Sunday, September 30, 2018

Job 1.1, 2.1-10: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

It's interesting to think about what is going on the world right now that will come to pass in the future. Seeds are being planted that will become next spring's flowers. People I don't yet know are moving through their lives on a path that will cross with mine next year...or five years from now. My next job is being readied for me...or maybe things are being orchestrated so that I will stay in my current position for the rest of my work life. You just never know what things are happening out of sight. Job will find that out (Job 1:1, 2:1-10).

Bartolo di Fredi was, in the second half of the fourteenth century, the most important painter in Siena, Italy. He had a large working studio and was a registered member of his town's Guild. He assisted with the commission to paint the Council Hall in Siena in 1361. Earlier, beginning in 1356, he had been commissioned to decorate the Collegiata (principal church) of San Gimignano - about 20 miles from Siena. The frescoes along the entire left aisle are his work. Given the descriptive title Scenes from the Old Testament, the work was signed and finished in 1367.

Two of those scenes illustrate episodes from the story of Job. This is one of them.
Bartolo di Fredi. God Gives Satan Permission to Tempt Job. 1367. Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy. 
In this scene, Job and Mrs. Job (both wearing crowns), along with some of the little Jobs are feasting and making merry. They sit at a table with gold cups and linen tablecloths. Musicians blast herald trumpets, play the bongos (or something like them), and touch the keys of a portative organ. Dogs look for the crumbs that fall from the master's table. Bread is distributed from the door of Job's house at the left of the composition. Three figures (servants? children? townspeople?) gaze down from the top of the composition at the wondrous feast and celebration happening in Job's house. Life is good for Job. He is living like a king and helping others, too.

In silent movies, when the action cuts from one scene or location to another, an intertitle would appear on-screen, giving the audience the information they needed. In westerns, one of the intertitles that often appeared was, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..." While one character was living life, having adventures away from the ranch, things were still happening back on the ranch. Those things would often influence the main character's life and destiny. He or she would have to come back home to save the ranch from the swindlers or find the rustlers or rescue the one true love from a dastardly interloper.

Job is feasting and listening to music and enjoying family time. But meanwhile, up in heaven (or the upper left corner of Bartolo's fresco), God and the satan are having a conversation that will greatly impact Job's future.

People often say, "If I had known this was coming..." Imagine the traveler heading out of town, boarding the plane, settling in at the hotel. All the while not know that the next day would bring a broken ankle and a hospital stay in that far-away city. If I had known...

Do you wish you knew what was going on "back at the ranch" that would impact your future? Or is it ok if you don't know?

For thoughts on Mark 10.2-16, click here.
Psalm 8 and Hebrews 3:7 are the subject of this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click here.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Esther 7, 9: Not Narrative

Uses of the book of Esther for artists:
  • Reason to paint beautiful woman or a pageant of beautiful women.
  • Reason to paint scenes in a harem.
  • Reason to paint a wild party with drunken guests.
Those are generally the categories of paintings of Esther. There are some post-Holocaust connections drawn between Haman and the Nazis. There are some paintings of Vashti sitting alone in her room after refusing to display herself at the wild party with drunken guests. 

The episodes of the story of Esther are rich inspiration for artists. Images of Esther serve as an inventory of what counted for beauty in every era, style and nation that saw artists painting Esther. Her indictment of Haman is often very dramatic: her arm is outstretched - ramrod straight - as she points directly to the man who seeks to eliminate her people. 

Esther megillot (megillah is derived from the word for scroll; megillot is the plural form) traditionally are put on one roller - at the left-hand side - rather than two. The megillah shown here was illustrated by Israeli artist Ya'akov Agam about 1980. Rather than the typical scenes of an exotic foreign court, the artist has illustrated the megillah with abstract designs. Despite the second commandment, there are megillot with figurative illustrations. Agam, however, is known for his colorful, geometric work. He has used his signature style here for the story of Esther. 
Ya'akov Agam. Esther Scroll. c. 1980. Screenprint and ink on parchment. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
What is lost - or gained - by this approach to the story? Do you miss the costumes and drama? Do you appreciate the clean lines and vibrant color? 

OK...a little bit of the Esther narrative is showcased on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page.  

For thoughts on Mark 9:38-50, click here

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Proverbs 31. 10-31: She Can Bring Home the Bacon...

If you are from an old-enough generation, you may remember the tv commercial (I'm assuming it was just a USA commercial, but I don't know...) in which a woman sang, "I can bring home the bacon...fry it up in a pan..." The song was related to "I'm a Woman," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and sung by Peggy Lee. The song begins, "I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have 'em hangin' out on the line..." The refrain is "'Cause I'm a woman...W-O-M-A-N! I'll say it again." The woman described in Proverbs 31 begins to take on some of that superwoman aura. She seems to do it all. Home, family, business. Everything she touches turns to gold.

Are all women supposed to be the woman described in Proverbs 31? Can all women be that woman? Can any woman be that woman? Have we turned this aspirational woman into an unrealistic expectation? Even the writer has a sense of that question, asking "A capable wife who can find?" (NRSV) "A good woman is hard to find..." (MSG) If women are required to have all these accomplishments, we might be inclined to echo Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet when she remarks to Mr. Darcy that she is no longer surprised at his knowing only six accomplished women and rather wonders that he knows any at all.

In response to a culture that advocated for the idea that women could do nothing, Christine de Pizan (sometimes Pisan) wrote a manuscript called The City of Ladies. Written in response to comments about women by writers and philosophers like Matheolus (who wrote in his Lamentations that women were among God's worst creations), The City of Ladies was an encyclopedia of women who countered the stereotypes of women that were being repeated and published. Christine's book honored women for their faith, for their loyalty, for their works, for their learning, and for their intellect.

Christine herself might have been included as more than the narrator of City of Ladies. Married young into an arranged marriage, Christine and her husband had a happy marriage. After her father's death, Christine and her husband Etienne took responsibility for Christine's family. When Etienne died ten years later, Christine became responsible for her three young children and her mother. Christine found patrons for her writing, successfully (and singlehandedly) supporting her family.
 [Christine de Pizan lecturing.] Master of the Cite des Dames and workshop and Master of the Duke of Bedford. The Book of the Queen. British Library. Harley 4431, f. 259v. c 1410-c 1414. The manuscript, known as 'The Book of the Queen', includes Works by Christine de Pizan, assembled for Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France, and produced under the author's supervision. Possibly some passages are in the hand of Christine de Pizan herself. 

Those good women might not be as hard to find as we think.

For thoughts on Mark 9:30-37, click here.

This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post considers biography and photography in light of Proverbs 31.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Proverbs 1.20-33: Wisdom Cries Out

Most of us have probably had occasion to see a street-corner preacher. Speaking loudly and sometimes reaching out toward passers-by, street preachers proclaim the message they have received from scripture. They call people to repent. They tell of God's love. They offer the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell.

Wisdom is one of those preachers (Proverbs 1:20-33), shouting the consequences that are coming to the people who have turned their backs on her. I tried to tell you, she cries. I reached out to you. But you did not respond. I tried. 

Wisdom is usually portrayed in relation to other virtues or vices. This week's Art&Faith Matters' Facebook post takes a look at one painting's vision of that pairing in a classical setting. Wisdom is poised...usually. Wisdom is calm...usually. Wisdom is strong and good and attractive. She is sure and eternal. But what happens if we change how wisdom looks? What happens if wisdom is frantic in her efforts to reach the people? What happens if wisdom has reached the point of despair because the people just won't listen. Just. Won't. Listen.

In Edvard Munch's iconic work "The Scream" the air has turned to blood and the faces of his friends  became a garish yellow-white. A huge endless scream coursed through nature. I tried. I reached out. I tried. How does our perception of these verses change if the Wisdom who looks more like Munch's work and less like a poised, powerful classical goddess? 
Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893. National Gallery of Oslo.

This week, Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page considers Wisdom at the crossroads
For thoughts on Mark 8:27-38, click here.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mark 7.24-37: Not Jesus' Ephphatha

One word. Jesus says one word: Ephphatha. He says it while the man in front of him waiting as he has been waiting. Jesus has touched the man's ears and tongue because the man is deaf and has a impediment to his speech. And with just one word - ephphatha - Jesus changes his life (Mark 7:31-37).

If the healing is the best part, the waiting is the hardest part. Whoever this man was, though, and however long he had been waiting, he was not without people who cared about him. "They" brought him to Jesus and begged that Jesus would lay his hand on the man. And Jesus did.

In his telling of the story Mark records two things that lend a sense of accuracy and detail to what could have been just another story of healing (not that there is ever really "just another healing story").

The first is that Jesus sighs - deeply - before healing the man. The same word is translated groaned in other places (Romans 8:23). Jesus looks up to heaven, groans...sighs deeply...before speaking the one word.

Ephphatha. Here Mark quotes Jesus' Aramaic word and then provides the Greek translation: Open or Be opened. This is not the only place where Mark has preserved Jesus' words in their original Aramaic (Abba in the garden; Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? from the cross). The presence of these words brings us closer to Jesus' voice. It seems so simple. Open.

One of the plants on my patio is a night-blooming cereus, shown at left. Cuttings from the plant were shared several years ago by one of my sister's co-workers. For several weeks there have been two buds on the plant. The top photo is one of the buds from this year. In their earlier stages the buds look like stalks of asparagus. They have continued to grow: the stem has gotten longer and the bud has gotten bigger.

Because the plant blooms only at night (and the bloom lives only one night), I am diligently checking every evening for signs of an impending bloom and every morning to make sure I didn't miss the blooming. But so far...nothing. The flower photos at left are photos of last year's single bloom. One evening this week I even found myself standing on the patio saying, "Open, already!" Just one more way that I know I'm not Jesus and that my words are not Jesus' ephphatha.

Where the man's ears and mouth responded immediately to Jesus' command, this night-blooming cereus is not remotely interested in mine. Where this bloom will last only a night, Jesus' opening of the man's ears and mouth will last a lifetime. No wonder the people paid no heed to Jesus' instructions not to tell anyone.

For a map of exactly where Jesus is wandering in the gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37), see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post.

For thoughts on Proverbs 22:1-23, click here.