Friday, October 12, 2018

When German Monks and Ancient Egypt Collide

Apse mural detail of the original St. John's Abbey Church
(St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Beuronese school appears as a blip on the timeline of art history. It is a style of art that doesn’t make the A-list in art history survey courses and relatively few books have been written on the subject. Still, it is worthy of consideration for those at all interested in sacred art.

I was first introduced to the Beuronese school of art while visiting St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. While the school may tout its new Abbey Church, the original abbey far outshines its successor. What is more, the older facade is packed with fine examples of Beuronese art.

Beuronese art is curious in that it came into existence as a deliberate return to antiquity, complete with its own canon that encompassed ideology, approach, and appearance. Benedictine monks founded the school in Beuron, Germany, in the late 1800s. Oddly enough, the German monks looked backward to Ancient Egypt for inspiration and visual cues.

Beuronese images are filled with geometric patterns, palm trees, and “mysterious” color schemes. That’s code for “Where did they come up with THAT?” The colors are sometimes muted, but can also appear in jarring combinations. At other times colors are more rich – bordering on garish.

There is also a rigidity forced on figures, with profiles and full frontal views being the rule. The richness of figures moving effortlessly through space, as was so evident in Italian Renaissance art, is nowhere to be seen. In this regard, Beuronese figures are indeed much closer to ancient Egyptian ideals.

Upon closer inspection, however, the style of art produced by these Germanic monks seems somehow familiar. The notion of monks working in seclusion does not hold. Paralleling the Beuronese school was the development of secular art movements, and flavors of some of them – the Art Nouveau style in particular – are shared with the cloistered counterpart. It may be arguable who inspired whom, but even with his bent view of reality, Gustav Klimt’s work bears marks of Beuronese influence – so much so that art scholars have long taken note.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Symbols for the Divinely Baffling


Copyright © Edward Riojas

This is a new one on me. Apparently, the fleur-de-lis can be used as a symbol for the Holy Trinity. Frankly, I would avoid using it that application because the stylized lily overshadows every other application in its role as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Excepting, perhaps, the Boy Scouts of America, or whatever they're now calling themselves.

Besides, there are plenty of other symbols used to identify the Holy Trinity. Most of the readily identifiable ones make use of triangles and circles and goofy triquetra shapes that are usually interwoven as inseparable knots. It all makes sense. Sort of. The Three-in-One thing is understandable, but not really. When it takes a lengthy Athanasian Creed to state the case -- which still somehow falls short -- it becomes evident the mystery of the Holy Trinity must be understood with a child-like faith, or else our heads will implode.
Detail of illumination from the
"Summa Vitiorium" by
William Peraldus, showing a
version of the Trinitarian Shield.
(unknown illuminator)
c. 1260. (British Library, London)

One symbol of the Holy Trinity has strong creedal flavors. The Trinitarian “shield” states in Latin, English, or other languages that the Son IS God, The Father IS God, The Holy Spirit IS God, but the Son IS NOT the Father, etc.

At least two other plants beside the fleur de lis have also been used to symbolize the Holy Trinity. I’m not quite sure of the metaphorical link, but the anemone flower was used by the early Church to identify the Trinity.

A better visual symbol is the shamrock, or three-leafed clover. St. Patrick is said to have used the simple plant to explain the Holy Trinity, hence its close association with Ireland. (At this point, please refrain from suggesting four-leafed clovers are totally Irish. They aren’t. If you insist upon it, someone might have to clean your clock with a shillelagh.)

One of the earliest symbols is also a slightly unexpected one. Orthodox iconography uses three Angels to represent the Holy Trinity. They are most often shown eating at a table. The reference is, of course, to Genesis 18, in which Abraham is visited by three men. They speak, however, as one, and as the Lord. During the visit, Abraham prepares a meal for them, and so they eat. It may seem odd that iconography depicts the three men as angels, complete with wings. Perhaps the tradition gives a strong nod to Hebrews 13:2, in which the idea of “entertaining angels unawares” is put before the Jewish audience.
Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Andrei Rublev. c. 1405.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

As with many Christian symbols, meaning and intent can only go so far. We needn’t feel, however, that symbols are completely useless in their insufficiency. Christ Himself used word pictures, in the form of parables, to describe for us those heavenly things which defy earthly understanding. So it is with symbols of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Bit About Bronze

"Ferdinando I de Medici" 1608.
Giambologna and Pietro Tacca
(Piazza of the Annunziata, Florence, Italy)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not all that glitters is gold. Sometimes it’s bronze.

I learned a bit about bronze while working on a recent project. Having previous experience in small-scale casting for a jewelry class, I decided in this case to use an art foundry’s services. The latest project was above my experience and pay grade, and I simply didn’t have any blast furnaces hanging about. Partially to keep costs down and partially to get my hands dirty, I decided to finish the piece myself. So it was that I drove to Ann Arbor to collect my [cut up] original wax model, its master mold, and three raw casts.

The color of the fresh bronze castings was a little surprising. It was a bright color that could have easily passed for gold, even though the alloy is mostly copper with a bit of tin.

To modern eyes, that is not what we expect of bronze. It is a peculiar thing that, unlike other art media, our perception of bronze is based solely on antiquity. The fine art world, for example, lauds the restoration and cleaning of old oil paintings. Not so with bronze. Even our language supports this skewed view of the alloy. To have “bronzed skin” is to have spent many hours in the sun. No one, on the other hand, wants to be as sparkly as an engagement ring. That’s just silly.

What would otherwise be simple corrosion or rust is known as “patina” in the bronze world. Bronze sculptures that have been sitting around for hundreds of years all have a patina of brown and/or green and, for some odd reason, this oxidation is desirable for even the newest of bronze pieces.

Natural oxidation, however, takes eons. Enter chemical patinas. There are various ways of quickly producing a patina, but I used a traditional method for my project – ferric oxide applied on the heated piece, with a later application of colored buffing wax. What would otherwise have taken a century or more was accomplished in less than an hour.

Bronze has long been a popular sculpting medium, in part because the heated metal expands when in the mold, thus filling every detail, and because the same metal shrinks when cooling, making it easy to remove from the mold.

In antiquity, however, bronze was also a favorite material for producing military hardware. Hence, many ancient bronze sculptures were lost forever to invading armies, who melted down the bronze and re-cast it into cannons.

Two, however, can play that game. The equestrian monument of Ferdinando I de Medici in Florence, for example, is said to have been produced with Turkish cannons captured by the Knights of San Stefano. Stories like that are golden.

Friday, September 21, 2018

ArtPrize and the ArtCurmudgeon

Copyright © Edward Riojas

ArtPrize, it seems, is an ever-changing thing. Forget the official rules that change yearly. Forget the official boundaries that are ignored by the event itself.  Simply viewing the art entries can be a challenge, especially when venues change entirely.

One may expect, for example, to see some cutting edge pieces at the Kendall Gallery or the UICA, but Kendall has but one entry this year and it’s outside. The UICA, on the other hand, has apparently spread like a virus and is this year at multiple locations – except at the UICA.

Some venues may decide to limit the number of entries so that, in the case of DeVos Place Convention Center, an individual piece needing 150 feet of wall space can be accommodated. Other venues vanish altogether, while yet others add more space. While this makes for a very organic event, it can be slightly frustrating to patrons who may discover these changes on the fly when seriously pounding the pavement.

Being ever the helpful sort of curmudgeon that I am, what follows are a few pieces worth hunting down. They are stylistically all over the map. They may not make anyone’s top list, but if you want a little direction while wading neck-deep through mediocrity and welded, scrap-metal dragons [I know I am being redundant here], then check these out...

(Photo courtesy
Daniel Wurtzel’s “Air Fountain,” showing at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, will indeed make it to the top. [Well, maybe. At this writing the piece seems to be a no-show. See what I mean about change?] “AirFountain” is the sort of piece that is mesmerizingly simple, devoid of any controversy, and oozing with elegance. Check out a video of the Brooklyn-based artist’s piece when it was installed in the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw.

(Photo courtesy
Eric Freitas’ “Twisted Twelve,” hosted by Divani/Gallery Divani, is a combination of precision machinery and disturbing perception all wrapped up in a series of unfortunate events. The working clock – well, sort of – makes no mention of Happy Hour.

(Photo courtesy
“Pacific Quilt,” by Sarah FitzSimons and shown at the GRAM, takes the concept of quilting and blows it out of the water. Using underwater topography and ocean currents, the artist shows what can happen when craft and concept collide.

(Photo courtesy
“Madonna Muerte” is just weird enough to make us want to look at it. That may not exactly be high praise, but in some corners that is high praise, indeed. It is showing at PaLatte Coffee & Art. Bob Doucette, the creator of the piece, is director of many children’s television shows, including PBS’s “Clifford’s Puppy Days.” Knowing that just makes “Madonna Muerte” all the more weird.

(Photo courtesy
John Krout’s “Mid-West Coast” uses a technique more often seen on boxcars and barrios and applies it to the sights of Holland, Michigan. The fresh take on landscape is being hosted by Grand Rapids Brewing Company.

Of course, this is not exactly a well-rounded list of all that you should see. I’m sure some artists may take umbrage that I didn’t include their piece, but then again I refrained from touting my own entry. If you can make the trip to downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the coming days, I’m sure you’ll find a piece that puts all these to shame, and plenty more that are simply, hmm, shameful.

Friday, September 14, 2018

An ArtPrize Retrospective

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time, I refused to enter art competitions. But we must begin long before that time.

During my youth I entered a local art contest, The Festival of the Arts Visual Arts Competition. My two entries were rejected. Thinking those pieces were of undeniable merit, I scouted the resulting show to see what the judges considered worthy. I became disgruntled. I was, after all, a youth. A year passed.

The next year, I again entered two pieces. One was, in my estimation, certainly worthy of the judges. The other was quickly fashioned along trendy lines, closely mirroring the sort of thing seen in Art News. It was cutting edge, and I didn’t care for it.

True to form, the judges accepted the trendy piece, and rejected the other. I remained disgruntled. Another year passed.

When the contest returned the next year, I did not want to enter. At the last moment, however, I emptied a glass and metal frame of its contents, and stuffed trash behind the glass in a disgruntled sort of way. I gave it a nonsensical title, and entered it in the competition. Days passed.

My ugly piece, “Ibid, so what?” apparently was the stuff of which cutting edges are made. It took two awards, and the county bought it for a hideous sum. After that, I decided I would not enter art competitions ever again. Decades passed.

Then ArtPrize was born.

It took two years of badgering and shaming from colleagues, an old art teacher, and my own conscience before I decided to enter the fledgling art competition. I became hooked.

ArtPrize is the sort of thing one reviles and loves at the same time. It can be so annoying, yet no one wants it to go away. It can be horrendously ghastly. It can be exquisitely beautiful.

Above all, it demands much. Miniatures are decidedly unwelcome. Copious amounts of labor are enthusiastically embraced. Size matters. Patrons, who cannot possibly see every entry during the given time, don’t simply want a wow factor – they want to be knocked out of their socks, thrown barefoot on their backsides, and left completely dumbfounded.

Working with such expectations year after year is wearying, and takes its toll on even the most seasoned artist. I would be lying if I did not say ArtPrize has worn me thin. To that end, the organizers’ recent announcement that ArtPrize will become a biennial event came as a strange relief. And still I don’t want it to go away.

I thought it might be interesting to see the labor this competition has thus far managed to squeeze out of me. Below are my yearly entries, some of which slipped from labor-intensive into the insane...

“Owashtanong.” I did not like playing the Native American maiden card, especially with my first entry, so I pushed hard to be faithful to detail and the history of regional Ojibways. Tens of thousands of beads were included in the painting – each with its own shadow and highlight. And, no, it was not painted on velvet.

“Adoremus.” Among the comments this painting evoked was, “I don’t think religious artwork should be included in ArtPrize.” Troglodyte. Apparently, the fact that the Church single-handedly fostered fine art during the Dark Ages is no longer of consequence.

“Förtrollade Skogen.” I was definitely on a roll – if not with commanding size, then certainly with non-English titles. This Swedish-entitled piece left folks speechless – many didn’t even know what they were looking at.

“Ecce Homo.” I waffled seemingly every year between sacred pieces and the urge to create fanciful entries. This one demanded close consideration and, occasionally, tears.

“Under Slottet Bron.” I went through 10,000 business/voting cards and could have used a few thousand more at the venue that hosted me that year. The 13 feet-wide gargantuan had a perpetual audience. Many thought it would make a lovely headboard. Perhaps for a troll.

“Fridur.” Still no English title. Artists sometimes do the most daring things, like using Google to translate the Collect for Peace into Icelandic and slap it on a painting. I prayed that no one from Iceland would visit, but come they did.

“Ambrei As Potamiaena.” Finally, an English title, but it doesn’t even read like English. I strayed out of the 2-dimensional category and into the time-based category. Using a database of thousands of names of Christian martyrs, the names slowly “bled” down the frame and onto the floor.

“O That My Words Were Written.” Being noticeably smaller than previous entries, this year's piece is simplistic, but is still heavy with detail. “Heavy” is perhaps the operative word for the theme and treatment, as well.

After cranking out these paintings year after year, the idea of ArtPrize going on holiday for a year sounds so relaxing. Of course, images of the next entry are already swirling in my head. ArtPrize, it seems, will not go away after all.

The Art Curmudgeon, aka Edward Riojas, will be showing his piece, “O That My Words Were Written,” at Cornerstone Church - Heritage Hill Campus, 48 Lafayette Ave. SE, during ArtPrize. The venue hours are noon - 6 p.m. on Sunday, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, and noon - 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ruminating in Church

"Apse Mosaic" [detail]. Masolina da Panicale. 12th Century A.D. (Church of San Clemente, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s good to ponder things in church. If everything was as expected and there was nothing new to learn, then surely we must be dead. That is why I rather enjoy the unexpected – even where the steadfast Church is concerned.

A few months ago I was meandering through the modest Haehn Museum at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota and spotted an odd, little embroidery of a cross with deer. No, it wasn’t a symbol of St. Eustace or St. Hubert of Liege, and it certainly wasn’t on a bottle of Jägermeister, which strangely has, as its logo, a symbol of one of those saints [or both]. The embroidery was a pair of deer at the base of a cross.

I soon realized, however, that the cross and deer motif is not at all odd. The imagery has been used in Roman Catholicism for hundreds of years, and probably other areas of Christendom, as well. While it isn’t necessarily among the first images one would pick for a church sanctuary, it is certainly fitting. The deer – nearly always shown drinking from a stream – point directly to the opening verse of Psalm 42: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”

Of all people, I suppose I should be the least surprised to find a ruminant in church. The “Te Deum Polyptic," which surrounds the sanctuary of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., was created by my own hand, and it contains a small menagerie.

Supporting the textual phrase, “All the earth doth worship Thee,” is a vignette of all sorts of animals. Intentionally, many of them are “unclean.” There are swine and a praying mantis [see what I did there?]. Also included are bison and, to my recollection, a kudu, or some other ruminant. Had I known the liturgical connection with deer, however, I would have included one – with a very conspicuous tongue hanging out.

I will have a second chance to include a panting deer in an upcoming project. As a companion piece to an altarpiece I created for them a few years ago, Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wis., has commissioned a set of paintings showing all of creation praising the Lord, including local flora and fauna. Yes, that means deer. No, that does not mean cheese.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Art in the Church Catholic

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was raised in a Lutheran home. So was my mother. My father, however, was raised in a Roman Catholic home. It wasn’t until Dad returned from the war and met a spunky Lutheran gal, ten years his younger, that he began thinking perhaps Luther was on the right track. Four children later, and Dad was totally convinced. This is most certainly true.

That family connection to Roman Catholicism has caused me to be persnickety about what it means to be catholic. Like Luther, I’m very comfortable with being catholic. Rome, however, has no part of it. That is, I consider myself part of the unseen company of saints that make up THE Church – the Church Catholic – whether they be of the LCMS variety or not.

I get annoyed when folks, in relating some subject of adiaphora, work themselves into a lather and blurt out that something is “too catholic.” The same sentiment is sometimes applied to sacred art.

Where it often comes up is at the cross or in the lap of Mary. Folks get nervous when an image of Jesus Christ is depicted on the cross (Shouldn’t it be empty?!), and when Mary is shown wearing blue (That was an expensive color of fabric!), and things quickly devolve when a Latin phrase is embroidered on an altar cloth or when pastor shows up wearing (Gasp!) a chasuble. And tassels.

There ARE things that are distinctly Roman Catholic among the visible things in the sanctuary. If, for example, you spy paraments or vestments in a shade of blue lighter than what you ever remember in a Lutheran church, then chances are good that the Virgin Mary is being highlighted while her Son is taking a back seat. A conspicuous initial cap “M” is also another hint, as is a lily motif. (Which is why I shudder at many generic Easter bulletin covers!)

But images of Mary are not of themselves wrong. Context is, of course, key. Neither is there anything wrong with opulent decoration, providing it points in the right direction.

To be fair, myopia sometimes goes in both directions. I once had the opportunity to create art for a Roman Catholic confessional booth. It would have been a lovely piece, the local Monsignor seemed genuinely pleased with my portfolio, and he even came to my studio space to chat about the project. But the commission quickly evaporated, along with the Monsignor’s very existence, when he found out I was Lutheran. Perhaps I was TOO confessional.

Like the inside quip and its rejoinder in our family, “Is it heavy?,” “Then it’s expensive,” the reality seems that if something in the sanctuary is fancy, then it’s Roman Catholic. It occasionally feels true, but that’s just plain nonsense. the Pope doesn’t have a monopoly on gold brocade or Gothic architecture or Latin. If you still think so, then perhaps it’s time again for you to sing the Te Deum Laudamus. A capella.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What Was Left Behind

Engraving from a pamphlet showing the destruction of sacred art (iconoclasm) by Calvinist zealots. Circa 1525-1527.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A recent article in Christianity Today urged a rather small audience with its title, “Christian Artists: Don’t Leave the Bible Behind.” The article was an interview by Jennifer Craft, who asked some questions of Jeremy Begbie, a Duke Divinity School theologian. The aim of the interview was to address “the mutually enriching relationship between faith and the arts.” The periodical’s audience is comprised primarily of Evangelical Christians.

Several people brought the article to my attention, but I was rather disappointed with the nebulous nature of the dialogue that was well-seasoned with highfalutin, artsy-fartsy verbiage. People with smarts sometimes speak that way. When digging into Begbie’s background, I discovered a list of credentials longer than my arm. Unfortunately, I also discovered his interest in ‘the arts’ is primarily on the musical side of things. So while his line of reasoning may well hover near the stratosphere, it means little down in the trenches where I work.

On the other hand, the fact that the subject is being discussed is probably newsworthy, especially in the generic Protestant camps of Christendom, where houses of worship are sanitary affairs, and where sacred art has been taboo for centuries. The same art that has for so long been a given within Orthodox and Roman circles, and which has been regaining steam among Lutherans, is still very much a puzzle among Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular. They simply are not sure what to do with it.

While living in West Michigan, I occasionally meet artists that are products of the Calvinist-rich region. I will rejoin a small group this September for a special event at the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum) – the common denominator being works on the theme of the Prodigal Son, which are part of the Gerbens Collection owned by Calvin College. A few of us artists produced pieces in the collection.

It is interesting to see how Reformed artists – running a parallel course with Evangelicals – struggle with sacred art in the context of their denominational beliefs. Because they have historically eschewed the symbolism and conventions of traditional sacred art, they often attempt to reinvent what our artistic forebears established eons ago, and often slip sideways in the process. A crucifix, for example, may be considered out-of-bounds, but a blob of color will do nicely if it can somehow represent the redemptive act of our Lord. Creativity may be enthusiastically celebrated, but finding The Creator in all of it takes effort.

The arts – specifically the visual arts – are being approached by Evangelicals with a kind of abandon that smacks of both new-found Christian freedom and aimlessness. That can become a problem with the Christian artist. It is at that moment that the title of the article makes sense, but the reality of it is that the urgency is a few hundred years late, thanks to history's iconoclastic zealots, who threw out sacred art [among other things] with the bath water. The title's colon should simply be dropped and the statement be allowed to stand, as it has, for centuries – Christian artists don’t leave the Bible behind.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Drawing Conclusions

Thumbnail drawing for
a commemorative logo

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a time I was a drawing major. Bearing that in mind, one would think that I would be a bit more protective of the myriads of drawings I still produce. I was painfully reminded of this recently, when for some inexplicable reason I destroyed a small set of preliminary drawings for a project. I then had to apologize, after the fact, to a would-be-client interested in buying one of those very drawings.

It is a sad fact that drawings are often treated as a means to an end. They are either the first dumping grounds for an idea, or else they are the final visualization of a composition before transferring to a painting or sculpture. Drawings most often are merely an artist’s editing tool, but they are more.

As high art, they can be exquisite things, with humble materials belying the work of a master. One need only peruse the drawings of Hans Holbein the Younger or Auguste Dominique Ingres to wonder why the artists even bothered with paint. Drawings needn’t be the poor cousins of other masterworks. Most often, however, they are treated as the household staff.

In apologizing for the destruction of my own work, I was also forced to accept the fact that the preliminary drawing was indeed stronger than its final execution. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. There is a quality inherent in drawing that is sometimes missing in other artistic disciplines – the evidence of struggle within the artist’s mind. The marks that make up a drawing can show bold confidence, delicate sensitivity, or muddled indecision. They are at their best when marks create an exact impression without visually spelling things out. It becomes nearly impossible, at that point, to duplicate the drawing’s strength in a different medium, no matter how much more “noble” that medium.

Obviously, this is a bit hard to qualify, so instead of writing further chapters on the subject, I’ve decided to let you wander through a few of my preparatory drawings. They are from past works, as well as current and future projects. The drawings were either buried under other documents or were under glass or were under a blanket of dust. They sometimes show thoughts surrounding the image. At other times they show thinking beyond the image, and give a good indication of the more mundane and calculating places where an artist’s mind must also wander...

Conceptual drawings (and an apparently difficult math problem) for the frame of "Under Slottet Bron."

Conceptual drawing for frame of "Adoremus"

Frame design for "Madonna and Child," Christ Lutheran Church, Orland Park, Ill.

Preparatory drawing for "The Prodigal Son," The Gerbens Collection, Calvin College.
I only noticed at this writing that I had drawn an "Ace" playing card tucked into his belt.
That detail was deleted in the final painting.

Frame design for "Owashtanong," Private collection.

Preparatory drawing for a current Ecclesiastical Sewing project

Preparatory drawing for "Under Slottet Bron."

Preparatory drawing for a future Ecclesiastical Sewing project.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Bearing Crosses [In Mind]

Copyright © Edward Riojas

A cross is a cross is a cross. False.
Jerusalem Cross

There are hundreds of cross variations in existence. Some of them are ancient. Some have roots in heraldry. Others are relatively young. Yet others are so new that they’re still rattling around in some artist’s noggin. For as much as the first Christians generally avoided pictorial use of the cross on which our Savior died, it is certainly the most-used and most-varied symbol in Christendom.

But not all crosses are created equal. Some types were created along cultural or geographic lines. Others are specific to denominations or sects or movements. While many cross designs have identities that have remained through the years, a few have lost their original significance. But before you hunt willy-nilly for a “pretty” cross to plop into your newsletter or logo, it’s probably wise to hunt for its origins beforehand.

Cross of Lorraine

What follows are a few examples that should raise a flag or two where appropriateness is concerned...

The Jerusalem Cross
This is a specific cross that has been used with abandon in all corners of the Church, but its name should give a good hint that it may not necessarily apply to your neck of the woods. While it isn’t wrong per se to use it in Hoboken or Honolulu, it has been closely associated with Jerusalem since the Crusades. The five crosses have been used to indicate the five wounds of Christ, but the division caused by its central cross has also been variously interpreted as the Four Gospels or the traditional four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Papal Cross

The Cross of Lorraine (The Patriarchal Cross or Archiepiscopal Cross)
Some crosses have such tangled histories that it’s best to avoid them altogether. The Cross of Lorraine is one such animal. Its alternate use as the Patriarchal Cross is most often trumped by French claims to its use, including the Free French during WWII, earlier French groups seeking to regain territories, and even earlier by the House of Anjou. Of course, they fail to mention that its origins can be found in Hungary, and probably before that in  Byzantium. And, of course, the cross is also used to identify an Archbishop. The only real occasion one may use the Cross of Lorraine is apparently while eating an Oreo cookie, which is emblazoned with a variation of the cross. Go figure.

The Papal Cross
Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Coptic Crosses

Coptic Cross variations
I’ve included these simply because the Copts were the subject of last week’s post. Their crosses are varied and each is distinct in shape. Among the earliest forms are derivatives of the Egyptian ankh that have been repurposed as a Christian symbol. The reason for this cross-over is understandable – the ankh originally meant "life."
Huguenot Cross

Huguenot Cross
I ran across this gem while vacationing in Charleston, S.C., where dwindling Huguenot descendents rattle around the only independent French Huguenot Church in the U.S., which incidentally is on the Historic Register. In this quirky symbol created by persecuted French Calvinists, a Maltese Cross has been doctored up with a few doo-dads and a pendant of the Holy Spirit. It's strange that the Calvinists added French fleur-de-lis to the design, because the lily has roots in symbolizing the Virgin Mary. Oh, well.

St. Andrew’s Cross
You might rally around this cross if you wear a kilt and get hankerings for haggis, but its shape really is the type of cross on which St. Andrew traditionally met his martyrdom. How such a Christian symbol ever got associated with an ancient golf institution is beyond me, but given the occasional misuse of other crosses, it's probably par for the course.

St. Andrew's Cross

Friday, August 3, 2018

Wearing Christianity On One’s Sleeve

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some things are undeniable.

There are plenty of things in this life that can be avoided and ignored and sidestepped. Many are often prickly and bothersome and annoying. We don’t even know how we should feel when confronted by some of them, but we have a hunch they are somehow wrong. Like elephants in the room, we try to talk past them and pretend they aren’t there. Once in a great while, however, the very things that would otherwise cause us consternation and perplexity force us to pay very close attention.

I was recently doing a bit of research for an upcoming project and ran across – for a second time – an item that was initially brought to my attention by fellow Lutheran artist, Tanya Saueressig Nevin, who also happens to be a tattoo artist: The subject of Coptic tattoos.

It is precisely at this point that many will begin to feel squeamish and stop reading – not because the thought of getting a tattoo is repulsive, but because the thought of ANYone getting a tattoo is repulsive. It says so in the Bible. Someplace.

Typical Coptic wrist tattoo.

Of course, if we are to adhere to Levitical laws with as much vehemence as some, then a great deal of us would have been stoned ages ago. Likewise, our church larders would be overflowing with tithed spices instead of bland ones necessary for casseroles and Jell-O salad. No such luck. As a testament to our own sinfulness, we tend to bring out obscure laws when they suit us and conveniently forget obvious ones when they don’t.

And then the Copts come along.

Originally, the term Copt – or “Qubt” – was a Greek term given to a culturally-distinct segment of the Egyptian population. Later, Arabic invaders used the term to designate both the Coptic culture and their religion, which was a variation of Christian Orthodoxy. Through the centuries, the Copts managed to maintain both culture and Christianity, much to the chagrin of their Muslim neighbors. The beheading of Coptic Christians in 2015 by Muslims is indicative of the kind of persecution they suffer to this day.
Tigrayan girl with simple Coptic tattoo on her forehead
(Photo courtesy of

For nearly 700 years, however, the Copts have embraced a peculiar tradition that is sometimes bothersome to fellow Christians and is outright offensive to Muslims – Christian tattooing. While it isn't the rule, it is common enough to take note. Often a small cross is tattooed on the wrist of children shortly after Baptism, echoing the wounds of Christ. Women sometimes have a cross tattooed on their foreheads. Occasionally, men sport the same. The tattoos may be very simple, or simply in-your-face.

Tattooing has also become associated with making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. A tattoo from a small range of traditional designs may be obtained in Jerusalem as both proof of the pilgrimage and as a personal reflection on the pain which our Lord suffered. One Coptic family, the Razzouks, has been providing tattooing services in Jerusalem since they moved there – during the Crusades. Such is the depth of tradition.

Tigrayan man with Coptic tattoo on his forehead
(Photo courtesy of

There are possible influences that may have helped create this tradition. The Roman custom of tattooing the foreheads of slaves might have seeped into the culture and may have redefined the Copts as being “slaves of Christ.” There are also accounts of Muslims marking Christians who refused to convert to Islam. Such an act might have caused some to cut to the chase and get a proper mark of distinction beforehand.

It is extremely hard for Westerners in general and American Christians in particular to wrap our brains around such a tradition. It is the sort of thing that conflicts with what our mothers often warned us. It is the kind of thing that would have caused angst from our fathers. It can still be a source of disapproval within our households, and within the household of Believers. While existing in a world surrounded by Muslims, however, displaying a cross in such manner shouts a very clear message that surely must resonate with even the undecorated among us: In the face of horrible persecution, some Christians will not, and indeed cannot, deny their Savior.

Friday, July 27, 2018

About That Cross

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I can say with great certainty that nearly every one of you has seen a cross like the one shown. It is most often made of brass, and either sits on an altar or, in a variation, hangs near the chancel. With almost as much certainty, my guess is that most of you don’t have a clue about the little emblem at its center.

At first blush my words seem harsh, but they nod to a nagging fact within Christendom: We are quickly loosing an understanding of symbolic things which have served as visual shorthand for the basic truths we confess. Without launching into a massive explanation [that will eventually manifest itself in a book on Christian symbolism], I think it best to focus on this one, simple item with which we are all familiar.

Abbreviations have, since the early Church, played a part in liturgical visuals. Chi-rhos and Chi-Iotas and “INRI,” along with a long list of other abbreviations, point to artists’ laziness in avoiding to spell out everything. Hand-lettering is, after all, tedious work. In emperor Constantine’s case, the Chi-rho acted as a sort of identifying logo for his troops, so we can forgive him. Besides, he was the emperor.

By the Middle Ages, many abbreviations – or monograms – had been developed to identify Jesus Christ. Among them was IHS and the similar IHC. The short story is that it is the Latinized first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus, using either an “S” or “C” per its lunate or final form, and based on pre-17th century Latin in which the “I” was used before the introduction of “J.” Okay, that wasn’t so short.

Within the chapters of the longer story are different meanings that were applied, after the fact, by various folks. To underscore my point of losing an understanding, the abbreviations became erroneously interpreted as "Jesus Hominum [Hierosolymae] Salvator" (“Jesus, the Savior of men”), “In Hoc Signo [Vinces]” (”In this sign you will conquer”),  “Jesus Hierosolyma Salvator” (”Jesus, the Savior of Jerusalem), and later, the Anglicanized “In His Service.” Quacks.

The interesting thing about early Greek abbreviations is that, instead of using periods, a line was often placed above the letters. In some Medieval forms, when lower case characters were used, this line created a conspicuous cross when intersecting the ascending leg of the “h.” This was sometimes carried through to upper case variations, in which a cross was either fused to the middle of the “H” or was interwoven with the whole monogram.

Of course, it will never replace a corpus on a crucifix, which forces us to acknowledge our Savior’s ultimate act of love for us. This familiar brass item, on the other hand, simply shows Jesus on the cross.

Friday, July 20, 2018


Copyright © Edward Riojas

During the past year or so I’ve come into possession of a few books that are well worth mentioning. A few are signed copies. For the most part, I have been involved with their development in varying degrees. One book is an exception, but it is so exceptional that it, too, is worth mentioning. While this may be considered a sort of book fair, it’s primarily a way to get a peek into some of my projects – past, present, and future...

A while ago I was commissioned to create the cover art for Katie Schuremann’s second edition of “He Remembers The Barren” (Emmanuel Press). It was an honor to take on the project, but was made even more special when the original painting ended up in Katie Schuremann’s private collection.

I also did the cover art for Rev. Tyrel Bramwell’s “The Gift  and the Defender” (Grail Quest Books) – Book 1 in The Lumen Legends Series. I’m currently working on a group of illustrations for an unrelated Bramwell book.

Rev. Gaven Mize is another Lutheran pastor/author. He and his wife, Ashlee, co-authored “God Loves Me Such That He Would Give” (Grail Quest Books), and I joined the children’s book project in the role of illustrator.

St. Paul’s Music Conservatory of Council Bluffs, Iowa, is an ambitious project undertaken by Rev. Nathan Sherrill, Rev. Jim Frank, and others, with a multifaceted approach to music education. As part of the project, a music book, "Jesus, Ground of Faith" (St. Paul’s Music Conservatory) was produced that necessitated my illustrative talents. The first book was quickly published after the conservatory’s inception, and a second book is in the works.

I had no involvement, of course, in Joseph Braun’s “Praktische Paramenten Kunde: Winke Für Die Anfertigung Und Verzierung Der Paramente” (Herder & Co.) I’m old, but I’m not THAT old. This 1920s-vintage book was a generous gift from Ecclesiastical Sewing’s Carrie Roberts. The book will, however, find its way into my future work, and bits and pieces of the designs contained within have already been resurrected as liturgical embroideries.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What Can Be Done

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is one thing to take potshots at ill-conceived sanctuaries and wax nostalgic over churches that have long since been demolished. It is quite another to make sensible artistic suggestions for churches that were never blessed with liturgical art or comeliness in the first place.

My two previous posts have pointed out some winners and losers in Christendom, and its’ time for me to give some practical advice for those who might have a vague interest in doing something – anything – to visually improve the sanctuary. Some pastors know exactly what they want when seeking out my talents. Others are more reserved and prefer suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to approach a liturgical artist, so I try to listen as much as possible to what is – and what isn’t – said.

Among the things that have strong influence on any art project are the building’s architecture, permanent accoutrements, and, yes, mundane things like thermostats, heating vents, and light switches. There can be no forcing a Renaissance fresco into a place where it doesn’t belong. Neither should a cutting-edge, artsy-fartsy piece be installed in a sanctuary with Gothic tracery. The best compliment I can receive is that the finished piece looks as if it was always there; that it was meant to be there.

To give some concrete ideas of what can be done, I've gathered a few photos of bland sanctuaries. I’ve tried to steer clear of Lutheran churches, so some of the sanctuaries have major issues even before artistic considerations can be made. You’ll just have to ignore those things, and try to imagine the blue shapes being filled with Riojas originals...

A chancel area with Romanesque arches and not much adornment easily lends itself to possibilities. Flanking pieces on either side of a central window or altarpiece can be filled with angels and/or favorite saints. If hymn boards are not commanding the walls immediately outside of the chancel, artwork can be hung there in different configurations. Often the Font is placed to the right of the chancel opening, making an obvious spot for a Baptismal-themed piece and providing good reason to remove that annoying projection screen.

The sanctuary front isn’t the only place where art might be added. Traditionally, angels are placed near the rear exit of the church as a reminder of heavenly protection beyond the Divine Service. In similar manner,  areas between windows can sometimes accommodate artwork, echoing architecture and enhancing theological themes.

Of course, you are probably very blessed if your church has Romanesque features. Mod-squad churches come with their own set of problems – and possibilities. Once you rip out that hideous purple carpet, pull down those chandeliers, and get over the stigma of being labeled San Liberace of the Hills, perhaps a commission for liturgical art is in order. Following architectural lines can help ease artwork into odd spaces and make it work. This is one case in which I might stick my neck out and suggest ridding the chancel wall of the three crosses, which are too-widely spaced and symbolically weak. (In my book, a trio of crosses doesn’t confess much, and the visual weight falls on the two malefactors instead of the One Who died for all.)

Timing is everything. Before Mr. Twinklebothom plunks down serious cash for projection screens in all the obvious places, consider something tastefully simple like a nice section of Scripture painted directly on the wall. It won’t detract from the goofy architecture and it will certainly look like the architect planned it that way. And, if you’re quick about it, you can even consider a small piece on either side – one to go with the Baptismal Font, and one to go with the table you’ll need to hold the unconsecrated bread and wine. Plus, you’ll have the perfect reason to throw that praise band junk to the curb.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Writing On The Wall

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old photos of church sanctuaries are the best. They give us hints as to who worshipped there, and what the parishioners considered paramount. They also remind us who WE are.

The kind of photos to which I am referring come from the heartland of the U.S., during a time when photography was still accomplished by big box cameras. It was also a time when wars hadn’t yet affected the use of Old World languages in this new land of opportunity; when Lutheran church services were frequently in German or Swedish.

While I love to see Gothic Revival altarpieces alongside oil lamps or newfangled electric candles, what most intrigues me is the writing on the wall.

Eons before insipid words like “Live, Laugh, Love” were littering American homes, better words of greater substance often adorned church sanctuaries. That was when painters knew a bit more about their craft than roller covers. Often painters were skilled artisans, creating masterful borders and powerful calligraphy with relatively humble materials. It’s a wonder how anyone in their right mind could paint over such ornate work when sprucing-up was deemed necessary.

I’ve found a few old photos that are real gems. Each one tells us what Lutherans held dear, and some of the photos give an added perspective of worship that is worth seeing. ...

(Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)

The chancel wall of First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota , used portions of three New Testament texts. “Behold the Lamb of God!,” John 1:29b; “...Whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross, Colossians 1:20b; and “He is our our peace,” Ephesians 2:14a. The setting of these passages is a cross with radiating lines, which points to the Resurrection.

One notable feature is the somewhat odd position of the pulpit – behind and above the altar. This arrangement came about as a visual protest against Rome, and gave preeminence to the [preached] Word, which, in Roman Catholicism, had become overshadowed by the Sacrament of the Altar. Since then the ‘altar-pulpit’ has fallen into disuse, although some still exist.

Up the road from First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was Chisago Lake Evangelical Lutheran Church. It, too, was a Swedish stronghold. Its communion rail closely followed the half-circle pattern of communion rails in the Old Country, fairly filling the chancel space and forcing the ornate pulpit out into the sanctuary proper – in Germanic fashion. This half-circle confessed “the heavenly host” joining the Lord’s Table at an unseen portion of a full circle, which symbolically extended outside the church building and into the “church yard”– the cemetery.

Text was added around the arch of their chancel – a favorite place of Scriptural ornamentation. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” is a truncated version of Luke 11:28. Other text and opulent decoration covered the Neoclassical walls.

The much more austere Germanic sanctuary of Zion Lutheran Church, Corruna, Indiana, had a lovely altarpiece, an impressive, elevated pulpit, and a massive potbelly stove. This photo was surely taken for a special event, for the place is festooned with evergreen garland and a banner proclaiming, “The Lord has done great things for us.” Psalm 126: 3a.

Not to be outdone by Germanic Hoosiers, The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church, Centralia, Illinois, got together for a reunion group portrait in 1927. Little did they realize that the text surrounding the chancel arch, “Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14a, would soon fall out of fashion during a war in which most Americans dared not speak or write German.

Meanwhile, St. John Lutheran Church, Houston, was doing things in its own style, as is evident by this not-so-old photograph of the restored chancel area. It uses, again, the words of Luke 11:28, while a rather striking version of a pulpit-altar commands the center.

If worshippers didn’t get a clue during the Divine Service at St. John, they were given another dose of the Word when leaving the church. Using a combination of old German text and Gothic architecture in an effect that could have come from Bavaria instead of central Texas, home-grown comfort was driven home with abbreviated words from Psalm 121:8 – “The Lord keep your going out and your coming in. Amen!”