Roundup: Christian Imagery in Painting Now, “Antelope,” and more

This roundup is a bit longer than usual, but I’ve found that these six items I’ve gathered over the last month complement each other well, so I’m sharing them all at once. The Art in America and Hyperallergic articles raise interesting points about sacred art—what it is, how it functions, what its relevance is to contemporary life—and this is a topic I discuss in a podcast episode that was released earlier this month. Tammy Nguyen and Wes Campbell are two artists whose work I am glad to have just learned about and plan to explore more of. And there’s always something going on in London’s art scene to remark on as relates to theology or Christian history—this time a National Gallery–sponsored virtual exhibition on the fruits of the spirit, and the latest winning entry for the Fourth Plinth competition, which honors a Baptist pastor and freedom fighter from Malawi.

ARTICLE: “Seeing and Believing: Christian Imagery in Painting Now,” a roundtable conversation with four artists moderated by Emily Watlington: Religion is the theme of the December 2022 issue of the influential contemporary art magazine Art in America, and its cover story is a conversation with painters Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, Tammy Nguyen, Alina Perez, and Jannis Marwitz on their “bold reinventions of traditional Christian iconography.” They discuss the generativity of Christian imagery, the power of sacred images, their favorite Christian paintings, the function of metal leaf in illuminated manuscripts, Jesus as recognizable not by his specific likeness but by body language and symbol, “revisiting and repurposing history” as “a core practice of decolonization,” and the role of storytelling and transcendence in art.

I especially appreciated being introduced to Nguyen’s work and hearing her thoughtful and nuanced perspectives. She mentions her Stations of the Cross series, inspired by her visit to the island of Pulau Galang in Indonesia to connect with her Vietnamese parents’ history as refugees on nearby Kuku Island following the Vietnam War. In the decommissioned Galang Refugee Camp, now a tourist site, fourteen golden Stations of the Cross statues are preserved in the forest, which served as devotional aids for the many Vietnamese Catholic refugees—but they are now overgrown by nature. Nguyen was struck by this tropical takeover, and her resultant body of work setting Christ’s passion in the jungle explores not only environmental agency but also legacies of colonialism and the important role of faith in circumstances of trauma and grief. Hear her discuss the series in this five-minute video that the gallery Lehmann Maupin put out:

Nguyen, Tammy_Man of Sorrow
Tammy Nguyen (American, 1984–), Man of Sorrow, 2022. Watercolor, pastel, vinyl paint, and metal leaf on paper stretched over wood panel, 84 × 60 in. (213.4 × 152.4 cm).

I regret that besides Nguyen’s, all the other featured contemporary paintings in the Art in America article have only a very tenuous, sometimes indiscernible, connection to Christianity. Toranzo Jaeger’s End of Capitalism, the Future, a “queer utopia,” is based on Lucas Cranach’s Fountain of Youth—but Cranach’s subject (elderly women entering a pool to become young again) is not Christian, it’s mythological. And Marwitz’s The Raid supposedly references Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto, but I don’t see it at all, compositionally or otherwise. Perez mentions growing up Catholic in Miami, but that influence isn’t apparent in It Never Heals, unless we’re meant to read it in the painting’s flair for violence and drama. So the article’s subtitle, “Christian Imagery in Painting Now,” is a bit of a misnomer.

With the criteria of currently active painters consciously engaging with Christian imagery in ways that are not merely illustrative, I might have chosen to interview, for example, Jyoti Sahi (India), Daozi (China), Emmanuel Garibay (Philippines), Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesia), Marc Padeu (Cameroon), Harmonia Rosales (US), Stephen Towns (US), Rodríguez Calero (US), Trung Pham (US), Laura Lasworth (US), Patty Wickman (US), James B. Janknegt (US), Mark Doox (US), Sergii Radkevych (Ukraine), Ivanka Demchuk (Ukraine), Natalya Rusetska (Ukraine), Paul Martin (England), Filippo Rossi (Italy), Michael Triegel (Germany), Janpeter Muilwijk (Netherlands), Arne Haugen Sørensen (Denmark), Brett a’Court (Australia), or Julie Dowling (Australia).

I’m also disappointed that, from what I can tell from the interview, none of the four artists approaches their subjects from a place of Christian belief. I absolutely welcome non-Christians to engage with Christian stories and symbols—to play with them, reinterpret them, question them, or even use them as tools of critique or subversion. I just wish that in a conversation about ways that Christian imagery is being used today, the editors had thought to invite a Christian to the table, who could have provided a different viewpoint. But, kudos to Art in America for at least broaching the topic of religion in contemporary art!

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NEW STATUE: Antelope by Samson Kambalu: The fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square is the prestigious site of rotating contemporary art installations, and from September 2022 to September 2024, it is home to Antelope by Malawian-born artist Samson Kambalu. This two-man bronze sculpture group reimagines a photograph of the pastor, educator, and revolutionary John Chilembwe (1871–1915) of Nyasaland (now Malawi) standing next to his friend John Chorley, a British missionary. Posing at the entrance of his newly built church, Chilembwe proudly wears a brimmed hat, flouting the law that Africans were not allowed to wear hats in the presence of their then colonial rulers. (Read more from Inno Chanza on Facebook, and from Harvard Magazine.) Kambalu’s sculpture shows the men facing away from each other instead of side-by-side, and he’s made Chilembwe almost twice as large as Chorley, elevating an underrepresented figure in the history of the British Empire in Africa.

Kambalu, Samson_Antelope
Samson Kambalu (Malawian, 1975–), Antelope, 2022. Bronze, resin, 18 ft. high. Photo: Future Publishing / Getty Images.

John Chilembwe and John Chorley
Pastor John Chilembwe and John Chorley at the dedication of Chilembwe’s New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Mbombwe village in what is today southern Malawi, January 24, 1914. The British colonial government demolished the church the next year and imprisoned or executed most of its leaders following an unsuccessful uprising against forced labor, racial discrimination, and conscription led by Chilembwe.

After years of agitating peacefully against British colonial rule to no avail, Chilembwe led an uprising in 1915, which resulted in his death but which laid the seeds for Malawian independence. John Chilembwe Day is observed annually on January 15 in Malawi.

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VIRTUAL EXHIBITION: Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart: Curated by the Rev. Dr. Ayla Lepine as part of the National Gallery’s Art and Religion research strand, this new virtual exhibition was inspired by a passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he writes, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22–23). The exhibition pairs nine artworks from the National Gallery’s collection with nine from UK partner institutions that represent these spiritual fruits, these virtues, which are held in common across faith traditions. The Renaissance through contemporary eras are represented. [HT: Jonathan Evens]

Fruits of the Spirit exhibition (Love)
Screen capture from the online exhibition experience Fruits of the Spirit. This fictitious space consists of seven side galleries and two central displays, which can be navigated with your keyboard.

Accompanying the exhibition is a web-based catalog (with contributions by theologians, activists, novelists, artists), an audio guide, and a series of in-person and online events from November 2022 through April 2023. Next up is a free online talk by the curator on January 30 at 1 p.m. GMT (8 a.m. EST).

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ARTICLE: “The Church of Secular Art” by David Carrier: “Bill Viola’s installation at a Naples church misses the spiritual mark,” reads the deck to this Hyperallergic article, a critic’s response to the Ritorno alla Vita (Return to Life) exhibition that ran from September 2, 2022, to January 8, 2023, at the Church of Carminiello in Toledo. The exhibition was organized by Vanitas Club, a Milan-based organization that throws artistic and cultural events in underutilized historic spaces, in collaboration with Bill Viola Studio.

Viola, Bill_Fire Martyr and Water Martyr
Bill Viola, left: Fire Martyr (2014); right, Water Martyr (2014). Photo courtesy of Vanitas Club.

I didn’t see the exhibition, but I’m familiar with Viola’s work [previously], and I don’t agree with Carrier’s assertions, if my understanding of them is correct. It sounds to me like he’s saying that when a sacred artwork—say, a medieval altarpiece—is transplanted to a museum, the work becomes secular, and that when a secular artwork is shown in a sacred space, rather than the space sacralizing the work, the work secularizes and thus undermines the space. It seems that he’s saying that art made in a contemporary idiom, like Viola’s video art, does not belong in churches, because it does not and cannot function as religious art. Art museums and churches have fundamentally different goals that are irreconcilable.

“The paintings and sculptures in Neapolitan churches are meant to support and strengthen the spiritual lives of believers; representations of St. Gennaro and other saints are intended to reinforce faith. The videos in Ritorno alla Vita call for a fundamentally different response. The exhibition website notes that these videos ‘exemplify the human capacity to transform and to bear extreme suffering and even death in order to come back to life through action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.’ These are important ideals, but they can apply equally to secular and nonsecular contexts.” The description Carrier quotes does seem to water down the art’s Christian content/messaging in an attempt to make the art more widely accessible. I’ve noticed that fault with some other displays of contemporary art in churches—where the curator, seeing their role primarily as one of hospitality to the wider (unchurched) community, underinterprets the art’s Christian angle. Though it can be difficult, there is a way to honor a work’s particularity and universality in the exhibition text.

I think we need to let art function differently for different viewers. Cannot a contemporary artwork, regardless of the artist’s intentions or where the art is placed, cultivate my affection for Christ as much as a traditional artwork? How I as a Christian read and experience Viola will differ from how an atheist does, and that’s OK. The same is true for a religious painting hanging in a national gallery—it may elicit prayer in me, boredom or contempt in another, emotional identification in another, purely aesthetic contemplation in another, and historical curiosity in yet another. I don’t think an image loses or gains its sacredness by its location, though I don’t underestimate the power of the staged environment to enable that sacredness to best shine through. I think that if the viewer receives a work as sacred, then it is.

That Viola does not depict specific historical saints in his Martyr panels—originally commissioned as a quadriptych by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—does widen their interpretive horizon, but it doesn’t make them less “Christian.” I see the work as a memorial to all the unknown martyrs. I think of all the contemporary Christian martyrs around the world whose names I do not know, who have died with Christ’s name on their lips and his Spirit within them, and am prompted to intercede immediately for believers suffering religious persecution in their countries, who worship Jesus under threat of imprisonment or execution.

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ARTICLE: “Openness to the world: Wes Campbell and his disturbing illusions of peace” by Jason Goroncy: In December 2022 theology professor Jason Goroncy spoke at the opening of a retrospective of the paintings of the Rev. Dr. Wes Campbell, hosted by Habitat Uniting Church in Melbourne. That talk is adapted here on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics web portal. Campbell is a retired Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church of Australia with experience in parish ministry, university chaplaincy, UCA synod and assembly roles, and a sustained commitment to peace, justice, and social responsibility. His roughly three decades of art making was integrally connected to these roles, as through his paintings he expounds a faith-fueled poetics of hope, “bearing witness to the trauma of creaturely existence alongside a refusal to abandon the world to its violence, nihilism, and despair.”

Campbell, Wes_Transfiguration of Christ
Wes Campbell (Australian, 1948–), Transfiguration of Christ, n.d. Acrylic on canvas, 59 × 23 5/8 in. (150 × 60 cm).

“Wes’s art . . . does not shy away from the risky boundaries where hope is threatened, sustained, lost, and birthed,” Goroncy says. “It, therefore, embraces the tragic and the ugly, as well as joy and beauty. Whether his subject matter is the human condition, or explicitly religious stories (such as the nativity or the transfiguration), or the Earth itself, Wes’s work is replete with this kind of fidelity to the contradictions that mark our lived experience. . . . It embodies the conviction that the arts can unmoor us, disrupt the worlds we assume, facilitate our lament, and open up possibilities for futures we hardly dare imagine.”

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Victoria Emily Jones: Art & Theology”: In early December I spoke with Luminous podcast host Peter Bouteneff, a systematic theology professor and the founding director of the Institute of Sacred Arts at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, about my work at Art & Theology. We discuss how I got into this cross-disciplinary field, definitions of “sacred art,” and more.

Bouteneff earned his DPhil in theology from Oxford University under the supervision of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Besides theology, he also has an academic background in music, having studied jazz and ethnomusicology at the New England Conservatory. He has written two books on the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

I’ve been following the podcast since its inception in 2021. My favorite episodes are the ones with poet Scott Cairns; artist Bruce Herman; art historian Lisa DeBoer, author of Visual Arts in the Worshiping Church; curator Gary Vikan, a specialist in Byzantine art and the director of the Walters Art Museum from 1994 to 2013; and historian Christina Maranci, an expert on the development of Armenian art and architecture. Browse all the episodes here.

Roundup: Light in Nativity and Transfiguration icons, plus more art and song

LECTURE: “Light in Sacred Space: Light from the Cave” by Matthew J. Milliner and Alexei Lidov, December 19, 2019, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles: This double lecture about the role of light in Christian spirituality and theology was organized to coincide with the premiere of 10 Columns, an immersive light installation by Phillip K. Smith III that Bridge Projects commissioned for their inaugural exhibition.

While the Light & Space movement was born in Southern California in the 1960s, in many ways it participates in a much longer history of artists in dialogue with the phenomena of light. This presentation by two art historians, Matthew Milliner and Alexei Lidov, will begin with Milliner exploring the unexpected resonance of Phillip K. Smith III’s work with Byzantine and Gothic traditions. Lidov will then expand on these ideas with his scholarship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and its long history of engaging light and mysticism. What kinds of insights might come when Light and Space artists, including Phillip K. Smith III, are put in conversation with ancient Orthodox Christian concepts of the nativity and uncreated light? [source]

Milliner speaks for the first forty minutes, discussing Nativity and Transfiguration icons and their correlatives in the West and making, as always, fascinating connections between art of the past and present. For example, he overlays Olafur Eliasson’s Ephemeral Afterimage Star (2008) on Rublev’s Transfiguration icon (19:19), and Ann Veronica Janssens’s Yellow Rose on an Adoration of the Magi illumination from a fifteenth-century book of hours at the Getty (26:32). He also introduced me to a fascinating medieval manuscript illumination from Germany (which he in turn learned about through Solrunn Nes) that combines the light of Bethlehem and Tabor—two Gospel scenes in one. Don’t miss the quote by Gregory of Nazianzus.

Janssens, Ann Veronica_Yellow Rose
Ann Veronica Janssens (Belgian, 1956–), Yellow Rose, 2007. Projectors, dichroic filters, and artificial mist, dimensions variable (min. 360 cm diameter, min. 250 cm depth). Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen, Germany. Photo: Philippe De Gobert.

Nativity-Transfiguration (Ottonian MS)
The Nativity and the Transfiguration, from an Ottonian Gospel-book made in Cologne, 1025–50. Bamberg State Library, Msc.Bibl.94, fol. 155r.

Combining art history and theology (he has advanced degrees in both), Milliner’s talk is organized as follows:

  1. Thessaloniki | Gregory Palamas (d. 1337)
  2. Constantinople | Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (d. ca. 500)
  3. Paris | Abbot Suger (d. 1151)
  4. Los Angeles | Phillip K. Smith III (b. 1972)

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ART VIDEOS:

>> “A 60-second introduction to ‘The Nativity at Night’”: One of my favorite Nativity paintings! By fifteenth-century Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans, a lay brother in the religious order of St. John. In this video from the National Gallery in London, a camera scans over the painting as an atmospheric soundscape plays and captions guide us in looking at the details.

Geertgen tot Sint Jins_The Nativity at Night
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Dutch, ca. 1455/65–ca. 1485/95), The Nativity at Night, ca. 1490. Oil on oak, 34 × 25.3 cm. National Gallery, London.

>> “Mother and Child Commission”: In this twelve-minute “making of” video, filmmaker Nick Clarke talks to artist Nicholas Mynheer over the first half of 2020, tracing his progress on the life-size Mother and Child sculpture that was commissioned by the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage, an Anglican convent in Oxfordshire. I was struck by, from the looks of it, the physical demands of the sculpting process—the strength and endurance required to chip away daily at blocks of stone outside in winter, until they yield the shape you desire, then the logistics of attaching the blocks with steel, which weigh nearly a ton collectively, and disassembling, transporting, and reassembling them for installation. I was also interested to hear Mynheer discuss the expressive capabilities of English limestone—how you can convey emotional and sartorial subtleties, for example, through the precise angling of the chisel.

Mynheer, Nicholas_Mother and Child (Wantage)
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Mother and Child, 2020–21. English limestone, height 230 cm.

Mother and Child was installed in the outdoor reception area of St Mary’s on April 12, 2021; you can watch a video of the installation here. “In very, apparently, simplified form, there is so much tenderness, energy, and something new,” says Sister Stella, the sister in charge, about the sculpture. “Jesus isn’t going to be held back. Her son’s going to go places.”

To learn more about Nicholas Mynheer, visit his website, https://www.mynheer-art.co.uk/. You can also read the artist profile I wrote on him for Transpositions in 2017.

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SONGS:

>> “Corazón Pesebre” (Heart Manger) by Rescate: A follower of the blog introduced me to this Christmas song from Argentina, and I dig it! Released as a single in 2017, it’s about turning our hearts into a manger to receive Christ. Read the Spanish lyrics in the YouTube video description.

The song is by the highly popular Argentinian Christian rock band Rescate, active from 1987 to 2020. Their lead singer and main songwriter, Ulises Eyherabide, died of cancer in July.

>> “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” (Christmas Version), performed by Providence Church, Austin, Texas: In 2012 Austin Stone Worship songwriters Aaron Ivey, Halim Suh, and Matt Carter rewrote the lyrics to Philip P. Bliss’s classic “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” to make them more Christmas-centered and added a new refrain; their version was released that year on A Day of Glory (Songs for Christmas). Here the song is performed by another Austin worship team—Jordan Hurst, Jaleesa McCreary, and Brian Douglas Phillips from Providence Church—for a virtual worship service on November 29, 2020. Instead of using the Austin Stone refrain, they quote Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” between verses.

Roundup: The Soil and The Seed Project, Transfiguration art, and more

For the first time, this year I plan on publishing short daily posts for the entirety of Lent and for the Octave of Easter, pairing a visual artwork with a piece of music along the seasons’ themes (for an example of this format, see here)—just an FYI of what to expect. I also have several poems lined up. And you might want to check out the Art & Theology Lent Playlist and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify (introduced here and here respectively), which I’ve expanded since last year. I’m very pleased with the Holy Week Playlist in particular.

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NEW RESOURCE FOR HOME LITURGIES: The Soil and The Seed Project: Directed by Seth Thomas Crissman of The Walking Roots Band [previously] and with the contributions of a team of artists, writers, and musicians, “The Soil and The Seed Project nurtures faith through music, art, and Little Liturgies for daily and weekly use in the home. These resources help establish new rhythms of faith as together we turn towards Jesus, believing and celebrating the Good News of God’s Love for the whole world.” The project launched in November 2021 with its Advent/Christmas/Epiphany collection. When the project is complete it will consist of four volumes of music (forty-plus songs total—all original, save for a couple of reimagined hymns) and four liturgical booklets that include responsive scripture-based readings, reflection prompts, suggested practices, and an original artwork.

The Lent/Easter/Pentecost collection releases February 25, but as a special treat, Crissman is allowing Art & Theology readers a “first listen” with this private link (it will turn public on Friday). Here’s one of the songs, “I Want to Know Christ,” a setting of Philippians 3:10–11 by Harrisonburg, Virginia–based songwriter and jail chaplain Jason Wagner, followed by a Little Liturgies sample:

Little Liturgies, Lent Week 1

Thanks to a community of generous donors, The Soil and The Seed Project gives away all its content for free, including shipping, to anyone who is interested (individuals, couples, families, churches, etc.); request a copy of the latest music collection and liturgies here. CDs and printed booklets are available only while supplies last (1500 copies have been pressed/printed for this collection), but digital copies of course remain available without limit.

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CONVERSATIONS AT CALVIN: Below are two videos (of many!) from the 2022 Calvin Symposium on Worship, which took place earlier this month.

>> “Modern-Day Prophets: How Artists and Activists Expand Public Worship” with Nikki Toyama-Szeto: A writer, speaker, and activist on issues of justice, leadership, race, and gender, Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the executive director of Christians for Social Action and a leading voice for Missio Alliance. Here she is interviewed by preacher and professor Noel Snyder. They discuss the generativity of imagination, and its invitation to displacement; the connection between corporate worship and public witness; the movement of the Holy Spirit outside church walls; “political” and “pastoral” as classifications that differ from group to group; embracing messiness; and what pastors can learn from artists and activists.

A few quotes from Toyama-Szeto that stood out to me:

  • “Part of what we’re trying to do at Christians for Social Action is stir the Christian imagination for what a fuller followership of Jesus looks like in a more just society. The word ‘imagination,’ and I would say specifically Christian imagination, I think of as the dream that God dreams for his people and his creation. What does it mean to be oriented toward the dream that God is dreaming? Another word for it is shalom—the full flourishing of all his creation and all his people. And if you look at the gap between where we are today and what that dream is, that gap is imagination. How is it that we get from here, the broken world we see . . . how do we press in and lean into the dreams that God dreams for his people and for his world?”
  • “For me, I have found artists and prophets—those who are agitating for justice—are ones who help dislodge me from everyday things I take for granted, and those assumptions, and they help me to dream new and bigger dreams.”
  • “The pursuit of justice is the declaration of God’s character in the public square.”

Here are links to a few of the names and books she references: Sadao Watanabe, A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Andre Henry [previously], The Many.

>> “Christians and Cultural Difference,” with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith: María Cornou interviews Calvin University professors Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith, authors of Christians and Cultural Difference (2016).

Smith shares his frustration that often the only Christians who endeavor to learn other languages and develop cultural intelligence and appreciation are those who are preparing to be missionaries in a foreign country, and they do it only for the purpose of missional effectiveness.

If you take one piece of theology [i.e., evangelism] and try and make that the bit that’s about cultural difference, that puts distortions into the conversation. . . . You might want to think about mission, but you might also want to think about what it means to be made in the image of God. Does that mean everyone’s the same, or does it mean everyone has responsibility for shaping culture and we might all do it in different ways, and you have to make space for that? We might need to think about the cross. We might need to think about God’s embrace of us and how we embrace each other. We might need to think about love of neighbor. We might need to think about the body of Christ and the makeup of the early church. . . . You might have to visit a whole bunch of different theological places to get a composite picture rather than saying this is the doctrine that somehow solves cultural difference for us.

I was also struck by Smith’s discussion of how cultural difference can help us read the scriptures in a new way (see 19:38ff.). He gives an example from In the Land of Blue Burqas, where Kate McCord, an American, describes her experience reading the Bible with Muslim women from Afghanistan, and particularly how they taught her a very different interpretation of John 4, the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Wow.

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VISUAL COMMENTARY ON SCRIPTURE: The Transfiguration: In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, is Transfiguration Sunday, giving us a vision with which to enter Lent. (Other traditions celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration on August 6.) In this video from the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash discuss this New Testament event through three visual artworks: a fifteenth-century icon by Theophanes the Greek, which shows the “uncreated light” revealed to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor; a fresco by Fra Angelico from the wall of a friar’s cell in Florence, where Jesus’s pose foreshadows his suffering on the cross; and a contemporary light installation by the seminary-educated American artist Dan Flavin, comprising fluorescent light tubes in the shape of a mandorla. Brilliant!

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CIVA TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Again + Again, curated by Ginger Henry Geyer with Asher Imtiaz: “A photography exhibition that invites recurring and fresh contemplation of the ordinary and extraordinary through the seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar,” sponsored by Christians in the Visual Arts. The show will be on view at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis from February 26 to March 26 and is available for rental in North America after that. I saw it at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin in November at the CIVA biennial and was impressed! It is accompanied by a beautifully designed catalog that pairs each photograph with a poem, several of which were written specifically for the exhibition and which respond directly to a given photo.

Winters, Michael_Mount Tabor, June 2017
Michael Winters, Mount Tabor, June 2017, 2017. Inkjet print with holes punched out in white wood frame, 19 × 13 in.

One of my favorite art selections is Mount Tabor, June 2017 by Michael Winters, the director of arts and culture at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. “Mount Tabor . . . is where the transfiguration of Christ is thought to have occurred,” Winters writes. “I stood viewing that scene in 2017. It looked so normal. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to punch holes in this photograph, but I think it’s because I wanted to be able to see through this ‘normal’ landscape to the glory of the transfigured Christ—which is to say, I wanted to see reality.”

Browse all the Again + Again photographs on the CIVA website. Longtime followers of the blog will recognize some of the photos from Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s Via Dolorosa series that I featured back in 2016.

Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Transfiguration

Piers Plowman is a fourteenth-century allegorical narrative poem in Middle English by William Langland, considered one of the greatest works of medieval literature. Unfolding as a series of dream-visions, it follows the narrator Will’s quest for the true Christian life.

Lines 491–95 of Passus V (as counted in the Norton Critical Edition, which uses the B-text) are among the poem’s most striking:

The sonne for sorwe therof les syghte for a tyme,
Aboute midday whan moste lighte is and meletyme of seintes;
Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The lighte that lepe oute of the, Lucifer [it] blent,
And blewe alle thi blissed into the blisse of Paradise.

MODERN ENGLISH TRANSLATION:

The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time,
About midday, when most light is, and mealtime of saints;
Thou feddest with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blinded,
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.

All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that from noon to three on Good Friday, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44–45). Medieval writers and artists sometimes imagined this in personified terms, as the sun veiling its face in mourning over the death of Christ. At what should be the brightest hour of day, the speaker remarks, the sky went black. And while people were eating their midday meal, Christ was preparing for his people a feast of his own flesh and blood.

This latter image is multifaceted, referring in context to the idea that Christ’s blood flowed into hell to rescue the patriarchs and prophets who died before his coming, but also to the legend of the pelican who wounded her breast to feed her children with her blood. The Eucharist is an obvious corollary.

Every line of Piers Plowman has three alliterative stresses, which in V.494–95 in particular create such a beautiful musicality: light, leapt, Lucifer, blinded, blew, blessed, bliss.

In the immense darkness of the Crucifixion, there shone, on a spiritual level, a glory so bright it blinded Lucifer and swept the Old Testament saints into God’s presence. Langland quotes, in Latin, the prophecy from Isaiah 9:2: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” With the atonement accomplished, our foremothers and fathers could finally inherit the promise they had clung to in faith for so long. The conflation of light and breath as a propulsive force or a vehicle of transport is so unique and vivid—how the saints, expelled from their prison, ride a strong wind or a ray of light into paradise. I see them joyfully tumbling to their new home!

This passage anticipates the triumph of Passus XVIII, which centers on the harrowing of hell. Reiterating the unusual verb choice of “blew,” the poet says it is Christ’s breath that breaks down the hellgate. Here is Christ (“the light”) on Holy Saturday, addressing the fiends of hell:

Again the light bade them unlock, and Lucifer answered,
  “Who is that?
What lord are you?” said Lucifer. The light at once replied,
  “The King of Glory.
The Lord of might and of main and all manner of powers:
  The Lord of Powers.
Dukes of this dim place, at once undo these gates
That Christ may come in, the Heaven-King’s son.”
And with that breath hell broke along with Belial’s bars;
For any warrior or watchman the gates wide opened.
Patriarchs and prophets, populus in tenebris,
Sang Saint John’s song, Ecce agnus Dei.
Lucifer could not look, the light so blinded him.
And those that our Lord loved his light caught away.

(XVIII.316–26, modern English translation by E. Talbot Donaldson)

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Lesko, Greta_Crucifixion with Transfiguration
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Crucifixion with Transfiguration, 2019. Tempera on gessoed wood board.

This multitiered icon by Greta Leśko is not a direct response to the Piers Plowman passages, but boy does it resonate! I love how she has rendered the paradoxical nature of the cross as a site of simultaneous darkness and light by integrating a scene of the Transfiguration beneath.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus went up to Mount Tabor with his disciples Peter, James, and John, where he revealed to them, in dazzling light, his true glory. Pierced by these rays, they are literally knocked off their feet! As is traditional, Leśko shows the transfigured Christ holding a scroll in his left hand (signifying that he is the Word of God) and making a blessing gesture with the other.

The Transfiguration was a prefiguration of the Resurrection, and indeed in Leśko’s minimalist conception, this tableau could be read secondarily as Christ risen from the grave. The dark orb that encircles him is like the mouth of his tomb, and the three splayed men evoke the Roman guards who were sent reeling as their dead charge emerged from it alive and in full health.

The top half of Leśko’s icon portrays the Crucifixion. Christ spreads wide his arms across the orange beam, which seems to have no end, but rather melds into the all-encompassing border of light. To his right is what appears to be an open window or a doorway—a displacement, perhaps, of his side wound, which we are invited to enter and take shelter in. At the base of the cross, in a darkened recess, sits a skull, representing the death of Adam.

Adam also appears, with Eve, in the roundel at the cross’s upper terminal. This is a scene of the Anastasis (Greek for “Resurrection”), which is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter). It shows Christ descending into Hades, breaking down its doors (which lie in a heap at his feet) and liberating all the Old Testament saints. Known in the West as the harrowing of hell, this event is referenced in the ancient Apostles’ Creed, which states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and he descended into hell . . .” Medievals loved this part of the story, with all its drama and redeemer-heroism. (It’s the climax of Piers Plowman!) In the Orthodox Church it is a central doctrine.

It’s notable that Leśko has chosen to place the underworld action at the top of the composition and the mountaintop action at the bottom. From the depths of the universe to its heights, God’s radiance is ablaze, yes, but is there a significance to their being transposed? The old world order being overturned, perhaps? Maybe it’s simply to give the Transfiguration more prominence, making it an equal counterweight to the Crucifixion—with the Anastasis, small as it is, merely hinted at. In any case, visually and narratively, it means we read the icon from bottom to top.

By sandwiching the cross between two unambiguous manifestations of Christ’s glory, Leśko helps us see the fuller picture of the Crucifixion, where human evil and God’s goodness met and salvation was born. Or, as William Langland puts it: where light leapt out and “blew all [God’s] blessed into the bliss of Paradise.”

Seeing Your Glory (Artful Devotion)

Velasco, Leandro Miguel_Transfiguration of the Lord
Leandro Miguel Velasco (Colombian, 1933–), The Transfiguration of the Lord. Mural, Great Upper Church Sacristy, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

—Matthew 17:1–9

In the artwork above, Moses is shown on the left holding the Ten Commandments and representing the law, and Elijah, on the right, holds a scroll, representing the prophets; Jesus stands in the center, the fulfillment of both. The painted inscription inside the picture is, of course, Peter’s words to Jesus in Matthew 17:4. The carved inscription below, however, comes from an earlier passage in Matthew’s Gospel, 13:16–17, where Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

This is one of several paintings by Leandro Miguel Velasco located in the sacristy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. (He also designed, in 2006–7, the church’s Incarnation and Redemption dome mosaics, in a much different style.) The sacristy is the room where the priest and attendants vest and prepare before the service, and where they return their vestments and used liturgical vessels afterward. It is not accessible to the general public.

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SONG: “Transfiguration Hymn” | Words adapted by Jeffrey Cooper from the Collect of the Feast of the Transfiguration | Music by J.J. Wright | Performed by the J.J. Wright Trio (J.J. Wright on piano, Ike Sturm on bass, and Nate Wood on drums) and vocalists Sharon Harms and Ashley Daneman on Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

Seeing your glory in the face of your Son,
Hearing his words, and knowing what he has done,
Now we pray that just what we behold
In him we may become.

That, as the prophets spoke in days long before,
We may be heirs through faith with him we adore:
With the Spirit and with you he reigns
Now and forevermore.

Find the full program of J.J. Wright’s Jazz Vespers service for the feast of the Transfiguration, including a lead sheet for this song and others, at http://www.transfigurationvespers.com/program.

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In many Protestant liturgical calendars, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season (this year, February 23) is known as Transfiguration Sunday. To view Artful Devotions from previous Transfiguration Sundays, see https://artandtheology.org/2019/02/26/radiant-artful-devotion/ and https://artandtheology.org/2018/02/06/light-of-knowledge-glory-artful-devotion/.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Transfiguration Sunday, cycle A, click here.

Radiant (Artful Devotion)

Transfiguration by Ventzislav Piriankov
This Transfiguration painting is by Ventzislav Piriankov, a Bulgarian artist born in 1971 and living in Poland.

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said.

As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

—Luke 9:28–36

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MUSIC: “Radiant,” third movement of the Concerto for Violoncello and Strings by Dobrinka Tabakova, 2008 | Performed by cellist Kristina Blaumane, violinist Maxim Rysanov, and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, on Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths (2013)

https://soundcloud.com/dobrinka_tabakova/d-tabakova-concerto-for-cello-strings

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SALT Project (previously) is a production company that puts out a weekly e-newsletter filled with good, true, and beautiful things—one of which is commentary on the coming week’s lectionary readings. Here’s an excerpt from their commentary on Luke 9:28–43:

In the verses preceding this passage, Jesus has just articulated what is arguably his most disturbing, difficult teaching of all: that he must suffer, die, and rise again – and that anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Transfiguration’s light, then, acts as a kind of reassurance for Peter, John, and James (and for the rest of us!). It’s as if Luke is saying: We’re now making the turn toward Golgotha, and that means descending into the valley of the shadow of death. But fear not! Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. Carry it like a torch, for it can help show the way – not least because it gives us a glimpse of where all this is headed . . .

They work their way through the passage in bulleted format, discussing the significance of “eight days after” and the word departure, its harking back to Moses’s radiance at Sinai and forward to Jesus’s resurrection, Peter’s response to the event, and more. Then they bring it home:

Epiphany concludes today: Jesus has “shown forth” to be a healer and a liberator; a teacher and a shining prophet. Peter has just called him “the Messiah” (Luke 9:20). But most fundamentally and decisively, he is God’s chosen, God’s beloved child. His path of love will lead down into the valley, through the dry cinders of Ash Wednesday and the tears of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow. But this week, from here on the mountaintop, we can survey the 40 days ahead, take a deep breath – and remember that the journey through ashes and sorrow is never for its own sake. It’s for the sake of what comes next. In a word, it’s for the sake of transfiguration: a radiant new life and a dazzling new world.

To subscribe to SALT’s newsletter, click here, scroll to the bottom, and enter your email address.


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Transfiguration Sunday, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Bad-news blessing, the transfiguration of Marilyn Monroe, Christian speculative fiction anthology, European sacred art tour

BLESSING: “Blessing for Getting the News” by Jan L. Richardson: August brought two devastating pieces of news to me; I wasn’t in the line of direct impact, but I hurt for the two families who were. A blessing by artist-author Jan L. Richardson came at just the right time. Here’s an excerpt:

. . . when
the news comes,
may it be attended
by every grace,
including the ones
you will not be able
to see now.

When the news comes,
may there be hands
to enfold and bless,
even when
you cannot receive
their blessing now.

When the news comes,
may the humming
in your head
give way to song,
even if it will be
long and long
before you can
hear it,

before you can
comprehend the love
that latched onto you
in the rending—
the love that bound itself to you
even as it began its leaving
and has never
let you go.

Read more, and view original accompanying artwork, at http://paintedprayerbook.com.

ESSAY: “Transfiguring Gold: Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe” by James Romaine: In his latest visual meditation for ArtWay, art historian James Romaine writes on external versus essential beauty, and the Orthodox aesthetic, in one of Warhol’s most famous paintings. “A revelation of uncreated and transfiguring light” in the icon tradition, the use of gold, Romaine posits, was a theological choice on Warhol’s part, one influenced by his Byzantine Catholic faith. Warhol drew on celebrity imagery to encourage a transformation in viewers from material sight to metaphysical vision. This essay is adapted from a more extensive one titled “The Transfiguration of the Soup Can,” published in Beauty and the Beautiful in Eastern Christian Culture and linked to here with the author’s permission.

Gold Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 211.4 × 144.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BOOK: Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith, edited by Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz: Last week the husband and wife team of Donald Crankshaw and Kristin Janz published an anthology of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that engage with Christianity. It features twenty of the 450-plus submissions they received, all but four of which are published here for the first time. Describing their criteria for selection, Crankshaw writes in the introduction, “We wanted stories that were as untidy and as theologically imprecise as the Bible itself.” The result is a collection of diverse voices and approaches, exploring such topics as sin, forgiveness, the afterlife, the soul, mission, miracles, and supernatural agents. To read excerpts from the book, visit www.mysterionanthology.com.

Mysterion cover

TOUR: “Reformanda 2017: Sacred Arts Today, Catholic and Protestant”: The Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality, founded by the Community of Jesus in Massachusetts, has organized a four-leg European tour for next May 10–30 that will explore the face of sacred art from the last five hundred years since the Reformation. With stops in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, the itinerary includes visits to churches and contemporary art exhibitions, symposium lectures and discussions led by Msgr. Timothy Verdon, and Gloriae Dei Cantores choral concerts. Registration is now open.

Reformanda Tour Map