To Elizabeth she came,
over the hills,
bearing the Lord flowering in her womb—
sacrament of her flesh,
bud richly taut—
the warmth of her
containing His infinity,
the sun His fire.
The dark earth of her body
seemed to encompass all things.
The terraced fields of Juda
pregnant with seed
called out to her
as she passed,
praising the Child
she was yet to bear,
invoking His blessing
on their expectancy.
These must call out,
full in their fullness,
barren beside hers,
then how should a child
six months conceived
adore with stillness
in his mother’s womb?
“The Visitation” by Calvin B. LeCompte Jr., based on Luke 1:39–45, appears in I Sing of a Maiden: The Mary Book of Verse, ed. Sister M. Thérèse (New York: Macmillan, 1947).
In this poem Calvin B. LeCompte Jr. compares the embryonic Christ to a flower bud about to bloom from the warm, dark seedbed of Mary. The glorious abundance of the spring hills, he writes, is nothing—“barren beside hers”—compared to the abundance and glory Mary holds within her, soon to be revealed. LeCompte personifies the Judean countryside that Mary passes through, in her first trimester, on her way to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, who is herself six months pregnant. Like these women, the fields are “pregnant with seed.” And they recognize with reverence the Christ who travels past them, borne in the womb of his mother. They (the grasses) wave, they bow; they call out to him, seeking blessing. If even nonhuman nature is moved by the as-yet-latent Jesus and can’t help but react with praise, then how much more ought the unborn John, kinsman and appointed forerunner, to leap and rejoice when, momentarily, his mom and Jesus’s embrace belly to belly and sing Magnificat.
Calvin Byrd LeCompte Jr. (1922–2001) was a Black Catholic educator, musician, literary critic, and occasional poet from Washington, DC, the son of a prominent medical doctor. He earned a BA in English in 1943 and an MA in linguistics in 1948, both from the Catholic University of America, and he attended a number of the “literary salons” Ezra Pound held at St. Elizabeths Hospital in DC while Pound was a psychiatric patient there. LeCompte also studied piano under Cecil Cohen, giving lecture-recitals at colleges around the country in the late forties, and taught voice at the Frederick Wilkerson studios for some twenty years. He then went on to serve for twenty-three years as music director at Epiphany Catholic Church in Georgetown, as well as music director at the classical radio station WGMS, where he created and hosted the program Music in Our Time as a showcase and teaching forum for contemporary classical music. A professor of English and music at the University of the District of Columbia, he also lectured at Howard University, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, the Kennedy Center, the Opera Guild, and the Folger Library. In addition, he translated in eight languages for the National Catholic News Service.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .
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.
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;
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,
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Because May is Mary’s month, I thought I’d share some photos I took of various artworks of the Virgin that were on display during my last visit to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate, fifty-four acres, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, the former residence and gardens of Robert and Mildred Bliss. In 1940 the Blisses bequeathed the estate, and their extensive collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, to Harvard University, who runs it as a museum, research institute, and library. In addition to housing a stellar permanent collection, the museum also hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, including by contemporary artists. (When I was there I saw the wonderful Outside/IN by Martha Jackson Jarvis.)
The six Marian artworks featured below include paintings, sculptures, and a tapestry, and each originated in a different geographic region: present-day Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain. All but the first are from the House Collection, on display in the beautifully designed Renaissance-style Music Room.
Stone carving is an uncommon medium for Byzantine icons. While sculpture in the round was typically avoided by the church in the East, at least for devotional use, relief carving, with its closeness to two-dimensionality, was more acceptable, though still much rarer than painted wooden panels.
In this carved icon Mary raises her hands in prayer on behalf of humanity, a type known as the Virgin Hagiosoritissa (Gk. “Intercessor”). Made before the development of the iconostasis, it was probably originally placed inside a church on the left pillar of the bema, or sanctuary, while an image of John the Baptist occupied the right pillar, with Christ at the top center, forming a group known as the Deesis (“Supplication”). These two individuals are traditionally shown as primary intercessors, flanking an enthroned Christ like courtiers, because they were the first to recognize Jesus’s saving role: Mary in her “yes” to Gabriel, John in his in utero jump for joy.
The Greek inscription at the top of the icon, ΜΡ ΘΥ, is shorthand for “Mother of God.”
Bernardo Daddi was the preeminent Florentine painter after Giotto, who had pioneered a new naturalism and may have been Daddi’s teacher. Daddi operated a large and busy workshop, specializing in small-scale paintings and altarpieces commissioned by the well-to-do for their private devotions. While in this panel he uses the traditional Byzantine gold ground, representing the radiance of heaven, he moves toward the Renaissance with individualized facial expressions and depth in space. I love the tenderness of Mary who cuddles her son’s foot as he looks up at her admiringly, climbing over her lap and clutching at her collar.
“This panel was originally the central unit of a triptych, the wings of which are now missing,” writes James N. Carder. “The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child sits in the center on a high-backed throne. To the left stand Saint Peter, grasping two keys, and Saint Dominic, who wears a Dominican habit and holds a lily. To the right stand Saint James the Great, holding a staff from which hangs a small red purse, and Saint Paul, holding a knife. Behind each group of saints are two angels, and in the gable is a roundel with the bust of Christ making a blessing gesture.”
This similarly tender Madonna and Child image was made two centuries later by the German Late Gothic artist Tilman Riemenschneider, who ran the largest sculpture workshop in Würzburg, producing an enormous number of religious images for churches. Jesus reaches his hand up to cradle his mother’s chin, his shirt swept back in a breeze, and she holds him with great fondness while also confronting the viewer with a contemplative air. She stands on a crescent moon, probably meant to associate her with the Woman of the Apocalypse described in Revelation 12, who gives birth to a male ruler whom the dragon seeks to devour.
Riemenschneider was “highly regarded in Europe for his technical virtuosity in wood and stone and for his sensitive blending of religious subject matter with a deeply felt appreciation for humanity.” He was one of the first sculptors to abandon polychromy (the application of color to sculpture) on selected works, emphasizing the simple beauty of the sculpted material, which in his case was usually lindenwood (aka limewood), alabaster, or sandstone. A wealthy, respected, landowning member of Würzburg society, Riemenschneider served on the municipal council. His high status and artistic career came to an abrupt halt, however, during the German Peasants’ War of 1525, in which he refused to obey an order to fight the revolting peasants and was imprisoned as a result.
From the French Late Gothic, the Music Room has this beautiful little broken Pietà. A Pietà (Ital. “pity, compassion”) is a representation of the dead Christ on the lap of his mourning mother, but here the figure of Christ is no longer intact. At first I assumed this was Mary in prayer or contemplation, but upon looking up the object on the printed key and finding it to be a Passion image, I can now see that the expression she bears is an elegiac one.
Many Christian images throughout history are contextualized to the time and place in which they were made, and this one is no exception. “The Virgin is clothed in a manner contemporary to the portraiture of fifteenth-century noblewomen, with a simple gown tightly fitted above the waist,” writes Kristen Gonzalez. “A mantle is drawn up over her head, underneath which a veil and barbeile partially obscure her head and lower neck. . . . The Virgin’s gown and mantle appear to have been painted blue and edged with gilding,” as the polychrome traces suggest.
“Small-scale tapestries with devotional subject matter were produced during the early modern period and were prized for this purpose throughout Europe, particularly among the elite circle of monarchs, princes, dukes, and the highest ecclesiastic echelons,” writes Elizabeth Cleland. “Part of the appeal of the scale of these devotional tapestries must have been their portability. They could easily be rolled up or folded and transported with other court paraphernalia from one location to another, thereby accompanying their often itinerant royal owners.”
Furthermore, unlike the monumental tapestries that were often part of a cycle and that were more decorative in nature, these smaller ones were intended to function individually, as single works, and in more intimate ways, for personal prayer and reflection. Dumbarton Oaks’ Christ and the Virgin, three feet square, may have hung in a private oratory (prayer room).
James N. Carder describes the image: “Side-by-side are seen the bust-length figures of Christ as Savior (Salvator Mundi), holding a cruciform orb and making a blessing gesture, and the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of Heaven and with her hands together in prayer before an open book on the ledge. The lower field of the foreground is profusely ornamented with floral (millefleurs) motifs, and above the arches are a row of Gothic ornaments and a cloisonné-like geometric band that are reminiscent of the tops of French enamel reliquaries.”
Lastly, a painting by one of my favorite artists, the Greek-born Spanish Renaissance painter known as El Greco. The Visitation is a common subject in art that refers to the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary (shown at the right by El Greco) and her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. El Greco’s Visitation was intended for the Chapel of Isabel de Oballe inside the Church of San Vicente in Toledo, but it’s uncertain whether it was ever installed. Originally the canvas had a circular outline, but at some unknown date it was cut down on all sides.
El Greco’s initial art training was in Byzantine icon painting on the island of what today is Crete, where he was born and which was then under Venetian rule. At age twenty-six he moved to Venice and learned the Italian Mannerist style, and ten years later he left for Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Characterized by a spiritual fervor and a sort of proto-expressionism, his works were new and unusual and much sought after. The Visitation demonstrates his preference for boldly attenuated figures caught in strong highlighting, abstractions that “emphasize the ethereal and timeless nature of the biblical world,” says Carder.
VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.
She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).
ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)
Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.
Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.
Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:
Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.
(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)
LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”
In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.
The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.
This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .
PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!
Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”
People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.
FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)
The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].
But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).
Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.
It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
When wandering around the Duke Divinity School campus this summer, waiting for a conference talk to start, I inadvertently encountered a stunning seven-work cycle of metal panels depicting scenes from the biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. They were designed and hand-carved from discarded steel oil drums by Haitian artist Jean Sylvestre, who lives in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, ten miles outside Port-au-Prince.
Steel drum sculpting is an art form unique to Haiti, and Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of production, home to dozens of workshops. Once acquiring a drum, the artist first removes the round ends and places them inside the cylinder along with dried banana or sugar cane leaves, then sets the leaves on fire to burn off any paint or residue. When the drum cools, the artist makes a cut from top to bottom, then climbs inside and pushes with his legs and arms to open up the metal, which he then pounds into a flat sheet. Next he draws a design onto the metal using chalk, then uses a hammer, chisel, and ice picks to actualize it. To see photos of this process and learn more about it, visit www.haitimetalart.com.
In Sylvestre’s nativity cycle at Duke—a gift from Drs. Richard and Judith Hays—the characters are depicted as native Haitians. Each scene unfolds against a backdrop of curvilinear greenery that is typical of Haitian metalwork.
My favorite of the seven has got to be the Annunciation to the Shepherds; I love the angel’s wild hair and the one shepherd who jumps backward in fear and surprise. I’m also tickled by the smiling sun in the Nativity panel!
Duke Divinity School also owns a fourteen-piece Stations of the Cross cycle by Jean Sylvestre, which is often displayed in the nave of Duke University Chapel during Lent.
You’ve probably heard this lovely lilting Baroque piece performed as an instrumental at weddings. But the composer who popularized it—the inimitable J. S. Bach—originally programmed it as the finale to a ten-movement liturgical work celebrating the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and God’s subversion of the world order through the birth of Christ. “The wondrous hand of the exalted Almighty / is active in the mysteries of the earth!” the work proclaims.
Under Bach’s design, those pastoral triplets (DUM-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da . . .) gird up a choir-song of praise to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, our joy and our strength. Even when the light, bright major chords give way to the minor in line five, signifying the turning of life’s circumstances, the Christian’s confession remains the same: Jesus is mine; what shall I fear?
Though Bach is often cited as the melody’s originator, that credit in fact goes to Johann Schop; it was first published in 1642 with Johann Rist’s hymn text “Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich” (“Wake, My Spirit, Rise”). In 1661 Martin Janus wrote a new text for the tune—of no less than nineteen stanzas!—titled “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (“Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss”). Bach took stanzas six and seventeen of this hymn, harmonized and orchestrated them, and placed them as the closings to part one and part two, respectively, of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) (BWV 147).
These two chorale movements, titled “Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe” (“Blest am I, that I have Jesus”) and “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesus shall remain my joy”), have identical musical settings, and their English translation is as follows:
Blest am I, that I have Jesus!
O how tightly I cling to Him,
so that He delights my heart
when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives Himself to me as my own;
ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus,
even if my heart is breaking.
Jesus shall remain my joy,
my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow.
He is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and wonder of my soul;
therefore I will not let Jesus go
out of my heart and sight. [Source]
Bach wrote Herz und Mund in 1723 during his first year as the director of church music in Leipzig, basing it on an earlier cantata he had written in Weimar in 1716 for the fourth Sunday of Advent. Because Leipzig observed tempus clausum (a “closed time” of penitence) during Advent, allowing cantata music only on the first Sunday, Bach could not perform the cantata for the same occasion in Leipzig, so he adapted it for the feast of the Visitation on July 2.
Scored by Bach for four solo vocalists, a four-part choir, and an instrumental ensemble of trumpet, two oboes, violin, viola, and continuo, the chorale music was first given the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in 1926 when Dame Myra Hess published a transcription for solo piano—which you can hear Benjamin Moser play in the video below.
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
SONG: “Jina la Bwana: An African Magnificat” by Steven C. Warner, 1995 | Performed by the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir, on Prophets of Joy (1996)
The Swahili refrain, “Jina la Bwana ni takatifu,” translates as “The name of the Lord is holy.”
This image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth was commissioned for the Monastery of the Visitation in north Minneapolis, a group of monastic sisters very near and dear to my heart. In what has become a well-known neighborhood tradition, the sisters hang a windsock outside their house every other day of the week as a signal to the neighborhood children that they can come in and enjoy after-school activities. They read and paint. They pray and have fun. The sisters celebrate birthdays with the kids and walk through hard times with them as well. The spirit of the first Visitation, where Jesus was so lovingly shared between two kinswomen, is very much alive today and is the inspiration for this painting.
Mary, dressed in gold because she is the woman clothed with the sun, also wears a cape with green stars and blue crosses, which symbolize Bethlehem and Calvary. She is a little fearful of the news she has recently received herself, that she was pregnant with God’s child. But Luke tells us that she put her fears aside to be with her cousin Elizabeth and help her in her own miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth’s bright and welcoming smile assures Mary, and us, that in God’s plans, everything always works out for the best. The tops of their halos form a heart which meets at the bottom in the wombs of the two women. The fluttering windsock behind them reminds us of the wind of the Holy Spirit, ever fresh, ever new.
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 the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle B, click here.
With so many different elements, design matters a lot, and I’m super-impressed by what Biola has come up with. The homepage is laid out as a gridded calendar with thumbnail images; click on a date, and you’re brought to a new viewing mode in which a large image and a music player are set in a fixed position on the left while the right sidebar contains scrollable text, separated into two tabs—the main content, and biographical information about the artists. This design enables the image to remain before your eyes so that you can continue to reference it as you read on (something that, frustratingly, I cannot achieve with Art & Theology’s long-scrolling format), and it also relegates the bios to “back matter.” It’s all very organized and easily navigable.
This initiative is an outworking of the CCCA’s mission to explore the rich interrelationships between contemporary art making, theology, and religious tradition. Be sure to check out the other sections of their website; they offer plenty of free resources, including an archive of past Advent (and Lent!) devotionals, and a calendar of events, such as lectures, workshops, symposia, art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and more.
Below is one of my favorite Advent Project entries from last year, reproduced by kind permission of the CCCA. Centered on Mary’s Magnificat, it brings together the work of an Italian Renaissance painter, a contemporary British video artist (who I’ve written about before), a modern Bohemian Austrian poet, and a minimalist composer working with Spanish, Latin, and English texts. Adjunct professor of philosophy Evan Rosa (who is a superb writer!) reflects on how scandalous Mary’s humility is for power-hungry Western Christians—just as it would have been for the Greco-Roman world in which she lived. He concludes with a prayer that invites us to move from self-magnification to the magnification of God.
Due to this blog’s design limitations, I had to adapt the following content from its original format. To view the devotion on the Biola website, click here. I have excluded biographical information for the song performers and poet.
ARTWORKS: The Visitation by Pontormo; The Greeting by Bill Viola
About the Artist and Artwork #1:
Jacopo Carucci(1494–1557), usually known asPontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity. Pontormo’s painting The Visitation, completed in 1528, now adorns the altar of a side chapel in a small church called the Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano, a town west of Florence, Italy. The setting for this painting is the visitation of the Virgin Mary on her older pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace each other as they exchange glances of mutual affection and share in the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They dominate the canvas as they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house.
About the Artist and Artwork #2:
Bill Viola(b. 1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions.
Bill Viola’s large-screen video installation The Greeting was inspired by TheVisitation, painted by Italian Mannerist artist Jacopo Pontormo. Viola’s video sequence echoes the drama of Pontormo’s Visitation, but transforms the moment into an enigmatic contemporary narrative. In this still frame, three women are dressed in long, flowing garments and stand in an Italianate architectural setting similar to that in Pontormo’s painting. The woman in the orange dress, her stomach visibly swollen, has just entered the scene from the left, interrupting a conversation and perhaps whispering to the older woman the news of her pregnancy. This encounter was filmed in less than a minute, but Viola has slowed the video down to ten minutes. The use of extreme slow motion draws attention to the nuances of the women’s gestures and glances, and intensifies the psychological dynamic of the exchange.