Sunday, October 25, 2015

A View of All Saints

Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian artist probably most widely known as the painter who created the first abstract watercolor. Even if he wasn't an active worshiper as an adult, he was raised in the Russian Orthodox church, and his work often shows the influence of liturgy and religious practice. That is certainly true with his various interpretation of All Saints Day.

The collection of images below represent several different compositions around the theme of All Saints. The top images - variations on All Saints I - also have elements of the Last Judgment (especially the trumpeting angel at the left) and the crucifixion (note the crucified Jesus on the hill in the background near the bell of the angel's trumpet).
Kandinsky. All Saints I. 1911. Munich: Lenbachhaus Gallery. (Left) Oil on canvas. (Right) Reverse glass painting.
(Left) Kandinsky. All Saints Day II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Oil on canvas. (Right) Kandinsky. All Saints II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Reverse glass painting. For the Lenbachhaus Gallery, see:
All four images share common symbols and persons. The trumpeting angels present in All Saints I are also in All Saints Day II in the upper right and left corners, though their forms are more abstract in II. All Saints II (lower right), includes the pair from All Saints I, whose arms are companionably around each other. They are central figures in I and much smaller but still in the center of II. All Saints II also includes folkloric references to the Zyrian shaman Pam who rows off in a boat in the lower left corner of All Saints II. 

Siberian folklore, the Last Judgment, the resurrection of the saints, color, glass, paint...all of these are part of Kandinsky's conception of All Saints. At this point in his career Kandinsky is moving toward abstraction. It is important to remember that for Kandinsky abstraction was not just a desire to dissolve recognizable subject matter or forms. Kandinsky was seeking to make a spiritual statement. He believed that if the paintings were too easily understood they were not adequate equivalents for the spiritual world. He was trying to create in visual art the same opportunity that existed in music - to create a spiritual meaning that was not tied to the symbolic objects that tend to drive humans toward narrative. The experience of the painting was to be the spiritual experience. The painting did not exist only to point toward a story of something spiritual. 

Kandinsky's interpretation stands in stark contrast to William Bouguereau's use of All Saints Day as subject matter. Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academic painter, has placed two women in black at the grave of a loved one. Two very different approaches to the same observance. These two painters are a reminder of the richness of approach and experience of every one of the saints of God. For Bouguereau's painting, click on the Facebook link here.

For additional thoughts on All Saints, click here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Mark 10.46-52: Bartimaeus...the Entertainer?

Jesus heals blind men in more than one gospel and more than one story in Christian scripture. For Proper 25B/Ordinary 30B/Pentecost 22 the story is that of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar outside Jericho who gains Jesus' attention in order to be healed and then follows Jesus on the way (Mark 10:46-52).

The author of the text tells us that Bartimaeus sits by the roadside, but that is as far as the details go. Italian artist Domenico Fiasella (called Il Sarzano) has given Bartimaeus a sort of occupation that would have been familiar in his own time. Now in the collection of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the painting called "Christ Healing the Blind" shows Jesus in the familiar red and blue tunic and cloak, laying his hand over the eyes of the blind man. From his fingertips comes...nothing. But we have faith that the man's sight will be restored.
Domenico Fiasella. Christ Healing the Blind. Oil on canvas. 1615. Sarasota, FL: John and Mable
 Ringling Museum of Art.
What is especially interesting is that Fiasella has made Bartimaeus a violinist, hanging the fiddle from the belt of his tunic. In Fiasella's day many blind persons had to beg for a living and having the ability to play a musical instrument like a violin or guitar might have made a significant difference in their ability to sustain life.

The theme of the blind musician is a reasonably common theme in art. John Singer Sargent, Georges de la Tour and Ben Shahn among other artists, have explored this theme in their paintings. The theme may have some root in the legend of St. Cecelia, patron saint of musicians. The name Cecilia may come from the Latin caecus (meaning blind), so Cecilia is also patron saint of the blind. There is no evidence that she herself was blind, but the confluence of words and names and meanings has sorted itself out along these lines.

Blindness has traditionally been the occasion to talk about spiritual insight (or its lack), heavenly reward/earthly punishment, the ability of divine healing to override the things of earth and the salvation of humans and humanity. Sight, light and salvation are often associated with these stories. The addition of music to the composition is an interesting one. Oftentimes we think of musicians being "lost in their music" - so caught up in the moment that they lose awareness of the world around them. This might be doubly true of blind musicians. But here the blind man is not so caught up in his music that he has missed Christ walking by. The violin that surely has made music in the past may make music in the future, but in this moment it hangs otherwise unattended at the man's waist. This blind man, whether he is Bartimaeus or another, is not distracted by his own activity or any other need. He is rather intently focused on Christ who can and will change his world.

For thoughts on Job 42.1-6, 10-17, click here.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Job 38: From the Whirlwind

God shows up. And God has an answer for Job in the reading for Proper 23/Ordinary 28/Pentecost +20 (selected verses from Job 38). God speaks out of a whirlwind, so not only does Job get God, Job gets drama. Big drama. Big weather. And out of the whirlwind God reminds Job that it was God who laid the foundation of the created world. It was God who flung the lights into space and started the planets whirling. It was God who formed the hippo and the alligator. It was God who spat out the oceans. God whose hands clapped and thunder rolled. God who orchestrated the rising of trees and the greening of leaves. God. All God.

Other voices have spoken out of other storms, other whirlwinds. Mississippi artist H.C. Porter helped people find their voices after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coast of her native state in 2005. She spent a year traveling the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She listened to sufferers, and she told their stories through her work as a mixed media artist. Many of those stories were stories of resilience and faith overcoming the loss of everything that the world would consider important. Others told other stories. While Porter told their stories visually, her subjects also told their stories orally, and those voice recordings accompany the paintings in the exhibition. They are speaking out of a whirlwind.

It's difficult to name a person whose life has not been touched in some way by loss, sorrow and the question of why God seems absent. Certainly Job's life was touched by loss, and he felt that God was nowhere near to him. But God's answer to Job reminds us of the psalmist's assurance that God is present and we need not fear, even if the mountains shake in the heart of the sea. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen." We, too, can trust the God who made all that is.

For H.C. Porter's exhibition "Backyards and Beyond: Mississippians Tell Their Stories", see: For the published catalog that accompanied the exhibition, see: Original work is available on the artist's website.

For thoughts on Mark 10:35-45, click here.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Without God or Jesus, A Single Figure

The gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 23B/Ordinary 28B/Pentecost 20 leave us with a single figure. One because he is unable to follow. One who cannot seem to find. The two readings (Mark 10:17-31 and Job 23:1-17 respectively) detail encounters between a human and the divine. In one passage the human is young; in the other he is old (or at least middle age!). In one passage the human has great material possessions; in the other he once had such possessions, but they have been taken away from him.
(Both) George Frederic Watts. For He Had Great Possessions. 1894.
 (Left) Guildford, Surrey: Watts Gallery.
(Right) London: Tate Gallery.
Above are two versions of the same composition titled "For He Had Great Possessions" by George Frederic Watts. Watts was a 19th-century Symbolist painter. He is credited with saying, "I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man." Watts' intention to paint ideas shows clearly in the paintings. Where other artists show Jesus and a group of people, here the focus is entirely on the young man and his state of mind.

The two versions vary slightly. The shallow picture space emphasizes the limited future of the man, even as his rich clothes remind us of all the material possessions he has. The placement of a vertical line and the fullness of his fur collar are among the variations between the two pictures.
Leon Bonnat. Job. 1880. Musee Bonnat Helleu. 
For Musee Bonnat Helleu, see:
Bonnat's painting of Job also shows a figure alone (though Job might not be entirely sad about being alone, given the company he usually keeps - his friends, his wife. Job faces us, where Watts' young man had turned away. The background here is also shallow, though the darkness leaves some room for mystery. Job is dramatically lighted as he sits alone on the dungheap looking up blindly to a God he cannot seem to find. 

You might think that having a single figure as the focus of a composition would give the figure a monumental strength. In these examples, however, the compositions seem to emphasize their barrenness and isolation. How different Job's life will be when God finally shows up. How different the young man's life would have been if he had made a different choice.