Friday, September 25, 2015


“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (Ghent Altarpiece) by Jan and Hubuert van Eyck. 1432
(St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Every day is a gift.
“The British Parliament: Sun in the Fog”
Claude Monet. 1904. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

I am a creature of habit, and a newer habit of mine is taking solitary walks on a trail behind my office. I use the time to get a little exercise, to blow off steam, to pray, to rummage through my thoughts and memories, and to enjoy The Lord’s gift of His creation. I don’t typically do this all at the same time, mind you – but you get the idea.

I was taking a walk on the path one particular summer day, and was feeling not so very special. Glancing toward a patch of Queen Anne’s lace, I saw a pair of Indigo buntings chattering among the delicate blooms. I realized this was a special gift from God – for my eyes alone – and my perception of the day instantly changed. Gifts are like that, especially the ones you don’t expect.
“The Newborn Christ”
Georges  de La Tour. c. 1645-1648.
(Musée des beaux-arts de Rennes, France.)

Today I have a few gifts for you. For months I’ve blathered on about various pieces of art for different reasons, but today I am giving you some very special treasures. I could look at this sampling all day. These are pieces that move me; that inspire me; that humble me. These are the gifts other artists left us when they were on top of their game. These are the works of those who used their God-given gifts to leave a mark on the world. In a sense, I am re-gifting them to you.

The first on my list is van Eyck’s ‘Ghent Altarpiece.’ The exquisitely masterful images of this piece have hung before me as a standard of excellence long before the altarpiece took center stage in the movie, “The Monuments Men.” It’s exacting detail and crispness of form draw the eye ever further into the piece until it seems we must press our noses through its wooden panels. Without expounding on its theological weight, I must simply admit that the Ghent Altarpiece is a rare monument to devotion and reverence.
“Emilie Flöge,” by Gustav Klimt.
1902. (The Vienna Museum)

My second gift is quite unlike the first, but wonderful nonetheless. Claude Monet’s “The British Parliament: Sun in the Fog” is from a series painted in various light during 1904. Eschewing finite details of solid form, Monet instead caught the essence of infinite light. It is at once vague and definitive. We know that quality of light, previously unclaimed by any artist until the master of Impressionism gave us this vision.

Georges de La Tour has always been near the top of my list of faves, and “The Newborn Christ” is, indeed, a Divine Gift. The modeling of simple shapes illuminated by a single, hidden candle is a trademark of de La Tour’s chiaroscuro. It is enhanced by a warm palette punctuated by deep reds. That he is able to walk a fine line between reverence and sentimentalism underscores the artist’s draftsmanship and sensitivity to subject.
“Hunters in the Snow (January),”
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. 1565.
(Museum of Art History, Vienna)

It is easy to be taken by the Gustav Klimt’s decorative paintings. The lovely portrait of Emilie Flöge, however, gives only a gentle nod to Klimt’s more excessive pieces, and this one is gift-wrapped in blue. The decoration is a clever device in this portrait of the artist’s life-long companion – a self-made woman who was a haute couture fashion designer. Klimt’s fondness for her is evident. Emilie’s gaze warmly addresses the viewer, while her dress expresses quiet opulence and grace.

My next re-gifted painting is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow.” Those of us who live in northern climes know that temperature has an effect on the look of a winter scene. Even though the ice is thick in Brueghel’s painting, the whites are warm, giving a hint of temperatures that are not so far below freezing. Had it been colder, the atmosphere would have been cast in blues. For all the bleakness in his piece, there is a sense of warmth that is heightened by workers around a fire. and the painting gives a welcome feeling of contentment.
“Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket,”
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
1875. (Detroit Institute of Arts)

“Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket,” by Whistler, rounds out my little collection. It is one of those odd paintings that hints more at impressionism than is probably intended. The night scene certainly follows the representational norm of Whistler’s work, but remnants of the pyrotechnic display obscure building shapes to the point of near total abstraction. The artist captures the richness of a moment frozen in time, causing us to squint in vain to catch the last glimmering spark.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trove of treasures. I also hope you remember that every day is a gift. Whether you are on top of your game, whether your heart is breaking, or whether you are on your deathbed, the Good Lord gives us His daily gifts. What we do with those gifts is another matter.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Father and His Two Sons

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Pharisees detested Him.

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Christ, knowing their minds, gently gave the Pharisees a few parables to chew on. Although the third parable has much more to do with the graciousness of The Father than the thankless son, it has become known as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son.’

A few years a go I was commissioned to do a painting on the theme of this parable. The commission came with no strings attached. Price wasn't really a concern, neither was there a deadline. The piece was commissioned by a local eye surgeon, Dr. Larry Gerbens, who was building a collection of art on the same theme. My piece would be rubbing elbows with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and Rembrandt. No pressure at all.

As I juggled mental images for the painting, it became clear that the composition would be driven by a bit of Scripture from the parable that is a turning point in the story. If one is careful in reading it, that turning point is not really made by the son but by the Father. I wanted to stress this when asked to provide a written explanation of the painting. What follows is an edited version of that explanation.
“The Prodigal Son.” Edward Riojas.
(The Gerbens Collection, Calvin College,
Grand Rapids, Michigan)

This painting strives to capture the moment from scripture when the son is “Yet a long way off.” Theologically, this is a significant phrase. It does not say “When the son finally got his act together.” Neither does it say “When he realized perfection.” This points to the Father’s Grace. He made the effort to save us while we were making great strides in damning ourselves; He came to save us “While we were yet sinners.” It also points to our utter inability to save ourselves by our own merit.

One may ask, “Then why or how does the son walk toward home?” The painting answers this question when it is read from left to right. On the left is the foreign country in which the son squandered his inheritance. I have here taken less of an earthly, carnal approach to prodigal living in preference to a heavenly view of this abominable place.

It is no coincidence that beneath the high places of the foreign country lies a massive ziggurat. I have here used a rubber mallet with this antiquated image. Had I used a ten-pound sledge hammer, I would have instead shown a mosque with minarets. Other pagan images can be seen on the cards jettisoned along the way. One card nods to the wiccan zodiac, while another bears a yin and yang. Scattered coins point to the god of worldly wealth. Death and damnation coexist. Gloom reigns.

Into this world of dark ruin and rebellion descends the Son of God. At first I was a little hesitant to put the crucified Christ on the other side of the tracks; in the the shadows of shame, but then it seemed appropriate – even necessary. He came to save the lost. By being lifted up on a cross, visible in the shadows of death, the sinful world is redeemed and set free from the bondage of sin, death, and hell itself.

The Prodigal Son, like all of us, is incapable of moving toward the Father’s Kingdom on our own. The Holy Spirit must push us as we shuffle toward heaven.  We still bear evidence of our sinful state as onward we go, shown in a slave’s torque around the prodigal’s neck. The son’s former glory is replaced with tattered tassels, matted hair, and bruised feet. Satan may still be nipping at his heels, but the prodigal’s feet are pointed heavenward. The son’s countenance bears evidence of his broken and contrite heart. This is what is lovely in the Father’s eyes, and this is where the painting turns on its razor-sharp edge.

While those in darkness shy away from the true light, the prodigal son is brought into His marvelous light. The Father’s Kingdom is ripe with the field of believers. But even as we are in the light, we sometimes stumble into the role of the other son, grumbling that our sinful brother is allowed to enter and feast. Never mind the planks in our eyes. The Father cares not that His goodness is recklessly showered on either brother, but runs hard to the lost son. The Father does not even care that running – an embarrassing act for a biblical father  – might cloud His glory. The prodigal is finally home.

The Pharisees, whose wickedness gave reason for Christ telling the parable of the prodigal, couldn’t have possibly known their initial grumbling was paying Jesus Christ a high compliment; that it was proclaiming a blessed truth, even though their words were intended for evil. The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, those who would be sons by adoption and redemption, and the gracious Father who dearly loves them enough to run toward their salvation. All of Christendom rejoices in this Father and takes comfort in His reckless love – this Man who welcomes sinners and eats with them.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pathetic Ends

“Self-Portrait,” Edgar Degas. 1855.
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Madonna and Child,” by Masaccio.
1426. (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Call it morbid curiosity, but some time ago I felt compelled to research the deaths of some of the more famous in artsy-fartsydom. Most artists have shared the same maladies and shortcomings of the rest of society and it follows that, on a whole, their final days were not so very different. A fair number died of cancer. Others fell to whatever plague was running a sale. Some died rich. Some died poor. Some decided the end could not come fast enough. But a few remain ... interesting. The unfortunate ends don’t necessarily have the juicy hype of a Jane Mansfield death or an Elvis Presley demise, but they do have a colorful tinge. Leave it to artists.

Masaccio, an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, died in 1428. He was only 26. His work influenced many painters of the period and he was arguably the engine behind the Italian Renaissance, but his great talent might have had an adverse effect on at least one artist. Legend has it that he was poisoned by a jealous rival. Talk about sour grapes.
“David with the Head of Goliath”
Caravaggio. 1609-1610.
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Caravaggio’s end is equally foggy, but tragic. The Italian painter apparently had a temper and brawled excessively, although brawling during his time was commonplace and even acceptable. One might say it was all the rage. Some argue that his death might have been the result of vengeful enemies who didn’t take kindly to his fisticuffs. However, it is almost certain that his brawling temper was the result of lead poisoning. The same could have very well done him in without the help of enemies. The culprit: Lead-based pigments he used to create some of the most gorgeous paintings of all time. Caravaggio died in July of 1610.

Fellow Italian Sofonisba Anguissola was already 78 when Caravaggio died, pushing the lifespan envelope when a simple cough could land one in the grave. Having received a well-rounded education and being blessed with considerable talent, she – that’s correct, she – found favor as a Spanish court painter, and rubbed elbows with the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. Her demise was curious, but certainly not pathetic. Anguissola lived another 15 years beyond Caravaggio’s death, and died in Palermo at the age of 93. One can only guess it was the Mediterranean diet.
“Self-Portrait,” by Sofonisba Anguissola.
1556. (Lancut Museum, Poland)

Edgar Degas’ 1917 demise, on the other hand, is painfully sobering. Late in life, the Impressionist painter was forced to deal with his own conviction that a painter could have no personal life. It proved a self-fulfilling prophesy. What few friends he had were compromised by his argumentative personality, and one by one they all left him. It is a tragedy that an artist who could breathe so much life into his work spent his waning days wandering the streets of Paris alone, and nearly blind.

Illustrator John Bauer was a Scandinavian counterpart of those who shone during America’s Golden Age of illustrators. I won’t deny that some of my work carries some pretty strong influence from Bauer. His sense of whimsy, coupled with his choice of technique always pull me into Bauer’s visions of fancy. Too bad he didn’t always make the best choices when traveling. Trying to avoid another train disaster that might come on the heels of a deadly derailing in Getå, Sweden, Bauer instead booked transit on a steamer for his whole family. You guessed it: The ship’s cargo of iron stoves, plowshares and gross stupidity was improperly stowed, a storm brewed, and the ship went down with all hands. That was November, 1918.
Illustration for "Bland Tomtar och Troll."
John Bauer. 1915.

There is a boatload of speculation in the 1945 death of America’s darling illustrator, N. C. Wyeth, in a car vs. freight train collision. An apparent battle with depression is often brought up. So is the possibility of a heart attack. The version I like is the legend that has Wyeth shaking his large fist at the train, and his stalled car on the tracks. The fact is: No one knows. What is known is that his namesake grandson also died in the crash. Still, the world needn’t worry that the family name would not live on – the work of N.C. Wyeth, along with his artistic progeny, have more than perpetuated its memory. The same may be said of many other artists, most of whom quietly entered spheres beyond our own.
“One More Step, Mr. Hands.”
N.C. Wyeth. 1911.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Other Demons

“Magdalen with the Smoking Flame”
Georges de La Tour.
c. 1640 (Louvre, Paris)
Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are places most folks would rather avoid. Today we are going there.

Holy Scripture doesn’t fill in all the blanks surrounding Mary of Magdala, but of one thing we are sure: Before Jesus Christ came along, she was messed up – big time. Artistic depictions of her seem to underscore this.

Mary Magdalene comes to readers of Holy Scripture as a sort of enigma. We meet her as a person made well, and for some reason we can‘t leave well enough alone. She is often mentioned as a follower of Christ and is included with women who show up during key events in the life of Christ – especially Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. She is one of the first to experience the reality of Christ‘s resurrection, but never mind that. We want to know her back story. The old Adam in us wants to know all her dirty, little secrets.
”Saint Mary Magdalene”
 attributed to Gregor Erhart.
c. 1515-20  (Louvre, Paris)

Luke’s Gospel simply tells us that seven demons were driven out of her. As if one wasn't enough.

We don‘t exactly know what effect the demons had on her, but a stigma seems to have followed her long after Mary was set free from them. Western tradition makes her synonymous with the sinful woman, and the presumption is that she was either  a prostitute or “loose.” Labels like those are hard to rub off.

"If this [Jesus] were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner." There is plenty to read between the Pharisee’s thoughts. Or is there?

Perhaps Mary’s troubled past is found in a different direction. At least one theory puts her in a place that would have given her a similar stigma – mental illness.

I’ve known a few folks who have dealt with emotional issues – some of them profound. Maybe you know of others in the same boat. Depression. Anxiety. Coping is their life, and sometimes that much is accomplished only through diet, exercise, counseling and medication. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. Through inherited genes or traumatic experience, the mind becomes tormented. Emotions are given a hair trigger. Fear is ever present. Sleep does not come. Obsessions build, as do compulsions. Moods swing uncontrollably. Heavy emotions won’t move at all. Sometimes the mind is so tightly wound that it can’t function. And the problems won’t leave. Perhaps Mary of Magdala suffered from a host of mental ailments. My own brother finally succumbed to seemingly bottomless despair, so I fully know what “it” can do. Demons, indeed.
“Mary Magdalene”
Cario Crivelli. c. 1480
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Mary Magdalene shows up frequently in sacred art. While artistic interpretations fill the spectrum, there is a common thread of spiritual heaviness and deep contrition that often accompanies depictions of her.

Mary’s questionable past apparently gave artists license to show something titillating, so she has been sometimes shown in various stages of undress. She is usually given handsome – if not alluring – features. And the hair. Loads of it. Piles of it. Mountains of it. Curled. Wavy. Occasionally red. Rarely is Mary’s hair completely covered. It swirls around Christ’s feet as a mop. It plays with the wind. It falls in unmanageable tresses that tease the viewer. Sigh. Artists.

One extreme example is the polychromed wooden sculpture by Gregor Erhart. This graceful, late-Gothic piece could be Lady Godiva’s twin, but not quite. A strange modesty is achieved by volumes of hair flowing far down her back and covering some of her front. It is a beautiful piece that foreshadows Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” but when taken in the light of Scripture, it seems overly indulgent and leaves an odd aftertaste.

40 years before Erhart sculpted his version, Carlo Crivelli painted another that is fully clothed, but Mary’s gaze is one that could drill holes in a man’s skull. She holds an identifying jar of perfume, and is given an edgy nod to her supposed former life with a red gown and over-the-top coiffed hair.
“Penitent Magdalene”
Donatello. c. 1453-1455.
(Museo dell’Operra del Duomo, Florence)

On the other end of the spectrum is Donatello’s gaunt and ugly version of the “Penitent Magdalene” that is out of the same mold as images of St. John the Baptizer, complete with a rough tunic that, in reality, is comprised of her own matted hair. Mary’s features are angular and her attitude is one of deep contrition. Her hallowed eyes are hollow. She has the look of a horrified swamp creature that has just been bitten by a zombie. Sigh. Artists.

Depictions that land between these two extremes use more thoughtful poses, and lean toward the mental illness premise. They depict a woman who thinks deeply; who dwells perhaps too much; who broods and laments and is weighed down by things far out of her control. A skull is often in her hands, and her eyes are ... elsewhere.

Georges de La Tour captures the heaviness of the saint’s reflection in his  “Mary Magdalene with the Smoking Flame.” She is consumed by thought in a stare-down with a candle flame. In typical de La Tour fashion, the composition is swallowed by brooding shadows.

El Greco lightened things up in his 1580 version. Mary’s gaze is heavenward instead of inward, and the color of her scarlet clothing has been transferred to her relaxed tresses. Mary hasn’t parted with the skull, but her contrition is made gently theatrical in a hand-to-heart pose. This is but one of many examples which use her body language to identify the demonstrative saint.
“Mary Magdalen in Penitence”
El Greco. c. 1580
(Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary)

This candid side of Mary is most apparent in crucifixion tableaus. Hans Memling depicts her clinging to the cross beneath Jesus’ feet in the “Triptych of Jan Crabbe.” This common pose, while opposing Scripture’s description of the women watching from afar, foreshadows the account of Mary with the resurrected Christ, in which Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Perhaps it is this expressive side of Mary that is so endearing to us – she is not at all afraid of the Lord. She is not afraid to touch him, and she is not afraid to pour out her tears – and her heart – at His feet. She clings to Him. Her thankfulness is deep and genuine and points to a great release from her past. We should be so demonstrative.

Mary Magdalene was no plaster saint, and her demons were very real. As with all the saints, her sinfulness hits uncomfortably close to home, and that is good. When remembering those who continue to suffer the presence of “other demons,” I go to an unlikely place – the Collect of Peace. When read with mental illness in mind, some of its phrases become stunningly appropriate:
“Triptych of Jan Crabbe”
Hans Memling. 1467-70.
(Museo Civico, Vicenza, Italy)

“O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey Thy commandments, and also that by Thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness, through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Passing time in rest and quietness through our Lord’s merits is, indeed, enough to ease any troubled mind.