Sunday, December 27, 2015

In the Beginning

It's an old art history trivia question that speaks to the gospel reading for Christmas 2C (John 1:1-18). Here's the set up: in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, we know that God's right hand reaches out to the newly created Adam. (Detail below.) Here's the question: where is God's left hand and arm? Don't look at the full view until you've made a guess.
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (detail). Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512. Vatican City, Italy. http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/CSN/CSN_Volta_StCentr.html
OK, now look at the bottom of the page for the full view. Was it what you thought? And, actually what is it? Obviously it's God and a number of other figures floating in space on a cloak-like background. God's left arm is around a female figure, and God's left hand is touching an infant. Who are they?

There is no definitive answer, but there are theories. All the theories wind up with the infant as the Christ Child, so it is the identity of the woman that shapes the meaning of the composition. One theory identifies the female figure as Eve, waiting her turn to be created. Eve, whose name means life, will be the mother of all humanity. A second casting of the figures calls the female figure Mary, who will be the literal mother of Jesus. A third option is that the female figure is Wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22ff.). Yet another proposal is that the female figure is the Holy Spirit (ruach, a feminine noun, in the Hebrew). With this interpretation, the figures become the Trinity, all three persons present in the beginning.


Each of the above propositions concludes with the identification of the infant as the Christ Child. The interpretations by turn feature the Christ as the second Adam, the son of God and one person of the Trinity. However it is interpreted, Michelangelo has caused the hand of God to rest eternally on the child. The artist has placed the Word in the beginning, exactly where John's gospel said he was.






On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week...Epiphany! Travel with the magi by clicking on the link below.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Twelve-Year-Old Jewish Boy

The gospel reading for Christmas 1C (Luke 2:41-52) gives us the only story of the young Jesus in the canonical gospels. In the story, Mary and Joseph think that Jesus is traveling home with family members or friends, only to discover that he is nowhere to be seen. After searching "diligently" they find him in the temple, having theological conversation with the teachers there.

It is another of the stories that has probably lost some of its shock value over time. Of course the son of God would be disputing (one of the formal names for images of this subject is "The Disputation") with human teachers of faith. And yet the story - and images of it - have the power to raise conversation...and disputes.

German painter Max Liebermann created a painting of the subject exhibited at Munich's First International Art Exhibition in 1879. In the painting (below left), the young Jesus sits among the rabbis in a temple. The temple here is a combination of elements from synagogues that the artist visited as he was preparing the composition and subject. The curved staircase is a reference to the16th-century Levantine Synagogue in Venice. The paned window on the upper edge of the painting echoes the windows of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, which the artist visited in 1876. His models for the rabbis were Christians and for the young Jesus an Italian boy, choosing these models to avoid the "danger of caricature." He did studies of the figures and exhibited the painting for the first time at the International Exhibition.
(Left) Max Liebermann. The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple. 1879. Oil on canvas. Hamburger Kunsthalle. For the Hamburger Kunsthalle, see: http://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/index.php/home_en.html (Right) Liebermann. Study for The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple. 1879. Crayon over Pencil. Kupferstichkabinett. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. For the study, see: http://www.smb-digital.de/eMuseumPlus? service=direct/1/ResultLightboxView/result.t1.collection_lightbox.$TspTitleImageLink.link&sp=10&sp=Scollection&sp=SfieldValue&sp=0&sp=1&sp=3&sp=Slightbox_3x4&sp=0&sp=Sdetail&sp=0&sp=F&sp=T&sp=0
The painting was reviled. Liebermann's painting portrays a Jesus who was not a precocious theological talent outshining the Jewish scholars. Instead, what critics saw was, as art critic Friedrich Pecht wrote, "the ugliest, know-it-all Jewish boy imaginable." Pecht described the scholars as "a rabble of the filthiest haggling Jews." So outraged were German sensibilities that the painting and its creator were discussed in the German parliament, with the resulting opinion that perhaps future exhibition organizers would take an artist's religious sensibilities into consideration before exhibiting their work.

You see, Liebermann was Jewish. And in the third quarter of the 19th century, anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany. The root of the problem was that Liebermann (a Jew) had painted a Jewish Jesus talking with rabbis who were listening to the child - perhaps not convinced by his argument but considering it. The usual approach to the subject was to contrast Jesus - a beautiful youth - with temple officials caricatured by gross and exaggerated features. As you consider the image here, though, you may be wondering about the uproar. In the years after the painting's premiere, the artist attempted to ameliorate the vicious comments by overpainting the figure of Jesus. The Jesus of the painting we see today is using his hands with restraint and has changed from a dark-haired boy into this blond-haired cherub. The drawing on the right is a preparatory sketch for the original composition.

Liebermann's approach was to include the most "real" persons, places and things in his telling of this story. For his efforts, Liebermann's painting was dismissed by critics like Anna Jameson in her book Legends of the Monastic Orders (1900). Her assessment was that Liebermann (and several of his contemporaries who shared his approach) had "translated into uninteresting prose an incident which belongs essentially to the realm of poetry." For the painting's original audience, it wasn't enough for Jesus to be shown as a 12-year-old boy who was listening, asking questions and amazing adults with his understanding and answers. Even though that is how Luke's gospel describes the event.

Max Liebermann resigned (before he could be dismissed) from his position as president of the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1933 because the Academy could/would not exhibit work by Jewish artists. Liebermann died in 1935. In 1940 his widow was forced to sell (to the German government) the Liebermann summer residence, a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The Liebermann villa is only a hundred yards from the villa where the Nazis held their infamous Wannsee Conference - where the subject was Hitler's "final solution". After which there was, jumping to an echo of the Bethlehem of Matthew's gospel, the sound of Rachel weeping for her children.

For the Levantine Synagogue, see: http://jvenice.org/en/levantine-synagogue
For the Portuguese Synagogue, see: http://www.portugesesynagoge.nl/eng








On the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, see this version of the Nativity. Click on the link below.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Visit a Family Member

Luke's gospel records a visit between Mary and Elizabeth. It is the gospel reading for Advent 4C (Luke 1:39-45). What is the most important part of the story? That the women are pregnant? That they are different ages? That one woman acknowledges the superiority of the other? That one baby "leaped" in the womb at the voice of the other mother? At various times and places each of these things has been important. Watch the Art&Faith Matters Facebook post this week for additional images that illustrate each of these emphases. But for here...a different emphasis. A windsock. 

The "Windsock Visitation" was created by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS for the Visitation Monastery of Minneapolis. In this version, the two women greet one another. There is joy in the meeting. But unlike many of the formal arrangements that you will see on Facebook, in this meeting there is an element (perhaps more than one, but certainly one) included that seems lacking in the other. A windsock. Well, perhaps not the windsock itself...but what it symbolizes.
For "Windsock Visitation", see: https://www.trinitystores.com/store/art-image/windsock-visitation
For the Visitation Monastery, see: http://www.visitationmonasteryminneapolis.org/
The windsock is a symbol familiar to the Visitation Monastery. The sisters at Visitation Monastery hang a windsock outside the door every other day when neighborhood children are invited in to play and create and pray. Here Elizabeth has hung out the windsock for the child Jesus. The tails of the windsock are being blown by a wind - surely a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in this situation. The two women, their unborn children and the Holy Spirit have indeed made this a place of delight and rest. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chop Down a Tree

Two images. Same subject (John the Baptist). Same setting (as we see him in the gospel lesson for Advent 3C...Luke 3:7-18). Same artist (Jacopo del Sallaio of Florence, Italy). Same pose. Same setting (a landscape). Same colors of garments. But what a difference five years makes. The image on the left was painted about 1480. The image on the right was painted about 1485. How would you characterize the changes?
 (left) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1480. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. See: https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg7/gg7-426.html
(right) Jacopo del Sellaio. St. John the Baptist. c. 1485. Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest, Hungary. See: http://www.szepmuveszeti.hu/adatlap_eng/saint_john_the_baptist_q_9621

What a difference five years makes in how the artist saw the text. John has aged, and his hair has darkened. The landscape that had full green trees is now mostly barren. The goldfinches of the earlier picture have disappeared from the latter. But the ax embedded at the base of the unproductive tree is much more visible. What had been a detail in the first picture has become the main point in the later version.

The reason for the prominence of the ax in 1485 is probably tied up in the life and hometown of the painter. In the earlier picture the city in the background is Florence, Italy. The presence of Florence is not surprising because John the Baptist is the patron saint of the city. Brunelleschi's cathedral dome is identifiable, along with the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and Giotto's bell tower. The glory of Florence is spread across the painting.

By 1485, though, there was a new resident in Florence, and the city was no longer imagined as a glorious panorama. The new resident was Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar appointed to teach at the San Marco Convent in Florence c. 1482. It was in Florence that Savonarola began preaching about the moral laxness and pagan tendencies of Florence's ruling classes, including the Medici family. His preaching made no real impression on Florence at the time - his delivery and accent were stumbling blocks - but it was the beginning of a decade of preaching that called for reform (in church and at court) and, increasingly, warned of the nearness of the apocalypse.

In other words, Florence should repent, and repent now, because God's judgment was coming. Soon. Or, to quote John, the city of Florence needed to repent, because the ax was already lying at the root of the tree.

Delivering this message didn't provide a better end for Savonarola than it did for John the Baptist. One was beheaded; one was burned at the stake. It might make a preacher a little hesitant to bring up the whole subject.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Build a Road

The language is that of road-building, though Luke left that part out when quoting the prophet. In the gospel reading for Advent 2C (Luke 3:1-6), Luke says: ...as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” The "original" is: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Building roads today may be perceived as easier because of the technological and engineering advances. But, then, along with the engineering advances, the expectations have also risen. Today it isn't enough to carve out a passable track over the natural ridge configuration of a mountain; instead, the mountain must be dynamited out of the way and a more level roadbed laid.

To be sure, the point of the prophetic passage is that the people understand that God is about to (re)enter their lives and a way must be made for that. In the case of Jesus, God will make the way with the incarnation. But the metaphor is that of a road. And roads, whether by God or by humans, must still be built.

A part of the backbreaking process of 19th-century road construction is captured by Gustave Courbet in his work The Stonebreakers. Courbet, a French artist, established Realism as an anti-academic approach to art in the middle of the 19th century. The picture, treated harshly by many contemporary critics, shows two figures engaged in clearing stones from roadbeds and then breaking them into smaller pieces. The stones were turned into gravel for paving material and other uses.
Gustave Courbet. The Stonebreakers. 1849. Destroyed 1945. Previously Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany.
The two figures are anonymous. We would not be able to recognize either of the two workers should we see them again, but they seem by turns too young and too old to be doing this demanding work. The artist saw the two workers at their task as he was riding in his carriage into the countryside to paint a landscape and was struck by their suitability as a painting subject. He invited them to his studio the following day and began the painting.

Realism refused to idealize any subject, so there is no golden glow of daylight or oneness with nature. There is only work. Pull, swing, chop, load, carry, dump, start over.

Philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a friend of Courbet's, wrote of this painting: “Our industrial civilization which everyday invents marvelous machines to labour – to sow, spin, in short to execute all sorts of jobs, is yet incapable of liberating the human being from the grossest, the most repugnant and painful of tasks – the lamentable lot of the poor.”

Though civilization may not have been able to liberate the poor from their "lamentable lot", the coming of Christ was to accomplish just that. And these two workers, one too young, one too old, disregarded by society, certainly among "the least of these", would have been right at home in Luke's gospel with its babies born to women who were too old and too young, with its working shepherds who were unlikely attendees at the manger, with its "blessed are the poor."

Prepare the way of the Lord.




Heeeeere's Malachi! Click on the Facebook link below to find out which of these figures is Malachi and what he is doing in this altarpiece.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is Today "The Day"?

"The days are surely coming" we read in Jeremiah on Advent 1C (Jeremiah 33:1-4). And on "the day" no one will mistake it, according to Luke's gospel (Luke 21:25-36). There will be signs in the heavens, in the stars, in the moon. Luke's gospel says that when we hear of such cosmic events they should remind us that Jesus is returning. We should stand up and lift up our heads.

Luca Signorelli depicted "the day", but his imagining of the events probably won't make anyone want to lift up their heads. Instead, stars fall from the sky and go pale; fires and earthquakes shake the earth. The painting is half of a lunette and doorway fresco titled Finimondo (the end of the world). This is the right side of the door, and while the heavens fall apart at the top of the composition, at the bottom stand two witnesses to the event: King David (wearing a turban) and a sibyl (holding an open book).
Luca Signorelli. Finimondo. 1499-1502. Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral. Orvieto, Italy.
For Chapel of San Brizio, see: http://www.opsm.it/duomo/duomo/019_1.html
These two witnesses are mentioned in the "Dies Irae" (literally "day of wrath"), a Latin hymn written c. 13th century. The first verse says: The day of wrath, that day/Will dissolve the world in ashes/As foretold by David and the Sibyl. Sibyls (the Greek word sibylla means prophetess) were women of Greco-Roman origin who prophesied at sacred sites under the influence of a deity. This sibyl, it seems, wrote The Laetabundus (literally, Joy Abounding), the liturgical sequence that is part of the Mass for Christmas and Epiphany. These figures, two non-Christian figures interestingly, witness to "the day". The one that is surely coming.

In every age people have seen signs in the heavens. They have seen wars and heard rumors of wars. They have remembered Jesus' words and know that it could happen at any time. Any day, any year could be the "the day" and "the year" of Jesus' return. Will the day catch us unexpectedly? Maybe this Advent is the time for us to stand up and lift up our heads.









It could be at any time. See how time and the signs of the sun, moon and stars, intersects in technology on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A King for Today

It seems that the name by which it is known may help interpret the day. Is this coming Sunday known as Christ the King B? Or do you prefer Reign of Christ B? The first seems to focus on the person of Jesus, who as Christ will one day rule over this world - every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. The Reign of Christ seems to focus not just on who sits on that throne but what happens once he takes his place there.

But these two questions are only the tip of the iceberg when considering an image or images for this day and these scriptures (2 Samuel 23:1-7, Psalm 132:1-12, Revelation 1:4b-8 and John 18:33-37). Do we look for Christ descending in the clouds as in Revelation - usually accompanied by a precisely-arranged throng of saints, martyrs, apostles and angels? Do we prefer an enthroned Christ, sitting calmly, holding and wearing the regalia of his position as king? Depicted as a king that Pontius Pilate, who questioned Jesus about his kingship in John's gospel, would have understood. Though Jesus would look like any earthly king, we presume that he, unlike the Roman emperors of his day and many rulers since, would be dispensing justice.

But what of today? We may look at the reign of Christ and the return of Christ with different eyes in light of the events in Beirut, in Baghdad, in Paris and in places where killings and terror were carried out against individuals rather than groups large enough to make the news. The clouds and phalanxes of winged figures may not offer a vision that speaks to the kind of king we need today. Though not a specific depiction of this liturgical day, the icon (at right) titled "Christ of Maryknoll" by Brother Robert Lentz nevertheless offers us an image that impacts a view of Christ as king. It is a purposely ambiguous: is Christ inside the barbed wire or are we? Have we imprisoned Christ - who he is, what he calls us to do and to be? Have we tried to contain him, limit him behind "barbed wire?" Or perhaps we have imprisoned ourselves. Have we erected barriers that keep Christ out of our lives, our institutions, our business? Is Christ on the other side of the fence offering us freedom in his reign, if only there was no barbed wire between us?

Either way, the barbed wire is an obstacle. Perhaps it offers no real hindrance to Christ and his purpose, but it is an obstruction to us. It may be a parallel to Frederick Buechner's take on prayer. Keep praying, he says, "...not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God's door before God will open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there's no way of getting to your door. 'Ravish my heart,' John Donne wrote. But God will not usually ravish. He will only court." (Wishful Thinking) What if Christ cannot truly be king for us - much less the world - because the way to our door is blocked with obstacles of our own making?

Every eye will see him, Revelation promises. So though present in every time and place, weeping over every evil act of today, we know that Christ has not yet returned. Because we haven't seen. We still wait. We still need the reign of the Prince of Peace.

For Robert Lentz icons, see: http://robertlentz.com/





And where does this magnificent creature fit in? Check out the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bringing Children into this World

Fair warning. This week's post is more reflection than exegesis. While browsing images for both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the pairing of the texts for Proper 28B/Ordinary 33B/Pentecost 25 (I Samuel 20:4-20 and I Samuel 2:1-10 along with Mark 13:1-8, especially verses 1 and 2) led to the thoughts here.

"For this child I prayed." The phrase is actually between the two passages from I Samuel for this week. But it remembers the first while anticipating the second. Hannah prayed for a child and God finally answered her prayer. This child, I prayed. Hannah's prayer continues to echo in faithful, hopeful, often-disappointed hearts to this very day.

"Not one stone will be left." Jesus reminds the disciples (and us) about the fragility of our world. All we need do is look around to see that Titus as a type still exists in our world. Titus who laid siege to Jerusalem, finally breached its walls, marched into the city and destroyed the Temple. Almost every stone.

As I pondered these scriptures it occurred to me that we continue to pray for children to come into the world even as we know that this world is a fragile place, often especially dangerous to the very children we ask God to give us. But we continue to ask.

Despite the Tituses. Despite the destruction. Despite the danger. Despite those who lead others astray. Despite the wars and the rumors of wars. Despite nation fighting nation and kingdom fighting kingdom. Despite earthquakes. Despite famine. Despite it all. We continue to ask for children and God continues to answer that request. Children continue to be brought into this world. This world. Not the next, not another. This world.

Pictures above: (top) Prayed-for Child. Photo (c) Lynn Miller. (below) Francesco Hayez. The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. 1867. Venice: Gallerie delle'Accademia.  http://www.gallerieaccademia.org/?lang=en

See how this painting (Bosch's Adoration of the Magi) relates to the story of Hannah at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A View of All Saints

Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian artist probably most widely known as the painter who created the first abstract watercolor. Even if he wasn't an active worshiper as an adult, he was raised in the Russian Orthodox church, and his work often shows the influence of liturgy and religious practice. That is certainly true with his various interpretation of All Saints Day.

The collection of images below represent several different compositions around the theme of All Saints. The top images - variations on All Saints I - also have elements of the Last Judgment (especially the trumpeting angel at the left) and the crucifixion (note the crucified Jesus on the hill in the background near the bell of the angel's trumpet).
Kandinsky. All Saints I. 1911. Munich: Lenbachhaus Gallery. (Left) Oil on canvas. (Right) Reverse glass painting.
 
(Left) Kandinsky. All Saints Day II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Oil on canvas. (Right) Kandinsky. All Saints II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Reverse glass painting. For the Lenbachhaus Gallery, see: http://www.lenbachhaus.de/
All four images share common symbols and persons. The trumpeting angels present in All Saints I are also in All Saints Day II in the upper right and left corners, though their forms are more abstract in II. All Saints II (lower right), includes the pair from All Saints I, whose arms are companionably around each other. They are central figures in I and much smaller but still in the center of II. All Saints II also includes folkloric references to the Zyrian shaman Pam who rows off in a boat in the lower left corner of All Saints II. 

Siberian folklore, the Last Judgment, the resurrection of the saints, color, glass, paint...all of these are part of Kandinsky's conception of All Saints. At this point in his career Kandinsky is moving toward abstraction. It is important to remember that for Kandinsky abstraction was not just a desire to dissolve recognizable subject matter or forms. Kandinsky was seeking to make a spiritual statement. He believed that if the paintings were too easily understood they were not adequate equivalents for the spiritual world. He was trying to create in visual art the same opportunity that existed in music - to create a spiritual meaning that was not tied to the symbolic objects that tend to drive humans toward narrative. The experience of the painting was to be the spiritual experience. The painting did not exist only to point toward a story of something spiritual. 

Kandinsky's interpretation stands in stark contrast to William Bouguereau's use of All Saints Day as subject matter. Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academic painter, has placed two women in black at the grave of a loved one. Two very different approaches to the same observance. These two painters are a reminder of the richness of approach and experience of every one of the saints of God. For Bouguereau's painting, click on the Facebook link below. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bartimaeus...the Entertainer?

Jesus heals blind men in more than one gospel and more than one story in Christian scripture. For Proper 25B/Ordinary 30B/Pentecost 22 the story is that of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar outside Jericho who gains Jesus' attention in order to be healed and then follows Jesus on the way (Mark 10:46-52).

The author of the text tells us that Bartimaeus sits by the roadside, but that is as far as the details go. Italian artist Domenico Fiasella (called Il Sarzano) has given Bartimaeus a sort of occupation that would have been familiar in his own time. Now in the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the painting called "Christ Healing the Blind" shows Jesus in the familiar red and blue tunic and cloak, laying his hand over the eyes of the blind man. From his fingertips comes...nothing. But we have faith that the man's sight will be restored.
Domenico Fiasella. Christ Healing the Blind. Oil on canvas. 1615. Sarasota, FL: John and Mable
 Ringling Museum of Art. http://ringlingdocents.org/fiasella1.htm
What is especially interesting is that Fiasella has made Bartimaeus a violinist, hanging the fiddle from the belt of his tunic. In Fiasella's day many blind persons had to beg for a living and having the ability to play a musical instrument like a violin or guitar might have made a significant difference in their ability to sustain life.

The theme of the blind musician is a reasonably common theme in art. John Singer Sargent, Georges de la Tour and Ben Shahn among other artists, have explored this theme in their paintings. The theme may have some root in the legend of St. Cecelia, patron saint of musicians. The name Cecilia may come from the Latin caecus (meaning blind), so Cecilia is also patron saint of the blind. There is no evidence that she herself was blind, but the confluence of words and names and meanings has sorted itself out along these lines.

Blindness has traditionally been the occasion to talk about spiritual insight (or its lack), heavenly reward/earthly punishment, the ability of divine healing to override the things of earth and the salvation of humans and humanity. Sight, light and salvation are often associated with these stories. The addition of music to the composition is an interesting one. Oftentimes we think of musicians being "lost in their music" - so caught up in the moment that they lose awareness of the world around them. This might be doubly true of blind musicians. But here the blind man is not so caught up in his music that he has missed Christ walking by. The violin that surely has made music in the past may make music in the future, but in this moment it hangs otherwise unattended at the man's waist. This blind man, whether he is Bartimaeus or another, is not distracted by his own activity or any other need. He is rather intently focused on Christ who can and will change his world.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

From the Whirlwind

God shows up. And God has an answer for Job in the reading for Proper 23/Ordinary 28/Pentecost +20 (selected verses from Job 38). God speaks out of a whirlwind, so not only does Job get God, Job gets drama. Big drama. Big weather. And out of the whirlwind God reminds Job that it was God who laid the foundation of the created world. It was God who flung the lights into space and started the planets whirling. It was God who formed the hippo and the alligator. It was God who spat out the oceans. God whose hands clapped and thunder rolled. God who orchestrated the rising of trees and the greening of leaves. God. All God.

Other voices have spoken out of other storms, other whirlwinds. Mississippi artist H.C. Porter helped people find their voices after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coast of her native state in 2005. She spent a year traveling the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She listened to sufferers, and she told their stories through her work as a mixed media artist. Many of those stories were stories of resilience and faith overcoming the loss of everything that the world would consider important. Others told other stories. While Porter told their stories visually, her subjects also told their stories orally, and those voice recordings accompany the paintings in the exhibition. They are speaking out of a whirlwind.

It's difficult to name a person whose life has not been touched in some way by loss, sorrow and the question of why God seems absent. Certainly Job's life was touched by loss, and he felt that God was nowhere near to him. But God's answer to Job reminds us of the psalmist's assurance that God is present and we need not fear, even if the mountains shake in the heart of the sea. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen." We, too, can trust the God who made all that is.

For H.C. Porter's exhibition "Backyards and Beyond: Mississippians Tell Their Stories", see: http://www.hcporter.com/katrina/index.asp. For the published catalog that accompanied the exhibition, see: http://www.amazon.com/Backyards-Beyond-Mississippians-Their-Stories/dp/0981849903 Original work is available on the artist's website.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Without God or Jesus, A Single Figure

The gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 23B/Ordinary 28B/Pentecost 20 leave us with a single figure. One because he is unable to follow. One who cannot seem to find. The two readings (Mark 10:17-31 and Job 23:1-17 respectively) detail encounters between a human and the divine. In one passage the human is young; in the other he is old (or at least middle age!). In one passage the human has great material possessions; in the other he once had such possessions, but they have been taken away from him.
(Both) George Frederic Watts. For He Had Great Possessions. 1894.
 (Left) Guildford, Surrey: Watts Gallery. http://wattsgallery.adlibsoft.com/detail.aspx?parentpriref=
(Right) London: Tate Gallery. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/watts-for-he-had-great-possessions-n01632
Above are two versions of the same composition titled "For He Had Great Possessions" by George Frederic Watts. Watts was a 19th-century Symbolist painter. He is credited with saying, "I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man." Watts' intention to paint ideas shows clearly in the paintings. Where other artists show Jesus and a group of people, here the focus is entirely on the young man and his state of mind.

The two versions vary slightly. The shallow picture space emphasizes the limited future of the man, even as his rich clothes remind us of all the material possessions he has. The placement of a vertical line and the fullness of his fur collar are among the variations between the two pictures.
Leon Bonnat. Job. 1880. Musee Bonnat Helleu. 
For Musee Bonnat Helleu, see: http://webmuseo.com/ws/musee-bonnat-helleu/app/report/index.html
Bonnat's painting of Job also shows a figure alone (though Job might not be entirely sad about being alone, given the company he usually keeps - his friends, his wife. Job faces us, where Watts' young man had turned away. The background here is also shallow, though the darkness leaves some room for mystery. Job is dramatically lighted as he sits alone on the dungheap looking up blindly to a God he cannot seem to find. 

You might think that having a single figure as the focus of a composition would give the figure a monumental strength. In these examples, however, the compositions seem to emphasize their barrenness and isolation. How different Job's life will be when God finally shows up. How different the young man's life would have been if he had made a different choice.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Husbands, Wives, Children

The gospel reading for Proper 22B/Ordinary 27B/Pentecost 19 (Mark 10:2-16) includes exchanges on the topics of marriage/divorce and children. The child-illustrated episode here is not exactly that of Proper 20B/O25B/P17, but the blog post written for that Sunday discussed various arrangements of Jesus and children, so it seemed a bit redundant to approach the text from that point of view.

Having the exchanges about marriage and divorce and children in proximity to one another brings to mind questions about what it might have been like to grow up in the house of Mary and Joseph, a subject on which scripture is remarkably silent. Except for the episode at the temple when Jesus was twelve years old, canonical scripture gives no mention of Jesus' childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. But it is in the house of Mary and Joseph that Jesus would have most fully seen a marriage and the worth and role of children, both topics addressed in this week's readings.

Because the text is silent, artists have had free reign to imagine life in that household. Considered through the paintings, life might have been tedious, with every act of the young, growing Jesus taking on a foreshadowing of his life on earth. Consider John Everett Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, also called The Carpenter's Shop. Here the boy Jesus has drawn blood via a wound caused by a nail in Joseph's carpenter shop. The blood pools in his palm and drips on his foot as his mother comforts him. His cousin John (the baptizer) brings a bowl of water to wash away the blood while a white dove sits on the rung of a ladder leaning against the back wall. These clearly foreshadow Jesus' baptism and crucifixion. Millais based the scene on a local carpenter's shop, going so far as to get sheep's heads from a local butcher to use as the basis for the flock seen through the open door.
Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents. 1849-50. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Britain. 
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents-the-carpenters-shop-n03584
The painting was not universally acclaimed. Charles Dickens wrote that the boy Christ was "a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown" (Household Words, 15 June 1850). In this interpretation, Mary and Jesus form a unit with Joseph and assorted other people orbiting around them.

American artist Frank V. Dumond shows an older Jesus with an older Mary and Joseph. The three gather around the supper table. Jesus and Mary glow in their white garments while Joseph sits in shadows wearing dark clothing. Joseph is given only a thin ring halo, while the other two members of the family have solid disks announcing their holiness. As in Millais' picture, there is a wooden table in the room, no doubt made by the carpenter-in-residence (though the brace along the parental side of the table makes one wonder about the structural soundness of the furniture and the abilities of the carpenter). Jesus stands on one side of the table while his parents prepare to receive the meal. In this composition, Mary and Joseph are more of a unit, seated side by side, though Joseph tends to disappear and Mary's affinity with Jesus is shown in their white garments.
Frank V. Dumond. Jesus with His Parents at the Supper Table.
The lilies, common in scenes of the Annunciation as symbols of Mary's purity, are still here growing in a foreground pot. A single window pierces the wall of the house and allows light to shine on Jesus' clothing. Parents and child gather together to share a meal in a prefiguration of Communion with Christ presiding at the table rather than his father.

Marriage and divorce...the worth and role of children...the dynamics of family life...Jesus spoke about all of them. He experienced them firsthand in the house of Mary and Joseph.







This week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post looks at the reading from Hebrew scripture (Job 1:1, 2:1-10). What do you imagine the scene between God and "the adversary" looked like? Click on the FB link below for additional information.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Salt and Paint

Have salt in yourselves. The gospel reading for Proper 21B/Ordinary 26B/Pentecost 18 (Mark 9:38-50) features this instruction from Jesus. He reminds his followers that salt is good but salt that has lost its saltiness is not much use. Have salt in yourselves, Jesus says, and be at peace with one another.

Yes, we should. But sometimes it isn't as easy in the living as the hearing. A case in point is Vincent van Gogh. Few artists work is more easily recognizable than Vincent. His work routinely sells for tens of millions of dollars (in May 2015 his painting "L'Allee Des Alyscamps" sold for $66 million rather than the estimated $40 million, proving that the appetite for his work is still strong). The only thing perhaps as well-known as his work is his life.

Failed art dealer, failed teacher, failed evangelist, and if one accounts by economic success during his lifetime, failed artist. Vincent struggled in personal relationships with family, friends and strangers. He thought of himself as a painter but the world tried to send him another message. His work was not appreciated widely...or really at all.

In 1880, while living in Cuesmes, Belgium, in the mining region of the Borinage, he wrote in a letter to his brother: So you mustn’t think that I’m rejecting this or that; in my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know? (Letter 155, Br. 1990: 154 | CL: 133; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, between about Tuesday, 22 and Thursday, 24 June 1880)

Now called Maison Van Gogh, this house was where Vincent rented a room while living in Cuesmes.
http://www.polemuseal.mons.be/en/maison-van-gogh

It was while Vincent was living in the Borinage that he devoted his life to art. He had recently been dismissed from his position as a preacher and was searching for what he was to do. In September 1880, still living in Cuesmes, he wrote again to Theo: Well, and notwithstanding, it was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I’ll recover from it, I’ll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I’ll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I’m on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more so day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything. (Letter 158. Br. 1990: 157 | CL: 136; From: Vincent van Gogh, To: Theo van Gogh. Date: Cuesmes, Friday, 24 September 1880)

And the artist was (re)born.

Vincent Van Gogh - child of the manse, aspiring preacher - put his own situation in the context of scripture, quoting Psalm 22 and Mark's gospel in letter 155. We owe Vincent's brother Theo for the financial and emotional support that made it possible for Vincent to buy paint and canvas on which to work. We owe Vincent's sister-in-law Johanna for the preservation of his work after his and Theo's deaths only six months apart. But our greatest debt is to Vincent for "having salt in himself" and pursuing the work God gave him to do.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jesus and Children, Generally and Specifically

As is often the case, the details probably best identify the subject. The gospel reading for Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 17 (Mark 9:30-37) is a story that shares broad strokes with other scripture passages. Disciples, Jesus, children -- sometimes they are jumbled together in paintings and expected to serve all the stories where Jesus is in the presence of children.

The most popular treatment of these elements seems to center around the episode where the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for trying to keep the children away from Jesus (Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). In contemporary illustrations, often Jesus is simply with a group of children in a landscape. No other adults are present. The children sit on his lap, stand at his knee, occasionally sit on his shoulder. Jesus is often smiling or reaching out his hand to touch and bless them. In at least one image Jesus kicks a soccer ball with a group of children. Because there are no adults present, these compositions may be projecting the result of Jesus' comments to the disciples. Children are unhindered and unrestrained in the presence of of an unhindered and unrestrained Jesus.

But that doesn't necessarily speak to the Mark 9 passage. In that particular passage, the child, who may be the promise of the future but is considered of little consequence in the present, is put in the middle of the group. Jesus holds the child and in his speech ties himself to the child: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Below are three pictures. Which one do you think is the best depiction of the Mark 9 text? Perhaps you are dissatisfied with all of them. Look at the details of the composition. What's best or what's missing in each of them? Information on the works are at the bottom of the page.

 (Top left: Nicolas Maes. Christ Blessing the Children. 1652-1653. National Gallery, London. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/nicolaes-maes-christ-blessing-the-children. Top right: Carl Bloch, Suffer the Little Children. 1865-1879. Frederiksborg Castle Chapel, Hillerod, Denmark. http://www.dnm.dk/dk/Slotskirken.htm. Bottom: C.R. Leslie, Christ Rebuking His Disciples by Calling the Little Child. c. 1860. New Norcia Art Gallery, Australia. http://www.newnorcia.wa.edu.au/education-and-research/museum.html)

The Art&Faith Matters Facebook page will feature paintings of Jesus and the children - not necessarily this specific text but they will give you something to push against as you consider the meaning of Mark 9. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Not Far Enough Behind

Get behind me, Satan. Except in the context of Mark 8, gospel reading for Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 16, Satan is really Peter. The speaker is Jesus, and he is chastising Peter for tempting him to do less, to be less than he is. Even if the "less" would be easier on Jesus.

But what happens if Satan isn't far enough behind?

Luca Signorelli created a fresco cycle for the cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, that features a panel titled "Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist". In front of a classical-style building the Antichrist preaches while horrors and supernatural events take place all around. But the Antichrist does not speak his own words. Standing right behind him is Satan, whispering in the ear of the Antichrist, prompting the words to be preached, bringing horror and terror to the world.

Luca Signorelli. Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist. Chapel of S. Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, Italy. 1499-1502. 
For the Cathedral, see http://www.opsm.it/duomo/019_3.html
Though his facial features are similar to what we normally see of Jesus, Signorelli's Antichrist has been identified with Florentine friar Girolama Savonarola - overthrower of the Medici in Florence, apocalyptic preacher, participant in bonfires of the vanities. Savonarola was burned and hanged in May of 1498, having reached (and passed) the pinnacle of his power and influence just before Luca began the Orvieto frescoes.

Peter's words to Jesus in the gospel reading may seem harmless on the surface. Who would want their friend to suffer and die as Jesus has predicted he must? Even Jesus would pray that the cup would pass from him. But God's plan is God's plan. So not only do those voices contrary to God's plan and God's will need to be behind us, they need to be far enough behind that we cannot hear them whispering in our ear. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Words of Wisdom

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 18B/Ordinary 23B/Pentecost 15 is a collection of two-liners from Proverbs (22:1-23, more or less). Pithy sayings transmit what reads like common sense: The clever see danger and hide, but the simple go on and suffer for it.  Many of the sayings have to do with poverty and wealth, though there is no stated theme for the passage. There is also no extensive attempt at narrative or transition between sayings.

Pieter Brueghel, a painter of the Northern Renaissance, created a painting that echoes the format of the Proverbs passage. Snippets of wisdom are illustrated and packed into a single frame. There really isn't any attempt to create a narrative that moves through the picture. Rather he simply embodies Netherlandish proverbs and packs as many as he can into a single canvas.
Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). Netherlandish Proverbs. 1559. Gemaldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen, Berlin. Oil on oak panel. 
For the Gemaldegalerie, see: http://www.smb.museum/en/museums-and-institutions/gemaeldegalerie/home.html
At the center of the canvas, under the porch, people confess to the devil. Atop a tower in the center top a man waves a cloak in order to know where the wind is coming from. In the lower left a man who is (literally) armed to the teeth tries to bell a cat. In the upper left window, the future is determined by the fall of the cards. In one of the dormer windows are two fools under one hood. In the lower right a man tries - but is ultimately unable - to spoon up spilled porridge, a version of the contemporary idea of not crying over spilled milk or being unable to put the toothpaste back in the tube. More than 100 proverbs are illustrated in the painting. 

All these proverbs in one place illustrate, according to Bruegel, a world turned upside down. And the artist has illustrated that as well. There are cross-topped orbs throughout the picture. The cross and orb symbolize the triumph of Christian faith over all the earth. For Bruegel's audience it would have seemed that Christ's triumph would have restored order to the world. Here, though, the orb-and-cross seems more ironic than anything else. In the lower right part of the picture Jesus sits on a chair (a throne?) with an orb in his lap. But even as he holds the symbol of triumph, he faces a monk who has put a fake blond beard on him. At the bottom center a man crawls inside a transparent orb through a hole in its base. And under the window at the left of the picture, the orb is upside down; the cross dangles beneath the orb. For Bruegel this is a topsy-turvy world...a world turned upside down because of the foolishness of humanity.

Restraining the foolishness of humanity is a goal of the Proverbs texts.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Inside and Out

This week's gospel lesson is one in a collection of episodes where scripture draws a comparison and distinction between what is inside and what is outside a person. David is chosen over his brothers because God looks on the heart. The tax collector's prayer is praised over the Pharisee. Mark 7:1-23, the gospel reading for Proper 17B/Ordinary 22B/Pentecost 14, is the occasion for Jesus to draw a comparison between legal washing requirements and what makes a person clean: the things that come out are the things that defile.

The contrast between inside and out can be seen in many ways. In the organic earthiness of a tulip bulb is the ethereal balance of the flower. Who could imagine that the stony roughness of a geode's exterior would give way to the light refracting crystals on its inside.

Some Christian church buildings offer the lesson of not judging a book by its cover...or a worship space by its exterior. The church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, offers insight through the contrast of interior and exterior.
Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Groundbreaking 527; consecrated 547; completed 548.
The exterior of the building is rough, largely unadorned brick. Neutral in color, the bricks are laid in some ornamental ways around the windows and doors. The overall effect, though, is not especially impressive. Massive in volume, the building seems to have grown through small eruptions on the exterior. 

Who could predict that inside the building is an architectural geode? Gold mosaics adorn almost every surface. Arches with columns punctuate the building. Light shines in from the windows piercing the walls. Emperors, attendants, angels, Jesus and more look down from walls, ceilings and domes.
The exterior of the building symbolizes the world, while the building's interior represents heaven. Inside. Outside. Physical world. Spiritual world. It's what's on the inside that sets the stage for the people's relationship with God. That's what Jesus was saying.





Walt Disney World? Yep, Epcot specifically. Hear one reader's response to this post on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Praying for the Church

Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the Temple (I Kings 8) is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 16B/Ordinary 21B/Pentecost 13. It is a prayer that reminded the first hearers - and us - that God is present with us. The conversation about a house for God has been going on since David spoke aloud the wish to build God a house. David was told that God would make him, David, a "house" but that not David, but rather his son, would be the one to build God a house. That has happened in the construction of "Solomon's" Temple.

Here Solomon prays that God's presence will fill the temple and that the people will know that God is with them and will hear them (and the foreigners living among them) when they pray. The building is a sign of the presence; it does not contain - or restrain - that presence according to the text. But even as "only" a sign it is a reminder to the people of God...then and now.


 It is appropriate, then, that subsequent houses of worship would employ this moment in scripture as a touchstone for their own houses of worship. The builders of the cathedral in Amiens, France (1220-1240), included several scenes from the life of Solomon in the quatrefoil designs on the cathedral's exterior walls. At left, the four scenes are Solomon eating (upper left), Solomon on his throne (upper right), Solomon and Sheba (lower left) and Solomon praying at the dedication of the Temple (lower right and bottom detail).

The composition of the dedicatory prayer segment is interesting in several ways. It differs from scripture, which identifies Solomon as standing before the altar. Here Solomon kneels outside the temple. He kneels on a column that bridges the gap between one corner of the quatrefoil and the entrance porch of the temple. This allows him to have his knees on a level with the floor of the Temple. The shape of the quatrefoil also drives the design of the king's bowed head.

Solomon's "Temple" bears more resemblance to a medieval cathedral than to the description in scripture, and Solomon is attired more like a European king than anything else. Neither of these things is surprising. But in the artist's transference from the Middle East to medieval Europe, we are reminded that all the faithful people would be well-served to remember the attitude of prayer by Israel's leader. Often, I think, we pray when we are in our congregational buildings. We offer prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, petition and praise for the people of the world. But it might be beneficial from time to time to stand outside our buildings and pray as Solomon is praying in the Amiens interpretation. Pray that the people remember and turn.

On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook this week, find an anthem recommendation to accompany this text. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Big Show of Wisdom

It seems a bit ironic that in the text (I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14) God commends Solomon's request for wisdom (Proper 15B/Ordinary 20B/Pentecost 12). Solomon is commended for not asking for things like wealth and influence and popularity. Instead, Solomon asks for an interior gift - an understanding mind (also translated as "a listening heart"), a gift that would not have obvious external attributes.

Italian artist Luca Giordano seems not to have grasped the interiority of Solomon's request. Or if he grasped the interiority of the request, he rejected that as the moment of the story to paint. Instead, he has painted a spectacle that is the opposite of interior.
Luca Giordano. The Dream of Solomon. c. 1693. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
In the painting, Solomon (of the golden tresses) sleeps on his fantastic couch. At the lower left corner are two men, perhaps courtiers. In the upper three-fourths of the canvas Solomon's room is filled with clouds that support floating angels, a traditional first person of the Trinity and a helmeted warrior whose shield bears the emblem of a dove. She is Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom...though she holds a book and sits with a lamb, prefiguring Christ and the Bible. A beam of light emanates from God's head. moving directly into Solomon's own. Solomon's crown rests on his bedside table at the far right of the picture. The whole scene is infused with a golden-white light. Solomon's request pleased God, and God promised that in addition to what Solomon asked, he would also get those things for which he did not ask.
Andrea Sacchi. The Triumph of Divine Wisdom. 1629-1630. Rome: Palazzo Barberini. 
It seems that wisdom will always be a heavenly spectacle. Andrea Sacchi's fresco of the Triumph of Divine Wisdom shares many of the same elements as Luca's painting. In the center of the ceiling, the female figure of wisdom sits on a throne. In her hand is a scepter topped by the eye of God. Her throne is guarded by lions, as was Solomon's throne (I Kings 10:19ff.). She is surrounded by clouds and angels making music. 

Unlike many ceiling frescoes, Sacchi uses no architectural elements in the ceiling. The "view" is open directly to the heavens. The earth and the sun occupy prominent places, and even they speak to divine wisdom. The sun, behind Wisdom on her throne, is at the center of the composition. The earth is below and to the right and appears to be circling around the sun.

This arrangement reflects the knowledge...wisdom...of the day. The fresco seems to support the heliocentric arrangements of the universe advocated by Galileo Galilei. In 1615 Galileo's writings were submitted to the Inquisition, and the scientist was instructed to abandon his teaching and writing on the subject. One of Galileo's supporters was Maffeo Barberini...Cardinal Maffeo Barberini...who in 1623 became Pope Urban VIII. Just a handful of years later, Galileo's theory is pictured on the ceiling of the Barberini family's newest palace. It is worth noting, though, that the artist gave Divine Wisdom a little earthly help. In addition to the lions via Solomon that guard the throne, wisdom's throne is topped with bees, a symbol of the Barberini family.   

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Bugs at the Picnic

"Dinner on the Grounds" is one more way of saying "church picnic". Whether spreading food on a blanket on the ground or using boards placed across sawhorses, the idea is one of sharing food outdoors in congregational fellowship. It's an idea that Jesus embraced in the gospel reading for Pr12/OT17/P +8 (John 6:1-21). The crowd sat down and passed around fish and bread.

The artists who have interpreted this story usually show throngs of people in the landscape and somewhere in the crowd Jesus, several disciples and often the boy whose lunch was the foundation of the feast. The paintings usually don't show things that many of us would associate with an outdoor picnic - heat, humidity, rocks, hard ground, scratchy grass...and bugs. Aren't there always bugs at a picnic? Grasshoppers, ants, flies and other often unidentifiable creepy-crawlies.

Seventeenth-century still-life painter Georg Flegel took the John 6 picnic out of its narrative context - there are no people and no landscape - but still made it a religious painting by including...a bug.
Georg Flegel. Still Life with Stag Beetle. 1635. Oil on Basswood. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany. WRM 2824.

Specifically a stag beetle. That is the creature in the lower left corner marching toward the fish, huge mandibles leading the way. The stag beetle gets its name from those waving mandibles which resemble the antlers of a stag. And the stag has long been a symbol for...Christ. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (8.41) identified stags as the enemy of serpents, drawing them out of their holes and trampling on them; the parallel with Christ was then obvious. The stag beetle is gathered into the symbolism by it's association with the stag.

But, believe it or not, Christ is also associated with the beetle. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, referred to Jesus as the "good scarabeus" (Egyptian Mythology and Egyptian Christianity, Samuel Sharpe, London, 1863, p. 3). Scarabs are amulets carved or modeled in the shape of the beetle (usually identified as Scarabaeus sacer), which was sacred in ancient Egypt. In the Septuagint, Habbakuk 2:1 is translated: For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it. The meaning is disputed, but Ambrose, Augustine and others adopted the "beetle" translation and associated the beetle with Christ.

Other German artists, including Albrecht Durer, arguably the most famous German painter of his day, used the symbol. There is a stag beetle teasing the dog in Durer's The Virgin among a Multitude of Animals (1503, Pen and ink and watercolor, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna). The artist also put a stag beetle on the step in the lower right corner of his 1504 Adoration of the Magi.
Albrecht Durer. Adoration of the Magi. 1504. Oil on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
Flegel includes onions and wine in his still life, but it is the inclusion of the stag beetle that would have led a contemporary viewer to see this as a religious painting. The meal is fish and bread, and the host is Jesus Christ, just as the gospel of John told the story. It's the bug at the picnic that tells the story.