Friday, February 23, 2018

When Nothing Less Will Do

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a year, when bow-tied attendants trotted up to cars at filling stations, folks took pride in keeping the old sedan running like a top. “Check the oil for you, sir?” was a standard question asked after rolling down the car window – that’s right, with a crank. That was before air bag recalls and catalytic converters. Auto garages boasted using genuine replacement parts, as opposed to cobbling things together with tractor parts and bailing wire, and they often advertised that fact with a prominent sign. It was a simply courtesy to let the customer know they were getting the best service.

In somewhat similar fashion, it has become a tradition to hang a crucifix near pulpits in Lutheran churches. While it isn’t a rule, it certainly is a help.

At very least, such sanctuary fixtures help congregants stay focused. As Swiss sculptor, Emil Thoman, said of one of his pulpit crucifixes, "It is a worthy presentation of Christ in His self-oblation. What preacher would not be satisfied to know that, even if the sermon might be poor, the people had something worth-while to attend to?"

Many of us, however, have a higher regard for our pastor’s preaching skills than that to which Thoman hinted. Indeed, it is significant when a pulpit crucifix is commissioned, and it speaks of the pastor and his congregation. I recently finished a commissioned painting that will serve as pulpit cross. A frame must still be constructed and fitted to the painting before delivery, but the image is enough for our present consideration.
Prep drawing for "Crucifixion."
Edward Riojas. 2017.
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.

Not everyone likes the idea of a crucifix. Some folks view history in purist fashion. They understand the past’s significance, but want to live in the present. Christ’s crucifixion, they argue, was only three hours out of His much longer life. And here I come, rubbing everyone’s face in His death.

To be fair, I have pulled a few punches with my depiction of the crucified Christ. Jesus was naked. It is only out of respect that I follow the path of most artistic forebears and use a drape to cover His nudity. Also, Jesus would have been more bloodied, but the viewer should certainly get the point without a more graphic representation. The weight of His dead body piled by sin, however, is plain enough. The transept of the cross bends. His flesh pulls at the nails. The words of the hymn writer echo harshly,

“O sorrow dread! Our God is dead.”

But the image of the dead Christ is enhanced further. Blood and water flow respectively into a chalice and baptismal font. The Gospel writer, John, drove home the fact that blood and water flowed from Christ’s wound. In writing the Gospel account, it seems overkill as John conveyed it, until one considers the point at which he was driving.

“But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” (John 19: 34-35)

Being a good proto-Lutheran, John was pointing directly to the connection between the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, The Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ Death. While there was certainly no hovering chalice or baptismal font at the crucifixion, the connection is made confessionally clear in the painting.
Detail of "Crucifixion." Edward Riojas. 2018.
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced.

In fact, much is confessed in this image. One cannot enter the sanctuary and mindlessly gaze about the place without being confronted by what is taught there. And if there is any confusion about the visuals in that painting, then certainly the words it contains serve as a declaration that the faithful will not simply get acceptable service, but Divine Service, and that same worshiper will neither hear self-help preached, nor ten steps to better living preached. Rather, as the image boldly states, “We Preach Christ Crucified.”

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Flu: Women and Children First

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have just started the season of Lent, but sometimes even the Church calendar gets trumped. It’s also flu season, and if you’ve been hit as I have recently, you know how effectively schedules and calendars can get re-worked due to illness. Everyone knows the flu is serious stuff – especially this particular season – but if we can’t chuckle over it’s short-lived command of our lives, then we must all go mad. Being forced to ponder the illness has allowed me to randomly collect one or two thoughts that don’t necessarily connect in any logical way. Blame it on the flu.
"The Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak) from Rome."
Attributed to Paul Fürst. c. 1656.

How it works:
Woman: “I think I’ve got the flu.” (*sniff)
Children, of no particular clan: “We don’t feel too good.” (*sniff)
Me, the pile of humanity that appears to have just been dropped by a large-bore elephant gun: “flu.” (*wheeze.hack.cough.)

The bigger they are
Women in general, and moms in particular, are by nature loaded with extra antitoxins, antibiotics, and anti venom. Children, by playing constantly in the dirt, have built up resistance to common maladies such as typhus, diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, rhinitis, whooping cough and compound fractures. Perhaps I’m just a baby, but I seem to always bear the brunt of symptoms. When I go down, I go down hard.

Casting call
Even when attempting to appear heroic and getting a couple of aspirin to ease my own suffering, I tend to look and sound like an extra from a zombie movie. I stumble across the house with one foot dragging and eyes half-closed. I grunt and groan and say unintelligible things more often than normal. Yes, more often than normal.

Dealing with light
Sometimes there aren’t enough curtains. The first room in which I quarantined myself did not have enough light-blocking window treatments. It also did not have enough sheets of plywood, small paintings, boxes, towels, blankets, pencils, paperclips, paint brushes, stacks of newspapers, furniture, mattresses and foam remnants to cover the windows. When all was said and done, it looked like the premises was overtaken by a hoarding vampire. And still the light came in.

Dealing with more light
The second room in which I quarantined myself had sufficient, light-blocking shades, but it also had a computer and a modem. The array of randomly-blinking lights drilled into my brain until subdued by piles of socks.

Whining like a baby
All I wanted was to burp. If you don’t know this feeling, then you’ve never had the flu. Pop and soda are never present in our house, so the request for something carbonated took a while to move up the chain of command. It seemed days. All I wanted was to burp. In a stretch, soft drinks sort of count as clear liquids – at least that is how logic works when one is ill. Honestly, all I wanted was to burp. One can then imagine my disappointment when the bottle finally arrived, massive quaffing began, and a single, sickly “blip” came out. All I wanted was to burp.

A forced vacation
No one wants to book a vacation to the middle of the Black Plague, but these two past weeks have certainly felt that way. Besides dropping everything on the calendar, I’ve muddled my brain with illness and with drugs that supposedly ease the same, and I’ve arrived at a destination feeling like a beat-up piñata. All this without leaving the comfort of a darkened room.

Maybe a beer will help me burp.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Things That Fly (And Others That Don’t)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes artists are to blame. Sometimes it’s Hollywood’s fault. Sometimes the problem is sentimental. And sometimes all of these ingredients are baked into one crappy casserole that shouldn’t be swallowed.

I’m talking about sappy ideas some folks have about angels, and a host of other things that are not even remotely associated with the host of heaven. Unravelling the truth from stupidity is long overdue, and it’s high time we wrap our heads around the difference.
"Nike of Samothrace"
220-185 B.C.
(The Louvre, Paris)

This gal is most assuredly the one most influential image behind many artistic renditions labeled as “angel.” The sculpture belongs to the cult surrounding Athena Nike, an ancient Greek goddess of victory. This particular piece, however, does not follow the traditional pattern of the goddess, in which she was shown wingless. Presumably, that was so victory would never leave the Athena Nike temples and their surrounding area.

This can be a generic term for specific heavenly ranks or, in proper context and in the singular, can even be used to indicate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It’s hard to get a good handle on the garden-variety angel, because they are not always given detailed descriptions in Holy Scripture and because there are different kinds. The typical commercial image, however, of a smiling, golden-haired damsel with fiber optic wings, does not fit at all with the reality of spiritual beings doing the will of God perfectly – even when man stupidly gets in their way.
"Cupid in the Landscape." c. 1510.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi.
(The Hermitage, Russia)

This annoying little intruder loves to show up on St. Valentine’s Day. He is so stinking cute that few bother to ask what the heck an erotic, pagan god is doing at a party for a Christian saint and martyr. We can only hope that he overdoses on a ten pound box of questionable chocolates and retraces his steps across the river Styx.

Renaissance artists allowed their day’s massive interest in all things Classical run away from them. These Cupid-like punks flew straight out of Ancient Greece and started showing up everywhere, including sacred art. Apparently the only way to stop a running child, sans diaper, is to clip their wings. To make things even more confusing, sometimes the little tykes are referred to as “Cherubs.”
"Sistine Madonna" with
putti below. 1513-1514.
(Old Masters Gallery, Dresden)

These are the real deal and not some pack of squealing, flying kids. Don’t even think of getting on their wrong side. Three pairs of wings, but they only need one pair to fly.

We’re definitely on holy ground. Whenever you hear cherubim and seraphim in the same sentence, it’s probably a good idea to bow your head and acknowledge that the Lord of heaven and earth is nearby. And be ready for some serious post and lintel vibrations when they start praising God.

There IS a place for naked babies in sacred art. Context is the key. The Holy Innocents may LOOK like putti or cherubs, but they are young males from the region surrounding Bethlehem. They took the hit for the infant Jesus, when Herod found out he had serious kingly competition. The Holy Innocents can sometimes be seen in Christian imagery playing near Mary, the mother of our Lord, and occasionally can be seen carrying palm branches – a symbol for martyrdom.
"Madonna and Child Surrounded
by the Holy Innocents" 1616.
Peter Paul Rubens.
(The Louvre, Paris)

For some stupid reason, a lot of folks lean on the idea that humans earn wings when they die. Never mind the fact that Scripture pointedly says that Jesus Christ died for man – and not the angels. This alone should give real comfort, but apparently man wants more than that. “Every time a bell rings...” is a nuisance phrase that has lodged itself into the sentimentality of sappy dolts, thanks to Hollywood, and it has morphed itself into all sorts of nonsense. The belief that a child turns into an angel at death is an unfortunate, misguided, and false notion, and often is written into heart-rending obituaries. It is one idea, however, that simply does not fly.

Friday, February 2, 2018

It Should Have Been Me (No, It Shouldn’t Have)

"Crucified Slaves on the Via Appia." Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov. 1878. (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Even in our most-contemplative states, we Christians can be so blessedly stupid.

Christians, like every other segment of society, largely plod along in this life. We have jobs. We go to school. We buy groceries and drive on roads and wonder what the weather will be like.

But none of us lives in the hamlet of Hunky-dory. In spite of our hopes of getting a great deal at the grocery store and beating that red light, we know the life on which we plod is screwed up. Besides the multitude of little things that annoy us – like missing out on last week’s produce sale and getting a warning for running an orange light – there are usually bigger things that make our life’s road way more bumpy than usual. And often it’s our own stinking fault. Sin, it seems, is inescapable.

The Law has a way of convicting us of our sin in a way that is most unpleasant.  It is meant to be that way. The Law was not given on embroidered, chenille pillows. The Law was given on tablets of stone – a material that, at first blush, seems very unforgiving. It cuts us off at the knees, so that we have nothing on which to stand; so that we are forced to lay prostrate before the King of Glory in all His Divine Perfection, and realize, without question, that there is nothing but imperfection in our wretched selves.

It is at that instant the our gracious God speaks to us His Gospel through the Word. How can we not be thankful?! Our Lord’s love is so inconceivably boundless that it defies pondering. Yet we try. And it’s around that point that we sometimes jump the tracks and start pondering some stupid ideas.

Like, “It should’ve been me.”

This is where I get to tell you, “Don’t be such a doofus!”

Solomon sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep during a week-long festival dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem. Those 144,000 sacrifices [see what Solomon did there?] weren't sin offerings, but it gives an idea of the scale of things during the daily life of the Temple. The blood poured out for sin must have saturated the ground. It must have inched awfully close to the water table. One must assume the smell alone was powerful. And yet all those offerings were only pointing to a singular sacrifice to come.

And what of punishment? Did any of the thousands crucified – Christian or otherwise – ever make satisfaction for their own sins? No. Luther found out the hard way that self-flagellation was pointless, yet penitents still flog themselves and are crucified with surgical steel nails – to their own detriment.

Scripture’s account of the Jesus‘ crucifixion includes the two criminals for a reason – neither could atone for their own sin. The unrepentant criminal regarded his earthly punishment with curses, and the repentant criminal, accepting his earthly punishment, appealed to Jesus blood to erase his eternal punishment.

Even though there is even song declaring as much, declaring “It should have been me” is simply heresy. If millions of oxen and sheep cannot erase your sin, then neither can you. And if you still think you can atone for your own sin, then why did my Lord have to die?

No, it couldn’t have been you. For that, we are all eternally grateful.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Vestments by Design

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not that many months ago I didn’t have a clue what an orphrey was. Now I’m designing them.

If you had mentioned a galloon back then, I might have snickered. Not anymore. Even though I am still very much a novice in the world of church vestments and paraments, I’ve learned to pay attention and ask questions.
Original Six Chief Parts drawing.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

What I’ve also learned is the work is fascinating, and I think you’ll agree after this peek at the process behind producing the lovely offerings of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Shortly after Carrie Roberts launched her small company, she asked me to collaborate with her on some projects. My function is to act as designer, primarily creating images for use on embroideries that adorn her products.

Besides creating original designs, I also help resurrect old ones. That in itself can be challenging. Like an archaeological site, some designs are incomplete or partially destroyed. It sometimes falls to me to fill in the missing pieces through simple logic or artistic conjecture. One project on the back-burner, for example, involves recreating a scene of the stoning of St. Stephen for the back of a chasuble. All that exists is a delicate pencil drawing, done in classical, academic style. A third of the drawing has been torn off and is lost forever.
Adobe Illustrator screen shot,
wire frame view.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old designs come to me in the form of photos, as in the case of the torn drawing, or as digital files. Some of the files are “rastered” images – basically, digitized images that have been converted to photos – or they come as “vectored” images – editable designs that are comprised of shapes. The latter are easiest to alter and color, while the former need complete redrawing in an illustration application. It can be mind-numbing work, but it’s a thrill to bring old designs back to life and know that they will once again be appreciated.

New designs are another matter. A general directive for a design is first given by Roberts – perhaps for a new Reformation “set.” A set is a group of associated designs that can be used in every application necessary in the chancel. While not every church needs every application, Ecclesiastical Sewing is prepared to meet every need, which can include stoles, chasubles, frontals, superfrontals, falls, chalice veils, and the occasional banner. That means the design components must be flexible enough to fit large and small spaces, and vertical, horizontal, and square configurations.
"Stitchout" from digitizer.
Courtesy Ecclesiastical Sewing

The first step is to do rough drawings of the basic components. Depending on the set, there may be a few drawings or many. For the new set commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the drawings piled up because we wanted something beyond Luther’s Rose; something that would be more confessional, yet distinctly Lutheran. The Six Chief Parts anchored that new set.

Once we hashed out which direction to go, selected drawings were then translated into vectored images by scanning the original drawings and then rebuilding them in Adobe Illustrator. The program not only allows editing of every line and shape, but it also enables adjustment of color.

Technical aspects of color are important, because the normal working color mode in Illustrator is either CMYK or RGB. The threads in garments and embroideries, however, are a far different animal. Final color choices for embroideries make use of a 400-plus color palette of numbered thread selections by Madeira, a German manufacturer. Bridging the gap is partially accomplished by converting colors to the Pantone color system within Illustrator.
Finished design machine embroidered
on exclusive Luther brocade.
Courtesy, Ecclesiastical Sewing

The Illustrator files are then handed off to a “digitizer.” At this point, the constraints of an embroidery machine are put into play when creating a digital “stitchout,” which can show flaws and force adjustments in the design. The width of a stitch, for example, can only be so wide before a shape must be stitched in a different manner. Corners of a stitched border can also reveal problems. A lovely embroidery can be reproduced in all its glory, provided it contains only 15 colors and doesn’t bog down a machine for hours on end, creating an embroidery that rivals the weight of its wearer.

Changes and adjustments then come back to me. Sometimes this happens a second or third time. Occasionally, a prospective client may also suggest a worthy change.

Adjustments are made well after I have handed off the final files. A particular thread color may not work as well as Roberts would like, either within the embroidery, or with adjacent fabric choices. And then there are critical choices to be made with brocades and orphreys and contrasting galloons. The cut of a chasuble. The lining of a frontal. The lay of a stitch. Some of the detail work is far above even the most seasoned seamstress. Such fussing is the cost of creating something beautiful and lasting, while visually confessing Holy Scripture and elevating it above the mundane.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Flocking to Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not that anyone left the windows open last Sunday, but there are more birds in the sanctuary than one would otherwise expect. Whether depicted in stained-glass, carved in stone, or jutting from a pulpit, birds have for centuries been carriers of symbolism within Christendom. Knowing the difference between species and the sometimes-subtle variations can help in one’s visual understanding of the buildings where worshipers flock.
Eagle lectern.
(St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England)

The Holy Spirit is most often identified by the image of a dove, but that image sports a couple of important features – or at least it should. The Dove is always shown descending, with its head down. This is to indicate that inspiration comes via the Helper, who is from above. The head is also usually given a tri-radiant halo [that is not a cross] to indicate that it is a Person of the Holy Trinity. There are the odd occasions in sacred art in which the Dove might be seen near the ear of a figure – either near a prophet, indicating Divine inspiration in their writings, or near Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in which case the conception of our Lord is being shown.

When a dove is used to indicate peace, it should always be shown flying horizontally, sans nimbus. Also, it typically carries an olive branch in a reference to the aftermath of the flood. Because this bird often flies off-course into crowds of tie-dyed shirts and love beads, it’s probably wise to avoid this version entirely out of confusion.

One of the earliest winged symbols used in the Church is a bit of a stretch where ornithology is concerned. The Phoenix was borrowed from Greek mythology, but it wasn’t the normal brand of bird. When occasionally used by the Church, it is an identifier of Christ Jesus. According to myth, the bird died by fire, then later arose again from the ashes. It’s questionable origin nonetheless was used by some early Christians to point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Orlets rug.

Another ornithological symbol with dubious origins is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” The simple fact that the image carries such a title gives a good hint to its Medieval age. The pelican is shown piercing her own breast so that her young may live. The idea that pelicans would sacrifice themselves in such manner made it an endearing symbol of our Lord. Unfortunately, like some other metaphorical images used in Christian symbolism, the self-sacrifice of a pelican is totally unfounded in the natural world.

Eagles play an important role in Church symbolism, but one must take context into account before assigning meaning. Anglican churches, among some other denominations, sometimes have pulpits or lecterns that sport eagles of size enough to accommodate a large bible on the backs of spread wings. They exude a decided “federal” feel, as if talons should clasp bolts of lightning or laurel wreath. In this context, however, the eagles pay homage to the Word of God, for in former days eagles were thought to fly unflinchingly toward the sun. The noble birds were incapable of being blinded – even by the brilliance of the Word itself.
Rooster vane.
(Trinity Church, Veilsdorf, Germany)

In somewhat similar manner, the Orthodox Church sometimes uses the image of a young eagle on a small rug – or “Orlets” – on which a bishop stands while officiating. The eagle flies over the image of a city, indicating the populace over which the bishop presides.

Of course, the eagle is also the symbol of the Evangelist St. John. In this context, its meaning originates from the soaring style of the Gospel writer’s words.

Strangely enough, the barnyard’s entry has somehow taken preeminence on the occasional church building. It is common enough to note when a rooster supersedes all other symbolism – even the cross – on pinnacles of some church spires. It may seem a bit odd, until one unravels its meaning. The rooster became an uncomfortably-humbling reminder to Peter that he had denied Jesus three times. But while the rooster reminds us of the Law and our utter failure in its keeping, it also reminds us of the Gospel, for roosters announce the early morning, and where congregations worship on the eighth day, the rooster reminds us weekly that He is risen indeed.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Before the Cross

"Christ the Good Shepherd."
3rd - 4th century A.D.
(Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is extremely difficult for modern Christians to imagine life without the image of the cross. It is so much a part of our thought and being that its absence would be a massive jolt. Not only is it central to our theology, but the image of the cross has been spread into unlikely places like fashion and national branding. It no longer surprises anyone to see it apart from the Church or even connected to its enemies. Yet the image of the cross was not widely used in the early Church – if it was used at all.

Displaying the cross for early Christians would be very much akin to us using images of an electric chair or a gas chamber. It would be inappropriate. It would be scandalous. The question must then be asked: What images DID the early Church embrace?

The idea that the good, pious people of the Church never had “graven” images is just silly. No one overreacted to the Law in such manner – that idea came much later when folks decided they probably should have scruples and insulated themselves from breaking commandments.

Beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem, the decorative arts played a large role among the Israelites. One need only look at early Jewish manuscripts to see the opulence given to sacred writings. And, yes, they used images beyond flowers and pomegranates.

But Jerusalem was not a sealed vacuum when Jesus Christ began His ministry. The Romans were in control. There were also subtle influences from other cultures that brushed up against Israel. Indeed, Israel had been force-fed a nasty diet of Babylonian culture, which probably filtered down through the generations. And Rome borrowed much from Greece. This cultural cocktail had influence on at least one of the earliest Christian images – The Good Shepherd.

One of Israel’s great heroes was King David and, although he was most often depicted regally, his roots as a faithful shepherd were equally lauded. Given the sins of his life, it was also natural to prefer thoughts the of future king as an unadulterated youth among gentle sheep.
"Hermes Kriophoros" Roman copy.
(Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, Rome)

However, the Jewish nation was not the only one familiar with shepherds. Sheep were pretty much a part of the landscape wherever one went, including the Apennine Peninsula. The mythology of Rome – and Greece, by extension – included gods to suit every interest under the sun. Hermes Kriophoros (“Ram-bearer”) was a figure that commemorated a sacrificial event in Greek mythology. It didn’t have anything to do with shepherding, but the pose of the image, especially in Roman copies, is eerily familiar to our modern eyes.

While the disparate Judaic and mythological figures had no influence on the Christian idea of The Good Shepherd, their similar images alone retained a high degree of familiarity, which can be influence enough.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of outside influence is the fact that the earliest images of The Good Shepherd do not show a bearded shepherd. They are not renderings of Jesus. The figure is always a young shepherd – not a young carpenter. They rarely sport halos. In fact, the only indication that these are symbols of Christ Jesus is the context of their location. It would be many years later that a tri-radiant nimbus was added to images of The Good Shepherd, indicating that He is a Person of the Holy Trinity.