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.