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.

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.

Friday, June 30, 2017


“When they had all had enough to eat, [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” – John 6: 12

Copyright © Edward Riojas

No one likes to feel like a leftover. Not you. Not me. Sadly, we have all felt that way at one time or another. Unless we were superstars of the grade school parking lot and were well acquainted with the infield fly rule, we might have ended up a little lower on the roster when picking teams for kickball. Maybe you were dead last. That can hurt.

Perhaps you languished as a wall flower during that high school dance. Or maybe you were ignored and shared a table with yourself in the cafeteria. It’s amazing how lonely a crowded school hall can feel when popularity isn’t one’s strong suit.

Later in life, there might have been promotions that passed you by. Perhaps someone toyed with your heart, and then discarded it in a corner like a piece of trash. Like the enthusiastic wave and a smile across a room that isn’t for you, the weight of feeling like a leftover can be crushing.
"Miracle of the Bread and Fish." Giovanni Lanfranco. c. 1620.
(National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

The feeding of the 5,000 always impresses us as a colossal miracle. It is an earthly wonder that an army of hungry stomachs was satisfied with light fare from a kid’s lunch. It was a miracle indeed. It was the reason many wanted Jesus to be king – with a ruler who could constantly lay a miraculous spread like that, life would be cushy, indeed. Never mind the very different reason for Christ dwelling among us.

Unless one looks at the Scriptural account in its entirety, however, a better part of the feeding of the 5,000 might be overlooked. Contrary to the Old Testament handling of manna and the Passover meal, Jesus tells His disciples to gather the leftovers. The remnants were not to be consumed or burned or thrown out. Many commentaries either ignore the command, or chalk it up to having a frugal Savior who knew about starving children in Africa. But Christ did not come to teach responsible eating, to keep us from being litterbugs, or to lay a seed for recycling.

As was revealed during a recent sermon on the text, the Greek word that often gets translated as “that none may be wasted,” is more correctly translated as “that none may perish.” That Jesus would not only feed us, but also search out the remnants – the marginalized; the forgotten; the unwanted; the discarded; the leftovers – that they might not perish, points to a caring Savior who wants us to know we neither have to live alone, nor die alone. Therein lies the real miracle.

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Odd Duck in Christian Symbolism

"The Pelican in Her Piety"
(St. Nicholas Church, Oakley, Suffolk, England)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One of the strangest symbols for Christ is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” There are all kinds of symbols set aside for identifying Christ Jesus – crosses, fish, rocks, cornerstones, monograms, etc. – but for some reason, that pelican has shown up in stained glass for hundreds of years. Even the church of my youth had a window with the symbol on it.

Technically, however, the symbol is wrong. Along with a handful of other images that emerged during the Middle Ages, it is based on wives' tales, legend, and, in this case, a rather inept knowledge of ornithology.

Whether it was an artist or Church father, the originator of the pelican image attempted to explain, by means of analogy, the nature and saving work of Jesus Christ. Using the stuff of a broken world to explain Christ is bound to end up falling off the tracks.

The explanation of the symbol is that, in dire times, a female pelican will pierce her own breast to save her nestling brood. It’s a no-brainer as far as the link between a bird’s saving act and the saving act of the King of all creation. But that is a big assumption for a bird. In reality, if things got dire in bird-dom, the brood would get shoved out of the nest to die. Pelicans aren’t sacrificial; they are self-serving.

On the other hand, Jesus did use a bird to describe Himself. In grieving over an unbelieving Jerusalem, He laments,  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Matthew 23:37. We must thank the Church fathers for not rushing to a chicken for the symbol of our Lord, but I digress.

Even in title, “The Pelican in Her Piety” is a little odd. Piety, however, does not here denote devoutness or reverence. Rather, it pulls from its original meaning of having “duty.” This is most significant, for in His love for His own, Christ Jesus was duty-bound to the lost and sinful and perishing. Our piety, by contrast, is negligible.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Treasure of a Painting

“Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361.” Carl Gustaf Hellqvist. 1882. (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once in a while I run across a piece of art that really piques my interest. It’s impossible to be familiar with every period and genre of art throughout time and space, and I am certainly no smarty-pants when it comes to art history the world over. So it was that, while researching some unrelated topic, I ran across a piece by a nineteenth century Swedish historical painter. Carl Gustaf Hellqvist’s painting, “Valdemar Atterdag Holding Visby to Ransom, 1361,” stopped me in my tracks.

The 11 feet-wide painting is the sort of thing a child might pore over for hours. It is epic in scale, lavish in detail, and loaded with theatrical vignettes that give drama to the event.

Hellqvist was no hack. While unknown to most of us, the artist was one of the most popular painters in Sweden during his day. He showed one of his pieces in the Paris Salon, and received the gold medal in Vienna for this particular painting.

The subject of the painting is a key event in Sweden’s history, even though it essentially shows the agony of defeat. Valdemar, King of Denmark, sits on a royal throne and watches the proceedings of ransom being gathered by the vanquished citizens of Visby. The Swedish city was threatened with being burnt to the ground if three large beer vats could not be filled with gold and silver in three days.

Hellqvist divides the composition into three foreground vignettes that roughly follow the three vats, and subdivides the background into several more areas. Central to the piece is the family of Visby’s Mayor. The Mayor himself clenches his fist in anger and glares at the king. His wife looks to heaven for aid with tear-filled eyes.

To the left, a citizen bearing family heirlooms is manhandled to a beer vat by a foot soldier armed with a glaive and crossbow. The tension of the vignette is countered by a boy peering over the edge of a nearby vat to the treasures within.

On the right, a boy laden with heavy platters turns to look at the imperious Dane. A man follows the boy, bearing a compact, but heavy, money chest. The figure is most certainly a Jew, as he wears a distinctive, pointed hat required by medieval law.

As is true with many early historical painters, there are inaccuracies in the image. For instance, while the ridiculous helm ornamentation on several knights is true of Teutonic knights who may have aligned themselves with the Danish king, the presence of a Dachshund predates the dog’s emergence as a breed. And while the costuming is, indeed, close to being accurate, a woman – especially the Mayor’s wife – would not have her head uncovered. Even the city’s architecture is inaccurate for Sweden, and is instead more indicative of Germany, where the image was most-likely painted.

Still, the painting refuses to lose its grip on our imagination. The handling of paint, bearing a strong academic approach softened by hints of Impressionism, allows the viewer to be absorbed by the detail – however historically inaccurate it may be.

One might wonder why this painting – and, indeed, the subject itself – would be dear to a seemingly-vanquished nation. The ruthless King Valdemar might have been wishing to burn the city, and make off with a bit of treasure anyway. The citizens of Visby, however, didn’t need three days to scrounge for enough gold and silver to save their city. They did so in one day.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Father of All Art Curmudgeons

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Leave it to a curmudgeon.

Artists can add immense beauty to the world, and thrive on attempting the same. For some reason that lies deeply embedded in our noodles, we can’t leave well enough alone or accept the visually mundane. It’s part of our DNA. But when others take issue with what an artist produces; or criticizes, second guesses, or otherwise gets high-handed with creativity, then sparks fly. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known mostly by his first name, was the crème de la crème when it came to being an art curmudgeon.

Michelangelo disdained recreating likenesses of patrons, and aimed instead for ideal visages. This issue once came to a head when Michelangelo finished the imposing sepulchers of Giuliano di Lorenzo de' Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici in the Medici Chapel. Neither heroic sculpture bore resemblance to the interred. The moneyed family pushed him on the point. Michelangelo famously responded, “Who will care what they look like in 1,000 years?”
"The Last Judgement" [detail], showing
Biagio da Cesena, at right.
Michelangelo. 1536-1541.
(Sistine Chapel, Vatican City)

Apparently, however, the artist didn’t always take his own advice. Michelangelo also endured constant criticism for innumerable details while working on frescos in the Sistine Chapel. There was too much nudity. There were too many muscled figures. There was not enough decorum. There was too much foreshortening of figures.

Chief among his detractors was Biagio da Cesena, the Pope's Master of Ceremonies. da Cesena’s annoyance must have been great indeed, because Michelangelo painted the official’s likeness, from memory, on the donkey-eared body of Minos next to the rest of the damned in “The Last Judgement.” The likeness was instantly recognized by all, including the livid da Cesena, who stormed into the Pope’s presence and demanded that the pontiff do something about it.

The Pope, in a rare moment of Divine inspiration, reminded da Cesena that the Pope’s jurisdiction went only so far as purgatory. Correcting things in hell was quite another matter.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Hand of God

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Fall screwed up everything. There aren’t words or time enough to delineate the rot and destruction brought on by one foolish act. We could blame Adam and we often do, but we have done our worst to pile on foolishness upon foolishness of our own making. If we are honest with ourselves, Adam probably pales by comparison.

One result of the Fall is that we cannot look at the face of God The Father and live. Those who tried ended up as toast. Sure, we saw the face of His Son, and manifestations of The Spirit were visible, but One was cloaked in His manhood and the Other was granted man to see. The Father’s face is off limits this side of heaven.

Scripture bears this out. Moses asked an impossible thing in Exodus 33:

    "18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
    19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

    21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

And the prophet, Job, relished the heavenly day in Job 19:

     “25 I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”

It is therefore vexing when big names in art ignored the rule and attempted to depict The Father. Dürer did it. So did Cranach, Campin, Murillo, Masaccio and others. While all of them handled the modelling of the figure in their usual masterly fashion, none of them captured the omnipotence and majesty of the Person. In this, they failed miserably; each of the depictions simply looks like an old man or a missing member of ZZ Top.

And, of course, none of the images remotely comes close to killing the viewer.
"The Hand of the Father in Blessing."
Copyright © Edward Riojas

But there is a better alternative found in Christian symbolism. The Hand of God, set in front of a tri-radiant nimbus, has been used for centuries as a visual for The Father. It denies the viewer a peek at God’s face, and echoes the Word of the Lord Himself in the Exodus account: “I will ... cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”

It is more than enough to be covered by His hand. It is love beyond the telling to be blessed by the same. And by the same, awe and terror come, as even Pharaoh’s magicians admitted, “This is the finger of God.”

We needn’t feel slighted by getting only this tiny peek at The Father, for as Christ Himself proclaimed, “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The Christian may relish being held in the palm of His hand. Seeing the face of God, on the other hand, can wait until a more glorious day.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Zion Altarpiece

The Zion Altarpiece. Edward Riojas. 2017.
(Shown in situ at Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wisconsin)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I recently installed an Altarpiece at Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. It was dedicated last Sunday. What follows is a full explanation of the piece, and reflections on the same.


It is not often that an artist receives a commission to create an altarpiece. The days of resplendent high altars, sizeable populations of Renaissance-minded artisans, and deep pockets of the Church are, for the most part, a thing of the past. Creating something new, yet decidedly-old school, is therefore cause for pondering such an ambitious undertaking.

While the Zion Altarpiece is relatively modest in size, its creation nonetheless contained monumental questions: How does one even begin to capture the Eternal Majesty of Almighty God? How does one put in finite terms Him who is infinite? How does one convey the richness; the glory; the wonder of His Divine plan that so totally eclipses the mundane and evil of this broken world?

Like the haunting questions once asked me by a Muslim, “Who was that man, and why did he have to die?,” the answers seem inexhaustible in explanation and unfathomable in understanding. Yet we cannot help but try.

For the same reason that there is more than one hymn to sing, there is always reason to create art that confesses this God-Man who loves us with a never-ending, sacrificial love. We cannot help but give praise to The Lord, even when such an endless train of saints have already done so before us.

The answer to that Muslim’s question begins with the simple: We deserve to die for our sins. One must die for the sins of many. Death could not hold Him who holds all of creation in His hands. He lives. We therefore will live.

These simple truths are fleshed-out and expounded upon: The saints will live. So, too, the martyrs. The old. The young. The saints of every tribe and nation. All blessed by the One who came to serve. To wash our feet. To willingly die on a cross intended for us. To do that which we could not do. To cleanse our souls.


In the 500th year of the Reformation, Anno + Domini 2017

It is a daunting task to visually explain an infinite God in finite terms; it is a daunting task to display the wonder of our Lord’s creation and His plan of salvation through anything created by man. Indeed, this world does not have space enough to show it. Yet we cannot help but try, even with unclean hands, to do so – even in the confines of a church building; even in a niche of a chapel; even in this very altarpiece.

The Zion Altarpiece is a greatly abbreviated visual of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is not intended to be a photographic record of the events, nor could it be. Rather, it is a reminder of what is written in Holy Scripture, and is intended to be an arrow that points to The Word. This is achieved through straightforward representationalism and conventional symbolism, both of which are among the least likely to confound Scripture.

The Zion Altarpiece in the "closed" position,
shown during final fitting of the panels and doors.

The altarpiece is designed in such a manner that, during most of the Church Year, it displays one scene – the Crucifixion. During Lent, two flanking doors are opened, displaying two scenes leading up to the Crucifixion. Finally, On Easter Sunday, two central doors are opened, obscuring the previous three scenes and displaying a compound Resurrection/Heavenly worship scene.

The Crucifixion scene is stripped of many historical figures and setting, focusing instead on the figure of Jesus Christ in death. His body is intentionally shown in advanced decay. The weight of His body pulls against the nails. Rigor mortis is already setting in. In this the soldiers and Pontius Pilate marveled, that He would be dead so soon; that He gave up His life so willingly. St. John the Gospel writer, being the good proto-Lutheran, over-stressed the point that both blood and water poured out of His side. This is underscored by an angel collecting the blood in a Chalice and the water in a Baptismal font. Out of reverence, a cloth has been placed over the genitals of Christ, but His nakedness was certainly exposed at the Crucifixion. The Father has turned His back on His sin-absorbing Son, evidenced in the blackened sky. The Man Christ Jesus is dead, yet the Tri-radiant nimbus behind His head proclaims Him a Person of The Holy Trinity. He IS God.

It is unlikely that the witnesses of Jesus’ death would be so near, but I have placed them in close proximity. Mary, the mother of our Lord, is dressed in traditional blue and white, and puts her hand to her heart as a ‘sword pierces it.’ John attempts to comfort his newly-adopted mother. Following tradition, he is shown beardless and comparatively young. In the foreground, Mary of Magdella demonstratively kneels, faintly echoing the anointing of Christ’s feet. In the background, another Mary weeps. Following convention, the outer panels contain weeping angels that join in lamentation.

There is, however, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection below Jesus‘ feet, and a reminder that Christ IS victorious. Satan’s head has been utterly crushed by the weight of the cross, and driven beneath the earth. Death, too, lies broken at Christ‘s feet.
The Zion Altarpiece in the Lent/Holy Week position.

When the outer doors are opened during Lent, two additional scenes appear as the weeping angels are hidden from view. On the left is Christ Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowd enthusiastically welcomes Jesus, although it is doubtful they understand fully who He is. Jesus, by comparison, resolutely confronts the viewer while pointing to Jerusalem – and His own Crucifixion.

The right-hand scene is of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in an example of servanthood. Peter is the first to be washed. The remaining disciples – an unlikely band of common laborers lacking pedigree – wait behind Peter. A view of Jerusalem’s temple mount and an ominous hill beyond are visible through an open window.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. So, too, does the Zion Altarpiece when the central doors are opened for Easter. In a visual slight-of-hand, the open outer doors play a different role in the scene of Heavenly worship over the Resurrection. In passing through the portal of Jesus’ death; through His redemption of our souls; through His blood shed on a far uglier mount,

“...You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
The Zion Altarpiece, with doors fully open in the Easter position.

Jesus Christ, The Victorious Lamb, emerges from the mount's tomb in swaddling grave cloths. That tomb's portal echoes details of the Temple’s sacrificial altar. The Lamb, sacrificed though now living, bears the Victorious banner of The Cross. Heaven, depicted as a traditional orb, stoops down to claim the King. The Four Creatures – symbols of the Holy Gospels – surround Him as His crown and Tri-radiant nimbus declare him Lord of all.

And angels and the heavenly host worship the risen Christ; the Victorious Lamb. To the left, palm-bearing martyrs – a noble army – praise His Name. Several in the small sampling can be identified: The Holy Innocents, young boys who gave their lives for Jesus as Herod tried in vain to destroy the Infant Jesus, toddle toward their Savior. Near them is the aged martyr, Polycarp, who refused to deny his Christ after more than 80 years. Behind Polycarp is John the Forerunner, still proclaiming to us, “Behold The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Next to John are more martyrs, including Potamiaena and Perpetua and Bartholomew, who carries his own flayed skin.

On the far right are the glorious company of the Apostles. By a visual slight-of-hand, Peter is added behind the group to replace Judas Iscariot.

Between the Apostles and the risen Lord is a mixture of Prophets and saints. The handful of prophets are identified by conspicuously long beards and scrolls of Scripture, the latter which they embrace to their chests.

We may also include ourselves in this panel. The young boy’s glance toward the viewer urges us to join this host of young and old, male and female, and saints of every nation and tongue. Here, in time, we join with heaven at The Lord’s Table, and we look forward to that day, in Eternity, when we shall do the same with endless joy.

To Him be the Glory for ever and ever. Amen.

To order giclee prints of images from the Zion Altarpiece, please go to the Price list page of