Friday, August 23, 2019

Of Color

“The chief function of color should be to serve expression.” Henri Matisse

Working drawing of the 'God's Own Child' Mural. Edward Riojas. 2019. Finished size will be 5' tall by 24' wide.
(All photos courtesy of the artist. Copyright © Edward Riojas. Images may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Being of a peculiar breed, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when artists wax eloquently – or obsessively – about color. For some artists, color is a delicious dream. For others, it is an elusive reality. Yet other artists sometimes ponder over it in unnatural places – in Claude Monet's case, on the face of a dead woman laid out at a funeral.

Color, however, can serve other purposes beyond the kind of expression to which Henri Matisse was alluding. In church, for example, most can tell what Church season it is simply by what color dominates the chancel. Those specific colors were developed throughout the history of the Church and have meaning attached, even if we jostle each other over violet or blue or [gasp!] rose. And there are yet other purposes for color.

A current project for St. Paul Lutheran Church, Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes use of color in a mural based on Erdmann Neumeister’s hymn, “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It.” In what is becoming a favorite visual theme among clients, a large body of saints processes across the mural. The client made it clear early on in the project that this procession of saints should truly reflect the spectrum of God’s children. Hence, the use of color was made to serve a deliberate purpose.

Detail of the mural in progress.
There aren’t only representations of buttoned-down, Germanic Europeans. There aren’t simple, token delegates of African descent. There is such a variety of facial types and ages and stylistic lifestyles to guarantee the viewer that, yes, God’s children come from every walk of life and every corner of the earth.

What struck me once the painting was under way is that every figure in the mural – no matter what ethnic origin – was painted with warm colors. In artistic parlance, the warm umbers and siennas and ochres used in human flesh are often called “earth colors,” because the pigments used to produce those colors often come from different types of clay.

This simple fact is profound, if only we allow it. Adam was formed of the dust of the earth. “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” There is great humility in knowing we are only as good as the dirt beneath our feet.

Thanks be to God that there is another group of colors in the mural. Beneath the earth tones is a flood of blues, greens, and other cool colors. These colors change the way the figures appear beneath water. That life-giving water issues from a Baptismal font, washing over the procession of saints, and finally bears them up in the resurrection of the flesh.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Things Unseen

The unfinished base. (Photos courtesy of the Curmudgeon.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Artists are rightly squeamish about showing a piece before it’s finished. Like writers, artists often wrestle with their work, and it isn’t always pretty.

I imagine the same is true of many occupations. We appreciate a good sermon, for example, but are often oblivious to the struggles of Greek and Hebrew classes that go into it. Most of use aren’t really into jots and tittles. So, too, are we glad when a plumber pays us a visit to correct some life-threatening problem. Few of us bother to consider the trade school involved just to deal with other people’s “stuff.”

On a far different plane, we are also ignorant of the massive Spiritual happenings behind our physical world – the heavenly battle against Satan and his hordes; the divine wrangling to work out things for our good. In spite of our curiosity, I doubt many of us have a real desire or the fortitude to witness that sort of thing this side of heaven.

I’m currently working on retro-fitting a wooden base for a processional crucifix. The processional was not behaving nicely, and I was tasked with adding stability. To accomplish this, I made a slightly larger base plate of the same material to give the existing base a larger footprint. I also added ten pounds of bar steel. The steel, however, will remain hidden. As in many things, what is not seen is of greater consequence and carries more weight than what will be immediately obvious.

Concealed steel weights in the wooden base.

Friday, August 9, 2019

On The Walls Of An Old Church

In the sanctuary: Working on Matthew 11:28
(Photo courtesy of Rev. Seifferlein)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Lord provided a background of an evening thunderstorm rolling through Wisconsin farmland. I was perched on scaffolding in an old church sanctuary, mahlstick in hand, and staring Scripture in the face. It was a little bit of heaven.

I had come to Adell, Wisconsin, to work on-site at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. While I prefer to work in the studio, a select few projects demand that I travel. When recently asked to paint blocks of embellished Scripture on church walls, I took the opportunity to play the part of an itinerant artist – if only for a couple of days. I elected to sleep in the cavernous underbelly of the old church building so I could work late, rise early to do the same, be not too much of a bother to anyone, and then go home.

Living as an itinerant artist was more commonplace in the days of our great-great-grandparents. The decoration of fledgling Lutheran churches in America were sometimes jobbed out to artisans with skill enough to paint walls, create decorative trim, and embellish spaces with Bible verses. Often that was done in German. Always it was done by hand.

Getting a taste of the life of a travelling artist was pretty much limited to bedding down on a hard floor, climbing scaffolding, and working in the solitude of an empty sanctuary. My gracious hosts, the Rev. and Mrs. Seifferlein, had loaded the church kitchen with enough food for an army of artists, and a battery of electric fans kept the summer heat at bay. Itinerant artists of the day did without such luxuries.
In the Narthex: Completed excerpt from the Te Deum
(Photo taken by the artist)

I relished working long hours in the relative silence that was punctuated by children’s laughter somewhere outside, bells chiming out hymns at Matins, noon, and six, and the evening thunderstorm. That sort of wealth does not exist everywhere, and it is worth finding.

It is good, too, to appreciate things of long ago. When we did without internet; when things were slow, but deliberate; when convenience was rare, families gathered to hear the Word of God preached in all its purity and loveliness, and they did so in a building that was designed with the Lord in mind instead of praise bands and air-conditioned comfort.

While in Adell, I was offered a peek into the nuances of an old country church. I was shown were the two entrances once were – one for the men and one for the women. I was told that the recently-refinished floor had worn more on one side of the sanctuary – presumably from the hobnailed soles of men’s shoes. I was shown curious channels and holes carved into the window sills – features that drained condensation when frost began to melt on the window panes. I was shown the original bit of clear glass in an otherwise stained-glass window in the bell tower – a peep hole so an elder knew when to toll the bell at the arrival of the funeral hearse.

No old photos exist of the interior of the church. Like many churches, extensive remodeling of the sanctuary took place in the 1940s and 50s. That was when old altars and ornate altarpieces and "outdated" pulpits were all fair game. So, too, were sentimental, old photographs. I took great satisfaction, therefore, in knowing that what I came to do was in keeping with an earlier time, and knowing that some still appreciate the inherent beauty contained in passages of Scripture.

Friday, July 26, 2019

With Angels and Archangels

Detail of 'Michael Contending,' by Edward Riojas (Copyright © Edward Riojas. Image may not be reproduced.)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The back-story begs to be told.

In the opening verses of his letter to fellow believers, Jude writes about the judgment of false teachers. He makes a case for the sovereignty of God and the presumptions of men, and in so doing casually mentions an odd event in the history of God’s chosen people.
“Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. Woe to them! ...” (Jude 1:8-11a)
In a single sentence, surely the reader must have nearly lost Jude’s point. The back-story of Michael contending with the devil is one thing, but fighting over the body of Moses magnifies the strangeness of the event. The reader thinks, "Wait. What?!"

What is not revealed in this New Testament book is that God Himself buried the body of Moses, and no one knew where that was. (Deut. 34:1-6) It is clear, however, that the old Serpent wanted the body for some nefarious purpose, and the Archangel Michael was called to action. This is the setting of my painting, “The Archangel Michael Contending With The Devil Over The Body Of Moses.” (Yes, it’s a long-winded title, but there is no better way to say it.)

This is such an odd subject for a sacred painting that I doubted another artist had done anything with it. I was wrong. While it does take a little hunting, there are a few examples out there. Each of them is a slightly different interpretation of what might have taken place. Some of those examples look like a bad day at the debate club, with little action other than some finger-pointing.
"The Archangel Michael Contending
With The Devil Over The Body Of Moses"
2019. Edward Riojas. Oil on panel.
(Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.) 

Because Holy Scripture does not describe angels with the schmaltzy, Hallmark pattern of flaxen-haired damsels, I went with the model of a warring angel. Michael isn’t just arguing with the devil – the archangel is giving his nemesis a good thrashing. The devil cowers in darkness like a cockroach and, like a cockroach, he simply won’t give up. His hand defiantly points to himself.

Michael, however, points to the glow of heaven. Knowing neither a personal rebuke nor a judgment are his to give, Michael appeals to heaven, “The Lord rebuke you!”

I found out after the fact that, while the archangel Gabriel is associated with the color blue, Michael’s color is typically red. I gave him a red cloak simply because the painting needed some color. What I also realized after the fact is that Michael’s cloak seems to be floating down, as a funeral pall, over the wrapped body of Moses. How appropriate that a symbol of Christ’s blood covers a saint in death, becoming a vivid reminder that not even Satan, with all his biting and clawing and accusing, may claim what is the Lord’s by virtue of His own death and resurrection!


Giclée prints of 'Michael Contending' are available from the artist. For more information or to order prints, please e-mail the artist at

 Sizes/prices for prints for 'Michael Contending:'
12” x 18” / $80  ·  16” x 24” / $110  ·  24” x 36” / $180

Friday, July 19, 2019

Illuminating Szyk

"The Manciple" Arthur Szyk. 1945.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We cannot fault Arthur Szyk too much for placing a swastika on the Old Testament image of Haman hanging from a gallows. Szyk (pronounced Shick) was an artist/illustrator, proud of both his Jewish and Polish heritage, who lived and worked during the horrors of two world wars. Sentiments expressed in his politically-charged illustrations often found their way into other, unrelated work.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was a bit of an anomaly. He avoided modern movements in fine art, skirted trends in illustration, and instead relied on a more classical approach, using richly-detailed motifs pulled from his cultural heritage. Add to that a strong affinity for Medieval illumination, with an uncompromising approach to the same. If that were not enough, Szyk visually railed against the Axis powers of WWII and embraced political freedom expressed with patriotic zeal – first for his native Poland, then France and England, and finally for his eventual home in the United States.
"Statute of Kalisz" Arthur Szyk. 1927.

This heady mix is at once opulent in detail and rich in symbolism. Although fine artists often deplore the term “craft,” Szyk knew his craft well – and revelled in it.

“The Manciple,” an illustration for the “Canterbury Tales,” is a good primer for Szyk’s style. The medieval figure is crafted in such a way that even its outer shape is attractive. Well-designed, ornate patterns fill the figure’s cloak, then smaller spaces, and then every space between. But, really, Szyk is only toying with us.

We see something far different when the artist begins to flex his illuminator muscles. The frontispiece of the “Statute of Kalisz,” depicting Casimir the Great, is truly a jewel. Szyk’s love for his motherland is evidenced in every nook and cranny of this 1927 work. Significance spills from the focal figure to the very margins of the piece. It would have been impossible for the reader to turn the page without lingering over such mastery.
Dedication page for
"The Szyk Haggada" 1936.

While Szyk was not a practicing Jew, the obvious love for his heritage is found in another book, “The Szyk Haggada.” Like other Haggadas, it narrates the Exodus and is read during Passover. Unlike other narrations, however, Szyk totally avoids ‘graven image’ arguments found in Jewish aniconism, and further convolutes things by introducing unorthodox imagery, some of which needed to be edited. (Yes, swastikas had to be removed from the arms of the oppressive Egyptians!)

Because Polish publishing houses were squeamish about the book, a publishing house was established in England for the sole purpose of printing the book. The opulent quirkiness of the 1936 volume is obvious in Szyk’s dedication page to King George VI.  The dedication reads:
“At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands, shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel. Arthur Szyk, illuminator of Poland.”
“Humbly” seems to be a formality, for a self-portrait of Szyk is in the corner, next to the Polish eagle and a small vignette of modern Israelites. The rest is largely devoted to imagery pulled from the Royal arms of England.
"Four Freedoms: Prayer"
Arthur Szyk. 1949.

The artist was a staunch opponent of tyranny in general and Nazism in particular, but his allegiance could also be a bit pliable. Sorry, King George, but after settling in the U.S., Szyk created elaborate pieces based on constitutional freedoms, and suddenly Americana flooded the corners of his work with red, white and blue bunting, eagles, and bewigged patriots. Perhaps most strangely, he created an illumination of The Lord’s Prayer for the January 1946 issue of Coronet magazine. When compared to his other work, however, it becomes apparent that Szyk’s heart wasn’t quite up to the task.

The quirkiness of Arthur Szyk, in part, made him the popular artist that he was. Giving homage to past and present kings, as well as presenting his work to folks like Eleanor Roosevelt proved his worth. Thrusting barbs – some of which are extremely familiar [and hilarious] – at bullies like Hitler and Mussolini displayed his mettle. Creating such timeless pieces that equal – and surpass – illuminated masterpieces showed that he truly cared.

Friday, July 12, 2019

“Ego Sum Gabriel!”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It should give us comfort that Zechariah had a motor-mouth. All of us have done the same thing at some point or another and every saint has been born from the same sinful stock, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Biblical folks had foibles. In Zechariah’s case, you know the scenario well: Regret came rushing in even as the words poured out of his head.

Zechariah was a devout priest. Both he and his wife were given the rare Scriptural descriptor of being “...righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Not everyone gets that kind of Biblical treatment. The aging couple, however, were childless, and it’s evident that they often prayed for children.

It was Zechariah’s turn to serve as priest before God in the temple, and by lot he was chosen to burn incense. It was also his turn to be a screw-up.

An angel appears to Zechariah and tells him that his prayers have been heard. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I’d like to THINK that would clinch it for me – an angel standing in front of me and telling me my prayers have been heard. Who doesn’t want that?! What is more, the angel spells it all out for Zechariah, giving him everything he needs, short of printing out a spreadsheet and calendar.
"Gabriel" 2019. Edward Riojas.
Pen and ink on paper.
Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Image may not be reproduced.

But Zechariah wants proof, and that’s when things fall apart.

I can almost hear the angel’s lungs filling with air just before letting the priest have it. This point in the conversation was the inspiration for one of my entries in the Good Shepherd Institute's art exhibition, “With Angels and Archangels.”

"Gabriel" is intentionally static. Instead of setting up the theatrics of a Temple scene, I placed the angel Gabriel in a stylized, frontal pose that confronts the viewer. We get a little peek, through Zechariah’s eyes, of an annoyed angel. If his answer to proof isn’t clear enough, I’ve spelled it out in red for the viewer. “Ego sum Gabriel! qui asto ante Deum!” (”I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!”)

And, yes, Zechariah was cured of his motor-mouth. For a while, at least.


Giclée prints of “Gabriel” are available from the artist. For more information or to order prints, please e-mail the artist at

 Sizes/prices for prints for “Gabriel:” 9.25” x 17” / $75  ·  12” x 22” / $100

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

For Independence Day

Mom's report card from
Godwin High School

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This probably comes as no surprise, but my mom is smarter than some folks in D.C.

As a slight departure from my usual drivel, I thought a quick drive down the bumpier parts of memory lane, courtesy of my mom, would be appropriate for the Fourth of July. (You will have to suspend your eager anticipation of my thoughts on the lovely and not-so-lovely aspects of the art world. Well, at least for this week.)

Years ago, I intercepted a small stack of my mom’s high school things that were intended for the trash. I may feel differently about my own high school mementos, but the things of my parent’s generation are worth remembering and keeping. That is particularly true, given the current political climate of our nation.

In the stack of things, there were some special items, including a graduation card filled with very tender words, given to 17-year-old Laura Weppler from a man ten years her senior. Both would eventually become my parents. There was a corsage pressed flat. There were report cards from Godwin High School, where my mom graduated. There were essays my mom wrote.

One set of papers looked like organized notes, written in well-crafted cursive. I initially assumed it was for a history class, but then realized she was writing about current events. The year was 1944. The first few lines of the notes on the “German Natzis” [sic] are stunning, if not condemning, for those Americans who today lean in a peculiar direction.

Without pushing a political agenda, the high school teachers of my mom's day taught the ugly, unvarnished truth that made the world what it was. One cannot read the words from 1944 without immediately seeing that several politicians of our day not only have a grievous lapse of memory, but also a horrendous lapse of judgment, as well.

The school notes, in part, read, “1. What movement do German Natzis [sic] follow? Fascism (called National Socialism)”

This our parents learned and we, in turn, were taught, yet there are those who aspire to lead us headlong down a forgotten path of the same ideology. We dare not follow. The “Greatest Generation” had no qualms about fighting for what was right, and sacrificing without question those things that were dear, including life itself. There were also sacrifices which now seem incomprehensible, including self-identity. It was a time when patriotism meant putting aside personal gain, assumed rights, and juvenile desires in favor of national unity. In writing unapologetically as a citizen of the United States, Mom spelled out the fallacies of a foreign, socialistic government, brought to light the errors of its teaming masses, and strongly defended the governance of the U.S., even though Mom’s name, her relatives, her native culture, and the language formerly spoken in her home ... were all German.

I doubt that any of mom’s generation will ever forget those years – neither will most of the children of that generation. Those who forget history, on the other hand, are doomed to repeat it.

Friday, June 28, 2019

A Sign and a Seal

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I still get a tad annoyed when confronted by it.

I know there’s a bit of psychology going on because, while I’ve never been a fan of the LC-MS logo, the thing is immediately recognizable. It seems to be on nearly every lapel pin, brochure, mailing, church sign, and traffic sign directing visitors to the church building down the street. The intent is that it be as recognizable as a box of Tide detergent. That can be annoying.

LC-MS logo

Ever since its unveiling in 1984, the LC-MS logo smacked of mass-marketing. It follows branding trends, and there are umpteen pages of requirements for its use, placement, and acceptable Pantone™ color schemes. It’s slick. And bland. The logo has intended meaning in the two directions of the cross arms, the triple crosses, and its twelve individual components. Visually, that’s stretching things – in reality, it’s a corporate logo with little confessional power.

The LC-MS logo greatly eclipsed a much older design – The official LC-MS seal, which was formerly used as a sort of identifier of the synod. Now the seal plays the part of a shy cousin that rarely comes out of its quiet confines.

Designed by the Reverend A.R. Kretzmann and drawn by Walter Geweke, both of Chicago, the official LC-MS seal emerged several decades after the synod’s founding. It was designed when folks wanted to say a lot in a small space. I might be old-school, but I appreciate the seal’s distinctiveness and confessional nature. Like many other symbols, however, it needs to be occasionally explained to retain any merit.

Official Seal of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod

In the center of the seal, a tongue-like, blue shield represents the Christian's faith. A prominent gold cross on the shield proclaims that we preach Jesus Christ crucified. Rays emanating from the crooks of the cross make it a “Resurrection cross,” proclaiming that we also preach Christ risen from the dead. Nearby Latin words declare "Jesus Christus Dominus Est" (”Jesus Christ is Lord”), and three gold crosses symbolize the Holy Trinity. Three gold stars on the shield represent the Apostolic, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. Six gold stars on a white field stand for the six Lutheran Confessions contained in the 1580 book, "Concordia." Grape vines symbolize Christ's words in John 15:5, "I am the vine; you are the branches.” Dividing the white field are the three ‘solas’ on which Lutheranism is founded: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide (Scripture alone, Grace alone, Faith alone). The exterior circle contains the proper [although grammatically incorrect] name of the church synod and the year it was founded – 1847.

Beneath the shield is Luther's Seal. That particular emblem is, of course, centuries old, and has never been eclipsed by either the synod’s logo or its official seal. It is a visual rallying point for a group of confessional Christians who were initially slandered as “Lutherans.” We still wear the name with distinction.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Dumb As We Ever Were

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It sits there, a bit worn and spineless, but nevertheless imposing. The book has nearly given up its embossed cover to time. The words it contains, however, still bite.

I was recently given an early edition of H.J. Smith’s “Illustrated Symbols and Emblems of the Jewish, Early Christian, Latin and Modern Churches.” The book’s odd binding and a few cryptic stamps attest to it being a very special book. It has wonderful illustrations by the author, some of which are decidedly original and others that would be familiar to most.

What is also familiar is the thrust of the book’s preface. In talking of art schools in the U.S., Smith notes that “...while these schools are thus elevating the art standard of our country, the subject of Symbolism seems to have been overlooked, and the graduates are left to learn or to guess at the meaning of the symbols that are used so lavishly in our churches.”

That was the year 1900, and it seems we are just as dumb. In fact, several books on the subject bear the same sentiment. I suppose that these books’ very existence is due to our relapsing ignorance of even the simplest of Christian symbols – the very same symbols that were easily recognized by our Christian forefathers.

While sacred imagery – and its inherent symbolism – is not necessary in the Church, we are certainly poorer without it. It does, however, take constant teaching to elevate those symbols from mere decoration to confessional and – dare I say – divine art. To the casual viewer, a bird and its young nest there, some geometric shapes are tangled there, and a few seemingly-random letters are sprinkled beyond that. But even to the youngest, knowing saint in the pew, that same bird – a pelican – reflects the loving, sacrificial act of our Savior. That tangle of geometric shapes confess the indivisible nature of the Holy Trinity. Those random letters might be abbreviations for the name of Jesus or “Christ,” or they might declare “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

Yes, it takes work to keep ignorance at bay, and I am no exception. While realizing that there are countless, wonderfully-confessional symbols of which I am probably unaware, I also know that the time is coming when yet another book on the subject will be written, again, out of necessity.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Stacking Up Altarpieces

Comparative size of Cranach's
Wittenberg Altarpiece
Copyright © Edward Riojas

Although it’s been years since I worked in the editorial department of a newspaper, I still occasionally get the urge to graphically explain something or tinker with data. Yes, I can be a geek.

This geek doesn’t get out much, and I have a hunch some readers don’t, either. I thought it might be interesting to see how some famous altarpieces stack up against each other – this, without obtaining a visa or boarding a plane.

Not all altarpieces are large affairs. One of my personal faves, the Mérode Altarpiece – also known as “The Annunciation Triptych,” is just a tiny thing. It was probably made for domestic use as a private altar. There is an abundance of such pieces, especially within the early Church, which points to piety emanating from the church and entering the home.

The Isenheim Altarpiece is larger, but is still not huge. It was intended for a small chapel of an institution that cared for patients suffering from rather unpleasant skin diseases.

The Ghent Altarpiece, featured in the film, “The Monuments Men,” is only slightly taller, although it is packed with ridiculously-gorgeous detail. This detail makes it seem much larger when viewed out of context.

Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece should be quite familiar to Lutherans. It contains confessional imagery that includes many movers and shakers from the Reformation, and individual panels from it have been reproduced as prints.

A quick hop, skip, and a jump to Austria will allow a view of what may arguably be the tallest Gothic altarpiece. Rising 44 feet above the altar, the Kefermarkt Altarpiece is filled with sculpted figures and delicate wooden tracery.

The largest Gothic altarpiece in the world is claimed by St. Mary’s Basilica of Kraków, Poland. The Veit Stoss Altarpiece is massive – taking 12 years to create. Each 12 foot-high figure it contains was sculpted from an individual linden log. While it is considered a Polish national treasure, the altarpiece bears the name of its German sculptor.

The altarpiece shared the same fate as the Ghent Altarpiece, being plundered by German occupying forces. Its disassembled components were hidden in the basement of the Nuremberg castle, where they survived heavy bombing during the war. After the war, it went through extensive restoration before finally being returned to its home in 1957.

Comparative size, from left, of Mérode, Isenheim, Ghent, Wittenberg, Kefermarkt, and Veit Stoss altarpieces.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Banner Days

The royal banners forward go;
Where He, by whom our flesh was made,
Our ransom in His flesh has paid...
The cross shows forth redemption's flow,

(Venatius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus c. 570)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Even as a child, I remember banners carrying more weight than they do today. At the annual Reformation Day service held at Immanuel Lutheran Church – the "Mother church" of LC-MS churches in Grand Rapids, Michigan – banners processed behind the crucifix. Each of the many banners represented an area church and, like the churches, every banner was distinctive.
Detail of a banner in progress
on the worktable at
Ecclesiastical Sewing.

That was then. Today, most banners are designed as wall dressing. Some occasionally change with the Church seasons. Few are designed to actually be carried, and wall hooks – not processional staffs – are the rule. Because the banners were not designed to withstand the rigors of carrying their own weight in wind and other unruly elements, they usually bear one other quality. They are cheaply made.

Felt is the rule. Glue replaces stitching, and it shows.

Now before you get your breeches in a wad, please know that I have – and still do – design banners destined to be executed in felt. There is nothing so very wrong with felt – that is, unless there are better alternatives.

We are the product of ages preceding us and, unfortunately, that means that much of what exists in churches today has origins in the 1960's. Banners reflect this perhaps more than any other item in the church. With inexpensive felt available in umpteen bright colors, sold in almost every craft and sewing store, and easily worked with nary a stitch, it has been the go-to when a banner is requested.

Centuries before the 1960's, however, fabrics of better lineage were employed. That was because banners were used to display confessions of the Church (in case one didn't get a hint from the processional Crucifix). As such, they were to be a more permanent fixture and, as the centuries-old hymn above declares, they underscored the Kingly nature of our Lord and pointed to His preeminence among heavenly royalty. Felt and burlap have a hard time doing that.

In a return to former days, the studios of Ecclesiastical Sewing are starting to create banners truly worthy of Christ's radiant Bride. Yes, brocade is used. Felt is not. These banners take seriously the encouragement of Luther, who urged that we put the best construction on everything. Yes, even banners.

Finished banner produced by Ecclesiastical Sewing

Friday, May 31, 2019

“Baptismal Triptych:” A New Piece

"Baptismal Triptych" Edward Riojas. 2019. (Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, ND)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Ironically, I was concerned about moisture.

I returned this week from a business/pleasure trip to North Dakota to visit family and to deliver a large piece destined for Immanuel Lutheran Church in Hankinson. It rained during much of the 800 mile trek – sometimes with considerable wind. I had used the truck before to deliver an altarpiece in driving rain, and knew that things would remain relatively dry. Still, I’m human. Fretting over a piece into which months of labor have been invested comes naturally to me .

Besides a small damp spot on one corner of a moving blanket, the piece arrived bone dry. The piece, however, is not at all about being bone dry.

We sometimes inoculate ourselves against understanding the goings-on in the sanctuary, and it is always refreshing for me – in simply creating a piece for the sanctuary – to become intimate with what we often take for granted. Taking cues from Luther’s “Flood Prayer” in the Baptismal Rite, visuals in the triptych point to the divine power behind applying a bit of water and speaking the Word.

The water is punishing, and that is an understatement. It is not a simple cleansing; it is not a ceremonial washing; it is not a quaint tradition. Baptism’s water takes the old Adam by the ear and obliterates the sin he bequeathed to his progeny. It takes the world’s filth and drowns it under fathoms of water, preserving just eight souls – pointing to an unfathomable Resurrection on the eighth day. It lures the hardened hearts of a satanic horde into an inescapable death trap, while preserving a helpless, defenseless, ragtag, complain-prone people whose only Hope is in the divine intervention of God Himself.

It is also the unassuming water that cursed Christ Jesus. The insignificant waters of the Jordan drenched our Lord with the sins of the world, taking a burden that we could not begin to bear and laying it on the sinless Son of God.

Because we are so apt to forget; because we are prone to apathy; because we are lazy; because we sometimes want to be entertained on Sunday rather than recall our condition, renew our spirits and rejoice in the salvific act of our Lord, it is my prayer that this piece will help rattle our noggins to the beauty, the solemnity, and the reality of Holy Baptism.

Giclée prints of “Baptismal Triptych” are available for purchase from the artist. The prints are on high-quality Hahnemeuhle fine art paper. They are signed by the artist, but are not framed or matted. To order, or for more information, please contact the artist at

Sizes/prices for “Baptismal Triptych”
18” wide x 17” high  / $110 (U.S.)
24” x 22.5” / $150
32” x 30” / $200
40” x 37.25” / $250

Friday, May 17, 2019

Questionable Medium of the Early Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is impossible to use some materials today without raising the ire of small, but vocal, groups. We learned ages ago to refrain from wasting paper – no need to kill another tree. We now think twice before asking for plastic instead of paper at the checkout. In California, folks avoid plastic straws like leprosy. Other materials have been frowned upon for decades, and are fiercely protected by international law. Ivory is one of those materials.

From antiquity, ivory has been an option for small-scale sculpting. Once the hard enamel is ground away, its core is easy to carve and, like marble or alabaster, has just enough translucence to mimic human flesh. Because it cannot be melted down or reworked – as was often the fate of items made from precious metals – many ivory pieces have survived the centuries.

While an obvious choice, elephant tusks were not the sole source of ivory. The teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, and sperm whale were all used, as was whalebone. At one point, folks in Siberia and Arctic North America even harvested woolly mammoth tusks out of the permafrost. (I guess there’s no sense in hunting for ivory when one can mine it.) Of course, the issue of over-hunting ivory-laden animals came to a head in the 19th century. It is now a big no-no to even think about ivory.

Tree-hugging aside, some exquisite ivory pieces survive from the early Church. They are a wonderful testament to the skill and confession of artists who used bits and pieces of creation to give praise and honor to the Creator. Here are a few examples throughout history...

Side panels from a small casket depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. Possibly Roman. c. 425 A.D.
(The British Museum, London)

Diptych panels of Saints Peter and Paul. Frankish. 4th or 5th Century.

Panel fragment depicting Christ blessing Constantine VII. 945 A.D.
(Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

10th Century triptych showing open interior panels, left,
and exterior middle panel, right.

Triptych that passed through Sotheby's auction site.
c. 1315. Master of the Amien Triptych.

Tabernacle with bi-folding doors. Late 14th Century. (The Louvre, Paris)

Corpus. Early 19th Century. French.

Friday, May 10, 2019

St. Gabriel and a Brief History of Mirrors

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was searching through reference material for an art project and, as I sometimes do, started dissecting Orthodox images. I’ve learned to refrain from replicating icons, lock, stock and barrel, because they can, on the rare occasion, contain visuals that are contrary to Holy Scripture.

I wanted to create an image of the archangel Gabriel. In Orthodox iconography, he is usually depicted holding a slender staff in one hand and a round object in the other. That round object varies in appearance, and can look spherical and decidedly murky or flat with an image of Jesus Christ. It often has an “X” on it. Rarely, it contains an image of the Madonna and Child. I had to dig deeper.

As Icons are typically copies of other icons, so too are their explanations. It’s as if every Orthodox copied someone else’s homework verbatim. The phrase, “...often a mirror – made of jasper...” shows up in most Orthodox websites when describing icons of Gabriel. The jasper bit is a good hint that few REALLY understand why the mirror is there. Jasper is a material that has little, if any, bearing on the mirror. Still, everyone feels compelled to copy that particular detail. I dug deeper.

I finally found a better, more thoughtful description. There are, I believe, two reasons for the mirror.

The first reason is hinted at in Isaiah’s heavenly vision. While Christ discloses in Matthew 18:10 that the angels always see the face of God, Isaiah’s description of the seraphim has their eyes covered by a pair of wings. Orthodox tradition leans toward Isaiah, giving the impression that angels dare not look on the visage of the Lord. They apparently can, however, use a mirror. Call it a divine loophole.

The second reason for Gabriel’s mirror is for our own benefit. A truncated history of mirrors helps greatly with this.

Modern living doesn’t provide the benefit of understanding Biblical mirrors. If we come across a mirror today that is distorted or broken, we simply throw it out. We don’t tolerate that sort of imperfection. However, in ancient times, mirrors were extremely imperfect in their reflections. They were either made of some sort of polished metal or, as was more often the case in the New World, polished stone. Metal mirrors were rarely perfectly flat and had to be frequently polished. Polished stone could not be polished as well, and still had characteristic streaks and mottling of the rock itself. It is doubtful a Biblical mirror was ever trusted when applying eye liner.

Today we associate mirrors with vanity, but the Greek philosopher, Socrates, apparently encouraged their use. He believed a handsome person would see less of their beauty in a mirror’s reflection. Likewise, an ugly person would view themselves as more beautiful by using the same mirror.

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, described how we live by faith and not by sight: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12) It may be annoying that we can’t know or understand everything divine; that we can’t be face-to-face with God, but The Word and Sacraments are more than sufficient this side of paradise.

So my interpretation of Gabriel’s mirror, shown here in a detail of my piece, reflects a blurry image of our Lord, Christ Jesus. The full image of Gabriel will be revealed later – here in time. The face of our Lord will also be revealed – there, in eternity.

Detail of Christ Jesus from the piece, "Archangel Gabriel."
2019. (Copyright © Edward Riojas)

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Roof Razed

Better days: Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris, also known as the Notre-Dame Cathedral) before the fire.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The ashes weren’t even cool when ideas for a replacement started appearing.

Less than a week after a fire ravaged the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, images of a new spire and roof started popping up on social media. It’s one thing to boldly declare that the thing can be rebuilt, but it’s quite another to totally ignore historical significance and put forth the first [hair-brained] vision that pops into one’s head.

In opposition to the knee-jerk reactions of a few who obviously are members of the Mod Squad, I took a step back and did a little digging into the architectural annuls of this and other landmarks.

To us, the horror of such a conflagration in such a facade seems incomprehensible, but fires – even horrible ones – are nothing new to cathedrals. Crappy weather, wars, and even stuff like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow have destroyed many landmark church buildings. And it’s been happening for a long time.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
(Chartres Cathedral)

Another French landmark, the Chartres Cathedral, is currently the fifth building to be erected on the same spot. The first building was totally destroyed by the Danes in 858. The earliest remnant of the earlier buildings is a partial crypt from the second church. It seems crypts are the one thing often left intact. No sense in beating a dead saint.

An odd thing about the Chartres Cathedral are the uneven towers. Because master masons, the equivalent of architects, went for quality instead of speed, it often took decades or longer to get the job done. In the case of Chartres, nearly 400 years separates the completion of the towers. Because a different master mason with different ideas worked on the newer tower, it is different in style, scale, and construction. But, really, there is nothing odd about the Chartres Cathedral’s towers.

Not to pick on the French – okay, let’s pick on them – a similar issue still plagues another cathedral. St. Denis Cathedral, near Paris, only recently got around to funding a replacement tower – one that was “temporarily” dismantled 173 years ago.
Cathedral of Notre-dame
de Rouen (Rouen Cathedral)

The Rouen Cathedral, a favorite subject of impressionist Claude Monet, also has a couple of mismatched towers. The newest of the two [by 400 years] is called the Butter Tower. At some point, the bishop wanted to make life totally miserable during Lent by forbidding the use of butter. One could, of course, indulge in the sinful stuff by giving a donation to the tower’s building project. Thankfully, fundraising isn’t quite so demonic these days.

The list of fire-damaged, oddly built churches goes on and on. What is perhaps even more strange it that the notion of uneven towers took hold in church structures of the New World. Gothic Revival churches often have uneven towers that were planned that way, and it doesn’t take much pondering to think of an old church that has a single tower – sometimes without a spire – that is asymmetrically set to one side.

Towers and spires aren’t necessary, of course, but church architects have a historical tendency to build vertically, defying weather, fire, and sinister forces that would rather have a flattened church. Which brings us back to the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The facade roof and spire will certainly be rebuilt in some fashion. That will probably happen sooner than later. Although the present structure is the fourth to be built on the spot, it was so by design and not disaster. The cathedral’s architectural significance is huge, and just about every art and architecture student has been exposed to features of the Notre-Dame Cathedral – the exception being the original design of the towers. It seems the two towers were intended to have giant spires of their own, which were never constructed.

Late 1800's drawing by preservationist architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc
shows the original design intent of the Notre-Dame towers.

Friday, April 26, 2019

On The Resurrection

Preparatory drawings for "Resurrection." Edward Riojas. 1999. (Copyright © Edward Riojas)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes I change my mind.

An intimate part of creating art is the making of decisions. In fact, just about everything I do as an artist has to do with choices: How large should the piece be? What medium should I use? What will the image be? What figures will be in that image? How should they be posed, and what expressions should they bear, and what style will work best? Is that color too harsh? Is the quality of that line appropriate? And on and on.

Arguably, the decisions become more involved with sacred art. They also become more critical. The difference between playing it safe and being bold can have a direct bearing on what –  and to what extent – the finished piece confesses.

Years ago, when I was conceptualizing what has become one of my most popular images, I changed my mind about who was going to be in the painting. “Resurrection,” a painting that now hangs in the narthex of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., was originally going to be a bit different. In the first preparatory drawing I did for the piece, the Victorious Christ had one foot on the body of Satan. It was a variation of an old convention, confessing that Satan was indeed done in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But then I changed my mind.
Edward Riojas. 1999.

It wasn’t that Christ somehow failed to defeat Satan – He did. Rather, it was because I decided that Satan is such an idiot that he doesn’t deserve to share any of "the limelight" in the resurrection. Like a spoiled child that keeps up a tantrum; like the fallen angel that endlessly accuses, sometimes it’s best to simply ignore him. Sure, we know he's still there, but the guy is a total jerk and no one wants to invite him to the party.

So I did a second drawing without bothering to give Satan any undue recognition. If, however, you still think that Satan should be somehow represented as part of the redemption equation, feel free to imagine him as being very small, and still under the foot of our resurrected Lord.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Requiem for a Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are, of course, greater things on which to write for this Good Friday. The news, however, is sometimes hard to brush aside, and news with tragic, artistic overtones cannot be ignored by an artist.

The fire that destroyed much of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris jammed the news and social media this week. Fellow Christians were quick to remind us that, while beautiful and monumental, the church is not THE Church. THAT Church will never fall. In fact, so many fellow Lutherans posted words from the hymn, “Built on the Rock,” that writing on that theme would have been simply redundant.

The church building, we are told, will not fall, either. At least not entirely. As quickly as its steeple fell, talk of rebuilding put to rest any ideas of forever losing the famous facade. Pledges of money started pouring in from every unlikely part of the world, so we can rest assured that it will survive.

While undoubtedly a huge inspiration among the Roman brethren and the French, the Notre Dame Cathedral has also been an inspiration among artists, whether Christian or otherwise. Today’s post takes a look at a few images that not only give credence to artists’ reputations in capturing the landmark’s every mood, but also gives homage to the facade that gave inspiration in the first place.

“A View of the Seine River With The Notre Dame Cathedral in the Distance” Constantin Kluge

"L'Abside de Notre Dame de Paris" Charles Meryon. 1854.

"Notre Dame." Constantin Kluge. 1963.

"Notre Dame de Paris and the Flower Market." Marie-Francois Firmin Girard. 1900.

"Notre Dame de Paris vue du quai Saint Michel."  Maximilien Luce

"Notre Dame in the Snow." Emanuel Phillips Fox.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Ecce Homo: Lenten Contemplations on a Painting

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not every painting is pretty. Sometimes a painting forces the viewer to look at uncomfortable things. When it comes to sacred art, sometimes that “thing” is our own sin. Yet there is often inherent in sacred art a double measure of beauty which defies all meaning save that contained in Holy Scripture. What follows are details of a work of mine, “Ecce Homo,” paired with Biblical texts to which the details point...

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not”
(Isaiah 53:3)

“He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities”
(Isaiah 53:5a)

“Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
(Isaiah 53:5b)

““They will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him.””
(Mark 10:34a)

“They bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.”
(Mark 15:1b)

““Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!””
(John 1:29b)

“Pilate said to them, “Behold the man! [Ecce Homo!]””
(John 19:5b)

“And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.””
(Exodus 24:8)

“And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!””
(Matthew 27:25)

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,
according to the riches of his grace...”
(Ephesians 1:7)


Giclée prints of "Ecce Homo" are available from the artist

6.75" x 16" / $75

10" x 24" / $100
15" x 36" / $150
to order or for more info, PLEASE e-mail the artist at