Sunday, April 26, 2015

Acts 8.26-40: The Eunuch's Legacy

The Ethiopians appear in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In Christian scripture, Ethiopia only appears once, in the Acts reading for Easter 5B (Acts 8:26-40). In this reading, a court official from Ethiopia is met on the road by the disciple Philip. The two read scripture together, and the official is baptized. With this encounter, Christianity is introduced to, if not the entire country of Ethiopia, at least to one Ethiopian. It is from this meeting that the tradition of Christianity in Ethiopia flows.
(Left) Processional cross (Gondar). Late 18th century. Brass. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. (Right) Processional Cross. 15th century. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD.
One of the most striking class of art objects of Ethiopian Christianity are the processional crosses, crafted so that the metal cross can be put on a pole or shaft and carried through the streets of a town or even just around the place of worship. Sometimes made of white metal but also found in brass and bronze, the processional crosses were often decorated with swaths of fabric, slipped through the metal rings found on both sides of the metal housing for the wooden shaft. As the cross is carried through the streets (or sanctuary), the fabric - perhaps an echo of Mary's veil - flutters in the breeze, bringing additional life and movement to the cross. The design of the shaft also means that the cross can stand on its own, without a pole.

The crosses have a variety of designs and shapes, some related to the geographical origins of the cross. In general, the Lalibela crosses are oval, the Gondar crosses are circular, and the Axum (sometimes Aksum) most similar to the shape of a cross. The cross designs began developing as early as the 12th century, though very early crosses are expectedly rare.
(Left) Processional Cross (Axum). 14th or 15th century. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. (Right) Processional Cross (Lalibela). Believed to be 12th century. Bet Medhane Alem, Lalibela, Ethiopia.
The bronze crosses have been made using the lost wax method. In that process, a wax cross is created and then encased in clay, which is baked. In the baking, the clay hardens, creating a mold of the wax original, but the wax itself melts and runs. Molten metal is poured into the cooled clay mold. After the metal is cooled, the clay mold is broken, making every cross a unique object - as both the wax original and the clay mold are destroyed in the process.

Scripture places Ethiopia's historical Christian roots firmly in the apostolic age, giving the people of Ethiopia a Christian tradition that is millennia old. By the fourth century, Ethiopia is officially Christian. From that time, Ethiopian Christians have used many forms of the cross - Greek cross, Latin cross, cross pattee - but they have made them their own, and in doing so have created a distinct witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

This week's Art&Faith Matters post on Facebook gives you the link to these Christian churches in Ethiopia. Definitely unlike anything you have seen elsewhere. Click on the link.

For thoughts on John 15.1-8, click here.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

John 10.11-18: The Hireling Shepherd

The Gospel reading for Easter 4B (John 10:11-18) includes the good, the bad and the ugly of shepherding. It includes the familiar assertion by Jesus that he is the good shepherd who would and does lay down his life for the sheep.

But artists aren't always drawn to the good. Sometimes the bad and/or the ugly are more interesting to draw. In the case of William Holman Hunt, it seems that the bad and the ugly were more prevalent, so that was his focus. His painting is titled "The Hireling Shepherd," and though it is not a direct representation of John 10 (there is no wolf in the painting), it does still capture the message of the text.
William Holman Hunt. The Hireling Shepherd. 1851. Manchester City Galleries, Manchester, England, UK. 
Hunt has shown a shepherd whose mind is clearly not on his sheep. He is fully engaged with the young woman who has wandered by, and slung on his back is a keg for beer or cider, so no doubt he has or will offer to share that with her. But even as he pursues her, he foreshadows the results of his neglect. In his left hand he has a death's head moth with which he is trying to impress her. The moth, whose very name is a reminder of mortality should cast a shadow over the composition. For death is surely what will happen to the sheep.

In the right background, a sheep is about to wander into a wheatfield. Sheep normally forage for green pasture plants like clover and grass. While sheep can (and do) eat grain, eating too much too quickly can lead to digestive and other problems. An unattended sheep, like a kid turned loose in a candy store, will no doubt eat both too much and too quickly. The farmer raising the wheat will probably not be thrilled to have one (or eventually more) sheep trampling his crop. The shepherd does not seem to care about either eventuality.

Closer to the shepherd, at least physically, is the lamb in the lap of the "shepherdess". Less than an arm's length away from the one(s) who should care for it, the lamb is being supplied with a "feast" of green apples. The apples, judging by their size in relation to the shepherd's hands, seem to be unripe. These green, sour apples will not be good for the young creature.

Hunt claimed that the main source for the picture was Shakespeare (King Lear, III.6). But it is hard to discount the gospels as well. Hunt did identify the actions of the clergy of his day as examples of this subject. In a letter from 1897 he wrote:
Shakespeare's song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his "minikin mouth" in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock — which is in constant peril — discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death's head moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. [cited in J.D. Macmillan, "Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd: Some Reflections on a Victorian Pastoral," The Art Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 1972): 188. 

The careless shepherd in the picture should indeed be more attentive to his flock, and every pastor should take note, especially as the word pastor is, in Latin, the word for shepherd. It is worth remembering, though, that the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers makes attentive care for God's flock incumbent on all believers, not just clergy.

The Good Shepherd cares for chickens, too. Well, sort of. See more about this catacomb painting on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link.

For thoughts on Acts 4:5-12, click here.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Luke 24.36-49: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Fabric, Lock

The locked door is one of the details to watch for in pictures of the gospel reading for Easter 3B (Luke 24:36-49). It was important enough for the writer to mention it, but it is hit or miss in the depictions of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. Often these appearances are focused on the wounds in Jesus' hands and side rather than other details. Only very occasionally does an artist include a platter of fish that need to be present in Luke's account of this locked-room mystery. Why include such a detail in the text if it isn't important?
The Risen Jesus Appears to His Disciples. 1476. Codex of Predis, Royal Library, Turin.

The 15th-century illustration from the Codex of Predis gives the barest details. The disciples are tightly gathered around Jesus, who is partially clad in a toga-like garment. The room, with a ceiling of corbeled wooden beams, is barely big enough to contain all the disciples as they stand. The possibility of sharing a meal is unthinkable. 

The only other object that breaks up the unadorned blue walls is the door, crafted with what appear to be strap hinges and a lock made of iron. Those elements are the darkest things on the page, at the opposite end of the value scale from Jesus' white winding-clothes. The cloth does nothing to lessen the impression of Jesus as ghost, but the wounds that prove it is indeed Jesus are easily visible. The contrast between flimsy fabric garment and solid metal object would seem to underscore the impossibility of entering a locked room. But this Jesus has the ability to do what seems impossible, and he has the will to go anywhere as he redeems humanity. Even into a locked room.

Yes, in this case, flesh and fabric are indeed stronger than iron.

For thoughts on Acts 3:12-19, click here.

This week on the story looks in one children's story Bible. Click on the link. And check out Food&Faith Matters for ideas of two sauces to serve the next time your menu, like the disciples', includes fish.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

John 20.19-31: Thomas...Without the Adjective

Leonadro da Vinci. The Last Supper. Wall painting/experimental techniques. 1498. Milan: Cenacolo Vinciano.
It is arguably the most recognized artistic interpretation of the Last Supper, and it remains the subject of theory and conjecture. Are there hidden meanings in the composition? Most recently Ross King has suggested that Leonardo included self-portraits among the disciples, making himself both James the Less and Thomas. The identification of figures is based on a drawing in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The disciples are (from left): Bartholomew, James the Less, Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Christ, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon.

That makes Thomas the face closest to Jesus (though James' hand is closer to Jesus). Does it look like a face that should only be known as a doubter? Which exact moment is depicted is no more certain than the potential meanings of the painting, but whatever moment it is, there is much energy around the table. Disciples jump to their feet and gesture. They look at one another and at Jesus.

Thomas is, like the other disciples, astounded. He looks at Jesus with his right index finger pointing directly up. Perhaps he is objecting. Perhaps he is preparing to make a point or present a protest. One "restorer" along the way turned that raised finger into a loaf of bread(!). Whatever the statement, he is making it quite vigorously, and it is more effective to raise a finger than to wave a loaf of bread in the direction of our Lord and Savior.

Visually there is a link between that raised finger and the finger placed in the wound in Jesus' side in Caravaggio's The Incredutlity of St. Thomas (below). The paintings were created almost 100 years apart, with the Caravaggio a century later. If there is copying going on, it is Caravaggio copying Leonardo.

In Ross King's book, Leonardo and the Last Supper, he suggests that of all the disciples, Thomas might be the disciple who would appeal most to Leonardo the inventor, the experimenter, the scientist, the engineer. Leonardo was not content with other people's answers. He wanted to know things for himself. Though we mostly remember Thomas from the Easter 2B passage in John's gospel (20:19-31), he was a member of the band of disciples who were with Jesus throughout his ministry and as such he will be shown with them. Perhaps looking at those would help give us a fuller picture of the man so many people are content to identify by a single broad adjective.

(Above, detail. Leonardo. The Last Supper. Bottom, detail. Caravaggio. The Incredulity of St. Thomas. 1601-1602. Oil on canvas. Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany.

A copy of Leonardo's painting, created in 1545 and showing details that are no longer readily apparent on the original, can be seen at: 

See what happens to Thomas when Andy Warhol gets hold of Leonardo's painting. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link.
For additional thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here or here.
For thoughts on Acts 4:32-35, click here.