Friday, January 10, 2020

Birds and Bees and Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Settle down, this post isn’t about THAT. It does concern what happens when creation and The Creator come together in one place.

Yesterday I finished “blocking-in” a series of four paintings destined for a chapel in Wausau, Wisconsin. The panels are now entirely covered with paint, but are far from finished. It is the second piece on which I’ve worked that features a large chunk of wildlife. The former was my first major sacred piece, which hangs in the sanctuary of my own church, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

That first piece, “The Te Deum Polyptych” takes the phrase, “We praise Thee O God,” and runs with it – or gallops with it. The ancient hymn begins with the overarching theme of praise, at which point I painted a representation of saints and angels and, yes, assorted animals. They run the gamut from resplendent and Kosher to smelly and unclean. There are bison and bugs (yes, a praying mantis) and even the odd molecule. They all face the Creator and praise the Word that spoke them into existence.

The newest piece, for Zion Lutheran Church, might be something akin to an tableau from an old museum of natural history. It gives a strong nod to the native flora and fauna of Wisconsin, and is intended to act as a set of windows overlooking Wausau's beloved mountain. There are sandhill cranes and loons, muskie and whitetail deer, sumac and trillium, and even a trilobite – the state fossil.

This could have easily gotten out of hand in a fluffy tribute to all things furry. Instead, the frames of the paintings will rein in the wildlife with excerpts from the Venite. A trilobite, for example, might seem to brush awfully close to the knucklehead Darwin, but it’s presence changes entirely when coupled with “In His hand are the depths of the earth.”

Every creature in the piece looks toward the Zion Altarpiece, an earlier work of mine. The last panel of the piece, however, takes an unexpected turn with the presence of an African lion. Obviously, that type of lion isn’t native to Wisconsin, but this one lays down with the Lamb, in reference to Isaiah 11. The passage also mentions a cow, which flanks the lion. And yes, if you must know, the cow is appropriately a milk-producing Holstein – for all you die-hard cheeseheads,

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