Friday, January 18, 2019

The [Sacred] Art of Franz von Stuck

"The Guardian of Paradise."
Franz von Stuck. 1889.
(Villa Stuck, Munich)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Some names in the art world simply don’t roll off the tongue like Rubens or da Vinci. There are many artists in history worth knowing, but most are relegated to the margins of our memory. Some have been simply forgotten. I stumbled across the name Franz von Stuck the other day but, like some long lost acquaintance, I simply couldn’t put a face – or, in this case, a painting – to the name.

I was struck by some of von Stuck’s unfamiliar work, but as I dug deeper I saw a very familiar painting. It was like finally recalling an old friend. “Oh, THAT’S who you are! I remember you!”

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) was a German painter, sculptor, engraver, and architect who, from an early age, displayed great promise as an artist. Impressionism was well under way even when von Struck was a toddler, but other movements were also gaining steam. Realism was established, and Symbolism was attracting artists. Art Nouveau was a toddler in its own right. Von Stuck may have had great talent, but he was working in the shadows while folks like Monet and Degas were sharing the spotlight.
"Paradise Lost." Franz von Stuck.
1897. (Unknown location)

Von Stuck, however, had his day in the sun. His painting, “The Guardian of Paradise” – the painting which I immediately recognized – took the gold medal in 1889 at the Munich Glaspalast. Among later awards was a gold medal for painting given during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1906, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown – a bestowal of knighthood – and thereafter bore the name, Franz Ritter von Stuck.

Von Stuck became associated most closely with the Symbolism movement, and much of his work centered on Classical mythological themes. He did, however, produce works that can be labeled “sacred,” and “The Guardian of Paradise” is one such piece. His “Paradise Lost,” with its moody chiaroscuro, contrasts with the light and airy ‘Guardian.’
"Golgotha." Franz von Stuck. 1917.
(Brooklyn Museum, New York)

Other works by the artist show outside influences in stylized poses and compositions. His depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ, "Golgotha," is a little jewel that shows enough flavors of art movements during von Stuck‘s day that it is relatively easy to place it in time.

A depiction of Mary follows similar stylistic form, but the figure of Christ in the same “Pietà” departs from the formula. The result is a far cry from Michelangelo’s tender “Pietà,” and shouts a different reality of the dead Christ.

By the time of his death, von Stuck’s popularity was waning and he was already being regarded as old fashioned. The tide of modern art movements was unstoppable. Franz von Stuck, perhaps as we see his name, simply was “stuck” in the shadow of greater notoriety and more promising trends. His influence, however, was arguably as great a legacy as his own works. This is evidenced by a roster of students under von Stuck when taught at his alma mater, the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Names like Paul Klee, Josef Albers, and Wassily Kandinsky are not so soon forgotten. Neither is another artist who was strongly influenced by von Stuck – Gustav Klimpt.

"Pietà." Franz von Stuck. 1891. (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany)

Friday, January 11, 2019

When Halos Slip and Fall

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was recently perusing depictions of the Holy Spirit for an upcoming project and noticed a disturbing trend: The Holy Spirit often sports a slipping halo. This may seem at its greatest a non-issue. It may also seem an indicator of my stodgy artistic taste. It is, however, neither of these.
Example of a tri-radiant nimbus swapped for a cross.

If you’ve ever listened while I've given a presentation or have read my words on Christian symbolism, certainly the topic of the tri-radiant nimbus (halo) has been brought up. It is one of the most confessional visual devices used in the Church, yet it is also one of the most misunderstood.

A simple nimbus, if used in art, is always placed behind the head of a saint or angel or depiction of God. Because it is possible to have a multitude of figures in a painting, the tri-radiant nimbus was developed to distinguish depictions of God from humans and angels. Three rays within the nimbus indicate the figure is a Person of the Holy Trinity, and in so doing confesses Who exactly is indivisibly God. So, yes, The Lord, Jesus Christ can be shown with the tri-radiant nimbus. So, too, the hand of the Father can be shown with the same device, as well as depictions of the Holy Spirit.

Mention is sometimes made of a “cruciform nimbus,” but it is the result of ignorance and error. While it may be true that God is indivisible, it is also true that the Person of Christ did not share the cross with the Father or the Holy Spirit. The cross, in that regard, has always been associated with Jesus Christ. While the cross, in some respect, may be indirectly associated with the Father and the Holy Spirit, it makes a greater confession, by means of the tri-radiant nimbus, to state that each Person is, indeed, God.

But for some reason, the Holy Spirit’s halo sometimes “slips” so that a cross becomes visible. In fact, the only reason the cross has been used in a nimbus is that the errant artist assumed there was an arm of the cross behind the head instead of being satisfied that there were simply three rays. By sliding the halo to one side, it also fails in surrounding the head, as if confessing that this Person isn’t quite as holy.
A dove of
dubious origin.

Of course, there are even more instances in which the Holy Spirit’s halo is discounted altogether. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. With one simple omission, the image drifts from the Divine into the realm of birds and bees. To make things worse, the dove might also be showing flying up toward heaven instead of descending with Divine inspiration. The result is a nice bird; a dove; a symbol of peace. It is circumspect fluff. If confessions are to be made, then the artist should confess as if his life depends on it.

And if you think my hackles are being raised for naught, then consider those who do not confess the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Holy Trinity; that the Holy Spirit is not true God. The Unitarians take this view and heretically run with it. It is therefore imperative to be cognizant of what we confess, not only in word and song, but on the very walls of our sanctuaries, as well.

Friday, January 4, 2019

In Good Company

Working drawing for Baptismal Mural. (St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Council Bluffs, Iowa) Copyright © Edward Riojas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One client requested that I alter an idealized crowd to honestly reflect a more diverse segment of society. Another client asked if it was possible to insert members of the congregation into a depiction of a crowd. Yet another showed me a photo of a shy, unsung hero – the subject of a memorial – so that I would not inadvertently paint the person prominently into a crowd. When it comes to sacred art, a crowd is not simply a crowd.

These three instances point to our desire, as members of Christendom, to be intimately connected with depictions of the company of saints. It should come as no surprise. The world may see a crowd as a sea of nameless faces, but those who sit in pews understand that the faces of the saints are written in the palm of His hand. They are not nameless.

Age and experience amplify this. As we grow older, the carefree days of youth are replaced by heartbreak and separation and death. We know, however, that death is not an end; that space and time are not barriers to the Lord; that we stand together with all the saints, whether they be here in time or there in eternity.

For this reason, more consideration is given to depictions of crowds in sacred art, and otherwise-strange requests are not brushed aside. For this reason, I am careful to consider the demographics of a crowd and facial expressions of the same.

In the case of a recent project, it didn’t matter that there were thousands in that crowd. I needed to put myself in the helpless crowd of Israelites as they walked dumbfoundedly through the Red Sea on dry ground. This amid a far greater display of the glory and power of God, and a foreshadowing of our own Baptism as helpless humans under the power of God’s grace.

What is perhaps even more telling are the occasional reactions to those depictions of crowds painted with decidedly less consideration. It doesn’t matter that I invent heads and faces in a crowd instead of using live models – someone in the crowd will be recognized. A young woman once approached me at the dedication of a mural and asked me, with tearful eyes, how I knew a particular person painted in a crowd of saints. I didn’t. Out of ignorance, I had taken a shot in the dark and hit a very tender spot.

Tenderness and hurt buried by time can suddenly surface when facing a crowd. As a testament to the power of art, I have discovered that depictions of the company of saints – particularly the youngest among us; the “least of these” – can recall deep sorrow. Thankfully, what I paint can also bring comfort in the Hope of the resurrection. Without such Hope, there would be little reason to pick up a brush at all.