Sunday, August 31, 2014

Post and Lintel

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel

of the houses in which they eat it. -Exodus 12:7

Most children with building blocks will build a post and lintel system. Two blocks stand vertically (posts), and a third block is placed horizontally across them (lintel). Post and lintel is the engineering of Stonehenge on a scale much larger than children's building blocks.

In addition to the instruction to paint with the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of a house, Deuteronomy 6:9 and Deuteronomy 11:20 direct that certain words of God should be on the doorposts of homes. The word mezuzah actually means doorpost, but the word has come to mean the doorpost and the container that is attached to it. In the container is a piece of parchment on which are written the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. On the back of the parchment is the word shaddai. Shaddai is one of the mystical names for the Almighty and is also an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Gates of Israel.

Doorways are places that are "in between". Standing in a doorway one is neither fully in nor fully out. Inside the house is the familiar. Outside the house is the stranger. Inside is "us"; outside is "them". Anything posted on a doorpost sends a message to that "unfamiliar them". What have Christian church doorways looked like? What is the message that our church building doorways send to the world? What have we written on our own doorposts and lintels?


This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page you'll see links to contemporary artists' interpretations of the seder plate. Click on the Facebook link below.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Evil for Evil

Among the exhortations in Romans 12:9-21 is the encouragement to "not repay anyone evil for evil" (v. 17). This phrase was chosen by Alphonse Mucha as a subtitle for one of the panels of his masterwork "The Slav Epic."

Alphonse Mucha is best known as an Art Nouveau poster artist working in Paris. His posters usually included a female figure along with natural elements and the lettering typical of the Art Nouveau style. As much as he is associated with Paris, though, Mucha was in fact a Czech, born in what was then Moravia. He decorated the Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and collaborated on the Austrian Pavilion. While researching the culture, history and traditions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mucha developed the idea of an epic for all Slavic people - what would become The Slav Epic. These twenty large-scale canvases illustrate twenty episodes in Slavic history, some specifically Czech history and others from the history of various Slavonic regions. Mucha's purpose for the epic was "to unite all the Slavs through their common history and their mutual reverence for peace and learning" and then to "inspire them to work for humanity using their experience and virtue" (Mucha Foundation). The twelfth painting is titled "Petr of Chelcicky at Vodnany: Do Not Repay Evil for Evil."

http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/themes/theme/slav-epic/object/223

In this scene Chelcicky (also spelled Chelcice) walks among the dying, wounded and displaced citizens from the village of Vodnany, which found itself in the crossfire between the Hussites and the Germanic forces during the Hussite Wars. In the background, large plumes of smoke rise from burning homes while in the foreground Chelcicky, holding a Bible, encourages the people not to seek vengeance or retribution. The rejection of violence is a hallmark of Chelcicky's teaching.

The work, which shows not the battle itself but rather the aftermath of battle, was completed in 1918, probably not coincidentally the year that World War I ended. Though the clothes in the painting may be that of 15th-century Czech peasants, the overall scene of destruction, injuries, death and humans pushed almost beyond endurance is repeated in images from around our world today.  
Mucha seated in front of panels from the Epic.

For a full exploration of The Slav Epic see: http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/themes/theme/slav-epic

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rocks, Arks, Baskets and Water

On this rock I will build the church. That's what Jesus tells Peter (Matthew 16:18). The baptismal font at Coventry Cathedral (England) takes that statement literally, building the church of Jesus Christ one baptism at a time using a rock baptismal font. Though almost completely destroyed by Nazi bombs on 14 November 1940, the cathedral was rebuilt, merging the ruins of the old cathedral with a contemporary expression of the cathedral form in an effort to give physical presence to the ideas of hope for the future and reconciliation.  

For Coventry Cathedral: http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/

The rock, a boulder from near Bethlehem, has a basin on top in the form of a scallop shell on the top. Ralph Beyer, a German-born letter-cutter, sculptor and teacher, designed and carved the shell. Beyer's family left Germany in 1932, but his mother, who was Jewish, returned to Germany during World War II, was incarcerated at Auschwitz and died there in 1945. Among many other commissions, Beyer carved Paul Tillich's gravestone in New Harmony, IN.

This font ties together the texts for Proper 16A/Ordinary 21A/Pentecost+11 remembering that in baptism the community remembers other stories of God's salvation expressed through water:
In the time of Noah, you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood, 
giving righteousness a new beginning.
You led Israel out of slavery, through the waters of the sea,
 into the freedom of the promised land.
Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA)

The idea comes full circle in the Hebrew word for "ark" (תֵּבָה - tbh - tebah). This same word is used to describe the "basket" woven by Moses mother when she put him in the water to save him from Pharaoh's decree. Moses is saved when he is put in an "ark" on the waters of the Nile.

For a contemporary take on the reading from Hebrew scripture alone, click here.

For an old/new hymn that might be a good addition for this week's worship, see the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/artfaithmatters

Monday, August 11, 2014

Joseph, His Brothers (and Tissot) in Egypt

God meant it for good. That's what Joseph tells his brothers in Egypt. They came by different routes, of course, and set off on the journey from different impulses. Joseph has traveled there with the caravan of traders to whom his brothers sold him. The brothers have traveled to Egypt at the direction of their father in hopes of buying grain. The Bible says it's Egypt, but artists have, at times, seemed unable to help themselves. Their "Egypt" looks remarkably like France or Flanders or a Greco-Roman temple. For those artists, every Biblical subject was painted in their own time, using their own architecture and their own clothing styles.

At the other end of the spectrum is French artist Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902). Tissot traveled to the Near East several times between 1877 and 1902, when his energy was consumed with paintings for, first, a Life of Christ and then with illustrating the Hebrew Bible. Criticized as being "too photographic", Tissot did indeed photograph settings, buildings and landscapes, documenting the places and details he would need when he was back in his studio painting.

For the painting, see: http://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26324-joseph-and-his-brethren-welcomed-by-pharaoh

While his work is by no means fully authentic, elements of Tissot's paintings can be identified with places in Egypt. In "Joseph and His Brothers Welcomed by Pharaoh" (above, right), the clerestory windows in the painting are direct quotations from the Karnak Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temple complex (above, left).

The Jewish Museum, NYC, has a collection of Tissot paintings, including his version of the episode where Joseph announces his identity to his brothers. Under Tissot's brush, Egypt is vividly colored and patterned, distinctly different from the more subdued garments worn by Joseph's brothers. No doubt the brothers felt somewhat out of place even before Joseph makes the grand gesture in this painting. Though the architectural setting has not been specifically identified, the repetition of columns, windows and panels provides a geometric background for the organic forms of Jacob's sons. 

http://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26323-joseph-maketh-himself-known-to-his-brethren

The columns seem more slender than most Egyptian columns (refer to the drawing above), but they echo the rather willowy figure of Joseph whose brothers do, in this moment, bow down to him as he dreamed long ago.

For a surprising expression of Egypt in church architecture, see the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/artfaithmatters

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Walking on Water: An Early Image

Dated around 240 AD, it is billed as one of the earliest images of Jesus in existence.* The house church at Dura-Europos (Syria) appears to be like those mentioned in Romans 15:5 - a private house used as a meeting place for Christians that over time was adapted for Christian worship. One of the rooms served as the baptistery. A basin, looking much like a modern bathtub, was set into the wall to hold water, and the walls were painted with a variety of scriptural stories to illuminate the baptismal theme.

http://ecatalogue.art.yale.edu/detail.htm?objectId=34499

One of the images is the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter sort-of walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33). The wall fragment now in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery shows a boat in the background carrying the disciples with Jesus and Peter in the foreground. The information on the Yale website identifies the whole figure remaining in the fragment as Jesus, with the upper half of Peter's figure and half of the boat lost. However, the feet of the whole figure are below the waves, which seems to be the sinking Peter, with the figure on the right standing securely on top of the waves. Additionally, in succeeding depictions, the figure of Peter is on the left with Jesus on the right. Perhaps it is the upper half of Jesus that is missing. See the Art&Faith Matters facebook page for additional images of this subject (https://www.facebook.com/artfaithmatters).

The drawings are more illustrative than evocative - simple outlines define the rather geometric shapes of the human figures, the waves, the boat and the rigging. There is not much included in the scene beyond these few elements.

What is perhaps most interesting about this fragment is what it tells us in its setting. Because it is a water image - and an image of Jesus saving one in the water at that - it isn't a surprising choice for the walls of a baptistery. The other images in the room might be cause for reflection on the meaning of this story, though. The series of paintings also offers insight into how early Christians understood this story.

In the wall above the arch above the font is an image of the Good Shepherd with sheep on a hillside. In the lower left hand corner of that same wall is an image of Adam, Eve and a serpent. On the wall at a right angle to the font wall are depictions of several episodes from the gospels: three women at the tomb (closest to the font), the healing of the paralytic, and Christ and Peter walking on the water. On the opposite wall are two doors, and in the space between them was an image of the woman at the well. Beneath that image is a picture of David and Goliath.

What might each of these stories tell us about the story of Christ and Peter's walk on the waves? Does the meaning become clearer with the knowledge that the boat in this fragment sails to the right, following the direction of the paralytic man from the adjoining scene? What might a third-century interpretation of this gospel story have to say to us today?


*For Dura-Europos as early image, see: http://observer.com/2011/09/earliest-known-images-of-christ-on-display-at-nyu/