Friday, March 24, 2017

Take a Little Journey with Me

Copyright © Edward Riojas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

Little Things in Life

Copyright © Edward Riojas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Zion Altarpiece: A Work in Progress

Detail from "The Zion Altarpiece" [in progress]. Edward Riojas. 2017.
Copyright © Edward Riojas. No images shown may be reproduced for any reason.

For a change of pace, I decided to allow a little sneak peek into a project on which I have been working. The project probably began years ago, but work intensified this past year when the cabinet components for a "small" altarpiece took shape. This winter was spent painting its panels. Even though there is still much to do on the piece, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The altarpiece is being created for the chapel of Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. For being such a compact piece, there is much more to it than first meets the eye. It has four doors. Each door has a painting on either side, and each door hides an image behind it. In all, there are 11 panels. Those panels contain approximately 65 figures.

There are four general scenes contained in the altarpiece, and each is revealed in turn during specific days of the church year. For most of the year, the crucifixion of Christ is visible. On Palm Sunday, the outer doors are opened to reveal Christ's entry into Jerusalem and Christ washing the disciples' feet. On Easter, the central doors are opened, hiding the crucifixion and revealing the Resurrection of Christ and a view of the heavenly host in worship.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Colors Confess

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Why did you paint Him that color?” The question seemed a little out of place at first, then innocent. In the end, however, the question reminded me of the importance of color choices – especially for the sacred artist.

Colors play a large role in the Church Year. They identify seasons, and give context in worship. Penitential violet, joyous white, Spiritual red, life-giving green, and mournful black help us understand, at a glance, the focus of the Gospel readings. There are a couple of other colors that appear throughout the Church Year – Kingly blue and, occasionally, joyful rose. Or pink. Or watermelon. Whatever.
Detail from "Parables of the Vineyard"
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Collection of the artist)
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced for
any reason.

But there are colors that carry much more theological weight than rose or violet, which brings us back to that initial question. The query was directed at an image of Jesus Christ on the cross.

I have a tendency to paint the dead Christ in grayed-over tones of bluish-green. His lips lean toward white. His fingers and toes edge toward black. It is intentionally ugly, to the point of being anatomically over-played.

The visual point – circled and underscored and highlighted in red – is that Jesus Christ was, indeed, dead on that cross. Another viewer once rhetorically asked, “Can’t we just get beyond [the crucifixion]?” The simple answer is: No, we cannot. We dare not.

Glossing over the physical death of Christ not only plasticizes His death and minimizes the effects of our sin, but also throws us squarely into the pit alongside heretical proponents of Sabellianism, Docetism and other -isms. Those heresies taught Christ was basically not human and, therefore, could not die.

But die He did. Christ’s death was the sacrifice for sins of the whole world, and I am bound to painting Him thus – with the colors of death.

On the opposite side of the grave, a livelier palette comes out. It becomes a matter of anatomy, really. Blood vessels are abundant in the human face, especially in the areas of the nose, ears and lips. One need only get a head wound to understand as much. The hands – especially the backs of the hands – are loaded with arteries. It may seem a no-brainer, then, that the Risen Christ be shown with more reds in those areas. His eyes should gleam and not be dull and unseeing.

In painting the Christ this way – with “rich wounds yet visible,” but full of life – the Sadducees, who did not believe in the Resurrection of the flesh, are put to shame and silenced. So is everything else outside of Christendom. Jesus Christ lives. There is no questioning it. And because He lives, we, too, will rise.

Friday, February 24, 2017

What’s in the Junk Drawer of Christendom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’m serious. Soon it will be confirmation season, followed by graduation season and then ordination season. I could shamelessly point all you gift-giving folks toward my giclee prints and original pieces, but let’s put that aside. For now.

Once in a while it’s nice to open the junk drawer of Christendom to see all the crap contained therein. Please don’t get any ideas, or ask where you might obtain such treasures. If you’re that hell-bent on such purgatorial trash, then you’ll have to roam the back alleys of questionable taste all by your lonesome. Once you've done that, feel free to enter gift-giving at your own risk.

For starters, I COULD have mentioned a certain musical bottle opener that supposedly commemorates a certain 500th anniversary, but I won’t. Instead, I offer a much worse option – The “Sacrament Bottle Opener.” They could have saved themselves some trouble and simply imprinted the thing with the word “Heresy.” Beyond that, I don’t even want to know.

Here’s what happens when pea-wits start using the creative side of their heads. I will try my hardest to put the best construction on the idea and assume it horribly came to life when someone mentioned “confession” and another heard “confection.” The result is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s hard to go wrong with a wooden cross, but manufacturers are proving me otherwise. This is meant to be completely ergonomic. It is meant to be held in one's hand during fervent prayer. It is meant to be chucked in the garbage. Unless you are planning on using it for an ice scraper or a throwing star, I would opt for something that actually looks like a cross.

Speaking of wooden crosses, don’t do this. Don’t go take a clunky bunch of mesquite, attach a [lucky] horse shoe to it with baling wire and call it a cross. This one comes with the optional belly button. Or maybe it’s a doorbell to heaven. If you’re that much into Western stuff, just go buy a belt buckle.

Coffee mugs are nice, but ... fail.

Here’s what everyone wants to unwrap: A claw hammer with a Bible verse on it. How long do you think it will take folks to discover you really CAN’T do all things? Well, at least on the construction side of things? Oh, sure, you’ll call on the Name of the Lord when you hit your thumb for the umpteenth time, but that’s an entirely different matter.

Finally, here’s what not to get anyone. Ever. Jesus isn’t anyone’s coach, so just knock it off. Jesus is the Christ. And while we’re at it, don’t demote Almighty God to your stinkin’ Co-pilot or Buddy or any other inane title. I’m serious.

Friday, February 17, 2017

“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”

“The Fight Between Carnival and Lent”
Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 1559. (Museum of Art History, Vienna)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Pieter Bruegel the Elder pretty much nailed it on the head.

I have always loved the artist’s use of rich, earth colors – especially his reds. Bruegel’s penchant for focusing on the rusticated life of country folk usually brings out an attractive warmth in the genre, but this image takes a step toward symbolism that leaves the viewer extremely uncomfortable.

In spite of a mass of evenly distributed figures, there is polarity in the painting. On the left is an inn, around which hover revelers. On the right is a church, from which issues alms-giving penitents.

Front and center in the composition is a portly, bacchanal figure astride a large barrel. He is the embodiment of Carnival, with all its wanton vices. Facing him is “Lady Lent” – gaunt, and miserable, and nearly as ridiculous as her festive counterpart.

In the shadowy interior of the church, shrouded statues of saints – common Lenten practice for the time – occupy high places on the walls. Meanwhile, a crucifix rests on a cushion on the floor.

This painting is simply unnerving. One needn’t dig into the mountain of symbolism it contains to immediately understand it’s point. The pull between the Old Adam and the New is a massive struggle. The artist has nearly given us a hideous shopping list of the foolishness of man. But Carnival isn’t necessary. Humankind doesn’t need to invent things for which to be later penitent – sin will always revel this side of heaven, even without our trying.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cranach, on the Other Hand

Copyright © Edward Riojas

His portfolio is jam-packed with some of the best art of the Northern Renaissance. His portraiture of nobility, clergy, and laity is so complete that we can instantly put a face to a historical name. His depictions of saints, martyrs, and events of the Lord’s life stretch to the horizon. Even the Renaissance must-have genre of Classical mythology is given a place. And then there’s Lucretia.

Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop produced an amazing amount of artwork, but the most-frequently painted secular subject is that of Lucretia. The Cranach Digital Archive has cataloged dozens of versions of the woman’s image.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1520-40
(State gallery in Johannisburg Castle,
Aschaffenburg, Germany)

We could scoff at those pieces as being unsuitable fodder for such a sacred artist, but it is difficult for the modern eye to look at Cranach’s world without Renaissance glasses. Society was not as much concerned with expanding its knowledge of all things as it was enthralled with all things Classical. That meant anything culturally-connected with ancient Greece and Rome, including the more stupid parts – mythological stories. But Lucretia was not a mythological figure.

The woman was a real person that lived during the waning days of the Roman Kingdom. Because of variations of her account, Lucretia has been categorized as “legendary.” Apparently, that’s a notch or two above “mythological.” Still, the core of her story fits with the course of history.

Lucretia was blackmailed by the son of the last Etruscan King, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and consequently raped. The woman, having a conscience and principles higher than the Imperial standard, told the King of the deed in the presence of witnesses, and promptly committed suicide. That was c. 508 BC.

Her actions set in motion a rapid demise of the kings and their tyrannical line in favor of a Republican Rome. In spite of her suicide, Lucretia was afterward seen as an example of noble character and virtuosity. This carried over into the Renaissance view of women in a strange duality of seductive temptress – which was actually aimed at the foolishness of men – and virtuous heroine.

But there might be another reason for the popularity of Lucretia in the Germanic lands of the 1500s. Her heroic act of defying a kingdom, not for personal gain but for what was right and just, certainly resonated with those chafing under the yoke of a very different Roman rule. Of the nearly 50 known versions of Lucretia painted in Cranach’s workshop, only three have been confirmed as being painted before Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church.