Sunday, April 24, 2016

Acts 16.9-15: Tyrian Purple

We meet Lydia, a woman of business, in the Easter 6C reading from Acts (16:9-15). She meets Paul in Philippi, though she herself is from Thyatira. She listens eagerly to what Paul has to say, believes, is baptized and invites the apostles to stay in her home while they are in the area.

The text records not only that Lydia was a woman of business - interesting enough in itself - but it tells us what her business is. She deals in purple cloth. Purple is the color of nobility in the Roman empire, so Lydia was involved in a profitable business.
(Left) Shells of the bolinus brandaris and (right) 1st-century Roman mosaic of a murex shell.
It may be that Lydia has a predatory sea snail to thank for her profit. Imperial purple, also called Tyrian purple, begins its life as a secretion from a predatory sea snail. Specifically it comes from bolinus brandaris, which Linnaeus originally called Murex brandaris. The murex snails, found in the Mediterranean world, can be "milked" for the secretion or, more easily for human harvesters, the snails can be dried and crushed to obtain the dye.
Murex snail outside the shell along with the purple secretion.
Great numbers of the creatures are required to make even a small amount of dye. The dye was so valued that the animals were harvested to the point of extinction.   

This was Lydia's world - colored in purple and grounded in a sea snail.

Who is that wearing the purple toga? Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link to read more about it.

For thoughts on John 14:23-29, click here.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Acts 11.1-8: Clean and Unclean

It's a story about a "container" of animals - clean and unclean. The Easter 5C reading from Acts (Acts 11:1-18) tells a story like that. But that isn't the only Biblical text that tells that sort of story. Right at the beginning of the Bible is another story about a container of clean and unclean animals.

Though we don't normally think of the story of Noah and the ark as a story about clean and unclean animals, it is. Genesis7:2-9:
2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; 
and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 
3and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, 
to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 
4For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.’ 5And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.
6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. 7And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. (NRSV)
Edward Hicks. Noah's Ark. 1846. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
Artists have usually depicted the story with animals marching two by two disregaring the designation of seven pairs and one pair, clean and unclean. It is interesting that artists have skipped that detail when it was clearly important to the author of this section of Genesis. The animals are segregated by the designation of clean and unclean, but the naming of which animal is in which category is not made until the 11th chapter of Leviticus.

So why not take a look this week at the two paintings here of the animals going into the ark in conversation with Genesis 7 and Leviticus 11. Which animals do we usually see in these pictures? Are they clean or unclean animals? How many pairs of the animal(s) are shown? Seven? Or one?
Jan Brueghel the Elder. The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark. 1613. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum. 
It is clear that the ordering of clean and unclean, though perhaps baffling for us, was important in the context of the Biblical text. Why else would a distinction be read backward into a text? So Peter's vision, which may seem odd to those of us who have grown up loving shrimp, was in fact a radical new expression about the nature of the church. 'What God has called clean you must not call profane.'

For thoughts on John 13:31-35, click here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Acts 9.36-43: Dorcas in (Not) So Many Words

We know she lived in Joppa. The readings from Acts for Easter 4C (Acts 9:36-43) tell us that. She was devoted to charity and good works. She could sew. And her community was devastated at her loss. These are the things we know.

Dorcas inspired her friends, and even this brief reference in Acts continued to inspire long after her eventual death. And though Peter raised her in this text, she would have to die again. But her name lives on in Dorcas Societies founded by Christian women as vehicles for serving the poor.

Though Dorcas societies were most numerous in the 19th century, British painter Edwin Long has imagined a gathering of women in the sixth century. Near the center a woman wearing a white cloak gives away a garment to a kneeling woman. Two other women (at the right of the composition) appear to be the next recipients. The women in the left half of the composition have gathered to cut fabric, thread their needles, compare stitches and craft garments to be given away.
Sir Edwin Long. A Dorcas Meeting in the Sixth Century. 1873-77. Oil on canvas. Sydney, Australia: Art Gallery of New South Wales .
The setting is unspecific, but the back (curved) wall appears to be covered in frescoes. At the right is a peacock, a symbol of resurrection. Below the peacock the wall is decorated with an image of birds, doves, maybe, on the edge of a basin or birdbath. In the upper register of the left two-thirds of the composition is a scene of Christ enthroned and flanked by the disciples. In the bottom register is an image of Christ the good shepherd flanked by other figures. The frescoes in the background are similar to actual frescoes but do not seem to be exact copies of any particular paintings. The frescoes suggest that the scene might be taking place in a church but, again, no clues lead us to a specific church building.

A poem by George MacDonald (1824-1905) titled "Dorcas" ties Dorcas' skill with a needle to Jesus and his teaching. The poet writes:
If I might guess, then guess I would
That, mid the gathered folk,
This gentle Dorcas one day sood,
And heard when Jesus spoke.

She saw the woven seamless coat-
Half envious, for his sake:
'Oh, happy hands,' she said, 'that wrought
The honoured thing to make!'

Her eyes with longing tears grow dim:
She never can come nigh
To work one service poor for him
For whom she glad would die!

But, hark, he speaks! Oh, precious word!
And she has head indeed!
'When did we see thee naked, Lord,
And clothed thee in thy need?'

The King shall answer, 'Inasmuch
As to brethren ye
Did it-even to the least of such-
Ye did it unto me.'

Home, home she went, and plied the loom,
And Jesus' poor arrayed.
She died-they wept about the room,
And showed the coats she made.

The Biblical text gives us only seven verses about this disciple (though she gets two names in those seven verses!). Her witness and legacy, however, are much greater than any word count.

For thoughts on John 10:22-30, click here.

Check the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a look at a pulpit and the gospel reading for Easter 4C. Click on the link below.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

John 21.1-19: A Long Way from the Beach

Easter 3C's gospel reading (John 21:1-19) is filled with moments that would provide good artistic compositions: Jesus building a charcoal fire, the disciples in the boat, eating breakfast on the beach. While the conversation between Jesus and Peter is not especially visual, it provides a record against which we can measure depictions of the act foretold when it is fulfilled. Jesus said these things, the text tells us, to indicate the kind of death with which Peter would glorify God.

Peter's death is almost immediately recognizable in art. Like Jesus, he is crucified. His cross, however, is upside down, so his feet are toward the sky and his head is toward the ground. How much of this is foretold in Jesus' words? As with many things, it depends on who you talk to.

Pseudo Hegesippus' De excidio Urbis Hiersolymitenae (On the ruin of the City Jerusalem) iii.2 and the apocryphal Acts of Peter (XXXVII) are among the early written tradition that Peter was crucified upside down. This becomes the standard depiction of Peter's death. Church historian Eusebius declares that upside down crucifixion was not uncommon (8.8.2).

The detail most often identified as indicative of upside-down crucifixion is the girdle or belt to which Jesus alludes. Justin Martyr (Dialogue contra Typho 91) and Irenaeus (Adversus Haeruses II.24.4) characterize the cross of crucifixion as having four points toward the extremities and a point in the middle, a sedile (a small block of wood or projecting peg that acted as a seat or support for the body attached to the cross). The girdle mentioned by Christ was the "mechanism" used to secure a body upside down on a cross. As the body could not rest on the sedile, there had to be another way to support the body's weight. The girdle Jesus mentions was tied around the hips of the one being crucified in order to bind the body to the cross. The hands and feet were often, apparently, tied to the cross.

Some of the preceding elements are present in the painting by Guercino below. Peter's feet and hands are being tied to the beams of the cross, though he has not yet been raised/inverted. We know this is Peter by the keys than hang from his right hand. His blue tunic is being pulled from him, and he gazes upward, seemingly in resignation but seeking reassurance from on high.
Giovan Francesco Barbieri (known as Guercino). The Martyrdom of St. Peter. 1618-1619. 
Modena, Italy: Galleria Estense.
The composition of this painting, unlike many others - including the subject of this week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page - centers around a hole. Faces and figures circle an intensely blue sky. This composition circles around nothing, starting with the disciple's body - the lightest part of the composition - and leading the eye of the viewer around in a counterclockwise movement (the diagonal of the blue cloak leads to the arm of the person pulling the cloak which leads to the bare-chested person, whose finger points upward to the angel in the sky. A more direct route would be to follow the sight line of the resigned apostle. He looks directly up - straight at the angel in the sky.

Nothing is upside down here, though the many diagonal lines that outnumber the verticals and horizontals. Guercino's choice not to show Peter in his typical upside down fashion takes away the oddness and reminds us that right side up or upside down, Peter's reward for his faith is death.

It's a long way from the beach and the joy of seeing Jesus again.

Cimabue's version of Peter's crucifixion raises some geographical questions. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link to read more about it.