Sunday, October 29, 2017


The gospel reading for Proper 26A(31A)/Pentecost 22A is Jesus' teaching, both to his disciples and to the crowd. The passage (Matthew 23:1-12) is filled with images that contrast what people of faith say and what they do. And that lack of consistency makes them bad role models, Jesus reminds his hearers. Wearing t-shirts with religious messages or listening to the radio station that plays religious music doesn't matter if by their actions they are unwilling to help their neighbor. In verse 4 the behavior is given specificity: They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Architecturally, the figure who bears weight is called a caryatid (if a female figure) or a telamon (if a male figure). These figures are also called atlas, atlantes or atlantids (referring to the mythological figure of Atlas who carries the weight of the sky on his shoulders). Visually these figures bear the weight of whatever architectural element is above them. The most famous caryatids are those on the Erectheum on Athens' acropolis. Vitruvius, the Roman architectural writer, helped coin the name caryatids, saying that the figures represented the women of Caryae. According to Vitruvius, when the Persians invaded Greece in the 5th century BCE, the town of Caryae sided with the Persians. When the Persians were defeated, the women of Caryae were forced to carry heavy burdens for the victors. These stone women, eternally bearing the weight of the porch entablature are the symbolic descendants of the women of Caryae. Though Vitruvius' account is less widely accepted as truth today, it shaped the history of meaning of this architectural form.
Caryatids on the Erectheum. Athens, Greece.
So when Auguste Rodin begins sculpting in the nineteenth century, the story of the caryatid is of a female form carrying a heavy burden. Though these are free-standing sculptures, a smaller version is part of Rodin's Gates of Hell. This crouching figure gradually acquired the descriptive title of "Fallen Caryatid". 
Left: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone. Modeled 1881, cast 1981. 
Right: Rodin. Fallen Caryatid Carrying an Urn. Modeled 1883, cast 1981.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his volume on Rodin wrote about the caryatid:
The Caryatid is no more the erect figure that bears lightly or unyieldingly the heaviness of the marble. A woman's form kneels crouching as though bent by the burden the weight of which sinks with a continuous pressure into all the figure's limbs. Upon every smallest part of this body the whole stone lies like the insistence of a will that is greater older and more powerful a pressure which it is the fate of this body to continue to endure. The figure bears its burden as we bear the impossible in dreams from which we can find no escape. Even the sinking together of the failing figure expresses this pressure and when a greater weariness forces the body down to a lying posture it will even then still be under the pressure of this weight bearing it without end. Such is the "Caryatid." (Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, 1919, p. 52) 

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others. And sometimes the burden is just too much to bear. If we want to be other than the people Jesus condemns, we should probably be working on ways to help carry someone else's burden rather than forcing other people to carry burdens of our making.

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture (Joshua3:7-17) for this week in the lectionary, click here.

This week on Facebook, Art&Faith Matters considers the concluding verse of the gospel reading. Click on the Facebook link (on the blog page) below.

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