Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark 6.30-34, 53-56: Or a Dog

Mark's gospel shows us Jesus who has compassion for the people who need him. Jesus encourages the disciples to get away from work and rest for a little while and then he heals people in the crowd who have followed him from one side of the lake to the other (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Proper 11 (16)/Pentecost +8). Jesus has empathy for the people because he knows they are sheep without a shepherd. So he takes on the role of shepherd as he moves through the countryside, caring for those in his flock who are sick or injured.

That's what shepherds do. They care for their flock, providing for food and water, for rest, for health, for safety and security. Humans and animals have been the subject of painting since paleolithic artists drew on cave walls. Certainly shepherds and sheep are part of that tradition, from ancient Greece to modern art.

You might ask of these pictures where the shepherd is in relationship to the sheep. Does the shepherd lead from the front? Bring up the rear? Is the shepherd standing in the middle of the flock? Sitting nearby? No doubt an attentive shepherd would be in all those places depending on the task at hand, the time of year, or the current situation. A quick search online will show art that has the shepherd in all those poses.
Camille Pisarro. Shepherd and Sheep. 1888. Private Collection.
But Jesus' characterization of the people is missing something. He refers to them as sheep without a shepherd. But in many (most?) paintings of shepherds and sheep, the shepherd is assisted in his task by a dog. Search images of the annunciation to the shepherds. Many of those images will show the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night...with the help of a dog.

Herding dogs help shepherds with their work. Responding to commands they work in partnership with the shepherd to herd sheep, cattle...and even the children of their family. To see the amazing (and sometimes amusing) ability of herding dogs, click here. My favorite herder has always been the rough collie.
Jesus has compassion on the people because they don't have a shepherd...OR a dog.

For thoughts on 2 Samuel 7:1-14, click here.
To find out about a tear-inducing (you've been warned) tale of Jesus and a puppy, go to Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mark 6.14-29: On a Platter

The story of the dance that led to John's execution is in Mark 6:14-29 [Proper 10 (15)B/Pentecost +8]. The plot is well-known and often used as a moral tale. Or rather immoral with regard to Herod's use of his daughter as entertainment for his drunken friends. We know that the upshot of the story is the request for John the Baptist's head on a platter.

Honestly, though, the embroidery of the story is probably more widely known than the actual text. Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome. Neither of those things is mentioned in scripture, but we associate both of them with this story. They are the backbone of Oscar Wilde's telling of the story in his play "Salome."

The play, written in 1896, was banned in England, so Wilde produced it in Paris. The play imagines that John has spurned Salome's affections, leading her to seek revenge. The Beardsley illustration below is titled "The Dancer's Reward." Here Salome has received the requested reward - the head of John the Baptist. It is delivered to her in Beardsley's drawing as demanded in Wilde's stage directions: "A huge black arm, the arm of the Executioner, comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver shield the head of Jokanaan (John)."

Beardsley's black and white line block print shows Salome's right hand holds John's hair, tilting up his face so she can see it. The head rests on a platter from which drips John's blood, as Salome draws the fingers of her left hand through it.
Aubrey Beardsley. The Dancer's Reward. 1894. Block Print. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
At the bottom right are a pair of slippers, presumably hers. It's hard to imagine that this is the holy ground that led Moses to take off his shoes.

For other thoughts on the beheading of John the Baptist, click here.
For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mark 6.1-13: Clean Feet, Dusty Feet

Jesus goes home in the gospel reading for Proper 9 (14)B/Pentecost+7B (Mark 6:1-13). Home...but it doesn't go well. Jesus then calls the disciples and sends them out with instructions for what they can do if they visit a town and things don't go well. The directions are clear: shake the dust from your feet.

Dusty feet - and making them un-dusty - is a subject that bubbles up in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Abraham offers water to the three visitors that they may wash the dust from their feet (Genesis 18:4). David instructs Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) to wash his feet when he returns home (2 Samuel 11:8). Several different stories relate when Jesus' feet were washed (Luke 7). And, of course, Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13).

The intention of those clean feet is the opposite of the instruction from Jesus in Mark 6. Washing the feet of guests is a sign of hospitality and welcome. What Jesus instructs the disciples to do is to not look back, to take nothing from the town that would not offer them welcome. They are to completely disassociate themselves - and by extension Jesus - with those places.

We are not provided with a list of places on the disciples' "dust-free" towns, but we can imagine that if Jesus' hometown didn't receive him well there would be places where his disciples would be unwelcome. Jesus' experience would give them a guide. Though Jesus didn't literally shake the dust from his sandals as he left Nazareth, he could do no "deeds of power" among them other than curing a few sick people. He took little to nothing of the townspeople with him, and he left way less of himself than he had hoped. As is always the case, Jesus went ahead as the pioneer and then spoke back to the disciples following him.

The painting here is actually an interpretation of the story of the travelers returning to Emmaus. The composition (both of the painting and the story) are not unlike the Mark 6 text: two travelers, the presence (if not the visible person) of Jesus, and a very dusty landscape. There appears to be a structure and an open door through which shines a light warmer in tone than the landscape. It is, perhaps, a light of welcome for Jesus and these two who believe he is the One.
Janet Brooks-Gerloff. On the Way to Emmaus. 1992. Bienenberg Mennonite Study Center, Bienenberg, Switzerland.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27: Killed in Action

David takes time to lament. To grieve for the fallen Saul and his son (and David's friend) Jonathan [2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, Proper 8 (13)/Pentecost 6B]. Though David is not yet king, the favor of the Lord has fallen on him. So he takes time to lament. To grieve for Saul, who in life tried to kill David more than once. (Think about that...David mourned for the man who was more than once his enemy because that man was part of God's plan.) David addresses Jonathan in his grief. David reminds hearers of the father-son relationship that bound Saul and Jonathan together. But the root of David's lament is grief. A grief that he feels personally and instructs the nation to share.

The news of Saul and Jonathan's death comes to David from the Amalekite who ended Saul's life. When his sons fall in battle, Saul realizes that the fight cannot be won. He falls on his sword but is still alive, so he asks a young Amalekite fighter to end it. The Amalekite does, removing Saul's crown and armlet and taking it to David. David puts the Amalekite fighter to death for killing God's anointed and then begins the lament that forms the reading for this week.

David's bodily reaction to the news that the king and his sons have been killed in battle is to tear his clothing and speak the lament. German artist Kathe Kollwitz offers a different physical reaction to such news. Her print "Killed in Action" shows the reaction of a woman surrounded by her children. She covers her whole head with her hands as if to shut out the news. The children who surround her are probably not even part of her consciousness.
Kathe Kollwitz. Killed in Action. 1920. Lithograph. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kollwitz knew this feeling firsthand. Her son Peter was a volunteer in the German Army. He was killed in Belgium in 1914. Her grandson, also named Peter, was killed in Russia in 1943.

Kollwitz used a similar pose in a sculptural piece she began after the death of fellow artist Ernst Barlach. Titled "Lamentation", the relief sculpture reflects her feelings of the loss of an artist she admired. The works of both Barlach and Kollwitz were categorized as "degenerate" by the Nazi government. Barlach died of heart failure after he was forced to resign from the art academies and was forbidden to work as a sculptor. In Kollwitz's work, the left hand covers the left side of the face while the right hand covers the mouth. We see part of the face, enough to know that even the visible  eye is closed as if to shut out the news.
Kathe Kollwitz. Lamentation: In Memory of Ernst Barlach. 1938/cast later. Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
Perhaps David's more outward-moving physical reaction can be understood as a manifestation of his public role. He must lead the nation in mourning. Kollwitz speaks for herself in these two works, telling the world that the news of the death of family and friends is unspeakable, unseeable. It isn't just the mighty who are mourned when they fall.

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Mark 5.21-43), click here
For thoughts of other "mighty" things that fall, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. Click here.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mark 4.35-41: Enjoying the Storm

Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41, Proper 7 (12)B, Pentecost 5B) is a staple of children's Bibles.  Waves crash over a wooden boat set against a dark sky. Jesus is either noticeably asleep or standing in the boat, arms outstretched in a foreshadowing of the crucifixion. The disciples cower in fear, staring at Jesus as they huddle together for protection.

That is the moment most artists choose to depict. Because of the drama.

But maybe we sometimes enjoy the drama of the storm more than we do the calm. The psalmist says that God leads us beside still waters. In the reading from Mark, God made still water where there was none. And yet we are all drawn to the drama of the storm.

Maybe we need more reminders of the "after." Here is one.
John Frederick Kensett. View of the Shrewsbury River, New Jersey.

For thoughts on the reading about David and Goliath (I Samuel 17:1-23, 32-49), click here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Mark 4.26-34: Only in Parables

Picture an image with a person, a hornets' nest with hornets flying out of it, and a ladder. How did your imagination arrange those elements? Did you make up a story about a person who climbed a ladder and disturbed a hornets' nest? In your mind was the person running away, being chased by a swarm of angry hornets?

Scattered seed. Growth. Stalk. Grain. Mustard seeds. Birds. Nests. We know what all those things are. Probably as you read the list, you imagined the seeds, birds, nests and stalks that you have known. You probably arranged them to tell a story. Seed grows to stalk. Birds building nests. Jesus' audience (Mark 4.26-34, Proper 6 (11)B/Pentecost 4B) knew those things, too. Perhaps even better than we in our technology-driven, less-agricultural world do.

But over and over the hearers don't understand what it means when Jesus has put the elements together as he does. A kingdom is like a seed that's small and then not. Things that make you go hmmm...

Artists do that, too. Or they did after a certain point in history anyway. For centuries (millennia, really), artists duplicated reality. They painted portraits that were ever closer likenesses and landscapes that could be identified as specific places. They depicted human history and the legends of civilization and the stories of the Bible. They painted what their audience would know and understand.

And then artists had another thought. What if art is about expressing truth even if it isn't duplicating reality? And Surrealism was born.

The name of the movement comes from poet Andre Breton. He first used the word when describing a work that combined elements of fantasy with the modern world, creating a "superior reality." Surreal. Though Surrealism isn't a monolithic art movement, there are some continuing threads through the work. One of those threads is the use of recognizable objects put together in ways that are influenced by the unconscious or subconscious.

Contemporary digital artist Maggie Taylor combines individual images into a single composition. Her work below, "The Nest," combines the images listed in the top paragraph of this post. Is this what you imagined those elements would look like when combined?
Maggie Taylor. The Nest. 2010. Digital Art.
What does this image mean? Does it mean anything? Does it have to mean something? What is driving the composition? Elements of design? A narrative? A narrative that is bigger than this single image? Our reaction to Taylor's image may be like the reaction of those who heard Jesus' parables. We can understand the individual elements, but the combination may leave us puzzled.

Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus explained things to his disciples but spoke to the people only in parables. So the answer to the question What is the kingdom of God like? might be, "Surreal."

I Corinthians 5:6-17 reminds us about new creations. Maggie Taylor has created an image titled "Self-Portrait as a Butterfly." What do you think it will look like? Click here to find out.
For thoughts on Matthew's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32), click here.
For thoughts on David's anointing by Samuel (I Samuel 15:34-16:13) click here.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mark 3.20-35: A House Divided

How could Jesus be from Satan? Jesus speaks...lives...against Satan, and any creature or life form that is divided against itself cannot stand. Of course, Jesus' parables will be so obscure that people think he is out of his mind (Mark 3:20-35, Proper 5 (10) B/Pentecost 3B). But the statement is true nevertheless.

Outsider/folk/naive/visionary artist Howard Finster used the theme of a house divided frequently in his work. His artistic work is wildly personal, so while the works may have compositional similarities, the supporting texts and the images used in each incarnation differ. The two black and white images below have verbal commentary filling and surrounding a literally divided house shape. A cross is found in the roof/attic area of the house. Reading the text will help interpret these two versions.
Finster also had simpler, more colorful interpretations of the phrase. The two images here show house-type structures from two points of view. Both have the cross shape in the split of the house that is in the black and white versions. How does color change both the artist's conception and the viewer's perception? Which of the four do you think best captures Jesus' use of the phrase? Which best captures the phrase as you imagine it?
Howard Finster. A House Divided. (Left) Collection of George Felice. Philadelphia, PA.
(Right) Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museum.
Sadly, Howard Finster's own family became a "house divided" after his death. Family infighting over the artist's work and legacy left the artist's Paradise Garden in danger. After changing hands several times, the Garden was purchased in 2011 by Chattooga County, GA. The Paradise Garden Foundation was formed to preserve Finster's garden and develop it as a tourism and economic driver. 

This week on Facebook...who is Jesus' family? Click here.
For additional thoughts on I Samuel 8:4-20 (11:15-16), click here.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Mark 2.23-3.6: Who's Watching Jesus?

The image is descriptive. As scripture says, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field. They picked some grain. But it was the sabbath, and picking grain, according to the Pharisees, was work. Forbidden on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6, Proper 4 (9), Pentecost 2B).

But Smetham's work shows no Pharisees. Instead a woman and a child look across the field from the left side of the picture. The woman points at Jesus and the disciples. But no Pharisees.
James Smetham. Lord of the Sabbath. 1681. Etching on Paper.  London: Tate Museum.
What is she saying to the child? Why is she pointing toward Jesus? Is he an example of how she wants the child to live and what she wants the child to do? Or is Jesus being highlighted as a warning and an example of what not to do? 

And what about the birds? Are they doves flying in to symbolize peace? Bringing a meaning beyond the physical setting? Or are they birds flying in to feast on ripening grain as birds do? Are they doing naturally what will get Jesus and the disciples in trouble? Eating grain...even on Sunday?

How do you read this version of the gospel text?

On Facebook this week, a vintage pop culture image meets I Samuel 3. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Isaiah 6.1-8: Scale

Isaiah's call story (Isaiah 6:1-8, Trinity B) is full of imagery: seraphim, thrones, burning coals. Artists like Mark Chagall have depicted the call in many ways. The call forms the center portion of Chagall's portrait of the prophet. The seraphim touches the burning coal to Isaiah's lips.
Marc Chagall. The Prophet Isaiah. 1968. Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France.
Surely that is a dramatic moment, but the artist has put us in a position outside the action. We are spectators watching what happens at a distance. The seraphim is roughly human sized, and the collection of background figures remove the sense of reality. The text, however, gives us a very definite scale of the action. And it isn't this.

The text tells us that the Lord is sitting on a throne and the royal robe is so immense that the hem...just the hem...fills the Temple. The Temple is filled by the hem of the robe. There is no sense of that scale in Chagall's work. which has Isaiah as the largest figure in the composition. Everything is scaled to human proportions.

The difference is important because the scale indicated by the text puts human beings directly in front of the vastness and power of God. And in the face of the hugeness of God, humans understand that they are small. Consider the difference between watching a movie at a movie theater and watching it on a computer. The shipwreck, the space travel, the desert...all of them are more impressive, more immersive, on a theater screen than on a laptop. The difference is the scale of the scene in relation to human beings.

To give you a sense of what a difference scale makes, compare the viewpoint of Chagall's Isaiah with the painting below. The story it illustrates also involves the hem of a garment hem and a touch. It is the artist's point of view and the scale of the painting compared to the viewer that makes us feel small, low, and vulnerable. That helps us understand just how low and vulnerable the woman who sought healing was willing to make herself.
Daniel Cariola. Encounter. 2016. Encounter Chapel, Magdala (Migdal), Israel.
The photo below offers a glimpse of scale from the natural world. Here the Aurora Borealis (Nothern Lights) dance above the Lofoten Islands in Norway. The lights of the town are bright (and probably a little brighter here than they would normally be in order to have a long exposure for the sky), but next to the vastness of the aurora...
Alex Conu. Northern Lights Above Lofoten. 2015. Astronomy Picture of the Day, June 26, 2016.

For additional thoughts on scale, see this week's Facebook post. 
For thoughts on Nicodemus (John 3:1-17), click here.
For Facebook thoughts on the call of Isaiah, click here.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ezekiel 37.1-14: Bones and Sinews Waiting for Breath

Ezekiel 37 is a visually tempting passage. Just ask J.R.R. Tolkien (and Peter Jackson), who invented his own resurrected army of dead bones in Return of the King. Ezekiel also knows as he stands looking at an expanse of dry bones spread across the floor of  a valley. The idea that life can come from what is clearly lifeless is universally appealing.

Italian painter (and architect and inventor and civil engineer and sculptor and ninja turtle and...) Leonardo da Vinci captured the beauty and function of human bones and sinews in his many anatomy drawings. The importance of the figure in Renaissance art made an understanding of human anatomy a necessity for any artist. Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th-century art theorist, instructed artists that they should understand and paint the human figure as it is in nature: a skeleton and musculature that is covered with skin. For Alberti, drawing an external appearance was not enough. Artists needed to understand how the human body worked - bone to bone with connecting muscles.

Leonardo began his anatomy studies in service to his art, but the subject became a separate interest for him. Over several decades in Milan, Florence, and Pavia, he himself dissected more than two dozen corpses. He developed a process of illustration that represented the parts of the body in transparent layers so that the student could understand not just the look of various bones, muscles, and organs, but their function as part of the whole system of the body. Leonardo never published his anatomical drawings.
Leonardo da Vinci. (Left) Skeleton of the trunk and shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19012R. (Right) The muscles of the right shoulder. Pen and brown ink with wash modeling over traces of black chalk. Royal Library, London, 19003V.
But no matter how beautiful, how useful, how instructive Leonardo's drawings are (and they are all three of those things), they can't match the amazing moment when God breathed the breath of life into the bones on that valley floor. Bare bones. Sinews on bones. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but what a moment when God breathes on us the breath of life!

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here.
For additional thoughts on Ezekiel and the valley of bones, click here.
For a variety of places to see vast collections of bones, visit the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

John 17.6-19: Language and Rhythm

Jesus is praying for the disciples in John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B). In this passage, yours and mine and I and you and they weave together, each one occasionally popping up like dolphins in an ocean pod surface in turn as they move through the water.

Or like the over-and-under of a Celtic knot. Now mine. Now yours. Now them. Now me. Now I. Now you. Now they. Jesus' words flow in sentences that move over and under and back around again as he prays for the disciples and to God.
Be sure to read the text out loud and hear the rhythm of it.

John 17:6-19
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.
Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.
All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.
But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

For thoughts on the call of Matthias, click here.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Acts 10.44-48: Even the Gentiles

The Acts reading for Easter 6B is a little out of order, liturgically. The 10th chapter of Acts is after  Pentecost, but the Revised Common Lectionary places the reading during Eastertide. The disciples have received the Holy Spirit...and so have other people. And that's the problem. The Holy Spirit has been poured out...even on the Gentiles. Some members of the community of faith aren't sure what to do with that.

On the other hand, some are exactly sure what to do. Nothing. Do not give any credence to the idea that the Holy Spirit would ever come to "them." But Peter disagrees. He argues that the Holy Spirit can, indeed, be poured out even on Gentiles. The wording of his characterization of the anti-Gentile faction in verse 46 is different in different translations: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, (KJV) Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. (NIV) Do I hear any objections to baptizing these friends with water? (MSG). The NRSV offers this: Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people... 

Any objections sounds benign enough. Stand in the way may be a little more disruptive. Forbid water and withhold water are definitely combative. In engineering terms, the community of faith might be seen as building a dam. That's the subject matter of William Gropper's mural for the Department of the Interior. Created for the Works Progress Administration, the mural shows the massive amount of work undertaken to build projects like the Grand Coulee Dam and the Davis Dam. Human workers are frozen in heroic poses as they exert physical effort. Industrial machines like cranes lift and place segments of the dam that have been constructed elsewhere. Time, energy, labor and money are being invested in the creation of this dam.
 William Gropper. Construction of a Dam. 1939. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
There are good reasons for building a dam. Holding water hostage - water for crops, people or baptism - is not one of them. 

For thoughts on John 15:9-17, click here.
For thoughts on the Ascension on the Art & Faith Matters blog, click here. For the Ascension on Facebook, click here or here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

John 15.1-8: Apart From Me

Vines, vineyards, fruit of the vine. All are familiar to readers of scripture, appearing in parables, stories and analogies. In John 15.1-8 (Easter 5B) the vine is used to symbolize Christ, but it is not a symbol in isolation. Rather relationship is the order of the day. Before the vine was the vinegrower - the first person of the Trinity. From the vine grow branches - followers of Christ. So there is both the antecedent and the descendant of the vine. Before and after. Relationship.

The relationship is important, especially for those who come after the vine. Apart from me, Jesus says, you can do nothing.  The vine is the perfect illustration. American sculptor Patrick Dougherty provides the contrast in his piece Running in Circles.
Patrick Dougherty. Running in Circles. 1996. Tickon Sculpture Park, Langeland, Denmark.
In Running in Circles the artist weaves willow and maple saplings into the poplar trees, echoing the shape and forces of the coastal wind as it breezes and swirls across the countryside. In addition, the ovals and circles created by the willows and maples frame views of the ocean, changing how viewers see the landscape just beyond the line of poplars.

One of the things that characterizes Dougherty's work is its transience. He calls the installations Stickwork and each one can take weeks or more to create. Over time, of course, the saplings that are his central building material will decompose. The weave will not hold - no hardware or supporting structure is included in the installation. And, eventually, it will be as if Dougherty and his art were
never there at all.

That is only partially true for Running in Circles. While the saplings will indeed decompose, the poplars will remain in place because they are literally rooted. The branches will produce leaves, the leaves will fall as the seasons change. New leaves will appear in due season. All because the branches are still attached to the trunk, which is planted in the ground. The saplings have been cut from their roots. Apart from the roots, the saplings will survive for a time, but not forever.

This week Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page features a look at a sarcophagus. Click this link.
For thoughts on Acts 8:26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch), click here

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Acts 4.5-12: Rejected

If it isn't the most famous sculpture in the world, it certainly makes everyone's Top Ten lists. And it perfectly exemplifies Peter's sermon example in Acts 4:5-12 (Easter 4B). Between 1501 and 1504, Michelangelo Buonarotti carved a standing male nude from a solid block of marble that had been quarried more than a quarter of a century before Michelangelo ever picked up a chisel.
Michelangelo. David. 1501-1504. Marble. Florence: Galleria dell'Accademia.
David stands just under 17 feet tall and weighs more than 12,000 pounds - that's 6 tons! The story of the work we see today is a long and twisting one. The original commission was for a series of large statues for upper niches on the Florence Cathedral (Italy). The statues would have been more than 200 feet above the ground. The original sculptor was Agostino di Duccio. He began work in 1464 (that's half a century before Michelangelo) but left the project after only very basic beginnings.

A decade or so later, the commission was taken up by Antonio Rossellino. He, too, made only beginning marks before abandoning the project.

What was the problem? We know that Rossellino complained about the quality of the marble. The block, quarried in Carrarra, had too many taroli - too many imperfections. The imperfections may have created weaknesses that followed veining, fault lines that could have caused the ruin of the sculpture. Modern scientific studies have confirmed that the marble is of mediocre quality.

So the block was rejected. The barely-begun David lay on his back in the courtyard of the Duomo's workshop. It was exposed to the elements for more than 25 years.

Then, in 1501, a 26-year-old sculptor began work on the project. The quarried block had been lying on its back since the sculptor was only a year old. He was given two years to complete the commission. He finished in 1504.

The finished piece was too heavy (6 tons!) to be put in the originally-intended niche, so it was placed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In 1873 was moved indoors to its current site at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. A replica was put at the original site.

If it isn't the most famous sculpture in the world, it certainly makes everyone's Top Ten lists. The stone that the sculptors rejected has become...well, if not the cornerstone, at least a centerpiece in the history of sculpture.

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page, read between the lines of Psalm 23. Click on this link.

For thoughts on John 10:11-18, click here.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Acts 3.12-19: Still Easter?

Easter! Resurrection! New Life! Jesus appears to disciples! Thomas affirms Jesus as Lord and God! We've gone from one exciting, meaningful moment to another since Good Friday. The Jesus Movement is moving forward every day, focused on the future. Peter has preached several times. Thousands have been converted and joined the Movement.

If this were an audio blog, I would insert a sound clip of a record player needle being scratched across the surface of a record. That sort of screeching that indicates a full, sudden stop. I would insert it at Acts 3:15 (Easter 3B, Acts 3:12-19). Because look who shows up...Barabbas!

Oh, he isn't mentioned by name, but Peter remembers Barabbas' role in Holy Week and reminds the people hearing him preach that they chose Barabbas. It's an interesting addition to the sermon.
Honore Daumier. Ecce Homo. c. 1850. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany. 
It might be a wet blanket thrown on the Easter party. After all, the crowd around Peter and John have been dazzled by the healing of the lame man that happened in the first part of Acts 3. They want to know who has done this remarkable thing and whether there might be more miraculous things happening. These are the people still in search of someone or something that will free them from the oppressive world in which they are living. Maybe these two men, who obviously can perform miracles, will be the ones who will save us.

Peter does, indeed throw a wet blanket on their hopes. To paraphrase Peter's sermon:  It isn't us who made this man walk, it's God. And you had your chance. You could have chosen the Lord of Life, but instead you chose a taker of life. His name was Barabbas.

So maybe this is about new life and resurrection after all. Notice that Peter doesn't say to them that they have missed their only chance at redemption and salvation. He does make clear that the people (and it may have been some of these same people who were shouting "Crucify him!") missed their first chance to acknowledge who Jesus is. But now the prophets' words have been fulfilled, Peter says. You can choose again. New life. Still Easter.

For additional thoughts on the Luke 24:36b-48, click here.
For a look at the location of the Acts story, click on the Facebook link. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Acts 4.32-35: The Rest of the Story

The followers of Jesus held all things in common. That's the phrase that most often gets lifted out of Acts 4:32-35 (Easter 2B). It's an image that has inspired intentional Christian communities since the moment the words were written. Living together in peace and harmony. Sharing all you have. Why can't Christians today get along like that?

The writer of Acts (and the Renaissance artists who illustrated this text) might lead you to ask, "Why couldn't Christians then get along like that?" Because in the very next section of the Acts text we get a full example of people who didn't share everything they had. Ananias and Sapphira sold a field and didn't share all of the proceeds with their community. It did not end well for Ananias. And Raphael and Masaccio want to make sure that you know that part of the story. So they pair the ideal and the reality in their art.
(Left). Masaccio. Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias. 1426-1427. Florence: Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine. (Right) Raphael. Cartoon for the Death of Ananias. 1515-1516. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Massacio has Peter passing along funds to a mother holding her infant child. Literally he hands the money over Ananias' body. Raphael separates the two actions. Ananias dies in the lower right corner while monies are being distributed at the left of the canvas. At the far right is Sapphira (in a green gown) counting the coins that are her share of the profit. She pays no attention to what is happening to Ananias.

In both works the body on the ground is that of Ananias, whose death is told in Acts 5:1-6. In between the idealist account of everyone sharing is a two-verse reference to a Jesus follower named Barnabas who sold a field and did lay the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. It did happen within the community of believers. But not all the time. Hence the presence of a prostrate Ananias in these two compositions illustrating the distribution of alms.

At once the images are reminders of the need to share the gifts we have been given and a vivid warning about what happens if we don't. That must have taken off at least a little of the early Christian community's idealistic shine.

For thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here, here, or here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters Facebook, a quote in search of a source. (But it really works with the Acts passage.)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Easter: What Jesus Did

It's Easter and the search for something new to say...or some new way to tell the at hand. Previously, we have considered the women, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, and how Easter fits into the calendar. The story of that morning is so familiar (John 20:1-18). We know the characters, how they act, what they say, what they find at the tomb. We see Jesus brightly shining, often carrying a victory banner, climbing out of a box tomb or walking out of a cave-tomb. He speaks Mary's name and exchanges a few words with her. And then he is gone (in John's gospel, disappearing from sight until he appears again in a locked room with the disciples).

We can talk about what Jesus did: conquering sin and death, redeeming humanity, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Mexican muralist Jesse Clemente Orozco gives a different image of what Christ did through his death and resurrection (though not necessarily on Easter morning) in the work shown here.
José Clemente Orozco. Christo Destruye su Cruz. 1943. INBA/MACG
What Jesus does here isn't just come down from the cross or overcome the cross. He destroys his cross. He takes an axe and hacks at the base of the cross (though often the cross is described as marble like the architectural forms behind Jesus. Though our point of view is from an oblique angle, we can see that the cross is completely separated from its base. The cross is set to fall. What does that mean in light of the Easter story?

This is one of three versions of Christ destroying his cross. Another version is at Dartmouth College. Painted a little more than a decade before the MACG version, the colors are more vivid and primary. The overall mood is more glaring, perhaps even more violent, than the later version. 
                                    José Clemente Orozco. Christ Destroying His Cross. 1932. Dartmouth College. 
Do either of these images speak to your understanding of what Jesus did on Easter? Though the composition does not use the traditional imagery of Easter morning, both show a more demonstrative, more active Jesus as his life, death and resurrection changes the world.

For thoughts on the followers who came to the tomb, click here.
For thoughts on Easter and the calendar, click here.
For thoughts on Jesus' words to Mary, click here.
Art&Faith Matters Facebook page this week is a different approach to a visual element of Easter worship. Take a look.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Psalm 118.19-29: Come On In

Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. (Psalm 118:19-20, Liturgy of the Palms)

Do you even pay attention when you walk through the door of your church? Do you mark the transition? Or are you focused on the people you need to talk to, the Sunday School lesson you need to review, the youth activities that are happening after worship? Do you walk into the church building thinking, "This is the gate of the Lord"? Do you imagine that you are making a triumphal entry?

You were meant to think just that when walking into medieval cathedrals. The large, ornate doors (usually at the west end of the cathedral, opposite the apse where the altar is located) were meant to be the gateways to heaven. To enter the building was to be taken away from earth and transported to heaven. But to get there, worshipers were required to walk through the door, the gate. 

The Roman triumphal arch was designed to commemorate the victories of Roman emperors (top photo, Arch of Titus, Rome). The western church incorporated that form into the apse of basilica-plan churches (second photo from top, S. Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna). The triumphal arch stretched over the altar, where Christ's sacrifice is made. Behind the arch was a half-dome. The dome, any dome, symbolizes heaven. The triumphal arch motif in this place reinterprets the understanding of "triumph". For Christians there is triumph in Christ's death and resurrection.

The Roman single-arch structure was further adapted into a three-arch design (third photo from top, Arch of Constantine, Rome). The three-arch triumphal motif was then applied to the front of the cathedrals (bottom photo, west facade, Amiens Cathedral, France). Though Amiens' facade is in the Gothic style (with pointed arches rather than round Roman arches) its larger center arch and smaller side arches echoes Constantine's arch. Do you think that medieval worshipers remembered the idea of triumph as they came to worship? Does the three emperor-inspired arches give us the sense of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem - the entry we call "triumphal". 

One last detail ties Psalm 118 to our cathedral portals: the tympanum sculpture over the center door. Christ sits in majesty over the middle door. This is the gate of the Lord, the psalmist says. The righteous shall enter through it. In the Amiens Cathedral tympanum Christ sits enthroned above the door, judging who is righteous enough to enter through it. 

For worshipers standing at that door, at that portal, this is the gate of the Lord. And the righteous shall enter through it. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

For additional discussion about a triumphal entry, click here.
For additional thoughts on the donkey, click here.
For additional thoughts on the palms, click here.
The entry into Jerusalem on a sarcophagus? See Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Jeremiah 31.31-34: Gone to Seed

The prophet Jeremiah tells of the day when God's people won't be keeping the covenant as an external set of laws, but rather as something that is an intrinsic part of each person (Jeremiah 31.31-34). Written on their hearts is the way Jeremiah says it. It's a poetic turn of phrase that is a bit more awkward to depict in art. 

The concept is easily followed, though. Vincent van Gogh offers a parallel in one of his sunflower paintings. It isn't one of the paintings that has golden yellow flowers at the peak of blooming, standing in a vase against a light-colored background. Instead the artist shows the flowers at the end of life.

Gone to seed is a phrase usually meant to indicate something that is past its prime. A place that looks uncared for or shabby is said to have gone to seed. The root of the phrase is in agriculture. When plants finish flowering, the flowers fade and the leaves fall off the plant. At that stage the energy of the plant is devoted to making seeds, so the condition of the leaves, stems and flowers begin to deteriorate. 

It is at this stage that the structure of the plant gives way, falling apart and allowing the seeds to move into the earth. And each of those seeds will grow into a new plant whose identity is programmed on the genetic material that provides the blueprint for what that plant will become. In other words, the laws of development are written internally on the plant's DNA. A sunflower seed will grow into a sunflower rather than a delphinium or a cabbage.
Vincent van Gogh. Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed. 1887. Otterlo, Netherlands: Kroller-Muller Museum.
Seeds are what make development and growth an internal process. A lab experiment can influence development of one generation, but it is genetic material that transfers characteristics from one generation to the next. If you want to make an abiding change that will be retained in future generations, the seeds will need to be changed. The genetic material writes the laws of development on the "heart" of the plant that grows from the seed. And if the plant doesn't go to seed, then there will be no next generation to inherit those traits. 

Going to seed may mean being past one's prime, but the seeds are shaping the next generation. And that's important because the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.    

It's sort of the same thing that Jesus talked about when he said that unless a grain of wheat dies, it will just be a single grain (John 12:20-33). But if it does die, it can bear much fruit. 

For one use of Psalm 51, click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.
For additional thoughts on John 12:20-33, click on this link

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Numbers 21.4-9: Snakes But Not Cows?

It's a story of illness and provision for healing. The people miss the mark and find themselves with an infestation of poisonous snakes. But for snakebite there is a cure provided by God. The story, the reading for Lent 4B from Hebrew scripture, is found in Numbers 21:4-9. The gospel reading for Lent 4B directly references the story, so the connection is easily made between Jesus on the cross and the serpent in the wilderness. Both join together death and life.
(Left) Plaque with Moses, Aaron and the Brazen Serpent. c. 1200. Made in Cologne, Germany. Champleve enamel, Copper alloy, Gilt. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Right) Plaque with Moses and the Brazen Serpent. c. 1160. Made in the Meuse Valley, Belgium. Copper alloy, enamel, gold. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.  
These two roughly contemporary Romanesque brass panels illustrate the story. Moses and Aaron stand together on one side of a column (rather than a cross) on which a creature is indeed lifted up.  The Met piece (left) has a footed creature, which seems less serpent-like. Moses is horned, as he often is, and Aaron wears a pointed hat (similar to the figures at the right in the V&A piece). Moses directs attention toward the "serpent" by pointing his finger.

The V&A piece has an additional group of figures to the right of the column. They look toward the serpent, with the front figure making a clapping (?) gesture and the figure at the far right seeming to brush off his upper sleeve. Moses and Aaron are identified by name on the left half of the plaque, while the group of figures at right are identified as "Vulnerati" (the Vulnerables). Moses and Aaron are invulnerable. But all can be saved if they will look at the serpent (which is a carefully balanced loop in the V&A piece).

But it seems strange that Moses would be directed by God to create a sculptural form in metal. In both plaques Moses is holding the two tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments. The second commandment says not to create an image of anything that is in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the water under the earth. While those tablets (or the originals, anyway) were being created, the Israelites found themselves in big trouble because they had directed Aaron to create a calf with the gold earrings and jewelry they collected. How would you quantify the difference? Is it that here the serpent is not a god of the people's own making? Is it that somehow looking to the serpent in order to be saved is not exactly the same as worshiping the image? Is it that snakes are allowable but not cows?

The brazen serpent does ultimately meet an end according to tradition. It isn't here in Numbers but rather in II Kings (18:4). King Hezekiah destroys a copper serpent (along with the sacred pole on which it was lifted up) called the Nehushtan, which is identified as the serpent created by Moses. It has become a problem because the people are making offerings to it. In other words, turning it into an idol. Which probably says more about humanity than it does about sculpture.

For an image that puts Numbers and John's gospel together, click on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For additional thoughts on both the Numbers passage and John 3, click here.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Exodus 20.1-17: Every Sunday

Every Sunday is a little Easter. That's what Christians say. And during Lent, there are those who give permission to skip their Lenten discipline on Sundays, because nothing tops Easter. The root of Easter, of Sunday, of Shabbat is, of course, creation. The Decalogue makes that clear in verses 8-11 of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Lent 3B (Exodus 20:1-17). For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

But we rarely see it. It used to be slightly more common. The two examples below are from previous centuries, so in them God is depicted as a bearded man. On the left is a Creation icon from Russia focusing on the seventh day and God's resting from work. In the version here, God has abandoned his throne for his bed and is literally napping, though his right hand is making a gesture, apparently of blessing.
(Left) God Rested on the Seventh Day. c. 1550. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA. (Right) Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", published in 1860. Universitats Bibliothek Heidelberger, Germany.
The image on the right is a mid-19th century woodcut Bible illustration from Germany. God is still a bearded man, but he does not lie down on a bed. His eyes are closed, and his hands are crossed and in his lap as he sits on a mandorla of smoke or clouds with the earth as his footstool. The days of creation are marked by elements like the sun, moon and stars and the indication of oceans and dry land on the earth. A similar composition is found in a 12th-century mosaic in the Cathedrale de Monreale in Sicily. 

The subject is harder to find in contemporary art, perhaps because we overvalue work and undervalue sabbath. The small piece shown here, created by the artist as a seminary student, uses parchment panels to represent the six days of creation. The piece speaks to God's rest by taking the form of a hammock, and the text citation is written on the wooden stretcher.
The reminder is important, if only occasionally highlighted in contemporary life. Even God rested. Perhaps that's something we might take up as a Lenten discipline.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Lent 3B (John 2:13-22) follow this link.
For thoughts on wisdom and foolishness (cf. the Epistle reading for Lent 3B, I Corinthians 1:18-25), click here.
For a Facebook look at the Ten Commandments and Lent, click here.