|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 “...to 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.