Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Persistence of Sheepery

Reign of Christ marks the last Sunday in the lectionary year. The next week we start a new liturgical year and a new lectionary year (B). For this final Sunday in A, the reading from Hebrew scripture returns to the world of...sheep (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24).

Through the year, scripture tells of lost and found sheep, of sheep gone astray, and of sheep in God's pastures. In hundreds of references, sheep have been held up as models and examples. Sometimes good examples, sometimes not so much. Sheep have been stand-ins for the people of God. They have been described as "without blemish". They have been sacrifice and economic source. They have been the means of atonement and the main course at the feast. They have been tithe of the people and practice for future kings. They have been everywhere.

And now the year ends...with sheep. Most folks may think more of bones than of sheep when considering the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, but God's message here is every bit as life-affirming as the moment with the dry bones. The affirmation is possible mostly because the scripture passage isn't so much about the sheep as about the shepherd.

God says: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.

And that is how the liturgical year ends: with the shepherd gathering the flock. Scattered, hungry, lost, the sheep are gathered again, are fed, and are rested by God who is their shepherd. Maybe that is the best way to end a year: remembering that though human beings may perpetually be sheep, God has promised to be our shepherd. 

The illustration is by German-born illustrator Michael Sowa. Exact source of the illustration is unknown. Sowa has illustrated Sowa's Ark: An Enchanted Bestiary and illustrated A Bear Called Sunday and The Little King December. His movie credits include Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Amelie. His work is available in posters and card on the internet. 

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Reign of Christ A, click here.  
For news from the art world (which is related to the themes of the Reign of Christ), click here (which should take you directly to the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

It's the Dog

The gospel reading for Proper 28(33)/Pentecost 24A is a parable. Specifically, it is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The master entrusts three servants with eight talents before he goes on a trip. When the master returns, he asks for an accounting of the money. Two of the three servants have multiplied the master's money. The third, described as worthless, is cast out.

Various artistic versions of the subject include additional figures (a bookkeeper, for example) and interesting settings (contemporary with the artist's time, for example). Swiss artist Eugene Burnand has used only the four men mentioned in the text and has set the parable in a classic, but timeless, setting. Between the three columns evenly spaced behind the men, are lightly drawn leaves, branches and landscape.

The three servants face the master. One servant holds a fully filled bag in his hands, presumably the original talents given him along with the additional profit he turned. A second servant stands behind him. We don't see his hands or his accounting or much of anything from him. The third servant, however, telegraphs his suspicion - or perhaps resentment? - of the master by watching from under a lowered brow as he stands with his arms crossed over his chest.

The master stands at the left of the composition with his right hand outstretched, preparing to reach for the money that is coming to him. The artist has made the master slightly taller than the first servant, but the gulf in the relationship is painted as horizontal rather than vertical. The composition doesn't reinforce a hierarchical imbalance of power as it would have if the master towered over kneeling servants.

One rather unique detail of Burnand's telling of the story is the dog in the composition. The dog is between the master and the servants. It appears that the dog has walked in with the master, whose left hand rests on the dog's head. The dog has stopped slightly ahead of the master and is looking up and back and the older man. Why is the dog there? Is the dog just another "good and faithful servant" to the master? "Fido" does, of course, share a root with the word for faithful. Is the dog there as a character reference for the master? The dog is looking up at the master with an expression that seems to be one of calmness and trust rather than cowering and fear. Remember the advice to never trust a person who doesn't love dogs, but always trust a dog when they don't like a person. Is this dog there to say that this master - for all his demands for profit and casting out into places where teeth are gnashed - can be trusted?

Image above: Eugene Burnand (1850-1921). The Talents. For Musee-Eugene-Burnand, click here
For thoughts related to the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.
For an additional image of Deborah, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

How to Stay Awake

Keep awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. That's Jesus' parting line in the gospel reading for Proper 27A(32A)/Pentecost 23A (Matthew 25:1-13). How do you keep awake? Count sheep? Drink coffee? Set an alarm to go off regularly?

The ancient writer Pliny, in The Natural History (Book X. Chapter 30), writes: "During the night, also, they (cranes) place sentinels on guard, each of which holds a little stone in its claw: if the bird should happen to fall asleep, the claw becomes relaxed, and the stone falls to the ground, and so convicts it of neglect. The rest sleep in the meanwhile, with the head beneath the wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other: the leader looks out, with neck erect, and gives warning when required."

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Southern England (Salisbury?). Harley 4751 fol. 39. 2nd quarter of the 13th century. London: British Library.

In the manuscript illustration, the sentry bird is the only one with eyes open. As described by Pliny, the sleeping cranes are each standing on one leg, though all five birds have their heads above their bodies. This is not the case in the manuscript illumination below, where all the birds have "craned" their necks. The sentry crane looks up, while the sleeping cranes have tucked their heads under their wings. The sleeping cranes here are standing on two feet. The sentry crane holds the stone in its claw. 
Bestiary. Manuscript (Sloane MS 3544). 1225-1275. London: British Library.
Pliny's description echoes Aristotle's text from several centuries earlier. In History of Animals, Aristotle writes: When they settle down, the main body go to sleep with their heads under their wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other, while their leader, with his head uncovered, keeps a sharp look out, and when he sees anything of importance signals it with a cry (Book IX.X.).

Who are the people we might identify as our "sentry cranes"? They are the ones who remain awake even as the rest of us sleep. They are the ones who cry out to warn us of impending danger.

For thoughts on the gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For another tie between cranes and a gospel story on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here.. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017


The gospel reading for Proper 26A(31A)/Pentecost 22A is Jesus' teaching, both to his disciples and to the crowd. The passage (Matthew 23:1-12) is filled with images that contrast what people of faith say and what they do. And that lack of consistency makes them bad role models, Jesus reminds his hearers. Wearing t-shirts with religious messages or listening to the radio station that plays religious music doesn't matter if by their actions they are unwilling to help their neighbor. In verse 4 the behavior is given specificity: They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Architecturally, the figure who bears weight is called a caryatid (if a female figure) or a telamon (if a male figure). These figures are also called atlas, atlantes or atlantids (referring to the mythological figure of Atlas who carries the weight of the sky on his shoulders). Visually these figures bear the weight of whatever architectural element is above them. The most famous caryatids are those on the Erectheum on Athens' acropolis. Vitruvius, the Roman architectural writer, helped coin the name caryatids, saying that the figures represented the women of Caryae. According to Vitruvius, when the Persians invaded Greece in the 5th century BCE, the town of Caryae sided with the Persians. When the Persians were defeated, the women of Caryae were forced to carry heavy burdens for the victors. These stone women, eternally bearing the weight of the porch entablature are the symbolic descendants of the women of Caryae. Though Vitruvius' account is less widely accepted as truth today, it shaped the history of meaning of this architectural form.
Caryatids on the Erectheum. Athens, Greece.
So when Auguste Rodin begins sculpting in the nineteenth century, the story of the caryatid is of a female form carrying a heavy burden. Though these are free-standing sculptures, a smaller version is part of Rodin's Gates of Hell. This crouching figure gradually acquired the descriptive title of "Fallen Caryatid". 
Left: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. Modeled 1881, cast 1981. 
Right: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying an Urn. Modeled 1883, cast 1981.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his volume on Rodin wrote about the caryatid:
The Caryatid is no more the erect figure that bears lightly or unyieldingly the heaviness of the marble. A woman's form kneels crouching as though bent by the burden the weight of which sinks with a continuous pressure into all the figure's limbs. Upon every smallest part of this body the whole stone lies like the insistence of a will that is greater older and more powerful a pressure which it is the fate of this body to continue to endure. The figure bears its burden as we bear the impossible in dreams from which we can find no escape. Even the sinking together of the failing figure expresses this pressure and when a greater weariness forces the body down to a lying posture it will even then still be under the pressure of this weight bearing it without end. Such is the "Caryatid." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1919, p. 52) 

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others. And sometimes the burden is just too much to bear. If we want to be other than the people Jesus condemns, we should probably be working on ways to help carry someone else's burden rather than forcing other people to carry burdens of our making.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Joshua3:7-17) for this week in the lectionary, click here.

This week on Facebook, Art&Faith Matters considers the concluding verse of the gospel reading. Click on the Facebook link (on the blog page) below.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Contemporary Art: Made Last Week

For generations you have been our home. That's the opening line of the song that is Psalm 90. The psalmist sings of the longevity of God and of God's relationship with the people (Psalm 90:1-4, 13-17, Proper 25A[30]/Pentecost 21A). We think of things that are passed down from generation to generation: land, jewelry, books. Television shows like "Antiques Roadshow" are often filled with stories of a great-great-grandparent's belonging that has been passed down through the family. Henry Louis Gates' show "Finding Your Roots" discovers stories and characters on family trees, sometimes going back six, seven or more generations. "Generations" means years, decades, centuries. God has been our home for a long time, sings the psalmist.

But, then, longevity isn't really that amazing a "thing" when you yourself are "from everlasting to everlasting." Trying to help us grasp the idea of longevity when considered in light of God, the psalmist continues singing that "a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night." Just to help you understand the musical concept, if a thousand years is like a day, then the work below is contemporary art, made about a week ago.
Deep Halaf bowl. 6000-5000 BCE. London: British Museum.
Actually, it does look reasonably contemporary, though it actually dates to at least 5000 BCE. That's about 7,000 years ago...or a week where a thousand years is a day. Imagine all that has been seen, done, discovered, and realized since this pot was made in northern Mesopotamia.

The span of time that is so vast to us, is the blink of an eye to God. As we read elsewhere in scripture, God does not see as humans see.

For thoughts on the Exodus reading about Moses and God on Mount Nebo, click here.

For consideration of a work that was made about an hour ago (according to Psalm 90 time-keeping) click on the Facebook link at the bottom of the blog page.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Who You Look Like

And they brought him a denarius. "They" are those Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus. Someone pulled a coin out of a pocket, and everyone leaned in to take a new look at what was probably a reasonably familiar object. That's the moment in the story when everyone holds their breath waiting to see what happens next. That's the gospel reading for Proper 24(29)A/Pentecost 20A (Matthew 22:15-22).

Jesus neatly answers the Pharisees trick question. If it looks like Caesar, it belongs to Caesar. If it looks like God, it belongs to God. The image on the coin looked like Caesar. All the Caesars marked their rise to caesar-hood by putting their own image on the coins of the realm. And don't forget that Palestine in the time of Jesus was very much in the realm of the Roman empire. 

If the coin looks like the emperor, then it belongs to the emperor.
For more on the Mount Zion Archaelogical Dig, see this blog by one of the dig's directors and this site about the dig.
In the fall of 2016, a rare gold coin (above) was found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. The coin, dated around 56 or 57 CE, bore the image of the Roman emperor Nero, best known for his cruelty, tyranny, and being emperor when Rome burned. It was Nero who sent Vespasian to Jerusalem in the year 67 to squash a rebellion. Only a couple of years later Nero would commit suicide, and Vespasian would be the last one standing in a year that saw four Roman emperors. Emperor Vespasian would send his son Titus to oversee the military campaign that ended in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Those are the things that look like the emperor...and therefore belong to the emperor.

Several things are especially remarkable about the finding of this coin. First, its location is known and documented. Knowing the coin's location helps piece together the story of the journey of the coin. Second, because the coin is gold it has not decayed. This image of this emperor is still visible today, millennia after his death.

So now the things that look like God...well, they belong to God. And just what is it that looks like God?

When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Exodus 33:12-23), click here.

For thoughts on the epistle reading (Thessalonians 1:1-10), click on the Facebook link below. To see the FB link, you will need to go to the blog post.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Of Myrrh, Peace and Rejoicing

The peace of God which passes all understanding. That's what is promised to those who do not worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God [Philippians 4:1-9, Proper 23(28)A/Pentecost 19A]. One of the phrases that may be the most meaningful to us today is "which passes all understanding."

After all, the idea that we could look at today's world and not worry seems beyond understanding. Neighbor is taking up - if not always sword - then certainly verbal weapons against neighbor. God's good creation is suffering from neglect and abuse. There is refusal to bear one another's burdens (and sometimes the refusal to bear our own burdens). As Jesus stood and looked over Jerusalem and wept, so we look over our world and weep. For what has already been lost, and for what is being lost right now.

People are often in situations that seem to be incongruent with celebration when they are told to rejoice in scripture. Rejoicing in such situations requires a knowledge - a faith - in something beyond what is visible. And it might be knowledge - faith - that is hard to help someone else understand.

The Orthodox liturgical calendar includes Holy Myrrhbearers Sunday. A hymn (kontakion) for that day includes the text: When you said to the Myrrh-bearers, "Rejoice!", O Christ our God, You ended, by Your Resurrection, the lament of Eve, the first mother. And, You commanded Your Apostles to proclaim, "The Savior has risen from the grave."

Imagine the women going to the tomb, bearing spices so that Jesus would have the honor of a full burial. The image below is by Robert Anning Bell shows six women led in procession by Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the tomb. The cool blue tone of the painting and the frozen movement of the women emphasize the somberness of the scene. For this day, for these women, there are no bright colors, no warm sunshine. At this moment there is seems to be no prospect for rejoicing.
Robert Anning Bell. The Women Going to the Sepulchre. 1912. Collection of the Royal Academy, London. For more information, see:
Many followers of Jesus have seen days where they could not imagine rejoicing. And yet Paul commands the Christians in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always. He even repeats the instruction: "Again, I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). Can we do as Paul instructed, even as we look at our world? Can we Rejoice in the Lord...always? Even when we are carrying myrrh? Can we continue to, by prayer and supplication - even "battering the gates of heaven" with our prayers, let our requests be made known to God and then live in a peace that passes understanding? It may be one of the harder things we are to do as followers of Jesus the Christ.

For thoughts on the Exodus passage about the golden calf, click here.

Which is more embarrassing...dressing incorrectly for a wedding or manhandling a guest? Click on the Facebook link below to see a possible interpretation of the Gospel reading for Proper 23(28)A?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Paul Says 'Not This'

The Epistle reading for Proper 22(27)A/Pentecost 18A is a familiar section of Paul's letter to the Phiippians (3:4b-14): Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

It's a truth that saying 'yes' to one thing means saying 'no' to other things. If we say 'yes' to Paul's example, then (I regret to say) we must say no to emulating one in the pantheon of Roman gods. Paul's focus on the goal that is ahead renders us unable to follow the model of Janus, the two-faced god who looks forward and backward. While there are often equivalents in the Greek and Roman pantheons, the Greeks had no parallel for Janus.

Usually shown with two faces - with one he looks forward and with the other he looks back - Janus is the god of transitions and beginnings. January has a linguistic root with Janus, though the question of  whether the month is named for the god has not been definitively answered. Nevertheless, January, the first month of our year is at a moment of transition.

The presence of ceremonial gateways (jani) throughout Rome reinforced the opportunity to make favorable beginnings by walking through these janus gates. A shrine to Janus was located in the Roman forum. The two doors to the shrine were open when Rome was at war and closed when Rome was at peace.

Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello included a two-faced, Janus-type figure in one panel of the so-called Passion Pulpit in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The pulpit is covered with bronze relief images of the episodes of Christ's passion. In this panel Christ appears before Pilate. As Pilate sits on his raised throne, the servant offers him a bowl of water with which to wash his hands of Jesus. The figure may symbolize Pilate's inner conflict or perhaps it is a reminder that Pilate will not be able to separate past and future: his reputation in the future will, for Christians, be defined by his actions here. Jesus said it before - no one can serve two masters - but perhaps Pilate is trying to do just that.

Paul is having none of this. Forgetting what lies behind, Paul presses forward, his eyes only on the goal of the call of God in Christ Jesus. There is no room for Janus in Paul's faith.

Top image: Janus head on Roman Republic coin. 225-214 BCE. Gold. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
Second from top: Bust of Janus. Vatican Museums.
Bottom two images: Donatello. Christ Before Pilate (full panel and detail of area in white circle). Relief sculpture from Passion Pulpit. 1460-1465. Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 22(27)A, click here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page: a look at vineyards in Israel. Click on the link below.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Host of Breads and Circuses

The first Sunday in October is celebrated by some Christian denominations as World Communion Sunday. Originating in the 1930s, out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, the day was meant to unite Christians around the world as everyone came to Christ's table. The day, first called Worldwide Communion Sunday by Shadyside pastor Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, was slow to grow. It was during World War II that more congregations and denominations caught the spirit of the day as they sought to unite a fragmented, divided and warring world.

The provision of bread is found throughout scripture as a demonstration of God's providence and care: from Abraham's and Sarah's baked cakes offered to three strangers to Christ's breaking of bread with the pilgrims at Emmaus, from the unleavened bread of the Passover to the institution of the Lord's Supper by Paul. God provides the gift of daily manna in the wilderness, and Jesus provides his followers with the example of praying for "our daily bread".

Bread, in all its flavors and forms, is a dietary staple around the world. Breads are made with local grains in varying proportions. Some breads are long, skinny loaves. Others are round, ball-shaped loaves. Crusts can be thick and golden or crackly and crunchy. Chewy sourdough or fluffy sandwich bread. The varieties of bread are endless.

Bread has also been used by nations and governments as a symbol of their own providence, as a rallying cry for patriotism, as a criticism of others, as a call to sacrifice, as a tool for political control. The Roman poet Juvenal criticized the Roman citizens of his day (c. 100 CE) as having abandoned their historic civic duties and caring only for "bread and circuses" (panem et circenses) - the free grain and populist entertainments that were the means of acquiring political power in his day. As we observe World Communion Sunday 2017, consider the messages and meanings of the posters below in their own time and in ours.

Posters top to bottom:
World War I home front poster. Don't Waste Bread. UK.
1938 poster for General Franco's nationalists. Por La Patria El Pan Y La Justicia (For the Nation, Bread and Justice). Spanish. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
1932 election poster for German National Socialist Party. Work and Bread for all. Vote National Socialist. Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive #2/42/155.)

World War II poster. Economisez... (Save the bread. Cut it into thin slices...and use all the crust for soups.) France.

Did you know there is a Museum of Bread Culture?

Find a reflection on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 21(26)A/Pentecost 17A here.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, an ancient image for World Communion Sunday. Click on the link below.

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.