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: