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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Genesis 8.1-17: Her New Name

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Lent 2B is part of the epic (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16). In this section, God promises that Abraham will be the ancestor of multitudes of people. And then, to mark this promise, both patriarch and matriarch receive new names. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. And the name Sarah, in Hebrew, means princess.

So it's surprising that Sarah is often shown looking more like a peasant than a princess. Granted, a royal wardrobe doesn't make much sense in an everyday nomadic life in a dusty climate. But are we so used to thinking of everyday Sarah that we forget her name may be an insight into who Sarah is. One artistic exception to "everyday Sarah" are works by James Tissot that depict the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. In his vast number of paintings of Biblical subjects, Tissot sought to create work that truly pictured the events of the Bible. He wasn't always correct. Sometimes the romanticism of it all or incomplete archaeology led him astray. But whether totally accurate or not, Tissot's images of Sarah in Egypt seem more princess-like than many others.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot. (left) The Egyptians Admire Sarai's Beauty. Watercolor and gouache. (right) Sarai is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace. 1896-1902. Watercolor and gouache. The Jewish Museum.
Sarah is dressed similarly in the two images.* She is wrapped in layers of clothing with gold bracelets up her forearms. An elaborate headdress covers all but her face. The headdress is similar in feel to the very elaborate headdress of Puabi, presumably a Sumerian queen (below). The elaborate framework and use of gold are similar. And the star-flowers on the crown of the headdress are similar shapes to elements on Sarah's waist in the "Admire" painting.
Queen Puabi's Headdress (reconstruction). University of Pennsylvania Museum. 
Puabi's grave, found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, was discovered in 1928 by Leonard Woolley. The tombs from Ur (near the Euphrates in what is today Iraq) date between 2600-2500 BCE. In addition to the queen, two attendants were found with her in the grave. She was buried as a queen would be buried. We may usually think of Sarah more as matriarch, but we know about her burial, too. Genesis 23 tells about her death and that Abraham purchased a tomb for her. For a princess. 

*Sarah's body language and facial expression in these paintings are certainly worth considering in light of the content of the stories, but are not discussed here because the Egypt stories are not the reading for this week.

For thoughts on the gospel lesson for Lent 2B (Mark 8:31-38) click here.
For an introduction to the Tree of Abraham on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here.  

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Genesis 9.8-17: Refraction and Dispersion

God's bow in the sky is practically inseparable from the story of Noah (Genesis 9:8-17, Lent 1B). On the walls of church nurseries it isn't unusual to find a child-friendly boat, charming animals, a benevolent Noah...and that rainbow. But what is decorative and colorful and familiar is also science. And that means theory and
discovery and history.

Dome of the Portinari Chapel. Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio. Milan, Italy. 1460-1468. 
The Dominican order began the rebuilding of the Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio in Milan, Italy, in the 13th century, and it served as the seat of the order in Milan. Between 1460 and 1468 the Portinari Chapel was added to the Basilica. Commissioned by banker Pigello Portinari, the chapel was designed by an unknown architect, though the style has some similarities to Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel.

One of the aspects of Portinari Chapel that differs wildly from Brunelleschi's earlier chapel is in the decoration of the dome. Both domes show the pattern of ribs dividing the dome and reaching up to an oculus in the center of the dome. But where the ribs of the earlier dome separate sections of undecorated plaster, the Portinari dome is filled with a rainbow-colored scale pattern: red on the outside, then yellow, then green, with blue next to the oculus. These are the four colors of the rainbow identified centuries earlier by Aristotle.

The presence of the rainbow in the dome is one of several indications that the Dominican order was interested in scientific exploration of the rainbow. Around 1310, Theodoric of Freiburg wrote De iride, a treatise on the rainbow, which is still considered correct in its explanation of how light passes through individual drops of water, refracting and dispersing, to create primary and secondary rainbows. Theodoric was a philosopher and scientist who was also a member of the Dominican order.

Though no Noah is present in the dome, the presence of the rainbow in a dome still carries the same idea as the Genesis account. A dome, after all, is nothing but an arc (like the shape of the rainbow) spun in a circle. Because the dome represents heaven, then God's bow is still displayed in the heavens, symbolizing the covenant God made and has kept with humanity since the days of Noah.

For thoughts on the gospel reading for Lent 1B (Mark 1:9-15), click here.

See a place where the rainbow connects to a moment in the life of Jesus on this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

I Kings 2.1-12: What Elijah Wore

The chariot of fire in which Elijah disappeared usually gets all the press (I Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration B). And why not? It doesn't happen very often that someone is swooped up off the earth and taken to be with God in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire.

But the actual transfer of power is described in the text (though it's in the next verse after the lectionary portion). It's an action that has a legacy in a reasonably familiar phrase. When someone "assumes the mantle" or "takes up the mantle" of someone else, the language is a direct descendant of this story of the prophets. Elisha assumes the mantle of Elijah literally and metaphorically. He asks for and is given a double portion of Elijah's spirit. After the chariot and horses and Elijah disappear, Elijah takes up Elijah's mantle and begins his own journey. 

The text doesn't tell us where the mantle was between verses 8 and 13. In verse 8 Elijah rolls up the mantle and strikes the water so the two can cross the Jordan River. The next time we see the mantle it is on the ground, and Elisha is picking it up and wrapping himself in it. 

Many artists assume that Elijah tosses the mantle down from the chariot. A search for images of Elijah and the chariot will be heavy on flames. Sometimes the flames envelop both the chariot and horses. Other artists have flames only on the feet of the horses and the wheels of the chariots. Among the details the artist might have included a fabric cloak in mid-air.

Compositionally, the cloak ties the heavenly portion of the subject with the earthly portion. The twisting, turning cloak can become a line uniting the chariot passenger prophet with the prophet who waits, looking up expectantly. Often the mantle, the cloak, is red, a vivid color that is related to the flame colors of the chariot and contrasts with a blue sky. But a 13th-century Italian fresco offers a different color palette. And an additional point of meaning.
The Prophet Elijah Taken to Heaven on a Chariot of Fire.13th century. Crypt of St Mary Cathedral, Anagni, Lazio. Italy.
In this fresco the horses and chariot show no actual flames, but they are the red and yellow of fire. Elijah sits in the chariot holding the reins, driving the team. He wears green clothing and holds out what we presume is meant to be his mantle. In the next moment, Elijah will drop the mantle, and presumably it will float down to a waiting Elisha. 

Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost, another scriptural moment associated with the anointing of power and flame. Red is the academic color for divinity. Both associations are appropriate for this moment when God gives power and authority to a new person. 

Green is the color of ordinary time. It is associated with life and growth. These green associations are also appropriate for this story. Because following the special effects of chariot and horse, life went on. Elisha performs the mundane, ordinary task of putting on the mantle and walking back across the river. Because life goes on. In the same way, after the Transfiguration, the disciples go back down the mountain, back to the ordinariness of life without glowing Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Life goes on after the special effects. 

After Elijah disappears (after the chariot) and after Elijah disappears again (from the Transfiguration), the life-giving word of God goes on. Life.

On Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...Elijah wore green and Jesus was green. Click on the link to find out more. For thoughts on the Transfiguration B gospel passage, click here