Friday, February 26, 2016

Weighing in on “Greeting: Mary and Eve”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It’s been months since I first saw the image – when the red flags started fluttering. I’ve done some research since then. Hoo boy.

By research, I mean I wanted to know who made the original image of Mary greeting Eve. The little painting, executed with what looks like watercolor and colored pencil, is all over the web. It’s showing up in unexpected places, and is generally getting under my skin. So I went hunting.

The source was fairly easy to find. It’s right there next to descriptions of “Coated Caramels,” “Stocking Stuffers,” and “Other Sweets,” and is located under the “Monastery Candy” logo. Uh, yeah. So many flags are now popping up that I can’t see my computer screen.
“Greeting: Mary and Eve"

It turns out the source for “Greeting: Mary and Eve,” is an unnamed sister at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a monastic community of Trappistine nuns of the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Their site claims that “[Their] main means of support is the production and sale of Trappistine Creamy Caramels.” Nice. Oh, and don’t forget the greeting cards in the corner, one of which is the infamous ‘Mary and Eve.’ I didn’t check out the other junk they offer. I think I’ll save that for another time. For now, I want to focus on what Sr. Whatsherface conjured up.

You may have a mind to rap my knuckles with a yardstick, but I suggest you let me have my say. The first problem with the image is that it is overly-sentimental, and any time Holy Scripture is forced on a sentimental journey, it will cover some dangerous ground. Mary’s gaze at the shameful, but rosy-cheeked, Eve is sweeter than any candy the abbey produces, and it doesn’t help that Eve’s hair has been stylistically curled for the greeting. This is the kind of schmaltzy crap that ends up on greeting cards. Oh, wait.

Of course, there is more substance to my argument than inappropriate cutesiness. Let’s start with the time-warp thing. I don’t ever, ever remember reading in Scripture that Mary appeared to Eve. If you do remember reading as much, I suggest you get a better Bible and promptly trash the old. The event did not happen. However, I will concede that the two women are probably now chilling together in heaven. If that is the case, then what’s up with the serpent-on-the-leg thing, and why is Eve so bummed? Those things do not happen in paradise.

Speaking of serpents, this is where the Marian thing gets out of hand. The last portion of Genesis 3: 15 reads, “...He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Someone along the way forcefully misinterpreted Scripture's "he" to read “it” or “she.” Then dumb artists ran off with the idea. Now half the planet is populated by ill-conceived images of Mary stepping on a snake. I could be nice and say those images are marginally sacred, at best, but they are simply wrong. Christ crushed Satan’s head – not Mary.

I suppose there are a few twisted folks out there that will claim that the foot stepping on the snake in the little painting actually belongs to Jesus. Weirdos. You need some anatomy lessons or something. Maybe even a yard stick across your knuckles.

Another problem with the image is that it eclipses a meeting in Scripture that DID happen. Mary meeting Elizabeth probably ranked just as high on the weird-o-meter, but it had greater theological significance and gave Christendom one of its greatest songs. It’s hard to fathom the Marian folks wanting to put such an event in the shadow of a cutesy contrivance.

The recorded meeting was loaded with Divine intervention: A pregnant virgin; a pregnant lady decades past child-bearing years; a fetus jumping for joy over God in the womb next door; songs and blessings filled with rich theology. You can’t make this stuff up.

Which brings us back to the goofy little image of Mary and Eve. You CAN make up that sort of junk. There are times when  artists take chances – including me – but this is one case in which the result is a hindrance to The Gospel, and not a help. Next time, stick to the caramels.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Rejected by Men

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes the story behind a piece of art is more significant than the piece itself. Sometimes.

As an artist, it’s hard to be objective about my own work. I tend to be quite hard on the pieces I create, even if it means the criticism stays in my head. I still debate, for example, whether I should have followed more closely the original drawing I did for “Resurrection.” The finished painting omits one major ingredient that exists in the preparatory drawing — Satan under Christ’s foot. I do remember, however, that I was so angry at Satan so as to eliminate any hint of his presence in the glory of the resurrected Christ. So Satan got nixed.
“Resurrection” by Edward Riojas.
1999. (Our Savior Lutheran Church,
Grand Rapids, Mich.)
© Edward Riojas. Use of this image
is strictly forbidden without
consent of the artist.

The painting was not commissioned. As such, it was a bit of an oddity, even for an artist’s residence. It’s not really the type of thing one hangs above a living room sofa, and it was too large for most any other place in the house. So I entered it in a “Spiritual Art Show” at a local church. My entry was rejected. While I understand the fickle nature of the fine arts, I was not a little dumbfounded at having the piece rejected by a church-sponsored art show. I tried to console myself that it was a church and not The Church, and that it was a spirit and not The Spirit.

I later entered the same piece in another church-sponsored art show. It was accepted. It didn’t take any honors, but I was happy as a clam that it was being given exposure. I was happy, that is, until an administrator of the event explained to me that I would have taken top honors if my selling price had been lower. It seems the top honor had always been tied to a purchase award, and they simply could not afford the piece. I don’t know which was more strange — the convoluted prize, or the fact that they actually explained it all to the artist who lost the top prize.

The painting then languished for a while in my home before I donated it to my church, in whose narthex it now hangs.

The story behind this painting of the Resurrection is indeed, odd, but let’s not forget the image itself. Even in the middle of Lent, Christ IS risen. The strange days and decades and centuries that led up to His Resurrection point to the profound sickness of our race and the effects of the fall on all of creation. The God of creation was rejected by men and was hung on a cursed tree to die. It really should be no surprise that a simple image of the Creator be rejected, too. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that folks still have trouble calculating the cost of Salvation.

But, thanks be to God, Christ did rise and IS risen. Satan, the old confounder, was confounded. Death was dealt the death blow. Sin was swallowed up by the Righteous One. When it comes to the stupidity of this world, its imperfections this side of heaven and the mounds of filth we add to it, the Risen Christ always trumps. Always.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Konstantin Makovsky: Digging in the Corners of His Portfolio

Copyright © Edward Riojas
“Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”

Fame can be a hindrance, especially among the gifted. Such was the case with one of Russia’s foremost artists of the late 1800s, Konstantin Makovsky. Born to a music composer mother and artistic father, Konstantin would become the most famous among two brothers and a sister – all prominent artists in their turn. A product of the Moscow School of Painting and later the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Makovsky accumulated awards at every turn. There was no stopping the painter. He became the darling of those seeking portraits, including royalty. Then he joined a group of disgruntled artists known as the “Wanderers.”

The group – known as “Peredvizhniki” in Russia – reacted against the pervading academic ideals and focused on a more honest, folksy vision of Russia. Ethnic Russian themes became popular with the group, as well as the simple life. And still Makovsky remained popular.
“Head of a Man”

The artist’s popularity drove him to churn out paintings of rustic beauties by the buckets-full. Soon, however, his beauties began to look shallow. It appeared as if the Gibson Girl germ had crossed continents and infected his portraiture. Even portraits of those close to him, including “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife,” bore symptoms of the droopy-eyed damsels with rosy cheeks. Maybe it was the Russian winter. That same shallowness spilled over into his romantic paintings of classical mythology, looking as though they were destined for cheesy postcards instead of salon walls. And still he was popular.

But for all his sliding into mediocrity, there remained a massive amount of power behind Makovsky. The caliber of this master is evident in a few paintings that managed to avoid over-sentimentality, but one must trudge through scads of gals sporting the distinctive Russian headdresses of antiquity and dig into the corners of his portfolio.
“Portrait of a Gypsy Girl”

Some of Makovsky’s best work was done when the artist was forced to forget the Russian ideal and instead focus on being an artist. His trip to Northern Africa produced some stunning portraits that display deft brush-handling and keen observation. They are fresh, and completely out of the mold.

His “Head of a Man,” is a wonderful  example of what the artist was capable. Without being able to resort to anything familiar, the artist painted what he observed. Wild hair, tinged with blue, surround a face full of character and individuality. There is no wistful, idealized gaze. In its place is a visage of one regarding Makovsky – and the viewer – with intelligent curiosity. The artist captures this without overworking the canvas, and allowing raw brush strokes to give life to the composition.
"Portrait of a Boyarina"

Makovsky’s “Portrait of a Gypsy Girl” was done with the same fresh eye. Both portraits seem to have been painted with live models, and without being worked after the sitting. The girl’s tousled hair, the jarring colors of her costume, and her natural pose make for a more natural portrait. Even the detail of her parted mouth cause the viewer to wonder who, or what, diverted the sitter’s attention for a fleeting moment.

“Portrait of a Boyarina” straddles the line of idealized beauty and unsentimental portraiture. It is certainly the best of similar works. There is less of a romanticized gaze in this particular piece than is obvious in many of Makovsky’s similar paintings. He employed a live model adorned with the same opulent headdress, jeweled finery and rosy cheeks, but delicate nuances in her pose display a sort of discomfort lacking in his other cookie cutter women. Whether the sitter was shy or embarrassed or unsure of herself, we don’t know, but it the pose genuine and charming.
"Portrait of a Girl"

Makovsky’s “Portrait of a Girl” nearly dives headlong into the rosy cheeks/ruby lips trap of sentimentality. The artist, however, again captures this girl in a shy or unsure pose, and her weighty tresses, which are decades ahead of the period’s style, catch us off guard.

Another surprising piece is his “Genre Scene,” painted during a trip to Egypt. It might be true that Makovsky managed to express the vision of the Wanderers in this painting, but that vision is dangling by a thread. It is more likely that the seed of Russian Impressionism has been planted. The artist has captured the feel of a moment and its light, and has been forced to ignore any thought of the motherland.

Warm darks flood the composition – interrupted by the contrast of a doorway, a window above, and a random piece of red cloth. The figures are almost an afterthought, but add a feeling of unfamiliar culture and place.
"Genre Scene"

It is a gift of creative-types in general and of artists in particular that we are able, when given the chance, to transport the viewer; the reader; the listener to a different place in time. Perhaps that is what drew me into Makovsky’s work. He gently takes our imaginations by the hand, past his own popularity, to see a different kind of beauty.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Least of These

Copyright © Edward Riojas

"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Psalm 116: 15

This painting is for those who have ever lost one; for those who are plagued by memories; for those who rest securely in the hands of the Savior...

A few days ago I posted a photo of a painting, then unfinished, along with the words above. It was posted on the anniversary of the decision regarding Roe vs. Wade.

Actually, my posting was an afterthought. I originally intended to post the image on the previous Sunday – Sanctity of Life Sunday – but had gotten sidetracked by the usual mundane things of life. A few days later I saw a growing pile of photos coming from the Life March in Washington D.C., along with other posts surrounding the same subject. So I posted a photo of a “very raw” painting, and had to explain the words that would appear on the painting’s banner. It struck home.
“Precious in the Sight of the Lord”
Copyright © Edward Riojas 2016.
Use of image strictly forbidden
without consent of artist.

Eventually the image was shared 85 times for an audience of nearly 15,000 viewers. The comments alone underscored the fact that I was, indeed, touching a very soft spot in the hearts of viewers. So several days later, here is the finished piece. I don’t need to explain the intent of the painting, nor do I need to describe how it may relate to your life. You know who you are; you know your brand of pain; you know the reality of it all more intimately than I could ever possibly know.

But there is something more.

As I was finishing the piece, I broke down in tears. I’ve never known the heartbreak of a stillbirth in my immediate family, and I’ve not been plagued by memories of an abortion, but the tears came just the same. This curmudgeon certainly empathizes with the “least of these,” yet my tears were not shed for them alone – I simply saw myself in that helpless child of God.

Whether because of losing a job – as I recently experienced – or because of a bleak prognosis, or because of clinging to the end of the rope, life sometimes sends us a different kind of death. Maybe you have felt this. Suddenly, the cares of this life matter so very little, because they have proven petty and useless and utterly insignificant. It is strange that we rarely think of climbing into the Savior’s pierced hands when times are peachy and when every marshmallow sky has glittery rays of sunshine. But we surely want to climb into His hands when the worst of days come. We want to cling to him. We want to hold His hand. In reality, it is He who tenderly takes us by the hand; it is He who cradles us in the hollow of His hands. This He always has done and still does, for the greatest among us to the very least.

To purchase a print
Archival-quality, signed, giclee prints of “Precious in the Sight of the Lord” are available for purchase by contacting the artist at
Sizes/prices for prints:
13” x 16” / $75
19.5” x 24” / $120