Sunday, November 27, 2016

Isaiah 11.1-10: How Peaceable?

It's hard to resist Isaiah's "Peaceable Kingdom" (Isaiah 11:1-10) when it shows up in the lectionary readings for Advent 2A. It appears to have been reasonably easy for artists to resist that scene for centuries, though. There are pictures and sculptures of lions. There are pictures and sculptures of lambs. There are very few images of lions lying down with lambs. The frequency of depictions of what became known as "The Peaceable Kingdom" increases after the eighteenth century.

The American artist most connected with the subject is a Quaker painter named Edward Hicks. Hicks painted the subject more than 60 times over the course of his artistic life. His original composition, painted around 1815 was based on an engraving by English artist Richard Westall. Over and over he painted the subject, perhaps in an effort to paint the peace into reality.

Because in reality, Hicks was not living in a peaceable place at all. In his paintings, there are inclusions of and allusions to the non-peaceable world in which he lived. Hicks shows us how hard it is to conjure Isaiah's vision when we live in the world that we do.

Hicks' earliest versions show a gentle child among animals that look like plush toys. We know that Isaiah includes predator and prey, eater and eaten, but in these earliest versions there seems to be more the sense of harmless animals than natural enemies who have decided to live together peaceably. These early images feature the young child who is leading them, carrying a length of grapevine on which hangs a cluster of grapes. The grapes should call to mind the promise of an abundant land. For what else would there be in the kingdom envisioned by Isaiah.

The second phase of Hicks' paintings draw a direct line between painting and scripture. Hicks' training was as a signmaker, so his inclusion of all or portions of Isaiah 11 are not unexpected. Not all versions with text have the same text, though originate in Isaiah. The versions with more text often use that additional text to explain the usual background scene. In that scene, Quaker William Penn makes a treaty with the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) people. This treaty, entered into in 1683, held until 1755. In the version shown here, the circle of treaty-makers is overshadowed by Virginia's Natural Bridge, which visually connects the two sides of the canvas.

In the "middle" Kingdoms, the animals become more aggressive. The lion's and leopard's teeth are visible in a couple of versions, and the animals become more tense. Their eyes are wide open, and they stare unblinkingly (hostilely?) from the painting. This increase in tension may be a reflection of the divisions happening in the Quaker community. In 1827 there occurred the "Great Separation" where so-called "Hicksite" (because they followed Elias Hicks, a cousin of the painter Edward Hicks) Quakers, who chose to emphasize the Inward Light as a source of guidance for faith and conscience, separated from the so-called "Orthodox" Quakers, who emphasized a more Protestant reliance on Biblical authority. Originating in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, this division became wider and spread, causing painful separations in other meetings and among families. These divisions were especially painful for Hicks, who in addition to being a sign and coach painter was also a minister in the Middletown (PA) Yearly Meeting. There are a number of Hicks paintings that include a gnarled, dead tree in the background as a further sign of Hicks' understanding of the split among Quakers.

Compare the lion faces in the four versions shown here. Which lion goes with which painting? Can you put them in order? In the later Kingdoms the viewers' first impression of the animals is that they are neither plush nor attentive. They seem...tired. Dispirited, maybe. A career's worth of living on God's holy mountain seems to have taken a toll. Or maybe it's the non-peaceable kingdom in which the artist is living that has taken a toll on the artist.
Hicks helps us see the passage, but he was unable to live it in reality. We've not seen this come to pass either. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. The vision is memorable. The promise is certain. One day they will not hurt or destroy on all God's holy mountain. On a day that is still to come.

All paintings by Edward Hicks.
(Top). Peaceable Kingdom. 1816-1818. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art.
(Second from top). Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch. 1822-1825. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
(Second from bottom). Peaceable Kingdom. c. 1833. Worcester, MA: Worcester Museum of Art.
(Bottom) Peaceable Kingdom. 1844. Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.

See what this leopard brings to the discussion. See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Isaiah 2.3: Of Swords and Plowshares

Has there been a time since the words were written that humanity hasn't longed for the actualization of Isaiah 2:3 (part of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1A)? Surely we do now. Imagine a world where nation did not lift up sword against nation. To this point in human history, though, it seems that beating swords into plowshares is an episodic happening rather than an eternally established reality.

American artist Winslow Homer understood the cost of war. He was in his mid-twenties when the Civil War broke out. Though he did not serve in the army, he was a "special artist" for Harper's Weekly magazine and, as such, moved in and among the armies and battle lines during the war. For almost two months in 1861 he traveled with George McClellan's Army of the Potomac through Virginia.

Homer created a large oil painting that illustrates rather than preaches Isaiah's vision of a time when the tools of war are traded for tools of agriculture. The artist worked on the painting for several months after the war was over. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and the nation was working its way toward again being "united" states. Homer places an anonymous veteran in an actual field. A Union Army jacket is discarded in the lower right corner along with a canteen. The jacket has been abandoned presumably because the heat of the day and the exertion of the work makes a jacket unnecessary. But it is also the truth that this farmer has abandoned his military occupation and returned to his farm - he has traded the battlefield for the wheatfield. Hence the title of the painting.
Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field. 1865. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Judging by the painting, the plows have done their work well. The 1865 wheat crop is documented to have been a bumper crop. Homer shows grain heads almost at the height of the farmer's head. One might see in this painting a positive outlook for the farmer and the nation. But there is a darker side.

The farmer is harvesting wheat with a single-bladed scythe, a tool that was already out of date by 1865. Farmers of that time would have used a grain cradle or cradle scythe to harvest. Homer chose the older implement because of its association with the Grim Reaper. While Homer's veteran has moved on, both he and the viewer would have, in this scene, been reminded of the cost of war. Many of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in fields, so fields had become associated with soldiers who were cut down and had fallen in the same way that this farmer now cuts and fells the wheat. Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph "Harvest of Death" shows the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Isaiah's vision would have been as appealing to a 19th-century audience as it is to us today. Imagine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Reign of Christ: Hark!

The last Sunday of the liturgical year, Reign of Christ (C), is a day of power. Christ is on the throne, every knee has bowed and every tongue has confessed that he is Lord. Justice and righteousness are flowing, death and evil and tears have no place. The heavenly banquet is underway. Long live the King!

One of the things that every medieval ruler needed was a herald. Literary works as diverse as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Shakespeare's Henry V put heralds within close proximity to rulers.
In Wonderland, the white rabbit carries a trumpet in one hand and a scroll in the other as he stands near the King and Queen of Hearts (chapter 11):
'Herald, read the accusation!' said the King.
On this the White Rabbit blew three blasts on the trumpet, and then unrolled the parchment scroll...
It is Montjoy, herald of the king of France, who comes to England's Henry V in his camp before the battle that will be known as the Battle of Agincourt. He offers Henry the option of paying ransom and avoiding the battle. The offer is refused and Montjoy agrees to relay Henry's answer and concludes saying, "And so fare thee well. Thou never shalt hear herald any more."

The role of the herald in medieval Europe changed over the centuries. In varying times, heralds served as a sort of master of ceremonies at tournaments. They carried messages from one king or noble to another. They acted as diplomats for noble households. In almost all their duties, they needed to recognize the colors and arms of noble and royal houses. It is from that aspect that the field of heraldry - the identification, design and registration of coats of arms and other armorial insignia - developed.

So who acts as herald to Jesus the king? In the Hans Memling's painting below, it is a familiar figure: herald angels, carrying/playing their herald trumpets. The painting shows Christ at the center flanked by three singing angels on his left and three on his right and then further flanked by angel musicians. The trumpeting herald angels mirror one another in the fifth position (counting out from Christ at the center). In this painting Christ holds the orb and scepter and his crown echoes the idea of the earth with the cross surmounting it.

Hans Memling. Christ with Singing and Music-making Angels. 1480s. Antwerp: Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

This is neither the first nor the last time we will associate herald angels with Christ. We sing of them at Christmas, of course, when the king is born. And in Revelation, it is trumpeting angels who herald the disasters that are to come when the king returns.

These heavenly heralds are only one answer to the question Who acts as herald to Jesus? Another answer is John the Baptist. Still another answer is (or should be) all who follow him. Remember the old hymn "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus"? It contains the line: One of his heralds, yes, I would sing loudest hosannas, "Jesus is King!"

For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click here, here, or here

Here is a flock of herald angels. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below to find out where it is.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

En + Durus

To quote the Steve Miller Band and the lectionary readings for Proper 28C/Ordinary 33C: you know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven. Isaiah 65 (verses 17-25) would be the heaven and Luke 21 (verses 5-19) would be the hell. The key, and it is found in the last verse of the gospel reading, is endurance: By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Endure is a relatively simple word. In Latin the word is a prepositional phrase, actually: en (in) + durus (hard). The 12th-century French endurer meant to make hard, to harden, to bear or tolerate, to keep up or maintain. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

How to depict endurance, though. Certainly there are images of faithful people in the midst of historic and contemporary persecutions. But it is not only spectacular public hardships that we are called to endure. So perhaps instead of cataloging persecutions it would be more helpful to provide an aspirational symbol that captures the idea of endurance.

Trees in general, like ladders and pillars, represent things that have to do with both heaven and earth. The oak tree has become a Christian symbol for endurance (though the symbolism is by no means exclusively Christian). Oaks are identified in scripture as strong trees (Amos 2:9), and they are known to be long-lived. They can survive natural disasters and human disasters. They see love and conflict. They stand through flood and drought. Oaks can survive even in the face of much adversity. It is an oak tree that offers shade to the Holy Family in Tintoretto's Flight Into Egypt.
The Deerhead Oak in McClellanville, SC, has a circumference of more than 30 feet. 
For more about the Deerhead Oak see:

Because the oak tree begins as an acorn - surely not an object with an intimidating presence - the oak reminds us that great endurance can grow from small beginnings. Perhaps we practice enduring small things and then, when the big things come, things like Luke writes, we'll be able to endure them. And in doing so, gain our souls.

Check Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a further word relationship that illuminates endurance. Click on the link below. 

For thoughts on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, click here.