Sunday, September 17, 2017

Vineyard Work

Is it propaganda? Absolutely. Which doesn't make it a necessarily wrong interpretation. Just an advantageous one. The gospel reading for Proper 20(25)A/Pentecost 16A is Matthew 20:1-16. In that text Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner who pays wages by the person rather than by the hour.

In the parable, four different groups of workers are hired, and the group hired last - just before quitting time - is paid the same wages as the group that started work at sunup. Is that fair? No, according to the early bird workers.

The early workers, the older brother from the prodigal son story...probably most of us can understand how it feels to have given everything you had, done everything you thought was right only to find yourself on what you perceive as the unfair end of the deal. However, most of us have also probably been the recipient of some grace along the way.

That's what Lucas Cranach the Younger was painting in his work "The Vineyard of the Lord": grace. Or folks who had received some of it anyway. The parable is transported to 16th-century Germany in this interpretation of the story. The vineyard is planted on a hill; the workers are industrious. But the workers on the left, Roman Catholic clergy and religious, are exhausting the ground and proving to be poor caretakers of the vineyard. At the conclusion of their day, they march out of the vineyard, following the Pope. In contrast, on the right, leaders of the Protestant Reformation - including Martin Luther - provide loving care for the vineyard. Below them, at bottom right, is Paul Eber and his family (including thirteen children, those who died as infants are dressed in white). Eber was a theology professor, hymn writer, and Bible translator. At his death in 1569, his children commissioned the painting as a memorial. The artist chose the theme.

At the left lower corner, the Lord of the vineyard comes to pay the wages to the workers. First paid are the Pope and his workers. The Pope holds a coin in his hand and appears to be asking for more. The Lord of the vineyard holds up his hand, rejecting the demand for additional wages.

The painting is propaganda. Martin Luther clears the ground with a rake in the center of the composition. Other Reformers (all identifiable) work beside him. They are the ones who came late to work but were given the same pay as those who worked a full day. They are portrayed as humble, continuing to work rather than demanding their pay from the Lord.

What the painting may fail to show, though, is that all the workers were unworthy of their Lord's generosity. Those who came late in the day were unworthy because they really didn't earn their pay. Those who worked all day are unworthy because they were dissatisfied with what God gave them. At the heart of the story is the truth that both sets of workers are dependent on the goodness and generosity of the Lord.

And so are we.

Lucas Cranach the Younger. Epitaph for Paul Eber: The Vineyard of the Lord. 1569. St. Mary's Church, Wittenberg. For St. Mary's see:
For a contemporary take on manna and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For a note on the background of Cranach's painting, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page below.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

God and Nations

Moses stands with the people on the edge of the water. The angel and the pillar of cloud have moved from in front of the people to behind them - between the people and the army of Pharaoh. What happens next shows the power of God, even in the face of a powerful nation. It's the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 19(24)/Pentecost 15A (Exodus 14:19-31, with the alternate reading being Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21). The alternate reading follows the actions of the Hebrew reading and are the focus of this essay.

The texts are at a moment in Israel's history when they are a nation without land. While they lived in Egypt they were loyal to the pharaoh, but as times changed and leaders changed and their status in the land changed, they realized that the nation of Egypt would not provide for them. When God leads them to freedom, they are meant to understand that God provides in ways that an earthly kingdom cannot.

So it's a little ironic that this story of God's people untangling from an earthly nation gets retangled centuries later. The manuscript illustrations shown here are from an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript. In the illustration, Miriam and the women dance in a circle around eight musicians.

You may have to look twice to see the outer circle as people. The circle looks like an abstract pattern on first glance. Each of the knob-like shapes on the outside of the circle is actually the hat of one of the women. Further abstract shapes (in gold) are created as the ground between each figure and the sleeves of their garments.

The long sleeves are one of the signs that God's people have become entangled again with an earthly government. Byzantine people believed that the emperor was given his power by God and represented God on earth. The emperor's court, then, was the earthly image of God's heavenly court. The women in the circle here are shown in the style of court dress in the late eleventh century. Here the elite dance in a circle.
In other eleventh-century Byzantine manuscripts, this same exaggerated court sleeve is worn by David as he dances before the ark.

The stories of Miriam's dance and David's dance are often intermingled. Here there are musicians who are not mentioned in the Exodus text but are identified in the story of the ark coming to Jerusalem (I Chronicles 13-15). The artist has provided more details for Miriam and her company of dancers than the writer of scripture did.

How do we consider this illustration? One way is to understand that women throughout history have metaphorically and actually danced their joy when God's plan saves. They have worn the clothes of their day, circled up and danced with each other to celebrate and acknowledge what God has done. This happens to be an illustration from Constantinople in the eleventh century.

A second way to look at this is that once again, humanity has tangled itself up in conflating their government as God's government. The Israelites were not to put their trust in Egypt (no matter how much they missed the food). They were to understand that as God's people they followed God, relied on God, trusted God, looked to God. They were not to put their trust in earthly powers, even (especially?) their own. But they have, no doubt encouraged to do so by the Emperor.

The Byzantine Empire, like the kingdom of Egypt, like all earthly governments, will one day come to an end. But the dance of God goes on.

(Top) Miriam Dancing. 1059. Written in Constantinople. Vatican Graeci 752; folio 449v. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticani.
(Bottom) The Most Eminent Ladies of the Court, Tenth and Eleventh Century. Plate 17 from By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire by Timothy Dawson and Graham Sumner. 2016.
For thoughts on the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 18:21-35), click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook: the parable of the unmerciful servant. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

But He's a Ghost

Wherever two or three are gathered together, I am there among them. That's the final verse in the gospel reading for Proper 18(23)A/Pentecost 14A (Matthew 18:15-20). The concept is familiar and comforting. Jesus is with his followers, even when they are in small groups. But, apparently, Jesus is always ghostly, see-through, transparent when he is with his followers.
J. Doyle Penrose. Presence in the Midst. 1916.
James Tissot. Two or Three Gathered in my Name. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum. 
Why do you suppose that this ghostly Jesus is the symbol of presence? Is this how you imagine the presence of Christ? What other ways can you picture - or feel - the presence of Christ?

For thoughts on the Exodus passage for this week, click here. For a thought on the Romans passage about love doing no wrong to a neighbor, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Tiger by the Tail?

Moses sees a bush that burns but is not consumed, and he must investigate. It's what he finds on his investigation that changes the course of the rest of his life. That life-changing moment is the subject of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 17(22)A/Pentecost 13A (Exodus 3:1-15).
Abraham Rattner. Moses and the Burning Bush. 1971. Wool tapestry. For a report on a 2008 show of the tapestries, see:
American-born artist Abraham Rattner created a tapestry of the subject. Titled "Moses and the Burning Bush", the design places Moses kneeling before a mass of fire colors. Moses looks directly up at the sight (often he is looking across a landscape at the tree/bush), his hands in a prayerful gesture. The angel of the Lord (3:2) has come all the way out of the bush and stands behind Moses, perhaps whispering in his ear.

The fire-colored area does not have the leaves, trunk and branches of a usual bush. What is there are hands (of God), suggested in about a dozen line segments, and red lightning bolts. One of the most interesting moments in the design is the place where the figures on earth touch the figure in the fire. The touch is accomplished when the left hand of Moses (the presumption that this is Moses' hand is based on the color similarity between the raised hand and the hand of Moses that is fully visible) very gingerly reaches up to barely grasp a lightning bolt that appears to be an extension of the heavenly hand.
The key word is gingerly. Moses has not reached out to heartily grasp the hand/lightning/fire of God. His thumb and middle finger are hovering over the end of the bolt...just about to close the tiniest bit and have hold (however timidly). Perhaps Moses understands that reaching out to hold God's hand is like having a tiger by the tail. Or like sticking your finger in a socket.

What Moses - and we - need to remember is that God isn't requiring Moses to go it alone. God's purpose isn't to zap power into Moses or burn Moses to ash. God offers Moses the power that is needed to do the task that is before him. Not a volume of power (a gallon, a quart, 5000 watts) but rather power as presence.  I will be with you, God says (3:12).

Moses is probably right to be hesitant to take hold of God's power. The God who will lead people to freedom is not the teddy-bear-best-buddy-perfectly-manageable God. We might all be a little more deferential to the power of God. But we can also remember that God's power is promised to us as well. I will be with you, God says. Yes, with you.

For thoughts on the Mark version of the gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-28), click here.
For thoughts on the epistle reading (Romans 12) for this week, click here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, some word thoughts. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Forgetting and Remembering

And there arose a king who did not know Joseph. That is the chilling beginning of the Israelites' changing fortunes in Egypt. Originally welcomed as the family of Joseph, who saved Egypt from famine, the Israelites are known to this new king only as a threat to his position of power. He doesn't care what happened in the past or what was promised to these people. So the king decides to neutralize the threat. That's the beginning of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 16(21)A/Pentecost 12A (Exodus 1:8-2:10).

Probably no contemporary artist has devoted more time and energy to the art (and necessity) of remembering the past than Anselm Kiefer. Born in post-war Germany in 1945, Kiefer has continued to prod his own and the world's remembrance of Germany's legacy of World War II.
Anselm Kiefer. Fur Paul Celan: Aschenblume. 2006. Oil, acyrlic, emulsion, shellac, and books on canvas. Private collection. For Anselm Kiefer, see:

Kiefer's Für Paul Celan : Aschenblume is a large-scale work (more than 10 feet tall and 25 feet long), includes various paints, shellac and burned books. Books, for Kiefer, symbolize the storehouse of human history and knowledge. Burned books are a reminder of Nazi book burnings and can also be a reference to the linguistic root of the word holocaust. Holocaust comes from the Greek holokauston, related to the Hebrew olah ("burnt whole").

George Santayana (Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) gave the world the eminently quotable aphorism Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Kiefer's work demanded (and still demands) that the past be remembered. What are the dangers we face when we "do not know Joseph"? And who will be Shiphrah and Puah when Joseph has been forgotten?

For thoughts on how the gospel reading intersects with the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
This week on Facebook, consider how many artists "know Joseph" in their paintings of the Exodus. Click on the link below. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stella's Table Manners

After a difficult beginning in life, Stella (a German shepherd-Husky-Rottweiler mix) came to live in a very good home. However, Stella will occasionally get overly enthusiastic when dinner begins and will beg at the table. When that happens, Stella's people will get her attention with the words, "Stella. Table manners." The image of dogs eating under and arround the dinner table is familiar to many people who share their lives with dogs. Jesus' exchange with the Canaanite woman about children, bread and dogs - the Gospel reading for Proper 15(20)A/Pentecost 11A (Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28) - adds something new to the conversation. Jesus' association of bread, table, children and dogs offers a strategy for looking at images of the Last Supper. Are there crumbs falling from that particular table? Are there any references to Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite woman?

Jacopo Tintoretto painted at least ten different versions of the Last Supper. They are busy, active scenes - quite a contrast to the solemn poses and perfect perspective of, say, Leonardo's iconic version. In Tintoretto's compositions, the disciples are not alone with Jesus - other people are present. In one version, the dishes are being washed in the same room as the supper while smoke and doves fill the space. In the version at left (top), now hanging in Venice's Santo Stefano church, a dog is shown on the steps directly beneath Jesus. The line of the dog's body, which points directly to Jesus, is echoed by the line of a child (to the right of the dog) and by the line of a women (to the left of the dog). Dog, child, table, woman. The reference is to Jesus' conversation with the Canaanite women.

The bottom left image is another of Tintoretto's versions of the Last Supper. There is another dog present on the steps leading up to the table where Jesus (at the back of the room) is eating with his disciples. What do you see in that image? Is there a woman and/or a child? Who are the human figures on the stairs? Is there something about those people that should make us think of crumbs falling from the table?

As we gather around the Lord's table, we should mind our own table manners. Is everyone being served? Is everyone welcome? Is anyone relegated to receiving only the crumbs that fall from the table?

(Top) Tintoretto. The Last Supper. c. 1570. Santo Stefano, Venice, Italy. 
(Bottom) Tintoretto. The Last Supper. 1579-81. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy.

For a take on the reading from Hebrew scripture for this Sunday, click here.

This week on A&FM's Facebook page, a look at Psalm 133. Click on the link below.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

It's the Horizon

Proper 14(19)/Pentecost 10A gives us an early episode in Genesis' Joseph cycle of stories (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28). Having been identified as his father's favorite, Joseph is quick to let his brothers know of the newly announed rankings. As you might expect, the news is not well-received, and the brothers decide to move Joseph out of the picture. They throw him into a pit and then sell him to a passing caravan of Midianites.

The two images below tell the story of the pit and the selling. On the left is an image by Karoly Ferenczy. Painted in 1900, the action of the story is in the foreground. Joseph, stripped to the waist, is handed off to white-garbed travelers passing through Jacob's land. At the right, the same story is told by a contemporary artist Yoram Raanan. The action is in the foreground with figures standing around what appears to be a well-like hole.
(Left) Karoly Ferenczy. Josseph Sold by His Brothers Into Slavery. 1900. Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest. (Right) Yoram Raanan. Joseph's Brothers Throw Him Into the Pit.
The two images share a color scheme: brownish-yellow earth tones, blue and white. Both compositions are similar with the action happening at the bottom/front of the painting. But both also remind us of "the rest of the story": that there IS a rest of the story. In both paintings, it is the distant horizon that draws our attention in the upper half of the composition. And that is where we need to at least glance as we read the Joseph cycle. Incidents along the way seem to be the end, but they are not the end. Not the pit, not prison, not famine. There's something more waiting for Joseph, for Joseph's descendants and for the people of God. It's probably a good reminder for us, too.

For an additional consideration on Joseph and his brothers, click here.
For a take on the gospel reading for this week, click here.

Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below for some thoughts on the dreams that got him in trouble with his brothers.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Boy with a Bento Box?

The story can be called to mind in two words: loaves and fishes. We can fill in the blanks from there: a boy with a lunch, lots of people, disciples, baskets of leftovers. It's a familiar story found in several versions in scripture. It's Matthew's version that we get in the lectionary reading for Proper 13(18)A/Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14:13-21).

The elements of the meal are present in Dutch artist Johnny Beerens' mural in Breskens. Five loaves and two fish, all neatly arranged in a silo-sized bento box. Probably the boy in the story did not bring his lunch in this fashion, but the orderly arrangement has been placed with great care and effect into the architectural elements of the building. The subject matter does, of course, call to mind the gospel story of loaves and fishes. But the setting of the work takes the subject farther.
Johnny Beerens. Loaves and Fishes mural. Breskens, Netherlands.
The port city of Breskens is in the southwest corner of the Netherlands. Situated on the coast, the town hosts an annual Fishery Festival. The mural is located on a grain silo in the port, which ties the location to bread. The combination of fish and bread recognizes the gifts of the earth - both from the land and the sea - and their location on a silo and port recognizes that harvesting and distributing those gifts require human work.

The location of the mural calls to mind more than the miracle of the gospel parable. The images and the work of the port as a hub of distribution remind us of our call to feed hungry people (" give them something to eat"). That call is not bound by the past or by geography and is not a one-time event. The mural can be an incentive to remember and do better.

You give them something to eat, Jesus said. All we need is...a bento box.

An essay on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Jacob wrestling) is found here.

See what a pelican has to do with this week's lectionary readings. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sisters in Purgatory

How many novels and stories begin something like this: There was a man who had two sons. The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper  12 (17)A/Pentecost 8A offers a variation: There was a man who had two daughters. Rachel and Leah. Or, in birth order (which would become important in the story): Leah and Rachel. Two sisters. Add in one visiting cousin Jacob and one fairly manipulative father (remember whose brother he is...this seems to be a family trait), and those are the makings of a fine story. (Genesis 29:15-28)

The Biblical story is about contrast and difference - in personality, in looks, in fertility, in affection. Medieval poet Dante continued the tradition of contrasting the two sisters when he put them in Purgatory. The illustration here is a watercolor by English Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the background (at left) is the poet, and in front are the two sisters. Which would you identify as Leah and which as Rachel?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah. Watercolor. 1855. London: Tate Gallery.

The artist gives us the general scene and action described by the poet. One sister is engaged in gathering flowers and the other gazes at her own reflection. Which sister is engaged in which task? The poet writes:
...A lady young and beautiful, I dream'd,
Was passing o'er a lea; and, as she came,
Methought I saw her ever and anon
Bending to cull the flowers; and thus she sang:
"Know ye, whoever of my name would ask,
That I am Leah: for my brow to weave
A garland, these fair hands unwearied ply.
To please me at the crystal mirror, here
I deck me. But my sister Rachel, she
Before her glass abides the livelong day,
Her radiant eyes beholding, charm'd no less,
Than I with this delightful task. Her joy
In contemplation, as in labour mine."
(Purgatorio, Canto 27, lines 96-108)

Rachel, shown here in purple, is a symbol of the contemplative life as she gazes at her reflection. For the artist, purple is associated with inaction, lethargy, even death. Leah, in green - the color of life - collects roses and honeysuckle and has woven flowers into her hair. She symbolizes the active life.

Active and contemplative. These polarities are seen again in the story of sisters Mary and Martha. Mary's attention to things of the spirit as she sits at Jesus' feet is identified as activity that is better - or at least more appropriate in this moment - than Martha's hustle and bustle of hospitality.

Is there a judgement being made here? Does either artist or poet declare one way of living better? How would you value the two options? Which sister would be the "favorite" in today's world?

For a take on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, click here.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Wheat and Tares Together

Jesus' parable is agriculturally correct - at least according to the artists: let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest because if you try to pull up the weeds too early you'll pull up the wheat as well. When both are tall enough to tell the difference, pull the weeds, bundle them up and then burn them. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Proper 11(16)A/Pentecost 7A).

The problem is that the wheat and the weeds look alike. What the Bible calls tares is also known as darnel or darnel wheat (Latin name, Lolium temulentem). The two plants are shown below. Imagine trying to tell the difference between the two when they are even less mature than the plants in the images here.
Darnel is a mimic plant that looks like the species it is invading. The weeds take root and must be sorted out by hand, requiring additional work either early in the growing season or during harvest. In the case of darnel, the invading species has some interesting side effects when ingested.

Nineteenth-century painter Jean-Francois Millet was among the earliest artists to paint peasant subjects - or rather he was early in painting peasants in compositions that emphasized their dignity as human beings rather than their poverty or their lot as workers. Here is a scene of buckwheat harvest that serves as the "summer" subject in a series of four paintings that exemplified the seasons. At the left of the composition is the smoke from a large fire, perhaps the fire where the weeds are being burned.
Millet, Jean-Francois. Buckwheat Harvest, Summer. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. 1868-1874.
Burning weeds is a reasonably efficient way to eradicate not just the plants but the seeds. Some farmers even burn the residue in their fields in order to get rid of the seeds that have been dropped and the roots that might still be viable. The practice was also documented by artists like Vincent Van Gogh.

After the crop has grown, then you take those weeds, pull them out, bind them up and throw them in the fire that will destroy them. That's one way to think about the text. But before we rush to separate wheat from weeds we should remember that in Jesus' parable, it is clear that now isn't the time and these aren't the workers who will distinguish wheat from weeds and deliver the weeds to their ultimate destruction. That will happen, Jesus says, but that's for someone else to decide on another day.

Who sowed those weed seeds in Matthew's gospel? Take a look at the answer found on one medieval German altarpiece  on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below. You can also read about Jacob's dream and a different take on the sower on earlier A&FM blog posts.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bowl for Birthright: A Tale of Opposites

The birth of two nations is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 10/Pentecost 6A. Genesis 25:19-34 tells of the birth and early lives of brothers - twins - Jacob and Esau. They are the sons of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They were different from each other - one outdoorsy and the other preferred the indoors. Each parent had a favored child. The story can't possibly be without conflict.

And indeed the conflict begins at birth and doesn't end until much  later in the twins' lives. Along the way is the episode featured here. Esau comes in from the fields and is quite hungry. Jacob has been staying close to the farm and has cooked up a stew. And Esau says he is s-t-a-r-v-i-n-g.

Jacob can help. All Esau has to do is give up his birthright. Pinkie swear.

Hendrick ter Brugghen has painted that moment. In his Caravaggesque style (to oversimplify, that means strong lights and darks) he shows the two brothers in the foreground, a table of food between them. In the background are the two parents, each standing behind their favored child. Rebekah, whose face is between the two boys, holds a plate, making things ready for her favorite, Jacob. Isaac, who will be blind, sits almost invisible in the darkness at the right. The depth of the picture space is stopped by the canvas tent wall. All the action is in front of the tent wall.
Hendrick ter Brugghen. Esau Selling His Birthright. c. 1627. Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
The artist's use of light focuses attention in the composition's center. The two boys' hands are expressively drawn. The right hand of each is in almost the same position. The left hand of each holds characteristic objects: Jacob the bowl of soup and Esau the wooden handle of a tool. The two boys are even wearing complementary colors: Jacob in red and Esau in a shade of green.

We know from the story that the deal is made and fulfills the prophecy that the older brother would indeed serve the younger. Generations of this family will be impacted by this deal, but ter Brugghen narrows an epic story to a single moment. The exchange of bowl for birthright.

Art&Faith Matters has other posts that relate to this week's Gospel reading and an additional post mentioning Jacob and Esau. This week's Facebook post looks at the very beginning of this a somewhat unusual illustration. Click on the Facebook link below.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-30 (Gospel reading for Proper 9/Pentecost 5A; Matthew 11:16-19. 25-30)
All three images are by French artist Honore Daumier. All are the same subject and even the same composition. All are called "The Burden". And as much as they have in common, all three are in some ways, unique. One has a bright sky. One has more shadow. One has warmer light. One has a costume difference. It is those differences that might lead to different answers to the questions below, depending on the version under discussion.

What is the burden? Is it the bundle carried by the woman? Is it the child? Is it her life situation? Does the same element feel "burdensome" in all three pictures?

Does the child have a burden as well? In two of the versions, the child's face is not visible. Is this yet another child of whom the world takes no notice? When children are "invisible" who is burdened?

Though the child is touching the mother, the mother has no personal contact with the child. Why might that be? What does that contribute to the idea of "burden"?

The figures may be perceived as running. Do you think they are running? Running from what? Running to what? Is it a burden that they need to run?

How do the artist's color choices contribute to the idea of a burden? Does one version of the composition feel more "burdensome" to you? Which one? Why does that color scheme speak to you of "burden"? Does any particular scheme not speak of burden?

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. That is the promise Jesus makes to each of us. The composition of "The Burden" is a reminder that each of us carries burdens. The three different versions remind us that we may not, from the outside, be fully able to tell the story of someone else's burden.

Honore Daumier. The Burden.
Left: 1865. Private collection
Middle: 1850-1853. St. Petersburg, Russia: The Hermitage.
Right: The National Museum of Wales. 

This week on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, Van Gogh and this week's Gospel reading. Click on the link below.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

About Hotels and Hospitals

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me...[And] whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple -- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward. Those are the words of the Gospel reading for Proper 8 (13)/Pentecost 4A (Matthew 10:40-42). Welcome and even a cup of cold water are as much issues today as they were the day Jesus said the words. How should we care for one another and respond to one another's needs? History gives us an answer (and perhaps a challenge) in the hotel-Dieu, which literally means hostel of God and was a generic name for hospitals in French-speaking regions.

Yes, hospitals. Think of today's conversations about health care, hospitals and costs. Do those conversations make you think of hostels? Of hospitality? Clearly hospital and hospitality share a root. That root is in the word host, which is itself rooted in the Proto-Indo-European ghos-ti (stranger, guest, host...a person with whom you had reciprocal requirements for hospitality). This relationship moves through the words hostel to the Old French hospital (shelter for the needy), the Latin hospitale (guest house, inn) on to hospitality. It isn't exactly what we think of today when we think of hospitals. 

In medieval Europe the idea of the hotel-Dieu took on the meaning of a charitable institution that cared for the needy, both in terms of daily food and a place to stay along with health care. Hotels-Dieu were built and sustained in many places, though the quality of care no doubt differed from place to place. 

In 1443, Europe was just coming out of the Hundred Years War in which plague and deprivation were the order of the day. In Beaune, a city in the Burgundy region of France, Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of Duke Phillip the Good, established a hotel-Dieu that remains one of the most beautiful buildings in France. A combination homeless shelter, soup kitchen and health clinic, the physical plant of the Hospices de Beaune included two buildings around a courtyard. One of the most distinctive elements of the complex is the multi-colored roof. 
Hotel-Dieu, Beaune, France. c. 1450. For additional information, see:
The large room with a boat-inspired roof is called the Room of the Poor(s). The furniture in the photo below was added in the last quarter of the 19th century. In medieval times, the beds would not have had the wooden compartments. Plain beds would have lined the walls of the room. The complex includes large kitchens and a pharmacy, all of which were established to meet the needs of the hotel's clients. In addition to the hospital, Rolin also established a religious order of sisters who staffed the facility.
Nicolas Rolin created the Beaune hotel-Dieu with an eye toward the finest architecture and art. Masterpieces by Rogier van der Weyden hung on the walls. Sculpted beams and hand-crafted floor tiles adorned the Room of the Poor. At the end of the Room of the Poor was the chapel so that infirm patients could attend mass from their beds.

Few of us would be happy to exchange 21st-century medical care for 15th-century care. Or 21st-century hygiene for that of the 15th century. However, the name and purpose of this and other hotels-Dieu might be aspirational for us as we consider issues of welcome and care of all God's people.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Birds

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.  
(Matthew 10:29-31, Proper 7A)

Jesus has seen these birds (or some like them) before, and he will see them again. Not just see them but mention them in words and deeds that have been recorded for us. Here, the reference to the sparrows compares the worth and value of humans relative to the birds. 

The earlier Gospel reference is when Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification for Mary. In accordance with the specifications of Leviticus: When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering...If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. Unable to afford the lamb, Mary and Joseph bring the doves: ...and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:24)

In many images of the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph will be holding a cage or basket with the two birds. In the Byzantine manuscript illumination below, the doves are being carried in Joseph's hands, wrapped somewhat in his garment. Their eyes are focused toward the infant Jesus who is in his mother's arms. 
Presentation in the Temple. Menologion of Basil II. 879-11th century. 
Rome, Italy: Vatican Museums. See:
The thirdGospel reference to the sacrificial birds is implied more than explicit. At the end of his ministry, Jesus cleanses or purifies the temple, seeking to drive out all the commercial endeavors that have taken up residence in the temple: exchanging money, selling/purchasing animals for sacrifice, etc. There would have been vendors selling birds as part of the temple commerce. This is probably how Joseph and Mary acquired the doves for their own sacrifice. Some of the paintings show animals scattering before Jesus' whip of cords. Some will show the bird sellers as well. 

The painting below, by Raymond Balze, includes the bird details, but seems more of a still life than a dramatic moment of violence. Christ stands like a statue at the center of the composition, gesturing the merchants away from the place where they have set up shop. The work is rich in detail, if short on action. Perhaps it was meant to demonstrate the artist's composition skills rather than illustrate the scriptural text. One bird has "flown the coop" in the hubbub of Jesus' actions.
 Raymond Balze. Purification of the Temple. 1850. 
This theme rises to the surface at the beginning of Jesus' life, at the end of his earthly ministry and as part of his teaching. Why do you think that is? What is it about these seemingly insignificant, two-for-a-penny birds that makes them appear not once, not twice but three times?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Unexpected Visitors

Abraham's three visitors were unexpected. They just showed up there at the camp under the oaks of Mamre. Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day. So he offered food and hospitality to these unexpected visitors who turned out to be way more and promise way more than he originally thought they might (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7, Pr 6/Ord 11/Pentecost 2, Year A).

The unexpected visitors - and the unexpected news they brought - are not so unexpected to us today. We have read the story. How, then, can we give ourselves the experience of seeing these visitors in a new light - as Abraham saw them by the end of the text. Two options are below.

In the painted Biblical scenes and stories of artist Fr. John B. Giuliani we see indigenous peoples: the people of Guatemala and Bolivia, Apache and Crow, Navajo and Choctaw. In Giuliani's The Tent at Mamre, three chiefs - Lakota, Cheyenne and Apache - are the unexpected visitors hosted by Sarah and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah are not included in the scene, but their tent (a Blackfeet buffalo tipi) provides the background for the scene. Does Giuliani's version of the story make you ask different questions? Or help you understand Abraham's surprise at these visitors who just seemed to appear?

A second "unexpected" depiction of the story is that by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The part of the reading from Genesis 21 includes Sarah's overhearing the visitors' assertion that she and Abraham will be parents, even at their advanced age. In response to this announcement, Sarah laughs. (Remember, it is that laughter that will give Isaac his name.) Sarah's laughter is overheard, and one of the visitors confronts her.

Tiepolo has chosen that moment, and, at least for me, the appearance (and by that I mean the way the visitor looks, not that the visitor appeared) of this angel is unexpected, to say the least. From the wings that are almost as tall as the angel, to the medallion-patterned gathered and draped garment (not to mention the thigh-high slit) and the gold sandals, this angel is quite unexpected. Sarah is dressed in 17th-century fashion with her standing lace collar, which feels anachronistic in its own way. But it is the angel who steals the sartorial show. He stands outside the "tent" in the light while Sarah kneels in the shadows, her dark clothes blending into the dark wall behind her.

Abraham was sitting in the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he looked up and saw three visitors. What do unexpected visitors bring to us? What hospitality do we offer them?

Top photo: John B. Giuliani. The Tent at Mamre. To purchase cards and reproductions of this and other work:
Bottom photo: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Sarah and the Angel. 1724-29. Fresco. Palazzzo Patriarcale, Udine.

Sunday, June 4, 2017


Some doubted, according to Matthew's gospel (Matthew 28:16-20, Trinity A). In other post-Resurrection situations, Jesus has shown up to reassure, to explain, to breathe on, to answer. Not here. Some doubted, and, yes, Jesus showed up. But what he said was, "I have all authority. Go." There's a little more to it, but the essence seems to be the claiming of authority and almost immediately the instruction to go.

Go into the world. All of it. Make disciples. Teach. Baptize. Go
 And when Jesus tells you to go, shouldn't you go?

We lose sight of the disciples (now apostles) and their travels at this point, though legends abound about where the disciples went. Thomas is credited with going to India. Andrew reportedly preached in Russia. Bartholomew took Christianity to Armenia. James, the son of Zebedee, preached in Spain.

They did, indeed, go into all the world according to these traditions, and make disciples in all these places. They might have sailed on boats or ridden a horse or camel, but the majority of their travel would have involved walking.

Their sandals were more utilitarian than the shoes pictured here, but these shoes remind us of the world into which we are called to go. And like those first apostles who heard the word "Go", Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.

This week on Facebook...bookends! Click on the link below.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Day for...Weddings?

Pentecost lectionary readings focus on the day of Pentecost with its locked doors, rushing wind, tongues of fire, preaching and conversion (Acts 2:1-21). So it's interesting that Pentecost has more than one association with weddings, which are not mentioned at all in the text. Pieter Brueghel's painting "The Whitsun Bride", below, calls attention to an old folk practice and an alternate name for Pentecost.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Whitsun Bride. 17th century. Private collection.
The folk practice was the adornment of a village "bride" with particular flowers followed by a parade through the village with the children "begging" as on Halloween. The parade took place the week after Pentecost, which is also called Whitsunday. The ceremony highlighted the Whitsun flower, pinksterbloem (which also means "a girl foolishly attired"), which may be one of several flowers blooming around the time of Pentecost. The combination of weddings and flowers brings to Pentecost more a feeling of Spring, fertility, and new life that is often more associated with Easter than Pentecost.

English poet Phillip Larkin tied weddings to Whitsun in his poem "The Whitsun Weddings". The poem recounts a train journey to London that might be real, imagined or conflated from several actual journeys. The day is Whitsunday, a day which offered a tax advantage for weddings making it an especially popular day for weddings. Several newly-married couples board the train on which the poet (or the persona whose voice is speaking the poem) is traveling.

The day's name, Pentecost, refers to the fifty days that passed between Easter and the day of Pentecost. But Pentecost also was called Whitsunday, contracted from White Sunday, presumably emphasizing the white garments of catechumens who were baptized on Pentecost. However, in England, the root of "white" became confused with the root for "wit" and the association changed from the white of baptismal garments to the wisdom dispensed by the Holy Spirit.

Today we think of Pentecost as "the birthday of the church" rather than a day particularly associated with weddings. But every liturgical day has a history of observance that may take its meanings well outside what we find in the text. How does the association of Pentecost with weddings change the way you think about the day?

How might you picture the power and presence of Pentecost winds through photography? Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Up: Toward Heaven and Out of Sight

The disciples just stood there. Until one of the men in white pointed out that they were just standing there (Easter 7A, Acts 1:6-14). After it was pointed out that they were just standing there, they left, having watched until they could no longer see Jesus. Their last sight of Jesus might have looked something like this.
Salvador Dali. The Ascension of Christ. 1958. Private Collection.
The artist has offered us a very different point of view of this story. Where we usually look across a landscape to see Jesus hovering above the mountain and the disciples, in Dali's painting, we stand where the disciples stood as they watched Jesus leave them. This is the second time since Jesus' resurrection that his friends and followers have been called to let go of Jesus. The disciples know here how Mary felt on Easter morning when Jesus would not let himself be held onto. By this point in the story Jesus is out of the disciples' reach, though he has promised that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. 

The painting includes references to power, of multiple kinds of power. The composition was inspired by a dream in which Dali saw the nucleus of an atom (modern power), here bearing a pattern similar to that of a sunflower's center. Dali saw the nucleus as unifying heaven and earth - which Christ did in his very person. The figure ascends into the heavenly realm, a crescent shape of blue-white created from the outstretched wings of a dove (a symbol of the Holy Spirit, whose power was promised to the disciples - and us). Gaia, the personification of the Earth, is at the top center of the composition. 

Empowered? Powerless? Earthly power? Heavenly power? Spiritual power? Nuclear power? All of these are contained in the composition which reminds us that the disciples just stood. Looking up. Up toward heaven as Jesus left their sight.

Jesus' feet are important in another Ascension Day text. See which one on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. Click on the link below.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An Altar Like That

Note: This is where we started. The first lectionary-related post on this blog was Paul at the Areopagus. It's been three years - one full lectionary cycle.  We'll start work on the second cycle, certainly with different art and often with a different scripture than was explored the first time around. I hope the posts are useful for you. Thank you for checking in on Art&Faith Matters.

Easter 6A's Acts reading has Paul at the Areopagus, making a case that Yahweh-Jesus is the God whom the Greeks previously didn't know (Acts 17:22-31). He calls attention to an altar he had seen on his exploration of the city's worship sites. The altar is inscribed "to an unknown god" according to Paul. Then Paul relates that he has come to make this formerly unknown god a Known God.

In the Palatine Museum in Rome is an altar bearing an inscription to that cited by Paul in Athens. The inscription begins "whether god or goddess" (si deus si dea), a phrase indicating that the deity is unknown. Often there would be a request that followed ("Whether you are a god or goddess that rules over Rome, grant us..."). 

The wording on the altar, discovered in 1820, may have been an attempt to keep the identity of the local god a secret from enemies. If the god was unknown, the enemies could not call for divine intervention on their own behalf or call on their own gods to defeat the local gods. The inscription may have just been covering all the bases - no need to anger a god who has been forgotten. Whatever its origin, this altar (and there are others with similar inscriptions) helps us know a little more about what Paul might have been seeing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Many Rooms

Note: The Acts reading for Easter 5A is the stoning of Stephen. There are paintings of that story, but they bear little resemblance to the brutality that we, sadly, see in photos of actual stonings that take place in our world. Spanish artist Pablo Camps has created an art installation to call attention to the practice and hopefully create an outcry that would stop the practice. Camps' work should disturb all who see it. It won't be published on this page, but if you are interested in seeing it, follow this link: 

The reading from John's gospel for Easter 5A (John 14:1-14) is often heard at funerals: In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. Dwelling places is sometimes translated rooms. The gist of the passage is a reminder to the disciples that even though Jesus will be leaving them on earth, he is merely going ahead to prepare a place for them. And there's lots of room, Jesus says.

Contemporary artist Louiz Kierkebjerg Nielsen has created a print titled "Many Rooms" that takes literally the idea of architecture and also shows Jesus as preparing a place for many people and welcoming them to that place. What can be read as a statue of Jesus, arms outstretched, towers above a crowded (and small in comparison to the standing figure) cityscape. The Jesus figure is made up of doors and windows, which continue the housing options offered at the base of the figure. Doors and windows are scattered throughout the background, creating a very shallow picture space.
  Louiz Kierkebjerg Nielsen. Many Rooms. 2015. Screenprint, embossed etching, paper cut.
For more information, see:
I go to prepare a place for you, Jesus told the disciples. But where I'm going...there is room for you. One day you will follow me there. On that day I'll be there to welcome you.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I Am the Gate

Among the "I am" sayings of Jesus, "gate" may not be among the most frequent answers to a "fill in the blank" question. However, this particular "I am" saying is found in the Gospel reading for Easter 4A (John 10:1-10), along with several other texts that either mention or are centered on sheep.
While many of the "I am" sayings are poetic and lovely - bread of life, resurrection and the life, vine, and more - the "gate" image shows us Jesus not as poetry, but as a necessary, functioning object. Without the gate, the sheepfold (or pen) is useless. Sheep may indeed wander in, but they can just as easily walk right out.

Sometimes the shepherd literally became the gate, lying down in front of the opening of the fold so that no sheep can walk out - and no predator can walk in - without the shepherd being alerted. Caring for the sheep. Abundant life for the sheep. That's the bottom line for Jesus, the Good Shepherd. As sheep, we are blessed.

Photo: Dry stone sheep pen, Scotland.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When the Pilgrimage Seems to Have Been a Bust

The gospel reading for Easter 3A is another in the well-known post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Here, he appears to two disciples who are walking to Emmaus after the events of Jesus' crucifixion. The excitement was over. Jesus was dead. Might as well go home.

Little did they know.

Caravaggio painted several versions of the supper at Emmaus. This version is from 1601. A younger-than-usual-looking Jesus (note the lack of beard) sits at table with two men while a third appears to be serving. The food on the table comprises a delicious repast for the diners and a beautiful still life for the painter: roasted chicken (feet still attached), bread, fruits.

Jesus gestures with his right hand, and one of the travelers starts to push himself out of his chair while the other gestures with both arms outstretched. It isn't clear exactly what moment this is. There is bread in front of each person at the table, so perhaps Jesus has already broken bread and the two have recognized him. The story is familiar. Jesus will soon disappear, and the two travelers will hurry back to Jerusalem to tell their story. Imagine the wonder of it - if you were the one to see Jesus after everyone thought he was dead.

One of the interesting details that the artist has included is the scallop shell pinned to the outer garment of the traveler on the right. The scallop shell might not have been known in Jesus' day, but for those in Caravaggio's time - and for Christians in preceding centuries - the shell was a specific symbol. A person wearing a scallop shell pinned to his garment was known to be a pilgrim. Most often the shell-wearing traveler was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The scallop shell, a symbol of the disciple James, was worn on the way to Santiago, to the Cathedral of St. James, where the apostle's remains are supposedly buried.

Medieval pilgrims wearing the scallop shell were entitled to food and lodging. The shell was a handy size for use as a drinking cup or as a bowl for eating. The presence of the shell on this traveler marks him as a pilgrim, a traveler on a religious journey. The only journey he had been on was to Jerusalem to see the one they had thought would redeem Israel: Jesus.

But that had ended badly. Apparently Jesus was not the one to redeem them. And though there were reports that his tomb was empty, these two hadn't seen Jesus so they couldn't verify it. He had been on pilgrimage, been to the holy city, perhaps witnessed some of the events of Holy Week, but it had been for nothing.

Until now.

The painting is Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus. 1601. London: National Gallery.

See Christ as the pilgrim in this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. Click on the link below.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Thank You, Thomas

The first Sunday after Easter uses the same gospel reading in all three years of the lectionary: John 20:19-31. This is the story of Christ's appearance to the disciples post-resurrection and Thomas' after-Easter moment in the spotlight. Thomas is often criticized for his desire to see for himself, but I would suggest that there is another way to consider this story and Thomas' actions.

Thomas was asking, essentially, for proof of life. And interestingly, he will recognize life by seeing, by touching, Jesus' wounds. That is how he will recognize Jesus, how he will know that the one standing before him is Jesus: by his wounds. He doesn't ask Jesus to come back and perform a miracle - strike down the officials who sought to squash the Jesus Movement, heal more paralytics, elevate Thomas to a position in the inner circle of disciples, make it snow in summer.

Instead, what Thomas wants is to know that this is the Jesus who suffered. In fact, Thomas seems to be the only one willing to remember the suffering of Jesus. The other disciples seem ready to move on - and so they should - and so should we. It is after Easter, after all. And yet, moving on doesn't mean forgetting. How quickly we want to forget that Jesus suffered (because of us!). It is sometimes a battle to have people dwell in the betrayal, crucifixion and death of Jesus for even the 48 hours between Maundy Thursday evening and an Easter vigil. Too often there is a quick move (Sunday's coming!) that, intended or not, minimizes the suffering of Jesus and the reminder of all those in our world who are suffering.

For Thomas and the disciples, Sunday had come, and Thomas alone seems to remember the cost of Jesus' act of love and sacrifice. Wounds as proof of life. Thank you, Thomas.

Illustration is Carl Bloch's "The Doubting Thomas". 1881. Ugerlose Kirke, Denmark.

On Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page this week. The disciples tell Thomas it's time to move on. Click on the link below.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blood and Wine

Nikolai Ge (1831-1894; sometimes Ghe or Gay) was a Russian painter influenced by the writings of Leo Tolstoy. His final series of paintings were of Christ's Passion. This painting, "Calvary" (also called "Golgotha" and/or "Crucifixion") is the final painting in the series. This final painting highlights the emotional and physical toll on Christ at the crucifixion.
Nikolai Ge. Calvary. c. 1892. Paris: Musee d'Orsay.
Christ's body sags on the cross, his knees almost below the ankles that are nailed to the vertical piece of the cross to support his weight. His head is below his hands, nailed to the horizontal element of the tau-shaped cross. This is not Christ triumphant, merely standing on a cross with his arms outstretched. This is Jesus who suffers.

The Agony
by George Herbert (1593-1633)

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.