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.