Sunday, February 24, 2019

Exodus 34 and II Corinthians 3: The Reasons for Veils

What is the purpose of a veil? Is it to conceal? Is it to reveal in part? Is it to protect? Is it to hint? The story of the veil worn by Moses is told in Exodus (34:29-35) and then is referenced by Paul in II Corinthians 3:12-4:2. Over the course of those two texts, the veil is examined in a variety of ways.

Exodus reports that Moses wore a veil because the splendor of God reflected in Moses' face alarmed the people. Moses removed the veil when he went in to speak with God, so the veil does not screen Moses from God. Moses went before God bare-faced. The veil eases the relationship between Moses and the people. As did Moses, the veil stands between the people and God's glory.

In II Corinthians Paul appropriates Moses' veil as a recurring image in discussing the relationship between Jewish law, Jesus, and Christian understanding. He reinterprets Moses' veil as something that conceals a dying light. Certainly the law had a glory when it was given, but that glory, Paul asserts, like the law itself, is not the last word. It fades in the presence of a greater light. Paul goes on to announce Jesus as glory even greater, and also given by God. Jesus removes the veil from between the people and God's glory (notice that the veil is now worn by the people rather than Moses), allowing them to see God's undiminishing glory in Jesus.

For Moses, the veil was a necessary addition in his relationship with God's people. For Jesus, the veil must be removed so that people can see the full glory of God. Does that make the veil about concealment? Protection? Accommodation? Hindrance?
(Left) Rafaello Monti. Veiled Lady. c. 1860. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Museum of Art.
(Right) Giuseppe Sanmartino. Veiled Christ. 1753. Capella Sansevero, Naples. 
For a group of sculptors - mostly Italian, but not all - the reason for veils was none of these things. For these artists, the reason for covering a face with a veil was to demonstrate virtuoso carving. These artists crafted images of women with their faces and heads veiled. Through the skill of the carver, one could "see" through marble, a decidedly non-transparent material.

Though these veiled sculptural  images are usually women, Italian artist Giuseppe Sanmartino was commissioned to create a full-length figure of Jesus Christ in death, wrapped in a transparent shroud. Through the sheer veil, the viewer sees the face of Christ, peaceful yet showing the signs of his painful death.

The veils in these sculptures don't obviously echo any of the uses described by Moses or Paul. But they may speak to a God who does not see as humans see, but who sees beyond and sees through and sees into humanity, which sometimes may seem as opaque as marble. Perhaps these sculptural images can remind us that though the people used a veil to add one degree of separation of themselves from God's glory, nothing - not even an attempt to hide our own faces - can separate us from the love (or glory) of God.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a veil where a face is revealed.
 For Transfiguration Sunday, click here, here, and here.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Luke 6.27-38: It's Self-Explanatory

There isn't anything hidden or symbolic or metaphorical about Luke 6:27-38. It's self-explanatory. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Golden Rule, 1961. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2” x 39 1/2”. 
Stockbridge, MA: Norman Rockwell Museum Collections.
Norman Rockwell, known for his detailed, literal illustrations, is just the artist for this text. Because there's nothing metaphorical or symbolic about it.

It's just hard.

But it's never been more important than it is right now.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a duel for the liturgical year.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Luke 6.17-26: Jesus Makes a Point

Did he preach standing on the side of a mountain? Was it on a flat piece of ground? The gospel writers differ, but in each case the meat of Jesus' sermon includes what we call the Beatitudes (Luke 6:17-26). The Beatitudes remind us of who is blessed (makarios can also be translated "greatly honored") in God's realm and who faces woe when that realm comes.

Jesus' phrases are familiar, but trying to capture all of his words leaves most artists with a generic scene of Jesus surrounded by disciples and crowds. In many of the images Jesus is making a widely-recognized oratorical gesture. His arm is raised and his index finger is pointed upward. You can see Socrates, Socrates again, even a toga-clad George Washington making the same gesture. It is a gesture designed to call attention to a particular point being made by the speaker.

In the work shown here, Jesus' disciples are gathered around him along with a crowd of people. In a soft golden light, a backlit Jesus sits but has raised his right arm. His finger points upward, echoing the gesture of Socrates and George Washington.

 At what point do you think this is? What is the point of the sermon where Jesus raises his right hand to emphasize his point? Surely he did not hold up that hand through the entire sermon. Is he emphasizing that the poor (the reading is from Luke's gospel, after all) to whom the kingdom of God belongs. Or perhaps he is emphasizing the woes to come for those who are full or for those who are laughing. What do you think is the most important part of the sermon? Or even the most important of the Beatitudes? What is Jesus' point?

The painting shown here is attributed to Gustave Dore online, but I'm unable to find a collection source that offers definitive information. You might look at other paintings of Jesus preaching this sermon and survey the many different hand gestures. Which ones are inviting? Which ones are forbidding? Are there some that seem to show uncertainty? Can those body language cues give you a way to interpret the entire sermon?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...destination preaching! Click here.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Psalm 138: Based on Characters Created By

This reflection is more art reflection than text reflection. If you want more on Isaiah 6 or Luke 5, the links are below. This reflection will instead be looking at how one artist interpreted a particular psalm and then, between 5 and 500 years later, how another artist interpreted the art of the earlier artist. The subject is Psalm 138, though in the Vulgate, some changes in numbering make this Psalm 137.
(Left) Utrecht Psalter, folio 77v. c. 820-845. Utrecht, Holland: University Library, Universiteit Utrecht. (Right) Harley MS 603, folio 70v. c. 1000-1500. London: British Library. For quickest access to folio 70v of Harley MS 603, use the pull down menu at the top right of the image window.
The earlier text is the Utrecht Psalter, was created c. 820-845 in Reims, France. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the manuscript was in Canterbury, England, as part of the collection of Robert Cotton. Probably during that time, the manuscript was copied. That copy is identified as Harley MS 603 in the British Library.

The two manuscripts do have some stylistic similarities, but the differences are obvious enough that we know the scribe(s)/illustrator(s) of Harley 603 were not compelled to make a slavish copy. The later illustrations may have been based on something in the earlier image, but there are enough differences to be obvious. One of the most obvious is the fact that in Harley no one is "bowing down toward [God's] holy temple" as verse 2 says in the NRSV translation. The translation of verse 2 offered on the Utrecht University website says "I will worship towards thy holy temple." Was the translation chosen recently to match the illustration? Why would artists - one more than a thousand years ago - make the choice to not show "bowing down"?

The notes for the Utrecht Psalter say the illustrations are visual representations of the text, phrase by phrase. The collection page linked in the photo caption allows you to click on a portion of the Utrecht illustration and identify the portion of the psalm being illustrated.
Though the arrangement of images is completely different, some of the elements are similar: the long basilica-shaped "temple," groups of people. But there are differences as well. In the notes for Harley, the description for Psalm 137: People praising the Lord (left) and the Psalmist standing before a temple; (lower image) people in captivity hold up their hands (left) and a king is given gifts by the hand of the Lord (right). What is missing as you read the text? Do you agree with the identifications of the images?

The center bottom image shows a seated figure holding a book(?)
(that may be in the upper register of the Utrecht image) and what seems to be a clump of vegetation: flowers, stems, leaves. Do you see reference to that in the text? Or is this just the artist filling space on the page with images of God's creation?

The two images can help us (maybe even force us) to define how we hear the psalm. Which do you think captures the text, the mood, the feeling of the Psalm?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, another manuscript of this psalm.
For thoughts on Isaiah 6:1-18, click here.
For thoughts on Luke 5:1-11, click here.