Sunday, August 30, 2015

Proverbs 22.1-23: Words of Wisdom

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 18B/Ordinary 23B/Pentecost 15 is a collection of two-liners from Proverbs (22:1-23, more or less). Pithy sayings transmit what reads like common sense: The clever see danger and hide, but the simple go on and suffer for it.  Many of the sayings have to do with poverty and wealth, though there is no stated theme for the passage. There is also no extensive attempt at narrative or transition between sayings.

Pieter Brueghel, a painter of the Northern Renaissance, created a painting that echoes the format of the Proverbs passage. Snippets of wisdom are illustrated and packed into a single frame. There really isn't any attempt to create a narrative that moves through the picture. Rather he simply embodies Netherlandish proverbs and packs as many as he can into a single canvas.
Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). Netherlandish Proverbs. 1559. Gemaldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen, Berlin. Oil on oak panel. 
For the Gemaldegalerie, see:
At the center of the canvas, under the porch, people confess to the devil. Atop a tower in the center top a man waves a cloak in order to know where the wind is coming from. In the lower left a man who is (literally) armed to the teeth tries to bell a cat. In the upper left window, the future is determined by the fall of the cards. In one of the dormer windows are two fools under one hood. In the lower right a man tries - but is ultimately unable - to spoon up spilled porridge, a version of the contemporary idea of not crying over spilled milk or being unable to put the toothpaste back in the tube. More than 100 proverbs are illustrated in the painting. 

All these proverbs in one place illustrate, according to Bruegel, a world turned upside down. And the artist has illustrated that as well. There are cross-topped orbs throughout the picture. The cross and orb symbolize the triumph of Christian faith over all the earth. For Bruegel's audience it would have seemed that Christ's triumph would have restored order to the world. Here, though, the orb-and-cross seems more ironic than anything else. In the lower right part of the picture Jesus sits on a chair (a throne?) with an orb in his lap. But even as he holds the symbol of triumph, he faces a monk who has put a fake blond beard on him. At the bottom center a man crawls inside a transparent orb through a hole in its base. And under the window at the left of the picture, the orb is upside down; the cross dangles beneath the orb. For Bruegel this is a topsy-turvy world...a world turned upside down because of the foolishness of humanity.

Restraining the foolishness of humanity is a goal of the Proverbs texts.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mark 7.1-23: Inside and Out

This week's gospel lesson is one in a collection of episodes where scripture draws a comparison and distinction between what is inside and what is outside a person. David is chosen over his brothers because God looks on the heart. The tax collector's prayer is praised over the Pharisee. Mark 7:1-23, the gospel reading for Proper 17B/Ordinary 22B/Pentecost 14, is the occasion for Jesus to draw a comparison between legal washing requirements and what makes a person clean: the things that come out are the things that defile.

The contrast between inside and out can be seen in many ways. In the organic earthiness of a tulip bulb is the ethereal balance of the flower. Who could imagine that the stony roughness of a geode's exterior would give way to the light refracting crystals on its inside.

Some Christian church buildings offer the lesson of not judging a book by its cover...or a worship space by its exterior. The church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, offers insight through the contrast of interior and exterior.
Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Groundbreaking 527; consecrated 547; completed 548.
The exterior of the building is rough, largely unadorned brick. Neutral in color, the bricks are laid in some ornamental ways around the windows and doors. The overall effect, though, is not especially impressive. Massive in volume, the building seems to have grown through small eruptions on the exterior. 

Who could predict that inside the building is an architectural geode? Gold mosaics adorn almost every surface. Arches with columns punctuate the building. Light shines in from the windows piercing the walls. Emperors, attendants, angels, Jesus and more look down from walls, ceilings and domes.
The exterior of the building symbolizes the world, while the building's interior represents heaven. Inside. Outside. Physical world. Spiritual world. It's what's on the inside that sets the stage for the people's relationship with God. That's what Jesus was saying.

Walt Disney World? Yep, Epcot specifically. Hear one reader's response to this post on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page.

For thoughts on Song of Solomon 2:8-13, click here.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

I Kings 8: Praying for the Church

Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the Temple (I Kings 8) is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 16B/Ordinary 21B/Pentecost 13. It is a prayer that reminded the first hearers - and us - that God is present with us. The conversation about a house for God has been going on since David spoke aloud the wish to build God a house. David was told that God would make him, David, a "house" but that not David, but rather his son, would be the one to build God a house. That has happened in the construction of "Solomon's" Temple.

Here Solomon prays that God's presence will fill the temple and that the people will know that God is with them and will hear them (and the foreigners living among them) when they pray. The building is a sign of the presence; it does not contain - or restrain - that presence according to the text. But even as "only" a sign it is a reminder to the people of God...then and now.

 It is appropriate, then, that subsequent houses of worship would employ this moment in scripture as a touchstone for their own houses of worship. The builders of the cathedral in Amiens, France (1220-1240), included several scenes from the life of Solomon in the quatrefoil designs on the cathedral's exterior walls. At left, the four scenes are Solomon eating (upper left), Solomon on his throne (upper right), Solomon and Sheba (lower left) and Solomon praying at the dedication of the Temple (lower right and bottom detail).

The composition of the dedicatory prayer segment is interesting in several ways. It differs from scripture, which identifies Solomon as standing before the altar. Here Solomon kneels outside the temple. He kneels on a column that bridges the gap between one corner of the quatrefoil and the entrance porch of the temple. This allows him to have his knees on a level with the floor of the Temple. The shape of the quatrefoil also drives the design of the king's bowed head.

Solomon's "Temple" bears more resemblance to a medieval cathedral than to the description in scripture, and Solomon is attired more like a European king than anything else. Neither of these things is surprising. But in the artist's transference from the Middle East to medieval Europe, we are reminded that all the faithful people would be well-served to remember the attitude of prayer by Israel's leader. Often, I think, we pray when we are in our congregational buildings. We offer prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, petition and praise for the people of the world. But it might be beneficial from time to time to stand outside our buildings and pray as Solomon is praying in the Amiens interpretation. Pray that the people remember and turn.

For thoughts on John 6:56-69, click here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

I Kings 2: The Big Show of Wisdom

It seems a bit ironic that in the text (I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14) God commends Solomon's request for wisdom (Proper 15B/Ordinary 20B/Pentecost 12). Solomon is commended for not asking for things like wealth and influence and popularity. Instead, Solomon asks for an interior gift - an understanding mind (also translated as "a listening heart"), a gift that would not have obvious external attributes.

Italian artist Luca Giordano seems not to have grasped the interiority of Solomon's request. Or if he grasped the interiority of the request, he rejected that as the moment of the story to paint. Instead, he has painted a spectacle that is the opposite of interior.
Luca Giordano. The Dream of Solomon. c. 1693. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
In the painting, Solomon (of the golden tresses) sleeps on his fantastic couch. At the lower left corner are two men, perhaps courtiers. In the upper three-fourths of the canvas Solomon's room is filled with clouds that support floating angels, a traditional first person of the Trinity and a helmeted warrior whose shield bears the emblem of a dove. She is Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom...though she holds a book and sits with a lamb, prefiguring Christ and the Bible. A beam of light emanates from God's head. moving directly into Solomon's own. Solomon's crown rests on his bedside table at the far right of the picture. The whole scene is infused with a golden-white light. Solomon's request pleased God, and God promised that in addition to what Solomon asked, he would also get those things for which he did not ask.
Andrea Sacchi. The Triumph of Divine Wisdom. 1629-1630. Rome: Palazzo Barberini. 
It seems that wisdom will always be a heavenly spectacle. Andrea Sacchi's fresco of the Triumph of Divine Wisdom shares many of the same elements as Luca's painting. In the center of the ceiling, the female figure of wisdom sits on a throne. In her hand is a scepter topped by the eye of God. Her throne is guarded by lions, as was Solomon's throne (I Kings 10:19ff.). She is surrounded by clouds and angels making music. 

Unlike many ceiling frescoes, Sacchi uses no architectural elements in the ceiling. The "view" is open directly to the heavens. The earth and the sun occupy prominent places, and even they speak to divine wisdom. The sun, behind Wisdom on her throne, is at the center of the composition. The earth is below and to the right and appears to be circling around the sun.

This arrangement reflects the knowledge...wisdom...of the day. The fresco seems to support the heliocentric arrangements of the universe advocated by Galileo Galilei. In 1615 Galileo's writings were submitted to the Inquisition, and the scientist was instructed to abandon his teaching and writing on the subject. One of Galileo's supporters was Maffeo Barberini...Cardinal Maffeo Barberini...who in 1623 became Pope Urban VIII. Just a handful of years later, Galileo's theory is pictured on the ceiling of the Barberini family's newest palace. It is worth noting, though, that the artist gave Divine Wisdom a little earthly help. In addition to the lions via Solomon that guard the throne, wisdom's throne is topped with bees, a symbol of the Barberini family.