Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Genesis 1.1-5: Chiaroscuro

God spoke: "Light!" And light appeared. (Genesis 1:3a, The Message). Light. And dark. Each needs the other in order to be defined, particularly in art. If a painting is all light, with no contrasting dark, it feels too simple, too surface. Dark alone is the same way. It is the pairing of the two - light and dark - in various ways that brings variety, and harmony to any work of art. Throughout the history of art, light and dark have been explored and exploited in various ways. 

A strong contrast of light and dark in the visual art is called chiarascuro (/kyärəˈsk(y)o͝orō/), which literally means light-dark (chiaro meaning “clear” or “bright" and oscuro meaning “obscure”' or “dark”). Seventeenth-century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (usually just referred to as "Caravaggio"), was the painter who first made this strong contrast of light and dark into a trademark of his style. Artists who came immediately after him and followed his style were referred to as Caravaggists

Though created centuries after Caravaggio's work, the photograph of a cabbage leaf (below), embodies the ideas of chiaroscuro. The photo's background is a velvety rich darkness, and the topmost parts of the cabbage leaf are the lightest points. Between the background and the highlights is a full range of values. The gradation of light to dark is what creates a sense of three-dimensional form in the folds of the leaf. The sharp meeting of light and dark creates a hard edge that separates the dark background from the lighter leaf. It is the contrast that shows the form.
Edward Weston. Cabbage Leaf. 1931. NY: Museum of Modern Art. 
God spoke: "Light!" And there was light. By that light God saw the individual shapes and forms of what was being created. By that light we all see. God spoke, and there was light, where there only had been darkness. Jesus, the light of the world.

The word photography literally means "writing with light." In this season of Epiphany, why not try writing with light as a photographic exercise. See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook for tips.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Epiphany: Meh...

The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that happened right before Christmas had some people in a tizzy. Others not so much. I am firmly in Camp Tizzy. I had my camera and tripod set up looking toward the southwest sky. Because I live in a decent-sized city, I had to deal with light pollution in general, and my across-the-street neighbors have blue icicle lights hanging across the front of their house. I'm fine with the blue lights, but they did cast an interesting light. I took dozens of photos of these two small points of light, closer together than they had been seen at night in 800 years.

In 1226, when a conjunction this close was last seen at night (which means everyone can actually see it), Francis of Assisi was still alive (he died in October 1226). Notre Dame de Paris was still under construction, and the roof structure had just been redesigned using that latest architectural innovation, the rib vault. Frederick II was the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III was King of England, and Louis VIII was King of France.

I was smitten.
Photo by Lynn Miller. You are welcome to use it, but please give credit. 

And then I read comments by friends (and their friends) on social media pooh-poohing the idea that this might have been the "Christmas Star."

"Who would travel to see that?"

"The Christmas star looked like this!" (accompanied by a piece of clip art that included a cruciform star casting its beams in the four cardinal directions)

"I wasn't impressed."

"God would do better than that."

Now, I don't know exactly what the Christmas star was (planetary conjunction? supernova? something else entirely?), but it made me stop and think about "spectacle" and the Christmas story. First, if the magi were students of the stars, maybe this is exactly the kind of occurrence for which they would have traveled to get a better view. Though Jupiter and Saturn meet about every 20 years, the next conjunction that comes close to this one is in 2080. Sixty years from now. How many of us will still be here? Maybe this is more special than it looks.

And I have to think that something like that was the sentiment of the magi when they showed up with their extravagant gifts and the recipient was the infant son of a Jewish peasant couple. This has to be more special than it looks. And, of course, for those of us who follow Jesus, it is. What looks to the world like any set of parents and their baby is God's message of love and salvation to and for the world. And the message wears diapers and spits up. Who would travel to see that?

Epiphany means manifestation, something that embodies something else, especially a theory or abstract idea/ Jesus is the manifestation of Emmanuel, God with us. But you could be forgiven if you didn't get that right away. The story of Epiphany is the story of dreamers. Of people who follow stars and see royalty in babies. Nothing meh about that.

For NASA's information on the Great Conjunction, click here.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Ephesians 1:3-14: There's Chance and There's Chosen

Christ chose us, destined us, and adopted us, according to Ephesians 1:3-14. Chosen, not chance. In time, the writer of Ephesians goes on to say, all things (including us) will be gathered up in him. Jeremiah 31:8-10 talks about gathering up of the people of God who have been scattered and bringing them back home. This idea of being disordered and reordered, of chance and choice, plays out in an interesting way in the collages of Jean Arp and Ellsworth Kelly. 

Collage itself is a gathering and ordering process. Originally made of paper (papier colle...or pasted paper), collage may include any number of materials and processes, assembled and reassembled, arranged and rearranged, until the desired image or effect is achieved. 

Jean Arp moved in exactly the opposite direction by tearing pieces of paper, dropping them onto a paper support and pasting them where they landed. Arp controlled the pieces to be dropped - their size, color, shape - but he allowed the weight of the paper, any movement in the air, and other physical properties to impact the paper and determine the ultimate composition. The pieces were chosen but then left to their own devices or to the winds of fate.

Ellsworth Kelly also created a collage based on chance. The colored papers were cut into squares and placed in the collage grid through a mathematical system that associated numbers with colors. The mathematical system, rather than the intention of the artist, determined the final composition of the work. Kelly's title - "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" - tells the story.

God's care, outlined in both Ephesians and Jeremiah is the opposite of chance. According to Jeremiah, God's people are not treated like Arp's paper, left to find their own place according to whatever influences may act upon them. Nor are God's people exactly like the papers in Kelly's collage, arranged by the luck of the draw according to some system set in motion. Instead, the people of God are chosen before the foundations of the earth. And though scattered, they are gathered from the farthest parts of the earth and brought home, walking by streams of water in a straight path. That's good news, because while chance may lead to some interesting art, it's not much in terms of a divine plan.

(Top) Jean (Hans) Arp. Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Law of Chance).1916–17. NY: Museum of Modern Art. (Bottom) Ellsworth Kelly. Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance I. 1951. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas: Nativity Scenes

 Plastic, wood, resin, paper, wire, porcelain, clay, fabric, cornhusks, metal. Do a quick internet search and you'll see that you can purchase a nativity set made of almost any material imaginable. I once made a nativity scene for a bird-loving friend using mushroom birds from the craft store. The base was a straw wreath form. Mary was a bluebird, wrens and chickadees were shepherds. A small nest served as the manger. Three peacocks were placed on the wreath later to serve as magi. The characters of the story are so familiar that we can recognize them in all kinds of settings and all kinds of materials. Even birds. Or rocks.

On a Ventura, CA, beach a stacked stone nativity scene appeared. The characters are easily identifiable, even when made of stones that are still stone-shaped. The stable-ish backdrop is also stacked stones pierced by an oculus window, allowing the light to shine in on the child. 

For additional information on the Ventura stone nativity, click here.

Do you have a nativity scene that is part of your Christmas celebration? Do you have a set that has been in your family? Is it whimsical? Ornate? Formal? Each set will interpret the nativity story in a particular way. One friend bought a gorgeous porcelain nativity set that she doesn't use any more. She says it seems "too perfect" for the story. The niece of another friend was so taken with the nativity scene at her church that she asked for her own "Jesus farm" to play with at home. And many families have no doubt found the odd plastic t-rex, Barbie, Darth Vader or action figure hanging out around the family manger scene. 

There is something about these figures and telling this story. Every age, every culture turns the story into their own setting, telling the story in their own way. As a story of joy at the birth of a baby. As a story of hope because our Savior is born. Every painting, every nativity scene tells the story in its own way through the choice of setting, costume, materials. 

Perhaps the most elaborate iteration of the nativity scene is the Italian presepio tradition from Naples. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are in the scene but are sometimes almost lost among the butchers, the fishmongers, the basket-sellers, the wine merchants, the sleeping figures, the clerical characters, the town buildings, and the sheep, dogs, cats, and other animals. Somehow, though, that seems right because Jesus does come to us in the midst of our busy lives and this busy world. Staking out space to tell this story 

During the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany season, you might connect the stone nativity scene here with "Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey" (2016), written by Margriet Ruurs inspired by the art work of Nizar Ali Badr

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Advent 4B: A House in Ruins

Jesus is born in Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. Bethlehem is where King David was born and grew up, so it became known as the city of David.  The idea of "house" here has to do with family, similar to the "house" reference in Luke 1:33 (He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end). In 2 Samuel 7, though, "house" really does refer to a structure. Famously, David announced that he would build God a house. Then in a conversation reminiscent of "Who's on First?" God and David have a conversation about house (building) and house (dynasty). Ultimately, of course, it is David's son Solomon who builds God a house (building). Through Joseph, Jesus is born into a family and in a structure - both the house of David and a house in Bethlehem. But what kind of house? 

When you picture a nativity scene, how do you imagine the structure? Barn, shed, lean-to, cave? It has been imagined in all those ways. Artists use the structures of their own time and place as the setting for the birth of Jesus. Which means that Martin Schongauer puts the nativity under a Gothic arch and vault (below).
Schongauer, Martin. The Nativity. c. 1470-75. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Despite the variety of architectural styles, however, the artists of many historical images paint the stable, shed, cathedral, etc., as a ruin. The ruins symbolize humanity in need of redemption. The ruin is the state of the world. This child Jesus, a new thing, comes to us in the midst of life that falls apart, that decays. We may even hear an echo of Jesus' misunderstood (at the time) comment about the temple that he would rebuild in three days (John 2:19). The ruined building may also remind us of Jesus' comment that one day not one stone would be left atop another in the temple complex. (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2). 

Do contemporary artists include the ruined house? Does such an inclusion make the work stronger in terms of how it shares the meaning of Christ's birth? Does the ruin detract from the action of the story. Do you have a preference as to whether Jesus is born in(to) a ruin or not? It's another detail to look for on the Christmas cards you give and receive and the art that you consider this time of year. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Psalm 126: Those Who Dream...and Give Meaning to Dreams

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream (Psalm 126:1). In Hebrew scripture, dreams are ways in which God speaks to humanity. Joseph's dreams (and the ability to interpret them) are important (Genesis 41). Daniel is Joseph's successor as interpreter of dreams (Daniel 2). Jacob dreams of a ladder, ramp, or stairway to heaven on which God's messengers come and go from one realm to the other (Genesis 28). Solomon asks God for wisdom (a discerning heart) in a dream (I Kings 3).   

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the perception of dreams has taken a turn. They are still a source of revelation according to Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, revealing emotional truths. For the artists we call Surrealists, dream imagery was a major source of their work. Dreams tapped into truth as it was found in their unconscious minds, opposite of rationality and reason. 

How does that compare to the dreams dreamed by the people of God? Are those dreams dreamed in Psalm 126 rational and reasonable? Should they be? Scripture is filled with stories of God's plan (which seems like it can only be a pipe dream*) brought to fruition against all odds. Did those captives in Babylon fear their dreams of returning home and restoring the Temple were "only" dreams? How were their dreams different when they made it back home?

For both Surrealist and scripture, dreams express meaning. The biggest difference may be the intelligiblity of the meaning ahead of time. Surrealists' "automatic" drawings were based on dream imagery and without a preformed plan or idea. The artists simply started working. They themselves had to wait until the work was complete before they knew what it meant. In scripture, dreams are acknowledged as a sign from God. When dreams were unintelligible on their own, someone was provided to help the dreamer understand the meaning. Surrealists aren't especially interested in helping a viewer understand a (not necessarily "the") meaning of a dream-inspired painting.

That means Surrealist paintings are wide open to interpretation. How important is it that we begin to find meaning in our own or others' dreams? There are many "Dream Dictionaries" that want to associate particular dream elements with particular universal meanings? Is that right?  Does a red rose always mean love? Or does each dreamer find individual meaning in the elements of their own dreams?

Presented with the image below, how would you interpret it in light of the subject of dreams and people who dream? Is your interpretation influenced by what you know about God-given dreams? Is this a picture that depicts a God dream like the people mentioned in the psalm? Or is this just a Freudian-influenced painter's world of dreams? You can read one interpretation of the painting via the museum link under the painting, but maybe that's not the best interpretation. What do you understand this painting to mean? 
Rene Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. NY: Museum of Modern Art. 

*"Pipe dream" refers to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes. What kind of dreams are those? Rational? Real? Surreal? Scriptural?                                                                                                                                                                         

Sunday, November 22, 2020

2 Peter 3.8-15a: A Thousand Years

With God a thousand years is like a day and a day like a thousand years. (2 Peter 3:8) How do you show everything that has happened in the last thousand years? These four books definitely do NOT represent EVERYTHING that has happened in the last thousand years. 

And yet this incomplete history manages to fill:

419 pages (Architecture)
428 pages (Painting)
816 pages (Civilization)
196 pages (English Literature)

That's more than 1800 pages. And you still don't have it all

And it all weighs: 
2.8 pounds (Architecture)
1 pound (Painting)
2.24 pounds (Civilization)
2.6 pounds (English Literature)

That's more than 8.5 pounds. And you still don't have it all.

Now imagine everything that has happened in the world since the year 1020: 
  • the computer
  • amusement parks
  • anesthesia and medical advancements
  • telephone
  • electric light
  • radio and television
  • the development of planes, trains, and automobiles
  • movable type
  • telescopes and astronomical discoveries

Imagine that all of those things have happened in a day. Imagine a single day filled with all those developments. That's how it is with God. God isn't slow about the promise but is patient with us. And in the meantime, we continue to wait for the day of the Lord. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Psalm 122: Looking Up

To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. (Psalm 122:4-5)

They go up. Up to the Temple and up to Jerusalem. Up to give thanks to the name of the Lord. What is it about "up"? 

How often do you look up? We probably more often look down in the course of daily life. Down to watch out feet and make sure we don't trip. Down as we tap out text messages on our phones. Down at the computer keyboards on our desks. Down as we prepare a meal on a kitchen counter or stove. When we are ashamed or embarrassed, we tend to lower our eyes. As humans we are bound to the earth. 

So when we have (or take!) the opportunity to look up, or when we are compelled to look up, something different happens to us. When we raise our gaze, we see things differently. Looking up changes the angle of our chin and neck as well as the angle of the eye pupil. Looking up lets more light onto the whites of our eyes. Lifting our eyes (and heads) automatically opens our chest a little more. There is evidence to suggest that raising our gaze, which focuses us beyond the here and now, also gives us a shot of dopamine, that neurotransmitter that is part of our brain's reward system. 
Interior of the Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore). 
Detail of Giorgio Vasari's dome (Last Judgement). #iCathedral completed. c. 1357.
Designers of cathedrals may not have known about the dopamine, but they knew that something happened when people walked in to a massive space and looked up at the ceiling or dome. Here, the Florence Cathedral draws your attention upward. In the dome are frescoes painted to look like even more layers of clouds and figures, extending up and up and up like layers of cake and frosting.

Architects of today's giant buildings with massive multi-story foyers understand it. The tops of trees must know it, tempting us as they do to gaze into their uppermost branches, outlined against a blue sky. Around 2014, the American Institute of Architects began a campaign called #ilookup. Viewers were invited to submit images and videos showing what they saw then they looked up: architecture, nature, a mix of the two.

It's too distinct a line to actually draw, but ask yourself if you'd rather be a navel-gazer or a star-gazer. Perhaps it's both. If you've never thought about it and have, by unintentional practice, a navel-gazer, give the stars a try. Just look up. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, even up-per.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Ephesians 1.15-23: The Footstool

God put this power to work in Christ...and...has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:15-23) On the Sunday we acknowledge the Reign of Christ, the idea of Christ having all things under his feet makes sense. That would make "everything" Christ's footstool.

Cartographers had the opportunity to illustrate this idea as they created maps of the world with Christ enthroned at the top. The top of a map was generally oriented to the East, so Christ sits on those maps at the direction of the rising sun and the resurrection. Cathedrals altars were usually at the east end of the building, meaning that the congregation faced the rising sun...and the rising son. 

Hearing that, then, you might expect that Jesus' figure on a mappamundi (map of the world) would be seated on a throne with his feet resting on the earth like a footstool. After all, the visual is there in Ephesians. You might expect, but it wouldn't necessarily be true. 
The Map Psalter (BL MS Add 28681, fol. 9r (left) and fol. 9v (right). 1262-1300. London: British Library.
Above are two illustrations from the same manuscript. In one (left), the world, mapped out on a circle, blocks the view of the bottom half of Jesus' body. The other illustration (the verso of the left image), has expanded to cover almost all of Jesus. His head is above the world (here a T-O map), and his arms reach out to embrace the world. And there, at the bottom, Jesus' bare feet peek out from the bottom of the circular map. That is not all things under Jesus' feet. That's Jesus' feet under all things.
Hereford Mappa Mundi. c. 1300. Hereford Cathedral. Hereford, England.
By contrast the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300) shows Jesus in the peak of the map. He is sitting down, and his feet, on which blood flows from nail holes, are visible. The entire map of the world is beneath his feet. Just as was written to the Ephesians.

But the world as footstool is not exclusively in Ephesians. Acts 7:48-50 quotes Isaiah 66:1-2a.: Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” There are other times the footstool is used: the ark of the covenant is called the footstool of God (I Chronicles 28:2), the enemies of the people of God are made their footstools (Psalm 110:1, Luke 20:43, Acts 2:35, Hebrews 1:13, Hebrews 10:13), the earth is God's footstool (Matthew 5:35).

That's quite a bit of attention to a pretty insignificant piece of furniture. Mercifully, Christ is more concerned with his footstool that we probably are with ours. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

I Thessalonians 5.1-11: Less Than a Minute

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (I Thessalonians 5:2-4). You'll be surprised at how quick it comes on you. Quick, like labor pains can escalate. Quick, like the thief sneaking into your house. And that thief can be quick. 
For more about the theft and the recovery of the click here and here
In 1994, thieves broke into Norway's National Museum and stole one of the four versions of Edvard Munch's work The Scream. The piece had been moved to a ground floor gallery in advance of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. The thieves leaned a ladder (that ladder in the photo) up against the wall, smashed the window, and in less than a minute they were back out the window and down the ladder holding the artwork with an estimated value of $120 million. It was captured on a security camera. They left behind a postcard. It said: Thanks for the poor security

Less than a minute. That's pretty quick. The day of the Lord will come like that, too. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Psalm 78.1-7: Things That Our Ancestors Have Told Us

Dotted Horses. Pech-Merle Cave. Cabrerets, France. c. 25,000 BCE. 
(Notice how the prehistoric artists used the natural formation of the rock to shape the image of the right horse's head. Notice also the hand stencils above the horses. Are these the hands of the artist(s)? There are also hand stencils below the horses and to the left of the left horse.)

Among the earliest art work left by our human ancestors are paintings in caves. About 400 caves with paintings have been found, mostly in France and Spain, but also in Romania, England, Argentina, Indonesia, and other countries. New discoveries are still being made. Even as we discover the existence of this kind of work, we still don't know for sure why they were painted. It's the opposite of Psalm 78. In the Psalm, one generation tells another about the deeds of God. The ancestors are commanded to teach their children (Psalm 78:1-7), so that the children will know in order to set their hope in God.

We understand teaching verbally, passing knowledge from one generation to another through stories, myths, legends, personal testimony. But what if things are passed generationally in ways beyond storytelling? Epigenetics literally means "in addition to" or "on top of" genetics. It refers to things that might be inherited outside of or in addition to genetics. If this includes things like trauma and sensitivities, as some scientists suspect, could it also be that people could "inherit" the knowledge of God? 

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a decree in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Psalm 78:1-7)

Jeremiah relayed God's words: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). Perhaps in telling the stories of God over and over we can help our children inherit a heart on which God's law is written.

Friday, October 23, 2020

All Saints Day: A Valley in France

Following All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day gives us the opportunity to remember all the saints of God - some who have been officially designated as saints, others who may not be known widely but are saints in our own lives. Near Carnoet, in the Brittany region of France, a valley is filled with statues of Celtic and Breton saints. A reference to the ancient menhirs and megaliths of Brittany, the valley installation is an open-air sanctuary dotted with sculptures of well-known saints like Patrick and Brigit, as well as less-widely known saints like Tugdual and Brieuc. The first statue was placed in 2008, and the hundredth statue several years ago. The only requirements for each statue is that it must be 10 feet tall and represent a saint who was in Brittany between the 3rd and 10th centuries. 
Visitors wandering among these saints keep their stories alive. 

For additional information on the Valley of the Saints, click here or here.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Joshua 3.7-17: Armed

God makes it clear that Joshua is the chosen leader: The LORD said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses." (Joshua 3:7) In his series of Bible etchings, Marc Chagall created "Joshua Armed by God" to fall between Moses' blessing over Joshua and crossing the Jordan. 
(Left) Assyrian Archers. c. 700-692 BCE. Southwest Palace, Nineveh. 
(Right) Marc Chagall. Joshua Armed by God. 1956. Etching. 

The title of the print highlights Joshua's attire and weaponry. He wears a semi-conical helmet and textured garment that falls just below his knees. He appears to have wrist-length sleeves on the garment's top. He is barefoot. He holds a knife and wears a scabbard. 

These garments are not unlike those in the relief panel showing Assyrian archers. The helmet shapes are the same as are the textures of the garment. The cross-body belt (perhaps for the scabbard) is also similar. 

Of course, Chagall is working in the mid-20th century, the panel is from more than 2500 years earlier, and the text refers to a still-earlier period. An artist works with the information available, so Chagall appears to have found ancient warriors (there are a variety of relief panels from around ancient Mesopotamia in museums to which Chagall would have had access) and armed Joshua as their equal. 

The fact that Joshua was also accompanied by the presence of God in the form of the Ark was an advantage that all the swords and bows in the world couldn't overcome. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Matthew 22.39: Neighbors and Fences

Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39 say the same thing: Love your neighbor as yourself. A friend once told me that she "translates" that verse to mean that we should love for our neighbor what we love for ourselves. That's a different thing isn't it? More concrete than just assuring oneself and the world that we have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone because we're good people. When we love a luxury car for ourselves, but we love a 1978 Pinto for our neighbor...well, that's not exactly the same thing, is it?

Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" is often quoted in discussions of neighbors. One line of the poem is most often pulled out: Good fences make good neighbors. The idea is that neighbors will get along better when there is a clear boundary between what's mine and what's yours and you stay on your side and I'll stay on mine. Frost's poem is a conversation between two neighbors. It is the neighbor who insists - twice - that good fences make good neighbors. The narrator's voice asks why they make good neighbors. Sure, you would need a wall where there are cows - to keep them contained and not wandering into a field with neighbor cows or a neighbor's pasture grass spread out like a salad bar for cows. But where there aren't cows? Why build a fence? The narrator continues:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had a different idea with their project Running Fence. The project was begun in 1972 and completed in 1976. The actual project was installed for two weeks and then taken down, leaving no reminders of its presence. 

(Top photo) Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76. Photo: Wolfgang Volz. © 1976 Christo. (Bottom photo) Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76. Photo: Jeanne-Claude. © 1976 Christo. 

The project was a 24.5 mile long, 18 feet tall "fence" of nylon fabric panels hung from steel cable between steel poles. The artists battled every step of the way. The 18 public hearings were contentious. They had 3 sessions in California superior courts. It wasn't easy to get permission from all of the 59 ranchers whose land was crossed. They wrote and filed a 450-page environmental impact statement. Over and over they heard that this piece was not art. Christo agreed, or agreed that the fence itself wasn't the whole of the art. Quoted in Brian O’Doherty’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Christo asserted, “The work is not only the fabric, the steel poles and the Fence. The art project is right now
here. Everybody here is part of my work if they want it or don’t want it.”

The artists intended for this fence to bring people together, not to separate them. The project visually connected human elements (houses, barns, farms, fences, roads) across the rolling California landscape to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. Once the project was begun, about 400 people worked on the installation - everyone from art students to Hell's Angels. After two weeks, those same people began taking down the fence. All materials were given to the ranchers. Nothing remained on the landscape.  

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, loving your neighbor in a quilt story. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23 and Matthew 22:15-22: Identity

God says to Moses: I know you by name. (Exodus 33:12)

Jesus says to the Pharisees: Give to God the things that are God's. (Matthew 22:21)

Moses is recognized, known, by God. Moses knows that in some way he belongs to God. Jesus reminds those trying to trip him up that things that bear God's image (like us) belong to God. It's about identity. Knowing whose you are. Knowing who you are. 

Katarina Wong has explored themes of identity and personal migration through installations based on fingerprints. Wong's mother is from Cuba, and her father is from China, so the subject of migration and identity is a personal one for her. In The Fingerprint Project, Wong cast her friends' fingerprints in wax, which makes each individual piece completely unique. The wax casts are installed in patterns that mimic the migratory habits of birds and animals. The wax fingerprints sit on pins above the gallery walls within areas painted light blue. The artist added shadows by hand directly on the wall with sumi ink, traditionally used in Chinese painting, and powdered graphite. 

Katarina Wong. Fingerprint Project: Murmuration Unfolding, 2017. Wax casts of fingerprints, pins, sumi ink, graphite. 84 in. x 16 ft. x 2 in. California African American Museum. Photography courtesy of the artist.

The detail photo above includes the descriptor 'murmuration,' which is the collective noun for a flock of starlings. The artist's design makes visual reference to the shapes created by those birds as they are flying. Think about the fact that each of these fingerprints is one-of-a-kind, like each bird, like each traveler camped at Sinai, like each person made in God's image. Individuals but moving in groups, claiming their identity.

For a look at murmurations of starlings, click here.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Exodus 32.1-14: Why the Bull?

I appreciate the irony that the blog about art and faith seems compelled to write about the idolatry surrounding the Golden Calf every time the story shows up in the lectionary. I know, though, that idolatry isn't bound to follow art. And I think that the story says way more about human nature than it does about the nature of art. So, today...why the bull? 

It's probably not much of a mystery why Aaron made a calf (Exodus 32:1-14). Three different bull-worshipping cults were active in Egypt. The cult of Apis was the most prominent. Apis was worshipped in the region of Memphis, Egypt. Believed first to be manifestation of the god Ptah and later associated with Osiris, Apis bulls (real, live bulls) were identified by particular markings. The chosen bull lived out his life treated like a god. At their deaths, Apis bulls were buried like kings. Tombs of more than 60 animals have been found.

Follower of Filippino Lippi. The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God Apis. c. 1500. London: National Gallery.

It's easy to spot what is different in the version of the golden calf above, isn't it? Usually the calf is rigidly posed on an altar or plinth. It is sometimes draped with wreaths of flowers. See Poussin's version here. Here, like the cow that jumped over the moon, the creature is airborne, and not just suspended in midair. The artist has shown the animal twisting and turning, as if it has come to life above the dancing, celebrating people (who are clearly from Western Europe). It is a beautiful sunny day with a blue sky and puffy white clouds. This seems more nursery ornament than occasion for sin and idolatry. 

The construction of this golden statue was ostensibly to establish the "real" god of the people now that it appeared Moses and his God would not be coming back to lead them. The act has given the world not just a single story but also a seemingly timeless metaphor for idolatry. What was it that the calf represented that made it so much more attractive than any other option? I suspect it was the past. In Numbers 11:5 we hear the people remembering the good old days of Egypt: free fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, garlic. Wasn't it great in Egypt? Well, maybe. Except for the slavery part. 

Maybe this is a case where the people thought, well, better the devil you know... But it's still delusional. The good old days weren't good, leeks and onions aside. The people couldn't wait to get out of Egypt when Moses set it up. But now, they need something new and shiny to follow. It's the story of humanity, isn't it? Enthusiasm, boredom, seeking something new. Or in this case, something old all shined up to delude the people into thinking it is new...and in their best interests. But that's just bull. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...a multi-million dollar golden calf. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Matthew 21. 33-46: The Son of the Vineyard Owner

Jesus' parable in Matthew 21 (verses 33-46) tells his own story. Set in a vineyard, the son of the vineyard owner is killed by wicked tenants who are unwilling to give the owner the portion of the harvest that is owed. It doesn't take much to understand the story as a prediction of Jesus' fate. Below is an unidentified image (I'm still trying to identify it) from a medieval manuscript that illustrates the story. 


(Left) Unidentified manuscript illustration of Matthew 21:33-46. (Right) Christus in der Kelter. Gebetbuch des Ulrich von Montfort. c. 1515-1520. Vienna: Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 2748, fol. 49v.

It also doesn't take much to understand the implications of the vineyard and Christ's relation to it as a Communion symbol. 

One of the symbolic images for the death of Jesus is the winepress. In those images (above right) Jesus is shown trampling grapes while bearing the weight of the winepress. The implication is that the crushing and juicing of grapes offers a parallel to Jesus' death and subsequent remembrance in the cup of communion. There are other vineyard images that should bring to mind the role and actions of Jesus' life and death. 

In the two images here, the wine press is the screw type that applies pressure from above in order to crush the grapes. In the parable illustration you can see the winepress through the open door of the watchtower. In the illustration with Jesus, he treads on the grapes even as the winepress crushes him. Note that it is the first person of the Trinity who turns, powers, the screw that presses on Jesus. Isaiah 63 and Revelation 14 both refer to the winepress with a tone of punishment or retribution. Here, though, it is not retribution that Christ models, but sacrifice, giving himself to death at the hands of the tenants or the winepress.

In regions that have no winemaking tradition, these images might be harder to understand. And, of course, the artists from these regions depict the equipment they saw in their own winemaking industries, and they make Jesus look like themselves. 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...red or white?

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Philippians 2.1-13: Empty and Full

Paul wants the Christians at Philippi to make his joy complete (Philippians 2:2). Apparently, his joy is currently only partially full. Paul also reminds the Philippians that Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2:7). What was full has been voluntarily emptied. 

The whole question of whether you see a glass as half-empty or half-full has become some sort of personality evaluation. Are you an optimist? A pessimist? A surrealist? (See the graphic below.) Paul's play with words considers the polarities of empty and filled. 
(Left) Tom Brown. Half Empty, Half Full

Joy? Should be filled to the brim. Jesus? Voluntarily emptied himself. In fact, in just a couple of verses, Jesus will talk about being "poured out." (Philippians 2:17) I wonder if we get sidetracked testing ourselves to see if we are optimists or pessimists. Perhaps a better question is whether you have a glass or a pitcher or anything that can hold joy and will you give Paul a refill? Do you appreciate Jesus' pouring himself out for you? Do you pour out yourself for others as Jesus has done for you? Do you still care for yourself while you are emptying yourself for others? 

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook...an empty man.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Philippians 1.21-30: Suffering

For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well--since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:29-30) It may be hard for us to reason our way to suffering as a privilege, even suffering for Jesus. So what happens if we turn the equation. If someone is suffering for Jesus, is Jesus not suffering with them? And if you are the cause of someone's suffering, then as sure as you make someone else suffer, you are making Jesus suffer. 

That was the reminder in the stained glass window called the Wales Window, given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, in 1965. Following the 1963 bombing of the church and the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson, stained glass artist John Petts felt called to respond.
John Petts. Wales Window of Alabama. 1964. 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL.
His work shows a Black Christ figure, arms outstretched, superimposed over a cross. Above his head is a rainbow representing racial equality. At the bottom of the window is a paraphrase of Matthew 25:40 saying that what you did for the "least of these" you did it for Christ. The change in voice here reminds those who see the window that the bombing and killing were done not just to the building and congregation of 16th Street Baptist Church, the bombing and killing were also done to Jesus. The text on the window says "You do it to me." 

The window was the gift of the people of Wales to the congregation. Small donations were collected from across Wales so that the window would truly be a gift from the whole of the Welsh people. 

For the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, click here.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Matthew 18.21-25: As We Are Forgiven

How many times should we forgive? (Matthew 18:21-25) Think about the nuances of the question if it is changed slightly: How many times do I have to forgive? Have to or should, Jesus' answer is the same: there's no number. You must forgive as many times as God forgave by sending Jesus in human form to die for us. Oh. 

The parable Jesus tells drives home the fact that we are obligated to forgive others if we ourselves have been forgiven. If the language sounds familiar, I'm sure that's not by accident. Earlier in Matthew's gospel, when the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, his model included the phrase "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." 

The connection between the parable and the petition is clear in the relief panels of the bronze doors on the Grossmunster in Zurich, Switzerland. Construction began on the church about the year 1100 and was completed about 1220. The Grossmunster became a Protestant church under the leadership of Huldryc (Huldrich? Huldrych? Ulrich?) Zwingli. Zwingli was succeeded by Heinrich Bullinger. 

The doors on the south portal are, of course, much more contemporary. Created by German sculptor Otto Munch in 1950, the two scenes show the same servant as debtor and debt-holder. In the background the servant stands before his master. In the foreground, the servant stands above the man in his debt. The man, on his hands and knees, begs for time to repay the debt. The answer comes from the figure standing ramrod straight, his right arm crossed over his chest and his left hand making a fist. None of this implies any conciliatory gesture. 

The architectural structure between the foreground and background provides the "as you have been forgiven" element. The post supports the ceiling over the two background figures (the ceiling might also be the floor of a second story to the "building"). The post and floor/ceiling create a cross, a reminder of God's work in Jesus Christ. 

This panel is one of a series that illustrates the petitions of the Lord's Prayer. The need for forgiveness gives rise to the obligation to forgive. We who have been forgiven much, should forgive much. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Romans 13.8-14: You Know What Time It is

 Paul, over and over, reminded his readers that Jesus was coming back. They should pay attention to that and remember how they are to live as followers of Christ. With every day that passed following Christ's ascension, we are one day closer to Christ's return. Because of their certainty of Christ's return, Christians are people of the future -- oriented toward the day of Christ's return. Christians are to live in that day rather than in the evil past (Romans 13:13).

Does the kind of clock we have say something about our view of time? Is time cyclical like a clock with hands that sweep around the face? Is time digital, numbers changing but standing in place? Is time sculptural? 

Calling James Borden a clockmaker is a true statement, but his work is more than that. His clocks are indeed sculptural, hanging on walls, sitting on tables, even suspended from the ceiling. These kinetic sculptures are large pieces, some as large as 10' wide and 6.5' tall. They tell time but they engage more of the viewer than your average clock. 

James Borden. Suspended Clock made of Walnut, Cherry, White Oak, and Box Elder. 

Can you figure out how to tell time with this clock? Does it change how you perceive time and the passage of time? That's what Paul hopes his words will do for the Christians in Rome. He wants them to remember that every moment moves us closer to Christ's return. That should change how we perceive and value and use each day. Paul's timetable may have anticipated a return sooner than events have proven to be true, but the ultimate day is still moving toward us. Each day bringing us closer to salvation than we are right now. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Leave Only Footprints...Or Maybe a Little More

Burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15) and burning coals (Romans 12:9-21). Two (more) stories in scripture that employ some element of fire or flame. There is an interesting fire-related difference in the two, though. When I think about burning coals, I imagine the grill that fired hundreds of family cook-outs and barbeques. I can picture those glowing charcoal briquettes (my dad was in the lumber business...no gas grills for him). Heating up slowly, passing through the flame stage and then becoming a bank of glowing embers ready for the ribs, sausage, corn, portobello mushrooms, and more that might be on the grill on any given occasion.   


       Vincent Van Gogh. Peasant Burning Weeds. 1883. Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam)/Drents Museum (Drenthe)

After dinner the coals were usually still glowing enough that the coat-hangers-turned-marshmallow-sticks were brought out, sometimes with chocolate and graham crackers, to make dessert. The coals were dealt with before bedtime, and by the next morning there was nothing but a pile of cold ashes. 

There were no ashes after Moses left the holy ground where he spoke with God. Because the bush burned but was not consumed. That means no ashes. Aside from the bush, which was there before, only Moses' footprints were left. 

Paul's instructions to the Christians in Rome (Romans 12:20) include a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. Do more for your enemies, he instructs. Give more, love more. As I heard more than once when I was growing up, "Kill 'em with kindness."  Heap burning coals on their heads. The hope seems to be that at the end of such actions as feeding hungry enemies and giving drinks to thirst ones, what will be left isn't just cold ashes, it is a new or restored relationship between former enemies. 

Take only photographs, leave only footprints is good advice for walking through nature. Such attention to detail is important when thinking about the potential for fires. We have all seen what is left (or not) after a wildfire. For Moses and the Christians in Rome, the result of the fire is not destruction. It is growth and transformation. People who are no longer enemies. Moses commissioned to lead God's people. Those are what is left. Not just footprints. Maybe a little more. 

On Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, another part of Paul's instruction in Romans. Can you tell which verse from the thumbnail at left? Check your answer on Facebook

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Romans 12.1-8: Transformed

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2a). In his Romans commentary (Interpretation), Paul Achtemeier suggests this translation: Do not let yourself be shaped by what everyone else does, but rather let yourselves be transformed by a whole new way of thinking... (p. 195). 

One of the most ordinary things in the world is a piece of computer paper. 8.5" x 11" is standard in the US. A4 paper is standard in the UK. The paper is plain and smooth so that it can pass through a printer. Until the paper is acted upon in some way, it simply exists with no real meaning on its own. But with the right mind in charge of the paper it is changed into a report on an infinite number of ideas and information. With the right mind in charge of the paper, it is transformed into art.


Peter Callesen transforms A4 paper (in inches 8.3 x 11.7) into complex paper sculptures evoking a variety of responses. In his hands, through his mind, the paper becomes a world of thoughts and ideas. Two examples are above. The works are created from a single piece of A4 paper. Callesen's cuts are made precisely so that the paper from the cut shape is perfectly transformed into the 3-D shape you see. Thus the flat hand shape is crimped and folded into the skeletal structure of a hand (left). The birds are created from the 2-D shapes drawn on the A4 paper.

This is definitely the world (the mundane) transformed by a whole new way of thinking. 

For Peter Callesen's work, click here and here.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Brothers and Tribes

The psalmist sings that it is good and pleasant when families can live together in harmony (Psalm 133). But another text reminds us that as good and pleasant as it might have been, Jacob's children could not manage to live together in harmony (Genesis 45:1-15). Yet a third text reminds us that for generations, Jacob's descendants were well aware of the son who was their ancestor (Romans 11:1-2a,29-32). Those twelve brothers who couldn't get along remain(ed) a touchstone for their descendants. Paul knew that he was of the tribe of Benjamin.

Nowhere is the significance of the twelves brothers/tribes apparent than in the windows designed by Marc Chagall for the Abbell Synagogue at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. In the synagogue the twelve windows, each with a round-arched top, are arranged in a square, three windows per side. Primarily in shades of blue, yellow, and red glass, Chagall has explored the symbols of stories of each of the twelve brothers.

Chagall's windows employ imagery from the blessings Jacob gave to his sons (Genesis 49) and the blessings of the tribes by Moses (Deuteronomy 33). The Benjamin window (below) includes the ravenous wolf as a symbol (Genesis 49:27) at the bottom. Other symbols are evident, along with Hebrew letters spelling the name of the tribe. 
(Left) Marc Chagall. Benjamin. 1962. Abbell Synagogue, Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem. Israel. 
(Right) Chagall. Lithograph of Benjamin window.
Each window is approximately 11' tall by 8' wide and filled with animals, fish, flowers, and other symbols associated with these twelve brothers and their father Jacob (renamed Israel). The shared color palette and design elements make a united statement from twelve different works. As the light shines through the windows, their arrangement in a square and their placement in a sort of clerestory has led them to be imagined as the crown for Queen Esther (whose Hebrew birthname is Hadassah). 

Jewels in a crown. Even if the brothers couldn't, the windows clearly live together in harmony. 

For information and photos of the Chagall windows at the Hadassah Medical Center, click here.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Romans 10.5-15: Beautiful?

Approximately one in a thousand people would disagree with Paul as he wrote to the Romans. In the section for this week, Paul declares that the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful (Romans 10:15). But approximately one in a thousand people are affected by podophobia, and those people probably wouldn't find any feet beautiful.

Podophobia is defined as a persistent, irrational fear of feet (podos "feet" + phobia "fear). For some, their podophobia means they will not touch their own feet. For some, the sight of any feet is disturbing. Some do not want anyone else to look at their feet. Bringing good news or not, those feet would not be appreciated.

My day job is teaching high school art. In the classroom next to mine, my colleague has beginning art students do a graphite drawing either of their hands or of their feet. The year when "feet" are in the syllabus results in many more comments by students. The students are "creeped out" by feet as they (or the photography students in my class) take photos of their feet to serve as reference photos (left above). One family has had multiple children in that beginning art class during "foot year". We've suggested they should frame and hang all the feet drawings as some kind of weird family portrait.

My teaching colleague knows what Albrecht Durer knew: hands and feet are demanding subjects for students, but they are also subjects that are very helpful as students are learning to draw. While podophobes (and beginning art students) may be "creeped out" by feet, Leonardo da Vinci is credited with describing the human foot as a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

Durer's study of two feet (left bottom) is a study for a now-missing altarpiece. In an interesting intersection, these feet will become the feet of Paul. Durer has made the feet of Paul into a work of art. Perhaps Paul's math would say that engineering + art + good news = beautiful.

(Bottom) Albrecht Durer. Study of Two Feet For the Apostle Paul in the Heller Altarpiece. c. 1508. Brush and grey ink, grey wash, heightened with white, on green prepared paper, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Matthew 14.13-21: Ways with Leftovers

Jesus fed the thousands of people who had gathered to hear him teach. With one child's lunch as the starting point, Jesus was able to feed all those people and have leftovers (Matthew 14:13-21). So now Jesus is faced with a problem of the ages...what to do with the leftovers.

Those baskets of leftovers have been assigned different meanings. They may symbolize the abundant life promised by Jesus. Perhaps the leftovers held food that would now provide for the people who had served. The contents of the baskets may be distributed to those in the community who are hungry. The fact that there were leftovers demonstrates Jesus' desire and ability to be generous and lavish, not to barely sustain life. In Mark's gospel, these miraculous feedings were a source of reflection after the fact for the disciples (Mark 8:14-21). Jesus called the disciples to remember the feedings and the leftovers, and then he asked them, "Do you not yet understand?" What do you believe the baskets of leftovers mean?

A quick internet search for "recipes leftovers" yields more than 35,000,000 results. Searching "cookbook leftovers" gives thousands of options to purchase. You can purchase books according to food type (Christmas ham, scraps/peels/stems, chicken, zucchini), purpose (to be thrifty, to be good to the earth, better meal-planning, creativity) or emotional promise (love your leftovers). You may have seen this commercial, currently running. The commercial focuses on food that is wasted every day - less-than-perfect fruit and ugly vegetables, for example. Food that is leftover but not used. What did Jesus do with the baskets of leftovers?

Contemporary artist Aliza Eliazarov crafted the photograph above. In the style of 17th-century Dutch still life painters, she arranged bread and fruits and greenery. If it is true that we eat first with our eyes, then Eliazarov's visually appealing composition is quite satisfying. The white fabric and the vibrant colors of the food (and the blue butterfly at the right), glow against the dark background. The rougher textures of the bread contrast with the smooth surfaces of the cherries. The simple background keeps the focus on the food. But this photo tells us more than the beauty of food. The photograph is from Eliazarov's series called "Waste Not." All the food in this photo was "rescued from curbside garbage in front of Caputo's Bakery and Union Market on Court Street - Cobble Hill, Brooklyn." Take another look at the photo and think about the fact that all of that food had been thrown away. These "leftovers" were thrown away.

What do leftovers mean in Matthew's gospel? What do leftovers mean in our world today?

For Aliza Eliazarov's "Waste Not" series, click here.
For thoughts on Dutch still life painters and Isaiah 55:1-9, click here.

This week on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, a look at a new painting of Jacob's wrestling match.