As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.
One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).
It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.). Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts. A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,
In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource. We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts. We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).
I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art. None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God. It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.
Ford Madox Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet. 1852-56 (retouched several times up to 1892). Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
During my class on 1 Peter today I invited students to reflect with me on this painting. After asking for their impressions, I directed their attention first to Peter. How does the Gospel of John record Peter’s response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his disciples (John 13: 8 – “You shall never wash my feet”)? How does Brown’s rendering of Peter in this scene interpret Peter’s response to Jesus’ soft rebuke?
Next we looked at those around the table. What does Brown suggest about their own willingness to be served by Jesus? How about the one untying his sandals? How about Judas clutching his head? How about the others who are more or less in the light?
Finally, the image invites the viewer to consider his or her response to Jesus’ insistence that he wash the feet of his followers (Caravaggio and Rembrandt evoke the same in many of their paintings). In other words, in which disciple do we see ourselves? How will it lead us to pray?
To continue our “Reactions” series, I would like to offer Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition of Christ. For a detailed look, check out this page.
It has been dreadfully long since I posted installments in the “Reactions” series. Having just come across the work of Swiss-born, expressionist Paul Klee, here is one of my favorites: “Rose Garden”, 1920.
What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?
I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual theology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).
The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.
Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.
An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).
Where is the Victorious Christ?
In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading
Rembrandt van Rijn (1661): Oil on Canvas, Sinebrychoff Museum, Helsinki
What does Rembrandt’s use of light invite us to consider about the Scriptures over which we too pour our attention (their nature and our reading of them)?