Friday, April 28, 2017

A Private Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Perhaps it’s because I recently finished a “smallish” altarpiece – a subject in itself for a future post – that I have altarpieces on my brain.

Some altarpieces, we all know, can be very grand affairs. There are examples that have more doors than a carnival funhouse. Some altarpieces loom stories above worshippers. There are those that have enough carving and painting and gilding to dazzle laity into the sublime.

Others, however, are relatively small and unassuming. Some were never intended for a general audience, a congregation, or, for that matter, anyone outside the family. If guests dropped by, chances are the modest doors would be politely, but suddenly, closed. In the art world, these might be labelled “portable altarpieces.” Often, a better term might be “private altarpieces.”
"Braque Triptych" opened. Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1452.
(The Louvre, Paris)

One fine example is the Braque Triptych. The diminutive piece by Rogier van der Weyden struggles to reach 17 inches tall by 54 inches wide. When opened.

When closed, it looks like a sad epitaph to a lost life, and that is what it most probably was. The Braque Triptych was likely commissioned by the widow of Jehan Braque of Tournai, a man who died too soon after marriage. His widow, Catherine de Brabant, carried her grief long after, even after re-marrying, and that grief is obvious on the blackened, exterior doors of the altarpiece.
"Braque Triptych" with doors closed.

But then the doors open. A richness of color, modeling, and symbolism appears that is seemingly possible only from the hands of such a Northern Renaissance master.

The busts of five figures fill the interior. St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene each fill a door. The center panel contains a central Christ, flanked by Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and St. John the Evangelist. Interestingly, I was familiar with the figure of Mary Magdalene long before seeing the entire piece.

One unique feature of the altarpiece is the use of small text that gently flows around the heads of the figures. The Scriptural snippets relate to each figure and add an informal flavor only evident when viewed in an intimate setting.

One might argue it shameful that so much effort was wasted on such an object of exclusivity. On the other hand, it is commendable that in days past the Christian home was considered a natural extension of the Church, complete with reverence, deep heartache, and a longing for the life to come.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Font In My Garage

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In case you haven’t yet noticed, I’m not normal. For starters, I’m an artist. I’m also a lefty. Even though I’m a guy, I can’t stand conversations that dwell on National League standings or sports scores of any kind. I’d rather go shopping. And I have a Baptismal font in my garage.

I could, at this point, tell you that I collect odd stuff; that I’m a pack rat; that I’m a hoarder, but I’m not. I will tell you that ever since I got serious about sacred art, I’ve had all manner of requests come to me without much prompting. That is how the font ended up in my garage.

The Baptismal font and its companion – an antique reredos – was lurking in the dusty basement of a parsonage. I’m pretty sure I was the second-to-last option. The last option was a landfill.

It’s a sad fact that finding church homes for old items is extremely difficult. In many cases, the pieces were replaced with newer accoutrements when the church building had a makeover. And because congregations want new furniture for new buildings, old pieces are most often ignored and put into storage until memory loses its dusty grip.

Through a not-so-normal arrangement, I am going to clean up and reframe the central painting of the reredos for the church that once held the piece. They have a much more magnificent reredos than the original, but the painting has enough historical significance that it belongs back home. In exchange, I will keep the “leftovers.”

The plan is to refurbish the font and reredos frame and, at some point, create an original piece that will hopefully do the old furniture justice. Then I will try to find a home for everything.

But there is a greater reason to stop that trip to the landfill. The Baptismal font simply won’t do for repurposing as a snazzy TV stand or a flower pot or a bird bath. Through that unassuming portal passed a host of The Lord’s own children, newly imprinted with His Name and eagerly welcomed into His Kingdom. For that simple reason, forlorn artifacts such as those populating my garage demand immense respect. The dump is not an option.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Little Christmas in the Sepulcher

“Nativity Icon”
Maxim Yurianov. Undated.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“And this shall be a sign unto you...”

I know this seems totally inappropriate, but Good Friday is a good time to reflect on Christmas. Undeniably, the prophesies of the Messiah, the life of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection are all woven into one gorgeous tapestry. His birth in Bethlehem is part of that. Furthermore, I like to think there is a huge connection between Jesus’ birth and His death.

Holy Scripture isn’t a well-thought-out yarn with a cast of thousands; it isn’t a novel. Neither is it some how-to book on living the good life; the Bible isn’t “Sanctified Living for Dummies.” It is The Word. Because He is The Word, Holy Scripture is Christo-centric. Sorry, dear reader, but it isn’t all about you. (Actually, I'm not sorry at all.)

What this means is that everything in Scripture points in some way to the Christ. For example, if one reads the Passion of Christ as a novel, then the only thing you’ll take away from the crucifixion is that “it was a dark and stormy night.” If, however, you read it in a Christo-centric manner, then you should catch the obvious that Jesus was not just a man; that The Father was abandoning Him; that even the elements were bearing witness to this heavenly punishment.

Likewise, when the word “sign” pops up in Scripture, no one is giving traffic directions. “Sign” indicates that what is about to follow is extremely important; a “sign” points to things more profound than the obvious, no matter how strange the obvious actually is.

Jesus repeatedly told his disciples exactly what was going to happen to Him when they got to Jerusalem. Whether they were in denial, or whether sin had clouded their minds, or whether it was not yet given them to understand, we have a tendency, in 20-20 hind-sight, to do face-palms and shake our heads at their missing the obvious. Perhaps we, too, miss a much earlier clue to Jesus’ death – one that was there at Christmas.

In my pea-sized brain, I contend that a bit of crucifixion foreshadowing occurred when the angels announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds. They were given a sign. Most take the sign as an indication of Jesus humility – the born-in-a-barn thing. Others point to the Virgin birth, but the angels didn’t mention anything about a virgin to the shepherds. Look at the Nativity with a slightly antiquated understanding of shepherding and burial practices and see what otherwise isn't so obvious: A human, wrapped in burial cloths, and lying in a sarcophagus.

In an abrupt shift of artistic disciplines, I recently wrote a hymn that builds on this imagery. “What King So Gently Swaddled There” sings of the entombed King of Heaven, but instead of being wrapped in burial cloths, He is “swaddled.” Of course, this reversal is but a faint shadow of a much greater reversal in the plan of Salvation, for by Grace we put on His royal robes when He assumed our sin. Cantor Christina Roberts set my words to an original tune, which she named "Perpetua Felicity." The hymn will be sung tonight during the Good Friday Chief Service at Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Palms Eternal

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Entry Into Jerusalem”
Pietro Lorenzetti. c. 1320.
(Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy)

It will be relatively easy this Sunday to imagine the roar of the Jerusalem crowd. Our own shouts of “Hosanna” will amplify it, and those palm fronds [and perhaps a grand procession] will make the tableau nearly complete. But if you listen very carefully, you just might hear strains of rejoicing – not at the gates of Jerusalem, but from a very different place in the Kingdom.

The Palm frond has long been a symbol of victory and rejoicing. Not only was it commanded in Levitical style by The Lord for His ancient people, but it was also a common victory symbol used by other cultures, including the Greeks and Romans. Being a showy and elegant bit of botany, the palm frond looked festive when waved, and regal when cradled in an arm. Like the laurel wreath, it took on specific meaning when used in celebratory context.
“St. Stephen”
shown holding a palm frond,
the symbol of a martyr.
Carlo Crivelli. 1476.
(National Gallery, London)

For the Israelites, it was to be used to celebrate during the Feast of Booths – both in rejoicing before the Lord, and in construction of the booths themselves.

It was natural, therefore, that the citizens of Jerusalem utilized palm branches in welcoming what they thought was their “bread king” and the answer to foreign oppression. For a fleeting moment, it was a reason for celebration and rejoicing – if only for a very wrong reason. Their joy would quickly sour into calls for blood.

We should, however, be careful to not judge the Jews harshly for being fickle and ignorant. We know the Christ more intimately than they as our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the Devil, but how quickly we forget rejoicing that fact while facing the next storm or tribulation that comes down our path!

William How’s lyrics from the hymn, “For All The Saints,” remind us of a very different celebration.

Palms decorate this detail of the Procession of Martyrs from a Byzantine mosaic.
The Master of St. Apollinare. c. 526. (St. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy)

“And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song...”

The Book of Revelation holds a close parallel to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: An innumerable group, dressed in white and carrying palm branches, shout praise to The Lord. As is traditionally depicted in art, these are the noble army of martyrs, but it is also true that those coming out of the great tribulation include us, as well.

Wearing white robes that have been washed in the blood of The Lamb underscores, in unimaginable terms, an equally-great mystery that we shall resound with a joy that is neither fickle nor misplaced, but is inexpressible and without end. There, in eternity, our “Hosannas” will be the victorious realization of our prayers here, in time.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Stuck on Stigmata

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I still bear a nasty, transverse scar on the top of my head from a childhood incident, but I’m almost positive it has nothing to do with St. Peter of Verona. There’s a good possibility I also have a scar as the result of my brother chucking stones at me, and yet St. Stephen has never come into the mix.
Artist Bartolome Esteban
Murillo takes heretical
liberties with his painting,
"St. Francis of Assisi Embracing
the Crucified Christ" c. 1669
(Museum of Fine Art, Seville)

It is a curious thing that Catholics of the Roman persuasion get hung up on stigmata – the wounds of Christ – that somehow appear on [somewhat] normal folks, and desperately try to make a mystical connection. The key word is “curious.”

St. Francis of Assisi is thought to be the first stigmatic, or bearer of stigmata, and a rather long list of stigmatics followed in his wobbly train. It’s common practice to depict St. Francis with stigmata. That is, unless he’s otherwise depicted as occupying himself with a sermon for the birds or, in the example at right, getting all inappropriate at the crucifixion of Jesus. Curious.

St. Catherine of Siena also oozed mysticism. However, don’t confuse her crown of thorns with the stigmata, and try to ignore that invisible ring which proves her marriage to Jesus. And please, oh, please don’t get too curious about her [invisible] ring!

While wading through images of similar devotees, the nagging question eventually surfaced, “So what?” So you fell on some glass or decided to claw a hole in your hand. So what?
Another piece that exudes
mystical weirdness.
"St. Catherine of Siena"
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. c. 1746.
(Museum of Art History, Vienna)

Every year when Holy Week comes along, pockets of Roman Catholics around the globe do the self-flagellation thing or have themselves crucified. But doing so doesn’t help squat where sins are concerned. (Ask the criminals crucified alongside Jesus how it worked for them!) And St. Paul’s mention of “Bearing the marks of Christ,” shouldn’t go beyond the fact that he simply had the snot beat out of him for the sake of the Gospel; throughout his flurry of misadventures, Paul never mentioned being crucified.

There is also telltale evidence of serious Tomfoolery with several stigmatics. Curiously, a number of them had carbolic acid and disinfectants in the cupboard. The former would certainly cause a wound (if self-mutilation didn’t do the trick), and the latter would keep infection at bay. Magdalena de la Cruz, considered for a number of years to be a living saint, later confessed that her stigmata was a ruse, causing her, in turn, to become the patron saint of not-a-whole-lot.

Having the wounds of Christ means little, if anything. The curious wounds in the palms of your hands, your bleeding eyes, the nasty cuts that mess up your bedding, and that hole in your side did not – and cannot – save you or anyone else from their sins. A good number of us in Christendom are not wowed. Nor should we be. Only the wounds of Jesus Christ could atone for the sins of the world – once, and for all – and that they did.

What is more, mystical misfits undermine a much more important mark. That mark occurred when you and I were Baptized in the Name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit. The sign of the cross marked them and us as His, and nothing – NOTHING – can supersede, supplant, or mystify that fact. For those of you still managing nifty stigmata, go buy a box of Band-Aids and please get over it already.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Take a Little Journey with Me

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of the joys of being an artist is the ability to take viewers on a journey. This is certainly true of writers and performing artists, as well.

One of my favorite pieces [below] is an innocent, little thing I created as a gift. While it has neither theological significance, nor the weight of heady concerns, it yet remains a powerful piece.

Without the viewer's knowledge, I have gently taken them to a specific time and place, and introduced them to a small handful of characters. I don't tell the viewer a story, but they instinctively know there is one. Perhaps they know a great many chapters of the story.

Personalities of the characters emerge, with idiosyncrasies and histories of their own. The viewer knows the breed of the dog, its temperament, and how it contrasts with its owner's demeanor.

Ambient noise echoes faintly somewhere in the viewer's mind. A melody floats by. Emotions are gently tickled. A visible smile might even come.

But the place never existed. The event never happened. Neither the characters, nor the dog, nor anything surrounding them ever existed.

Perhaps most amazingly, the viewer finally comes to the realization that, for the past few moments, they have been taken somewhere past reality – while looking at a single sheet of black paper.

"The Night Watch." Edward Riojas. 2010. (Riojas collection)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced for any reason.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Little Things in Life

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I should have known better. I should have known that the Voces8 rendition of Edward Elgar’s “Lux Aeterna” would push me over the edge. It did.

I allowed tears to gush for awhile, then headed out to my cold woodshop with a small armful of lumber.

It is one thing to build an adult’s casket, as I did for my father, but it is quite another to do the same for a tiny infant. I considered it a great honor to do this one final thing for my little granddaughter, Perpetua Felicity.
Thank you to Carrie Roberts of
Ecclesiastical Sewing, who
created this miniature pall
for the casket.

The casket’s interior is only nine inches long – probably too long, even with all the extra cushion that went inside. Making such a small container was sobering and difficult. So was watching my daughter unravel an unfinished baby blanket to crochet a much smaller one.

Caring for the “least of these” in this manner is important for them – and for us. They are, after all, part of that world for which Jesus Christ died. Perpetua is His. For our part, we will always need to be reminded of the fragility of this life, and the Hope of the more blessed one to come.

I built the little casket in such a way that its lid is secured by bolts piercing a cross – representing the five wounds of Christ. In death, Perpetua Felicity – whose name means “Everlasting Happiness” – is held by the victorious cross of Christ. In life eternal, she will be held by the same. And that is huge.