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.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Cranach’s Little Reality Check

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have been inoculated to the horrors of crucifixion. In part, time has done this. Culture has added to it. Even our own striving to make Christ’s death seem more special has complicated things.

One need only open a jewelry box to find proof as much. While I am certainly not against displaying crosses and crucifixes, when forced to think on it, precious metals and diamonds somehow seem far removed from the reality of a Roman torture device. When Fabergé gets into the act, you know a major threshold has been crossed.

For these reasons, I am grateful for the jarring images that occasionally catch my attention. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Crucifixion” woodcut is one such image.

As was the rule during the Northern Renaissance, historical accuracy of costume and place was exchanged for what the artist knew. The setting, dress, armor, and trappings shown in Cranach’s 12 by 14 inch woodcut are distinctly sixteenth century German, including the flamboyance of feathered caps and puffed sleeves that would have been absent in Jerusalem. One might chalk it up to an already-diminishing sense of Biblical history during the Renaissance. And then Cranach throws a curve ball.
"Crucifixion" Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1502
(Museum of Prints and Drawings, Berlin)

While the pose of Jesus Christ follows formula depictions, one of the malefactors is shown in a morbid pose that stuns the viewer. The print shows that, while German dress had become more refined than Biblical garb, regard for criminals had taken a step backward. The man is hung upside down with an obvious broken back, and garroted by his own weight on the cross. So much for the advancement of civilization, and a kinder, gentler kingdom.

What is more, there is not simply a lone skull beneath the cross – as would usually be the case in giving a nod to “the place of the skull,” or acknowledging the spotty tradition that Christ was crucified over Adam's grave. Rather, several bodies lie rotting beneath the hooves of war horses. The viewer can almost sense the stench.

This scene is unsettling. It is raw and unorthodox. It does not back away from the reality of pain or punishment or death. It is not the kind of thing that would inspire a jeweled and enameled Fabergé pendant. It causes us to rethink our awful contribution to that singular, salvific act which our Lord endured on our behalf. It stops us from glorying in humanity. And ourselves. For all these reasons, Cranach’s little print is well worth noting.

Friday, March 9, 2018

On Mikhail Nesterov

"Holy Rus" Mikhail Nesterov. 1905.
(The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I sometimes feel foolish when I “discover” a wonderful artist. This, after finding out that I’m apparently the last to do so.

Such is the case with Russian artist, Mikhail Nesterov. I don’t rightly know what it is about Russian artists that makes them evade detection from the West. Perhaps it’s the Iron Curtain thing. Maybe it’s because they aren’t usually considered part of Western Culture, the foundation on which art survey courses are built. Maybe it’s because the West contents itself with its own wealth of talent. At any rate, Nesterov is worth bringing to light, either for the first time, or again for those who are already familiar with the artist.
"The Love Potion" Mikhail Nesterov. 1888.
(Radishchev Art Museum, Saratov, Russia)

Mikhail Nesterov was born in 1862. He was schooled in the academic style of the day, but surely influences of emerging movements, along with recently established styles had an effect on his view of art. He became part of a movement that challenged the academic style. Still, he was Russian, and his work contains a wonderful blend of his own culture, suffused with faint hints of the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionism. Stylistically, he has been relegated to the Russian Symbolist style, but there is also contained in his work a strong sense of illustration, a discipline in which he partially earned a living.

The subject matter of his work was also an eclectic mix. He was pulled to one side by religious Orthodoxy, but the deep cultural history of Russia, and its emergence as a modern nation, was pulling on the other side. Nesterov’s “Holy Rus,” for example, is a puzzle. My heart tells me that the subject of the painting is Jesus Christ, but my head and the title of the painting tell me that it leans more toward a personification of Russia as the holder of all things Christian, and not necessarily Christ Himself.
"The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew"
Mikhail Nesterov. 1889-90.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Many of Nesterov’s other paintings contain folkloric flavors so endearing that one can’t help imagining they are either missing pieces of childhood, or rich visions of which J.R.R. Tolkien could only dream. “The Love Potion,” and “The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew” are among these.

His “Taking the Veil,” on the other hand, almost sidesteps the fact that the procession is made up of nuns and novices, and the viewer meanders beyond the figures, past distinctive buildings and birch trees, to solemnities unfolding in the background. Taking the viewer on such a journey shows mastery of storytelling under the guise of fine art.

Unfortunately, Nesterov was made to ride the rogue wave of post-Tsarist Russia. His daughter was brutally interrogated. Nesterov himself was imprisoned for two weeks. His son-in-law, accused of being a spy, was shot. As strange consolation, the artist was granted the Stalin Prize in 1941 for his painting of Pavlov. Nesterov died the next year.
"Taking the Veil"
Mikhail Nesterov. 1897-98.
(State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)

A career spent in such a crucible did not bode well for the man. It probably never can. His work however, tells a different story, and I am not ashamed to have found it, even if I am the very last to do so.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Ode to a Face

Fraktur characters, above, and
Old English equivalents, below.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I don’t usually get all geeky about things, but today I’m letting my hair down – well, what’s left of it.

Early on in my career as an artist of sacred themes, I learned that Holy Scripture is especially important where visuals are concerned. Although my work is representational and straightforward, I tend to get nervous about making sure my interpretation of the Word is accurate. To make up for whatever I think may be lacking, I usually put a portion of Scripture somewhere in my paintings. And that brings me to Fraktur.

The typeface, Fraktur, has become my go-to when designing text into my artwork. It is a more graceful, yet more robust font than its cousin, Old English. While the latter typeface has always retained a stiff upper lip, it gets overused. For starters, it’s on nearly every diploma known to man. Old English also ends up on blacked-out rear windows of ridiculous, custom, compact cars – in all caps. That sort of thing makes me blow a gasket.

Fraktur, on the other hand, is German, and it demands respect. Besides my slightly-strange fixation with its swashes and ligatures, I recently learned that Fraktur is also a typeface with pedigree.

We must thank Hieronymus Andreae, who designed the calligraphic face in the first place. That was the early 1500s. Andreae was a master formschneider, or woodblock cutter, which was a highly sought after skill with the advent of printing. His name probably doesn’t register with most folks, but Andreae’s associate, Albrecht Dürer, most certainly does. The Fraktur typeface was specifically created to be used in Dürer’s design of the massive woodcut, “Triumphal Arch,” which measured nearly 10 by 12 feet. Yes, a woodcut. Of course, something that ambitious didn’t begin as a doodle on a bar napkin. The piece was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I.

Unlike Old English, which fell out of use in favor of Roman-based fonts during the 17th and 18th centuries, Fraktur had staying power. It was still widely in use in the early 1900s – mostly in Germany, but also in a smattering of other northern European countries. The typeface had such a rich lineage that it became the face, in more than one sense, of German literature. And that was the eventual reason for its downfall.

Fraktur might have had its origins with such German notables as Maximilian I and Dürer, but it only took one German knucklehead to ruin everything. The font suddenly didn’t fit well with official military communications during WWII, and modern typefaces quickly overtook the stately font. Perhaps more significantly, being thoroughly German suddenly had a stigma attached to it. No longer was Fraktur used as body copy in published literature.

Today the typeface only occasionally shows up in newspaper mastheads, or in places where a touch of regal historicity is needed. I kind of like that. A lot.

Detail of "Resurrection," using embellished Fraktur typeface. Edward Riojas. 1999. (Collection of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.) Copyright © Edward Riojas.

Friday, February 23, 2018

When Nothing Less Will Do

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Once upon a year, when bow-tied attendants trotted up to cars at filling stations, folks took pride in keeping the old sedan running like a top. “Check the oil for you, sir?” was a standard question asked after rolling down the car window – that’s right, with a crank. That was before air bag recalls and catalytic converters. Auto garages boasted using genuine replacement parts, as opposed to cobbling things together with tractor parts and bailing wire, and they often advertised that fact with a prominent sign. It was a simply courtesy to let the customer know they were getting the best service.

In somewhat similar fashion, it has become a tradition to hang a crucifix near pulpits in Lutheran churches. While it isn’t a rule, it certainly is a help.

At very least, such sanctuary fixtures help congregants stay focused. As Swiss sculptor, Emil Thoman, said of one of his pulpit crucifixes, "It is a worthy presentation of Christ in His self-oblation. What preacher would not be satisfied to know that, even if the sermon might be poor, the people had something worth-while to attend to?"

Many of us, however, have a higher regard for our pastor’s preaching skills than that to which Thoman hinted. Indeed, it is significant when a pulpit crucifix is commissioned, and it speaks of the pastor and his congregation. I recently finished a commissioned painting that will serve as pulpit cross. A frame must still be constructed and fitted to the painting before delivery, but the image is enough for our present consideration.
Prep drawing for "Crucifixion."
Edward Riojas. 2017.
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.

Not everyone likes the idea of a crucifix. Some folks view history in purist fashion. They understand the past’s significance, but want to live in the present. Christ’s crucifixion, they argue, was only three hours out of His much longer life. And here I come, rubbing everyone’s face in His death.

To be fair, I have pulled a few punches with my depiction of the crucified Christ. Jesus was naked. It is only out of respect that I follow the path of most artistic forebears and use a drape to cover His nudity. Also, Jesus would have been more bloodied, but the viewer should certainly get the point without a more graphic representation. The weight of His dead body piled by sin, however, is plain enough. The transept of the cross bends. His flesh pulls at the nails. The words of the hymn writer echo harshly,

“O sorrow dread! Our God is dead.”

But the image of the dead Christ is enhanced further. Blood and water flow respectively into a chalice and baptismal font. The Gospel writer, John, drove home the fact that blood and water flowed from Christ’s wound. In writing the Gospel account, it seems overkill as John conveyed it, until one considers the point at which he was driving.

“But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” (John 19: 34-35)

Being a good proto-Lutheran, John was pointing directly to the connection between the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, The Lord’s Supper and Jesus’ Death. While there was certainly no hovering chalice or baptismal font at the crucifixion, the connection is made confessionally clear in the painting.
Detail of "Crucifixion." Edward Riojas. 2018.
Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced.

In fact, much is confessed in this image. One cannot enter the sanctuary and mindlessly gaze about the place without being confronted by what is taught there. And if there is any confusion about the visuals in that painting, then certainly the words it contains serve as a declaration that the faithful will not simply get acceptable service, but Divine Service, and that same worshiper will neither hear self-help preached, nor ten steps to better living preached. Rather, as the image boldly states, “We Preach Christ Crucified.”

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Flu: Women and Children First

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have just started the season of Lent, but sometimes even the Church calendar gets trumped. It’s also flu season, and if you’ve been hit as I have recently, you know how effectively schedules and calendars can get re-worked due to illness. Everyone knows the flu is serious stuff – especially this particular season – but if we can’t chuckle over it’s short-lived command of our lives, then we must all go mad. Being forced to ponder the illness has allowed me to randomly collect one or two thoughts that don’t necessarily connect in any logical way. Blame it on the flu.
"The Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak) from Rome."
Attributed to Paul Fürst. c. 1656.

How it works:
Woman: “I think I’ve got the flu.” (*sniff)
Children, of no particular clan: “We don’t feel too good.” (*sniff)
Me, the pile of humanity that appears to have just been dropped by a large-bore elephant gun: “flu.” (*wheeze.hack.cough.)

The bigger they are
Women in general, and moms in particular, are by nature loaded with extra antitoxins, antibiotics, and anti venom. Children, by playing constantly in the dirt, have built up resistance to common maladies such as typhus, diphtheria, amoebic dysentery, rhinitis, whooping cough and compound fractures. Perhaps I’m just a baby, but I seem to always bear the brunt of symptoms. When I go down, I go down hard.

Casting call
Even when attempting to appear heroic and getting a couple of aspirin to ease my own suffering, I tend to look and sound like an extra from a zombie movie. I stumble across the house with one foot dragging and eyes half-closed. I grunt and groan and say unintelligible things more often than normal. Yes, more often than normal.

Dealing with light
Sometimes there aren’t enough curtains. The first room in which I quarantined myself did not have enough light-blocking window treatments. It also did not have enough sheets of plywood, small paintings, boxes, towels, blankets, pencils, paperclips, paint brushes, stacks of newspapers, furniture, mattresses and foam remnants to cover the windows. When all was said and done, it looked like the premises was overtaken by a hoarding vampire. And still the light came in.

Dealing with more light
The second room in which I quarantined myself had sufficient, light-blocking shades, but it also had a computer and a modem. The array of randomly-blinking lights drilled into my brain until subdued by piles of socks.

Whining like a baby
All I wanted was to burp. If you don’t know this feeling, then you’ve never had the flu. Pop and soda are never present in our house, so the request for something carbonated took a while to move up the chain of command. It seemed days. All I wanted was to burp. In a stretch, soft drinks sort of count as clear liquids – at least that is how logic works when one is ill. Honestly, all I wanted was to burp. One can then imagine my disappointment when the bottle finally arrived, massive quaffing began, and a single, sickly “blip” came out. All I wanted was to burp.

A forced vacation
No one wants to book a vacation to the middle of the Black Plague, but these two past weeks have certainly felt that way. Besides dropping everything on the calendar, I’ve muddled my brain with illness and with drugs that supposedly ease the same, and I’ve arrived at a destination feeling like a beat-up piñata. All this without leaving the comfort of a darkened room.

Maybe a beer will help me burp.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Things That Fly (And Others That Don’t)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes artists are to blame. Sometimes it’s Hollywood’s fault. Sometimes the problem is sentimental. And sometimes all of these ingredients are baked into one crappy casserole that shouldn’t be swallowed.

I’m talking about sappy ideas some folks have about angels, and a host of other things that are not even remotely associated with the host of heaven. Unravelling the truth from stupidity is long overdue, and it’s high time we wrap our heads around the difference.
"Nike of Samothrace"
220-185 B.C.
(The Louvre, Paris)

This gal is most assuredly the one most influential image behind many artistic renditions labeled as “angel.” The sculpture belongs to the cult surrounding Athena Nike, an ancient Greek goddess of victory. This particular piece, however, does not follow the traditional pattern of the goddess, in which she was shown wingless. Presumably, that was so victory would never leave the Athena Nike temples and their surrounding area.

This can be a generic term for specific heavenly ranks or, in proper context and in the singular, can even be used to indicate the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It’s hard to get a good handle on the garden-variety angel, because they are not always given detailed descriptions in Holy Scripture and because there are different kinds. The typical commercial image, however, of a smiling, golden-haired damsel with fiber optic wings, does not fit at all with the reality of spiritual beings doing the will of God perfectly – even when man stupidly gets in their way.
"Cupid in the Landscape." c. 1510.
Giovanni Antonio Bazzi.
(The Hermitage, Russia)

This annoying little intruder loves to show up on St. Valentine’s Day. He is so stinking cute that few bother to ask what the heck an erotic, pagan god is doing at a party for a Christian saint and martyr. We can only hope that he overdoses on a ten pound box of questionable chocolates and retraces his steps across the river Styx.

Renaissance artists allowed their day’s massive interest in all things Classical run away from them. These Cupid-like punks flew straight out of Ancient Greece and started showing up everywhere, including sacred art. Apparently the only way to stop a running child, sans diaper, is to clip their wings. To make things even more confusing, sometimes the little tykes are referred to as “Cherubs.”
"Sistine Madonna" with
putti below. 1513-1514.
(Old Masters Gallery, Dresden)

These are the real deal and not some pack of squealing, flying kids. Don’t even think of getting on their wrong side. Three pairs of wings, but they only need one pair to fly.

We’re definitely on holy ground. Whenever you hear cherubim and seraphim in the same sentence, it’s probably a good idea to bow your head and acknowledge that the Lord of heaven and earth is nearby. And be ready for some serious post and lintel vibrations when they start praising God.

There IS a place for naked babies in sacred art. Context is the key. The Holy Innocents may LOOK like putti or cherubs, but they are young males from the region surrounding Bethlehem. They took the hit for the infant Jesus, when Herod found out he had serious kingly competition. The Holy Innocents can sometimes be seen in Christian imagery playing near Mary, the mother of our Lord, and occasionally can be seen carrying palm branches – a symbol for martyrdom.
"Madonna and Child Surrounded
by the Holy Innocents" 1616.
Peter Paul Rubens.
(The Louvre, Paris)

For some stupid reason, a lot of folks lean on the idea that humans earn wings when they die. Never mind the fact that Scripture pointedly says that Jesus Christ died for man – and not the angels. This alone should give real comfort, but apparently man wants more than that. “Every time a bell rings...” is a nuisance phrase that has lodged itself into the sentimentality of sappy dolts, thanks to Hollywood, and it has morphed itself into all sorts of nonsense. The belief that a child turns into an angel at death is an unfortunate, misguided, and false notion, and often is written into heart-rending obituaries. It is one idea, however, that simply does not fly.

Friday, February 2, 2018

It Should Have Been Me (No, It Shouldn’t Have)

"Crucified Slaves on the Via Appia." Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov. 1878. (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Even in our most-contemplative states, we Christians can be so blessedly stupid.

Christians, like every other segment of society, largely plod along in this life. We have jobs. We go to school. We buy groceries and drive on roads and wonder what the weather will be like.

But none of us lives in the hamlet of Hunky-dory. In spite of our hopes of getting a great deal at the grocery store and beating that red light, we know the life on which we plod is screwed up. Besides the multitude of little things that annoy us – like missing out on last week’s produce sale and getting a warning for running an orange light – there are usually bigger things that make our life’s road way more bumpy than usual. And often it’s our own stinking fault. Sin, it seems, is inescapable.

The Law has a way of convicting us of our sin in a way that is most unpleasant.  It is meant to be that way. The Law was not given on embroidered, chenille pillows. The Law was given on tablets of stone – a material that, at first blush, seems very unforgiving. It cuts us off at the knees, so that we have nothing on which to stand; so that we are forced to lay prostrate before the King of Glory in all His Divine Perfection, and realize, without question, that there is nothing but imperfection in our wretched selves.

It is at that instant the our gracious God speaks to us His Gospel through the Word. How can we not be thankful?! Our Lord’s love is so inconceivably boundless that it defies pondering. Yet we try. And it’s around that point that we sometimes jump the tracks and start pondering some stupid ideas.

Like, “It should’ve been me.”

This is where I get to tell you, “Don’t be such a doofus!”

Solomon sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep during a week-long festival dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem. Those 144,000 sacrifices [see what Solomon did there?] weren't sin offerings, but it gives an idea of the scale of things during the daily life of the Temple. The blood poured out for sin must have saturated the ground. It must have inched awfully close to the water table. One must assume the smell alone was powerful. And yet all those offerings were only pointing to a singular sacrifice to come.

And what of punishment? Did any of the thousands crucified – Christian or otherwise – ever make satisfaction for their own sins? No. Luther found out the hard way that self-flagellation was pointless, yet penitents still flog themselves and are crucified with surgical steel nails – to their own detriment.

Scripture’s account of the Jesus‘ crucifixion includes the two criminals for a reason – neither could atone for their own sin. The unrepentant criminal regarded his earthly punishment with curses, and the repentant criminal, accepting his earthly punishment, appealed to Jesus blood to erase his eternal punishment.

Even though there is even song declaring as much, declaring “It should have been me” is simply heresy. If millions of oxen and sheep cannot erase your sin, then neither can you. And if you still think you can atone for your own sin, then why did my Lord have to die?

No, it couldn’t have been you. For that, we are all eternally grateful.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Vestments by Design

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not that many months ago I didn’t have a clue what an orphrey was. Now I’m designing them.

If you had mentioned a galloon back then, I might have snickered. Not anymore. Even though I am still very much a novice in the world of church vestments and paraments, I’ve learned to pay attention and ask questions.
Original Six Chief Parts drawing.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

What I’ve also learned is the work is fascinating, and I think you’ll agree after this peek at the process behind producing the lovely offerings of Ecclesiastical Sewing. Shortly after Carrie Roberts launched her small company, she asked me to collaborate with her on some projects. My function is to act as designer, primarily creating images for use on embroideries that adorn her products.

Besides creating original designs, I also help resurrect old ones. That in itself can be challenging. Like an archaeological site, some designs are incomplete or partially destroyed. It sometimes falls to me to fill in the missing pieces through simple logic or artistic conjecture. One project on the back-burner, for example, involves recreating a scene of the stoning of St. Stephen for the back of a chasuble. All that exists is a delicate pencil drawing, done in classical, academic style. A third of the drawing has been torn off and is lost forever.
Adobe Illustrator screen shot,
wire frame view.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Old designs come to me in the form of photos, as in the case of the torn drawing, or as digital files. Some of the files are “rastered” images – basically, digitized images that have been converted to photos – or they come as “vectored” images – editable designs that are comprised of shapes. The latter are easiest to alter and color, while the former need complete redrawing in an illustration application. It can be mind-numbing work, but it’s a thrill to bring old designs back to life and know that they will once again be appreciated.

New designs are another matter. A general directive for a design is first given by Roberts – perhaps for a new Reformation “set.” A set is a group of associated designs that can be used in every application necessary in the chancel. While not every church needs every application, Ecclesiastical Sewing is prepared to meet every need, which can include stoles, chasubles, frontals, superfrontals, falls, chalice veils, and the occasional banner. That means the design components must be flexible enough to fit large and small spaces, and vertical, horizontal, and square configurations.
"Stitchout" from digitizer.
Courtesy Ecclesiastical Sewing

The first step is to do rough drawings of the basic components. Depending on the set, there may be a few drawings or many. For the new set commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the drawings piled up because we wanted something beyond Luther’s Rose; something that would be more confessional, yet distinctly Lutheran. The Six Chief Parts anchored that new set.

Once we hashed out which direction to go, selected drawings were then translated into vectored images by scanning the original drawings and then rebuilding them in Adobe Illustrator. The program not only allows editing of every line and shape, but it also enables adjustment of color.

Technical aspects of color are important, because the normal working color mode in Illustrator is either CMYK or RGB. The threads in garments and embroideries, however, are a far different animal. Final color choices for embroideries make use of a 400-plus color palette of numbered thread selections by Madeira, a German manufacturer. Bridging the gap is partially accomplished by converting colors to the Pantone color system within Illustrator.
Finished design machine embroidered
on exclusive Luther brocade.
Courtesy, Ecclesiastical Sewing

The Illustrator files are then handed off to a “digitizer.” At this point, the constraints of an embroidery machine are put into play when creating a digital “stitchout,” which can show flaws and force adjustments in the design. The width of a stitch, for example, can only be so wide before a shape must be stitched in a different manner. Corners of a stitched border can also reveal problems. A lovely embroidery can be reproduced in all its glory, provided it contains only 15 colors and doesn’t bog down a machine for hours on end, creating an embroidery that rivals the weight of its wearer.

Changes and adjustments then come back to me. Sometimes this happens a second or third time. Occasionally, a prospective client may also suggest a worthy change.

Adjustments are made well after I have handed off the final files. A particular thread color may not work as well as Roberts would like, either within the embroidery, or with adjacent fabric choices. And then there are critical choices to be made with brocades and orphreys and contrasting galloons. The cut of a chasuble. The lining of a frontal. The lay of a stitch. Some of the detail work is far above even the most seasoned seamstress. Such fussing is the cost of creating something beautiful and lasting, while visually confessing Holy Scripture and elevating it above the mundane.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Flocking to Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not that anyone left the windows open last Sunday, but there are more birds in the sanctuary than one would otherwise expect. Whether depicted in stained-glass, carved in stone, or jutting from a pulpit, birds have for centuries been carriers of symbolism within Christendom. Knowing the difference between species and the sometimes-subtle variations can help in one’s visual understanding of the buildings where worshipers flock.
Eagle lectern.
(St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England)

The Holy Spirit is most often identified by the image of a dove, but that image sports a couple of important features – or at least it should. The Dove is always shown descending, with its head down. This is to indicate that inspiration comes via the Helper, who is from above. The head is also usually given a tri-radiant halo [that is not a cross] to indicate that it is a Person of the Holy Trinity. There are the odd occasions in sacred art in which the Dove might be seen near the ear of a figure – either near a prophet, indicating Divine inspiration in their writings, or near Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in which case the conception of our Lord is being shown.

When a dove is used to indicate peace, it should always be shown flying horizontally, sans nimbus. Also, it typically carries an olive branch in a reference to the aftermath of the flood. Because this bird often flies off-course into crowds of tie-dyed shirts and love beads, it’s probably wise to avoid this version entirely out of confusion.

One of the earliest winged symbols used in the Church is a bit of a stretch where ornithology is concerned. The Phoenix was borrowed from Greek mythology, but it wasn’t the normal brand of bird. When occasionally used by the Church, it is an identifier of Christ Jesus. According to myth, the bird died by fire, then later arose again from the ashes. It’s questionable origin nonetheless was used by some early Christians to point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Orlets rug.

Another ornithological symbol with dubious origins is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” The simple fact that the image carries such a title gives a good hint to its Medieval age. The pelican is shown piercing her own breast so that her young may live. The idea that pelicans would sacrifice themselves in such manner made it an endearing symbol of our Lord. Unfortunately, like some other metaphorical images used in Christian symbolism, the self-sacrifice of a pelican is totally unfounded in the natural world.

Eagles play an important role in Church symbolism, but one must take context into account before assigning meaning. Anglican churches, among some other denominations, sometimes have pulpits or lecterns that sport eagles of size enough to accommodate a large bible on the backs of spread wings. They exude a decided “federal” feel, as if talons should clasp bolts of lightning or laurel wreath. In this context, however, the eagles pay homage to the Word of God, for in former days eagles were thought to fly unflinchingly toward the sun. The noble birds were incapable of being blinded – even by the brilliance of the Word itself.
Rooster vane.
(Trinity Church, Veilsdorf, Germany)

In somewhat similar manner, the Orthodox Church sometimes uses the image of a young eagle on a small rug – or “Orlets” – on which a bishop stands while officiating. The eagle flies over the image of a city, indicating the populace over which the bishop presides.

Of course, the eagle is also the symbol of the Evangelist St. John. In this context, its meaning originates from the soaring style of the Gospel writer’s words.

Strangely enough, the barnyard’s entry has somehow taken preeminence on the occasional church building. It is common enough to note when a rooster supersedes all other symbolism – even the cross – on pinnacles of some church spires. It may seem a bit odd, until one unravels its meaning. The rooster became an uncomfortably-humbling reminder to Peter that he had denied Jesus three times. But while the rooster reminds us of the Law and our utter failure in its keeping, it also reminds us of the Gospel, for roosters announce the early morning, and where congregations worship on the eighth day, the rooster reminds us weekly that He is risen indeed.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Before the Cross

"Christ the Good Shepherd."
3rd - 4th century A.D.
(Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is extremely difficult for modern Christians to imagine life without the image of the cross. It is so much a part of our thought and being that its absence would be a massive jolt. Not only is it central to our theology, but the image of the cross has been spread into unlikely places like fashion and national branding. It no longer surprises anyone to see it apart from the Church or even connected to its enemies. Yet the image of the cross was not widely used in the early Church – if it was used at all.

Displaying the cross for early Christians would be very much akin to us using images of an electric chair or a gas chamber. It would be inappropriate. It would be scandalous. The question must then be asked: What images DID the early Church embrace?

The idea that the good, pious people of the Church never had “graven” images is just silly. No one overreacted to the Law in such manner – that idea came much later when folks decided they probably should have scruples and insulated themselves from breaking commandments.

Beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem, the decorative arts played a large role among the Israelites. One need only look at early Jewish manuscripts to see the opulence given to sacred writings. And, yes, they used images beyond flowers and pomegranates.

But Jerusalem was not a sealed vacuum when Jesus Christ began His ministry. The Romans were in control. There were also subtle influences from other cultures that brushed up against Israel. Indeed, Israel had been force-fed a nasty diet of Babylonian culture, which probably filtered down through the generations. And Rome borrowed much from Greece. This cultural cocktail had influence on at least one of the earliest Christian images – The Good Shepherd.

One of Israel’s great heroes was King David and, although he was most often depicted regally, his roots as a faithful shepherd were equally lauded. Given the sins of his life, it was also natural to prefer thoughts the of future king as an unadulterated youth among gentle sheep.
"Hermes Kriophoros" Roman copy.
(Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, Rome)

However, the Jewish nation was not the only one familiar with shepherds. Sheep were pretty much a part of the landscape wherever one went, including the Apennine Peninsula. The mythology of Rome – and Greece, by extension – included gods to suit every interest under the sun. Hermes Kriophoros (“Ram-bearer”) was a figure that commemorated a sacrificial event in Greek mythology. It didn’t have anything to do with shepherding, but the pose of the image, especially in Roman copies, is eerily familiar to our modern eyes.

While the disparate Judaic and mythological figures had no influence on the Christian idea of The Good Shepherd, their similar images alone retained a high degree of familiarity, which can be influence enough.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of outside influence is the fact that the earliest images of The Good Shepherd do not show a bearded shepherd. They are not renderings of Jesus. The figure is always a young shepherd – not a young carpenter. They rarely sport halos. In fact, the only indication that these are symbols of Christ Jesus is the context of their location. It would be many years later that a tri-radiant nimbus was added to images of The Good Shepherd, indicating that He is a Person of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Raising Cain

"Cain" Fernand Cormon. 1880. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The footnote in my study bible simply says "...the mark was never explained and is not important." It may be true that no explanation was ever given, but removing its importance seems an overstep.

I am referring, of course, to the mark placed on Cain.

The account of Cain and Abel overflows with tragedy. It contains so much horror of the Fall that some details appear trivial by comparison, and therefore are relegated to a position of less importance. Such is the case with the mark on Cain, given so that others would not dare kill him. God‘s mark of warning has, however, inspired some interesting theories.

The earliest recorded opinions are from Jewish scholars, who offer little consensus. One suggested that a single Hebrew character from the tetragrammaton – the four letters forming the Name of God – was indelibly placed on Cain’s forehead. Another taught it was indeed a Hebrew character on either Cain’s head or arm, but did not indicate which of the 22 it was. Yet another scholar boldly claimed it was the Hebrew letter “Waw.” Of course, an even earlier Jewish scholar went on his own tangent and explained that Cain grew a single horn out of his forehead. As if that would keep others from adding a trophy to their man-caves.

The Middle Ages produced suggestions of a different kind, which eventually morphed into some rather unsavory ideas. Different scenarios emerged suggesting God made Cain’s face black – one theory included a pummeling with hail – although Cain was not racially changed. That little detail, it seems, was simply too tempting.

Eventually, different groups caved into the notion that Cain’s sin of murder lead to the creation of a new race, and the ensuing genie has refused to go back into the bottle. Some Protestant groups latched onto the idea. Southern Baptists, in particular, used it as an argument for slavery leading up to the Civil War. Not wanting to miss the square-wheeled bandwagon, Latter Day Saints joined in. They might have raised an eyebrow or two when they claimed Native Americans were of Israelite ancestry, but they didn’t look so odd with the claim that all blacks descended from Cain. But much more than simple color, it was believed they also inherited Cain’s curse. Some stigmas are indeed hard to erase.

Others within the Church suggest the mark was a cross, although such a prophetic sign would mean little, if anything, to the first inhabitants who, according to Cain’s lament, had notion enough to kill Cain for the murder. One must wonder, however, what singular, horrifying tattoo would scream “Don’t even touch me.” Perhaps interwoven Seraphim with flaming swords. Perhaps even a glowing reflection of the face of God. Doubtless such a sight would not be welcomed by people reeling from the Fall and feeling too keenly the effects of sin. Such shunning would cause Cain to be a wanderer without a home for the rest of his sojourn on earth.

On the other side of Paradise we will someday understand the importance of Cain’s mark, but for now ignorance will have to suffice. Even in the tragedy of Cain and Abel, however, there seems a thread of prophecy that points to the Savior and His love for us. In Holy Baptism we have been indelibly marked by Christ Jesus, not as protection against mortal danger but as a promise of immortality. We are His. We sojourn this side of Eternity as foreigners and strangers, but are given a foretaste of our heavenly home and its banquet in the Lord's Supper. We shun the world and its brokenness, hold fast to the Word, and look beyond the grave to our true home, where God Himself has marked our names in the palm of His hand.