Friday, February 21, 2020

The Ill-Matched Couple

"The Ill-Matched Couple."
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1520-22.
(Hungarian National Museum, Budapest)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Among the stranger things the Northern Renaissance produced are paintings on the theme of the ill-matched couple. They show up in different areas of Europe, and several are in the portfolio of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

They were slightly-humorous, morality lessons on marriage. They must have been a bit uncomfortable to look at back in the day. They still are. They typically show an old, ugly man with a young, handsome woman, but the roles are sometimes reversed, as in our example. Usually, there is also a money bag hidden somewhere in plain sight. The image was a Renaissance reminder to beware of gold-diggers, and to be careful of that love-is-blind thing. The prospect was – and still is – ugly on many levels.

For the moment, let us ignore all that and use the ill-matched couple for a completely different purpose. We are now in Gesimatide, and it’s a good time to give ourselves a reality check.

I have for various reasons avoided tackling the artistic concept of the Bride of Christ. There seems to be too many facets and too much grandeur to even ponder the subject. It’s sort of like painting heaven – pardon the irony, but where in the world does one begin? The words with which the Lord describes the beauty of the Church defy illustrating. There are not canvasses large enough. Or white enough. Or pure enough.

Those words of Holy Scripture, however, are written through the eyes of God; they show Divine Love, and they show what is seen through the lens of Christ’s cross and resurrection. There is plenty of artwork out there that attempts to depict this for human eyes. The bride is always a blushing beauty seemingly pulled out of a Miss America pageant. Her train is long. The smiles are big. There are wispy clouds and perfection. And there is something totally schmaltzy and uncomfortable about all those images.
Modern depiction of the Bride of Christ.

Let’s be real. Gesimatide and Lent have little to do with comfort. While we, as saints, should feel giddy about the prospect of collectively being Christ’s Bride, we should also admit that we aren’t exactly the greatest catch. “What does He see in HER?,” might ring in our ears. The name “Gomer” fits. The Ill-Matched Couple-thing fits. This facet of the Bride is often ignored, but there simply isn’t enough lipstick in the world for us Goyim swine to cover our sin and change our ugly snouts. We couldn’t, by ourselves, don righteousness. We sat naked in an antechamber, holding a bouquet of rotting vegetation, helplessly crying, “Lord have mercy!”

But that is not where this Divine Hallmark story ends.

Thanks be to God, Christ paid for a complete makeover with His death and resurrection. In Holy Baptism, Christ Himself clothed us with His perfect righteousness. He sees the Church as His Radiant Bride. The anticipation of that heavenly wedding banquet, the Divine Love that is already ours, and the prospect of being the Trophy Bride of God Himself is enough to sustain us as we slowly, sometimes agonizingly, half-step the long wedding march this side of Heaven.




Friday, February 14, 2020

Beating Around The [Burning] Bush

The original drawing of Goliath, left, and how it later appeared for publication.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The pendulum may seem to be swinging in the opposite direction from last week’s post, but that really isn't the case. The word “catholic” was thrown around in my previous post, in both the universal and Roman sense. Today the focus is on, hmm, less confessional pieces of art one might find in the church and home.

We might as well start with a sofa-full of “Believe” pillows and offend half the planet in the process. One can find these in just about any home decor department, but they always beg the question, “Believe what?” We could continue with shabby chic wall hangings declaring “Faith. Hope. Love.” or “Family. Friends. Flatulence.,” but I don’t want to lose any more readers at this point.

The fact is: Some church denominations avoid confessional art, and they do it on purpose. This avoidance of imagery is intended to skirt around having graven images. Granted, there isn’t much wrong with having faith, hope, and love in the home, but it does point to a symptom of something far more important when, instead of simple fondness, there is insistence behind the decision.

This is a far more subtle issue, however, than slapping a gem-encrusted crown on the Mother of our Lord and taking issue with it.

Decades ago I was asked to illustrate a reprint of “The First Rainbow,” by John Calvin Reid (Eerdmans, 1991). (Yes, I know: The Author should have been the only necessary clue.) It was an opportunity for me to use my untried illustration skills on a large project with a focus that, in theory at least, was right down my alley.

Things were going swimmingly-well until Goliath came along. I had a blast illustrating the Biblical antagonist. but then was informed that a change was needed in the drawing. I could not figure out what might be wrong with the image, but finally was told that it was a skull in the margin of the illustration – it had to go. I got really confused. Surely, I thought, the publisher had a skull in his head. Surely, the author had one... okay, I did doubt that one a little. The powers that be thought the skull looked “demonic,” at which point I got really, really confused.

The publisher did not want to offend, and THAT pointed to a symptom of something terribly wrong. Scripture clearly indicates that Goliath defied the Lord; that he was therefore indeed demonic. Withholding the truth of the Word for the sake of offense is heresy, plain and simple. This odd unwillingness to fully confess the truth of God’s Word often shows itself in what is NOT seen in many sanctuaries.
"Dirk Willems Rescuing His Antagonist," an etching
from the 1685 edition of "Martyrs Mirror."

I once met a Mennonite gentleman at an art show and our conversation immediately turned to sacred imagery. While he was very accepting of my observations and opinions on what constitutes good confessional art, he eventually revealed his most inspiring image – an engraving of Dirk Willems rescuing his antagonist.

The image, I am sure, is unknown outside of Anabaptist circles, as is Dirk Willems. The engraving shows an incident in which Dirk Willems, while being pursued across a frozen pond, turns back to rescue his foe, who had fallen through the ice. Willems was later recaptured and eventually martyred. While being historically important to Mennonites, I was told the event is also an allegory to what Christ did for us.

The problem with allegory, however, is that it often avoids the greater truth behind it. In this case, it beats around the Divine bush. It is far better to cut to the chase and depict Christ Jesus in the act of rescuing us, than to extract inspiration from a lesser allegory of someone feebly attempting the same and eventually failing.





Friday, February 7, 2020

Too Catholic?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

At least three times within the span of a month, the question was asked of artwork: “Is it too Catholic?,” and here I am, sitting in front of a project that contains the Latin text, “... ecclesiam catholicam...”

Whether it is an in-grown Lutheran fear, angst against Papal idiocracy, or simply an attempt to get a handle on the unknown, being “too Catholic” is a recurring question, especially where art is concerned; especially in the Lutheran Church. Typically, this would be addressed during an adult Bible study, or in a pastoral e-mail string. Being a producer of such images, however, brings the oft-needed opportunity to explain a few things.

In a recent interview for LCEF’s “Interest Time” magazine, I was asked, “[What] makes a piece of art distinctly Lutheran?” Of course I started with a Smart Alec response of “When it has enough Luther’s Seals,” but then I got serious. Sacred art confesses a great deal [to church visitors], and it does so long before any parishioner opens their mouth.

Good Lutheran art does not simply ride a comfy path between Roman Catholicism and American Evangelicalism – it clings to Holy Scripture while redressing the errors of other denominations. Thus, we show a crucified Christ – for that is what we preach – and we care not if Evangelicals get squeamish. We also keep elaborate crowns off of Mary’s head, refusing her preeminence, and we care not if Rome takes offense.

A great deal of Lutheran artistic purpose clings mightily to the Church Catholic – the whole Christian Church on earth – and not the Roman Catholic Church. The terms are not synonymous, but are always a point of confusion. Luther never wanted to relinquish the word “catholic,” and neither should we.

Things can get sticky, however, when folks take certain images as an indication that we are somehow realigning ourselves with Rome. Crucifixes – crosses holding depictions of the dead [or dying] Christ – are often seen as the crux of the problem. If I got a nickle every time someone chimed, “Can’t we just get past the cross?,” I would be a wealthy man. But we will certainly be spiritually bankrupt the minute we sanitize the very blood that bought us. So we remind our stupid, forgetful selves of the cost of our salvation with an image of our Lord on the cross. No, we don’t re-crucify Him every Sunday. Instead, we confess Christ crucified and we daily kill the Old Adam.

Of course, that catholic-thing rears itself in other ways. Images of saints bearing halos, too many Biblical images in the sanctuary [however many THAT might be!], beautiful vestments, and using Latin [gasp!] seem for many to be too far off the Lutheran reservation.

To this layman, however, Latin rocks. Phrases like “Te Deum” and “Agnus Dei” and “Magnificat” uplift me, even without the benefit of being a linguist. A current Ecclesiastical Sewing project on which I am working is rich in this ancient language, while confessing the “credo” of the Church Catholic. The ‘Apostles project’ will have, in part, a gorgeous, vintage set of Apostle’s symbols interwoven with the Apostles Creed. It will be augmented by yet more designs of my own hand, making it arguably the most comprehensive collection the vestment manufacturer will offer.

The ancient symbols and old language and deliberate richness of the set will, in themselves, remind us that we are not islands of rightly-preached theology; that the train of redeemed saints extends backward into time immemorial and forward to the ranks of those who will, in time, believe. This is true Christian Church; the Church Catholic; the “Ecclesiam Catholicam.”




Friday, January 24, 2020

Little Boxes All In A Row

The poplar sides roughed out.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

To be fair, the first one was not little. In a spur of the moment decision, I blurted out that I wanted to make my Dad’s casket. Perhaps it was my way of grieving. Maybe it was one last project of which I thought my Dad would be proud.

At any rate, I tackled a woodworking project with little to go on except the inner dimensions of a vault and the outer dimensions of a casket liner insert. That first box had to be strong enough to hold an adult and, with my heavy-handed building skills in mind, it had to be light enough to be carried by [only] six men. And, pardon the pun, there was a deadline.

Armed with lack of sleep, I shopped for lumber while store employees were hyping it up with their morning pep rally. They had no clue that their first customer was grieving and was about to begin the somber task of building a box for a man.

Fast forward a few years. There was a still-born death in the family of a friend, and the grandparents of the child were distraught over the fate of the body. Would a shoebox suffice? Was that irreverent? Was it even legal? I stepped forward and offered to build a small casket. That casket would serve as a model for successive boxes – I just didn’t expect the next one to be for my own grandchild. And then another.
The roughed out top and bottom fitted to the sides.

Creating these little treasure boxes – for that is what caskets and vaults are – is an act of caring of the most intimate kind. While working on them, I run my hand over the unfinished wood, knowing that it will touch the body of a fellow redeemed. I consider the box joints, knowing that the tiny joints of that infant were considered by the Lord while it was still growing in the womb. I look at the finish, and wonder if a thing so destined for hiding displays the love of a grandfather. For hours on end, this is the path my grieving takes for the least of these, my brethren.

What a stark contrast there is between these little boxes in a row and the bodies of children for which no boxes are made; for which no grieving is given; for which convenience is bartered for a life. Lord have mercy.

Here we could simply cry for the mountains to fall on us, but we do not grieve as others do. Being a peculiar man of a peculiar people, I strongly considered removing the quilted casket liner that I also made, folding it, and placing it back in the box. What a confession is made by simply folding a burial cloth and setting it to one side! We mourn here in time, but we will rejoice there, in eternity, where such cloths will have no use, and where boxes, both large and small, will finally be emptied of their treasures – including little Matthias John.

The finished casket. The poplar box is black-stained poplar. The cross is hand-rubbed ribbon sapele. The five brass, cap nuts
represent the five wounds of Christ. Four of them cap threaded rods passing through the box sides, holding the lid in place.




Friday, January 17, 2020

Apostolic Symbols: The Sharpest Tools In The Shed

One of several symbols
for St. Bartholomew

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Let me preface this post by conceding the Apostles probably didn’t have a cushy life. I doubt any of them considered legal action when they were slandered. Or when they were thrown out of the synagogue. Or worse. Being given the title of “Sent one” in Jesus’ time meant that you also made Satan’s most-wanted list.

That being said, tradition sometimes gets out of hand, and this is true with the Apostles and their lives. I recently started work on a project for Ecclesiastical Sewing which will be based on the Apostles. My chief source for imagery is “Church Symbolism,” a book by the respected F.R. Webber, who was a Lutheran pastor of considerable artistic skill. His collection of recognizable symbols is well-rounded, and many more symbols not visually included are given mention in the pages.

What becomes clear is that, based on their symbols, the Apostles met some very sorry ends, indeed. Sure, you will see the crossed keys of St. Peter. You might see a rooster symbol for him, too. Then you see an upside down cross, and things get ugly.

One of St. James’ symbols is a sword. One of St. Philip’s symbols is a spear. St. Bartholomew has a scimitar – and flaying knives. St. Thomas has a carpenter’s square, but there is also a spear and a quiver of arrows. St. James the Less has a fuller’s bat (I had to look that one up, too), some stones, and a saw. Not to be outdone, St. Simon has a saw, a boat hook, a couple of oars, and a halberd. St. Matthias overkills things with a glaive, a battle ax, a spear, a sword, and some rocks. Overkill, indeed.

This unwieldy collection of sharp tools and weapons points to a rather convoluted history of the blessed Apostles. I was always under the impression that they were all martyred, save John. This view is probably the most popular, but by far the most unlikely. The apostolic symbols point to a collection of rather unreliable histories, legends, and hearsay. “Histories” were based on sometimes-dubious stories handed down through an oral tradition akin to a bad game of telephone. One might also surmise that some stories were invented to enhance the devotion of a given Apostle. No one, after all, wants to venerate a saint who dropped dead from high cholesterol. There is no symbol for that.

Hence, some histories relate that an apostle was thrown from a parapet, then stoned, then, after reviving, was run through with a spear, and finally was sawn in two for good measure.

In fact, Holy Scripture does not mention how most of the apostles met their ends. Only James the Greater is spoken of in the opening verses of Acts 12. Although counted with the original apostles, we simply won’t talk of Judas Iscariot.

Interestingly, the early Church recognized only Peter, Paul, and James the Greater as being martyred apostles. Perhaps even more interesting, some theologians place John the Baptist among the martyred apostles.

We needn’t get squeamish, however, if we spy a sinister saw in a stain-glassed window that commemorates an apostle. Inaccuracy has morphed, over the years, into identifying symbols for some of the most beloved saints in Scripture. And while Scripture itself may describe them as being "not many wise," yet the Church has counted them among the sharpest tools in the shed.




Friday, January 10, 2020

Birds and Bees and Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Settle down, this post isn’t about THAT. It does concern what happens when creation and The Creator come together in one place.

Yesterday I finished “blocking-in” a series of four paintings destined for a chapel in Wausau, Wisconsin. The panels are now entirely covered with paint, but are far from finished. It is the second piece on which I’ve worked that features a large chunk of wildlife. The former was my first major sacred piece, which hangs in the sanctuary of my own church, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

That first piece, “The Te Deum Polyptych” takes the phrase, “We praise Thee O God,” and runs with it – or gallops with it. The ancient hymn begins with the overarching theme of praise, at which point I painted a representation of saints and angels and, yes, assorted animals. They run the gamut from resplendent and Kosher to smelly and unclean. There are bison and bugs (yes, a praying mantis) and even the odd molecule. They all face the Creator and praise the Word that spoke them into existence.

The newest piece, for Zion Lutheran Church, might be something akin to an tableau from an old museum of natural history. It gives a strong nod to the native flora and fauna of Wisconsin, and is intended to act as a set of windows overlooking Wausau's beloved mountain. There are sandhill cranes and loons, muskie and whitetail deer, sumac and trillium, and even a trilobite – the state fossil.

This could have easily gotten out of hand in a fluffy tribute to all things furry. Instead, the frames of the paintings will rein in the wildlife with excerpts from the Venite. A trilobite, for example, might seem to brush awfully close to the knucklehead Darwin, but it’s presence changes entirely when coupled with “In His hand are the depths of the earth.”

Every creature in the piece looks toward the Zion Altarpiece, an earlier work of mine. The last panel of the piece, however, takes an unexpected turn with the presence of an African lion. Obviously, that type of lion isn’t native to Wisconsin, but this one lays down with the Lamb, in reference to Isaiah 11. The passage also mentions a cow, which flanks the lion. And yes, if you must know, the cow is appropriately a milk-producing Holstein – for all you die-hard cheeseheads,




Friday, January 3, 2020

2020: What’s Coming on the Horizon

Page spread from Kloria Publishing's "Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice," to be released in April, 2020


Copyright © Edward Riojas

Okay, folks, you’ve had your break from the Art Curmudgeon, but the fun is over and it’s time to get serious.

My absence was due to a perfect storm composed of a post-Thanksgiving Day rush on print orders, an intense, “little,” art promotion that benefited a worthy cause, and a crappy cold that netted an antibiotic regimen. All of that is now in the past – except for the antibiotics.

We are now in a new year with a new bundle of possibilities and hopes. However, before we get all weird and begin dropping stupid puns like “Having 20/20 vision,” let’s be a bit more cautious and bring the Lord along with us into the New Year. I don’t want to say I will do thus and so, only to be divinely rebuked with, “You fool!” Our plans are always integral with what the Lord has in store, so if He wants to take me sooner than later, then a few projects will obviously be left for others to complete. That’s just the way it is.

As long as I am able, however, the ever-evolving project roster will cause me to stay focused, and I will continue to crank out pieces this side of heaven. So here is what’s going on:

I am currently working on a series of four paintings for a repeat client. The piece, based on the Venite, will hang in the chapel at Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, and will play a secondary role to the Zion Altarpiece, which I also created for the chapel.

I’m also working on a secular entry for ArtPrize. The now-biennial event gave me a much needed rest last year, but it’s hard to stay away from such a competition when it’s in my own back yard, and this fall the event returns in all its tarnished glory.

If you were paying attention a few weeks ago, Kloria Publishing gave a soft reveal of a book, "Dear Christians, One And All Rejoice," that is slated for an April release. I finished the project nearly a year ago. Besides Kloria’s book release, I will concurrently release several new prints based on the illustrations.

Even though I have started to decline some book projects – my sincere apologies to those affected – I will be working on a few assorted publications that have either been languishing on back-burners or are from repeat clients. I don’t feel I can drop book titles just yet, but I’ve been collaborating with Rev. Michael Holmen, Rev. Evan Scamman, and Rev. Tyrel Bramwell on diverse projects.

I’ve also been working with Rev. Nathan Sherrill and Rev. Timothy Frank on music publications for the fledgling David’s Harp RSO, and illustrations for a third book are in progress. On a side note, I’ve been enlisted in an artistic advisory role with David’s Harp, which may well expand my involvement beyond illustrator.

I will also continue to collaborate with Carrie Roberts of Ecclesiastical Sewing. My hand will be seen in certain large “sets” of paraments/vestments, and I will occasionally work on custom designs for some of her clients.

There are also several large projects looming in various stages of approval from clients and prospective clients. These come from far-flung corners of Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and various parts of Texas. I am also being kept in the loop on developments in Sri Lanka.

Not one to allow my mind to go slack, I also have two or three non-commissioned projects in mind for completion this year. As if I need something to do.

None of this is being mentioned in order to toot my own horn. Rather, it is a wake-up call to the mountain of work that is staring me in the face. There is much to do and little time to waste, which brings me to the harsh reality: It’s time to wrap up this post and get to work.