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 story...is 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.