February 9, 2016
I’m just back from London, where I spent many delightful hours at the National Gallery. This little painting caught my eye, which is little wonder because Carracci does that.
The motif is the Holy Family—the mother Mary, the baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. It’s a traditional theme in Christian art, typically used to promote modeling one’s own family after this mostly divine one. Here, though, John the Baptist is included as well. That’s not unusual and he does fit the theme (we was a cousin of Mary and Jesus), but it does shift the meaning of the motif, especially in this painting.
The first thing I notice is how the figures of Mary and Jesus are so tightly tied together. They are turned toward each other and their heads are gently touching. Mary’s arm and Jesus’ arm and leg make a strong rectilinear shape emphasizing their unity, and their garments, particularly Mary’s robe, enclose them. We instantly understand that these two are lovingly bonded.
Both, however, glance to the outside. Jesus looks over his shoulder toward his earthly father, Joseph. What is happening between them is hard to identify—the way Joseph leans in is not playful or even loving exactly, but it’s not threatening either. He looks curious, like he is puzzling over this baby, maybe because of something he just read in that book. Jesus, for his part, looks a little wary.
Mary’s glance is much easier to identify. It seems like the infant John has tugged on her robe, causing her to look back. She is very much aware of what John represents, which is the knowledge that her baby—this Jesus—will be the Messiah. Carracci underscores this by putting the characteristic cruciform staff in John’s hand. Instinctively, Mary turns away from John, shielding Jesus from that message, that cross. Who can blame her?
This pair seems pushed from both sides. The sweet bond between mother and son seems disrupted by indications of what is to come. Both the traditional Jewish scriptures and the soon-to-be prophet John foreshadow how this is all going to end.
Yes, we should all be thrilled that the Messiah is come, but at the moment he’s just a baby. Can’t all the prophecy just wait a little?
But, no. Here’s Ash Wednesday.
December 25, 2015
It’s the day before Christmas. And while I clean and wrap and wipe runny noses (including my own), I’m trying to keep my mind on what I’m really preparing for. Advent. The Coming.
I’m thankful for Keith Haring’s subway drawing, which bypasses the usual schmaltzy iconography to get to the essence of what we’re celebrating. Here is the Son of God come down–miraculously–in the form of baby. It even looks like God is having contractions!
Merry Christmas out there….
December 7, 2015
In a whirlwind visit to Seattle several weeks ago now, I was able to visit the Contemporary Korean Art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. This particular work by Lee Yongbaek not only sucked me in at first look, but it drew me back into the exhibit for a second. My son too, as you can see.
As you stand and look at the mirror, you see images of sculpted heads flicker and morph in the middle of a dark, seemingly three-dimensional space. The heads are easily recognizable as Buddha and Jesus, sculpted by other artists in other times, although they sometimes shift from one to the next so quickly that you can’t see them distinctly.
The work is not hard to understand, at least on a basic level. Here, east meets west. Lee points to the tension between two gods that sometimes exist at the extremes of cultural difference, but by conflating the two, he puts them into a symbiotic relationship, like conjoined twins or some sci-fi double being. In this way, he explores the cultural divide by bringing them intimately close.
But that’s not what grabbed me. Even as the heads change rapidly from one to the next, there are moments when a head lingers for a few seconds—as if suspended or caught—and then it twitches before finally morphing into the next. It feels like it is trying to hold on, but it just can’t.
In those moments, it seems as if there is some sort of glitch in the system—something is not working—like the smooth flow between the two divine beings has been interrupted, disrupted, obstructed. It reminds me of the holodeck on Star Trek when something in the hologram “twitches” and Captain Picard knows that something is not right.
Lee seems to be giving away the ruse. Sure, he’s merging these two gods together in order to suggest that perhaps they are not so different after all. But he seems to admit that this vision is just that—a vision. It’s not real. It can never be real. It will only ever be an illusion … like a hologram.
To push this a little further, it’s not just the vision of a harmonious religion that is tenuous here. The images of each god are fundamentally unstable. Even when the image lingers for a few moments, it eventually gets pulled into the next.
In other words, the images repeatedly lose their integrity—as images of the divine ought to do. An image of a god is not the god they represent. An image is always limited, always contrived. And yet we hang on to those images. Sometimes desperately or even zealously.
This time of year—Advent—I am so aware of the use of images to encapsulate the birth narrative of Jesus. Some images can be powerful, others painfully trite. Either way, it’s all too tempting to let the images be the story. It’s hard enough already to keep from reducing Christmas down to a few lovely sentiments, pictures of Mary, Joseph, and a cute little baby don’t help.
Perhaps this season, I will try to look at images in order to see through them. I don’t mean this in a cynical sense (although my propensity for such things could lead me there…bah, nostalgia, consumerism, and sublimation!). Instead I could look for ways that images point toward the depth and richness of the narrative and the theology of the incarnation, maybe even in spite of themselves.
I’ll keep you posted.
October 14, 2015
I’m looking backward again. While in Chicago last summer I visited Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers” exhibition at the Loyola University Museum of Art. This series has gotten a lot of attention and I’m still mulling it over.
On the surface, the idea is an easy one: Renaldi asks people who have never met to pose in an intimate way—as if they are a couple, family, or close friends—and then he takes a photograph.
Okay … but there are a lot of (mostly unanswered) questions here. How did he approach them? When the participants are in a private space—like a hotel room—how did he get them there? How did he pick them? What did he say when he first approached them? Did they decide how to touch or was there some coaching? If so, how much?
After a little digging, I did find a answers to the last couple questions. Apparently, Renaldi did make suggestions to the participants—like to flirt or even kiss. This makes sense if you’re a photographer wanting interesting photographs. It makes less sense if you want to really explore the connection between touch and relationship, which was the series’ ostensible reason d’etre.
In fact, after looking at the first half-dozen photographs in the gallery that day in June, I found the basic interpretation of the project to be all wrong. I had read that Renaldi is using touch to make spontaneous and fleeting relationships between strangers. I don’t think so. He’s just asking them to touch, and touching does not necessarily mean a relationship has formed, even a fleeting one.
This demands a little interrogation. For some photos, you could say that the subjects performed relationship because they got into it and acted like they were in a relationship. Or, you could say that the relationship he created was “two people who participated in this artist’s project.” And maybe for a few of the photographs, the brief interaction did lead to a real connection between of the participants. But as a whole, these photographs are not about relationships in any meaningful sense of the term.
Now, despite this criticism, I think this project is fascinating—just not for the reason Renaldi and others have proposed.
As I walked around the gallery, I was struck again and again by how the subjects dealt with the issue of trust. To participate, they had to trust each other and they had to trust Renaldi—and all the more so because they were directed to pose in intimate ways. To shake a hand is one thing, to kiss or even hug is quite another.
For me, each photograph became a study about how different people react when this kind of trust is requested or even demanded of them. For some, they throw themselves at it, as if the best way to trust is to pretend there’s nothing at risk. For others, they tense up and exert their will over any fears. Others seem to be comfortable with the scenario—as if they have a natural trust in people, even strangers.
Maybe this has struck home because I have young children and the idea of “stranger danger” is everywhere. My mama bear instincts flash when someone I don’t know even talks to my children, let alone touches them. And yet, I don’t want my children to grow up always keeping strangers at arm’s-length. I want them to reach out. I want them to practice hospitality.
There are so many passages in the Bible that stress the importance of hospitality—welcoming strangers, into one’s home, trusting them in order to give them a place for refuge or rest. One of my favorites comes from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).
With the refugee crisis growing around the world right now, we can see the relationship between trust and hospitality playing out. There are millions of strangers who desperately need a place of rest and refuge. Do we have the trust to reach out and welcome them? Where is our trust?
Of course, our trust is in God. God calls us to open our doors, to kindle a fire, to prepare a meal… to touch a stranger as if she is family, as if he is an intimate friend.
And when we reach out, we place our trust in God.
I just wish it were that easy.
September 30, 2015
After a long hiatus for a whole mess of reasons, I’m returning to the discipline of looking and praying and writing. I never stopped looking, but it’s time to get back to the praying and writing. I need it.
Julie Green’s Last Supper has been on my mind since I saw it at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University this summer. The project, I think, is brilliant. In a nutshell, she has painted about 500 (and counting) individual plates to show the meal requests of death row inmates. She includes the state where the execution occurred and the date. Sometimes, when there was no last meal, she has text simply describing situation–a denied request or no request at all, for example.
To stand in a room full of these plates—there were 357 in the exhibition I saw—is haunting. I felt the presence of these individuals. I knew approximately three things about them, but that was enough to make each one a distinct individual. There is something oddly intimate about knowing what someone wanted for their very last meal.
Bagels and coffee. Three eggs, three slices of bacon, three sausages and toast. Fried chicken and watermelon. Grilled fish, oysters, and prawns. Four eggs, four chicken drumsticks, salsa, four jalapeno peppers, lettuce, tortillas, hash browns, garlic bread, two pork chops, white and yellow grated cheese, sliced onions and tomatoes, a pitcher of milk and a vanilla milkshake. A pack of cigarettes.
Green helps us to think about the humanity of these individuals. By showing us something about them that is so basically human, she deters our tendency to view these individuals as “the evil other,” and instead gives us something in common with them. What would you request?
Green’s choices underscore her message. Because she uses second-hand plates—and each one unique—the plates feel so personal. As objects, they had previous lives in which they held other meals for other people, and now they carry their own last meals as well. At the same time, there is something monumental and unified about the plates because there are so many of them, and all painted in a brushy style with cobalt blue. There is, after all, one thing that unites all the different lives these plates represent.
What makes this particularly brilliant, at least to my mind, is how Green subtly draws a connection between these individuals and Jesus. The title “Last Supper” is not simply a play on a well-established subject matter in art, she uses it to make bigger claims (or ask bigger questions).
After all—Christ, too, was executed. He also had a last meal.
In this, her project takes on a slightly different angle. Can justice ever be fair, true, and impartial? In Jesus’ case, clearly not. Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges and condemned by a judge who was clearly manipulated by a powerful interest group. And our own justice system? How many of these death sentences have been the result of similar circumstances? How can we ever know?
A student who was with me in the exhibition pointed out that Green’s approach completely elides the facts about the crimes these prisoners committed and that, if we knew the charges, our feelings of connection and maybe even sympathy would likely be significantly diminished. I agree.
What Green does, however, is level the field—to emphasize our common humanity—in order to question our right to judge and condemn to death. Even if they have committed heinous crimes and “deserve to die,” do we have the right to kill them? Jesus said it: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”
The would-be executioners that Jesus confronted that day knew they needed to put down their stones. Do we?
April 27, 2015
While in Denver for a short trip a couple weeks ago, I spent a few hours at the Denver Art Museum. They have this artwork displayed in a rather odd place—a wide corridor that connects their two main buildings. You could easily miss it, except it’s a Keith Haring, and Keith Haring tends to draw attention.
Haring made nine editions of this cast-bronze sculpture shortly before his death in 1990. A firsthand account of its making, written by Sam Havadtoy, has become the primary way that this artwork is popularly understood. If you’re curious, you can find it here.
Obviously, there is lots of Christian iconography here.
The viewer is immediately drawn to the baby in the middle of the center panel, presumably an infant Jesus in the arms of Mary. But the figure that extends up is also vaguely trinitarian–the many arms suggesting the omnipotence of God. The topmost pair echo the arms of the cross, and the head seems to look down. The short lines surrounding this figure convey a sense of energy.
On the left and right panels, Haring drew four winged creatures. Havadtoy described them as an image of a fallen angel (the Fall) and the resurrection (Christ’s victory). The people crowded below seem to dance, swoon, and reach up to heaven.
So, as far as I can tell, this is usually interpreted as a reflection on—if not an affirmation of—the sacred. I get that. Haring does express Christian theology about salvation in a rather tidy and compelling image.
But, there’s another way to read this—as a personal reflection on his own impending death.
When he drew so-called “radiant babies” before, he was connoting a range of things—sometimes Jesus, but also all of humanity and even himself. The main figure–an all-powerful, loving, tender God– cradles this little baby. Could Haring have imagined himself being held by God as he prepared for his own death? Could he have been contemplating how, despite his own sin, eternal life might be possible because of God’s love for him?
I don’t know. After a protestant upbringing and an affiliation with the Jesus Movement, he spent much of his short adult life being skeptical about religion and the church. He did come back around to Christianity, apparently, so it’s conceivable that he would do such an overtly theological artwork—especially when drawing on a triptych shaped like an altarpiece—but it is less clear if he would have endeavored a personal reflection on his own salvation.
But does it really matter? Haring understood how language and symbolism work. An author/artist uses a series of words/symbols to send a message, but the receiver might hear/read a different message because they understand the words and symbols differently. Ambiguity is part of the game of communication.
So, he carves these symbols into clay and they are cast into bronze. The message is sent.
I am satisfied.
March 23, 2015
I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?
This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.
In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!
Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.
Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.
Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.
The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.
Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.
The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.
The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.
Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.
I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.
Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.
March 9, 2015
This one from Andy Warhol.
In the 1980s, Warhol did a series of images in which he hand-copied ads and illustrations found in newspapers. Several of the resulting prints had religious connotations, such as this one.
I just can’t get past the incongruity here. The lettering seems so upbeat for such a heavy message. It seems like it should say something like, “Buy now and save more!” It’s no surprise that Warhol—with his interest in consumerism and promotion—zeroed in on this one. Here, even a profound spiritual idea gets a commercial treatment, as if religion can’t figure out another way to get its message out. Repent now and get a set of steak knives for free!
When multiples of the print appear together—side by side, like here—it points to the ubiquity of messages. It’s like the posters pasted up side by side on a wall. The repetition may draw your attention, but it’s harder to focus on what any one of those posters say. Warhol uses repetition for all sorts of reasons in his body of work, but here I wonder if he’s emphasizing the emptiness of modern messaging, which is particularly ironic in this case because the message itself is far from empty.
And then, it’s just so cliché! I know Jesus said it first (sort of), but it’s become so enmeshed in Christian culture and then so frequently used in parodies of tent revivals and fire-and-brimstone speeches, that it’s hard for me to read those words and take them seriously. By all accounts, Warhol was a devout Catholic; I wonder what he thought.
Maybe the added irony here is that this message is getting me to think about where these words came from and what they really mean. But my reaction has more to do with my current context than the work itself. It’s Lent, after all, the season of repentance, and I’m intentionally looking for artworks that might make me think about it. So this one makes me think about it….
Paraphrased, from the Gospel of John: Jesus squatted down and wrote on the ground and one at a time everyone left, until only the woman was left. Jesus stood up and asked her, “Woman, where is everyone? Is no one left to condemn you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” “Then I won’t condemn you either. Now go, and sin no more.”
This was a very private exchange—a far cry from a poster on a wall or an advertisement in a newspaper. Jesus spoke into this woman’s troubled life and freed her from a burden that could have literally killed her.
Huh. Perhaps it should be written with upbeat lettering and be plastered all over modern media channels. Maybe repentance should come with a free set of steak knives.
February 23, 2015
This week we marked the passage into the holy season of Lent. I used to make much of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I haven’t had ashes on my forehead for years now. It’s complicated. Which is why this painting came to mind.
This is a typical Brueghel painting in that it is crammed full of stuff. Your eye wonders around a bit until you finally hone in on the action at the bottom center. Two characters are riding make-shift contraptions toward each other, both carrying “lances” as if they are about to joust. The one on the left (riding a beer barrel) symbolizes Carnival—the season that runs up to the beginning of Lent and is characterized by indulgence, especially in the areas of food and drink. The character on the right (being pulled on a cart) symbolizes Lent—the period leading up to Easter during which Christians practice abstinence as a way to remember Christ’s sacrifice and prepare for the holiest of Holy-Days.
The two figures personify the two seasons in many ways. One is well-fed; the other is lean. One fights with skewer full of meat, the other with board of fish. For helmets, one has a meat pie, the other a bee hive. One is followed by a table of bread and waffles (the starch of Carnival), while the other brings pretzels and biscuits (the starch of Lent). The contrast extends beyond the two figures. The people on the left crowd into taverns, parade around in masks, and imbibe; the people on the right, many having crosses imposed on their foreheads, prepare themselves for Lent, including giving alms to the poor and disabled.
Scholars have offered varying interpretations of this painting. For some it’s a straightforward picture of the perennial triumph of Lent. Others point to the historical context and suggest that the painting is an allegory for the religious tensions between Catholics (for whom Lent was a deeply held tradition) and Protestants (who had abolished Lent, but still observed Carnival). Still other scholars point to the ridiculousness of both sides of the battle and argue that Brueghel is commenting about just how superficial all these religious practices have become—it’s all a show.
Looking at it today, and from a personal perspective, I wonder if this reflects a conflict that many of us feel. We know we should be engaged in the practices long associated with Lent—abstinence, generosity, penitence, contemplation. Those are all very good and worthy things. But it’s complicated.
It’s convenient to suggest that Brueghel may be commenting about the superficiality of all religious practices. It lets us off the hook—just like when we (okay, I) dismiss another’s practice just because he announces that he can’t have the chocolate cake because he gave sweets up for Lent. Such displays of piety have a tendency to make me want to steer clear of acts of piety altogether. Thus, to arrive at this kind of interpretation of the painting makes me suspicious. Interpretations can reveal a lot about the interpreter, after all.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to find a pastor who will put ashes on my forehead ex post facto, but I am going to commit to thinking differently about these Lenten traditions that (frankly) have seemed at times to be more show than soul-shaping. My motives will never be pure and a little alms-giving, and a little abstinence will likely do my spirit good.
(And now I’m wondering if this whole blog entry is a show of piety. Ha. Of course it is.)
February 9, 2015
When in San Francisco in November, I saw this painting at the De Young Museum. It caught my attention—perhaps because it offered a curious contemporary spin on the tried-and-true 19th century trompe l’oeil paintings that surrounded it in the gallery.
If you are not familiar with the term, “trompe l’oeil” is a kind of painting in which the artist tries to “trick the eye” of the viewer into thinking that what you’re looking at is real, not painted. Everything in this type of painting is “life”-size and hyper-realistic so it looks like the objects are just on the other side of the wall, or hanging on the wall of gallery itself. The viewer is confronted with the objects in a much more immediate way than with run-of-the-mill naturalism.
This painting is a little different because we know there is not a hole in the gallery wall that looks out over an expanse of water. And yet, the plastic pitcher and stack of white bread sandwiches is so real you can practically smell the grape juice and bologna. Even as a small image on my computer screen, the painting is conjuring those olfactory memories from my childhood.
But it wasn’t the extreme naturalism that drew my closer look then, or now; it was the allusion to the Eucharist. Not only are the constitutional elements grape and grain, but the white cloth evokes the “corporal cloth” that is used to catch any elements that drop from the paten during the Eucharist.
Because this seems so obvious to me, I was surprised that the label next to the painting mentions nothing of this. But what it does say opens up for me a new way of understanding the Eucharist.
The label explains that Ligare is referencing the juice and sandwiches that are given to people at the homeless shelter where he volunteered. Furthermore, he connects this practice to the Greek notion of hospitality called xenia, a word found inscribed on the stone in the painting. In this way, Ligare expands modern conceptions of hospitality—it’s not just welcoming friends into your own home, it is offering food and shelter to complete strangers as well.
I can’t help but push it one step further. At the Last Supper, when Christ broke bread and poured the wine, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). He was looking at the twelve disciples—the inner circle, his closest friends—yet he told them his death would be for many—the multitude, the unknown, complete strangers.
So, one way of understanding Christ’s sacrificial death may be as a profound act of hospitality. All of humanity—all strangers to God because of being estranged from God—has been given life-giving sustenance.
We’re heading into the long and often lonely journey through Lent. This time, I’ll keep this painting close at hand to remind me of what’s coming. I may have a physical roof over my head, but spiritually I am homeless—empty and desperate. I will be so grateful for Christ’s hospitality in the end of the journey, whenever that may be.
Then, as now, I will drink and eat in remembrance.
(Oh… and no, the irony of bologna is not lost on me.)