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!”

Friday, June 22, 2018

Change In The Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked to create a piece of art for a church sanctuary, I am always sensitive to the fact that I am introducing change. I note the style of architecture, the placement of furniture, and the permanence of existing furnishings. A sanctuary, after all, is meant to be an unshaken retreat within a world that is constantly shaken. Many congregants have grown up in that church. Some have spent their whole lives attending the same church, and expect to have their own funerals there. They don’t expect major change – even after they’ve been lowered into the ground.
Chancel area of the new
St. John's Abbey Church
(Collegeville, Minn.)

Sometimes, however, I feel as though I am working on a molecular level when a church sanctuary is reinvented on a planetary scale. This was again underscored on a recent visit to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

We first entered the megalithic expanse of St. John’s Abbey Church, an imposing facade created by an endless train of cement trucks, miles of rebar, and nearly one ounce of common sense. Then we walked a short distance to its predecessor, renamed "The Great Hall."

One glimpse of the interior of the original St. John’s Abbey Church begs so many questions, the first of which is: Why did someone feel the need to abandon a place of such exquisite beauty? The original sanctuary is filled with imagery that screams, in specific terms, the majesty and glory and power of our Lord. The newer sanctuary just ... screams.

Original chancel of St. John's Abbey Church,
renamed "The Great Hall"

While drastic, St. John’s reinvention of itself isn’t an isolated case. Strange things can happen when under the guise of “upgrades,” “improvements,” and “makeovers.” I know of a church, for example, whose members felt compelled to reorient the axis of their sanctuary – simply for the sake of tradition. The original chancel became a raised platform for choir and organ console, and the new chancel area became a pinched place midway to the back door.

Even the church in which I was baptized was not exempt. The Church Extension Fund-thing was implemented after ushers tired of putting folding chairs down the aisle. A giant sanctuary was built next to the old, with a courtyard and adjoining classrooms, and the original, beautiful sanctuary was given a dropped ceiling as part of a 1970's makeover. The growing pains reversed themselves, church attendance fell through the floor, and the church eventually – and painfully – was un-dedicated as an LCMS entity.

Change may be inevitable, but stupidity needn’t come along for the ride. More than carpeting color; more than the stiffness of pew cushions; more than brass fixtures in well-designed lavatories, strong consideration must be given to any sanctuary so sought after by hurting and repentant sinners. Then the sanctuary must be given more consideration. And yet more. This place of worship is, after all, The Lord’s house – not His garage.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Step With Ecclesiastical Sewing

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I half-expected Carrie Roberts to speak with a British accent. That’s what can happen when collaborative efforts go on for months and years on end, without so much as a business phone conversation. Carrie and I have always corresponded via e-mail when working together on some of the most exceptional paraments and vestments on the market.

My wife, Mary, and I arranged a brief, first-time meeting with Carrie on the tail-end of a vacation to visit family. While en route, we passed though the hinterlands of Minnesota, where roads meander among pristine lakes, and where church signs are occasionally spelled out in Swedish or Norwegian.

We finally met up with Carrie at “Studio B,” located in the basement of her daughter’s house. Such is often the case with small enterprises, when space requirements and limited budgets necessitate some creative thinking.

Bolts of brocade, stacked floor to ceiling in a tidy rack, waited in one room next to photography lights and a mannequin. Another room was dominated by a humming, but dormant, embroidery machine. A third room was clearly the main work space, and on its massive table lay proof that Ecclesiastical Sewing is no small potatoes.

Green frontals and chasubles in various stages of completion covered the table. They were the first items created using designs from the new “Sanctified Set,” which are meant to be used during those parts of the the Church year sometimes referred to as “Ordinary Times.” Some of the pieces I saw are going to this year’s Higher Things Conferences across the U.S., but ordinary they are not.

Even though I designed various embroideries for the new set, Carrie, in her usual fashion, pushed the designs beyond their original limits. The embroidery machine – dubbed a “dinosaur” – can certainly do a simple stitch and be done with it, but Carrie considers the alternatives and chooses specific stitches that make the most of threads and natural light – this, so that gold threads shimmer; so that mundane colors glow. For a single, large design, the embroidery machine can run for 12 hours or more. If the result is somehow imperfect, it is set aside and re-embroidered.

But the high standards of Ecclesiastical Sewing are not evident simply in the warp and weft of fabric, the trimming of stray threads, or in the maximizing of materials’ potential. A great deal of thought goes into the confessional embroidery images so that they, too, are subject to scrutiny and change. Being something far more than just pretty or handsome puts Carrie’s products in a category far above what is found in most vestment catalogs, and our collaborative efforts will continue to move in that direction.

My first project with Carrie was in the final tweaking of the Luther Rose brocade – loomed in the U.K., and an exclusive product of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Some sort of unofficial record was apparently set when the design was ready for weaving inside of three months instead of the usual two to three years taken by large design houses. Besides a degree in fashion design and a career in the same, Carrie has also completed courses from Britain’s Royal School of Needlework via offerings at Colonial Williamsburg. She has diligently researched and resurrected techniques that once were the norm in cloistered Europe.

But, no – Carrie does not have a British accent.

Friday, June 8, 2018

“O That My Words Were Written”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It sometimes takes thick skin to be an artist.

This will be my eighth year in ArtPrize, and every year panic sets in when I send out requests to have my piece hosted by a venue. It’s very much like sending out resumes, with seemingly every ounce of experience and talent on the line. The clock ticks away as venues consider mountains of requests from a larger mountain of artists. Time passes and no one responds. Self-doubt creeps in. Self-worth looms in the corners of the mind. And still the clock ticks.

I sent out 12 requests to venues this year, representing an “A” list of ideal venues, a respectable “B” list, and a hodgepodge “C” list. I was rejected by 11. I never heard from the last one.

For the first time, however, I was approached by a venue that was nowhere on my radar. Its location is far off the grid, and will get only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of visitors some venues enjoy. Yet I am grateful.

Cornerstone Church is arguably the best fit for this year’s piece, “O That My Words Were Written.” I sent requests to two other church venues, but one of those is too wrapped up in social justice to bother with Holy Scripture. The other may be more concerned with cutting-edge beauty.

Even when considering my habit of juggling different subject matter, this year’s entry is very different. The word of God takes center stage in my piece. There are no striking figures in the painting. There are no cute visual devices; nothing hidden to find. The background is dark and contains brambles reminiscent of tattered angel wings. A single stone megalith bears words written in Germanic blackletter characters. If fashion was used to describe artwork, “Goth” might cross the viewer’s mind.

Without the darkness of this world, with its disappointments and downfalls and shortcomings and ugly horrors, joy would seem as fluffy as cotton candy. But joy is much more substantial. In this piece I have partially given what Job could only pray – that his words would be written in stone forever. When all that he had was lost; when his friends chided him for his sins; when his children were taken from him; when his property was gone; when his health was in shambles; when his wife urged him to curse God and die; when he seemingly had nothing left, still he confessed he had everything – a Redeemer that lived. In his words were real joy, and we claim his words as our own.

We pray that the Word will have free course, that the good and gracious Will of the Father be done, that the Spirit will speak through us at the appointed time, and that the Gospel of Christ Jesus will spread to the ends of the earth. Perhaps thousands will not see this year’s ArtPrize entry. Perhaps, however, there is but one visitor somewhere out there who might chance upon my piece during ArtPrize, and perhaps that one person is the one who needs to read this small excerpt from the Book of Job. If I have done well by the Word of God, then I have done well, indeed.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Process of Elimination

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked how he accomplished his masterpiece, “David,” Michelangelo famously responded, “I created a vision of David in my mind and simply carved away everything that was not David.” One must wonder which Michelangelo was speaking – the eloquent master who affected so much of Renaissance art, or the smart aleck who had a knack for giving offense.

Subtractive sculpting uses a bass-ackwards way of thinking, and Michelangelo gave a hint with his oversimplification. In its most pure form, in which a large block of stone or wood is finally reduced to a thing of beauty, there is no way to erase a mistake. Gluing a piece of over-zealously-gouged wood back onto the piece is not a good option. Doing the same with stone is an impossibility. In that regard, a greater deal of forethought goes into subtractive sculpting than its additive counterpart.

“Corpus” was recently installed at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It’s worth seeing a few photos of the process to appreciate what goes into – or rather, what is taken away from – a simple piece of wood.

Because it is extremely hard to find a single piece of wood large enough to work subtractively, I initiated the project with a bit of additive sculpting. The Corpus proper would start with four pieces cut from the same piece of basswood.

Arms would be bolted to the torso, and the head would be glued and screwed to the front of the torso. It was critical to make the joints as tight as possible, yet accessible enough to accommodate disassembly and reassembly for shipping and beyond.

Because basswood – a wood commonly used by carvers – is extremely soft, hanger bolts with substantial grip were employed to hold the arms in place.

Once the body blocks were constructed, lines were drawn on the blocks indicating the general form of the finished piece. Roughing out was done with power tools, including a drill fixed with a Forstner bit and a saber saw. Large gouges were also used. Throughout the “wasting” process, it was imperative to keep in mind the unseen visual limits of the finished surface.

Once rough wasting was complete, a different power tool came into play. My weapon of choice is a professional Dremel tool, fitted with a flexible shaft and foot pedal. Various heads can be used, including a carbide shaping wheel. Wearing a good respirator is a must. The tool works at such high rpms that it throws fine wood powder by the bucket load.

As work continued, smaller amounts of wood were subtracted. The head went through a metamorphosis in which different facial types replaced previous ones. As in drawing or painting, the slightest changes in facial features create a different likeness, but unlike those two disciplines there is no going back.

Areas that would have the most detail, such as beard and hair, were left for last – subtleties of the skin had to be first smoothed.

Because wood is susceptible to damage where extremely delicate details and grain of the wood are concerned, the thorns of the crown – cut from the same wood – were shaped and fitted into sockets.

Specialty hardware that replicated rough-cut spikes was used to secure the Corpus and its accompanying tabula to an existing cross in the church chancel.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Dates Without Hyphens

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Grief does not forget us.

Folks will be making visits to the cemetery this weekend – if grilling can be put on hold for a few minutes. Cemeteries will be decked out with flags and flowers for Memorial Day.

When visiting other parts of the U.S., I enjoy the occasional side trip to a cemetery if there is an old one in the vicinity. Doing so is both an alternate way to study history and a back window into the more poignant parts of humanity. I typically gravitate toward the older, weather-worn tombstones that speak in the king’s English or sport lichen-covered details. Towering monuments don’t much interest me, but the tiniest do. Sometimes the grave markers are so small that one needs to push down the surrounding grass to properly read the engraved text.

Many of the smallest gravestones date from 1918, when a flu epidemic spread throughout the U.S. Whether dating from that particular epidemic or from any other year, it is heartbreaking to find a tombstone with only one date. A newborn whose life was cut short seems the worst kind of grief to bear.

In spite of advances in medicine and the modern means to fight against epidemics, we are still susceptible to death. We will always be, this side of heaven. So, too, the smallest of our children.

We are encouraged on Memorial Day to honor the war dead. Beyond the national holiday, we are also encouraged to remember the widow and the fatherless. It is also good to remember those who have lost newborns and those who have delivered stillborn babies. Their grief is no less than that of mothers who replaced a service banner’s blue star with a gold one. When you visit the graves of those great heroes who gave their lives in the service of their country, remember also the least of our countrymen whose time came far too soon.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Sanctuary’s Image

Detail of [soon to be installed] "Corpus"
Edward Riojas 2018.
(Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Pagosa Springs, Colo.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The church sanctuary is just that – a haven. It is a place in which the cares of the world hold little sway, and the blessings of the Lord come to us. The older I get, the more I understand the Psalmist when he wrote, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

But sanctuaries differ visually from one another. Sometimes big differences aren’t all that intentional – being dictated by taste and architecture. At other times, however, there is strong intent that comes with denominational territory.

The next time you visit an Eastern Orthodox church, for example, see how many sculpted pieces you can find in the sanctuary. Chances are the church will be wonderfully elaborate, with plenty of paintings, but three-dimensional images will be very hard to come by.

The Second Council of Nicaea of 787 effectively eliminated sculpted pieces from Orthodox sanctuaries by re-instituting the veneration of icons. During the previous decades, the use of any religious image – sculpted or otherwise – followed the fickle winds of change buffeting between those who saw any sanctuary image as sacrilegious and those who viewed the same as sacrosanct. Depending on what opinion one held during the Iconoclastic Controversies, lives and livelihood were often forfeited.

Sculptures were ultimately relegated to obscurity in Orthodoxy because they could not convey in three dimensions what the two-dimensional icons were intended to do – namely, portray a “window into heaven” by means of strange perspective, peculiar imagery, and an unbending adherence to tradition. So much weight was given to icons that sculpture was deemed unnecessary, and custom eventually made them inconsequential.

The Roman Catholic church officially agreed with the cannons of the Second Council of Nicaea, but customs of the Western Church allowed sculpture to remain on a par with two-dimensional images. Rome also held a more moderate view on the East’s strict adherence to the traditions and veneration of icons.

Lutherans usually take a different tack on sanctuary imagery. Veneration is non-existent, excepting, perhaps, a few on the outer fringes of Lutheranism. Where artwork is present it is instead seen as a great teaching tool and a reminder of all that the Lord has done for us. The scarcity of artwork that may be evident in Lutheran churches is often due to budget constraints, lingering effects of Pietism, and long-running acceptance of artwork’s absence in the church, but it is not based on an iconoclastic view.

The Second Council of Nicaea also affected those in the Calvinist camp, but in a negative way. John Calvin rejected the cannons of the Council and reverted to the position of the iconoclasts. Viewing the images as “graven” and therefore sacrilegious, Calvin joined with fellow reformers Zwingli and Karlstadt in urging the removal of artwork from sanctuaries. Some sanctuaries were forcibly gutted by rioting rabble. Luther was most displeased by the antics. To this day, many church bodies with Calvinistic roots have very little, if any, artwork in their sanctuaries.

Strangely, the total cleansing of church sanctuaries has left Calvinistic denominations with a peculiar dilemma. In doing away with images that afford focus on and remembrance of our Lord, parishioners are forced to focus not on a cross or an image of our Savior, but on a preacher; a human, that is front and center. That, arguably, is a much greater sacrilege within the sanctuary.

Friday, May 11, 2018

God’s Mom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s Mothers Day weekend, and folks are working themselves up in a lather to properly express some gratitude for their mothers on this one holiday, as if every other day of the year isn’t quite worthy of a nod of appreciation. Like our moms often told us: You know better.

There is one mother, however, that can stand a bit taller where pride in her offspring is concerned, and that is Mary, the mother of our Lord. The mystery of the Holy Incarnation is beyond comprehension. The how’s and why’s of a human mother giving birth to her Lord and ours is nothing around which we can wrap our brains. And yet we try.
"Pietà" Michelangelo. 1498-1499.
(St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City)

Images of Mary are so varied that they serve as proof of man’s fervent desire – and gross inability – to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord. Sensible Christians should give respect to the mother of our Lord, for as the angel Gabriel said, she is "Blessed among women." Denominational differences, however, become strong where Mary is concerned. Even within the Lutheran sphere there are strong opinions, depending at which point in Luther’s life doctrinal claims are based. Others, however, prefer to insult our intelligence by going beyond what is sensible, and supplementing what Holy Scripture refuses to tell us. If opinions of Mary vary as much within Christendom, how much more the visualizations of those beliefs!

Among the most austere representations of Mary is one of the most famously-gorgeous – Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica. In spite of a High Renaissance approach filled with voluminous fabric and delicately rendered forms, Mary is decidedly lacking in symbolic references. Whether intentional or not, Michelangelo deftly side-stepped the nearly-obligatory halo, although the folds of her head drapery subtly suggest one. The artist even avoided using the color blue [indicating purity] simply by adhering to the Renaissance misconception that Classical sculptures of Greece and Rome were not polychromed. Of course, there is plenty in Michelangelo’s masterpiece with which hard line devotees can take umbrage – the utter lack of symbolism and Marian adoration being chief among them.
"Virgin of Paris"
Anonymous. 14th Century.
(Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris)

Another example from the Northern Renaissance shows a far different Mary. The “Virgin of Paris,” housed in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, shows Mary as Queen of Heaven. The Marian theme takes cues from somewhat vague imagery in the Book of Revelation and runs with it. The crown is truly regal. So is her garment, being hemmed with jewelled embroidery. Mary holds a single lily, a symbol with which she is closely associated.

The figure of Christ, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought. He wears no crown. A royal orb signifying His rule over the world and the cosmos lacks the usual cross, making it seem like a child’s plaything instead of a symbol of the Lord’s sovereignty. The Marian slip shows, and the scales are embarrassingly tipped toward the creature and not the Creator.

If Jesus Christ is thus allowed to become subservient and peripheral, then surely He can be discounted altogether. Such is the natural progression where the cult of Mary reigns. When allowed to run rampant, images of Mary lean toward schmaltzy ‘sacred heart’ icons of questionable meaning. Representations of Our Lady of Guadalupe fit snugly in this category. Building a case on visions from a former believer in the Aztec religion is highly suspect, and creating an original image – referred to as the “tilma” – by the same dubiously-miraculous manner is just plain dangerous.
"Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe"
Anonymous. 1531.
(Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Tepeyak Hill, Mexico City)

The tilma image is of Mary – sans Jesus – in an attitude of devotion, and surrounded by a mandorla – a sort of halo encompassing her entire body. She is sometimes shown wearing a crown. (There is considerable debate surrounding the crown – or lack thereof – in earliest ‘Guadalupe’ images.) One ingredient that is always present in this Marian form is the crescent moon on which she stands. This is again a reference to the passage in Revelation.

What is not so obvious to modern eyes is the same image seen through Aztec lenses. While “the mother of our Lord” and “the mother of God” are innocuous terms used within Christendom to speak of Mary, the Aztecs worshipped Tonantzin, “the mother of the gods” – literally and affectionately, “our mother.” The moon, in the Aztec religion, was also identified with this deity.

Some may laud Juan Diego for his visions that initiated the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but Juan’s Aztec surname, Cuouhtlatoatzin, thinly veils a far different reality: His visions occurred at Tepeyak, the site of the Aztec temple to Tonantzin. It may seem that the New World fully embraced Mary, the mother of our Lord, even using her image as a rallying point for national pride and military might. Those early visions, however, were often viewed in a different light, and it took great pains for the Roman Catholic clergy to finally stay locals from referring to Mary as “Tonantzin.”

Friday, May 4, 2018

Church Eye Candy

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Church, of course, is not the building. Only in the smallest sense of the word do bricks and mortar come to mind. Today, however, we will give our eyes a bit of inspiration by way of those humble materials.

Any art survey course worth its weight will expose students to the “A” list of cathedrals across the globe. Church facades with names like Notre Dame, Haggia Sophia and Sainte-Chapelle, and cathedrals in Cologne, Salisbury, and Milan are sure to come up. Even the goofier designs of Le Corbusier and Antonio Gaudi are likely to be mentioned. But there are other church buildings – worthy in their own strange right – that might manage the “B” list or some other catalog far down the alphabet, and those are for today’s consideration.

For starters, we go to Reykjavík, Iceland, and look at the Hallgrímskirkya. Modest it is not. One might snicker over its claim to fame as the tallest church in Iceland – especially after wondering whether the frigid country could even support two churches. But in an effort to out-do the Roman Catholic cathedral located in the same city, the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkya was sent skyward at 244 feet. It’s facade is intended to mimic the snow-covered mountains of the landscape.

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík, Iceland

If big isn’t your thing, then perhaps a short visit to the little country of Luxembourg to see the diminutive Quirinus Chapel is in order. Originally a pagan site, the caves were given walls, a roof, and bell towers. It has been a Christian sanctuary since the 11th century, and for those planning a visit, the church is [ahem] just off the road.

Quirinus Chapel, Luxembourg.

Not to be out-done by Luxembourg, Germany dug its own little church out of a mountain. Technically, Felsenkirche, located in the town of Idar-Oberstein, was built on a natural ledge of a cliff. It has served as a sanctuary for worshippers since the late 1400s.

Felsenkirche, Idar-Oberstein, Germany

Meanwhile in the Dominican Republic, architects have taken things into their own hands. Cumbersome in both name and materials, the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is a gargantuan oddity that is reminiscent of the St. Louis arch and a MacDonald’s restaurant on drugs. It’s amazing what one can do with a vision of the Virgin Mary and a few bags of concrete.

Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, Higüey, Dominican Republic.

As long as we’re on this side of the pond, we might as well take a hop, skip, and a jump into Colombia to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary. If the Hogwarts crowd wasn’t so much into wizardry, this is where they’d all go to church. If you happen to visit the shrine, however, Tuesdays are popular for pickup games of Quidditch.

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Nariño, Colombia.

If you’re into mega churches, then here you go. The Cathedral of Maringá in Brazil will also do the trick if you’re into large grain bins and rocket assembly buildings. I won’t mention its obvious nod to a dunce cap. I simply won’t.

Cathedral of Maringá, Maringá, Brazil.

Let’s wrap things up with another Lutheran church – this time in Copenhagen. Grundtvig’s Kirke is imposing and brutish and looming. And we can’t stop looking at it. The facade takes all its cues from traditional cathedral floor plans and almost lapses into the Gothic realm. Almost. This is a rare example of Expressionist architecture, and every detail has been pumped with visual steroids. If churches went to the gym, this is the one that would grunt as it dropped 400 lbs. of free weights on the floor. But the church isn’t all doom and gloom. The congregation even has a children’s theater group in which participants “perform cheerful games.” They meet in the crypt.

Grundtvig's Kirke, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Tools of the Trade

Symbol of St. Capraisius
(Copyright © Edward Riojas) 

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.” Luke 10:3-4

Pastors-to-be have just received their calls from distant congregations. The Call Service first brings thoughts of Christ’s charge to the 72, but then the symbols of St. Bartholomew, St. James the Less, and more obscure saints like St. Capraisius come to mind – and their tools.

In many ways, Christ’s charge loudly echoes with young pastors being sent to their first congregation. Education loans often follow the men as they leave seminary. Sometimes wardrobes have been supplemented with donated clothing. Sometimes furniture and books are secondhand. Purses are small indeed, if not absent altogether. Always, pastors leave the company of fellow brothers to face an unknown road and the reality of an unbelieving world. Things truly haven’t changed much since Jesus walked among us.
Symbol of St. Bartholomew
(Copyright © Edward Riojas)

Strangely, many of the symbols by which saints are known contain tools. Stranger still, the symbols do not point to saintly tradesmen. Neither do they point to godly professions, nor random talents of the saints. Being so closely associated with tools seems incongruous with a charge to take nothing with them, yet some of them seem to have a whole toolbox.

In most cases, the tools point to the manner in which the saints were martyred. Saints occasionally have more than one tool-based symbol to their credit, as if a macabre Monty Python skit was being played out:

First saint: “I was beheaded”
Second saint: “I was clubbed, then beheaded.”
Third saint: “Luxury.”
Symbol of St. James the Less
(Copyright © Edward Riojas)

One needn’t dig too deeply through the list of saints to quickly realize many were indeed lambs among wolves. The depravity of man also becomes evident with symbols of axes and saws and crank handles and bladed wheels and spiked chairs. Such symbols soberly remind us of our broken world, Faith’s resilience, and those who counted their lives so little when in the balance with eternity.

The trade – a forfeited earthly life for an eternal one bought by Christ Jesus – far outshone the tools others used on those saints of old. It still does. The brilliance of the Gospel will never be overshadowed by the darkness of sin. Neither will those who faithfully spread the Gospel ever be found wanting.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Sitting Presidents Setting Precedents

"Lansdowne George Washington"
Gilbert Stuart. 1797.
(National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One major U.S. publication recently declared that the new portraits of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama "had cheerfully bucked the trend" of "forgettable" portraits. The newspaper probably could have said much more, but the entire nation was chortling too much to hear anything at all.

Sitting for a portrait can be a daunting thing to face on either side of the easel. I personally love doing portraits, but most folks balk at the nuisance of being artfully recorded for posterity. When the sitter's credentials are huge and their time is minuscule, that annoyance grows exponentially, making the artist uneasy in turn.

Presidential portraits, however, come with the territory. So does sitting for one.

"Theodore Roosevelt"
John Singer Sargent. 1903.
(White House, Washington D.C.)

The current practice is that an official oil portrait is painted after the president leaves office. Typically, they are privately funded, but President Trump recently signed a bill that will keep it that way. While in office, other official portraits – often photographs – may be used, but it’s the later portrait that is most celebrated.

Most of the presidential portraits are anything but “forgettable.” Gilbert Stuart’s full-figure portrait of George Washington set the standard. Not surprisingly, the first president’s visage was wrought in nearly every medium for decades long after his demise. For the nation’s centennial, some pretty silly artistic manifestations popped up that put old George in the demigod category. Forgettable? I don’t think so.

Perhaps President Theodore Roosevelt’s portrait was forgettable. He so hated the first version painted by Théobald Chartran that it was first put in a dark corner of the White House and later destroyed. John Singer Sargent was then commissioned to paint a better portrait. The new artist was smart enough to elicit a bit of presidential rage, thereby capturing the essence of the man. The resulting painting was adored by Roosevelt.
"John F. Kennedy"
Aaron Shikler. 1970.
(White House, Washington D.C.)

Maybe JFK’s portrait was forgettable. It is an unusual portrait, painted in the wake of the president’s death. Not wanting to follow the pattern of previous Kennedy portraits, his widow stipulated that the official portrait be something different and not show his penetrating eyes. The pose is one of deep introspection, and mirrored the psyche of a mourning nation. Maybe that’s what they meant by “forgettable.”

Barack Obama’s portrait, by Kehinde Wiley, is a bit of a let-down, considering Wiley’s other portraiture. A random assortment of symbolic flowers sprout behind the sitting president amid a wall of ivy. So many parodies have flooded the Internet that it’s laughable. Any portraitist called upon by the nation’s highest office should anticipate such nonsense if he is worth his salt.

Michelle Obama’s portrait, by Amy Sherald, is far worse. One can label it “cutting edge” until the cows come home, but it will always stink of high school in its annoyingly-unbalanced composition, uninspiring color scheme, and questionable likeness. [My sincere apologies to high school artists. And smelly lockers.]

Perhaps a whole White House full of presidential portraits isn’t enough to inspire everyone. Perhaps well-founded conventions portraying the dignity and character of the office isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe it’s time to update the Oval Office with a bit of orange shag. If, however, you think the likes of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald will in any way ever outshine the talents of Gilbert Stuart or Rembrandt Peal or John Singer Sargent, just forget it.

"Barack Obama" [left] by Kehinde Wiley. 2018, and "Michelle Obama" [right] by Amy Sherald. 2018.
(National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.)

Friday, April 13, 2018

Checking out Sargent

"Frieze of the Prophets." John Singer Sargent. Installed 1895. (Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

My, how times have changed.

One can hardly move through the public spaces of the United States without stumbling on a scar where a representation of the ten commandments once commanded a view. In the quest to equalize all citizens – especially the tiniest and most vocal minority groups – the Judeo-Christian segment of society has taken a massive hit. City halls and public schools and courthouses and libraries have become so sanitary that one wonders how any of our freedoms can freely roam at all.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the seeds of free thought were being sown almost willy-nilly, and at least one celebrated artist rather unintentionally set a high bar among public spaces.

John Singer Sargent, portrait painter of the rich and famous, and widely known for his then-controversial portrait of “Madame X,” was sharing a cavernous, English studio with another well-known artist, Edwin Austin Abbey. Abbey had been commissioned to paint a series of lavish murals to decorate a large gallery in the new McKim building of the Boston Public Library, and, in keeping with a romantic literary theme, based his 15 paintings on “The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail.” The quasi-religious, Arthurian legend was certainly enough to loudly inspire, even among the hush of library patrons.

While Abbey was working on his project in the studio, the building’s architect, Charles Follen McKim, gave a similar commission to Sargent for murals in a different gallery. The brilliant portraitist was given free reign on subject matter. Early on, Sargent leaned toward a theme based on the imagery of Spanish literature. And then he changed his mind.

Perhaps it was that Sargent knew his Boston audience. Perhaps the robust Irish-Roman Catholic population had something to do with it, or maybe it was the large Jewish community. Perhaps it was the emergence of off-beat belief systems, hybrids of existing religions, or simply his own curiosity that caused Sargent to choose the “Triumph of Religion” as his theme.

Sargent may have aimed at what, in his own mind, was a broad target, but the result can easily be viewed with a very narrow scope. Instead of including a truly global set of religions, inclusive of Far Eastern religions and those of Central Africa and South America, Sargent chose to highlight only those connected to civilizations mentioned in Holy Scripture. There is, for example, strange imagery of the Egyptian goddess, Neith, the Canaanite god, Moloch, and Gog and Magog, but that is where paganism ends in the murals.

The lion’s share of imagery contained in the Sargent Gallery highlights the Israelite’s oppression, Old Testament prophets, depictions of angels, a multitude of Marian-themed images, and, perhaps most significantly, a lovely image of the Holy Trinity and a sculpted crucifix commanding one end of the gallery. The Three Persons share a single robe emblazoned with “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus...” Slightly below is a crucifix with Adam and Eve collecting the blood of Christ and, below His feet, an image of the Pelican in Her Piety.

Sargent’s gallery was never finished. Drawings exist of an intended addition, “The Sermon on the Mount,” but other commissions increasingly pulled the artist away and, ultimately, his own death ceased all work on the project.

It is questionable that a full accounting of his own beliefs can be construed from Sargent’s progress on the Boston Public Library. At one point, however, the artist was forced to repair damage to a section when disgruntled members of the Jewish community threw ink on a blindfolded representation of the Synagogue, and, in spite of attempting a mere historic view of Israel and the manifestation of the Messiah, it is remarkable that Sargent’s result is a decidedly lofty, if not edifying, set of murals. Perusing the library’s Sargent Gallery with its depiction of Old and New Testament imagery certainly puts to shame the collective public spaces of our entire nation, and, quite frankly, many of our churches, as well.

"Dogma of Redemption." John Singer Sargent. Installed 1903. (Sargent Gallery, Boston Public Library)

Friday, April 6, 2018


Copyright © Edward Riojas

We sometimes treat our pastors shamefully.

When we’re not thinking about the quality of Bible class coffee, we often grouse about the length of sermons, the shortfall of funds, the height of the pulpit, the depth of the Baptismal font, and the breadth of the pastor’s chasuble. We complain that cousin Citronella can’t commune with the rest of the family at Easter; we complain that the organist can’t play “Here comes the Bride” at our kid’s wedding; we complain that we’re singing that unbearably-long Luther hymn. Again. And we complain that we have to crack open a Bible during Bible study.

These may seem exaggerations, but there are untold stories regarding wayward sheep. Many are real head-scratchers. For the most part, pastors have that blessed ability to absorb such nonsense – stupidity and all – as if their main job description was playing the role of sanctuary piñata. They aren’t any such thing.

On the other hand, when the chips are down, when death pays a visit, when sin overwhelms us, they are the first to show up – not to give what the old Adam wants, but to give us the Scripture we truly need.

The Office of the Holy Ministry is a gargantuan blessing to us poor, miserable sinners. When given an opportunity to do it right by our pastors, we should splurge. That is why I’m releasing a newly-designed Ordination certificate and it’s close cousin, an Ordination Anniversary certificate.

While I took cues from some of Cranach’s book title pages, the entire design is original and is meant to edify. On the certificate, a pastoral stole displays symbols of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, along with a traditional nape cross, emblazoned in this case with the VDMA abbreviation which means “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.” The stole is draped over a Shepherd’s cross composed of intersecting rod and staff – symbolizing the blessings of pastoral correction and guidance. Crossed keys symbolize the Office of the Keys, which is entrusted to called and ordained Ministers. A vignette of Christ in the role of the Sower adorns upper portions of the document. Luther’s Seal, the VDMA cross, and a space for a church seal run along the bottom. The whole background of stylized floral embellishment is actually a single, rich growth that originates from Holy Scripture, which, in turn, is underscored with three bookmarks as being Divinely inspired.

Some may argue that the certificate is too ornate or opulent. Others may argue that it looks too “catholic.” I will take both charges as high compliments. It is, however, a relatively simple gesture in honoring the Office of the Holy Ministry. For too long the Church has languished in 1960’s ugliness, and not even certificates escaped unscathed. Mod-squad motifs of sweeping lines and spare detail now only smack of embarrassing cuffed, bell-bottoms, polyester disco shirts, and ill-conceived perms for men. If we are to celebrate the Church as the Bride of Christ, then it’s time we put aside notions of showing up at the wedding wearing a marmish, plaid housecoat, and underscore instead the beauty and opulence and richness of all that the Lord sees through eyes of Redeeming Love.

Both Ordination certificates are being offered as 11" x 17" giclée prints for $75 each, which includes digital text insertion for those not keen on hand-lettering the documents. To order or for more information, please e-mail me at

Friday, March 30, 2018

Banner Day for Christendom

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“The royal banners forward go...”

Legend has it that the Lenten hymn containing this phrase was written by Venantiaus Fortunatus to accompany a grand processional. The momentous event occurred in late 568 A.D. at Poitiers, when a supposed relic of the true cross was being presented to the church there. Fortunatus was given the distinction of formally receiving it, so it was that he and a contingent of dignitaries processed while singing the hymn.
"Resurrection" (Detail of fresco of
"Scenes from the Life of Christ."
Giotto. 1304-1306.
(Capella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy)

That legend slightly soils my appreciation for the hymn, but one would otherwise find it hard to stretch a Scriptural metaphor out of the title line. I seriously doubt royal banners were employed at common executions in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Furthermore, Christians might view the cross of Christ as a singular royal banner, but not a multitude of them.

In sacred art, royal banners do appear, but not usually during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Resurrection is an entirely different matter. Banners became the rule in depictions of the Resurrection by the time the Proto-Renaissance rolled around, and it is Jesus Christ who carries them.

Origins of Christ holding a white banner emblazoned with a red cross are hard to find in Orthodox imagery. Oldest formulae in Orthodoxy show the resurrected Christ yanking Adam and Eve out of their graves. He pulls so hard at them that one wonders at the soundness of their rotator cuffs. When icons do give Jesus a free hand, He sometimes holds a staffed cross. Only in modern Eastern icons and Coptic icons do banners occasionally show up.
"Harrowing of Hell"
Martin Schongauer. 1480s.
(National Library of Russia,
St. Petersburg)

The Florentine artist, Giotto, was one of the earliest to depict the risen Christ with a resurrection banner. Soon others followed his lead, and it became a familiar pattern as the renaissance spread northward. But why the banner?

The answer doesn’t necessarily have to do with a living Christ. It points, instead, to the place from whence He just emerged. Holy Scripture briefly describes this in 1 Peter 3:18-20 – specifically with the phrase, “...He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” He might have been proclaiming and preaching in hell, but it was a sermon of fire and brimstone and not much else. Christ descended into hell to proclaim victory over Satan and his minions. The banner is a victory flag.

One must be extremely careful to not read purgatorial nonsense into the passage of 1 Peter. Many have, and the result has created a whole genre of “the harrowing of hell,” which is Scriptural in name only. There is enough art to further the heresy. The Example by Schongauer, along with many similar images, borrows a motif from orthodox imagery and applies it incorrectly to Christ's visit to hell, showing Christ pulling “saints” out of hell. Scripture simply does not say that folks get a second chance after they are dead and gone. It doesn’t happen.
"Resurrection of Christ with Donor Family"
Lucas Cranach the Younger. c. 1573.
(Private collection)

But the resurrection DID happen, and it was a banner day for all believers. Remember that the next time you see a depiction of Jesus Christ – or the Lamb of God – holding a banner. It symbolizes that He has conquered sin, death, and hell, and has firmly rubbed Satan's nose in that fact.

Friday, March 23, 2018

For Holy Week

Copyright © Edward Riojas

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Today I'm letting a new piece do the talking, with minimal textual intrusions to explain some symbolism. "Crucifixion" was recently installed at Zion Lutheran Church, Garret, Ind.

Tabula Ansata: The inscription here follows a traditional artistic formula. It is a gross abbreviation of "Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews" in Latin. The full wording was not only in Latin, but Greek and Aramaic, as well.

Christ's hand: Though fixed to the cross, His hand is in the attitude of blessing.

Crowned with glory: Jesus wears a crown of thorns, but His tri-radiant nimbus shows Him to be a Person of the Holy Trinity and true God.

From His pierced side: Blood and water flow, blessing us with the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Place of a skull: Some traditions place the crucifixion of Jesus on the site of Adam's grave, underscoring Christ's victory over death and a reversal of man's Fall.

Bloodied, pierced feet: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!"


Giclée prints available: Images of "Crucifixion" are available as signed giclées prints on Hahnemuehle fine art paper. Two sizes are available: 12" x 18" for $80, and 15.9" x 24" for $120. Please email the artist at to order or for more information.