Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dorcas in (Not) So Many Words

We know she lived in Joppa. The readings from Acts for Easter 4C (Acts 9:36-43) tell us that. She was devoted to charity and good works. She could sew. And her community was devastated at her loss. These are the things we know.

Dorcas inspired her friends, and even this brief reference in Acts continued to inspire long after her eventual death. And though Peter raised her in this text, she would have to die again. But her name lives on in Dorcas Societies founded by Christian women as vehicles for serving the poor.

Though Dorcas societies were most numerous in the 19th century, British painter Edwin Long has imagined a gathering of women in the sixth century. Near the center a woman wearing a white cloak gives away a garment to a kneeling woman. Two other women (at the right of the composition) appear to be the next recipients. The women in the left half of the composition have gathered to cut fabric, thread their needles, compare stitches and craft garments to be given away.
Sir Edwin Long. A Dorcas Meeting in the Sixth Century. 1873-77. Oil on canvas. Sydney, Australia: Art Gallery of New South Wales .http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/812/
The setting is unspecific, but the back (curved) wall appears to be covered in frescoes. At the right is a peacock, a symbol of resurrection. Below the peacock the wall is decorated with an image of birds, doves, maybe, on the edge of a basin or birdbath. In the upper register of the left two-thirds of the composition is a scene of Christ enthroned and flanked by the disciples. In the bottom register is an image of Christ the good shepherd flanked by other figures. The frescoes in the background are similar to actual frescoes but do not seem to be exact copies of any particular paintings. The frescoes suggest that the scene might be taking place in a church but, again, no clues lead us to a specific church building.

A poem by George MacDonald (1824-1905) titled "Dorcas" ties Dorcas' skill with a needle to Jesus and his teaching. The poet writes:
If I might guess, then guess I would
That, mid the gathered folk,
This gentle Dorcas one day sood,
And heard when Jesus spoke.

She saw the woven seamless coat-
Half envious, for his sake:
'Oh, happy hands,' she said, 'that wrought
The honoured thing to make!'

Her eyes with longing tears grow dim:
She never can come nigh
To work one service poor for him
For whom she glad would die!

But, hark, he speaks! Oh, precious word!
And she has head indeed!
'When did we see thee naked, Lord,
And clothed thee in thy need?'

The King shall answer, 'Inasmuch
As to brethren ye
Did it-even to the least of such-
Ye did it unto me.'

Home, home she went, and plied the loom,
And Jesus' poor arrayed.
She died-they wept about the room,
And showed the coats she made.

The Biblical text gives us only seven verses about this disciple (though she gets two names in those seven verses!). Her witness and legacy, however, are much greater than any word count.






Check the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a look at a pulpit and the gospel reading for Easter 4C. Click on the link below.

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