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 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 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.