I first encountered the work of Welsh Catholic artist James Keay-Bright last year at the 8th Catholic Arts Biennial at the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where his Trinity Redemption painting was among the juried selections.
It shows God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit standing one behind the other against a black background, facing forward. They are semi-encompassed by a wave of fire that emanates from the foreground figure’s outstretched hand. Vigorous and bright, it swells up and around the trio, its branching tip reaching like arms into the darkness.
The young African man in front represents the Holy Spirit sending forth his presence, Keay-Bright told me. (The illumination of his face is wonderful!) Jesus Christ is shown as a Middle Eastern boy of about eight years old, while God the Father is modeled after an elderly Aboriginal Australian.
Unable to withstand the tidal wave of divine light, evil retreats into the shadows, symbolized by the satanic figure at the left.
In the Old Testament, fire often signifies the presence of God, as when Moses encounters God in the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), or as with the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the wilderness (Exod. 13:21).
In the New Testament, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the people who are gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. This “fire” ignites faith and has a sanctifying effect—purifying us of sin, making us holy.
Last Sunday the church celebrated the Spirit’s historic descent, and this Sunday is marked in liturgical calendars as Trinity Sunday. One of the scripture readings in the Revised Common Lectionary comes from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. . . . And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 1–2, 5). This passage describes the combined activity of the Triune God in bringing about salvation.
Commenting on his painting, Keay-Bright told me, “It’s about cycles of redemption. We respond to God’s call but then fall away. But we can always come back.” God’s “spirit and grace” are constantly extended to us, he says. The fire of divine love is always going out, sweeping through the world to reclaim and restore.
Keay-Bright is interested in non-Caucasian representations of biblical figures. That desire has sprung in part from his international humanitarian work, in which he has encountered the sacred through people of various races and ethnicities. He has worked with refugees in the Balkans, Uganda, and Algeria—first through an NGO and later through the UN Refugee Agency. This month he is traveling to Rwanda to serve refugees from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
—John 1:18 (NLT)
LOOK: The Word by Nicholas Mynheer
This sculpture on the theme of the Incarnation of the Word was commissioned by the Cathedral Church of Saint Philip in Birmingham, England, for the new millennium. The sun shines on the work through the south window, casting light from the colored glass pieces over and across the stone and the surrounding wall.
“The changing light and shadows represent for me the ongoing Incarnation and not merely an historical event,” says artist Nicholas Mynheer. He notes the combination of heaven (glass) and earth (stone).
This is a Trinitarian image: the Father, anthropomorphized but nongendered, presents his glory, the Son, spoken, breathed, coming as infant, and both are embraced by the arcing sweep of the Holy Spirit.
The Rothschild Canticles is the name of a lavishly illuminated manuscript of Franco-Flemish origin, produced at the turn of the fourteenth century. “A potpourri of biblical verses, liturgical praise, dogmatic formulas, exegesis, and theological aphorisms, . . . the manuscript leads its user step by step through meditations on paradise, the Song of Songs, and the Virgin Mary to mystical union and, finally, contemplation of the Trinity,” describes Barbara Newman in her excellent essay “Contemplating the Trinity: Text, Image, and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles.” It’s a diminutive little book, with a trim size of just four and a half inches by about three and a quarter.
The manuscript lacks any provenance before 1856, but Newman proposes that it was made at the Benedictine abbey of Bergues-Saint-Winnoc in Flanders, located at what is today the northern tip of France. The compiler of its texts, she suggests, was probably the same person who designed its remarkable images—most likely a monk of Saint-Winnoc, who probably employed a professional lay artist from Saint-Omer to execute the designs. The book’s patron was probably a canoness at the nearby abbey of Saint-Victor. It is now preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. All photographs in this post are courtesy of the Beinecke. Click here to page through the fully digitized manuscript.
The most extraordinary section of the book is a florilegium (collection of literary extracts) on the Trinity, which comprises folios 39v–44r and 74v–106r and draws especially on Augustine’s De Trinitas. Within these pages are nineteen full-page miniatures that exhibit “the most stunning iconographic creativity, . . . bearing witness to a distinctive Trinitarian theology.”
The representation of the Holy Trinity poses one of the most difficult iconographic problems in Christian art. How is one to portray three distinct, divine persons who share one essence? Historical attempts have included the following:
Three identical Christomorphic men (this one is relatively rare)
Three mystically conjoined faces, or three separate heads sharing one body (nicknamed the “monstrous Trinity” and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church)
The Gnadenstuhl (Throne of Mercy, or Throne of Grace), in which the Father is shown holding a crucifix or, in a later variation known as the Mystic Pietà, his slumped Son, while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers between them
Triangles, trefoils, triquetras, or other abstract geometric designs that suggest Three-in-Oneness
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Holy Trinity is represented by three angels seated at a table. These are the three mysterious visitors of Abraham in Genesis 18, believed to be a theophany (visible manifestation of God).
The artist of the Rothschild Canticles relies on none of these conventions, inventing instead an almost wholly original visual language to express the rich yet daunting doctrine. In contrast to other depictions of the Trinity, in the Rothschild Canticles we find, says Newman,
a playful, intimate approach to the triune God, marked by spontaneity rather than solemnity, dynamism rather than hieratic stasis, wit rather than awe. There is no hint of narrative, but something more like an eternal dance. . . . The divine persons are caught up in an everlasting game of hide-and-seek with humans while they enact among themselves, in ever-changing ways, that mutual coinherence that the Greek fathers called perichoresis—literally “dancing around one another.” (135)
Jongleurs (itinerant medieval entertainers proficient in juggling, acrobatics, music, and recitation), angels, and various pointing figures play the role of implied viewers and manifest a joyous attitude. For example,
on fol. 79r a celestial percussionist attacks a row of bells with mallets; on fol. 84r, angels in the upper left and right play a game of ring toss; on fol. 88r, musicians . . . strum whimsically shaped zithers embellished with animal heads. . . . In the lower right corner of fol. 96r, an elfin figure bends over backward to play an instrument whose pinwheel shape mimics the great solar wheel behind which divine Wisdom hides. Four characters in the corners of fol. 98r stretch their arms as if to join hands in a cosmic dance, while on fol. 100r, three spectators raise their hands in wonder beneath a divine apparition, imitating the stunned postures of Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. . . . Collectively, they seem to proclaim that the reader need not be ashamed or afraid, even though all human attempts to comprehend the Trinity are comically inept. Nonetheless, she can merrily follow the Lord of the Dance. (135–36)
The quirkiness is so endearing!
In the Rothschild Canticles, coinherence is the dimension of Trinitarian theology to which the artist seems most profoundly committed. The complex relationality of the three persons is conveyed through the delicate interplay of touch, gesture, and changing positions. Sometimes the Father and Son join hands; on fol. 104r they touch feet behind the wheel they hold. Sometimes they grasp the sides, wings, or talons of the dove, and sometimes they unite around a fourth figure representing the Divine Essence. (143–44)
the artist invented some simple devices to keep the paradox of triunity before the mind’s eye at all times. For example, a prime signifier of divinity—the golden sun with its waving, tentacle-like rays—is sometimes single (fols. 44r, 81r, 88r, 90r), sometimes triple (fols. 40r, 83r, 94r). Elsewhere the artist complicated this formula. On fol. 79r, three small suns for each person are superimposed on one large sun; fols. 92r and 100r insert a smaller sun inside a bigger one; and on fol. 96r, two suns interlock to form a double wheel with spokes radiating both inward and outward. (141)
I particularly like fol. 94r, where the three persons of the Godhead wear the sun like a collar. And fol. 100r, where we see just three feet and three hands, each belonging to a different person, peeping out from behind a giant sun disc!
Another recurring and versatile motif in the Trinity cycle is the veil, which signifies both God’s presence and God’s hiddenness. Sometimes it forms a hammock in which the Trinity rests, partially covered (fols. 75r, 88r); or is braided in an enclosing circle, dangling down for humans to touch (fol. 81r); or is looped about the Father, Son, and Spirit, nestling them snugly (fol. 84r); or is knotted and clutched (fol. 92r); or is draped over bands of cloud (fol. 106r). In this artistic program, veils both conceal and reveal, communicating the paradoxical nature of God who is ensconced in mystery—incomprehensible—and yet accessible, wanting to be known.
Notably, the profusion of Trinitarian imagery is supplemented in the manuscript with textual reminders of the limitations of images. In De Trinitate 8.4.7, for example, Augustine says that all manmade images of God are false, and yet, he says, they are useful insofar as they help the mind cling to the invisible reality to which they point.
Below is a complete compilation of Trinity miniatures from the Rothschild Canticles, reproduced in the order they appear in the manuscript. I have prefaced most with one or more of the quotations that appear on its facing page (thanks to Newman’s identifications) so that you can see how intricately text and image relate. If you wish to reproduce any of these images singly, I suggest the following credit:
Trinity miniature from the Rothschild Canticles (MS 404, fol. _), made in Flanders, ca. 1300. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
“Dominus in orisunte eternitatis et supra tempus” (The Lord is on the horizon of eternity and beyond time):
“Tu es vere Deus absconditus” (Truly you are a hidden God) (Isa. 45:15):
“Bene ergo ipsa difficultas loquendi cor nostrum ad intelligentiam trahit, et per infirmitatem nostram coelestis doctrina nos adjuvat: ut quia in Deitate Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus sancti nec singularitas est, nec diversitas cogitanda, vera unitas et vera Trinitas possit quidem simul mente aliquatenus sentiri, sed non possit simul ore proferri.”—Pope Leo I, Sermo 76.2
(“This difficulty in expressing clearly by speech draws our hearts to the power of discerning, and, through our weakness, the heavenly doctrine helps us, that, because of the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, neither singularity nor diversity is to be considered. The true unity and true Trinity can be apprehended ‘at the same time’ by the mind, but cannot be produced at the same time by the lips.” Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland, CSJB, and Agnes Josephine Conway, SSJ)
“Pater complacet sibi in Filio et Filius in Patre, et Spiritus sanctus ab utroque” (The Father is well pleased in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and the Holy Spirit is from both):
“Dicebat enim intra se si tetigero tantum vestimentum eius salva ero” (She said within herself, if I touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed) (Matt. 9:21):
(Also illustrated on fol. 81r is the Holy Spirit as the person “qui facit ex utroque unum” [who makes both one; cf. Eph. 2:14], as cited on the facing page. Notice the shared halo.)
“Trinus personaliter et unus essentialiter” (Three in persons and one in essence):
“Dominus Deus noster Deus unus est” (The Lord our God is one God) (Mark 12:29):
“Ita et singula sung in singulis, et omnia in singulis, et singula in omnibus, et omnia in omnibus, et unum omnia. Qui videt hec vel ex parte, vel per speculum et in enigmate, gaudeat cognoscens Deum.”—Augustine, De Trinitate 6.12
(“They are each in each and all in each, and each in all and all in all, and all are one. Whoever sees this even in part, or in a puzzling manner in a mirror [1 Cor. 13:12], should rejoice at knowing God.” Trans. M. Mellet, OP, and Th. Camelot)
“Sapientia sua, que pertendit a fine usque ad finem fortiter et disponit omnia suaviter” (His wisdom, which reaches from end to end mightily and orders all things sweetly) (Wis. 8:1):
“Tres vidit et unum adoravit” (He saw three and worshipped one), a liturgical verse referring to the Trinitarian epiphany in Genesis 18:1–3, in which Abraham saw three men, fell down in worship, and then addressed his divine visitors in the singular:
“Gyrum caeli circuivi sola et in profundum abyssi penetravi et in fluctibus maris ambulavi” (I [Wisdom] have circled the vault of heaven alone) (Ecclus. 24:8):
“Abscondes eos in abdito faciei tuae” (Thou hidest them [the saints] in the covert of thy presence) (Psa. 30:21):
“Optime et pulcrius loquitur qui de Deo tacet” (He speaks best and most beautifully who is silent about God):
“Centrum meum ubique locorum, cirumferentia autem nusquam” (My center is in all places, my circumference nowhere). Also, “Quod Deus est, scimus. Quid sit, si scire velimus, / Contra nos imus. Qui cum sit summus et imus, / Ultimus et primus, satis est; plus scire nequimus.” (We know that God is; if we wish to know what he is, / We go against ourselves. That he is the highest and the lowest, / The last and the first, is enough; we can know no more.) And another: “Deus fuit semper et erit sine fine; ubi semper fuit, ibi nunc est. / Et ubi nunc est ibi fuit tunc.” (God always was and shall be without end; where he always was, there he is now. And where he is now, there he was then.)
(I love this detail of the Father and Son touching feet behind the wheel to brace themselves up! And the implosion of the sun.)
And lastly, the final text page in the Trinity cycle, which faces a nonfigural miniature of concentric rings of fire and cloud, contains this unidentified apophatic dialogue:
—Domine, duc me in desertum tue deitatis et tenebrositatem tui luminis, et duc me ubi tu non es. —Mea nox obscurum non habet, sed lux glorie mee omnia inlucessit. —Bernardus oravit: Domine duc me ubi es. —Dixit ei: Barnarde, non facio, quoniam si ducerem te ubi sum, annichilareris michi et tibi.
(—Lord, lead me into the desert of your divinity and the darkness of your light; and lead me where you are not. —My night has no darkness, but the light of my glory illumines all things. —Bernard prayed, Lord, lead me where you are. —He said to him, Bernard, I will not, for if I led you where I am, you would be annihilated both to me and to yourself.)
My hope is that pastors, theologians, seminarians, and Christians in general spend time studying, meditating on, and delighting in these artworks, which present profound theological content in a compact and sensory format. Visual theology at its best.
Though our efforts to visualize the Trinity will always be clumsy and imperfect, I do think the Rothschild Canticles artist has been more successful than anyone before or since. His miniatures convey, with whimsy and warmth, the eternal relationship of love at the heart of the universe.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
—2 Corinthians 13:14
SONG: “Om Bhagwan” | Song from the Saccidananda Ashram songbook, composer unknown | Arranged by Chris Hale and Miranda Stone | Performed by Yeshu Satsang Toronto, on Bhakti Geet, vol. 4 (2019)
This Trinitarian song in Hindi comes from a Benedictine monastery in Tamil Nadu. It is performed here by married couple Chris Hale (who grew up in Nepal and India) and Miranda Stone and others from Yeshu Satsang Toronto, a community whose expression of Yeshu Bhakti (Jesus devotion) is “distinctly urban and Canadian, yet informed by the simplicity of the village, honouring what is handmade, humble, and real . . . , navigating . . . between what is traditional and what is progressive.” A transliteration, with English translation, follows. The sacred syllable Om, or Aum, isn’t really translatable.
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Pita Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Father God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Putra Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Son God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Aatma Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Spirit God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Yeshu Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Jesus God
Painted by the Jesuit artist-priest Father A. J. Thamburaj, The Holy Trinity expresses a complex theological doctrine through mudras (Indian hand gestures) and color. I scanned the image from the excellent book Christian Art in India by Herbert E. Hoefer (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982), which features art by thirty-five artists and essay contributions by Jyoti Sahi. Hoefer describes the painting:
Green is the colour of creativity and fertility. Red is the colour of activity. Blue is the colour of the sea and sky, symbols of mystery and eternity. Yellow [saffron] is an auspicious and joyful colour in Indian custom.
The upraised hand [abaya mudra] is a symbol of protection in Indian art and dance. It represents the Father. Its message is ‘Fear not’. The fish denotes the ever-watching eye of God, for the eyelids of the fish never close.
The downward hand [varada mudra] represents Christ. This gesture is common in Indian sculpture and dance. God is said to point his devotees to hide under the arch of his foot for refuge. The red wound reminds us that the risen Lord bears the redemptive marks of the crucifixion.
The red hand symbolizes the purifying fire, the Holy Spirit. The spiral line indicates the wind, connecting all three Persons in unity. Fire and wind are power.
Our life is in the ever-present protecting, redeeming, purifying and empowering hands of the Triune God.
In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word “god” might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying “we don’t know” as of saying “we do know.” To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted. The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.
On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: “Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.” Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: “Come, and I will make you children of light.” The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
All efforts to visualize the Trinity are obviously deficient. The doctrine resists figuration. (How do you convey three distinct divine persons who share one essence?) But that hasn’t stopped artists from trying. Over the centuries, several different types evolved to represent the Three-in-One. The example above, from a late medieval French translation of Augustine’s City of God, shows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enthroned in heaven—the Father as an old man holding a globe, at his right hand the Son still bearing the wounds of his passion, and the Holy Spirit hovering between them in the form of a dove. The two male figures share a royal robe and jointly hold open a book, their word of truth.
The first person of the Trinity is not a human, nor even male, but in Scripture God reveals himself as father and as Ancient of Days, so anthropomorphic depictions developed, though they have always been controversial. These are meant not to be taken literally but, rather, to tell us a little something about God: that he relates to us like a father relates to his children . . . and that he’s ancient! Authority and personhood are more easily shown through figuration, and our anonymous artist here (through the single robe and single seat) conveys the idea that Father, Son, and Spirit are enthroned together as one, together vested with divinity. This is only one aspect of the rich doctrine that is the Trinity.
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 Trinity Sunday, cycle C, click here.
“The Perils and Peculiarities of Visually Depicting the Trinity” Speakers: Dr. Ben Quash, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London; Dr. Scott Nethersole, Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art Date: February 21, 2018 Location: Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London Organizer: Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College and the Courtauld Institute of Art Cost: Free Description: Nethersole will discuss Botticelli’s Trinity Altarpiece, with special attention paid to its unsettling disjunctions of scale and space—a theological decision on the part of the artist. Then Quash “will examine some of the larger theological problems that are raised by trinitarian visual imagery, and look at . . . some of the successes and failures of various artistic experiments, including one or two very recent ones.” Q&A and informal reception to follow.
“Religion in Museum Education” (conference) Speakers: Dr. Caroline Widmer, Dr. Anna Chiara Cimoli, et al. (see link for full list) Date: February 23, 2018 Location: Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute, Florence Organizer: Forum on Museums and Religion, an initiative of the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute’s Museum Studies MA program Cost: Free Description: This one-day conference will bring together museum educators and religious authorities to discuss how secular museums housing religious objects might develop educational programming that highlights sacred functions without risking the impression of a religious agenda. Lecture topics include “Understanding Religion through Art,” “Sharing the Sacred with Schools,” “Teaching from Paintings with Religious Subject Matter,” “Churches as Living Museums,” and more, and case studies will come from the British Museum, the Uffizi in Florence, Museum Rietberg in Zurich, the National Museum for the History of Immigration in Paris, and the Shoah Memorial and Pinateca di Brera in Milan. The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion.
“‘In the manner of smoke’: Leonardo, Art, and Faith” (5-hour mini-course) Lecturer: Rev. Iain Lane, Tutor in Christian Doctrine and the Visual Arts Date: March 3, 2018 Location: Holywell Lodge, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England Organizer: St. Albans Cathedral Cost: £25 Description: “Leonardo da Vinci produced some of the most compelling images in the history of Christian art. . . . This study day explores each of Leonardo’s surviving, overtly Christian works in detail, exploring their meaning and setting them in context. The picture which is revealed is of an artist of profound religious sensibility rooted in both scientific rationality and a deep awareness of the human condition: a man who embodied a unity of vision which has arguably been lost in our own age.”
“Swords into Ploughshares: The Ambivalent Role of the Arts and Religion in Building Peace” Lecturer: Dr. Jolyon Mitchell, Professor of Communication, Arts, and Religion at the University of Edinburgh Date: March 7, 2018 Location: Sarum College, Salisbury, England Organizer: Centre for Theology, Imagination, and Culture at Sarum College Cost: Free (advance booking required) Description: This lecture will explore the role of different media arts in both inciting violence and promoting peace, drawing on examples from countries such as Israel-Palestine, Mozambique, Rwanda, and the UK.
“Scandal and Glory: The Cross in the Bible and Poetry” Speakers: Paula Gooder, Director of Mission, Learning, and Development in the Birmingham Diocese; Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral Date: March 13, 2018 Location: St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Organizer: St. Paul’s Cathedral (Adult Learning initiative) Cost: Free Description: “Is Christ on the cross our brother in suffering or our King in triumph? Jesus’ death is at the heart of Christianity, but the four Gospel accounts are very different and the cross has been seen as both the throne of God’s glory and the place of ultimate desolation and defeat. In addition we have 2,000 years of interpretations, paintings, poems, theologies, and liturgies that add to the complexity, and sometimes to the confusion. . . . Paula Gooder and Mark Oakley will look at different aspects of the cross through the Gospels and poetry, exploring some of what we might learn from it not only of sin and reconciliation, but also of new life, love, freedom, and creation made new.” Q&A to follow.
“Women Artists and the Modern Church in Britain” Lecturer: Dr. Ayla Lepine, Visiting Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex Date: April 4, 2018 Location: The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London Organizer:Art and Christianity Cost: £14.21 Description: “From the turn of the twentieth century to the present, women have produced diverse and complex works of art for and in response to the Church. This talk explores the relationship between Christian sacred spaces, from vast and well-known cathedrals to rural chapels, and women artists in a period in which feminism, culture, and Christianity engaged in new dialogues.” Artists include Winifred Knights, Elizabeth Frink, Enid Chadwick, and Tracey Emin.
Many of these events I found out about through the weekly Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) e-bulletin compiled by Dr. Chloë Reddaway. If you would like to be added to the ASK listserv or announce a relevant event through it, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: The two book cover images on this webpage are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Art & Theology will earn a small commission on any purchase that originates here.
I spent last week in New Mexico with my husband, Eric, and my in-laws, visiting relatives in the south, then driving up north to spend some time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was my first time to the Southwest, to the state where Eric was born; his grandparents came over from Mexico as teenagers and settled in Hobbs, a small oil town, and his mom grew up there, learning English in school. I enjoyed all the tastes: spicy green chiles in or on just about everything (eggs, tacos, burgers, soup, corn, French fries); piñons (pine nuts) galore sprinkled alongside dusty footpaths, ready to crack open and eat; and sopapillas (pillow-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey) after every meal.
On the five-hour upstate drive, the blue sky spread wide open across the desert and clouds hung low, casting shadows that, from the car, looked like bodies of water. The way was flat, flat, flat—until we reached Santa Fe, where mountains rose up and aspens flickered their glorious gold.
In Albuquerque we went to the International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot-air balloonists come out once a year to fly. Unfortunately, high winds prevented the “mass ascension” from happening the day we were there, but we saw static displays—inflated balloons in all shapes and colors. (My father-in-law was partial to the Darth Vader balloon; I liked the lovebirds.) And I got to visit to the artisan tent, where I bought my first nativity set! It’s seven pieces in clay by New Mexico native Barbara Boyd. I set it up in our living room when I got home, but Eric says I need to put it away until Advent . . .
We spent an afternoon in Old Town Albuquerque, strolling past historic adobe buildings and into galleries, while street musicians—Native American flautists and mariachi bands, mostly—provided a culturally immersive soundtrack. Our first stop happened to be one of my favorites: John Isaac Antiques and Folk Art. Isaac has a beautiful collection of santos (Hispano Catholic religious images)—a whole roomful—both contemporary and from the last few centuries. I was close to buying a Saint Francis bulto by Ben Ortega (Francis was his hallmark) but decided against it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Nonbuyer’s remorse—ugh.
Just before we left Old Town, my mother-in-law suggested one last gallery: Santisima, owned by Johnny Salas. I immediately recognized the work of Albuquerque native Brandon Maldonado, which is heavily influenced by the tradition of Día de los Muertos. I’m really attracted to Day of the Dead imagery, with all its macabre whimsy—the kind that makes most Protestants feel uncomfortable. I think the draw, for me, is that it embraces death instead of shrinking away from it; it says, “Death, we do not fear you.” As Maldonado says, Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightful but rather mocking, in a way:
The masses may prefer to think of the deceased as haloed angels floating on fluffy white clouds, but I like the idea of dancing skeletons in hats!
At Santisima I was introduced to the work of the young santero Vicente Telles, also a native of Albuquerque. I really liked his Adam and Eve and Saint Pelagia retablos but most especially his Crucifixion one, which I ended up buying.
It shows a curtain opening up, and two chandeliers dangling, to present Christ on the cross, given for us. As is traditional in New Mexican art, his shoulders and knees are bloodied; in Telles’s interpretation, the blood marks Christ in patterns, almost like tattoos. The animas solas (lonely souls) in the flames of purgatory is also a common motif in New Mexican art. I do not personally subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I read the souls, rather, as Adam and Eve awaiting redemption. According to church tradition, Golgotha was the site not only of Christ’s execution but also of Adam’s burial, which is why, since the Middle Ages, a skull is often painted at the cross’s base, emphasizing Christ’s role as the Second Adam. Telles shows Eve reaching out to touch this death-symbol, lamenting her and Adam’s primordial rebellion and pleading in faith, with her eyes, for deliverance from its consequences. This is the precursor to the Anastasis (Resurrection) icon of Eastern Orthodoxy, which shows Jesus breaking down the doors of Sheol and pulling Adam and Eve up out of their graves to be with him in heaven. We are dead in our sins until Christ raises us. His spilled blood has “loosed the pains of death” once and for all.
To give the retablo a glistening appearance, Telles applied a micaceous clay slip to the pinewood before applying the paint.