context of the conference in order to serve the broader community. This involves not just the presentations themselves, but online resource offerings: for instance, a one-page resource for small groups on art and racial reconciliation; a Spotify playlist for both pastors and worship leaders; a ‘top 10’ list of most common mistakes in multicultural worship; an annotated resource on global worship; a handout for church leaders on art in a post-Christian society; and more.”
“Modernist Prodigals: Aesthetic Aftermaths of Religious Conversion” (panel discussion) Date: February 13, 2019 Location: New York Hilton Midtown, Manhattan Cost: This is one of the 300+ sessions available to registrants of the College Art Association’s Annual Conference. (Registration starts at $185 and is restricted to CAA members.) Organizer: Anne Greeley Panelists: Linda Stratford, Emily Worjun Wing, Zoë Marie-Jones, Elliott H. King, Douglas R. Giebel Description: “Over the past two decades, the long-presumed secularity of modern art has been called increasingly into question. Numerous scholars, from Sally Promey, to Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness, to Thomas Crow, have challenged the secularization theory promulgated by art historians during the latter half of the twentieth century. Though the academy no longer finds it ‘inadmissible,’ as Rosalind Krauss once did, to connect the spiritual with the avant-garde, and while many religious impulses can be discerned throughout the field of modern art, it is nevertheless the case that many modern artists rejected religion outright—though some only temporarily.
“This panel aims to build on the discussion initiated by Jeffrey Abt in his 2014 panel on ‘Religion and the Avant-Garde.’ It seeks to further clarify modern art’s relationship to religion by examining the lives and work of certain ‘modernist prodigals,’ who during a period of religious apathy or disbelief made significant contributions to modernism before turning, or returning, to organized religion. If art can be said to constitute a mode of thought, and if thought is radically altered through religious conversion, then what might a study of the works of such artists, ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’conversion, reveal about the perceived compatibility of modern art (or of certain iterations or aspects thereof) with a religious worldview? Alternatively, what might it reveal about an artist’s faith?”
“Art Matters” Date: February 16, 2019 Location: Leith School of Art, Edinburgh, Scotland Cost: ₤25 Organizer: Morphē Arts Description: “A day symposium on art, faith and social responsibility. We will discuss the importance of the creative arts in the formation and care of culture from the perspective of Christian belief. The morning will be a series of short talks from artists, musicians, writers, designers, theologians and art philosophers on why the arts matter at this time. An afternoon symposium will lead into a drawing workshop (TBC) followed by an evening music event.”
“The Breath and the Clay” Date: March 22–24, 2019 Location: Awake Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina Cost: from $150 Organizer: The Breath and the Clay Presenters: Stephen Roach, Josh Garrels, Emily P. Freeman, Amena Brown, CJ Casciotta, Marie Teilhard, Molly Kate Skaggs, Kelly Archer, and others Description: “The Breath & the Clay is a creative arts gathering exploring the intersections of art, faith & culture. The weekend event features keynote speakers, performances, workshops and our curated Art Gallery juried by Ned Bustard of CIVA.” To learn more about the Breath and the Clay movement, check out its official podcast, Makers & Mystics.
“I Believe in Contemporary Art” Date: March 23, 2019 Location: Doopsgezinde Singelkerk, Amsterdam Cost: TBA Organizer:ArtWay Presenters: Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin, Alastair Gordon, and others (TBA) Description: This day-long symposium with workshops is tied to the Art Stations of the Cross exhibition in Amsterdam, which will run from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday (March 6–April 20). As with previous iterations of this project in London, Washington, DC, and New York, the art—this time selected by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Aniko Ouweneel-Tóth—is dispersed in locations throughout the city, and a free digital audio guide will be provided. More details to come.
“Sacrament & Story: Recasting Worship Through the Arts” Date: April 5, 2019 Location: Resonance at SOMA Towers, Bellevue, Washington Cost: $80 Organizer:Brehm Cascadia Presenters: Tamisha Tyler, Stephen Newby, Jeffrey Overstreet, Shannon Sigler, and more Description: “How do artists experience the world? How do creative hearts respond to the Story of God? . . . We believe that artists have a unique capacity to recast God’s Story in ways that are experiential, accessible, and enlivening. The arts can create spaces for worship that encompass a broader understanding of the nature of the Triune God—with room for joy, lament, fear, delight, and mystery. Will you join us as we explore how the arts can help us reimagine and more fully engage God’s Story in our worship and in the world?”
“Majesty: An Art & Faith Incubator” Date: April 18–21, 2019 Location: Nelson, New Zealand Cost: $360 (includes all workshops and materials) Organizer:ATELIER Studio|Gallery Description: “A new resurgence of creativity in the kingdom of God is underway – a Renaissance, if you will, highlighting again the importance and significance of the arts in the body of Christ and to the world. Many artists with a living faith in Jesus Christ have existed only on the periphery, many are isolated, and many are underground. Still, yet, there are many in art schools and in the marketplace, and there are also many rising in their God-given identities returning to the purpose of creative expression.
“The definition of what it means to be creative and a follower of Jesus is far broader than what we might encounter during a Sunday service, it is far more powerful than what the term ‘Christian art’ could ever signify, and far more necessary than what many forms of Christian expression would give credence to. . . .
“MAJESTY calls artists of faith together, to engage in a greater devotion to the One, to release a greater purpose through their making, and to reveal a greater promise – the heart of God. . . . [At this gathering,] visual art-making workshops, times of worship, new ideas and discussion, prophetic input, and plenty of ‘making time’ all flow together to release a new fire in the creative soul.”
“Your Imagination Redeemed” Date: April 26–27, 2019 Location: The Pinery at the Hill, Colorado Springs, Colorado Cost: $225 Organizer:Anselm Society Presenters: Hans Boersma, John Skillen, Junius Johnson Description: “For nearly two thousand years, the church held that the good, the true, and the beautiful were inseparable. But somewhere along the line, they got fragmented. And the result has been a disenchanted Christianity; a slew of inadequate books, music, and movies; and generations of Christians missing out on the redeemed imagination. The disenchanted, the lost, and the Church itself need a renaissance of the Christian imagination. . . . We will explore the redeemed imagination, meet the sacred on its own terms, and carry its light back into our lives, creative arts, and congregations.”
Here are some recently published articles on religious art that I enjoyed, and I hope you do too:
“Shouldering the ‘Yoke of Love’: The Shared Passion of Simon and Jesus in Stone and Verse” by Victoria Emily Jones, Literary Life: Like Jonathan Stockland, I remember visiting Nicholas Mynheer’s home and seeing his Simon and Jesus sculpture and being moved by it. Stockland wrote a poem in response to his encounter, one that fits nicely within the tradition of ekphrastic poetry (poems about a visual work of art). Jump on over to LiteraryLife.org to read my reflection on it, from Sunday. As I was writing this essay, lines like “borders of despair” and “tents of desperation” rang out especially loudly, reminding me of the cross being borne by Latin American immigrants seeking entry into the United States, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries.
“Theology, Arts, and Culture Series: An Interview with Penny Warden” (+ Part 2), Transpositions: The British artist Penny Warden is best known for her fifteen Stations of the Cross paintings at Blackburn Cathedral. In this excellent two-part interview, she answers questions such as: What does “Christian art” mean in today’s culture? Is there a place for the didactic in religious art? What contemporary artists are making compelling art of theological relevance? Warden also discusses the challenges and advantages of making permanent art for a worship space, how theology informs her practice, the role of tradition versus innovation, and more.
“Creating Sacred Space through Art and Light: The Vision of the Calvary Chapel Sacred Art Renovation”: Aesthetic renovations are underway at Biola University’s chapel in Southern California. Not only are significant changes in flooring, walls, seating, and lighting being made, but new permanent art installations have been commissioned by Danish artists Maja Lisa Engelhardt and Peter Brandes: Engelhardt is making an abstract, gilded Resurrection altarpiece for the west wall and a gilded bronze cross for the wooden entry doors, while Brandes is creating thirty-two hand-blown stained glass windows depicting biblical narratives. This is the first time the husband and wife have collaborated this closely on an art project.
The impetus for this revitalization was a concern that the sacred function and experience of the chapel and its interior architectural space had gradually become disassociated as a result of the increased multipurpose demands put upon the space. “The new artwork and proposed renovations seek to restore the chapel’s sacredness through creating a greater architectural and artistic balance between the interior space and the worship experience,” the Biola news article states. Click on the link to learn more or to contribute to the renovation fund.
“A Model for All Humanity: Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo” by Nigel Halliday, ArtWay: The marbleized plastic sculpture Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger is one of my favorite works of contemporary religious art, and Halliday introduces it beautifully. The artist created it in 1999 to top the empty Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square—where the plinths in the three other corners display sculptures of British royals and military commanders. Though the sculpture has since been removed (and shown elsewhere) to allow for the rotation of other new public artworks, Halliday shows how its original location is key to interpreting its meaning, which has to do with worldly power and glory versus spiritual power and glory.
Meet the animals of the medieval bestiary, a Christian compendium of real and imagined beasts, The Iris: The blog of the J. Paul Getty Trust recently ran a series of features interpreting the symbolism of various animals from medieval bestiaries. (“A bestiary is a collection of stories about animals—including land creatures, fish, birds, and serpents [some real, some fantastical]—whose properties and behaviors were interpreted as symbols for God’s divine order.”) The phoenix, for example, is a mythical bird who sets himself on fire but on the third day rises again from the ashes of his pyre—a symbol of Christ. Another common symbol of Christ cemented by bestiaries and found in much medieval Crucifixion art is the pelican, who was said to peck at her breast until it bleeds, and then the blood feeds (or, in another variation, revives from the dead) her young. To learn more about this medieval literature genre, visit http://bestiary.ca.