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.

Lent … A Battle Scene

February 23, 2015

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

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.

Brueghel

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.)

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.)

 

 

Nick Ut, "Napalm Girl" photo, 1972

Nick Ut, “Napalm Girl” photo, 1972

Now, I’m teaching a unit on war photography. Of all the units in all the classes I teach, this one is the hardest, by far. I find myself breaking into tears at my desk while prepping a lecture.

It’s too much. I hope for the flu or a massive snowstorm so I don’t have to give tomorrow’s lecture. I don’t want to have to wade through hundreds of these horrifying images to find the ones I want to discuss in class. And I don’t want to talk about them. I would rather skip it. They are too hard to look at and too difficult to contend with.

But that’s exactly why I shouldn’t skip it, I know. So here I am.

Susan Sontag, in her Regarding the Pain of Others, has already grappled with a lot of the tough questions about war photography. Honestly, I don’t find her book particularly helpful, but she does get us thinking and that’s a good thing. She asks questions like …

Ronald Haeberle, My Lai Massacre, 1968

Ronald Haeberle,
My Lai Massacre, 1968

What are the ethics of taking photos of war? How about publishing them? Do photographers have the ethical responsibility to document the horrors of war? Is taking or publishing a photo of a casualty war an act of justice or exploitation, or something in between.

What is the responsibility of the viewer? Should we look away out of respect for the victims? Or, should we pay more close attention? At what point do we move from being concerned viewers to simple voyeurs, or the other way around? The saturation of our visual worlds tends to make conscientious viewing more difficult, but that’s no excuse. I do think we need to look and we need to think about what we’re seeing.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, 1863

Timothy O’Sullivan,
Field Where General Reynolds Fell,
Gettysburg, 1863

What is the effect of these photographs, particularly the shocking ones? Do we expect that they will actually change opinions about a war? For the first century of war photography, the images tended to reinforce already established opinions about wars (the British were acting heroically in Crimea; Northern soldiers fought and died to save the Union; soldiers on Iwo Jima signified the strength, solidarity, and hope of all America). But with the Vietnam War, we have some suggestion that photos did change public opinion. In that war and the wars that followed, photographers took a no-holes-barred approach, which gave the public back at home a more complicated picture of what was happening “over there.” Perhaps our soldiers are performing acts of courage and self-sacrifice in the cause of justice and democracy, but other things are happening too—things that are difficult, complicated, and often horrifying. The photos force viewers to grapple with these issues. Force me.

So …

Damir Sagolj, U.S. Soldier Holds Iraqi Child, 2003

Damir Sagolj,
U.S. Soldier Holds Iraqi Child, 2003

I look at these photographs and weep. I may be pricked by photo that tells a specific story of someone who has suffered—a father, a child, a soldier, a wife, a prisoner—but it is the sheer magnitude of suffering that breaks me down. Each story I see represents hundreds—maybe even thousands—like it. What are we doing to each other? Why?

How dark is the human soul that we resort to such violence? What is the way out?

I admit I am very pessimistic. I don’t see a way out. I don’t have much hope for a more peaceful future. Perhaps that’s why these photographs are so hard for me. They testify to the fallenness of humanity, and it seems like God is so far away.

Photographer unknown, Syrian Civil War, 2013-14

Photographer unknown,
Syrian Civil War, 2013-14

Maybe that’s the point. We are fallen. It is in our nature to destroy (and in our nature to justify it). We cannot save ourselves from this—it has to be God, in his mercy, who steps in and puts an end to it.

So, I suppose I should get down on my knees and beg for this mercy.

God, please intervene. Do something soon.

Save us.

 

 

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.

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.

Abraham van Beyeren, Banquet Still Life, c. 1653-55 (Seattle Art Museum)

Thanksgiving makes me think of the amazing Dutch still lifes of the 17th century for all the obvious reasons. Rarely do we have tables that are literally overflowing with such rich and magnificent food.

Take this one by van Beyeren. It has succulent fruits—peaches, oranges, grapes, lemon, and even a pomegranate that has been broken open to reveal its gem-like seeds. Then there are oysters and shrimp and what I think is another kind of seafood in the porcelain bowl in the center. On the left, is a roasted fowl—duck, goose, turkey?—and a loaf of crusty bread that someone has already torn into (it would have been me). And, no meal would be complete without the wine. The table linens and serving dishes are all the finest. This is a special feast.

Back in the day, paintings like this were a way for the painter to show of his skill. In one single painting, he had to paint a whole range of textures and materials—from the dusty skin of freshly picked grapes and fuzzy skin of peaches to the greasy surface of the roasted meat and gooey-ness of the oyster. But the painting would also serve to suggest the wealth of the family who had it hanging in their home—as if to say that these delicacies are often found on their table.

But these people were good Calvinists, so such ostentatious shows of skill and wealth were a wee bit problematic. In the minds of these Protestants, one should be careful not to trust in the things of the world for they will soon pass away. So, the paintings were laced with subtle hints that this abundance is fleeting—the lemon is peeled, the bread broken, the peach cut, the oysters shelled. Now exposed to the air, these tasty morsels will soon dry out and begin to rot. If that weren’t enough, the ornate nautilus cup has been overturned, hinting that its precious contents could be lost quick as a wink. Finally, to drive the point home, van Beyeren has placed a watch with an eye-catching blue satin ribbon front and center to remind the viewer that the passing of time is the only constant here. Everything else will die, decay, and disintegrate—even the viewer herself—but time will always be.

It’s not exactly a happy thought as we approach Thanksgiving, but I think that is what Thanksgiving is all about. When we thank God for the many blessings in our lives, our thankfulness can be all the more profound if we acknowledge how fragile and ephemeral these blessings actually are. And, perhaps, we may be encouraged to reflect on the blessings that are as constant as time itself.