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

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Beautiful Confession

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Somewhere along the line, beauty got ignored.

For several reasons, the ornate beauty of the Old World was chucked overboard when Lutherans crossed the pond to America. First, there was the issue of cost. Debates over artwork became pointless when the church building needed a new roof. The pastor’s salary needed to be kept above the poverty line. Teachers needed to be paid for the expanding school system.

This practical frugality was due, in part, to lingering sentiments of Pietism, in which the downplaying of artwork and ornamentation was embraced implicitly, if not openly. Visual expression of the Scriptures fell squarely in the category of adiaphora, so artwork was often among the first things to go.

Fallout, however, extended beyond the fine arts and into our own time. Architecture of church buildings slowly leaned away from the sublime toward the cheap. Ornamentation was stripped wholesale in favor of 1970’s Mod Squad motifs, ethnocentric color schemes, and designs with nary a straight line. This peripheral piffle further discouraged embracing the arts on a serious level.

(Photo courtesy of
That is changing.

Slowly, minds have begun realizing that, while parishioners‘ homes are decorated tastefully with abandon, the Lord’s house is more often allowed to remain bleak, bereft of meaning, and outright hideous.

Thanks to a handful of confessional minds, beauty with roots in much earlier days is returning to Lutheran sanctuaries. Carrie Roberts’ Ecclesiastical Sewing enterprise combines the ingredients of fashion design, liturgical integrity, and historical sensitivity to produce beautiful sanctuary pieces that were once commonplace. The entrepreneur brought me on board to help with design, and we agree that confessional considerations are paramount. With each new set of designs, the bar is set astronomically high.

Ecclesiastical Sewing’s newest release of the “Stole Style #3 in the Luther Rose Brocade” is a good example. It is not simply gorgeous – it is confessional. The embroidery is not a random collection of pretty designs. In this case they are symbolic of the Six Chief Parts.

The upper left contains a censor, symbolizing The Lord’s Prayer (”Let my prayer rise before You as incense...”). On the opposite side is a symbol for The Holy Trinity, indicating The Creed. Below The Lord’s Prayer and The Creed are symbols for Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. The Baptismal scallop shell has three water drops, confessing Baptism into The Name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit. The sacramental Chalice has a Chi-Rho monogram, confessing that “This IS My body and this IS My blood.” Below the Sacraments are the tablets of The Ten Commandments, and a symbol for The Office of the Keys. Each key has a conspicuous cross and trefoil. Below these symbols are a pair of Luther’s Rose, which contain rich, confessional symbolism of their own – central to each being the cross of Christ.

The underlying brocade also bears Luther’s Rose, and is interwoven with crosses and grapevines. A traditional cross embroidery at the back of the neck is the last thing the pastor sees when donning the stole. And, of course, the stole itself is a symbol of the yoke of Christ as the pastor acts in His stead.

This particular stole will be worn today, May 19, during Commencement Day services at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. And, yes, it is a beautiful thing.


For those interested in obtaining a Six Chief Parts stole, Carrie Roberts of offers the following options:
  • Digitized designs can be downloaded from the site for the client to stitch out.
  • Finished stoles may be ordered on the website in green and red. There is a lead time of 4-6 weeks.
  • Upon request, The Six Chief Parts stole can also be stitched on other fabric colors for other seasons of the church year.
  • The embroidery itself can be ordered, then stitched by the client to their own stole.
Stay tuned to Ecclesiastical Sewing as other elements of this set are put into production and posted on its site.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Observations From The Courtroom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I ran across the remnants of a small sketchbook the other day, and it was a vivid reminder of a few weeks from a life I once lived.

In my 30-plus years as a Press artist, my typical workload involved illustrating stories, producing charts and maps, and designing pages. Occasionally, I was called on to visit the scene of a fire, reconstruct a traffic accident, or create a building cutaway from blueprints. And then there was my brief stint as a courtroom artist. It was an education.

Artists were not necessary in the courtroom. Photographers were given clearance in every courtroom – that is, until a man dealt death on Federal land in northern Michigan. The rare capital case – in a state with no death penalty – became sensational, and the Federal judge said “No,” to cameras in the courtroom.

I had never before entered a courtroom – much less a Federal version that was packed with reporters, law enforcement officials, citizens associated in some way with the crime, and curious onlookers. “Stuff like this,” I told myself, “only happens in movies.”

At the beginning of my first day in court, I found a seat near the back of the gallery. The next day the presiding judge kindly offered better seats to the three attending artists, in order that we could spread out our abbreviated collection of art supplies and have unobstructed views. I now had a front row seat to some of the most broken lives I’ve ever encountered, and it was up to me to convey my view of it all to readers.

Surreal is a good word. I got used to taking off my shoes and belt upon entering the building; emptying my pockets; putting my paper and pencils on the conveyor belt so they could be x-rayed. I got used to hearing law enforcement folks talk shop while in the public restroom. I got used to Federal marshals talking about their kids, and the prosecutors joking after a lunch break.

I didn’t get used to the gaze of the defendant. Neither did I get used to the way he cleaned his teeth with a two-inch piece of floss during the proceedings, nor did I get used to his lack of interest in his own fate. I did not get used to the endless stream of faces who somehow brushed against the defendant’s life – the gal who once dated the defendant’s brother; the guy who wanted to buy the defendant’s boat; the State Game Warden who discovered the body. I didn’t get used to the crushed countenances of mothers whose lives had been turned from otherwise-unnoticed to forever-broken and the subject of public scrutiny.

But it was not my job to feel empathy. My job was to capture faces, do so quickly, and have something to publish at the end of the day. Unlike photographers who can get a shot of a witness immediately after they give a juicy tale, I had to assume everyone would say the most damning words, and therefore set to work as soon as they sat in the witness stand. Hence, the sketchbook full of faces, most of which would never make any edition.

I’m sure there are plenty of artists out there that would jump at the opportunity I was given. I know I did. But I doubt I would again venture into the same arena to see evidence of a broken world and destroyed lives and the kind of hurt that refuses to be comforted. Imagination is enough.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Gallery Drivel

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten curmudgeonly, and the time is ripe.

I find it extremely telling what venues have to say about their visions for this year’s ArtPrize competition. Their not-so-veiled words are meant for artists interested in being hosted by said venues. Those same words, however, are posted only weeks before artists begin scrambling for venues. Never mind the fact that most serious artists are, by now, well into a months-long project that is not easily altered to suit the peculiar wants of a venue.

What follows are a few examples from venues with vision; venues that know what they want; venues with agendas. Realizing that art-speak is not fluently spoken by everyone, I offer a translation after each excerpt so you can understand what the heck they’re saying. Sort of.

“...Our exhibition is titled, "Society of Spectacle". Are we under the influence of spectacular images and experiences? Our artificial reality has been modeled so well that we just mirror the map before us without defining the real experience. We passively identify and commodify our social experiences, accumulating a series of intangible moments. In a world of appearances, the spectacle obscures time by creating a never-ending moment of bliss. Do you remember the real experience? How do you mediate that experience? Actively participate and set aside the artifice or add to the image bank–the choice is yours.” (The Fed Galleries @ KCAD)

Translation: Our exhibition is entitled, “Society of Spectacle.” We like to ask questions, and we use the words “commodify” and “bliss” and “artifice” to confuse everyone who isn’t already confused. Come and make good choices.

“UICA will present a curated group show that uses food as a lens to examine cultural history, social equity, and the effects of globalization on communities. ... Only projects that utilize food-related concepts, imagery, or other forms of practice -- *and* are available for the full run of exhibition dates -- will be considered.” (Urban Institute for Contemporary Art)

Translation: We like hamburgers and hotdogs and culturally-significant soy products -- *and* unintelligible punctuation.

“Once again, Fountain Street Church and the ACLU of Michigan will present an important ArtPrize venue that explores issues of social justice through artwork that demands basic human needs be met, diversity respected, and freedom of expression and action fostered.” (Fountain Street Church)

Translation: We know we did this last year, but we want art that irritates everybody. No Christians need apply. (What d’ya think this is, a church?)

“Cerasus Studio is a gallery located on the Avenue for the Arts that offers a "blank canvas" space for artists 18-30, providing opportunities for experimentation and innovation. For ArtPrize 9, the Cerasus team is seeking passionate works by artists 18-30 that respond to the Trump administration.” (Cerasus Studio)

Translation: Old people suck. We want art that has no basis in stuff they teach in school. We only want crap from people who voted for the Pantsuit Party, and are haters. Another thing: Old people suck. Have a nice day at ArtPrize.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Private Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Perhaps it’s because I recently finished a “smallish” altarpiece – a subject in itself for a future post – that I have altarpieces on my brain.

Some altarpieces, we all know, can be very grand affairs. There are examples that have more doors than a carnival funhouse. Some altarpieces loom stories above worshippers. There are those that have enough carving and painting and gilding to dazzle laity into the sublime.

Others, however, are relatively small and unassuming. Some were never intended for a general audience, a congregation, or, for that matter, anyone outside the family. If guests dropped by, chances are the modest doors would be politely, but suddenly, closed. In the art world, these might be labelled “portable altarpieces.” Often, a better term might be “private altarpieces.”
"Braque Triptych" opened. Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1452.
(The Louvre, Paris)

One fine example is the Braque Triptych. The diminutive piece by Rogier van der Weyden struggles to reach 17 inches tall by 54 inches wide. When opened.

When closed, it looks like a sad epitaph to a lost life, and that is what it most probably was. The Braque Triptych was likely commissioned by the widow of Jehan Braque of Tournai, a man who died too soon after marriage. His widow, Catherine de Brabant, carried her grief long after, even after re-marrying, and that grief is obvious on the blackened, exterior doors of the altarpiece.
"Braque Triptych" with doors closed.

But then the doors open. A richness of color, modeling, and symbolism appears that is seemingly possible only from the hands of such a Northern Renaissance master.

The busts of five figures fill the interior. St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene each fill a door. The center panel contains a central Christ, flanked by Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and St. John the Evangelist. Interestingly, I was familiar with the figure of Mary Magdalene long before seeing the entire piece.

One unique feature of the altarpiece is the use of small text that gently flows around the heads of the figures. The Scriptural snippets relate to each figure and add an informal flavor only evident when viewed in an intimate setting.

One might argue it shameful that so much effort was wasted on such an object of exclusivity. On the other hand, it is commendable that in days past the Christian home was considered a natural extension of the Church, complete with reverence, deep heartache, and a longing for the life to come.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Font In My Garage

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In case you haven’t yet noticed, I’m not normal. For starters, I’m an artist. I’m also a lefty. Even though I’m a guy, I can’t stand conversations that dwell on National League standings or sports scores of any kind. I’d rather go shopping. And I have a Baptismal font in my garage.

I could, at this point, tell you that I collect odd stuff; that I’m a pack rat; that I’m a hoarder, but I’m not. I will tell you that ever since I got serious about sacred art, I’ve had all manner of requests come to me without much prompting. That is how the font ended up in my garage.

The Baptismal font and its companion – an antique reredos – was lurking in the dusty basement of a parsonage. I’m pretty sure I was the second-to-last option. The last option was a landfill.

It’s a sad fact that finding church homes for old items is extremely difficult. In many cases, the pieces were replaced with newer accoutrements when the church building had a makeover. And because congregations want new furniture for new buildings, old pieces are most often ignored and put into storage until memory loses its dusty grip.

Through a not-so-normal arrangement, I am going to clean up and reframe the central painting of the reredos for the church that once held the piece. They have a much more magnificent reredos than the original, but the painting has enough historical significance that it belongs back home. In exchange, I will keep the “leftovers.”

The plan is to refurbish the font and reredos frame and, at some point, create an original piece that will hopefully do the old furniture justice. Then I will try to find a home for everything.

But there is a greater reason to stop that trip to the landfill. The Baptismal font simply won’t do for repurposing as a snazzy TV stand or a flower pot or a bird bath. Through that unassuming portal passed a host of The Lord’s own children, newly imprinted with His Name and eagerly welcomed into His Kingdom. For that simple reason, forlorn artifacts such as those populating my garage demand immense respect. The dump is not an option.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Little Christmas in the Sepulcher

“Nativity Icon”
Maxim Yurianov. Undated.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“And this shall be a sign unto you...”

I know this seems totally inappropriate, but Good Friday is a good time to reflect on Christmas. Undeniably, the prophesies of the Messiah, the life of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection are all woven into one gorgeous tapestry. His birth in Bethlehem is part of that. Furthermore, I like to think there is a huge connection between Jesus’ birth and His death.

Holy Scripture isn’t a well-thought-out yarn with a cast of thousands; it isn’t a novel. Neither is it some how-to book on living the good life; the Bible isn’t “Sanctified Living for Dummies.” It is The Word. Because He is The Word, Holy Scripture is Christo-centric. Sorry, dear reader, but it isn’t all about you. (Actually, I'm not sorry at all.)

What this means is that everything in Scripture points in some way to the Christ. For example, if one reads the Passion of Christ as a novel, then the only thing you’ll take away from the crucifixion is that “it was a dark and stormy night.” If, however, you read it in a Christo-centric manner, then you should catch the obvious that Jesus was not just a man; that The Father was abandoning Him; that even the elements were bearing witness to this heavenly punishment.

Likewise, when the word “sign” pops up in Scripture, no one is giving traffic directions. “Sign” indicates that what is about to follow is extremely important; a “sign” points to things more profound than the obvious, no matter how strange the obvious actually is.

Jesus repeatedly told his disciples exactly what was going to happen to Him when they got to Jerusalem. Whether they were in denial, or whether sin had clouded their minds, or whether it was not yet given them to understand, we have a tendency, in 20-20 hind-sight, to do face-palms and shake our heads at their missing the obvious. Perhaps we, too, miss a much earlier clue to Jesus’ death – one that was there at Christmas.

In my pea-sized brain, I contend that a bit of crucifixion foreshadowing occurred when the angels announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds. They were given a sign. Most take the sign as an indication of Jesus humility – the born-in-a-barn thing. Others point to the Virgin birth, but the angels didn’t mention anything about a virgin to the shepherds. Look at the Nativity with a slightly antiquated understanding of shepherding and burial practices and see what otherwise isn't so obvious: A human, wrapped in burial cloths, and lying in a sarcophagus.

In an abrupt shift of artistic disciplines, I recently wrote a hymn that builds on this imagery. “What King So Gently Swaddled There” sings of the entombed King of Heaven, but instead of being wrapped in burial cloths, He is “swaddled.” Of course, this reversal is but a faint shadow of a much greater reversal in the plan of Salvation, for by Grace we put on His royal robes when He assumed our sin. Cantor Christina Roberts set my words to an original tune, which she named "Perpetua Felicity." The hymn will be sung tonight during the Good Friday Chief Service at Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Palms Eternal

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Entry Into Jerusalem”
Pietro Lorenzetti. c. 1320.
(Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy)

It will be relatively easy this Sunday to imagine the roar of the Jerusalem crowd. Our own shouts of “Hosanna” will amplify it, and those palm fronds [and perhaps a grand procession] will make the tableau nearly complete. But if you listen very carefully, you just might hear strains of rejoicing – not at the gates of Jerusalem, but from a very different place in the Kingdom.

The Palm frond has long been a symbol of victory and rejoicing. Not only was it commanded in Levitical style by The Lord for His ancient people, but it was also a common victory symbol used by other cultures, including the Greeks and Romans. Being a showy and elegant bit of botany, the palm frond looked festive when waved, and regal when cradled in an arm. Like the laurel wreath, it took on specific meaning when used in celebratory context.
“St. Stephen”
shown holding a palm frond,
the symbol of a martyr.
Carlo Crivelli. 1476.
(National Gallery, London)

For the Israelites, it was to be used to celebrate during the Feast of Booths – both in rejoicing before the Lord, and in construction of the booths themselves.

It was natural, therefore, that the citizens of Jerusalem utilized palm branches in welcoming what they thought was their “bread king” and the answer to foreign oppression. For a fleeting moment, it was a reason for celebration and rejoicing – if only for a very wrong reason. Their joy would quickly sour into calls for blood.

We should, however, be careful to not judge the Jews harshly for being fickle and ignorant. We know the Christ more intimately than they as our Savior from sin, death, and the power of the Devil, but how quickly we forget rejoicing that fact while facing the next storm or tribulation that comes down our path!

William How’s lyrics from the hymn, “For All The Saints,” remind us of a very different celebration.

Palms decorate this detail of the Procession of Martyrs from a Byzantine mosaic.
The Master of St. Apollinare. c. 526. (St. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy)

“And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song...”

The Book of Revelation holds a close parallel to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem: An innumerable group, dressed in white and carrying palm branches, shout praise to The Lord. As is traditionally depicted in art, these are the noble army of martyrs, but it is also true that those coming out of the great tribulation include us, as well.

Wearing white robes that have been washed in the blood of The Lamb underscores, in unimaginable terms, an equally-great mystery that we shall resound with a joy that is neither fickle nor misplaced, but is inexpressible and without end. There, in eternity, our “Hosannas” will be the victorious realization of our prayers here, in time.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Stuck on Stigmata

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I still bear a nasty, transverse scar on the top of my head from a childhood incident, but I’m almost positive it has nothing to do with St. Peter of Verona. There’s a good possibility I also have a scar as the result of my brother chucking stones at me, and yet St. Stephen has never come into the mix.
Artist Bartolome Esteban
Murillo takes heretical
liberties with his painting,
"St. Francis of Assisi Embracing
the Crucified Christ" c. 1669
(Museum of Fine Art, Seville)

It is a curious thing that Catholics of the Roman persuasion get hung up on stigmata – the wounds of Christ – that somehow appear on [somewhat] normal folks, and desperately try to make a mystical connection. The key word is “curious.”

St. Francis of Assisi is thought to be the first stigmatic, or bearer of stigmata, and a rather long list of stigmatics followed in his wobbly train. It’s common practice to depict St. Francis with stigmata. That is, unless he’s otherwise depicted as occupying himself with a sermon for the birds or, in the example at right, getting all inappropriate at the crucifixion of Jesus. Curious.

St. Catherine of Siena also oozed mysticism. However, don’t confuse her crown of thorns with the stigmata, and try to ignore that invisible ring which proves her marriage to Jesus. And please, oh, please don’t get too curious about her [invisible] ring!

While wading through images of similar devotees, the nagging question eventually surfaced, “So what?” So you fell on some glass or decided to claw a hole in your hand. So what?
Another piece that exudes
mystical weirdness.
"St. Catherine of Siena"
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. c. 1746.
(Museum of Art History, Vienna)

Every year when Holy Week comes along, pockets of Roman Catholics around the globe do the self-flagellation thing or have themselves crucified. But doing so doesn’t help squat where sins are concerned. (Ask the criminals crucified alongside Jesus how it worked for them!) And St. Paul’s mention of “Bearing the marks of Christ,” shouldn’t go beyond the fact that he simply had the snot beat out of him for the sake of the Gospel; throughout his flurry of misadventures, Paul never mentioned being crucified.

There is also telltale evidence of serious Tomfoolery with several stigmatics. Curiously, a number of them had carbolic acid and disinfectants in the cupboard. The former would certainly cause a wound (if self-mutilation didn’t do the trick), and the latter would keep infection at bay. Magdalena de la Cruz, considered for a number of years to be a living saint, later confessed that her stigmata was a ruse, causing her, in turn, to become the patron saint of not-a-whole-lot.

Having the wounds of Christ means little, if anything. The curious wounds in the palms of your hands, your bleeding eyes, the nasty cuts that mess up your bedding, and that hole in your side did not – and cannot – save you or anyone else from their sins. A good number of us in Christendom are not wowed. Nor should we be. Only the wounds of Jesus Christ could atone for the sins of the world – once, and for all – and that they did.

What is more, mystical misfits undermine a much more important mark. That mark occurred when you and I were Baptized in the Name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit. The sign of the cross marked them and us as His, and nothing – NOTHING – can supersede, supplant, or mystify that fact. For those of you still managing nifty stigmata, go buy a box of Band-Aids and please get over it already.