Roundup: Paula Rego’s Life of the Virgin; corito medleys; more

EXHIBITION: Paula Rego: Secrets of Faith, Victoria Miro Venice, April 23–June 18, 2022: Portuguese-born British artist Paula Rego died last Wednesday, June 8, after a seven-decade career, and in the midst of four solo exhibitions of her work—including this one at Victoria Miro’s gallery in Venice, which explores her small but significant body of religious art. [HT: Jonathan Evens]

In 2002 Jorge Sampaio, then president of Portugal, commissioned Paula Rego to create eight pastel drawings based on episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary, to be installed permanently in the chapel of the presidential palace (Palácio de Belém) in Lisbon. Titled Nossa Senhora (Our Lady), the cycle comprises Annunciation; Nativity; Adoration; Purification at the Temple; Flight into Egypt; Lamentation; Pietà; and Assumption. Rego had such fun with the commission that she produced additional works on the subject, which she decided to keep for herself. It is these, along with her watercolor studies, that are currently on display in Venice. (The original eight pastels are not allowed to leave the chapel for which they were made.)

Rego, Paula_The Flight to Egypt
Paula Rego (Portuguese British, 1935–2022), The Flight to Egypt, 2002. Watercolor and ink on paper, 8 1/4 × 11 3/4 in. (21 × 29 cm).

Rego, Paula_Descent from the Cross
Paula Rego (Portuguese British, 1935–2022), Descent from the Cross, 2002. Pastel on paper mounted on aluminum, 29 1/2 × 28 3/8 in. (75 × 72 cm).

I learned about Rego’s Marian cycle a few years ago and became enthralled by it, though I’ve never seen it in person, and most of these supplemental works are new to me. It’s unique, in part because of Mary’s corporeality. In a 2003 interview with Richard Zimler, Rego said, “If there is anything new about these representations of the Virgin, it is the fact that they were done by a woman, which is very rare. . . . It always used to be men who painted the life of the Virgin, and now it is a woman. It offers a different point of view, because we identify more easily with her.”

While the president praised the cycle and Rego insisted that “these pictures were created with admiration and respect,” an open letter to Sampaio referred to it as an “outrage done to the vast majority of the Portuguese people,” an “outrage against their religious beliefs and an offence to the Virgin Mary.” In brief: “blasphemous and scandalous.” I can see why Rego’s larger oeuvre, with its often menacing and/or transgressive imagery (not least of which is her Abortion Series), would scandalize conservative viewers, but I am a bit confused by the outrage at Nossa Senhora, which to me seems very honoring. The objectors, it sounds like, are those who prefer Mary to be more ethereal and sedate; they don’t want to see her, for example, slouching or wincing or expressing astonishment, or awkwardly struggling to hold the weight of her son’s corpse. There will always be those who resist any kind of updating of religious art. If the scenes are restaged in an unfamiliar way or rendered in an unfamiliar style or introduce a new element or the figures don’t look like how we have always pictured them, then some will oppose them outright—which is a shame, because such art often invites us more deeply into the story, helping us to see it afresh.

Definitely check out the boldface link above to view more pieces from the exhibition, as well as a video that shows Nossa Senhora in situ. For further reading, see “Paula and the Madonna: Who’s That Girl?” by Maria Manuel Lisboa and the transcript from Zimler’s interview with Rego.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Past Hymns for the Present Moment,” Tokens, May 26, 2022: “Hymns are often sentimentalized in the American church, cast aside as merely retired songs with dated language, bearing no real appeal or relevance. But of course it may be that our old hymnals have some crucial things to say to us in our current cultural moment. This is the challenge I [Lee C. Camp] posed to Odessa Settles, Phil Madeira, and Leslie Jordan: find and perform some old hymns which might be both indicting and encouraging to the modern church, and to the world at large. Beautiful conversation and moving performances, taped at Nashville’s Sound Emporium.”

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POETRY UNBOUND EPISODES:

In each episode of this podcast from On Being Studio, host Pádraig Ó Tuama unpacks a contemporary poem in fifteen minutes. Here are two from season 5 (which just came to an end) that I particularly liked.

>> “Looking for The Gulf Motel” by Richard Blanco: “What happens when we remember?” Ó Tuama asks. “Why do we remember? Is it sweet or sad? Is it both? If you particularly associate warm memories, romantic memories, nostalgic memories with a place, and then that place is changed, does that mean that all those memories are gone?” In this poem from a collection of the same title (which I checked out from my local library at Ó Tuama’s recommendation, and it’s excellent!), Cuban American poet Richard Blanco, at age thirty-eight, reminisces about a family beach vacation from his childhood. Read the poem here.

If I were writing this poem, it would be called “Looking for The Blockade Runner,” as that’s the name of the Wrightsville Beach hotel in North Carolina that my family and I used to stay at for four days or so each summer. My little brother and I should still be running around on the waterfront lawn as our parents watch us from inside the giant window of the dining room, finishing up their breakfast. My dad should still be riding in a wave on a boogie board, teaching me technique. My mom should still be lounging at the pool in her black one-piece with sunglasses and a Vanity Fair, I feeling so grown up beside her sipping my virgin piña colada. My brother should still be exhilarated by the live hermit crabs at Wings, and I by the dried starfish and sand dollars. We should all still be walking back from the Oceanic, our bellies filled with she-crab soup and hush puppies and catch-of-the-day, down the shore at dusk.

>> “The change room” by Andy Jackson: A poet who’s interested in difference and embodiment, here Andy Jackson, who has severe spinal curvature due to Marfan syndrome, “is looking at the attention that he gets in his body and is refocusing it, extending it wider, looking at the deeper question of, what does it mean for any of us to be in a body, and how do we in bodies relate to others in bodies?” Read the poem here, from the collection Human Looking.

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CORITO VIDEOS: A corito (literally “short song”) is a type of Latino Christian worship song. Coritos have “fairly simple tunes, often with repetitive words, that the people sing by heart,” writes Justo L. González in ¡Alabádle!: Hispanic Christian Worship. “Most of them are anonymous, and pass by word of mouth from one congregation to another. For that reason, the tune or the words of a particular corito may vary significantly from one place to another. They are often sung to the accompaniment of clapping hands, tambourines, and other instruments.” To learn more about this genre, see the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship interview with Rosa Cándida Ramírez and Analisse Reyes and the entry in the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South, vol. 2.

>> Joseph Espinoza sings a corito medley consisting of “Cuando el pueblo del Señor” (When the People of the Lord), “No puede estar triste” (The Heart That Worships Christ Cannot Be Sad), “Ven, ven, Espiritu divino” (Come, Come, Holy Spirit), “Cantaré al Señor por siempre” (I Will Sing to the Lord Forever), and “El Poderoso de Israel” (The Mighty One of Israel). Aaron Barbosa is on keyboard, Fabian Chavez is on percussion, and Yosmel Montejo is on bass.

>> The video below was shared March 25, 2020, in the Multicultural Worship Leaders Network Facebook group that I belong to, and it’s pure joy! The performers string together three coritos: “Le canto aleluya” (I Sing Alleluia), “Hay victoria” (There’s Victory), and “Los que esperan en Jesus” (Those Who Wait in Jesus).

Federico Apecena provides the following translation. (The slashes indicate the number of times that line or passage is sung.)

//The heart that worships Jesus cannot be sad
The heart that worships God cannot be sad//

//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah
The heart that worships God cannot be sad//

//There’s victory, there’s victory, there’s victory in the blood of Jesus//
The enemy will not be able to defeat our souls
//Because there is victory, because there is victory, because there is victory in the blood of Jesus//

//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah
The heart that worships God cannot be sad//

///Those that wait, that wait in Jesus///
//Like eagles, like eagles, their wings will open//

They will walk and will not get tired, they will run and will not stop
//New life they will have, new life they will have, those that wait, that wait in Jesus//

//That’s why I sing, I sing hallelujah
The heart that worships God cannot be sad//

“My soul is alive with thoughts of God”: An adaptation of Mary’s Magnificat, by the Rev. M Barclay

Bandele, George_Virgin Mary
George Bandele (Nigerian, 1910–1995), Virgin Mary, 1960s, wood and pigment. Collection of the SMA African Art Museum, Tenafly, New Jersey. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

With the feast of the Visitation coming up on May 31, I’ve been thinking about the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46–55 upon meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea following their miraculous conceptions. It’s bold, exultant, and worshipful, oriented around the liberative power of God. As we continue to reel from the string of mass shootings in the US (Tuesday’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the 212th this year alone), I wonder how Mary’s song might speak to us in this moment—how we, too, might exclaim it with her same fervor and hope, truly believing that God is at work in the world, bringing about justice and healing, even though it is injustice and hurt that so often sound the loudest.

Here is a modern interpretation of the Magnificat by the Rev. M Barclay, cofounder and director of enfleshed, an organization that creates prayers, liturgies, art, meditations, teachings, and other spiritual resources for collective liberation. Written in 2019, it captures the verve of Mary’s words while also drawing out shades of sorrow and adding a petitionary element. Barclay uses the gender-neutral pronoun “They” to refer to the Triune God.

My soul is alive with thoughts of God.
What a wonder, Their liberating works.
Though the world has been harsh to me,
God has shown me kindness,
seen my worth,
and called me to courage.
Surely, those who come after me will call me blessed.
Even when my heart weighs heavy with grief,
still, so does hope abide with me.
Holy is the One who makes it so.
From generation to generation,
Love’s Mercy is freely handed out;
none are beyond the borders of
God’s transforming compassion.
The power of God is revealed
among those who labor for justice.
They humble the arrogant.
They turn unjust thrones into dust.
Their Wisdom is revealed in
the lives and truths of those on the margins.
God is a feast for the hungry.
God is the great redistributor of wealth and resources.
God is the ceasing of excessive and destructive production
that all the earth might rest.
Through exiles and enslavement,
famines and wars,
hurricanes and gun violence,
God is a companion in loss,
a deliverer from evil,
a lover whose touch restores.
This is the promise They made
to my ancestors,
to me,
to all the creatures and creations,
now and yet coming,
and in this promise,
I find my strength.
Come, Great Healer,
and be with us.

Easter, Day 4

How did Jesus’s mother, Mary, come to find out that he had risen from the dead? Was she there when it happened, keeping vigil? Was she among the holy women at the tomb to whom the angel made the announcement, or did these women go to Mary to relay the news to her? Maybe an angel came to tell her personally? Or perhaps Jesus himself appeared to her, to tell and show, at the home where she was staying.

The Bible is silent as to Mary’s whereabouts between the time of Entombment and the events of Easter morning. Historically, there have been proponents of each of the above suppositions. But the one that has taken the strongest hold is the last one—that Jesus made direct personal contact with his mom after his resurrection, before appearing to anyone else. He wasn’t at the tomb when Mary Magdalene got there (unless, perhaps, he was lingering somewhere in the shadows). Where did he go in the early morning? Some scholars say he must have gone to console his mother.

The claim that Jesus appeared first to Mother Mary can be found as far back as Ambrose (340–397), who wrote in his De virginitate, “Therefore Mary saw the resurrection of the Lord: she saw it first and believed.”

Around 1300 the anonymous writer known as Pseudo-Bonaventure elaborated on this tradition in his highly influential Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ), providing a vivid and affecting narrative in which Mary, when the women depart for the tomb on Sunday morning, stays behind and prays for God to restore her son to her alive.  

And with that, she so praying, sweet tears shedding, lo suddenly our Lord Jesus came and appeared to her, and in all white clothes, with a glad and lovely cheer, greeting her in these words: “Hail, holy mother.” And anon she turning said: “Art thou Jesus, my blessed son?” And therewith she kneeling down honored him; and he also kneeling beside her said: “My dear mother, I am. I have risen, and lo, I am with you.” And then both rising up kissed the other; and she with unspeakable joy clasped him, sadly, resting all upon him, and he gladly bare her up and sustained her. [as translated into Middle English by Nicholas Love in The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ, ca. 1400, with modernized spellings]

Pseudo-Bonaventure imagines a private, emotional reunion in a domestic interior. This episode was picked up by Ludolph of Saxony in his Vita Christi and by other writers, and it circulated throughout Europe. It made its way into the visual arts starting in the first half of the fourteenth century. The two most famous examples are the right wing of Rogier van der Weyden’s Miraflores Triptych and a woodcut from Albrecht Dürer’s Small Passion series.

But I want to take a look at this Italian Baroque bas-relief by the minor artist Giovanni Pietro Lasagna.

LOOK: Christ Appearing to His Mother by Giovanni Pietro Lasagna

Lasagna, Giovanni Pietro_Christ Appearing to His Mother
Giovanni Pietro Lasagna (Italian, d. 1658), Christ Appearing to His Mother, first quarter of 17th century. Terracotta.

I found this artwork in the blog article “Iconography of the Resurrection – Christ Appears to His Mother” by Margaret Duffy, which provides a fascinating compilation of images. Duffy cites its location as unknown, and I’ve not been able to find reference to it anywhere else. It was probably made in Milan, where the artist was active. An email inquiry I sent last month to the city’s Museo del Duomo, which has similar terracottas from the same period in its collection, has garnered no reply. It’s possible the work was made as a design for a marble sculpture.

Carved in low relief in the background, an angel sits on the edge of an empty sarcophagus and tells the three women with their ointment jars that Jesus is not here but is risen. Three untenanted crosses are visible in the distance on Mount Calvary, a shadow of Friday’s events.

In the foreground, sculpted in high relief, we see Mary at her prayer desk. She is interrupted by the triumphant entry of her risen son, attended by angels. Their arms reach out to embrace each other as her grief turns to joy.

To reinforce the news of resurrection, an angel who stands behind Mary peeks out from behind a curtained doorway and points to the concurrent scene that’s unfolding in the garden of Jesus’s burial.

I’m not certain of the identity of the figures behind Jesus. But in looking into it, I did find that there’s a legend, likely originating in fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Spain, that when Jesus appeared to his mother after the resurrection, he presented to her the redeemed of the Old Testament, whom he had just freed from Hades.* So it’s possible that the beardless young man at the upper left with his arms crossed over his chest is Adam, and that the figure at the right with one breast bared is Eve. And I think the man at the top right corner who’s touching them both is an angel.

Note the iconographic similarity to scenes of the Annunciation—Gabriel’s announcement to the young Mary that she had been chosen by God to bear his Son. This “emphasizes the parallelism between the heralding of the Incarnation by the Archangel, and Christ’s own announcement, to his mother, of the fulfillment of that Incarnation, that is, the Resurrection.”**

* James D. Breckenridge, “‘Et Prima Vidit’: The Iconography of the Appearance of Christ to His Mother,” Art Bulletin 39, no. 1 (March 1957): 28. This excellent illustrated article traces the literary and visual history of the resurrected Christ appearing to his mother, in its several variations.

** Ibid., 26–27.

LISTEN: “Be Joyful, Mary” (Regina caeli, jubila) | Words: Latin, 17th century, based on the 12th-century “Regina caeli”; anonymous English translation from Psallite, 1901 | Music by Nicholas Andrew Barber, 2020

Be joyful, Mary, heav’nly queen
Gaude, Maria!
Your son who died was living seen
Alleluia!

Laetare, O Maria
O Maria

The son you bore by heaven’s grace
Gaude, Maria!
Did all our guilt and sin efface
Alleluia!

Laetare, O Maria
O Maria

The Lord has risen from the dead
Gaude, Maria!
He rose with might as he had said
Alleluia!

Laetare, O Maria
O Maria

This song has its roots in a medieval liturgical text that is still used as an antiphon (short hymn) in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Easter season. Gaude means “rejoice”; laetare, “be glad.”

The lyrics could be in the voice of the women who went early to the tomb and are returning with the great news, or it could be that we the faithful are imaginatively addressing Mary across time, inserting ourselves into that story of the first Easter morning.

“After Luke 2:19” by Michelle Ortega

Mantegna, Andrea_Madonna with Sleeping Child
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431–1506), Madonna with Sleeping Child, ca. 1465. Tempera on canvas, 16 1/2 × 12 1/2 in. (42 × 32 cm). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

She took it all in: the shepherds and the royal and learned
men with their prophecies and proclamations. Resting among
common beasts, nipples sore and womb-ached, she smiled at
their praise—but her awe had begun with the angel’s decree.
At the mysterious life-pulse deep inside her. When flicker-
kicks strengthened to rolls and turns, elbows and heels in her
ribs. As buttocks bounced on her bladder.

The brightest star above them—a wondrous sign, but no
more miraculous than when, far from her mother and the
other village women, the flesh of her depth awakened and she
willed the baby from contentment into a harsh night. His cry
pierced the darkness, then quieted as, pressed to her breast,
he found her heartbeat again.

“After Luke 2:19” by Michelle Ortega, reproduced here by the author’s permission, was written for the 2021–22 exhibition Mary, Mary: Contemporary Poets and Artists Consider Mary at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. Ortega is the author of the chapbooks Don’t Ask Why (Seven Kitchens Press, 2020) and Tissue Memory (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming).

Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

Advent, Day 13

LOOK: Mary by Gertrude H. Fiske

Fiske, Gertrude_Mary
Gertrude H. Fiske (American, 1878–1961), Mary, 1920. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 × 30 in. (100.3 × 76.2 cm). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

In the exhibition catalog Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts (2001), Rebecca Mongeon writes,

Fiske did not intend to present this Mary as the Virgin Mary, but because they share a name, the viewer begins to notice similarities. Images of the young Virgin Mary present her as innocent and demure, with her head lowered humbly, eyes downcast, and hands drawn to her chest. In Fiske’s portrait, the girl’s innocence is suggested by her youth. Though she may be a teenager, the braids in her hair and the pinafore she wears tie her to childhood. This Mary also slightly bows her head and modestly holds her hands close to her body. In addition, the Virgin’s traditional colors, royal blue and blood red, appear in the long dress worn by Fiske’s Mary. The Virgin’s head is usually framed by a halo; in Fiske’s portrait, a framed picture placed directly behind her Mary’s head creates a haloing effect. (248)

LISTEN: “Ave Maria (The Song for Mary)” by Jason Gray, on Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy (2012)

She picks the flowers in the morning
Tucks just a few in her hair
The joy of her mother and father
As she spins around unaware
She carries her song in the evening
And the dreams of all little girls
She carries the bread to the table
She carries the hope of the world

Ave Maria
Ave Maria

Angels can carry glad tidings
Or burdens to bear in the dark
Love can take both fear and wondering
And hold them inside the same heart
You carried hope and a promise
You carried shame and disgrace
Which was the heavier burden
That drew lines in a little girl’s face

Ave Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus
Et benedictus fructus ventris
Ventris tui, Jesus

Held by the love you were holding
Is this what it means to be blessed
To carry your hope through the darkness
As it carries you into your rest

Ave Maria
Ave Maria

Singer-songwriter Jason Gray describes the vision behind the song:

When Nichole Nordeman, Cason Cooley, and I were conceptualizing this song, the idea was that musically it would be something like Michael Bublé meets Elvis and that lyrically it would zoom in on very personal details of what it might have been like in Mary’s world and then zoom out to the broad historical view, going back and forth between personal/intimate/rooted in the story that belonged to Mary alone, and then timeless/big picture/rooted in the story that belongs to all of humanity.

As a kid growing up Protestant, I sometimes felt like I didn’t quite know what to do with Mary—it seemed to my young mind that maybe she belonged more to my Catholic friends, so I felt tentative around the idea of her. But she has since become very dear to my heart and an inspiration to me—the progenitor of all who are called to bear Christ to the world.

My hope was to write a song that would contain both a very earthy picture of Mary intermingled with an otherworldly reverence of the mother of Christ. I love getting to sing it every year.

Hear Gray discuss the song further in this two-minute video, especially the double-sided nature of being “chosen”:

The refrain is, of course, a traditional Roman Catholic prayer in Latin, set to the famous tune by Franz Schubert (who actually wrote the tune for a Walter Scott poem!). Taken from the words of the angel Gabriel and, later, Elizabeth to Mary, it translates to “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

I love how Gray’s adaptation of the Ave Maria captures Mary’s youthful innocence and the sense of her being forever changed by God’s call on her life.

Annunciation roundup: “The Parliament of Heaven” mystery play, reversioning the story through poetry, and more

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that the Annunciation is one of my favorite biblical stories. It’s beautiful and wild—and rife with artistic potential! The church celebrates Jesus’s conception in Mary’s womb yearly on March 25, but naturally, it also comes up in the songs, prayers, image cycles, dramas, and meditations of the Advent season. Here’s a roundup of Annunciation-themed art. (You can find more by searching the “Annunciation” tag in the blog archives.)

SONG: “Never Before” by Deanna Witkowski: Jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski [previously] wrote this three-part women’s a cappella piece in 1998 for a Lessons and Carols service at All Angels’ Church in New York City. In the song Mary marvels at the uncanny prospect that she will feel God growing inside her womb, will breastfeed him, will mend his boo-boos—and mourns that she will one day watch him die. “Never Before” appears on Witkowski’s 2009 album From This Place, sung by her, Laila Biali, and Kate McGarry, and was also featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (see “Deanna Witkowski: Liturgical Jazz”).

The angel said the Lord is with me:

The Lord is with me in a way he’s never been before;
his Spirit is my lover, his son shall fill my womb
with holiness and joy
and with life that I can feel kicking at my insides.

The Lord will stay with me in a way he’s never stayed before;
he will suckle at my breast and let me hold him in my arms.
He will run to me when he cuts his finger
or wonders aloud at his Father’s creation in a brightly colored butterfly.

Oh, who is this child, Lord, who comes from up above,
whose eyes will look beyond my own to a destiny I do not know?
Oh, who is this God-boy whose hands shall clasp mine
and whose tears I shall wipe away with trembling fingers of my own?

The Lord will leave me in a way he’s never left before;
as a king whose time has come, as a son his mother loved,
as a boy whose laughter has filled my heart,
and as a baby whose tears I have cried as if they were my own.

The angel said the Lord is with me.

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ESSAY: “Saying Yes to the Annunciation” by Peggy Rosenthal: Peggy Rosenthal, author of The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium, is an excellent guide through poetry. Here she meditates on lines from five poems on the Annunciation: by Hildegard of Bingen, John Donne, Rupert Brooke, Kathleen Wakefield, and Katharine Coles.

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CONVERSATION: “Aliens, angels & annunciations”: In this article, poets Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell dialogue about their 2020 book A Confusion of Marys, a collection of poems they’ve written inspired by the Annunciation. It’s a series of (sometimes irreverent or humorous) variations on a theme, and not what you’d call devotional poetry. Loydell quotes Gabriel Josipovici, who said stories die unless they are changed, reinvented, argued over, and made new, and that’s what this book does. I definitely gravitated more to some poems than to others.

A Confusion of Mary book cover

“I’m interested in the idea of regenerative theology,” Cave says. “I was a cradle Anglican and within that tradition Mary is more of a backseat figure – usually appearing in knitted form at crib services – no intercessions, etc. I wanted to bring her to the forefront and to understand how, in her all-pervasive way, she has shaped my life and the expectations people place on my life – gender, sexuality, politics, mysticism – and the lives of the women around me, and of course, how those expectations must have affected Mary’s own life.”

As for Loydell, he says he’s interested not in theological certainty but in “doubt and myth, symbolism and tangential ideas”—the Marian annunciation scene as palimpsest. He comes at it from a less personal angle.

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MYSTERY PLAY + ART PRESENTATION: “Hope Ubiqui: The Gift of the Annunciation”: This online event hosted by Holy Family (Catholic) Church in South Pasadena, California, on March 16, 2021, combines art reflections by Dr. Leah Marie Buturain Schneider (who’s incredibly warm, wise, and engaging) with a performance of the medieval mystery play The Parliament of Heaven, Salutation, and Conception (from the N-town cycle), translated from the Middle English by Colleen E. Donnelly and directed here by Grete Gryzwana.

The video starts with artist Patty Wickman [previously] outlining the five emotional states Mary cycled through in response to the angel Gabriel, as famously identified by art historian Michael Baxandall. Schneider then discusses a handful of historical artworks depicting the Annunciation, including ones by Fra Angelico and Andrea della Robbia. The thirty-minute play follows, which enacts not only the Annunciation but also an imagined precursor: a heavenly debate among four of God’s virtues—Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness [previously; see also this Instagram post]—about how to answer humanity’s cries for salvation. (Keep in mind that this was Zoom-mediated, with each actor calling in from a different location, and some with spotty internet connections, so there are some technical glitches, but it’s still a stirring and enjoyable performance!) Schneider continues by highlighting additional artworks of significance, focusing on Dieric Bouts’s Getty Annunciation, particularly the detail of Mary’s hands. She reads from the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich on responding to Love’s call; they ask, What does it matter if Mary gives birth to Jesus if we ourselves do not give birth to him in our souls, in our lives?

2:51–7:41: Introduction by Patty Wickman
9:44–18:16: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
18:37–50:10: Mystery play
52:01–1:08:27: Leah Marie Buturain Schneider
1:08:52–1:31:00: Q&A

The remaining video is just informal chatting among a few church members who linger behind on the call.

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CHILDREN’S VIDEO: “The Gospel According to Hamlet” by SALT Project: A whimsical retelling of the Annunciation story, narrated by kids—and by a small ceramic pig figurine! The characters are played by a reproduction of Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, a Barbie with tinsel wings, and a matryoshka doll.

Roundup: Empty chair, how to read a Last Judgment icon, and more

ARTWAY VISUAL MEDITATIONS:

ArtWay.eu is an online hub of resources related to faith and the visual arts. Every Sunday a new “visual meditation” is released on a selected artwork, written by one of a diverse range of volunteers from across the globe. (I contributed last week’s, on Eduardo Kingman, and another of mine, on a Flight to Egypt painting by Pranas Domsaitis, will be forthcoming.) Sign up here to receive the free weekly meditation in your inbox. Here are two examples from the past year, with Advent vibes, that I’ve found particularly meaningful.

>> “The Empty Chair in a Season of Waiting” by Rachel Hostetter Smith: Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, art history professor Rachel Hostetter Smith wrote about a series of Chinese ink wash paintings by Daozi. They’re a tribute to his friend, the Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiabo (1955–2017), who was unable to accept his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in person because he was in prison, so he was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair. Smith brings this image of an empty chair into conversation with all the uncertainty and absence in this current time of pandemic; the Jewish Passover Seder liturgy and its setting a place at the table for the prophet Elijah; Franciscan priest Richard Rohr on the liminal space between the old world and the world to come; and John the Revelator’s eschatological vision of a throne descending from heaven (Rev. 21).

Daozi_The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge
Daozi (aka Wang Min) (Chinese, 1956–), The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge, 2018. Ink and color on paper, 97 × 54 cm.

This and fifty-four other contemporary artworks are part of the international traveling exhibition Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition, which Smith curated (click the link to explore the art—it’s very compelling!). The exhibition is a product of a gathering of North American and Chinese art professors in June 2018 in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, sponsored by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity.

>> “Waiting for the Lord” by Mary McCampbell: Mary McCampbell [previously] writes about a painting by Douglas Coupland, best known for his work as a novelist and for popularizing the term Generation X. “In I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear (2011), the artist has painted a colorful QR (Quick Response) code, defamiliarizing a familiar symbol of daily life. . . . Like most QR codes, if a viewer holds up her camera to the graphic image, a message is decoded via smart phone. A contrast to the hard geometric edges of the painting, the message that magically appears is soft and human: ‘I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear.’ . . . The painting reflects a longing for the real God to manifest himself, no longer merely an idea, a doctrine, a rhetorical position. Where is God in the intricate, detailed, yet seemingly random pattern of life? How can we discern WHO He is? . . . This atypical reminder to ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 27:14) discloses the curious, humble faith of a non-believer, one hoping and waiting for eyes to see the ‘appearance’ of the Lord.”

Coupland, Douglas_Waiting for the Lord
Douglas Coupland (German, 1961–), I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear, 2011. Acrylic and latex on canvas, 182.9 × 182.9 cm. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

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LECTURE: “Understanding the Last Judgment” by Jonathan Pageau: “The traditional icon of the Last Judgment is a very complex image which is both the synthesis of Christian typology as well as an image of the eschatological finality of all things.” In this talk given at St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Seattle, Jonathan Pageau breaks down Last Judgment iconography, explaining how to read it scene by scene.

Elements include:

  • The Deësis, a representation of Christ enthroned between Mary and John the Baptist
  • The hetoimasia, or prepared throne, which awaits the return of Christ
  • The psychostasis, or weighing of souls
  • The ladder of divine ascent, representing the struggle to reach illumination
  • Paradise, with the “good thief,” Abraham’s bosom, and the Mother of God
  • The last trump and the resurrection of the dead, with beasts regurgitating their human prey
  • The river of fire, per Daniel 7:10, with the damned being swallowed by the mouth of Hades

Why am I sharing this now? Because Advent is eschatological and future-oriented in nature, and, though it tends to be underemphasized in our era, judgment is a major theme—which Fleming Rutledge does a great job unpacking in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

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COVID MEMORIAL: From September 17 to October 3, 2021, the National Mall in Washington, DC, was blanketed with some 670,000 white flags, each one representing an American life lost to COVID-19. Titled In America: Remember, the installation was conceived by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg as a way to visualize the magnitude of loss the country has suffered over the past two years in relation to the pandemic, and to invite mourning. Visitors were invited to personalize flags for someone they lost.

Stephen Wilkes’s photos of the memorial undid me. The enormity of suffering represented is difficult to fathom. Every single flag is a devastation. And since the installation was put up this fall, there have been another 100,000-plus COVID deaths in the US, while the global death toll has surpassed 5.2 million.

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (detail)
Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic

In America: Remember (photo by Stephen Wilkes)
In America: Remember, September 17–October 3, 2021, an installation of 670,000+ white flags on the National Mall, conceived by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. Photo: Stephen Wilkes / National Geographic.

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ART COMPETITION: “Macierzyństwo Maryi” (The Motherhood of Mary): The results are in for Poland’s first annual Ogólnopolski Konkurs Sztuki Sakralnej (National Competition of Sacred Art, or OKSSa for short), organized by the Fundacji Maria i Marta (Mary and Martha Foundation). The theme was Mary’s motherhood.

First place, with a prize of 15,000 zł (about USD $3,600), went to Błażej Guza for Macierzyństwo Maryi, which shows Mary drawing a hopscotch board on the pavement, its shape portending her boy’s fate. Jesus is not visible in frame, save for his shadow, which reveals simply an innocent child ready to play.

This piece and thirty-four others from among the many entries were exhibited at Concordia Design Wrocław November 25–30, 2021, and this month a few of them will be shown at the National Museum in Wrocław. You can view the top three winners as well as four honorable mentions at the boldface link above, or on the foundation’s Facebook page. And here’s an exhibition view.

The Fundacji Maria i Marta aims to promote the development of contemporary Christian art in Poland by organizing competitions, exhibitions, and workshops and by providing artistic consultation for churches.

Guza, Blazej_The Motherhood of Mary
Błażej Guza, Macierzyństwo Maryi (The Motherhood of Mary), 2021. Acrylic and chalk, 90 × 60 cm.

Kowalewska-Tylka, Beata_Fullness of Spirit
Beata Kowalewska-Tylka, Pełnia ducha (Fullness of Spirit), 2021. Digital painting, 70 × 50 cm. The OKSSa jury commented on how this piece shows “the interpenetration of the spiritual and human dimensions of Mary’s motherhood,” the shape of the fiery red cloth evoking the Holy Spirit as dove, and the breast that gives milk signifying Mary’s physical nourishment of her son from her own body.

Roundup: Online literary retreat (Aug. 27), Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor interview, global Marian art, and more

ONLINE LITERARY RETREAT: “The Extraordinary Possibility of Ordinary Time: Retreat with Sarah Arthur,” August 27 (this Friday!), 1–3 p.m. ET: Hosted by Paraclete Press. “Come away for an afternoon of exploration, refreshment, and celebration of Ordinary Time. Sarah Arthur invites you to join her for a deep sip at the well of poetry and literature as devotional reading. Guest poets Luci Shaw and Scott Cairns will also take part in this mini-retreat for lovers of words and Spirit.” The $50 admission price includes a copy of Sarah’s book At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time. I attended her Lent retreat earlier this year and found it very meaningful. Sorry for the short notice.

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TRIBUTE: “My Benediction to the Beloved Storyteller Walter Wangerin Jr.” by Philip Yancey: Walter Wangerin Jr. died of cancer on August 5. He was a pastor; a storyteller; a National Book Award–winning author of novels, short stories, and spiritual essays, including The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Sorrows, and Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith; and a professor of literature, theology, and creative writing. His friend and fellow writer Philip Yancey has written this nice little tribute to him for Christianity Today.

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ONLINE EXHIBITION: A Global Icon: Mary in Context, created by the National Museum of Women in the Arts: Curated by Virginia Treanor, this digital resource was created as an expansion of the in-person exhibition Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea (see catalog), which ran from December 5, 2014, to April 12, 2015. Click through the pages to experience art images with descriptions, videos, and other content having to do with representations of Mary from across the world. The first video in the series is posted below, and here’s a playlist of all seven.

Christian canteen from Iraq
Canteen with Adoration of the Christ Child (detail), Syria or Northern Iraq, mid-13th century. Brass, silver inlay, 17 13/16 × 14 7/16 in. (45.2 × 36.7 cm). Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Click image to see full object.

Virgin and Child, from a Falnama (Book of Divination), Mughal India, ca. 1580. Gouache on cloth, 33.4 × 21.1 cm.

Dehua Madonna and Child
Madonna and Child, Dehua, China, 1690–1710. Porcelain, 15 × 3 1/2 × 3 in. (38.1 × 8.9 × 7.6 cm). Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, inv. AE85957.

Ethiopian pendant icon
Double Diptych Icon Pendant, Ethiopia, early 18th century. Wood, tempera pigment, string, 3 3/4 × 6 × 5 1/2 in. (9.5 × 15.2 × 14 cm) (open, mounted). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lady of Sorrows (Italy, 18th c)
Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, Italy, 18th century. Polychromed wood, human hair, 17 3/4 × 17 3/4 × 9 3/4 in. Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Inv. FB.514. Photo © RMAH, used with permission.

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INTERVIEW (+ upcoming virtual conversation): “A God Who Wails and Dances: A Conversation with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor”: This interview by Erika Kloss, which appears in the current issue of Image journal (no. 109), is so. good. Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is the author of the novels Dust and The Dragonfly Sea and award-winning short stories such as “The Weight of Whispers,” as well as the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Here she talks about fiction, faith, coffee, and calling colonialism to account. To engage further, you can register for the Image-sponsored online event “The Art of Fiction: A God Who Wails and Dances with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor,” which takes place September 23 at 3 p.m. ET.

Here’s just a snippet from her conversation with Kloss, where she describes what she would say to those who want nothing to do with Christianity because of all the evil that has been done in its name:

Dare to rescue God as Emmanuel from the dense debris of hubris, and from the weight and stench of whited sepulchers. For it is true, an excess of ghouls have appropriated for themselves the meaning and potency of the revolutionary One who dares to pronounce to humanity, “Love your enemies . . . Do good to those who hate you.”

Why should young people let themselves be revulsed by a legion who never fully entered into the depths of the subversive, seductive, paradigm-dissolving, drinking-and-hanging-out-with-sinners, beautiful, and heroic man-God? Why wouldn’t young people set out to experience for themselves the grand and compelling epic of a creator God in love, who loses his children and the earth to a defiant and rebellious once-beloved prince of light, and who struggles long and hard to regain the humanity he had loved and lost? So passionate and desperate is the creator in this endeavor that he will enter into humanity to try to court and secure these cherished children, even at the risk of his own murder—and even that does not stop the love. A love stronger than death? Don’t we all write anthems, in one form or another, yearning for this?

Let the next generation of seekers . . . visit old worlds that contain the spirit of the faith, not just in the Middle East, but also northern Africa, northern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all those rubbed-out places (that colonialists presumed to suggest they were ‘civilizing’) from which Christianity entered into and transformed Europe and the world. . . . An historical quest for meaning at sites of origins might inspire young people to look again at the call to adventure and transcendent idealism that is the Way.

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VIDEO SERIES: How to Read the Bible by BibleProject: “Reading the Bible wisely requires that we learn about the ancient literary styles used by the biblical authors. . . . While the Bible is one unified story, it cannot all be read in the same way. The How to Read the Bible series walks through each literary style found in the Bible to show how each uniquely contributes to the overall story of Scripture.”

Led by Dr. Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, BibleProject is a crowdfunded animation studio that creates videos, podcasts, and small-group curricula. From 2017 to 2020 they executed a series called How to Read the Bible, which is nineteen episodes total. In it they examine the three major literary styles that comprise the Bible: narrative (chronicles, biographies, parables), poetry (celebratory, reflective, erotic, politically resistant, apocalyptic), and prose discourse (laws, sermons, letters). Each style lives by its own rules and structure, and we get into trouble, for example, when we don’t properly understand how metaphor works, or when we don’t recognize that Paul’s epistles were situated in a particular historical context. Here’s one of the videos in the series, on design patterns in biblical narrative:

“May is Mary’s month”: Hopkins poem meets Glasgow Style

“The May Magnificat” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
    Her feasts follow reason,
    Dated due to season—
 
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
    Why fasten that upon her,
    With a feasting in her honour?
 
Is it only its being brighter	
Than the most are must delight her?
    Is it opportunest
    And flowers finds soonest?	

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
    Question: What is Spring?—
    Growth in every thing—
 
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
    Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
    Throstle above her nested
 
Cluster of bugle* blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
    And bird and blossom swell
    In sod or sheath or shell.
 
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
    With that world of good,
    Nature’s motherhood.
 
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
    How she did in her stored
    Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
    Much, had much to say
    To offering Mary May.
 
When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
    And thicket and thorp† are merry
    With silver-surfèd cherry
 
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes‡ wash wet like lakes
    And magic cuckoocall
    Caps, clears, and clinches all—
 
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
    To remember and exultation
    In God who was her salvation.

* Bugle, or bugleherb, is a blue-flowering plant in the mint family.
† A group of houses standing together in the country; a hamlet; a village.
‡ Bracken ferns.

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In the Roman Catholic Church, May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and daily devotions to her are encouraged throughout the month. In many parishes, statues of Mary are crowned with flower garlands at this time.   

Though I myself do not practice Marian devotion, I have an immense appreciation for her example of faith and for the role she played in salvation history, and I feel a kinship to her as a spiritual foremother. I also find myself drawn to poems and visual art that reflect on her pregnancy, on the Life growing inside her.

Written in 1878 by the Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The May Magnificat” muses on the fittingness of May as a designated period of celebration of Mary. In the yearly cycle of the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant (and Mary’s postpartum purification), is logically dated to February 2, forty days after Christmas, per Leviticus 12:1–4. Lady Day, the feast of the Annunciation (the day on which Jesus was conceived), is celebrated March 25, nine months before Christmas. But why, Hopkins wonders, has the church set apart May in particular for Christians to honor Mary?

He determines it’s because in May, the natural world—at least in the northern hemisphere, where he, an Englishman, lived—is bursting into full bloom, reflecting Mary’s own fecundity, her body a superabundant source of life. In late spring there is a certain joyousness in the air, a “universal bliss,” an “ecstasy.” Mammals are gestating and/or giving birth, birds are incubating and hatching, groves and gardens are flowering, and earth seems to be swelling to a fullness. There is “[g]rowth in every thing.”

Hopkins delights in the wealth of spring, all its flora and fauna. He marvels how the azure of heaven is reflected on earth in the tangled nest of a song thrush, and how sunlight dapples the apple and cherry trees. Perhaps Mary learned gladness from such gladsome surroundings, he suggests. And not only that, but as mother, she shared an affinity with Nature, also a mother.

The month of May culminates, on the 31st, with the feast of the Visitation, which marks the pregnant Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Upon their meeting Mary sang a praise song known as the Magnificat, Latin for “[My Soul] Magnifies [the Lord]” (see Luke 1:46–56). She makes large God’s name, celebrating his mercy, strength, and provision and the impending birth of her son, Israel’s Savior and the world’s.

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In October 2019 I had the privilege of seeing the internationally touring exhibition Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose highlight was a large-scale gesso frieze by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Charles’s artistic collaborator and wife. It was displayed in a narrow hallway behind a plastic screen, so I couldn’t get a shot of the full piece, but here’s a photo provided by the CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection:

Macdonald, Margaret_The May Queen
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (Scottish, 1864–1933), The May Queen, 1900. Gesso on burlap over wood frame, scrim, twine, glass beads, thread, tin leaf, papier-mâché, steel pins, 158.8 × 457 cm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

All other photos in this post are my own.

Emerging in the 1890s in the industrial heartland of Scotland, the “Glasgow Style” was the only Art Nouveau movement in Great Britain. “When applied to two-dimensional objects, such as book covers, textiles, posters, and stained glass, the Glasgow Style blended elongated and organic lines, personal symbolic languages, and favored motifs to create otherworldly stylized plant and human forms,” writes Alison Brown, curator of Designing the New. It was developed by a small group of young adult friends known as The Four: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald, and James Herbert McNair. (Charles and Margaret married in 1900, and Margaret’s sister Frances married James in 1899.)

Margaret’s wide-ranging output included watercolors, graphics, metalwork, and textiles, but her specialization was gesso, a plaster-based medium, which she used to make decorative panels for furniture and interiors. The May Queen was commissioned from her at the turn of the century by Miss Catherine Cranston for one of her famous Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow, where it hung above a window in the Ladies’ Luncheon Room until 1971. (It is now preserved at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.) Gloriously textured, it consists of rough burlap stretched over a wooden frame and covered in gesso, glass beads, metallic leaf, and molded paper. “Some of the modeled plaster shapes bear fingerprints, pinched and pressed into the panel’s surface. The outlines of the figures, trees, and plant forms are ‘drawn’ with brown painted string held fast with long steel pins,” Brown writes.

The crowning of a “May Queen,” a girl chosen to personify May Day and preside over its festivities, is a traditional springtime ritual in western Europe. (If you need a visual, think Florence Pugh’s character in Midsommar . . .) So the title of this artwork is most likely a reference to that. However, I get some serious Marian vibes from the central female figure, which are only reinforced when I view the work in light of the Catholic tradition of the “May crowning” of Mary.

And what a resonant pairing it makes with Hopkins’s “The May Magnificat”! It shows a woman in a strong frontal stance, dressed with flowers, haloed in green, supported by a throne-like backing, and enlarged, perhaps, with child. She’s attended by four maidservants or companions.

This could very well be read as Mary of Nazareth, crowned with beauty, blessed by God to bear his Son into the world.