Friday, August 17, 2018

Drawing Conclusions

Thumbnail drawing for
a commemorative logo

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time I was a drawing major. Bearing that in mind, one would think that I would be a bit more protective of the myriads of drawings I still produce. I was painfully reminded of this recently, when for some inexplicable reason I destroyed a small set of preliminary drawings for a project. I then had to apologize, after the fact, to a would-be-client interested in buying one of those very drawings.

It is a sad fact that drawings are often treated as a means to an end. They are either the first dumping grounds for an idea, or else they are the final visualization of a composition before transferring to a painting or sculpture. Drawings most often are merely an artist’s editing tool, but they are more.

As high art, they can be exquisite things, with humble materials belying the work of a master. One need only peruse the drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger or Auguste Dominique Ingres to wonder why the artists even bothered with paint. Drawings needn’t be the poor cousins of other masterworks. Most often, however, they are treated as the household staff.

In apologizing for the destruction of my own work, I was also forced to accept the fact that the preliminary drawing was indeed stronger than its final execution. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. There is a quality inherent in drawing that is sometimes missing in other artistic disciplines – the evidence of struggle within the artist’s mind. The marks that make up a drawing can show bold confidence, delicate sensitivity, or muddled indecision. They are at their best when marks create an exact impression without visually spelling things out. It becomes nearly impossible, at that point, to duplicate the drawing’s strength in a different medium, no matter how much more “noble” that medium.

Obviously, this is a bit hard to qualify, so instead of writing further chapters on the subject, I’ve decided to let you wander through a few of my preparatory drawings. They are from past works, as well as current and future projects. The drawings were either buried under other documents or were under glass or were under a blanket of dust. They sometimes show thoughts surrounding the image. At other times they show thinking beyond the image, and give a good indication of the more mundane and calculating places where an artist’s mind must also wander...

Conceptual drawings (and an apparently difficult math problem) for the frame of "Under Slottet Bron."

Conceptual drawing for frame of "Adoremus"

Frame design for "Madonna and Child," Christ Lutheran Church, Orland Park, Ill.

Preparatory drawing for "The Prodigal Son," The Gerbens Collection, Calvin College.
I only noticed at this writing that I had drawn an "Ace" playing card tucked into his belt.
That detail was deleted in the final painting.

Frame design for "Owashtanong," Private collection.

Preparatory drawing for a current Ecclesiastical Sewing project

Preparatory drawing for "Under Slottet Bron."

Preparatory drawing for a future Ecclesiastical Sewing project.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bearing Crosses [In Mind]

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross. False.
Jerusalem Cross

There are hundreds of cross variations in existence. Some of them are ancient. Some have roots in heraldry. Others are relatively young. Yet others are so new that they’re still rattling around in some artist’s noggin. For as much as the first Christians generally avoided pictorial use of the cross on which our Savior died, it is certainly the most-used and most-varied symbol in Christendom.

But not all crosses are created equal. Some types were created along cultural or geographic lines. Others are specific to denominations or sects or movements. While many cross designs have identities that have remained through the years, a few have lost their original significance. But before you hunt willy-nilly for a “pretty” cross to plop into your newsletter or logo, it’s probably wise to hunt for its origins beforehand.

Cross of Lorraine

What follows are a few examples that should raise a flag or two where appropriateness is concerned...

The Jerusalem Cross
This is a specific cross that has been used with abandon in all corners of the Church, but its name should give a good hint that it may not necessarily apply to your neck of the woods. While it isn’t wrong per se to use it in Hoboken or Honolulu, it has been closely associated with Jerusalem since the Crusades. The five crosses have been used to indicate the five wounds of Christ, but the division caused by its central cross has also been variously interpreted as the Four Gospels or the traditional four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Papal Cross

The Cross of Lorraine (The Patriarchal Cross or Archiepiscopal Cross)
Some crosses have such tangled histories that it’s best to avoid them altogether. The Cross of Lorraine is one such animal. Its alternate use as the Patriarchal Cross is most often trumped by French claims to its use, including the Free French during WWII, earlier French groups seeking to regain territories, and even earlier by the House of Anjou. Of course, they fail to mention that its origins can be found in Hungary, and probably before that in  Byzantium. And, of course, the cross is also used to identify an Archbishop. The only real occasion one may use the Cross of Lorraine is apparently while eating an Oreo cookie, which is emblazoned with a variation of the cross. Go figure.

The Papal Cross
Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Coptic Crosses

Coptic Cross variations
I’ve included these simply because the Copts were the subject of last week’s post. Their crosses are varied and each is distinct in shape. Among the earliest forms are derivatives of the Egyptian ankh that have been repurposed as a Christian symbol. The reason for this cross-over is understandable – the ankh originally meant "life."
Huguenot Cross

Huguenot Cross
I ran across this gem while vacationing in Charleston, S.C., where dwindling Huguenot descendents rattle around the only independent French Huguenot Church in the U.S., which incidentally is on the Historic Register. In this quirky symbol created by persecuted French Calvinists, a Maltese Cross has been doctored up with a few doo-dads and a pendant of the Holy Spirit. It's strange that the Calvinists added French fleur-de-lis to the design, because the lily has roots in symbolizing the Virgin Mary. Oh, well.

St. Andrew’s Cross
You might rally around this cross if you wear a kilt and get hankerings for haggis, but its shape really is the type of cross on which St. Andrew traditionally met his martyrdom. How such a Christian symbol ever got associated with an ancient golf institution is beyond me, but given the occasional misuse of other crosses, it's probably par for the course.

St. Andrew's Cross

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wearing Christianity On One’s Sleeve

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things are undeniable.

There are plenty of things in this life that can be avoided and ignored and sidestepped. Many are often prickly and bothersome and annoying. We don’t even know how we should feel when confronted by some of them, but we have a hunch they are somehow wrong. Like elephants in the room, we try to talk past them and pretend they aren’t there. Once in a great while, however, the very things that would otherwise cause us consternation and perplexity force us to pay very close attention.

I was recently doing a bit of research for an upcoming project and ran across – for a second time – an item that was initially brought to my attention by fellow Lutheran artist, Tanya Saueressig Nevin, who also happens to be a tattoo artist: The subject of Coptic tattoos.

It is precisely at this point that many will begin to feel squeamish and stop reading – not because the thought of getting a tattoo is repulsive, but because the thought of ANYone getting a tattoo is repulsive. It says so in the Bible. Someplace.

Typical Coptic wrist tattoo.

Of course, if we are to adhere to Levitical laws with as much vehemence as some, then a great deal of us would have been stoned ages ago. Likewise, our church larders would be overflowing with tithed spices instead of bland ones necessary for casseroles and Jell-O salad. No such luck. As a testament to our own sinfulness, we tend to bring out obscure laws when they suit us and conveniently forget obvious ones when they don’t.

And then the Copts come along.

Originally, the term Copt – or “Qubt” – was a Greek term given to a culturally-distinct segment of the Egyptian population. Later, Arabic invaders used the term to designate both the Coptic culture and their religion, which was a variation of Christian Orthodoxy. Through the centuries, the Copts managed to maintain both culture and Christianity, much to the chagrin of their Muslim neighbors. The beheading of Coptic Christians in 2015 by Muslims is indicative of the kind of persecution they suffer to this day.
Tigrayan girl with simple Coptic tattoo on her forehead
(Photo courtesy of

For nearly 700 years, however, the Copts have embraced a peculiar tradition that is sometimes bothersome to fellow Christians and is outright offensive to Muslims – Christian tattooing. While it isn't the rule, it is common enough to take note. Often a small cross is tattooed on the wrist of children shortly after Baptism, echoing the wounds of Christ. Women sometimes have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. Occasionally, men sport the same. The tattoos may be very simple, or simply in-your-face.

Tattooing has also become associated with making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. A tattoo from a small range of traditional designs may be obtained in Jerusalem as both proof of the pilgrimage and as a personal reflection on the pain which our Lord suffered. One Coptic family, the Razzouks, has been providing tattooing services in Jerusalem since they moved there – during the Crusades. Such is the depth of tradition.

Tigrayan man with Coptic tattoo on his forehead
(Photo courtesy of

There are possible influences that may have helped create this tradition. The Roman custom of tattooing the foreheads of slaves might have seeped into the culture and may have redefined the Copts as being “slaves of Christ.” There are also accounts of Muslims marking Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Such an act might have caused some to cut to the chase and get a proper mark of distinction beforehand.

It is extremely hard for Westerners in general and American Christians in particular to wrap our brains around such a tradition. It is the sort of thing that conflicts with what our mothers often warned us. It is the kind of thing that would have caused angst from our fathers. It can still be a source of disapproval within our households, and within the household of Believers. While existing in a world surrounded by Muslims, however, displaying a cross in such manner shouts a very clear message that surely must resonate with even the undecorated among us: In the face of horrible persecution, some Christians will not, and indeed cannot, deny their Savior.

Friday, July 27, 2018

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I can say with great certainty that nearly every one of you has seen a cross like the one shown. It is most often made of brass, and either sits on an altar or, in a variation, hangs near the chancel. With almost as much certainty, my guess is that most of you don’t have a clue about the little emblem at its center.

At first blush my words seem harsh, but they nod to a nagging fact within Christendom: We are quickly loosing an understanding of symbolic things which have served as visual shorthand for the basic truths we confess. Without launching into a massive explanation [that will eventually manifest itself in a book on Christian symbolism], I think it best to focus on this one, simple item with which we are all familiar.

Abbreviations have, since the early Church, played a part in liturgical visuals. Chi-rhos and Chi-Iotas and “INRI,” along with a long list of other abbreviations, point to artists’ laziness in avoiding to spell out everything. Hand-lettering is, after all, tedious work. In emperor Constantine’s case, the Chi-rho acted as a sort of identifying logo for his troops, so we can forgive him. Besides, he was the emperor.

By the Middle Ages, many abbreviations – or monograms – had been developed to identify Jesus Christ. Among them was IHS and the similar IHC. The short story is that it is the Latinized first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, using either an “S” or “C” per its lunate or final form, and based on pre-17th century Latin in which the “I” was used before the introduction of “J.” Okay, that wasn’t so short.

Within the chapters of the longer story are different meanings that were applied, after the fact, by various folks. To underscore my point of losing an understanding, the abbreviations became erroneously interpreted as "Jesus Hominum [Hierosolymae] Salvator" (“Jesus, the Savior of men”), “In Hoc Signo [Vinces]” (”In this sign you will conquer”),  “Jesus Hierosolyma Salvator” (”Jesus, the Savior of Jerusalem), and later, the Anglicanized “In His Service.” Quacks.

The interesting thing about early Greek abbreviations is that, instead of using periods, a line was often placed above the letters. In some Medieval forms, when lower case characters were used, this line created a conspicuous cross when intersecting the ascending leg of the “h.” This was sometimes carried through to upper case variations, in which a cross was either fused to the middle of the “H” or was interwoven with the whole monogram.

Of course, it will never replace a corpus on a crucifix, which forces us to acknowledge our Savior’s ultimate act of love for us. This familiar brass item, on the other hand, simply shows Jesus on the cross.

Friday, July 20, 2018


Copyright © Edward Riojas

During the past year or so I’ve come into possession of a few books that are well worth mentioning. A few are signed copies. For the most part, I have been involved with their development in varying degrees. One book is an exception, but it is so exceptional that it, too, is worth mentioning. While this may be considered a sort of book fair, it’s primarily a way to get a peek into some of my projects – past, present, and future...

A while ago I was commissioned to create the cover art for Katie Schuremann’s second edition of “He Remembers The Barren” (Emmanuel Press). It was an honor to take on the project, but was made even more special when the original painting ended up in Katie Schuremann’s private collection.

I also did the cover art for Rev. Tyrel Bramwell’s “The Gift  and the Defender” (Grail Quest Books) – Book 1 in The Lumen Legends Series. I’m currently working on a group of illustrations for an unrelated Bramwell book.

Rev. Gaven Mize is another Lutheran pastor/author. He and his wife, Ashlee, co-authored “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give” (Grail Quest Books), and I joined the children’s book project in the role of illustrator.

St. Paul’s Music Conservatory of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is an ambitious project undertaken by Rev. Nathan Sherrill, Rev. Jim Frank, and others, with a multifaceted approach to music education. As part of the project, a music book, "Jesus, Ground of Faith" (St. Paul’s Music Conservatory) was produced that necessitated my illustrative talents. The first book was quickly published after the conservatory’s inception, and a second book is in the works.

I had no involvement, of course, in Joseph Braun’s “Praktische Paramenten Kunde: Winke Für Die Anfertigung Und Verzierung Der Paramente” (Herder & Co.) I’m old, but I’m not THAT old. This 1920s-vintage book was a generous gift from Ecclesiastical Sewing’s Carrie Roberts. The book will, however, find its way into my future work, and bits and pieces of the designs contained within have already been resurrected as liturgical embroideries.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What Can Be Done

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is one thing to take potshots at ill-conceived sanctuaries and wax nostalgic over churches that have long since been demolished. It is quite another to make sensible artistic suggestions for churches that were never blessed with liturgical art or comeliness in the first place.

My two previous posts have pointed out some winners and losers in Christendom, and its’ time for me to give some practical advice for those who might have a vague interest in doing something – anything – to visually improve the sanctuary. Some pastors know exactly what they want when seeking out my talents. Others are more reserved and prefer suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to approach a liturgical artist, so I try to listen as much as possible to what is – and what isn’t – said.

Among the things that have strong influence on any art project are the building’s architecture, permanent accoutrements, and, yes, mundane things like thermostats, heating vents, and light switches. There can be no forcing a Renaissance fresco into a place where it doesn’t belong. Neither should a cutting-edge, artsy-fartsy piece be installed in a sanctuary with Gothic tracery. The best compliment I can receive is that the finished piece looks as if it was always there; that it was meant to be there.

To give some concrete ideas of what can be done, I've gathered a few photos of bland sanctuaries. I’ve tried to steer clear of Lutheran churches, so some of the sanctuaries have major issues even before artistic considerations can be made. You’ll just have to ignore those things, and try to imagine the blue shapes being filled with Riojas originals...

A chancel area with Romanesque arches and not much adornment easily lends itself to possibilities. Flanking pieces on either side of a central window or altarpiece can be filled with angels and/or favorite saints. If hymn boards are not commanding the walls immediately outside of the chancel, artwork can be hung there in different configurations. Often the Font is placed to the right of the chancel opening, making an obvious spot for a Baptismal-themed piece and providing good reason to remove that annoying projection screen.

The sanctuary front isn’t the only place where art might be added. Traditionally, angels are placed near the rear exit of the church as a reminder of heavenly protection beyond the Divine Service. In similar manner,  areas between windows can sometimes accommodate artwork, echoing architecture and enhancing theological themes.

Of course, you are probably very blessed if your church has Romanesque features. Mod-squad churches come with their own set of problems – and possibilities. Once you rip out that hideous purple carpet, pull down those chandeliers, and get over the stigma of being labeled San Liberace of the Hills, perhaps a commission for liturgical art is in order. Following architectural lines can help ease artwork into odd spaces and make it work. This is one case in which I might stick my neck out and suggest ridding the chancel wall of the three crosses, which are too-widely spaced and symbolically weak. (In my book, a trio of crosses doesn’t confess much, and the visual weight falls on the two malefactors instead of the One Who died for all.)

Timing is everything. Before Mr. Twinklebothom plunks down serious cash for projection screens in all the obvious places, consider something tastefully simple like a nice section of Scripture painted directly on the wall. It won’t detract from the goofy architecture and it will certainly look like the architect planned it that way. And, if you’re quick about it, you can even consider a small piece on either side – one to go with the Baptismal Font, and one to go with the table you’ll need to hold the unconsecrated bread and wine. Plus, you’ll have the perfect reason to throw that praise band junk to the curb.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Writing On The Wall

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old photos of church sanctuaries are the best. They give us hints as to who worshipped there, and what the parishioners considered paramount. They also remind us who WE are.

The kind of photos to which I am referring come from the heartland of the U.S., during a time when photography was still accomplished by big box cameras. It was also a time when wars hadn’t yet affected the use of Old World languages in this new land of opportunity; when Lutheran church services were frequently in German or Swedish.

While I love to see Gothic Revival altarpieces alongside oil lamps or newfangled electric candles, what most intrigues me is the writing on the wall.

Eons before insipid words like “Live, Laugh, Love” were littering American homes, better words of greater substance often adorned church sanctuaries. That was when painters knew a bit more about their craft than roller covers. Often painters were skilled artisans, creating masterful borders and powerful calligraphy with relatively humble materials. It’s a wonder how anyone in their right mind could paint over such ornate work when sprucing-up was deemed necessary.

I’ve found a few old photos that are real gems. Each one tells us what Lutherans held dear, and some of the photos give an added perspective of worship that is worth seeing. ...

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The chancel wall of First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota , used portions of three New Testament texts. “Behold the Lamb of God!,” John 1:29b; “...Whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross, Colossians 1:20b; and “He is our our peace,” Ephesians 2:14a. The setting of these passages is a cross with radiating lines, which points to the Resurrection.

One notable feature is the somewhat odd position of the pulpit – behind and above the altar. This arrangement came about as a visual protest against Rome, and gave preeminence to the [preached] Word, which, in Roman Catholicism, had become overshadowed by the Sacrament of the Altar. Since then the ‘altar-pulpit’ has fallen into disuse, although some still exist.

Up the road from First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was Chisago Lake Evangelical Lutheran Church. It, too, was a Swedish stronghold. Its communion rail closely followed the half-circle pattern of communion rails in the Old Country, fairly filling the chancel space and forcing the ornate pulpit out into the sanctuary proper – in Germanic fashion. This half-circle confessed “the heavenly host” joining the Lord’s Table at an unseen portion of a full circle, which symbolically extended outside the church building and into the “church yard”– the cemetery.

Text was added around the arch of their chancel – a favorite place of Scriptural ornamentation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” is a truncated version of Luke 11:28. Other text and opulent decoration covered the Neoclassical walls.

The much more austere Germanic sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church, Corruna, Indiana, had a lovely altarpiece, an impressive, elevated pulpit, and a massive potbelly stove. This photo was surely taken for a special event, for the place is festooned with evergreen garland and a banner proclaiming, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Psalm 126: 3a.

Not to be outdone by Germanic Hoosiers, The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church, Centralia, Illinois, got together for a reunion group portrait in 1927. Little did they realize that the text surrounding the chancel arch, “Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14a, would soon fall out of fashion during a war in which most Americans dared not speak or write German.

Meanwhile, St. John Lutheran Church, Houston, was doing things in its own style, as is evident by this not-so-old photograph of the restored chancel area. It uses, again, the words of Luke 11:28, while a rather striking version of a pulpit-altar commands the center.

If worshippers didn’t get a clue during the Divine Service at St. John, they were given another dose of the Word when leaving the church. Using a combination of old German text and Gothic architecture in an effect that could have come from Bavaria instead of central Texas, home-grown comfort was driven home with abbreviated words from Psalm 121:8 – “The Lord keep your going out and your coming in. Amen!”