Sunday, July 29, 2018

2 Samuel 11.26 - 12.13: David Has Slain...Two

"Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." So sang the women as they danced and celebrated David (1 Samuel 18:7). A Renaissance manuscript and this reading from Hebrew scripture (2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a) help us focus on two of the tens of thousands. One is David's most famous instance of killing. The other his most infamous.

It is David's orchestration of Uriah's death that sets in motion the events in the text, which begins with the announcement of his death to David and then to Uriah's wife Bathsheba. She mourns for him, but when the mourning is done, David brings her into the palace as his wife. And Uriah is seemingly forgotten.

Clovio has chosen to imagine a moment after Uriah has been killed. Here he lies on the ground, nude, his horse, perhaps injured(?), beside him. The other soldiers have pulled back, leaving Uriah visible on the ground. David's plan has succeeded. Uriah is dead. David has slain this one.
Giulio Clovio. Farnese Hours (Folio 63v). 1546. NY: Morgan Library.
In the oval grisaille vignette below the central scene, David raises his sword to cut off the head of Goliath. The figure to the left of the central scene is David, wearing a helmet and some kind of armor. In his right hand he holds the severed head of Goliath. To the right of the central scene is David, slightly draped, carrying the sling in his left hand. Three of the four sections of the page are of David's triumphal, almost salvific killing of Goliath. But the central scene is one showing a David who seems hardly a man after God's own heart. The David whose faith in God made the impossible possible seems completely gone.

Nathan seems to think so, too. He calls David to account. Not for the thousands but for the one. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, considering Bathsheba.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

2 Samuel 11.1-15: The Spring of the Year

They really do that? That was my response when I read my nephew's undergrad thesis. I had read 2 Samuel 11 before (Proper 12(17)/Pentecost +10), but the thesis confirmed it. It's right at the beginning of the text. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle. They really do that. And Americans have in our historic conscious (at least if you were in school around the time I was) an episode that helps illuminate that opening sentence in Hebrew scripture.
Do you know the building in the photo above? Any idea what it is? How about the one below? Any clues?
Does this painting help? Probably.
William T. Trego. The March to Valley Forge. 1883. Philadelphia, PA: Museum of the American Revolution.
We usually refer to it as just "Valley Forge." The winter that George Washington spent at Valley Forge, the Continental Army was in what was called Winter Quarters. According to my favorite historians, it was traditional to stop fighting in late October because the weather got worse. Some soldiers wound up doing low level operations such as raids and foraging for supplies, but for the most part the armies dispersed into winter quarters. Washington led his troops into winter quarters on December 19, 1777. William Trego imagined the scene as you see it above. The winter would not improve.

Around mid-April, after the spring rains died down, armies would come back out to resume their fight. In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle...

Yes, they really do that. 

For thoughts on John 6:1-21, click here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Mark 6.30-34, 53-56: Or a Dog

Mark's gospel shows us Jesus who has compassion for the people who need him. Jesus encourages the disciples to get away from work and rest for a little while and then he heals people in the crowd who have followed him from one side of the lake to the other (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56; Proper 11 (16)/Pentecost +8). Jesus has empathy for the people because he knows they are sheep without a shepherd. So he takes on the role of shepherd as he moves through the countryside, caring for those in his flock who are sick or injured.

That's what shepherds do. They care for their flock, providing for food and water, for rest, for health, for safety and security. Humans and animals have been the subject of painting since paleolithic artists drew on cave walls. Certainly shepherds and sheep are part of that tradition, from ancient Greece to modern art.

You might ask of these pictures where the shepherd is in relationship to the sheep. Does the shepherd lead from the front? Bring up the rear? Is the shepherd standing in the middle of the flock? Sitting nearby? No doubt an attentive shepherd would be in all those places depending on the task at hand, the time of year, or the current situation. A quick search online will show art that has the shepherd in all those poses.
Camille Pisarro. Shepherd and Sheep. 1888. Private Collection.
But Jesus' characterization of the people is missing something. He refers to them as sheep without a shepherd. But in many (most?) paintings of shepherds and sheep, the shepherd is assisted in his task by a dog. Search images of the annunciation to the shepherds. Many of those images will show the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night...with the help of a dog.

Herding dogs help shepherds with their work. Responding to commands they work in partnership with the shepherd to herd sheep, cattle...and even the children of their family. To see the amazing (and sometimes amusing) ability of herding dogs, click here. My favorite herder has always been the rough collie.
Jesus has compassion on the people because they don't have a shepherd...OR a dog.

For thoughts on 2 Samuel 7:1-14, click here.
To find out about a tear-inducing (you've been warned) tale of Jesus and a puppy, go to Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mark 6.14-29: On a Platter

The story of the dance that led to John's execution is in Mark 6:14-29 [Proper 10 (15)B/Pentecost +8]. The plot is well-known and often used as a moral tale. Or rather immoral with regard to Herod's use of his daughter as entertainment for his drunken friends. We know that the upshot of the story is the request for John the Baptist's head on a platter.

Honestly, though, the embroidery of the story is probably more widely known than the actual text. Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome. Neither of those things is mentioned in scripture, but we associate both of them with this story. They are the backbone of Oscar Wilde's telling of the story in his play "Salome."

The play, written in 1896, was banned in England, so Wilde produced it in Paris. The play imagines that John has spurned Salome's affections, leading her to seek revenge. The Beardsley illustration below is titled "The Dancer's Reward." Here Salome has received the requested reward - the head of John the Baptist. It is delivered to her in Beardsley's drawing as demanded in Wilde's stage directions: "A huge black arm, the arm of the Executioner, comes forth from the cistern, bearing on a silver shield the head of Jokanaan (John)."

Beardsley's black and white line block print shows Salome's right hand holds John's hair, tilting up his face so she can see it. The head rests on a platter from which drips John's blood, as Salome draws the fingers of her left hand through it.
Aubrey Beardsley. The Dancer's Reward. 1894. Block Print. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
At the bottom right are a pair of slippers, presumably hers. It's hard to imagine that this is the holy ground that led Moses to take off his shoes.

For other thoughts on the beheading of John the Baptist, click here.
For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Mark 6.1-13: Clean Feet, Dusty Feet

Jesus goes home in the gospel reading for Proper 9 (14)B/Pentecost+7B (Mark 6:1-13). Home...but it doesn't go well. Jesus then calls the disciples and sends them out with instructions for what they can do if they visit a town and things don't go well. The directions are clear: shake the dust from your feet.

Dusty feet - and making them un-dusty - is a subject that bubbles up in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Abraham offers water to the three visitors that they may wash the dust from their feet (Genesis 18:4). David instructs Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) to wash his feet when he returns home (2 Samuel 11:8). Several different stories relate when Jesus' feet were washed (Luke 7). And, of course, Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13).

The intention of those clean feet is the opposite of the instruction from Jesus in Mark 6. Washing the feet of guests is a sign of hospitality and welcome. What Jesus instructs the disciples to do is to not look back, to take nothing from the town that would not offer them welcome. They are to completely disassociate themselves - and by extension Jesus - with those places.

We are not provided with a list of places on the disciples' "dust-free" towns, but we can imagine that if Jesus' hometown didn't receive him well there would be places where his disciples would be unwelcome. Jesus' experience would give them a guide. Though Jesus didn't literally shake the dust from his sandals as he left Nazareth, he could do no "deeds of power" among them other than curing a few sick people. He took little to nothing of the townspeople with him, and he left way less of himself than he had hoped. As is always the case, Jesus went ahead as the pioneer and then spoke back to the disciples following him.

The painting here is actually an interpretation of the story of the travelers returning to Emmaus. The composition (both of the painting and the story) are not unlike the Mark 6 text: two travelers, the presence (if not the visible person) of Jesus, and a very dusty landscape. There appears to be a structure and an open door through which shines a light warmer in tone than the landscape. It is, perhaps, a light of welcome for Jesus and these two who believe he is the One.
Janet Brooks-Gerloff. On the Way to Emmaus. 1992. Bienenberg Mennonite Study Center, Bienenberg, Switzerland.