Friday, October 12, 2018

When German Monks and Ancient Egypt Collide

Apse mural detail of the original St. John's Abbey Church
(St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Beuronese school appears as a blip on the timeline of art history. It is a style of art that doesn’t make the A-list in art history survey courses and relatively few books have been written on the subject. Still, it is worthy of consideration for those at all interested in sacred art.

I was first introduced to the Beuronese school of art while visiting St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. While the school may tout its new Abbey Church, the original abbey far outshines its successor. What is more, the older facade is packed with fine examples of Beuronese art.

Beuronese art is curious in that it came into existence as a deliberate return to antiquity, complete with its own canon that encompassed ideology, approach, and appearance. Benedictine monks founded the school in Beuron, Germany, in the late 1800s. Oddly enough, the German monks looked backward to Ancient Egypt for inspiration and visual cues.

Beuronese images are filled with geometric patterns, palm trees, and “mysterious” color schemes. That’s code for “Where did they come up with THAT?” The colors are sometimes muted, but can also appear in jarring combinations. At other times colors are more rich – bordering on garish.

There is also a rigidity forced on figures, with profiles and full frontal views being the rule. The richness of figures moving effortlessly through space, as was so evident in Italian Renaissance art, is nowhere to be seen. In this regard, Beuronese figures are indeed much closer to ancient Egyptian ideals.

Upon closer inspection, however, the style of art produced by these Germanic monks seems somehow familiar. The notion of monks working in seclusion does not hold. Paralleling the Beuronese school was the development of secular art movements, and flavors of some of them – the Art Nouveau style in particular – are shared with the cloistered counterpart. It may be arguable who inspired whom, but even with his bent view of reality, Gustav Klimt’s work bears marks of Beuronese influence – so much so that art scholars have long taken note.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Symbols for the Divinely Baffling


Copyright © Edward Riojas

This is a new one on me. Apparently, the fleur-de-lis can be used as a symbol for the Holy Trinity. Frankly, I would avoid using it that application because the stylized lily overshadows every other application in its role as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Excepting, perhaps, the Boy Scouts of America, or whatever they're now calling themselves.

Besides, there are plenty of other symbols used to identify the Holy Trinity. Most of the readily identifiable ones make use of triangles and circles and goofy triquetra shapes that are usually interwoven as inseparable knots. It all makes sense. Sort of. The Three-in-One thing is understandable, but not really. When it takes a lengthy Athanasian Creed to state the case -- which still somehow falls short -- it becomes evident the mystery of the Holy Trinity must be understood with a child-like faith, or else our heads will implode.
Detail of illumination from the
"Summa Vitiorium" by
William Peraldus, showing a
version of the Trinitarian Shield.
(unknown illuminator)
c. 1260. (British Library, London)

One symbol of the Holy Trinity has strong creedal flavors. The Trinitarian “shield” states in Latin, English, or other languages that the Son IS God, The Father IS God, The Holy Spirit IS God, but the Son IS NOT the Father, etc.

At least two other plants beside the fleur de lis have also been used to symbolize the Holy Trinity. I’m not quite sure of the metaphorical link, but the anemone flower was used by the early Church to identify the Trinity.

A better visual symbol is the shamrock, or three-leafed clover. St. Patrick is said to have used the simple plant to explain the Holy Trinity, hence its close association with Ireland. (At this point, please refrain from suggesting four-leafed clovers are totally Irish. They aren’t. If you insist upon it, someone might have to clean your clock with a shillelagh.)

One of the earliest symbols is also a slightly unexpected one. Orthodox iconography uses three Angels to represent the Holy Trinity. They are most often shown eating at a table. The reference is, of course, to Genesis 18, in which Abraham is visited by three men. They speak, however, as one, and as the Lord. During the visit, Abraham prepares a meal for them, and so they eat. It may seem odd that iconography depicts the three men as angels, complete with wings. Perhaps the tradition gives a strong nod to Hebrews 13:2, in which the idea of “entertaining angels unawares” is put before the Jewish audience.
Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Andrei Rublev. c. 1405.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

As with many Christian symbols, meaning and intent can only go so far. We needn’t feel, however, that symbols are completely useless in their insufficiency. Christ Himself used word pictures, in the form of parables, to describe for us those heavenly things which defy earthly understanding. So it is with symbols of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Bit About Bronze

"Ferdinando I de Medici" 1608.
Giambologna and Pietro Tacca
(Piazza of the Annunziata, Florence, Italy)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes it’s bronze.

I learned a bit about bronze while working on a recent project. Having previous experience in small-scale casting for a jewelry class, I decided in this case to use an art foundry’s services. The latest project was above my experience and pay grade, and I simply didn’t have any blast furnaces hanging about. Partially to keep costs down and partially to get my hands dirty, I decided to finish the piece myself. So it was that I drove to Ann Arbor to collect my [cut up] original wax model, its master mold, and three raw casts.

The color of the fresh bronze castings was a little surprising. It was a bright color that could have easily passed for gold, even though the alloy is mostly copper with a bit of tin.

To modern eyes, that is not what we expect of bronze. It is a peculiar thing that, unlike other art media, our perception of bronze is based solely on antiquity. The fine art world, for example, lauds the restoration and cleaning of old oil paintings. Not so with bronze. Even our language supports this skewed view of the alloy. To have “bronzed skin” is to have spent many hours in the sun. No one, on the other hand, wants to be as sparkly as an engagement ring. That’s just silly.

What would otherwise be simple corrosion or rust is known as “patina” in the bronze world. Bronze sculptures that have been sitting around for hundreds of years all have a patina of brown and/or green and, for some odd reason, this oxidation is desirable for even the newest of bronze pieces.

Natural oxidation, however, takes eons. Enter chemical patinas. There are various ways of quickly producing a patina, but I used a traditional method for my project – ferric oxide applied on the heated piece, with a later application of colored buffing wax. What would otherwise have taken a century or more was accomplished in less than an hour.

Bronze has long been a popular sculpting medium, in part because the heated metal expands when in the mold, thus filling every detail, and because the same metal shrinks when cooling, making it easy to remove from the mold.

In antiquity, however, bronze was also a favorite material for producing military hardware. Hence, many ancient bronze sculptures were lost forever to invading armies, who melted down the bronze and re-cast it into cannons.

Two, however, can play that game. The equestrian monument of Ferdinando I de Medici in Florence, for example, is said to have been produced with Turkish cannons captured by the Knights of San Stefano. Stories like that are golden.

Friday, September 21, 2018

ArtPrize and the ArtCurmudgeon

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize, it seems, is an ever-changing thing. Forget the official rules that change yearly. Forget the official boundaries that are ignored by the event itself.  Simply viewing the art entries can be a challenge, especially when venues change entirely.

One may expect, for example, to see some cutting edge pieces at the Kendall Gallery or the UICA, but Kendall has but one entry this year and it’s outside. The UICA, on the other hand, has apparently spread like a virus and is this year at multiple locations – except at the UICA.

Some venues may decide to limit the number of entries so that, in the case of DeVos Place Convention Center, an individual piece needing 150 feet of wall space can be accommodated. Other venues vanish altogether, while yet others add more space. While this makes for a very organic event, it can be slightly frustrating to patrons who may discover these changes on the fly when seriously pounding the pavement.

Being ever the helpful sort of curmudgeon that I am, what follows are a few pieces worth hunting down. They are stylistically all over the map. They may not make anyone’s top list, but if you want a little direction while wading neck-deep through mediocrity and welded, scrap-metal dragons [I know I am being redundant here], then check these out...

(Photo courtesy
Daniel Wurtzel’s “Air Fountain,” showing at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, will indeed make it to the top. [Well, maybe. At this writing the piece seems to be a no-show. See what I mean about change?] “AirFountain” is the sort of piece that is mesmerizingly simple, devoid of any controversy, and oozing with elegance. Check out a video of the Brooklyn-based artist’s piece when it was installed in the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw.

(Photo courtesy
Eric Freitas’ “Twisted Twelve,” hosted by Divani/Gallery Divani, is a combination of precision machinery and disturbing perception all wrapped up in a series of unfortunate events. The working clock – well, sort of – makes no mention of Happy Hour.

(Photo courtesy
“Pacific Quilt,” by Sarah FitzSimons and shown at the GRAM, takes the concept of quilting and blows it out of the water. Using underwater topography and ocean currents, the artist shows what can happen when craft and concept collide.

(Photo courtesy
“Madonna Muerte” is just weird enough to make us want to look at it. That may not exactly be high praise, but in some corners that is high praise, indeed. It is showing at PaLatte Coffee & Art. Bob Doucette, the creator of the piece, is director of many children’s television shows, including PBS’s “Clifford’s Puppy Days.” Knowing that just makes “Madonna Muerte” all the more weird.

(Photo courtesy
John Krout’s “Mid-West Coast” uses a technique more often seen on boxcars and barrios and applies it to the sights of Holland, Michigan. The fresh take on landscape is being hosted by Grand Rapids Brewing Company.

Of course, this is not exactly a well-rounded list of all that you should see. I’m sure some artists may take umbrage that I didn’t include their piece, but then again I refrained from touting my own entry. If you can make the trip to downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the coming days, I’m sure you’ll find a piece that puts all these to shame, and plenty more that are simply, hmm, shameful.

Friday, September 14, 2018

An ArtPrize Retrospective

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time, I refused to enter art competitions. But we must begin long before that time.

During my youth I entered a local art contest, The Festival of the Arts Visual Arts Competition. My two entries were rejected. Thinking those pieces were of undeniable merit, I scouted the resulting show to see what the judges considered worthy. I became disgruntled. I was, after all, a youth. A year passed.

The next year, I again entered two pieces. One was, in my estimation, certainly worthy of the judges. The other was quickly fashioned along trendy lines, closely mirroring the sort of thing seen in Art News. It was cutting edge, and I didn’t care for it.

True to form, the judges accepted the trendy piece, and rejected the other. I remained disgruntled. Another year passed.

When the contest returned the next year, I did not want to enter. At the last moment, however, I emptied a glass and metal frame of its contents, and stuffed trash behind the glass in a disgruntled sort of way. I gave it a nonsensical title, and entered it in the competition. Days passed.

My ugly piece, “Ibid, so what?” apparently was the stuff of which cutting edges are made. It took two awards, and the county bought it for a hideous sum. After that, I decided I would not enter art competitions ever again. Decades passed.

Then ArtPrize was born.

It took two years of badgering and shaming from colleagues, an old art teacher, and my own conscience before I decided to enter the fledgling art competition. I became hooked.

ArtPrize is the sort of thing one reviles and loves at the same time. It can be so annoying, yet no one wants it to go away. It can be horrendously ghastly. It can be exquisitely beautiful.

Above all, it demands much. Miniatures are decidedly unwelcome. Copious amounts of labor are enthusiastically embraced. Size matters. Patrons, who cannot possibly see every entry during the given time, don’t simply want a wow factor – they want to be knocked out of their socks, thrown barefoot on their backsides, and left completely dumbfounded.

Working with such expectations year after year is wearying, and takes its toll on even the most seasoned artist. I would be lying if I did not say ArtPrize has worn me thin. To that end, the organizers’ recent announcement that ArtPrize will become a biennial event came as a strange relief. And still I don’t want it to go away.

I thought it might be interesting to see the labor this competition has thus far managed to squeeze out of me. Below are my yearly entries, some of which slipped from labor-intensive into the insane...

“Owashtanong.” I did not like playing the Native American maiden card, especially with my first entry, so I pushed hard to be faithful to detail and the history of regional Ojibways. Tens of thousands of beads were included in the painting – each with its own shadow and highlight. And, no, it was not painted on velvet.

“Adoremus.” Among the comments this painting evoked was, “I don’t think religious artwork should be included in ArtPrize.” Troglodyte. Apparently, the fact that the Church single-handedly fostered fine art during the Dark Ages is no longer of consequence.

“F√∂rtrollade Skogen.” I was definitely on a roll – if not with commanding size, then certainly with non-English titles. This Swedish-entitled piece left folks speechless – many didn’t even know what they were looking at.

“Ecce Homo.” I waffled seemingly every year between sacred pieces and the urge to create fanciful entries. This one demanded close consideration and, occasionally, tears.

“Under Slottet Bron.” I went through 10,000 business/voting cards and could have used a few thousand more at the venue that hosted me that year. The 13 feet-wide gargantuan had a perpetual audience. Many thought it would make a lovely headboard. Perhaps for a troll.

“Fridur.” Still no English title. Artists sometimes do the most daring things, like using Google to translate the Collect for Peace into Icelandic and slap it on a painting. I prayed that no one from Iceland would visit, but come they did.

“Ambrei As Potamiaena.” Finally, an English title, but it doesn’t even read like English. I strayed out of the 2-dimensional category and into the time-based category. Using a database of thousands of names of Christian martyrs, the names slowly “bled” down the frame and onto the floor.

“O That My Words Were Written.” Being noticeably smaller than previous entries, this year's piece is simplistic, but is still heavy with detail. “Heavy” is perhaps the operative word for the theme and treatment, as well.

After cranking out these paintings year after year, the idea of ArtPrize going on holiday for a year sounds so relaxing. Of course, images of the next entry are already swirling in my head. ArtPrize, it seems, will not go away after all.

The Art Curmudgeon, aka Edward Riojas, will be showing his piece, “O That My Words Were Written,” at Cornerstone Church - Heritage Hill Campus, 48 Lafayette Ave. SE, during ArtPrize. The venue hours are noon - 6 p.m. on Sunday, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, and noon - 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ruminating in Church

"Apse Mosaic" [detail]. Masolina da Panicale. 12th Century A.D. (Church of San Clemente, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s good to ponder things in church. If everything was as expected and there was nothing new to learn, then surely we must be dead. That is why I rather enjoy the unexpected – even where the steadfast Church is concerned.

A few months ago I was meandering through the modest Haehn Museum at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota and spotted an odd, little embroidery of a cross with deer. No, it wasn’t a symbol of St. Eustace or St. Hubert of Liege, and it certainly wasn’t on a bottle of J√§germeister, which strangely has, as its logo, a symbol of one of those saints [or both]. The embroidery was a pair of deer at the base of a cross.

I soon realized, however, that the cross and deer motif is not at all odd. The imagery has been used in Roman Catholicism for hundreds of years, and probably other areas of Christendom, as well. While it isn’t necessarily among the first images one would pick for a church sanctuary, it is certainly fitting. The deer – nearly always shown drinking from a stream – point directly to the opening verse of Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”

Of all people, I suppose I should be the least surprised to find a ruminant in church. The “Te Deum Polyptic," which surrounds the sanctuary of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., was created by my own hand, and it contains a small menagerie.

Supporting the textual phrase, “All the earth doth worship Thee,” is a vignette of all sorts of animals. Intentionally, many of them are “unclean.” There are swine and a praying mantis [see what I did there?]. Also included are bison and, to my recollection, a kudu, or some other ruminant. Had I known the liturgical connection with deer, however, I would have included one – with a very conspicuous tongue hanging out.

I will have a second chance to include a panting deer in an upcoming project. As a companion piece to an altarpiece I created for them a few years ago, Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wis., has commissioned a set of paintings showing all of creation praising the Lord, including local flora and fauna. Yes, that means deer. No, that does not mean cheese.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Art in the Church Catholic

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was raised in a Lutheran home. So was my mother. My father, however, was raised in a Roman Catholic home. It wasn’t until Dad returned from the war and met a spunky Lutheran gal, ten years his younger, that he began thinking perhaps Luther was on the right track. Four children later, and Dad was totally convinced. This is most certainly true.

That family connection to Roman Catholicism has caused me to be persnickety about what it means to be catholic. Like Luther, I’m very comfortable with being catholic. Rome, however, has no part of it. That is, I consider myself part of the unseen company of saints that make up THE Church – the Church Catholic – whether they be of the LCMS variety or not.

I get annoyed when folks, in relating some subject of adiaphora, work themselves into a lather and blurt out that something is “too catholic.” The same sentiment is sometimes applied to sacred art.

Where it often comes up is at the cross or in the lap of Mary. Folks get nervous when an image of Jesus Christ is depicted on the cross (Shouldn’t it be empty?!), and when Mary is shown wearing blue (That was an expensive color of fabric!), and things quickly devolve when a Latin phrase is embroidered on an altar cloth or when pastor shows up wearing (Gasp!) a chasuble. And tassels.

There ARE things that are distinctly Roman Catholic among the visible things in the sanctuary. If, for example, you spy paraments or vestments in a shade of blue lighter than what you ever remember in a Lutheran church, then chances are good that the Virgin Mary is being highlighted while her Son is taking a back seat. A conspicuous initial cap “M” is also another hint, as is a lily motif. (Which is why I shudder at many generic Easter bulletin covers!)

But images of Mary are not of themselves wrong. Context is, of course, key. Neither is there anything wrong with opulent decoration, providing it points in the right direction.

To be fair, myopia sometimes goes in both directions. I once had the opportunity to create art for a Roman Catholic confessional booth. It would have been a lovely piece, the local Monsignor seemed genuinely pleased with my portfolio, and he even came to my studio space to chat about the project. But the commission quickly evaporated, along with the Monsignor’s very existence, when he found out I was Lutheran. Perhaps I was TOO confessional.

Like the inside quip and its rejoinder in our family, “Is it heavy?,” “Then it’s expensive,” the reality seems that if something in the sanctuary is fancy, then it’s Roman Catholic. It occasionally feels true, but that’s just plain nonsense. the Pope doesn’t have a monopoly on gold brocade or Gothic architecture or Latin. If you still think so, then perhaps it’s time again for you to sing the Te Deum Laudamus. A capella.