Friday, June 23, 2017

An Odd Duck in Christian Symbolism

"The Pelican in Her Piety"
(St. Nicholas Church, Oakley, Suffolk, England)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of the strangest symbols for Christ is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” There are all kinds of symbols set aside for identifying Christ Jesus – crosses, fish, rocks, cornerstones, monograms, etc. – but for some reason, that pelican has shown up in stained glass for hundreds of years. Even the church of my youth had a window with the symbol on it.

Technically, however, the symbol is wrong. Along with a handful of other images that emerged during the Middle Ages, it is based on wives' tales, legend, and, in this case, a rather inept knowledge of ornithology.

Whether it was an artist or Church father, the originator of the pelican image attempted to explain, by means of analogy, the nature and saving work of Jesus Christ. Using the stuff of a broken world to explain Christ is bound to end up falling off the tracks.

The explanation of the symbol is that, in dire times, a female pelican will pierce her own breast to save her nestling brood. It’s a no-brainer as far as the link between a bird’s saving act and the saving act of the King of all creation. But that is a big assumption for a bird. In reality, if things got dire in bird-dom, the brood would get shoved out of the nest to die. Pelicans aren’t sacrificial; they are self-serving.

On the other hand, Jesus did use a bird to describe Himself. In grieving over an unbelieving Jerusalem, He laments,  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37. We must thank the Church fathers for not rushing to a chicken for the symbol of our Lord, but I digress.

Even in title, “The Pelican in Her Piety” is a little odd. Piety, however, does not here denote devoutness or reverence. Rather, it pulls from its original meaning of having “duty.” This is most significant, for in His love for His own, Christ Jesus was duty-bound to the lost and sinful and perishing. Our piety, by contrast, is negligible.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Treasure of a Painting

“Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361.” Carl Gustaf Hellqvist. 1882. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once in a while I run across a piece of art that really piques my interest. It’s impossible to be familiar with every period and genre of art throughout time and space, and I am certainly no smarty-pants when it comes to art history the world over. So it was that, while researching some unrelated topic, I ran across a piece by a nineteenth century Swedish historical painter. Carl Gustaf Hellqvist’s painting, “Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361,” stopped me in my tracks.

The 11 feet-wide painting is the sort of thing a child might pore over for hours. It is epic in scale, lavish in detail, and loaded with theatrical vignettes that give drama to the event.

Hellqvist was no hack. While unknown to most of us, the artist was one of the most popular painters in Sweden during his day. He showed one of his pieces in the Paris Salon, and received the gold medal in Vienna for this particular painting.

The subject of the painting is a key event in Sweden’s history, even though it essentially shows the agony of defeat. Valdemar, King of Denmark, sits on a royal throne and watches the proceedings of ransom being gathered by the vanquished citizens of Visby. The Swedish city was threatened with being burnt to the ground if three large beer vats could not be filled with gold and silver in three days.

Hellqvist divides the composition into three foreground vignettes that roughly follow the three vats, and subdivides the background into several more areas. Central to the piece is the family of Visby’s Mayor. The Mayor himself clenches his fist in anger and glares at the king. His wife looks to heaven for aid with tear-filled eyes.

To the left, a citizen bearing family heirlooms is manhandled to a beer vat by a foot soldier armed with a glaive and crossbow. The tension of the vignette is countered by a boy peering over the edge of a nearby vat to the treasures within.

On the right, a boy laden with heavy platters turns to look at the imperious Dane. A man follows the boy, bearing a compact, but heavy, money chest. The figure is most certainly a Jew, as he wears a distinctive, pointed hat required by medieval law.

As is true with many early historical painters, there are inaccuracies in the image. For instance, while the ridiculous helm ornamentation on several knights is true of Teutonic knights who may have aligned themselves with the Danish king, the presence of a Dachshund predates the dog’s emergence as a breed. And while the costuming is, indeed, close to being accurate, a woman – especially the Mayor’s wife – would not have her head uncovered. Even the city’s architecture is inaccurate for Sweden, and is instead more indicative of Germany, where the image was most-likely painted.

Still, the painting refuses to lose its grip on our imagination. The handling of paint, bearing a strong academic approach softened by hints of Impressionism, allows the viewer to be absorbed by the detail – however historically inaccurate it may be.

One might wonder why this painting – and, indeed, the subject itself – would be dear to a seemingly-vanquished nation. The ruthless King Valdemar might have been wishing to burn the city, and make off with a bit of treasure anyway. The citizens of Visby, however, didn’t need three days to scrounge for enough gold and silver to save their city. They did so in one day.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Father of All Art Curmudgeons

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Leave it to a curmudgeon.

Artists can add immense beauty to the world, and thrive on attempting the same. For some reason that lies deeply embedded in our noodles, we can’t leave well enough alone or accept the visually mundane. It’s part of our DNA. But when others take issue with what an artist produces; or criticizes, second guesses, or otherwise gets high-handed with creativity, then sparks fly. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known mostly by his first name, was the crème de la crème when it came to being an art curmudgeon.

Michelangelo disdained recreating likenesses of patrons, and aimed instead for ideal visages. This issue once came to a head when Michelangelo finished the imposing sepulchers of Giuliano di Lorenzo de' Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici in the Medici Chapel. Neither heroic sculpture bore resemblance to the interred. The moneyed family pushed him on the point. Michelangelo famously responded, “Who will care what they look like in 1,000 years?”
"The Last Judgement" [detail], showing
Biagio da Cesena, at right.
Michelangelo. 1536-1541.
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican City)

Apparently, however, the artist didn’t always take his own advice. Michelangelo also endured constant criticism for innumerable details while working on frescos in the Sistine Chapel. There was too much nudity. There were too many muscled figures. There was not enough decorum. There was too much foreshortening of figures.

Chief among his detractors was Biagio da Cesena, the Pope's Master of Ceremonies. da Cesena’s annoyance must have been great indeed, because Michelangelo painted the official’s likeness, from memory, on the donkey-eared body of Minos next to the rest of the damned in “The Last Judgement.” The likeness was instantly recognized by all, including the livid da Cesena, who stormed into the Pope’s presence and demanded that the pontiff do something about it.

The Pope, in a rare moment of Divine inspiration, reminded da Cesena that the Pope’s jurisdiction went only so far as purgatory. Correcting things in hell was quite another matter.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Hand of God

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Fall screwed up everything. There aren’t words or time enough to delineate the rot and destruction brought on by one foolish act. We could blame Adam and we often do, but we have done our worst to pile on foolishness upon foolishness of our own making. If we are honest with ourselves, Adam probably pales by comparison.

One result of the Fall is that we cannot look at the face of God The Father and live. Those who tried ended up as toast. Sure, we saw the face of His Son, and manifestations of The Spirit were visible, but One was cloaked in His manhood and the Other was granted man to see. The Father’s face is off limits this side of heaven.

Scripture bears this out. Moses asked an impossible thing in Exodus 33:

    "18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
    19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

    21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

And the prophet, Job, relished the heavenly day in Job 19:

     “25 I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”

It is therefore vexing when big names in art ignored the rule and attempted to depict The Father. Dürer did it. So did Cranach, Campin, Murillo, Masaccio and others. While all of them handled the modelling of the figure in their usual masterly fashion, none of them captured the omnipotence and majesty of the Person. In this, they failed miserably; each of the depictions simply looks like an old man or a missing member of ZZ Top.

And, of course, none of the images remotely comes close to killing the viewer.
"The Hand of the Father in Blessing."
Copyright © Edward Riojas

But there is a better alternative found in Christian symbolism. The Hand of God, set in front of a tri-radiant nimbus, has been used for centuries as a visual for The Father. It denies the viewer a peek at God’s face, and echoes the Word of the Lord Himself in the Exodus account: “I will ... cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”

It is more than enough to be covered by His hand. It is love beyond the telling to be blessed by the same. And by the same, awe and terror come, as even Pharaoh’s magicians admitted, “This is the finger of God.”

We needn’t feel slighted by getting only this tiny peek at The Father, for as Christ Himself proclaimed, “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The Christian may relish being held in the palm of His hand. Seeing the face of God, on the other hand, can wait until a more glorious day.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Zion Altarpiece

The Zion Altarpiece. Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Shown in situ at Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wisconsin)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I recently installed an Altarpiece at Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. It was dedicated last Sunday. What follows is a full explanation of the piece, and reflections on the same.


It is not often that an artist receives a commission to create an altarpiece. The days of resplendent high altars, sizeable populations of Renaissance-minded artisans, and deep pockets of the Church are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Creating something new, yet decidedly-old school, is therefore cause for pondering such an ambitious undertaking.

While the Zion Altarpiece is relatively modest in size, its creation nonetheless contained monumental questions: How does one even begin to capture the Eternal Majesty of Almighty God? How does one put in finite terms Him who is infinite? How does one convey the richness; the glory; the wonder of His Divine plan that so totally eclipses the mundane and evil of this broken world?

Like the haunting questions once asked me by a Muslim, “Who was that man, and why did he have to die?,” the answers seem inexhaustible in explanation and unfathomable in understanding. Yet we cannot help but try.

For the same reason that there is more than one hymn to sing, there is always reason to create art that confesses this God-Man who loves us with a never-ending, sacrificial love. We cannot help but give praise to The Lord, even when such an endless train of saints have already done so before us.

The answer to that Muslim’s question begins with the simple: We deserve to die for our sins. One must die for the sins of many. Death could not hold Him who holds all of creation in His hands. He lives. We therefore will live.

These simple truths are fleshed-out and expounded upon: The saints will live. So, too, the martyrs. The old. The young. The saints of every tribe and nation. All blessed by the One who came to serve. To wash our feet. To willingly die on a cross intended for us. To do that which we could not do. To cleanse our souls.


In the 500th year of the Reformation, Anno + Domini 2017

It is a daunting task to visually explain an infinite God in finite terms; it is a daunting task to display the wonder of our Lord’s creation and His plan of salvation through anything created by man. Indeed, this world does not have space enough to show it. Yet we cannot help but try, even with unclean hands, to do so – even in the confines of a church building; even in a niche of a chapel; even in this very altarpiece.

The Zion Altarpiece is a greatly abbreviated visual of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is not intended to be a photographic record of the events, nor could it be. Rather, it is a reminder of what is written in Holy Scripture, and is intended to be an arrow that points to The Word. This is achieved through straightforward representationalism and conventional symbolism, both of which are among the least likely to confound Scripture.

The Zion Altarpiece in the "closed" position,
shown during final fitting of the panels and doors.

The altarpiece is designed in such a manner that, during most of the Church Year, it displays one scene – the Crucifixion. During Lent, two flanking doors are opened, displaying two scenes leading up to the Crucifixion. Finally, On Easter Sunday, two central doors are opened, obscuring the previous three scenes and displaying a compound Resurrection/Heavenly worship scene.

The Crucifixion scene is stripped of many historical figures and setting, focusing instead on the figure of Jesus Christ in death. His body is intentionally shown in advanced decay. The weight of His body pulls against the nails. Rigor mortis is already setting in. In this the soldiers and Pontius Pilate marveled, that He would be dead so soon; that He gave up His life so willingly. St. John the Gospel writer, being the good proto-Lutheran, over-stressed the point that both blood and water poured out of His side. This is underscored by an angel collecting the blood in a Chalice and the water in a Baptismal font. Out of reverence, a cloth has been placed over the genitals of Christ, but His nakedness was certainly exposed at the Crucifixion. The Father has turned His back on His sin-absorbing Son, evidenced in the blackened sky. The Man Christ Jesus is dead, yet the Tri-radiant nimbus behind His head proclaims Him a Person of The Holy Trinity. He IS God.

It is unlikely that the witnesses of Jesus’ death would be so near, but I have placed them in close proximity. Mary, the mother of our Lord, is dressed in traditional blue and white, and puts her hand to her heart as a ‘sword pierces it.’ John attempts to comfort his newly-adopted mother. Following tradition, he is shown beardless and comparatively young. In the foreground, Mary of Magdella demonstratively kneels, faintly echoing the anointing of Christ’s feet. In the background, another Mary weeps. Following convention, the outer panels contain weeping angels that join in lamentation.

There is, however, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection below Jesus‘ feet, and a reminder that Christ IS victorious. Satan’s head has been utterly crushed by the weight of the cross, and driven beneath the earth. Death, too, lies broken at Christ‘s feet.
The Zion Altarpiece in the Lent/Holy Week position.

When the outer doors are opened during Lent, two additional scenes appear as the weeping angels are hidden from view. On the left is Christ Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowd enthusiastically welcomes Jesus, although it is doubtful they understand fully who He is. Jesus, by comparison, resolutely confronts the viewer while pointing to Jerusalem – and His own Crucifixion.

The right-hand scene is of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in an example of servanthood. Peter is the first to be washed. The remaining disciples – an unlikely band of common laborers lacking pedigree – wait behind Peter. A view of Jerusalem’s temple mount and an ominous hill beyond are visible through an open window.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. So, too, does the Zion Altarpiece when the central doors are opened for Easter. In a visual slight-of-hand, the open outer doors play a different role in the scene of Heavenly worship over the Resurrection. In passing through the portal of Jesus’ death; through His redemption of our souls; through His blood shed on a far uglier mount,

“...You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The Zion Altarpiece, with doors fully open in the Easter position.

Jesus Christ, The Victorious Lamb, emerges from the mount's tomb in swaddling grave cloths. That tomb's portal echoes details of the Temple’s sacrificial altar. The Lamb, sacrificed though now living, bears the Victorious banner of The Cross. Heaven, depicted as a traditional orb, stoops down to claim the King. The Four Creatures – symbols of the Holy Gospels – surround Him as His crown and Tri-radiant nimbus declare him Lord of all.

And angels and the heavenly host worship the risen Christ; the Victorious Lamb. To the left, palm-bearing martyrs – a noble army – praise His Name. Several in the small sampling can be identified: The Holy Innocents, young boys who gave their lives for Jesus as Herod tried in vain to destroy the Infant Jesus, toddle toward their Savior. Near them is the aged martyr, Polycarp, who refused to deny his Christ after more than 80 years. Behind Polycarp is John the Forerunner, still proclaiming to us, “Behold The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Next to John are more martyrs, including Potamiaena and Perpetua and Bartholomew, who carries his own flayed skin.

On the far right are the glorious company of the Apostles. By a visual slight-of-hand, Peter is added behind the group to replace Judas Iscariot.

Between the Apostles and the risen Lord is a mixture of Prophets and saints. The handful of prophets are identified by conspicuously long beards and scrolls of Scripture, the latter which they embrace to their chests.

We may also include ourselves in this panel. The young boy’s glance toward the viewer urges us to join this host of young and old, male and female, and saints of every nation and tongue. Here, in time, we join with heaven at The Lord’s Table, and we look forward to that day, in Eternity, when we shall do the same with endless joy.

To Him be the Glory for ever and ever. Amen.

To order giclee prints of images from the Zion Altarpiece, please go to the Price list page of

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Beautiful Confession

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Somewhere along the line, beauty got ignored.

For several reasons, the ornate beauty of the Old World was chucked overboard when Lutherans crossed the pond to America. First, there was the issue of cost. Debates over artwork became pointless when the church building needed a new roof. The pastor’s salary needed to be kept above the poverty line. Teachers needed to be paid for the expanding school system.

This practical frugality was due, in part, to lingering sentiments of Pietism, in which the downplaying of artwork and ornamentation was embraced implicitly, if not openly. Visual expression of the Scriptures fell squarely in the category of adiaphora, so artwork was often among the first things to go.

Fallout, however, extended beyond the fine arts and into our own time. Architecture of church buildings slowly leaned away from the sublime toward the cheap. Ornamentation was stripped wholesale in favor of 1970’s Mod Squad motifs, ethnocentric color schemes, and designs with nary a straight line. This peripheral piffle further discouraged embracing the arts on a serious level.

(Photo courtesy of
That is changing.

Slowly, minds have begun realizing that, while parishioners‘ homes are decorated tastefully with abandon, the Lord’s house is more often allowed to remain bleak, bereft of meaning, and outright hideous.

Thanks to a handful of confessional minds, beauty with roots in much earlier days is returning to Lutheran sanctuaries. Carrie Roberts’ Ecclesiastical Sewing enterprise combines the ingredients of fashion design, liturgical integrity, and historical sensitivity to produce beautiful sanctuary pieces that were once commonplace. The entrepreneur brought me on board to help with design, and we agree that confessional considerations are paramount. With each new set of designs, the bar is set astronomically high.

Ecclesiastical Sewing’s newest release of the “Stole Style #3 in the Luther Rose Brocade” is a good example. It is not simply gorgeous – it is confessional. The embroidery is not a random collection of pretty designs. In this case they are symbolic of the Six Chief Parts.

The upper left contains a censor, symbolizing The Lord’s Prayer (”Let my prayer rise before You as incense...”). On the opposite side is a symbol for The Holy Trinity, indicating The Creed. Below The Lord’s Prayer and The Creed are symbols for Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. The Baptismal scallop shell has three water drops, confessing Baptism into The Name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit. The sacramental Chalice has a Chi-Rho monogram, confessing that “This IS My body and this IS My blood.” Below the Sacraments are the tablets of The Ten Commandments, and a symbol for The Office of the Keys. Each key has a conspicuous cross and trefoil. Below these symbols are a pair of Luther’s Rose, which contain rich, confessional symbolism of their own – central to each being the cross of Christ.

The underlying brocade also bears Luther’s Rose, and is interwoven with crosses and grapevines. A traditional cross embroidery at the back of the neck is the last thing the pastor sees when donning the stole. And, of course, the stole itself is a symbol of the yoke of Christ as the pastor acts in His stead.

This particular stole will be worn today, May 19, during Commencement Day services at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. And, yes, it is a beautiful thing.


For those interested in obtaining a Six Chief Parts stole, Carrie Roberts of offers the following options:
  • Digitized designs can be downloaded from the site for the client to stitch out.
  • Finished stoles may be ordered on the website in green and red. There is a lead time of 4-6 weeks.
  • Upon request, The Six Chief Parts stole can also be stitched on other fabric colors for other seasons of the church year.
  • The embroidery itself can be ordered, then stitched by the client to their own stole.
Stay tuned to Ecclesiastical Sewing as other elements of this set are put into production and posted on its site.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Observations From The Courtroom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I ran across the remnants of a small sketchbook the other day, and it was a vivid reminder of a few weeks from a life I once lived.

In my 30-plus years as a Press artist, my typical workload involved illustrating stories, producing charts and maps, and designing pages. Occasionally, I was called on to visit the scene of a fire, reconstruct a traffic accident, or create a building cutaway from blueprints. And then there was my brief stint as a courtroom artist. It was an education.

Artists were not necessary in the courtroom. Photographers were given clearance in every courtroom – that is, until a man dealt death on Federal land in northern Michigan. The rare capital case – in a state with no death penalty – became sensational, and the Federal judge said “No,” to cameras in the courtroom.

I had never before entered a courtroom – much less a Federal version that was packed with reporters, law enforcement officials, citizens associated in some way with the crime, and curious onlookers. “Stuff like this,” I told myself, “only happens in movies.”

At the beginning of my first day in court, I found a seat near the back of the gallery. The next day the presiding judge kindly offered better seats to the three attending artists, in order that we could spread out our abbreviated collection of art supplies and have unobstructed views. I now had a front row seat to some of the most broken lives I’ve ever encountered, and it was up to me to convey my view of it all to readers.

Surreal is a good word. I got used to taking off my shoes and belt upon entering the building; emptying my pockets; putting my paper and pencils on the conveyor belt so they could be x-rayed. I got used to hearing law enforcement folks talk shop while in the public restroom. I got used to Federal marshals talking about their kids, and the prosecutors joking after a lunch break.

I didn’t get used to the gaze of the defendant. Neither did I get used to the way he cleaned his teeth with a two-inch piece of floss during the proceedings, nor did I get used to his lack of interest in his own fate. I did not get used to the endless stream of faces who somehow brushed against the defendant’s life – the gal who once dated the defendant’s brother; the guy who wanted to buy the defendant’s boat; the State Game Warden who discovered the body. I didn’t get used to the crushed countenances of mothers whose lives had been turned from otherwise-unnoticed to forever-broken and the subject of public scrutiny.

But it was not my job to feel empathy. My job was to capture faces, do so quickly, and have something to publish at the end of the day. Unlike photographers who can get a shot of a witness immediately after they give a juicy tale, I had to assume everyone would say the most damning words, and therefore set to work as soon as they sat in the witness stand. Hence, the sketchbook full of faces, most of which would never make any edition.

I’m sure there are plenty of artists out there that would jump at the opportunity I was given. I know I did. But I doubt I would again venture into the same arena to see evidence of a broken world and destroyed lives and the kind of hurt that refuses to be comforted. Imagination is enough.