Sunday, May 19, 2019

John 14.23-29: An Adequate Peace?

John 14.23-29 is part of what is usually called Jesus' "Farewell Discourse." He says to the disciples that though he himself is leaving, he is leaving an advocate with them. An advocate who will teach them and remind them. Jesus also promises to leave "peace" with them. He says it may not look like the world imagines peace to be, but it will, indeed, be peace.

How would you illustrate any of that - what "the advocate" looks or feels like, what peace (either the world's or Jesus') looks like? The illustration below, titled "In the Dale" includes the text of John 14:27: "My peace I give you..." In this work, "peace" seems associated with land and house, with calm waters, with neutral colors.
John Maxted. In the Dale.
Is that your image of peace? The world's peace? Or Christ's peace? Is this an adequate peace? What if this is not contemporary to us but is a vintage print from the first half of the 20th century? Would this seem a more-than-adequate peace for people who have survived a World War or the Great Depression? How do we talk about what Christ's peace looks like? 

What makes for an adequate advocate? See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.
For thoughts on Lydia in Acts 16:9-15, click here.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

John 13.31-35: As I Have Loved You

A new commandment I give you, Jesus said on the night of his arrest. That you love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34). On the same evening that Jesus made this statement he had demonstrated his love of the disciples by offering a gesture of hospitality. Because no one had offered to wash the dust from the feet of the travelers, Jesus did it himself. He even called attention to the act saying in verse 13: You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. It's almost the same language as verse 34. Jesus has set an example that we are to follow.

Scottish painter David Wilkie lived in Rome in 1827. Among the scenes of devotion that he witnessed (and painted) were the women - particularly upper-class women...and the occasional grand courtesan who snuck in - who undertook the practice of hospitality in the form of washing the feet of pilgrims. From earliest times, pilgrims traveled to Rome, especially in Jubilee years. By the middle of the 15th century, more than 1,000 inns and places of lodging for visitors were available in Rome. Religious organizations became more involved in caring for visitors. Women, richly dressed as shown here, knelt at the feet of pilgrims and washed their feet.
David Wilkie. A Roman Princess Washing the Feet of Pilgrims. 1827. Royal Collection Trust.
Jesus' act of humble service was re-enacted almost from the earliest days of Christ's church. I Timothy 5:9-10 highlighted this particular act of service as exemplary: Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. Though never named a sacrament, the practice of footwashing was a regular occurrence in churches on Maundy Thursday.

As with so many acts of faith and devotion, the practice of footwashing can be both an act of humility and an act of pride. Undertaken as an act of service, it provides a moment of tenderness and care for one of God's children. But, of course, it can also be a travesty when the footwashing is preceded and/or followed by a lack of concern for the one whose feet have just been washed. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus said. Remember, Jesus washed Judas' feet, too. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...how closely should a pattern be followed? See it here.  For thoughts on Acts 11:1-8, click here

Sunday, May 5, 2019

John 10.22-30: Jesus in Winter

Winter. The gospel specifically says that it is winter when this exchange takes place. The Festival of Dedication is being celebrated. The Hebrew word for dedication is hanukkah. The festival we know as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates the Maccabees' victory over the Seleucid empire, the rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem, and the miracle of restoring the Temple menorah. So as you picture the time when Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice..." (John 10:22-30) you should be thinking November-December. That time of year in Israel is the rainy season. Winter begins in late October and lasts through March. There is rarely snow, but temperatures are cool to cold and rain systems move in from the north, often stalling over Israel before raining themselves out.
Picture source here.
Why is it, then, that there are no stories of Jesus in the rain beyond those about storms that blow up on the Sea of Galilee? Jesus does use rain in his teaching (Luke 12:54: [Jesus] also said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain"; and so it happens.). But there is no rainy day recorded in the gospels, so, of course, there are no pictures that show Jesus and the disciples being caught in the rain and running for shelter in an effort to avoid a soaking.

It doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that the conversation in John 10 took place on a winter day in Jerusalem that was cool/cold, perhaps rainy. Jesus and the disciples were in the temple, dry as they sat in the covered colonnade that is (was) Solomon's porch. Maybe a rainy day was the perfect day to talk theology.

For thoughts on Acts 9:36-43, click hereFor thoughts about Solomon's Portico, see this week's Facebook post. For Facebook thoughts about sheep hearing Jesus' voice, click here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Acts 9.1-20: So Ananias Went

Imagine Ananias' dismay. God has appeared to him in a vision (that's not the dismaying part) and has a job for him to do (that's not the dismaying part). He's supposed to go supervise the healing of the man who has been singlehandedly terrorizing all of Christendom (and there's the dismaying part) (Acts 9:1-20). Faithful Ananias has been waiting for God to call on him to do something. No doubt Ananias is ready, waiting, eager, even. Just let me know what you want me to do, God. Here I am. Send me.

And after hearing the work he has been called to do, Ananias says, "God, you have got to be kidding me." I'm sure each of us can think of someone whose name we could insert for "Saul" that would fill us with dread and horror at being called on to heal and baptize. We can only assume that Ananias remembered that God does not see as humans see (1 Samuel 16:7).

And, sure enough, Ananias is remembered for this act. The one that he essentially tried to talk God out of.
Baptism of Paul. 12th century mosaic. Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.
In this mosaic, Ananias completes his assigned task by baptizing Paul. The text is "Praecepto Christi baptizator Paulus ab Anania" ("At Christ's command, Paul is baptized by Ananias."). In this version, Paul is baptized in a water-filled chalice-shaped font, a shape popular in Romanesque churches, as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends from the hand of God. To Ananias' right a liturgical assistant holds a lit candle.

This mosaic probably tells us more about baptisms in 12th-century Sicily than it does about Paul's baptism. But regardless of font shape or lit candles, what we really learn about in this story is the faithfulness and obedience of this Ananias...not to be confused with the other Ananias in Acts 5.

For thoughts on the charcoal fire on the beach (John 21:1-19), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post. 
For additional thoughts on John 21:1-19, click here.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Acts 5.27-32: As Bird is My Witness

The disciples stand before the high council (Acts 5:27-32). Council members remind the disciples that they were instructed not to each in Jesus' name. "But we have to!" they claim. They then rehearse Jesus' life story: his death, his resurrection, his position at the right hand of God. We have to, they say, because we were witnesses to all those things. We were witnesses...and so was the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32).

The Holy Spirit was a witness to the Crucifixion and the resurrection? That's a detail that may not be universally - at least universally artistically - acknowledged. A small, unscientific survey reveals that there are times and ways when a dove - arguably the most common symbol for the Holy Spirit - is shown in images of Christ on the cross. But the occurrence is far from the majority of times.
(Left) Master of the Prayerbooks of c. 1500. Royal 16F II, Fol. 89. London: British Library.  (Right) Masaccio. The Holy Trinity. 1425. Fresco. Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. 
In the manuscript illumination (above left) the dove is flying in carrying an ampoule. An ampoule is a glass vial that can contain a substance - perhaps a liquid, maybe some kind of solid. The Holy Ampoule is a glass vial that held the anointing oil used at the coronation of French kings. In some medieval French images the Holy Spirit appears in scenes of baptism, bringing in an ampoule filled with oil to anoint the one being baptized. In this illumination, the dove is at the top center of the composition, hovering over the walled city of Paris (do you see Notre Dame?) and a scene of Christ on a cross. Though identified as the Crucifixion, this also has the feel of travelers stopping at a roadside shrine that includes a crucifix. Shrine or crucifixion, this is one example where a symbol of the Holy Spirit is present.

The Masaccio work (above right) is a theological diagram rather than a narrative illustration, so it does include all three persons of the Trinity, including a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The fresco, though, may not be an illustration of the apostles' claim before the High Council. And the other episodes - including the resurrection - seem to have even fewer evidences of the Holy Spirit.

Were Peter and the apostles still so taken up with Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit
(only three chapters before this text) that they needed to make sure the Holy Spirit was highlighted? Why haven't artists picked up on that detail and included pictorial evidence of the Holy Spirit in their images of the crucifixion and the resurrection? Why might this be an important point to remember about the crucifixion and the resurrection?

See how doves and disciples come together in a different work on this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. 
We are as likely (possibly more likely) to see a pelican in crucifixion paintings than to see doves. For an example, see this 2018 post on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on John 20:19-31 - Thomas' post-Easter story, click here, here, or here.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Praying in the Garden: Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?

How alone was Jesus during Holy Week? Crowds lined the street as he rode into the city. Jesus did share a last meal with his disciples. The city was full of people even at the end of the week. And yet there were times he was alone. So alone.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed, specifically in the garden of Gethsemane according to Matthew (Matthew 26:36-46) and Mark (Mark 14:32-42), on the Mount of Olives according to Luke (Luke 22:40-46). He takes several disciples with him, but they fall asleep...more than once. Could you not keep awake one hour? he asks them. He prayed alone.

But according to Luke's gospel there was a presence who appeared to give Jesus strength in that agonizing hour. In the NRSV, Luke 22:43 says, "Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength." The KJV says, " And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him."

What does it look like when an angel appears to strengthen Jesus? In Raphael's version below, the angel hovers above Jesus carrying the cup from which Jesus prays to be spared. A couple of centuries later, William Blake's angel literally supports Jesus, whose fervent prayers have rendered him unable to stay upright on his own. Another century later, Frans Schwartz's angel stands beside Jesus with an arm around his shoulders.
 (Left) Raphael. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1504. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Center) William Blake. The Agony in the Garden. c. 1799-1800. London: Tate. (Right) Frans Schwartz. The Agony in the Garden. 1898. Salt Lake City, UT: Brigham Young University Museum of Art.
From his entry into Jerusalem on through Holy Week, Jesus is alone in the midst of a crowd. The cheers of the entry parade will become calls for his death. His disciples will fall asleep while he is praying. One of his closest friends will betray him. He will be crucified, and his followers will deny him, fall away, or watch from a distance.

It's only natural that we would want to make Jesus a little less alone. Artists do it, and even scripture interpreters do. In The Message, Luke 22:43 reads, "At once an angel from heaven was at his side, strengthening him." At his side. I hope so.

Another thought on Jesus' aloneness is on this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

For thoughts on the footwashing of Maundy Thursday, click here.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Palm Sunday: The Palmesel

If you want to re-enact Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, you'll need a few things. Some people wearing cloaks...so they can take them off and lay them on the road. Some palm branches (well, maybe...see this week's Facebook post for more on that). Jesus on a donkey.

Fortunately, German sculptural tradition provided the last through a form called a palmesel (palm donkey). The figure of Jesus, usually about half life-size, is seated on the donkey, and the sculptural group is on a wheeled platform pulled through a town or city as part of Palm Sunday processions. Townspeople spread their cloaks, along with palm branches, on the ground before the Palmesel. Just like they did in the gospel accounts.
 (Left) Dominikus Debler. Der Palmesel Debler IX, 491 (S. 113). c. 1800. Die Chronik des Dominikus Debler. 1756-1836. Schwäbisch Gmünd.  (right) Palmesel. 15th century. 61 1/2 x 23 3/4 x 54 1/2 in.NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Cloisters Collection). 

You can see a short film about a contemporary Palm Sunday procession through two towns in Austria that incorporates a palmesel here


This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, one more thing you need for a re-enactment of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. 
For Psalm 118:19-29, click here
For Luke 19:28-40, click here
For Matthew 21:1-11, click here.
For Palm/Passion Sunday, click here. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Isaiah 43.16-21: Imperceivable

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? So God asks through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43:16-21). And the answer is, "Sometimes."

Sometimes God's "new thing" is as obvious as the Armory Show of 1913. The Armory Show, officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art, shocked the country when it opened in New York at the 69th Regiment Armory. Designed to introduce American audiences - who were used to Rembrandts and Raphaels - to the most contemporary art, the Armory show indeed attracted many visitors. More than 200,000 ticket-holders were willing to stand in long lines to see the work. 

What those exhibition-goers saw was so unlike what had come before that everyone had an opinion. Harriet Monroe defended the show and the artists, writing, "In a profound sense these radical artists are right. They represent a search for new beauty, impatience with formulae, a reaching out toward the inexpressible, a longing for new versions of truth observed." By contrast, a critic for the New York Times described the Marcel Duchamp painting below as looking like "an explosion in a shingle factory." That this was a new thing was perceived, to be sure. 
Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Impressionism seems to have been a "thing" as new as the Armory Show was. Monet's painting below, Impression: Sunrise, was the work that gave the movement its name. And the name wasn't particularly flattering. A critic, upon seeing both Monet's painting and the show in which it was first exhibited, wrote that all the paintings were "just impressions." This oh-so-new thing was not well-received by the wider public.
Claude Monet. Impression: Sunrise. 1872. Paris: Musee Marmottan.
But what if this oh-so-new thing really wasn't as new as we think. The Impressionists were influenced by the work of English artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner's work uses the brightened palette and broken brushstrokes for which the Impressionists are known. The painting detail below is every bit as impressionistic as the French painters' work was, but Turner was painting decades before the Impressionists. Or what about the Spanish artist Goya? In his Milkmaid of Bordeaux, his technique is easily characterized as "Impressionistic." And look at when that painting was done.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, and Speed (detail). 1844. London: National Gallery. 

Goya. The Milkmaid of Bordeaux (La Lechera de Burdeos). 1827. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
A new thing that springs forth...do you perceive it? Sometimes yes. Sometimes that new art thing is as big and bold as you please and you really couldn't miss it if you tried. But sometimes the changes can only be seen in retrospect. You think nothing is changing, but all of a sudden you look back and understand the change was coming all along.

It's true in art. And it's true with God. 

Paths...new ones, old ones, God ones...take a look at Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.
For thoughts on John 12.1-9, click here.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Joshua 5. 9-12: Desert. Food.

Desert suggests an inhospitable place, a place where survival is not a sure thing. Certainly the Israelites felt that way about the desert through which they wandered. They remembered Egyptian food with longing: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:5) And yet they were provided food - quail and manna - for all the years between Egypt and the Promised Land. But there came a time when the manna ended (Joshua 5:9-12).
Ercole de Roberti. The Israelites Gathering Manna  Probably 1490s. London: National Gallery.
Because it's hard to show a negative, there are few (any?) works of art that show the Israelites on the first morning they did not gather manna. In the 15th century painting above, they gather the small pellet-shaped manna on a morning with a very clear blue sky. At the left, Moses and Aaron encourage the people to gather the food they will need for the day. But one day, the manna ended.
The end of daily manna did not mark the end of God's providence. Instead, it marked the end of a particular kind of providence. Instead of the daily ration of manna and quail, the people were provided a land whose agricultural produce would feed the people. But there were differences. When God was providing daily manna, the people didn't have to do anything in order to eat other than wake up and gather what was given to them.

Once they were in the land, that changed. The land might have been productive, but the people had to make it produce. They would need to plant crops, tend, and harvest them. They would need to save seed for the following year. They would need to tend the land itself, not allowing the nutrients in the soil to be depleted but instead doing everything they could to care for it. If they were not attentive to the task, they would not have food.

Ironically, it was possible that they would have less food available to them in the land flowing with milk and honey than they did in the desert. Though the menu would be more varied.

A Note for Lent:
The season of Lent is often observed by fasting from various foods - meat, oil, chocolate. But fasting is only a spiritual discipline if you have food which you can voluntary sacrifice. Hungry is not the same as observant. The relationship between food and deserts continues in our modern term food desert. Defined as those places that lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, food deserts lack grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other providers of healthy food. In food deserts people rely on convenience stores or quick-stop marts that stock foods high in processed sugar and high-fat foods. If those are your only food options, however, that is what you eat.

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Luke 15) paired with this text from Joshua, click here
For something you thought you'd never see in the desert, see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 
For additional thoughts on Luke 15, click here.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Isaiah 55.1-9: This is Not Bread

The prophet asks, "Why spend your money on things that aren't bread?" (Isaiah 55:1-9) Why spend your money on things that don't sustain life? Why exchange your work for things that don't satisfy? The world is full of things that look like they sustain life. There are many things for which we work that ultimately do not satisfy. But those things can be so attractive that we forget they aren't life-sustaining or ultimately satisfying. Dutch still life painters created an entire genre of paintings that model the prophet's question.

Seventeenth-century still life paintings show us beautiful arrangements of flowers, photorealistic depictions of silver goblets, blue and white Delftware and tablecloths that make us want to get out an iron and ironing board. There is lobster and bread, lemons and oysters, peaches and pastries. There are cherries, strawberries, bunches of grapes, and wheels of cheese. The food looks delectable. Good enough to eat, even 400 years later.
Clara Peeters. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichokes and Cherries. c. 1625. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Clara Peeters, the only Flemish woman artist known to have specialized in still life paintings, used mostly local foods - cheeses, artichokes, cherries, bread - in the work shown here. It might be an illustration for a local farmer's market or restaurant. It might be. But it isn't.

As are many still life paintings of this period, Peeter's painting is a reminder of the transience of the things of this world. The artichoke, sliced in half, is already starting to brown. The bread and cheese are sitting out getting hard and stale. One of the cherries has been eaten, the pit and stem lying on the table by the sliver of artichoke.

The food won't last. It will not ultimately satisfy. Eat this food, and you'll be hungry again. Why spend your money on things that aren't bread? Why exchange your labor for things that won't ultimately satisfy you? The prophet offers an alternative. Keep reading Isaiah and find out what it is.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...the generation of women artists who came after Clara Peeters.

For thoughts on Luke 13:1-9, click here.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Genesis 15.1-18: Promises, Hope, and Vultures

Abram was asleep - in a deep sleep - when the covenant was actually sealed. The covenant where Abram was promised that his descendants would inherit and inhabit land. God was the only one who ratified the covenant, passing between the animal pieces as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. Abram never walked between the pieces. God's promise to be faithful was a one-sided promise.

Before Abram's sleep, though, he had followed to the letter God's directions in gathering animals and slaughtering them as part of the covenant ritual. He placed the animal pieces as directed, presumably out in the open. Sensing blood and death, birds of prey (in some places translated vultures) swooped in. When they did, Abram shooed them away, keeping them from preying on the elements that spoke to his relationship with God.

God's faithfulness. Human insufficiency. Raptors.
Kevin Carter. Starving Child and Vulture. 1993.
The story of this photo and the photographer who took it is not straightforward. The photo raised questions from the moment it was published. Why would the photographer sit and wait for a photo rather than helping the child and/or shooing away the vulture? What happened to the child? How could God allow something like the famine and poverty in Sudan? Some of the questions have been answered. But the questions raised in light of scripture and image together may be especially pertinent during Lent. There are any number of questions brought about by the juxtaposition. These are some.

  • Abram was careful not to let the birds of prey disturb the sacrificed animals for the covenant ceremony. How do you hear that in light of this photo?
  • God's covenant with Abram required the sacrifice of animals. Ultimately even God's son was sacrificed like one of those animals. How can we talk about that in light of this photo?
  • God's honor is at stake in the making of the covenant. The implication of moving through the sacrificed animals is something like, "If I don't keep the covenant I am making, may I be like these animals." Is God's honor at stake in the photo?
  • Abram placed his trust in God's promise. He had hope for his future - for descendants - because of his trust in God. How do we talk about hope in God's promises in light of this photo?
  • Lent is a season of penitence. What does this photo call us to repent? 
  • In light of this photo how do we talk about giving something up as a Lenten sacrifice?



This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a Bible illustration of Genesis 15:1-18. More or less.

For thoughts on Luke 13:31-35, click here.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Luke 4.1-13: Tempted by What...or Whom

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit...to Rome? According to Renaissance superstar painter Sandro Botticelli that seems to be the case. In the fresco he painted as a trial for working in the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli crafted a large-scale scene that included all three temptations of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13). In addition, we see a leper healed by Jesus, the High Priest who will perform the ritual cleansing, a young man carrying a basin of water, one woman bringing two birds and another woman bringing wood - all of which would be used in the cleansing. And in the upper parts of the fresco are three scenes with Jesus.
Sandro Botticelli. Temptations of Christ. 1481-82. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
At left is the first temptation: to turn stones to bread. In the center is Jesus at the pinnacle of the "Temple" (or the pinnacle of Santa Maria in Transpontina in Rome -  in its medieval church that was destroyed and replaced in the 16th century). At the right is the final temptation where the devil is given his comeuppance.

For the most part the temptations resemble other depictions. One of the interesting details is the appearance of the devil. Though unmasked in the final scene (upper right), in the other two (stones and top of the temple) the devil appears as a medieval hermit. Why? What might that mean?
And this is not the only time that the temptations have come to Jesus via a hermit. In the 1965 movie "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the temptation scene takes place in a cave to which Jesus has climbed. The temptations are put before Jesus by the devil in the guise of a hermit (played by Donald Pleasence).

Do these depictions honor hermits or criticize them? In each of the episodes in the paintings, there is at least a small element of the true character of the "hermit" visible. A bird-like talon foot peeks out from under a robe. Skeletal wings emerge from the hermit's back. We know who this really is. We are not fooled. The question is whether Jesus will be. 

Not everyone believed the eremitic life to be a wholesome approach to the Christian life. Bernard of Clarivaux wrote in a letter (Letter LIII to "Another Holy Virgin of the Convent of S. Mary of Troyes"): If one would live in an evil manner, the desert brings abundant opportunity...The evil that no one sees, no one reproves. Where no critic is feared, there the tempter gains easier access, there wickedness is more readily committed

Does Botticelli understand the devil - the fallen angel - as a hermit who has given in to the temptations that plague the solitary Christian and now seeks to tempt others? Is Botticelli reminding us that it's too easy to believe that temptations are spotted as wrong choices from half a mile away? Does the hermit symbolize the idea that more often temptations come disguised as a "good"? Do we learn from this that Jesus alone in the wilderness was no more immune from temptation than any other religious solitary?

The end result mirrors scripture as Jesus resists temptation by quoting scripture, and the devil falls off the mountain, the hermit's robe disguise gone for good, exposing the devil's real character. Jesus knew the devil, but he also - more importantly - knew God. Jesus' perfect handling of this situation is our model for the season of Lent. whether we are giving up something or taking on a spiritual discipline. It's worth remembering that we are human and may not handle our own wilderness season as well as Jesus handled his. We do need to resist the temptation to beat ourselves up about that. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a suggestion for a Lenten discipline
For additional thoughts on Luke 4:1-13, click here.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Exodus 34 and II Corinthians 3: The Reasons for Veils

What is the purpose of a veil? Is it to conceal? Is it to reveal in part? Is it to protect? Is it to hint? The story of the veil worn by Moses is told in Exodus (34:29-35) and then is referenced by Paul in II Corinthians 3:12-4:2. Over the course of those two texts, the veil is examined in a variety of ways.

Exodus reports that Moses wore a veil because the splendor of God reflected in Moses' face alarmed the people. Moses removed the veil when he went in to speak with God, so the veil does not screen Moses from God. Moses went before God bare-faced. The veil eases the relationship between Moses and the people. As did Moses, the veil stands between the people and God's glory.

In II Corinthians Paul appropriates Moses' veil as a recurring image in discussing the relationship between Jewish law, Jesus, and Christian understanding. He reinterprets Moses' veil as something that conceals a dying light. Certainly the law had a glory when it was given, but that glory, Paul asserts, like the law itself, is not the last word. It fades in the presence of a greater light. Paul goes on to announce Jesus as glory even greater, and also given by God. Jesus removes the veil from between the people and God's glory (notice that the veil is now worn by the people rather than Moses), allowing them to see God's undiminishing glory in Jesus.

For Moses, the veil was a necessary addition in his relationship with God's people. For Jesus, the veil must be removed so that people can see the full glory of God. Does that make the veil about concealment? Protection? Accommodation? Hindrance?
(Left) Rafaello Monti. Veiled Lady. c. 1860. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Museum of Art.
(Right) Giuseppe Sanmartino. Veiled Christ. 1753. Capella Sansevero, Naples. 
For a group of sculptors - mostly Italian, but not all - the reason for veils was none of these things. For these artists, the reason for covering a face with a veil was to demonstrate virtuoso carving. These artists crafted images of women with their faces and heads veiled. Through the skill of the carver, one could "see" through marble, a decidedly non-transparent material.

Though these veiled sculptural  images are usually women, Italian artist Giuseppe Sanmartino was commissioned to create a full-length figure of Jesus Christ in death, wrapped in a transparent shroud. Through the sheer veil, the viewer sees the face of Christ, peaceful yet showing the signs of his painful death.

The veils in these sculptures don't obviously echo any of the uses described by Moses or Paul. But they may speak to a God who does not see as humans see, but who sees beyond and sees through and sees into humanity, which sometimes may seem as opaque as marble. Perhaps these sculptural images can remind us that though the people used a veil to add one degree of separation of themselves from God's glory, nothing - not even an attempt to hide our own faces - can separate us from the love (or glory) of God.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a veil where a face is revealed.
 For Transfiguration Sunday, click here, here, and here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Luke 6.27-38: It's Self-Explanatory

There isn't anything hidden or symbolic or metaphorical about Luke 6:27-38. It's self-explanatory. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Golden Rule, 1961. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2” x 39 1/2”. 
Stockbridge, MA: Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.
Norman Rockwell, known for his detailed, literal illustrations, is just the artist for this text. Because there's nothing metaphorical or symbolic about it.

It's just hard.

But it's never been more important than it is right now.



This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a duel for the liturgical year.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Luke 6.17-26: Jesus Makes a Point

Did he preach standing on the side of a mountain? Was it on a flat piece of ground? The gospel writers differ, but in each case the meat of Jesus' sermon includes what we call the Beatitudes (Luke 6:17-26). The Beatitudes remind us of who is blessed (makarios can also be translated "greatly honored") in God's realm and who faces woe when that realm comes.

Jesus' phrases are familiar, but trying to capture all of his words leaves most artists with a generic scene of Jesus surrounded by disciples and crowds. In many of the images Jesus is making a widely-recognized oratorical gesture. His arm is raised and his index finger is pointed upward. You can see Socrates, Socrates again, even a toga-clad George Washington making the same gesture. It is a gesture designed to call attention to a particular point being made by the speaker.

In the work shown here, Jesus' disciples are gathered around him along with a crowd of people. In a soft golden light, a backlit Jesus sits but has raised his right arm. His finger points upward, echoing the gesture of Socrates and George Washington.


 At what point do you think this is? What is the point of the sermon where Jesus raises his right hand to emphasize his point? Surely he did not hold up that hand through the entire sermon. Is he emphasizing that the poor (the reading is from Luke's gospel, after all) to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Or perhaps he is emphasizing the woes to come for those who are full or for those who are laughing. What do you think is the most important part of the sermon? Or even the most important of the Beatitudes? What is Jesus' point?

The painting shown here is attributed to Gustave Dore online, but I'm unable to find a collection source that offers definitive information. You might look at other paintings of Jesus preaching this sermon and survey the many different hand gestures. Which ones are inviting? Which ones are forbidding? Are there some that seem to show uncertainty? Can those body language cues give you a way to interpret the entire sermon?


This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...destination preaching! Click here.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Psalm 138: Based on Characters Created By

This reflection is more art reflection than text reflection. If you want more on Isaiah 6 or Luke 5, the links are below. This reflection will instead be looking at how one artist interpreted a particular psalm and then, between 5 and 500 years later, how another artist interpreted the art of the earlier artist. The subject is Psalm 138, though in the Vulgate, some changes in numbering make this Psalm 137.
(Left) Utrecht Psalter, folio 77v. c. 820-845. Utrecht, Holland: University Library, Universiteit Utrecht. (Right) Harley MS 603, folio 70v. c. 1000-1500. London: British Library. For quickest access to folio 70v of Harley MS 603, use the pull down menu at the top right of the image window.
The earlier text is the Utrecht Psalter, was created c. 820-845 in Reims, France. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the manuscript was in Canterbury, England, as part of the collection of Robert Cotton. Probably during that time, the manuscript was copied. That copy is identified as Harley MS 603 in the British Library.

The two manuscripts do have some stylistic similarities, but the differences are obvious enough that we know the scribe(s)/illustrator(s) of Harley 603 were not compelled to make a slavish copy. The later illustrations may have been based on something in the earlier image, but there are enough differences to be obvious. One of the most obvious is the fact that in Harley no one is "bowing down toward [God's] holy temple" as verse 2 says in the NRSV translation. The translation of verse 2 offered on the Utrecht University website says "I will worship towards thy holy temple." Was the translation chosen recently to match the illustration? Why would artists - one more than a thousand years ago - make the choice to not show "bowing down"?

The notes for the Utrecht Psalter say the illustrations are visual representations of the text, phrase by phrase. The collection page linked in the photo caption allows you to click on a portion of the Utrecht illustration and identify the portion of the psalm being illustrated.
 
Though the arrangement of images is completely different, some of the elements are similar: the long basilica-shaped "temple," groups of people. But there are differences as well. In the notes for Harley, the description for Psalm 137: People praising the Lord (left) and the Psalmist standing before a temple; (lower image) people in captivity hold up their hands (left) and a king is given gifts by the hand of the Lord (right). What is missing as you read the text? Do you agree with the identifications of the images?

The center bottom image shows a seated figure holding a book(?)
(that may be in the upper register of the Utrecht image) and what seems to be a clump of vegetation: flowers, stems, leaves. Do you see reference to that in the text? Or is this just the artist filling space on the page with images of God's creation?

The two images can help us (maybe even force us) to define how we hear the psalm. Which do you think captures the text, the mood, the feeling of the Psalm?


This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, another manuscript of this psalm.
For thoughts on Isaiah 6:1-18, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 5:1-11, click here.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Luke 4.21-30: The Word Has Left the Building

The episode of Jesus preaching in his home synagogue begins with Luke 4:16. Jesus is handed the scroll, he reads the words of Isaiah and returns the scroll to the attendant. There was a momentary pause, then Jesus proclaimed that the word had been made flesh in himself that very day. And the uproar began. In the second part of the story, found in verses 21-30, we get, as Paul Harvey would have said, "the rest of the story."

The rest of the story doesn't go so well for Jesus. He is driven out of town up to a hill where the crowd plans to throw him off. That doesn't happen, but even so, it's probably not the homecoming that Jesus' followers imagined.

The manuscript illumination below is from a picture Bible created in northwest France c. 1190-1200.  In this illustration Jesus is literally pushed out of (presumably) the town. Green grass is under his bare feet. But in this manuscript illustration Jesus seems to be carrying a book as he is pushed out of the city.
The Jews Chase Christ Out of the City. 1190-1200. The Hague, KB, 76 F 5 fol. 16r sc. 1B. 
Koninklijke Bibliotheek National Library of the Netherlands

The icon Christ Pantocrator usually shows Jesus holding a book (the New Testament). The icon of Jesus the Teacher shows Jesus with an open book and the text "I am the light of the world..." Seeing Jesus carrying a book in this setting raises questions rather than answers them.  

What is that book? Is Jesus taking the scroll of Isaiah (conveniently bound in book form) with him? Or is this an attempt to remind the viewer that in rejecting Jesus as the Word (who became flesh and dwelt among us) they also rejected that the word they heard was fulfilled in their hearing? In Mark's version of Jesus' rejection in Nazareth, the gospel writer remarks that because of the people's unbelief Jesus could do no deeds of power among them. Perhaps that is the reason for the book leaving with Jesus. His power left with him, and his power came from God, whose story is told in scripture. The people don't know it, but they are pushing away the Word of God. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook..."Is not this Joseph's son?"  For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Luke 4:14-21 and Nehemiah 8: Read Aloud

Do you read aloud? Do you listen to the written word being read aloud? The rising popularity of audiobooks and podcasts seem to say that humans still respond to words spoken aloud, even in this culture of images. In both readings from scripture (Luke 4:14-21 and selected verses from Nehemiah 8), the word of God is read aloud. 

Ezra was, apparently, quite gifted at reading aloud. His reading brought the word of God to life in a way that touched the emotions of the hearers. The people listened, understood the reading, and wept when they heard the law of God. The gospel passage from Luke stops just before we see the reaction of the people to Jesus' reading and proclamation. The next few verses tell us that the people are "amazed" at Jesus' words...but not in a good way. Their amazement turns to rage. They drag him out of town and attempt to throw him off a cliff. 

No one can deny the power of the reading and hearing of these words. There have been other words that, when read aloud, have had the same kind of impact on its hearers. The two images at left are centered around the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The top image  shows Lincoln's cabinet as they hear the Proclamation read for the first time. They don't show much (any?) external emotion as the words are read, though that may also be the painter's attempt to help them look serious and statesmanlike.

The bottom image, published the same year as the painting was created, also depicts a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This time the reading is being done by a Union soldier surrounded by enslaved persons. The reaction of the hearers - members of three generations - is much more visible. Hands are raised in gestures of supplication, hats are being waved, eyes are lifted to heaven. 

I remember one of my seminary professors advocating that worshipers should hear big pieces of scripture in worship every week. Notice how that is phrased...not that we should read big pieces of scripture, but that the congregation should hear big pieces of scripture. Words of scripture spoken aloud promise us freedom and release, recovery of sight, and the joy of the Lord that is our strength. Perhaps we should be reading scripture aloud, even (especially?) if it's "only" to ourselves. These are words we need to hear.

Top image: Francis Bicknell Carpenter. First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. 1864. Collection of the U.S. Senate. Bottom image: H.W. Herrick, del., J.W. Watts, sc. Reading the Emancipation Proclamation. 1864. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...someone reads a scroll.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I Corinthians 12.1-11: Cogs, Gears, and Other Moving Parts

We often focus on Paul's list of gifts in I Corinthians 12:1-11: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. Different gifts. Same giver. But why. Why are the gifts given? So the followers of Christ can find pleasure or fulfillment in the gifts? Not according to verse 7. According to verse 7, the gifts are given for the common good. It's a different way to think about our spiritual gifts. They aren't (just) for ourselves but should be used to benefit the whole people of God.

What we think of as just gifts might be described as gears. The job of a gear is to transfer power from one part of a machine to another. The gear, which can also be called a cogwheel, is a rotating part that has teeth, or cogs, on the edge. The cogs of one wheel mesh with the cogs on another wheel to transmit torque which is converted to power.

Power can be transmitted by gears fabricated from metal, but those same mechanical processes can be made by wooden gears. The appropriate materials are defined by each project.
Power can be transmitted by giant gears, but those same mechanical processes can also be made by tiny gears. The scale of the gears can be adapted.
Power can be transmitted by gears designed only for function, but those same mechanical processes can also be made by gears designed for visual appeal.

Metal, wood, big, small, strictly utilitarian or crafted for beauty, the important thing is that the gears are all functioning and that power is, indeed, being transferred. That's important for mechanical gears and for gifts as gears.

One person's spiritual gift meshes with another person's spiritual gifts as they move toward one another. As they move, the church is moved. For the common good. But when the gears/cogwheels are not functioning or when those gears/cogwheels are missing cogs/teeth, they themselves can't be turned and they can't turn another gear. So maybe the gear analogy isn't too farfetched (though a theology professor once warned our class to never let a metaphor take us farther than we want to go).

There must be gears. There must be cogs. There must be Spirit. All to be used for the common good. 

Top two photos: George Washington's Gristmill. Mount Vernon, VA. Website includes a video of the gears in motion. Author's photos.
Bottom two photos: Works of Jules Jurgensen Chronograph. c. 1870.


This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a children's book about sharing gifts.