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.


Friday, March 1, 2019

The Second Day

"Avignon Pietà." Enguerrand Quarton. c. 1450.
(The Louvre, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In spite of those who think we “should just get over the Crucifixion,” I’m offering today a few visions of the Passion from the masters. More specifically, these paintings take a look at the aftermath of our Lord's crucifixion. They aren’t pretty, and they challenge the whole concept of “Beauty” in artwork. Because death is ugly, we must put aside for the moment pieces such as Michelangelo’s theatrically-tender “Pietà.”

There are oodles of similar pietàs in which Mary, the mother of our Lord, weeps over the dead Christ in her lap. The “Avignon Pietà,” by Enguerrand Quarton, is one of the most striking examples. Christ’s body is bent beyond reclining comfort, and we know that He is dead. Mourners, and their lamentations, become key ingredients in this tableau.

"Lamentation of Christ." Andrea Mantegna. c. 1480.
(Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.)

When Christ is taken from the lap of His mother and placed on a slab, however, things change. What is tenderly personal in a pietà becomes almost impersonal. The viewer is forced to look on separation caused by death. Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation of Christ,” places the mourners nearly off the canvas, and a foreshortened view of Christ’s body creates an odd sense of a sanitized postmortem.

The one piece, however, that has always forcefully struck me is “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” by Hans Holbein the Younger. No mourners are represented in the painting, and an unsentimental and unsettling body of Christ is laid out. The artist cleverly set up the painting so that the viewer becomes the mourner, and without animated mourners in the painting, the stillness of the painting echoes the stillness of death.

Holbein pulls no punches. The hands, feet, and face of Christ Jesus are beginning to blacken. The eyes beg to be shut. The mouth is agape. It is hard to look on this visage and see any beauty. The ugliness of death, and the hideousness of the sins that put our Lord in that tomb confront us with an honesty that is nearly unbearable.

Those of us who have had to look at loved ones in a similar pose know intimately the harsh and inescapable reality shown here. In looking on the dead Lord, we also face our own death. Thanks be to God, we also recognize this body as the single Kernel, and know that it must first die before springing to new life. And as Christ is the first fruits from the dead, we recognize that we, too, shall rise on the third day, and slough off the corruption of our bodies and the sorrow in this vale of tears.

"The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb." Hans Holbein the Younger. c. 1521. (Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland.)

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Crowned Woman

Sculptures of "The Church," left, and
"The Synagogue.," right.  c. 1230.
(Strasbourg Cathedral, Strasbourg, France.
Originals are housed in the
Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg) 

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Grand Dame of the Christian Church may not be who you think.

One of many symbols for the Christian Church is the Crowned Woman, but there are at least two inherent problems which have forced it to be rarely depicted. This is a bit odd, given the number of times it is referred to, not only throughout history, but also in Holy Scripture itself.

Ephesians 5, among other passages, describes the Church as Christ’s Bride. He presents “the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” If Christ does the presenting, it stands to reason that it will go well beyond our usual notion of a blushing bride. She is radiant. She is regal. Hence, the Church has sometimes been depicted as a Crowned Woman.

During the Middle Ages, this notion was expanded. In the Strasbourg Cathedral, for example, the Crowned Lady appears, holding a Chalice and a cross-topped staff. Countering her presence is a symbol of the Synagogue – a blindfolded, stumbling woman. In some instances, the Synagogue is shown with a crown slipping off her head.

Problems, however, arose in the visuals of Roman Catholicism. When Mary, the Mother of our Lord, became prominent, she was often shown wearing a crown. Sometimes she was shown without the Infant Christ, creating confusion with the Crowned Woman. As if confusion wasn’t enough, the idiotic notion that nuns are somehow mystically betrothed to Christ was thrown into the mix.

There is another inherent problem in depicting the Church as the Bride of Christ: What does she look like? The usual visual interpretation of her is a woman of beauty. She is, after all, “without blemish,” according to the Word. I am pulled, however, to the prophecy contained in the Book of Hosea. Painting Israel as a whore-wife named Gomer is pretty harsh, but Biblically clear. The case can be made that the Church parallels Israel in the same way – we are not always the picture of beauty. The world, in fact, takes pleasure in rubbing our noses in that fact. But Hosea was no ordinary husband, and neither is Christ.

It is difficult to show a Crowned Woman with beauty, when we know the real complexion is decidedly different. We may even join, unawares, in the self-deprecating comment, “I can’t, for the life of me, understand what He sees in Her!”  We are, however, not the Groom.The Lord will show mercy on whom He may. For His life alone, given and shed for Her sake, Christ sees everything in His Bride, the Church.

Friday, February 15, 2019

“You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Unless you have been living under a rock, it’s hard to ignore the deterioration of society. Memes and links posted on social media are laden with the latest shockers of humanity at its worst. Late-term abortion, gender denial, socialism, and the overarching lack of ethics, logic, and common sense all demand our attention. It’s so bad that annoying cat videos have become a welcome relief.

The constant attacks on our society have grown into a very real monster, and the fear is palpable. We wonder how such a thing could have gotten so large and out of control. We were brought up in Christian households. We tried to do the right things. We lived as law-abiding citizens, craving not much more than apple pie and our team in the World Series. We assumed that even the non-believers had the common decency to mirror us. We now watch, wide-eyed, as this menace slowly circles about us. We wonder how this happened; how to escape it; how to stop it.

One of the earliest Christian symbols for the Church was a boat. In an obvious reference to the events surrounding Christ Jesus calming the storm, a simple fishing boat surpassed an earlier symbol of the much larger ark as a common identifier of the whole Christian Church. This boat had a single mast and a single sail.

Other early symbols of the Church, such as the Rock and the City on a hill, used bulk and strength in their designs. The tempests of the world could rage all they wanted, but the Rock would not be moved, and the City on a hill would be a brilliant light to all. Not so the Boat.

The Church, as a Boat, would be thrown about the sea of life, and waves would threaten Her. Monsters would circle Her. Like the disciples riding out the storm, we wonder. We wonder what will happen. We wonder how things have gotten to this point. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes wonder why God is sleeping.

It is very easy, as Christians, to stand in the shoes of “Jaws” character, Chief Brody, and suddenly feel that the Boat is totally insufficient and vulnerable and inconsequential. It is then that Holy Scripture gently reminds us in 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” And again in 2 Corinthians 12: 9a, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.””

It is wise that my artistic forebears chose a simple fishing boat as a symbol for the Church, and not a Roman galley or some other massive battleship. Yes, the Church will get assaulted by all manner of worldly storms, and it may seem Her hull is too thin; Her sail is too small; Her size is of little consequence. Our Lord, however, quietly abides with us, as He ever will. That is sufficient for us, and infinitely more.

Friday, February 8, 2019

On F.R. Webber

“The violent revulsions of the Puritans are very much on the wane, and ”the Churches” are reaching a stage where it is once more possible to spell Bible with a Large B, and Heaven with an upper-case H without bringing upon one the charges of ritualism; when a true altar of ample architectural scale, a chancel of comfortable depth, even crosses, candle-sticks, clerical vestments, surpliced choirs, absolution, and the sign of the cross in the benediction are not looked upon as superstition.”  – F.R. Webber, “Church Symbolism,” July, 1927
Miniscule initials from a book plate of symbols.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Unless you are very familiar with the corners of Lutheran history, the name Frederick Roth Webber won’t jog your memory one bit. Chances are, however, you are familiar with some of his work.

F.R. Webber was ordained during the summer of 1914, and began serving mission congregations in Wisconsin. Four years later he accepted a call to Faith Lutheran Church, Cleveland, Ohio, after being colloquized into the Missouri Synod. He served in Cleveland until 1937.

While I am sure he was a faithful pastor and rightly administered the Sacraments, Webber became known for work outside of his pastoral duties. He had a strong interest in architecture, and sat on an Architectural Committee for the English District of the LCMS. Webber wrote regular articles on church architecture, urging congregations to turn away from boxy structures to embrace older, confessional designs. He became known, however, for yet another discipline.

F.R. Webber’s book, “Church Symbolism,” was to become the one literary work, among other books and publications he wrote, that became synonymous with his name. It is a tome filled with useful images and concise information, and is well-seasoned with pithy admonitions. The stuff his book contains is NOT peripheral piffle.

Reading his words sometimes even elicits a snicker. When addressing the Calvinists’ aversion to the title “Saint,” for example, he nearly chastises them for taking St. Patrick's Day off from work and for living in places like St. Louis and San Antonio.

On the other hand, he chastises fellow Lutherans for thoughtlessly putting a symbol of the Reformer next to symbols of the Holy Trinity. He is very keen that artwork and architecture and symbolism confess the Truths we hold dear, but he is just as adamant that we confess it clearly.

The other day I received my 1927 edition of “Church Symbolism,” along with another vintage book on symbolism. The generous gift will be a great help in researching and conceptualizing embroidery designs for Ecclesiastical Sewing.

Upon opening the book, I immediately recognized Webber’s drawings. While they are recreations of eons-old symbols, Webber consolidated them from various sources and applied his own talented hand to them.

Webber let his readers know that some ancient symbols were eliminated from the collection. In his preface to the book, he explained, “ We do not believe in dragons and salamanders, nor do we have the temerity to assert that the quaint explanations given in olden times to certain symbols will stand the test of strict Scriptual exegesis.”

Something in his tone feels very familiar. One could say that I grew up with F.R. Webber. Perhaps you can say the same. His drawings appear in the 1970 revised edition of “Catechetical Helps” (CPH) and in altered form in the 1965 revised “Luther’s Small Catechism” (CPH).

Friday, February 1, 2019

A New Look at an Old Prayer

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The “Flood Prayer” wasn’t always in our hymnals. Throughout most of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s history, in fact, it simply wasn’t there. Luther wrote the prayer as an addition to the Baptismal Rite as he removed other parts of less consequence, such as the blessing of the font. The Lutheran Service Book brought back Luther’s Flood Prayer and gave it prominence in the rite.

Last year I was commissioned to create a Baptismal triptych based on this prayer. The actual painting has been completed, but the piece still needs varnishing and construction of a frame. When finished, the triptych will hang behind the Baptismal font at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hankinson, N.D.

Like the prayer, imagery contained in the piece doesn’t follow a linear train of thought. The Baptismal prayer pulls together events which, to the world, may seem incongruous and out of sync; the Baptism of our Lord, the Flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea are not, on the surface at least, related at all. In similar fashion, I’ve layered symbolism that isn’t necessarily expected. In both the triptych and the prayer itself, however, it all is very intentional.

In the left panel, a conspicuous cross serves as a prow for the ark, even as the Church is sometimes referred to as The Ark. In the shadows beneath a scroll which bears the words of the prayer, skulls and rotting corpses point to the utter destruction wrought by the Flood, along with sin’s destruction given in Holy Baptism.

The central panel offers a view typical of many depictions of the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan River. In a nod to Orthodox imagery, an adoring angel is also included. So too, distant trees, as representatives of all of creation, bow to the image of Christ. In the shadows, however, shadowy forms again lurk. This time a serpent coils at the unseen feet of Christ, who crushes its head.

The right hand panel fuses imagery in the crossing of the Red Sea. A set of three steps serve as an entrance into the sea, and the frightened Israelite throng crosses through, knowing they are pursued by forces greater than they. The natural elements, however, bow to the omnipotent power of the Lord, evidenced in piled up water and a consuming pillar of fire and smoke that bears not only a burning bush, but also the Name “YHWH.”

The idea that Holy Baptism is just a quaint old tradition or some kind of dedication of cooing newborns is soundly refuted not only by the pointed visuals, but also by Holy Scripture, to which the visuals point. It is well that Luther’s Flood Prayer has been reintroduced into the Baptismal Rite, for it points not only to the utter destruction of the Old Adam and our own sins, but it also points to the forgiveness and Salvation which the sacrament gives to all who are Baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Rough photo-composite of the unfinished "Baptismal Triptych."
(The scrolls, in reality, are of equal size and are in line horizontally, as are the horizons themselves.)
Copyright © Edward Riojas. No portion of image may be reproduced.