Friday, June 14, 2019

Stacking Up Altarpieces


Comparative size of Cranach's
Wittenberg Altarpiece
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Although it’s been years since I worked in the editorial department of a newspaper, I still occasionally get the urge to graphically explain something or tinker with data. Yes, I can be a geek.

This geek doesn’t get out much, and I have a hunch some readers don’t, either. I thought it might be interesting to see how some famous altarpieces stack up against each other – this, without obtaining a visa or boarding a plane.

Not all altarpieces are large affairs. One of my personal faves, the Mérode Altarpiece – also known as “The Annunciation Triptych,” is just a tiny thing. It was probably made for domestic use as a private altar. There is an abundance of such pieces, especially within the early Church, which points to piety emanating from the church and entering the home.

The Isenheim Altarpiece is larger, but is still not huge. It was intended for a small chapel of an institution that cared for patients suffering from rather unpleasant skin diseases.

The Ghent Altarpiece, featured in the film, “The Monuments Men,” is only slightly taller, although it is packed with ridiculously-gorgeous detail. This detail makes it seem much larger when viewed out of context.

Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece should be quite familiar to Lutherans. It contains confessional imagery that includes many movers and shakers from the Reformation, and individual panels from it have been reproduced as prints.

A quick hop, skip, and a jump to Austria will allow a view of what may arguably be the tallest Gothic altarpiece. Rising 44 feet above the altar, the Kefermarkt Altarpiece is filled with sculpted figures and delicate wooden tracery.

The largest Gothic altarpiece in the world is claimed by St. Mary’s Basilica of Kraków, Poland. The Veit Stoss Altarpiece is massive – taking 12 years to create. Each 12 foot-high figure it contains was sculpted from an individual linden log. While it is considered a Polish national treasure, the altarpiece bears the name of its German sculptor.

The altarpiece shared the same fate as the Ghent Altarpiece, being plundered by German occupying forces. Its disassembled components were hidden in the basement of the Nuremberg castle, where they survived heavy bombing during the war. After the war, it went through extensive restoration before finally being returned to its home in 1957.

Comparative size, from left, of Mérode, Isenheim, Ghent, Wittenberg, Kefermarkt, and Veit Stoss altarpieces.



Friday, June 7, 2019

Banner Days


The royal banners forward go;
Where He, by whom our flesh was made,
Our ransom in His flesh has paid...
The cross shows forth redemption's flow,


(Venatius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus c. 570)


Copyright © Edward Riojas

Even as a child, I remember banners carrying more weight than they do today. At the annual Reformation Day service held at Immanuel Lutheran Church – the "Mother church" of LC-MS churches in Grand Rapids, Michigan – banners processed behind the crucifix. Each of the many banners represented an area church and, like the churches, every banner was distinctive.
Detail of a banner in progress
on the worktable at
Ecclesiastical Sewing.

That was then. Today, most banners are designed as wall dressing. Some occasionally change with the Church seasons. Few are designed to actually be carried, and wall hooks – not processional staffs – are the rule. Because the banners were not designed to withstand the rigors of carrying their own weight in wind and other unruly elements, they usually bear one other quality. They are cheaply made.

Felt is the rule. Glue replaces stitching, and it shows.

Now before you get your breeches in a wad, please know that I have – and still do – design banners destined to be executed in felt. There is nothing so very wrong with felt – that is, unless there are better alternatives.

We are the product of ages preceding us and, unfortunately, that means that much of what exists in churches today has origins in the 1960's. Banners reflect this perhaps more than any other item in the church. With inexpensive felt available in umpteen bright colors, sold in almost every craft and sewing store, and easily worked with nary a stitch, it has been the go-to when a banner is requested.

Centuries before the 1960's, however, fabrics of better lineage were employed. That was because banners were used to display confessions of the Church (in case one didn't get a hint from the processional Crucifix). As such, they were to be a more permanent fixture and, as the centuries-old hymn above declares, they underscored the Kingly nature of our Lord and pointed to His preeminence among heavenly royalty. Felt and burlap have a hard time doing that.

In a return to former days, the studios of Ecclesiastical Sewing are starting to create banners truly worthy of Christ's radiant Bride. Yes, brocade is used. Felt is not. These banners take seriously the encouragement of Luther, who urged that we put the best construction on everything. Yes, even banners.

Finished banner produced by Ecclesiastical Sewing





Friday, May 31, 2019

“Baptismal Triptych:” A New Piece

"Baptismal Triptych" Edward Riojas. 2019. (Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, ND)


Copyright © Edward Riojas

Ironically, I was concerned about moisture.

I returned this week from a business/pleasure trip to North Dakota to visit family and to deliver a large piece destined for Immanuel Lutheran Church in Hankinson. It rained during much of the 800 mile trek – sometimes with considerable wind. I had used the truck before to deliver an altarpiece in driving rain, and knew that things would remain relatively dry. Still, I’m human. Fretting over a piece into which months of labor have been invested comes naturally to me .

Besides a small damp spot on one corner of a moving blanket, the piece arrived bone dry. The piece, however, is not at all about being bone dry.

We sometimes inoculate ourselves against understanding the goings-on in the sanctuary, and it is always refreshing for me – in simply creating a piece for the sanctuary – to become intimate with what we often take for granted. Taking cues from Luther’s “Flood Prayer” in the Baptismal Rite, visuals in the triptych point to the divine power behind applying a bit of water and speaking the Word.

The water is punishing, and that is an understatement. It is not a simple cleansing; it is not a ceremonial washing; it is not a quaint tradition. Baptism’s water takes the old Adam by the ear and obliterates the sin he bequeathed to his progeny. It takes the world’s filth and drowns it under fathoms of water, preserving just eight souls – pointing to an unfathomable Resurrection on the eighth day. It lures the hardened hearts of a satanic horde into an inescapable death trap, while preserving a helpless, defenseless, ragtag, complain-prone people whose only Hope is in the divine intervention of God Himself.

It is also the unassuming water that cursed Christ Jesus. The insignificant waters of the Jordan drenched our Lord with the sins of the world, taking a burden that we could not begin to bear and laying it on the sinless Son of God.

Because we are so apt to forget; because we are prone to apathy; because we are lazy; because we sometimes want to be entertained on Sunday rather than recall our condition, renew our spirits and rejoice in the salvific act of our Lord, it is my prayer that this piece will help rattle our noggins to the beauty, the solemnity, and the reality of Holy Baptism.
...................................

Giclée prints of “Baptismal Triptych” are available for purchase from the artist. The prints are on high-quality Hahnemeuhle fine art paper. They are signed by the artist, but are not framed or matted. To order, or for more information, please contact the artist at edriojasartist@gmail.com

Sizes/prices for “Baptismal Triptych”
18” wide x 17” high  / $110 (U.S.)
24” x 22.5” / $150
32” x 30” / $200
40” x 37.25” / $250






Friday, May 17, 2019

Questionable Medium of the Early Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is impossible to use some materials today without raising the ire of small, but vocal, groups. We learned ages ago to refrain from wasting paper – no need to kill another tree. We now think twice before asking for plastic instead of paper at the checkout. In California, folks avoid plastic straws like leprosy. Other materials have been frowned upon for decades, and are fiercely protected by international law. Ivory is one of those materials.

From antiquity, ivory has been an option for small-scale sculpting. Once the hard enamel is ground away, its core is easy to carve and, like marble or alabaster, has just enough translucence to mimic human flesh. Because it cannot be melted down or reworked – as was often the fate of items made from precious metals – many ivory pieces have survived the centuries.

While an obvious choice, elephant tusks were not the sole source of ivory. The teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, and sperm whale were all used, as was whalebone. At one point, folks in Siberia and Arctic North America even harvested woolly mammoth tusks out of the permafrost. (I guess there’s no sense in hunting for ivory when one can mine it.) Of course, the issue of over-hunting ivory-laden animals came to a head in the 19th century. It is now a big no-no to even think about ivory.

Tree-hugging aside, some exquisite ivory pieces survive from the early Church. They are a wonderful testament to the skill and confession of artists who used bits and pieces of creation to give praise and honor to the Creator. Here are a few examples throughout history...


Side panels from a small casket depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. Possibly Roman. c. 425 A.D.
(The British Museum, London)



Diptych panels of Saints Peter and Paul. Frankish. 4th or 5th Century.


Panel fragment depicting Christ blessing Constantine VII. 945 A.D.
(Pushkin Museum, Moscow)



10th Century triptych showing open interior panels, left,
and exterior middle panel, right.


Triptych that passed through Sotheby's auction site.
c. 1315. Master of the Amien Triptych.



Tabernacle with bi-folding doors. Late 14th Century. (The Louvre, Paris)



Corpus. Early 19th Century. French.



Friday, May 10, 2019

St. Gabriel and a Brief History of Mirrors

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was searching through reference material for an art project and, as I sometimes do, started dissecting Orthodox images. I’ve learned to refrain from replicating icons, lock, stock and barrel, because they can, on the rare occasion, contain visuals that are contrary to Holy Scripture.

I wanted to create an image of the archangel Gabriel. In Orthodox iconography, he is usually depicted holding a slender staff in one hand and a round object in the other. That round object varies in appearance, and can look spherical and decidedly murky or flat with an image of Jesus Christ. It often has an “X” on it. Rarely, it contains an image of the Madonna and Child. I had to dig deeper.

As Icons are typically copies of other icons, so too are their explanations. It’s as if every Orthodox copied someone else’s homework verbatim. The phrase, “...often a mirror – made of jasper...” shows up in most Orthodox websites when describing icons of Gabriel. The jasper bit is a good hint that few REALLY understand why the mirror is there. Jasper is a material that has little, if any, bearing on the mirror. Still, everyone feels compelled to copy that particular detail. I dug deeper.

I finally found a better, more thoughtful description. There are, I believe, two reasons for the mirror.

The first reason is hinted at in Isaiah’s heavenly vision. While Christ discloses in Matthew 18:10 that the angels always see the face of God, Isaiah’s description of the seraphim has their eyes covered by a pair of wings. Orthodox tradition leans toward Isaiah, giving the impression that angels dare not look on the visage of the Lord. They apparently can, however, use a mirror. Call it a divine loophole.

The second reason for Gabriel’s mirror is for our own benefit. A truncated history of mirrors helps greatly with this.

Modern living doesn’t provide the benefit of understanding Biblical mirrors. If we come across a mirror today that is distorted or broken, we simply throw it out. We don’t tolerate that sort of imperfection. However, in ancient times, mirrors were extremely imperfect in their reflections. They were either made of some sort of polished metal or, as was more often the case in the New World, polished stone. Metal mirrors were rarely perfectly flat and had to be frequently polished. Polished stone could not be polished as well, and still had characteristic streaks and mottling of the rock itself. It is doubtful a Biblical mirror was ever trusted when applying eye liner.

Today we associate mirrors with vanity, but the Greek philosopher, Socrates, apparently encouraged their use. He believed a handsome person would see less of their beauty in a mirror’s reflection. Likewise, an ugly person would view themselves as more beautiful by using the same mirror.

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, described how we live by faith and not by sight: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12) It may be annoying that we can’t know or understand everything divine; that we can’t be face-to-face with God, but The Word and Sacraments are more than sufficient this side of paradise.

So my interpretation of Gabriel’s mirror, shown here in a detail of my piece, reflects a blurry image of our Lord, Christ Jesus. The full image of Gabriel will be revealed later – here in time. The face of our Lord will also be revealed – there, in eternity.

Detail of Christ Jesus from the piece, "Archangel Gabriel."
2019. (Copyright © Edward Riojas)


Friday, May 3, 2019

A Roof Razed

Better days: Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris, also known as the Notre-Dame Cathedral) before the fire.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The ashes weren’t even cool when ideas for a replacement started appearing.

Less than a week after a fire ravaged the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, images of a new spire and roof started popping up on social media. It’s one thing to boldly declare that the thing can be rebuilt, but it’s quite another to totally ignore historical significance and put forth the first [hair-brained] vision that pops into one’s head.

In opposition to the knee-jerk reactions of a few who obviously are members of the Mod Squad, I took a step back and did a little digging into the architectural annuls of this and other landmarks.

To us, the horror of such a conflagration in such a facade seems incomprehensible, but fires – even horrible ones – are nothing new to cathedrals. Crappy weather, wars, and even stuff like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow have destroyed many landmark church buildings. And it’s been happening for a long time.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
(Chartres Cathedral)


Another French landmark, the Chartres Cathedral, is currently the fifth building to be erected on the same spot. The first building was totally destroyed by the Danes in 858. The earliest remnant of the earlier buildings is a partial crypt from the second church. It seems crypts are the one thing often left intact. No sense in beating a dead saint.

An odd thing about the Chartres Cathedral are the uneven towers. Because master masons, the equivalent of architects, went for quality instead of speed, it often took decades or longer to get the job done. In the case of Chartres, nearly 400 years separates the completion of the towers. Because a different master mason with different ideas worked on the newer tower, it is different in style, scale, and construction. But, really, there is nothing odd about the Chartres Cathedral’s towers.

Not to pick on the French – okay, let’s pick on them – a similar issue still plagues another cathedral. St. Denis Cathedral, near Paris, only recently got around to funding a replacement tower – one that was “temporarily” dismantled 173 years ago.
Cathedral of Notre-dame
de Rouen (Rouen Cathedral)


The Rouen Cathedral, a favorite subject of impressionist Claude Monet, also has a couple of mismatched towers. The newest of the two [by 400 years] is called the Butter Tower. At some point, the bishop wanted to make life totally miserable during Lent by forbidding the use of butter. One could, of course, indulge in the sinful stuff by giving a donation to the tower’s building project. Thankfully, fundraising isn’t quite so demonic these days.

The list of fire-damaged, oddly built churches goes on and on. What is perhaps even more strange it that the notion of uneven towers took hold in church structures of the New World. Gothic Revival churches often have uneven towers that were planned that way, and it doesn’t take much pondering to think of an old church that has a single tower – sometimes without a spire – that is asymmetrically set to one side.

Towers and spires aren’t necessary, of course, but church architects have a historical tendency to build vertically, defying weather, fire, and sinister forces that would rather have a flattened church. Which brings us back to the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The facade roof and spire will certainly be rebuilt in some fashion. That will probably happen sooner than later. Although the present structure is the fourth to be built on the spot, it was so by design and not disaster. The cathedral’s architectural significance is huge, and just about every art and architecture student has been exposed to features of the Notre-Dame Cathedral – the exception being the original design of the towers. It seems the two towers were intended to have giant spires of their own, which were never constructed.

Late 1800's drawing by preservationist architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
shows the original design intent of the Notre-Dame towers.

Friday, April 26, 2019

On The Resurrection

Preparatory drawings for "Resurrection." Edward Riojas. 1999. (Copyright © Edward Riojas)


Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes I change my mind.

An intimate part of creating art is the making of decisions. In fact, just about everything I do as an artist has to do with choices: How large should the piece be? What medium should I use? What will the image be? What figures will be in that image? How should they be posed, and what expressions should they bear, and what style will work best? Is that color too harsh? Is the quality of that line appropriate? And on and on.

Arguably, the decisions become more involved with sacred art. They also become more critical. The difference between playing it safe and being bold can have a direct bearing on what –  and to what extent – the finished piece confesses.

Years ago, when I was conceptualizing what has become one of my most popular images, I changed my mind about who was going to be in the painting. “Resurrection,” a painting that now hangs in the narthex of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., was originally going to be a bit different. In the first preparatory drawing I did for the piece, the Victorious Christ had one foot on the body of Satan. It was a variation of an old convention, confessing that Satan was indeed done in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But then I changed my mind.
"Resurrection"
Edward Riojas. 1999.


It wasn’t that Christ somehow failed to defeat Satan – He did. Rather, it was because I decided that Satan is such an idiot that he doesn’t deserve to share any of "the limelight" in the resurrection. Like a spoiled child that keeps up a tantrum; like the fallen angel that endlessly accuses, sometimes it’s best to simply ignore him. Sure, we know he's still there, but the guy is a total jerk and no one wants to invite him to the party.

So I did a second drawing without bothering to give Satan any undue recognition. If, however, you still think that Satan should be somehow represented as part of the redemption equation, feel free to imagine him as being very small, and still under the foot of our resurrected Lord.