Sunday, December 28, 2014

Matthew 2.1-12: Epiphany in the Details

What if this is where the story (Matthew 2:1-12) stopped?

Edward Burne-Jones, The Star of Bethlehem, 1887-90. Watercolor and bodycolor,
101 1/8 x 152 in. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

If this is the end of the story, is it enough?

Three magi have walked into the scene. They bring gifts. They represent various ages and various races. They are pilgrims. Melchior is a knight in armor, so perhaps we are supposed to see him as a crusader. Balthasar at the right wears a robe decorated with a ship, an indication of his journey. We might see Gaspar's white hair and beard as an indication of his wisdom.

The three have followed the star, here carried in the hand of an angel. They stand before the Christ child, Mary and Joseph. The baby shrinks away from the three toward his mother. Do you think this is what they thought they would find at the end of their journey? Are they pleased with the wicker and thatch shelter? Are they disappointed with who and what they find? They have taken off their crowns, and Gaspar's is on the ground. What if the story ends here? Is it enough?

Though they have found their way to the Holy Family, they have not yet bowed down and worshiped Christ. Not yet acknowledged this baby as the king they were seeking. Will they now? Will they ever?

Burne-Jones has left them as eternal seekers. On the brink of redemption.

It was a story in which the artist saw himself. In a memoir by his wife, Burne-Jones is quoted as saying that the painting was physically exhausting: "...a tiring thing it is, physically, to do, up my steps and down, and from right to left. I have journeyed as many miles already as ever the kings travelled." (G. Burne-Jones, Memorials. 2:209) In the photo he stands in line with the three visitors. Are his brush and palette the gift he brings to the child?

Perhaps this is the story of each of us. Making the journey as we seek God, and getting to the moment. The moment where we must decide about worshiping and presenting our gifts. Will they - and we - make the journey and arrive but never commit, kneel, acknowledge?

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 60:1-6, click here.
For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12, click here and here.

Who are these guys and what is the boat-like object at the bottom right? And what do they have to do with Epiphany? Click here for the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page to read more about the painting and the ship. Click on the Food&Faith Matters link below to find out about a Galette des Rois.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Luke 2.35: Pierced

"A sword will pierce your own soul also."  --Luke 2:35

When Simeon prophesies that Mary's future holds pain like she's been stabbed, Mary must have been bewildered. What kind of greeting is that for parents who have brought their baby to the Temple for a blessing?

That sword has been literally portrayed in devotional images of Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, with seven swords pointed directly at her heart. Other artists have been more subtle, but the acknowledgement of Mary's sorrow is still present in pictures of the mother with her infant. The reference may be overlooked because it seems so normal, but as you consider images of the enthroned madonna with her child, look for irises.

The iris family of plants are, in Germany,  known as schwertlilien, literally translated "sword lily", so the iris became a symbol of Christ's passion and a reminder of the sword that Simeon prophesied would pierce Mary's soul.

To spot the irises in art you'll need to spend time with the background of images. Perhaps the best known (because it is in the title) is the Madonna of the Iris, formerly attributed to Albrecht Durer, now attributed to his workshop. Mary and the Christ child sit relaxing while the infant nurses. In the background is the spiky stem of the iris plant, remarkably similar to Durer's botanical study of iris trojana.
(left) Madonna with the Iris. Workshop of Albrecht Durer. 1500-1510. National Gallery of Art, London.
(right) Albrecht Durer. Iris Trojana. 1503. Watercolor and gouache on paper. 
The placement of the iris with Mary and Jesus is a reminder of the future of the child, and the pain of that future for his mother. Artist Marcello Fogolino places the iris in the right hand of the Christ Child as he sits on his mother's lap.
Marcello Fogolino. Madonna con bambino in trono e i SS. Giobbe e Gottardo. 1508. Brera, Milan

The idea that the iris represents the suffering of Christ is reinforced by the accompanying saints in Fogolino's painting. At the left is Job, his skin covered with sores. At the right is St. Gotthard of Hildesheim. Though well-dressed, he, too, is related to suffering, as he is the patron saint of gout sufferers. The Church of San Gottardo in Milan is dedicated to this saint.

Perhaps this week an arrangement of iris would be an appropriate accompaniment to the worship service. Choose white iris to emphasize that the liturgical season has moved from Advent to Christmas. And now that you know the iris as a symbol of pain and suffering, you might understand why the Edwardian-era chromo-lithographed Christmas card below is a little...awkward.

See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for an introduction to the image of the Nativity at left. Click on this link.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Christmas 1B (Isaiah 61:10-62:3), click here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Missing the Magnificat Point

In the gospel reading for Advent 4B, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she has found favor with God. Mary's response to this visit is the song known as the Magnificat (because in Latin the first word of the song is "magnificat"). Mary sings about the world turned upside down by the Messiah: the proud are put down, the humble are exalted, the hungry are filled, the rich are sent away empty. The world is changed. But it may be that Italian artists of the proto-Renaissance and early Renaissance didn't quite get the point of the Messiah.

When you see paintings of the annunciation at its simplest, you'll see Mary and Gabriel. In all of the images below, Gabriel is on the left with Mary on the right. The earliest of these five is the altarpiece by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333). Martini is a prominent figure of the Siena school. Notice that Mary shrinks back slightly from Gabriel who kneels before her. Between the two figures are two pieces of vegetation. A vase of lilies, symbol of Mary's purity, sits on the floor. Gabriel holds an olive branch in his hand. The olive symbolizes peace, with which Gabriel greets Mary.
Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi. Annunciation with Two Saints, 1333. Originally for chapel of Sant'Ansano, Cathedral, Siena. Now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Roughly a hundred years later, Bicci de Lorenzo (born and died in Florence) paints a similar arrangement. Gabriel stands this time, but there is no vase of lilies. Instead he holds a stem of lilies in his hand.
Bicci di Lorenzo. The Annunciation. 1433. For altarpiece of Madonna and Child with Saints for Compagni Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence. Private collection. 

A little more than ten years after Bicci, Giovanni di Paolo (working primarily in Siena) keeps the same composition. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, olive branch.
Giovanni di Paolo. Annunciation. 1445. Pinacoteca, Vatican, Room II, Inv. 40131.

Five years or so after that, Filippo Lippi paints the Annunciation. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, a stem of lilies. Can you guess Lippi's hometown?
Filippo Lippi. The Annunciation. 1450-1453. National Gallery, London.

Fast forward another two decades or so to Francesco di Giorgio who paints the annunciation. Same compositional arrangement - Mary at right, Gabriel at left. In Gabriel's hand? Olive. Look under the photo to see where this Annunciation lives. 
Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The Annunciation. 1470-1472. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena. 
For museum:
Are you getting a sense that something is going on here? Something is. The lily is a civic emblem of the (then) city-state of Florence. Florentine artists were no doubt pleased to have their emblem in the hand of God's messenger come to earth to announce the salvation of humanity. The artists of rival city-state Siena were less than pleased - were in fact determined not to have the emblem of their enemy in the hand of God's messenger. Hence, the olive branch in Sienese Annunciations. It's more than a little ironic - celebrating the coming of the Messiah who will turn the world upside down, but being certain that God has nothing to do with people who aren't "us."

Who are these women? And what do they have to do with the Magnificat? Click on  the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page and see who they are. 

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7) click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

John 1: John...An Angel?

The Orthodox tradition refers to Jesus' cousin (and baptizer) John as the Forerunner. In some icons he is written as the Angel of the Desert. The oversize wings are probably the most obvious reason for John's identification as an angel. We should remember that the word angelos can mean angel but also messenger, and certainly John was a messenger, as described in John 1 (the gospel reading for Advent 3B).
John the Forerunner. 17th century. Moscow School. Trevetyakov Gallery.
In icons of John the Forerunner, the central figure is shown large, with body-length wings, usually holding a scroll and a chalice (or salver or footed paten called a diskos, the dish that holds the bread) and a scroll. Sometimes the chalice contains John's own head, a prefiguring of his beheading. In the icon shown, the chalice contains the figure of Christ, naked and lying down. John points to the Christ, in the icon as he will in life.

In his hand John holds a scroll, generally a symbol of a prophet. In Christian tradition, John is the final prophet in the line of prophets in Hebrew scripture who foretold the Messiah.

Surrounding the figure are episodes from the life of John the Forerunner. Some are familiar - his birth, the dance of Salome, his beheading. Other episodes are from legend. At the left of the composition, an angel leads the infant John into the wilderness. As told in the Prologue of Ohrid (1928), to escape Herod's order to murder the children, Elizabeth took John to the wilderness. They were pursued by soldiers but hid in a miraculous opening in the rock. Zechariah was slain at the altar on Herod's order - Herod being furious that John had not been killed. Forty days after Zechariah's death Elizabeth also died. John stayed in the wilderness being fed and cared for by an angel of God.

Often John is perceived as the slightly quirky (locusts, honey, animal fur) member of Jesus' family. Does your perception of him change if he is known as the Angel of the Desert?

Take a closer look at the audience drawn to the river by John's preaching on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page

This week's Food&Faith Matters page considers gardens, seeds and sheaves from Lent 3B's readings in Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. The link is at the bottom of the page.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61), click here.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cousins and Opposites

John and Jesus almost couldn't be more opposite. Perennially offensive vs. welcomer of children. Eater of insects vs. healer of illness. Born to a (presumably) young mother vs. born to an older mother.

The scenes of their birth are also about as different as can be. In art, the birth of John is almost as common as scenes of the birth of Jesus. One example paints it memorably - and about as different as can be from the stables with animals and field workers painted verbally by Luke and portrayed in nativity scenes in homes around the world.
Attributed to Jan van Eyck (Hand G). Birth of John the Baptist from the Tres Belles Heures de Notre Dame de Jean de Berry. 1380-1450. Palazzo Madama, Museo Civico D'Arte Antica, Torino, Italy.

It would be a shorter list to identify things that are similar between the works illustrating the births of John and Jesus. Both are related to childbirth. Both show a baby. Both have Mary. That's about it.

This manuscript illumination, attributed to Jan van Eyck, show the birth of John in a home richly furnished - red draperies cover the bed, finely carved furniture is in the room. Stained glass windows allow light into the room with plastered wall. John is born into a home and family that will make his early years reasonably easy.

But there are oddities in this image, too. The woman in green is blocking our view of a young boy. Who is he? Both a cat and a dog are shown in the foreground. In the left corner of the foreground are a pair of shoes. Who is barefoot? In the far background - in another room, actually - is a quite old Zechariah, who sits reading a book by the light of the window.

Heraldic shields appear in the top of the leaded glass window. A triskele-like design is carved into a lockable wooden chest on legs (and the scale of the piece seems off when compared to the two figures). At the right of the composition a three-sided stool sits next to a distaff.

It's a far cry from a stable and a manger with cows and sheep, but in reality it's what the artist would have seen as a sign of power, wealth and privilege. This is how the artist perceived John's beginnings. John's relationship with materials things would change over the course of his life. Velvet bed hangings will be replaced by wild animal skins. Domestic pets will give way to wild animals. And John will announce that (despite his easy beginnings?) another is coming whose sandals he is not worthy to untie.

The baptism of Christ is shown in the bottom panel of the page.

Here is John all grown up. See what's interesting about this depiction of John at an archived Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.  

For a food-based lectionary reflection on John, click here

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 2B, click here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Look! Up in the Sky!

If Jesus' coming to the world is not written in the stars, it's at least announced there. Mark 13:24-27 describes the sun and moon, stars, clouds and the very ends of the heavens as part of the announcement of Jesus' return. The gospel advises believers to be watchful and to know these signs in the heavens for what they are. It is difficult to imagine that anyone - believer or not - wouldn't be focused on the heavenly upheavals described in the reading. We can imagine the uncertainty brought about by a darkened sun and moon accompanied by shooting stars.

The falling stars that Mark's gospel describes might be captured most accurately by Jean Francois Millet in his Starry Night. Stars shoot across the sky while a warm glow hovers on the horizon. Trees are silhouetted against the glow, and a road - barely discernible in the darkness - leads us into the painting. While nineteenth-century France might have been more fascinated than afraid of such heavenly fireworks, centuries earlier, shooting stars might have been easily lumped in the same category as comets, which were usually considered bad omens.
Jean-Francois Millet. Starry Night. ca. 1850-1865. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery. 1961.22.

Millet's painting is quite accurate. Compare the Millet painting above to the NASA photo of the annual Geminid Meteor Shower in 2013. The photo is a time lapse photo (over three hours) taken near China's Dashanbao Wetlands.

The most famous starry night in art, however, was surely created by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh knew Millet's work, admired it and indeed copied of some of the older artist's paintings (though always in his own style). While the subject of Millet's painting might have influenced Van Gogh's choice of subject, the later painting is clearly not a copy.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, NYC. 472.1941.

Stars had meaning for Van Gogh. He wrote to his brother Theo, "...the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream. Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France. Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star." (Letter 638, 1888) 

Mark 13 is not the first time that the heavens have announced Jesus' arrival. Stars and angels were also part of Jesus' first visit to earth. With the falling stars here on Advent 1B and the travelling star on Christmas, this season is bookended with the experience of looking up in the sky. Mark's gospel (along with the Christmas story that we know is coming) reminds us that when it comes to Christ, ultimately it is not death that we should associate with stars racing and tumbling through the heavens. Instead it is life.

The 2014 Geminid Meteor Showers will occur between December 7 and 17, peaking the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. Why not go outside, read Mark's gospel, read of the star in Matthew's gospel and look up in the sky.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1B (Isaiah 64:1-9), click here.

What does the image at left contribute to the discussion of the gospel lesson for Advent 1B? Click here for a Facebook post that explains.. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

King of the World

Really...he's the king of the world. We often look for the crown in conjunction with the image of Christ  to represent the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we acknowledge the Reign of Christ. But there is another symbol that speaks to the day that Christ reigns over all the earth, when all things are under his feet and he is seated on his throne (Ephesians 1:22, Matthew 25:31). That symbol is the orb and cross.

Found in images of Jesus and in the jewel vaults of earthly rulers around the earth, the orb and cross symbolize the triumph of the cross around and across the earth. While some orbs are a solid circle, others have a band around the orb's "equator" and a band stretching from one side of the orb to the other, from equator to equator over the north pole. Those bands may be perceived as the structure needed to hold the cross surmounted on the orb, but the design actually is a remnant of an early map of the world.
The T-O map (orbis terrarum, created from the letter T inside the letter O) is a graphic depiction of the world as described by Isidore of Seville in the 7th century. Three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) were known, and three bodies of water were also illustrated: the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River and the ocean that surrounded the land masses. The three known continents are, on the map, ascribed to the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Each of these men is considered the historic ancestor of the peoples of the continents. The city of Jerusalem would be at almost the center of the circular map - where the Mediterranean dead ends into Asia.

Hans Memling. Christ with Singing and Music-Making Angels. Oil on panel. Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen.

Turn the T-O map upside down (so that the downstroke of the T is above the "equator" of the orb, and you can plainly see the map in the orb. Top the banded orb with a cross, and there is the royal regalia that has come to symbolize earthly authority. Above, Hans Memling's Jesus holds a crystal orb surmounted with the cross. Surrounded by music-making angels, he blesses those on whom he is looking. The background of the painting is gold, used in the tradition of icons to symbolize eternity. Below, in a show of temporal power, England's Elizabeth I holds the Sovereign's Orb in her left hand, as she would do after her coronation. This is not the same orb used in the coronation of Elizabeth II. That orb is a hollow gold sphere made in 1661. The symbolism is the same, however.
Unknown artist. Queen Elizabeth I. c. 1600. Oil on panel. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Reign of Christ A (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24), click here.
For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click herehere, or here.

What does the cross-topped crown at left have to say on Christ the King Sunday?See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mirror, Mirror

The lectionary reading is only the tip of the Deborah story iceberg. Judges 4:1-7 introduces us to Deborah sitting beneath her palm tree and judging Israel. This is an important job that Deborah apparently takes seriously and for which Deborah is respected. But in this passage Deborah is stationary, when one of the more interesting things about the story is the action and movement. Barak goes to war (and we assume Deborah goes with him). Jael is moved to act and kills Sisera, the general leading hundreds of chariots against the army of Israel. None of that is in the reading for today. So for this week's art, we step outside the reading and into the story.
Mirror with Jael and Barak, 1672. English. Satin worked with silk and metal thread, beads, purl, mica, seed pearls; detached buttonhold variations, couching, satin, long-and-short, tent and straight stitches; wood frame, celluloid imitation tortoiseshell, mirror glass, silk, plush. 28 3/4" x 23 3/4". Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

This piece of seventeenth-century embroidery features the figure of Charity at the top and a mermaid at the bottom. In the four corners are animals representing the known continents (the camel associated with Asia and the stag representing Europe as well as two mythological creatures - the griffin probably standing for Africa and the basilisk probably representing the Americas). That collection is eclectic enough, but there are also two figures. The two figures, a man and a woman dressed in full 17th-century garb, are Barak and Jael. Deborah is not present, nor is Sisera, though Jael holds the peg and mallet that she used in his death.

Jael has been interpreted in varied and often contradictory ways in the history of art. In medieval times she served as a prefiguring of Mary, the killing of Sisera a parallel to Mary's triumph over Satan. Jael has been a deceitful killer, the personification of sin*, a virtuous savior of the nation and everything in between. In the example here, there is no overt judgment or interpretation of Jael's character. She simply stands in sumptuous dress, holding a hammer and nail.

Barak is perhaps even less imposing. Rather than the armor in which he is clad in medieval images, here he wears fabric clothing with no visible metal armor. His hat is jauntily trimmed, his doublet has wildly full sleeves and his legs are encased in striped stockings. This is probably more decorative than how most of us imagine a general of the army of Israel.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is that the embroidery is the decorative element of a functional object. The embroidery is part of the frame for a mirror. So who was the original owner of this mirror? Was there a woman who gazed past Jael and Barak in order to see herself? A man who saw Jael and Barak every time he saw his own face? What was one supposed to see when seeing Jael and Barak to the left and right of the reflection of one's own face?

A mirror seems an object more suited to Sisera's mother - the only passive figure in this story. At the end of Judges 5, Sisera's mother stands at the window and waits for her son to come home from war and bring her some of the spoils of what she assumes will be his victory. She more than any other character in this story might be inclined to spend time gazing into a mirror to see herself.

What brought these images - mythical creatures, living animals, biblical characters and allegorical figures - together on this mirror? What do they mean together? It is perhaps a question that Deborah, prophet of God, mother of Israel, participant in the story, might be able to puzzle out if it were brought to her while she sat beneath her palm tree.

*From a sermon by Puritan minister Richard Gibbon: "When sin, like Jael, invites thee into her tent, with the lure and decoy of a lordly treatment, think of the nail and hammer which fastened Sisera dead to the ground..." (Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, [1661] 1981, I, Sermon V). The quote is roughly contemporary with the mirror.  

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Matthew 25:14-30), click here.
For additional art and lectionary resources, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. Click on the link below. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Joshua stands before the people and says, "Choose." (Joshua 24:15). The jamb sculptures of the south portal of the Strasbourg (France) Cathedral make the same demand of the people they face. Choose: God...or not God. What is interesting at Strasbourg is that the jamb sculptures are not of Joshua and the people of Israel. Nor do the sculptures depict Yahweh or other gods of the region. The two options are, instead, embodied in the wise and foolish bridesmaids of the Gospel lesson of Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +22 (Matthew 25:1-13).

Standing at either side of the south portal on the cathedral's west facade are representative bridesmaids: three wise and three foolish. The wise maids are at the right. Jesus stands closest to the door ("I am the door"), blessing the wise maids who hold their prepared lamps. He almost ushers them into the church building.
At the left (in Latin, left is sinister) are the foolish bridesmaids. Their lamps hang upside down or are dropped entirely. These three female figures are also accompanied by a male figure, who is certainly no Jesus. Standing regally, with handsome dress and face is the Prince of the World. He holds an apple (surely a reference to Genesis) and has already enticed the maid next to him to turn away from the church. She has dropped her lamp entirely and tilts her head flirtatiously. What she cannot see (but we can in this photo) is that while the Prince presents a beautiful face, his back is decomposing and crawling with snakes, lizards and frogs. Clearly this warning is unheeded by the foolish maids, but the sculpture is placed so those standing outside the church can see the truth of choosing "the world".

The requirement to "choose" is as clear on this church facade as it was for the people facing Joshua. Choose rightly, enter the church door, prepare for heaven and when bridegroom comes and the door is closed against latecomers, you'll be inside enjoying the party.

For Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, see:

A similar arrangement of wise and foolish maids is found at St. Sebald's Kirche in Nuremburg, Germany. In this arrangement, sculptural figures of all ten maids are placed on either side of the door, For the Prince of the World (Furst der Welt) at St. Sebald, see:

For additional art and lectionary resources, see the Art&Faith Matters page on Facebook. Click the link at the bottom of this page. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

There To This Day

The reading from Hebrew scripture in the lectionary texts for Proper 26A(31A)/Pentecost 22A  (Joshua 3:7-17) tells of the crossing into the Promised Land. Similar to the earlier crossing of the Red Sea, barely ahead of Pharaoh's army, this text might not offer new insights. The follow-up to the crossing, however, provides an opening in which a contemporary artist's work may speak to this text.

In Joshua 4, the people are given instruction as to a memorial they will construct as an aid to help them and their children remember the events of the day. Twelve stones are picked up, one stone by a member of each tribe, from the middle of the dry bed of the Jordan. The stones were then set up in the middle of the Jordan where the priests stood with the Ark as the people crossed on dry land. According to the scribe of the book of Joshua, the stones are still there to this day.

Even now, thousands of years later, stones remain an aid to both individual and collective memory. Cairns (a group of stones purposely placed in piles or stacks) are created in Scotland in memory of a person or place or to mark a path or location. A Scottish blessing says, "I'll put a stone on your cairn."

Contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy has explored aspects of stones in his work. His "Garden of Stones", commissioned by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, implants a dwarf oak sapling in a hole drilled in a boulder. Planted by Goldsworthy, Holocaust survivors and their families, the installation reminds viewers of the improbable survival of the trees planted in rock.
For Garden of Stones, see:
Goldsworthy's Striding Arches "stride" around the Cairnhead region of Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland. The arches are crafted from Dumfriesshire sandstone and stand about 13 feet tall and about 23 feet wide. In addition to the arches in the Scotland landscape, Goldsworthy followed the path of emigrating Scots, constructing arches in Canada, the US and New Zealand.
For Striding Arches, see:
These two installations use stone to speak to themes of place, the movement of people, survival, care and creation. They are the same themes found in the Joshua reading that takes the people of God from nomad to landed. Unlike Joshua's stone installation, though, the contemporary pieces are not necessarily going to be "there to this day". Goldsworthy's works live in their environment and may be changed or reclaimed or in some other way altered by their relationship to the place where they are.

It's telling to note that thousands of years after Joshua and the people crossed the Jordan, we are using the same materials to mark the same human emotions, conditions, hopes and dreams.

For Andy Goldsworthy's book Stone, see:  A partial digital catalogue of Goldsworthy's early work can be found at:

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Matthew 23:1-12), click here.

For additional lectionary-related art resources, see the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page: 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The God Who Met Moses on Nebo

Moses stands on Mount Nebo and sees the land where the people will live. But that's as far as he goes. The reading from Deuteronomy (34:1-12, Proper 25A/Ordinary 30A/Pentecost+20) includes two sentences on the very end of Moses' earthly life. We don't know what Moses thought as he looked out from Pisgah, nor if he had any reply to God's reminder that the promise of land to Abraham's descendants had been fulfilled. We don't know if Moses accepted his end meekly or expectantly or resentfully or gratefully. Artists have told the story in different ways. Alexandre Cabanel's version (below) is one of the more interesting, especially when it comes to the depiction of this God who said to Moses, "You can look, but you don't get to go into the land."

Cabanel, born in Montpellier, France, won the Prix de Rome in 1845. Originally established in 1663, the Prix was awarded to the most outstanding student at the Academie Royaux de Peinture et de Sculpture. The prize was a fully funded period of study (between three and five years) in Rome, at the expense of the French government. Cabanel spent five years in Italy, sending his "Death of Moses" back to France as his dernier envoi - his "final exam project" to show the progress and accomplishments resulting from his time in Italy.
Alexandre Cabanel. The Death of Moses. 1851. Oil on canvas. Dahesh Museum, NY.

In the painting, Moses (with rays of light beaming from his forehead) stretches out his arms as he is ministered to by angels. What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the figure of God, who may look familiar floating in the upper left corner. Living and painting in Italy, Cabanel had easy access to the treasures of Renaissance Italy. In this painting he quotes two of those masterpieces: Michelangelo's Creation of Adam and Raphael's Vision of Ezekiel.

What was it in these two depictions of God that spoke to Cabanel about the God who met Moses on Nebo? While Cabanel may not have consciously asked the question as he composed his painting, there was nevertheless something in these two images that he felt captured the God we see in Deuteronomy 34:1-12.
(Left) Raphael Sanzio. Vision of Ezekiel. 1518. Oil on wood. Palatine Gallery, Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy. 
(Right) Michelangelo Buonarotti. The Creation of Adam. 150-1512. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Italy.

Michelangelo's God is creating. It is not the very beginning of creation, but with human beings God establishes a different relationship than has existed with other creatures. How might that speak to the moment of Moses' death in Deuteronomy and the God we meet there? What is there of creation in this moment?

As did Isaiah's, Ezekiel's call begins with a vision of God seated on a throne. Seeing God, Ezekiel is dead to his former life and on the brink of a new one. What does that have to say at the death of Moses? Might the chronology of the three episodes say something? The death of Moses follows creation but precedes Ezekiel's vision.

Cabanel was no doubt more interested in importing the artistic qualities of Raphael's and Michelangelo's paintings than the theological ones. But his choices can offer questions about the God who created, who led, who called, who ultimately saves...and who met Moses on Nebo.

For thoughts on the reading from Psalm 90 that is part of readings for Proper 25A/Ordinary 30A, click here

Don't forget - Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page provides other art material on each week's lectionary readings. Click on the link at the bottom of the page.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Wandering Thoughts on the Face of God

The Exodus text for Proper 24A/Ordinary 29A/Pentecost+19A  (Exodus 33:12-23) is a visually rich text that is hard to capture. There is plenty to be seen in the story. The trick is figuring how to show it well. The artist might choose to show a man (Moses) hiding in a crevice of a rock. Showing a man being hidden by a giant hand seems more B movie than scripture. And the point of God's glory is that no one could see it and live, so trying to depict something of that scope with the limitations of paint or pencil or photography will probably yield results that are...anticlimactic.

Instead of the sweeping epic vista, then, we offer a few thoughts.

Instead of seeing the face (panim..a plural...faces!) of God, which cannot be seen, God tells Moses that he may see God's back after God's glory has passed by Moses (sheltered in the rock and behind God's hand). That is the normal order of things, but it is infrequent that the backside of God is mentioned in scripture or art. The most famous, perhaps, is one of the two images of God painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling's panel "The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies".
Michelangelo. Creating the Heavenly Bodies. 1508-1512. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

In that panel, God pictured on the right hurls the sun with his right hand and the moon with his left. Then, at the left, a second depiction of God gestures with the right hand to bring forth vegetation on the earth. Unusually, this second depiction on the left, shows not God's face as it is the other times God is painted. Rather here, what we see is God's backside. 

To be sure, Michelangelo's God, painted as Humanism takes Renaissance Italy by storm, has little to none of the glory that we might imagine from the Exodus account. In the Sistine Chapel, God is often seen floating on a cloud with an entourage of beings and a generous length of flowing garment, but this hardly seems to be so awe-full that no one could live who saw it.

Just as "face" is a plural", so, too, the Hebrew word translated "back" in the NRSV (achowr, plural of achoray) is also plural. In Exodus 33:23 tthe KJV translates the word "my back parts", retaining the plural sense. Jerome's Latin Vulgate uses the phrase "posteriora mea". The English form of this word, like its Italian cognate, posteriore, can mean a body part. Perhaps that is how it traveled to Michelangelo and was then put into the fresh plaster of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

There is a place in scripture, associated with Moses and the Exodus, where the face of God is not hidden. In the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26, the blessing is offered that the Lord's face will "shine upon you and be gracious to you" and that the Lord's countenance will "give you peace". Note, however, that there is no indication that the people should look at God's face while it is shining upon us or giving us peace.

A rabbi giving this blessing uses a certain gesture to accompany the blessing. Both hands are open, thumbs are touching, with forefingers almost forming a triangle. On each hand, the four fingers are separated into two groups of two fingers. When you see two hands (called Cohanic hands, spellings vary) on a Jewish gravestone you know it is the grave of someone who traces their descent from the priestly (cohen) tribe.

For thoughts on the gospel passage for this week (Matthew 22:15-22), click here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

We'll Meet Again

Golden calf. Golden calf.
Worship of golden calf. Worship of golden calf.
People of God. People of God.
Appointed leader. Appointed leader.

Are they the same subject? The two images are very similar and the subject might be confused, but there are differences worth noting...and similarities worth noting, too.

Nicolas Poussin. The Adoration of the Golden Calf. 1633-1634. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.

Jean-Honore Fragonard. Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Idols. 1752. 
Oil on canvas. 48 1/4 x 61 1/2". Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. 

The top image is, indeed the worship of the golden calf from Exodus 32. It contains all the elements we expect from this story: the calf statue, licentious behavior, a desert setting. The lower image also has the calf statue, but it is not depicting the Exodus story. The Fragonard painting illustrates a passage from I Kings 12. 

At that point in Israel's history, Jeroboam, first king of the northern kingdom of Israel breaks the covenant depicted in the Poussin painting. Jeroboam sets up two golden calves, one in Dan and one in Bethel. The statues were erected so the people would not (have to) go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and be tempted to put Rehoboam back on the throne. When the statues were placed, Jeroboam said to the people, "Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt." And he made sacrifices and offerings at one and then the other. That's several of the Sinai commandments broken all at once. 

It's deja vu all over again. 

Check the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for another take on this text. Click on the link at the bottom of the page. 

For thoughts on the Philippians passage (4:1-9) matched with this lectionary text, click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Commandments on the Wall

The idea of displaying the words of the Decalogue on a wall is not a new idea. Those ten words have been kept before the faithful for centuries. Here are two examples of Exodus 20 used as wall decoration. As it happens, both are in churches, but the use of the Commandments is distinctly different in each painting. One work is a 17th-century Dutch painting, the other is an 18th-century English engraving. Both help us understand how the Christian church has seen and used the words brought down from Sinai.

William Hogarth created a set of paintings, later turned into engravings for wider distribution, on the theme of "The Rake's Progress." The series follows the "progress" of a young man who inherits and squanders a fortune, losing his way in the process. The fifth scene is "The Marriage". Having lost his fortune and been bailed out of jail, the young man makes an economically advantageous marriage. Even as he is "plighting his troth" to his bride, he is casting his eyes on the young woman who is attending her. In the lower left corner, two dogs echo the pose of the bride and groom.
William Hogarth. The Rake Marrying an Old Woman. Plate 5 from "A Rake's Progress." 1735.
Etching and engraving on paper. London: Tate. T01792. 

The tablets containing the Decalogue are on the wall behind the minister. Look closely, and you'll see that even before the marriage ceremony is completed, the commandments are broken. Only one tablet, containing commandments 6-10, is visible in the print. The crack runs near the 10th commandment which reads: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.  

Many of the same elements are used in Pieter Saenredam's painting of the interior of the Buurkerk in Utrecht. Again two tablets containing the words of the commandments are hung on the wall of a church sanctuary. The large plaque seems to echo the Protestant emphasis on word rather than image. In an interesting artistic choice, though, the actual words on the plaque are unintelligible. Looking closely at the painting, one will only see paint. Here, the tablets, topped by a sculptural portrait bust of Moses (interesting in light of the prohibition of images in the second commandment) serve as a backdrop to two young men. One of the young men is putting graffiti on the wall. He is illustrating a chivalric tale about four brothers and a magic horse. The other is, if not teaching, at least reviewing tricks taught to his dog.  

Pieter Saenredam. The Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht. 1644. Oil on oak. London: National Gallery. NG1896.

The dog, shown sitting up on its back legs in a position of receptivity faces the commandments, while his master's back is to the ten rules. This position is indeed meant to underscore the idea of learning, and in Dutch art, the dog symbolizes leerzugtigheid (Christian aptitude). This painting, then, comments on instructing the faithful, and perhaps specifically children, under the watchful eye of the Ten Commandments.

Two works of art. Two ways to think about the ten commandments in the life of the church.

As a historical note: Neither of the church buildings shown in these works is home to a worshiping community in 2014. The Marylebone church depicted by Hogarth was destroyed in 1740. There is still a church by that name in London. The Buurkerk in Utrecht is now the home of the Museum Speelkiok (

For Hogarth, see:
For Saenredam, see:

For thoughts on the epistle reading for Proper 22(27)A [Philippians 3:4b-14], click here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Business as Usual at Horeb?

The elements are familiar: Moses, rock, water, people prepared to receive the water. But you might not expect to see the episode of Moses striking the rock as a monument in a public park. This particular statue, dedicated in 1893, is in Washington Park, Albany, NY.

Often in pictures we see Moses standing beside a rock, more in the pose of Christ standing at the door and knocking. Here, though, Moses will be more in the way of Nanny McPhee, tapping her cane on the ground to effect action. Here Moses is standing on the rock, though the Exodus passage tells us that God has promised to be standing on the rock (Exodus 17:6: I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink). Additional bronze figures on the lower part of the statue represent stages of human life - infancy, maturity, youth, old age, reminding us that all people need to drink of this water.

The statue (both rock and bronze figures), designed by John Massey Rhind, is also called the King Memorial Fountain. Commissioned by Henry King as a memorial to his father, Rufus King, the chosen subject was the Rock of Horeb. The subject was chosen not for its demonstration of faith in God's providence but rather, apparently, as a comparison to Rufus King's skills in banking and commerce. A general interpretation is that the people were "able to drink" of progress, because of Rufus King's skills.

Is that a comparison we would make today? The water from the commerce? In other times and places, the rock at Horeb has served as a typology for poets and for the resurrection. What might the act of getting water from a rock symbolize for us today (in addition to drinkable water, which remains out of reach to many people in the world)?

For additional information on the fountain, see: For additional information on the rock at Horeb as symbol/typology, see: and

For thoughts on John 4 and Exodus 17, click here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Manna From Heaven

What did it look like and taste like, this manna from heaven? Artists have depicted everything from flat wafers to doughy pellets. Artists have shown the manna falling like a rain shower and like a thunderstorm (and when they include the quail descending it's sometimes hard to tell if they are depicting God's plan for food or one of the plagues!).

In 2013, artists Han Zhang and Helen Yung interpreted the story of this heavenly food (Exodus 16:2-15) using paper and calligraphy. "Like Manna from Heaven" was created at the Culture of Cities Centre in Toronto. Inspired by a Chinese expression that literally translates "pie from the sky" and means "free and delicious food falling from heaven", the artists calligraphied poems about food on rice paper. The paper was then cut to create three-dimensional forms reminiscent of baskets, nets and other containers.  These forms were suspended so that they might, indeed, fall from heaven.

Viewers became creators by writing or drawing their own idea of "manna" on rice paper. They then attached their contributions in, among and through the artist-created pieces of the installation. 

The installation was part of the first Future Food Salon event of 2013. The event, "Crickets on the Tip of Your Tongue", raised the question of what we might be eating in the coming decades. Bugs (like crickets) are considered one of the ideal foods of the future as they are a sustainable protein source that can live in many climatic zones. If they were uncertain about manna, what would Moses and the people say about the evening's variety of cricket canapes?!

For the Future Food Salon: Crickets on the Tip of Your Tongue, see:
For Helen Yung, see:
For Han Zhang, see:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Forgiving Debts

I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?  -Matthew 18:32-33

The teaching from this parable is voiced differently twelve chapters earlier in Matthew's gospel. In Matthew 6:12, Jesus says, When you pray, say...forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

French artist Andre Girard illustrated the passage from the Lord's Prayer and in effect illustrated what the unforgiving servant should have done. A silkscreen print for the illustrated book "Sayings of Jesus", the work below places a single figure, dressed in blue, at the center of the composition. On the left side of the composition that figure is in the supplicant's position (head lower, face looking up). On the right side the figure looks down on a lower figure.

Andre Girard. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, numbered page 45 and first page of the twelfth folio in the unbound book Sayings of Jesus (Milwaukee: Chirho Press, Marquette University, 1956). Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

That central figure is shown with two faces but is not two-faced in the negative sense of that phrase. The same general expression is shown on the two versions of the central figure's face. This is the consistency that the parable's king wanted to see in his servants. It is the consistency with which we should live if we are going to pray the Lord's Prayer.

If you are preaching the Exodus text for Proper 19/Ordinary 24/Pentecost +14, see Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page for an image of the Red Sea in the sky:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Post and Lintel

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel

of the houses in which they eat it. -Exodus 12:7

Most children with building blocks will build a post and lintel system. Two blocks stand vertically (posts), and a third block is placed horizontally across them (lintel). Post and lintel is the engineering of Stonehenge on a scale much larger than children's building blocks.

In addition to the instruction to paint with the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of a house, Deuteronomy 6:9 and Deuteronomy 11:20 direct that certain words of God should be on the doorposts of homes. The word mezuzah actually means doorpost, but the word has come to mean the doorpost and the container that is attached to it. In the container is a piece of parchment on which are written the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. On the back of the parchment is the word shaddai. Shaddai is one of the mystical names for the Almighty and is also an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Gates of Israel.

Doorways are places that are "in between". Standing in a doorway one is neither fully in nor fully out. Inside the house is the familiar. Outside the house is the stranger. Inside is "us"; outside is "them". Anything posted on a doorpost sends a message to that "unfamiliar them". What have Christian church doorways looked like? What is the message that our church building doorways send to the world? What have we written on our own doorposts and lintels?

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page you'll see links to contemporary artists' interpretations of the seder plate. Click on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.