Thursday, December 26, 2019

Matthew 2.1-12: Emperor, King, Murderer

No one names their child "Herod" anymore. And not just "anymore." Who would want their child associated with Herod? Herod's character is not one that most parents would want their child to emulate. The Epiphany text (Matthew 2:1-12) here shows Herod as a paranoid, power-hungry...scared...king who will stop at nothing to retain his power and position. He is more than willing to commit murder. The gospel tells of the massacre of the innocents at Bethlehem, but Herod the Great also murdered his second wife, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother. If Herod was willing to kill so many of his own family, we have no doubt he could have killed children he never knew or saw.

Does that evil, cruel part of his personality show on his face as artists depicted him? Which of the faces below is the face of Herod the Great?
Did the artist give you a clue? Is there something in one or more of these faces that is an external clue to the internal corruption and immorality of the person seated on that throne?

Modern depictions of the visit of the Magi to Herod's court may be more likely to show Herod in some kind of aggressive body posture with an angry expression on his face. Scripture describes him as sneaky and manipulative, trying to deceive the magi with promises of plans to worship the newborn king. It was only the warning of the angel that sent the magi home by another way. They seemingly would have had no clue otherwise.

That's often the way it is, I think. The external appearance is pleasing, reliable, amiable, and sympathetic when the truth of the person is unethical, self-centered, even evil. Herod is definitely the villain of this story, but his ability to present a deceitful appearance to the world is much more common and close to home than we'd like to admit. There may be a little Herod in us.

Above far left:  Edward II Receives the Crown (detail). c. 1307-1327. British Library: Royal MS 20 A II, fol 10. Above center left: Magi Questioned by Herod (detail). 14th century. Venice: San Marco. Above center right: Three Kings Before Herod (detail). St. Alban's Psalter. 1121-1146. Hildesheim: Dombibliothek. Above far right: Portrait of Charles the Bald (detail). Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura. c. 870. Rome: San Paolo fuori le Mura.

For additional thoughts on Epiphany, click here.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

John 1.1-18: Word, Light, Life

The opening words of John's gospel are familiar, in part because of their resemblance to the opening words of Genesis. The words take us back to the beginning, before things were created. Before then, John's gospel tells us, there was the Word (John 1:1-18). In somewhat circular language, the gospel writer talks about the world and the Word, light and life, acceptance and rejection, John and Jesus. The language is generally considered lofty and theological, ascending toward heaven, rather than concrete and earthbound. That is why John's symbol in the tetramorph of the four evangelists is the eagle.
Vincent Van Gogh. Still Life with Bible. 1885. Amsterdam: Vincent Van Gogh Museum. 
The early Van Gogh shown here may at first glance seem a plodding comparison to the lofty language of the gospel, but the painting seems to embody the two sides of the text: old and new, accepted and rejected, light and life...all in the context of the word. Van Gogh painted the work after the death of his father, a Dutch Reformed minister.

The Bible is open to Isaiah 53:3-4: He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The colors are muted and dark. Perhaps the painting intended the work as a study of black. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh talked about Theo's comments about black as a color. He then wroteIn answer to your description of the study by Manet, I send you a still-life of an open - so a broken white - Bible bound in leather, against a black background, with a yellow-brown foreground, with a touch of citron yellow. The bright yellow (so familiar in Van Gogh's palette) stands out against the darkness (which the artist appreciated as much as the light). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is a candle, extinguished, a symbol of the artist's recently deceased father. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

Here is the Word in a  hefty, leather-bound volume. Beside the Bible, Van Gogh has placed his own yellow-bound copy of Emile Zola's novel La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Living). The two books symbolize the conflicting world views of the artist and his father - though a summary of the novel reveals a story anything but joyful. Though Van Gogh was calling attention to the difference between the Bible and modern literature as dueling sources of authority, neither his dealings with the church or with modern life had led him to a happy state or a successful place. He himself continued to search for what would bring him to life. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

On Art&Faith Matters, see where else that yellow book shows up in Van Gogh's paintings.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Matthew 2.13-23: What Joseph Makes Possible

Ann Weems asked, "Who put Joseph in the back of the stable?"* That's what we tend to do...put mother and child in the center, and sheep and shepherds in front. Magi with camels off to one side. Angels in the sky. And Joseph in the back of the stable with the donkey and the ox. Joseph becomes just another working animal in the story. And it is true that Joseph is working throughout the gospel infancy narratives, but surely Joseph has a story worth telling. He does. It's in Matthew's gospel (2:13-23).

In the course of Matthew 1 and 2, Joseph is visited not once, not twice, but three times by angels. Joseph is called to move forward with his marriage to Mary. He takes his great-with-child wife on a 90-mile journey to his family's town of origin where his wife gives birth to a baby boy. After another visit from an angel, he is instructed to take his wife and child to Egypt. He must get them out of town as deadly danger marches toward them and keep them safe as they travel more than 400 miles. When the time is right, he will bring his family home. Joseph definitely has a story.

Joseph's handling of unexpected scenarios should earn him our admiration and respect. He is resourceful and capable. His actions show him to be devoted to his family and responsive to God's direction. No wonder God chose him.

Scenes of the family's travel to Egypt are often romanticized or sentimentalized. The two adults are often in the landscape with a moon shining down highlighting the people, the donkey (there's usually a donkey), and an obligatory palm tree. It is quiet and contemplative. The realities of traveling via donkey (even donkey cart) for 400+ miles with an infant are no doubt more prosaic than we imagine. And certainly they are more prosaic than Caravaggio's image here. But I think Caravaggio gets Joseph's role right.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Rest on the Flight into Egypt. 1597. Rome: Galleria Doria Pamphilj
Caravaggio has chosen a rest stop as the family travels. Mother and child both rest, their heads touching. The vegetation is lush, though stones are scattered on the path. Joseph and the donkey look at the angel who faces away from us and toward the family. The angel is playing the violin, presumably lulling mother and child to sleep. Joseph's eyes are focused on the angel, but in his hands he holds the music manuscript, making the angel's music possible.

That seems to be Joseph's lot: keeping focused on doing what God calls him to do while making other people's work possible. Bless him. Let's give Joseph a little more attention this Christmas season.

* Weems' poem "Getting to the Front of the Stable" is in the collection Kneeling in Bethlehem.

For additional thoughts on Matthew 2:13-23, click here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nativity: Familiar Details

If you've seen one European painting of Jesus' nativity (Luke 2:1-14), you may be inclined to believe you've seen them all. But what we understand as the "usual" arrangement for those nativity paintings has an interesting history. It has roots in Sweden.

In the tradition of icons, Mary is often shown reclining, resting after her labor and the birth of Jesus. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in Italy, the usual pose for the infant Jesus was on the lap of his mother Mary who is seated on a throne. Magi, saints, donors, and music-making angels visited the enthroned madonna, who is dressed in a red garment topped by a dark blue cloak. The Maesta Altarpiece (top left) was commissioned in 1308 by the city of Siena, Italy. Maesta means majesty, and this piece is considered among the most sublime examples of the type.

On the other side of Europe in Sweden, a widow named Bridget (Birgitta) founded a religious order after one of the many visions she was given in her lifetime. She left Sweden for Rome in 1349 and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1371-1372. While in Jerusalem she traveled to Bethlehem and received a vision of Jesus' nativity. She dictated the images to a scribe, and her vision became a strong influence on how the nativity was depicted in art.

Niccolo di Tommaso's Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity, the center panel of an triptych altarpiece (bottom left) is inspired by Bridget's vision. The artist and the mystic probably met in Naples, where both had ties and where Bridget was twice a resident and Niccolo had a patron and several commissions. Bridget returned from Jerusalem in 1372 and died in Naples in 1373.

Bridget's vision yielded the details of a cave with an ox and a donkey, a single candle on the wall, a golden-haired Mary wearing a white garment, Joseph who is an old man, Jesus lying directly on the ground, and more. Mary's actions are also new. As an enthroned madonna, Mary held her child on her lap, facing the viewer. In Bridget's vision Mary delivered the baby while on her knees. The "Adoration of the Christ Child" became a type after the diffusion of Bridget's vision. Mary no longer looks out at the viewer. Instead she looks at her son, who is so newborn that she hasn't even held him yet.

Niccolo has given credit to the woman whose vision has inspired this work. Bridget is shown kneeling at the bottom right of the center panel. She does not wear the Brigittine order's distinctive fabric crown with five red tips.

So many of those details are things we imagine have always been part of depictions of Jesus' birth. Surprisingly, always is only six or seven centuries.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maesta Altarpiece. 1308-1311. Siena: Cathedral Museo dell'Opera.
Niccolo di Tommaso. Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity (center panel). 1375-76. Philadelphia Museum of Art
For the text of Bridget's vision, click here.

For other thoughts on Christmas, click here and here.
For a view of Christmas Eve in Mexico, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Isaiah 7.10-16: Ask for a Sign

"Ask for a sign," Isaiah invites Ahaz. But Ahaz won't ask. (Isaiah 7:10-16) Maybe he didn't ask because he was afraid of what the sign would be. The sign-giver in the text is God, speaking through the prophet. The sign is meant to communicate the future of Ahaz' rule.

Sign painters in decades and centuries past didn't necessarily consider themselves artists, but they were definitely communicators on a giant scale. There work was as small as a card in a window and as large as the side of a building or the roof of a barn. The job was to make information as understandable as possible through size of letters, placements of words, and use of color. The information had to be comprehensible even from a moving car and persuasive. The point of the sign was to influence the viewer: to draw them into a shop or bring them to a tourist attraction or to sway them to try a product. The message had to be unmistakable.
 (Left) Uneeda Biscuit advertising mural on the side of the Union Hotel in Meridian, MS. 
(Right) "See Rock City" barn roof gets a new coat of paint. 
God gave the same kind of sign to Ahaz, even when Ahaz didn't want one. God's sign was a young woman who would have a child. The child would eventually replace Ahaz on the throne. God wrote it big. So big that we don't hear from Ahaz again in scripture until Isaiah 14:28 in an oracle dated the same year as Ahaz' death.

For additional information on the (almost) lost art of hand-painting signs, see The Pre-Vinylite Society, Brain Pickings, Craftsmanship Magazine, or the film.

For thoughts on Matthew 1:18-25, click here.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Matthew 11.2-11: John in Prison

John is in prison. We know how his story ends, and I suspect that he may know how it is going to end as well. He wants reassurance that Jesus is the one. Remember that John was the first to point to Jesus as "the one," but it's different when the end is in sight. John sends his disciples to get the word straight from Jesus. Are you the one or should we wait for another? John's disciples go to Jesus and then return to relay Jesus' message.

The two images here show John behind bars having conversation with people who are presumably his disciples. There isn't a clue that definitively tells us whether this is John commissioning the disciples or hearing their report. Either way, John's situation isn't changed, but if these are depictions of the disciples reporting back, John is that much closer to the end of his life.

The images are as you'd expect: imposing architecture with secure-looking bars cage in a less-than-robust prisoner who converses with a small group of people standing in the stone-tiled courtyard. But each of these images also includes an animal. And they are puzzling.
(Left) Giovanni di Paolo. St. John In Prison Visited by Two Disciples. 1455-1460. Art Institute of Chicago. 
(Right) Master of Astorga. St. John the Baptist Visited in Prison. 17th century. 
Giovanni di Paolo's version (left) has the animal chained to an outside wall of John's cell. The creature is lying belly-to-the-ground and looks away from John and the disciples. In the version by the Mastor of Astorga (right), the creature is sitting on its back haunches, echoing John's position by looking at the disciples wearing a collar but not chained to anything or anyone.

What are these two animals? One could identify the chained animal in Giovanni di Paolo's work as a leopard. The facial features are more cat-like as is the tail, and the spots aren't similar to any other dog in the artist's work. The dogs with the shepherds in his Nativity are furrier than this creature. And without the tell-tale spots. Leopards were known in Italy, so it isn't outside the realm of possibility that Giovanni di Paolo has depicted a leopard. The creature in the painting at right is more recognizably a dog.  

What do these two creatures add to the story? Leopards (assuming that's a leopard*) are symbols of sin or Satan. Sometimes they are used to represent lust. Here the animal is chained. Is lust chained here? Or sin? In this image, John the Baptist is the other being held captive. Is one supposed to see similarities between John and the animal? Why is the animal looking away from John? Add to the discussion that the animal is gone by the time of John's beheading (see Giovanni's adjoining panel in the St. John altarpiece here). 

The dog is a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness. Whose faithfulness is symbolized? John's faithfulness to Jesus? The disciples' loyalty to John? Perhaps this is a moment of transferring loyalties. Perhaps John is releasing his disciples so they can follow Jesus rather than John. Remember that here the dog is echoing John's position, though the dog is outside the cell. 

John's imprisonment no doubt led to depression. So we can assume that John was comforted by the report he received. The voice in the wilderness had, indeed, been crying the right thing. What do these animals add to the story? 

*The leopard as a symbol here may be related to Dante's Inferno, which Giovanni di Paolo illustrated. 

For thoughts on Isaiah 35:1-10, click here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Matthew 3.1-12: And You're Missing It

John's message is very clear: Repent because the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Matthew 3:2) What seems more implied is that the people are missing this close encounter with the kingdom of God. Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near and you are missing it! The ax is at the foot of the tree. All it will take is one blow, and you don't even see that it is there. Repent!

Hard to imagine, we might think. Hard to imagine that there is Jesus walking around and folks are missing it. They are going about their lives, trying to survive in the face of an occupying army. Trying to make a living, find enough food for their children, get through each day. Their attention is on other things, and so they miss Jesus, who looks like all the other people they see every day.

It's easy to miss what might be in plain sight. For example, the paintings here. Do you know them? Recognize them? Are they related in any way?
(Left) Leonardo da Vinci. Last Supper. 1495-1498. Milan: S. Maria delle Grazie. 
(Right) Vincent Van Gogh. Cafe Terrace at Night. 1888. Otterlo, Netherlands: Kroller-Muller Museum. 

Maybe. Depending on what you see.

According to some scholars (and viewers), Van Gogh is paying homage to the Leonardo on the right. On the cafe terrace are twelve figures in and among the tables. The central figure (wearing white) has a window behind his head. In the Van Gogh painting, the window pane lines form a cross behind him. The figures are seated at tables on a terrace, rendered in one-point perspective. Those things are also true of the Leonardo. Is the evidence convincing to you? Is it there and we've been missing it all these years because we see a cafe terrace at night and are satisfied with that?

The Leonardo on the right has been studied and copied and referenced for five hundred years. It is the prototype of last suppers. Figures at a table. One-point perspective. Window behind the head of the central figure. Easily read. But maybe there is something that we aren't seeing. What if there were music in the painting? What if we've been walking by, staring, studying this painting for half a millennium...and we've missed it?

Jesus looked like everyone else. He lived like everyone else. But despite appearances he wasn't like everyone else, and many of the people around him missed it. John was trying to help them. By letting them know that the kingdom of heaven was not to be missed.

For thoughts on vipers (Matthew 3:1-12) see this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

For additional thoughts on Isaiah 11:1-10, click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Matthew 24.36-44: Surpris!

No one knows the hour. Or even the day. Life will be going on as always...dinner parties, weddings, family reunions. And then...surprise! The Son of Man will be here. (Matthew 24:36-44) The follow-up in Matthew's gospel has to do with surprise after surprise after surprise. So stay awake, the gospel writer says, because you never know when it might happen.

That kind of day - when God enters the world and changes the world - is a thread throughout scripture. The prophets spoke of it (Isaiah 2:12, Amos 5:18, Joel 2:32), and not always with images that are comforting.

Be awake. Be aware. Be ready.

Henri Rousseau's painting below tells a tale of unexpected things. Originally titled Tiger in a Tropical Storm the painting shows a tiger, crouching, with teeth bared, as a streak of lightning splits the sky and rain streaks through the painting. That original title was changed after the painting was rejected by the jury for the 1891 show of the Academie de Peinture et Sculpture. Rousseau renamed the picture Surprised! (in French, Surpris!) and showed it instead in the Salon des Independents, a show that was unjuried and open to all artists.
Henri Rousseau. Surprised! 1891. London: National Gallery 
The newer title is ambiguous. Who is surprised? The jurors who rejected the painting and assumed it would never be in an art show? The tiger who was taken unaware by the storm and lightning strike? Or the prey just out of the picture space who is getting ready to be surprised - and not in a good way - by the tiger? 

Whatever way, something unexpected has happened or is about to happen. Had the tiger expected the storm and strike, it would have made plans to be safe at home. Had the prey known the tiger was coming, it would have taken a different path.

And we also must be ready.

For thoughts on Isaiah 2:1-5, click here.
For thoughts on Matthew 24:41, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Luke 23.33-43: King and Kin

Remember me when you come into your kingdom. That's the request made by one of the thieves being crucified with Jesus. Jesus' response is a promise that the one thief will be with him in paradise. Not at some unknown time in the future, but that very day. (Luke 23:43) It is a promise that clearly shows who Jesus is. Even in this moment, Jesus offers the gift of relationship to the thief. With me, Jesus says.

But you'd never know that from most of the images of the crucifixion. In most images, three crosses, each with a human figure, are separated completely from each other. Sky, clouds, or other background elements are clearly visible between either the outstretched arms of the cross or the bent arms of the thieves. This separation clearly reflects the relationship between a king and the residents of the kingdom. Royalty does not mix with common people. Remember Lerner and Loewe's King Arthur sitting around wondering, "What do the simple folk do?" Pietro Lorenzetti (below left) captures the distance between Jesus and the thieves. His perspective seems to indicate that the two crosses are behind Jesus'.

But the text tells us that Jesus is reaching out to those around him. In that, Jesus is acting more like kin than king. He will not be separated from people who reach out to him. The icon fragment (below center) gives a hint of that.
(Left) Pietro Lorenzetti. The Crucifixion. 1430s. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Center) Crucifixion with Two Thieves. 8th century. St. Catherine Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. (Right) Hans von Tubingen. Crucifixion. c. 1430s. Vienna: Osterreiche Galerie Belvedere. (currently unable to connect link)
The thief at Jesus' right in the icon fragment (above center) is placed literally under Jesus' hand. The blood from the wound in Jesus' hand seems to be pouring onto the thief's head. It might even be that in this moment, the thief is being "washed in the blood of the Lamb," becoming part of the family.

The Hans Tubingen painting (above right) places Christ's hand above the thief on his right, but there is distance between hand and head, and there is no blood tying the thief to Jesus. However, the head of the thief on Jesus' right leans his head toward Jesus insuring that his head is (at least in the picture space) under Jesus' hand.

In this painting, though, we see what is happening with the other thief, and what is happening is a complete rejection of Jesus. Though Jesus' hand is placed so that it could be in a visual relationship with the head of the thief on the left, the artist has curved that thief's torso over the top of the tau-shaped cross. He appears to be leaning back as if to move himself as far away from Jesus as possible. Rejecting Jesus as both king and kin.

For additional thoughts on the reign of Christ, click here, here, here, or here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

2 Thessalonians 3.6-13: The Story Sounds Familiar

And now...a few words about your behavior. Specifically those of you who aren't contributing members of the community. You didn't learn that from us. We were busy and working when we were with you. We could have expected you to provide us with room and board, so we didn't have to do work ourselves, but that wasn't the lesson we wanted you to see and learn. But we hear that some of you there... That's a paraphrase of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. And a problem that crops up in almost every community.

Remember what we said: Whoever doesn't work, doesn't eat. Everyone needs to be contributing to the health and survival of the community, not expecting to live off the work of others.

Jerry Pinkney. The Grasshopper and the Ants. NY: Little Brown, 2015.
It reminds me of Aesop's fable about the grasshopper (in the original it is a cicada) and the ants. Boiled down, the story focuses on a grasshopper who, in late autumn, stops to talk to a group of ants who are drying grain that they had gathered and stored in the summer. The grasshopper was hungry. He had been so busy making music during the summer that he didn't think about taking time to put food by. The ants refuse his request, suggesting that he can dance the winter away.

Even the writer of Proverbs (6:6-9) spotlights the industriousness of the ant:
Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
When will you rise from your sleep?

If you don't work, you don't eat. There is a time to work and a time to play. Of course, the ants might have shown a little grace. 

For thoughts on wolves and lambs (Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19), see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook
For thoughts on Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19, click here.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Haggai 1.5b-2.6: Seals and Signets

How do you know it's real? How do you know that you've gotten the word straight from the mouth of the horse...or king...or God? One way is that the one in authority has a stamp, a seal, a signet. When a document bears the proper stamp, seal, or signet, the hearers/readers know that the contents are real and true.

Darius had a seal:
The Darius Seal. 6th century BCE - 5th century BCE. Chalcedony and prase. London: British Museum. 
The cylinder seal is rolled across (and pressed into) the clay or wax that sealed a document. Darius' official seal shows the ruler in a chariot driven by a charioteer and pulled by two horses (two heads are shown but only one body). A lion stands on its back feet facing the chariot, and a lion cub is face-down on the ground under the horses' hooves. Above the scene is a winged sun-disc form that is part  bearded male but also has wings and a tail. There is a ground line on which grow fruit-laden palm trees and vertical inscription panels. The inscriptions, written in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite say: I (am) Darius, the king. The Babylonian translation says, "I [am]Darius, the king. The Babylonian adds "great" before the word king.

Darius was able to use this cylinder to stamp an impression that everyone understood as a sign that the accompanying message was authentic. Interestingly, later in Haggai 2, this idea of a means of identifying authentic messages comes up again. Haggai 2:20-23 says:
20 The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, 22and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade. 23On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the Lord, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the Lord of hosts.

Zerubbabel becomes God's signet ring. Not a stone cylinder but a living human.

Is this Zerubbabel's Temple? See this week's Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.
For additional thoughts on Haggai 1:5b-2:6, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38, click here

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Luke 19.1-10: Out on a Limb

When they saw it they all murmured. (Luke 19:7) Oh, those murmurers. Murmurers can make anyone (or everyone!) feel like they are out on a limb.

Zacchaeus was literally out on a limb. Unable to see Jesus, he climbed a tree. By end of the story, Zacchaeus hadn't just seen Jesus, he had spent time with Jesus, had hosted Jesus in his home. But people had murmured about Zacchaeus, the head tax collector.

Jesus went out on a limb inviting himself to anyone's home, much less the home of the chief tax collector. "Today I'm going to your house, Zacchaeus" and Zacchaeus climbed down from the tree and walked home with Jesus. But people murmured about Jesus, who ate with sinners.

They murmured about Jesus. They murmured about Zacchaeus. Some people may have even murmured about the sculpture shown here. The piece has all the right elements: two men and a tree, with one man in the tree. We expect to see those elements. You may have noticed that the artist went out on a limb by dressing neither man in "Bible clothes." The carver, John Mack Walker, chose to set Bible stories in 1950s Appalachia (the USA mountain south). In this piece Jesus and Zacchaeus both wear suit-style coats and sturdy work shoes. Light reflects off Zacchaeus' bald head as he looks down at Jesus looking up at him. You can imagine the murmurings when people see both a savior and a tax collector dressed like them.

The murmurers didn't change Jesus' mind or Zacchaeus' mind. But Jesus changed Zacchaeus' heart. Zacchaeus found a new way to live, and Jesus sought and saved one more lost soul. Going out on a limb worked out for both of them.

(Above) John Mack Walker. Invitation to Zacchaeus. 1979. Walnut 30.5" x 12" x 12".

For thoughts on both Luke 19 and Habakkuk 1, click here.
For additional thoughts on Habakkuk 1, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Joel 2.23-32: Olive Oil and Grasshoppers

I will repay you, God says through the prophet Joel. I will repay you for the crops destroyed by the locusts or eaten by the grasshopper (Joel 2:23-32). Instead of bare fields eaten by insects, there will be vats of wine and olive oil. There will be plenty to eat, and God's spirit will be poured out on all people.
Vincent Van Gogh. Olive Trees.  1889. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Kansas City, MO. 
Vincent Van Gogh's painting "Olive Trees" shows olive trees in full leaf against a brilliant blue sky. The coolness of the painting is further enhanced by the blue shadows cast by the trees. The ground is a greenish-gray mixed with white. This is a time of plenty. This is the time of repayment. But what about the grasshoppers? How are they "repaid" for the destruction they left in their wake?

Oddly, this painting has a statement about that as well. In 2017 the Nelson-Atkins Museum undertook a close examination of the painting as part of research about fugitive paint colors (those colors that fade over time and change what the artist intended). The examination yielded questions about a red paint that Van Gogh used. But it also yielded the revelation that since Van Gogh sat outside with his paints and canvas, this painting has been the final resting place of...a grasshopper.
A paleo-entomologist determined that the grasshopper was already dead when it found its way to the canvas (there are no signs of struggle in the surrounding paint). But here, in the shade of these full olive trees, this particular grasshopper has been repaid. For all time.

To see the embedded grasshopper and read more about the painting, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 18:9-14, click here.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Jeremiah 31.27-34: There's Nothing Good About Sour Grapes

No longer will one generation suffer for what their ancestors did. In the days that are surely coming, self-responsibility is the name of the game. If your teeth are on edge it's because YOU ate sour grapes (Jeremiah 31:27-34) not because one of your ancestors did. That seems fair.

But another cultural take on sour grapes has to do with not eating the grapes. Aesop's fable about the fox and the grapes gives us the contemporary meaning of "sour grapes." In the fable, the fox sees a bunch of beautiful grapes hanging from a vine that is intertwined with tree branches. The grapes look delicious, so the fox jumps to grab the bunch in his mouth. He wasn't even close. So he stepped back, ran toward the tree and leaped at the last minute. Still nothing. A third attempt. No grapes. So the fox sat and looked again at the bunch. He walked away from the tree and the grapes saying (in paraphrase), "You know, they are probably sour anyway." It's easy to despise what you can't get. That's the moral of the fable.
The Fox and the Grapes. Watercolor. For the artist's Etsy shop, click here.
So is it getting the sour grapes that sets teeth on edge? Or is it not getting the grapes that sets your teeth on edge? Either way, there doesn't seem to be anything good about sour grapes. 

For thoughts on Jeremiah 31:31-34, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 18:1-8, click here.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Jeremiah 29.1, 4-7: Doing What God Says

Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens. Eat the food you produce. Raise your children. Have grandchildren. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7) In other words, settle in. You are going to be there for a while. So the people do what God commands. And now we know that's exactly what they did.

In 2015 the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem held an exhibition titled "By the Rivers of Babylon." The focus of the exhibit was a collection of clay tablets - not a lot to look at, really - that offered a look at just what the exiles did while they were in Babylon. Written in cuneiform, the tablets gave details of life in the 6th century BCE.
Cuneiform tablet on display in "By the Rivers of Babylon." Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem.
If your cuneiform is a little rusty (as mine is), I can tell you that the tablets are a civic archive: rental agreements, tax records, and land deeds. The names are Hebrew names (or Babylonian versions of those names). A collection of the tablets are connected to a town called Al-Yahudu (the City of Judah).
"By the Rivers of Babylon" opened at the Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem in February 2015. 
See below for links to the exhibit. 
God instructed the people to make lives for themselves and seek the welfare of the city where they found themselves. And that's exactly what the people did. Which doesn't mean they weren't homesick for Israel, just that they looked ahead as much as they looked back.

For a virtual tour of the exhibit, click here.
Because of the success of "By the Rivers of Babylon", the core of the exhibition was reinstalled at the BLMJ in an exhibit titled "Jerusalem in Babylon: New Light on the Judean Exiles." For that exhibit, click here.

For thoughts on Luke 17:11-19, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 17:11-19, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lamentations 1.1-6: The Course of Empire

Was it inevitable? That the great city would one day fall? And by the scriptural description, the city has fallen. (Lamentations 1:1-6) Nineteenth-century American landscape painter Thomas Cole created a series of five paintings he called "The Course of Empire." For Cole, civilization seemed to be a cycle (an inevitable cycle?) of appearing, maturing...and collapsing. The artist chose a line from Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" as the motto for the series:
            There is the moral of all human tales;
            'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
            First Freedom, and then Glory -- when that fails,
            Wealth, vice, corruption, -- barbarism at last. (Canto IV, CVIII, line 964ff.)

It isn't especially optimistic. And "Destruction" isn't an especially optimistic image.
Thomas Cole. Destruction of Empire. 1836. New York Historical Society.
"Destruction" is the fourth of the five paintings in the series. The five pictures depict the Savage State, The Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. "Destruction"  shares the same broad perspective as "Consummation," though it looks more to the right side of the city built around this harbor while the third stage looks at the left. A storm appears in the distance, buildings are on fire, and there is a storm of violence throughout the city. A bridge close to the front of the picture space is broken, eliminating one way of fleeing the carnage, though a makeshift assemblage of some kind is shakily holding what appears to be too many people. The statue (reminiscent of this statue) in the foreground is headless.

It's a far cry from the height of civilization, shown below in "Consummation of Empire."
At the height of its glory and power, the city was shining with classical architectural perfection. A procession, seemingly in honor of a scarlet-cloaked man, has brought people onto the bridge that will be ruined by the next stage of empire.

It's not hard to feel the pain and despair in Lamentations because the text puts us in the middle of the destruction. Cole gives us the luxury of being more distant from events than does the writer of Lamentations. Is that a luxury for which we should hope?

For thoughts on Psalm 137, click here.
For thoughts on 2 Timothy 1:1-14, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15: A Long Time

This is one of my favorite moments in scripture. What a seemingly pointless activity: buying a field when the Babylonian army is at the city gates (Jeremiah 32:8). Why would any intelligent person invest in property just before the cataclysmic event that guaranteed destruction of home and field and livelihood? It makes as much sense as this fence.

The difference is that God is playing a long game. Yes, the Babylonian army is at the city gates. But they won't be there forever. There will come a time when the people are back in the land. They will build houses. They will plant vineyards. They will live on their family lands. God has promised. 

And that makes Jeremiah's real estate purchase look quite forward-thinking. What Jeremiah knows, of course, is that God's promises are true. So Jeremiah buys the field, has the legal papers drawn up, and directs the deed to be put in an earthenware jar so that it will last for a long time...long enough for the Babylonians to be gone and the people to come home. It's apparently a practice that continued long after Jeremiah's time.  
Dead Sea Scroll Jar and Lid. 2nd century BCE. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the 2nd century BCE, the people of Qumran and other nearby places put scrolls in jars, and they lasted for a long time. (Re)discovered in 1947, the jars held scrolls in a variety of conditions. Some still legible, others nothing but powder, but the legible pieces have yielded fragments from every book of the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Esther. 

Those scrolls survived more than two thousand years. Long enough for the Babylonian army to be long gone and done with the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. 

Two other passages seem to intersect with this passage. The discovery of the jars and scrolls in 1947 is attributed to Bedouin shepherds looking for a lost goat. We should be grateful for the shepherd who went looking for the lost (Luke 15:1-10). And Jeremiah 18 - the trip to the potter's house -has something to say about the role and symbol of earthenware jars. 

Garth Brooks' song "The Change" (1995/Written by Tony Arata and Wayne Tester) centers on actions that may look ineffectual in facing world events. The video for the song features images following the Oklahoma City bombing.

For additional thoughts on Jeremiah 32, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook
For thoughts on Luke 16:19-31, click here.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Jeremiah 8.18 - 9.1: Wounds

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician? God's people are inBlogger: Art & Faith Matters - Overview stats need of healing, but none seems to be found. (Jeremiah 8:18-9:1) Having just these verses of scripture - no context other than the word "slain" - I wondered about the extent of the wounds. Could they be cured with a balm? Did  the physician need to be in general practice or a surgeon? How else does scripture talk about wounds? Isaiah's suffering servant is wounded for our transgressions. The man beaten by robbers has his wounds bound up and cared for by the good Samaritan.

Probably the most recognizable are the wounds of Christ and within that broad story, the images of Thomas regarding the wound in Jesus' side is among the most common. Caravaggio's version above is typical. In Caravaggio's depiction, Thomas does actually put his finger into the wound in Jesus' side. The wound itself became the object of regard and an avenue to closeness with Jesus as early Christians claimed Thomas' privilege for themselves. They sought to touch the wounds of Jesus. The sought to be on the same intimate terms with Jesus as were the disciples.

As the wound grew in popularity as an object of devotion, it was inserted into a mandorla (an almond-shaped frame) and depicted on jewelry and tombs and fonts as well as in medieval manuscripts. Christ's wounds were celebrated, reminding the faithful that Christ had indeed been embodied on this year. But no earthly, medicinal balm could cure those wounds. In fact, the wounds were the balm that could cure the ills of the world.

But the ills of the world remain.

Mark Rothko's paintings are among those most open to interpretation (just ask my high school students!). There seems to be no subject matter implied or specified by the painting. No trees or houses. No portraits. No words or symbols. It's just color. Blocks of color. And yet.

Rothko, though not associated with a particular school or movement, painted in the time following two world wars when a  number of artists moved away from identifiable subject matter. Rather than replicating reality, those artists used their work to ask bigger questions about humanity, about what it means to be human, about how we find meaning in this world.

I'm sure it is helped along by the color reference of reds, but the painting here seems to me to speak of open wounds and depths and unknowns. It would be easy to stand in front of the painting and visually fall into it  (it is about 8.5 feet by 10 feet). There seems to be no escape, the only option to move deeper and deeper. This was, essentially, what Caravaggio's Thomas and the followers of the Cult of the Side Wound wanted to do: move into closer contact with the wound of Christ. Perhaps it is only through moving closer that we can come to understand and heal the wounds of humanity.

Of course, that is what Jesus did in becoming human. Move closer to the wounds of the world, bringing healing with him. Is there a balm in Gilead? Who or what is that balm? Or will a balm just not do the work...and do we need a surgeon?

(Top) Caravaggio. The Incredulity of St. Thomas. 1603. Sanssouci Picture Gallery. Potsdam, Germany. (Middle) The Side Wound of Christ. Book of Hours. France, perhaps Verdun and Paris, ca. 1375. MS M.90 fol. 130r. NY: Morgan Library and Museum. (Bottom) Mark Rothko. Four Darks in Red. 1958. NY: Whitney Museum of American Art.

What does Abraham Lincoln have to do with this? See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

For thoughts on Mammon in Luke 16:1-13, click here.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Luke 15.1-10: Two

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:1-10) Images that incorporate this text usually show just that. One sheep down in a ravine with a shepherd hovering close by, reaching down with a crooked shepherd's staff ready to crook the handle around the sheep's neck and pull it up to the ledge where the shepherd is waiting. So it is with the two paintings here. Neither moves beyond illustration of the setting of the story: shepherd, staff, sheep, clouds in sky, mountain, reaching.

It is when the two paintings get together that something interesting becomes apparent. What do you see?
(Left) Unable to identify artist or collection of this painting. Please email if you can help. 
(Right) Alford U. Soord. The Lost Sheep. Many different versions (including prints) of this painting exist. 
One version is at the Church of St. Barnabas, Homerton, East London.
Though some things are similar, two differences emerge. One is the depiction of the sheep. In the image on the left, the sheep is black, perpetuating the symbolism of the sinner as a "black sheep." The Soord painting does not include that stereotype.

That one lost obvious is that sheep? Does the "lostness" show up on the outside of the animal in addition to the sheep physically being absent? Does the stereotype want us to imagine the shepherd finally finding the lost sheep and exasperatedly saying, "I might have known that you would be the lost one"? 

The second difference is the point of view. In Soord's painting we are looking over the shoulder of the shepherd. We see past the shepherd across the seemingly bottomless valley to the mountains beyond, seeing the bird flying in the the space in between. In the painting on the left, we are parallel not to the shepherd but to the sheep. We are looking up into the face of the shepherd. 

That point of view offers us the thought that perhaps there was another lost sheep. And maybe that other lost us.

For thoughts on the lost coins, click here
For another look at found sheep, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Luke 14.25-33: Part and Parthenon

Oops. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28) Oh, I'm sure we'll get enough money to complete it. We should go on and start...the remaining funds will surely come in.

That's probably close to the conversation that happened in Edinburgh in the early 1820s. In 1822 a group of Edinburgh citizens determined to build a monument to honor the Scots killed during the Napoleonic Wars. They chose to construct an exact copy of the Parthenon. Their monument would stand on the "acroplis" of Edinburgh as the Parthenon stands on Athens' Acropolis.

The estimated cost was £42,000. When construction began £24,000 had been raised. Surely the rest of it would come in. The plan for for each stone to be an exact match to the paired stone from the ancient building. Measurements were exactly the same for every stone. A foundation was built, and twelve columns were stacked.
National Monument of Scotland. Begun 1822. Edinburgh, Scotland.
But the money never came in. Construction was halted in just a couple of years. The monument remains unfinished. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' (Luke 14:28-30) [And lest you think I am singling out Edinburgh - one of my favorite cities on earth...this is far from the only example. See the Presidents Park and the Siena Cathedral for two of many.]

These projects should make us think, though, about the cost of following Jesus. Have you "counted all the funds needed" for your discipleship? Are you willing to toss your life, your livelihood, your family into the pot? Maybe just your livelihood. Maybe just your family. Maybe you've only got enough for a foundation or twelve columns. If you haven't acquired all the "capital" needed for discipleship, you can't be a disciple, Jesus says. Part of the Parthenon won't do.

For thoughts about Psalm 139, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.
For thoughts about Jeremiah 18:1-11, click here.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Jeremiah 2.4-13: Worth

They went after worthless things and became worthless themselves. That's what God has to say about the ancestors of the house of Jacob (Jeremiah 2:4-13). God then reminds the people of what has come to them as a result of their relationship with God. And yet, God wonders, they traded the relationship with God for something less. For something with less value...for something that, by comparison, has no worth.

Of course, who defines worth? Who defines how much something is worth? Consider the photo below. What do you think this ceramic piece is worth? Really, stop to consider and come up with a figure before you read ahead. And, yes, the background may tell you that this is from Antiques Roadshow. How much is it worth?

Would you believe $30,000 to $50,000? That's what the Antiques Roadshow appraiser said the piece was worth. It really is a one-of-a-kind piece, probably late 19th or early 20th century, and worth $30,000 to $50,000. Not bad when the owner had purchased it at an estate sale for $300. So an original appraiser (at the estate sale) said it was worth $300. The AR appraiser multiplied that figure by a thousand. And now it's worth $30,000 to $50,000. What changed about the piece that all of a sudden it was worth a thousand times more money than before? Worth. Is it true that things are really only worth whatever you can get someone to pay for them?

Here's the first twist to this story of changing worth. A viewer watching this episode of Antiques Roadshow immediately called a friend and told the friend that she needed to go online and watch this appraisal. Turns out that the friend created the piece. In high school in the 1970s. Hmmm. Now how much is the piece worth? What would you say?

The AR appraiser revised the appraisal to $3,000 to $5,000. So now it's worth ten times less than it was. It's been worth $300, $3,000, even $30,000. All the same piece. No changes whatsoever. What is it worth?

What's worthless here? The object? The human ability to identify "worth"? The human need to attach worth to things? Our understanding of what things are really "worth"?

It's that last question that may hold the key. If we are swayed by the opinions and pronouncements of others about the worth of things, then we shall surely chase after things that are ultimately worthless. And in doing so, we will become worthless in our ability to live lives of faithful service to God.

The story of the object above has one more twist. The man who paid $300 for the piece at an estate sale bought it because he loved it. When it was "worth" $30,000, he put it away for safekeeping. Now that it is "worth" less, he has brought it back out where he can enjoy it. Which was why he bought it in the first place. One last twist on worth: the piece's creator, Betsy Soule, was surprised to find that someone was willing to pay $300 in the first place. She said if she had known he liked the piece (and it had been in her possession), she probably would have given it to him. What's that worth?

For additional reading about this story, click here or here .
For thoughts on Luke 14:1, 7-14, click here.