Sunday, July 30, 2017

Matthew 14.13-21: Boy with a Bento Box?

The story can be called to mind in two words: loaves and fishes. We can fill in the blanks from there: a boy with a lunch, lots of people, disciples, baskets of leftovers. It's a familiar story found in several versions in scripture. It's Matthew's version that we get in the lectionary reading for Proper 13(18)A/Pentecost 9A (Matthew 14:13-21).

The elements of the meal are present in Dutch artist Johnny Beerens' mural in Breskens. Five loaves and two fish, all neatly arranged in a silo-sized bento box. Probably the boy in the story did not bring his lunch in this fashion, but the orderly arrangement has been placed with great care and effect into the architectural elements of the building. The subject matter does, of course, call to mind the gospel story of loaves and fishes. But the setting of the work takes the subject farther.
Johnny Beerens. Loaves and Fishes mural. Breskens, Netherlands.
The port city of Breskens is in the southwest corner of the Netherlands. Situated on the coast, the town hosts an annual Fishery Festival. The mural is located on a grain silo in the port, which ties the location to bread. The combination of fish and bread recognizes the gifts of the earth - both from the land and the sea - and their location on a silo and port recognizes that harvesting and distributing those gifts require human work.

The location of the mural calls to mind more than the miracle of the gospel parable. The images and the work of the port as a hub of distribution remind us of our call to feed hungry people (" give them something to eat"). That call is not bound by the past or by geography and is not a one-time event. The mural can be an incentive to remember and do better.

You give them something to eat, Jesus said. All we need is...a bento box.

An essay on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Jacob wrestling) is found here.

See what a pelican has to do with this week's lectionary readings. Click on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook link below.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Genesis 29.15-28: Sisters in Purgatory

How many novels and stories begin something like this: There was a man who had two sons. The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper  12 (17)A/Pentecost 8A offers a variation: There was a man who had two daughters. Rachel and Leah. Or, in birth order (which would become important in the story): Leah and Rachel. Two sisters. Add in one visiting cousin Jacob and one fairly manipulative father (remember whose brother he is...this seems to be a family trait), and those are the makings of a fine story. (Genesis 29:15-28)

The Biblical story is about contrast and difference - in personality, in looks, in fertility, in affection. Medieval poet Dante continued the tradition of contrasting the two sisters when he put them in Purgatory. The illustration here is a watercolor by English Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the background (at left) is the poet, and in front are the two sisters. Which would you identify as Leah and which as Rachel?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah. Watercolor. 1855. London: Tate Gallery.

The artist gives us the general scene and action described by the poet. One sister is engaged in gathering flowers and the other gazes at her own reflection. Which sister is engaged in which task? The poet writes:
...A lady young and beautiful, I dream'd,
Was passing o'er a lea; and, as she came,
Methought I saw her ever and anon
Bending to cull the flowers; and thus she sang:
"Know ye, whoever of my name would ask,
That I am Leah: for my brow to weave
A garland, these fair hands unwearied ply.
To please me at the crystal mirror, here
I deck me. But my sister Rachel, she
Before her glass abides the livelong day,
Her radiant eyes beholding, charm'd no less,
Than I with this delightful task. Her joy
In contemplation, as in labour mine."
(Purgatorio, Canto 27, lines 96-108)

Rachel, shown here in purple, is a symbol of the contemplative life as she gazes at her reflection. For the artist, purple is associated with inaction, lethargy, even death. Leah, in green - the color of life - collects roses and honeysuckle and has woven flowers into her hair. She symbolizes the active life.

Active and contemplative. These polarities are seen again in the story of sisters Mary and Martha. Mary's attention to things of the spirit as she sits at Jesus' feet is identified as activity that is better - or at least more appropriate in this moment - than Martha's hustle and bustle of hospitality.

Is there a judgement being made here? Does either artist or poet declare one way of living better? How would you value the two options? Which sister would be the "favorite" in today's world?

For a take on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, click here.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43: Wheat and Tares Together

Jesus' parable is agriculturally correct - at least according to the artists: let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest because if you try to pull up the weeds too early you'll pull up the wheat as well. When both are tall enough to tell the difference, pull the weeds, bundle them up and then burn them. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Proper 11(16)A/Pentecost 7A).

The problem is that the wheat and the weeds look alike. What the Bible calls tares is also known as darnel or darnel wheat (Latin name, Lolium temulentem). The two plants are shown below. Imagine trying to tell the difference between the two when they are even less mature than the plants in the images here.
Darnel is a mimic plant that looks like the species it is invading. The weeds take root and must be sorted out by hand, requiring additional work either early in the growing season or during harvest. In the case of darnel, the invading species has some interesting side effects when ingested.

Nineteenth-century painter Jean-Francois Millet was among the earliest artists to paint peasant subjects - or rather he was early in painting peasants in compositions that emphasized their dignity as human beings rather than their poverty or their lot as workers. Here is a scene of buckwheat harvest that serves as the "summer" subject in a series of four paintings that exemplified the seasons. At the left of the composition is the smoke from a large fire, perhaps the fire where the weeds are being burned.
Millet, Jean-Francois. Buckwheat Harvest, Summer. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. 1868-1874.
Burning weeds is a reasonably efficient way to eradicate not just the plants but the seeds. Some farmers even burn the residue in their fields in order to get rid of the seeds that have been dropped and the roots that might still be viable. The practice was also documented by artists like Vincent Van Gogh.

After the crop has grown, then you take those weeds, pull them out, bind them up and throw them in the fire that will destroy them. That's one way to think about the text. But before we rush to separate wheat from weeds we should remember that in Jesus' parable, it is clear that now isn't the time and these aren't the workers who will distinguish wheat from weeds and deliver the weeds to their ultimate destruction. That will happen, Jesus says, but that's for someone else to decide on another day.

Who sowed those weed seeds in Matthew's gospel? Take a look at the answer found on one medieval German altarpiece  on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link below. You can also read about Jacob's dream and a different take on the sower on earlier A&FM blog posts.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Genesis 25.19-34: Bowl for Birthright: A Tale of Opposites

The birth of two nations is the reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 10/Pentecost 6A. Genesis 25:19-34 tells of the birth and early lives of brothers - twins - Jacob and Esau. They are the sons of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They were different from each other - one outdoorsy and the other preferred the indoors. Each parent had a favored child. The story can't possibly be without conflict.

And indeed the conflict begins at birth and doesn't end until much  later in the twins' lives. Along the way is the episode featured here. Esau comes in from the fields and is quite hungry. Jacob has been staying close to the farm and has cooked up a stew. And Esau says he is s-t-a-r-v-i-n-g.

Jacob can help. All Esau has to do is give up his birthright. Pinkie swear.

Hendrick ter Brugghen has painted that moment. In his Caravaggesque style (to oversimplify, that means strong lights and darks) he shows the two brothers in the foreground, a table of food between them. In the background are the two parents, each standing behind their favored child. Rebekah, whose face is between the two boys, holds a plate, making things ready for her favorite, Jacob. Isaac, who will be blind, sits almost invisible in the darkness at the right. The depth of the picture space is stopped by the canvas tent wall. All the action is in front of the tent wall.

Hendrick ter Brugghen. Esau Selling His Birthright. c. 1627. Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
The artist's use of light focuses attention in the composition's center. The two boys' hands are expressively drawn. The right hand of each is in almost the same position. The left hand of each holds characteristic objects: Jacob the bowl of soup and Esau the wooden handle of a tool. The two boys are even wearing complementary colors: Jacob in red and Esau in a shade of green.

We know from the story that the deal is made and fulfills the prophecy that the older brother would indeed serve the younger. Generations of this family will be impacted by this deal, but ter Brugghen narrows an epic story to a single moment. The exchange of bowl for birthright.

Art&Faith Matters has other posts that relate to this week's Gospel reading and an additional post mentioning Jacob and Esau. This week's Facebook post looks at the very beginning of this a somewhat unusual illustration. Click on the Facebook link below.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30: Burdened

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-30 (Gospel reading for Proper 9/Pentecost 5A; Matthew 11:16-19. 25-30)
All three images are by French artist Honore Daumier. All are the same subject and even the same composition. All are called "The Burden". And as much as they have in common, all three are in some ways, unique. One has a bright sky. One has more shadow. One has warmer light. One has a costume difference. It is those differences that might lead to different answers to the questions below, depending on the version under discussion.

What is the burden? Is it the bundle carried by the woman? Is it the child? Is it her life situation? Does the same element feel "burdensome" in all three pictures?

Does the child have a burden as well? In two of the versions, the child's face is not visible. Is this yet another child of whom the world takes no notice? When children are "invisible" who is burdened?

Though the child is touching the mother, the mother has no personal contact with the child. Why might that be? What does that contribute to the idea of "burden"?

The figures may be perceived as running. Do you think they are running? Running from what? Running to what? Is it a burden that they need to run?

How do the artist's color choices contribute to the idea of a burden? Does one version of the composition feel more "burdensome" to you? Which one? Why does that color scheme speak to you of "burden"? Does any particular scheme not speak of burden?

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. That is the promise Jesus makes to each of us. The composition of "The Burden" is a reminder that each of us carries burdens. The three different versions remind us that we may not, from the outside, be fully able to tell the story of someone else's burden.

Honore Daumier. The Burden.
Left: 1865. Private collection
Middle: 1850-1853. St. Petersburg, Russia: The Hermitage.
Right: The National Museum of Wales. 

This week on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, Van Gogh and this week's Gospel reading. Click on the link below.