Casting Stones

September 30, 2015

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

Julie Green, Last Supper, 2000-present

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.

Green-FishJulie 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.

Green-Breakfast2Bagels 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-KFCGreen’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?

Green-Birthday CakeGreen-None

Green-Reg Prison Fare   Green-Big

Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

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.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In 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-Weimar-det2Cranach 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.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The 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.

 

Andy Warhol, Repent and Sin No More!, 1985-86 (National Galleries Scotland)

Andy Warhol, Repent and Sin No More!, 1985-86
(National Galleries Scotland)

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.

Sistine Chapel … Look Up

September 3, 2012

Michelangelo, The Bronze Serpent, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Last corner. I don’t think I’ve ever really looked at this corner of the Sistine Chapel. It’s so dramatic!

The panel depicts a story from the Old Testament. The Israelites were out in the desert and they did something to tick God off (again). To punish them, he sent a swarm of poisonous snakes. The people cried out to Moses and Moses interceded (again). God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whoever looked at the sculpture would be saved.

Michelangelo is very literal in his interpretation of this story. Snakes fly through the air to attack the mass of people on the right. They coil, constrict, and bite. There’s no hope for these victims as they struggle and succumb. Meanwhile, the crowd on the left gaze up at the golden serpent in the middle. They look mesmerized.

I like the way Michelangelo contrasts the bronze snake wrapped around the pole with the green snake coiled around its victim right below—it’s so similar, even down to the tip of the tail around the poor guy’s ankle. Yet the contrast is stark. The bottom serpent is the agent of death, the top one is the agent of life.

But that sculpted snake is more than a miraculous cure or a protective shield, it is a symbol of God’s grace and mercy. The Israelites deserved to be punished, but God is offering a way out and all the people have to do is look up–to put their trust in the power of that piece of metal.

Of course, that story has long been understood as a parallel to the New Testament story of salvation. Christ, too, was lifted up on a pole of sorts when he was crucified, and we, too, can be saved by simply looking to the cross. All we have to do is believe and we will be spared the punishment that is due because of all our disobedience.

Michelangelo makes the choice pretty clear. We can writhe in agony as we get what we deserve, or we can look up and be mesmerized by the mercy and grace of God. Hmm … that’s a tough one.

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the four corners of the Sistine Chapel. We see four Old Testament stories: David killing Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Esther orchestrating the death of Haman, and the bronze serpent—all stories of unexpected salvation for the Israelites. In each, they seemed doomed. In each, God provided a way out. And (importantly) in each, salvation came through believing in God’s desire to save. David, Judith, and Esther all believed that God was on their side, that God wanted the Israelites to live on. They acted on that belief, just like the Israelites who looked up at a sculpture of a snake in order to live.

So what does it mean for us? Not sure. I would like to act based on certain beliefs like these OT heroes did. But what do I believe? And what action does it require? My convictions seem rather general and lackluster. I think I need to listen a bit harder to what God might be telling me. Where is the battle line? Where are the stakes high and action called for? If you have any ideas, I’m listening.

Last week, I spent some time thinking more about Michelangelo’s image of the Flood on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This week, I’m considering the other two scenes from the life of Noah: the Sacrifice of Noah and the Drunkenness of Noah.

Picking up the story where we left off: The rain stops and the floodwaters slowly recede. Eventually, the ark finds some dry land and everybody can get out. The first thing that Noah does is build an altar and offer a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for saving them. So far, so good. But then, Noah makes some wine with the grapes he harvests from the new vines and drinks a little too much. He passes out naked. His youngest son, Ham, discovers him and tell his brothers, who cover him up while shielding their own eyes. When Noah wakes up and finds out what happened, he curses Ham, presumably because he gossiped about his father’s state rather than concealing it. The other two sons are blessed for their discretion. There you have it.

Michelangelo, Sacrifice of Noah, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

In Michelangelo’s depiction of it, the sacrifice is a family affair. While Noah, his wife, and daughter-in-law tend the fire on top of the altar and two sons work on the fire beneath (one is bringing a huge log), three others prepare the first offering of two rams.

As I’ve noticed so often in the ceiling frescoes, Michelangelo uses bodies and gestures to add considerable dynamism to the composition. Here, figures bend, crouch, twist, reach, pull, lean. The most important gesture is Noah’s, of course. He points up in reinforce the message that God was the one who saved them.

Again, so far, so good. But Noah isn’t perfect.

Michelangelo, Drunkenness of Noah, 1508-1512
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

The next panel has two parts. In the background on the left, we see a glimpse of Noah tilling the soil, presumably about to plant those first vines. The foreground, then, shows a passed-out Noah being covered by his sons. I find it curious that none of them are actually looking at their naked father (Ham only points here), when we as the viewers are encouraged to take a nice long look. We are implicated. We are the ones who are doing the disgraceful thing. We ought to feel a bit guilty, but do we? Me? Not so much.

What I find to be particularly compelling about this panel is, in fact, Noah’s body. It so clearly echoes the position of Adam’s body in the scene of his creation found toward the middle of the ceiling. Why did Michelangelo paint these two men so similarly?

With Adam, I think the posture communicates both the dignity and passivity of humanity (see my post on that), so it seems like we are being reminded of that here. And it makes sense because Noah is a new Adam, of sorts. God is starting over with Noah. But just like with the first one, this patriarch may be noble (God did call him righteous) but he is also weak (get some self-control, Noah). Michelangelo communicates this tension by idealizing his aging body and then making it slump over.

So, this is pessimistic way to end the narrative. It’s as if Michelangelo is pointing out that the Flood didn’t really accomplish much. Humanity is fallen, and wiping out the worst ones of the bunch is not going to change that essential fact.

Still, there is optimism here. Michelangelo, ever the product of Renaissance humanism, does paint a beautiful body, and thus suggests that God’s creation is fundamentally good (there was a belief in the correspondence between physical appearance and moral rectitude). Furthermore, two of the sons do the right thing and here even Ham diverts his eyes, as if to indicate that noble acts are still possible.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to pull from this in terms of my own life. I think it may be enough to have some new theological insights about the narrative. Human beings are a mess of contradictions. I guess I’m just glad God hasn’t chosen to wipe us out again. His mercy prevails.

Michelangelo, The Flood, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

When you walk in the Sistine Chapel and look up, the first three scenes you’ll see on the ceiling tell the story of Noah (honestly, they are rather crowded scenes with relatively small figures, so you’ll need opera glasses). Michelangelo chose to paint the Flood, the Sacrifice of Noah, and the Drunkenness of Noah, which are some unusual choices and so worthy of some deeper consideration.

The first part of the story is relatively well-known. Sometime after Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, humanity has largely turned away from God. Fed up with it all, God decides to wipe everybody out with a massive flood, but chooses to save the one man he finds to be righteous—Noah. He tells Noah to build an ark and fill it with his immediate family and pairs of animals. When the rains come, the ark becomes a floating shelter.

Michelangelo paints the moment when the flood is rising and people are trying to save themselves. It’s a sobering scene. A husband carries his wife on his back up the hill, a mother tries to save her two babies, a father hoists his adult son onto the rock, couples hold each other. These are supposed to be the people who are evil through and through, but that’s not the impression we get here. Instead, we see people who love each other—they are mothers, fathers, innocent children. Are they really that bad?

And so, Michelangelo forces us to consider the most difficult part of this story: the fact that God killed lots of people. It’s easy to picture the people as despicable, horrible, and no-good (a whole society of criminals, say) and overlook just how alarming this divine act really was. Was everyone really that bad? The Bible says that “every inclination of their hearts was only evil all the time.” Really? It seems like such an absolute statement has to be hyperbole. I think Michelangelo agrees with me here. He seems to suggest that the real picture had to be more complicated than that. But the problem is that he doesn’t offer any answers to this theological question. Ugh.

What I think he does do is pose a different question: Are you any different from them? Each one of us is pretty bad, after all—maybe we haven’t murdered someone, but we all have ugly thoughts, immoral desires, and impure motivations, which is what these people were accused of. Would I have been deemed righteous like Noah? Mmmm … probably not. So, I would have been facing the same fate at the rest.

I guess this makes Michelangelo’s panel a morality tale. The message? Shape up, because you too will be judged. You can’t rely on being “good enough.” Pursue righteousness. Get rid of those inclinations toward evil. Be good.

Where’s grace in all this? Noah. He could not have been completely righteous, right? He simply “walked faithfully with God,” which prompted God to extend grace to him in the form of a lifeboat. We don’t need to be pure in order to be saved, we just need to walk faithfully (with earnestness and integrity) with God. Then, Christ becomes our lifeboat.

In the painting, three guys are getting pulled onto the ark. They can’t be Noah’s sons, because there are already at least four men on board. This seems to be Michelangelo’s way of depicting grace. When the waters started to rise, these three didn’t simply look for higher ground or find a little boat for themselves (both of which are logical actions in those circumstances), they turned toward the thing that will really save them. They finally believed Noah’s warnings. They believed God. And so, they too are saved. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

Michelangelo, The Fall of Man and Expulsion from Eden, 1508-12
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome)

Looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, just slightly past the midway point, is this two-part scene. On the left is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Fall of Humanity and on the right the Expulsion from Eden. Here we have a tight narrative in which Adam and Eve’s actions on the left lead inexorably to the event on the right. No turning back.

The story is found in the book of Genesis, right after the story(s) of Creation. God has told Adam and Eve that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden, except for the fruit of one tree. For a while it seems like they are fine with that, until the Serpent comes along and convinces Eve that she should eat it and then she turns around and convinces Adam he should too. Bad idea. They immediately feel guilty and try to avoid God when he comes looking for them. When God eventually confronts them, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent, but all three get punished. Among other things, Adam and Eve get kicked out of paradise. And, because of their disobedience, now every human being is prone to disobeying God—that’s the “Fall of Humanity.

Michelangelo puts his own little spin on the text, which has some theological implications. Notice how both Adam and Eve reach for the fruit. Eve has to twist around and reach behind her to take fruit from the Serpent (yes, the Serpent has a female torso … don’t get me started). The awkwardness of her gesture is heightened by the dead tree branch that follows the same line. For his part, Adam grips the tree and seems to pull it towards himself in order to get what he’s after. In this way, Michelangelo underscores how both are complicit in the Fall, but he seems to suggest that while Eve was passively receptive to the Serpent’s manipulation, Adam’s disobedience was assertive and willful. He’s going to take what God has forbidden.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Our eye moves to the other side of the painting by following all those parallel and arching arms over to the angel at the top and then further to the pained faces of Adam and Eve. My, how things have changed.

The two look so young and innocent on the left, now they look old and gruesome. Sin has clearly taken its toll. Michelangelo has depicted the new state of their souls—that is, guilt-ridden and depraved—in their physical bodies. Their faces are weathered and wrinkled, their hair has become disheveled and stringy, and Eve covers her naked torso as she cowers and turns away. Adam also turns away, but it looks like he is trying to straight-arm the angel who is driving them out of Eden. If his posture is feebly defensive, the angel’s is forceful and aggressive, as if Michelangelo wants the angel to embody the anger of God.

I am struck by how incisively Michelangelo conveys the effects of sin here. First, he shows how sin has made us into despicable creatures. We are no longer the humans that God originally created us to be, for sin has eroded the innocence and dignity that characterized humanity before the Fall. At the same time, Michelangelo also portrays the shame and deep regret we sometimes feel when we become deeply aware of our sin and its consequences. I personally relate to Eve. I, too, have wanted to curl up in a little ball and hide because I have screwed up. Agh, what have I done!?!?

There’s not really any good news in this panel. Adam and Eve are left in this regrettable state. God is no where to be seen. There is no hint of any plan that God might have to reconcile with these two, or with humanity in general. Michelangelo leaves us with a pit in our stomach. While I would like a glimpse of hope, perhaps it’s better this way. It makes us live with this stark reality for a while.

Then, we start looking around for a sign of God’s grace. Don’t worry, it’s there.

Hans Memling, Last Judgment, 1467-71 (National Museum, Gdañsk, Poland)Last Judgment scenes are fascinating. They follow a distinct pattern: Christ in a position of judgment with some people being assigned to Heaven, others to Hell. Beyond that, though, there are a number of slight, but significant, variations. This week, I’m taking a closer look at the one by Hans Memling.

Here, Christ is enthroned on a rainbow, his feet resting on a sphere that represents the world. He is surrounded by Mary and John the Baptist (who represent the initiation of the plan of salvation) and the twelve disciples (who spread the gospel of salvation). Four angels hover above with the symbols of Christ’s passion (thus instruments in salvation): the pillar, the cross, the crown of thorns, and the nails and spear. The lily and the sword represent innocence and guilt, respectively, and they seem to be emanating from Christ mouth which suggests that he is proclaiming judgment on the poor souls below.

Immediately below Christ is Saint Michael, the archangel. By the Renaissance, he had become Christ’s right-hand man for Judgment Day. As people emerge from their graves to face judgment, he weighs them on a scale. If their souls are deemed pure, they are welcomed into heaven by Saint Peter (the one holding the key). If their souls are still marked by sin, demons drag them off to hell where they are tortured.

The contrast between the calmness of the left side and the chaos of the right is important. The men and women being ushered into heaven are very orderly, even as a few turn to witness an angel confront a demon who is trying to steal a soul away. The onlookers barely register alarm as they wait their turn to climb the steps to the pearly gates. But on the other side, it’s all commotion. The demons prod and whip the Damned, forcing the crowd into the fiery mouth of Hell. Unlike the upright bodies of the Saved on the left, the bodies of the Damned flail and twist and tumble. It’s horrifying.

Other artists take similar approaches to depicting the Last Judgment, but Memling includes a couple details that touch me. First, in the crowd of the Damned, there are a few figures who are reaching up to the saints above, pleading for help. Is it just too late for them? Memling seems to be telling his audience that they need to repent and believe now. You can’t wait until you’re feeling the flames of Hell to finally come to Jesus. It doesn’t work that way.

But my favorite part of this painting is on the other side. As the Saved climb the stairs they are greeted by a group of angels who offer them new clothes. They aren’t just new shirts and dresses, however, they are actually vestments. These souls are being dressed for worship. As far as I know, this is the only depiction of the Last Judgment that emphasizes the eternal worship of God in Heaven. Perpetual torture by demons or never-ending worship with the angels? Hmmm … tough choice.