Sunday, March 22, 2020

Palm Sunday: Putting It Together

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I suppose everything is seen through the coronavirus these days. As Christians turn their faces toward Holy Week the question is whether anything can be salvaged. The re-enactments of children waving palm branches. Gathering around tables to share a meal. Tenebrae services in gradually darkening rooms. Easter vigils that retell the story of salvation. Knocking on doors and striking new fire and processing into a sanctuary. How will that happen this year?

The art of Holy Week is often smooth and technically polished. Fresco artists of the 14th and 15th centuries carefully and smoothly mixed dry pigments with water and painted it on fresh plaster to illustrate the stories of scripture on the walls of churches and chapels. Baroque artists boldly brushed oil paint onto canvas, creating dramatic scenes of light and dark. Stained glass windows have carefully cut pieces of glass in lead channels, defining colors and values. People are defined. Branches are defined. The donkey is defined. Everything is in its designated place.

That's usually how our church services are as well. Children are rehearsed before being given a branch and scooted down the center aisle. Familiar hymns are rehearsed by the choir and soloists. Candles are lined up and snuffers are located. Everything needs to be, if not perfect, then as perfect as we can make it.

But not this year. This year we're trying to figure out how to craft a service of worship when worshipers are virtually together rather than sharing physical space. How to put together "what we've always done" with "we've never done this before." It's going to be a combination of new and old, familiar and strange, well-practiced and first-run.

Romare Bearden's collage "Palm Sunday Procession" may be a better image for us this year than all the perfect oil paintings and frescoes of the past. Bearden has used paint and a variety of papers. There are cut edges and torn edges. There are areas of flat color and parts that appear to be photocopies or interpretations of drawings sourced from mosaics or Early Christian wall paintings. The people in procession have varying skin tones, and there are adults as well as a child being carried. There are a lot of moving parts.
Romare Bearden. Palm Sunday Procession. 1967-1968. 56 x 44 in. 
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Hanover, NH.
The composition has unity because of the artist. The skill and instinct of the artist brings together the pieces of paper no matter the source or the edge. It's the artist who makes this laundry list of components work as a single unit. It is the artist who helps us see the procession of Palm Sunday in a different way: not as a monolithic assemblage of perfectly constructed people in clothes of coordinating colors frozen in time, but as a collection of individual people made up of individual parts who have gathered to shout, "Hosanna! Save us!"

Bearden's original collages are no more than 14" x 18." These original collages were photographed and enlarged to six by eight feet or, as here, four by five feet. Those torn edges and purposefully mismatched papers were magnified four, five, or six times their original size in an effort to give the subjects a monumentality they did not have in their original size.

That may be a message to us as well. At that scale we again see how the hand and eye of the artist have combined the seemingly potluck ingredients into a whole. This week, put it all together. Print it large, embracing the torn edges and the variety of colors and sources. Trust the artist to make it work.

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