Friday, October 13, 2017

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross, until one starts digging into its history. What originally was a symbol of a gruesome Roman death eventually became something so diverse in design that it spilled over into the secular realm. The earliest forms of crosses – tau, anchor, and Latin varieties – were soon joined by Greek and Orthodox versions. Variety, of course, is the spice of life, even in a symbol of death. Renaissance coats-of-arms were emblazoned with enough variations that heraldic words were employed to describe them. Terms like “fitchy” and “pattée” and “cercelée” were employed to define the different forms. Leave it to the French to have a different word for everything.
Horse chamfron engraved
with the Smalcaldic motto

One variation that you might notice more recently is a Greek version (of four equal “arms”) with the letters V,D,M, and A in each of the angles. This particular cross is distinctly Lutheran in origin. Martin Luther, however, probably had little, if anything, to do with its inception. Perhaps he had other fish to fry.

The VDMA cross first appeared in the court of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony – also known as Frederick the Wise – who had it emblazoned on the sleaves of his court officials and servants. Luther most certainly saw the cross, because Frederick the Wise was one of the Reformer’s staunchest allies.

The device became a sort of informal banner around which the Smalcaldic League rallied. A loose confederation of German princes with the common enemy of papal intervention, the group took its name from the town of Schmalkalden. Originally, the group’s emphasis was theologically-based, but later it became militaristic, and the league antagonized the Holy Roman Emperor and his plan to thwart Lutheranism.
Cross designed by the author.
Copyright © Ecclesiastical Sewing

The League’s cross became emblazoned on armor, weaponry and foot soldiers’ tunics. Eventually, the expanded version of those abbreviated letters went beyond swords of war and horses’ chamfrons and onto coins and architectural details – some of which are still visible today.

The VDMA cross still has staying power. Its military connection has faded into history, but the theological significance is perhaps greater than ever. In this 500th year of the Reformation, we can still claim the motto, “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum,” as our own. In a world in which the Church is still assaulted by powers of earth and hell, and in which lives of the Faithful are spent like so much grass, we yet join in proclaiming Peter’s inspired words, “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

ArtPrize 2017: The Cause Effect

Detail of martyr names and rape victim names from the floor in front of "Ambrei as Potamiaena."

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize 2017 is almost over, but there is plenty of reason to dwell on at least one aspect of the event – what happens when causes are taken up by artists. In a world where “Art for art’s sake” was once a catchword, it sometimes comes as a slight annoyance when artists shout their art atop a soapbox.

There are causes seemingly everywhere in the ArtPrize landscape. Topics ranging from equality to environmental responsibility to unjustified violence always pop up, and this year’s entries were no exception.

But there is a range of inherent hazards in the pursuit of awareness and causes and agendas.

Take the piece that hung next to mine during the event. The massive conglomeration of Chihuly-like plastic bottle florals might bring awareness to the problem of litter, but one wonders how long it will be before the thing itself heads to the dump instead of the closest recycling station; viewers stood in awe of the artist’s ability to deftly turn 200 lbs. of trash ... into 200 lbs. of trash.

Consider, too, the piece that hung on the other side of my piece. The 8 by 18-feet drawing brought to light issues dealing with water quality and availability. But it was done on paper – produced by mills which historically have been among the worst polluters of water.

In similar manner, a humongous image that floated in the Grand River forced us to think of native Americans being forced to contend with oil production in the Dakotas. But the message became mixed when the artist had the image printed on a plasticized material – an oil byproduct. Even the artist admitted the incongruity, leaving the viewer more puzzled.

My own piece, however, contained its own kind of hazard – a heartfelt one for which I was not wholly prepared. “Ambrei as Potamiaena” was essentially about Christian martyrdom, and the reality of clinging to Faith in an evil world. The names of more than 2,000 martyrs through history and across the globe bled down the frame and onto the floor. Because St. Potamiaena eventually became a patron saint of rape victims, I also allowed those who “shared in her suffering” to put their names in a slotted box so I could add them to the mix.

To my knowledge, I have no connections to rape victims, so the first name I found on a folded piece of paper was a jolt. The degree of separation between my cushy world and reality grossly diminished.

Rarely would anyone put a name in the box when the crowds thronged, but piles of names would await me in the quiet mornings, pointing to the lingering stigma of being a victim.

Visitors who stopped and read my artist statement were thankful. Some had tears. Some were young. Some were old. One woman chatted with me at length, thankful that I, a man, was addressing the issue. She was a rape victim and a published author on the subject.

Visitors stopped in silence, as if at a shrine. I tried to keep a noble face all the while – with one notable exception that brought me to my knees and produced tears.

Visitors occasionally asked if they might put in a sister’s name or a daughter’s name or a friends’ name, and I always allowed them. One smiling mother asked if she might put her daughter’s name in, so out of habit I said, “Yes.” She then turned to her daughter – not more than 9- or 10-years-old – and asked, “Honey, would you like to put your name in?” The girl smiled, then carefully spelled out her own name with big, loopy letters, and put it in the box.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Profound Thread in Sacred Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being a commissioned, sacred artist, I am sometimes privy to things otherwise hidden. No, I’m not talking about things mystical, or of private revelations, or voices. I am talking about the back stories of commissions – things sometimes intentionally covered, left undisclosed, or otherwise minimized.

I realize I am sounding mysterious and nebulous, but I am bound to uphold anonymity where it is requested. What I CAN tell the reader is that there is a profound thread that runs through those back stories – one that only becomes visible with experience. For lack of better words, it is a bicolored thread of brokenness and Hope so entwined that it defies unravelling.

The rare commissions are ones that are solely born out of generosity. More often, works of art come to life by the memory of a life cut short, through some deep hurt, or the soiled veil covering this side of heaven. Sometimes, those imperfections are memorialized in the piece itself.

Putting aside images of the crucified and risen Christ, there is one theme that is requested most often – the procession of saints. This is usually, but not always, included in the adoration of The Lamb.

As is typical of our skewed view of classical artwork, we often take these processions of saints the wrong way. Whether because of the richness of dress in which they were portrayed or in the masterful manner in which they were painted, we see them as a crowd of churchly movers and shakers; men and women of high standing; noble lords and ladies of whom we may only deign to aspire. This is not so.

As was depicted in former days is the same now – these are random samplings of whitewashed nobility; the broken; the hurting; those desirous and eager for the return of our Faithful Redeemer. In these processions, we see ourselves and others who share our burdens and faults and sinfulness. We see ourselves in the throng of those whose Hope echoes the desperate question of the disciple, “Lord, to whom shall we go?!”

In every case the Death and Resurrection of our Lord outshines these shadows of multifaceted brokenness with a singular Hope. Without such there would be no point in me completing such commissions. And there would be little to note in the example of a mural realized after the death of its visionary, the example of a Down Syndrome child weekly pondering an image of Jesus surrounded by children, the example of the blind funding an image of the resurrected Christ.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 ArtPrize Piece: “Ambrei as Potamiaena”

Detail of "Ambrei as Potamiaena." Edward Riojas. 2017.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are promises, and then there are promises. Crossing one’s heart does not compare with, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” Neither does a child’s “pinky promise” hold a candle to an adult’s “’till death us do part” variety.

But there is another promise of even greater consequence. Some of us vowed “ suffer all, even death...” Perhaps those words were glibly said as young pre-teens. Perhaps you were an adult when you made that promise.

“P: Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?

R: I do, by the grace of God”

That question and its answer are part of the rite of Confirmation in the Lutheran Church. In spite of the serious tone of that promise, we rarely think the “even death” part will ever come. It’s hard to muster the uglier parts of the imagination while wearing white, smiling at flashing cameras, and knowing there will be cake afterward.

But ugly happens, and it has happened, non-stop, throughout history. Hence, the sober truth of my ArtPrize entry, “Ambrei as Potamiaena.”

Potamiaena was the antithesis of ugly. Little is known of the young woman, but the early Church historian, Eusebius, tells us she was extremely beautiful. Even more beautifully, she was a Christian. But that was circa 200 A.+D. in Alexandria, and Septimius Severus was inciting persecution against Christians. Potamiaena’s double portion of beauty made her a mark, and all manner of ugly torture was meted out to her. Still, she would not deny the Faith – neither under horrible torture, nor at her gruesome end as a Christian martyr.

As Church heroes go, she is way, way down on the list. To my knowledge, there is no icon of her. Potamiaena doesn’t show up in sacred art. Aside from her becoming a patron saint of rape victims, her name is fairly obscure within the Church.

Chances are that Matthew Ayariga doesn’t show up on your list, either. Neither does Perpetua Hong Kimju. Even the name, Rachel Scott, is probably beginning to fade from memory. These names, however, and the rest of a modest list of martyrs that will cascade down the painting’s frame and bleed onto the floor, are written in the palm of the Lord’s hand – and He remembers them. The names come from different continents and cultures. The list crosses lines of gender and age and notoriety. They are from antiquity and from recent history.
"Ambrei as Potamiaena,"
during final fitting of painting
with frame and base.

In the painting, the figure portraying Potamiaena holds a palm branch – an age-old symbol of martyrdom. Likewise, a garment of white also identifies her as a martyr. Fifteen square yards of fabric were used to wrap the model in a hooded toga – ignoring Potamiaena's soiled, short life, and pointing to a greater, everlasting one. Perhaps most significantly, her feet and palm frond do not touch the ground.

When I was taking photos of the model, Ambrei, for the painting, I remember pausing to ask her if she was smiling. I did not, after all, think a smile appropriate for the subject of martyrdom. Ambrei assured me she was not smiling. I shot photos of other poses, including the much-used noble attitude of looking upward to the light, but I kept coming back to the original pose.

The notion that this young woman does not avert her gaze, but matter-of-factly addresses the viewer with innocence and honesty, took hold and gave direction to the painting. Ambrei’s gaze drills into the viewer. In photographic parlance, she “ate the camera.”

I doubt that Potamiaena ever made the same promise that some of us made – she simply let her "Yes" be "Yes," and her "No" be "No." Her words – whatever they were – carried no less honor and yielded the highest sacrifice.

With Ambrei portraying Potamiaena, it is almost as if she is asking the question of us; as does the noble army of martyrs; as does Christ Himself: “Do you intend to continue steadfast...?”

It is only by the Grace of God that one can respond, “I do.”


"Ambrei as Potamiaena" will be hosted during ArtPrize by DeVos Place Convention Center, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, Mich. The piece is located at the south end of the building. ArtPrize begins Sept. 20, and runs through Oct. 8.

Friday, September 8, 2017

ArtPrize From Both Sides of the Brain

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I realize that not everyone who visits this blog can visit ArtPrize. The art competition that grew up in my backyard is quite unlike any other – whether in the U.S. or any other part of the world. Being a relative newcomer to the global art scene, ArtPrize suffers from growing pains, but already this thing is a giant.

Once upon a time, I created graphics for a local newspaper group, and ArtPrize was my baby. There were times when my interpretations of raw data gave me insights into the event that even ArtPrize staff didn't have. What follows is a brief visual exploration of ArtPrize, ala Riojas style, that gives a hint at the scope of what is still an unknown event to many Americans. For a deeper explanation of ArtPrize, you can read a post from the Art Curmudgeon archives.

Numbers can be boring to artists, so I've superimposed Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" over the history of artist/venue participation to give you a better impression. (See what I did there?)

The slightly-convoluted ArtPrize prize purse evolved when elitists complained about trends in the original public vote, so the event is now bi-polar, with elitist jurors carrying as much weight as the pedestrian public. Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" questions both sides and their respective ideas of "fine" art.

The size of the ArtPrize purse means nothing unless it is compared with other globally-respected art prizes. How appropriate that Gilbert Stuart's unfinished "George Washington" (yes, the one used on U.S. currency) supports the data.

The original boundaries held us captive with more than enough art. Then special interests and deep pockets got in the way. The politics of art can be worse than, um, politics.

Source for all graphics: and The Art Curmudgeon research.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Archaeology of an Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It wasn’t exactly a Velociraptor tooth, but I knew I was on to something.

I recently deconstructed an old altarpiece and, in doing so, reconstructed a bit of history. It began months ago, when I agreed to take a dusty, old altarpiece and its companion Baptismal font from a parsonage basement, thus saving the sanctuary “furniture” from certain demise in a county landfill. In exchange, I also agreed to clean and reframe the central painting, and give it back to the church. While not very attractive to me, the painting of a Resurrected Christ held enough historical significance for the congregation to warrant preservation.
Back of the altarpiece's central section.

Thus I began to ponder the filthy altarpiece, and how best to take it apart. Feel free to imagine me with pick and shovel, dental tools, and a horsehair brush. Okay, so I had a pry bar and a hammer.

I first looked at the back – the mostly-likely entry point for the Gothic-arched canvas. A horrible make-over job, probably of 1920s or ‘30’s vintage, left its scars. I mean, who would want to brush over stained wood with cream-colored paint? Is wasn’t a very careful job, either. Paint dripped off the Gothic details and down the inaccessible back. A large wooden panel covered most of the back, but, curiously, two different sets of nails weren’t enough to keep it against the frame – something held the panel away so that the nail shafts were visible.

Things became more clear when I started prying the large panel away. It was nicely “glued-up” lumber, and its hidden surface, facing the back of the painting, was stained and varnished. My original hunch that the painting was not original proved true. The large panel holding the painting in place was actually intended to be visible within the Gothic frame. A few small holes hinted that a small crucifix was probably mounted centrally on the panel.
With the back panel off and canvas exposed.

There was also an odd light fixture just above the peak of the arched opening. It was old enough, but it certainly wasn’t original. Frames of this style easily date to the mid- to late-1800s, and electricity was a novelty, at best.

The painting was now accessible with the panel off, but it was in a sorry state. To begin, the canvas was poorly stretched. Its stretcher frame was less than minimal – even when accommodating a Gothic arch. Its construction had been compromised and it no longer even stretched the canvas. It was a wonder the canvas itself was intact.

The stretching job indicated that it was probably done by an artist of middling abilities and less notoriety. Copper nails were not used, and the nails that were used were set at random intervals. The corners were not tidy at all. If the artist himself didn’t treat his work with dignity, neither did time.
Poor condition of the stretched canvas.

The painting surface was covered by countless years of dust and all manner of insect droppings and who knows what else. I know enough about art conservation that important jobs should be left to professional restorers, but I also knew the painting was no Rembrandt. Professional restorers use a combination of restraint, voodoo-like chemistry, patience, and even their own saliva to accomplish things. I opted, instead, on a simple, but decisive approach.

First, I used a clean, soft brush to repeatedly rid the surface of the obvious dust and dirt. I vacuumed the back of the canvas. (Restorers, feel free to pull out your hair.) Then I carefully used purified water and a brush on small areas to clean the oil painting bit deeper. I was sure to wipe any excess water so that it dried quickly.

There came another “Aha!” moment when I addressed the insect droppings. Prodding with a very small chisel revealed that, apparently, the church at that time could not afford a candle snuffer. What I originally thought were droppings were, based on the location and spatter pattern, candle wax. Smoke from candles can be bad enough for sanctuary artwork, but over-zealous blowing of candles does not bode well for artwork just inches away.
Candle wax, paint line, and date

I had been trying to date the altarpiece at every turn and found only carpenter’s markings – that is, until I removed the painting. Not-so-careful painters left a line of cream-colored paint around the edge of the canvas. Paint even partially obscured the signature of the artist, M. Madsen. When the canvas was pulled out of the frame, however, what was hidden by the frame edge came to light – below the artist’s signature was the date, 1908.

A simple timeline can be constructed from my little exercise of removing a sacred painting from its frame. The altarpiece was originally a darkly-stained, wooden affair with Gothic details. A simple cross hung on its large, central panel. That was in the late 1800s. Some time shortly after the turn of the century, Madsen was asked to create a painting of the Resurrection to replace the crucifix and panel. Electricity was available, so a light was added to illuminate the painting. New tastes in decor later dictated the altarpiece be lightened up, and it was given a makeover with cream and gold paint.
In the 1950s, a much nicer altarpiece was purchased and installed in the church, and the old altarpiece was removed to the parsonage basement. It stayed there for 60 years or more.

The upgrading and removal of such things may seem of little consequence. After so many years few people remember. But one elderly woman did. As the altarpiece was being loaded in a rental trailer to make the trip to my house, she told the pastor that she and her husband were the last couple to be married in front of the image of the Risen Christ. For that simple reason alone, the painting is going back to its proper home.

Friday, August 25, 2017

In the Guise of Sacred Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This wasn’t supposed to be a serious post. This was supposed to be another silly entry aimed at getting a few yucks at the expense of bad art. But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to publication: I ran across some very dangerous art in the guise of sacred art.

Before my attention got diverted, I found a very kitschy hooked rug of the Nativity that looked more like amoebic dysentery. Taking the time to create something on which someone might wipe their feet somehow added to the humor. Pretty hilarious. Then I found awful portraits of Jesus holding kitty-cats. And riding dinosaurs. And holding deceased puppy-dogs, over which was slathered an-out-of-context quote by Billy Graham. Yes, each was bad enough to elicit a small snicker.

Then I came across something much worse – schmaltzy, demon-inspired Mormon art. At first I thought it humorous in LOL doses, but then I realized, as in theology, how the slightest turn of a word or a flipped visual can mean the difference between heaven and hell. No, it isn’t so funny.

The problem is that, to the undiscerning eye, the art is acceptable and lovely and heart-warming. But Holy Scripture does not place our emotions in the scales of salvation. Warm and fuzzy does not, and will never, get us to heaven. And any attempts to add to the writings of Holy Scripture, as in the spiritually-bankrupt, hell-produced Book of Mormon, will be a great millstone around the neck of the faithful. Whitewashing over this truth with pretty, sentimental images will, in the end, get extremely ugly, indeed.

So let’s peel away the thin veneer of prettiness in these damned paintings, and see what lurks beneath.

If I only had two examples to show the reader, then I’m sure they would be entitled “Dumb,” and “Dumber,” but this first one is just simply D.U.M.B. I don’t even know where to start on this non-crucified super-human. It’s simply idiotic. It sidesteps the reality of the cross; the crucifixion; the pain; the real humanity of Christ; His suffering; His death, and makes Jesus Christ out to be untouchable and unable and unwilling to bear our sin. The only thing missing is a nifty cape and a cool insignia on His chest. But wait...

Next up is a disturbing, quasi-political, mash-up of faltering, founding fathers from the flop house and Jesus with a cool insignia on His chest. Mormons, one must know, equate Jesus with the tree of life. And they underscore that idea with evidence from [drum roll, please] images of a pre-Columbian god. Nice. Hence, the tree thing. Too bad they ignore the greater tree of the cross. The problem with this trash is that anyone with half a brain would hesitate putting any of those folks definitively on the “good side” of Christ.

And what is Jesus holding in His hand? Yes, that is the U.S. Constitution, which is held by many Mormons to be divinely-inspired. Wrong. The piece has lots of faces from Americana, but where are the Old Testament prophets, the noble army of martyrs? This painting should come with a shovel. And lighter fluid. And a match.

Our next gem is something so disturbing that it should come with a “Viewer Discretion” notice. If you don’t get the overt nod to polygamy, then you are blind. At this point, Mormon art has long since left the tracks and the locomotive is summersaulting through haystacks and corncribs. Jesus’ decided leer; the suggestive flowers; the proximity of the figures all put this mess in a basket destined for Hell. Feel free to gouge out your own eyes after looking at this.

If you aren’t scared yet, then perhaps a totally heretical piece like the Jesus-Jesus painting will give you a wake-up call. This is Jesus, and this is His Father, Jesus. Meet Jesus and Jesus. There are so many versions of this idolatrous piece of crap that it would take countless manure spreaders just to rid humanity of them. Neither are there words enough to underscore the damage done by this sort of Mormon heresy. Frankly, I’d much rather see Jesus hugging a hamster.