Friday, June 22, 2018

Change In The Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked to create a piece of art for a church sanctuary, I am always sensitive to the fact that I am introducing change. I note the style of architecture, the placement of furniture, and the permanence of existing furnishings. A sanctuary, after all, is meant to be an unshaken retreat within a world that is constantly shaken. Many congregants have grown up in that church. Some have spent their whole lives attending the same church, and expect to have their own funerals there. They don’t expect major change – even after they’ve been lowered into the ground.
Chancel area of the new
St. John's Abbey Church
(Collegeville, Minn.)

Sometimes, however, I feel as though I am working on a molecular level when a church sanctuary is reinvented on a planetary scale. This was again underscored on a recent visit to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

We first entered the megalithic expanse of St. John’s Abbey Church, an imposing facade created by an endless train of cement trucks, miles of rebar, and nearly one ounce of common sense. Then we walked a short distance to its predecessor, renamed "The Great Hall."

One glimpse of the interior of the original St. John’s Abbey Church begs so many questions, the first of which is: Why did someone feel the need to abandon a place of such exquisite beauty? The original sanctuary is filled with imagery that screams, in specific terms, the majesty and glory and power of our Lord. The newer sanctuary just ... screams.

Original chancel of St. John's Abbey Church,
renamed "The Great Hall"

While drastic, St. John’s reinvention of itself isn’t an isolated case. Strange things can happen when under the guise of “upgrades,” “improvements,” and “makeovers.” I know of a church, for example, whose members felt compelled to reorient the axis of their sanctuary – simply for the sake of tradition. The original chancel became a raised platform for choir and organ console, and the new chancel area became a pinched place midway to the back door.

Even the church in which I was baptized was not exempt. The Church Extension Fund-thing was implemented after ushers tired of putting folding chairs down the aisle. A giant sanctuary was built next to the old, with a courtyard and adjoining classrooms, and the original, beautiful sanctuary was given a dropped ceiling as part of a 1970's makeover. The growing pains reversed themselves, church attendance fell through the floor, and the church eventually – and painfully – was un-dedicated as an LCMS entity.

Change may be inevitable, but stupidity needn’t come along for the ride. More than carpeting color; more than the stiffness of pew cushions; more than brass fixtures in well-designed lavatories, strong consideration must be given to any sanctuary so sought after by hurting and repentant sinners. Then the sanctuary must be given more consideration. And yet more. This place of worship is, after all, The Lord’s house – not His garage.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Step With Ecclesiastical Sewing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I half-expected Carrie Roberts to speak with a British accent. That’s what can happen when collaborative efforts go on for months and years on end, without so much as a business phone conversation. Carrie and I have always corresponded via e-mail when working together on some of the most exceptional paraments and vestments on the market.

My wife, Mary, and I arranged a brief, first-time meeting with Carrie on the tail-end of a vacation to visit family. While en route, we passed though the hinterlands of Minnesota, where roads meander among pristine lakes, and where church signs are occasionally spelled out in Swedish or Norwegian.

We finally met up with Carrie at “Studio B,” located in the basement of her daughter’s house. Such is often the case with small enterprises, when space requirements and limited budgets necessitate some creative thinking.

Bolts of brocade, stacked floor to ceiling in a tidy rack, waited in one room next to photography lights and a mannequin. Another room was dominated by a humming, but dormant, embroidery machine. A third room was clearly the main work space, and on its massive table lay proof that Ecclesiastical Sewing is no small potatoes.

Green frontals and chasubles in various stages of completion covered the table. They were the first items created using designs from the new “Sanctified Set,” which are meant to be used during those parts of the the Church year sometimes referred to as “Ordinary Times.” Some of the pieces I saw are going to this year’s Higher Things Conferences across the U.S., but ordinary they are not.

Even though I designed various embroideries for the new set, Carrie, in her usual fashion, pushed the designs beyond their original limits. The embroidery machine – dubbed a “dinosaur” – can certainly do a simple stitch and be done with it, but Carrie considers the alternatives and chooses specific stitches that make the most of threads and natural light – this, so that gold threads shimmer; so that mundane colors glow. For a single, large design, the embroidery machine can run for 12 hours or more. If the result is somehow imperfect, it is set aside and re-embroidered.

But the high standards of Ecclesiastical Sewing are not evident simply in the warp and weft of fabric, the trimming of stray threads, or in the maximizing of materials’ potential. A great deal of thought goes into the confessional embroidery images so that they, too, are subject to scrutiny and change. Being something far more than just pretty or handsome puts Carrie’s products in a category far above what is found in most vestment catalogs, and our collaborative efforts will continue to move in that direction.

My first project with Carrie was in the final tweaking of the Luther Rose brocade – loomed in the U.K., and an exclusive product of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Some sort of unofficial record was apparently set when the design was ready for weaving inside of three months instead of the usual two to three years taken by large design houses. Besides a degree in fashion design and a career in the same, Carrie has also completed courses from Britain’s Royal School of Needlework via offerings at Colonial Williamsburg. She has diligently researched and resurrected techniques that once were the norm in cloistered Europe.

But, no – Carrie does not have a British accent.

Friday, June 8, 2018

“O That My Words Were Written”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It sometimes takes thick skin to be an artist.

This will be my eighth year in ArtPrize, and every year panic sets in when I send out requests to have my piece hosted by a venue. It’s very much like sending out resumes, with seemingly every ounce of experience and talent on the line. The clock ticks away as venues consider mountains of requests from a larger mountain of artists. Time passes and no one responds. Self-doubt creeps in. Self-worth looms in the corners of the mind. And still the clock ticks.

I sent out 12 requests to venues this year, representing an “A” list of ideal venues, a respectable “B” list, and a hodgepodge “C” list. I was rejected by 11. I never heard from the last one.

For the first time, however, I was approached by a venue that was nowhere on my radar. Its location is far off the grid, and will get only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of visitors some venues enjoy. Yet I am grateful.

Cornerstone Church is arguably the best fit for this year’s piece, “O That My Words Were Written.” I sent requests to two other church venues, but one of those is too wrapped up in social justice to bother with Holy Scripture. The other may be more concerned with cutting-edge beauty.

Even when considering my habit of juggling different subject matter, this year’s entry is very different. The word of God takes center stage in my piece. There are no striking figures in the painting. There are no cute visual devices; nothing hidden to find. The background is dark and contains brambles reminiscent of tattered angel wings. A single stone megalith bears words written in Germanic blackletter characters. If fashion was used to describe artwork, “Goth” might cross the viewer’s mind.

Without the darkness of this world, with its disappointments and downfalls and shortcomings and ugly horrors, joy would seem as fluffy as cotton candy. But joy is much more substantial. In this piece I have partially given what Job could only pray – that his words would be written in stone forever. When all that he had was lost; when his friends chided him for his sins; when his children were taken from him; when his property was gone; when his health was in shambles; when his wife urged him to curse God and die; when he seemingly had nothing left, still he confessed he had everything – a Redeemer that lived. In his words were real joy, and we claim his words as our own.

We pray that the Word will have free course, that the good and gracious Will of the Father be done, that the Spirit will speak through us at the appointed time, and that the Gospel of Christ Jesus will spread to the ends of the earth. Perhaps thousands will not see this year’s ArtPrize entry. Perhaps, however, there is but one visitor somewhere out there who might chance upon my piece during ArtPrize, and perhaps that one person is the one who needs to read this small excerpt from the Book of Job. If I have done well by the Word of God, then I have done well, indeed.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Process of Elimination

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked how he accomplished his masterpiece, “David,” Michelangelo famously responded, “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.” One must wonder which Michelangelo was speaking – the eloquent master who affected so much of Renaissance art, or the smart aleck who had a knack for giving offense.

Subtractive sculpting uses a bass-ackwards way of thinking, and Michelangelo gave a hint with his oversimplification. In its most pure form, in which a large block of stone or wood is finally reduced to a thing of beauty, there is no way to erase a mistake. Gluing a piece of over-zealously-gouged wood back onto the piece is not a good option. Doing the same with stone is an impossibility. In that regard, a greater deal of forethought goes into subtractive sculpting than its additive counterpart.

“Corpus” was recently installed at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It’s worth seeing a few photos of the process to appreciate what goes into – or rather, what is taken away from – a simple piece of wood.

Because it is extremely hard to find a single piece of wood large enough to work subtractively, I initiated the project with a bit of additive sculpting. The Corpus proper would start with four pieces cut from the same piece of basswood.

Arms would be bolted to the torso, and the head would be glued and screwed to the front of the torso. It was critical to make the joints as tight as possible, yet accessible enough to accommodate disassembly and reassembly for shipping and beyond.

Because basswood – a wood commonly used by carvers – is extremely soft, hanger bolts with substantial grip were employed to hold the arms in place.

Once the body blocks were constructed, lines were drawn on the blocks indicating the general form of the finished piece. Roughing out was done with power tools, including a drill fixed with a Forstner bit and a saber saw. Large gouges were also used. Throughout the “wasting” process, it was imperative to keep in mind the unseen visual limits of the finished surface.

Once rough wasting was complete, a different power tool came into play. My weapon of choice is a professional Dremel tool, fitted with a flexible shaft and foot pedal. Various heads can be used, including a carbide shaping wheel. Wearing a good respirator is a must. The tool works at such high rpms that it throws fine wood powder by the bucket load.

As work continued, smaller amounts of wood were subtracted. The head went through a metamorphosis in which different facial types replaced previous ones. As in drawing or painting, the slightest changes in facial features create a different likeness, but unlike those two disciplines there is no going back.

Areas that would have the most detail, such as beard and hair, were left for last – subtleties of the skin had to be first smoothed.

Because wood is susceptible to damage where extremely delicate details and grain of the wood are concerned, the thorns of the crown – cut from the same wood – were shaped and fitted into sockets.

Specialty hardware that replicated rough-cut spikes was used to secure the Corpus and its accompanying tabula to an existing cross in the church chancel.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Dates Without Hyphens

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Grief does not forget us.

Folks will be making visits to the cemetery this weekend – if grilling can be put on hold for a few minutes. Cemeteries will be decked out with flags and flowers for Memorial Day.

When visiting other parts of the U.S., I enjoy the occasional side trip to a cemetery if there is an old one in the vicinity. Doing so is both an alternate way to study history and a back window into the more poignant parts of humanity. I typically gravitate toward the older, weather-worn tombstones that speak in the king’s English or sport lichen-covered details. Towering monuments don’t much interest me, but the tiniest do. Sometimes the grave markers are so small that one needs to push down the surrounding grass to properly read the engraved text.

Many of the smallest gravestones date from 1918, when a flu epidemic spread throughout the U.S. Whether dating from that particular epidemic or from any other year, it is heartbreaking to find a tombstone with only one date. A newborn whose life was cut short seems the worst kind of grief to bear.

In spite of advances in medicine and the modern means to fight against epidemics, we are still susceptible to death. We will always be, this side of heaven. So, too, the smallest of our children.

We are encouraged on Memorial Day to honor the war dead. Beyond the national holiday, we are also encouraged to remember the widow and the fatherless. It is also good to remember those who have lost newborns and those who have delivered stillborn babies. Their grief is no less than that of mothers who replaced a service banner’s blue star with a gold one. When you visit the graves of those great heroes who gave their lives in the service of their country, remember also the least of our countrymen whose time came far too soon.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sanctuary’s Image

Detail of [soon to be installed] "Corpus"
Edward Riojas 2018.
(Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Pagosa Springs, Colo.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The church sanctuary is just that – a haven. It is a place in which the cares of the world hold little sway, and the blessings of the Lord come to us. The older I get, the more I understand the Psalmist when he wrote, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

But sanctuaries differ visually from one another. Sometimes big differences aren’t all that intentional – being dictated by taste and architecture. At other times, however, there is strong intent that comes with denominational territory.

The next time you visit an Eastern Orthodox church, for example, see how many sculpted pieces you can find in the sanctuary. Chances are the church will be wonderfully elaborate, with plenty of paintings, but three-dimensional images will be very hard to come by.

The Second Council of Nicaea of 787 effectively eliminated sculpted pieces from Orthodox sanctuaries by re-instituting the veneration of icons. During the previous decades, the use of any religious image – sculpted or otherwise – followed the fickle winds of change buffeting between those who saw any sanctuary image as sacrilegious and those who viewed the same as sacrosanct. Depending on what opinion one held during the Iconoclastic Controversies, lives and livelihood were often forfeited.

Sculptures were ultimately relegated to obscurity in Orthodoxy because they could not convey in three dimensions what the two-dimensional icons were intended to do – namely, portray a “window into heaven” by means of strange perspective, peculiar imagery, and an unbending adherence to tradition. So much weight was given to icons that sculpture was deemed unnecessary, and custom eventually made them inconsequential.

The Roman Catholic church officially agreed with the cannons of the Second Council of Nicaea, but customs of the Western Church allowed sculpture to remain on a par with two-dimensional images. Rome also held a more moderate view on the East’s strict adherence to the traditions and veneration of icons.

Lutherans usually take a different tack on sanctuary imagery. Veneration is non-existent, excepting, perhaps, a few on the outer fringes of Lutheranism. Where artwork is present it is instead seen as a great teaching tool and a reminder of all that the Lord has done for us. The scarcity of artwork that may be evident in Lutheran churches is often due to budget constraints, lingering effects of Pietism, and long-running acceptance of artwork’s absence in the church, but it is not based on an iconoclastic view.

The Second Council of Nicaea also affected those in the Calvinist camp, but in a negative way. John Calvin rejected the cannons of the Council and reverted to the position of the iconoclasts. Viewing the images as “graven” and therefore sacrilegious, Calvin joined with fellow reformers Zwingli and Karlstadt in urging the removal of artwork from sanctuaries. Some sanctuaries were forcibly gutted by rioting rabble. Luther was most displeased by the antics. To this day, many church bodies with Calvinistic roots have very little, if any, artwork in their sanctuaries.

Strangely, the total cleansing of church sanctuaries has left Calvinistic denominations with a peculiar dilemma. In doing away with images that afford focus on and remembrance of our Lord, parishioners are forced to focus not on a cross or an image of our Savior, but on a preacher; a human, that is front and center. That, arguably, is a much greater sacrilege within the sanctuary.

Friday, May 11, 2018

God’s Mom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s Mothers Day weekend, and folks are working themselves up in a lather to properly express some gratitude for their mothers on this one holiday, as if every other day of the year isn’t quite worthy of a nod of appreciation. Like our moms often told us: You know better.

There is one mother, however, that can stand a bit taller where pride in her offspring is concerned, and that is Mary, the mother of our Lord. The mystery of the Holy Incarnation is beyond comprehension. The how’s and why’s of a human mother giving birth to her Lord and ours is nothing around which we can wrap our brains. And yet we try.
"Pietà" Michelangelo. 1498-1499.
(St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City)

Images of Mary are so varied that they serve as proof of man’s fervent desire – and gross inability – to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord. Sensible Christians should give respect to the mother of our Lord, for as the angel Gabriel said, she is "Blessed among women." Denominational differences, however, become strong where Mary is concerned. Even within the Lutheran sphere there are strong opinions, depending at which point in Luther’s life doctrinal claims are based. Others, however, prefer to insult our intelligence by going beyond what is sensible, and supplementing what Holy Scripture refuses to tell us. If opinions of Mary vary as much within Christendom, how much more the visualizations of those beliefs!

Among the most austere representations of Mary is one of the most famously-gorgeous – Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica. In spite of a High Renaissance approach filled with voluminous fabric and delicately rendered forms, Mary is decidedly lacking in symbolic references. Whether intentional or not, Michelangelo deftly side-stepped the nearly-obligatory halo, although the folds of her head drapery subtly suggest one. The artist even avoided using the color blue [indicating purity] simply by adhering to the Renaissance misconception that Classical sculptures of Greece and Rome were not polychromed. Of course, there is plenty in Michelangelo’s masterpiece with which hard line devotees can take umbrage – the utter lack of symbolism and Marian adoration being chief among them.
"Virgin of Paris"
Anonymous. 14th Century.
(Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris)

Another example from the Northern Renaissance shows a far different Mary. The “Virgin of Paris,” housed in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, shows Mary as Queen of Heaven. The Marian theme takes cues from somewhat vague imagery in the Book of Revelation and runs with it. The crown is truly regal. So is her garment, being hemmed with jewelled embroidery. Mary holds a single lily, a symbol with which she is closely associated.

The figure of Christ, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought. He wears no crown. A royal orb signifying His rule over the world and the cosmos lacks the usual cross, making it seem like a child’s plaything instead of a symbol of the Lord’s sovereignty. The Marian slip shows, and the scales are embarrassingly tipped toward the creature and not the Creator.

If Jesus Christ is thus allowed to become subservient and peripheral, then surely He can be discounted altogether. Such is the natural progression where the cult of Mary reigns. When allowed to run rampant, images of Mary lean toward schmaltzy ‘sacred heart’ icons of questionable meaning. Representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe fit snugly in this category. Building a case on visions from a former believer in the Aztec religion is highly suspect, and creating an original image – referred to as the “tilma” – by the same dubiously-miraculous manner is just plain dangerous.
"Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe"
Anonymous. 1531.
(Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Tepeyak Hill, Mexico City)

The tilma image is of Mary – sans Jesus – in an attitude of devotion, and surrounded by a mandorla – a sort of halo encompassing her entire body. She is sometimes shown wearing a crown. (There is considerable debate surrounding the crown – or lack thereof – in earliest ‘Guadalupe’ images.) One ingredient that is always present in this Marian form is the crescent moon on which she stands. This is again a reference to the passage in Revelation.

What is not so obvious to modern eyes is the same image seen through Aztec lenses. While “the mother of our Lord” and “the mother of God” are innocuous terms used within Christendom to speak of Mary, the Aztecs worshipped Tonantzin, “the mother of the gods” – literally and affectionately, “our mother.” The moon, in the Aztec religion, was also identified with this deity.

Some may laud Juan Diego for his visions that initiated the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but Juan’s Aztec surname, Cuouhtlatoatzin, thinly veils a far different reality: His visions occurred at Tepeyak, the site of the Aztec temple to Tonantzin. It may seem that the New World fully embraced Mary, the mother of our Lord, even using her image as a rallying point for national pride and military might. Those early visions, however, were often viewed in a different light, and it took great pains for the Roman Catholic clergy to finally stay locals from referring to Mary as “Tonantzin.”