Sunday, March 31, 2019

Isaiah 43.16-21: Imperceivable

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? So God asks through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43:16-21). And the answer is, "Sometimes."

Sometimes God's "new thing" is as obvious as the Armory Show of 1913. The Armory Show, officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art, shocked the country when it opened in New York at the 69th Regiment Armory. Designed to introduce American audiences - who were used to Rembrandts and Raphaels - to the most contemporary art, the Armory show indeed attracted many visitors. More than 200,000 ticket-holders were willing to stand in long lines to see the work. 

What those exhibition-goers saw was so unlike what had come before that everyone had an opinion. Harriet Monroe defended the show and the artists, writing, "In a profound sense these radical artists are right. They represent a search for new beauty, impatience with formulae, a reaching out toward the inexpressible, a longing for new versions of truth observed." By contrast, a critic for the New York Times described the Marcel Duchamp painting below as looking like "an explosion in a shingle factory." That this was a new thing was perceived, to be sure. 
Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Impressionism seems to have been a "thing" as new as the Armory Show was. Monet's painting below, Impression: Sunrise, was the work that gave the movement its name. And the name wasn't particularly flattering. A critic, upon seeing both Monet's painting and the show in which it was first exhibited, wrote that all the paintings were "just impressions." This oh-so-new thing was not well-received by the wider public.
Claude Monet. Impression: Sunrise. 1872. Paris: Musee Marmottan.
But what if this oh-so-new thing really wasn't as new as we think. The Impressionists were influenced by the work of English artist J.M.W. Turner. Turner's work uses the brightened palette and broken brushstrokes for which the Impressionists are known. The painting detail below is every bit as impressionistic as the French painters' work was, but Turner was painting decades before the Impressionists. Or what about the Spanish artist Goya? In his Milkmaid of Bordeaux, his technique is easily characterized as "Impressionistic." And look at when that painting was done.
J.M.W. Turner. Rain, Steam, and Speed (detail). 1844. London: National Gallery. 

Goya. The Milkmaid of Bordeaux (La Lechera de Burdeos). 1827. Madrid: Museo del Prado.
A new thing that springs you perceive it? Sometimes yes. Sometimes that new art thing is as big and bold as you please and you really couldn't miss it if you tried. But sometimes the changes can only be seen in retrospect. You think nothing is changing, but all of a sudden you look back and understand the change was coming all along.

It's true in art. And it's true with God. ones, old ones, God ones...take a look at Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page here.
For thoughts on John 12.1-9, click here.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Joshua 5. 9-12: Desert. Food.

Desert suggests an inhospitable place, a place where survival is not a sure thing. Certainly the Israelites felt that way about the desert through which they wandered. They remembered Egyptian food with longing: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:5) And yet they were provided food - quail and manna - for all the years between Egypt and the Promised Land. But there came a time when the manna ended (Joshua 5:9-12).
Ercole de Roberti. The Israelites Gathering Manna  Probably 1490s. London: National Gallery.
Because it's hard to show a negative, there are few (any?) works of art that show the Israelites on the first morning they did not gather manna. In the 15th century painting above, they gather the small pellet-shaped manna on a morning with a very clear blue sky. At the left, Moses and Aaron encourage the people to gather the food they will need for the day. But one day, the manna ended.
The end of daily manna did not mark the end of God's providence. Instead, it marked the end of a particular kind of providence. Instead of the daily ration of manna and quail, the people were provided a land whose agricultural produce would feed the people. But there were differences. When God was providing daily manna, the people didn't have to do anything in order to eat other than wake up and gather what was given to them.

Once they were in the land, that changed. The land might have been productive, but the people had to make it produce. They would need to plant crops, tend, and harvest them. They would need to save seed for the following year. They would need to tend the land itself, not allowing the nutrients in the soil to be depleted but instead doing everything they could to care for it. If they were not attentive to the task, they would not have food.

Ironically, it was possible that they would have less food available to them in the land flowing with milk and honey than they did in the desert. Though the menu would be more varied.

A Note for Lent:
The season of Lent is often observed by fasting from various foods - meat, oil, chocolate. But fasting is only a spiritual discipline if you have food which you can voluntary sacrifice. Hungry is not the same as observant. The relationship between food and deserts continues in our modern term food desert. Defined as those places that lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, food deserts lack grocery stores, farmers' markets, and other providers of healthy food. In food deserts people rely on convenience stores or quick-stop marts that stock foods high in processed sugar and high-fat foods. If those are your only food options, however, that is what you eat.

For thoughts on the gospel reading (Luke 15) paired with this text from Joshua, click here
For something you thought you'd never see in the desert, see this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. 
For additional thoughts on Luke 15, click here.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Isaiah 55.1-9: This is Not Bread

The prophet asks, "Why spend your money on things that aren't bread?" (Isaiah 55:1-9) Why spend your money on things that don't sustain life? Why exchange your work for things that don't satisfy? The world is full of things that look like they sustain life. There are many things for which we work that ultimately do not satisfy. But those things can be so attractive that we forget they aren't life-sustaining or ultimately satisfying. Dutch still life painters created an entire genre of paintings that model the prophet's question.

Seventeenth-century still life paintings show us beautiful arrangements of flowers, photorealistic depictions of silver goblets, blue and white Delftware and tablecloths that make us want to get out an iron and ironing board. There is lobster and bread, lemons and oysters, peaches and pastries. There are cherries, strawberries, bunches of grapes, and wheels of cheese. The food looks delectable. Good enough to eat, even 400 years later.
Clara Peeters. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichokes and Cherries. c. 1625. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Clara Peeters, the only Flemish woman artist known to have specialized in still life paintings, used mostly local foods - cheeses, artichokes, cherries, bread - in the work shown here. It might be an illustration for a local farmer's market or restaurant. It might be. But it isn't.

As are many still life paintings of this period, Peeter's painting is a reminder of the transience of the things of this world. The artichoke, sliced in half, is already starting to brown. The bread and cheese are sitting out getting hard and stale. One of the cherries has been eaten, the pit and stem lying on the table by the sliver of artichoke.

The food won't last. It will not ultimately satisfy. Eat this food, and you'll be hungry again. Why spend your money on things that aren't bread? Why exchange your labor for things that won't ultimately satisfy you? The prophet offers an alternative. Keep reading Isaiah and find out what it is.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...the generation of women artists who came after Clara Peeters.

For thoughts on Luke 13:1-9, click here.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Genesis 15.1-18: Promises, Hope, and Vultures

Abram was asleep - in a deep sleep - when the covenant was actually sealed. The covenant where Abram was promised that his descendants would inherit and inhabit land. God was the only one who ratified the covenant, passing between the animal pieces as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch. Abram never walked between the pieces. God's promise to be faithful was a one-sided promise.

Before Abram's sleep, though, he had followed to the letter God's directions in gathering animals and slaughtering them as part of the covenant ritual. He placed the animal pieces as directed, presumably out in the open. Sensing blood and death, birds of prey (in some places translated vultures) swooped in. When they did, Abram shooed them away, keeping them from preying on the elements that spoke to his relationship with God.

God's faithfulness. Human insufficiency. Raptors.
Kevin Carter. Starving Child and Vulture. 1993.
The story of this photo and the photographer who took it is not straightforward. The photo raised questions from the moment it was published. Why would the photographer sit and wait for a photo rather than helping the child and/or shooing away the vulture? What happened to the child? How could God allow something like the famine and poverty in Sudan? Some of the questions have been answered. But the questions raised in light of scripture and image together may be especially pertinent during Lent. There are any number of questions brought about by the juxtaposition. These are some.

  • Abram was careful not to let the birds of prey disturb the sacrificed animals for the covenant ceremony. How do you hear that in light of this photo?
  • God's covenant with Abram required the sacrifice of animals. Ultimately even God's son was sacrificed like one of those animals. How can we talk about that in light of this photo?
  • God's honor is at stake in the making of the covenant. The implication of moving through the sacrificed animals is something like, "If I don't keep the covenant I am making, may I be like these animals." Is God's honor at stake in the photo?
  • Abram placed his trust in God's promise. He had hope for his future - for descendants - because of his trust in God. How do we talk about hope in God's promises in light of this photo?
  • Lent is a season of penitence. What does this photo call us to repent? 
  • In light of this photo how do we talk about giving something up as a Lenten sacrifice?

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a Bible illustration of Genesis 15:1-18. More or less.

For thoughts on Luke 13:31-35, click here.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Luke 4.1-13: Tempted by What...or Whom

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Rome? According to Renaissance superstar painter Sandro Botticelli that seems to be the case. In the fresco he painted as a trial for working in the Sistine Chapel, Botticelli crafted a large-scale scene that included all three temptations of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13). In addition, we see a leper healed by Jesus, the High Priest who will perform the ritual cleansing, a young man carrying a basin of water, one woman bringing two birds and another woman bringing wood - all of which would be used in the cleansing. And in the upper parts of the fresco are three scenes with Jesus.
Sandro Botticelli. Temptations of Christ. 1481-82. Sistine Chapel, Vatican.
At left is the first temptation: to turn stones to bread. In the center is Jesus at the pinnacle of the "Temple" (or the pinnacle of Santa Maria in Transpontina in Rome -  in its medieval church that was destroyed and replaced in the 16th century). At the right is the final temptation where the devil is given his comeuppance.

For the most part the temptations resemble other depictions. One of the interesting details is the appearance of the devil. Though unmasked in the final scene (upper right), in the other two (stones and top of the temple) the devil appears as a medieval hermit. Why? What might that mean?
And this is not the only time that the temptations have come to Jesus via a hermit. In the 1965 movie "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the temptation scene takes place in a cave to which Jesus has climbed. The temptations are put before Jesus by the devil in the guise of a hermit (played by Donald Pleasence).

Do these depictions honor hermits or criticize them? In each of the episodes in the paintings, there is at least a small element of the true character of the "hermit" visible. A bird-like talon foot peeks out from under a robe. Skeletal wings emerge from the hermit's back. We know who this really is. We are not fooled. The question is whether Jesus will be. 

Not everyone believed the eremitic life to be a wholesome approach to the Christian life. Bernard of Clarivaux wrote in a letter (Letter LIII to "Another Holy Virgin of the Convent of S. Mary of Troyes"): If one would live in an evil manner, the desert brings abundant opportunity...The evil that no one sees, no one reproves. Where no critic is feared, there the tempter gains easier access, there wickedness is more readily committed

Does Botticelli understand the devil - the fallen angel - as a hermit who has given in to the temptations that plague the solitary Christian and now seeks to tempt others? Is Botticelli reminding us that it's too easy to believe that temptations are spotted as wrong choices from half a mile away? Does the hermit symbolize the idea that more often temptations come disguised as a "good"? Do we learn from this that Jesus alone in the wilderness was no more immune from temptation than any other religious solitary?

The end result mirrors scripture as Jesus resists temptation by quoting scripture, and the devil falls off the mountain, the hermit's robe disguise gone for good, exposing the devil's real character. Jesus knew the devil, but he also - more importantly - knew God. Jesus' perfect handling of this situation is our model for the season of Lent. whether we are giving up something or taking on a spiritual discipline. It's worth remembering that we are human and may not handle our own wilderness season as well as Jesus handled his. We do need to resist the temptation to beat ourselves up about that. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a suggestion for a Lenten discipline
For additional thoughts on Luke 4:1-13, click here.