Sunday, May 31, 2015

I Samuel 8.4-20: Uneasy Lies the Head

Shakespeare, Saul and Samuel. It's an interesting Trinity. But perhaps they had something in common. It was Shakespeare who succinctly turned the phrase that Samuel tried to tell the people and that Saul learned for himself. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The dramatist was writing about England's Henry IV, but it may well be true for any crowned head. Certainly Samuel was reluctant to make a king for the people. And Saul, who had a brilliant beginning, would end badly. But that's down the road. For Proper5B/Ordinary 10B/Pentecost +2, it's enough that the elders and people of Israel demand a king and Samuel anoints one for them (I Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15).

Despite Samuel's warning, they are determined that they want a king so they can be like other nations. Both Saul and the people might have been well-served by the adage "be careful what you wish for..."

If Israel's king was to be like other kings, he would need a crown, no matter how uneasily it might sit upon his head. What might that have looked like? The three kings in the images below all have crowns on their heads. On the left Babylonian king Marduk-nadin-ahhe, who ruled from c. 1100-1082 BCE. In the center is Tiglath Pileser III, who ruled Assyria between 745 and 727 BCE. On the right is Ashurnasirpal who ruled Assyria from 883-859 BCE.
(Left) Kudurru (Boundary stone).  (Center) Gypsum wall panel. Tiglath-Pileser III. London: British Museum. (Right) Stela of Ashurnasirpal. London: British Museum.
Three crowns. Do they look like you imagine Saul's crown looked? Many of us have a different picture of what a crown should be. Medieval artists did as well. They created a king that looked like their own kings. The Nuremburg Bible shows Samuel anointing Saul in a setting that is more European than Middle Eastern. The crown being placed on his head is much more like the Essen Crown, an Ottonian lily-style crown that predates the Nuremburg Bible by several centuries. The creator of the German Bible was more like his ancestors than he thought. He, too, wanted Israel to have a king like other kings - the kings of his own day.
(Left) I Samuel 10 from Nuremburg Bible, 1483. Samuel anoints Saul. (Right) Essen Crown (Ottonische Konigskrone). Essen Cathedral Treasury.
The crown will sit uneasily on Saul's head. And his downfall, of course, is that he will indeed be just like the neighboring kings. Be careful what you wish for... 

What if the story of Saul and David was turned into a network tv miniseries? Check out the Art&Faith Matters FB page by clicking the link.

For thoughts on Mark 3:20-35, click here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trinity and Harmony

Finding an adequate explanation and model for the relationship of the Trinity is an ongoing task. Water as solid, liquid, gas. Egg as shell, white, yolk. Person as parent, sibling, child. Each one provides some insight but can break down when (as a theology professor warned) "your metaphor takes you farther than you want to go." Trinity Sunday, then, can be fraught with vulnerable analogies.

Artists often have the luxury of showing rather than telling - affirming the Trinity without having to explain exactly how it works. Even so, artists need to find adequate symbols to show what they believe. The creator of the Ghent Altarpiece (Jan and/or Hubert van Eyck...or someone else, depending on which art historians you read) included some small elements that offer food for thought about the Trinity. Art of the Northern Renaissance, with van Eyck as a leading light, has been characterized as having "disguised symbolism," but the symbols would have been fairly apparent to the educated audience of the day. Today's audiences may need more schooling.

At the center of the upper register of the Altarpiece is the first person of the Trinity seated on a throne. He is wearing a three-tiered crown which can be read as a reference to the Trinity. An even more subtle reference, though, is found in the performing angels in the arched panel to the right of the figures (as we look at the work).
Jan van Eyck. Ghent Altarpiece (detail, upper register, open wings). 1426-27. Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.
The angels are gathered around an organ with a single rank of pipes. Two details speak to the Trinity. The first is the number of pipes. It would be more usual to see an organ with 15 pipes. Here, though, there are 21 pipes, which is three full octaves. Three octaves is a reference to the Trinity. A close look at the organists's hands reveals that she is playing three notes: C and G with the left hand and E with the right hand. These three notes (if they were played in the same octave) are two sets of thirds and form a triad. The idea of the Trinity as music - and specifically harmony - multiple notes played together in a pleasing effect - is a helpful contribution to the discussion of the Trinity. Harmony has the non-musical definition of agreement, peace, and unity. Also helpful and characteristic of the Trinity.
Athanasius Kircher. Musurgia universalis sive ars magna consoni et dissoni in X. libros digesta . Romae : Ex typographia Haeredum Francisci. Corbelletti, 1650.
Two hundred years later a musical theorist used the instrument again and included references to the Trinity. Kircher's music encyclopedia includes the illustration "Harmony of the Birth of the World" which uses the organ to convey the order of creation. Each of the six days of creation is described in a circle above a rank of pipes. It is at the bottom of the illustration where the Trinity is referenced. Immediately beneath the keyboard is a Latin inscription that reads, “Thus God’s eternal wisdom plays in sphere of the worlds.” Notice how the keyboard in Kircher's print departs from the recognizable pattern. Rather than the pattern of two black keys followed by three black keys, then two, then three, here all the groups of black keys are in threes. Three levers (stops) are on each side of the keyboard.

Kircher and van Eyck are but two of the artists who relate the Trinity to musical imagery. Harmony. Chords. Trinity. Visual art. It's a polyphonic idea that just might be worth singing about on Trinity Sunday.

On Art&Faith Matters on Facebook this week. a coat of arms for God that includes the Trinity. Click on the link below to learn more. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Suddenly A Rush of Wind

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, 
and it filled the entire house... (Acts 2, Pentecost ABC). 

How would you characterize the wind of Pentecost? Is it a gentle wind that freshens and cools? Is it tornado-like in its force? Does it blow down what is in its way? Does it provide sailing currents for birds and butterflies as they fly along? How would you describe the wind of Pentecost?

Of course there isn't just one wind, there are many. Each is  associated with a particular direction. One place to see all the winds together is on a wind rose, a graphic tool used by cartographers and meteorologists. The wind rose organizes the winds according to their direction of origin. Wind roses may show as few as four or as many as 32 winds.

In the classical world each of the four major winds was named, personified and given particular attributes that made them recognizable. Eurus, the east wind, is shown as a young boy with his cheeks puffed out, blowing a gentle breeze. Zephyrus, the west wind, is also a young person whose face looks merry. Perhaps that is because he is bringing gentle spring breezes. Boreas, the north wind, is shown as an old man and brings the cold north wind. He is often wrapped in a cloak and may have an unpleasant look on his face with his beard crusted with snow and ice. Notus, in Latin called Auster, is the wet south wind of late summer storms. He may look disagreeable as well. Often in his hands is a vessel from which a stream of water flows. The water may be populated by frogs, grasshoppers and other creatures associated with moisture. The chart below shows all the winds, giving several translations of each wind's name and giving each wind it own personality.
Tabula Anemogra Phica Seu Pyxis Navtica by Jansson. Amsterdam 1650.
In Athens, the Tower of the Winds (built 100 - 50 BCE) gives form to eight winds, one on each side of the octagonal structure. Built as a timepiece (sundials are on the sun-facing sides of the buildings, and a water clock was inside as a back-up on cloudy days), the structure was extant when Paul was in Athens (Acts 17). The winds are at the top of each wall. 
The eight winds are: North...Boreas...Man wearing a heavy cloak, blowing through a twisted shell;   Northeast...Kaikias...Man carrying & emptying a shield of small round objects; East... Apeliotes ...Young man holding a cloak full of fruit and grain; Southeast...Euros...Old man wrapped tightly in a cloak against the elements; South...Notos...Man emptying an urn and producing a shower of water; Southwest...Lips...Boy pushing the stern of a ship, promising a good sailing wind; West...Zephyros ...Youth carrying flowers into the air; Northwest...Skiron...Bearded man with a bronze pot full of hot ashes and charcoal.

Is one of these how you picture the wind on the day of Pentecost? Young, old, happy, grumpy, pleasant, scouring. How would you characterize the sudden rush of wind?

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here.
For additional thoughts on Genesis 11:1-9, click here.

On the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, more on Eurus, the east wind, from the Tower of the Winds. Click on the link.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Acts 1.15-16: Added to the Eleven

Twelve is a number that means something. So when the disciples find themselves as eleven, they determine to add to their number (Acts 1:15-16, Easter 7B). Two men meet the criteria of having been with the group from the beginning: Joseph (aka Barsabbas aka Justus) and Matthias. The lot falls on Matthias, and he is added to the eleven.

And then...nothing. We don't hear anything further about Matthias in scripture. He disappears from view, eclipsed in history (as is almost everyone else in this era) by the work of Paul. In the dome mosaic of the Neonian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, twelve figures surrounding the central image of Jesus' baptism at the Jordan. But Matthias is not among the twelve. He has been replaced by Paul. In other artistic depictions, Matthias is mistakenly given the attributes of Matthew, whose name is similar. Matthias is usually shown with the instrument of his beheading.

The narrative episode most often depicted is Matthias' selection as one of the twelve. The disciples are gathered together, and the "lots" are prepared. They may be pieces of paper, a stone or a pebble carved with a symbol. They may be spread out on a table or gathered together in a container. This process was time-honored. In Leviticus (16:8), I Chronicles (25:8) and other places in Hebrew scripture, lots are cast to discover divine will. The lot falls on Matthias. In the stained glass window below, one piece of paper is unrolled, and it has Matthias' name written on it.
 The Election of Matthias as One of the Twelve. 1875. Church of St. Mor and St. Deiniol, Llanfor, Gwynedd, Wales.
Legend says that the remains of Matthias are in St. Matthias Abbey Church in Trier, Germany. At the direction of Helena, the mother of Constantine, the apostle's remains were equally divided between Trier and a church in Rome. On the church's exterior is a sculpture of the apostle standing with the expected halberd and with a book open to John 15: "You are my friends." Inside the church, above the apostle's tomb is a carved effigy. Between the building's exterior and interior, between the apostle's guardpost outside and resting place inside, he has lost his sandals. It is the image of a barefoot Matthias who is at eternal rest. Why is he barefoot? Does that tell us something about him?
Statue of St. Matthias and Effigy of St. Matthias. St. Matthias Abbey Church, Trier, Germany.
Ultimately, what are we to do with this man who is chosen as the result of sincere discernment but who leaves no lasting historic record? Perhaps we are to understand that for Matthias it was enough to respond to God's call and then to do the work that God gave him, whether that work made history or not. And perhaps that experience is more like the experience of most of us.

More Easter 7B, more election of Matthias, more stained glass and more bare feet are at the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click here.

For thoughts on John 17:6-19, click here.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

John 15.15: I Have Called You Friends

It is a big moment when hierarchical relationships become egalitarian. While I don't know the master-servant model, I do know the teacher-student model as both teacher and student. It was a big moment when my favorite teachers (of art and Latin) became Patsy and Frances. I still haven't convinced any of my former students to call me by my given name. But I hope it will come. Jesus had that moment. "I do not call you servants any longer...but I have called you friends." (John 15:15, Easter 6B)

He said this as part of his farewell discourse in John's gospel. How do you say good-bye to friends?

One way is with a friendship quilt. In the 19th century, members of a community created a quilt to present to friends who were moving away. Each block might be made by a different person or might feature a piece of fabric signed by the friends being left. In the useful form of a quilt, the love (and names) of friends could literally enfold the travelers on their journey and in their new home.

One of the best documented friendship/signature quilts is that made for Philena Cooper Hambleton as she and her family - her husband and two daughters - left Ohio bound for Iowa in 1853. This particular quilt is a friendship quilt twice over as the Hambleton family were Quakers. Though popularly known as Quakers, this community of faith is more properly known as The Religious Society of Friends, a name chosen based on Jesus' words in John 15:15, "I have called you friends."
The quilt was passed down through the Hambleton family until it was sold as part of an estate auction and ended up in a California antique shop. Lynda Salter Chenoweth purchased the quilt and spent years researching the recipient and all the friends who signed the quilt. She published her research in two books: Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio and Neighbors and Friends: Quakers in Community. These two books help explain what it means to be friends and to be Friends. Philena's Friendship Quilt is published by Ohio University Press here: Neighbors and Friends is here: .