Sunday, June 28, 2015

2 Samuel 5.1-10: Jerusalem in the World

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 9B/Ordinary 14B/Pentecost 6 may be the moment when maps change. The reading (2 Samuel 5:1-10) brings David to Jerusalem (or at least to Zion...the geographic distinctions are uncertain). The place has been inhabited by the Jebusites until David and his army arrive, conquering despite the skepticism of the Jebusites. From that moment on, Jerusalem becomes, at least cartographically, the center of the world.

Even through the Renaissance, mapmakers placed Jerusalem at the center of their maps. The map below, called the Bunting Clover Leaf Map, was created in 1581 by Protestant pastor and cartographer Heinrich Bunting.The map shows the known world in three clover leaves (with smaller and partial references to America and England). The continents of Asia, Europe and Africa each branch off from Jerusalem, which sits at the center.

Heinrich Bunting (German; 1545-1606). "Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblat (The whole world in a clover leaf)." From a transltation of Itinararium Sacrae Scripturae. Woodcut. 1581.
The importance of Jerusalem throughout scripture and church history and its presence in world events today can't be overstated. And it is first mentioned in the readings for this week.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mark 5.21-43: Emphasizing the Most Important Part...What is the Most Important Part?

The gospel reading for Proper 8/Ordinary 13B/Pentecost 5 is the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-43). It is a remarkable story that foreshadows the coming moments of resurrection that are part of the Christian story. We can imagine the setting with the anxious parents, the hovering crowd, the despair and sorrow in the house. Then Jesus arrives and what happens next is surprising, to say the least.

Miracles are often unsatisfying as subjects for artists because the miraculous moment may not come with any visible component. Nevertheless miraculous subjects are undertaken by painters, and the raising of Jairus' daughter is no exception. The 12-year-old is usually wearing a white garment or swaddled in white fabric. Sometimes the parents are shown, sometimes the mourners.
Gabriel Max. The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus. 1881. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum.
In this version by Gabriel Max, Jairus' daughter is clearly the focal point. The bright white of both fabric and skin tone draws attention to that part of the painting. It is balanced by a velvety darkness. Almost lost in that darkness is the figure of Christ. His hands reach out to the girl's hands, and his face is unnaturally illuminated, appearing almost mask-like.

This version of the story raises some questions. Is it important to see the figure of Christ? Is his importance being lessened by this treatment? Which is more important - the doer of the act or the one acted upon? Would Jesus be pleased that the emphasis on the painting is the girl who once was dead but is now alive? What is the most important part of the story?

For thoughts on David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27), click here.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I Samuel 17: Already Equipped

David and Goliath. It's one of the Biblical references that has entered secular culture. A smaller business takes on a corporate giant...David and Goliath. An unranked sports team enters the athletic arena against a national championship team...David and Goliath. A handful of protesters halt production at a manufacturing facility...David and Goliath. There is no shortage of images depicting the lectionary reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 7B/Ordinary 12B/Pentecost 4 (I Samuel 17).

Usually it is the battle between the shepherd and the giant that speaks to artists. Hulking giants that make the shepherd seem frail by comparison. The giant in a stone-assisted face plant. The sword that is ultimately the instrument of death for its owner. The Art&Faith Matters Facebook page will highlight some of those this week.

But there are other parts of the story, and one episode in particular offers us insight that may be especially helpful in our own times, when more and bigger seem to be considered better. In verses 38 and 39 Saul tries to give David his armor. The armor has protected Saul, has brought him victory, has given him an edge in battle. He wants to share that with this shepherd who has agreed to face Goliath on behalf of the nation. So David tries. He puts on the helmet and sword and other pieces.
Folio 28r. Morgan Bible (Paris, France). 1240s. Morgan Library, NYC. 
The progression of the story is told in the page of the Morgan Bible above. In the upper left David volunteers to face Goliath. In the upper right, David is given Saul's armor, including his helmet. It fits surprisingly well in the picture, given that Saul is almost twice David's height. But in the end, the armor is just too much. David isn't used to it. So he takes it off. And that may be the most humorous illustration.

David may one day be the greatest king of Israel, but here he looks like every person who has flailed around as they are trapped in a garment they are trying to remove. His head has disappeared and his hands are grasping at the excess chain mail, trying to pull it over his head. You can see the bump his head is making about halfway "up" the head covering. While the armor appeared to fit him in the upper right illustration, here we see how awkward David would be trying to fight in armor that is not his.

And that appears to be the point. David was equipped by God with the necessary skills to accomplish the task he was called to do. Trying to be someone else, trying to wear someone else's clothing (even protective armor) is simply a hindrance. When David sticks with what he knows, when he sticks with what God has given him, then it works.

The Dutch drawing below depicts the next part of the story. David has removed the armor and it sits like a pile of recyclables. Saul stands taller than the rest of the men with David at the right, gesturing at the pile. He acknowledges the thought behind the gift but understands (and announces) that he will leave the armor there. In a pile. Goliath won't be felled by armor but by God. It's a decision that David makes even before the battle begins. And in that decision lies the victory.
David Rejects Saul's Armor. Circle/School of Rembrandt. c. 1655. Drawing. British Museum, London.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading (Jesus calming the storm) Mark 4:35-41, click here.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

I Samuel 15.34-16.13: Anointed By...

In this week's text from Hebrew scripture (I Samuel 15:34 - 16:13, Proper 6B/Ordinary 11B/Pentecost 3), David is anointed. But who does the anointing? Samuel, right? That's who does the earthly anointing of David. That's who anointed Saul before him. But of course, it is God who is really withdrawing favor from Saul and choosing David to be Israel's next king. Most artists stop with Samuel. Samuel holds the horn. Samuel pours the oil. Samuel stands as the king-to-be kneels before the priest.

There is another way, though. The version shown below, by American artist Guy Rowe, tells a different story. Rowe (1894-1968), born in Salt Lake City, reminds us that any anointing is God's and it comes from above.
In this version, one of Rowe's illustrations for In Our Image: Character Studies from the Old Testament (Oxford University Press, 1949), the visual order is turned on its head...or it's in perfect order, depending on how you look at it. At the center is the one being anointed. His maturity might lead us to believe this is Saul's anointing, but the lack of visual clues leaves this work able to represent almost any anointing. The future king's head and face are above the face of the priest Samuel, which reflects earthly governmental hierarchies. It's still a bit unusual when compared to the usual compositional arrangement (as mentioned above, with the candidate kneeling before the priest).

The placement of the anointing oil is perhaps most telling detail. Samuel raises his left hand and arm from the bottom corner of the composition and pours out the oil onto the candidate's head. The oil, a symbol of God's favor and choosing, is at the top of the picture, above all human faces.

It is a physical reminder that the anointed one is God's choice, not human choice. Though this week's text is about replacing Saul - truly a less-than-excellent king - Saul is replaced by David - who has his own moments of weakness. Humanity's best choice would be to stick with acknowledging only God as king. But that's a lesson the people have yet to learn.

For Guy Rowe, see: In Our Image is out of print but available through several used book websites.

For a contemporary version of an anointing horn (and perhaps that's the identification clue needed to interpret the art
above...a horn is mentioned in this week's lectionary account of David's anointing but no horn is mentioned in last week's anointing of Saul), see this Facebook post for Art&Faith Matters. 

For thoughts on Mark 4:26-34, click here.