Advent … An Old Fresh Look

December 10, 2018

Limbourg Brothers, Nativity (folio 44v), Tres Riches Heures, 1414-16 (Musee Conde)

This charming little image is a single page from a manuscript called the Tres Riches Heures(or, in English, the “Very Rich Hours”). As the title suggests, the manuscript is a Book of Hours, which was a type of devotional book that was very popular in the Medieval period. Books of Hours typically contained a smattering of prayers, hymns, and biblical passages along with images that could enhance one’s understanding of the text or encourage spiritual reflection.

This particular Book of Hours was created for the Duke of Berry in the early 15th century by the Limbourg Brothers, and it was—as the name suggests—“very richly” decorated with ornate letters and images. Each page is 8 ½ by 10 inches. All the text was hand lettered. All the pictures and decorations were painted with very expensive pigments using very fine brushes.

The illumination of the Nativity appears with a group of prayers associated with the Virgin. Here we find lots of familiar imagery. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, of course. A stable with the standard ox and ass. An angel visiting shepherds with their rather large flock by night. Even an angel choir.

But there are some unusual elements as well—the most obvious of which are the curious blue angels swirling around baby Jesus.

Limbourg Nativity-det2-JesusWhile somewhat strange to us, this imagery would have been familiar to original viewers. In the previous century, a mystic named Bridget of Sweden had a vision that became famous around Europe after her death in the 1370s. Consequently, it inspired a shift in the way the Nativity was represented. In her vision, she saw Mary deep in prayer when suddenly the infant Jesus appeared before her on the ground, naked and glowing. When Mary realized she had just given birth, she bowed her head and crossed her arms in adoration, saying, “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son.” Then Joseph, too, saw the infant and adored him on bended knee.

Following Bridget’s vision, the Limbourg brothers show the moment immediately after Jesus’s birth. He has just appeared outsidethe womb as miraculously as he appeared insidethe womb nine months before. Mary and Joseph’s first reaction, as it should be when gazing at the glowing Son of God, is adoration. We are left to imagine that Mary’s next move is to pick up that poor baby and swaddle him tight.

The Brothers add other bits to emphasize that this is not a typical birth nor a typical baby. The blue angels, for instance, cradle the baby in a nest of golden beams of light, acting as heavenly midwives for this miracle. Unlikein Bridget’s vision, they seem to be suspending him above the bare ground. This special babe is also bathed in light streaming down from a heavenly sphere above, where God the Father stands surrounded by blue and red angels, or more specifically cherubim and sheraphim. The orb in his left hand signifies his authority, as does the crown, but with his right hand, he makes the gesture of blessing, presumably directed toward the people below on whom the most precious blessing is being bestowed presently.

Limbourg Nativity-det1-GodWhat is more unusual for a nativity is the stream of light that flows out of God’s mouth. It descends all the way to the baby below, clearly conveying that this baby is the Word of God, spoken and now made flesh. And, just in case you’ve missed theseindications of the baby’s divinity, the artist throws in one more detail for good measure—a bright white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Its presence makes clear that this very human baby is also the third member of the Triune God.

While the Limbourg Brothers clearly stress Christ’s divinity, there are other theological assertions to be found here—some of which relate to the significance of the birth of Christ for human history. Take the dilapidated stable. It is easy to surmise that the shabby condition of the stable symbolizes the poor and humble conditions into which Christ was born, but historically it carried a different meaning. The old stable represents the Old Testament—or the old order of things—which at the birth of Christ is now passing away. Here the light emanating from heaven at this momentous occasion seems to actually break through the roof—the advent of the new actually causing the ruination of the old.

Limbourg Nativity-det3-statue

The Jewish law is not the only tradition being supplanted; pagan gods are also made obsolete. If you look closely at the hillside in the background, you can make out what appears to be a large golden statue of a pagan god elevated on a column. Once prominent in the landscape, it is now obscured by the dense beams of light that signal the coming of the true God. The old has gone the new has come.

All this gives me pause.

I have only anecdotal evidence by way of the Christmas cards that find their way to my house, but it seems that we tend to gravitate toward more cozy images of the Nativity—ones in which Mary is the doting mother and the baby is snug in her arms or nestled in a manger.

But the Limbourgs’ image doesn’t let me get absorbed in the preciousness of the moment. Instead, it prompts me to contemplate the theological meaningof this event and my own response. If I consider deeply the divine identity of this baby, my response would be more like Bridget’s Mary: to bow and adore him, but not the kind of adoration of tender and affectionate parents so in love with their newborn baby, but the adoration of a humble subject toward a righteous king.

Limbourg Nativity-det40guysOn either side of Mary and Jesus, we are given suggestions for other appropriate responses to this event. On the left, three shepherds push up against the fence. I especially appreciate the two guys in the back who seem to jostle to get a better view, similar perhaps to adults at our own Christmas pageants who shift to see what’s going on up front. As sweet at those pageants are, I wonder if I work as hard to see and understand the historic event. Can I imagine myself in these shepherds’ position, trying to wrap my mind around the wonders of what’s happening here?

Which brings us to Joseph. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft-spot for Joseph. Here, the Limbourg Brothers give him a particularly old and somewhat regal appearance. He looks down at this baby that has suddenly appeared surrounded by bright blue angels, and he also bows in adoration. But he also registers his surprise, if in a most understated manner. While certainly extra-biblical, I appreciate the artists’ effort to remind us just how surprisingall of this is. This story has become so familiar that we can easily take it for granted: God comes into the world as a baby? Sure, why not. But the incarnation is surprising. The God in baby-form is surprising. Joseph ought to have been surprised when that baby showed up. So should we.

Like most Medieval artists, the Limbourg brothers don’t let us simply dwell on Advent. This image also foreshadows things to come. First, at the very bottom, the ground seems to drop off rather close to where the Holy Family are situated. Artists incorporated such holes or pits to subtly point to Christ’s eventual suffering and death. Likewise, the bare and twisted tree on the hill calls to mind the cross on Golgotha. These references are not surprising. Even in Bridget’s vision, Mary has a premonition of Jesus’s eventual suffering and bursts into tears. She hasn’t yet come to that in this image, but the Limbourg Brothers set the stage.

This Advent season, I hope I will be prompted to look with fresh eyes, to seek new and deeper understanding, and to bow down with deep adoration.

 

 

Advertisements

Seeing Grace

May 13, 2018

img_2672.png
This detail comes from a painting by Frederick Hardy called Try This Pair. It’s a quirky genre painting of a door-to-door eye-glasses salesman. While he offers different pairs to an older gentleman who is testing them with a newspaper, this boy has clearly snitched a pair off the table to try on himself. His expression suggests that he has just discovered what the world really looks like.

I distinctly remember the first time I got glasses as a teenager. Exiting the shore, I looked out over the parking lot and then to the mountains beyond, and I couldn’t believe how clear everything was. Edges were sharp! Trees had leaves! My prescription was slight, but oh what a difference it made.

This post from way back in January came to mind because I’ve been going to an adult forum series on how we experience God and are thus transformed through our senses. I firmly believe that our five senses are avenues for God’s grace. The smell of dinner when I walk through the front door is God’s grace. The sound of birds in the springtime is God’s grace. The sight of blossoming trees and blooming flowers is God’s grace. These things are not earned or deserved, they are gracious gifts.

The forum on Sundays has reminded me of how important it is to pay attention. Be present. Stop and breathe in the smell … listen to the sound … look at what I’m seeing. Really look.

The expression on the boy’s face says it all.

My eyes have gotten worse lately. I should go to the optometrist.

Hardy-Try This Pair

F. D. Hardy, Try This Pair, 1864 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London)

I’m thinking back to the afternoon in August when I took these photos at the Yayoi Kusama show at the Seattle Art Museum. What an experience.

Among Yayoi Kusama’s most famous works are her so-called “infinity rooms”—rooms with mirrors covering walls, ceilings, and sometimes floors so the reflections repeat to … well… infinity. The rooms are populated with forms—glowing pumpkins with black dots, white tuber-like forms with red dots, giant pink balls with black dots suspended from the ceiling. They multiply into a fantasticfield of color and shape and form. Standing in one of these rooms is really, really cool.

Here’s the thing.

At the exhibit, you can only stay in the room for 30 seconds before the guard knocks a warning and opens the door. For one room, it was only 20 seconds! Because you’ve been standing in line for many minutes and you’ve watched the shut-knock-open routine many times, by the time it’s your turn, you are very much aware of how fast your own 30 seconds is going to go. Let me tell you, it’s over way too soon.

Now, the whole exhibit feels like a spectacle, with gobs of people standing in lines that snake and coil through the galleries, so the very short time limit seems like just another part of the spectacle. This way, the exhibit accommodates more people, the museum claims more visitors, and Kusama has more viewers, more fame. Meanwhile the longer looks that lead to deeper analysis and contemplation are impossible.

This could have been deeply frustrating, but I was with my young kids so I rolled with it. We bounded from line to line like we were at an amusement park, thrilled by our 30-second rides on the aesthetic roller coasters. So much for long looks. Woo-wee! I loved it.

It was only later that I thought about what Kusama is up to with her time limits. She’s condensing the interaction with each artwork into a tight, intense experience of color, form, light, presence, space, infinity. She focuses your attention. She invites you to be present.

It goes like this. You wait and wait and wait. Anticipation grows. You turn a corner. You get tantalizing glimpses when the door opens and closes for others. Three steps closer. It’s almost your turn. You get briefed by the docent—no bags, no touching—okay.

NOW. You walk in and it’s your turn. You try to take in as much as you can, very much aware that the seconds are ticking. Look! Look close. Look out. Look up. Look around. Don’t waste a second.

Right.

Look close. Look out. Look around.

Don’t waste a second.

 

Paul Cezanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
(Art Institute of Chicago)

Let’s talk about Cezanne.

I spent a few weeks in Chicago earlier this summer and had a chance to take some long looks at paintings by Cézanne at the Art Institute of Chicago. Visually, these paintings are forceful and deeply satisfying, but what I find to be especially compelling are the ideas they embody.

First, a contrast.

Cézanne followed the Impressionists and absorbed some of their ideas, but ultimately went in a different direction, choosing to pursue substance over surface. The Impressionists wanted to capture the fleeting moment—what something looks like right now rather than an hour ago or a month from now. They focused on the way the light plays off the surfaces, because it’s the surface that changes as the light shifts according to the time of day, the weather, the season.

Cézanne was more interested in that which persisted even while the light changed—the thingy-ness of the thing. Here, it’s the round firmness of the apple, the smooth solidity of the bottle, the dry crispness of the biscuits. The cloth, for example, is not simple a backdrop for the fruit; Cézanne makes it substantive. It has a real presence as it bunches up around the fruit. These things are real, solid objects in a physical space, not just a collection of surfaces for the transitory effects of color and light.

This choice gets at a philosophical difference regarding metaphysics, or what is really real.

What is more real: the way we perceive things from our specific and subjective point of view or the way those things actually are apart from our perception of them? Cézanne seems to assert that truth is found in the thing that persists, not in shifting perceptions. I appreciate the Impressionists’ awareness that modern life is inherently superficial and ephemeral. They capture not only images that are fleeting, but also the “reality” of subjective experience, all in the guise of pretty pictures.

But Cézanne rejects their interest in surfaces, which are ultimately empty, even meaningless. Instead, he tries to convey the substance that exists behind the surfaces. That substance is what is real because it is the thing that persists—it is both consistent and universal. That’s what is true.

This extends beyond how he paints individual objects to how he approaches the overall composition—the structure of the painting itself. The strong diagonal, firmly planted on a broad horizontal base and balanced with the vertical and horizontal elements of the bottle and biscuits. It is both stable and dynamic, precisely because he draws upon the time-honored fundamental principles of composition.

When I look at an Impressionist still-life, I see shimmery, effervescent forms that could dissolve in a moment. But in Cézanne’s I feel as if I can reach into that painting, grab a hold of that fruit, and sink my teeth into it. It’s satisfying.

Perhaps it’s satisfying precisely because I am keenly aware of how subjective experience determines our understanding of truth. We can’t escape our point of view entirely, so knowing objective truth seems virtually impossible.

But at the same time, I long for truth to be objectively known. I want to know. I want others to know.

So Cézanne offers a compelling vision. Forget all the subjective surfaces, and trust that truth—real objective truth—is real, persistent, steady, and compelling. It’s as real as that taut round pear or that starched linen tablecloth. Hold on to that.

And take that, Impressionists. Ha.

I haven’t posted anything here in quite a while. It’s not because I stopped my practice of spectatio divina. I’ve kept looking—closely looking—all the while. But there has been less space in my life these days and writing blog posts took the cut. Some regret with that.

I started another thing, though. Instagram!

 

 

Here’s the thing… until very recently, I didn’t see that what I have been doing with Instagram was another form of spectatio divina—it’s close looking, quite literally. I get close. Here, you can check it out: https://www.instagram.com/mshimizu10/?hl=en

When I started taking close-up photos of artworks and buildings, I did it because I wanted my friends to see these amazing brushstrokes or to experience this building as if they were standing right beside it. But as time went on, the photos became something I did for myself as much as for anybody else. As I contemplated which detail to focus on, or even which painting in a gallery, my own experience with the artwork became deeper. I noticed things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I was pulled into the artwork, pulled closer to the buildings. Close looking.

Here’s the question: Is looking closely the same as divine looking? Or… When I contemplate a brushstroke or a line, am I drawing closer to God? Am I listening to God? Do I hear his voice?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are not straight-forward. Because I never made the connection between taking close-up photos and my practice of spectatio divina, it seems clear that I was not actively listening to God. God never even crossed my mind as I tried to get my phone as close to a painting as the guards would allow.

In recent days, however, I’m beginning to rethink this.

First of all, I wonder how acknowledging God’s presence and voice prepares one for practicing spectatio divina. My initial thought would be that it is absolutely necessary. That’s part of the prayer. That’s what makes it different from “just thinking” about something. So I believe that centering is a crucial part of the disciplines, but now I wonder if I’m putting limits on the ability for God to speak to me. Couldn’t he have guided my eyes and thoughts even if I didn’t acknowledge him at that moment?

Second, I have been profoundly affected by some of these photos—sometimes by looking at the specific aspect of the artwork that the photo captured, sometimes by the very process of taking the photo. Something shifts, or clicks, or pokes. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened.

Here’s my idea. What if I try to bridge the gap a bit? I could pull some of the Instagram shots into the blog to invite a more intentional, more prayerful looking. And, I could start inviting God into my close looking through the lens of my phone.

It’s a bit of an experiment. We’ll see…

 

Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Montalto Madonna'), about 1600 (National Gallery, London)

Annibale Carracci,
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, about 1600
(National Gallery, London)

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.

The Shifting Image of God

December 7, 2015

Lee Yongbaek, In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002 (Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

Lee Yongbaek,
In Between Buddha and Jesus, 2002
(Asian Art Museum, Seattle)

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.Lee4

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.Lee2

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. Lee5

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.

Lee3In 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

Richard Renaldi, Touching Strangers series, 2007-present

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.

Renaldi

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?

Renaldi-2

Renaldi

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.

Renaldi-3

Renaldi

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.

Renaldi-4

Renaldi

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.

Renaldi-6

Renaldi

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.

 

 

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.