Sunday, February 28, 2016

Young Man, Young Man

The parable at the heart of Lent 4Cs gospel lesson is one of the most familiar in scripture. Luke 15:11-32 is the most familiar of the "lost" parables, though the parable's interpretive trend has offered alternatives to its traditional popular title. Traditionally, though, this collection of parables is simplified into lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. It is the last that is the subject of this week's gospel reading. And for Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas (and poet James Weldon Johnson), this son was lost. Absolutely lost.
Aaron Douglas. The Prodigal Son. Illustration for James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
c. 1927. Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. http://vmfa.museum/collections/art/prodigal-son_2012-278/
Following the text of Johnson's poem "The Prodigal Son", Douglas has focused on the portion of the story where the son is squandering his inheritance. Women, music, money, cards...
This is Babylon, Babylon, That great city of Babylon. 
Come on, my friend, and go along with me. 
And the young man joined the crowd. 
Young man, young man...

Douglas' original illustrations to accompany Johnson's texts were created in gouache. The work shown here, in oil, is a second version of the basic composition. More than one of the illustrations for God's Trombones was re-created by the artist.

Today we are as likely to refer to this parable as the story of the faithful father or loving father, remembering that the text begins, "There was a man who had two sons..." In 1927 Johnson and Douglas looked at the story through a different lens. Holding a variety of interpretations together helps us understand the fullness of the parable. The Douglas/Johnson interpretation reminds us of all the times that we squander what we have. But it also reminds us that there is no time that we cannot come to ourselves, fall down on our knees and say "I will arise and go to God."

For the full text of Johnson's poem, see:  http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-prodigal-son-6/
For an image of the poem and illustration in context, see: http://www.cartermuseum.org/artworks/350

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chopped

Lent 3C brings us Luke's telling of the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:1-9). It's a reasonably straightforward parable on the surface: if the tree doesn't produce fruit, cut it down. It is a parable that has probably been enacted thousands of time. The landscaping just doesn't work out. The one azalea just won't grow like the other half dozen in the row. My father once had a "come to Jesus" moment with two gardenia bushes at the house where I grew up. They were planted by the carport of our house, and they just didn't bloom one year. So the following spring he walked out to the yard between our house and our neighbors, the Gilbertsons. He turned toward our house...and the gardenia bushes...and said, "Here's the story. Bloom this summer or you're out on the curb."

Two thousand years before, the man in Jesus' parable had a similar conversation. Perhaps the man offered the plant a little more tender loving care than my father did, but the idea was the same. If there isn't a change, if there isn't some fruit being produced, then it's all over.

It's interesting, then, that French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes made a pair out of a fig tree...and John the Baptist. Twice.

The two compositions are related but certainly not the same. In the National Gallery painting (top) five figures fill the canvas. At the left is the executioner and at the right are Salome (in white) and Herod (in red). A second female figure sits at the back of the composition hiding her face in her hands. John kneels in the center, his back to the executioner, holding a cross in his left hand. In the Barber image, Herod has been removed, Salome is now wearing a blue cloak and red tunic, and though the executioner's stance is much the same, the blue cloth in the National Gallery picture has been replaced by a cloth with an animal print. In both pictures Salome holds a gold platter on which to carry John's head.

The figure of John is changed in the two images. The National Gallery image shows John as relatively pale, with his animal-skin clothing about the same value as his skin. His hair is a reddish-brown, and he looks to the right of the canvas. The Barber painting lights John more dramatically. You could even say he glows. A halo of light encircles his head, and he looks directly at the viewer.

Where these paintings cross paths with the gospel reading from Lent is in the background. The beheading, rather oddly, takes place outdoors in a courtyard that is anchored by...a fig tree.

If it doesn't bear fruit in a year, then you can cut it down. But how does that relate to Jesus' cousin John? Surely he was bearing fruit.

John was. Others were not. John preached for three years, calling people to repent and be baptized. He called people to "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). In the next verse he reminded them that "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

During this season of Lent, the connection between John and the fig tree may be repentance. As we move toward the cross, the pairing may remind us that there will always be things in this world that oppose God's message. But the story also reminds us that there is a chance to repent and bear fruit. That's the message John brought. That's the message Jesus brought. That's the choice that brings life. Life to people and, at least once, to gardenias. Because those plants that heard my Dad's ultimatum...well, they never bloomed more than they did that next summer.

(top) Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Beheading of John the Baptist. c. 1869. National Gallery, London. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/pierre-cecile-puvis-de-chavannes-the-beheading-of-saint-john-the-baptist (bottom) Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Beheading of John the Baptist. 1869. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England. http://barber.org.uk/pierre-puvis-de-chavannes-1824-1898/


Look! Another fig tree! But this one doesn't look nearly as healthy as the one in Herod's courtyard in the painting above. What is the subject? Where is the tree? Why is it there? Click on the Facebook link below for more information.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Get the Picture?

Jesus makes, well, not a joke because there's nothing funny about it. But Jesus, speaking two thousand years ago reminds us that some things never change. In the gospel reading for Lent 2C (Luke 13:31-35) Jesus uses symbols in a way that rings familiarly in ears today. He puts a fox in the hen house.

"You tell that fox for me..." Jesus says. Herod (Herod Antipas to be specific) is the fox. Jesus continues that he has long wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem together "as a hen gathers her brood under her wings." Fox. Hen.

The pictures tell the story. Neither of the first two works here are "religious" works and yet when we see them through the lens of the gospel reading, it is clear that Jesus fully understood his animal symbols as individuals and in relation to one another.

In the top picture a fox sneaks into the picture space in the lower left corner, biting down on the hindquarters of an unsuspecting hen in its jaws. [Christian Luycks. Farmyard Scene with Fox Attaching Bantams. c. 1645. Private collection.]

The bottom picture is more graphic. Jean-Baptiste Huet's Fox in a Chicken Yard [1766. San Francisco: deYoung/Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. http://art.famsf.org/jean-baptiste-marie-huet-elder/fox-chicken-yard-50558] shows a fox that is the center of the carnage, not sneaking in from the side. The fox devours one of the chickens and bares its teeth at a bird attempting to distract the fox and perhaps save the chicken. Young chicks scurry out from under the chicken's wings, trying to get away. At the right are three eggs, cracked open with both the yolks and whites leaking onto the ground.

Herod Antipas fits the caricature very well. The son of Herod I (the Great), Antipas is the ruler reproached by John the Baptist for his marriage to his sister-in-law. Antipas built the city of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and was the official to whom Jesus was sent in the course of his arrest, interrogation and crucifixion.

It is this same Herod who ordered the children of Bethlehem killed after the visit of the magi to his court. Frightened at the prospect of a King of the Jews being born, he resolved that it should not happen. As the fox does in Huet's picture, Herod, too, made sure to destroy future generations. Euan Uglow's rendition of the Massacre of the Innocents is modeled on an earlier work by Poussin [1979-1981. Private collection, UK].

Jesus had it right. Herod was a fox in the henhouse.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Wilderness

Wilderness is, I suppose, different things to different people. In the gospel reading for Lent 1C (Luke 4:1-13) Jesus moves from his baptism at the Jordan River into the wilderness where he is tempted for forty days. Most images show Jesus on the edge of a desert. He faces an empty landscape, spare cliffs, rock-strewn ground and a blazing sun. Perhaps he stands on one of those rocky cliffs and looks out. That's what we expect to see. But it isn't always the case.

One of the images below is Christ in the wilderness. All three show a single person - a man - sitting near or underneath a tree, surrounded by animals. At a first glance, do any of them show the wilderness as you imagine it?
                                                                        Picture identifications and links below. 
The left image, from the Paris Psalter, illustrates David singing and composing psalms. The image on the right is a Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus, the mythological musician whose ability to play the lyre could charm animals and humans alike. The middle image, remarkably similar in composition to the other two, is a painting of Christ in the wilderness. 

The artist was the painter known as Moretto da Brescia (real name Alessandro Bovicino). This canvas is a fragment of a larger piece and shows the rocky landscape one would expect of this subject. However it is dominated by cool tones rather than the warm colors typical of a desert. The wild animals surrounding Jesus are also an unusual addition to the composition.

Each of the animals is probably included because of its traditional symbolism in Christian art. Moving counter-clockwise from Jesus is a crane or stork (both birds are symbols of vigilance), a white dove (probably symbolizing the Holy Spirit which had descended on Jesus at his baptism), a dark bird that may be a raven (symbolizing the Devil) or an eagle (which has a variety of meanings..everything from the new life received at baptism to a ravisher of souls because it is a bird of prey), a stag (which sometimes symbolizes solitude because it lives in remote mountains). At the center of the composition there seems to be a basilisk (a half rooster-half snake that in its earliest form symbolized the Devil or the Antichrist), a fox (symbolizing guile and cunning and therefore the Devil) and perhaps a goat (which may refer to the scapegoat which was driven into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement...Leviticus 16). The other animals will also have symbolic meanings that illuminate Christ's 40 days.

It may be that when Christ stands on the edge of the desert, the landscape looks so foreboding that we forget Christ's difficulties came from more than heat and desert. The temptations faced by Jesus are tendencies already inside every human, and they can appear in any landscape.

(Left) David Playing the Harp. Paris Psalter (MS. gr. 139). 10th century. Paris: Bibliotheque nationale de France. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10515446x/ (Center) Moretto da Brescia. Christ in the Wilderness. c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/11.53/  (Right) Orpheus with animals. Roman mosaic, from Building A of the Piazza della Vittoria in Palermo. c 200-250 CE. http://www.regione.sicilia.it/bbccaa/salinas/

Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page below for a poetry connection to Moretto's painting.