Friday, August 18, 2017

Gaudís Post-Mortem Masterpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Cathedrals of centuries past were no simple things to construct. Without the advantage of modern technology found in steel girders, heavy machinery, and composite materials, erecting a façade out of stone often took decades to complete. Throw in political upheavals, fires, and a war or two, and the process could be drawn out to several centuries.

For the architect, obtaining a monumental commission of designing such a façade came with the near-certain guarantee that it would be a life’s work and that others would finish the plans after death. While the Pisa Cathedral [of leaning tower fame] took only 31 years to build, the Cathedral of St. Stephen of Metz in France took 332 years to erect and the Cologne Cathedral in Germany dragged its construction through an agonizing 632 years.

Most modern buildings, by comparison, are erected near the speed of light. The gargantuan, mod-squad Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, for example, took only four years to build.
Less than half of the final 18 spires
of La Sagrada Familia have been
erected thus far.

But then there is Spain, and the haunting genius of Antonio Gaudí. In a throwback to the days of meticulous workmanship, deep pockets, and lack of deadlines, Gaudí’s building is still under construction, but in a style unlike any other. The Basilica of La Sagrada Familia [The Holy Family] is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, even though the style went out of fashion more than 100 years ago. Gaudí was only the second architect commissioned to work on the project. Construction began in 1882 under Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano. Gaudí took over the project a year later, and oversaw work until his death in 1926. Since then, seven different architects have handed off duties. Completion is estimated to be near the year 2028 – 146 years after the basilica’s construction began.

Were it not for Spain’s deep love of her native son, Gaudí, there would not be such devotion to the original genius of the architect’s design. It is difficult to look at the structure and all its detail without wonder and amazement. One must put aside reservations on function and worship, and simply admire the fanciful mind of a man who architecturally ignored the notion of a straight line and wholly embraced the fluidity and essence of Art Nouveau. We should also be thankful that his predecessors did their utmost to preserve Gaudí’s concept.
Detail of the Nativity façade.

If one looks at the façade from afar or glances at a model the completed basilica, it is obvious that it follows the general notion of a large cathedral. Upon closer inspection, however, all similarities dissolve. Eclectic flavors of Baroque flamboyance,  Gothic tracery, and natural forms are combined in a colossal structure wound tightly by whimsy. Yet there are sculptural groupings of Biblical figures that somehow bring the visitor back to the familiar. Other figures, however, go in an altogether different direction, leaving the viewer to expect the unexpected.

Religious preferences aside, I still would find it extremely hard to worship in the space, for all its wonder and fancy. It is simply too much to behold. Perhaps that wonder is, in part, the point of this architectural gem, but Gaudí takes us past the Divine and brushes awfully close to Disneyland. You may wonder, indeed, if there is a ride inside the building, and the answer is: Sort of. Tracks were laid beneath the structure so that the mass transit system can stop at La Sagrada Familia. Adding to other innovations built into the basilica, the tracks will be cushioned so that parishioners will take no notice of movement below the floors.
A view of La Sagrada Familia's 150-feet nave ceiling.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Time To Get Silly

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t think I ever told you about my stuffed giraffe. It’s over here in the... HEY!!!

“The Burning Giraffe” Salvador Dalí. 1937. (Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland)

This is what happens when you trim anatomy classes from your MFA schedule.

Illustrations of monstrous humans from “Cosmographia” Sebastian Münster.
1544. (Private collection of William Favorite)

When I said you could make art out of anything, I didn’t mean Uncle Frank.

Tibetan engraved skull.


When you said you had to do a portrait of a fruit, I thought you meant... Oh, forget what I thought.

“Vertumnus” Giuseppe Arcimboldo. c. 1590.
(Skokloster Castle, Sweden)

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Portion of a colossal head unearthed this past year in Cairo, Egypt.

You said “No” to a cat. You said “No” to a hamster. Did you want a goldfish?
Nooo. You HAD to get a snake.

“The Laocoön Group” Copy after a Hellenistic original from c. 200 BC.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Razing the Roof

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In the Year of our Lord, 1284, the ceiling fell.

In the centuries preceding that year, architects and stonemasons painstakingly pushed the boundaries of what the human mind – and stone – could do. What originally was a simple, cavernous space to mimic a ship and hold throngs of worshipping Christians became an obsession to reach heavenward.
Reconstruction cutaway of Old St. Peter's Basilica,
begun by Emperor Constantine. Circa 360 A.D.

The hodgepodge of house-churches, random, re-purposed buildings, and modest sanctuaries of the early Church took a big turn when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to build Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Apparently, the emperor wanted EVERYONE to go to church. Capable of holding 3,000-4,000 worshippers at a time, the roof peaked at a little over 100 feet. The basilica’s height was necessitated by the girth of the massive building and its gabled roof. It was a mega-church and, yes, it screamed “Empire.”

That was the year 360. There were plenty of centuries afterward to ponder the nave and its size.

By the time the Gothic period strolled into view, the Vatican was getting deep pockets and every major city was antsy to obtain bragging rights for the most beautiful; the most grandiose; the most imposing cathedral in their neck of the woods. Not every city needed to cram in 4,000 worshippers, so attention – and expense – went in a vertical direction.
Choir section of Beauvais Cathedral.

Stained-glass windows had become an important ingredient, and architects understood what happened to the visual space when windows were maximized and supporting elements were minimized – the nave became ethereal and ceased to be of this world. The effect of sunlight playing with wafting smoke of incense and burning candles must have been certainly mesmerizing, and that same light obscured the reality of the nave’s ceiling.

Higher the architects pushed. Without the aid of materials analysis and computer models, advances were based on experience and guess-and-by-golly. Only when catastrophe occurred did ample safety margins reappear, resetting the bar. But still they pushed. It was an obsession, and one cannot but help hear the voices of a very different people who declared, “Let us make a name for ourselves.”

Beauvais Cathedral proved the limit, when, in 1284, the point at which spindly, stone supports could vertically hold a massive roof was passed and its lofty vaults collapsed. Only the choir section of the sanctuary still holds its original height of 157 feet – more than half a football field. The nave proper was never rebuilt.

The Lutheran church I attend is no cathedral. It has no cathedra (the seat upon which a Roman Catholic bishop sits). It was not funded by deep pockets from afar. It offers no bragging rights for the city in which it resides. It does not compare with the facades featured in architectural tomes. In fact, some visitors think it downright ugly.
The chancel area of Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Grand Rapids, Mich.

However, the nave of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., does have one architectural element that puts it head and shoulders above the Beauvais Cathedral. Acting as a sort of baldachin, the roof visually comes DOWN over the altar, illuminating the altar linens with natural light.

What Christ said of “these stones crying out” is true, and the inanimate materials of architecture can, indeed, confess. Our very best striving to reach God is for naught. We build no ladders to heaven, and our “methods” to salvation are doomed to cave in. It is only when the Lord comes down to us; to serve us; to give us His Body and Blood; to forgive us; to wash us from our sins and make us His own; to feed us with His Word, that we gain anything – and everything. This, while in the hold of His ship; His Church.

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Beauty and Catechesis:” A Review

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Rev. Gaven M. Mize is about to show us what Rembrandt has to do with the First Commandment.

In a throwback to the days when our visual appetites were sated alongside our need to read, “Beauty and Catechesis” comes as a refreshing addition to the bookshelf. And what could be a better pairing than Luther’s Small Catechism and works of art by the masters?

Rembrandt’s “Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel” compliments Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment and the author’s expounding on the same. Works by Rubens, Ingres, Masaccio, Bosch, El Greco, da Vinci, and a host of others are also featured, spanning stylistic periods, artistic media, and individual notoriety. But “Beauty and Catechesis” isn’t just another pretty book.

Mize deftly weaves the Catechism into devotion into art lesson. Without explaining beauty or beating to death a philosophical definition of the same that is bound to get ugly, he simply shows beauty through wonderful examples of master works and through the greater beauty of Holy Scripture.

For visual learners, this little book will help instill the words of Luther’s Small Catechism, and breathe meaning into both Luther’s explanations and the featured artwork. “Beauty and Catechesis” is not a book to be memorized, but a book to which the reader will want to return and explore.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Once Upon a Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

If you’ve seen one crucifix, you haven’t seen them all.

One can pretty much guarantee that none of the original disciples saw anything like the gold-plated cross you may be wearing around your neck. To them it would be extremely strange and downright insensitive. The cross did not come into popularity as a Christian symbol until 100 years or so had passed after Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Before then it was an ugly reminder of Roman rule and a reminder of an even uglier death. Add another 200 years or so until the crucifix sporadically appeared with its corpus, or body, of Jesus.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the crucifix took on a life of its own. Variations appeared. Paintings of the crucifixion influenced sculpted crucifixes so that two general forms appeared – the “Cristo vivo” and the “Cristo morto.” The former showed Christ in agony with His head lifted and slightly to the right, as if imploring His Father. Some have suggested that this pose signifies Jesus accepting His Father’s Will, but Scripture pretty much shows that He accepted His Father’s Will in the Garden of Gethsemane
The problem with the Cristo vivo pose is that it isn’t very confessional. Unless there is a tri-radiant nimbus behind the figure’s head, it could be any hapless victim of a Roman execution.

The Cristo morto crucifix is the more prevalent pose, showing a dead Christ. This variation has what its counterpart does not – the wound in the side of Jesus. Not only does it set the figure aside from other criminals in that the proof of death follows Scripture, but the issuance of blood and water – usually evident even in sculptures – also confesses Christ’s role in Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper.

But there is another crucifix variation – the “Christus Rex.” This version always symbolically replaces the crown of thorns with a regal crown, displaying Jesus as Christ the King. This does not, however, nod to Pilate’s inscription on the tabula and announce Jesus as mere King of the Jews, but instead proclaims Jesus as King of All.

Within the Christus Rex form are subtle variations. Most describe Jesus as wearing kingly robes, and some, indeed, show just that, but a far greater majority have Christ wearing a chasuble. This major detail might otherwise be construed as kingly apparel if it weren’t for the ends of a pastoral stole peeking from underneath.

There is also variation in the position of the arms. Many use the “Touch-down Jesus” pose, with His arms strangely spread upward. Perhaps we are to assume we are to jump into the Savior‘s open arms. At any rate, the depiction definitely shows a resurrected Christ.

While recently delivering a chancel piece to Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati, I was privileged to closely view the old Christus Rex crucifix of the church. The beautiful piece was carved in Germany, and its confessional symbolism is razor sharp.
The Christus Rex crucifix at
Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati

In this particular example, Jesus’ arms are not in the touch-down pose, but are straight out and nailed to the cross. So are His feet. He wears a stylized chasuble that could be mistaken for a kingly gown, but underneath the fringes of a stole are evident. And there is one additional touch – He is wearing a maniple on His arm
The maniple, while certainly common in the Roman Catholic tradition, is also still used by some in the Lutheran Church during the Lord's Supper. One might argue that it is too Roman, until recalling Luther’s immense anger when Karlstadt once preached in his street clothes. The fuming Martin Luther immediately went to his own church, donned every appropriate vestment for the Eucharist – including maniple – and proceeded to demonstrate that the Body and Blood of Christ demands utmost respect and reverence.

That little detail of the maniple adds much to the symbolism of this Christus Rex crucifix. The sculpture can visually be read thus: Our living King, once crucified for our sins, comes to us here, in this place, in Divine Service to us in the Lord's Supper, blessing us with His very Body and Blood.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Playing Second Fiddle in the Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are occasions when a piece of art isn’t the point.

It may seem strange that weeks and months of work would intentionally garner something akin to a second- or third-place finish. In a world filled with divas and limelight and egos the size of small dirigibles, creating a piece that diverts attention is distinctly peculiar.

Diverted attention is usually not a goal in the sanctuary, either, but strong focal points can get out of hand. Bernini loosed his artistic cannons on St. Peter’s Basilica and peppered its interior with masterpiece after masterpiece. His design for the Baldachin – a covering for the high altar – is epically breathtaking. But behind it is his Cathedra Petri, a gluttonous, visual feast of gilt bronze, marble, stucco, and stained glass. Each successive piece demands attention – so much so that the eye goes everywhere. And nowhere.

Left and right wings of the "Trinity Chancel Piece."
Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati, Ohio)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
There is such a thing as restraint. (Well, okay, perhaps “restraint” was omitted from the Baroque dictionary.) Applying restraint sometimes proves the greater task than pulling out all the stops and trampling subtlety.

This weekend, a piece is being installed in Trinity Lutheran Church, Cincinnati. Its placement in the chancel will be hard to miss, but it will in no way be the focus. The piece is comprised of two panels with three angels each, and containing the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty. Heaven and earth are full of Your Glory.” The angels bow in adoration – to an existing reredos containing a figure of the victorious, reigning King of Glory.

The adoring angels act as a set of parentheses highlighting the Lord of Sabaoth, the altar upon which He promises to come, and the true focus of those who partake of Christ’s body and blood. A piece which thus re-directs attention to the Savior is worth endeavoring to create, and any honor in creating the same is rightly laid at the feet of the Lord.

Friday, July 7, 2017

His Royal Standard

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Nothing man creates is worthy of worship, and a processional crucifix is really only bits of mundane wood, metal, and paint. A processional crucifix, however, rightly demands greater respect than a bride walking down the church aisle. When either is revealed at the doors, the congregation stands as one in each instance and faces the rear. No one, however, bows to a bride, no matter how beautiful she is. There are decidedly few smiles when a crucifix processes. There is infinitely more reverence.

Early processional crucifixes were sometimes altar crucifixes fitted with removable staffs for processing. Staffs did not enter the Orthodox tradition, and processional crucifixes remained a smaller affair for them. The Western Church, traveling a different course, embraced the idea of a crucifix held aloft. Simply put, the device is visible in a crowd, and seeing a crucifix move above heads of worshippers announces that something important is about to begin.

In the early Church, pews and chairs were absent in sanctuaries. Everyone stood. Typically, worshippers arrived early to sing hymns. In a packed house, it would be a bit hard to know when it was time to stop singing – that is, until the image of Christ crucified parted the worshipping throng and processed toward the chancel.

The crucifix may be simple materials wrought by human hands, but we revere the greater Truth contained in its symbolism when it enters the sanctuary. What follows is an explanation of a crucifix recently commissioned by Christ Lutheran Church, Platte Woods, Missouri...
The finished crucifix
commissioned by Christ Lutheran Church,
Platte Woods, Missouri.

The poplar outer cross is a subtle variation of the cross-crosslet – an old symbol in which the four arms of the cross are themselves crossed. It represents the four Gospels and the spread of the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. In this example, the Gospels are further represented by depictions of the writers in four roundels. In their role as Gospel writers, these saints are sometimes shown with pen in hand, but nearly always with a scroll indicating Holy Scripture. There is not much in tradition concerning the writer’s appearance, with the exception of St. John, who is usually shown as a young man without a beard
The bird’s eye maple cross on which the Corpus is nailed contains three visual devices – a tabula, a tri-radiant nimbus, and a skull. The tabula is inscribed with a traditional “INRI.” It is shorthand for “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM,” or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Of course, two other languages were also represented, but they are ignored altogether in this greatly-abbreviated form.

The tri-radiant nimbus is used to distinguish Jesus Christ from haloed depictions of His disciples. It’s three rays (it is NOT a cross) confess Jesus as a person of the Holy Trinity. Symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Hand of the Father also bear the tri-radiant nimbus.

Placing a skull at the base of the cross is also traditional. It gives a nod to the place name where Christ was crucified and underscores the horror of His death. Furthermore, it points to Christ’s victory over death.

The basswood Corpus bears not only the wounds of nails and crown of thorns, but also the gaping wound in His side. It’s issue of blood and water point us to the sacraments of Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, and remind us that life and salvation are found in Christ alone.