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.