Tuesday, March 31, 2015

John 20.1-18: To the Tomb

How, in a still image, does an artist show the moment when death becomes life?

Rather than trying to imagine what Jesus looked like at that moment, consider what expressions and emotions might have been on the faces of those who went to the tomb on the morning called Easter.

Two groups of people - first a group of women and then a pair of men - made their way to the tomb. The first group, women who went at first light, had expectations. They were prepared to continue their mourning. They were expecting to feel fresh grief from the loss of Jesus.

And then they arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away. What do their faces say?
Henry Ossawa Tanner. The Three Marys. 1910. Fisk University Art Galleries. http://www.fisk.edu/services-resources/fisk-university-galleries
The women returned to the disciples, telling what they found, and the disciples had to go see for themselves whether the story told by the women could possibly be true. 

So they, too, hurry to the tomb. Peter and John. What do their faces say?
Eugene Burnand. The Disciples Peter and John Hurry to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection. 1898. Musee d'Orsay, Paris. http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/index-of-works/notice.html?no_cache=1&zsz=5&lnum=&nnumid=9239

And what will your face say on Easter morning or on any morning that you wake up realizing that Christ has risen?

For thoughts on how we picture what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection, click here.
For thoughts on Easter and the calendar, click here.
For thoughts on Jesus' words to Mary, click here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Mark 15: Darkness Came Over the Whole Land

Mark's account of the crucifixion records that darkness covered the land from noon until 3:00 p.m. on the day Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:33). The Tenebrae service echoes that darkness through the extinguishing of candles through the service. Rembrandt van Rijn has, through his habit of reworking printing plates, given us a visual image for that darkening.

Most people know Rembrandt as a painter, but he was equally known in his own time as a printmaker, working more than 300 prints during his lifetime. He was inspired by those who came before him, including Albrecht Durer, and owned a collection of other artists' prints. He did not often use the same subjects in his prints that he used for paintings, perhaps acknowledging that some subjects were more suitable for linear, drawing-like prints than for his painterly brushwork.

Prints, unlike paintings, produce multiple works of art. From a single plate a dozen, or a hundred, prints might be pulled. Value is retained by producing a limited number of prints (with each print numbered) and then scoring the plate (taking a tool and creating a big scratch across it) so that no other prints can be pulled from that plate. This insures a limited number of prints are available.

Rembrandt did not often do that.

Rather, he would go back in and rework a plate, adding, scraping away, repolishing, redrawing, offering a distinctly different vision of the same essential subject. He did this with a print called "The Three Crosses" from 1653.

Shown here are states iii and iv. State iii has dramatic lighting with all three figures on crosses clearly visible. Shadows lurk at the corners of the image while dozens of figures mill about. Two figures are shown walking toward the right corner of the composition, away from the scene. At the center is Christ on the cross, the placard above his head.

When the plate began to wear down, the artist polished off much of the composition. He kept the three figures on the cross but made significant changes. The light in state iv is even more dramatic than state iii. The thief on Christ's left (on the right of the composition as we look at it) is almost completely obscured in shadow, while we can still see highlights on the thief on Christ's right.

Additionally, the figure on horseback, the centurion who acknowledges that Jesus truly was God's son, is emphasized by the dark shadow behind him that offers contrast to the light figure of soldier and horse.

Both offer dramatic interpretations of the darkness over the land, but the two states together seem to capture the scene in a way that neither does alone. Often paintings seem to imagine the crucifixion as happening in isolation. Rembrandt's two versions look almost like stills from a film, showing us crowds that ebbed and flowed, showing us changing textures of light, implying the murmur of voices and the smell of people and animals. Rembrandt's changes bring to us the suffocating sense of a life almost extinguished. Rembrandt reminds us this is no staged tableau.

Both prints in the collection of the British Museum, London: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/r/rembrandt,_the_three_crosses.aspx

Food&Faith Matters looks at the traditional Good Friday food, hot cross buns. Click on the link below.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

John 13.1-17: Except for the Feet

Peter, of course, is the disciple at the center of the story in John 13:1-17, the reading for Thursday of Holy Week. Jesus scandalizes the disciples by performing an act of servitude. The scandal wasn't just on that night. Artists have apparently had difficulty showing Jesus in such a humble position. 

The Gospel Book of Otto III includes a typical medieval depiction of the story. Taking place against a gold background (which usually symbolizes a removal from reality), the story unfolds with Peter's foot in a bowl of water while Christ, whose figure is taller than all the disciples, merely gestures at the water. Christ may be teaching, may be blessing Peter, but he is not washing the disciple's foot.
Artist unknown. Gospel Book of Otto III. c. 1000. Bayerische Staatbibliotek, Munich.
By contrast, the mid-19th century painting of the same subject by Ford Madox Brown certainly seems to get the posture right. Jesus kneels on the floor, cradling Peter's foot in his hands. In this version, Jesus' head is the lowest one in the picture, and he looks not at Peter's face but at the task before him. In this version of Brown's composition, Jesus wears a tunic with his arms exposed. In a preliminary sketch, Jesus has stripped to the waist - an artistic decision that caused great outcry from the public, who were scandalized to see Jesus so depicted. In a later painting of the same composition Brown clads Jesus in a long-sleeved garment. 
 Ford Madox Brown. Christ Washing Peter's Feet. 1851-1856. Tate Gallery, London. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/brown-jesus-washing-peters-feet-n01394
The figure of Jesus offers two distinct interpretations of the subject, but Peter's posture is also quite different in the two. In one Peter's posture is open, arms and hands outstretched, and he looks up at Jesus (because Jesus is taller). In the other, Peter's posture is closed, arms pressed to his side, resting in his lap, fingers interwoven and clasped together. Because Jesus is kneeling, Peter is forced to look down on the top of Jesus' head, and he seems almost to be looking out from under his brow. Peter seems quite uncomfortable. 

A third figure is distinguished in both paintings. At the right in the Gospel Book and at the left in Brown's painting a disciple is clearly shown removing his sandal, preparing to be next in line to have Jesus wash his feet. Who is that disciple? Traditionally that figure is identified as Judas. Brown has placed, on the table before him, a bag that presumably contains the thirty pieces of silver that Judas has received in exchange for the promise of betrayal. Yes, Lord, wash my feet next, his actions seem to say. 

Does one of these images reflect your own understanding of this text? Had you ever thought about Jesus washing even Judas' feet? How does Peter's figure illuminate the story? Consider these interpretations in light of what we know of the events of the 72 hours following this event. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Palm/Passion Sunday: Triumphal?

Plenty of artists have painted the events of what Christians call Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday). There is usually some kind of urban architectural background. There are throngs of people. There is a donkey. The atmosphere is festive, the air filled with excitement.

Belgian artist James Ensor painted all those things: a city, a crowd, Jesus riding a donkey. But this isn't exactly what you might be used to seeing. Perhaps the skeleton wearing the top hat is different. Perhaps it's the clowns wearing masks. Maybe the oddest thing is the "Viva La Sociale" banner stretched across the roadway. Maybe it's that Jesus is barely distinguishable among the crowd.
Painting in the collection of the Getty Museum: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/811/james-ensor-christ%27s-entry-into-brussels-in-1889-belgian-1888/
The painting is titled Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. James Ensor painted the wall-sized work (slightly larger than 8' x 14') in 1888. In this work, Christ appears to be in the middle of a carnival parade. Characters abound, activity is everywhere, color riots. And no one appears to be giving Jesus any consideration.
Ensor probably saw himself a little bit like Jesus in this picture - alone in the middle of a crowd. Ensor was a founding member of Les XX (Les Vingt), but this painting was deemed too radical when Ensor submitted it to an exhibition. His style - quite modern in thought - was wildly different from the softer landscapes of the French Impressionists that had been occupying the leading edge of avant-garde art. His colors are much sharper than most of the Impressionists, and where they (and even Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists) used dots and dabs of color, Ensor appears to have broadly slathered on the paint with a palette knife. Undeterred by the lack of acceptance by the wider art community, Ensor was committed to the painting, displaying it prominently in his residence.

How might our observance of Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday be different this year, if we take our lead from this painting? What might we watch for? What might we do differently? What might we work to avoid?

Where did Jesus enter Jerusalem, according to tradition? See the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page to find out. 

For Psalm 118:19-29, click here
For Luke 19:28-40, click here
For Matthew 21:1-11, click here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

John 12.20-33: Seeds

Unless a grain falls into the earth and dies, it's just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. That's part of the gospel reading for Lent 5B (John 12:20-33). It's clearly a reference to the resurrection, in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy, Piero della Francesca illustrates a legend that puts an interesting spin on the resurrection, on seeds and what grows from them and on the crucifixion.

The Golden Legend, a 13th-century work by Jacopus de Voragine, tells the story of the True Cross. According to this legend, the wood for the cross on which Christ was crucified begins with Adam. Piero tells the story this way: when Adam was close to death, he sent his son Seth to the gates of Paradise where the Archangel Michael gave Seth seeds from the very tree under which Adam and Eve had first sinned. Seth was told to take the seeds and relay the message that when the seeds grew into a tree that bore fruit, then Adam would be healthy again.

Using continuous narration (more than one episode of a story appears in the same panel), the artist sets the legend's opening scenes. At the lunette's right, Adam sits on the ground, surrounded by his children, instructing Seth. In a background scene at the center, Seth meets with Michael. At the left is Adam's burial. He has been laid on the ground at his grave, and Seth leans down to put the seeds in Adam's mouth.
The Burial of Adam, part of the Finding of the True Cross. 1452-1466. Fresco cycle. 
Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy. http://www.museistataliarezzo.it/museo-san-francesco

The seeds will grow into the tree at the lunette's center. Though plaster loss deprives us of half the tree, enough remains that we see a tree bearing neither leaves nor fruit. That tree will become a bridge (a literal bridge, not a literary, theological or metaphorical one) in the story of Solomon and Sheba before the wood is discarded, lost and forgotten. Through miraculous happenings, it is found again, and the wood becomes the cross on which Jesus will be crucified. And in that cross, Adam is indeed healed.

Piero's fresco cycle continues telling the story to the cross' finding by Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine. The details of the story are, of course, legend, not scripture. But it is legend following themes set out by early Christian writers. In the epistles we read of Christ as the last Adam (I Corinthians 1:45), and we hear mention of first fruits, and we are reminded that Jesus was "hanged" on a tree (Galatians 3:13). Piero's fresco cycle at least gives us a visual entree into the things that tie the first Adam to the last.

Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies, it's just a seed. But the right seed, if planted, bears good fruit.

This week's reading from Jeremiah brings the word of God that promises a covenant written on the hearts of people. Get a closer look at the beautiful contemporary piece shown here (and discover the artist who created it) at the Art&Faith Matters FB page here.

See Food&Faith's look at hyssop and wheatberries by clicking on the link.

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 31:31-34, click here.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lifted Up

The verses before the familiar John 3:16 recall the text from Numbers 21 that is the Lent 4B reading from Hebrew scripture. Moses is instructed to make a metal snake and place it on a pole (which brings to mind the prohibition of images in the second word of the decalogue...but that's another post). Anyone who is "snakebit" only has to look at the image and be healed. That episode is what is called to mind before we are reminded of how much God loved the world (John 3:13-22).

Today, atop Mount Nebo is a sculpture by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni. Mount Nebo is identified in the last chapter of Deuteronomy as the vantage point from which Moses is given a view into the Promised Land. Fantoni's sculpture, called the Brazen Serpent Sculpture (also Serpent Cross Sculpture), illustrates the story from Numbers but overlays it with Christ's crucifixion. The large metal piece features simplified forms expressed through various textures, lines and combinations of forms.
Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni on Mount Nebo
Placed by the Franciscans at their friary on Nebo, the sculpture easily reads as the crucifixion from a distance. It's form also bears a resemblance to the staurogram, a letterform combination of the Greek letters tau and rho. The tau resembles an uppercase T while the rho resembles the uppercase P. Superimposed over one another, the letters resemble a crucified figure on a tau cross (a cross shaped like an uppercase T). The two letters are both part of stauros, Greek for "cross" (stauroo is "to crucify"). Scribes began to use the graphic shortcut as the abbreviation for cross or crucifixion in Greek texts.
Iconography ("image writing") at its most basic, the staurogram has been advanced as the earliest depiction of the crucifixion, which also puts this small symbol at the very beginning of Christian art and symbolism.

These texts, objects and images trace the cross from a Mosaic antecedent through earliest Christian reflection on Christ's cross and crucifixion through contemporary expressions of the stories of our faith. As we move through Lent toward Good Friday, the cross looms larger and larger, just as it loomed over Jesus as he moved closer and closer to Jerusalem.

A rooster, a tortoise and Ephesians. See how it all comes together on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook. Click on this link

For additional A&FM thoughts on the Lent 4B readings, click here.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

John 2.13-22: Not in Front of the Children!

What do we do with the Jesus in the gospel reading for Lent 3B? John 2:13-22 shows us a side of Jesus that is rarely seen. Perhaps because it's not often seen, it's not always successfully depicted. The action is in the turning over and driving out, so a single stop-action art image doesn't always capture the unexpected ferocity.

Giotto created a panel with this subject in his series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. That the artist chose this subject is interesting because of the chapel's history. Commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, the chapel honors the Scrovegni family, a family that made its fortune in banking by, as was a usual if not especially moral banking practice at the time, charging usurious interest rates. So well-known a usurer was Reginaldo Scrovegni (Enrico's father), that he appears in the seventh ring of Hell in Dante's Inferno. If the chapel was built to atone for family sins, the choice of this episode brings pause.

Giotto's version of this story is much like others': animals and cages, people standing, architectural enclosures. Jesus has indeed made a whip, though it is quite light and not easily seen from a distance. Because the whip is barely visible, Jesus appears to be preparing to throw a punch. The whip is also short - looking more like a swinging necklace than something that would make grown men turn and run. To the right side of the composition, temple officials are huddled with their heads together, no doubt censuring and criticizing.

Giotto di Bondone. Expulsion of the Merchants. c. 1305. Padua: Scrovegni Chapel. http://www.cappelladegliscrovegni.it/index.php/en/
Consider, though, what is happening at the left. Jesus' eyes, his arms and his energy are all moving toward the right, but at the left are the disciples. Identifiable across the fresco cycle by their halos and clothing, the disciples offer shelter and comfort to two children who are moving away from Jesus. A child holding a dove stands in front of Peter. The child is not completely painted and fades into ghostliness. The other child's face is completely hidden in the robe of another disciple, a small hand clutching a fistful of tunic, while the disciple puts a comforting hand on the child's shoulder and back.
Wait! Wasn't it the other way around earlier? In the synoptic gospels the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus, but Jesus calls them to himself. (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17) Here, though, the disciples are the ones who console the children. What are we to do with Jesus in this text?

Art&Faith Matters Facebook post uses Hieronymous Bosch's painting "The Ship of Fools" as an entree into the Epistle reading for Lent 3B.