Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Sign of the Crocus

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. So says the prophet Isaiah in the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3A (Isaiah 35:1-10).

Vincent Van Gogh. Basket of Crocus Bulbs. 1887. Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0179V1962

The crocus is specifically mentioned in Isaiah as a result when the wilderness and dry land and desert rejoice. What would make a dry area like a desert rejoice? Rain. And that is indeed when crocuses appear in Israel.

The Winter Crocus (Crocus Hyemalis) grows after Israel's long, hot summer. It is among the earliest plants to bloom. The crocus isn't much of a sign as far as volume and height go. The plant is stemless and stands only 1"-3". Its value as a sign (and symbol) is in its ability to withstand the drought of summer and to sprout, sometimes in anticipation of the rain. When you see the crocus you know that the rains are coming. In an arid land, this is indeed a sign.

That's how it will be for the ransomed of the Lord who are returning to Israel. They are a sprout. There will be (re)building to do in the land. There will be land to be reclaimed. There is still work to do. But the sign - the small shoot of green - is there.

One of the questions we need to ask in this Advent season is whether we are able to see small green shoots for what they are. Are we so overwhelmed with a dry and arid landscape that we don't see - don't expect, don't even look for - the green shoots that are signs of return, renewal and the kingdom of God.

On Facebook this week: Van Gogh  mentions crocuses in a letter to his brother. Click on the link below.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

How Peaceable?

It's hard to resist Isaiah's "Peaceable Kingdom" (Isaiah 11:1-10) when it shows up in the lectionary readings for Advent 2A. It appears to have been reasonably easy for artists to resist that scene for centuries, though. There are pictures and sculptures of lions. There are pictures and sculptures of lambs. There are very few images of lions lying down with lambs. The frequency of depictions of what became known as "The Peaceable Kingdom" increases after the eighteenth century.

The American artist most connected with the subject is a Quaker painter named Edward Hicks. Hicks painted the subject more than 60 times over the course of his artistic life. His original composition, painted around 1815 was based on an engraving by English artist Richard Westall. Over and over he painted the subject, perhaps in an effort to paint the peace into reality.

Because in reality, Hicks was not living in a peaceable place at all. In his paintings, there are inclusions of and allusions to the non-peaceable world in which he lived. Hicks shows us how hard it is to conjure Isaiah's vision when we live in the world that we do.

Hicks' earliest versions show a gentle child among animals that look like plush toys. We know that Isaiah includes predator and prey, eater and eaten, but in these earliest versions there seems to be more the sense of harmless animals than natural enemies who have decided to live together peaceably. These early images feature the young child who is leading them, carrying a length of grapevine on which hangs a cluster of grapes. The grapes should call to mind the promise of an abundant land. For what else would there be in the kingdom envisioned by Isaiah.

The second phase of Hicks' paintings draw a direct line between painting and scripture. Hicks' training was as a signmaker, so his inclusion of all or portions of Isaiah 11 are not unexpected. Not all versions with text have the same text, though originate in Isaiah. The versions with more text often use that additional text to explain the usual background scene. In that scene, Quaker William Penn makes a treaty with the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) people. This treaty, entered into in 1683, held until 1755. In the version shown here, the circle of treaty-makers is overshadowed by Virginia's Natural Bridge, which visually connects the two sides of the canvas.

In the "middle" Kingdoms, the animals become more aggressive. The lion's and leopard's teeth are visible in a couple of versions, and the animals become more tense. Their eyes are wide open, and they stare unblinkingly (hostilely?) from the painting. This increase in tension may be a reflection of the divisions happening in the Quaker community. In 1827 there occurred the "Great Separation" where so-called "Hicksite" (because they followed Elias Hicks, a cousin of the painter Edward Hicks) Quakers, who chose to emphasize the Inward Light as a source of guidance for faith and conscience, separated from the so-called "Orthodox" Quakers, who emphasized a more Protestant reliance on Biblical authority. Originating in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, this division became wider and spread, causing painful separations in other meetings and among families. These divisions were especially painful for Hicks, who in addition to being a sign and coach painter was also a minister in the Middletown (PA) Yearly Meeting. There are a number of Hicks paintings that include a gnarled, dead tree in the background as a further sign of Hicks' understanding of the split among Quakers.

Compare the lion faces in the four versions shown here. Which lion goes with which painting? Can you put them in order? In the later Kingdoms the viewers' first impression of the animals is that they are neither plush nor attentive. They seem...tired. Dispirited, maybe. A career's worth of living on God's holy mountain seems to have taken a toll. Or maybe it's the non-peaceable kingdom in which the artist is living that has taken a toll on the artist.
Hicks helps us see the passage, but he was unable to live it in reality. We've not seen this come to pass either. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. The vision is memorable. The promise is certain. One day they will not hurt or destroy on all God's holy mountain. On a day that is still to come.

All paintings by Edward Hicks.
(Top). Peaceable Kingdom. 1816-1818. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1945.38
(Second from top). Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch. 1822-1825. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/21/title-asc?t:state:flow=9c95172c-d3b7-456e-b906-de4cc96d9c1b
(Second from bottom). Peaceable Kingdom. c. 1833. Worcester, MA: Worcester Museum of Art. http://www.worcesterart.org/collection/American/1934.65.html
(Bottom) Peaceable Kingdom. 1844. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/20/title-asc?t:state:flow=9c95172c-d3b7-456e-b906-de4cc96d9c1b










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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Of Swords and Plowshares

Has there been a time since the words were written that humanity hasn't longed for the actualization of Isaiah 2:3 (part of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1A)? Surely we do now. Imagine a world where nation did not lift up sword against nation. To this point in human history, though, it seems that beating swords into plowshares is an episodic happening rather than an eternally established reality.

American artist Winslow Homer understood the cost of war. He was in his mid-twenties when the Civil War broke out. Though he did not serve in the army, he was a "special artist" for Harper's Weekly magazine and, as such, moved in and among the armies and battle lines during the war. For almost two months in 1861 he traveled with George McClellan's Army of the Potomac through Virginia.

Homer created a large oil painting that illustrates rather than preaches Isaiah's vision of a time when the tools of war are traded for tools of agriculture. The artist worked on the painting for several months after the war was over. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and the nation was working its way toward again being "united" states. Homer places an anonymous veteran in an actual field. A Union Army jacket is discarded in the lower right corner along with a canteen. The jacket has been abandoned presumably because the heat of the day and the exertion of the work makes a jacket unnecessary. But it is also the truth that this farmer has abandoned his military occupation and returned to his farm - he has traded the battlefield for the wheatfield. Hence the title of the painting.
Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field. 1865. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/67.187.131/
Judging by the painting, the plows have done their work well. The 1865 wheat crop is documented to have been a bumper crop. Homer shows grain heads almost at the height of the farmer's head. One might see in this painting a positive outlook for the farmer and the nation. But there is a darker side.

The farmer is harvesting wheat with a single-bladed scythe, a tool that was already out of date by 1865. Farmers of that time would have used a grain cradle or cradle scythe to harvest. Homer chose the older implement because of its association with the Grim Reaper. While Homer's veteran has moved on, both he and the viewer would have, in this scene, been reminded of the cost of war. Many of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in fields, so fields had become associated with soldiers who were cut down and had fallen in the same way that this farmer now cuts and fells the wheat. Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph "Harvest of Death" shows the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Isaiah's vision would have been as appealing to a 19th-century audience as it is to us today. Imagine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, Lord Jesus.