David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994
(Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

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.)

 

 

On Feasting … Attentiveness

November 19, 2013

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885
(Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

It’s a couple weeks before Thanksgiving and I’m starting to reflect on what it really means to share a meal with family and friends. This painting came quickly to mind. The meal they share is simple, but I think that it precisely why it is so captivating.

It’s called “Potato Eaters” because these are peasants who worked in the potato fields. Van Gogh wrote that these simple people “used the same hands with which they now take food from the plate to dig the earth.” So it’s not surprising that the painter exaggerates the weathered and ragged appearance of their hands. Similarly, he intended to make their faces resemble good dusty potatoes. He conveys a sense of authenticity—these are honest, hard-working people who survive on the products of their labor.

What I notice, though, is the darkness of this room and the way the lamp creates a sphere of light that surrounds this little group. There’s a warmth to that light that makes me want to join their circle, but van Gogh makes it clear that we are merely spectators.

And that’s okay with me. I rather like sneaking a peek into their life together. One the first things I notice is the communal nature of this meal. There is one big dish of potatoes that all share—no separate plates to divide the food. I like that the man and woman on the left reach in at the same time to stab what looks to be the same potato.

Meanwhile, a woman pours coffee for everyone. The cups are full to the brim, again underscoring that their meal may be simple, but there seems to be plenty to go around. And there seems to be a pleasantness in sharing. The woman reaching for a potato has a hint of playfulness in her gaze that makes me wonder if she’s teasing the fellow, or even flirting. At the same time, the other man looks toward the woman with the coffee. He kindly raises his steaming cup as if to thank her or tell her it’s a good pot.

While I have no doubt that any Thanksgiving meal I have will be an elaborate affair, I hope I have a few simpler meals this season where it’s not about the lavishness of the food as much as the relationships around the table. Those two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but I think sometimes the food—especially when it’s really delicious—can distract me from paying attention to the subtle glances of the people around me.

But, then, the man and woman on the outside edges of this scene seem to be missing the admiring looks in their direction. So I guess it’s not really the size of the feast that makes the difference, but my own attentiveness to the people sharing it with me.

It’s my motto, after all … “Now. This. Here. YOU.”

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t “get” Dürer. I understand that he was a master draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. His works really do blow his contemporaries out of the water, but they seem to be all flash and no substance. Maybe I’m just a skeptical viewer because I know how commercially minded he was. He wanted to sell his stuff and so he made stuff that sold. But clearly there’s got to be more to it than that. So …

Albrecht Dürer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1509-11 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Durer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1510 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

This little woodcut comes from a series he did called the “Small Passion”—36 very small illustrations that were bound together as a devotional book. It’s teeny and almost every scene is rendered in a way that is dramatically different from the way other artists had been doing it. It had wow-factor.

Jesus is obviously the focal point with the rays of light emanating from his head in an otherwise dark space. He cocks his head to the side as if to accentuate the dynamic diagonal line made by his arm and John the Younger, who leans against him somewhat awkwardly.

The disciples surround the table and turn to one another as if engaging in private conversations. The informed viewer might guess that they are reacting to Jesus’s revelation that one of them was going to betray him. “What’d he say?” … “Did you hear that?” … “What could he mean by that?” … “One of us!?!”

Most of them are confused, but one in particular is not—Judas, of course. He is sitting across from Christ, clutching the bag of silver that was his payment for turning Jesus over to the authorities. Instead of turning to his neighbor, he looks directly at Jesus who seems to be meeting his gaze. He knows that Jesus knows that he’s the one. More on that in a minute …

The stuff on the table are all symbols for the “rest of the story.” Judas’s act of betrayal is suggested by the knife directly in front of him, which points back toward the Passover lamb on the platter (yes, it’s a lamb). Jesus will be “the Lamb of God” who will be killed as a sacrifice to cover the sins of all. The cup and the half-eaten loaf are reminders of Jesus’s words during the same meal—“this wine is my blood, shed for you; this bread is my body, broken for you.” This is story and the theology of salvation all rolled into one.

To me, the most interesting part of the image is the knowing look shared by Jesus and Judas. Dürer draws this in such a way that suggests that there might be more going on here than accusation and obstinacy. Jesus tilted head conveys compassion and Judas leans in and looks up to Jesus. Judas does not seem to be the angry, evil character we’re used to.

I wonder if Dürer is trying to get us to see Judas’s point of view. He’s been a dedicated follower of Jesus, he knows Jesus is the Messiah, and he’s zealous. He’s heard Jesus talk about coming to Jerusalem to be arrested, tried, and killed. Maybe he thinks the time has come. Why not speed things along a little? And now, sitting at this table, Jesus has just said it. Judas looks at Jesus. Jesus looks back with a somber gaze. Is this confirmation? Is this the signal?

The thing is that it was a signal. Jesus knew. And Judas did put the plan into action. We condemn Judas, but what he did ultimately led to exactly what he thought it would lead to. Jesus was arrested, tried, and brought to a cross. And he became the Messiah—the savior of the Jews, the savior of the world. He finally revealed the true extent of his power and his glory, perhaps just as Judas had anticipated.

How often we take matters into our own hands. We think we know what God wants to happen and we decide to make it happen. On the one hand, this is attitude is rather arrogant and probably self-serving. But, on the other hand, I wonder how often God has used this very human inclination (especially in the Type-A folks) to bring certain things to pass. Seems a little complicated and potentially really messy, but I guess it’s a factor he has to consider anyway.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this, but there it is.

 

I feel compelled to add that I do not have evidence to support that Dürer meant to cast Judas in a sympathetic light. That’s my own reading.

Abstractions … Morris Louis

September 16, 2013

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959 (Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959
(Guggenheim Museum, NY)

One of the most immediate responses I’ve ever had to a work of art was a Morris Louis painting.

These canvases are not really painted as much as they are stained. He was inspired by another painter—Helen Frankenthaler—who was applying very thin paint to unprimed canvas so that the paint actually seeped into the fabric. Louis also used thin paint, but he would let the paint run down the canvases, sometimes controlling the direction of the flow, sometimes not. The paint blended as he poured layer after layer creating these “veils” of liquid color.

The paintings are big. Unless you’re in a very large gallery and are able to stand way back, the paintings are imposing. Your frame of vision is filled with the streaming color.

So, one day I was walking through a museum and I came across a Louis painting that stopped me in my tracks. I turned to face it and was immediately overcome. It felt like the painting came off the wall and hovered there in front of me. The streams of color seemed to be pouring over me and seeping into my pores.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a visceral experience with a painting, but it was a mystical experience too.

I believe in the sacramental principle which holds that everything has the potential to be a vehicle of God’s grace. The catch is: you have to be on the lookout for it. Most of the time, I do not have my eyes open, but every once in a while—like standing in front of that Louis painting—God reveals his grace in dramatic fashion.

That day in the museum, the grace was the reality of his presence flowing over me, seeping into my soul, soaking me through and through.

As I turned to walk away, I wanted to wrap that canvas around my whole body and so carry that experience with me right out of the building. I didn’t need to, though. I feel it even now when I see the painting.

I guess I’m stained too, but in a good way.