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

Friday, April 5, 2019

Who He Is

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I am sometimes amazed at the stupidity of certain folks in Holy Scripture. Of course, that is only possible with Biblical hindsight and, of course, with the admission that I am often equally stupid.

Long after Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and after He asked the same of His disciples, the answer was given point blank. Unfortunately, folks didn’t like the answer, even when the Truth was standing in front of them and staring them in the face. Stupid happens.

There are seemingly countless events and references in Scripture that point to the Divinity of Jesus, but two very public events stick out in my mind – the culmination of His pointed discussion with the Jews in the Temple, and at His arrest in the the garden.

In His Divine forbearance, Jesus was trying to explain Himself, while in the Temple, to a Jewish audience, who only knew the traditions of men apart from the much older promise of a Messiah. Being hard of heart, the Jews were not being swayed. Their argument peaked with a telling question, and was given an infinitely-more telling answer.

“You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

This goofy, tense-warped answer was the last straw for the Jews, yet they somehow, stupidly, could grasp neither the meaning of Christ’s answer, nor His body itself for stoning, though He had been directly in front of them. Apparently, the ability to willingly disappear from plain sight was not on the Jews’ list of divine requirements.

This was later repeated when the mob sought to arrest Jesus. When He identified Himself as “I am,” they fell to the ground. The event must have been at once lamentable and comical. The armed soldiery acted as formidably as the Keystone Cops. They were so stupid that, after falling down, Jesus had to ask again whom they were seeking, as if to remind them where the not-so-polite conversation had been interrupted.

Both of these events point, of course, to the name of the Lord that had been revealed to Moses – “I am” – and it is why the Jews, in their ignorance, had cause to stone Jesus.

There is, interestingly, a small bit of Christian symbolism that confesses Jesus Christ’s answer to the Jews, and links images of Him to the name given in the Old Testament.

While Orthodox icons do not always get things right, and while the very use of their dated style is suspect, they do sometimes get things very right. In depicting Jesus, He is identified by the use of the tri-radiant nimbus. But Orthodoxy goes a step further.

It is tradition to have a Greek character in each of the three rays, appearing as “o w n.” This is shorthand, as is often the case in icons, for a longer phrase. In this case, it is very loosely translated as “He Who Is.” It is not simply a confession of Jesus as Christ in the New Testament, but a confession of the same as a manifestation of the Lord whom the Old Testament Jews had worshipped and, therefore points to Jesus as The God of all time, The Lord of all creation, and inseparable from His Father and The Spirit.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Vestments Gone Bad

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not all vestments are created equal. Some are the result of too much of a good thing. Others are the result of too much of a bad thing. Yet others seem to the be the result of psychoses, or the improper administration of prescription drugs.

I will admit, however, that I might be a bit prejudiced on the subject and will, therefore, submit a few for the reader's consideration. Just don't blame any of them on me....

Some pastors have vast collections of crosses that have often been given as gifts, but that doesn't mean there is a Church season celebrating the same. Pick one, please.

This chasuble doubles as a felt board. It comes in pretty handy during the children's sermon on Easter. (But PLEASE don't tell me Mr. Chicken and Mr. Sheep were on the road to Emmaus.)

This chasuble-thing was obviously designed by children, who apparently scrubbed their own faces out of the photo. Pr. Whats-his-name is doing his best to look thrilled that a bunch of bananas are on his new frock, but we're not buying it.

Mr. Burger has a new spokesperson.

The Hippy-Dippy Pastor-man loves his new chasuble, but, for the record, a few are wondering if it's incense burning in the censer.

Some folks like to celebrate the whole Church year. Every day. And Legos.

There is good reason why darts, arrows, and throwing axes are not permitted in the sanctuary at First Church of the Reformed Tie-Dye.

Just in case you didn't already realize that she is the Queen of Tarts.

No one takes this pastor seriously – especially Sarah, who obviously made his stole.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Have You Been Immunized?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes we inoculate ourselves for the wrong reasons.

I’m not talking about chicken pox or rubella. Neither am I suggesting the government is secretly scheming to turn us all into GMO monsters that resist every strain of illness only to grow an extra set of arms. That’s just silly. But we HAVE, in many ways, become immune to specific horrors that appear in Holy Scripture, and that, dear friends, is not silly at all.

This came up just yesterday in a social media post in which a small piece of art I created for Oculi Sunday seemed, on occasion, to create difficulties among parishioners. The image shows a demon-possessed man being exorcised by Christ Himself. It is an ugly thing. It is odd and repulsive and shocking. Somehow, it seems inappropriate for church, and folks have brought this to their pastor’s attention. In medical parlance, however, this is a symptom of something bad.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Bible, you must know, if filled with all manner of unseemly, unsettling, and unnatural things. When Scripture was being written, the ugliness of hell occasionally showed up. It was visible. It was tangible.

Heaven, too, showed up. It was unearthly. It was so powerful that folks trembled at its reality, begged not to look on it, and thanked the Lord when they did see it and lived to tell the tale.

This was not some movie set or high-tech special effect – it was real. It was tangible.

And this bothers us.

We would eagerly watch planets collide in thunderous surround-sound, while super-villains threaten hopeless humankind, knowing it is fake, rather than see the haunting and glorious reality of what Scripture plainly tells us. This is a puzzle.

Hearing of the reactions to my Oculi Sunday art is nothing new. I once was told to remove a couple of human skulls from an illustration of Goliath because, well, it was ‘sort of demonic and might make some denominations squeamish.’ Huh? My skull – and yours – were knit together in our mothers' wombs by the Lord. It is His handiwork. It is not in any way demonic. What is more, apparently we can’t abide Goliath being demonic, which is also a lie.

It does not matter if folks don’t like my artwork, but it DOES matter if parents or pastors or other adults can’t explain the ugliness contained in Scripture. Being squeamish is good. Ignoring the ugliness or denying it defeats the purpose of the Law, and dulls, in turn, the power of the Gospel.

So if an ugly, little illustration gives us pause, then we should indeed pause, and explain the ugliness of sin and death and hell to our children. And if we cannot do this simple thing, perhaps we should take real time to ponder a much uglier image of torture and gore, and, allowing Scripture itself to explain, we should contemplate the greatest horror and glory of all in the reality of the sinless Christ crucified for our most intimate and grotesque sins.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Skeletons in the Sanctuary

"Le Squelette." Ligier Richier.
1545. (Saint-Étienne Church,
Bar-le-Duc, France)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return”

It seems but once a year, on Ash Wednesday, that we are told this. Our foreheads – and our noses – get rubbed in this fact. The rest of the year we are more apt to think of ourselves as being made of  “Snaps and snails and puppy-dog tails” or “Sugar and spice and everything nice.”

Facing reality is not man’s forte, and the Church must sometimes oblige, if only once a year. There are, however, places in Christendom where the reminders come more often. Funerals are always a wake up call, but I am referring to yet other reminders. “Momento mori,” or reminders of death, sometimes show up as permanent fixtures in the sanctuary.

The Baroque era used depictions of death with strange relish. In Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc, France, the 1545 sculpture, “Le Squelette,” is a funerary monument to the heart of René Chalon. The figure holds a depiction of a once-beating heart, and commands a place of prominence normally reserved for canonized saints.
"Death Cutting the Thread of Time."
designed by Egid Quirin Asam and
Cosmas Damian Asam. Mid-18th Century.
(Asamkirche, Munich)

Not to be outdone by the French, a small but grandiose chapel, familiarly known as Asamkirche in Munich, contains a gold-plated sculpture of death cutting the thread of time. In this indulgent facade, it is a sober reminder that life is short – even for the Asam brothers, who designed the chapel and had it built for personal use.

If a marble or alabaster sculpture didn’t quite do it for the parishioner, there were the occasional grotesque relics put on public display. The relic of St. Pancratius was given a suit of gilded armor and set on a lofty perch in the Church of St. Nikolaus in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The peekaboo armor had cutouts to allow a view of the underlying reality. It’s hard to top this sort of macabre reminder of death. It’s also hard, I imagine, to focus on the sermon when old Pancrie is staring you in the face.
Reliquary for St. Pancratius.
(Originally in the Prince Abbey
of St. Gall, Switzerland)

While not exclusively a Roman Catholic thing, the Roman brethren certainly championed the notion of memento mori. This culminated in the Requiem Mass, which is an extension of the funeral. Being a mass, there were vestments to go with the “celebration.” Some, as the black and gold example shows, got a tad carried away. It’s unfortunate that its imagery obsessed over death as a final destination instead of focusing on the Resurrection of our Lord.

Death, however was not dark enough for some; a simple reminder of mortality wasn’t sufficient. Leave it to Rome to erect a church dedicated to this twisted theology. The Church of the Purgatory [you read that correctly] in Matera, Italy, is quite capable of sucking all the Hope and joy out of its hapless visitors. Some of the doors alone will give pause upon entering, being adorned with rows of skulls topped with hats of all professions. There are skulls above the doors, as well. One must assume that doorknobs and light switches and organ pipes are also fair game.
Requiem Mass chasuble.
17th or 18th Century.

Perhaps, upon greater consideration, once a year is indeed sufficient to be reminded that we are dust. Otherwise, we might dwell on death too keenly. The penalty for our sin and the solution to our mortality was answered in the Person of Christ Jesus. Unless Christ’s return beats us to the punch, we will certainly die, and yet we shall live. Thanks be to God, who defeated sin, death, and Satan, and who has defeated our own death, as well.

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Little Lenten Levity

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is the Lenten season and it’s a good time to remind ourselves to be sober-minded. Let’s face it, though, the winter has been excessively long, it’s tax season, and I’m thin on blog ideas. We can be sober-minded and STILL laugh at ourselves. Hence, today’s look at church signs.

I’m not even going to address the annoying signs that are dressed up with corny words intended to make us go inside a strange church. You know, the ones that cause you to face-palm and nearly drive into a power pole. Let’s not go there. Besides, there are plenty of others desirous of our attention...

...Apparently, I'm not the only one who can be snarky. The person entrusted with changing this sign is past-due for a Bahamas vacation.

Just to keep things clear, mixing metaphors on a church sign isn't brain science, either.

I know your wool underwear may seem like purgatory, but cotton won't get you into heaven, either.

Determined to expand their mission field, this church wants to build an inner-city zoo.

I am so sorry, Larry, but your church doesn't deliver both Law AND Gospel.

I wonder if anyone here has a hunch about church growth issues.

Can he really be that bad?

Either the church barbecue is coming up on the calendar, or spell check is on vacation.

Um. Few of us are convinced.

Hence, the little burg of Friendsville.

Yikes! We're not in Friendsville, anymore!

Well, I'm pretty sure that's true, given your lack of meteorological expertise.