Sunday, January 26, 2020

Micah 6:1-8: Nailed It!

God has shown you, humans, what is good (Micah 6:1-8). You've seen it. Now be it. It seems easy enough, that you should be able to copy what you see. To do justice. To love mercy. To walk humbly with God. But it's just never that easy.

Of the four paintings below, two are by Johannes Vermeer (nicknamed "The Sphinx of Delft" because so little is known for sure about him). Two are by Han van Meegeren, certainly the most intriguing of Vermeer's forgers. Would you believe that all four of these paintings are done by the same hand? Would you pay exorbitant prices for all of them? Or do some look not quite as good as the others? Could you identify the two works done by the same hand, even if you can't say which is Vermeer and which is van Meegeren? You can check the bottom of this post to see which are the Vermeers and which are the van Meegerens. Look closely at each pair of works. Could van Meegeren proudly say, "Nailed it!"

Van Meegeren saw what was "good" in Vermeer, and he attempted to then "be" Vermeer. It's hard, though, for forgers to completely eliminate their own time, place, society, and personal preferences. Van Meegeren, painting in the 1940s, just couldn't be a seventeenth-century Dutch artist. Though he was successful for a while, in the end, he just wasn't Vermeer.

The intent of a forger is to be so close to the original as to fool an unsuspecting buyer. What is our intent as we try to live faithful lives, copying that which is good into our own lives? What is the difference between copying an artist's work and copying the life of faith we have been shown? What is good, according to God's requirements, is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. How are we doing embodying those requirements? Can we read this text, look at our lives, and say, "Nailed it!"

(Top left) Johannes Vermeer. Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. 1654-1656. Edinburgh: Scottish National Gallery. (Top right) Han van Meegeren. The Footwashing. 1935-1943. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. (Bottom left) Han van Meegeren. Woman Reading Music. 1935-40. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum. (Bottom right) Johannes Vermeer. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. c. 1663. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum.

For thoughts on the Beatitudes, click here and here.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Isaiah and Matthew: Zebulun and Naphtali

Zebulun was the sixth and final son of Jacob and Leah. Naphtali was Jacob's sixth son, the second with Bilhah. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali had received land that made them a target for invading enemies. Those lands had been annexed by various Assyrian kings. Living as a possession of the Assyrians had brought times of despair and anguish. Isaiah 9:1 promises that the time of gloom will one day end for the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. God will break into their lives, bringing light and life.

Matthew 4:15 has Jesus moving to Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in order to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy. For the gospel's audience, "Assyria" would be heard as "Rome," another empire that had taken control of Zebulun and Naphtali (and all the other tribes' lands, too).

Marc Chagall created a series of twelve stained glass windows for the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Each window represents one of the twelve tribes. The windows are arranged in groups of three on four walls that create a square. Zebulun and Naphtali are pictured here, both the stained glass windows themselves and lithographs that Chagall created with the same designs.
Marc Chagall. Zebulun. (left, stained glass) Hadassah Medical Center. Jerusalem. (right, lithograph) from The Twelve Maquettes of Stained Glass Windows for Jerusalem
The Zebulun window is dominated by the color red and elements of life in, on, and around the sea. In the bottom left is a boat, symbol of a tribe who became noted for navigation, as the tribe's blessing from Jacob indicated:
13 ‘Zebulun shall settle at the shore of the sea; he shall be a haven for ships,
and his border shall be at Sidon. Genesis 49:13.
Fish jump toward one another above a horizon line that (in the lithograph anyway) features a lavender sun. The letters spelling out Naphtali's name arc across the top of the design.
Marc Chagall. Naphtali. (left, stained glass) Hadassah Medical Center. Jerusalem. (right, lithograph) from The Twelve Maquettes of Stained Glass Windows for Jerusalem
The Naphtali window, with a yellow background, also features elements of Jacob's blessing:
‘Naphtali is a doe let loose that bears lovely fawns. (Genesis 49:21)
The doe lies on the ground somewhat under a treeflies an eagle, symbol of freedom. At the right of the composition is a tree, while a bird of some kind (variously identified as an eagle or a rooster or the generic "bird"), which are often symbols of freedom. The small(er) letters spelling Zebulun are right against the top of the arch.

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned. It's good news whether it's in Isaiah or Matthew.

See very different versions of Zebulun and Naphtali on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

For additional thoughts on Isaiah and Matthew, click here.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

John 1.29-42: Which Is Translated...

John had to interpret who Jesus was: there is the lamb of God (John 1:29), this is the Son of God (1:33). He needed the people to understand that Jesus ranked ahead of him (1:30), that the Spirit had rested on Jesus (1:32), that Jesus was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33). Had he not told the people, they would never have imagined Jesus could be anything more than Mary and Joseph's son. He had to help make people understand

The gospel writer also knew that sometimes you have to help people understand. So the writer included translations for words that people might not understand: Rabbi (which translated means Teacher) in verse 38, Messiah (which is translated Anointed) in verse 41, Cephas (which is translated Peter) in verse 42.

Which is translated...

As the Holy Spirit knew on Pentecost, when people hear things in their own language, they understand them better. Not everyone in Jerusalem understood the accent of Gallilean fishermen. Greek speakers may not have known Aramaic or Hebrew, so things were translated in the text. And we need to hear in our own language, so the original scriptural texts will be further translated: Cephas which is translated Peter...which means rock. And now English speakers get it. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. Introducing ideas in multiple languages helps more people understand. New people are introduced to the ideas, and those who understand multiple languages may have their understanding broadened.

Kehinde Wiley translates famous historical paintings into contemporary language. New people are introduced to these classics, and those who know the classics are invited to ask new questions about them. Below, Wiley translates Jacques Louis David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." The older painting is about power and leadership, about dynamism and masculinity, which is translated....

(Left) Jacques Louis David. Napoleon Crossing the Alps. 1801. Chateau de Malmaison.
(Right) Kehinde Wiley. Napoleon Leading the Army Across the Alps. 2005. 
Sometimes, though, you come to understand that the "original" is actually a translation. David's painting shows Napoleon pointing to the top of the Alps as the Army crosses the Saint- Bernard Pass. Around him, his cloak and his horse's mane and tail are whipped by the wind. At the feet of his rearing horse are three stones with names carved in them: Karolus Magnus (Charlemagne), Hannibal and Bonaparte. Bonaparte's name is highest on the path and carved in larger, deeper letters. There is no doubt that David's work is designed to portray power, leadership, dynamism and masculinity. The fact that Napoleon crossed the Alps not at the head of his troops but several days after them...and riding a mule...need not be discussed.

For additional thoughts on John 1:29-42, click here.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Isaiah 42.1-9: The Servant Who Will Not Destroy

The Servant, the one who delights God's soul, works to support rather than destroy. The servant will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a wick that is only dimly burning.(Isaiah 42:1-9) The Servant might be compared to the tie rod found in Early Renaissance architecture. In architecture, the Renaissance appeared as a look back to Classical architecture - the buildings and styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

The vocabulary of Classical architecture is domes and arches, columns and pediments. The design for Florence, Italy's Pazzi Chapel employs a dome, arches, and columns. The arch and column pattern was also used in the cloisters of the Basilica di Santa Croce, the convent of San Marco, and the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital). Though the designs reach back to the past, the new combination and the date of construction made these buildings among the most modern of their day.
Above left, cloister of the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. 
Above right, interior of the Pazzi Chapel, constructed 1442-1443. Florence, Italy. 
One of the realities of architecture is that it is bound by such forces as gravity and thrust. Designs can be drawn based only on aesthetics. Once stone was carved and stacked, however, the laws of physics cannot be ignored. The weight of the Roman (round) arches threatened to push the slender columns out which would lead to the collapse of the structure.

Rather than abandon the design (snap the reed...snuff the wick), the architect used a tie rod fastened on each arch's springing points. The rod gave additional support to the still-not-perfected use of Roman arches and barrel vaults. The weakness of the design was supported, nurtured, balanced by the strength of the rod. The bruised reed could be supported. The dimly glowing wick could be fanned to life. The tie rod gave the buildings a chance to stand. And so they have for more than 500 years.

See how this Early Renaissance accommodation finds its (fashionable) way through Florence and into painting in Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.