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.)

 

 

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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.”

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.