Sunday, March 26, 2017

Can They? Can They? Can They?

Lazarus is brought back to life. The valley of dry bones is brought back to life. These resurrection-themed texts are the readings for Lent 5A (Ezekiel 37: 1-14, John 11:1-45), giving a little glimpse of the Easter that is getting closer and closer. The Ezekiel passage is visually engaging and has inspired artists to create images of jumbles of bones in inhospitable landscapes. The gospel reading is perhaps less visual, as it is difficult to capture an image of the moment of reanimation.

Surely we all rejoice when bone connects to bone and sinews and muscles appear and the breath of God brings life where there was none before. But what about before the unexpected (though welcome) conclusion? Did Ezekiel or Mary or Martha believe that dry bones could live? Do we really believe that dry bones can live?
Henry A. Bowler. The Doubt: Can These Bones Live? 1855. London: Tate.
Henry Alexander Bowler's canvas (above) shows a woman in a country churchyard, leaning on a gravestone seemingly pondering what is around her. The stone on which she leans marks the grave of John Faithful, who died in 1791. A skull and femur erupt from the dirt in front of her. Engraved on the stone, though she cannot see it, is the text "I am the Resurrection and the Life." The stone on which falls the shadow of the tree has the engraved word "Resurgam" ("I will rise again"). But Bowler's title for the painting, while quoting Ezekiel, makes us wonder. The work is titled The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live? Doubt. This woman, dressed in the clothing of the artist's day rather than the clothing fashionable at the time of John Faithful's death, wonders. She doubts. Can they live?
(Left) Mary and Martha meet Jesus at the City Gate. Chichester Cathedral, UK. 12th century. (Right) Barry Moser. Valley of Dry Bones. Pennyroyal Caxton Bible.
The gospel text tells us that Martha went out to meet Jesus when he (finally!) arrived in Jerusalem. The relief above left, from Chichester Cathedral, shows both Mary and Martha meeting Jesus at the gate. Both are shown in positions of supplication. Jesus, as the most important figure is tallest. And in the text, Martha is perhaps not quite as submissive as she appears in the relief. In the text she meets Jesus with bold conversation. She believes that Lazarus will rise at the last day. But now? Can they live?

Ezekiel is asked the question: Mortal, can these bones live? Can they? Ezekiel has the answer: O Lord God, you know. That is the answer. God does know. And God's answer to Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Ezekiel is, "Yes, they can." Look around you at things that look lifeless and hopeless. Situations, landscapes, relationships. Is it possible that with God even those dry bones can live? Can they?

This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...crying from the Psalm. Click on the link below.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Issues of Seeing and Recognizing

This is a week where two of the lectionary texts (I Samuel 16;1-13 and John 9:1-41, Lent 4A) give us the opportunity to consider issues of seeing and recognizing. In the Hebrew scripture reading, we learn that God sees us differently than we see ourselves or others. In the gospel reading, a man doesn't see at all and then does see, while his family and religious officials are blind throughout the text.

When we look at another person, who do we see? Do we see people only in familiar ways - looking only at surface appearances? Do we see people in new ways - seeing potential rather than current circumstances? Are we able to see the things in front of us and recognize them for who and what they are? Or are we blind despite the fact that we can see?

Artist Chuck Close has made his reputation painting faces in large format. His own face is among his most frequent subjects. His earliest works are photographically real. The faces are recognizable -- so photographically real that the individuals would be recognizable by strangers, even, As his work develops, though, the faces begin to dissolve and fragment. The practice of gridding, often used by artists to keep proportion correct when enlarging, comes to the front of the portrait's appearance and becomes, even more than the subject's facial features, the driving force of the portrait's structure..

All works by Chuck Close in the collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. (Top left) Big Self-Portrait, 1967. (Bottom left) Self Portrait, 1995. (Top right) Self Portrait, 2000. (Bottom right) Self Portrait, 2002.

Close's portraits and this week's texts invite us to ask questions:
  • How much of recognition is about physical appearance? 
  • Just because we recognize someone's physical appearance, do we really see them?
  • How can less focus on physical appearance tell us about the person at whom we are looking?
  • How often do we let structures of the world direct how we see the world and people in the world?
  • Is there a "grid" or structure that God superimposes on us in order to see us as God sees?
  • How much of our understanding of God is rooted in the flesh? Do we need to see to believe?
  • Do you see the face of God in the face of every human being?
Chuck Close's portraiture helps us ask questions about seeing and recognizing. That it is Close whose work helps with those questions is even more interesting when you know that the artist has prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. The artist can see the elements of faces - eyes, noses, mouths - but cannot put them together in a way that leaves any impression on his memory. You could meet someone with prosopagnosia one day, and the next day they would not recognize you. Sometimes a person with prosopagnosia does not even recognize her or his own face.

Surely we are not blind, are we? But how much do we really see?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on we see color differently. Click here.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

John 4.5-32: At the Well

Yes, Jesus was in Samaria according to scripture (John 4:5-32, Lent 3A). It was in Samaria that Jesus had a somewhat circuitous conversation with a woman about water. Living water, never thirsting, who gives water...all point to the truth that this was a multilevel conversation.

The conversation may be either clarified or further confused when filtered through the brush of Indian artist Frank Wesley (1923-2003). Wesley places Jesus and the woman in proximity to a well and to each other. The conversation proceeds. But there are some unusual touches to this artist's interpretation. Jesus wears the saffron robes of an Indian holy man. He is sitting in the half-lotus posture (a traditional yoga posture). His blue skin identified with Krishna, and his forehead glows gold.

This is Jesus who speaks across cultures and is found near wells in all communities. This is the Jesus who offers living water to everyone - Samaritan women, women with five husbands, Indian women, allThis is Jesus who speaks across cultures and is found near wells in all communities. This is the Jesus who offers living water to everyone - Samaritan women, women with five husbands, Indian women, all people.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

John 3.1-17: Nicodemus

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-17, Lent 2A). Their conversation included some of the most familiar - and contested - words in scripture about being born again - or born from above. The meaning of their conversation is not as easily interpreted by visual artists, but the setting and staging of the visit offers food for visual thought.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) painted Nicodemus' visit to Jesus. Along the way to his final composition he painted several different studies. Some things change; others are consistent through all versions. The changes and the consistencies help tell the story.

In all three works here (two studies and a completed oil), the conversation appears to take place outside, on the roof of a house. In all compositions, Jesus sits with his back to the cityscape. Nicodemus, in looking at Jesus, looks out over the people and buildings of the city. In the finished oil, Jesus' face is a warmer tone than that of Nicodemus. Jesus' face is highlighted by the golden light that shines up the stairs. Nicodemus, by contrast, is shaded in the cool blue-gray of the night.
Henry O. Tanner. Nicodemus. 1899. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the study below, the scene, and Christ especially is noticeably brighter. Christ's light garment is generally illuminated, turning the garment a cool light gray. Nicodemus' garments are darker than the night sky. The roof pavement is still smooth, but the wall and cityscape behind Jesus shows a lack of detail. There is a dark form on the right side of the composition, balancing Nicodemus' shape. 
Henry O. Tanner. Study for Nicodemus on a Rooftop. c. 1923. Oil on panel.
Henry O. Tanner. Study for Nicodemus. Private Collection.
In the second study, Jesus and Nicodemus are dark shapes against a lighter background. In this version, Jesus' head is backlit by a brightly shining halo. Certainly in this version, the identity of Jesus as the Christ seems more obvious. Nicodemus should not question the credentials of this new teacher. The glowing halo would lend credence to Jesus' words. In this version, the wall on which Jesus sits is defined and there is what appears to be an architectural structure at the left of the composition.

Tanner's affinity for this subject springs in part from his own consciousness. Nicodemus' visit at night called to mind the worship habits of African-American slaves. Even after emancipation, freed slaves continued to meet at night as they had done when they were not free to read scripture and worship.

The top image is signed "H.O. Tanner, Jerusalem, 1899." The artist spent almost a year in Palestine, absorbing the places where Jesus walked, painting and learning the landscape in order to add authenticity to his work. Yet he makes changes as he paints, as if the authoritative version has not yet been painted.

The several versions leave us with questions about how to interpret the story and the paintings. The questions can help our interpretation. So ask yourself...which figure - Nicodemus or Jesus - is shadowed and which is in light as we read the story? Is there something - like a halo - that sets Jesus apart as not-of-this-world? Why is Jesus' back always to the city? Why does Nicodemus always look at Jesus and see the town in the background? Why - if Nicodemus is so afraid of being found out at visiting Jesus - is the meeting outdoors? What do the levels of the two heads tell us? Is Nicodemus way below Jesus or about level with Jesus?

Which version do you find best interprets the story of Nicodemus?

Check this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for another time where Nicodemus and Jesus appear together.

For thoughts on Isaiah's call (Isaiah 6:1-8), click here.