Roundup: Psalms and the arts, Ukrainian Easter Choir, and more

BLOG POST: “An open letter to pastors (A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day)” by Amy Young: There’s disagreement among church leaders on whether Hallmark holidays, such as Mother’s Day, should be recognized during a worship service, and if so, how. Having mothers stand (while women who are not mothers in the conventional sense remain seated) can be very othering and bring up feelings of sadness or shame. It’s also a day when people are thinking about their own mothers, which can evoke a complex range of emotions.

Amy Young believes there is a way to honor mothers in church without alienating others, as well as to acknowledge the breadth of experiences associated with mothering. She has drafted a pastoral address that I find so wise and compassionate. Some women are estranged from their children. Some have experienced miscarriage or abortion. Some have had failed adoptions, or failed IVF treatments. Some placed a child for adoption. Some have been surrogate mothers. Some are foster mothers, or are the primary guardian of a relative’s child. Some are spiritual moms. Some women want to be mothers but have no partner or have had trouble conceiving. Some were abused by their mothers. Some have lost mothers. Some never met their mother. Young puts her arms around all these people who are potentially in the pews on Mother’s Day, making room for the complexity of the day—which does include celebration!

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VIDEO: “United with Beauty: The Psalms, the Arts, and the Human Experience” by Mallory Johnson: Mallory Johnson graduated last weekend with a bachelor’s in music and worship (concentration: voice) from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. (In the fall she will be starting an MDiv program at Beeson Divinity School.) All the seniors in the Samford School of the Arts are required to complete a capstone project tailored to their individual interests and career goals. As Johnson’s interests center on theology, history, and the arts, she created a twenty-minute video rooted in the Psalms that integrates music, poetry, short excerpts of fiction, visual art, and quotes from van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Goethe, Luther, and others, resulting in a contemplative multimedia experience.

I resonate so much with Johnson’s approach of bringing together works from different artistic disciplines to interpret one another and to invite the viewer into worship. Her curation is stellar! To cite just one example, the contemporary choral work Stars by Ēriks Ešenvalds plays as we see, among other images, an Aboriginal dot painting of the constellations Orion and Canis and a nighttime landscape by realist painter Józef Chełmoński. Another: John Adams’s double piano composition “Hallelujah Junction” is brought into conversation with Psalm 150 and a painting by Jewish artist Richard Bee of David dancing before the ark.

Józef Chełmoński (Polish, 1849–1914), Starry Night, 1888. Oil on canvas, 22 13/16 × 28 3/4 in. (58 × 73 cm). National Museum in Kraków, Poland.

The video opens with the theme of awe and wonder—expanses of sky and sea and field; the beauty and vastness of God mirrored in the natural world—and then moves to lament—of the prospering of the wicked; of exhaustion, anxiety, and other forms of mental or spiritual anguish and their causes; of personal sin—and finally ends with an assurance of grace and with exultation. Johnson shows how the longings of modern people overlap with those of the biblical psalmists. Here’s her description:

In his famous work titled Confessions, St. Augustine writes this: “Yet to praise you, God, is the desire of every human.” Is this true? What does this look like?

During my time at Samford, I have felt my heart and mind overflow with love for the arts. As a Christian, they have played a devotional role in my life. I find such joy in seeing connections between music, art, and literature that may seem unrelated on the surface. I believe that all humans have a longing for the goodness of God and we find “echoes” of Him everywhere, and most beautifully in artistic expression.

I wanted to show others how I understand the world as a Christian artist. This project is a journey through the Psalms, using art to reinforce the idea that the Psalms capture the full universal human experience. Across time and space, we have all felt the same things and we have all had the same deep longing for “something higher.”

I hope you can allow this project to wash over you. Make time to watch it alone or with someone you love, distraction-free. Turn the lights out, light a candle, watch it on a big screen with the volume up loud. Be cozy under a blanket with a cup of coffee, or grab a journal and write down anything that sticks out to you! It is my earnest desire that you will be moved by the artistic expression of humanity, and that you may realize that God has always been the goodness you most deeply desire.

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SONGS:

>> “Broken Healers” by Elise Massa: Singer-songwriter Elise Massa is the assistant director of music and worship arts at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. A meditation on Christ as Wounded Healer, this song from her 2014 album of demos, We Are All Rough Drafts, was inspired by an Eastertide sermon.

Here’s the final stanza (the full lyrics are at the Bandcamp link):

Broken healers are we all
In a living world, decayed
With broken speech we stutter, “Glory”
As broken fingers mend what’s frayed
Holy Spirit, come, anoint us
As you anointed Christ the King
Who wore the crown of the oppressed
Who bears the scars of suffering

>> “Agnus Dei” by Michael W. Smith, performed by the Ukrainian Easter Choir: This is one of the few CCM songs I listened to as a young teen (Third Day’s version from a WOW CD!) that I’m still really fond of. In this video that premiered April 17, an eighty-person choir conducted by Sergiy Yakobchuk was assembled from multiple churches in Ukraine to perform for an Easter service in Lviv organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Michael W. Smith’s “Agnus Dei” is one of three songs they sang, in both English and Ukrainian. The name of the soloist is not given. Many of the vocalists in the choir have been displaced from their homes by the current war with Russia. One of them says, “With the war, celebrating the Resurrection means for us now life above death, good above evil.”

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PRAYER EXERCISE: “Visio Divina: A 20-Minute Guided Prayer Reflection for the Crisis in Ukraine”: Visio divina, Latin for “divine seeing,” is a spiritual practice of engaging prayerfully with an image, usually an artwork—allowing the visual to invite you into communion with God. On March 17 Vivianne David led a virtual visio divina exercise with Natalya Rusetska’s Crucifixion, hosted by Renovaré. I caught up with the video afterward and found it a very meaningful experience. As the painting is by a Ukrainian artist and represents Christ’s passion, the war in Ukraine is a natural connection point.

I appreciate David’s wise guidance, which includes these reminders:

  • Stay with the image, regardless of whether or not you ​“feel” something happening right away. There is something beautiful about faithfully waiting with that space, having dedicated it to God as a time of prayer.
  • Notice what draws your attention, what invites you into the image—let that become a space for conversation with Christ.
  • Notice what sort of emotions arise as you stay with the image. How does it awaken desire? Let these emotions lead you back to continued dialogue with God.

This kind of quiet, focused looking with an openness to encounter is something I encourage on the blog. Any of David’s three tips above I would also suggest for any art image I post—a corrective to hasty scrolling habits. Stick around for the last four minutes of the video to see dozens and dozens of impressions from participants, which may reveal new aspects of the painting to you.

Easter, Day 6

LOOK: Empty Tomb (detail) by Claire Curneen

Curneen, Claire_Empty Tomb (detail)
Claire Curneen (Irish, 1968–), Empty Tomb (detail), 2018. Porcelain, h. 31 inches.

I encountered this striking image on the cover of Image no. 97 (Summer 2018). I’ve not been able to find a photograph of the full piece, but Curneen created a variation on it last year.

In the article “Beauty in Brokenness: The Sculpture of Claire Curneen,” Richard Davey writes that in Curneen’s body of work,

indications of internal states of transformation or transfiguration are not confined to gold. . . . Recently Curneen has begun to use a deep blue to create a similar effect. Like ultramarine, which was reserved for only the most significant parts of medieval paintings, this blue glaze is used only sparingly, painted onto faces, hands, and other areas where it will have the maximum impact. The effect is dramatic, with faces dissolving into an incorporeal void. For unlike gold, which reflects light, this deep blue holds light, absorbing our gaze into its pellucid depths. Curneen exploited this difference in one of her most recent works, Empty Tomb (2018), where blue and gold ooze from a series of gaping wounds, like the unmingled blood and water that flowed from the side of the dead Christ. With the tip of one finger, this elegiac figure gently points out one of these openings, echoing Saint Thomas, who needed to touch Jesus’s wounded side before he could believe. This gesture is the only moment of animation in a work that is otherwise still, but it is not the focus. That is to be found in the wounds themselves, which stand out starkly against the limpid porcelain. These are the empty tomb of the title, apertures exuding blue and gold, dark and light. They draw us in so that we find our attention focused entirely on these small rings. For a moment, as we teeter on this visual precipice, with solidity melting around us and the figure dissolving into the background, time stands still.

LISTEN: “Empty” by The Sowing Season, on The Fox & the Sparrow (2017)

Oh Mary, why have you come?
Come drop your oils and run
You’ll find no one
Find no one

Oh Thomas, can’t you see?
Where bone and sinew meet
You’ll find a hole
Find a whole

Oh Saul, look down at your hands
All red and dripping in the sand
It’s the wrong blood
The wrong blood

Come find the blood of the Son

Jesus meets people where they’re at: Mary Magdalene in her grief (John 20:11–18), Thomas in his doubt (John 20:24–29), Saul in his murderous zealotry (Acts 9:1–19). And he transforms them. After their encounters with the risen Christ, Mary’s tears give way to joy; Thomas’s doubt transposes into belief; and Saul goes from persecutor of Christians to key apostle, with a ministry of preaching the gospel, planting churches, and writing letters of teaching and encouragement that have become sacred scripture.

The song “Empty” by The Sowing Season reflects Christ’s gentle invitation to behold his transfigured wounds and to move, with him, from death into life.

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Lent, Day 33

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.

—Isaiah 53:5

LOOK: Cuts by Johannes Phokela

Phokela, Johannes_Cuts
Johannes Phokela (South African, 1966–), Cuts, 1990. Acrylic and string on canvas, 83 1/16 × 83 1/16 in. (211 × 211 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.

For this gruesome artwork, Johannes Phokela slashed a canvas in many spots with a razor, then stitched up the gashes with heavy string. He then painted over the gashes from the back with crimson paint until it bled through, forming a deep red along the seams and a flesh-pink further out, evocative of scar tissue. Then, as if to memorialize the wounds, he painted twenty gold frames over them in rows of five across and four down.

Phokela often uses painted frames or grids as a compositional device in his work. “The grid gives another dimension to the work; it is a device to challenge the viewer’s perception of the image and form beneath,” he said in a 2002 interview with Bruce Haines. “It is intended to have an effect like an ornamental frame surrounding a mirror, or a glass pane mounting a picture. . . . You have to regard it as part of the work, just like the traditional frame of a painting. . . . It gives the work a sort of focal point that can stimulate the viewer’s reaction.”

I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by this painting when I saw it exhibited as part of Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue at the Smithsonian in 2014. It is large—almost seven square feet. From a distance the image looks rather rose-like, a concentric arrangement of short red lines slightly curled like petals. It wasn’t until I got closer that I saw it portrays the vulnerability of human flesh, savagely torn.

When I’m at an art museum I like to look at each artwork before reading its label so that I can register my initial impressions and begin to form an interpretation before I receive the curator’s. (I hope you do the same when you encounter artworks on this website!) When I saw this one, I thought of how Christ was wounded for our transgressions, but those wounds became his glory—and ours. In art history Jesus is sometimes shown with light emanating from the holes in his hands, especially in images where he is exalted in heaven. For me, the gold in Cuts suggests a redemptive framework—like it’s asking us to view the horrors of the cross through the lens of glory. In addition, the gold frames within the picture plane seem to emphasize that these wounds are something worthy of being looked at, even meditated upon, as frames show us what’s important, directing our gaze.

Well, here’s what the label said:

On a trip home to South Africa in 1989, Phokela was distressed to see the state of violence that existed as a result of political rivalry and unrest. Disturbed by the bandaged and scarred faces and bodies of his fellow citizens and by the fact that everyone seemed to accept the situation as normal, the artist created a canvas of cuts overlaid with gold frames to distance himself from the violence.

So, Phokela, a Black South African who was born and raised in Soweto but had been living in London since 1987, painted this as a response to the violence of apartheid in his home country. Whomever wrote this text sees the frames as putting us at further remove from the cuts that are represented, as they form an intervening layer between us and them. A legitimate reading, though I haven’t found any statements from Phokela that express this intent. What I did find from him regarding his use of frames in general, I quoted above.

Having learned the particular context out of which this painting arose, I then considered what Jesus’s crucifixion has to say to human suffering today. What relevance has a Galilean man’s torture and execution two thousand years ago to present-day men and women who are beaten and abused?—in this case, because of their race.

Jesus’s death exposed and put to shame the powers of evil, those which assault God and God’s image-bearers. Surely there was much more going on with his death than just that (whole volumes, whole series of volumes, have been written to articulate a theology of the cross). But bringing to light the crimes of humanity—and at the same time, God’s supreme love—is one aspect. Opening up pathways of transformation, healing, reconciliation, and liberation is another.

LISTEN: “By His Wounds” by Bifrost Arts, feat. DM Stith, on He Will Not Cry Out, 2013 | Words by Isaac Wardell, 2011 | Music by Philip Hayes, 1786

By his wounds, his wounds, will we be healed
And for our transgressions, his passion has made us well
Let us come again and feed on him, our Lord Emmanuel

This melody was originally written in the eighteenth century by English composer, organist, singer, and conductor Philip Hayes (1738–1797), who published it in The Muses’ Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets, and Canons as a round setting of Psalm 137:1–2 (“By the waters of Babylon . . .”). The song became widely popular after Don McLean recorded it on his 1971 album American Pie and even more so in 2007, when it was used in a memorable montage in the TV series Mad Men.

Isaac Wardell, cofounder of the Bifrost Arts music collective and now director of The Porter’s Gate, put different words to Hayes’s melody in 2011, retaining the canon form. The first two lines reference the well-known Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53, and the last is an invitation to come to the Lord’s table—to take in unto ourselves the body and blood of Christ.

Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

Ay! victory,
Which from Thine eye
Breaks as the day doth from the East;
When the spilt dew
Like tears doth shew
The sad world wept to be released.

Spring up, O wine,
And springing shine
With some glad message from His heart,
Who did, when slain,
These means ordain
For me to have in Him a part.

Such a sure part
In His blest heart,
The Well where living waters spring,
That with it fed,
Poor dust, though dead,
Shall rise again, and live, and sing.

O drink and bread,
Which strikes Death dead,
The food of man’s immortal being!
Under veils here
Thou art my cheer,
Present and sure without my seeing.

How dost thou fly
And search and pry
Through all my parts, and, like a quick
And knowing lamp,
Hunt out each damp,
Whose shadow makes me sad or sick!

O what high joys!
The turtle’s voice
And songs I hear! O quick’ning showers
Of my Lord’s blood,
You make rocks bud,
And crown dry hills with wells and flowers!

For this true ease,
This healing peace,
For this taste of living glory,
My soul and all
Kneel down and fall,
And sing His sad victorious story!

O thorny crown,
More soft than down!
O painful cross, my bed of rest!
O spear, the key
Opening the way!
O Thy worst state, my only best!

Oh! all Thy griefs
Are my reliefs,
And all my sins Thy sorrows were!
And what can I
To this reply?
What—O God!—but a silent tear?

Some toil and sow
That wealth may flow,
And dress this Earth for next year’s meat:
But let me heed
Why Thou didst bleed
And what in the next world to eat.

Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) [previously] was a Welsh metaphysical poet, translator, and physician, known chiefly for his religious poetry in English. For info on his life and times, as well as his literary importance, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/henry-vaughan.

Vaughan’s “The Feast” was originally published in 1655 in the expanded edition of his celebrated collection Silex Scintillans (1650). (The book’s title is Latin for “The Fiery Flint,” referring to the stony hardness of man’s heart, from which divine steel strikes fire.) The poem consists of thirteen sestets (six-line stanzas), each following the syllable pattern 4-4-8-4-4-8, with a few cheats. More specifically: the first two lines of each stanza are in iambic dimeter, and the third is in iambic tetrameter, repeat. Which is simply the technical way of saying that the rhythm sounds like da-DUM, da-DUM—unstressed syllable, stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is AABCCB. I mention these details because it’s important to see the structure of a poem.

Now let’s walk through it piece by piece.

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

The speaker starts out by beseeching Christ’s return. He’s saying that he, who is mere dust, has put the affairs of his heart in order and is ready for the next life. He has come to realize that earthly pleasures are but “short sips,” quick delights, and he wants a long, slow drink, one that infinitely satisfies. Like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13–14, to whom Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this [physical] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Those who truly seek for more than what this world has to offer will find it.

[Related post: “Lent, Day 3”]

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

“Come then, True Bread,” the speaker exclaims, addressing Christ in biblical metaphor. John 6 is a major reference point for Vaughan throughout this poem, which is where Jesus addresses the crowds whom he had just fed the day before with miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . .

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is the bread of life, whose flesh we eat at the Communion table, taking his self into our selves. Those who feed on Christ are strengthened in their union with him in both his crucifixion and resurrection. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

“Come,” the poem’s speaker continues, “antedate / On me that state / Which brings poor dust the victory.” He, as one who has already lost battle after battle against sin, asks that Christ grant him the victory post-factum, rendering his past losses of no account. In other words: “Christ, have mercy.”

Continue reading “Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)”

Sowing the stigmata: A reading of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere by Georges Didi-Huberman

During Easter 2016 I published an article on Jesus as the gardener of our souls, featuring a roundup of Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”) paintings that portray the risen Christ as a literal gardener, including a fresco by Fra Angelico from the convent of San Marco in Florence.

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), Noli me tangere, 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college living in Florence and, while there, fell in love with Renaissance art, and in particular the paintings of Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455). Born Guido di Pietro, he took vows as a Dominican friar and, together with his assistants, painted two corridors and the forty-four cells in the newly built San Marco, where he lived. The convent is now a state museum and is one of my favorite sites in the city.

In 1990 art historian Georges Didi-Huberman published a monograph on Fra Angelico, spending considerable time on his Noli me tangere, especially its red flowers, which he reads as a figural displacement of Christ’s stigmata (nail wounds). (More on this below.) In the painting, he writes, Christ’s blood “soaks the earth and makes a new humanity grow there, a humanity in the imitation of Christ, a humanity redeemed from sin” (161). He notes how the floral imagery is echoed in the Annunciation in the hallway outside the cell, serving to visually connect these two stages of redemption: Christ’s “flowering,” or conception, in the womb of Mary and his flowering forth from the womb of the earth on Easter.

(Related: “Rosing from the Dead” by Paul J. Willis)

The figure of the Christ-flower was already a common one in the medieval West. For example, the great thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus writes,

The Christ-flower [flos Christus] blossomed in the Nativity, as we read in Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse.” It withered in the Passion, when there was no longer aspect or beauty. . . . It blossomed again at the Resurrection according to human nature, in the very place where it had withered. Thus it is said: “And my flesh blossomed anew” (Psalm 27:7). [De laudibus 12.4.2]

Fra Angelico furthered the development of this metaphor in visual form, picturing Christ’s blood (according to Didi-Huberman) as a fertilizing material, the agent of regeneration.

The following excerpt is taken from Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration* by Georges Didi-Huberman, translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pages 19–22. I find some of the semiotics discourse to be abstruse, but I’ve highlighted a few standout ideas in boldface—ideas that have helped me to see Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere (and the Resurrection!) with new eyes.

Noli me tangere (detail) by Fra Angelico

Angelico sprinkled little spots, deposited little splotches all over this “field” [of green]: more or less regular blotches, made of Saint John White [bianco di San Giovanni]—that is, the very material that constitutes the intonaco of the pigment—and, on top of that, red. It is a bright color, a terra rossa, and it forms a slight relief from the wall; the rhythmic effect, the pattern effect, is only that much stronger.

But what about this “field” in the economy of representation? And in particular, what exactly do these little spots of red pigment spread across the surface like stars represent? To what category of signs do they belong? A response suggests itself at first glance, a response relating to the obviousness of the storia and, consequently, to the overall mimetic, “realist” nature of the fresco: these little red blotches without a doubt represent flowers in the meadow. In [Charles Sanders] Peirce’s semiotic typology, these little red blotches would therefore be icons of flowers in a meadow. Peirce noted quite rightly, concerning this concept of the icon, the extent to which we have a tendency when contemplating a painting to forget the distinction between the present sign (in this case, the red blotches) and the absent reality (the flowers). We therefore need to go a bit further in our contemplation of the little blotches themselves.

We notice at this point that the colored patterns are absolutely not painted like flowers. They do not describe anything, do not suggest any distinguishing features: in these flowers, there are no calyxes, no corollas, no pistils, no stamens. They are colored blotches, no more and no less. And it would be completely absurd to invoke at this point some incompetence on Fra Angelico’s part in representing a flower with its pistil and stamens: he carried out the task perfectly well elsewhere, and moreover, he proved himself competent in the face of much greater mimetic difficulties. It would be just as pointless to imagine the painter “not having the time,” or the coat of paint drying too quickly. If Angelico had wanted to paint a flower like a flower, he would have done so; he would have applied himself. But that is precisely the point: he did not decide to do so. He was satisfied with laying on little circular “heaps” of terra rossa. Why? The response is not in absentia, in a meadow or a text, for example; it is in praesentia, on the fresco itself. For if we persist in wondering what the red blotches are painted like, we can give as our response only what we see: in all rigor, these red blotches are painted like—that is, exactly in the same manner as—Christ’s stigmata.

These red blotches are even painted the way Fra Angelico painted stigmata in general, Christ’s or Saint Francis’s, everywhere in San Marco: they are small circular inflections of the brush that deposits its thick pigment of terra rossa. And the evidence of such a relation is accentuated, specified, virtually demonstrated by the constellation effect Angelico actually bestowed on his little blotches: these flowers scattered across a green ground follow a trajectory that ends with a repetition of the same pictorial sign on Christ’s hand and foot.

Noli me tangere details sketch
Detail sketches of Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere, showing Christ’s dispersal of his stigmata. Source: Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration, p. 20

Confronted with what amounts to a real displacement of the iconic sign, I can no longer affirm anything that has the minimal stability required for the notion of a motif: speaking in absolute terms, I can no longer say “it is” or “it is not” in a decisive way. There is a displacement of the iconic value and hence an equivocal representation. For example, I can very well affirm that Christ’s stigmata are, according to Fra Angelico, the flowers of his body. And I will have no difficulty, by the way, in finding a Thomist text to support an affirmation of this kind: for instance, the article in his Summa theologica that Aquinas devotes to the question of whether Christ’s risen body had or did not have scars. To the objector who maintained that stigmata are wounds, and hence a “corruption” and a “defect,” Aquinas responds yes, but those wounds, on Christ, possess a “special beauty” (specialis decor) which is Beauty itself, the (bleeding, of course) Beauty of the Virtue of Humility [Summa theologica 3a.54.4].

But I could just as easily affirm, confronted with Angelico’s fresco, that Christ is here represented in the emblematic act of “sowing” his stigmata in the garden of the earthly world, just before going to rejoin the right hand of his Father in heaven. The idea finds support, by the way, if we pay attention to the fact that, seven times in the fresco and especially next to the stigmata stricto sensu, the red “flowers” appear in groups of five, the symbolically very pregnant number of Christ’s wounds.

In short, in considering these little red blotches in terms of the how of their presence in the fresco, we are led to equivocate on the question of what they represent mimetically. The iconic character of these red signs moves to the background, submits to a logical aporia, while their nature as indexes, as blotches, as pure physical, colored traces, takes center stage. And their way of signifying—between the flower and the stigmata, creating the notion of a relation above all—no longer has anything to do with the way the story delivers its very recognizable meaning.

Finally, as if to definitively convince his meditative fellow friar that he was not merely recounting a too well-known anecdote from the Gospels, Fra Angelico placed a third type of sign at the level of the gaze, something that does not look like anything recognizable in a meadow or even in the story of the Noli me tangere: it is a symbol, three little bleeding crosses, placed between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. Here is something that does not “resemble” anything in the order of meadow reality, but nonetheless possesses an obvious memorative function, pointing toward a meditation on Christ’s Passion and the Trinity.

It is particularly important to note that Angelico’s fresco signifies a great deal beyond the conventional iconographical attributes of its story. The example of the little patterns of red in itself raises the possibility of a painter’s using pictorial signs that constitute, strictly speaking, signa translata, a term I will translate as “transit signs,” signs or operators of conversion. And these signs of conversion are not simply metaphors, because their material existence sets up a labile movement between signs of very different semiotic status—icons, indexes, and symbols. That is why such pictorial signs immediately prohibit any univocal relation of attribution—a word to be understood in its two senses, logical and iconological. Such signs have the value of displacement, movement, and association rather than definition, identification, or predication.

But that does not mean they have a lesser value. On the contrary: if there is a type of thinking characteristic of images, it is associative—translata—thinking, a thinking that structures itself by shifting. To represent flowers in a field, Fra Angelico chose to produce only stigmata, simple marks, red colored traces; but these traces, arranged in series, in some sense bridge the gap between two completely heterogeneous (but theologically articulable) orders of thought: a field in springtime on the one hand, and Christ’s body “decorated” with wounds, his stigmata, on the other. That is what, in all rigor, is called a practice of figurability. The image, incapable of—or rather oblivious to—strict logical thinking, draws from this obliviousness all its signifying force. It is only a matter of seeing in Angelico’s fresco how a single material element—that famous terra rossa color—can function on the whole surface of the work as the privileged operator of displacements and structurers of meaning: this red speaks to us of sin in Mary Magdalene’s robe, but it is also, across from her, the very place of Christ’s suffering, the stigmata; it returns to Mary Magdalene in the converted form of compassion; it is disseminated as spring flowers, as an emblem of the Passion, but also of the Resurrection; it continually shifts between the flesh of man—since it is in general a stroke of that same red that outlines bodies in Angelico’s frescoes—and the glory of Christ’s risen flesh, the incarnate of his lips, the red cross of his halo. . . .


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By the Mark (Artful Devotion)

You and I by Solomon Raj
P. Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–), You and I, before 1993. Batik. Source: Living Flame and Springing Fountain (Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1993)

Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

—John 20:27–28

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SONG: “By the Mark” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, on Revival (1996)

(Related post: “Thomas in the dark”)

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“St. Thomas the Apostle” by Malcolm Guite, from Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year

“We do not know . . . how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
O doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things:
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after him and find him in the flesh.
Because he loved your awkward counter-point,
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
O place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

[Click here to listen to a short sermon Guite preached on St. Thomas back in 2012, which opens with his reading of this poem.]


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 Second Sunday of Easter, cycle B, click here.

Lent 2018 exhibitions, installations, and art trails

Besides the self-guided “Stations of the Cross” audio tour of the Smithsonian’s American art collection, here are some other opportunities to engage in person with visual art this Lent:

Crossings exhibition view
Hanging the “Crossings” exhibition at Southwell Minster. Pictured at left: Enzo Marra (British, 1975–), Observers Raphael (The Mond Crucifixion), 2018. Oil on board, 24 × 20 in. Photo courtesy of the cathedral.

“Crossings: Art and Christianity Now,” February 9–May 10, 2018, Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, England: Featuring works in a variety of media by thirty-six contemporary artists, this major exhibition will unfold in two parts: “Crucifixion Now,” on view during Lent through March 21, and “Resurrection Now,” on view during Easter from April 1 to May 10. Each artist produced two new works, one for each phase, exploring the twin aspects of the gospel story: death and new life. Supporting events include music, lectures, workshops, and a conference on March 10, “The Spirit in Art Now.” Entry is free, and exhibition guides (with color photos and descriptions of all the artworks) are available for £5.

One outstanding work from the exhibition is a triptych by Sophie Hacker (artist previously featured here), formed from a variety of found materials, including cedarwood, Icelandic black sand, rusted metal, and metallic leafs. During Lent it will remain closed, showing a jagged cross “marked with stark wounds” against a background of soil and blood, but on Easter it will open, “giv[ing] way inside to rounded forms and lustrous colours, revealing all at once the stone rolled away, the cave filled with glory and the triumph of God in Trinity.”

Crucifixion Now by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), Triptych: Crucifixion Now, Resurrection Now, 2017. Mixed media, 32 × 24 in. (closed).

Resurrection Now by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), Triptych: Crucifixion Now, Resurrection Now, 2017. Mixed media, 32 × 48 in. (open).

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“Chichester Art Pilgrimage Trail,” Chichester, West Sussex, England: A twelfth-century Norman-Gothic structure filled with medieval, Victorian, and modern art, Chichester Cathedral is a beautiful blend of old and new. I’ve come across many of its modern art treasures before in essays and books—the tapestry by John Piper, Noli me tangere by Graham Sutherland, the Icon of the Divine Light altarpiece by Cecil Collins, and Marc Chagall’s Psalm 150 window. All these artists, commissioned by Walter Hussey (one of the twentieth century’s biggest champions of religious art), were giants in the field.

Psalm 150 window by Marc Chagall
Stained-glass window by Marc Chagall (Russian/French, 1887–1985), installed in Chichester Cathedral in 1978. Photo: Jonathan Evens.

These pieces and more are the subjects of an audio tour released this Lent on the Alight app. (If geography prevents you from walking the trail in person, travel it from your armchair, like me!) Starting at one of the three old Roman gates to the walled city, the trail runs via the “market cross” to the cathedral, with thirteen stops inside. Besides those listed above, they are the rare Anglo-Saxon Lazarus reliefs, the Arundel Tomb, the Lambert Barnard panels, the nineteenth-century south transept window, a St. Richard icon, The Baptism of Christ by Hans Feibusch, the Anglo-German Tapestry by Ursula Benker-Schirmer, The Refugee by Diana Brandenburger, and Five Wounds by Michael Clark. The latter two, pictured below, are new to me; in addition to learning more about them through the Alight commentary, you can also read a discussion group report (a debrief of visitor reactions) on the Bishop Otter Scholar’s blog.

The Refugee by Diana Brandenburger
Diana Brandenburger (British, 1932–2008), The Refugee, 2008. Bronze. Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. Photo: Keith Gulliver.

Five Wounds by Michael Clark (detail)
Michael Clark (British, 1954–), Five Wounds (detail), 1994. Layers of glaze on five canvases, 2.2 × 2.2 in. each. Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England.

Clark’s piece comprises five tiny canvases built up with layers of jewel-like glaze and set into the cathedral’s walls—two at the west end (representing Christ’s foot wounds), one in each transept (hand wounds)—and high altar (side wound). The Rev. Canon Dr. Anthony Cane, chancellor at the cathedral, says,

When I see Michael Clark’s Wounds of Christ, they remind me that the imposing cathedral building would not exist without the particular flesh and blood of a human life, a life visibly marked by suffering. The five wounds are mapped onto the cruciform shape of the architecture, so that the very space I walk through becomes the body of Christ. Most artworks are looked at; this one is lived within.

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“Stations of the Cross” in New York City, February 14–April 1, 2018: After success with the “public art pilgrimage” model they used in London in Lent 2016 and then later in Washington, DC, Aaron Rosen and a team of other theologians and art writers decided to organize a contemplative journey across Manhattan. Weaving through religious as well as secular spaces, from The Cloisters museum to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the 9/11 Memorial, this trail aims to raise awareness of those in need of refuge through art. The same app that hosts the Chichester Art Pilgrimage also hosts this Stations tour, providing easy navigation through the city and audio commentary on each artwork. Participating artists come from different faith backgrounds, and programmed events include concerts, artist talks, panel discussions with local refugee organizations, and interfaith scripture readings related to hospitality and care for the stranger. The next event is Monday, February 26, at 7 p.m.: a free performance of Marcel Dupré’s Stations of the Cross organ suite at St. James’s Church.

Sacrifice/Embrace by Nicola Green
Nicola Green (British, 1972–), Sacrifice/Embrace, 2010. Silkscreen print, 152 × 102 cm (paper) / 64 × 64 cm (image). No. 6 of 7 from the series “In Seven Days.”

I found Nicola Green’s Sacrifice/Embrace silkscreen print, on view as station 7 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, particularly engaging. Read or listen to Fr. Frank Sabatté’s reflection on the work on the Art 2018 page.

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“Through Light,” February 23–April 8, 2018, Patmos Art Center, Community of Jesus, Orleans, Massachusetts: In this two-person show of abstract sacred art, Italian Catholic artist Filippo Rossi and American Protestant artist Susan Kanaga, CJ, explore imagery of light. I’ve been to the ecumenical monastery on Cape Cod where this exhibition is being held and had the privilege of seeing both artists’ work there on the grounds. I don’t usually take to nonrepresentational paintings, but theirs drew me in richly. If you attend the exhibition, be sure to spend some time nearby inside the beautiful Church of the Transfiguration and Priory Books and Gifts. (Paraclete Press, whose catalog is full of books on the visual and literary arts and choral music recordings, is the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus.)

Kanaga-Rossi-01
LEFT: Filippo Rossi (Italian, 1970–), Reflections (detail), 2017. Acrylic, gold leaf, wax, and polystyrene, 220 × 120 cm. RIGHT: Susan Kanaga, CJ (American, 1954–), Joy, 2017. Acrylic, mixed media, gold leaf, and gold smalti on canvas, 20 × 20 cm.

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INSTALLATION: Doubt by Susie MacMurray, February 14–March 30, 2018, Southwark Cathedral, London: For the seventh year in a row, Southwark Cathedral has commissioned a contemporary art installation during the season of Lent. This year Susie MacMurray has created a large nest of black plastic netting suspended from the ceiling above the high altar, evoking a dark cloud; it’s called Doubt. The Very Rev. Andrew Nunn, dean of Southwark, says,

Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine, but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, [darkness] has been a familiar experience and theme. . . . And as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness.

Doubt by Susie MacMurray
Susie MacMurray (British, 1959–), Doubt, 2018. Plastic netting. Southwark Cathedral, London.

An embodiment of the difficulties of faith, the cloud is nevertheless made of open mesh that allows some light to pass through. As sub dean Michael Rawson points out, “As you look at the cloud, above is a representation of Jesus in the stained-glass window, so Jesus is shining through that cloud of doubt.”

I like the concept but am unsure how I feel about its dominant placement in the sanctuary. I’ve only seen photos, but its presence seems oppressive, like it could impinge on worship. I’d be interested to hear how parishioners have responded.

To see more of MacMurray’s site-specific installations, click here.

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INSTALLATION: De profundis by Miguel Rothschild, St. Matthew’s Church, Berlin: Over eight meters long and suspended by 1,500 strands of fishing wire, the fabric installation De profundis by multimedia artist Miguel Rothschild mimics the texture of an ocean surface. Its title is the Latin incipit for Psalm 130, translated as “Out of the depths” (it’s a traditional Lenten practice to pray the penitential psalms):

De profundis by Miguel Rothschild
Miguel Rothschild (Argentinian, 1963–), De profundis, 2018. Print on fabric, fishing line, lead balls, 900 × 800 × 400 cm. St. Matthäus-Kirche, Berlin.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the LORD
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

Recalling the medieval German liturgical use of what’s known as a hungertuch (read more here), the fabric will cover the high altar until Easter. Water has many associations in the Bible, both positive and negative. Sometimes it signifies judgment, as in the story of Noah, or turbulent suffering, as in Psalm 42:7 (“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”). But God’s praiseworthy righteousness is also referred to as a “mighty flood” that crashes into our moral deserts (Amos 5:24), and the psalmist proclaims, “With you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). Rothschild’s installation, which looks like a rushing stream inundating the sanctuary, is a strong and multivalent visual—and I imagine it’s all the more so for those who live with it for weeks as worshipers in that space.

De profundis (detail) by Miguel Rothschild